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.

The idea of learning a musical instrument through lessons on the internet is relatively new. Back in the day, if you wanted piano lessons for your child, you rocked up to the piano teacher who was usually known in your community and signed up for weekly lessons. Although this is probably still the most usual way to learn successfully, there is another option that today’s parent might look into: internet lessons via YouTube or online courses, i.e. a self-taught way of going about things.

I teach music in person and also some one on one lessons with pupils in another country via the internet. Along with this I will soon be offering an online course through video lessons and provided pdf files for parents who want to learn the piano themselves with a view teaching their own children. I thought it might be helpful to have a brief look at some of the the pros and cons of both styles of teaching, so you can assess what we can gain from both.

Teacher in Person

Pros

  • One on one lessons with a real tutor on a weekly basis is the best way to progress, because a good teacher gets to know what you are capable of, how they can steer your learning very specifically and because of their skills they know what you need to know. They can address the areas you have difficulty with on the spot.
  • Qualified teachers have at their fingertips a range of resources that will suit your particular learning needs, so the learning is specific to you.
  • You get weekly feedback on how you are learning that keeps you encouraged, but also accountable, knowing you need to practice to have something to show for it at the weekly lesson.
  • The relatively higher cost of tuition makes you put the time in to get your money’s worth.

Cons

  • If there is a disconnect with the tutor for whatever reason, you may not get what you were hoping for.
  • You usually have to fit in with the tutor’s timetable, so there may not be the flexibility you need.
  • The on-going cost of weekly lessons can be expensive.

 

Online video lessons

Pros

  • You can look for something that suits what you are looking for. For example, you may be advanced in playing by ear, but need some help with reading music. So you may focus on looking for something to help with that particular skill.
  • Pre-recorded online lessons are much cheaper than one on one lessons.
  • You can stop and start at any time to suit your schedule.

Cons

  • You don’t always know what you need to know. Someone can sell you an idea that sounds good, but there may be things left out that would be good for you with your particular background to know. As a basic example, you may want to learn how to play a piece of music that uses a melody beyond a basic 5 finger position. But if you don’t want to learn scales (because you think they sound boring), you may not learn how to move effectively around melodies beyond that 5 finger position.
  • You get what you pay for. Even with excellent tuition in an online course, there could be specific things that are not being addressed, because they have only surfaced with this particular learner and the teacher is not present to actively point these things out that could become a roadblock to his or her learning. A good example of this could be when someone keeps looking at their hands when they are learning to read music. A teacher is going to pick up on this if it is happening beyond what is acceptable for best practice in their pupil at the stage they are at. A self-taught student is not necessarily going to see it as a problem because it seems to be working okay in the moment.

 

My brief summary is that a one on one teacher will always be the best option, but that there are ways to supplement what you want to learn with online courses. If you are going to look at some online options, maybe you might like to get someone who teaches music to give you an idea of whether what you are looking at is going to be worth your time and/or money.

With a very full teaching schedule I find it very hard to turn prospective pupils away and so providing an online course might be one way to tutor those I can’t physically help. But there needs to be a way for these folks to have questions answered as they go through the course. For an online piano course, I think this is important to make sure the self-learning student is going through the processes correctly.

I would be very cautious about doing a course that has no way of assessing that the right progress is being made. A checklist of what is covered can help the student to a large extent, but there needs to be some sort of access to professional help when needed. I’m certainly giving this serious thought as I come to make my course(s) available. It’s a sort of quality control.

What do you think? If you would like to add some other thoughts I’ve not covered and give us your perspective, I’d be delighted. Do leave a comment below so we can all benefit.

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.