I felt I needed some help to get rid of the extra pounds acquired at Christmas. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion I found a new app for counting steps. The app has specific goals and a variety of targets I can aim to meet. After only a few weeks I’ve made significant progress and I am now hooked to reach particular goals. The great by-product is that I’m enjoying the feeling of being fitter (and a bit less fatter) than I have for a long time.

As we settle into the new school year (for those of us who live down under) it is that time of trying new goals or learning something new. As with other ventures, when it comes to learning a musical instrument, progress and achievement come through having goals and plans in place. 

 

Here are a few music parallels from my fitness app:

The app records every small step.

Take a small part of a piece of music you are learning—preferably a difficult patch. Go slowly, and count how many times you are getting it right. When you have three correct and confident renditions, play something you enjoy as a reward and then move on to something else you would like to improve.

There are a range of rewards for different combinations.

If I reach my goal number of steps for three days in a row, I am rewarded with a certificate. If I reach a certain number of kilometres, that’s another certificate. The virtual confetti on my phone may be no big deal, but even that gives me some sort of incentive!

When it comes to music lessons and practice, children make good progress with a range of rewards too. Decide ahead of time for a reward if they:

  • play their new piece before the lesson 3 x correctly in one sitting.
  • do their practice 3 days in a row without being asked to.
  • reach a particular place in their music book.

One suggestion you might like to try is giving a coupon which is good for a special treat. Just fill it out with whatever is suitable for your situation.

Regular and often is better than a really long walk once a week.

When children start out learning, I don’t suggest they do an hour a day from the outset! But it is helpful to record tasks done, such as playing three pages of music three ways each day, plus a game or activity to help with note reading (or whatever they need help with). Then, at the end of that, to record the overall time it takes. You can see the achievement of music played through and how long it took.

Once the fitness habit is formed, enjoyment of progress leads to a desire to keep improving.

Setting up the habit is so helpful for music learning too. There is such a noticeable difference  in the enjoyment level for a child who has learned the weekly tasks. They just bounce into the lesson to show what they have achieved. The more they progress, the more they want to make even more progress.

 

Playing a musical instrument has the lovely by-product of enjoying the sound of making music. But we all appreciate incentives of some sort to keep us on track. I hope these few musings from using my fitness app gave some useful ideas for the music learning at your place.

Musicians in some parts of the world are looking for new ways to play to their audiences.  They are discovering just how important an audience of some sort is to a musician.

Here in New Zealand we are grateful to be able to play to live audiences. Towards the end of last year the orchestra I play in held two concerts. One was to a paid audience at a stunning new venue in our city, built after the earthquakes of 10 years ago. The second was a free community concert to  folks from a range of rest homes. Two quite different audiences. It got me thinking about the role of an audience when it comes to a performance. It is not hard to be a good audience, you just have to show your appreciation in some way. Both our audiences certainly did just that.

 

A wonderful audience can bring out the best in performers

Even as I reflect on these two concerts, I’m not just talking about a musical audience. Hearers in other contexts are also essential. You are also giving me an audience by hearing me out in this blog.

I noticed in our orchestral audience that our conductor, Philip Norman, would respond warmly in his chats to the crowd before we played a given piece, especially as they participated in what he was asking or talking about. As performers it gave us a sense of connection with the audience and I think it helped us want to do our best work for them.

I’m the same when I write this blog. I want to say how grateful I am for every one of you who have interacted with me in some shape or form over the last few years in response. If I have inspired even one person in their musical pursuits each time I write, then I’m happy.

 

An audience of one can be very powerful

As a parent of a child learning an instrument, do you realise how incredibly valuable it is that you actively, intentionally listen (turn off your phone) and engage with what your child learned at their lesson that day? Honestly, I can tell when children don’t have an audience of even one person. The pupil is doing the task of playing music but there is not the same joy of making music. And when you do listen, please… don’t immediately comment on the mistakes that are made. It is so helpful to comment on something positive after the first playing, no matter what. Then, you will be better received in pointing out how they can make it even better than the first time.

 

A good non-musical audience helps a performer perform well as they practice

An example of this was back when I was studying music at university. My four non-musical flat mates had to put up with all I was working on at both the piano and the double bass. The double bass was assigned a special venue—outside, in the laundry (especially for any practice before 8am!) The piano was in the house, so I just did what I needed to there. But my cohabitants often affirmed my playing to the extent that I wanted to be playing something nice if they had to listen. I realised that a non-musical audience can be very encouraging to a musician in that the musician gets much more positive feedback. A performer is so much more self conscious of mistakes if there are other musicians about.

 

An audience of musicians

There were a couple of orchestra members—one a fellow bass player with an injured shoulder—who couldn’t play in our concert this time. We felt sorry for them because our perception as performers is that listening is not as much fun as actually playing. But both these folks just loved being in the audience because they had been at most of the rehearsals and consequently knew the music and were able to sit back and hear the overall sound of the whole orchestra without a sole focus on their own contribution. They heard lovely aspects of the music they had not noticed before.

If you can, it is a good idea to encourage your child to perform a piece that you will record on video. This is a great way for them to see themselves as you see them. They may notice the music being out of time in places or how it just doesn’t sound right if there are mistakes. They can critique their own playing that way and will likely work on improving on their own initiative with that different perspective. As a young musician they can start to learn to see how their performances come across to an audience. If you would like them to have another audience, take a video clip with your phone of them playing a piece of music and send it through to me. I’d gladly give some free feedback to encourage them.

 

Back to the concert last year. One of the pieces we played was a favourite with my husband Robin, who edits this blog for me. After our performance he found a great YouTube recording of it which we both enjoyed watching. I think I played my part better in our second concert, simply because I had watched this video and was inspired by being an audience to the commitment and fervour of those performers. I should send a comment, to say how much I enjoyed it too! 

So I thought I’d share that with you. It is Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet, played by the Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra and conducted by a delightfully theatrical conductor, Yuri Temirkanov. I like this videoed version because there is good highlighting of various instruments as they play their parts.

Musicians in some parts of the world are looking for new ways to play to their audiences.  They are discovering just how important an audience of some sort is to a musician.

 

Here in New Zealand we are grateful to be able to play to live audiences. Towards the end of last year the orchestra I play in held two concerts. One was to a paid audience at a stunning new venue in our city, built after the earthquakes of 10 years ago. The second was a free community concert to  folks from a range of rest homes. Two quite different audiences. It got me thinking about the role of an audience when it comes to a performance. It is not hard to be a good audience, you just have to show your appreciation in some way. Both our audiences certainly did just that.

 

A wonderful audience can bring out the best in performers

Even as I reflect on these two concerts, I’m not just talking about a musical audience. Hearers in other contexts are also essential. You are also giving me an audience by hearing me out in this blog.

 

I noticed in our orchestral audience that our conductor, Philip Norman, would respond warmly in his chats to the crowd before we played a given piece, especially as they participated in what he was asking or talking about. As performers it gave us a sense of connection with the audience and I think it helped us want to do our best work for them.

 

I’m the same when I write this blog. I want to say how grateful I am for every one of you who have interacted with me in some shape or form over the last few years in response. If I have inspired even one person in their musical pursuits each time I write, then I’m happy.

 

An audience of one can be very powerful

As a parent of a child learning an instrument, do you realise how incredibly valuable it is that you actively, intentionally listen (turn off your phone) and engage with what your child learned at their lesson that day? Honestly, I can tell when children don’t have an audience of even one person. The pupil is doing the task of playing music but there is not the same joy of making music. And when you do listen, please… don’t immediately comment on the mistakes that are made. It is so helpful to comment on something positive after the first playing, no matter what. Then, you will be better received in pointing out how they can make it even better than the first time.

 

A good non-musical audience helps a performer perform well as they practice

An example of this was back when I was studying music at university. My four non-musical flat mates had to put up with all I was working on at both the piano and the double bass. The double bass was assigned a special venue—outside, in the laundry (especially for any practice before 8am!) The piano was in the house, so I just did what I needed to there. But my cohabitants often affirmed my playing to the extent that I wanted to be playing something nice if they had to listen. I realised that a non-musical audience can be very encouraging to a musician in that the musician gets much more positive feedback. A performer is so much more self conscious of mistakes if there are other musicians about.

 

An audience of musicians

There were a couple of orchestra members—one a fellow bass player with an injured shoulder—who couldn’t play in our concert this time. We felt sorry for them because our perception as performers is that listening is not as much fun as actually playing. But both these folks just loved being in the audience because they had been at most of the rehearsals and consequently knew the music and were able to sit back and hear the overall sound of the whole orchestra without a sole focus on their own contribution. They heard lovely aspects of the music they had not noticed before.

 

If you can, it is a good idea to encourage your child to perform a piece that you will record on video. This is a great way for them to see themselves as you see them. They may notice the music being out of time in places or how it just doesn’t sound right if there are mistakes. They can critique their own playing that way and will likely work on improving on their own initiative with that different perspective. As a young musician they can start to learn to see how their performances come across to an audience. If you would like them to have another audience, take a video clip with your phone of them playing a piece of music and send it through to me. I’d gladly give some free feedback to encourage them.

 

Back to the concert last year. One of the pieces we played was a favourite with my husband Robin, who edits this blog for me. After our performance he found a great YouTube recording of it which we both enjoyed watching. I think I played my part better in our second concert, simply because I had watched this video and was inspired by being an audience to the commitment and fervour of those performers. I should send a comment, to say how much I enjoyed it too! 

 

So I thought I’d share that with you. It is Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet, played by the Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra and conducted by a delightfully theatrical conductor, Yuri Temirkanov. I like this videoed version because there is good highlighting of various instruments as they play their parts.

  Enjoy!

Whether you are applauding a musical rendition, done online or in person, or responding to a blog you subscribed to, you are a vital part of the whole performance. It’s just not the same without you.

 

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.