I am the first to admit: we are all very busy! We all have challenges (some more than others) with managing time. In our busy lives, we have to make time for a lot of the various activities that we enjoy. Some of us find the sense of being organized an easy task, some of us find this a challenging task to overcome. Based on personal experience, I would like to share some tips and tricks that will result in successful practice time at home.
1. Set up a regular schedule
To help make things easy to everyone, set up practicing into the schedule just like setting up an appointment. This tactic will help you to find time in your schedule instead of putting practicing at the bottom of the list.
2. Play fun pieces at the beginning and end of a practice session
By starting and/or finishing a practice with something fun, students will stay engaged throughout the practice session. Keep the mind sharp by learning and working on new material, however, let your brain rest after processing a healthy dose of new materials.
3. Quality vs. quantity
Many of us consider a successful practice session to be a lengthy marathon in which the student works hard at various tasks for hours and hours at a time. Success does not come in large packages. Rather, quality comes in smaller bundles. Instead of looking for quantity of time, look for quality of time as students focus on materials that are challenging to them. This will create a successful experience as well as a successful practice session.
4. Try to practice every day of the week
Even though this is a lofty goal, it is a similar theme to that of point #1: consistent practicing (daily is always preferred) will create the best long-tern results. Consider it from this perspective: if a student works hard at the lesson and makes great progress in a particular area and then does not look at their musical material for 2-3 days, when the student revisits the materials later in the week, 80% or more of the new material that had experienced progress will be lost. If a student looks at new materials the same day as the lesson or the following day, the progress will stay with them 100% due to the “fresh” feeling that the new information has over the student’s mind.
A well-rounded musician is someone that embraces a variety of musical styles and skills in such a way that each musical style musical skill becomes a natural part of their performance identity. It is the aspiration of all teachers to be able to encourage their students to appreciate
these various skills; this offers opportunities to each student to embody all of the elements to enrich their musical journey.
You might be asking yourself, "what are some of the skills associated with being a well-rounded musician?" The following list will offer some insight:
1. Playing in a variety of styles.
Learning to play in one particular style works for most students yet from time to time, students become antsy to learn new skills. A good music instructor will allow students to try out a variety of styles of music during their studies such as classical, pop, rock, jazz, country, improvisation, or writing original pieces. It is important to note that all students will have their own personal limitations of musical appreciation or physical ability. As such, not all students will embrace every style of music that is available to them. It is the job of the music instructor to appreciate the interests of the student and cater the lessons around the styles of music that will speak to the student. In all of the lessons that I teach, I encourage all students to learn at least one piece a year in a style that they might not otherwise wish to play: students that are studying jazz
music must learn to play a piece of classical music and vice versa.
2. Reading music and playing by ear.
In the music studio of every teacher, we work with a variety of students that all have a variety of musical talents. Some students are strong readers, they can naturally see the music on the page and decipher the code to play the music on their instrument. Other students have a natural interest and talent for listening to the music that they play. These students listen well to the music that is around them and can naturally perform these sounds in a coherent way on their instrument.
In both cases, each student has mastered an important skill, yet these skills offer only a certain amount of success. In my personal journey, I have learned the steps that are necessary to amalgamate the skills of listening to my playing while reading the music on the page. This
amalgamation creates not only a technically proficient performance, a sensitivity to the performance by listening to the music being created creates a further dimension that goes beyond what is written on the page.
3. Appreciation of working in a group setting vs. solo setting
Pianists are trained from the first lesson to work as soloists. Let's face it, the piano is an instrument that can hold its' own, it is a lone wolf. I remember in highschool having the opportunity to play music in a variety of group settings. I was a trombone player in my high school concert band, I was piano accompanist for my high school concert choir. I also had summer jobs working as a pit musician for a local theater company playing keyboard 2 parts (synthesizers, strings sounds, etc).
These activities were a lot of fun and required the same style of practicing that I completed on the piano. The outcome of a solo practice session on my trombone was different at home, I was playing only one melodic line. This activity (at times) was tedious, it was lonely. However, when all of the members of the concert band got together for rehearsal or for a performance, all of the parts came together to create beautiful music.
Encouraging students to join a band, work together in small ensembles, or to play duets offers a different series of opportunities and challenges that will enrich their learning environment. Each musician has the opportunity to enjoy working together in a group to collectively make music that is meaningful for each other. It is also a lot of fun! It is my hope that all music instructors, music students, and parents embrace the various opportunities for making music in a meaningful way, your lives will be enriched as a result.
The first look at a new piece is so important. As accomplished pianists/teachers, we automatically know to scan the piece to check the time signature, key signature, texture, composer, title, etc. before playing through a piece. Of course, we were trained to go through
those steps before sightreading through a piece. Before having students sightread, what do you say/do with them to introduce a new piece? I’d love to hear your ideas. Here’s some things I’ve tried:
1. Scan the piece before playing it. Ask the student what s/he notices about the piece. Together, look for key/time signature changes, places where the hand(s) move to other registers on the keyboard, etc. Ask the student specific questions: “Do you see anywhere else in this piece where this pattern/theme occurs?” or “Can you point to all the places where there is an interval of a fifth?”
2. Count and clap the rhythm of the piece, while singing the pitches (with your help). I’ve found this to be very helpful with young beginner students who are not yet accustomed to sight-reading. The rhythm practice is always beneficial – but interestingly enough, I’ve found that singing the pitches helps them learn how to “hear” the pitches in their head when looking at a sheet of music (thus it is an ear training exercise too). It also
helps students get an idea of what the piece sounds like.
3. Discuss the piece’s contextual background. This involves talking about the title/subject of the piece, the composer of the piece, and/or the historical background of the piece (i.e., what period of musical history was it written). This mostly applies to classical pieces, but it may also work well with pieces that have a historical subject or reference (e.g., a minuet).
4. Discuss the compositional techniques and composer’s intentions. For example, if a piece is about a popcorn, we will discuss how we can create the right mood and energy level to create the effect of popcorn popping. We would also discuss how the composer used certain articulations, note values, dynamics, etc., to help create that effect. For another example: the Primer level of the Faber Piano Adventures has a piece called “Copy Cat.” We first establish what it means to be a copycat, and then we look at the piece to find where the “copying” occurs. With beginner/elementary level pieces, I will often use the title/subject of the piece and its corresponding illustration as a launching-point for discussing certains aspects of the piece.
Going through one or more steps such as these with the student helps establish good habits towards becoming a better sight reader. As a bonus, discussing with the student things like the contextual background and the compositional techniques of the piece may help them get excited about practicing the piece at home.