The fall semester has been going for about a month now, and I have had a wonderful time hearing about all the summer adventures from my returning students, and getting to know my new students. Several of my students were not able to take lessons over the summer, and so I have been coming up with creative ways to help them access their long term memories. I know from learning about the brain that nothing we learn is ever truly forgotten, but the information may be stored in a way that makes it difficult to access. So, I have pulled out rhythm games, note naming games, chord identifying games, and the half and whole step cards to review pentascales, major scales and minor scales. I am thrilled to report that the review games have worked, and my students have not only remembered what they learned last year, but they are excited about moving forward and learning new concepts.
What is the connection with review games and the title of this blog post? It is simply this: every child moves at their own pace. This is one of the Suzuki philosophy points, and it is important to constantly remind others (and myself) of this idea. I may play a game twice with one student before they understand the concept and we move on. With a different student, we may revisit the concept (through the game) 10 or 15 times before they understand the concept. Each child is a unique person with a different learning style and there is no magic number of repetitions that guarantees understanding.
Our culture is obsessed with competition, and not all competition is unhealthy. But in the realm of private music lessons, we all need to remember that learning music is not a competition or a race. Studying music is an incredibly personal and individual journey. And each person gets to set their own pace and move as slow or as fast as they are comfortable. My job as a teacher and your job as a parent is to walk alongside them, encouraging, leading, guiding, and sometimes just enjoying the view.
I’ve been pondering on musical milestones during the past few weeks Recently, one of my students, Charlee, played her book 2 graduation recital. A graduation recital, in the Suzuki world, is an important milestone to celebrate the culmination of learning all the pieces in a book. At the recital, the student plays through all the pieces from memory. To prepare for the recital, the student and teacher spend time reviewing and refining the pieces to make them as musical and historically accurate as possible.
To learn all the pieces in a book takes countless hours of practicing, and great mental concentration. The skills of persistence, hard work, and attention to detail are skills that students begin to develop from the first lesson. The attention to detail required to learn Bach minuets is developed as the students learn to play Honeybee and Lightly Row with Alberti bass.
A graduation recital is a wonderful achievement, and I am very proud of Charlee’s work and dedication. I am equally proud of my beginning students when they can play Variation 1 from beginning to end with high bounces, switch from the C major chord to the G major chord, or play the F major scale hands together. As my students and I approach the spring recital, I am reminded that we would not be celebrating the milestones if not for the patient, dedicated practicing of students on a daily basis and the parents who come to lessons and listen to their children practice at home.
Several years ago, one of my teacher friends reminded me, "A recital is a celebration, not a test." It is a celebration of the persistence and commitment put forth by the student, parent, and teacher. So let's celebrate!
What is your child’s motivation to practice? Is he or she motivated by their love of music and learning, or are they practicing so they can get a sticker? If your child's only motivation comes from the prospect of getting a sticker, he/she is extrinsically motivated. If your child practices because he/she loves to practice and enjoys music, he/she is intrinsically motivated.
Extrinsic motivation is defined as motivation that comes from an outside source. Examples include praise from the parent or teacher, stickers, prizes, etc.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within the person. For example, I practice Haydn sonatas because I enjoy practicing the way the music sounds, and I enjoy the particular challenge of this sonata.
There is nothing wrong with extrinsic motivators. In fact, they can be a great teaching tool. I am thrilled when my students want to finish a piece so they can get a sticker. This school year, I have been giving my students the opportunity to see their progress by keeping a studio practice chart and letting my students color one image when they’ve practiced three times a week, and a different image when they are willing to do the extra work of memorizing (the photo at the top is the March practicing challenge). I change out the images each month to keep it interesting.
Coloring challenges and stickers are fun, but my ultimate goal is for students to love music for music’s sake, not for stickers or coloring incentives. Learning to practice consistently teaches the skills of time management, setting a goal, and perseverance, among other things. These are important skills that translate into all areas of life, not just to learning an instrument. As the child gets older, they will encounter many, many times where they have to put in a great amount of time and effort into a task, and they may not receive any external reward or praise for it.
Younger children are constantly learning and developing new habits (both good and bad), and those of us who are older and more mature should be quick to praise them for accomplishing tasks and following instructions. As the children grow older and more mature, they will hopefully develop some internal motivation, and not rely only on external motivation to keep going. Learning to enjoy something for its own sake is a process, and that process takes time. Doing something well is its own reward.
The satisfaction that you get from working diligently and achieving a goal is worth the effort, regardless of whether anyone else notices what you did and applauds your effort.
But until that maturity is developed, I will happily hand out stickers and have coloring challenges available.
Recently, I have been working on duets with two of my students. I think we have all been a little surprised about how enjoyable and challenging the process has been. My students enjoyed the first duet so much, I have assigned a second one.
Why are duets beneficial? First, duets expose any flaws in rhythm and tempo, helping the performers to develop and strengthen their counting skills. When you are playing a solo, you can make many slight variations in tempo and rhythm without it adversely affecting the music. But when you are playing a duet, it becomes very important to be rhythmically precise, or else the entire piece can get thrown out of whack.
Second, duets strengthen the ability to listen to two separate parts simultaneously. I often ask my students, “Are you together?” If one of them says, “I don’t know,” I say, “Listen again.” The students must know concentrate on their own part and listen to the other part simultaneously. This is an important skill that does not come naturally to anyone, but the skill can grow with practice.
Third, duets provide a sense of togetherness. Playing piano is most often a solo endeavor, and every so often pianists can feel lonely. The beauty of duets is that the pianist is not alone. Suddenly, you are working with someone else towards a common goal. You are sharing the journey with a friend, and that makes the reward much sweeter.
What are you investing in?
Recently, I have been very frustrated by the slowness of my computer. Then, I realized that my hard drive had years and years worth of files that I no longer need and forgot to delete, and my inbox had emails going back to 2009! So, I’ve been deleting a lot of files and emails, and my computer is working more effectively now.
Interestingly, I have a hard time deleting emails from family members. Before we all had smart phones and a group text thread, we would email each other to discuss mundane, everyday things like July 4th celebrations, grocery store lists, planning baseball game attendance, etc. And I don’t want to delete the record of those conversations.
Why do I feel compelled to save the emails of those ordinary conversations? We live in a digital age, where photos, tweets, and status updates can disappear with the touch of a finger. One bad tweet can create a national controversy or ruin a reputation. One Youtube video can turn an unknown person into a sensation overnight. In contrast, the emails that discuss ordinary activities are records of something precious and long lasting: my relationship with my family members. We have a lot of history together, and we’ve shared life together. We have invested time, tears, sweat, laughter and hard work into big events like weddings and births and mundane events like checking the air pressure in the tires before a road trip. These relationships cannot be deleted by the swipe of a finger.
My question to you is, what are you investing in? Are you investing time and effort into learning an instrument? Are you investing in your relationship with your child by listening to them practice, and helping them practice? Are you investing in the musical community by going to local music events? In this digital age, where so much of work and “life” occurs between the lines of code, will you make an effort to put down your phone or tablet, walk away from your computer, turn off the TV, and make an investment? Invest your time and energy into something or someone that cannot be erased.
New Year Practice Challenge
This fall, once we got back into a regular schedule after the hurricane, the studio practice challenges were very successful. Most of my students completed the twenty day practice challenge, and in December the ornament challenge made my studio doors very colorful (see picture). This semester, we are doing a longer challenge of 100 days, but I will still be keeping track of each twenty day segments on my bulletin board. Here are some suggestions on how to make practicing a regular (and fun) part of your routine.
“Do not hurry, do not rest.” Suzuki
I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of listening in relation to piano lessons. Specifically, what role does listening to a recording have in daily practice, and why is listening important?
Listening to recordings is important because it gives the student an objective to work towards. The student needs to know what the music is supposed to sound like, and then, through coaching by the teacher and parent, they learn to evaluate their playing and say “I am not playing this like the recording, therefore, I need to alter my playing.”
A recording helps the student learn the tone quality, notes, rhythm, phrasing, and form. One of the many aspects of learning music, especially for beginning students, is learning to recognize patterns, and recognize when the pattern changes. By listening to recordings, students learn to hear the difference between a question phrase and an answer phrase long before those terms are introduced.
Another important benefit of listening is that it helps the student internalize the musicality of the music. I can sit with a student and say “This is the end of a phrase, so it needs to be soft,” or “there’s a crescendo in the music, and I need to hear it!”, but those instructions don’t have much meaning if the student is not familiar with how tapering at the end of a phrase sounds, or how much to crescendo.
Music is much more than the symbols on the page. And while it is very important to learn to decipher the symbols on the page, it is easy to forget that there are other aspects of music that go beyond learning to read the symbols on the page. Music is a living entity, full of emotions and meanings that are difficult to express with words.
As Hans Christian Anderson said,
"When Words fail, music speaks."
Our town is slowly recovering from the effects of Florence. School has been back in for over a month, the debris piles are being picked up by the ‘claw of happiness’, as the locals have dubbed it, and in my studio we are starting to work on holiday music. Because of the hurricane and the disruption to the schedule, we have kept the fall into practice challenge going through October, and my students are so used to telling me how many days they practiced that we’re still going strong in November. I have been impressed and touched and so proud of the students who have worked hard to practice consistently and get the twenty days of practicing certificate.
Everyone was effected by the hurricane in different ways. Some of my students had damage to their houses, and one family is still displaced and living in a temporary house while theirs is being repaired. So it is impressive and inspiring that, despite the obstacles, parents and their students keep showing up for lessons. Parents continue to ask me “what should we practice this week?” or “how can I help ____ this week?”
Seeing this dedication reminds me of a podcast episode I listened to this summer. It was an episode of Building Noble Hearts by the Suzuki Association of the Americas. I won’t
summarize the episode, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. I did find one phrase mentioned very interesting: an adult, describing her memories of practicing with her dad as a child, said “I felt very important because my dad was choosing to spend time with me.”
Even though the musical concept she was learning was difficult, and she was dealing with the natural angst and frustration of learning something new, she also recognized that her father valued her enough to take time out of his day and work with her.
This is one of the beautiful possibilities of music. As the child learns, the parent has the opportunity to spend time with their child, to strengthen the relationship, to learn more about their child and about themselves.
Parents- every time you listen to your child practice, every time you come and sit in the lesson, every time you say, “I know this is hard. Try it again,” you are communicating that, in that moment, your child is worth the time investment.
Take the time to invest in your relationship with your child. Be present. Come to the lesson. Encourage them to keep striving, even when the concepts are hard and seem insurmountable.
In ten or fifteen years, your child may not be playing piano anymore (although that would be nice), but they will remember the time you spent with them, and your relationship will be stronger because of it.
I am so grateful to the parents who are investing in their children. I am grateful for the students who have worked hard to establish a practicing routine. Let's keep up the momentum and continue to grow in our musical knowledge and strengthen our relationships.
As Suzuki famously wrote:
"Do not hurry, do not rest."
This month has not turned out the way any of us expected. It has only been a little over a week since Florence made landfall, but the devastation caused by the storm will take months to clean up. I know you all have been glued to the news like I have, so I won’t recount all the damage done by this massive storm. Today, I am writing about the power of music.
In light of all the flooding, damage to homes, displaced residents, loss of power, etc, it seems trifling to talk about the power of music and how music helps us deal with difficult circumstances, but please, keep reading.
Music allows us to experience and process emotions. And whether you decided to stay in town or evacuate, you probably experienced the same emotions of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, stress, and sorrow that I did. Children experience the same emotions as adults, but often they have a hard time verbalizing their emotions. So when they practice their music, it gives them a way to focus their anxiety into doing something productive. When they play a sad piece, and a happy piece, it helps them process the sorrow over seeing the community changed by the storm and the happiness at seeing the community come together. Starting back to weekly lessons helps restore a sense of normalcy. Setting a practice goal, whether that is memorizing a piece, playing a piece hands together, or practicing 5 days in a row, and achieving that goal helps the child realize that while some things (like hurricanes) are out of our control, many things are within our control.
So parents, take time this week to talk with your child. Tell them that you want to hear what they are practicing. Do not underestimate the power of being present and listening. Together, we will get through this difficult time, and through the process of rebuilding, we will emerge stronger than before.
The school routine is becoming a little more normal now, and we are becoming used to getting up early and going to bed early (I hope). Students are getting used to doing sports after school and homework after sports.
But how do you incorporate a new habit, say practicing piano, into your routine?
Forming new habits takes time and intentional thinking. Suzuki often reminded people that you have to practice a certain habit 10,000, 12,000, or maybe even 50,000 times before you master it. But if you never remember to work on the habit, how can you master it?
Sometimes all it takes is a little motivation. And this month, the motivation will be Fall into Music Practice Challenge! I heard about this idea from a teacher on Facebook, and the challenge was created by Shelly Davis, who hosts the Piano Parent Podcast.
Students who practice every day for 20 days will get a certificate, and I have passed out practice sheets to help them track their days.
And, as part of the greater musical community, teachers and students all over the country are participating in this challenge.
I am excited to see how this challenge influences the practicing habits of my students. Let's get started!
I am a piano teacher who loves teaching music and discussing personality styles. I also enjoy playing music with others, whether that is chamber music, piano duets, or singing in a choir. My favorite composers are Bach and Haydn.