Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Physicality of Music Part 1

No one ever questions the physicality of a sport.  And it's really no wonder.  The results of a physical game are more black and white.  You either make the basket or you don't.  There's certainly an emotional element to sports but this is secondary to physical performance.  Baseball is a prime example of this.  Every professional sport has stats but baseball fans love statistics.  Every run, hit or strike is accounted for.  You could replay an entire game in your head by just looking at the numbers.

Music is a little different.  It's less black and white.  You don't win or lose at your performance, you feel like you sounded "good" or "bad."  Even worse is that this concept of sounding good or bad is even more vague because it boils down to personal taste.  What one person views as "good" music might be different from what someone else views.

Yes, there might be some general consensus on what is held up to be good music.  But this is still no accounting for taste.  If you don't believe me, look up any classic piece of literature on Amazon.  They all have a healthy number of bad reviews.  All of them.

This adds an interesting psychological element to the musician that sports players don't experience to the same degree.  In order to strive for "good" music, a musician must put a little bit of emotion into the playing.  Mechanical proficiency is simply not enough.

The emotion put into music is another entire topic in and of itself.  It is necessary in order to truly explore the range of an instrument.  However, there are some drawbacks to having this element in music.  In having such vague emotional demands placed upon her shoulders, it is easy for a musician to overlook the physicality behind training.  Even though playing an instrument cannot consist of only mechanical proficiency, "good" music starts at that level.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Sense of Quality

I've noticed another subtle change in my students after the introduction of the review chart.  I find this change the most interesting so far because it was something that bothered me as a teacher but I didn't know how to word exactly what it was that was bothering me.

The issue boiled down to having an internal sense of quality.  Before I go any further on this topic I'd like to clarify that I have completely realistic expectations when it comes to children and their artistic sensibilities.  In no way did I ever expect an 8-year-old boy to feel the romantic yearning undercurrent to Brahms' Waltz.  Girls are still totally gross... I get it.

But as I teacher I do feel that it's my duty to plant the seeds of quality in their brain.  In other words, it's important to establish a standard.  They need to know how far others have pushed the boundaries of an instrument in order to have something to strive for.  I don't feel like musicians should berate themselves for every little mistake but it's necessary to have that internal filter.  You have to be able to objectively ask yourself, "Ok, that didn't sound all that great, what went wrong?  How can I fix it so it sounds better?"

Therein lay the problem.  Many of my students were totally fine with the piece sounding "average" and then just leaving it at that.  By average I mean playing the piece without much expression or dynamics and maybe missing a handful of notes that could have easily been cleaned up with five minutes of drilling.  Unless I demanded a higher standard from them in the lessons, they were ok with that "C- work."  There was no incentive for them to strive for "A+ work."

This did concern me but I always assumed it was a maturity thing.  So long as I maintained an "A+ standard" in the private lessons then they would eventually learn when they were old enough to understand, right?  Well, yes and no.  I still think this is true to some extent.  Age and general life experience definitely has an impact on what you can pull out of a piece.

But there's another subtle element to this that I was missing and that was being able to hear yourself play.  All this time I was so focused on having students listen to other people play (which is very important, don't get me wrong) that I missed the importance of just listening to yourself.  And that's what the review chart has really brought to light.

It's now been about two months since I started using that review chart and cracking down on students knowing all of their review pieces.  I think the most noticeable change happening now is that they are now starting to hear the difference in their playing.  Most of them are now beyond the relearning notes to pieces they forgot phase and, consequently, they are now starting to hear themselves play at a much higher level for more advanced pieces.  They now know that they are capable of "A+ work," which, in turn, makes them more motivated to strive for that level.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Power of Review

I'm almost ashamed to admit this but it wasn't until recently that I really got the purpose of review pieces.  It only took me seven years to figure it out but I guess better late than never, right?

To clarify, I have always had all my students do review pieces.  I warm up with review pieces in every lesson.  I would use review for exercises and drills.  I would have my students do review pieces only (never current) when performing at our solo recitals.  So it wasn't as if I didn't understand the value of review.

What eluded me up until recently was why a student should really maintain all her review pieces.  When a book three student came into a lesson unable to remember book one's Happy Farmer, I didn't ever sweat it.  I would tell the student to clean it up at home and maybe the student did and maybe she didn't.  The end result of this was an entire studio full of students reviewing only the pieces they liked and remembered how to play.

I admit that I did find this a tad troublesome.  Most of my students could play roughly a book and a half back.  I would have liked all the book three students to remember Happy Farmer but I had a hard time rationalizing in my brain why I needed to spend time and energy harping on these more advanced students to relearn a piece that they have long since mastered all the teaching points on.  I mean, does a student polishing up Gavotte by Becker really need the simple double down and double up bow practice of Happy Farmer?

For seven years I answered this question with a "no."

The thing that changed for me was when I took my violin unit 6 training a few months back.  Sherry Cadow was leading the session and she made this offhand comment about how, to her, the real difference between students who "make it" versus those that petter out was in how effective they were in their review.  At the end of the training she shared with us the practicing chart that she uses with all of her students.  Unlike other charts I had seen and used, this chart was merely a way to keep track of all the different pieces, not how many times each piece was played.

For some reason, these two things made me really stop and think about my review piece attitude.  And the fact that I had more advanced students that couldn't remember book one pieces bothered me enough that I wanted to make a change.  So, with newfound resolve, I flew home and immediately handed each of my students one of these charts with an explanation on how to complete it.

As expected, there was a lot of whining after the first week.  Since a piece could not be checked off until it was back in "review shape" and this could not be covered up with playing other--more polished--pieces dozens of times, the first week was a slog for most.  Dust had to be brushed off the ol' book one CD.

But I stuck to my guns.  I had avoided doing this for years and I had to commit if I was going to make a change.  So I made a point of asking to see every review chart at the start of the lesson, knowing that if I didn't the chart would be mysteriously "lost."

By week two the difference in playing was shocking and by week three it was mind-boggling.

When I saw the first few students at the beginning of week two I thought it was just a fluke.  Perhaps they had all had especially good practicing weeks.  But no!  Every single one was coming in playing lightyears ahead of how they played the previous week.  And they weren't even doing anything special!  They were simply playing review.

It was then that I suddenly got review.

The pieces in the Suzuki books are exercises.  By only playing the select pieces that were favorites or--more often--remembered off the top of one's head, only certain muscles ever got worked.  It was like going to the gym and only lifting weights with one arm.  They were not well-rounded players.

By getting every piece back into review shape it allowed mastery to start taking place.  And that was the thing I was missing.  A book four student can play Twinkle beautifully and with ease.  I suddenly understood what a powerful thing it would be if a Seitz Concerto could be played with that level of ease.  It meant that a student could hear herself play at that incredibly high level, which, in turn, sets the standard for any new piece.

So now when I wonder if it's worth playing the simple double downs and ups of Happy Farmer, the answer is a resounding "yes."  Because I want a student to be playing Happy Farmer with the same ease as a Twinkle.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

9 MORE Tips for Observing Your Young Musician

There are two different teachers present in a young student’s private music lesson environment: the parent and the teacher. While the private studio teacher is there to offer expertise on the instrument, the parent will be the one that has the most lasting impact on the child’s musical career. Consider that the teacher usually only sees the child once a week while the parent will be there for the young student the other six days.

Learning a musical instrument is no easy task. Besides the obvious physical challenges there are a great many emotional hurdles to overcome. This means that the parent must play an active role in the child’s learning if he is to become successful.

The parent must learn how to observe the home environment objectively since this is where the child will be doing most of his playing. It is also the area where the teacher has no hand in anything that goes on. If issues crop up then it will be up to the parent to report back in order to figure out a solution.
You can find this booklet on Amazon, Kobo and most other major e-book retailers.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


I've reached an interesting point in my teaching career.  After nearly seven years of teaching I finally have a batch of book 4-becoming-semi-advanced level students.  From a teaching perspective it means that I am finally faced with the task of producing an artist rather than just someone who plays with a very basic level of control.

This is a daunting prospect.

It's one thing to start a beginner.  The worst I could do is render the student frustrated and unable to play.  It's quite another thing to try and explain to a twelve-year-old how this sonata she is playing needs more emotional depth.  Where does one even begin?

I ask these questions rhetorically, of course.  Like just about everything else in teaching there's never one clear solution to a problem.  But as I explore different ways to help a student learn musical depth I've noticed that it's actually starting to change my playing.

Like every other twelve-year-old on the planet, I never gave much thought to the contours and shape of the music I was playing.  Even through college I would sort of blindly imitate recordings, totally oblivious to the musical story I was trying to tell.  It wasn't until I had to coach students through these concepts that I began to think, "Oh wait, there are layers to this piece."

I suppose it really is true when they say: to teach is to learn twice.