Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Practice Tips

I'm putting together next years' teaching materials and wanted to post this bit on practicing that I've included in my studio policies newsletter this year. I recently read a fantastic book "The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into your Life" by Thomas Sterner. It's a great read and applies so perfectly to practicing a musical instrument!

“Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. In fact, life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort of refining our motions. When the proper mechanics of practice are understood, the task of learning something new becomes a stress-free experience of joy and calmness, a process which settles all areas in your life and promotes proper perspective on all of life’s difficulties.”
― Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life

Try some of these tips with yourself or your child when practicing:
  • Do. Observe. Correct. - Give your full attention as you play. Ask yourself - How did that feel? How did it sound? How accurate were the notes, rhythms, articulation? Was the sound representative of the character of the piece? What could I do to make it easier for my hands to play?  What can I improve to make this sound closer to my ideal performance?  Notice here how there is NO JUDGEMENT of "good" or "bad." There is simply a flow toward your best interpretation of the written score. Each time you play, you observe what happened and find one small thing you'd like to try to correct in your next play. Experienced practicers find that this happens very quickly and within just a minute or two you could replay a short passage a dozen times - each time trying to correct something from the time before. 
  • Decide upon one or two short, manageable goals every time you sit down to practice. Something like "I will play this 5-note passage with the correct fingering 3 times in a row" or "I will clap the rhythm to this section correctly while counting out loud" or "I will do a wrist float-off at the end of each of these three phrases so my hand is completely relaxed." This prevents the temptation to just sit down and play through the entire song a couple times and call it a day!  Keep your focus to a single goal and don't stop until you feel satisfied that you have accomplished your goal. If it is taking you more than a few minutes, your goal is too broad and needs to be more specific! If you can reach your goal on the first try, it's too easy!
  • Practice slowly. I don't mean play slowly, I mean try to take your time and do your best. Try not to look at the clock or feel rushed that you have to accomplish a million things. Take your time to lay out your books neatly, read through your assignment and listen to the sound as you play. Wait until you feel you've really accomplished your goal before trying to move onto the next piece or section of music.
  • Play Games with yourself as you practice. Find a few little toys that can move across the music stand with each repetition of a phrase. Make a sticker chart or keep a notebook to count your practice sessions. Challenge yourself to play with one eye closed, while balancing a stuffed animal on your head, with your left knee touching the underside of the keyboard. Play your new melody notes to the rhythm of Yankee Doodle. Play the last note with your nose. Be silly while still getting work done!
  • Make "deadlines" for yourself by enrolling a friend or family member to watch a performance of your newest piece. Or tell a long distance relative that you will send them a video of your polished piece in 3 days. Take it seriously and try to have your piece or section of music "performance ready" for your performance!
  • Watch other kids perform your piece on Youtube, or listen to the real orchestra version of a classical melody in your lesson book. Listen to piano music while you are in the car or doing chores around the house. Incorporate music into your daily life and not just that thing you do at your piano teacher's house once a week!
  • Feeling frusterated, overwhelmed, or bored? Take a break. Go to the bathroom, eat a granola bar, then come back refreshed and ready to work!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Which is better; Massed Practice or Spaced Practiced?

Interesting new article out about the effects of "Massed Practice" vs "Spaced Practice." Is it better to practice in one big chunk of time or in several small snippits over several days?  Check it out!


Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Getting Kids to Practice Music without Tears or Tantrums"

Hey Parents!

This article just seems to sum it up:


Here are a few of my favorite ideas:

Having a goal for each practice session is essential, whether your child is practicing for five minutes or a couple of hours each day. From the Top alumna Ren Martin-Doike, a 20-year-old violist who now studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, says that her number one practice technique is to write down those benchmarks: "Set goals, hold yourself accountable to them and create a practice log you can be proud of!"

In our house, the mood, and the amount of stuff we could accomplish in less than 10 minutes changed really dramatically when we switched from practicing in the early evenings to getting it done before school.

And at the end of a practice session, we try to leave a bit of time for her play whatever she wants, usually her own improvisations.

Hope this gives you a little inspiration today!   

Friday, March 21, 2014

Finger 4 on B Flat!

I love to teach the F Major Scale....especially the Right Hand. You see, before this point students have been mastering the technique involved in playing scales like B and C and G and D Major. They have been taught how to play 8 (or more) consecutive notes using all 5 fingers.

And you mathematicians out there might have already found the conundrum....if you only have 5 fingers, then how can you play more than 5 sequential notes in a row? Nope, not by using your other hand. Ahh, by adding the "the cross over - finger 2 or 3 crosses over the thumb" or "the cross under - the thumb crosses under finger 2 or 3." This idea seems to be digested quickly with most students. Makes sense. Fits nicely with most scales because you just memorize 1-2-3-CROSS!

But then comes the F Major Scale! You see, when a piano student tries to apply this paradigm with the Right Hand it doesn't work. You start on F and play 1-2-3-CROSS......and suddenly your thumb has to awkwardly shift up onto a black key, the Bb. Crossing the thumb under the hand and onto a black note just doesn't fly - it's jarring, strenuous, and unpredictable. Not what you want when using quick and exacting movements.

So what do we do? I love this part...This is where I ask the question and watch the gears turn in those brilliant little minds. We use a different fingering! We change the "rules" in order to achieve a fluid sound, keep a relaxed hand, and not drive our piano teacher crazy with excessive wrong notes! And here's the key: We use that same fingering CONSISTENTLY every time we play our F Major scale so that we can play it quickly and accurately!

I write this as an introduction to a greater idea in the realm of piano playing: How fingering - the finger we decide to use when playing a particular note - is quite important to the success or failure of everything we play. It's often overlooked by beginning (and even advanced) students who are so concerned about playing the correct NOTE that they forget they also need to use the correct FINGER when playing it! Piano practice is all about refining the movement of the finger/hand/wrist/arm/shoulder to achieve a particular sound. If a little extra time is taken to pay attention to the finger number written above certain notes in your music (or writing in your own fingering) when first learning a new passage of music, you will be amazed at how quickly and securely you will be playing that passage! I mean...would an olympic ice skater pulling off a triple axle use a different foot each time she jumped?

So parents, if you are hearing any of the following: a consistent "hiccup" or stop in the same spot, notes that aren't articulated well or sound sloppy, complaints that a new piece is too hard or not fun, or seeing crazy looking arm or hand movements; ask your kiddo what the fingering is. Have them explain why they chose to use the finger they use. If you get a blank stare, you might have just planted the seed toward greater understanding!

Here's my tip for practicing new fingerings: Looking at the notes directly BEFORE and AFTER the difficult spot. Then practice...very slowly at first....playing a small section that includes the difficult passage and a note or two beyond the tricky spot. Watch the hand to make sure you "Nail it" when you get to those notes with the finger numbers above them. Grab a pencil and write in a few more finger numbers if needed.      Repeat.

Have fun Everyone!   -Emily