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I'm Stuck! What to Do When Nothing Is Working

practicing Oct 08, 2017

I’m stuck!

We’ve all been there, when the piece you’re trying to practice and perfect just seems to go into neutral gear. No matter how much you practice or how focused you are, you can’t seem to get off the plateau.

Sure, you could keep practicing, hammering away at it, with the hope that eventually it will move ahead.

Or you could put it aside, give the piece (and your brain) a rest. Working so hard with no results to show for it is fatiguing and depressing.

Is there another option? You bet.

First let’s look at how you got stuck in the first place. Mentally rewind to the first time you opened the music…

The music was new. The page was clean, unblemished by markings and full of promise. You dove right in.

You worked out the fingering and all the other technical details. You drilled the tricky passages. You practiced hands separately and together. You worked slowly and carefully, using the metronome, checking the details of technique and...

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Etudes: The Case For and Against

news technique Oct 01, 2017

There are etudes, and then there are etudes.

In harp pedagogy, we have the basic fundamental studies like the Pozzoli etudes in the Grossi Metodo per Arpa and the flashy concert etudes of Zabel and Posse.

For those more familiar with the piano repertoire, these translate roughly as Czerny studies and Chopin etudes.

In fact, Chopin is likely the name we associate most with etudes, no matter what instrument we play. Chopin wrote 27 studies for the piano in the 1830’s and these works are legendary for their technical demands and musical depth.

But not all etudes are like that.

Some are written specifically to help us develop our technical skills. These are usually less musically rewarding, much shorter and less interesting to practice.

Still, etudes have been considered an important component in musical training for centuries. For instance, the keyboard studies written by 16th century Italian organist Girolamo Diruta (c. 1554-1610) are still considered significant today.

Despite...

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Focus or Fixation: The Practice Rabbit Hole

practicing Sep 24, 2017

Focus. What things we could accomplish if we could only focus!

Yet there are times that too much focus is as useless as too little when it comes to music practice. I’m talking about the “Practice Rabbit Hole.”

If you remember Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you know that Alice’s adventures began when her curiosity led her to follow the White Rabbit down his hole. After that, things became “curiouser and curiouser,” and poor Alice was trapped in Wonderland. Trapped, that is, until she woke up and discovered it was all a dream. (Or was it? But that’s a different discussion…)

In our music practice, there are times when we can’t find the concentration we need to delve into the detail work we know we should be doing. But there are other times when we are so determined to fix or finish the musical task before us that lose sight of everything else.

Have you ever finished what felt like a really productive practice session, only...

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Cool Metronome Trick #17: Create Time

musicianship Sep 17, 2017

A metronome trick? Of course!

The metronome is a mystery for many musicians. We know we should use it and that it is “good for us.”  But that doesn’t mean we like it or even know how to use it well.

We know that those persistent ticks, clicks or beeps represent a steady beat and that they reveal how unsteady our own playing pulse can be. And the metronome is our primary resource for speeding things up when we need to get a piece up to a specific tempo. But beyond that, how can it really help?

In this post, I will help you discover a simple metronome trick to actually create time and how that can benefit almost every aspect of your playing. (I call this “Metronome Trick #17;” I haven’t defined the first 16 tricks yet. When I get them all listed, I’ll let you know!)

Metronome Trick #17: Create Time

This is a reversal of our usual perception of the metronome’s purpose. Instead of using the metronome to help us speed up our playing...

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Adult Music Students: Myths vs. Facts

music miscellany Sep 10, 2017

Adult music students are a special breed. They are enthusiastic and dedicated. They are eager and interested. Where young students might be more adventurous, adults are more likely to want to do things right the first time, bringing their life experience and maturity to their studies.

But adults are also more likely to be frustrated by what they perceive as insurmountable obstacles to playing their music the way they have always wanted. That frustration can lead to a shift in attitude. Their enthusiastic optimism is replaced by growing doubt that they can ever achieve their musical goals.

In my teaching, I see that doubt first surface in a student as an increase in the amount of practice time. Then comes a question like, “Do you think I should go back to basics, and just work on my technique?” or “Is this piece too hard for me?” or “Should I have made more progress by now?”

We can talk through all the issues, though, and still not break through...

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Agility for Your Fingers: the Pronking Approach

technique Sep 03, 2017

Agility is practically the Holy Grail for any musician. To have a facile and nimble technique is why we spend hours playing scales and exercises.

What does agility look like?

Picture a gazelle bounding across the African savanna, dodging roots and rocks, changing direction with effortless grace and athleticism. Strength, grace, flexibility and speed in motion, the very definition of agility.

Then a predator threatens the gazelle. The gazelle takes off, running for its life, with the predator in fierce pursuit.

Suddenly, the gazelle makes a high, bounding leap, one that changes the direction of its flight and in so doing, confuses the predator.

This surprise leaping strategy is known as “pronking,” and it is one of the few lines of defense open to the gazelle. A gazelle’s first defense is to elude the predator, to evade the threat. It relies on its agility to rescue it from danger.

That’s the kind of agility we want for our fingers. We want them to fly across...

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Fear and Uncertainty: the What-Ifs

musicianship Aug 28, 2017

Fear. Uncertainty. What would happen if you stopped “what-if-ing” and just did it?

Fear and uncertainty are the dream-killers for most people. Most of us have a “safety switch” somewhere that keeps us from going too far. The trick is in recognizing when your switch is triggered unnecessarily.

Our inborn reactions to danger are both necessary and appropriate. We naturally shy away from fire, flinch at lightning and thunder and avoid precarious heights. But we learn over time which circumstances are truly threatening to us and which instinctive reactions we can safely ignore.

Music offers its share of fear-inducing situations, and not just those having to do with performing.

It might be fear of playing wrong notes or playing too fast. It might be fear of trying a new piece or technique, or even just the uncertainty of our ability to do what we want to do, to play the way we want to play.

In order to prevent fear and uncertainty from blocking our path forward,...

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Online Music Lessons: Best Practices

music miscellany Aug 21, 2017

Online music lessons may sound like nirvana to many music students – being able to study music wherever you are and no matter where your teacher is. If you’re a music teacher, though, you likely instinctively sense the possible drawbacks and limitations of learning music at a distance.

Nevertheless, online music learning is increasingly how students young and old, experienced and newbies, pursue their passion. Students, and parents of younger students, need to be aware of the reality behind the rose-colored glasses. And teachers should explore how they might like to include online lessons as part of their studio instruction.

Of course, online music learning is much more than just lessons over Skype or the numerous other platforms like Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. And learning isn’t just limited to lessons; students can learn through online classes, courses, webinars or group programs.

But most students – and teachers – still favor one-on-one...

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Practice Your Musical Creativity

musicianship Aug 14, 2017

Musical creativity isn’t a “yes or no” thing. It isn’t a “have it or don’t have it” kind of skill. It’s more of a “use it or lose it” proposition.

This isn’t a scientific argument. It’s based solely on my observations and experience. But let’s consider this scientifically…

Science would urge us to apply the scientific method: to experiment, analyze the results and make conclusions based on the evidence. That empirical evidence, though, belies what I have found experientially to be true: that all of us who are attracted enough by music to choose to study it are gifted with musical creativity.

I don’t mean that we all are gifted in the same fashion or that we are enabled to use these gifts to the same extent. But I have never come across a student who had no desire or ability to be musically creative.

Our regular practice habits are not designed to promote or develop creativity, however. In...

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Is Your Repertoire Ready?

performing Aug 07, 2017
Is your repertoire ready to play?

Imagine you received this phone call today:  

"Good morning [YOUR NAME HERE]. I'm so glad I caught you. We are having our church social coming up next weekend, and our committee thought it would be lovely if you could play for us. I know it's short notice but it would be so nice if you could come and play. Please say you will. Everyone would love it.

" What would you say? Could you say yes?

Perhaps this is something you've been meaning to do, to get music ready to play for events like this. Perhaps this is even a group that you would really like to play for. But perhaps you haven't gotten your repertoire ready yet. So you're going to miss this opportunity. It’s a disappointment.

Let’s continue with our scenario.

After you make your excuses and turn this opportunity down, you start thinking that you really should put some music together to play. How hard could it be? So you pore through the music that you have but decide that you...

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