Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Practice During Christmas Break

During Christmas break, it is very easy for practicing to fall by the wayside. Once Christmas recitals are over, there is less incentive to practice. Yet, if one does not at least play review songs, much will be lost before the next piano lesson. I have found in my studio that the first lesson after Christmas break is usually spent figuring out where the student was before Christmas, and how to get them back there. Very rarely have my students come having made progress on their songs.

So what should a student practice during a busy Christmas break? It can be summed up in one word:


For example, I have decided this year to review at least one song each night. (Usually I end up reviewing more than one) This not only keeps my fingers in shape and my songs from deteriorating, but also serves as a source of encouragement, for in reviewing songs played years before it is easy to see how far one has come.

--Of course, it is best to practice just as one would regularly do, but if in the midst of all the fun of vacation time for practice is nowhere to be found, make sure time is made for review!

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Heart of the Matter: Help! My Child Won't Practice!

I saw a sign recently that said:

"A bad attitude is like a flat tire. -- you won't get anywhere unless you fix it!"

In teaching, one must find the most basic root of any difficulties that arise. Whether it be unwillingness to practice, disrespect, or simply a bad attitude, the trail invariably leads to the heart. Matthew 6:21 says:

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." A child's heart will determine what he values. A student who will not practice has misplaced values. He does not value several very precious "treasures":

  • His parents' sacrifices of time, money, and effort. Piano lessons are a luxury that many children whose families cannot afford them would love to have. Whether or not the student may realize it, they have been given a wonderful and costly gift that ought not be squandered.
  • His teacher's investment. It takes great effort to teach any subject. What most students (and many parents) do not realize is how great an investment their teacher makes in their lives. Although I took piano lessons for at least seven years before I began teaching, I did not fully grasp the importance of my teacher's efforts until I had my first "difficult" lesson. The energy your teacher expends on behalf of your child is enormous. It is not simply a once-a-week task. A good teacher spends time thinking over your child's progress and figuring out how best to help them. Recitals alone take weeks of planning and preparation. Students may never know the amount of time, energy, and care they waste by their uncooperative spirit.
  • His own time and effort. A student who stops practicing or who quits for the summer does not realize the value of the work he has already done. While his parents and teacher have sacrificed for his benefit, he also has invested time and effort into learning to play the piano. He is wasting his own time as well as that of his parents and teacher.
  • The future benefits. By stalling and delaying the completion of an assignment, a student either puts off or completely prevents the prize for which he is working. The difficult assignment must be completed if the student is to progress, and once it is finished, he can then move on to more beautiful and challenging pieces. His pleasure in playing will increase with his proficiency, so the faster he learns, the better he will enjoy practice.

Sometimes, a student needs to be reminded of these "treasures" he is squandering. Other times, he simply needs to learn to obey. I will always be thankful to my parents, who would not allow me to give up, but rather, faithfully made me practice until one day I finally began to enjoy it!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cornerstones of the Suzuki Method Part 2: Ear Training

Most piano methods begin by teaching the student how to read music. While it is important for all students to be able to read music, this often delays the begin of lessons for young children who do not yet know how to read. Beginning with reading also tends to distract students from learning proper technique by directing their eyes away from their hands.

That is why the Suzuki Method begins each student with ear training. The first songs a student learns are learned by ear, enabling both student and teacher to focus on developing the student's technique, so that when he does begin reading, his technique will be solid enough not to deteriorate when the eyes are directed up at the musical score.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Importance of Summer Lessons

I know that most piano teachers take summers off, but there is so much to be lost in doing so! I always encourage my students to continue throughout the summer for the following reasons:

1.Do the Math

Since summer break is only three months long, one would assume that three months is all that is lost when a student takes that time off, but it is really much more than that. It breaks down this way:

3 months of potential progress lost due to not having lessons for three months.
At least 3 months (usually more) of review work lost due to not practicing --or practicing very little-- for three months.
At least 6 months (usually more) of future progress lost due to the time it takes to re-learn the material lost over the summer.

Thus the 3 month break is actually the equivalent of at least 9 months of lost lessons.

2. The Frustration Factor

Most students look forward to having a long break, but once fall comes, they quickly learn just how much of their hard work they have wasted. It is so frustrating to a student to have to re-learn all that they had worked so hard to learn the first time, especially for students to whom learning new things comes with great difficulty. They are in so much of a hurry to catch up that usually the material is not learned nearly as well the second time, and it is often very easily lost. Students who are re-learning often have to be very careful to review their material every day, or else they forget it. It is a frustrating experience for the students, parents, and teachers alike.

3. Monetary Loss

As a parent (or adult student), you pay hard-earned money for your lessons. In taking a quarter off, you not only lose at least 9 months of lessons, you also lose 9 months worth of wasted tuition. You are, in effect, having to pay for the same lessons twice!

4. No One is Immune

You may be tempted to think that it would be different for you or your child, but don’t be deceived! Even my all-time most faithful and diligent students have not been able to keep all that they had learned over the summer. No matter how faithful you intend to be, summer is a busy time, and without the accountability of weekly lessons, practicing will always fall by the wayside.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cornerstones of the Suzuki Method Part 1: Review Songs

In this series of posts on the cornerstones of the Suzuki Method, it is only fit that I begin with review songs. Of the four cornerstones, this is perhaps the most essential.

So, why are review songs so important? Musically, they are vitally important because it is on review songs that good technique and therefore musicality are achieved. If you are skeptical, try taking a brand new song and playing it with 100% accuracy of notes and rhythm, as well as perfect technique and musicality. It is impossible to achieve all that at once. Review songs are a process, giving each layer of technique time to be polished and refined before moving on to the next.

Of course, the Suzuki Method is very much aimed at character development, which is another aspect of the importance of review songs. The hard work required to learn new songs builds endurance, but there are many more character traits that can be developed in keeping up review songs. The first traits learned are self-control and endurance, as a student disciplines himself to do what is assigned him, even when it seems tedious or boring or even pointless. Diligence and responsibility are needed for the necessary practice which solidifies each step, while attentiveness enables the student to grasp the details of each new technical layer. In addition to these, a student must have the wisdom to receive instruction, and the humility to be teachable.

If these reasons are not enough, one might consider the inefficiency of learning new songs without reviewing them. One puts hard work, energy, and time into learning a new piece. If the piece is never reviewed, however, all that work, energy and time is in vain. Think of the wasted hours spent learning new songs that will be finished only to be forgotten.

To learn a new piece is good, but one cannot be always learning the new without reviewing the old. So take heart, and stand firm through the difficulties, the tantrums, --whether yours or your child’s-- the tedium, and the character-stretching, and your efforts will be rewarded with greater musicality and firmer character.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Three Principles of Good Practicing

1. If at first you don't succeed, take a step back and try again. Practicing can be a painful and frustrating experience for a student who is trying to do something that is too difficult. Instead of spending the entire practice getting more and more frustrated, break the task up into smaller or simpler sections until it is within the student's ability. For example, instead of trying to polish a song by repeating the whole thing over and over, spend time drilling the trouble spots first, and then play the whole thing through.

2. Be Consistent. It is far better to practice 15 minutes every day for a week than to practice for three hours the night before lesson. The practice that counts is consistent practice. I always encourage my students to practice 6 days a week, even if they are only able to practice for a few minutes on their busiest days.

3. If at all possible, practice at least as long as your lesson is. The length of your practice time will determine how much you have to show your teacher at your next lesson. Your teacher gives you assignments based on the amount of time you have at lesson. Students should never run out of things to do during practice time. Between new assignments and review songs, there should be plenty for students to work on! --If you do run out, I'm sure your teacher would love to give some extra assignments!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Suzuki Method in a Nutshell

The Suzuki method was founded on the principle that music should be learned the same way one learns his native language. Students begin as babies do, not with reading first, but with learning to produce sound. They learn their first pieces by listening to recordings of their pieces and copying what they hear. (Basic ear-training) This allows them to lay a strong foundation of good technique, (What they must do with their instrument to produce beautiful tone) before adding in the difficulties of sight reading. As students master basic technique, they are taught sight reading as well as other music theory.