How far can I go? Where is my limit? How do I reach past my limit? It can be so hard to overcome, how can I get past today?
As an entrepreneur, teacher, and a musician, I need to be grappling with these thoughts everyday. Let’s face it, in one way or another humans are hard wired to be lazy or at least on autopilot (AUTOMATION OR LAZY??). I grew up working at a sawmill and a stout work ethic was pounded into my mind and character from a young age. I always prided myself on working hard and avoiding slack work habits. But once I reached college and started my studies in music, I had to face the fact, I was really really lazy… But how?? I had such a tight upbringing and a good work ethic molded into my character? Hard work I understood, I won’t discredit that, but this was related to having a boss figure over me. When I was working around others you better believe that I will work anyone under the table. But when I am by myself I lose that edge and have a hard time being efficient. So what to do?
After a lot of self reflection I realized that I had trained my mind to be motivated by external things (praise of my work by others) rather than internal things (the satisfaction of a job well done). I had also trained my mind to love automation (AUTOMATION OR LAZY??) to work well when I don’t have to think. So how can we help those we are mentoring and switch the motivation switch for our students? (DIGGING DEEP)
Sometimes the school of hard knocks is the only way we can learn. But along the way I am so thankful for teachers who have been able to help me get through those times quicker and help me reach a higher level of musical maturity. We as teachers need to ask ourselves: do I as an instructor challenge my students with the appropriate level of maturity?
This bit of advice goes hand in hand with maturity. We have to think things through for ourselves. I always seek to empower my students by giving them the tools and not the answers. For instance I have one student who loves to play by ear and he will always ask me to “show him” how to play the music when the music is sitting right in front of him. If I were to merely show him he would not learn the tools to be able to make music on his own, he would be dependent on me for his success. I have to be creative a lot of the time but teaching someone to fish rather than just giving them a fish will eventually go a lot further. Question for myself as an instructor: am I allowing my student to take ownership of this or am I crippling them by spoon feeding too much too long?
This is a hard one. A lot of us want to sugar coat how things are going. We have to be brutally honest, (!!When the time is right!!) some students may not be ready for complete honesty. But for some that is the only way to break through the plateau facing them. I was reading on a blog (www.jamesclear.com) and I loved this line: "Perhaps the greatest difference between deliberate practice and simple repetition is this: feedback.” This is so true, we as teachers have to give good and honest feedback to our students, we have to move them forward, giving them permission to be better and achieve higher. we have to move them past their plateau and on to the next mountain range of success.
Remember, learning and growing are a process. To find our limit we have to keep pushing and stretching, have some honesty for yourself and your students. Telling our students this is a commitment that takes consistency. We live in this fast food culture and it only gets faster and faster as I get older. But music is a process and no matter how you package it ("learn music in 2 weeks!”) you can’t learn music in a few lessons. It is something that you live with and that grows as you grow. It’s ok to make mistakes, as long as we’re actively learning from them! As an instructor don’t be afraid to let parents and students alike know this! Be bold and take ownership of your own teaching philosophy. Our minds are a powerful gift and tool, we just have to take the time to develop it, both for ourself and for our students.
What does it even mean to have practice technique? Don’t we just play the song until it gets good enough? Well yes and no. ‘A good teacher will teach you how to practice.’
Practice makes perfect…
Well almost, perfect practice makes perfect. A good teacher teaches a student good practice habits, but the parents make or break the habits. As a student I was struggling for quite a while to understand why progress was so slow for me. Then one day my uncle gave me the epiphany that I needed: good teachers tell you what is write and wrong with your playing but a GREAT teacher will show you how to practice.
Tips for good practice
-Do not mindlessly repeat a song until it’s good enough (DO THIS INSTEAD)
-Focus on Trouble spots
-Sight read daily
-Understand the music you are playing (theory/patterns)
-Understand the rhythm in your piece
-Break down the layers
-Use word pictures to help students visualize how to succeed and produce the correct sound
Parents you’ve got to be involved.
So many times I have heard the parents tell me, “they [the child] wanted to sign up for lessons and so I want it to be fun and something they decide to do, their practice time is up to them.” If the child was paying for his/her own lessons and full gown adults with a good sense of dedication and discipline already developed this would be a great way to think about things. Consider this: do we send our kids to school and make them do their homework or do we merely give them an easy way out and say they wanted to do school so it’s up to them to make good grades and study? Kids are kids and they need guidance from not only the teacher but also the parents.
I currently work with a family that has four kids and I teach all of them. We have been working together since I moved to Nashville over a year and a half ago. Both parents are very involved in the kids’ lessons, we talk in depth quickly at the end of the lessons to cover what went well what went poor and how the student and I had agreed to fix things up for the next lesson. For the most part these kids have improved dramatically. Other families I have worked with for almost identical time frames have not seen this dramatic improvement. Should it be thought that the first family is elite in some way or that they are more talented? No not at all, the main difference is their parent's commitment to the lessons and their practice plan.
Have a plan for the week
“If you plan you will succeed, if you fail to plan you will fail.” Each week with my students I give them a weekly practice plan sheet (download here) and we go over in detail what to do for each day of practice and after that I usually go over it with the parent also so that we are all on the same page. Then I promise them both big results if they follow exactly what I have laid out for them. Consistency is the key. Having a practice can also help to inspire the student. I remember when I first started 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. Try it out for your child and let us know how it worked out.
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
Focusing on trouble spots is not always the norm when it comes to practice techniques that are taught by the teacher or encouraged by the parent. Most think that repetition is the key to successful music learning. While repetition is very helpful it can quickly turn into mindless repetition. The problem with mindless repetition practice is that it assumes the student can learn the whole piece in one pass or by merely playing the song over and over again. Which yes eventually the student 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 the student faces these problems head on and focuses his/her energy there they will see great and faster results. Also think what we are teaching our children to do if we merely advise them to play the whole song without attention to the practice spots. Aren’t we essentially teaching these young minds that it is ok to avoid trouble spots in our lives just continue the way we are going and things will work themselves out…
Sight Read Daily
We expect our children to read in reading class almost everyday in school, and we view music as the universal language, correct? So wouldn’t it make sense to have the child reading something new and fresh in that language everyday? Do we want our children to merely be able to recite what they have memorized? What good do lessons do if the child is not learning to actually understand music, they learn merely to regurgitate what the teacher has shared with them? Think of a teenager 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. 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 everyday is the only solution I found to this problem.
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 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)