While living in a coffee growing area in SE Asia, we observed the whole process from tree to cup.  Coffee there certainly didn’t come from a glass jar labelled ‘Nescafé’. The real thing was a new experience and to begin with an acquired taste, but I came to realise how good it was, and to appreciate that it took a long time: from picking, crushing, drying, pounding off the dried flesh, sifting, roasting the beans, grinding, sifting again, finding wood for the fire and fetching water to boil – then finally getting that coffee! Our friends always liked it very sweet if they could afford sugar.

All this to say that good things do take time. And this includes musical skills. If you really want to develop as a musician and gain skills that last a lifetime, there does need to be a commitment of time.

I’ve been thinking lately about the challenges we face in today’s ever-busy world. It seems that our time is so compartmentalised with the many things we do in a day: quick texts here and there, checking facebook, checking a range of things on the internet in a short space of time, emails that seem to demand immediate attention – all part of life that breaks up our time into little bits.

 ‘Instant’ may appeal, but there are worthwhile projects that don’t happen overnight, like the commitment needed to a long term project like learning to play a musical instrument. It is worthwhile and it is going to involve time.

When I compare teaching music 10 years ago to now, I’ve observed a shortening trend in average time commitment among pupils (at least for young learners).

  • There is less specialisation, and children are doing a whole range of different activities during and after school. Whilst the privilege of opportunity is wonderful, there is less time given to excel at any particular field. ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ comes to mind.
  • With both parents working, in many cases, there is less time for parental support of the pupil’s (daily?) practice. Without this support a child would barely maintain what is taught in the lesson and may not go much further in the next.
  • An outcome of the above points is that goals need to be set at a lower level to be attainable before other activities, distraction or weariness takes over.

Children really need support through their learning an instrument, and one of my reasons for this blog is to encourage parents in the time and patience it takes on their part too to help children stick with it. They will have good moments where they are enjoying their new piece and all is going well, but they still need a big person to give some of that precious time to hang on in with them where their learning needs encouragement and incentives.

It will be worth the effort, and, like good coffee, it all takes time.

These are just a few of my personal observations. I’d be interested in knowing if you agree, disagree or have something to add.

In his song: ‘Next Five Minutes’, Steven Curtis Chapman calls us to live the next five minutes as though that is all we have. It is a positive look at using our time wisely, and time seems always in short supply.

I often hear that one of the biggest challenges in terms of progress in practising a musical instrument is lack of time. When my pupils encounter a section that is difficult during practice, I encourage them to break it down into manageable chunks and work it through.

We can do the same with any chunk of time to see progress.

We may think we have no time for a project, but really we are assuming that there is insufficient time at a given point to complete it or even to make progress on it. We may however have a spare five minutes before the next big event. Five minutes is manageable, right? Have a think of some things you can achieve in five minutes or less. Here are some of mine:

  • Have a shower (if I’m in a hurry)
  • Make a hot drink
  • Do a tummy exercise routine (actually it is 7 mins, but if I tell myself it’s only 5 mins out of my life I’m more likely to do it!)
  • Read a chapter of a book (unless it is a long, wordy novel)
  • Run into the supermarket to buy bread and milk (assuming no queue at the checkout)
  • Read a blog and send a quick comment back!

What I notice about my list is that if I perceive something is not going to take too much time, I will probably get to it. If it seems like a yawning hole of precious time wasted, I will put it off until later. So I have to trick myself into thinking I can do it in a short space of time.

So here is my ‘5 minute challenge’. I’m writing it as if you are a parent supervising practice, but whatever your situation is use the principles and try for yourself.

Sit with your child at the piano with the intention of both being there only five minutes. It is not much time so we are going to absolutely maximise it.

Set your timer for 5 minutes.  

What is the most recent piece? This will be the most challenging because there could be new things covered in your lesson. If needed, do points 1-5 one hand at a time.

  1. Find the few bars (measures) that are the most difficult
  2. If rhythm is the issue, count aloud and clap it out
  3. If notes are the issue, say them aloud before playing
  4. Now, slowly play that bar (or those bars)
  5. Play it through 3 times correctly. If it is 3 times in a row without error, all the better.

Repeat 1-5 with each hand, then repeat again with both hands.

If you have broken the difficult bits down enough you can do these 1-5 points within a five minute time frame. If there is still time you may like to finish with a run through of more of the music, or simply finish with a favourite piece. Or, if you ran out of time to do much at all, stop anyway and say that we will have another go tomorrow.

Now encourage them to go and do something else, and you can get back to your busy day too!

It is much better to do the 5 minute challenge than nothing at all! Also, if you get into the routine of it not being a major drama, you will be able to extend the time to fit more in as the child realises it is not going to take up their entire day.

The lyrics to the song I mentioned at the beginning are a little tricky to catch at the start so here they are:

 

I can reminisce about the already

I can worry and fret about the not yet;

But when it all comes down I know it really,

Really all comes down to the right now

So right now I’m living the next 5 minutes…

If you have five minutes 😊, let us know in the comments an example of how you maximize five minutes of your time – music or otherwise. I’m sure we’d all find it helpful. And enjoy the other 1435 minutes of your day!

 

Ironically, the thoughts in this blog came one night when I had trouble sleeping.

Often when you get to the end of a journey you realise that half the fun was the process of getting there. In music, it is not the end of the music we enjoy but how it sounded along the way that makes the ending good too.

When a pupil sits down to play me a new piece they have been working on, sometimes in their eagerness to play the notes they leave out the rests. It makes the music unbalanced and not quite right. It is like life these days, we sometimes leave out rests because they seem a waste of time. But they are necessary and add to the overall beauty of life. And in music it is the rest that often makes the following music sound amazing.

I wanted to teach one of my little orchestras about rests, so I composed and arranged a piece of music that had a tutti rest (tutti is Italian for all, when everyone in the orchestra is playing together). It created quite a stir. There were some smarties that made a sound during the rest just to be noticed. Others simply couldn’t wait out the silence and came in too soon. I taught those little folks about counting out the space and they did much better.  After a while the silence hanging in the air (we had to practice not making any other sounds too) became a highlight and a strangely delightful triumph when everyone got it right.

                                                                               

Excerpt from A ‘n G   Copyright © Delwyn McKenzie 2016

‘Busy’ is a badge we wear in life and it can easily become the way we play our music if we don’t take it off. The rests in music need to be the spaces of silence that allow the music to breathe and pace itself.  If the performer can chill and put the rests in the right place, the balance of sound and silence will indeed make beautiful music.

Local jazz trumpeter and arranger, Doug Kelly is a legend. I shall never forget when our orchestra accompanied him with his own arrangement for trumpet and orchestra of Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’. Amazing skill and dexterity to play so many notes on the trumpet at that speed!

Doug said something profound when we were chatting after a rehearsal recently. “Don’t practice. Just Play.” I might have missed it, but I always listen carefully to Doug. After all he is 95 and knows his stuff!

What he said made me think about how I address my pupils in the area of practice. There is such a difference between the feel of these two verbs. One gives the impression of hard, unenjoyable slog; the other sounds like fun at the park. I really want my pupils to learn their music as the latter, while recognizing the fact they do need to work at it too.

It is building on the sense of satisfaction one gains by repeating an activity to develop a higher skill level.  The material being used is surely key here. If the music is interesting enough, practice will feel more like play and the regular playing is in itself practice.

I remember feeling that way when I first heard George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in my teen years. I was so excited to have a go at playing it, even when it was beyond my ability. I learned the easy pages first and started picking my way through the harder ones, and finally managed the whole piece when I didn’t expect I would be able to.

Yes, I guess I wasn’t really practicing, I was playing the bits I wanted to and each success gave me confidence to want to learn another page.

Actually, all this came on a foundation of the skills I had learned in the early years: how to break difficult passages down into manageable chunks and get them accurate before moving on.  And back in those early years it was called practice.

But I like Doug’s point, we need to simply play more.