“Tempo is not a number,” I said to my student.
My student was trying hard to work his piece up to speed, one metronome notch at a time, and was still some distance from the metronome mark printed on the page. I thought his current tempo was actually fine and told him so.
“But it’s not the right speed,” he said.
“It’s a good speed,” I countered. “You play it smoothly and musically.”
“But it’s too slow!”
“Why do think so?”
“Because it’s the wrong number!” He was a little exasperated now, and I knew he needed a new perspective.
“Tempo is not a number,” was all I said.
It was not what he wanted to hear, and what’s more, he didn’t believe me. After all, the number was printed right there on the page. And so I began to explain…
Fundamentally, tempo is an expressive element that supports the musical construct of the piece. It combines with dynamics,...
Do you suffer from the "what-ifs"?
My student was preparing for an important performance. We still had two or three lessons before the date, and I was confident she was prepared.
But at her next lesson she surprised me. Her playing was excellent, but she didn’t have the confidence in her playing that I did. She had a case of the “what-ifs.”
What if they don’t like me? They know you already and they like you.
What if I forget my music? You put your music on the stand and keep going.
What if I push a wrong pedal? You fix it and keep going.
What if I totally screw up? Really???
This student was an experienced performer and was well prepared. All she needed was a little pep talk.
For less experienced performers or musicians who have never performed at all, the thought of playing “in front of people” can give them a more serious case of “what-ifs.”
The good news is that there is a cure, even for first-timers. It’s a...
Much has been said – and I have said my share – about how to practice. Practicing with intention, deliberation and focus is the practice method that separates the successful musicians from the rest. (By successful musicians, I don’t just mean those with big music careers. Every musician is successful who is learning, playing, sharing and enjoying her music in ways that are personally meaningful.)
A quick internet search will disclose numerous research studies and scientific papers that reveal proven strategies to efficient and effective practice. You will also find creative approaches to practice that resonate with different learning types.
All of those practice methods, suggestions, techniques, tricks and tips share a common purpose: to enable you to play the music you want the way you want to play it. Moreover, they all address the one principle that is at the heart of music study. That principle is repetition.
But wait, you say. I thought repetitive...
Perfection has its good points, I guess. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been there.
Perfection appears to us as an ideal, our Mount Olympus, the place we strive for. It is that ever-elusive musical rabbit we chase in each practice session and every performance.
But is perfection really a suitable goal for a musician?
Perfection isn’t just a nearly impossible task. I believe that a “perfect” musical performance doesn’t exist …and shouldn’t.
That’s not to say that I haven’t heard performances that I considered flawless and ideal. But as a performer myself, I can say that even when I get all the notes right, there is always some musical detail I know I could have handled better. Following that thought further, if I hear perfection, but you didn’t feel you played perfectly, can perfection really exist?
But let’s be a little less philosophical and a little more practical.
Perfection in the usual sense is...
With Valentine’s Day approaching, I found myself reflecting again on how much of our harp music we owe to love and romance. I don’t mean that harp music is “romantic,” though certainly much of it could be interpreted that way. Rather, there is a substantial portion of harp literature that was composed by someone who loved a harpist.
The harpist was often a mother (as in Micheline Kahn, the mother of Jean Michel Damase) or a wife (remember Dorette Spohr, wife of Louis Spohr), and I shudder to think what gaps there would be in our repertoire were it not for music being the language of love.
Coincidentally, today February 12 is the birthday of Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812). Perhaps you first encountered Dussek’s music as I did, as a young piano student fumbling through his florid and elegant sonatinas.
Dussek also wrote numerous works for harp, no doubt inspired by his accomplished wife, singer, pianist and harpist Sophia...
Practicing technique is a cornerstone of a musician’s long term growth and daily practice habit. But that doesn’t mean that every moment you spend in technical practice will be well-spent.
Technical practice has one very clear objective: to solidify the habits that make it possible to you to play the music you want. A good technical foundation gives you the ability to worry about everything else when you play – notes, tempo, expression and musicality – everything related to what you are trying to play instead of how you will manage to play it.
When you are first learning to play an instrument or to sing, you spend most of your time practicing technique. You will study the basic principles of how you physically produce your sound. You will begin developing the habits that will form the core of your relationship with your instrument.
Later in your studies, you begin addressing the finer points of technique that are necessary for more advanced...
Composer Milton Babbitt with the RCA Mark II
I like digital music and I’m not afraid to say it. Surprised?
If that statement pulls the figurative rug out from under you, you may feel on firmer ground by the time you read to the end…
Electronic music, or digital music, has a history well over a century old. With the development of the telegraph in the 1830’s and the invention of the telephone in the 1870’s, electronic sound transmission was in the forefront of innovation. It was an American Elisha Gray, employed by Western Electric as a telegraph supervisor, who first brought this technology to a “musical instrument.”
In 1874, he developed what he termed a “musical telegraph,” a two-octave keyboard that produced electronic sounds, a very primitive version of the electronic organ which wouldn’t make its debut for another sixty years.
In 1896, American inventor Thaddeus Cahill developed the first music synthesizer, a...
Before you can do strategic practice, you need to answer this question: Why exactly are you practicing?
Because you have to, of course. Duh.
Yes, but the question is still, “Why?” The answer is important, because the practice you do must be tailored to get the results you want. Without knowing why you are practicing – the goal you want to achieve – your practice might be rather aimless and unfocused.
To put it another way, there is a reason you’re practicing. Maybe you’re trying to finish a piece or strengthen your technique. Maybe you have a lesson coming up or possibly even a performance. Whatever it is you’re trying do, there is a strategic way to accomplish it.
Of course, you don’t need to practice strategically, but unplanned practice tends to be repetitive, unrewarding, and even boring, not to mention unproductive.
Strategic practice, on the other hand, is focused and directional. It follows steps on a path toward your goal,...
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
I have a famous name: Anne Sullivan. Not because of my own accomplishments, but because of the woman called the Miracle Worker, the real Anne Sullivan. I don’t believe there is any genealogical connection between the two of us, but I have always been drawn to her story.
Her real first name was Johanna, but it she always went by Anne or Annie. Her early family life was not one to promise much for the little girl, with an an unskilled and undependable father and a mother and brother with tuberculosis. At age ten, following her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent abandonment, Anne and her brother were sent to a poorhouse cum hospital in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Just a few months later, her brother died.
Describing those years, Anne later wrote:
Unexpected good has filled the chinks of frustration in my life. But at times melancholy without reason grips me as in a vice [sic]. A word, an odd inflection, the way somebody crosses...
Most of us practice music because we want to play music.
There might be a couple of other reasons you could suggest – a love of learning, a desire to improve, a healthy discipline, a love of music – but underneath it all, the ultimate goal is playing music, playing it well and enjoying playing it.
Too often, however, I find that musicians don’t design their practice to lead them to that goal. They don’t use the practice techniques that will move them quickly and predictably from learning the notes to a polished performance.
One word before I continue - Don’t be led by the word “performance” to think that the tips that follow are pertinent only if you are playing in public. Even just playing the piece “for your own enjoyment” counts as a performance, at least in this context. Would you really be satisfied playing a piece with many stops, starts and mistakes, even if you were the only one listening?
Now, let me explain about...