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!

 

 

 

 

 

<img src=”/cliparts/0/2/5/a/15162237641146034067messy-office-desk-clipart.med.png”

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.

How is your sight reading?

No matter the instrument, many of my pupils would love me to play through their new piece before they learn it so that they know how it goes, using their ears to pick it up. But if I were to do that, I would rob them of developing the skill of sight reading. More on how I help them later.

Sight reading is the ability to play a piece of music previously unseen or heard through skills gained in note and rhythm reading. Sight reading is tested in exams. For some, this is their favourite part of the exam; for others, the most terrifying.

The ability to read a piece of music and perform it with only a minimal look at it first is a highly useful skill for any musician.  Today I’m going to give some practical tips for those who find sight reading terrifying, but would like to improve in this area. Some of these are only applicable to keyboard players. Others are generally relevant. Let me know in the comments below what was the most useful to you.

  

Challenges and Tips

 

  1. Note reading is poor. If there is not a clear understanding of the difference between treble and bass notes, it will be difficult to learn any new piece. This principally applies to keyboard pupils, so those on instruments reading only one line of music will find it easier.

 Tip: Use note flash cards for beginner learners and frequent practice of individual note recognition at their learning level. Keep working at note reading until there is no confusion between the staves and the note recognition is instant. If you have trouble with a note on its own, it will be much harder in the flow of reading a lot of notes in a short space of time.

 

  1. Dependence on finger numbers and hand positions. This is a problem for keyboard beginners who get into an early habit of thinking a particular finger always goes with a certain note.

 Tip: Watch out for the learner who is looking for the finger position before identifying the note name. For beginners, it is especially important to have separate exercises to learn note reading independent of finger numbers or a particular hand position.

 

  1. Counting skills not developed. If you cannot count as you read the music, it will be harder to work out the rhythms in the flow of the music.

Tip: Counting aloud helps you hear if you are keeping a steady beat at a speed at which you can play accurately. Learn to count the whole piece for the value of the smallest note value. For example, a piece only in crotchets (quarter notes) is counted with 1 beat per crotchet. If the piece also has quavers (eighth notes), then the whole piece should be counted as for quavers (with ‘ands’ inserted as part of the count) not just where the quavers occur. This helps to decode the music to keep up with each beat of the bar and also helps the learner to look ahead to see what is coming in order to put the note into the beat—not the other way around.

 

  1. Playing is not regular and often. I noticed when I came back to playing for a choir after the lockdown that I was a bit sloppier than usual when given our first piece to play on the day. It wasn’t hard. I simply had not been playing as much as usual and it showed. If you are only playing at your instrument about once a week (like when you have that quick practice before a lesson!), you simply don’t maintain that instant recognition of notes and rhythms as well.

Tip: The way to deal with this is to play a little and often, establishing where the same notes are in different pieces. Do this work on more than one piece a week, so you learn the notes and rhythm patterns in different contexts. As an advanced musician, my mother was an amazing sight reader. She told me one of the reasons was she became good at it early on was by reading a lot of hymns where 4 notes often change together with each beat. Along with that, she also played music in a range of contexts as a music teacher. You don’t have to be a music teacher, but the habits bring results.

 

  1. Limited knowledge and fluency with scales. A thorough grounding in scales is going to help you with fluency, along with key recognition. You are more likely to identify the appropriate sharps and flats needed. Playing the wrong sharps and flats are common mistake areas when sight reading a new piece, and it is easy to lose a sense of the piece’s tonality.

 Tip: Have a regular way to practice scales and be particularly aware of the scale that goes with the key of a piece you are learning.

 

  1. Only working on one piece a week. This applies mostly to beginners. I have noticed that pupils who only practice one piece a week may learn it quite well, but may also memorise it and play it without reading. They are practicing fluency, which is good, but their ability to read in various contexts may stagnate.

 Tip: It is most helpful to develop good reading skills at this early stage if there are 3-4 pieces being practiced each week, so notes are recognised in different contexts.

 

  1. Not revising older, easier music. This is similar to the previous point but adds to it.

 Tip: Revision of older, easier music is so beneficial to the reading process. It gives a sense of achievement, showing how far learners have come, but it also builds reading confidence as they enjoy playing the easier pieces. In addition, pieces they may have learned by memory need to be read when they later ‘forget’ how to play them. So then, that is more reading practice too.

 

  1. Undeveloped ability to read ahead. This is a key aspect of sight reading. Your eyes need to be on the bar ahead, while you are playing the bar before.

Tip: This skill usually happens over time. A careful teacher will monitor it and make sure it is happening. The more you can read notes and rhythms well, the more you can look ahead. Lots of practice playing accurately at the level you are comfortable at, with the difficulty level slowly increasing, is the most ideal.

 

  1. Inability to move on without going back to fix mistakes. This challenge crops up for those who are frustrated if the performance isn’t perfect.

Tip: This simply has to be practiced by taking the piece at a speed at which the learner can keep the steady beat and look ahead. To move on without going back to fix mistakes is so important to good sight reading and some notes may have to be missed to keep with the steady beat. In an piano exam situation I have advised pupils to revert to using just one hand if the music gets too difficult. They will at least get marks for keeping the beat and flow of the music going.

 

These are just a few pointers for a big subject that can’t be covered in one blog. A good sight reader keeps all of these areas in a delicate balance, and if one area doesn’t develop very well, the overall ability to sight read is affected.

Back to what I mentioned at the beginning. When pupils play through their new music with counting and note skills (and separate hands playing as appropriate), it not only helps them develop their own reading skill, it helps me, their teacher, monitor the progress of their reading skill. Sometimes, after working through the selection, they may still not have a sense of how it will sound once practiced, so I may play it through for them so they know what they are aiming for. At that point it is a delight for me to show them what they have already started to achieve, having just put the hard work into reading it for themselves.

I had a chat with a parent this week about how her child had started so well with piano lessons and then recently the enthusiasm had waned. She didn’t know why and I’d noticed it too. During the lockdown Zoom lessons I noticed that their keyboard’s touch-sensitive function was not operating, and it was a fairly new keyboard. Somehow the setting had changed to non-touch-sensitive. Consequently, that piano feel was lost. Once we got that fixed and I had a good look at the music we were covering, the pupil got back on track and was clearly much happier.

Also during the Zoom sessions, I discovered that some pupils were practicing on pianos that needed serious tuning. One piano had middle C sounding a complete semitone lower! For a beginner (or indeed any player), this is significant stuff. It means that when they play at their lesson, wherever I teach them, the piano will feel strange. They won’t play for me as confidently and that will affect their overall experience because the instrument feels so different.

Reflecting on times when I’ve lost confidence in my music playing, it is usually through thinking that someone else could do a better job than I’m doing. I might make more mistakes, have less musical skill, play with poor musical expression and the ‘imposter syndrome’ creeps in. But even just reading that back reminds me how ridiculously easy it is for any of us to allow the loss of confidence to undermine our enjoyment of our own musical experience. It is time for us to appreciate the simple joy of making music whatever stage we are at and appreciate the value of learning at that level. Our sense of fulfillment can come from seeing our personal progress.

 

How much do you think social media affects a loss of confidence? I’ve had conversations about how we only seem to post on social media all the good things that are happening, like when someone travels overseas—remember that thing that people did before lockdown—and then posts selfies in exotic places. Others are reticent to post what seems mundane by comparison. A current equivalent might be when someone has found an amazing backdrop picture to put in their Zoom link, while some of us have no idea how to do that and have to resort to the blank wall look and face to match. There I go, comparing again.

The potential for a loss of confidence in learning a musical instrument is something that must be addressed. It can lead to the learner giving up and realising in later life that they gave up too early. When you see it happening, here are some things you can do.

 

  1. Check that the learner has a good instrument, and that it is set up right. If you need advice from your tutor, seek it. Check this link if you want to upgrade your keyboard. I have 3 keyboards that I reviewed on my resources page. It will show the sorts of things I look for in a keyboard. Just scroll down from the top to Physical Piano Teaching Resources to see the reviews. 
  2. Have them play music that they enjoy at the beginning of their practice. Once they are in the swing of things, go to the areas that need a bit of work, or to new music to cover.
  3. Be involved in whatever way you can. Even if you are busy, your child needs your verbal encouragement and affirmation. I can give it at the lesson, but what you add to that at home is massive.
  4. Avoid comparisons. Help them see how far they personally have come since they began lessons. This is why it is good to maintain earlier pieces that are easy to play. When they are discouraged you can fall back on those pieces to help them see what they have achieved.
  5. Keep practice times short and manageable. These may be different for each child.
  6. Have another look at your reward systems. I have quite a lot of information on this in my course on How to Teach Your Child the Piano Like a Pro . But for those of you who are not teaching your own, you may like to redo the star chart on the fridge and lower your expectations on what is required to earn a star on a regular basis. If you would like a copy of this star chart, let me know.
  1. Get comfy on some bean bags in the lounge and have a music listening date to some music on the instrument they are learning, to simply enjoy the sound of the instrument. Don’t focus on what they can’t do, but focus on the beauty created at the instrument. Remind them that all musicians had to start with basic things first and build up, one step at a time from there.

 

A loss of confidence in our learning does not need to last. It can be turned around with a kind word at the right time, a fresh goal, a change in perspective. Whatever it might be, I hope there is something here that can help in some way and be an encouragement to you.

One of the big reasons people sign up for weekly music lessons is to have regular accountability with someone who is going to keep their learning on track.  But if you were to miss the lesson once in a while, would it really matter?

 

Being on lockdown for the last 40 days (due to the Covid 19 restrictions here in NZ) has given me a little clarity on this and I’ve been seeing the weekly lesson in a new perspective. It has been wonderful being able to carry through with the lessons as expected, even if only via Zoom. We did have a school holiday break in the middle and therefore a break from music lessons too, but that was useful for many adjusting to family life under lockdown. Once the holiday was over, the resumption of music lessons, along with the regularity of practice, gave pupils some normality to their unusual weeks.

 

(One of Emily’s lockdown Zoom lessons)

 

Some bored lockdown pupils were very grateful to have some music to focus on, so they did more practice than usual. It was a chance for them to shine, which I would not have seen if it wasn’t for the weekly catch up.  It gave me an opportunity to praise the progress, especially important for those who had been making slow progress for a while.

For others, even the short holiday break was too long, such that mistakes could become ingrained due to practice without accountability. Regular lessons are helpful to make sure things are being learned as they should.  It can be very discouraging for a young person to have to re-learn something they thought was correct.

It is also discouraging to have a long break at the point at which they are making good progress. This is particularly true of those in the early stages of learning where getting habits established is key to ongoing learning. Getting motivated to revise things already learned but forgotten can be a challenge. If the music skills are established over a shorter period of time, the pupil sees quicker progress and enthusiastically moves on to new material. The sense of achievement simply feeds the whole process and the resulting enjoyment makes the music all the sweeter.

I can speak from experience as to what it is like to have irregular lessons, even if I did have other advantages that balanced that issue in my music learning. My mother was my music teacher, and lessons were sporadic with a lot of the instruction coming from the kitchen while she was doing two things (or more!) at once. Maybe that’s another reason I see the weekly lesson as a hugely valuable way to make progress. Children work well with routines.

I address the challenges we face as parents when teaching our own in my FREE mini course called What does it Take to Teach Your Own Child the Piano. Click on the link to take you to the course if you are interested. https://accentmusicschool.teachable.com/p/what-does-it-take-to-teach-your-child-the-piano

One of the positives coming out of the lockdown is that Zoom lessons may be seen as not only possible but quite normal as a way of teaching a musical instrument. I had offered Zoom lessons at one of my schools for lessons missed, due to the huge number of school activities that often interfered with the regular lesson during school time, but was not often taken up on it. Now I think there may be a bigger uptake of that solution to timetable clashes. I have often seen those pupils suffer in their progress due to these missed lessons and I have been pretty sure that parents have not been aware of how much momentum can be lost when we are catching up on two weeks of practice instead of just the one, especially if it starts to become a habit.

 

To sum up:

Your child’s weekly music lesson is important. Let’s make the most of what we have learned through having to do Zoom lessons. Although the in-person lessons are still preferable, we can use Zoom again if we need to when we get back to whatever normal is. Whichever method, we need to value that regular lesson and maybe we will have a new appreciation of it.