My title takes me back to language learning days in Asia when we used Tom and Elizabeth Brewster’s Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) method. It was a practical guide, applicable to learning any language, without getting bogged down. Learning a language can be overwhelming at times. The main idea was to learn a phrase, a question or other useful expression and then go and find a range of real people to practice it on. The repetition established the bit of language, which in turn became something to build on with further additions.

I think learning a musical instrument is overwhelming at times too.  So I thought I’d look at some easy, practical little ideas you could “use a lot” this week, applying them to something you or your child might be learning.

Bite sized chunks

Rather than playing a piece from start to finish with lots of stumbles, break it into smaller sections – maybe 1 or 2 bars (measures) and practice each section slowly until it is easy. Often it may be a line of music or even a short phrase.

Playing loud and soft (dynamics)

  • Make scales interesting by playing them gradually louder as you go higher and softer as you go lower.
  • Choose a melody from a piece you are learning and get louder as the melody goes higher and softer as it goes lower. Keep the rhythm the same.
  • Choose a favourite piece. If you struggle more to play softly, see how softly you can play it. If you naturally play gently, see how loudly you can play it. Then to bring it back to balance play it somewhere in between. Keep the speed the same whether you play loud or soft.
  • Play a broken triad (a 3 note chord) such as the C major chord C E G. Play softly for the first and lowest note, a little louder for the second and louder for the highest note. Do it until they are evenly louder than the previous note. Change to another chord or play it in a different position and do the same.

Same piece/different sounds

For those learning on electronic keyboards one of the best ways to get your child to play something more than once is to allow them to play their pieces with different musical instrument sounds. (“Fireworks” and  ”gunshots” don’t count.)

 Note reading 

Every day for a week choose a different line of music from something you are learning and read the note names backwards (i.e. from right to left).

Separate hands

Simplify difficult passages (or anything you can’t play perfectly) by playing with separate hands first. When you can play each hand correctly 3 times in a row, put them together. Hint: keep the beat the same tempo for each hand even if one hand is easier. This makes it much easier when you put them together.

Fun with tricky rhythms

Find a tricky rhythm in something you are learning. It may be only a bar or two.

  • Clap and count it out until it becomes really easy.
  • Try playing it all on one note on your instrument.
  • Tap it on something in every room in the house.
  • Give it some words to help you remember it.
  • Now come back and see if you can play it with the notes it started with.

Transposing

When you know a short piece really well in one key, transpose it to other keys you know. This is where it is helpful to know your scales in order to understand key structures.

 

None of this is exhaustive. I’m merely brushing the surface of a myriad of ways we can break down our music learning to keep us engaged and avoid becoming overwhelmed. Whatever activities work for you – and these apply for any aged learner – they need to be manageable enough to get quick wins and thus experience progress. They may end up becoming a useful set of tools you will use often. Probably one of my most valuable tools has become ”3 times perfect in a row” because I can apply it to so many different aspects of my music learning.

Let me know what was the most helpful little idea here for your situation, or if you have a little idea that you use a lot that you’d like to pass on to the rest of us.

 


I was so sad to hear of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia this week, a city we were based in from 1988-93. Having also experienced losing our own home in the Christchurch earthquake of 2010, we know in a small measure that it can take years to recover, even from a lesser quake. The recovery from this for the people of Palu, Donggala and the west coast of Sulawesi is likely to be longer and much more challenging than what it was for us here.

 

 

We have so many memories from our time there, most of them positive, but few centered around music. Here is one memory of some stunning musicians we came across in Palu.

 

It was a fairly normal Sunday morning, a typical Palu day around 34°C and we went to church as usual. What was unusual was that there was to be a visiting choir at the service. Many Indonesian people love singing and are good at it, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to hear.

As they filed in I noticed that our hostess from our days of learning Indonesian was in the choir. We had lived with her family for 6 months while learning Bahasa Indonesia. I didn’t know that she was a singer as such, so that didn’t particularly raise my expectations. They were to sing unaccompanied. (There was a piano in the church, one of only 15 in the whole city. A piano tuner used to come once a year from another place to tune them. Anyway, I’m digressing.) It was quite normal for choirs to sing acapella.

The conductor was a young man who looked not much more than 15. I thought this is going to be interesting. And then they all opened their mouths and the first chord sent a ripple down my spine. The harmony, the volume! It was stunning. I had never heard such a magnificent choir. Not one person let the side down and it was total commitment that produced an incredible sound from start to finish. Then I found out that they were the representative choir for the province – people from various churches around that region who were preparing to participate in the national choir competition in Yogyakarta.

The following week I was contacted by our former hostess to ask if I would come and accompany the choir for a practice. They had never played with a piano, but as part of the competition they had to have two of their pieces accompanied. I couldn’t help but think it was a shame to add a piano to their already excellent sound! But I agreed to see if I could help.

The young conductor turned out to be somewhere in his 20s and was incredibly skilled.  I marvelled at his musicianship and that of the choir who learned all their music from the Indonesian not angka system. It was all done with tonic-sol-fa and their musical score is shown with numbers, along with various dots and dashes to show rhythm. Fortunately for me the piano music was familiar western notation!

After a number of practices they got used to singing with a piano and I was invited to come with them to the national competition. Unfortunately, due to our work and upcoming trip to the village area, it just wasn’t going to work out for me to go. But their conductor told me later that he had learned enough to know what he was looking for when an accompanist was provided for them, and turned down two before he was happy with a third. They had never made it into the top half before, but that year this out of the way province came 5th out of 27 provinces in the national competition. I wasn’t surprised. I knew they had something special.

 

A search for a beautiful sound in our music is the same in every culture, even though what defines a beautiful sound is going to be different from place to place. Striving for excellence brings many rewards, and much is involved in getting there. If I can in some way inspire my pupils to play music beautifully, learn to play music they want to play and enlarge their outlook to discover other music to enjoy too, then I know they are well on the way to enjoying it for many years to come.

As I’ve been reflecting on this story of our time in Palu, I pray for the community, friends and co-workers who work with them as they go through the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks that we know from experience will likely continue for years.

***

Sorry, I don’t have  a photo (or a recording) of that magnificent choir. The other photos are of the Palu beachfront, Donggala waterfront (taken during our time there) and a meal with Palu friends.

For a number of years while living overseas we were often found hiking in and out of remote villages. These trips were never easy. For us as parents concerned about our children’s wellbeing, they were often traumatic. For our children, they were long, tedious and challenging. When they were too young to walk, we carried them. Once they  were able, they walked as far as possible. We found that they made better progress with words of encouragement, with distracting stories and occasional rewards. But they still had to put one foot in front of the other for hours on end. There was no other way of reaching the goal. We challenged them to keep going till the next remembered landmark, or till the next specified time when we might take a break.

As they became older and more able they had responsibilities to carry water bottles, umbrellas or small backpacks on behalf of the whole family.

By the time we walked out we were usually quite a bit fitter than on the inward journey, through many shorter walks within the area.

For the children the journeys were a blend of tedium and adventure. (There were “Yeehah!” moments when crossing swollen rivers on adult shoulders). But for Delwyn there was a visceral apprehension before a journey, particularly when the preceding night poured with rain. Pushing on took courage.

For each trip there were project goals. Seeing them completed one by one was an encouragement for the next challenge.

Whilst the children did not have the range of amazing opportunities they might have had in our home country, they were able to give more time to developing the skills they were picking up. In fact we all learned new skills – especially language – with instruction from the villagers (our tutors) and encouragement from each other.

 

The reason for the preceding ramble (by my husband) is that we learned resilience through these village trips. With no vehicular road – just a narrow trail, with numerous river crossings and the odd bridge – we had no choice but to make the journey that way. Perhaps the children wished it was shorter.  But they survived and they learned that sometimes things are tough, but the way through is to keep going. As young adults now, each one of them is grateful for those difficult times when we learned resilience as a family.

Now, a world away in New Zealand and in the context of learning piano, I wonder how we can toughen up our young musicians to just get on with it – to learn without wanting it all to be easy and almost done for them. Here are some tips I’ve come up with, each of which is illustrated by something in the opening paragraphs:

  • Give plenty of positive reinforcement from the sidelines. Getting new skills right requires patience and persistence. Learning to put the time in to do so brings its own rewards. But for our children to make solid progress they need parents to cheer them along the journey with positive reinforcement when they do put the time in.
  • Don’t shy away from various sorts of repetition. Repetition may seem as tedious to a child as a long walk, but it builds up muscle strength and muscle memory.
  • There needs to be accountability. A weekly lesson with a tutor helps to show what a pupil has worked on regularly. It gives the learning a structure, like landmarks on a journey, and helps to carry through on projects when the going gets tough.
  • Develop practice fitness. Make practice a regular routine, not just an option. This means it is based on what is needed to be done and not just when the child feels like it. Short and regular makes for better practice fitness than long and infrequent.
  • Increase individual responsibility through family tasks. This may seem a strange point but it is really helpful for children to realise that not every activity is about them. Having simple responsibilities that benefit the family leads to self discipline in other areas, including music practice as part of their own responsibility to the opportunity given them to learn.
  • Push through the fears associated with performances. There is often an apprehension leading up to a performance. This could even include a natural nervousness at the lesson – a sort of performance in itself. Sometimes it just takes time for children to grow through the nervousness of playing for others. Don’t give up on it.
  • Complete projects. Have a plan and complete each task towards the project’s fulfillment. Push through the difficult and enjoy the successes. Simple plans are usually given each week at the lesson. The tutor assigns what he or she assesses as being a manageable plan of what to accomplish that week.
  • Put time into managing new techniques. The job of the tutor is to give the pupil ways to learn new techniques. The parent is to encourage the reinforcement of the skill through practice (and therefore actually has the harder job! But then the parent learns resilience too.)
  • Have fewer projects or activities, but do them well. I remember feeling as a mum in that other world away that my children were missing out on the amazing range of activities available back in NZ. But they have assured me as young adults that they never felt they missed out. Quite the contrary.

Learning an instrument provides a wonderful opportunity to learn resilience if done well. But if you need more help, may I suggest a few family hikes!

Since my last blog some of my pupils sat piano exams. I was delighted with how well everyone did. The day before the results came out I read a proverb which I’ve been thinking about ever since.

 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” Prov 21:5

I’ve been thinking how

  1. we put a plan in place in order to learn what was needed for the exam;
  2. we got busy, diligently working on new pieces and other challenges such as ear tests, sight reading and scales;
  3. we saw how all that hard work led to profit gained in areas of confidence and going up a new skill level.

The plan involved a commitment from 3 parties:

  1. the pupil,
  2. the parents,
  3. the tutor.

There were times when pupils felt they were not going to get it all learned in time. That’s where they had to work to a timetable of preparation I gave them each week so that they peaked at the right time. The parents had to support that practice and make sure it happened – especially for those who were new to the idea of exams.

The second part of the proverb addresses haste. There were also times when we had to work slowly through difficult passages so they were learned well. Without working on this attention to detail, the results would have been much poorer.

All of this raises the question: What are your practice plans? Maybe you have a project you are working towards, or a piece you really want to learn to play. Or maybe you want your child to just learn the piano. The latter needs a bit more direction. If you want to talk to me about aiming for something in particular (it doesn’t need to be an exam, but I do work hard to make sure that is not the scary thing some folks think of), please get in touch. Also, keep asking those post-lesson questions that we talked about in the last blog.

http://accentmusicschool.com/7-questions-to-ask-after-the-music-lesson/

I  am finding in my personal life and business that  a 90 day plan works well. I can break it down into days, weeks, months and 90 days, and see measurable things to aim for in a range of areas.

Recently, using this method, I was really pleased to finalise my second book for Headstart Piano and get a first print done. Before this my current pupils had been learning their music from copies of its pages off my printer. I’m convinced I’d not be at this point without a clear plan in place.

 

So, as you think about your situation, here are just a few possibilities you could plan to aim for:

  • Have a particular piece in a tutor book to get to by the end of a term.
  • Plan a date for a mini recital to play for.
  • Decide with your tutor (so that the level of ability is right) a particular piece to learn.
  • Work towards a music exam.
  • Scales help with so much. Why not aim to learn a particular number by a certain time?
  • Get quicker at various stages of note recognition with timed exercises.

There was something else I noticed with the outcome of my pupils’ exam results.  For those new to exams there was a special gratitude to those around them who had helped them achieve a fairly challenging goal. For those pupils familiar with the exam process, they took better charge of their own learning from previous experiences and were able, to a larger extent, to put their own practice plan in place.

If you have invested in music lessons for your child, the best way to maximise that investment is to follow up on how the lesson went each week. I love it when parents come to the lesson, or at least send a family member. For parents of very young children I make it a requirement, so that the follow up is done through the week.  But for busy parents (perhaps of older pupils) who can’t attend, the next best thing is to equip them with some useful questions to draw out from their child what was both taught and learned at the lesson.

Did you have some new music today?

Asking about a new piece can tell you several things. If the child didn’t get something new to learn, it may be that they hadn’t established last week’s material and needed more time on it.  If they did get something new, it means they are building on what they have learned and moving forward.  It is always nice to share a new piece with someone and it gives the learner more incentive to press on and learn it well when a family member takes an interest.

Can you play it for me after dinner? (or whatever time is a good time for you both)

If your child is bursting to show you their new piece, it is going to be really helpful to find a time when you can give them your full attention.  Full attention at an arranged time is going to be more meaningful than a quick, “show me now” sort of hearing.

Is there anything you are finding difficult?

Ask if they know what they should do if it is difficult. Suggestions if they don’t know:

  1. Find the hard bit – maybe over 1 or 2 bars.
  2. Play RH slowly, counting aloud one hand at a time – until 3x perfect in a row.
  3. Play LH slowly, counting aloud one hand at a time – until 3x perfect in a row.
  4. Play it again hands together – until 3x perfect in a row.
  5. Now see if you can play the whole line of music it is in.

If there was a trouble spot that seemed too hard, let your tutor know at least in an email so they can be aware of it in the next lesson.

Could you play one of your old pieces now?

Playing through older pieces often, in some sort of routine, is going to help the young musician become more confident and fluent. If they only ever play through the latest piece, they are always in learning mode. They need times to simply play music they know, happily and easily. This is the reason I usually like to keep the last 3 to 4 pieces ‘on the boil’ so to speak.

You played that beautifully! Would you like to play it for ‘X and Y’ next time they come? They would love to hear it.

It is so valuable for children to perform for friendly audiences such as friends or grandparents, especially something they like playing. This is why it is good to keep those older pieces that have become favourites up to a good performance standard. If they have a positive experience with a sympathetic audience, switching to another setting later is easier.

 Shall we play together? (if you are a musician)

If there are duet parts that someone can play with the learner, it is best to do those with the pieces they know confidently. Some books have CD tracks to go with them. If so, listen to them with your child and see if there are any older pieces they know that they can play along with.

Could you show me how to play that? (If you are a non-musician)

Children do so well when a parent is keen to learn from them what they learned.  You get double the value from the lesson too! And the child will learn it better as they teach it. Depending on the age of the child, choose something manageable for them to ‘teach’ you.  Make sure you practice!

 

I hope you can find something to draw from to ask your child after their lessons each week. But it’s best that you don’t do them all in one hit! Whichever way you do it, the interest you take will have a direct effect on the enthusiasm of your child to keep at their learning when the initial novelty becomes routine.

In all of this, if you discover something your child particularly liked in their lesson, let the tutor know. Teachers are also investing in your child’s learning and are interested to know what is working well.