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

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

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

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

The logic goes like something like this:

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

  But the actual result is:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little piano piece

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

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

The week before: Preparation before the performance

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

The day of: Preparation before the performance

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

In the moment

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

After show negatives

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

Afterglow positives

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

 

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

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

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.