I was chatting with a busy mum this week who works two jobs from 7:30am to 6pm. We asked each other what we were doing for the holidays. She said she just wanted to be at home with her family and enjoy her children.  So many folks are exhausted at this time of year and just need to chill and have a rest! (Actual chilling is a bit tricky in our part of the world as we hit Summer, and in our little township fire restrictions are now in place. But for some of you reading this it probably is a bit more chilly as you look forward to a winter Christmas.)

Whatever the hemisphere, ‘chilling’ involves rest.  How are you going to rest this season? Maybe you will spend some quality time with your family, catch up with old friends, or find some time and space to sit with a good book.

As the Christmas season gets under way I’ve been listening to a playlist of Christmas songs that I particularly like. Included there are delightful arrangements by Pentatonix, a very talented acapella group you have probably heard on the radio or over music speakers at the mall. Their harmonies and skillfully constructed layering are well worth a closer listening to though, and with YouTube clips like the following you can also see how the singers bring their parts in too.

[Official Video] Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Pentatonix

 

[Official Video] Mary, Did You Know? – Pentatonix

 

 

There is so much delightful Christmas music out there which I enjoy as I look forward to a change in pace.  I’ve also had fun arranging some very simple versions of carols at the request of some of my piano pupils. Mostly they are just the melody, or together with a simple second part.

I thought I’d like share with you God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen—one of the arrangements I did this week. It is at about a grade 1 level. I like to use chromatic harmonies. You can see this in 2 places in this arrangement, with the left hand descending passage in the first 2 lines and then just a touch in bar 14 in the left hand again.

If you consider yourself a beginner pianist, here are a few tips to help you.

  • The key is D minor, so remember to play all B’s as B flats.
  • Notice the fingering and keep it the same every time you play it. If you make sure your right hand 3rd finger is always on the F’s, the fingering for the whole melody works quite nicely. This is because the melody is completely built on the natural D minor scale.
  • Go slowly—this song can sound beautiful at any speed.
  • Practice the hands separately 1 line at a time before putting the hands together.
  • If you find playing hands together too hard, just work out the melody in the treble only.

If you just want to listen to it and sing along with the music score, you can do that too because I’m including a printed copy and an audio version of the arrangement for you.

I’d love to know how you get on—just  a quick sentence in the comments below. Thanks.

 

However you spend your build up to Christmas, I do hope you can take some time to rest a while  enjoying some merry music.

May God bless your family at Christmas and in the coming New Year.

 

Bellbirds are among the treasures of the New Zealand bush. Perhaps not the most spectacular of birds in appearance—they are small, green and quite hard to spot in the forest—but, wow, can they sing! I always feel I’m on holiday when I hear bellbirds, and (I just can’t help myself) I often find I’m working out their melodies and imagining a piece of music I’ll co-write with them.

Last weekend we went away for a much needed break from screens and routines. We took our campervan a few hours drive from our home to a restful area called Peel Forest. We knew of the lovely bush walks there, several of which we hadn’t done before. Bellbirds are heard throughout the bush there, with their melodies varying from one area to another. As soon as we entered the bush on one particular walk one of the locals sang its melodious song. I managed to record it on my phone:

It was echoed by other bellbirds around the walk: some sang the complete tune, some seemed to have only learned 1 or 2 notes of the main theme, and others had added a simple coda to it. Every now and then they would sing one after another in an antiphonal style. This reminded us of the time on a walk much nearer home, when we stopped awestruck at the symphonic beauty of a chorus of bellbirds singing the same melody in unison and other bellbirds across the bushes answering them.

Robin thought the song sung on last weekend’s bush walk was reminiscent of the melody a couple of my pupils learned on violin and cello respectively this year – Minuet 2 by Bach.

 

In our western music we don’t include birdsong as part of our diatonic scale system, but I remember learning in my ethnomusicology studies about some cultures that absolutely include birdsong as part of their music system.

Nevertheless, many classical composers over the years have been inspired by birdsong. Respigi’s “The Birds” comes to mind as just one example.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YJ55DWCc-s

And every child’s music book seems to have a ‘Cuckoo Song’ in it somewhere.

 

It’s not surprising that bird songs are popular. Birds are natural singers and they do it so well as part of fulfilling their role in the grand scheme of things. The dawn chorus is an especially inspiring soundscape at the start of the day. For me, it is as though the birds begin their day encouraging any listeners to thank the Creator for the new day like they do: with a heart bursting with song.

We all have a song, as it were, in life. Sometimes we know what it is, but some of us are still trying to work out the notes. Whatever stage your song is at, don’t stop singing it. Someone near you needs to be encouraged by your tune.

 

Isaac, one of our sons, said to me as a young lad, “I could never play the piano as good as you, Mum.”  I remember my response too: that not only could he be as good as me, but he could become even better. At that age he didn’t know what was possible. But the seed of possibility was planted.

I recently attended a seminar on building cultural awareness. We were hosting the folks taking the seminar in our home and I wanted to support what they were doing. One of the comments that came up in our discussions at home was: “People don’t know what they don’t know.” I confess that I thought I was pretty good at cultural awareness having lived and worked a good number of years in Asia, but figured there was always more to learn or contribute, so I went along. I learned some things I had not thought about—some helpful things to see my own culture better. I realised that I had been unaware of what I didn’t know and, from that, initially made the assumed conclusion I didn’t need to learn more.

I’ve seen this outworked in teaching music too. I’ve put together a course for parents who need help teaching their own children (which has not launched yet, but hopefully not far away). In that course I have quite a bit of information that is vital to success when teaching one’s own children. You don’t know likely pitfalls until you have been through the process of actually teaching your own. Learning from someone else’s pitfalls can save a lot of time and heartache. Of course there is also value in learning from your own mistakes.

From a teacher’s perspective, I have seen so often how incredibly well a pupil does when they follow my suggestions on how to practice something, and how very poorly they do when they don’t.

The logic goes like something like this:

  • She told me what to do.
  • I understood what was supposed to happen in the music…
  • therefore I know how the music goes…
  • therefore I won’t need to practice it.

  But the actual result is:

  • I can’t play it in the lesson a week later.

I explained to a pupil this week that it is a bit like showing your maths workings for the teacher’s reassurance. We teachers want to know that you know how you got there. For me, that you can count out the beats, so you can work out where the note values go—not that you got the hang of it by playing it by ear, yet have no clue how to decode what you are doing.

There is a place for using your ears and some folks who play by ear struggle to have the patience to persist in learning how to read music.  They don’t see the point in it. But I have come across a good number of folks like this who wish they did know how to read music. They have come to realise it actually is a valuable skill, even for someone who has reached a significant ability in playing their instrument without it.

There is so much to gain in learning to read music at the piano. Playing with independent hands takes time and your brain works hard. Having the stamina to work through the basics progressively to become skilled is an uncertain journey at first and seemingly impossible for the beginning player. They don’t yet know what I know: that if they persist and keep up the consistent, accurate, slow, careful, repetitious practice, they will look back one day and realise they have attained so much more than they imagined at the beginning.

That’s what happened to Isaac. He ended up studying classical piano through to obtaining a degree in jazz piano. He now has many skills at the piano that I don’t have. Only by looking back now can he testify that the seemingly impossible became a reality.

 

One of the big issues a music performer has to face is comparison, often from our own thoughts. I admit it. I’ve been guilty of these sorts of statements:

  • I could never be as good at this as he is.
  • You are much better than me at this sort of thing.
  • I’m not up there with the experts.
  • My sister always played better than I did.

Reflect with me for a moment about some of the things that happen when we make such comparisons.

  • Comparisons can have a damaging effect, particularly between siblings, when one seems to move through the skill areas quicker than the other, often simply because they have different learning styles.

I have found that siblings do well if they follow a different course on the same instrument, or learn a different instrument.

  • When we compare we often allow self doubt to creep in. It is fine to honour another person, but it would be better if we do it in a way that doesn’t put ourselves down. The other person doesn’t want us to do that anyway!

How about we genuinely honor those who have a talent we don’t have. Be glad for them without envy. But then to help ourselves with that, be grateful for the skills we do have.

  • If comparing is going to help you strive to do well, without having to put someone else down in the process, then it is a good thing. If you find this sort of competitive approach helpful to your learning, you should embrace it and use it to propel your own learning. For example, on hearing as a young child that Mozart was my age when he wrote a certain piece, I figured that I could explore the possibility, why not? Now…look what I just deleted. …”I may not have written something as good as Mozart…”  See what we do so easily! But let me finish it.  ….”but it did motivate me to write something.” These days, creating music is still one of my favourite things to do. For someone else hearing that Mozart wrote a well known classical piece when he was 6 would be enough to give up on the piano and go and do something else. Why do we do this?
  • Do you find that you sometimes lose momentum in your own learning if you have been thinking how much better someone else is progressing than you?

I read this week in the world’s best selling book a thought that got me started on this blog. It says:

“Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. ” Galatians 6:4,5

Nice. If I’m improving from what I did before, that’s what matters and I can be free from the burden of comparing myself to others.

This afternoon after teaching some lovely pupils in another country via a Zoom lesson I wrote a short little piano piece in D major, just because. Anyway, I’ve decided to share the audio with you. It doesn’t have a title and I don’t know how I will use it yet, but I feel safe sharing it with you to enjoy because you are not going to compare it with Mozart or anyone else anyway… Are you?!

A little piano piece

Last week we celebrated the wedding of our firstborn son. I can’t begin to tell you how special the whole day was. We now have another very lovely daughter-in-law and sister for Esther. The couple had asked if I would play piano for the songs and accompany our other daughter-in-law as she sang. “No problem,” I said. Just before the service I had some last minute nerves because it was a highly emotional and special occasion for me as mother of the groom. I didn’t want to miss special parts of the ceremony by being stationed at the piano.  But our wonderful celebrant affirmed that I needed to be in both places and not to worry about moving as necessary. From then on the nerves fell away and I thoroughly enjoyed my part in the whole occasion.

Performance nerves can strike when we least expect them, so I thought I’d share some helps for nerves before, during and after performances.

The week before: Preparation before the performance

  • Deal with repeated mistakes. In the week prior to the performance make sure you have tidied up any mistakes, even the little ones you think won’t trip you up. These are usually the very mistakes nerves like to use!
  • Know your stuff well. The better you know your music, the higher will be the confidence needed to keep playing should nerves crop up.
  • Do many complete performances. Once the piece is learned all the way through you need to practice playing from start to finish without stops or restarts. For younger children this practice should start from the moment they present to the audience until they sit down at the end again in the audience. Practice complete run-throughs of the performance at different times of the day until there is no sign of restarting at all.
  • Get to know your performance place. For my exam pupils I always like to have a little concert for them in the exam room about a week before the exam. This is huge in knowing the room the exam/performance will take place, in trying out the actual piano you will use, and for some play for your very first audience (a friendly supportive group of parents who will do all the nail biting for you if you let them!) As a preparation for playing at the wedding, there was a rehearsal at the venue where I was able to meet the sound technician, other performers and get a feel of the piano.

The day of: Preparation before the performance

  • Eat calming foods and avoid unhelpful ones. Green tea, chamomile tea, yoghurt, dark chocolate (yay!) almonds. Don’t eat too much sugar in food or drinks. Save that for the treat after the performance. Too much caffeine probably won’t help unless you are actually sleepy from little sleep (which was the case for this excited mother of the groom.)
  • Deep breathing. Take a deep breath to a slow count of 4 and then hold it for a count of 4. Breathe out to a count of 4 and then repeat when the breath is completely released. Each count is about a second apart.

In the moment

  • Realise you can do better than you think – the adrenaline will actually help you
  • The listeners are on your side. They want you to do well.
  • This is what you prepared so hard for – you are not going to let some silly nerves take your moment.
  • Don’t identify your mistakes with a grimace or vocal exclamation. Some audiences don’t have a clue what a mistake is, so don’t tell them and they will be much easier to impress.
  • But if they do know when you make a mistake, they will be all the more impressed if you handle it well and move on.
  • Focus on your task at hand and completely shut out extra noises (babies, shuffling, whispering, etc.)
  • Enjoy the moment – all the preparation is done, you may as well enjoy the performance.

After show negatives

  • Learn from your mistakes and plan to do it better next time.
  • Realise that every performance will help the process get easier.
  • If you totally bomb out, you have done your worst, so there is nothing more to be afraid of now. Every performer has a story of the time things didn’t go according to plan. Now you have your story. One day you will laugh about it. Use it as a stepping stone to dealing with fears of failure.
  • Humility is a good quality to have. It honestly won’t do you any harm to learn some.

Afterglow positives

  • You now have something you are happy to play at other occasions.
  • You just made your parents/friends proud and show something for the financial investment of having lessons.
  • A positive performance can motivate and encourage you to move on to the next step in learning new material.
  • You can get quite the buzz when you get it right.
  • You have given yourself the opportunity to build resilience and your next performance will be that little bit easier.

 

The afterglow of last week’s occasion will last me a long time, mostly because of an exceptional pair of newlyweds and my wonderful family, close and extended.  But I’m also delighted that I can hold in my heart a memory of participating in the music without being hampered by nerves.

Do you have a way of dealing with nerves I haven’t mentioned here? Do leave a comment so we can all benefit.