Tag Archives: effective practice

A GUIDE TO TEACHING CHILDREN MUSIC – Principle 2: “Self-Initiated Learning vs. Imposition”

“Children learn best when the learning is self-initiated, arising from their own curiosity and interests, rather than imposed on them.”

– Aletha Solter, Ph.D., “Principles of Learning”

Godfrey Kneller's portrait of IsaacNewton, 1689
Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of IsaacNewton, 1689

Newton hit the nail on the head with his third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Try verbally or physically trying to make a child do something will make them resist even more.

Examples:

  • Try forcing green vegetables into a kid’s mouth and they will refuse to open their mouth or immediately spit out whatever you put in there.
  • Yell at a child to get in bed and they’re be riled up and less tired or willing to sleep.
  • Try physically removing a child from doing or playing with something they like and they will kick and scream.

When we apply this to music and helping children develop the habit of practicing, negatively forcing a child to play a specific instrument or practice at specific times for specific lengths of time may produce results—BUT, on the other hand,  they might sap away a child’s desire to play over time. This happens especially if those measures result in reluctance, resistance, indifference, apathy, or rejection of musical activities or practice.

There are two types of motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation, or an inner desire or interest to do something, usually for the sake of enjoyment or self-satisfaction.
  2. Extrinsic motivation, or a drive to accomplish something in order to receive a reward or recognition from an outward motivator. Motivators include threats, bribes, prizes, fame, competition, pressuring, etc.

In teacher Lara Hansen’s article “The Inherent Desire to Learn: Intriniscally Motivating First Grade Students,” she says,

“When people are intrinsically motivated they feel interest and enjoyment in what they are doing. They also feel a sense of capability and determination. What they don’t feel is tension, stress, and anxiety.”

In general, people tend to enjoy activities more when they can enjoy the experience and develop a personal passion for what they are doing. Any trauma introduced to an activity in the form of external motivators can lead that activity becoming stressful instead of a pleasure to perform.

As teachers and parents, we can provide opportunities for a child learn an instrument, but imposing, pushing, or bribing a child will create resistance and perhaps kill the child’s original curiosity and interest.

But don’t worry! We all have negative experiences with music, like playing a bad concert or being pressured to practice because of an assignment or impending performance. External/extrinsic motivators naturally exist and aren’t all bad unless they kill our passion for music.

And even if desires and passions dwindle, they can be fed and nurtured back to life. Just because a child throws a fit and doesn’t want to go to a music lesson one day doesn’t mean all is lost—you may find the same child excitedly getting their instrument out to show a friend the next day.

They say curiosity killed the cat, but perhaps killing the curiosity in the cat is the sadder scenario. Let’s keep the desire to learn alive and well!

How Young is Too Young?

As a violin teacher, with a pretty good size studio, I think the question I get the most is, “At what age should I start my child?”  There are several responses that I could have with this question, but I will go with the two that I feel most strongly about.

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First, what is best for your child?  In this day and age it is not uncommon for a child to have an extra activity every day.  From soccer to acting class kids’ schedules can be crazy.  If you want them to play an instrument, not have to practice with them, and just have fun, then starting in 5th or 6th grade is probably the best option.  At that age, kids can be pretty self-driven and if they like the instrument will practice.  You may need to be flexible, however,  because your child will probably want to switch as they get exposed to different instruments.  For a child to try violin one year and cello the next is great, but as a parent can be frustrating.

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Second, what is best for you as the parent?  If you want to start your child on violin at the age of three, that’s awesome, but realize you will have to be very dedicated.  Practicing with the child every day, enduring tantrums when practice gets difficult, and having a slow and steady approach to learning the instrument.  I love it when a young child gets a grasp on music early.  The students I have that started at the age of three or four have a way better understanding of music then a child that starts in 5th or 6th grade.  They have been around music longer, appreciate it, and see music almost as a second language.  It is a beautiful thing, however, it is not an easy thing to accomplish as a parent.  If you are not the type of parent that wants to dedicate yourself to learning the violin and practicing with your child every day then hold off on starting them young.  It will cause you more grief than joy.  So, unless you are a bit of a “tiger mom” it may not be best for you.

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I started the violin at the age of three.  There has never been a day, in my adulthood, that I have regretted starting the violin at such a young age.  It is why I love teaching younger students so much.  By the way, all of the children’s pictures in this post are students of mine.

Starting children young can be very rewarding.  My mom was an amazing, dedicated woman and she said there was nothing more rewarding then seeing her children come alive while playing music.  My mother also came up with the best quitting rule when it came to music.  If we ever came to our mom and said that we wanted to quit she always said that was just fine and we would mark the calendar for 6 months from the time that we asked to quit.  If 6 months later we still wanted to quit the instrument, we were allowed to do so.  You would be amazed at how often quitting an instrument is associated with an upcoming performance, current frustration with a technique, or just pure laziness. Often, after 6 months, we would not even remember wanting to quit.  I still use this rule with my own students.  It works brilliantly.  In ten years of teaching I have only had one student quit.

In closing, a child is never to young to begin to experience music. Singing to and with your child, playing music for your child, and being intentional about learning different instruments and their sounds can go a long way towards teaching your child to appreciate music. Music is not so much a talent but a gift and like all art, should be deeply appreciated.

I would start by watching the “Goat Rodeo” sessions on YouTube with your child. Totally entertaining and lively. They will love them.  You can click here to see what I’m talking about. 🙂

Online Music Lessons: Helpful or Hurtful?

We live in an interesting age, musically speaking.  Through the avenue of the internet, so much is available to us in the way of recordings, videos, articles, pictures, etc, etc.  From this sea of information, any aspiring musician with a computer can find tools and resources for online music lessons and often times for free.

Learning music online is vastly different than what teachers and players have been used to in generations before the world wide web making some wonder if online lessons are truly beneficial for budding musicians or if they just cause confusion and poor technique.  Before investing any serious time in front of a computer screen, there are a few things to consider when it comes to music lessons.

When it comes to learning anything, I think the most important thing to consider is how you or your student learns.  For instance, I am a kinesthetic learner.  I learn best by doing or using my hands.  Sitting around watching videos online, does help me as much a having a teacher guide me during a lesson and then practicing it on my own for several hours.  Yet, I have a student who is a very visual learner and online videos are a great reference for the days in-between lessons.  Likewise, I have a family member that can read a car manual and just build an engine in a weekend.  I’m sure that if he wanted to, he could play the violin after a day of reading “How-To” blogs online.

If you decide that using online music lessons are something that would be helpful for you, the next thing you need to consider is where the information is coming from.  The good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of videos, articles, and blogs to choose from.  The bad news is that pretty much anyone with a computer and 5 minutes of free time can post something.  When searching for music lessons, it’s best to use media produced by a professional or teacher with years of experience.  Generally, they will have tried and true methods to share that won’t lead you or your student astray.  If you are unsure about the validity of something you found online, it’s best to double check with your teacher.  Send them a link and have them check it out.  If you are teaching yourself how to play, you can always check with other members in the music community.  Contacting a local music store to see if they have come across something useful is a great place to find sound advice.  You can also check with other players through online forums like Violinist.com or Fiddle Hangout.

If you aren’t sure where to start looking online, a great place to start is our blog.  We are all professionals and teachers here, and we work hard to provide our readers with quality and useful educational articles that anyone can access.  We also have a Video Library on our website.  You can check it out here.

The Fine Art of Tuning

A cello section tuning.

In high school at the beginning of each concert, like all orchestras, we would take some time to tune.  Once the squeaking and squawking settled into a common A natural, our conductor would say, “Thank you very much.  Our first song was ‘The Fine Art of Tuning.'”  The audience, slightly confused, would laugh and we would move on to the actual concert.  His comment, while quite dry, actual holds a lot of truth.  The concept of may seem like simply matching pitches but there is “fine art” to it that I see even advanced musicians missing out on.  In my experience there are two main things that will help you master the fine art of tuning: a strong pitch reference and good tuning habits.

A Strong Pitch Reference: Unless you were born with “perfect pitch,” you will need a reference to the correct pitch.

-A tuning fork is the classic tool for tuning.  It is a piece of metal cast into a specific u-shape so that when struck, it emits a particular pitch. *NOTE:  Never strike a tuning fork on your instrument.* I’ve seen this happen which is why I have to say it…

-For beginners, an electronic tuner is useful because they can either emit the desired pitch or show you digitally what pitch you are playing.  There are even some that clip directly on the instrument.  I suggest investing in a tuner that doubles as a metronome.  It’s less to carry around!

Pitch pipes are lightweight and easy to use as well.  All you have to do is blow.  The down side is that if they get dropped or beat up, the notes on the pitch pipe will get out of tune themselves.

Pianos are best used in a band setting.  They aren’t exactly portable like the other options but they are the best choice if you are going to be playing with a piano (I’ll explain that later).

-If you want to be super tech savvy, there are several apps for mobile devices that turn your phone into a tuner.  Just be careful which one you get, the free ones aren’t always accurate.

Clockwise from top left: a chromatic pitch pipe, a tuning fork, a violin pitch pipe, and a mobile app.

Good Playing Habits: some of this may seem like common sense, but it’s good to be reminded.

-The best habit to have while tuning would be listening. It’s not enough to simply look at the tuner see that you are in tune (or worse, just play a note and turn the pegs until you are tired of it or the rest of the group stops tuning).  Listen to what it sounds like to be in tune and out of tune.  On a stringed instrument, you will need to listen to the intervals between the strings.  Traditionally, violin, viola, and cello strings are tuned in fifths (sounds like the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  If you are playing in a group, listen to the other players and “agree” with their tuning.  At times, the people you are playing with may have instruments that aren’t perfectly in tune and can’t be tuned without great difficultly.  I’m not talking about stubborn viola pegs or sticky clarinet keys, but a 250 year old pipe organ or a tinny house piano at a bar.  Your instrument may be perfectly in tune on its own, but if it doesn’t match the instruments you are playing with you will sound out of tune.

-Having strong fundamentals is another habit that will make the tuning process easier and more effective.  In the violin family, a good bow hold is key to quality sound production.  If you don’t have a strong bow hold, you won’t be able to produce a good sound to tune from .  Also, applying too much or too little pressure with the bow can cause the note you are trying to tune to go in and out of tune.  Long and steady bow strokes at medium volume are best for tuning.  Likewise, having the correct shape and placement in the left hand directly impacts the intonation of the notes you are trying to play.  I hate to say it, but it’s best to practice scales over and over again to strengthen tuning in the left hand.

-Lastly, take the time you need to make sure you are in tune.  I remember when I first started tuning my own instrument, the time it took to get it right was frustrating and felt like everyone else I was playing with was getting in tune faster.  Yet, I know that my stand partner and my teacher always liked it when I took an extra 30 seconds to make sure that I was in tune.

Other Helpful Articles: How to Install Strings and Keep Pegs from Slipping, Strung Out on Strings, Beginner Basics, Stringed Instrument Care and Maintence Part One, and Part Two.

Forever Young: It’s Never Too Late to Learn an Instrument

Photo by Alex E. Proimos

You’re in your car, stopped at an intersection, and glance over to see a young, beautiful teenage couple in a red convertible, laughing, smiling, and presumably taunting you with their youthful future of endless possibilities. In your minivan, now with 299,000 miles on it, you brush the stale crumbs off the passenger seat, glance in the rearview mirror to find a few more gray hairs, and think, “Has life passed me by?”

Too often in my conversations with others, I hear, “I wish I had learned an instrument when I was younger,” “I always wanted to play the violin,” or, “I wish I were musically talented.” Well, for one, as we have established in previous posts, good musicianship has more to do with practice than innate talent. And here’s the other half of the story–the big secret if you will: you’re never too old to become a musician. You may think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s far from impossible.

We’ve all heard of virtuosic performers who started playing before they could even tie their shoes or read. Joshua Bell started violin lessons at age four. Yo-Yo Ma similarly started on the cello at age four, but only after he studied violin and viola for a time. Hilary Hahn began violin one month before her fourth birthday. So it seems that four years old is the magic number to begin playing. But is that really true? If we didn’t start learning at age four, is it not even worth trying?

Answer: ABSOLUTELY NOT

There are plenty of professional musicians who picked up their instruments later in life. But keep in mind that you don’t have to be a professional to enjoy music as an important part of your personal development.

Photo by Dierk Schaefer

Plenty of research supports the benefits of not only listening to, but playing and practicing music as nourishment for the mind and body. Playing music releases stress, rejuvenates and excites unused areas of the brain, and boosts confidence and one’s sense of accomplishment. There are plenty of reasons to play music beyond cashing a check or autographing programs at intermission.

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For adults learning music for the first time, here are a few pointers to remember as you pick up a new instrument:

1. Methods for teaching children are not the same as methods to teach adults. For children, whose gelatinous brains are still growing, musical connections are often formed from scratch in their developing minds. For adults, we use the brain power and synaptic connections we already have to understand new concepts. So if you’re an adult returning to an instrument you played as a child, you may approach it differently this time around.

2. Practice is necessary. Your mom isn’t going to ground if you if you don’t practice or take away your iPhone until you perfect that movement. Simply reading about or watching YouTube videos about your instrument won’t do the trick either. Without that “adult figure” to push you along, adults often don’t take the initiative to practice as often as children do. They don’t attend music classes at school everyday or have the external discipline or academic requirements that demand so many minutes or hours of practice per week. So be sure to set some goals and give yourself a little time to step away from the demands of your day to enjoy a little bonding time with your instrument.

3. Be patient with yourself. Even for children, it takes years and years before sounding “good,” especially on a stringed instrument. Don’t give up if you don’t sound like Itzhak Perhlman after two private lessons or a few afternoons of practice. Relax and enjoy the learning experience, keeping realistic expectations for yourself.

4. Learn some theory. If you don’t read music, don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect! Learning to read the musical staff is similar to learning a foreign language. Challenging, perhaps, but very worthwhile! Consider music theory and the musical staff to be your building blocks for your musical foundation.

5. Find a teacher. Trying to learn an instrument by yourself and without guidance quickly leads to frustration and quitting. Find a teacher, friend, or mentor who will encourage your progress and provide you with the technique necessary for success.

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Now that you’re ready to finally embrace that long-lost dream to pick up an instrument, give us a call! At Kennedy Violins, we are always happy to help. From finding the right instrument for you to learning the basics of rosining a bow to choosing accessories, we are here for you. And as you progress, let us know how it’s going!

Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect

Practice what is hard, not what is easy

Everybody knows that if you want to be better at anything, you need to practice. Most people would also agree that while practicing is good, practicing more is better.  It’s also quite obvious that more accomplished musicians practice more than the people who are not accomplished musicians.  However, what many people are not aware of, is that talent plays a very small role in the overall success of any person wanting to master an instrument. Many studies have been conducted and what they show overwhelmingly, is that the amount of hours of practice and HOW you practice, will determine your success.

As a viola teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of instructing many students over the years. When I first started, I assumed (as most people do) that the level of talent that a student had, would probably determine how well they would comprehend my instruction and also determine the level of their charismatic performance abilities.  After a few years of teaching and seeing many students travel through my pedagogical system, it became very obvious to me that the sheer amount of hours that were put into practicing made the biggest impact on success.  If a student put in many hours of practice, pretty much every aspect of the learning process was easier.  In fact, I found that often the more academically capable students were usually the laziest when it came to practicing.  I believe the reason for this, is that they were used to not having to try very hard in the classroom and naturally expected learning an instrument would be just as easy for them.  When they found out that mastering an instrument like the violin was incredibly difficult and cognitively demanding, they lacked the determination and drive needed to overcome tough obstacles during a typical practice session.

You've got to MAKE time

The second thing that I learned a little farther down the road in my teaching career was that the virtuosic level a student achieved, had a lot to do with the material that I had them practice.  More and more I found that if I gave the student very targeted exercises utilizing scales, arpeggios and etudes, they became much more technically proficient at their instrument.  In turn, this greatly assisted them in being able to learn just about any piece and it made the entire learning process easier and more fun.  As I became more experienced, I developed my own step by step systems to enable any student to master advanced techniques through a very controlled process. I directed them to work on specific techniques repeatedly until they could accomplish the exercise with ease. After I developed my own focused exercises for a particular technique, it became increasingly obvious that how much a student practiced was not nearly as important as HOW they practiced. The practice sessions and materials needed to be focused, specific and repeated until perfection was almost an imminent outcome.

Little did I know at the time, but I had stumbled upon a phenomenon known as deliberate practice.  I recently read a book entitled Talent is Overrated (By Geoff Colvin), in which the author goes into great detail about the benefits of practicing a lot and practicing properly.  He sites study after study in which it is proven beyond a doubt that mastering an instrument or anything else in life, is achieved by practicing a lot and practicing deliberately.  He also shows that any natural proclivity that a student may have towards a given task, has little effect on the overall success of the student.  

To be more specific about what deliberate practice is, I will give a few real world examples.  If you set out to learn a concerto, you could play a page at a time and play the page over and over again.  You’d repeat the page until you reached the point at which you felt it’s finally acceptable to perform or that you’ve reached the point at which you can’t improve it anymore.  This practice technique will yield results and you will improve your ability to play that particular page.  However, this is a very inefficient way to practice and while it may eventually make you a better player, it will never enable you to master your instrument.  To truly master the piece as well as your instrument, you’ll want to take a particular measure and practice it until you’ve mastered the particular technique that it is requesting of you.  For example, if you have several measures that have trills, make sure you know exactly what note the trill starts on AND ends with and practice the trill over and over again until it is controlled and consistent.  After you’ve practiced it over and over again, and can play it consistently without fault, play the same measure but in context with the rest of the page.  Play several measures before and after it, to make sure your mind can properly transition from one technique to the other without musical interruption.  Lets say you have a few measures where you have to play a descending scale with off the string spicatto stroke.  Instead of playing the line over and over again that includes the spicatto section, practice your spicatto on a note or two on a string of your choice and practice it until it is clear, controlled and relaxed. Next, practice just the passage with the spicatto technique and play it until it is just as clear, controlled and relaxed as the single note spicatto that you just practiced.  Once you’ve mastered this, add the measures before and after the spicatto passage and you will have mastered the entire section and will not have to be filled with fear when it comes up in your solo performance.

Regarding spicatto specifically, I have about 9 exercises that I give students when it is time for them to learn spicatto.  The exercises are always done with a metronome.  They start off with a very simple exercise.  First they play a 2 octave scale and bounce every note 4 times.  Their goal is to reach a certain speed of stroke, clarity and relaxation during play.  Once they’ve mastered this, they go on to a 3 octave scale.  The next exercise will be a little harder.  They will slur two notes and play the next two up bow and go up and down the 3 octave scale. There are many exercises after this.  Each exercise practices a very specific bowing technique that they will assuredly come across in their solo and orchestral repertoire and when they see it, they will be ready for it.

Determination and Focus will WIN the day!

The point of all of this is, you want to practice A LOT. You can’t get anywhere without it.  Studies have shown that the average best players at most conservatories practice 25-28 hours per week and there are NO exceptions. If you want to master your instrument, this is what you’ll have to do.  However, making sure that your practice focuses on very specific techniques, will ensure that you are practicing deliberately.  Remember, an ameteur practices a passage until they get it right.  A professional practices a passage until they can’t get it wrong…

Happy practicing!

 

 

The Art of Effective Practicing

Photo by How I See Life

When I was a university music student, my daily practice requirements were three hours per day, five or six days a week. My personal goal was fifteen hours a week, or 2-4 hours on weekdays—more than I ever worked in a part-time job up to that point in my life. And in preparation for a recital, I upped it to four hours per day to meet my performance deadline.

For me, as one who had never practiced more than an hour a day before college, this seemed like a daunting task. Up until then, I was fortunate enough that whatever basic talent I had was enough to get me by with minimal practice.

 

But the problem is, no matter how talented you may be, talent only goes so far. Practice—and effective practice—is what will take you from good to better to even (if you work really hard) the best.

 

So what’s your approach? When you sit down (or stand) to practice, what’s your plan? When your mom tells you to practice, do you simply go in a room and make noise for the appointed amount of time and resurface to say you’ve finished without accomplishing much? When you practice, do you set goals?

When I had that 3-hour minimum expectation, it was SO tempting to go to the practice room, set a timer, and simply “make noise” until I could check practicing of my to-do list and get on with my other homework. Yay. (Not!) But as I showed up to lessons making the same old fumbles and mistakes, it became clear to me that how much I practiced wasn’t as important as how I practiced.

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Here are a few tips  to make the most of your time in the practice room. I mean, if you’re going to dedicate so much time to your musicianship, you might as well make the most of it, right?

  • Have a plan. And not just a plan for the day, but a plan for each hour, day, week, and even the months leading upto a performance or recital. How often do you sit down—either as a performer or a parent motivating your child to practice—and come up with a plan to not just practice, but practice well?
  • Break it down. What works well for me is to break my practice time into thirds. Try this recipe out for a delicious result:

•  1/3 C warmup and technique (scales, etudes, exercises)
•  1/3 C orchestral works (audition exerpts, current concert repertoire)
•  1/3 C solo repertoire (for recitals, juries, lessons, etc.)

Photo by tvol
  • Don’t practice what’s easy, practice what’s hard. Step out of your comfort zone! Don’t just play your favorite piece or what you’re good at over and over to fill the time. Especially when preparing for a recital, you have to make sure you’re not spending too much time on your favorite pieces, but that each piece is prepared to the same golden (or platinum!) standard.
  • Don’t always start pieces from the beginning. I’ve seen this over and over with my students: the first line on the page sounds great, and sometimes the last four bars, but everything in between? What a mess! I can tell when students only start practice a piece from the beginning when they pull it out to work on. They perfect that impressive introduction, but never take the time to work through all the tricky material that follows—especially if they only spend a few minutes on the piece before moving on. Don’t be afraid to even photocopy a piece of music and CUT IT UP into chunks to practice individual phrases with equal attention.
  • Zone in on tricky groups (or even pairs) of notes, not just on tricky phrases. Do you always fudge that big shift up two octaves? Well, don’t just practice what’s around it, take five minutes and practice JUST THAT SHIFT. You’ll be surprised what five minutes of repeating just two notes will do. It’s much more effective than playing twenty notes for twenty minutes, I promise you that.
  • Don’t skip scales and technique. Until you can play every single note of the scale with each note perfectly in pitch not wavering a cent with perfect bow technique and absolutely perfect articulation (you see where I’m going?), you haven’t practiced your scales enough. There’s no such thing as perfect technique, so take the time to hone in on it before moving on to the “fun” stuff. If you have weak technique, it will show in everything else you play.
  • Use your time wisely. I remember practicing six hours straight one day just to say that I got my hours in that week, but it wasn’t necessarily productive. If you go back to step one and practice with a plan, be sure to stick to that plan. It’s depressing to leave the practice room at the end of the day feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything. The remedy? Accomplish something by practicing smart.

Practice makes perfect. Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Check it out. Basically, in order to find success, you’ve got to put in your time. And making the most of that time will take you even farther. Developing the talent to efficiently practice requires just as much skill and effort as it takes to become a great performer. No brainer, right? If you’re good at practicing, you’ll be good at performing.

At Kennedy Violins, we not only want to provide you with the quality instrument of your musical dreams, we want to see you succeed.

So what works for you? We want to know! And in the mean time, happy practicing!