Practice, Technique

Teaching Phrase: “Pretend It’s Easy”

Lately, I’ve trying out this phrase with my students, in situations when a student is struggling with the technique of playing a particular passage:

“Pretend this is really easy for you to play.”

This phrase works best in a situation where the teacher observes that the student is holding far too much tension in his/her arms, wrists, and/or fingers to be able to properly execute a passage.  Rather then hearing a command to release some of the excess tension, however, sometimes hearing a phrase such as “Pretend it’s really easy for you,” has a better effect on the student.

What’s supposed to happen when you pretend it’s easy?

  1. A mental release occurs. Suddenly, the student gives him/her-self the permission to play the passage correctly. When we know (or think) it is a difficult passage, sometimes we don’t allow ourselves even the chance to play it correctly because we don’t think we can.
  2. A physical release occurs.  As the student imagines what it would feel like to play the daunting passage if it were easy for him/her, unnecessary tension in the student’s arms, wrists, and fingers melts away.  This release of tension often makes the passage suddenly much easier to play.

Try it, and let me know what you think!

Photo Credit: alexanderward12 | CC 2.0

Memorization, Music Theory, Practice, Technique

Top 5 Reasons to Learn Scales

an excerpt from Kuhlau Sonatina Op.20 No.1

Why do we learn and practice scales?  Have you (or your students) ever asked this question?  Is it just for tradition’s sake that piano teachers assign scales to work on?  I think it’s important not only for we teachers to know the WHY behind scales, but also for our students to know!   Continue reading “Top 5 Reasons to Learn Scales”

Ear Training, Practice, Reading Notation, repertoire / methods, Teaching Piano

Introducing Students to New Pieces

The first look at a new piece is crucial.  As accomplished pianists/teachers, we automatically know to scan the piece to check the time signature, key signature, texture, composer, title, etc. before playing through a piece.  Of course, we were trained to go through those steps before sightreading through a piece.

Before having students sightread, what do you say/do with them to introduce a new piece?  I’d love to hear your ideas.

Here’s some things I’ve tried: Continue reading “Introducing Students to New Pieces”

Announcements, Practice

Dealing with Frustration: Be Okay with Mistakes & Keep it Fun!

At a piano lesson this week, I observed my student grow increasingly frustrated with herself whenever she made a mistake.  She would “growl” at herself and start back at the beginning of the phrase.

After observing this continue for a few moments, I decided to stop her and address the issue.

There were three reasons why I decided to address this issue:

  1. She was growing increasingly frustrated with herself.  And frustration doesn’t usually yield positive results.
  2. I could tell this was becoming a habitual response.  When she is practicing at home, she is obviously doing the same thing there.
  3. We were sight-reading.  She had never seen this piece before, and there was no reason that she should expect to play it perfectly upon first try.  She is only 7, and hasn’t had much experience with sight-reading yet anyway.

Continue reading “Dealing with Frustration: Be Okay with Mistakes & Keep it Fun!”

Performances, Practice

Dealing with Performance Anxiety

Your hands are cold and shaky, your heart is racing, and you find it hard to breath.  Are you sick?  Are you having a nightmare?  No, you’re about to play your instrument in a recital, and the symptoms you are experiencing are due to performance anxiety — better known as stage fright.

Performance anxiety affects us all, to some degree or another.  Here are some things you can try out to help deal with your performance anxiety:

  • Practice performing. Play your pieces for other people whenever you can. It’s one thing to practice your pieces, but it’s another thing to practice performing. Ask other people to come in the room to make you nervous, and see how well you can handle running through you pieces.
  • Envision yourself succeeding. Envisioning yourself performing your piece well is extremely helpful. Do it as your practicing, as you’re not practicing, and as you are performing.  Doing so keeps your outlook positive and sets you up for success. Continue reading “Dealing with Performance Anxiety”
improving as a teacher, Motivation, Practice, Teaching Piano

My Thoughts on Practice Requirements

Many of you may remember being required by your piano teachers growing up to practice a certain amount of minutes each day/week.  Perhaps your requirement looked something like this:

  • 15 minutes a day,
  • 140 minutes each week, or
  • 45 minutes, 5 days a week.

One of my previous teachers built her incentive program around how much practice time each student completed each week.  She would set an amount for each student (15 minutes/day for the young ones, and then gradually increasing up to 60 minutes/day for the advanced ones).  If you completed all your practice time each week, you’d receive a sticker on your chart for that week.  When you received 7 consecutive weeks of completed practice, you were allowed to chose a prize from the prize box.  She used a system similar to the following:

  • Beginners: 10-20 minutes, 5 days a week (depending on their age).
  • Intermediate students: 20-45 minutes, 5 days a week.
  • Advanced students: 60 minutes or more a day, 5 days a week.

Personally, I use a simpler, more flexible practice requirement for my students.  I simply tell my students and parents that they are expected to practice daily.  And that’s it.  Here are my reasons why I like to leave it at that: Continue reading “My Thoughts on Practice Requirements”

Group Classes, improving as a teacher, Performances, Practice, Teaching Piano, Technology

Preparing for Student Recitals: Recording!

Many of us teachers are probably currently preparing our student for spring recitals, so today I thought it might be beneficial to discuss a way of preparing for performances: recording your students playing their pieces, and then listening to the playback together.

Benefits of Recording

  • The student practices performing. Playing for a recording device can be almost as nerve-wracking as playing for an audience!  There’s no better way to practice handling nerves than to perform often.
  • The student becomes the listener. When listening to the playback, the student is given the opportunity to hear what the piece sounds like from an audience member’s perspective.  The student is bound to aurally notice things that they had not realized they were doing (or NOT doing, as the case may be).  For example, the student may realize that the dynamic contrasts are not really coming through, or that the melody is not projecting over the accompaniment as well as s/he had thought.
  • The student becomes the teacher.  After listening to the playback, the student can evaluate piece and identify the areas that went well or could be improved, and then begin discuss ways to improve the piece. Continue reading “Preparing for Student Recitals: Recording!”
improving as a teacher, Memorization, Performances, Practice

12 Tips for Memorizing Piano Music

I’ll be the first one to admit: memorizing music does not come easily to me.  I really have to work at it, and it takes a lot of time.  Over the past couple of years, I have been reading and trying out everything I could find about memorizing music, and I’ve come up with a number of tips that have been helpful for me.

Some people memorize effortlessly, without even trying.  These are practical tips for the rest of us.  :)

12 Tips for Memorizing Piano Music:

  1. From Day 1, practice your music with the intent of internalizing and memorizing it. Don’t wait until you’d got the piece learned to begin memorizing it.
  2. Use good fingering and use it consistently. It will take a lot longer to learn the piece if you are using different fingerings every time.  Writing your fingerings in the score will help (especially if you decide to use fingering other than what is indicate in the score).
  3. Always memorize the dynamics, articulations, and other markings on the page along with the notes. Don’t wait until you have the notes mastered!  It’s difficult to go back and fix things later.  It’s better — although perhaps more tedious initially — to learn it right the first time.
  4. Continue reading “12 Tips for Memorizing Piano Music”
Announcements, improving as a teacher, Practice

Practicing Efficiently

Hello all!  After a enjoyable and much-needed Christmas break, I’m officially back to blogging.  I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and are enjoying the new year.

Over break, I had limited access to a piano (I don’t currently own one – I both teach and practice using the pianos on campus).  It felt good to be back at it over the last few days.  Today while I was practicing (Liszt’s Waldesrauschen, among other things), I was thinking about concentration and its role in learning new music.  Why is it that on some days, I accomplish a great deal during practice sessions, and on other days, I feel as if I just wasted the last hour as I practiced?   Continue reading “Practicing Efficiently”

improving as a teacher, Motivation, Practice

What Motivates Musicians and Music Students? – Part 2

This post is Part 2 of the two-part series: What Motivates Musicians and Music Students?  Here’s a quick recap and then the conclusion of the series:

This goal [creating students who can convey musical meaning] in itself is an intrinsic motivator, for even the youngest of students can appreciate the value of musical meaning and feel important as they learn to create musical meaning.  But to encourage this kind of mastery of the instrument, we need to make sure that our incentive programs are reflecting this goal.

Let’s first consider this:  What kind of student would be produced by an incentive program that is based upon the number of minutes practiced each day?  Answer: The student is motivated to spend more minutes sitting at the piano, but not necessarilyto spend their practice time efficiently and towards the goal of creating musical meaning.  To only encourage large amounts of practice time is missing the point.  So how do we create incentive programs that encourage students towards the goal of learning to communicate musical meaning?

The best idea I am coming up with right now is to base the incentive program upon how many pieces (or pages, perhaps, since some pieces are longer than others) the students “passes.” Since the teacher has ultimate control over when the student passes (or doesn’t pass) a piece, the student is encouraged to figure out what kind of things the teacher values in their playing in order to do well in the incentive program.  That is, the students are more likely to think about what the teacher wants them to improve on in their pieces while they are practicing (aka, the elements that contribute to communicating musical meaning in their pieces).  At this point, the student might even (**gasp**) crack open their assignment notebook and read what it says! — try to shape the phrases more, and think about using more arm weight in the forte section, for example.

What do you think?  Would an incentive program like this work?  What kind of incentive program do you find to be most effective for your students?

improving as a teacher, Motivation, Practice, Resources

What Motivates Musicians and Music Students? – Part 1

I found an interesting post over at the Third-Stream Music Education blog.  It includes a link to a fascinating video of Dan Pink’s presentation about motivation in the business world (be sure to watch the whole thing!).  The post at the Third-Stream Music Ed blog makes some interesting connections between ways of motivating employees and ways of motivating students in music education settings in schools.

There are some connections here that can made made to private piano teaching as well.  Knowing what we do about how motivation works, how can we effectively motivate our students?  How can we improve the number of students who quit piano by the time they reach junior high and high school?  What kind of incentive program should we create in our piano studios in order to get maximum results from our students?

But first — here are two of Dan Pink’s basic propositions:

  • When the solution is clear and the tools needed to complete the problem are provided, extrinsic motivations (such as, a monetary bonus) work very well to encourage productivity from employees.  It’s the whole follow-the-carrot kind of reward system.
  • But when the solution is less obvious and the tools may not be provided, monetary motivations do not work well.  Instead, intrinsic motivators (i.e., being motivated by the feeling that what you do matters) work well.  Intrinsic motivators work better for situations where the problems require creative, innovative solutions and  “thinking outside the box” is needed.

The teaching and learning of music falls into the second category, because it is so subjective and it requires creative problem-solving skills.  And so, according to Pink, intrinsic motivators then ought to be used.

Before we talk about the application to incentive programs, let’s first clarify what the “tasks” or goals of learning piano (or music in general) are: mastery of the instrument.  But what does this “mastery” involve?  At first appearance, our goal seems to get our students to play play their pieces accurately, with few mistakes.  Under this definition of mastery, a robot could conceivably succeed.  Well, then maybe mastery is to get out students to progress rapidly, or to play lots of difficult repertoire.  According to this logic, a “successful” music educator would be one who has students who learn all of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, or who become concert pianists, perhaps.  While, or course, these things are not bad, they aren’t exactly our goal either.  At least, not our chief goal.

So then what is our chief goal?  We want them to create music — music that carries meaning and touches the emotions.  In other words, we want our students to become masters at creating musical meaning and communicating emotions through their music.  And if they become concert pianists along the way, so be it.  But I’d say we’ve succeeded as soon as we create individuals who can appreciate music as a way of communicating expression.  This is something that all of our students — both the talented and less so — can attain, at some level.  This is much more practical than trying to create concert pianists.  And so much more rewarding.

This goal in itself is an intrinsic motivator, for even the youngest of students can appreciate the value of musical meaning and feel important as they learn to create musical meaning.  But to encourage this kind of mastery of the instrument, we need to make sure that our incentive programs are reflecting this goal.

[…to be continued in Part 2…]

improving as a teacher, Practice, Teaching Piano

Highlights from Michigan Music Teachers Conference 2009

This past weekend was the Michigan Music Teachers Association 124th State Conference, taking place in Bay City, Michigan.  A couple of my fellow college piano pedagogy majors and I drove over to Bay City on Monday, to hear the conferences of the day.  Conferences are so great because they give you all sorts of new ideas and get you re-inspired!  Here are some highlights:

  • We had the privilege of hearing Jane Magrath present two sessions about piano teaching.  I can’t even express how fabulous her presentations were.  But here’s the biggest thing I took away from her presentations: when introducing a new piece to a student (say, intermediate level), guide the student through some steps towards analyzing the piece.  Example: “Let’s find some ways that will make learning this piece a little easier. Do you see any patterns in this piece?”  By identifying and labeling various rhythmic and melodic themes, the student can understand the piece at a greater depth and play with more understanding.  In addition, the piece suddenly becomes much less daunting.
  • Derek Polischuk gave a presentation about utilizing “Audio and Video Technology in the Studio to Provide Student Feedback.”  He uses the webcam on his MacBook computer to record during student lessons and post them onto YouTube in such a way that the student can login to this private area and view the movies.  Doing so is a great teaching tool and greatly motivates students.  After all, this is a day and age where kids understand technology so much better.  You can find his blog here, where he regularly posts various student videos, including projects by his college-level piano pedagogy students.
  • David Abbott spoke to us about “Beethoven through the Romantics: Pedaling and Issues of Interpretation,” highlighting some examples of places where the composer’s pedal markings are frequently not followed by pianists (qualified by the fact that our pianos today are so much different than back then). Abbott made the argument that we should be more true to the composer’s markings, for they might be indicating exactly the aural effect they were seeking to create.

What fun!  I am already looking forward to next year.  =)