I admit it. I am terrible at shopping. My daughter Esther picks out clothes for me better than I do.

The other day I was in a men’s shop “helping” Robin look for a shirt. Couldn’t believe my eyes to come across a shirt with ripped sleeves and the label read that it had been “individually stressed”.  In another shop there was a T shirt with random holes, and jeans with holey knees too. Who were they kidding? We went home happy in the knowledge that he didn’t really need to upgrade his shirts or jeans as the current ones were already in fashion.

Last week I wrote about the X factor. On the episode I watched there were so many performers with these fashionably ripped jeans that ironically the ones who really stood out were those who didn’t have them.

There is this longing in art to stand out, to be different, creative, innovative. So often the artist has to go to the bizarre to be recognised. 

When I was studying third year music composition at university I knew I had to do something out of the ordinary to impress the tutor and make the grade. At the time our bedroom door in our 100-year-old house had the most incredible 3-part harmony squeak in its three hinges and, depending on how fast you opened the door, the sound would make a whole melody moving higher or lower. I told my tutor that I was thinking of writing a piece for double bass and squeaky door and I immediately got his attention because it was out of the ordinary for a piece of music.  Although I never got around to recording the door properly (sorry about that – would have loved you to have heard it), I do appreciate that the tutor got me to think more innovatively and stretch my creative skills.

Maybe the creators of ripped clothing are really just wanting us to feel comfortable with the new stuff. They know that we like a comfortable old garment that fits like a glove.

There is something comforting too in a familiar piece of music that we have come to enjoy singing, listening to or playing. Maybe we could play the older pieces more, simply to enjoy the sense of satisfaction in being able to play them well.  This applies as much to the familiar as to the older styles of music that have become classics. Sometimes we get weary of them and need to shop around for something different. But maybe we will find out that old just became fashionably new. 

I was watching “The X Factor, U.K.” last night and it got me thinking how a musical performer might have ‘the X factor.’

It was interesting to see how the TV judges assessed performances. I couldn’t see what they saw in some performers that they put through to the next round.

 Sometimes you could see in the eyes of an individual judge that they weren’t all that jazzed about a performance, but were persuaded by the opinions of other judges to give a positive response. 

Other times the lack of real talent was brushed aside, perhaps because of the way a performer presented themselves – a particular look that stood out. The judges literally overlooked the performer’s lack of real ability to sing.

There were other cases where they were compassionate (at least for this episode – probably this will change down the track) and gave a response to encourage a performer rather than determine whether he or she had a particular X factor which was the point of the show.


So what is ‘the X factor’ in a musical performance?

Is it when someone stands out in a crowd?

If someone has a really good performance in a competition, they are going to stand out in the crowd. But in a different context it may be a different story for that performer. They may have had a whole string of poor performances prior to that. They may be the best in a particular context, but I’m not convinced that means they have the X factor.


Is it when extraordinary talent meets hard work?

Being extraordinary does sound like it meets the X factor criteria. We are definitely impressed when we see the combination of talent and hard work that is beyond the ordinary. Some have learned much from watching other performers and combine those ideas with their own to create something new.

The audience often determines what extraordinary talent is, based on their own experiences of learning the same skill. A trained singer is more likely to recognise accurate pitch much more clearly than someone who has not been trained as a musician but has an understanding of marketing music. They are going to observe a performance based on their field of expertise.


Is it when extraordinary talent meets extraordinary personality?

Someone with a lot of personality and natural talent can be pretty impressive. They are more likely to come across as comfortable in their own skin and have a confidence that comes through in the performance. That confidence gives the listener a special enjoyment in the whole presentation. The audience may easily identify that person as having the X factor.


Is it when artistic expression connects with something in the heart of the listener?

We hear the word “authentic” used a lot. If we can see into the heart of performers and realise they are human just like us, we like that and a point of connection is made, not just an observance of someone making nice musical sounds. Sometimes a judge describes someone as being authentic when I might not feel that connection. Instead, I see a pretty good act that wants me to think they are authentic, but what they feel in their heart somehow doesn’t connect with me.


Is it a God given gift?

When we hear someone describing someone’s talent this way they are acknowledging that a creator God outside of the person themselves has had a hand in the specialness of the person and their performance. Don’t we all have this one way or another? We are all created as very special individuals with an X factor in some area of our lives, it may just take a while to find out what it is.


Is it all of the above?

I don’t know….you be the judge, and if you have some thoughts on the subject I’d love to read them in the comments below.

This week Robin and I decided to take off for an overnight in our camper, leaving all sorts of projects and tasks behind. Partly it was to check out some repairs Robin had done, but it was more than that.

We parked the camper just a few feet away from a lake where we could simply watch the waves and birds (shags, herons, terns, swallows and seagulls) feeding along the lake edge. There was no need to bring a laptop and we’d forgotten phone chargers, so the pace of life went very slowly.

 Although it was just for one night, we had time for a long walk and I actually finished a book I’d barely started reading. We spent the evening over a game of Scrabble, unusual not only to find time to play it, but even more so to end up with tied scores (374-374). The day seemed full of hours we never have at home.

Do you notice that when you are on your computer there are all sorts of distractions that fragment what you are doing? There are so many interesting things to see that you flit like a swallow all over the place never really finding a place to land.

It can be hard to go slowly when you don’t take the time to do it often enough.

Recently, without thinking, I caught myself saying to a pupil: “The faster you learn to play it slowly, the quicker you’ll get it!”

That reminds me of our son Isaac who always liked to play everything fast when learning his music. I was sure he would get it more quickly if he played slowly and give it a chance at being correct on first reading.  But the value of slow really hit home to him when he became a teacher to another young boy. I was supervising the lessons overall, but Isaac was doing the main teaching. I heard him say “If you play it slowly first you’ll get it.”  I couldn’t believe my ears! He only really grasped the principle as he taught someone else.

As a music teacher, I think “play it slowly” could be one of the most common things I say to pupils. Maybe because even in learning a musical instrument we are trying to pack it into a frantic pace of life. Sometimes we need a bit of that 59th Street Bridge Song feeling.

“Slow down, you move too fast,

You got to make the morning last,

Just kicking down the cobblestones,

Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.”

From <http://www.paulsimon.com/song/59th-street-bridge-song-feelin-groovy/>


Slow is cool too. Let’s enjoy it sounding right – at a slower speed.

Feel free to enjoy an improvisation at the piano I recorded of “In Your Good Time” from our musical “Nick of Time”. For those familiar with the musical, the melody comes in around the 3 minute mark. It’s an example of a slow melody in the treble but with reasonable movement in the bass to keep a sense of flow.

I am midway through two weeks of school holiday time and, though enjoying the break, I am conscious of my to do list. All through the school term I’ve been putting off a number of jobs I needed to do. My wardrobe needs a good sorting out, but that can probably wait. Right now I’d rather write a blog about procrastination instead!

Hopefully your child or children enjoy doing their practice, but I know it is not always the case when they are tired, or there is a lot of other homework to do, or there is a screen not far away with a really cool game… the list could go on.  Playing an instrument has some instant rewards but often it does involve some repetitious work to make meaningful progress. To avoid the learner putting it off, here are 7 tips to deal with it in whatever way it may affect your situation.

  1. Plan on a performance of some sort. This gives a meaningful goal to work towards. I usually have some sort of annual concert for my pupils, but family performances are ideal to work towards when there is a family gathering. There may be opportunity for a school talent quest. Let me know in advance if you need help on playing an appropriate piece.
  2. Clear time frame. Practice needs to be scheduled, providing a clear time length (suitable for the age of the pupil) and regularity, so that there are no reasons to put it off. We can’t underestimate the value of routine. It’s like wearing comfortable shoes, you just slip into them.
  3. Be accountable with clear expectations. Make sure you understand from your tutor exactly what is supposed to be practiced. This way all parties are on the same page about what needs to be done from week to week.
  4. Interesting music to play. Playing music the pupil is interested in can be one of the main motivators to get to practice. If they want to learn something that is not in the material provided by the tutor, they may need some help to make sure the music is close to their level of ability so they don’t give up on it easily. It may be a piece they really like that is beyond their ability now, but could be arranged to suit their current level. Or there may be a style of music they like. Some of the most helpful pieces I have written for pupils have come out of a particular need or interest. So, again, let me know if this is something I could help you with.
  5. No space for frustration. The expression: ‘hitting your head against a brick wall’ is a metaphor for frustration. Maybe the task is too big and all attempts at it fail miserably. Try using a hammer and take down one brick at a time! So in our music we need to start by breaking down the difficult parts of music into short, easy to play sections. If at the piano, practice with separate hands and get them correct before putting them together.
  6. Deal with the difficult sections. If you only play the stuff you can without conquering the difficult you don’t move on to the next level. Measure perfect practice, so that the progress made is really clear. Three times perfectly in a row for 1 small, difficult part corrected is no small feat. It feels so good when achieved. When I help pupils through this process in lessons I see the work it involves but also the satisfaction of getting it perfectly played. I count progress using an abacus in a variety of ways to suit the situation.
  7. Rewards are great motivators once we get them in place. Practice charts, star charts and the like are all helpful.  If we work together on what a desired achievement could be, the incentive will definitely help motivate practice. How about a star chart that rewards completed practice with a treat? This might be something like going on a special outing once a chart is filled up. A musical concert is an excellent reward for music practice goals reached!


I hope there is something there that registers with you.

Now that I have confessed about my wardrobe, I’m going to do it... right after I put the jug on for another cup of coffee  🙂