So you’ve been studying music with your teacher for a little while now. What next? Are you eternally tied to your teacher?? Certainly not, in fact your no-to-distant-future goal might be to “graduate” from your teacher and move on to a more advanced teacher. This may seem sad or harsh for your current teacher but no one thinks that way about elementary school or high school, do they? It is a natural part of learning we all learn and grow. We need to advance to the next level. I know for me personally every time that I changed teachers I improved dramatically and quickly. Each teacher was more skilled than the previous and the perspective they brought to my learning was always fresh and exciting. Ask yourself these questions about your musical journey so far:
-Have I been on a plateau for a while now? Does if feel impossible to get to the next level?
-Do I dread assigned music and going to lessons?
-Do lessons and practicing feel dull and unexciting?
-Does the teacher seem energetic and enthusiastic about teaching?
-Does your teacher try to put themselves out of a job by giving you the tools you need to succeed?
If you answered no to most or all of these questions then great news! You’re on a great path to success as of right now! Keep these questions handy though and make sure to check back to them often not allowing your education to suffer the fate of a burnt out educator.
Now let me be clear here, all students will come upon plateaus and dread some assigned music. I’m not saying change music teacher frequently or even that if you are experiencing these symptoms with your teacher that you should “can" them. What I am saying is be introspective. Don’t just keep going to lessons mindlessly, ask yourself hard questions; are you making your goals, are you progressing, do you have goals?? Plateaus happen to the best of us, but a good teacher can spot a plateau, or even spot one coming, and can make adjustments to help move through the plateau more quickly. Not all music that is assigned to study will be completely enjoyable for the student, this is important to note. But one thing is sure, lessons should be fun, engaging and should inspire you to succeed as a student. Some teachers are great for starting with, others would not be a good match for beginning students but would be excellent for more advanced students. While some teachers have a gift and can span the whole range of ability levels. Your job as the student not only is to practice but make sure you get the most out of your education.
So keep working hard and expect great results not only from yourself but from your teacher as well!
BREAKING DOWN THE LAYERS
Growing up I always looked at music notation as this two dimensional piece of reading material kind of like a book for easy reading, merely letters on a page. But recently in my journey as a teacher I found that there is more than just letters printed in black ink. I found that when I get to play a new piece of music that I am being invited by the composer to bring this piece back to life. I am being asked to be the main character in their play. I realized that mere letters on a page cannot contain enough details to breath life back into the composers ideas. I realized that I had never before found the layers that composers use to bring complexity to their work.
Albert Einstein once wrote, “If you cannot explain it to a six year old you don’t understand it yourself.” Music is no exception, music notation has so many facets in it that tells us exactly how to breath and feel, what emotions to convey, what speed to display the scene in, what tone of voice to recite our lines in, the music tells us what the composer wanted to say and why he chose to say it that way. I realized that in order really learn a piece of music one has to really understand what is happening in the Layers. I have seen so many of my students suddenly take off and bloom so to speak simply because they finally understood a small concept in music. Something as small as understanding what an eighth note really is and what it does or how to play a staccato correctly makes a big difference, I have watched so many students and even myself at a younger age wall up and stop learning because I did not fully understand everything presented to me. To understand in totality is to gain knowledge and knowledge is power to unlock the impossibilities, this understanding will unlock a whole new world.
So if music is not a piece of easy reading what else is in there? What are these layers? I like to break it down into 5 simple layers.
I always start here with my students. For the longest time I had no idea what the time signature told us as musicians and honestly I was lazy and didn’t care enough to find out for myself. When I reached college I finally understood what this great tool can do for musicians. (HOW DOES THE TIME SIGNATURE HELP ME AND WHAT DO THESE DOTS MEAN)
Aside from the time signature itself are there any rhythms in the piece that I don’t understand how to count? Are there any rhythmic patterns that keep reoccurring? If there is a section in the piece that we do not understand how to count we will always feel weak and uncomfortable in that section of the music. Master the rhythm there and you will feel confident in letting the beat guide you (MAY THE BEAT BE WITH YOU).
If a section is challenging and we can’t quite get the rhythm, slow it down, strip the layers back, clap out the rhythm. Understand the rhythm.
With so many keys on the piano or frets on the guitar or holes in our woodwind instrument wouldn’t it be nice to narrow down the options? The great news is that that is exactly what key signatures do for us. As a musician we have to take time to understand the notes we are playing.
If you are playing music there is a pattern and a reason for every note in the score… Find the pattern and understand why that note is there. When sharing this with students I always love watching their faces light up with excitement. After discussing with them the pattern and breaking it down into something they can understand I always ask “has this made things easier for you?” and nine times out of ten they agree that this pattern in the notes and understanding why it is there helps them play the passage with much more ease. (Need help finding a pattern? I can help) The first few times I shared this with students I was amazed too at how much quicker my students were able to play a piece. Understand the notes.
This aspect of music along with the next two layers are the most overlooked layers in music. I admit that dynamics are still a weaker area in my playing. But the example I give my students is this: Let’s say you have just written a short story about your family as you have experienced it. You want to share in your excitement so you ask your closest cousin/sibling to read it at the next big family gathering. But to your horror while reading this family member decided they wanted to ignore a couple words and substitute them with something they thought was more fitting, or even worse they skipped a small section all together. This in turn changed the whole emotion in the story. I believe that we as musicians owe it to the composer to do our best in interpreting what they have written down to share with us.
One technique that has always worked well for me and even for my students in understanding dynamics is word pictures. When struggling to bring out a big Forte in a piece I will ask my student to play that section like it’s an airplane about to take off or a lion roaring right in their ear. Or maybe it’s a really soft section I would ask them to play it like their baby brother is sleeping upstairs. Kids really understand these much better than “play this really loud here… and soft over here.” I have to give a shout out to my undergraduate professor of piano, Dr. Cooper, he shared this technique with me in lessons and it has definitely made a big impact on my playing/learning. The greatest part about this is it can be applied to more than just dynamics. One could apply it to the emotion of the piece as a whole which I would strongly recommend visualizing as much of the piece as one can to find a better interpretation of it.
Another part of playing the correct dynamics is understanding your instrument. How in the world do I make this instrument sound like that?? Can it really do that? (FORCE, WEIGTH, HEIGHT) Understand your dynamics.
I remember being a bratty kid and giving my teachers the hardest time about this layer. I am a very stubborn person and so I have had to learn the hard way on several things. It wasn’t until I got into some more difficult pieces in high school that I really learned the importance of fingering. I always thought that I could play things the way that felt natural and right to my 6, 9, 12, and even 14-year-old hands. I remember learning to play Fantaisie Impromptu by Chopin for my eighth grade graduation and I realized very quickly that I had to follow the fingerings that the editor had placed in the piece unless I wanted to play twister with my fingers. *Note to teachers: be bold and do not let your students slide in this area, make them learn good habits from the start.
Aside from not playing twister with my hands I also found that playing/learning a piece comes quicker when I stick to a dedicated fingering. When I was constantly switching up my fingering there was no way my mind could make any sense of a pattern for my fingers to follow. Our minds love patterns; we love for things to be consistent. Understand your fingering.
Slurs, ties, staccatos, accents, these just come naturally, right? Not so much, they take work like the other layers. Like dynamics I have found that using word pictures helps both myself and my students a lot in being able to correctly play an articulation. But what if we don’t understand how to play that symbol on our instrument? (WHAT DOES THAT MEAN??) Maybe we think we ‘understand’ how to play it on our instrument but do we really truly understand how to play it? Can we explain it to a six year old? I went to a teaching conference and I saw down the itinerary we would go over how to teach someone to play an accent. I thought to myself ‘no problem.’ But to my surprise I found that I did not truly understand what an accent was and how to properly play it. All my life I had been taught that we play the accent louder than other notes. This is true but it’s not complete. I found that day that there needed to be an edge to the sound and they sure did show me how to correctly play that on the piano. Truly understand your articulations.
I hope these layers have become more obvious to you now and that they will become more and more clear to you as you study your instrument. I would love to hear your thoughts and share in your journey of growth please comment below as to what has and hasn’t worked for you in studying music or helping your child study. Or if you feel you need some one-on-one coaching with any of these layers please sign up for a online coaching session. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you lost some of your Music Trebles!
I remember going home for Christmas break the first year I was in the music program and talking with my uncle who had also studied classical piano during his college career. I was sharing with him and lamenting how hard practice was and how little my results were yielding. I shared how I was having to ‘invent’ better ways for me to practice. He stopped me dead in my tracks, ‘A good teacher will teach you how to practice.’ I had never thought about the teacher teaching me to practice, what a thought! In my mind the teacher taught/showed me where I needed more work, it was up to me to perfect these areas and come up with how I got the job done. When I started playing the piano I learned from my teacher “play the song 5-6 times everyday” I think there is a time and a place for this as we all start our musical journey because really the whole 12 notes are a practice spot for us. Let’s be real it was a hard task to get through those notes everyday. But as we all grow and mature in our musical journeys wouldn’t it make sense that our practice techniques grow and evolve too? The answer is they should but I found once I reached college, I had no idea how to practice… So what is good practice technique?
Tips for good practice
-Find a Practice Buddy
-Have a Plan, don't just mindlessly repeat a song
-Focus on Trouble spots
-Sight read daily
-Break down the layers
Find a Practice Partner
Have you ever noticed how much progress you make in one lesson with your instructor? I remember in college wondering why it seemed I made as much progress in a one-hour lesson as I did in a half-week’s worth or practice. The answer is quite simple really; it all has to do with focus.
Having mindful and focused practice yields much higher results. I know for me personally it is a lot harder to slack off and be lazy with someone else around. So why not have more productive practice time and invite a colleague to come in and critique the piece that you’re working on or maybe even critique your practice methods. Then you can offer to trade and critique their practice. I don’t recommend this for all your practice time but I do know that it is beneficial for at least one practice session a week. Try it and let me know how it turned out for you in the comment section.
Have a plan for the week
“If you plan you will succeed, if you fail to plan you will fail.” I remember starting to learn to practice, when I realized that I could make a plan, set goals and then measure my progress I was so excited to practice. For so long I had been stuck in the “practice rut” of mindless repetition. I had bought into and only been taught to “practice the song until it is good enough.” Each week sit down and make a practice plan, (if you’re not sure where to start schedule a session with me here and I can get you on the right track). You can also download a sample practice plan sheet here. Make the plan with pain staking detail. The key to success is to follow this plan to the letter. At the end of the week review your goals, find what was helpful and what was not, build on what was good and let the rest go. If you are consistent and stick to your plan big results are coming your way!
We all have grown up in a society that is constantly on the move. We also put off until tomorrow what seems less important. With practice there are no “make-up days” you either put in the time everyday or it is forever lost. Five to ten minutes of (MINDFUL PRACTICE) each day will take a student much further than two hours the day of the lesson ever could. Think of an athlete training for a big race. Let’s say the athlete is supposed to run 2 miles everyday but because of a busy schedule he was only able to get in 2 days of training so he decides to run the remaining 10 miles all in one fell swoop. Do you think the athlete will benefit from this? Or is he more prone to injury, over training fatigue and failure?
Focus on Trouble Spots
The problem with mindless repetition practice is that it assumes that you can learn the whole piece in one pass or by merely playing the song over and over again. Which yes eventually you will get to the goal and be able to play the piece. But usually there are practice spots in the music that need to be addressed. If you face these problems head on and focus your energy there you will see great results. If you are struggling to stay motivated and focused during practice time maybe consider asking a friend or colleague to come sit in on a 20 minute practice session each week. (Find a Practice Partner)
Sight Read Daily
When we were growing up in school we read in reading class almost everyday, and we consider music to be a universal language, correct? So wouldn’t it make sense that we need to be reading everyday something new and fresh in that language? Do you want to merely be able to recite what you have memorized? What good do lessons do if you are not learning to actually understand music, if you are merely regurgitate what your teacher has shared with you? Think of a fellow classmate who can recite a lengthy and very poetic piece of literature but who cannot read the simplest children’s book when asked to do so on the spot. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed for them? Essentially this is where I was at in my musical journey when I reached college, I had some very accomplished pieces under my belt but I could barely sight-read something from early in Alfred’s Piano Method books. Reading daily in this “language” has easily solved this problem for me.
Break Down the Layers
Music is just a bunch of directions laid out on the page to help us identify what/how we should play the piece that someone else made for us. But it’s a little more complex than merely reading a storybook. The composer tells us when to breathe, when to speak, how loud or soft to retell the story, what kind of emotion to use while reciting. We have to understand each layer individually before we can put them all together. (BREAKING DOWN THE LAYERS)