Faculty Tips Archive
Read previous articles by our faculty from the titles listed below. An asterisk by a name indicates a former faculty member.
Creating a Performance 'Comfort Zone’
What does that mean?
The desk placed in the right space. Sun coming in at the right light…private space arranged to make practice become performance. In music, in dance, acting, painting, sculpture, banking, teaching … life … space must be made comfortable.
In the rush of “getting things up and ready,” too little attention is paid to what it means to make the private become public. The walls around us, inside and out, give a space, color and preservation of sound and memory. We are “animal creatures” who are radically affected when the space around us is altered. The transition of being in a studio with a teacher is a big step to the performance hall. The bigger steps to “BIGGER SPACES” from playroom to backyard, from school and Conservatory performance spaces, to stages of the world are dramatic. Our job is to help the student remember the rooms where “it felt comfortable.”
Former Drama Department Chair
Prolonging the Life of Saxophone and Clarinet ReedsIf you’ve ever found that the old reed you’re using doesn’t have the clarity and reliable “response” it once had when you began using it, try this “trick” before you give up on it:
(*note- this will not cure problems arising from a chipped or split reed)
To begin with, be sure you’re not trying to play on a reed while it is still “rippled” or “wavy” after you’ve soaked it in your mouth. You can speed up the elimination of the ripples/waves found at the tip of the reed by placing the playing end flat against the “lay” of the mouthpiece and apply gentle pressure on the top of it with your thumb. The ligature needs to be removed from the mouthpiece for this. ( - the ”lay” is that flat section on the mouthpiece where the reed gets held by the mouthpiece ligature.)
Should the reed still sound “lifeless” and the ripples have been eliminated, try this:
– Remove the reed and place it flat side down on a clean sheet of paper that has been placed on a very smooth surface.
- Apply firm pressure at the reed’s midpoint with your first 2 fingers and rapidly rub the reed back and forth against the sheet of paper. In effect you will be “polishing” the flat side and actually sealing it up. You’ll see that the “polished” side will actually have a little bit of a shine.
- Re-attach the reed (no need to re-wet it) and see if it doesn’t have improved response now. …if not, it’s probably time to move on to a new “favorite” reed.
Rejuvinating Loose Saxophone, Clarinet, Oboe, Bassoon and Flute Corks
(Yes, flutes do have cork. –It’s what keeps the tuning plug firmly in place within the head joint.) Whenever the corks on my sax or clarinet, or flute tuning plug become too loose to hold snuggly, I place them (very carefully) over the flame of a lighted match or lighter. – I do not allow them to touch the flame (they’ll burn) and do not hold them over the flame for any extended time. Just a short time over the heat is enough to dry the cork out and expand it back to the size it once was. –This eliminates inconvenient trips to the repair shop, and can be done multiple times to extend the life of instrument corks. * Its also important to remember that since cork is wood, moisture will continue to try and rot it, unless you continue to use some cork grease occasionally to, in effect, keep it “waterproofed”, even after the instrument parts no longer seem to need it strictly the for purpose of assembly. (Does not apply to flutes.)
The Value of Recording Your Practice Session
Once in a while, record part of your practice session. Take into account that home recordings usually aren't very good. Nevertheless you can often hear things that aren't what you want (perhaps even something your teacher has been trying to convey!). Recording a piece as practice for an audition also works well--it will make you a bit nervous and that's the idea. You practice playing through the nerves. I use a hand held tape recorder purchased at Staples for under $50. The sound is terrible, but I get valuable feedback from it anyway.
Tips for Keeping Your Budding Vocalist Happy and Practicing
Since the body is the instrument, some singers can be embarrassed about practicing in front of family or friends. Finding a time of day when he/she can have the piano to his/herself can go along way towards making a young singer comfortable. Singers should always have water available and drink it frequently during practice sessions to keep the instrument hydrated. My students have found that recording their lessons and practice sessions helps to reinforce the work we do in lessons – and they can sing along with the vocal exercises we previously record.
Singers, especially beginners, should be aware to stop practicing at the first sign of vocal or physical fatigue. Two shorter practice sessions can accomplish more since the voice is fresh and the mind focused. Remember, singers sing because it makes us feel joyful and we want to share that gift. Allowing the budding singer the space and time to hone that gift goes a long way towards ensuring a happy healthy instrument for years to come!
Violin or Viola: On Choosing a Suitable String Instrument
Many parents who wish to give their children a musical experience automatically gravitate towards the most popular of the string instruments, the violin. Here are a few thoughts for those who might consider its older brother, the viola:
Fewer children play the viola, so there is more opportunity for performance and individual attention. Later on, there is more paying work available for the professional violist.
Most violinists begin at age 4 or 5. If your child is an older beginner, he/she would be more up to speed with peers on the viola.
If your child is tall or has large hands, the viola would be a better fit.
Most importantly, the viola has a beautiful rich and mellow tone. Its sound can have all of the glory of the cello, and it is just as easy to carry around as the violin. (The first few years aren't nearly as screechy on the parent's ears!)
Suzuki volumes 1 and 2 are almost identical for violin and viola. It is very easy to switch from violin to viola or vice versa during this time period.
Many teachers are equally competent to teach violin or viola, regardless of their primary instrument. I started out as a violist at age 10, but all of my teachers were violinists until I reached the age of 22!
Note: Come listen to the Hausmann String Quartet, on Feb 19th at 3 pm in Hingham , and hear two violins, a viola and a cello play at the same time!
Former Strings Instructor
Tips to Help Improve Playing Technique
My advice to all students would be to listen to a lot of music and a variety of music. So often we teach students to play music by decoding notes, and the music comes out "correct", but without much feeling or understanding. The more time we spend listening, the more understanding we can apply to our playing. Students can borrow all kinds of cds from the library, or ask their teachers for suggestions. Most students' parents have great cd libraries, not to mention what is available through the Internet.
Early Childhood Music Specialist
What To Do Before Purchasing an Instrument
As a Suzuki teacher, I have one very important tip:
Ask your teacher about the appropriate instrument to buy BEFORE you go out and buy it. The teacher may have important advice about the size, style and model to buy. This advice is good for ALL instruments.
Suzuki Classical Guitar Instructor
On the Importance of Counting Out Loud
In early years as a percussion student, I listened well to my fine instructors' advice and learned quickly the value in counting out loud. Yet in my years as a percussion teacher, I have found that getting my students to do so is like pulling teeth. Only my most diligent students do so, and most of the ones who finally get it, find out the hard way after months, as if struggle and delayed growth is a mandatory pre-requisite.
Meanwhile these same students marvel at the fact that it takes three seconds to write down any drum beat they bring in via audio samples (cds, ipods, etc.) of songs they want to learn. "How you do you do that so quickly" is a common phrase I hear, but not nearly as common as the three word phrase I've written or stated more than any three word combination in my entire life as a result of students' neglecting to realize this importance of "COUNT(ing) OUT LOUD!"
Obviously if you're at a concert you can't count out loud, I'm speaking strictly on a preparatory level, and also obvious is the reality that many students use their mouths to blow through their instruments. But as far as rhythm is concerned, even if you do play a woodwind instrument, at least when encountering rhythms which are challenging, you should be able to count (and maybe clap) it out loud if you expect to be able to play it accurately.
On a weekly basis I have students come back to me playing rhythms wrong. When I plead with them to count out loud while they play, an instantaneous change occurs (and maybe an "AH HA, maybe this guy does actually know a thing or two") as the rhythm instantly corrects itself without my guidance or assistance. When my students insist that they are counting in their head, this transformation rarely takes place, either because they aren't really doing so or more likely because they can't hear themselves counting the wrong rhythm. In other words hearing your syllables being counted shines a light on the potential flaws.
I tell students that using the metronome (time keeping device) and being able to count all your rhythms out loud when possible are probably your greatest teachers. The short and long term benefits are numerous.
Some Counting Benefits:
1. Counting helps students with timing within the phrase or sections of music - as they actually hear themselves counting the mistake, it shines a light on it.
2. Counting creates an internal clock by hearing the rhythms counted.
3. Counting out loud is the best tool for becoming more self-reliant and developing awareness of arrangements as well as rhythms, not to mention transcription ability.
4. Sight reading rhythms and future assignments become far less taxing and time consuming to learn.
There are many more reasons, but I’ll leave it up to you to find out for yourselves, through one of the best practices any musician can utilize – counting.
Former Percussion Instructor
Reverse Your Practicing Practices Once In a While!
We all are used to practicing a piece from the beginning through the end. However, it is sometime surprising to us why the opening of the piece sounds so secure and solid, while the ending is usually shaky and full of flaws. The reason is that the opening of the piece of music gets to be practiced the most, is because when, during the practicing, we get "off track" in the middle of the music, we usually start it over from the beginning again. This way we frequently do not even reach the last bars or pages.
Why not to reverse the practicing, and once in awhile to try to practice "backwards" - from the end to the beginning? Sounds shocking? It is not difficult: do not go backwards note-wise. Simply start from the last phrase, "polish" it, and then go to the next to the last, then two phrases before the end, and so on, until the beginning is reached. You will be surprised how much more securely the text is learned.
Positive Reinforcement for Young Students
Instead of telling your child to practice ask them to play a piece that they are learning in their lesson, and give them positive feedback. You might tell them you enjoyed it so much you would love to hear it again, or would they play another song they are working on, or one of their older pieces that they like. Perhaps they can show you how to play a little of a piece several times during the week so that you can learn a song also. Do not correct them if it is not exactly right.
Enjoy the fact that you are sharing this experience with your child. If you are really busy tell them you love to hear them play while you are getting dinner ready, folding the laundry or whatever it is you need to get done. Be sure to say something positive about their playing so your child knows you were really listening.
Former Suzuki Piano Instructor
What Is Involved In a Healthy Practice Session
Caring for your spirit of music-making
NEVER practice out of duty. Get yourself in the mood by listening to great musicians, imagining your best sound, remembering past improvements and successes, etc. This way, you only approach your instrument when you are motivated.
Caring for your space
Just a little clean up, etc. can greatly increase your self-esteem and your focus. Your music is worth a clutter-free environment. Do this and you WILL improve.
Caring for the musician inside you
See yourself as the primary "instrument," always practicing good posture. Be patient and be kind to yourself. Resist ''the rut" by finding new creative ways of practicing.
Caring for your equipment
Treat your instrument (and everything for that matter) like it is a living thing. Even if you practice 20 minutes, some of that time should be spent doing something to care for your instrument (oil it, wipe down keys, clean case, polish, etc). As you do this, you will find that your music becomes deeper and more mature because you are more "one" with your instrument.
Former Trumpet Instructor
Warming Up the Singing Voice
Singers need to have an established warm-up procedure, usually spread out over twenty to thirty minutes. Because the vocal instrument is physical, a graduated program of warming up is appropriate for singing.
Before any vocal performance, including voice lessons, and prior to the vocal warm-up itself, it is wise to do a few minutes of light physical exercise that produces a feeling of elasticity and freedom throughout the body. Swinging your arms, dropping your head and arms downward, returning to standing position, and then gently running in place are all part of the process of awakening the body.
Every singer should arrive at a voice lesson already warmed up. Otherwise time is lost, and the teacher's evaluation of the student's performance level is not accurate. The vocal warm-up package ought to begin gently, in a comfortable range of the voice. Humming in medium range and using syllables with nasals and vowel sequences are useful devices. Exercises that induce flexible tongue and haw action form part of the warm-up sequence.
The singer should never become dependent upon the voice teacher for the warming-up process, especially before a public performance. Warming up is something one must learn to take care of on one's own.
Making Practice Fun
Growing up in a household as one of four young Suzuki students has left me full of memories of my mother’s creative attempts to make practicing fun. Though my siblings and I loved to play music we had no desire to practice. In fact, we fought those practice sessions with all our might. My mother had no idea of forcing us to become musicians. But she wanted us to learn discipline from the work that we did, so that we could face and overcome any obstacles that came our way, whether as children or adults. This was an invaluable gift to be taught.
As a teacher, I am often approached by frustrated parents whose children love their lessons, love to learn new music, love the recitals, but hate to do the work at home. Practicing can be difficult, but games and goals help a lot. I hope that some of these ideas are useful!
It is very important to set goals when practicing, whether by setting a time limit, or by selecting a task to be completed. Children generally like to know how many times they need to do things, so it can help a lot to set a number. For example, if a note is always played incorrectly in a piece, isolate the small section with the wrong note and say “The goal is to play it ten times with no mistakes.” This can be made into a game by using coins, stickers, candy or anything as a playing piece. Every time the note is correct they “win” a piece. If the note is wrong, you win a piece back from them. If the goal is to practice for a certain period of time, set a timer or alarm to go off at the end.
I believe strongly in rewarding hard work. Most of us, adults and children alike, respond very well to rewards, whether they are incentives for getting work done, exercising, dieting, etc. Practice is no exception. Find out what motivates your child and go with it. This might be something as simple as stickers, using a timer to practice, or having extra time to read or play. Or it might involve having a friend over, going to a movie, or even a specific present he or she has been wanting. You, as the parent, can decide beforehand how indulgent you would like to be, or if certain tasks should be accomplished as regular, expected duties.
This is another easy one. With your child, go to the store and select a candle. Any kind will do, but it is fun to get a big, thick one, or one with a cool color or shape to it. When the child practices the candle burns. The candle is blown out every time a break is taken. When the candle is melted away a reward is given. This could take weeks or longer, if it is a big candle. It is a great long-term practice project.
This is fairly easy to do. With your child, take a sheet of poster board and cut it into a cool shape - a cat’s face, a pumpkin, heart, hand, moon, etc. Make an agreement with your child that every time he or she practices without an argument, a sticker goes on the chart. When the chart is full, a reward is given. (This might work best as a pre-decided reward, as large or small as you want to indulge. For example, having a friend spend the night, going on a shopping trip, getting ice cream, baking cookies, etc.)
This takes a bit more work on the parent’s part, but will definitely be a success. The idea is to create a board game that works for practice. BINGO is an easy one to do. Just make a BINGO chart with the letters and numbers across. Then, in each square, write a command, such as: “Play the A section 3 times with no mistakes” or “Play the middle section extra slowly.” There can even be some silly commands, like “Play the piece with your eyes closed” or “Play while standing on one foot.” When you spell out BINGO, the game is over.
Things like this can turn the ordinary monotony of going over and over one piece of music into a fun game. There are some games like this designed specifically for young musicians. Look on the internet for music-specific board-games.
Suzuki String Instructor
Easing Your Child Into Preschool
Summer vacations were designed to allow for plenty of freedom. It’s a time to explore, recharge and play. Now that it’s August, some parents may feel the pangs of concern with September just around the corner and wonder, "What have I done to prepare my child for school?" Theologically schools should be preparing for the children not children being prepared for school. However, here are some tips and suggestions for parents:
Try to return to a more normal schedule slowly one day at a time, two to three weeks before school starts. This especially includes regular bedtime and eating routines.
Provide many and varied reading times with your child. Reading books, (picture, story, rhyme, predictable, fantasy, informational), poems, early childhood magazines, and singing songs offer a child a chance to hold, feel, look, sense and express their creative ideas.
Visits to the local Library and Bookstore story hours provide social interaction as well as stimulation for your child and also encourages them to use their listening manners.
Day trips to museums, parks, beaches, wildlife sanctuaries, and relatives can be a great language-rich experience for preschoolers of all ages.
Encourage your child into conversation when looking at the many souvenirs you have acquired from these journeys and either save them in a treasure box or the older child may wish to draw, paint, sculpt or write (with help) a story to remember the special memories. These treasures are super for future show and tell dates.
Do not over discuss school with your anxious preschooler but rather peak your child’s natural curiosity by asking open ended questions such as "I wonder if the playground is still as fun looking as when we visited last spring?" However if your child is dreading leaving home and really voices a "No Way" attitude then by all means call the preschool director for some creative thinking. I, for example, would suggest an informal fun drop-in time for you and your child, under the guise of bringing your child’s extra clothes needed for the school year, or dropping off much needed recycled item to be used for art projects. These short visits resulting in a fun relaxed time can begin to help with the transition between home and school. Prior to the start of school, most preschools have open houses or special activities for both child and parent, to help ease the transition.
A very useful phrase that I share with parents when their child has fears is simply this "When you are ready (or feeling brave) you will do a great job ". This phrase works well for separation fear or potty training woes because the phrase can have a calming affect on a potentially stressful situation and at the same time there is a future hint of success.
During the summer before your child starts preschool, parents may be concerned with their child’s level of skill in the toilet training process. This is another use for teacher 911. Together the teacher and the parents can best decide a proper strategy that will work best for all concerned and gear special tips and suggestions specifically for your child.
Preschool directors and teachers are a valuable resource to be used when there are concerns or questions that parents might have at any time through this intriguing early childhood journey. Please remember everything your child experiences in these wonderful early learning years is academics. From the exploration of a tide pool to finding out that it probably wasn't wise to throw your crying sister's favorite doll into said tide pool. It is all a grand learning experience when you are a PRESCHOOLER. So, love, laugh and play...A lot!
Carol Forbes Scheig
Hingham Preschool Director
A Few Words On Performing Ease
When I first started my drama workshops at SSC, many moons ago, I was preparing a small troupe to present a small performance for parents and friends. I call these things, “Blink-of-an-Eye” Productions. Blink too long and you miss the show…just enough to get the feel of performance and not the fear.
One young thespian, all of six years old said, “Who’s coming to see this?” I mentioned his Mother (he nodded), Father (another nod), Grandmother and Grandfather (ditto). Well??
“They know me. They have to like me. I want THEM,” he said as he swept his hand in a wide arc toward the unknown world beyond the family. “AN AUDIENCE!!”
This young fellow went on to get a degree in theatre, etc and ultimately went on to a professional career. At an early age, he knew he wanted the challenge. But not every person is as uninhibited as this youngster. Gauging what any performer of any age can tolerate is a sensitive issue. The prime role of any parent, teacher, director, conductor, etc. is to create an arena that sustains a comfort zone buffered by nurturing, training and trust, to ultimately ease any performance anxiety.
The family is the first audience of any budding performer or speaker. In your home, you can create comfortable arenas for the sharing of skills…reading aloud, saying family blessings, or playing for guests. Remember to accept the skill levels of the performer, and be careful not to place pressure to perform on the unwilling musician, storyteller, artist. Even performers need to take a day off sometimes.
It’s also important to respect the anxiety-building engine within his or her instrument, and encourage them breath deeply to slow it down. All art is a gift of oneself given to someone else. Take time to share.
Former Drama Department Chair
Preparing Your Child for Kindergarten
Provide a daily routine that includes regular times for meals.
Establish a bedtime that gives your child eight or more hours of sleep at night.
See that your child has opportunities for rigorous physical activity, outside when possible, everyday.
Help your child select and wear clothing appropriate for indoor climate and outdoor weather conditions.
See that your child has had required immunizations and current health examination.
Help your child develop independence in dressing, eating and personal hygiene.
Interact frequently with your child each day by talking, listening and touching.
Take your child to a variety of places such as the library, the park, the grocery store, the post office.
Provide toys, games and household objects that encourage exploration, manipulation and dramatic play. Occasionally work with your child using the materials.
Provide opportunities to play with other children.
Teach socially acceptable ways to disagree.
Encourage social values such as helpfulness, cooperation, sharing, and concerns for others.
Demonstrate common expressions of courtesy and praise your child for using them (thank you, please).
Establish reasonable limits for behaviors and hold your child to them.
Talk with your child about our family, our culture and our values.
Provide opportunities for your child to learn about other cultures in our community.
Encourage work values such as effort, persistence, initiative.
Read to your child every day. Talk together about the pictures and story.
Provide books, magazines and other print materials for your child to handle.
Provide opportunities to play alphabet games, read alphabet books, and talk about letter names and sounds.
Provide pencils, markers, paper and encourage drawing and scribbling or writing.
Invite your child to help with grocery lists, grocery shopping, sending cards.
Read poems and sing songs together.
Jill Martin Young
The Importance of Encouraging Your Child To Improvise
Improvise defined in Webster’s:
1: to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously
2: to make, invent, or arrange offhand
3: to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand: improvise a meal
From when I first began to study percussion as a student, I was taught that reading music was the most important skill to achieve, and I’m so grateful for that training and for the persistence of my instructors.
When we read music we “re-create” what another person wanted to hear or say. We spend a great deal of time working to understand what a composer is saying, all of what is expected, and a wonderful and very effective part of learning music.
All too often, though, students are not encouraged enough to create their own music (experiment) for fear of wasting valuable practice time or doing something wrong. Students should be encouraged to create on their instrument. This doesn’t suggest that all students need to learn the subject of improvisation, but rather be urged to take some time to improvise on their instrument as they want to.
In my teaching I often ask students to create a story or event etc., on any percussion instrument of their choice. Most of the time this is a foreign exercise to them so I suggest visualizing a real life experience. I might ask them to think of an electrical storm, or a day at a park, and have them create what they see/feel and not what someone tells them to play. These kinds of exercises will have a multitude of benefits, but most importantly the student will have fun. It brings playing to a level of their understanding. When combined with more traditional paths of study, e.g. technique, reading, or scales, students will enjoy the time practicing and performing, realizing that they are and can be a big part of this journey.
Jazz/Rock and Percussion Department Chair
Keeping Your Voice Healthy!
Everyone uses their voice for hours a day, whether they sing or not. Here are some tips to help you keep your voice healthy and help you when you’re under the weather.
HYDRATE: Drinking 6-8 glasses of water each day is essential to maintaining a healthy voice. The vocal cords vibrate extremely fast even when making the most simple sound; staying hydrated by drinking water optimizes the throat’s mucous production which keeps your vocal cords lubricated. Even if you’re drinking plenty of water, you can dehydrate yourself by drinking caffeine or, for adults, alcohol. Avoid or moderate beverages like coffee, tea, and soda. When you exercise be sure to drink extra water.
DON’T SMOKE: We all know that smoking leads to lung or throat cancer. Did you know that primary and secondhand smoke that is inhaled passes by the vocal cords, causing them to become irritated and swell? This will permanently change how your voice sounds and what it is capable of.
SPEAK THOUGHTFULLY: If you feel like your throat is dry, fatigued, or your voice is becoming hoarse, stop talking! Your voice is not indestructible. In every day communication, be sure to avoid habitual yelling, screaming, or cheering. Try not to talk over significant background noise or speak at an unnatural pitch. You can find your true “natural” speaking range by saying, “uh-huh” the way you would if you were really interested in what someone was saying – I bet it’s higher than you usually speak! Be sure you use breath in every sound you make, and experiment with speaking in different pitch areas.
THROAT CLEARING DOESN’T HELP: Clearing your throat is like slamming the vocal cords together. Too much throat clearing can cause vocal cord injury and hoarseness. Instead of clearing your throat, take a sip of water or simply swallow. This goes for excess coughing too.
REST WHEN YOU’RE SICK: If your voice is hoarse, avoid speaking as much as possible. Singers should exhibit extra caution if their speaking voice is hoarse because permanent and serious injury to the vocal cords is more likely when the vocal cords are swollen or irritated. Listen to what your voice is telling you and take care of it!
Hoarseness or roughness in your voice can be caused by a medical problem. Contact an otolaryngologist if you have noticed sustained changes to your voice.
Playing Nicely With Others:
Advice for the Chamber Music Pianist
Playing chamber music is a blast! The repertoire is vast and rich and the camaraderie you feel when creating music with other people is unparalleled. It is an important facet to any music education and will make you a better musician. I have been playing chamber music for many years and would like to share some tips on playing nicely with others.
Know Your Part
it seems obvious, but you will not be comfortable playing with others if you are unsure of your own part. Approach the music like you would any other piece in your solo repertoire. It will demand just as much from you! Make sure you have worked out any tricky passages and have a good sense of how the piece is structured. Practice awkward page turns or repeats in the music. Once you are in rehearsal your focus will have to shift to group concerns, such as tempo, intonation, voicing and interpretation. Come prepared so that you can contribute your ideas to the group!
It’s not always about you!
I remember my teacher coaching me in my first chamber music group and telling me not to play so loudly. I was shocked. After all she is a pianist, too. Wouldn’t she want to hear my part more than the others? The fact is that my piano part was not always the most important part to be heard. I did not always have the melody and needed to listen how my part complimented the other instruments. It can be disorienting at first to hear other instruments when you are used to only hearing your own. Being able to listen is perhaps the greatest chamber music challenge.
Pianists rarely have access to the ensemble opportunities, such as band or orchestra, which other instrumentalists have. Piano students quite often lack the good counting and sight-reading skills that these environments produce. Unlike your solo piano pieces, you may encounter passages when the piano part-writing is sparse or resting for multiple measures. These need to be practiced, too. Practicing with a metronome can be very helpful with this. Your teacher may also be of service by playing the other instrument parts on the piano with you so that you can hear how the other parts will fit with what you are playing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! One of the characteristics of chamber music writing is the intricate interplay between the instruments. When it is seamless it is breathtaking. You can count on it!
Know the Score
Knowing what the other instruments are playing is just as important as knowing your own part. Pianists have the advantage of having all of the instrument parts in their score. The other musicians will only have their own part. Study the score. Take the time to read through those other parts or listen to a recording of the piece and pay attention to a particular instrument’s part. You will have a greater understanding of the piece. Also, being able to anticipate and react to what your partners are playing will enhance your own performance.
Learn to breathe
The concept of breathing should be natural to us all. And yet I hear some pianists play as if they are holding their breath until the piece they are playing has ended! The fact is that we don’t need to blow air into our pianos to make them sound and therefore don’t always consider where in the music we would breathe if we had to. As you approach your solo repertoire try speaking or better yet singing the melody (observing the composer’s phrase markings) and notice how it changes the way you play the piece.
For music to truly come alive and speak to the listener it must breathe. This becomes all the more important when playing chamber music. There will be moments where it is crucial that everyone begin or end a phrase together. The group must breathe as one! Of course if you are working with a wind instrument player or vocalist the consideration of breathing becomes a more practical one. Ask your fellow musicians where they need to take breaths and mark these in your score so that you don’t leave them and the music gasping for air.
Odds and Ends
As the date approaches for your performance there are details that ought to be addressed so that everything goes smoothly. First, get a page turner. Even if you haven’t had any difficulty turning your own pages during rehearsals it is a good idea to have someone else make the page turns so that you don’t risk dropping any notes or worse yet the entire book! Your page turner should be able to read music well enough to follow the score. Include them in a rehearsal so that they can practice their part with you. Second, if possible, schedule a rehearsal with the group in the hall where you will be performing. You will want to get a feel for the piano if it is one you have never played before and the group will want to hear how the music will sound in the space. Best wishes to you for an enjoyable and memorable chamber music performance!
Preparing Yourself for Performance
Students, both young and old, often ask me how to prepare for their first Conservatory performance. I find the most effect way to prepare for performing in SSC's monthly student recitals is to participate in our weekly workshops first, with a memorized short piece. If the result is not as ideal as expected the first time, students may attend a second one the same week hosted by a different teacher, or revisit the following week. Twice-weekly workshop sign-up sheets are posted on the bulletin boards at both Hingham and Duxbury campuses, and students can attend as frequently as needed, until their memory is secure, and they are comfortable that they are ready to share this wonderful fruit with their family and friends at the recital.
When I was young, before I was going to perform, all the adults, including my parents and teachers, kept telling me “don’t worry, just imagine that the audience doesn’t exist, and that they are just potatoes or trees in a field.” But, what they didn’t realize was that this advice didn’t help me at all. I still felt I was going to pass out, and wondered why I was there. All I wanted at that moment is to be invisible and to be erased from the program. Well, now I tell students about the realistic fear of actual performance, and that they need to keep telling themselves to have courage and never give up until the last note is finished. Courage is a very important word to remember when you play. It can keep you focused throughout the performance, instead of putting your mind ahead to all the fun things, and gifts or flowers bouquet one will receive following the performance.
Now, if you have a little memory slip at the performance, don’t despair, be a good actor and fake it all the way until you finish. Still walk to the center of stage proudly and with a big smile, and bow graciously to your applauding audience. Chances are no one except your teacher will know what had happened. A little slip is really not a biggie, and most people will probably think you were just amazing!! Learning from our mistakes will make the next recital even more successful.
Hope to see you all at the workshops and recitals. Come and celebrate your own special talent and gift and I hope the above words will give you a little inspiration to practice a bit more.
The vibrato should do for your basic sound what seasoning does for your food - it should enhance the flavor of the food without dominating it. A vibrato cannot disguise a basically bad sound, just as salt and pepper cannot disguise a bad piece of meat. Your vibrato should be used with discretion - just like how some foods need salt and pepper, some need sugar and some need nothing, certain musical passages need fast vibrato, some slow vibrato, and some need no vibrato. I suggest that vibrato be used in melodic, singing, solo passages and avoided in chordal/harmonic roles.
Steps to Help Protect You and Your Family from Colds and Flu
Staying well is important to everyone, and not just in the winter but all year long. Here are a few easy tips for helping prevent getting sick and spreading sickness. Good hand washing with soap is a must before entering the classrooms, especially when using shared instruments such as a piano. Dry soap, one that you do not need water with, is very effective. Staying home when you have had a fever in the last 24 hours helps prevent the spread of sickness to others. A good rule of thumb is that if a student needs to take medication to keep their fever down, then they should stay home.
It is hard for a teacher to teach when they are sick, and discouraging to know that it could have been prevented if only the parent had kept their sick child home. Also, please do not ask the teacher to make a wellness decision about your child, as they are not doctors, and would have no idea how the student felt the day before. It may only be a half-hour class but it only takes one cough or sneeze to spread a virus. All siblings and parents who are transporting or accompanying the student to class, should follow the same rules.
Lead Teacher, Hingham Preschool
The Essentials of Guitar Playing
I tell all my students to buy an abridged version of the Harvard Dictionary of Music and keep it in their guitar case with a tuner and a metronome. These items are the essentials for any guitar player.
Help your Child Stick to Learning Music
Reprinted from February 26, 2008 Detroit News Your child's saxophone is collecting dust in the corner, and when you remind him to practice, he refuses. Is he done with music? If he recently started playing, then probably not, says Mark Campbell, operations director of the South Shore Conservatory, a school for the arts in Hingham and Duxbury, Mass. Unlike younger kids, who often have endless determination to master new activities, preteens may quickly give up on something they don't excel at from the get-go. To help your child stick to it:
Sit nearby. Even if it's just for several short sessions per week, you can limit distractions by staying close by while he plays.
Keep the instrument handy and in plain view. Seeing it each day will remind him to practice, and he might be more likely to pick it up if it's right there.
Build practice time into his daily activities. Setting aside time before leaving for school or right after dinner each day will help your kid remember to make rehearsing routine.
Hold "concerts." Have your child perform for you and your family on a regular basis. Tell him specific things you love about his playing, and keep yourself up-to-date with what he's working on so you can comment on improvements at each show.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Practice Session
As a busy woodwind player, I have spent many years finding ways to cover the same ground in less time. Here are a few quick practicing tips that have worked well for my students:
1) Divide your practice session into categories. Tone, Technique, Rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc. Determine what you want to accomplish that day and spend a certain amount of time on each. You could also divide your list of categories into two separate days if time is very limited.
2) Don't practice your mistakes, correct them. So often we just run through our daily routines mindlessly. Play a couple of measures, a phrase or a section and ask yourself what you like and don't like about it. If you don't know, play it again and really listen.
3) Repetition. Once you find the measures you’re having trouble with, play them slowly at first but continue to increase the speed. Musicians learn by repeating the measure over and over again correctly. You determine how many times you need to repeat it. Ten times or 1000 times. In the end, your audience doesn't really care how much time you practiced it. They are there to be entertained.
4) Quality not quantity. When you practice, cover less material with greater accuracy. In college I would spend many lessons sometimes on just a few measures. I covered less ground but those few measures corrected thousands of measures that I would play in the future.
5) Recordings. Always find recordings of the pieces you’re working on. It is almost like taking your teacher home with you. We can learn at a much faster rate just by listening and parroting.
6) Metronome and Tuner. Always use the tools that are available to you, they could fix a multiple of sins.
7) Above all have fun. We learn best when we enjoy what we are doing.
Woodwind Department Chair
Chamber Music Coordinator
Practice Does Not Make Perfect: Practice Makes Permanent!
Not so many years ago, there was a famous comedian named Jack Benny. Jack was actually quite a good violinist but you would never know it if you saw him on his comedy show. In one of his favorite roles, Jack practiced and practiced the violin at home each week. Then, he’d go to his lesson feeling sure that his violin teacher would be pleased. He’d proudly take out his violin and bow, set the bow on the string, and…… scritch, scratch, screech, scratch…! Week after week he would play the same etude. His violin teacher would cringe, groan, and utter words of despair. Jack’s violin playing character practiced but never improved.
Can a student practice regularly and make little or no progress? Sadly, yes. There are probably some students gleefully thinking that this is the practice escape clause!!! No, no, no. Practice is essential but the practice must be purposeful and guided. Just putting on the timer and playing 30 or more minutes will probably have wasted quite a bit of time while making bad habits even more permanent than they were before. Good practice habits must be developed. The title of this writing is not original to me and I have seen it in so many forms. Still, it could change your practice focus and more!
So, here you are facing the practice dilemma. You want to become a better musician. You realize it requires practice. You do not always feel like practicing. There are so many choices of things to do. Time is short enough so you want your training time to be focused. You will set goals. No practice will start without a quick review of the goals. Start with five main goals so they can be checked off using the fingers of one hand. Write them down. Keep them in focus as you practice.
Here are five goals that I might choose for some of my students to use:
1. I am choosing to practice each day at ___a.m./p.m. in the area where I keep my instrument, music and supplies organized and ready to use.
2. My attitude will be positive!
3. My teacher has ___ main goal(s) for me concentrate on each time I play this week. For example, one goal is to keep my left wrist in proper playing position. Therefore, each time I prepare to play, I will check my left wrist. I will not allow something as simple as a poor left wrist position to keep me from looking and sounding as good as I could.
4. My teacher has pointed out specific areas in these pieces that need attention. For example, when I play the minuet, I must be certain to hold the dotted half notes for three full beats. Then, I will work on the phrasing of those half notes. Some will lead into the next measure while others will cadence.
5. For my own sake and for my teacher, I will play with the best sound, expression, and position I am capable of while I practice my new material, scales, review pieces, and free time pieces.
Now practice is over. Do your five-goal check. Need help focusing? You may find a notebook or practice record-keeping book such as the Molto Music Musicians Practice Planner, Burton Kaplan’s Musician’s Practice Log or his Practicing For Artistic Success, or the basic Wright-Way Practice Record to be helpful. Your own teacher will be your best source of guidance. Regardless of the method used, the large goal is to use our time and energy wisely while gaining the greatest results. Happy practicing!
Understanding How Your Body Works Will Make You a Better Musician
We have all experienced that mixed feeling of excitement, envy, and hopelessness which comes from watching more advanced musicians make it look so easy. Don’t lose heart, though. Anyone can achieve similar success given persistence and the right approach--here’s a taste of how I do it.
1. Be relaxed! Tension is the enemy of motion. This is why the jump of a startled person, unsuspecting and relaxed, is so much more entertaining than the one who sees the trick coming and braces for it. Relaxation is what gives you access to the full speed, precision and power your body is capable of, which is so important to musicians. Practice so slowly that you have time to pay attention to every physical detail--the goal is power without tension, and it will be much easier to speed back up once you are relaxed!
2. Know your body. We each carry around in our heads a sort of map of how our body moves. The complexity of playing a musical instrument requires that we add details to that map, and errors in those details are the source of tension. The rule of thumb for avoiding those errors is quite simple: never use opposing muscle groups at the same time! If it seems necessary when you are playing your instrument, you just haven’t found the right mapping yet. The problem could be a misunderstanding of which muscles you actually need to use, or it could even be a mismapping of how and where the joints bend. For example, does your ankle move at the big anklebone, above it, or below it? How do your ribs move when you breathe, if at all? What bones are your shoulder blades connected to? The accuracy and precision of your answers are directly related to the physical limitations of your musicianship, and the same is true for me.
Here’s a more detailed example: The muscles that position your arm are independent from the muscles that position your shoulder, and both sets are equally independent of the muscles that rotate your arm at the shoulder. This means you can raise your arm while lowering your shoulder, all while rotating your arm forward--or any such combination. Try to find all three sets -- their range of motion is probably bigger than you think! A relaxed cellist uses the rotational muscles to apply power to the instrument on both sides, leaving the other two sets free for easily positioning the arms. A cellist with shoulder and neck tension has confused the mapping of these groups. That tension usually comes from trying to pull the arms DOWN for power (instead of rotating) while simultaneously trying to pull them UP for positioning needs. The downward pulling muscles are bigger and stronger, and so the tension is felt above while the tension below goes unnoticed.
For this reason, if you feel a tension you can’t release, the best place to look for its cause is in bigger muscle groups that contradict it. If your thumbs feel tense, check your forearms! There is detailed information available about this subject -- if you want to learn more about these and related ideas, look for information on “body mapping” and “Alexander technique.”
Every instrument comes with typical tension patterns associated with common mismappings of different muscle groups and motion patterns. In every case, once you figure out the correct mapping of what you are trying to do, your playing becomes almost effortless!
Former Cello Instructor
Maximizing Practice with Minimal Time
While I was a student in elementary through high school, a minimum 30 minutes of practice a day (outside of class) was required to receive an “A” in band class. Trying to fit that in with homework, sports practices, and a good night’s sleep posed quite a challenge. Today’s children and their families are busier than ever, and with technology and pop-culture driving the way, children’s attention spans are becoming shorter. If 30 minutes seemed like an eternity to me ten years ago, I can’t imagine how it feels for students today. With this in mind, I have a few suggestions for fitting in at least 30 minutes of practice per day that will, hopefully, help students improve and, most importantly, have fun and enjoy their experience studying an instrument!
30 minutes does not have to happen all at once!
Some of my students have told me nightmarish stories of 4-6 hours of homework per night (Yuck!). Spend an hour on homework, then ten minutes on practicing. Before you know it 30 minutes will have flown by.
But I get my homework done just in time for American Idol!
For the Idol lovers out there and anyone who squeezes in an hour of television a day/night, I have good news! If you were to practice during the commercial breaks, you would find that time amounts to 20 minutes, roughly. All you have to do then is find ten more somewhere. Not bad, eh?
Practicing does not always have to be on the instrument!
Continuing from the previous example, you have 20 minutes of practice on the instrument under your belt and you have called/ text messaged in your vote for your favorite Idol. Take the ten minutes you have left and just study your music. I find that some of my best practicing is done away from my trumpet, whether it be studying music or listening to recordings.
The main point of these examples is to see where the small holes might be in your daily schedule. 30 minutes might work better some days than others, the important thing is try to make practicing a daily habit no matter how much time is available. Regardless of the subject…music, science, math, or sports, all are more rewarding and fun when we are good or getting better at them, and we all know the only way to get better at something is to ________! Happy practicing and, most importantly, have fun!
Former Trumpet Instructor
The Importance of Parent/Teacher Communication
Since I began teaching at South Shore Conservatory, I have had many opportunities to connect with students and their parents. It is important for the teacher to connect not only with students, but with parents as well. As a Suzuki and Traditional piano teacher, I am fortunate to be able to connect with my students and their parents, since many parents sit in on their children’s lessons. In the Suzuki Method, the parent is typically required to attend their child’s lessons. This creates a bond between the parent, teacher, and the student. This is known as the Parent-Teacher-Student Triangle in the Suzuki Method. The Parent-Teacher-Student Triangle applies to any method of teaching, whether it is Suzuki or Traditional, and I incorporate this idea with all of my students.
Creating this bond or relationship within the Parent-Teacher-Suzuki triangle, can enable everyone to have better communication skills. When the parent communicates with the teacher and vice versa, important topics can be discussed, such as scheduling make-up lessons, the school’s policy on make-up lessons, and other important topics, like if their child is ready to perform in a student recital, etc. Too often a parent might not be aware of such topics because of a simple lack of communication. This day and age, we all have very busy schedules. Part of developing a good relationship in the Parent-Teacher-Student triangle, is having a mutual respect for each other’s schedules. Understanding the school’s policies is one step towards building respect between the parent and the teacher. A good way to communicate with your teacher about the school’s policies, is to discuss the policies with your teacher at the beginning of each semester, as outlined in the student handbook (see pg. 21 for details on the make-up lesson policy).
If we all do our best to keep communicating and connecting with everyone, hopefully there will be less incidents of miscommunication in the future. Remember, the Parent-Teacher-Student Triangle can be applied to any method, it is important to have a mutual respect for everyone’s busy lives, and discussing the school’s policies with your teacher at the beginning of each semester are all important steps towards communicating better. Let’s all keep talking and keep finding ways to improve communication.
Karen Ruckman Lindsey
Suzuki Piano Instructor
The Art of Play in Learning Music
After twelve years of teaching the early childhood music curriculum Music Together®, the very idea of teaching a music class for children ages 0-4 is still novel. Conventional thinking goes something like this: “C’mon, how can you really teach music to a baby? They can’t even read, write, or sit still to listen! So they certainly cannot learn to play an instrument....”
That a child cannot read, write, or sit still to listen (for very long) during early childhood is indeed an accurate assessment. But when we pause for a moment to consider all the important learning that goes on during early childhood in spite of these behaviors, I think we can all agree that perhaps reading, writing, and sitting still are actually not requirements for learning. Many of our most important life skills such as walking and speaking are actually learned through a process that, in retrospect, almost seems like osmosis.
A basic premise of Music Together is that MUSIC IS A BASIC LIFE SKILL; human beings come hard wired to receive and express music - just like language! So when we teach music to young ones as we teach language, we need to immerse and create informal and playful learning environments that provide an important spiral of experience and exposure. In essence, we approach music instruction like language instruction. Just as there are stages of Emergent Literacy during the early years , there are also stages of what we call “Primary Music Development” (usually ages 0-9) when a child can establish a base line competency in music simply by participating in music and learning to speak it like a language.
One of our most formal pedagogical tools is the use of tonal and rhythm patterns extracted from melodies and chants. The teacher sings these and allows time for children and parents to repeat. Many parents report that these patterns are often the first musical expression from their children, as they are vocables that are easily accessible to the child fluent in “babblese”. But there is more to these patterns than just being accessible - they a re actually the harmonic and rhythmic building blocks of the music, so the more the children play with them, the more they play with musical syntax, and hence the more fluent they become in music.
Now, you may be wondering how this relates to your 7 year-old, your teenager, or even for you as an adult learner for that matter. The answer comes in the form of questions you can ask yourself and your child: As you learn to play your instrument, are you still approaching music as a language? Is that expressive-receptive loop intact, or are you too focused on pressing the keys, holding the bow correctly, and strumming the right chords to really be listening and understanding music as a language? Have you ever felt like you learned a piece and played it perfectly, but somehow in the perfecting process it lost its music?
If you are losing the language piece of music, the expressive piece, my recommendation is simple: you need to play with your music. At a recent faculty meeting, I heard many faculty members discussing the importance of singing your repertoire; this is right on! You need to deconstruct your music by playing and singing it different ways (loud, soft, fast, slow, staccato, legato). Pull out tonal and rhythm patterns and play with those. And here is a radical notion: MOVE TO YOUR MUSIC! Get a favorite artist recording, pull down the shades, and put it in your body.
In sum, music is a universal language we all come hardwired to understand and express. If we can give ourselves the time and space to learn and play with music as we do with language, our music will take on deeper meaning in our lives and the lives of all it touches.
MUSIC TOGETHER® Artistic Director
PRACTICE – PLAYING – PERFORMING Why are we taking lessons and giving lessons?
This year, South Shore Conservatory is giving a more conscious focus to the art of performance. It might seem that performance would be central to the study of music but for many, the “practice” word is the more common thought. Why do people sign up to take lessons? What message does a teacher send to a student when giving the assignment for the week? Practice is essential if improvement is going to happen. Playing the music will happen to some degree as we practice. Is performance really necessary?
Walking past a table filled with books, my eyes caught on a book with a picture of a guitar and a title, PRACTICING: A Musician’s Return to Music. I am glad I picked it up and gave it a home. In this 2007 book, Glenn Kurtz reflects on his training and what is has meant to him to return to music after having left it for a period of years. The title theme of “practicing” is so much more but he acknowledges that practice is essential writing that “every day you must practice. There is no other way to improve.” (p. 210) But, he emphasizes another important truth “Everything that practicing accumulates and protects, performing releases.” (156)
This is where playing enters in. To many students, practice means work, tedium, and repetition. Nothing to get excited about. Playing is play and fun. Kurtz agrees in his book questioning, “Why should practice be painful, I wondered, when playing was such a joy?” (p.208) Playing is a reward. It puts together all we have gained in our practice times. Kurtz talks about a session where a master class teacher, Pepe, helped him to do that and more. “There was a line to cross, another tiny step across an invisible boundary between playing and giving a performance,” (p.155).
Glenn Kurtz had graduated from the New England Conservatory with a degree in Classical Guitar Performance but he writes that the “Conservatory didn’t cover performing in its coursework.” (p.146) However, it was while he was there that Kurtz experienced that transforming master class. Pages 152 to 156 of the book present a wonderful sharing of a teacher, Pepe, guiding a student into the joy of what performance can be when the anxieties of anticipation are harnessed to bring the music to life. Kurtz concludes that “music lives only in performance; only then does what we hear become real.” (p.171) This is a goal the Conservatory seeks as it offers workshops, recitals, and more! Performance is the sharing our practice and playing as we bring the music to life!
Discovering Your Child's Musical Potential
This article first appeared in the publication Kidding Around
When I was a child, I grew up in a house with my grandparents and great grandparents, who were from Italy . My grandmother would sing to me and my mother would sing me a lullaby at bedtime. Fingerplays, bounces and chants were passed on from generation to generation. Singing and poems were part of our culture and, because of this exposure many fundamentals of music were passed on to my sister and me. There wasn’t a conscious effort to train us musically, but the songs and poems we heard taught us a lot. Nowadays, we don’t always have this close connection to our past. Because we aren’t hearing the old melodies from our parents and grandparents, we don’t always have a music vocabulary to share with our own children. We have a lot of recorded music and, hopefully, we sing along with our children, but the spontaneous music making is missing. Of all the ways we learn music, hearing our parents and others close to us making music is the most important. The good news is that there are many ways to incorporate music into your routines, and you don’t have to be a trained musician to get great results!
The process of learning music is similar to the process for learning language. When a baby learns to speak, they start by making isolated sounds. They imitate the sounds of the language they hear all around them. My children used to tell me long stories in their babble language. I had no idea what they were saying, but it had inflection and flow, just like the adult conversations they were hearing. As we listen, we get close to our baby and repeat their sounds. We imitate each other, back and forth, until we finally hear “mama” or “dada”. As babies associate words with people and objects, the next step developmentally is for them to put two words together, then three…and before you know it, they are talking 12 hours per day! In order to put all these pieces together, babies need to experience a combination of hearing spoken language in context and hearing isolated sounds and patterns. This is true for music as well.
Music, like language, is a complex connection of simple patterns and sounds. In South Shore Conservatory’s Music for Mom/Dad & Me class, we spend time each week hearing and repeating isolated rhythm and tonal patterns which become the building blocks of the child’s musical vocabulary. At first, the children repeat patterns in a random manner. Over time, their responses show mastery and we move on to more complex patterns. During class it is important for the children to see and hear their parent or caretaker singing and saying the patterns. Most children will imitate the teacher, but they are constantly looking to their familiar grownup to be their example. It is also important for the child to hear these patterns at home and for grownups to positively respond to their children when they start to sing or chant on their own. Never underestimate the power of this attention and reinforcement. As you value music, so will they.
There is an important place for recorded music in this discovery process as well. Just as you wouldn’t speak to your child entirely in babble language, you wouldn’t want to limit their exposure to music to these isolated patterns. They need to hear music in context. It is also important for young children to hear a variety of musical styles, rhythms, tonalities, instruments, and voices. Even a professional musician parent can’t do it all! As you enjoy your favorite music in the car or in your living room, you will find your children singing and dancing along. As children move to the music, they are responding to steady beat and are finding joy in the music. Even better than recorded music is live music. Take your children to as many live music performances as you can. Seeing people performing live music has a profound effect on learning and brings the music to the child on a personal level. Plus, it’s a lot of fun!
What can you do at home to foster musical development? Sprinkle some songs and rhythm chants into your daily routines. If you don’t feel comfortable with your singing voice, start with something simple like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Change the words around to say something like: “Eat, eat, eat your peas, they are good for you! Yummy, yummy, yummy, yummy—mom will eat some too!” At my house we had songs for mealtime, getting dressed, tub time, bedtime and—yes—even changing diapers and using the potty. Humming or singing without words is fine too.
No matter how you feel about your voice, it is the most beautiful voice in the world to your child. Relearn those old nursery rhymes, create a chant by saying something over and over like: let’s put the toys away, let’s put the toys away… We say rhythm patterns in class using a neutral syllable like “bah”. Whenever possible put your child’s name into a song or chant and, even though we get tired of hearing, “again!” repetition is part of the learning process and familiarity gives your child a sense of security. When your child isn’t responding to your talking voice, use your singing voice. Even talking in a higher or lower pitch will get their attention. Discover the instruments in your kitchen and accompany your favorite cd with a plastic container drum set. Create different shakers with childproof containers and different kinds of pasta, rice or beans. Dance! Moving and, especially, rocking to music helps to establish steady beat. You can also take a class to expand your tonal and rhythmic vocabulary and connect with other grownups and children. Always remember that you are your child’s greatest teacher. As you love and enjoy music, they will emulate that and be inspired to find their true potential.
Parents ask me all the time about the right age to start music lessons. After fostering musical development in the early years by singing and chanting patterns, enrolling in a music class and playing a variety of music at home and in the car, when are they ready to take their learning to the next level? There are many factors to consider when making this decision. These range from musical to physical and even emotional. What is most important is to keep this experience positive. That doesn’t mean that learning an instrument should be all fun and games and no work, but, rather, when the going gets tough, respect what your child is telling you and try to motivate them in a positive way. It is also important to remember that you are an important part of this process and, no matter what age your child starts to play an instrument, they will need your help learning how to plan time for practicing, finding a quiet space and, sometimes, figuring out what the teacher is asking them to learn.
The Suzuki philosophy of teaching is designed to accommodate children as young as two. With specially designed instruments that are small enough for them to handle, preschoolers can learn how to hold a violin properly and, gradually, how to play. Through various games and activities the child exercises muscles and practices proper technique. Rhythm is connected to language and melodies are taught by ear. Parents are required to participate in this process by observing lessons, taking notes and working with their child at home to ensure the exercises are performed properly, and to encourage their child through praise and applause. There are listening assignments each week. This ear training is very important and the CD provides a model for tone and playing in tune. When the teacher feels the child is ready, notation is introduced. Suzuki lessons are available on a variety of instruments including piano, violin, viola, guitar, cello, bass and flute. Starting ages for each instrument can vary.
Some factors to consider when starting any instrument at any age are: fine motor development, ability to focus on a task, and the child’s innate interest in music. Playing a musical instrument is one of the most complex tasks a person can accomplish. When you are reading music you must determine which note you are looking at, how long it lasts, how loud or soft it is, how to tongue/bow it, where to place your fingers on your instrument, how to breathe…and you must make all those decisions in a fraction of a second because then it is time to figure out the next note! Add to this all the creative reasoning that goes into playing music with expression and feeling, and you have an activity that uses more parts of your brain at the same time than any other. As parents, we know that the value of this goes far beyond learning to play an instrument and, with all the best intentions, we might find ourselves saying something like, “You can’t quit piano—it is good for you!” or, “ You’ll regret it if you don’t take lessons now.” We can force them to take lessons, but we can’t force them to enjoy it and, if they aren’t enjoying it, they won’t reap all the benefits. Try to capitalize on the sounds and instruments that your child finds interesting. This will help them stay motivated.
In public school, instrument lessons are introduced in fourth grade. Some schools offer recorder lessons in third grade as well. Although students get a chance to hear the band instruments, they don’t usually get a chance to play them before they have to choose. Often the choice is based on what a friend is choosing, or what the instrument looks like. Please encourage your child to consider what the instrument sounds like. Go to the library and find some music for that instrument and listen at home. Think about what will be required in terms of fingering. Flute and oboe can be tricky at first because they require various finger combinations for the first few notes. Clarinet, saxophone and trumpet are less demanding for fingers at first and trombone and drum do not require strong fine motor skills at all. Every instrument has its challenges and easy qualities. There is no “easy” instrument and the one that your child will find easy is the one that they will enjoy practicing. Please make sure that your child has time in their schedule for practicing five days per week for at least 20 minutes each day. Playing an instrument is a physical skill that requires you to exercise your muscles on a regular basis. This is the true key to success.
Once your child starts lessons, be patient! It is normal for them to be very excited and motivated in the beginning and then to hit a plateau where getting them to practice is a struggle. Don’t forget that they are very eager to please you. Instead of saying, “Please go and practice.” try, “Could you play me that song I heard last week?” Invite a friend over who plays an instrument and encourage them to play together. Sometimes it is okay to take a break—but not for too long! Instead of five days, try three days for a week or two. Sometimes easing the pressure a little will send the message that you respect their need for a break and your child will come back to their instrument with a positive attitude.
If your child is starting lessons in a large group setting, you should consider finding a private teacher. These group lessons are designed to get kids started, but individual needs are hard to address in a group of six to ten students. When you look for a teacher, keep in mind that it is important to find a good match. Speak to the teacher if the lessons aren’t going well. It might be a good idea to try someone with a different style or different expectations. Make sure your child’s instrument is in good working order and take care of any problems as soon as possible. Most rental programs will provide a loaner instrument while they do repair work. Make sure they have a good supply of reeds, oil, resin, and all the little extras that are necessary to make their instrument work. See yourself as an equal partner in this endeavor and let your child know that you are in this together.
Finally, if you are not sure if your child is ready, then wait. Putting off the lessons will not interfere with their professional music career. Take time to enroll in a general music class. I teach a class at South Shore Conservatory called Joy of Music for students age three to five, which strengthens all the basic skills necessary to be a good musician on any instrument. The Conservatory also offers a class each semester called Instrument Sampler, which allows students age six to ten to actually play a large variety of instruments in all the instrument families. It provides a great overview that can help you make a truly informed decision about choosing an instrument. Playing a musical instrument is one of the most enriching activities we can do. Learning this skill can be fun and open up a world of opportunities for your child as they get older. It is a skill you can enjoy throughout your life. I have played in bands that had high school students and great-grandparents playing side by side. Words can’t describe what it feels like to be part of a group of 100 musicians all working together to create a unified sound. It all starts with a love of music that grows from the seeds you plant at home.
Early Childhood Music Specialist
How Often Should My Child Practice?
Often I am asked by parents, “How often should my child practice?” or “How much time should be devoted to practice?”
While my favorite answer to those questions is “every possible waking moment” there is a more practical idea to consider.
Frequency: Regardless of how much practice is needed from week to week, practicing frequently typically provides the greatest results. This can be taken beyond the commonly thought of once daily routine. While most music teachers would be overjoyed if everyone of their students practiced everyday, a student can increase frequency by practicing for shorter time frames but do so multiple times a day. Consider the advice one gets from the dentist. Brushing daily is certainly more beneficial than brushing weekly even if the total time spent brushing were the same. A dentist might go so far as to say, “brush in the morning and after every meal.” This frequency, even if each brushing session was short, would have a greater overall impact.
The key to all this is reinforcement. By reinforcing what has been learned on a more frequent basis it develops stronger connections in long-term mental and physical memory. We see examples of this approach in variety of fields such as physical therapy. We don’t have to work as hard if we are willing to work more often.
Think of the self taught musician; the guy with a guitar who, as a teenager, learned all his favorite rock songs after being shown a few chords. The motivation in this individual is probably very high and as a result he picks his instrument up every time he’s in the same room with it. Each session may only be as long as it takes to strum a couple chords or to play one short song, but ultimately progress is made rapidly largely due to the value of frequent practicing.
Now, we can’t expect all students to be as motivated as “high school guitar guy” above but understanding the value of frequent practicing can help in managing your child’s practice schedule. If your child’s instructor expects 20-minutes per day of practice time, consider breaking it up into two 10-minute sessions that take place at different parts of the day.
Shorter sessions of practice are absolutely essential to a young child’s needs. Attention spans are short and patience is lacking in many students under the age of 9. Rather than challenge their inability to focus on one task for long periods of time, one should slowly develop their ability by using shorter practice sessions that gradual increase. To ensure that enough practice time is met, greater frequency needs to be employed.
Finally, consider frequency as a no-risk way to increase returns on your investment on music lessons. For the same 30 minutes of practice time per day, receive a greater value in results.