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!

Take 5: How Long Should I “X” For? X til you’re Happy!

Take 5 – taking a break. From time to time you just need to sit back, relax and reflect. Around here we’re going to try and do this on Fridays. Of course, if it’s no longer Friday, you’re still allowed to come here, and comment about your week.

Every so often, a theme pops up in my teaching. I mean like I end up talking about the same things with multiple students. Sometimes I just get on a kick about one topic of another. Sometimes it’s purely coincidental, and sometimes it’s absolutely Anna-made (once, a boyfriend’s niece thought I was a cartoonist because when he was saying “animated,” she was hearing “Anna-made-it.”).

This week, Anna-made-it. We’re all still working on getting back into the school habits – waking up early, doing homework, going to after school activities. Getting back in the practicing saddle is just another back to school routine to get into again, and I always work very closely with my students on their practice habits, all year long.

I’m a big fan of meeting kids where they’re at, and then traveling forward together. Sometimes I think this comes across as me being too easy, but I am not in the habit of forcing kids to do anything. No life-long learning ever happens that way. That’s not to say I don’t push my kids to be AWESOME, but I like it better when they feel they are in the passenger seat with the map as opposed to just sitting in the back looking out the window. So our first week back, the goal was just to practice. Just do it! Just get there! Sometimes that is the hardest step. And I’m happy to report that many of my students seem to have plenty of time to practice so far this year, getting to play 4-6 times a week. (We’ll see how that’s going in a month or two.)

The following week they had to actually time themselves when they practiced. A few years ago, this was a harder task. Now, between my students being older and either inheriting an old iPhone or getting a new one, almost every single one of my students has an iPhone or iPod with which I know they can time themselves. I have to say, some of my students are already in good practicing habits, but some are just not sitting down for long enough, so this week their assignment was to practice for a minimum amount of time that I prescribed and then they had to keep working UNTIL THEY WERE SATISFIED WITH THAT DAY’S PROGRESS.

This is probably one of the biggest things I am trying to instill in my students this year. It isn’t about the minutes practiced, or the note speller pages completed, it’s about whether or not you are happy with the progress you’ve made, whether it is a small accomplishment like finally practicing for ten uninterrupted minutes or for something big like finally getting through the toughest section of the piece. It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality, and I’m trying to get them to realize that it is their decisions that affect their progress.

Yes, I absolutely believe that these life lessons can be taught to ten year olds. You’d be surprised. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe I’m wrong. But we’ll see. Kids are pretty awesome people, and I’d like them to realize that they’ve got the ability to choose their own happiness.

So what did you accomplish this week, big or small?