I’m going to tell you a couple of stories. 

I was trucking along life’s highway recently and came to a sign across the road that said: “Restricted access, conditions apply!”… or words to that effect.

“Bother,” I said… or words to that effect.

 I glared back at the portable traffic light stuck on red, as they sometimes are. Then I noticed a side road without a stop sign that I reckoned would get me past the road obstacle. It was worth a try.

Using common sense (which comes in handy for times like this), I went slowly and carefully down that road. It wasn’t quite as smooth as the route I was used to, but actually it turned out to be a bit shorter and the views were great.

To my surprise, I noticed in my rear vision mirror that some of the other cars were following me. They obviously got tired of waiting for the officials to come back from their extended break to fix the stop lights. It was great to know there were some folks on the new route with me in case I got stuck.  In no time we were all back on the main road again.

 

That was an allegorical story. Now for an actual one:

Back when we lived in Indonesia, we used to do a 2-day drive with our pre-schoolers (10 hours a day) as part of the journey to get to the village area where we worked.

I’ll never forget the time we got to the end of the first day’s drive to find a landslide completely blocking the road. We had to make the difficult decision to either return home the next day and come another route involving air travel and long bus journeys, or wait overnight with the possibility that the road might be cleared. We chose the latter after much deliberation, and later the next day we struggled our way through the partially cleared landslide and were back on the road again. Phew!

 

Life seems full of roadblocks at the moment. Sometimes it is best to hang in there, knowing that patience and persistence will win through. Other roadblocks may be opportunities to find alternative routes to get back on track.

Roadblocks happen in music learning too. Here are some parallels you may see in your child’s learning at times with a little help from the imagery of roadblocks on how to get through.

 

Go slowly through them

Most roadblocks are not difficult to manage if we just go through slowly when we get the green light. Break down the difficult parts of your music into a bar’s worth or part of a bar. Do it using separate hands. Keep the speed the same for both hands and go slowly with accurate counting. Once you have each hand sorted, then play the section hands together.

Roadblocks are not the whole journey

Sometimes you can see that the difficult parts of your music are just a small portion and the rest of the piece is fine. Don’t give up on a nice piece just because a small part of the piece needs a bit of work.

Figure a way through or around

There are different ways you can tackle tricky parts of your music. If you really don’t know what to do, just note that tough bit and have your teacher help you with it in the lesson and work on what you can do. It might be that the fingering needs to change, transitions between beats are uneven, or that you are simply leaving out a sharp or flat that was in the key signature.

Maybe the route is too difficult

Sometimes we tackle pieces that are simply too difficult for the level we are at. It might be that you need to park this piece until you are able to cope with the difficulty level.

‘Coney Island’

I remember when we had lots of roadblocks after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11. All through the city there were orange cones redirecting traffic when the roads were blocked off due to damage.  It is okay to detour and do something different when life is crowding in and it is hard to find time to practice. You could work on learning chord patterns, creating a piece of music, listen to some music in your practice time or find a song you would like to learn that isn’t in the book you are working through. At this time of the year some of my pupils like to learn some Christmas songs.

Improving the road

We know that the roadblocks are improving the road for the future. Regrouping can be a really positive time in your learning. Sometimes I find out more about the sort of music my students are going to enjoy when I do it. An honest look at the possibilities is going to help you ‘improve the road’, to discover new ways to make music and get your joy back in the journey.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

 

Some of my pupils were supposed to sitting their piano exams yesterday. But they couldn’t. The whole of New Zealand is in lockdown and everyone’s plans are changed.

It is an interesting challenge for these pupils. They were all at their peak and ready to perform this week, but the waiting time ahead brings uncertainty. I don’t want them to reach that point where their pieces are over practised and they become bored with them, affecting the future performance. Nobody knows when they will be able to sit the exams, so they will just have to remain as ready as they can.

 

There are so many life skills one gains while learning a musical instrument. Here is one I didn’t already have on the list: Patience in maintaining a readiness to perform.

 

Some people are not okay with surprises, but the ability to be flexible is valuable in a musician. It also adds a sort of adventure to the role. You never know what might happen. Somehow, we usually rise to the challenge and are better for it. Here are a few examples of this:

  • As child I had to be ready to play my latest piece at any time. My Dad would often call on us to entertain visitors who had popped in unexpectedly.
  • I can’t count the number of times I have had to sight read something as an accompanist for an instrument or choir.
  • Sometimes a key change is needed. If you are using a real piano, there is no instant transpose button, you must resort to real skills in transposing.
  • Then there are moments when someone bursts into song, expecting you to pick up the key and play along… so you do.
  • There was a time I became a sort of: “composer in residence” for a show where I had started out as rehearsal pianist. The musical director couldn’t make it to all the rehearsals and the producer kept needing songs rewritten and some new ones created.
  • I have a simple little piece for pupils who show up to lessons with a broken arm. Unsurprisingly, it is called Broken Arm Blues. It is the same piece adjusted for left or right hand. I first wrote it when a student thought he would be off lessons for a while. No such luck! (Let me know if you would like a copy and I’ll email it to you.)

 

An examiner I once heard talking to music teachers referenced the skills a musician needs for coping with surprises. He said that the two skills he uses most in such situations are: Playing by ear and Sight Reading. I couldn’t agree more.

So, we will wait and see when the exams take place. In the meantime, I can just hope that the experience is in some way setting my pupils up for being adaptable, flexible musicians later, with a story to tell and ready for any surprises.

As they came off the stage, one child put into words the gleam shining from all their faces: “We did it!”

I tutor a junior orchestra of 27 children under the age of 11. Last week they performed at a local music festival. As the stage was being prepared one of the stagehands referred to our smallest member, who plays a percussion instrument, “Wow that kid is tiny!” The little guy on the piano was not much bigger but he was playing at a level most children of his age can’t contemplate.

That event last week was their first experience of playing on a big stage. For several months now they have been working towards playing a piece I composed called “The Royal Entrance”. Each player had a part in it to suit their ability level. Some of the children had only been learning a short time and only knew a few notes on their instruments. The double bass player had only had about four lessons due to unforeseen circumstances, so I gave him a mostly open string pizzicato part which he really put his heart into.

 

Next morning they had permission to come to school later (due to the lateness of the previous night) but if they wanted to come at the normal time to orchestra, I said they could have a go at conducting the piece we played. All but six eager beavers showed up—a pretty good effort after a late night, I thought.  

Looking a bit like a gym class, the first thing they learned was how to conduct 4 beats to the rhythm  “Down, to the left, to the right and up” .  Then ” 1, 2, 3, 4″ in time to the beat.

They took turns at using my baton and conducting their peers while I took over their instrument and played their part (not the wind instruments though). The first one who managed to get through the whole piece without stopping got a spontaneous cheer from the whole orchestra. As they shared how it felt to conduct, other members gave their thoughts and encouragements on what we were all learning about it. One girl, who had been shy and uncertain about joining the orchestra at first, got up and conducted with more confidence than I had ever seen in her before.  That told me that she now felt comfortable in the group too.

Not every child thought it was their thing but most wanted to give it a go anyway. Others learned that to be fully in charge of the music they needed to know more than just their own part and have an understanding about how all the parts fit together. (Spot the lesson there for all good leaders!)  The trumpet player was impressed at one trainee conductor bringing her in with a glance after some bars’ rest because she was so used to me doing so.

 

There was a special moment when I told them about a young man who had in his first orchestra experience with me some years ago in a group of children their age. This year he has been appointed as concert band conductor for the major primary school festival held every year in our city. They will get to see him in action later in the year, as many will be in the massed choir performing at that event.

 

So really, last week’s event was more than just learning to play a piece of music in front of a large crowd. I saw that they had become a team through the experience, recognizing that each person has a part to play that the others simply cannot do without.

And I think they began to dream a little bigger too.

 

The 8 most common reasons children quit learning the piano:

 

  1. No proper tuition on the music reading process

At the beginning the music reading process is a delicate balance between looking at the page and watching hands. It is about where the learner’s eyes are focusing. In Headstart Piano Book 1, I help the learner pay careful attention to this in every lesson until the habit of watching the page correctly is formed.

 

2. No balance in learning both playing by ear skills and reading music skills

Playing by ear is something many children take to very quickly and it is often the thing that draws the parent to their interest in learning to take formal piano lessons. They start lessons and suddenly it seems as though playing by ear goes out the window. The focus on reading only can dry up the child’s initial enthusiasm if not treated well. In Headstart Piano (alongside music reading skills) I teach Pattern Pieces that are only taught by ear. These are all sorts of fun pieces, some they will recognize and some that are new, to help the child focus on particular piano techniques. By doing this, the child can develop the reading technique alongside playing by ear. The skills develop separately at first but quickly blend in the right places.

 

3. No option for creative playing or improvising

I have found that the combination of learning to read music and play Pattern Pieces by ear gives a foundation of ideas for the pupil to create their own music, which I encourage them to do and share. Without those foundational building blocks it is difficult to create anything. As the Sound of Music song says: “Nothing comes from nothing”.

 

4. No real interest in the tuition material being used

For some children the material they learn from is an important key to hold their interest. I have included some known pieces for this express purpose in Headstart Piano. For the most part though, the music is original with my aim being to provide music that a beginner musician can perform proudly. It doesn’t sound trite or babyish. I’ve proved that by having children thoroughly enjoy the material from age 6 right through to 12 year olds. The level of playing ability is not drawn out with many pieces at a similar level, so they can advance quite quickly if the practice is done as instructed. There are ways of treating the material differently to accommodate different age or stage levels.

 

5. No achievable practice plan

With each piece in Headstart Piano there is a structured way to practice, play and record that progress. The supervising parent can see that the foundation of each piece learned helps the pupil take the next step up to the next piece.

 

6. Not enough parental involvement or interest

In my experience, this happens most often when a child has piano lessons at school and the parent doesn’t follow up with the lesson later to make sure the appropriate regular practice happens. After school lessons are often better and parents are more aware of what needs to happen. With a homeschool situation this is unlikely to happen as much and the child has a much better chance of someone taking an interest in their progress.

 

7. No group experience of music

While Headstart Piano is written for the individual, there are ways of using it to play with others. You can have two children playing the same piece at different parts of the piano (if they are not moving far out of position). Or, you can encourage them to use the tutor duets I have provided on the videos. An older sibling or parent who can play the piano could play these as many of them are not too difficult. Music for these is included in the resource section of the course. Pick pieces that can be played on another instrument such as a recorder, and play in unison with the piano.

 

8. No connection with the teacher

We learn from teachers that inspire us in some way or another and we want to earn their approval. The reason so many people prefer to sign up their children to regular piano lessons each week face to face with a real person is because they want the encouragement and accountability that goes with that relationship. Although this is a challenge with a video lesson based online course, I include the option to send videos of piano pieces to me  for review. I will give personal feedback for these, once in each of the 7 sections of the course for those on a subscription and 3 per section for those on the 1 time payment plan.

 

I have never heard anyone say they wished they gave up learning the piano as a child but I have had plenty of conversations where some of the above issues were among reasons mentioned for giving up learning. If you think I’ve missed a reason why children give up, I’d love to know it—because I want to be sure to address it for the next generation!

 

 

Did you know that learning a musical instrument is an excellent way to improve your concentration skills? Here are a few examples:

  • Starting with short pieces of music, a learner gradually develops the ability to concentrate on longer pieces
  • Aiming to play a piece correctly develops the ability to focus on playing slowly, evenly and getting each note correct. Deeper concentration skills develop the more you do it.
  • At a more advanced level than beginner, learning to transpose to another key is a kind of mental algebra that requires a clear picture of  the pattern you are going from and to.

 

To help your child get in the zone of better concentration you can do the following:

  1. Check out the room they are practicing in for potential distractions.

Are there:

  • active screens
  • toys
  • pictures on the wall in front of them
  • other people around
  • other sounds of any sort
  • pets

 

Eliminating those outside distractions will give them a chance then to 

  1. Deal with just the distractions inside their own head. These might be:
  • they are hungry
  • anticipating an event about to happen – like a friend coming over
  • an unfinished game
  • being upset with another family member
  • tired from being at school all day with no down time

 

It helps you realise that it is going to be a good positive practice time if they do it at a time when their environment is mostly helpful.  

 

Other helps to good concentration

  1. Have the practice time mostly at the same time each day so they settle more quickly into the zone of concentrating.

 

  1. Each child will have their own level of concentration and it won’t be the same as a parent, so we need to work within that too. Pushing it too much means it is harder to encourage them to the task another day. 

 

  1. Balance what is practiced with task and time orientation. At the beginning there can be lots of short tasks to accomplish and you can gauge how long that should take for your child. As the pieces get longer and a routine is established you may go to more time orientated practice and the learner gets better at managing  what they need to focus on improving within that time frame. Having an end point can save time wasting. 

 

  1. Always try to finish on a positive note with a favourite piece, an age appropriate checklist of things done and reward stickers that are only used for piano practice. Knowing it is not going to go in forever helps a child focus for a level that is manageable. 

 

The wonderful thing about learning a musical instrument is that the success of a lovely playing after putting in the concentration brings its own reward for the pupil like few other activities do.  The value of learning how to focus that they have learned by doing it though will no doubt transfer to other learning areas.