Archive for December, 2012

Finding and using a Teacher

If you are looking for a teacher for yourself or your child, you are engaged in one of the most important external factors in musical development.

You can find teachers through:
music stores
internet sites like craigslist, etc.
performing societies
professional societies (AGO)
other musicians
recording studios

Sign up for a month and tell them you may check out some other teachers before continuing.  It may not be practical to try out several teachers at once, but you want to give yourself an easy out to change direction if things aren’t working.  It often takes a lesson or two for a good teaching groove to develop, but it doesn’t take a dozen either.  Being up front about the trial nature of the lessons sets a clear expectation for everyone.

What to look for
1. Ability to teach. This seems overly obvious but it bears mention.  Ability to play and ability to teach are not the same thing.  You want to study with someone who has a knack for explaining how to do something, not just able to demonstrate it.  In fact, you are ideally looking for someone who is very physically aware of what a beginner goes through.  In many cases, musicians who are NOT child prodigies will fit this bill perfectly.  Because they were a bit older and more aware, they are more apt to remember what they had to do to fix a particular problem and remember how it felt to do it right and wrong.

This is measurable.  Just ask this question, “Is my student making progress?”  If 6 months have passed and your student can’t play something from start to finish by themselves, something is wrong.  If your student is not making progress, you don’t have the right teacher or your student is not doing what is prescribed.  Some teachers are great with beginners, others are only effective for advanced students.  This question will sort out where or not your teacher has the ability required for your situation.  Three months is plenty of time to see progress.  Realistically, if the teacher’s instructions are followed, there should be progress week to week.

2. Encouraging to your student.  Throughout the learning process, attention will mostly be focused on what is hard, challenging, or even plain wrong,  This is what the lesson is for – to improve weaknesses, get coaching, etc.  At the same time, it is the teacher’s job to find all the good things and call them out.  Often in the stressful moment of trying to perform something for a teacher, the student is so focused on not screwing up, that they miss the parts they played well.  A good teacher will constantly be pointing out the good things, praising and building up.  We all like compliments and naturally gravitate toward those who appreciate us.  Look for this trait in the early lessons.

3. Likable. If you are old enough to read this book you already know that people naturally get along better with some folk than others.  Don’t fight this because Uncle Joe is a relative, or you you feel guilty in changing teachers.  Choose someone that you like and your student likes.  There is a very high likelihood that if your student doesn’t like the teacher, the teacher doesn’t like the student either.  Think about how this works in your own life, and relationships in general.  You may have a stubborn student who needs some time to warm up to a great teacher who genuinely cares for your child.  But if after a couple months nothing is gelling, you may need to reconsider.

3.  Appropriate to where the student is at now.Usually teachers that specialize in beginners and those that work exclusively with advanced students are very clear in their focus.   Often great teachers of both varieties will teach to a certain level and “graduate students” or have minimum standards to accept students.  Teachers that can clearly verbalize their abilities and preferences in this area should be awarded higher consideration.  Many teachers can and do teach multiple levels.  In this case you need to make sure that they can teach the things necessary where you are.  Skills for two years from now are not what you need.  Particularly in the long intermediate phase where there is mastery of a lot of basic physical and musical concepts but well before concert artistry, it can be a bit nebulous.  Ideally you want to see guidance and strategy at this phase.  You are paying for lessons, so there should be a plan.

4. Style.  Brand-new beginners have so much physical learning to do that style comes a bit later.  All the same, it is always more fun to play something you like.  By the intermediate level, this becomes particularly important as playing must be honed from the right general idea to a fully idiomatically correct expression of the music.  There are ornaments, rhythms and phrasing particular to every musical genre.  Learning them from someone proficient in their execution is necessary.

What to avoid
The Showoff
Many teachers are fantastic musicians.  Most play publicly, or play well enough to impress the average adult.  Having played for years, they often have a deep repertoire of licks, pieces, and skills.  Being an individual interested in getting good, it is often fun to hang around with someone good.  Your lesson is not the time for this.  If you find that the lessons involve more of the teacher playing than the student, something is very wrong.  You aren’t paying the teacher to practice or show off.  You are paying the teacher to teach you or your student.  Sometimes a quick demo is instructive to hear how it sounds at tempo, or illustrate an expressive technique.

I had one of these teachers once on guitar.  He was an amazing musician and had total mastery of the instrument.  He was a regular performer and a session musician.  He could play everything.  The only problem was that he did.  I’d get in 5-10 minutes of playing during an hour lesson.  You can imagine that despite being really impressed with his skills, after a couple of months I was frustrated.  I still couldn’t change chords at tempo, knew no songs, and couldn’t play anything for anybody.  I figured it out and moved on, you should too.

Learning is a vulnerable activity.  In any learning situation, we are going to fail early and often.   Learning is natural and easy when we feel safe and supported.  Failing creates vulnerability.  Whenever the student fails, they know it could have been done better, and their inner artist is telling them so.  If the teacher in impatient or angry with the student, learning will become virtually impossible.  As emotion rises, our minds shift into protection mode to protect ourselves from hurt, physical or emotional.  I can’t think of a single way that anger or impatience will aid a student, particularly a beginner.  If you ever sense either of these traits, you need to move on immediately.  Making art is a sensitive, vulnerable time and should have a supporting, nurturing environment.  When I play poorly for my teacher, he has me take some deep breaths and tells me about how he used to play poorly for his teacher, or helps me find a mental space to try again.  We all know when it isn’t good. What is needed is encouragement and vision, not withering criticism.

The absentminded professor
Your instructor should have a plan for progress.  It shouldn’t be a “winging it” experience each lesson.  If there is no plan for progress, then any progress will be haphazard and accidental. If the lesson starts with the teacher asking the student what he or she wants to learn that day, you need to find out if there is a plan, or is the lesson just about whatever comes up that day?  A plan for progress is necessary to ensure well-rounded development and steady progress.  All athletic coaches plan out their practices based on the needs of the team and where they are in the season.  Your music teacher should be doing the same.

Parent’s Guide to Music Lessons

I wrote this when I was last teaching to help parents with new beginner students and am re-posting it to answer some questions I’ve received recently:


Welcome to the start of a great journey with your student!  Learning to make music is an activity that rewards for a lifetime.  Like most things, it can be enjoyed on many levels from simple to complex.  Like all physical activities such as soccer, or basketball, there are basic skills and more advanced ones.
Learning an instrument can seem overwhelming at first – physically it is as demanding as learning to walk, and mentally it is like learning a foreign language.  Now imagine having to carry on a conversation in your new language while learning to walk!  This process takes a while – how long did it take your student to walk and talk?  The good news is that since your student is much older, he/she can learn much more quickly.
During music lessons, we’ll be focusing on both aspects:  the neuromuscular control needed to perform the movements of playing, and on the “language” of music.  Both will start simply and progress to harder motions and more complex language skills, just like other areas of your child’s life.  In this learning experience, you have a key role to play, as I will not be present for most of your student’s time with the instrument.
The human mind is a wonderfully capable device.  Just think of the thousands of precise actions needed to ride a bicycle.  Even if you haven’t ridden a bicycle in years, I bet you still could on your first try.  The reason is simple:  once our brains learn how to do an action consciously, repetition allows the mind to delegate the now “simple” task to the subconscious mind where it can execute on autopilot.  Riding a bicycle was hard at first, but soon became automatic.  Now you can access that skill without even “trying”.  In these lessons we are going to work on making certain musical skills “automatic”, just like riding a bicycle.
Your role is to help balance the bicycle, so to speak.  You don’t have to ride the bicycle yourself to help your child ride the bike.  Similarly, you can “hold the seat”, musically speaking, without playing yourself.  Instead of looking for a wobbly bicycle wheels, you can help your student by:
1)    Keeping a watchful eye for unnecessary tension
 and 2)    Helping your student practice correctly and slowly at first
Our bodies are never perfectly at rest – there is tension, or muscular contraction required just to sit in a chair, or even lie down to sleep.  Playing an instrument requires fine motor skills.  When the body is trying to learn a new skill, the body’s natural tendency is to make large approximations to “figure it out”.  The result is that the small muscles of the hand and forearm can be overwhelmed by the large muscles of the upper arm and shoulder.  There is simply no way they can compete!  It is quite common to observe “stiff, jerky fingers”, “hunched up shoulders”, and other visible evidence of non-helpful tension.  Good playing looks relaxed, even though effort is applied.  The human body moves naturally and gracefully once it learns a muscular action.  So, how do you help your student relax and find this grace in motion? 

”Parent Trick #1:  Simply place your hand on the stiff shoulder or bunched up fingers.  Just a light touch will dissolve the tension – think petting a baby bird.  Once your student is aware of the tension, it is usually easy to release it.  Just do this whenever you happen to observe it.  It will improve over time, I promise.  No need to make a big deal about it, or even say much.  Just a light touch and maybe a whispered, “relax”.”
The second way you can help your student is by encouraging correct practice.  Correct practice, simply means playing the piece correctly – no giant hidden meaning!  In the beginning, the only way this can happen is slowly.  REALLY SLOWLY!  Think back to when your student learned to walk – it could be seconds between steps!  I mean SLOW.  Think of a carpenter hitting a nail – they usually take a slow practice swing, not quite touching the nail, and then give a fast swing to drive the nail in one or two blows.  The slow swing established the correct motor control pathway.  Then the brain effortlessly accelerates the action, once it develops confidence in how to perform it.  Your student learns the same way – we all do.  Slow actions performed exactly the way we want them to work when “sped up” are quickly and easily assimilated by the brain.  Difficulties melt away when there is no “deadline” for making the movement.
Unfortunately, this works both ways!  The brain is just as content to automate a mistake or bad action as a graceful correct one.  That is why it is far, far worse to practice 1 hour poorly than 1 minute correctly. Particularly at the beginning, when just making the motions correctly is difficult, the most important thing is to make sure that the motions are correct. 
The challenge all musicians face is that we want to play fast!  Years of watching professionals has conditioned us to believe that “good” musicians can play really fast.  And they can.  Paradoxically, the speed comes from lots of correct slow practice.  You won’t be surprised when you hear me tell your student, “If you can’t play it slowly, how will you ever play it quickly?”  This leads us to Parent Trick #2.

”Parent Trick #2.  Invest in a simple digital metronome.  This will cost $20-30 at a music store, or download a $3 app for your smartphone if you are willing to loan it for practice sessions.  Have the store play them for you and your student.  Listen for a non-irritating sound.  You don’t need any fancy features.  Later, we will use the metronome to gauge speed.  Early on, we will use it to enforce a speed limit!”
To start, we will set the metronome to a slow speed, such as 60 “beats” or “ticks” per minute – one per second.  Your student will not be able to play an entire piece this quickly, nor would you as an adult!  We will start with four “ticks” per note.  Once this is easy, we will increase the metronome to “80” and still take four “ticks” per note.  When this is easy, set the metronome to “100” and use four “ticks” to complete the note.  Then put the metronome back at “60” and this time, use two “ticks” per motion.
This process continues according to this table:

Rate of Play                                                  Metronome Setting
Four beats per one note                          60 bpm (beats per minute)
Four beats per one note                          80 bpm
Four beats per one note                         100 bpm
Two beats per one note                          60 bpm
Two beats per one note                          80 bpm
Two beats per one note                         100bpm
One note per beat                                    60 bpm
One note per beat                                    80 bpm
One note per beat                                  100 bpm
Two notes per beat                                 60 bpm

This process continues until your student is playing four notes on every beat at well over 100bpm.  Any time your student is stumbling over something,  use the metronome to find out where your student’s threshold for coordinating this activity lies.  Once your student can repeatedly play smoothly at this speed, then increase the metronome according to the table until the difficulty is erased.  It is so simple, so effective, that it will seem like magic when you see it work in your house!
One final note on practicing: Most parents want to know how long their student should practice.  It would be easy to say “X minutes” or “1 hour”, the best answer has more to do with ability and concentration to practice attentively.  We already know that bad practice is worse than no practice since it teaches the mind how to play all the “mistakes”.  It takes concentration to learn to control the body in a new way.  Your student may find 15 or 20 minutes hard at first.   Start with short sessions, a break, and then another session.  With my daughter, we started at 15 minutes, broken into three 5-minute segments.  She did this “workout” twice a day (30 min daily).  Within three months, she was doing two 60 minute sessions for a total volume of 2 hours a day.   For best results, I would target a total practice volume of 5-6 hours a week.  All you have to do is break it up into bite size chunks.  Just like a video game, once your student starts to “get it”, then the desire to master it will develop naturally.   
Have fun with your student, and be sure to ask questions.  You can help you student master this “bicycle”, even if you don’t play yourself!

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