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!

IT’S MUSIC COMPETITION TIME!

First of all, I have to start out by saying that up until about five years ago (or whenever it was that I started sending my kids off to the Mid-Atlantic Music Teachers Guild’s annual Spring Competition), I was pretty much dead set against competitions.  In fact, that first year,  I only sent maybe half of my students, and didn’t even attend the competition myself.

Maybe it’s because I was an only child.  Maybe it’s because I’ve got pretty decent self-esteem.  Maybe it’s because I don’t like getting put on the spot.  Maybe it’s something else entirely.  But the whole concept of a competition just seemed so foreign to me.

And then I attended a competition.

And you know what?  It was chaotic.  And stressful.  And tiring.  There were people everywhere, and some of them were lost.  Kids were tuning instruments in the middle of the hallway.  There was nowhere to sit.  People were running late.  Some of the other students were not so great.  Some of them were amazing.  It was kind of scary, I could see how some of my students might feel kind of intimidated in this environment.  But also… it was completely exhilarating at the same time.  It was amazing.  It was like everything that I try and do with my students all year long, wrapped up into one compact weekend.  IT WAS AN ADVENTURE.

The next year, and every year since, I have encouraged all of my eligible students to attend the Spring Festival, and to participate in as many competitions as they can.  Not because I want to scare the crap out of them, but because it is exciting.  And a little bit scary.

Because events like this focus you in a way that a recital doesn’t.  Events like this push you just a little bit out of your comfort zone, in a way that nothing else does.  I have come to love the Spring Festival so much, I don’t even mind waking up early for it.  It is a great weekend.

So here are the nitty gritty details.

the light fixture in the marriot lobby.. i realize now this picture makes the place scary, but i assure you, there is nothing to be afraid of!

The Spring Festival is hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Music Teachers Guild, a professional teachers’ organization with membership in New York, New Jersey, Connecticutt, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. (What did Dela wear?  Her New Jersey! BWAHAHA I SLAY ME!) Last year and this year (and hopefully many years in the future), the competition is held at the Hanover Marriot on Route 10 in Whippany, which is an absolutely gorgeous hotel.

And I also kind of just love that the competition is in Whippany.  For myself and most of my students, it is just far enough away that you can do it in a day and it’s not to annoying to drive to and yet, you are in the car just long enough to really feel like you are going somewhere different and special.. like on an adventure!  (I will probably use the word “adventure” at least twice more in this post)

The festival takes place the weekend of March 31st – it runs from Friday to Sunday.  The majority of my students (solo piano or guitar students) will be participating in competitions and evaluations (more on that in a minute) on Saturday, and that could be at any point from 9am to about 3pm (though most of it is done in the morning).  Some of my students will hopefully be participating in the talent showcase competition, and that will be taking place on Friday night.

Possible categories that my students can participate in include the competition on their instrument (standard solo in piano and pop solo in guitar).  Students are given a piece of music to learn, and they are scored on their performance.  This is as close to a standardized test as one can get in the music world, I feel.  If an actual competition is too much for a student (say, just a beginner), then there is the evaluation category, which is non-competitive.  Students perform for the judge and they are given both compliments and criticism.  Being able to take a healthy dose of criticism is important for, well, everyone (and because I feel it is important for a student, from time to time, to play for someone who is not actually me, I encourage everyone to do evaluation, in addition to the competition).  Certain students can also participate in the talent showcase category, where they accompany themselves while singing any song of their choosing.  I am going to STRONGLY SUGGEST that students accompany themselves on their own guitar, as this situation involves the least amount of variables.

Students participating in competition categories will receive a huge trophy if they win first, second or third place in their category, or they will receive a medal for fourth or fifth place.  All students who participate in the evaluation category will receive a small trophy (being able to graciously take criticism of both the good and not so good variety deserves an award, don’t you think?).  Winners in the talent showcase category will actually receive a cash prize (DUDE, I WANT TO ENTER!).

On Sunday, winners will be announced at the Awards Concert.  This is the first time they are doing a concert, so I have to admit, I am not quite sure what the event will entail.  It is usually in the afternoon, the performances are from the first place winners of the virtuoso categories, as well as the musical theater categories and battle of the bands competition.  During the ceremony, they do announce every child that wins, and if the student is present, they get to go up and get their award themselves!  It is a great and exhilarating feeling, and it is a great way to wrap up the weekend (and yes, if you stay at the hotel that weekend, either for just one night or the other, or from Friday to Sunday, there is a discounted rate for festival goers).

There is a $5.00 registration fee for all students who enter, and then an additional $30 per competition/evaluation and $35 for talent showcase.  Yes, this means that the minimum you will be paying for your child to participate is $35, and it could be as expensive as $65 (I will not even do the math for multiple children per household).  And yes, I know that is expensive.  When your child is still smiling at the end of the weekend, it will have been worth it.

Because in the end, this weekend is not about getting that trophy (although it is nice!).  It’s not about being the best one in the bunch.  It’s not about showing off to the world.  It’s about showing off to yourself.  It’s about being the best you that you can be.  It’s about setting a goal, working diligently towards it, and then attaining it.  It’s about going outside of your comfort zone, to an unfamiliar place filled with unfamiliar people, and THRIVING.  I know these are tough economic times, but if you can afford it, I assure you, it is worth it.  It’s not a learning experience, it is a learning adventure, and when we set off on this adventure together, we come back from it different people, stronger people, better people.  And oh yeah, we spent a whole weekend hanging out together, being a little chaotic and crazy together, and showing to ourselves that we can be absolutely awesome musicians.

In the end, it’s really just about being as awesome as you can possibly be, no matter what adventures you take in your life, musical or otherwise.

Whoops.  Said “adventure” three more times, not twice.  Haha!  Do I know myself, or do I know myself??

Miss Anna’s Rules

Over the summer I had these bouts of insomnia. Or maybe it was just one random night. Or maybe I just feel like really outlandish things can only be written while severely sleep deprived. Actually, I may have started to write this in a moment of completely relaxed clarity, while on vacation with my family in North Carolina. Either way, I wrote it, and it’s mine, and it may be a bit outlandish, and maybe you’ll say, I can’t believe you actually sat down and wrote this all down and, well, to that I would respond, “neither can I.”

I am a big NCIS fan. I always catch an episode (or seven) when it’s on USA (which it is… often). I have an NCIS dance. It’s a special dance I only dance to the NCIS theme song. One of these days, someone will tape me doing it, I’m sure, and they will upload it to the ‘net, and I will NOT be embarrassed. Recently, Ziva even popped up in one of my dreams (after I got shot in the leg, clearly she was not on some sort of protection detail).

But this article is not about Ziva. And while it’s not really about Gibbs, it did come about because of him. If you’ve never seen NCIS, I should probably mention that Gibbs is famous for having this whole humongous list of rules. They are rules for investigation and crime fighting, and life in general. Well, I have a list of rules, too. And while I’m not going to share ALL of them with you (no one wants to hear my personal rules on relationships), I am going to share the set that pertains to music. Here we go, because unlike on NCIS, where the rules are learned as you go along, I feel it is better to present them all together, and to talk about them, and maybe even edit or add a few.

11. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.
12. Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop practicing.
13. Always have a pencil.
14. Only take the gigs you are comfortable with.
15. Own your music, even your mistakes.
16. Listen.
17. Always be prepared to perform one song in its entirety.
18. Only one person should tune at a time.

What? Where are 1 – 10? And why are we stopping at 18? 1 – 10 are reserved for life rules (stuff like respecting your elders, standing up for yourself, etc. etc.). At the moment I only have 8 rules when it comes to music (and yes, I know, 11 and 12 are pretty contradictory).

This section of my list of rules was actually very easy to write. I started writing rule 11 and didn’t really pause until I was done. It’s funny how pretty much before I started writing this list, I never even thought about having a list of rules and yet, when I started writing this list, it’s like it was just sitting there in my brain somewhere, just waiting for me to discover it. Funny how the brain works.

So, what do you think? Did I hit it? Or completely miss the mark? Can we edit, add, take away? Do you have music rules?

Believe in Something

I’m preparing to give a presentation on my recent trip to Ukraine at my church next week. I can’t believe I’ve been home for a month and a half! While I’ve been sitting here, trying to figure out a way to organize my experience and my thoughts into something cohesive and coherent, I’ve also been thinking about what meaning can be taken out of all of this, what lessons can be passed on.

And I think the biggest thing I can tell anyone in relation to my trip here, isn’t about the kids I met, or the consequences of the accident at Chernobyl, or anything at all even related to nuclear power.

It’s the importance of finding something to believe in, and believing in that thing 110%, no matter what, and without fail. Leaving my family and friends, and job and all my students for two weeks was not easy. There were a few times during the trip where I was definitely very, very homesick. There were some sad moments when I wished, as much of a grown up as I was, I could just get a hug from my mother. But in the end, I was witness to some amazing work and yes, if CCPI asked me to document another trip for them, I would say yes.

I’m not saying that everyone should go halfway around the world to volunteer for various charitable organizations. But I am saying that you should not be afraid to believe in something – whether it is a personal goal or a philanthropic pursuit – and believe in it wherever it takes you. My belief in my cause took me to Ukraine. Your beliefs may not take you to a third world country (maybe you’ll luck out and go somewhere glamorous! hah!), they may not even take you out of the country you currently reside in.

But the feeling you get when your dreams become reality is one of the most amazing feelings in the world.

Carl Czerny – Uberteacher

Czerny – any pianist knows that name, but who was he?  What inspired him to be the teacher that he was?  Which of his teachers was he more influenced by, and how much of his theoretical and pedagogical worth come from his own findings rather than development of his teachers’ ideas?

Carl Czerny was born in 1791 in Vienna.  A child prodigy on the piano, he made his first appearance at the age of 9 playing a Mozart piano concerto.  The gifted youngster studied with composers and performers who were, perhaps, as eager to teach him as he was to study with them.  Over the course of his musical development, Czerny had the privilege of studying with Antonio Salieri, Johann Hummel and Ludwig van Beethoven.

While it would be an interesting topic to research and write about, Salieri is not quite as influential on piano pedagogy as one may first think, given his wealth of students that include Meyerbeer, Moscheles, Schubert, Liszt, Beethoven, Hummel, Sussmayr and others.  Many of them went on to be talented pianists and composers, but it is Czerny who has left a more lasting thumbprint on the piano world, even though he has fewer “big name students” to his credit.

Picture this:  It is a story about a composer, a student, and an instrument still in it’s baby stages, the piano.

Beethoven, for whatever reason deep inside of him, has become enchanted with the piano.  He prefers it over the harpsichord or clavichord for its ability to play long legato lines, singing passages, and to be expressive through the use of dynamics and phrasing, methods unavailable on other keyboard instruments.  While the kinks have not yet all been worked out in the mechanics of the instrument yet, Beethoven realizes it’s potential.

Beethoven also has the chance to teach a young Carl Czerny, but only for a few years.  The two part on very good terms.  At the very least, the impact of Beethoven’s music is quite apparent – by the time Czerny dies, he is a master of almost every single piano work Beethoven as written, and it is directly through his influence on his students Leszetycki and Liszt that the tradition of fine Beethoven playing methods continues into the 19th century, and beyond.

It is probably also a bit of the sympathy that Czerny may have had for his former teacher’s affliction with hearing loss that may have inspired him in his life’s work.  Because of Beethoven’s illness, he was already completely deaf by the time the piano underwent the major changes that brought it light years closer to the instrument we know today.  While he was able to take advantage of some of these advancements (his later works feature notes previously not available on earlier pianos with a smaller range) he was not able to aurally appreciate them.

When Czerny began teaching and composing, he appears to have taken the same approach to his teaching style as Beethoven did with his music.  Much in the same way that Beethoven’s music runs the gamut of emotion, form and style, so does Czerny’s teaching methods.  He believed that there was not just one way to teach a person how to play the piano because no two pairs of hands were ever alike, and also, no two people were alike.  He approached each new student with a fresh start, and would tailor the lessons to the students’ specific needs.

The pieces he is most famous for, which almost any piano student may recognize are his The School of Velocity and The Art of Finger Dexterity.  Although he would not prescribe a set schedule of when a student should study what, he certainly had a variety of technical exercises at his fingertips when and if he needed them for a student.

Czerny is, of course, most famous for his enormous output of creative works of piano music.  He has composed more than 800 opuses in addition to countless more unpublished works, with works ranging from his most well known technical studies to symphonies, religious texts, string quartets, and sonatas.  He also wrote over 300 pieces without opus numbers, these being variations on themes by some of the “ancients” like Mozart and Haydn, and also his contemporaries, Beethoven, Mayerbeer, Mendlesson, Spohr and Verdi, and others.    Much of his work was done for the benefit of his piano students; these variations may be no exception.

Czerny spent the majority of his life teaching and composing, having given up on the performing aspect of his career.  He lacked the showmanship that was required by audiences of the day to sustain a career giving concerts, and also did not like to travel.  Instead, he stayed at home, became a bit of a recluse and worked on composing and teaching.  It is said that at one point he taught 12 hours a day, every day.  He would also work on multiple pieces of music at a time – he would write out an entire page of one work, then, while he was waiting for the ink to dry, he would move on to a different composition.  His approach to composition was sometimes pragmatic and methodic.  He could easily compose pieces just by applying this style of passage work in this key here, then this cadence pattern, then transpose it, etc, much in the way musical composition was almost like writing out a mathematical equation for Baroque composers.  In fact, he even had assistants whom he would give instructions to in this manner, and they would write out his ideas for him.

This may make for bland writing in comparison to the more passionate and deep, soul searching pieces being written by other composers more in the Romantic vein, and it showed.  He received less than stellar reviews from Robert Schumann.  He was respected by Chopin, though the man did not think highly of his music.

When you analyze Czerny’s musical works from the standpoint of a composer, one may agree that his large body of work lacks the expression or depth of emotion of other composers of his day.  However, when you reanalyze his work from the standpoint of a teacher, it takes on a whole new meaning.

His lasting impression on the music world is of great benefit to piano players everywhere, and when used properly, his many technical studies can be a fantastic teaching tool on the instrument most loved by him and by his teacher, Beethoven.  If Czerny has left a lasting thumbprint on the music world, perhaps it was Beethoven who guided his hand there in the first place, more so than any of Czerny’s other teachers or contemporaries.

Memorizing

Memorizing music is a topic I’ve always struggled with, both as a performer and as a teacher.

As a student through elementary school and high school, I was never pushed to memorize a piece. I’m sure it happened at some point, but it was never a priority. I base this statement on the fact that if it were a priority, I would be much better at it now.

I am not a good memorizer. Even in college, it was never a priority, or a requirement for performance. Yes, some pieces I memorized, and played without music, but as Ruth once said, “Why wouldn’t you want every possible aid to help you play that piece correctly?” This might not be a word for word quote, but she had a point.

If you’re performing something, and it’s a piece that jumps wildly all over the keyboard, or maybe has a few ridiculous page turns, yes, you probably have to memorize it. But easier pieces? Why bother? Give yourself every last chance to get it correct.

The other reason why I tend to shy away from memorization, is because it just fosters incorrectness in students. Either they memorize it incorrectly (and there is nothing worse than a memorized mistake – honestly, it is probably one of the most frustrating things to work through), or memorizing it leads to not actually reading the notes, which leads to forgetting note names and note vales. Once it’s forgotten, when you try to read the music again, any music for that matter, the student is lost.

It almost breaks my heart to watch a student play something flawlessly without the music, only to completely crumble when the music gets put in front of them again.

So why put students through that? Make them work harder, make them play it with the music every time, but in the long run, I think it’s worth it, and it makes your student a better musician.

Maybe that’s what Miss Carol was thinking when I never memorized a piece, all those years ago.

The Three C’s of Performance

Something I came up with recently and started talking to my kids about: The Three C’s of Performance. They are, in no particular order:

  • Correctness
  • Confidence
  • Comfort

For something to be considered a good performance, it needs to be correct, the performer needs to be confident, and also, needs to be comfortable with whatever it is that they’re performing. These three things all go hand in hand, for example, if you’re not confident with what you’re playing, that will make you less comfortable with it, and you will be prone to making more mistakes. But I think that with kids, you need to break things down, even if all the parts overlap upon the scrutiny an adult gives it.

These are things that I tell my students all the time. Be Correct! Be confident! Be comfortable! A lot of times what happens is they get it correct but they still doubt themselves. I watch their hands shake as they move over the keys. Don’t be nervous, you’re doing it right, i tell them, be confident! It’s like they need permission to be confident about what they’re doing. When that happens, I have them go home and practice it another week, and they have to practice being confident. It is a skill that requires practice, just like anything else. Then, usually, with the confidence comes comfort, hand in hand.

And then, they’ve mastered the piece.

Sometimes we’re not so much impressed with a piece of music, we’re impressed with how easy the performer makes it look, and the recipe for making it look easy is “correctness, confidence and comfort.”

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

a lot of my students, my little little kids, will try and tell me, practice makes perfect, right? and i have to correct them and tell them, no. perfect practice makes perfect.

and they’re like, what?

and i have to explain to them, that, hey, what happens if you practice a mistake ten times in a row? then you can play that mistake perfectly. if you want to play something correctly, you need to play it correctly every time.

and i’ve slowly been coming to the realization that as a teacher of small children, not only do i need to teach them how to play, but also i need to teach them how to practice. i mean, it’s one of those things that i guess i’ve always known and been aware of, in my years of teaching – not that there are really a lot of them, but still – but i’ve only just recently put it into words.

i started to think about it hardcore after one of the other piano teachers at the studio (and this woman is amazing and just got her doctorate in piano performance) kicked a student out basically because he wasn’t practicing, and this was one of her more advanced students. she was saying that her lessons with him were more like guided practice sessions, and at his stage in the game, she shouldn’t be in there showing him how to practice, because that’s simply not her job. he should know by now.

so that’s when i started to think about it. who’s job is it? what stage of the game is right for learning not just what to practice, but how. oh wait, i thought to myself, it’s my job.

don’t get me wrong, i had long ago established myself as a big supporter of the metronome, and of fixing silly mistakes, and of redefining what it means to rush.

a silly mistake, by the way, is a mistake that as soon as you make it, you fix it. if you knew enough to immediately recognize it as a mistake, why’d you do it in the first place? that’s the silly part.

rushing (don’t be rushin’! i hate russians! just kidding) is defined as playing ANYTHING faster than you can play it correctly. i hate rushing, probably more than i hate bach (and remember, bach is ok with this. we’ve reached an understanding).

i also do a lot of other stuff with the kids that i think are kind of unique to my teaching style – there’s the list of things you cannot say (things like “i can’t” “this is too hard” “i always do that” and the like), things you can say (positive versions of all the things you can’t say, “I can” etc etc), post-its with reminders on the piano, weird analogies involving everything from basketball and ballet to elephants and swans, all my teaching posters, the triangle and square, don’t forget the duckies, whos population has been diminished considerably because lou started to get annoyed, and the zero-gravity field that envelopes the keyboard, and our little piano playing bubbles.

i do a lot of really random things in my room, but i think kids need that kind of approach. they’re not stubborn old adults yet, who have spent years learning and studying and if they haven’t completely turned off their learning mechanism by the time they decide, hey, i want to pick up an instrument, then they’ve probably fallen into one or two patterns of learning styles that either are or are not conducive to learning an instrument. kids on the other hand, are just so new and open to everything that you have to be prepared to come at them with anything, because if one way doesn’t work, you have to be prepared with another way that will… and i have never ever found that simply playing something over.. and over.. and over again, without any direction or guidance, without a metronome, without focus, ever got any kid anywhere. practice doesn’t make perfect. perfect practice makes perfect.

and that concludes my rant for the day. i didn’t even think i could be this cognizant and critical this early in the morning. i haven’t even had my coffee yet!