It’s the silence between the notes that makes the music

The “quote” which is the title to this blog post (and variations of it) can be attributed to a few people – from Mozart to Debussy to Miles Davis.  I could probably write a whole ‘nuther blog post just on this quote alone (and Davis’ variation: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” Ah, that inspires me to jump up and run to my piano right now!), but that blog post is not for today.  No, actually, this blog post is in reference to an article I read on, of all places, Entrepreneur.com.  You can find it here: The Best Way to Use Breaks to be More Productive.

To summarize, breaks are important.  The article goes on to discuss the balance between how long you work and how much break time to take, and how best to spend a 5, 10, 15 or even 30 minute break at the office.  It’s a really interesting article that you might want to read because you are an adult in my life, but what really strikes me is how this relates to being a musician, and also, how it relates to being a growing musician, like all of the kids I see each week.

Practicing is something that I spend a lot of time talking to my students about.  It’s not just my job to teach your children music, but to teach them the skills to sustain a lifelong love of music – and that includes being able to practice it regularly without the adults in their lives nagging at them about it.  Really – if I teach your child, go on and check out their manuscript book (I’ll wait).  In the last month or two, I’ve probably written not just praise on their improvements, but often general and sometimes incredibly specific strategies for how to practice a piece of music.

What I don’t really touch on in writing (though I guess it’s there if you read between the lines) is the importance of breaks.  For most of my students, we discuss the importance of a regular practice habit, how many times a week, how many minutes each time.  The general rule for most of my students is somewhere from 4-5 days a week (why not 7? because I’m a realist and know that your child also has homework, projects, and a social life, not to mention the possibility of activities like sports and dance.  It’s not my job to set unrealistic and unattainable goals for your kids.  I want them to succeed, after all, and not feel like they are constantly playing catch up.  Anyway). But for any of my older students who can sit for more than 20 minutes at a time, breaks can be incredibly important.  Or maybe, giving students a break can help to inspire them to sit for longer than those 20 minutes.  Twenty multiplied by 2 is 40, and if my kids could practice for 40 minutes 4 times a week instead of 20, well, I don’t need to tell you how great that would be.

At entrepreneur.com, the five minute breaks include preparing a snack, reading an article, giving yourself a hand or neck massage, and trying to solve a Rubrik’s cube.  You can read about the benefits of each in the infographic at the page (plus all the other kinds of breaks you can take), but I think these are the ones that work best for practicing musicians (of all ages), and take the least amount of adapting for younger players.

Prepare a snack. This one is specifically for you parents.  You’re the grocery buyers in the house, and you know what your kids like.  Berries, leafy greens and nuts can boost brain function (Apples and cheese are great, too!).  Sounds like a PB&J break might be just the thing to break up a practice session, or break it down with fresh berries and raw shelled nuts.  I happen to love cashews and pecans, and I’ve almost always got raspberries on hand, so I know what I’ll be reaching for when I go to practice later on.

Reading an article. Your kids might not be avid online readers with their own feedly.com account, but if they do love to read (and I do, too!) let them pick up their latest favorite book to read a few pages or a whole chapter.

Hand or neck massage.  At this point, our kiddos are not really at the place in their musical development where stretching before, during or after practice is really necessary (though if they’re ever playing for 30 minutes or more non-stop it’ll be something we’ll talk about, especially if they stay serious about music in college), but something as simple as getting up for a bathroom break, getting a drink of water, or just stepping away from the piano for a few minutes is a good hand, body and brain break.

The Rubiks cube.  I know a kid who can solve this in under two minutes, or something really ridiculous like that.  You can also find videos of Rubiks cube genuises on youtube.  Your child doesn’t need to be the next Rubiks prodigy, but a simple brain teaser or puzzle is a good way to stay focused and yet take a break all at the same time.

When I was in college, I definitely spent a lot of time in the practice room.  I also spent a lot of time wandering around outside the practice room, too, and I think both of these activities were equally important.  When I took my breaks from practicing, it was to do a lot of things that I mention here – bathroom/water breaks, snack breaks. Sometimes, yes, socializing breaks.  It’s impressive to say you spent two hours practicing a day, but if you spent an hour of that time spacing out or constantly repeating passages without making progress, you haven’t really accomplished much.  The time away from the instrument, when handled correctly, can become just as important as the time you spend looking at and playing music.

Another great article at entreprenuer.com covers how to spend a lunch break.  With a little creativity, you can adapt these ideas into habits for yourself and your kids, too!

What are some of your non-musical practice tips?  What is your favorite way to take a break from the music?  Leave a comment below!

Christmas Programs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If I could, I might go back and add even more exclamation points to the title of this entry.  I JUST LOVE CHRISTMAS MUSIC THAT MUCH, and getting ready for Christmas programs is one of my favorite times of the school year.  Truly, I am blessed, because even though it means three times the amount of work and preparation, I get to lead my students in three different Christmas programs at the three schools I teach at, and I just love it.

If you are a student of mine (or their parent) and you are wondering where to go for the practice tracks I told you to listen to, and you are on a computer or laptop, simply hover over “Current Students” and a small drop down menu with “Practice Tracks” should appear.  If you are on a mobile device, tap on the menu and “Practice Tracks” should appear right underneath “Current Students” in the list that appears.  Or, just click here.

While we will obviously be reviewing the songs for the Christmas programs in class each week, it will be extremely beneficial for students to practice on their own at home with the practice tracks.  With perhaps some small changes, the way I play the accompaniment on the practice tracks is how I will play at the show, so students will be able to get used to what it will sound like.  And practicing with the tracks will be easier than practicing without or with a different recording.  Or, you could just play the whole playlist and enjoy some early Christmas music!

I have heard from some students that they cannot access the files on whatever devices they are using.  Unfortunately, I am a music teacher and not a member of the Soundcloud IT department, so all I can do is send you to this troubleshooting page on Soundcloud’s website and hope for the best.  Since some students have been having trouble accessing it, I am not requiring it (for a grade), but students should make every effort to practice at least once – if not on your own devices, then with a friend on their device, as it will benefit themselves and their class immensely.

This is my first year using Soundcloud with my students, and I have to say that so far, in just a few months’ time, I have seen a lot of improvement in the students who tell me they are visiting regularly.  I sincerely hope that as many students as possible can get on and work with the practice tracks, because then we will really put together a Christmas show that truly delights and inspires the audience to recall the reason for the season!

Who I’m Thankful For

There are many things I am thankful for, both personally and musically.  I have spent a lot of waking hours so far this year, thinking about who I am thankful for, musically, and today, on Thanksgiving 2013, I want to tell you about a really awesome person in my life, who unfortunately, is never going to know the impact he has had on me.

I started college in the fall of 1999 at Montclair State University.  I was a music therapy major at the time (something that lasted only about a year).  Our freshman class was split into two sections for Theory I and Aural Skills I.  I just so happened to get the class with Dean Drummond, who was also new to Montclair State University that semester.  If me-from-now told me-from-then that this guy would become the most influential person in my college career, I probably would have laughed at you.  At the time, I think I wasn’t even sure if he was going to give me a passing grade in those two classes.

On a whim, I decided to try out the ensemble he ran, on the instruments invented by himself and by Harry Partch (another story, for another time).  The students in the music department mostly referred to them as the Dr. Seuss instruments.  Of course I was interested.

Over time, the instruments, and Dean, became the true constant of my college career.  Through deaths in my family, through a personal health scare, through FOUR changes of major (one of which Dean personally helped to make possible), there was always Partch ensemble.  It wasn’t just an ensemble for me (and for many of the students who participated over the years), it was my main form of socialization (Partch kids became some of my closest friends), it was a place for me to hang out, it was a place for, sometimes, hiding from the world.  Through the Partch ensemble, I got to premiere a few awesome works of music, and I got to perform off-campus (which was, and is, still a big deal for any ensemble).   I got to learn about a teeny, yet infinitely awesome niche in American music history.   The kind of thing where some people say, “You play the Cloud Chamber what?” and other people say, “OHMIGOSHYOUPLAYTHECLOUDCHAMBERBOWLS!?”

Dean wasn’t just a musician who also happened to be a teacher, he was the kind of person from whom you  could learn something every time he opened his mouth or just did.. anything. I have been thinking a lot this year about him.  From my dedication to practicing, to the way I run rehearsals with my students, I have learned a lot, musically, from Dean.

I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from Dean, too.  I’ve learned it’s never too late to learn something new.  I’ve learned that you just don’t have to iron your shirts if you don’t want to.  I’ve learned that if you truly love what you’re doing, you will never dread going to work a day in your life.  I’ve learned to keep a great sense of humor about everything and all things.  How did I learn these things?

Because one afternoon, Dean asked me to show him how to do a pirouette (also, he was just getting into karate).  Because Dean Drummond plays a kithara, and in his mind that means he doesn’t have to iron his shirts if he doesn’t feel like it, and I play kithara so I’m not ironing my shirts, either.  I witnessed the fact that Dean Drummond had dedicated his life to pursuing new music, and exploring all the possibilities of sounds to create, and I saw how that took him all over the world, and to my little corner of it, and how, no matter what the university threw at him (and anyone from MSU can tell you that Montclair can throw it’s fair share of curve balls and put up road blocks), he was living a life to be proud of, to be satisfied with, to be happy with.  I’ve also witnessed Dean leap like a frog across the room, attempt to walk through walls.  I’ve seen him wear ridiculous hats and make silly faces, all in the name of music.

I’ve been thinking about Dean a lot because Dean had been sick, and Dean finally succumbed to his illness in April of this year.  I, like many students, was actually pretty devastated.  I think I still am.  With the tears welling up in my eyes as I type this right now, I think I was under the impression that Dean was going to live forever.  I mean, hey, he could walk through walls, so it was absolutely possible.  Until, of course, it wasn’t.

But I am thankful that my life’s path crossed with that of Dean Drummond.  I won’t get too existential about it, but the only reason I came to Montclair was for a major I completely lost interest in, and in many ways, if it weren’t for Dean, I may not even have eventually become a musician.  If he hadn’t ended up at Montclair, I don’t know where I would have ended up.  So for that, and for so much more, Mean Dean the Theory Machine, I say thank you so very much, wherever you are.

Dance Accompanying: Preparation

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As I sort of mentioned when I started this piano playing adventure last summer, it happened by chance, and came together very haphazardly and on the fly. By chance of course I mean when I came to dance camp, I had absolutely no intention of accompanying classes and it was only because I was heading back home for a day that I was able to grab my music.

This year, of course, I had more or less ten months to prepare. Not that I used those ten months haha! But I did set aside one afternoon a few weeks ago to prepare my music binder, because really, if you’re music isn’t organized, you are sunk as an accompanist (or you better have everything memorized).

There are probably many ways to organize your music, but here’s how I’ve got mine set up.

Supplies you would need: a 3 ring binder, dividers, sheet protectors (or a three hole punch) and your music, obviously. You may additionally want a few sheets of loose leaf paper.

First of all, I would suggest not making double sided copies. Yes, it’s going to save you paper and the environment, but you may decide you don’t want a song, or, depending on how you organize the binder, you may need to change the order. And then what?

Before you even start putting your music into sheet protectors, you have to decide how exactly you’re going to organize the book. I’ve organized my book into the following sections: pop, Ukrainian, 2, 3, 4, 6. This is what works for me; it may not work for you.

The reason why I chose to organize this way is because of my accompanying situation. I work primarily at a dance camp where I am accompanying with any one of three different teachers, and they all have their own preferences for music and class order. One prefers more contemporary music, one prefers more classical. One has a lot of experience working with accompanists, one doesn’t. Their experiences are varied and each class is absolutely different.

So when I’m accompanying for a class, I don’t quite know what to expect. I have an understanding of the general order of dance class and what is required from the dancers for each exercise, but there’s really no set order (and even if there was, there would be three set orders, not just one).

The easiest way for me to set up my binder is to group the contemporary music all together (though I may assimilate those into the other sections at some point) my Ukrainian tunes all together (because I rarely use them and when I do it’s not for ballet class), and then to organize my classical music by meter.

I could go on and on, right here and right now, about how a 6 could function as a 2 or a 3, and how a 3 of course could also be a 6. But I won’t. If you’re at the point in your life where you are accompanying dance classes, you probably already know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’ll make it another post.

If you don’t organize your binder by meter, you could also organize simply in alphabetical order (this is how I worked last year and I have to say that was also pretty successful). You could also organize it by the class order, songs specifically for plies, or grande battement, etc, but this will only be helpful for you if you have a specific set of songs for each type of exercise (many of my songs pull double or triple duty).

Now that you’ve figured out how to organize your binder, start putting the music in the sheet protectors. Double up where you can; also, if you have a piece that is two pages long, put them in two different protectors so they can face each other. This sounds like it may be common sense, but if you’re thinking with the organizational part of your brain to put this binder together, you may not be thinking with the piano playing part of your brain that wants to avoid page turns.

You could use a three hole punch for this step as well, but you could end up damaging the paper on the long run. You’ll also end up having to turn a lot more pages, which could get tedious, depending on how much music you have.

Once your music is in the binder, you may want to take this optional step and make a list of all your music to keep out to the side as you accompany, like an index. The first time you make this list, leave some space in case you add pieces later. Having a list like this will be helpful if you don’t have the greatest memory (like me). If it’s up to you to choose the pieces, having the list will help you quickly make a decision, if you are familiar enough with your repertoire (and you should be!) that just looking at the title will remind you of how the pieces go, even when you have five or six waltzes listed in a row.

And that’s it, your music is ready for dance class! More important question – are you? If you are a budding dance accompanist and have a question, please feel free to ask!
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New Direction

I’ve been neglecting this blog for quite some time, and for that I apologize, but I’m back (with a vengeance)! I’ve been taking some time to research some new things and develop some new things and I’m ready to share it all with you, whether you are ready or not!

Who is the new direction of this blog and this website for? Lots of people. Private music instructors, private music students, parents of private music students. Continuing students who may be studying on their own, like teens and adults. Any teacher or caretaker of children who may want to inject a little more music into their routine. Anyone who has decided that they just don’t feel like growing up, anyone who understands a healthy dose of fun and play can be just as important as research and development, quality control, or good old fashioned elbow grease.

Ill be sharing tips on teaching, learning and practicing, and how parents can help, too. Ill be sharing tips on productivity and creativity. Ill also be sharing fun and/or beautiful things that I find inspirational. And on a more or less completely unrelated note, I will be sharing tidbits on what it’s like to accompany ballet classes on piano. As I’ve previously stated here in this blog, it can be quite stressful and also very awesome, and there is also a bit of a black hole on the Internet when it comes to dance accompanying; I would like to change that.

So stay tuned for music, creativity and missAdventures! It’s going to be a wild ride!