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.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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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.