Thursday, March 2, 2017

Why Play Games When Practicing?

People often underestimate how much mental power it takes in order to practice a musical instrument.  The challenges of the instrument aside, even just deciding simple things like how many times is "enough" can wear you down.  This is especially true when the students are young.  Almost any child will decide he has done something "enough" after two or three repetitions tops.  This is usually in direct conflict with the parent who knows that he has not done said task nearly enough.

Games can not only remove the charged emotional elements but they also have the power to draw the participants closer together.  Games are a social experience that present a challenge outside of a regular comfort zone.  While a student may only "feel" like doing two or three repetitions, throwing a number five on a dice pushes the student to do just a bit more.  The act of trying to overcome that challenge is more of a bonding experience than someone just telling the student what to do.

Games also have the power to break up the monotony.  While routine is a good thing when it comes to fitting regular practice into a day, too much of the same thing becomes tedious.  Playing with things like dice give "permission" to have lighter or heavier practicing days.  Sometimes you'll roll a one for everything or sometimes you're roll at twenty.

Games remove the mental taxation of constantly having to wonder if you've done something "enough."  They provide a definite starting and ending point for a learning process that has, honestly, no definite ending point.  An instrument is a life study that can constantly be improved upon.  A single practicing session will not fix all problems.  It's the slow accumulation of skills over many practice sessions that will make the real difference.

Thursday, February 2, 2017


I've practiced martial arts for over a decade.  I've blogged about this concept before but for those that haven't read those posts: I strongly feel that martial art and music practice pair well together.  There are a lot of crossover skills between the two.  You can read more about that here.

Something that I've really come to appreciate while practicing Tai Chi is the idea of fluidity.  With music it is often all too easy to give yourself the lofty goal of "sounding like the recording."  We inaccurately assume that so long as we figure out the notes and play it as fast as the recording it will sound "as good" as what we heard.  Unfortunately, this usually just leads to us sounding sloppy.  Playing something quickly is not the same thing as playing something fluidly.

The nice thing about Tai Chi is that there's less temptation to give yourself such lofty goals.  There's no "recording" that we are trying to imitate.  You can either hold your leg up or you can't.  Tai Chi also puts an emphasis on slowness.  Unlike almost every other sport where there is a time limit, Tai Chi has a time minimum.  In other words, a form should take at least a certain amount of time or you've done the form too quickly.

Because these physical forms require transitioning from one difficult pose to the next, much of your Tai Chi practice consists of examining every little position your body must be in in order to physically achieve the next pose.  "When my hand is extended like this, my leg needs to be at this point in order to be balanced enough to extend my leg into the next kick."  In other words it's not just point A to point B.  It's more like: A a1 a2 a3 B.

This has trickled over into my instrument playing and it's something I am often exploring with students.  For example, a student may notice that she crunched the note when she got to the lower part of the bow.  But in order to fix that crunch she must first examine what happened during other other parts of the bow stroke.  In order to smoothly transition into the "B" we must look at what the bow was doing at points a1-3.

So playing something "fluidly" does not mean being able to play quickly.  It means playing with coordination.  A truly fluid bow stroke is one where the body, arm and bow are working together as a coordinated whole.  Every muscle movement is something that contributes to the sound.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

TEDxSydney - Richard Gill - The Value of Music Education

Music educator Richard Gill argues the case for igniting the imagination through music and for making our own music. In this talk, he leads the TEDxSydney audience through some surprising illustrations of the relationship between music and our imagination.

Richard Gill has been Music Director of the Victorian Opera Company since its inception in 2006. He has also been Artistic Director of OzOpera, Artistic Director/Chief Conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and Adviser for the Musica Viva in Schools Program. 

Currently the Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony's Education Program, Richard has frequently conducted for Opera Australia and OzOpera, Meet the Music (SSO), Discovery concerts (Sydney Sinfonia); Ears Wide Open (MSO), and Canberra, Queensland and Tasmanian symphony orchestras. 

Richard's many accolades include an Order of Australia Medal, the Bernard Heinze Award, an Honorary Doctorate from the Edith Cowan University of Western Australia, Hon. Doc. (ACU), and the Australia Council's prestigious Don Banks Award. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Logical Cause and Effect

I love games of all sort.  Computer games, console games, board games... you name it.  I've talked about disc golf a lot on this blog.  Part of the appeal of that sport for me is that it feels game-like.  You have to strategize about your shot and you get to throw brightly colored plastic (just like dice).  I grew up playing games but it wasn't until I started teaching that I appreciated everything games can teach, specifically board games.

The best thing about games--and I've mentioned this in many blog posts--is that they create a neutral party.  Even if it is you versus another person, that competition is still within the confines of the game's rules.  So even if we don't realize it this redirects a lot of frustration.  In the practicing environment this is invaluable.  Telling a child to do twenty repetitions is demanding.  Rolling a twenty on a dice leads to a good-natured groan followed by the challenge of trying to actually do something twenty times.

But there are other hidden skills we learn as well from playing board games.  Good practicing often boils down to having a plan and strategizing about how best to break down a particular problem.  While board games don't necessarily teach you how to break down the mechanical skills required to play an instrument, they do teach you logical cause and effect.

To me, logic is not a skill that is emphasized in the school systems.  Test taking is usually about deduction.  There are four answers and you narrow down which is the most correct.  Math teaches you how to think sequentially but lacks the variables of every day life.  Students will be taught algebra and then are assigned homework that forced them to solve the same formula a bunch of times.

This is why board games are so useful when it comes to developing practice skills.  A board game presents you with a challenge, you must decide on a strategy for facing the challenge and then you get to see the result of that strategy choice in a comparatively short space of time.  You choose to spend all your money early in the game, which means you have none left during the later parts of the game.  Was that a good choice or a bad choice?

You can see why this is a useful skill for a young music student, especially as she begins to ride that line between intermediate and advanced repertoire.  She already knows how to read music.  She already knows how to listen to music.  She has already been shown how to play all the tricky sections.  So it is now up to her to ask herself how to put all these pieces together and figure out the easier parts she has not been shown exactly how to play.

To me, that willingness to form strategy and apply it to the instrument is big turning point for a student.  It is the difference between dependence and independence.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Private Teaching Business Model

Over my years of teaching I've come across a wide variety of interpretations about the private teaching business model.  I feel that this is a natural result of the type of society we live in.  Many services these days are either "subscriptions" or "appointments."  For example, a gym membership is a subscription.  You pay a monthly fee to use the facility at any time during their hours of operation.  A doctor's visit or a haircut is an "appointment."  You call ahead to set up a time, you show up and then pay after the services have concluded.

With most services falling into one of these two categories, most people try to rationalize music lessons as one or the other.  However, music lessons are neither subscriptions or appointments.  They are actually a combination of both if the business entity is going to be successful.

The reasons why this hybrid business model occurs are:

1)  The service itself is centered around personal attention (appointment model)

2)  In order for the service to be effective, longevity must be assumed (subscription model)

When a private teacher is taking on a student, he or she is not looking at the potential client as a hair dresser would.  A hair dresser's service is finite.  You may like your particular hair dresser and wish to return but the quality of a hair dresser's service is not affected whether you return or not.  A single appointment is a complete experience.  Music lessons are an ongoing experience that require years of work to yield results.

Since the service requires so much time, most music teachers have their students pay monthly or quarterly as a subscription service would.  They must assume that the appointments will continue.  But the fact that the student is paying for appointments is what makes subscription payments confusing.  Unlike a gym where people are free to walk in an out at any time, a teacher must schedule appointments.

It is important to understand this if you are interested in music lessons and are trying to figure out if you have the time in your schedule.  Due to this hybrid business model, most established private studio teachers do not have the same flexibility of schedule that one might expect from other appointment services due to the reoccurring nature of lessons.  Therefore, it is not uncommon to have to wait potentially several months before being able to schedule that first lesson.

Additionally, most music teachers are not able to refund or offer make ups for missed lessons.  Like an appointment, the item being sold is time.  A lesson time slot cannot be returned and resold.  Once it is gone, it is gone.  A hair dresser can have "walk-in" new clients.  A music teacher does not do walk -ins and must account for this when collecting payment.  So, in this sense, music lessons are more like a subscription service.  You do not pay less to Netflix just because you watched fewer movies one month.

The aim of this post is to help educate people interested in music lessons on why music teachers have the business policies that they do.  Like any good business owner, a teacher should always strive to provide a high quality of service.  But, in order to do this, a private teacher must be able to make a living off of providing this service, which means certain business policies must be in place.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Music as a Language: Victor Wooten at TEDxGabriolaIsland

Victor Wooten is an innovator, composer, arranger, producer, vocalist, and multiinstrumentalist. He has been called the greatest bass player in the world. He is a skilled naturalist and teacher, a published author, a magician, husband and father of four, and a five-time Grammy award winner.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Performance Anxiety Part 2

So the start to my tournament career as an amateur disc golfer was rough.  I enjoyed the physical challenge that the tournaments presented and I enjoyed the people I got to meet and befriend.  But for quite some time I didn't understand why it was that I performed so poorly in the tournaments compared to casual play.  Why couldn't I sink those putts?

I was reading an interview with the number one disc golfer in the world (he's like the Tiger Woods of disc golf) and he made an offhand comment about how he's really not playing to win.  He tries to play the best game he can and if that happens to be good enough to win then so be it.

When I read that I realized that guy was really on to something.  By just playing your game you remove all of the pressure of having to be better or best.  You can just enjoy trying to play well.  And, in turn, having a better head game improves your performance.

As you can guess, this obviously had a positive effect on how I performed at future tournaments.  No, I didn't suddenly become the number one ranked female in the world.  But the whole experience just turned out better.  I played consistently.

The best surprise for me, however, was how this shift in mentality affected my music performance.  Because music is not a scored game I was blissfully unaware as to how much this idea of being "better" had seeped into my performance mindset.

I'm not sure how much the technical execution of my performance changed but mentally the experience had significantly changed.  I was in the moment, concerned only with playing my part well.  In other words, I actually enjoyed performing.  It wasn't just a task that I learned how to cope with after years of conditioning.