I have a question for you.

Have you (or your child) ever used YouTube to learn how to play a particular piece of music by ear or by watching patterns on the screen, and you have no previous skills at reading music?

How cool to learn quickly and easily to play a piece of music you love, right?

Well, yes… and no.

 

I’m the last person to squash fiddling around at the piano. I did heaps of it in my early teens. I was a bit fanatical in watching what another musician was doing before going home to try it out….when I was supposed to be practicing for some exam. Whoops, did I really say that?

So, given that I acted like that, why would I now be a bit cautious about encouraging someone who wants to learn a piece off YouTube visuals with no music reading needed?

As a music teacher I have seen hundreds of learners coming to learn a musical instrument (mostly piano) with a particular set of learning skills. I typically have a favourite way of getting someone started at the instrument.  I know this method can help me assess the kind of learner they are and what will work best for them. As I work through my course with them (Headstart Piano for beginners) I can adapt it depending on their age, their aural awareness, and make sure they are learning in their best learning space. The course is designed with all this in mind.

A challenge I face is from the child who has learned something quick and easy that sounds great but it is actually beyond their level of ability. What I mean is that they could not play something else of the same level because they have learned a skill by rote without understanding how it hangs together.

The reason it is a challenge for the music teacher is that the child perceives they are being taught baby stuff when taken back to basics. In point of fact the basics are crucial in learning to play the piano which includes learning to read music—a lifetime skill. In going back to the basics they understand how to process rhythm, beat and recognizing notes in written music.

My problem is that such a child comes expecting me to help them learn that cool stuff, assuming the quick and easy won’t involve much work on their part.

 

Learning the piano is not a video game! But if your child learns well with online material and you are keen to know more about my online course version of Headstart Piano!  Click here to be the first to know when it is available.

For those who really want to learn an instrument, it takes an element of commitment, regular practice and time: 3 things that are maybe not so popular in our instant coffee world!

Here’s the good bit. What I love to see is how when my pupils have learned skills at the piano (both reading and playing by ear) they can create more with what they know. They can also go and watch videos that help with what they are learning and enjoy the fun of that too. They are no longer limited to just the one song they have learned. It’s a bit like that saying:  “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

So Yes, it is cool to be able to play your favourite piece of music, even if it is the only thing you can play. But if you are shown how to read music properly from the start and develop those skills carefully with the right help, you will be able to enjoy so much more music throughout your life.

 

I remember the first time I ever “created” a song. Actually, it wasn’t entirely my own creation, but rather new ideas based on an established pattern. My experiments with it were very exciting to me at the time. And they have helped me in my music ever since.  More on that later…

Whether you are a song writer, a symphony composer, or just like to fiddle around on your instrument, I hope, in this blog, to give you some ideas to keep you being creative. Creativity doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes from all the combinations of experiences you have had up to the moment of whatever you create.

 

I remember when my daughter, Esther, came home from high school with the job of creating a piece of music. There were very few parameters given as to what to create, and it didn’t seem to matter that the students had no experience in it. When the field is as wide open as that, it will be either daunting or exciting, depending on the individual tasked with it. The downside with that approach is the possibility of having someone who does not play the piano creating a piece that requires unplayable music for the piano, such as too wide a hand span for chords. But, on the upside, some really creative things can happen.  Esther created a lovely song with a haunting melody. It flowed quite naturally and part of that was probably  because she loves to sing and has often experimented with melody ideas.

Having clear parameters around what you are going to create can be really helpful. I’m thinking of the time I was creating a piano melody for my course on teaching your own child the piano. I wanted to only use particular notes in a particular position and I was really pleasantly surprised that the restrictions helped me create something I was really happy with. Then Robin (my husband) created lyrics that were the icing on the cake.

An example, on a bigger scale, of clear parameters guiding creativity was when our family lived in the southern Philippines. I was teaching music at an international Christian school our children attended and, as part of that, Robin and I created 6 full school musicals over the period of a few years. I haven’t done anything like that since, but for that period of time writing musicals for the particular children I was teaching music to was easier in my mind than finding something to order. (Email and the internet were relatively new then, so an order would take ages to arrive and then you couldn’t be sure if it would be what you wanted.)

These days I enjoy creating new pieces for my pupils and that’s how Headstart Piano really started out.  I might be going over a teaching point with a pupil and they get interested in something in particular.  If I think it is helpful, I’ll create something that might help reinforce it. Actually, it really is the easier option than looking for something that will work if I can’t think of something already out there off the top of my head.

 

But how about you or your child? Quite often when I am interviewing a parent about their child starting lessons they will say that he or she enjoys tinkering at the piano and is always creating things. In the back of my mind I’m thinking of the fact that they will have far more to play with once they have some lessons, because the more actual skills they develop, the bigger the ‘vocabulary’ of ideas they will have to draw on.

Sometimes no pressing need, or helpful parameters are required to spur an occasion for creativity. You are in the flow and it just happens. Those times are special and they come out of all of life’s experiences too. When we were going into our most recent lockdown I felt a bit sick in my stomach, sad and pensive about it I suppose. I wanted to create something peaceful and uplifting, but didn’t know how to say it. So I sat at the keyboard and recorded this. It’s nothing grand or perfect, but it seemed to fit the moment.

 

 

Ideas to help creativity

Listen to a range of music

If I’m in a composing rut, the best thing I can do is listen to a range of music. I might get the germ of an idea from something I have heard to get me started.

Create from what you know, not what you don’t know

If you work with what you are able to do, you may be surprised, as I have been, at how much fun that is. Fiddling with something that is beyond you may be challenging, but it can also be frustrating.

Use an idea you have heard and rework it

It may be a simple chord progression from a song you like that you put a different melody to, or maybe it’s a cool rhythm. Start at your instrument with a basic idea you like and  based on the ability level you are at. Play around with it, change the melody and chords around or play the rhythm with a variety of notes to see what works. Let me know if you want more ideas on this kind of reworking.

Keep a track of your ideas

You will forget if you don’t notate or record your ideas in some way. These days it is so easy to press record on a phone, so there is no excuse for not having a record of it. I have a recording function on my studio piano which is super helpful when I have an idea I want to come back to.

Share it with someone you trust

One of the worst things that can happen in the creative process is telling someone who is unenthusiastic about it. Nothing kills the creative process more than having someone say it reminds them of a favourite Beetles song or something else. But creatives have to choose their moments too. Sharing your masterpiece with someone clearly too busy is likely to set you up for that rejection feeling. For parents, it is a reminder to us that our children don’t always choose the right moment to proudly share their creations. We have to be ready to make an effort to honestly encourage when it happens.

 

Incidentally, when writing that first “song “, I experimented with the chords of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music. I created a completely different melody with the harmony from that song – just because I liked the chords.  It was an exciting exploration as an 11 year old and a true love of creating music for me dates back to that time. I couldn’t have imagined then that composing music would become one of my favourite things!

I met a lady living on a nearby farm the other week who came from the area of the country I grew up in, another island away in a town most people haven’t heard of. As you do, I asked what part of the Waikato she came from and she said “Putaruru”.  Funny how hearing your own home town suddenly makes a special connection with a person. So after she heard I was from there too, I ventured to ask if she knew the “Bousfield School of Music”, a music school developed by my parents in the community. She replied that my mother had taught not only her, but also both her sisters the piano. (It’s not the first time I’ve met a random stranger who learned from them.) Since then I’ve been reflecting on the legacy left by my musical parents, who taught 5,000 individual pupils over their combined lifetimes. I’ve also been thinking how pupils learned music in their day and how things have altered since then.  

I’d like to think that my pupils learn with the same solid principles I gained growing up, along with new ideas and fresh approaches appropriate to the generation learning now. But, in musing on whether I have made the most of that legacy and built on it, I’ll share some thoughts with you as I go along.

 

 

Repertoire

The first thing that comes to mind is the increase in musical repertoire we have today. Of course the wonderful range of classical music from the last few centuries is still available, but just packaged in different ways. For example, with a search on You Tube we can often find someone playing music we might want to listen to. I’m frequently suggesting to my pupils to check out a piece of music on line. That was something my parents couldn’t do, instead they would have taken the time to demonstrate more in the lesson. A live rendition of the piece certainly is important for today’s pupil’s too.

There were fewer tutor books or courses available to choose from in my parents’ day. Now, a music teacher will have a lot more to choose from, and the fun part is finding the right music for each pupil. I review tutor books I’m familiar with in one of the lectures in my course for parents: How to Teach Your Child the Piano like a Pro

There is a lot more light jazz, recent compositions, improvisation and ways of learning to play by ear in music learning these days. Gone is the perception that you are only a real musician if you can read music. Having said that, it is an incredibly valuable part of learning a musical instrument and I am most grateful that I play by ear as well as read music. I look for ways to help my pupils with this too, usually after they have done an exam or reached a particular goal, like playing in a concert. In my Headstart Piano course, I include pieces that the pupil learns visually and/or by ear along with developing their skills at reading music. Congratulations to the my pupils at West Rolleston School in this photo after their concert this past week. They played beautifully, most of them learning with Headstart Piano.

Practice lengths

In the era of my parents’ teaching there was definitely an expectation of a longer amount of practice each day. An hour a day was considered a minimum and they were not keen on giving lessons to anyone doing any less than that. In her later years I quizzed my mother on this and she said it was much harder to keep this standard these days with all the distractions of other activities. But the fact remains, I definitely see the progress (and a corresponding degree of satisfaction) with pupils who do this level of practice. I think a key aspect of productive practicing is maximising the time used through focusing on the difficult, new parts being learned, rather than just clock watching or staring at the wall while sitting at the instrument!

 

No social media or TV

Back when I was young it seemed every house had a piano—no keyboards with cute sounds. I had to do piano practice before playing with friends or going to watch TV at their homes. (We didn’t have a TV.) This year, one of my lovely new learners came bouncing in for her lesson at my home and asked if my piano was always “on”.  Having an electric keyboard at home meant she didn’t know there was such a thing as an acoustic piano. I’d recommend that today’s teachers show the inside of a real piano for the student to observe the hammer action. I particularly like to do this when I’m teaching about loud and soft, and then again when learning about the damper/sustain pedal.

When I think about the portability of piano keyboards today I realise how much of a deal it was when my parents had a caravan purpose built with the right space for a piano at the back. They took it around the country schools in the Waikato and taught from it as a mobile studio. The down side for us kids was that when we went on school holidays the piano came too. No getting out of doing our practice on vacation!

 

Focus length

I think I was able to stay focused on a task better than many of today’s young people. I could repeat things until I got it right. Honestly though, I still struggled to do it, not realising I’d be grateful for it one day. Maybe a lesson for today’s parents is that children can’t truly assess what is good for them and they need a big person to help them stick at it. Hats off to the parents who achieve this in today’s hectic pace of life. I’m grateful that I was required to stick to what was expected of me. I keenly felt that I would let my parents down if I didn’t. I learned the life skill of resilience as well as music from that.

 

Creativity

Every generation has a way of being creative. For my parents, it included thinking outside the square to teach music in a caravan, writing music theory books and arranging music for their instrumental groups, just for starters. For me, it was when I learned to improvise.

I definitely was not a good student. Practice times seemed to drag on forever and I was terribly nervous when it came to performances. But I was more fortunate than my siblings in some ways as the youngest of 5, in that it seemed I was allowed to mess around at the piano more.  I enjoyed making up music and explored playing by ear far more than my older siblings. That’s where my love of music really started to develop and I began to appreciate what I had learned through the music grades too.

More recently this has included producing Headstart Piano in 2 books that I use with my beginners. I am so close to getting Book 1 to you in an on line course. Hopefully soon.

In the meantime, keep enjoying your music and creating memories. One day it might become one of your own “It’s a small world” stories.

Do you ever find that you do all the tasks on your ‘to do list’ except the ones that are more challenging? Then when you finally get around to those challenging tasks, do you find that they were not that bad after all and did not take that long either?

I had a student this past week who had only practiced the same passage of music as the week before in a new piece because the next passage was deemed to be in ‘the too hard basket’. Given that it was an exam piece and we were now under a bit more pressure than I intended, we needed to conquer it head on. So, in the lesson, we went over the tricky bar that was standing in the way of completing the piece. It was important to use our time wisely to stay on track with everything else needed for the exam, as well as to have time to learn and establish this piece.

 

How does it help to work through these difficult passages first?

  • It gets them sorted while you are fresh at the task. Get stuck in early and don’t procrastinate! Don’t let the thought of the challenging bits hang over you. Think of it like a hike that starts with a hill. If you put the leg work in while you are fresh you can get to the top and enjoy the view with an easy walk back. If you practice the difficult parts of your piece first, you will enjoy the overall piece played correctly much sooner.
  • It helps you to increase your skill level more quickly. If you apply the tips below to every new piece, you will find that your skill level goes up every time you master something new and difficult. The quicker sense of achievement will encourage you to keep improving and moving on to more music.
  • It helps with sight reading. Sight reading uses skills of looking ahead, note reading, counting rhythms and keeping the beat, among other things. The more you read music and practice, the better you become at reading new material.
  • It helps you learn the whole piece. If you only practice a piece of music from top to bottom, the beginning passage is often good while the ending is more neglected. This is what happens when you simply start at the beginning again when you make a mistake, hoping you will make it to the end “this time”.

 

Let us look at some practical key tips for working on the difficult parts of your music first. Even if you are already aware of some of these, think through which areas most apply to you. These are brief and general. There is more you can do with each point depending on the passage of music, level of learning etc.

  1. Have a look through the piece to see what will be the most challenging.

You can do this by just looking through, if it is the first time you are playing it, or, if you have already played through the piece, you could have a complete run through and see where the problem areas are. That first run through is quite helpful for this. Then, ignore the nice easy bits to play and go straight to the difficult part, or where you made the most mistakes.

  1. Break it into small chunks.

There are various ways to chunk your music. A good principle is to break it down into separate hands. The area may be just a couple of bars long or even just one. The smaller the chunk, the quicker you can achieve a perfect result. Just make sure you have the same tempo for each hand in the practice, even if one hand is easier, so that it can be correct when you put it together. Then move on to the next chunk. When that is sorted, play the 2 chunks together to establish what you practiced earlier.

  1. Decide on the fingering.

You need to play the practice selection with the same fingers every time you play it.

  1. Count aloud using the smallest note value in the selection.

If the smallest note value in the selection is a semiquaver (16th note),  you should be counting “1 e and a” for the whole bar as in the example below. If quavers (eighths notes), you would only need to count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” or if the smallest note value is a crotchet (quarter note), you just need to count 1 2 3 4 in each bar.

  1. Practice it a set number of times.

I would start with at least 3x correct. Once you have done 3 correct playings, move on to 3x correct in a row. You can always do more if you need to, but 3x is a good starting point. It is helpful to have a focus of a particular number to aim for. If it takes too long to get 3x correct in a row, you are probably going too fast overall. Slow the beat down and try again.

  

This stuff really works! There was a happy ending to the story I started with. As I listened to a full rendition of the piece this week, the troublesome bar my pupil struggled with had been totally sorted. Diligent practice had produced a delightful performance, along with the sense of satisfaction that comes with hard work. For me, that was a true measure of success.

This principle of dealing with the difficult passages in our music first could equip us with more than making a beautiful sound: maybe it could apply to accomplishing other skills in life too.

Hmm, time I tidied my office!

 

 

 

 

 

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Ever have that experience when someone mumbles and you have to say: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.” Usually, it is because they didn’t articulate the words clearly.

Music, too, can sound a bit like a mumble when we just play the notes and the basic rhythm and not much more. The music sounds clearer and is generally expressed better when played with appropriate articulation. There are all sorts of ways to articulate a note and these ways vary for each instrument.

In my Headstart Piano course*, which I’ve been using with my pupils for a number of years now, one of the early lessons on articulation shows the difference between playing staccato and legato. We learn ‘Raindrops’  to get the short staccato action played correctly, and then ‘Windshield Wipers’  to learn to play legato where the notes follow each other smoothly and connected. The tutor part that goes with it has a short, detached, staccato ‘raindrop’ part that the ‘wipers’ are smoothly wiping away in contrast. The imagery seems to be helpful in underlining the musical articulation.

image copyright © Headstart Piano 2019

(*Let me know if you want to be told when the online version of this course is ready.)

I was at an orchestra practice this week and was reminded how much care we have learned to put in over the years in making the beginning of a note sound clear and beautiful. For a string player playing legato, it is about eliminating any gritch sound at the very beginning of a note. Then there are various kinds of staccato, needing just the right amount of pressure on the bow to create each one.

In addition, there is a different kind of staccato that a string player can use to articulate notes. It is called pizzicato. Listen to the effect of the whole string section of the orchestra laying aside their bows to play pizzicato through the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony – Scherzo. Pizzicato. There is a delightful interaction with the wind sections who join in at times.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, 3rd mvmt

Accents played in the right place sound amazing when the whole orchestra observes them too. I’m reminded how the right accent on beat 1 can affect the overall flow of a piece of music. I had a pupil bring a new piece back to the lesson recently and play it perfectly. All the note values were correct, but it lacked an appropriate strength to the first beat. The music just drifted in and the rhythm lacked the ‘oomph’ it needed. This was all due to the lack of that slight accent on the first beat of the bar. Once that was fixed, the collection of notes was transformed into a piece of music.

Singers bring their own kind of articulation to music. In a choir we are taught to make sure our T’s and Ks are heard at the end of words. Choir directors delight in dreaming up warm-ups that will get tongues working in ways they never have before, just so the words in the songs are articulated correctly when the group sings together. Last week I chuckled at a choir of primary children going down the scale to “Red leather, yellow leather” briskly sung on each note. I was glad I was just the pianist!

As a musician, there is something very satisfying when you know the notes are played with the right kind of articulation for the piece.

As a teacher, I can tell that a pupil is moving from beginner status to advancing musician, when the notes being played are not only accurate, but also articulate.