Today is the Autumnal Equinox, when the daylight and night-time hours are nearly equal. The equinox is a great time to think about restoring balance in our lives. Do you have as much joy as you have stress in your life? Every study on degenerative brain disease shows that stress is the most destructive factor of brain aging.
It’s important to balance work and recreation. Remember that old proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” We become dull to ourselves and others if we don’t have some fun and social interaction every day.
What can you do today on the threshold of this new season to bring joy and laughter into your life? Write a list of 10 things you love to do, and plan to do at least 5 of them this week.
This is true for piano practice as well. We could be revisiting exercises and difficult passages in our music, (and voicings if we are jazz students), along with playing through songs and pieces that we already know, allowing ourselves to take pleasure in the beauty of our own music.
It’s such a gift to listen to recorded music that we love, too. In the car, while we’re cooking, or getting ready in the morning for the day ahead. I love listening to the songs I grew up with, yet I rarely do it!
What else can we do to balance our lives? Eating healthy meals along with enjoying some treats. Exercising along with taking time to relax with a good book.
As the great philosopher Ellen DeGeneres says,
“Life is about balance. The good and the bad. The highs and the lows. The piña and the colada.”
Some of you will be leaving town during our PLEDGE TO PLAY: 10 MInutes A Day. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do your 10 minutes each day! Researchers at Harvard demonstrated that even just imagining playing the piano activates the same part of the brain as when you actually play!
One group of volunteers played a 5-finger exercise over the course of a week, while the other group merely imagined moving their fingers to play the same exercise. Though the group that actually played the piano had a greater brain benefit, by the end of the week, the same part of the brain in both groups had been significantly impacted.
Remember Professor Harold Hill taught music by “the think system” in the musical, The Music Man? Maybe he was onto something!
“When it comes to love I want a slow hand…. I want a lover with and easy touch.
I want somebody who will spend some time. Not come and go in a heated rush.”
Slow tastes and smells good. Think of pouring molasses or honey. When my daughter makes short ribs, she cooks them all day, and they are amazing. There is a whole “slow food movement” urging us to cook and eat well, consciously chewing every bite so that we actually taste, smell and savor our food.
“I’m tired of fast moves, I’ve got a slow groove, On my mind”
Slow sounds good. Some of the most powerful music is slow – think Satie’s Gymnopedies and Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues – and sexy – think Jobim’s Girl From Ipanema or Debussy’s Reverie.
Slow looks good. Don’t you love watching the artistry of a brilliant basketball dunk in a slo-mo replay, or a documentary of a tiger grooming her young? Don’t you love when you’re at the beginning of a good long novel? Remember the pleasures of slow-dancing?
I got to experience the exquisite pleasure of seeing our beautiful country slowly on a train to Oregon this year, delighting in the changing terrain, and waking up to the resplendent beauty of snow covered pines in Northern California. Sitting and chatting with family while watching the world go by was heavenly, and so much better than bustling through an airport.
Slow feels good. Think of leisurely walks on a breezy beach, a restorative massage, relaxing in front of a fireplace with friends, or a candlelit bath.
This is not to say that there is not a wonderful time and place for music that is fast and furious such as Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu, Rimsky- Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee or Charlie Parker’s Anthropology. Ironically:
THE KEY TO EVENTUALLY PLAYING FAST, IS PRACTICING SLOW.
Think of the golfer or batter who takes his time setting up his swing, or the tennis player practicing her serve with intense concentration.
MUSICIANS PRACTICE TECHNIQUE IN SLOW, EVEN REPETITIONS WITH TOTAL FOCUS
“It’s not a fast move, But a slow groove, On my mind”
Remember the tortoise and the hare story? Slow and steady won the race. But we humble students of music are not in a race, we are on a steady ascent to excellence. We want to produce beautiful, stirring sounds of music that we can fall in love with. To get there, we use a slow hand.
When I was a child my piano teacher wanted me to practice with a metronome. As a fan of the 1967 Disney film, The Gnome Mobile, I naturally imagined a tiny gnome inside of the wooden box, pulling the pendulum back and forth. It seemed to me that the metro gnome capriciously sped up and slowed down while I was playing! But of course it was me not quite keeping a steady beat.
There is some controversy in music education circles about when metronomes are useful and effective. My feeling is that metronomes can be greatly beneficial to use while playing exercises, playing pieces that don’t have tempo (time) and dynamic (volume) fluctuations, or to even out groups of quarter or eighth notes in a phrase.
For beginning students, being able to listen to a metronome while playing can be an impossible task. They can start using a metronome by setting it at a slow speed such as 70 bpm (beats per minute) and clapping or tapping their foot to the beat, as if they were playing quarter notes. Next the beginner might try doubling the speed of their clapping as if they were playing eighth notes to the beat. They can also set the metronome to 60-80 bpm and play the EXERCISES #1-#4 in Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 1.
For the intermediate student, a metronome can be useful for scale practice, or for passages in a piece (such as a Bach prelude) that don’t involve a lot of changes in tempo or dynamics. If the piece has eighth notes, set your metronome to a tempo at which you can keep the eighth notes steady, allowing 1 beat per eighth note, and two beats per quarter note, etc. Just use the metronome for a 1-3 measures at a time, to get your eighth notes even, and to make sure you’re holding your quarter notes twice as long as the eighths.
More advanced students can play an entire piece to a metronome if they need help keeping the beat steady, or keeping their sixteenths, eighths and quarters aligned. However, for pieces that require an emotional performance, it’s best to use a metronome just for isolated phrases. Playing exercises and scales to a metronome is the best way to practice keeping a steady beat. It’s fun to keep speeding it up incrementally to challenge yourself to play your scale or exercise more quickly while keeping it even.
Metronomes come in several styles. There are the large plastic or the beautiful old-fashioned wooden box metronomes, the German Mini Taktells, the small rectangular black boxes with dials, the digital Dr. Beats, or you can download a free metronome app on your iphone or ipad.
If you hear the beat speeding up or slowing down as you play, blame it on the METRO GNOME!
Yesterday I suggested that you make a list of 5-7 goals for the coming month. Sometimes it is easier to come up with practice goals if you record yourself playing your piece, exercise, song, or movement etc.
If you have an iphone, you can use the “Voice Memos” app, or if you have an old walkman tape recorder, or a dictaphone, take the time to record your playing, while we are still at the beginning of the 30 days.
It can be a little disconcerting hearing yourself on a recording, so keep in mind a few things:
Recordings make the piano sound tinny, so don’t expect a beautiful sound.
This exercise is meant to point out things to work on, so try not to be critical of your playing. Each mistake you make just shows you more clearly what you need to work on! So welcome your mistakes.
You will be nervous when you record, so your playing won’t be at its best. The process of recording is somewhat like performing, so it’s good practice for playing in front of people.
Plan to record yourself again at the end of our PLEDGE, and see the progress you have made!
Remember when I wrote in the Pledge to Play post that you should focus on small goals during this time period? What would those small goals be? Write down 5-7 goals today that you can work on this month in 10-minute intervals. If all that’s standing between you and your beloved piece is difficulty playing the notes in a few measures, write down, “mastering the fingering in measures ___ and ___,” on your list of goals.
Why is it important to commit your goals to writing? Written goals:
Help you to clarify what you want to get out of our 30-day PLEDGE.
Make your commitment real.
Strengthen your resolve. If you are working towards small doable goals, seeing them written down will help you to move past the resistance you may be feeling the minute you commit.
Remind you of what to focus on.
Help you to recognize and celebrate your progress. If your goal was to smooth out the 3rd and 4th measures of the 2nd line of your piece, celebrate when you do!
Imagine yourself playing the way you’d like to play; dreams give birth to transformation. Focused practice produces improvement. What is one of your goals? How will you manifest it? Thanks for joining our PLAY GROUP!
P.S. Playing more than 10 minutes per day is fine, just don’t burn yourself out by playing for hours some days and not at all on other days. The idea is to play EVERY DAY, so start with small increments of practice and pace yourself!
As autumn approaches each year, I feel the same surge of excitement I felt when I was a kid in school. September has always been the time for new beginnings: new classes, new clothes, new school supplies, new projects, the bountiful fall harvest, and the gradual drawing back within our homes and ourselves as the climate cools. Besides loving the stunning colors of fall I enjoy the quiet time between the busy summer and holiday seasons because it can be an optimal time for focus and intention. If you are like me, “more piano practice” has always been at the top of my fall to-do list. Let me tell you a little bit about my early experiences with piano lessons…
I started taking piano lessons when I was 5 years old with Mrs. Dorothea Waite every Thursday at 6:30, in her dank, dark living room. Her talkative Siamese cat Wolfie (named after Mozart) was a source of great distraction as I tried to stall off playing my pieces for as long as possible. That’s because, even though I loved music and loved playing the piano, I hated practicing, and it showed at every lesson.
Why is it that we love to play the piano yet we hate to practice? For me there were several things that made practicing a drudge. For one thing, my family’s piano was located in our living room which had a nested door at its threshold. Every time I started to play I would hear the door’s scraping sound as someone in my family shut me away from the rest of the house. Another reason I didn’t enjoy practicing was because I was forced to play music that I neither liked nor understood. (That’s one of the main reasons that I became a piano teacher, because I felt so strongly that students should be able to play songs and pieces that they love!) Worst of all, practicing made me face the fact that I had a long way to go before I would gain the mastery over the piano that I desired. But in spite of my suffering I persevered on the piano, and am so glad that I did.
What keeps you from the keys? If you feel that learning to play the piano is an impossible task, let me assure you that I have taught many children as well as adults who have started lessons late in life, and all who stuck with it learned to play beautifully.
If it is a feeling of isolation or wanting to avoid facing a difficult challenge, I have a solution for you! I am launching a new 30-day online support group for students, teachers, and musicians who need a little nudge and a loving community to support your efforts at practicing. It’s called:
PLEDGE TO PLAY: 10 Minutes A Day!
Here’s how it works. You sign up for the program by clicking on the phrase “leave a reply” at the top of this blog post just below the title Pledge to Play…. You will be asked to sign in by typing in your email (which will not be visible to anyone except me, and I will never give out your email to anyone.) You will also type in your first name and last initial (or write in a nickname if you prefer!) It’s completely free and you won’t get any spam. If you don’t mind getting my posts by email (practicing tips and practice motivational messages) click on the bottom bubble below that says you want to get posts delivered to your email. You will then get an email at the address you provided. You can choose the frequency of delivery of my posts, or decline them altogether and just check back at the blog to view the latest practicing tips.
If you commit to sit for 10 minutes every day for 30 days, go to the blog each day or at least once per week and reply with a sentence or two after you play for your 10 minutes. It can be as simple as, “I did it!” Or you can write something you noticed about your progress such as: “Today I was able to play the 2nd and 3rd measures without stopping!” Let your community celebrate with you! You can be honest: “Today it felt difficult, and even 10 minutes seemed long.” We will support your trials as well as your triumphs! But limit your reply to a sentence or two.
When you join our group, I will give you many ideas and incentives for motivation on the blog. Everyone who completes the 30 days will be featured either on my website or in Upper Hands Piano BOOK 3 with a photo of them playing the piano (or will receive a certificate of congratulations if you prefer), and a compilation of the practicing tips I posted during the 30 days. If you post a reply every day you will receive a free Upper Hands Piano book!
First, let me say that you should focus on small goals. Think of improving a small section of a piece you are learning, or some other small goal such as increased flexibility of the 4 and 5 fingers through daily exercises. 10 minutes isn’t very long, but thirty 10-minute sessions add up to 300 minutes (5 hours!!!) of practice by the end of the month. That’s a substantial chunk of time!
We will begin on Sunday September 15th, and keep going until Tuesday October 15th
(OK technically that’s 31 days! So you can take one day off!)
P.S. Even if you already practice every day, or if you practice more than 10 minutes most days, I hope you’ll join our PLEDGE TO PLAY: 10 Minutes A Day community, and leave a daily or weekly reply about what you are working on. It’s a great way to make sure that you get to the piano EVERY day, it will help you keep track of your progress, and you can be an inspiration to others!
I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened – Mark Twain
I loved that Mark Twain quote provided by Dr. Vanessa Cornett-Murtada this summer at a seminar she gave at a music teachers conference entitled,
Crush the jitters! Strategies for Performance Anxiety Management
Dr. Cornett-Murtada specializes in the treatment of performance anxiety for musicians and had some great insights and strategies for alleviating the stress that we and our students feel when entertaining others:
1. The best solution is physical exercise. 5 minutes of aerobic activity 10 minutes before performing.
2. The mind can not process negatives. When we say to ourselves, “Don’t make mistakes” or “Don’t play badly,” the brain perceives, “Make mistakes” and “Play badly.” Focus instead on what you WANT to happen. “I will play well and enjoy the experience.”
3. Deep breathing really works! There is a nerve connecting the diaphragm to the hypothalamus which is the part of the brain that gets activated when we experience fright. When we take deep breaths, the brain calms. Try controlled breathing: breathe in for 3 counts, then breathe out for 3 counts.
4. Creative visualization is another great technique. The same part of the brain and nervous systems get activated when you imagine playing as when you are actually playing! Visualize a wonderful performance. The more senses you can engage in your visualization, the better the experience. This takes practice, so start now! Remember, that which preoccupies our thoughts tends to become our reality.
5. Performance anxiety isn’t all bad! It brings us increased energy and concentration, mental acuity, and reminds us that we really care about what we are doing.
Please visit or revisit my blog,Recital Seasonfor more thoughts about playing in front of others and additional relaxation techniques.
Once again it has been scientifically proven that STUDYING THE PIANO BENEFITS THE BRAIN!
At the 22nd meeting of the European Neurological Society from June 9-12 2012, doctors presented the results of the latest two studies linking improved brain functioning with piano lessons. You can read the article below:
Studies by the University Hospital San Raffaele (Milan, Italy) demonstrated that test persons with no musical background were not only visibly more dexterous after two weeks of piano lessons, but their brains also changed measurably. It’s not surprising that the participants achieved a dramatic increase in their small motor skills, I’ve seen that in my students hundreds of times. But what did surprise me was that after just 10 days of 35-minute practice in a two week period, participants experienced significant improvements in brain functioning.
Dr. Elise Houdayer from the University Hospital San Raffaele in Milan delalred:’Ten days…can…trigger changes in cortical plasticity similar to results reported for professional musicians.’ The participants experienced not only dramatically more agility in their fingers, but also substantial increases in the volume of GRAY MATTER in their brains.
What is GRAY MATTER?
Gray (or grey) matter is a type of neural tissue which is primarily found in the brain and spinal cord. Neurologists associate gray matter with intelligence, intellect and coordination.
Significant positive correlations have been found between gray matter volume in elderly persons and measures of semantic and short term memory…. These results suggest that individual variability in specific cognitive functions that are relatively well preserved with aging is accounted for by the variability of gray matter volume in elderly subjects. The doctors also hastened to add that the more complicated the task, the denser and better the structure of the gray matter.
So what can we conclude from this other than what we already know, that piano lessons are an incredible brain workout? I hope you’ll feel encouraged when you’re working on a piece you’re afraid you’ll never master, or battling with a finger position that feels complicated. I hope you’ll say to yourself, “This is great! Playing difficult passages is the best way to keep my brain healthy. If it were easy, I wouldn’t be getting the greatest cognitive benefits. I’ll just keep working on it, and as before, it will come eventually.”
I salute your courage and fortitude! And I hope that in spite of the difficulties, you manage to sit back and enjoy the music you are making. I hope you’ll even think, “This is fun!”
May is recital season. We walk those hallowed recital halls wearing our hearts on our sleeves, silently fearing the worst, while hoping for the best. Why do we agree to play in recitals and performances? Is it really worth all of the worry? Here are some reasons why teachers encourage their students to perform, and how to lessen performance anxiety:
Why is it important to play for others?
Preparing for a recital motivates you to learn your piece thoroughly. Never underestimate the fear factor where piano practice is concerned! Your recital pieces are the works you remember the longest, because you have rehearsed them the most, and have paid attention to the details.
It is important to become more comfortable playing in front of others. Even if you take lessons just to play for yourself, you will be approached by others and asked to play, and the more you do, the easier it becomes.
You get an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment when you have completed a piece and performed it in public. It’s like a graduation ceremony!
You get to see your fellow students grow and learn along with you. Participating in a student recital fosters a wonderful sense of camaraderie and mutual support. No one expects you to play flawlessly; your audience is on your side!
Playing music is a gift to the community. When you play, others get to enjoy your music, and you get to enjoy theirs.
Preparing for a recital:
Practice starting from various points in your music, so that if you get lost while performing, you don’t have to restart from the beginning.
Practice playing in front of friends and family members on different pianos, at different times of the day. Mix it up so that you become more adaptable.
Practice playing without stopping to correct mistakes. Just let the mistakes go, and move on. Then at other times work on just your problem sections by drilling over and over until you have them down.
If you find that you are having a lot of trouble with a part of piece the week before the recital, ask your teacher if there is a way of omitting that section or shortening the piece for this performance. Pick a piece that you feel comfortable playing. If you’re struggling with your piece even when you’re alone, you might not be ready to perform it. Keep practicing it for the next performance opportunity!
On recital day, do something that relaxes you. Meditate, watch a funny movie, dance, take a run, listen to soothing music, or do whatever works for you.
Strategies for alleviating stage fright:
Stage fright occurs when we are focused on our performance, instead of focusing on the music itself. Remember, it’s about the music, it’s not about you. Practice keeping yourself completely involved in your music–the melody, the rhythm, the sounds You are producing, and your expressiveness.
Anxiety disrupts normal breathing patterns producing shallow breaths. Deep breathing before and during a performance relaxes the body. When I make mistakes I take deep breaths to calm myself.
While you are waiting to play, try progressive muscle relaxation. Squeeze and relax muscles beginning with your feet, moving up through your body to your shoulders, arms and hands.
Seattle violinist Paul Hirata teaches musicians to halve your anxiety. Inhale, exhale, relax, loosen your tight muscles and let go of half your tension, saying quietly to yourself, half. Then take another breath in and out, relax a bit more, and let go of another half of the tension that remains. Continue breathing and relaxing and saying half, half, half….
Let go of expecting perfection! So many of my students seem to believe that if they make a mistake, it ruins the piece. That’s absolutely not true. Forget about the mistakes, letting them blow away like a kite. Breathe, and focus on the sound of your music.
Be as loving and non-judgmental with yourself as you are with the rest of the performers. If you are taking piano lessons, it is understood that you are learning and not a professional. However you play, it will be enjoyable to your peers. You are good enough just as you are.
If you feel that you need a little extra help, experiment with these before the recital day: Herbal remedies such as relaxation teas or valerian capsules, or homeopathic remedies such as Calms or Rescue Remedy are said to take the edge off of anxiety. Some professional musicians use beta-blockers such as Inderal to subdue stage fright. However, beta-blockers can create a detached feeling which makes it difficult to connect to your own music. Make sure that if you try one of these, try it well before the recital to observe the effects they have upon you, and your ability to play.
Play with love and joy. This is your hobby! Don’t sweat it too much.