I remember when I was young playing the game “Red Light, Green Light.” It’s a simple game; other people call it “Statues.” Everyone is allowed to move around however they want, until the leader calls, “Red light!” Then they have to freeze and not move until the leader calls, “Green light!” The leader tries to time the calls to confuse the others so that they move when they’re not supposed to, and are eliminated from the game. The confusion is part of the game.
But music lessons aren’t supposed to be confusing. Your teacher’s instruction is supposed to be clear and consistent, not switching back and forth. No “red light, green light.”
But last week, as I was teaching, I found myself doing exactly that. In the course of a single lesson, I admonished my student twice, once for not stopping to fix a mistake and another time because she stopped to fix a mistake.
As I heard myself tell her not to stop,...
I wish it had come like a flash of lightning. Or maybe an earth tremor or even a giant light bulb. But really, there was no one moment when I realized what was wrong with the way I was practicing. Just all of a sudden, I knew the real point of practice, and it changed the way I learned music and the way I taught it.
What I had learned wasn’t a new discovery, just an important one.
So much of our practice time is spent on fixing what doesn’t work, on perfecting the notes, the fingering, the dynamics, the rhythms, all the details that need to be in place for the music to happen. But the music doesn’t exist in those details; they are simply the mechanisms that work behind the scenes. And when our work stops there, we never really get to a place where we can play smoothly with confidence in both our technical and musical achievement.
When I began thinking about performance, not perfection, as the real objective of practice, the pieces fell into place for me. My...
Music lessons aren’t cheap. Preparing for the lessons isn’t easy. And sometimes the lessons themselves are challenging.
So do you know WHY you are taking lessons?
If your only answer is “because I want to improve,” you probably need to get a little more focused in order to get the most out of your lessons.
Obviously, the essential point of music lessons is to help you learn to play an instrument (even if that instrument is your voice) better. But if your study doesn’t include more specifically stated goals and objectives, you might find yourself simply working on tasks instead of developing in the ways you need to grow as a musician.
Music lessons are most effective when the student and teacher work in partnership to achieve particular aims. This requires communication and understanding on both parts. And the main direction needs to come from you, the student. Your teacher can help you get where you’re going, but you need to have a destination in...
Do you feel like you’re all thumbs?
Thumbs can just plain get in the way. Sometimes our thumbs make us feel clumsy and slow when we play. They get tense; they don’t place accurately. Thumbs can be hard to control, and it can be even harder to make them sound beautiful and musical.
But with a little understanding and a little attention, your thumbs can be as nimble and expressive as the rest of your fingers.
First, it’s important to remember that your thumb is a long finger. Yes, it looks short, until you notice that the base joint of your thumb is down near your wrist. Taken all together, your thumb is about the same length as your third finger. And all that length can result in some impressive power. But you have to use the whole thumb.
You may have heard the saying “long and strong” applied to your thumbs. That’s because when you use the entire length of your thumb, you will find its strength. If you only play with the top joint of your thumb,...
Are you practicing the big picture, or do you get stuck in “the dots?”
Music is an art, a joint creation by composer and performer, designed to communicate to a listener. As a performing medium, music is also an art “of the moment.” When we hear live music, we hear something that will never exist again. That note is over, that crescendo is gone, that sublimely beautiful moment has evaporated into the atmosphere. When we perform music, our music is only alive in each moment as it happens.
It’s easy to see why we strive for perfection. We have only one chance in a live performance to make the impression we want, to create the musical mood we want, to play the note correctly.
But if that becomes a primary focus, or even our sole focus, in our preparation or in our performance, we lose the opportunity to create and enjoy everything that is wonderful about music. Mostly, we lose focus on the music as a whole, and replace it with a much more self-conscious...
We musicians hear the word “dynamics” and automatically think soft, loud or in-between. But the root of the word dynamic means power, and that’s what our dynamics should be bringing to our music: expression with the power to move a listener.
Musical dynamics bring the same energy to a piece of music that an engine brings to a car or motorcycle.At times we might choose dynamics that resemble the almost effortless gliding of a Rolls Royce; other times we might prefer the roar and speed of a motorcycle.
But whatever type of music we are playing, that music won’t go anywhere, it won’t communicate to an audience, if we don’t create a dynamic performance. I don’t mean a performance that’s flashy and dazzling, unless that’s what we want the piece to say. Rather, we want our dynamics to bring our music to life, to help our audience connect with the beauty and meaning of the piece.
The dynamics you choose for a piece all must support your...
You are a good student. You practice regularly; you don’t try to cram at the last minute for your recital. So you are prepared in good time, and now you have the oddly task of keeping your repertoire fresh until the recital.
The paradox is that the more prepared ahead of time you are, the more comfortable and confident your performance will be UNLESS you get so bored with your music that you can’t find the emotional energy to deliver a passionate, or at least musical, performance.
So how do you keep from getting so bored with your recital music that you can hardly stand to practice it one more day? The key lies in mixing up your approaches to your daily practice.
There are three functions of your practice when you have finished the preparation stage of practice and you are just polishing it for performance.
First, you want to keep practicing the technical issues so that you can be confident that your performance will have few stumbles.
Second, you want to keep...
Whether you love it or hate it, the metronome is an essential tool for every musician. That’s right – I said “essential,” as in, MUST have one and MUST use it.
If you’re a metronome fan, you already know the benefits of working with the metronome. If you’re one of those who would rather visit the dentist than try to play with the click, read on to find out exactly what the metronome can do for you, and why it’s easier than you think to use it. (Hint: you’ve probably been using it incorrectly.)
Whether your metronome has a swinging arm, flashing lights or just a click, it has one purpose: to give you a steady beat.
It’s all about the beat
Without a steady beat, a predictable rhythmic pulse, music loses much of its power. Our reaction to the beat is instinctive; we tap our toes, clap our hands, nod our heads. We move to the groove. When we fail to keep the beat steady as we play, we don’t allow the listener to connect on...
That moment of excitement, the crisp, unsullied page of music full of promise. It’s a brand new adventure – the starting of a new piece. When I was a young student, it was the moment I loved most. My teacher would put that new music book on the stand, and I could hardly wait until I was at home and could begin to learn it. I was always an eager, if not always a careful, student. I would launch head first into the new music to see what joys were waiting there, reckless of the wrong notes I played along the way. And that recklessness would cause me problems later. I would have many corrections to make and much curbing of my enthusiasm before I had the piece learned to my teacher’s satisfaction.
I have often envied my students who take a more sensible approach. Their careful systematic practice leads to much more predictable results. But there is a weakness in their strategy too. Sometimes it just takes too long to get to the finish line.
Wouldn’t it be...
Why do you play the harp (or whatever instrument it is that you play) ?
How long has it been since you thought about that, since you really reconnected with your musical “why?” We tend to be so involved with the “what” of practice and performing that we lose track of our “why” and without that, it is easy to lose our way.
I really don’t remember not having the harp in my life. I didn’t start harp lessons until I was eight years old, but my mother always told me that I was two years old when I first heard the harp and said that was what I wanted to play. And from the time I was four, I was studying piano with a teacher who also played the harp, so each week when I went for my piano lessons, her beautiful harp was there beckoning to me, or at least it seemed that way.
But there came a time when I was studying at the Curtis Institute when I needed to find my “why.” I had been playing for more than 10 years and, although I was...