I was inspired watching Emirates Team New Zealand battle and beat Oracle Team U.S.A in the America’s Cup yacht races recently. The achievement was nothing short of brilliant.

(For anyone not in NZ, this is was a big deal here! On their return home the team was lauded as national heros in ticker tape parades in four city centers.) They had made the racing all look so easy, but it didn’t just come together on the day. The superb performances were examples of a brilliant team effort.

During that time, while preparing a music concert for another music school I direct, I got to thinking that how we prepare for a musical performance holds some similarities to what I had observed in the yacht racing: 

  • There were many who had put in a lot of time and money behind the scenes: sponsors, boat designers and builders who are not seen during the race.
    • This reminds me of the amazing support that parents put in to fund their children’s music lessons, source good instruments and help them do the practice needed to keep pushing forward.
  • They were prepared for different weather conditions and how to work with those conditions on the day to get to the finish line well.
    • When it comes to a musical performance, a performer has to tune out the distractions coming from the audience, such as a baby crying or someone having a coughing fit, keeping focus and steady to the end.
  • The ‘cyclors’ and ‘grinders’ had to have built up to peak fitness. They couldn’t just jump onto the boat and expect to excel.
    • For a musician, an excellent performance has to have a foundation of the basics covered well, such as scales and various technical skills to support the level of ability to play the piece. A piece performed beyond the technical ability of the musician will inevitably show some sort of lack, for example: the rhythm may be unstable if counting skills are weak, or poor fingering can result in untidy phrasing.
  • Peter Burling, the NZ helmsman, spoke gratefully of all the encouragement received from all sorts of sources to keep at it.
    • A musical performer too needs affirmation from a range of sources to work towards that goal of an excellent performance. It is powerful when it comes from those outside his immediate family too – from  teachers, extended family,  the peer group and other respected musicians.

Some performers are self-driven to excellence, whilst others need a little encouragement to get there. But the end result will show them the value of the effort, not just from themselves but from those on their team who helped them experience the huge satisfaction and sheer delight of a great performance.

You know the feeling that someone else is learning something quicker than you are? I know for me it was easy to compare with my peers and think I was a slow learner.  But there were also times when I made quick progress. And it was hugely helpful to realise that the way I learn is simply different.

Definition: A learning style is the way someone best processes and learns information.

Some musicians are aural learners and are quick to latch onto the sounds of the music as they hear it. For these, playing by ear comes easily. I have come across many musicians who are very competent at reading music but don’t know how to play by ear, and vice versa. 

Try this example: On a piano keyboard find the 2 black notes near the middle. The white note between these 2 black notes is D. Put your right hand thumb on D and give the fingers next to it all a white note to sit on next to each other. The index finger on the next white note to D and so on. Now listen to this example and see if you can copy the sounds you hear. If you find this tricky, try singing along with it or break it into 2 parts. Listen for patterns and repeated notes. Keep listening and playing until you know you match what you hear. 

Some others are visual learners and are quicker to learn to play a piece of music as they read it. Note reading is understanding the graphic way the sounds are represented, so for such musicians this may be their preferred way to learn.  See how you go reading this 5 finger melody without looking at your hands. Your right hand thumb needs to be on D right next to middle C for the first note. The rhythm is the same as the audio sample but the notes make up a different melody. Note that your little finger will be the highest note on the stave. Once you start playing see if you can keep going without looking down.

(click to enlarge) 


Still others are kinesthetic learners, finding that the positions of hands and movements of fingers make patterns that they can quickly establish. For example, in teaching finger numbers we use a hand shape exercise: Thumb is number 1, index finger number two and so on. They wiggle each finger in turn against its opposite. Then I ask “Which finger was the hardest one to wiggle by itself?” Usually they say the 4th finger. From this we learn that the 4th finger is going to be the least independent at first and will need some help with that. 


[For those who include reading words as a category separate from visual learning, we also try to incorporate song lyrics that reflect aspects of what is being taught musically. For example “Drawing two lines down and then two across them may look like a hash tag but in music it’s a sharp.”]

Whilst tending towards one of these, most of us have varying degrees of each of these learning styles. Every individual brings their particular combination of learning styles with them to learning any instrument.

At Accent Music School we use:

  • a whole range of visual patterns – both through reading music and by the way the fingers shape the piece on the piano
  • our ears to tell us when the notes sound wrong, so we can correct them
  • written music, in which we do not look at the piano keys because our fingers have been trained through touch to know how far to stretch for a chord pattern or a particular interval
  • words which reflect the music, teach an aspect of it, or sometimes are just fun.

A few observations

 In the early stages it is good to use a range of learning styles and in the process find out what works best. The pupil will be less likely to give up if at least part of what they are learning clicks with them through using a learning style that suits them. It may be the piece they learn by ear, for example, that keeps them happy as they also work on the note reading skills.

I have come to realise that I am quite visual in my learning and often connect the patterns I hear with how they visually look on the piano. I took longer to grasp the skill of reading compared with others in my family, but was quicker than most of my peers. Bottom line: I was learning through using a combination of styles.

It can often be helpful to think how we best process things as individuals, but it is a mistake to only focus on one style without pushing through on other styles, just because we are not so good at them. On the other hand, being good at one skill often helps one want to push through in other areas.  I consider it an asset to be able to pick up something by ear as well as to be able to read notes on a page. Over time the process blurs, so it is not one or the other but both/and.

Have a think about how you process and learn at your instrument. What do you need to work on so that you can feel like a more versatile musician? Let me know if there is an aspect you need more help with.