A musical performance is a bit like a the end of a journey. It’s great to arrive, but half the fun is had along the way.

Last night the junior orchestra I conduct, along with the children’s choir I accompany, performed in the local inter-school music festival. Most of the children in the orchestra are new members this year, so, as a practice for the festival, it was really helpful that we had a first performance at school last week.

When I asked what the new members felt when performing for an audience, one little boy said it was strange seeing all the faces looking at him. Another commented that they had to really concentrate on what they had learned. Others felt nervous but excited at the same time.

Every Friday since the beginning of the school year in February the orchestra members have been practicing towards that moment last night when the curtain was pulled back. Some are so little they had to sit forward on their seats to make sure their feet wouldn’t be dangling as they played. They have learned so much in the past few months that will help them in life as well as music. Here are 7 life skills for starters:

Self-control

Often at rehearsals the children have had to sit quietly and not play their instruments while I was rehearsing another section of the orchestra. They had to wait an especially long time in the final dress rehearsal yesterday while all the other choirs and performers were having a practice on the stage. They needed self control to simply wait hours for their turn.

Team-work

Team work takes time, but they are learning that playing an instrument in the orchestra includes other jobs such as setting up and packing down. It is part of the camaraderie that is helpful for when they come to play music together. And as they learn the part of the music their instrument plays, they can see how one part fits with others to make a beautiful overall sound. They also start to notice how incomplete it all sounds when any part is missing.

Friendship

You can’t play music effectively in a group unless you interact well with the people you play with. I  have seen lovely friendships formed between those who play the same instrument, and among the orchestra as a whole as they have shared the common goal of working towards the special performance.

Listening

When you sit in an orchestra rehearsal you get to hear the individual parts in a way that you don’t when you are used to hearing the music as a whole. It’s a way our young musicians get to hear how the music hangs together. It develops their listening skills, crucial for life and music.

Work ethic

When writing or arranging music for individual parts, I always try to include music the children can comfortably play, but also including some music that might be difficult at first—something to work towards. At the beginning of the year when I give them their parts I have to assure them that they are not to try and play the parts they can’t yet play until they actually can. (The orchestra sounds better as we rehearse that way too!) It gives them something to work towards and with the natural peer pressure of playing with the group they often work more eagerly towards achieving it.

Confidence

They gain confidence to play in front of others. Often in the rehearsals I have different sections of the orchestra play their part; there are times too when I need to find out if individuals can do so. The children have become quite used to playing in front of the rest of the orchestra. They just get on with it, not realising that even those moments are building their general confidence.

Kindness

A performance can bring out the best in people. One of the lovely moments of last night was just before I started playing the piano introduction for the choir. One of the young soloists didn’t know her mic was already live. On my fold back speaker I heard her whisper to the other: “You’ve got this!” Then they nailed it.

That’s the sort of thing that makes all the time and effort worth it, and we find ourselves happily inspired as we head off to the next rehearsal.

Stop for a moment and remember the best quality time(s) you had with a parent when you were growing up. What were you doing together?

 

Asking myself the same question, here’s what first came to mind…

The most frequent quality times were in the car when I was one on one in that little “room” with a parent. I remember this more so with my father when I’d go with him for a drive in the country to visit a friend of his. We didn’t have a radio in the car in those days, so we got to talk.

With my mother it was often during times that I asked questions about faith, or when I was getting close to a music exam and needed extra help. I recall the time she patiently helped me learn how to write the letters of the Greek alphabet. I also remember the birthday when she gave me a beautifully made cane sewing basket that I know took some of her precious time to make.

Of course, this also leads me to wonder what my own children would say about their times with me in their growing years…

Life can become so busy when our children are little and they really have no idea how stretched we as parents can become. All they know is when we are there for them, with no excuses. Now I’m feeling guilty! One thing I’m really grateful for now, though, is that as young adults leading their own lives they still (mysteriously) seem to like times of hanging out with us! That’s a real delight. 

 

Recently I had a pupil come to her piano lesson and she played her new piece beautifully. There had been some recent struggles with motivation to practice, and progress had been slow. So what was the difference? Her mother had sat with her and played the treble or bass part while she practiced the other hand’s part, before putting both together by herself. Both mother and daughter were really happy with the outcome and it did something special—not just for the music progress, but for their relationship to each other.

So, seeing as you are probably busy,  I just wanted to leave you with one thing to ponder.

What is one thing (it doesn’t have to be music related just because this is a music blog) you can do now, especially if you are a parent with young children, to make sure your children want to hang out with you when they grow up?

 

I remember discovering a really good use for piano scales as a child. I treated them as a challenging game! And it helped me feel that I wasn’t just filling out the imprisoned time of an hour’s practice before I could go and play. Scales became the game of ‘3 times correct in a row’. I know, that probably doesn’t sound as riveting as the latest video game, but it worked for me.

We didn’t have a clock in the music room where the piano was, so I used to do a bit of piano practice, then go and check the clock in the next room. Strangely enough, the minutes only turned slowly during the times when I was doing my piano practice. Every time I went to see how much time I’d done, the clock had only added a few more minutes. Then I discovered this scale game. I would choose a scale and play it until I had played it correctly 3 times. Then the fun started. I would aim to play it 3 times correctly in a row! I was pretty hard on myself—even if it was just a little mistake on the third time through, I’d have to start from the beginning again. By the time I worked out that if I played it slowly and evenly I’d get it correct more quickly, I’d used a good portion of my practice time and the clock had picked up speed too. I didn’t even need to check on it that often. I’d then get into my other pieces and there was a real sense that I was achieving something. 

There were probably times I spent ‘too much’ time on scales, but surprisingly my music teacher mother never complained :). From my viewpoint as a child, the benefit of practicing scales was that they helped me keep peace with my mother by filling out my practice hour, but I also found our later that  there was the added bonus of getting a good result in the scales section of my piano exams. What I didn’t realise then was all the other ways this scale practice would propel me in my music learning.

In no particular order, here are just some of the benefits of learning scales well:

Good finger position

Correctly learned scales help your hands settle into an even weight and good shape with properly curved fingers. They also help reduce extraneous finger movement.

Fluency

With good finger position and regular practice you develop a fluency of movement at the piano that will be noticable in the way you play pieces. I can always tell when someone has a good regimen of scale practice because there is an evenness of rhythm in the way they play anything at the piano, regardless of their level of ability.

Warming up fingers

Scales at the beginning of a practice or lesson are good for getting the finger joints warmed up to whatever you may need them to be learning. Warm hands will generally work better.

Quickly identifying keys

Knowing all the major and minor scales will give you an understanding of key structures in musical theory and the form of music. You will be better prepared to understand what key changes are happening in the pieces you learn.

Transitioning beginners out of 5 finger positions

Beginner musicians usually start off with learning some kind of 5 finger position. Learning a one octave scale gets them moving beyond the idea that everything always stays in a particular position.

Help with composing

I have always had a fascination with various musical patterns and have found that  good scale and arpeggio skills helped me with all sorts of creative ideas. From an early age, arpeggios showed me the basic 3 note chord structure. Playing them in different orders can sound like a musical composition in itself. I am certain that many of my creations were founded in scale knowledge, even when half the time I didn’t realise it consciously.

Help with aural learning

Scales certainly help with aural learning too. For example, you can pick whether a melody has a melodic minor or harmonic minor pattern if you know these scales from practically playing them. Some people get to recognise pitches aurally from the knowledge of scales through the repetition of playing them through the years.

 

Scales have had a lot of bad press over the years, so I do hope I’ve helped to increase your appreciation for them in some way. Let me know what your take is on them, whether positive or negative. Maybe you could add a benefit I’ve missed, or a scale story or of your own you could share in the comments below.

 

A few years ago I wanted to check out the camera on a new computer, so I snapped a shot out my office window. Just the other day I was looking out my window as I often do, and noticed just how much everything had grown, how beautiful it all was and how autumn was adding colour to the scene before me. We don’t usually notice growth because we don’t actually watch it happening, but over a period of time we can see that there has been significant change.

I see huge parallels here with what happens with our young musicians.

If we hadn’t taken the time to plant 6 years ago, we’d still be looking at bare ground.

If you want your child to learn an instrument, you need to actually start somewhere or, before you know it, they will have passed those optimum years for learning and getting skills established.

Though I didn’t see the actual growing happening, nevertheless it was.

It’s the same with learning an instrument. There are times when it seems nothing is happening. Don’t stop “watering the plant!” Keep encouraging the budding musician and be encouraged yourself – when they started they knew nothing at all!

My husband Robin is the gardener at our place and he loves to experiment with how and where he grows things in the garden. Some things work and some don’t. It’s all good though – he learns from trying things anyway, and the more he experiments, the more he learns about how the garden functions best.          

If something is not working in your children’s music practice routine, try having them do it at a different time of the day, or change the order around within the practice set. It may be they just need a fresh look at the way to do something.

Robin has put a good deal into making sure the soil is healthy. Without good soil the produce may seem okay, but not the best it could be. I get to see the lovely flowers and taste the variety of yummy fruit and vegetables, without realising all that went into development at the soil level.

A child may just want to sound amazing at the piano with a particular piece. But he or she may need help realising some of the basics that have to go into making it right. Counting aloud to get beat and rhythm sorted, knowing all the note names, practicing scales: these are all foundations in music learning. I can usually tell if a performer has had these solid foundations. A well performed piece of music doesn’t happen without them.

I love that we have a huge variety of plants in our garden. I notice that many modern landscaped gardens in new subdivisions all look very nice, but there is a sameness about them.

We can do the same with our music. At the beginning there are particular skills that need to be in place, but even there a pupil needs to be exposed to a range of different, interesting pieces. Some the pupil will like; others they will hopefully learn to like. If they are not exposed to variety, they may think there is only one style of music to learn. Having a varied repertoire gives a wonderful stimulus for creativity too.

Things look different in each season of the year. I love living in this part of NZ where we can enjoy the four seasonal changes. In the garden there are various tasks appropriate to the season in order to nurture the plants through changes. The result is the best flowers and fruit at the right times. 

I like to give my pupils the opportunities to push themselves and work towards an exam. But after the exams I like to have a complete change of focus and do some creative playing. It breaks up the year and keeps a variety of musical interest and motivation. Look for ways to keep your child’s interest in their music throughout the seasons of the year.

Robin would be the first to tell you that he is not an expert in the garden, but likes to give it a go and see what happens. He has found the internet a great source of help when he needs specifics.

Whatever your role is at your place in music, I hope you continue to give it a go. Maybe you are  learning an instrument as an adult, learning with your child, putting stars on star charts for your child’s practice, chauffeuring them to music lessons – whatever it is, I hope you feel free to get in touch if there are things happening in your “garden” that you might need help with. It might mean you are interested in knowing more about my online course coming soon for parents who want to teach their own children the piano. Email me at accentmusicschool@gmail.com if that’s you and I can let you know more.

 

Be encouraged, there is probably more going on in your child’s music than you realise. One day you will look up (literally) and realise those little children you were nurturing have come a long way, because you will remember what it was like when they first began.

First and foremost, I want to say that the best option for your child learning the piano is with a tutor who is both experienced and qualified to teach it. An experienced teacher is well set up to know where to start, what material to use, how best to adapt it, and also provides weekly accountability to promote steady progress in a way not possible through random lessons at home.

However, you may be among those who are forced to look for other options, such as teaching their own child.

  • Maybe you live in a place where there is no tutor nearby.
  • Maybe the cost of professional lessons is prohibitive.
  • Maybe you would like to teach your own child as part of a home schooling routine.
  • Maybe you have looked at a few YouTube videos, picked up some ideas and begun to teach your child something from there.
  • Maybe you learned many years ago and would like to teach your grandchildren.

What I do know from many conversations I have had with folks near and far, is that there are some parents who would like to be able to teach their own children the piano, but are afraid of nearly killing them in the process because of the likelihood of butting heads! Some professional music teachers I know have said words to this affect when I’ve asked them about efforts to teach their own! 

My parents were qualified, experienced music teachers and our family grew up around music.  Most people used a caravan for family holidays, but ours was also used during the school term as a mobile teaching studio containing an acoustic piano. The down side of all that was that we didn’t get out of doing our piano practice when we went on holiday! I know, I should say it was the up side, but I didn’t quite see it that way when I was an eight year old and the caravan was parked at the beach.

All this to say, I learned from my mother who was a piano teacher. We got there and I’m hugely grateful for the skills I learned that have enabled me to become a music teacher too. In turn, I taught my children when we lived overseas and I didn’t have the option of sending them to someone else for lessons. I can’t say it was always easy and there were some challenges along the way. I didn’t always get it right either, but I certainly learned some useful things in the process.

In response to many conversations over the years with parents on the subject of piano lessons, I have come to realise that I have indeed learned some valuable things about teaching one’s own children that I would like to pass on to those who feel they have no option but to teach their own.

This has become more possible than ever with the advent of the internet. So over the last year I have been putting together a premium on-line course with the aim of helping such parents through all the positives and negatives that come up when you teach your own children. I’ve included in this a basic course on piano skills for folks who need to know the basic skill area that is essential to even begin. It aims to also be helpful to musicians who know their music but may not know the best way to go about teaching the first piano skills. Also included are things like essentials for success when teaching your own, how to deal with potential personality clashes, practice plans, a review of various piano courses and how to use them, just to name a few of the areas I cover.

The reason I haven’t said much about it until now is that I originally thought I’d be writing an on-line course based on my piano course – Headstart Piano, a curriculum which all my beginners are using now. But I felt I couldn’t do that until I’d given parents the skills needed on which I base my teaching.  I look forward to putting Headstart Piano out as an on line course too, now that I am happy with the first two tutor books that I am using with private pupils. It has been a delight to be able to use something that is a combination of all the things I have wanted to see in a piano tutor book.

We have just had school holidays here in NZ (for those reading this in the northern hemisphere) so I have been able to make some progress on the on-line course for parents and I’m getting excited that it really isn’t too far away now.

What I would really like to know from you, as a faithful subscriber to my blog, if you are interested in such a course or know someone who is. I know that parents of my current pupils are among those receiving this and so it is probably not so relevant for you, but maybe it is for someone you know.

For the first 20 folks who get back to me about this from today’s date I would like to include you in a special first offer as I put this out there for the first time. I’d love to be able to get feedback about what is helpful, what isn’t and if in fact there are things that are needed that I haven’t thought of. I will be interacting personally with those using the course in these early days because I want to make sure it meets a felt need, is value for money and really does serve the way I’m intending. I have no interest in doing anything less.

Just drop me a quick email to accentmusicschool@gmail.com and let me know what you think. I really look forward to hearing from you.