Perfect Practice

I know, I know. Practice makes perfect, not the other way around. Here are (more) of my thoughts on how to maximize your investment in piano lessons, for you or your child.
The Perfect Practice Session: By Alison Maira

You need a digital keyboard with full size weighted keys, or acoustic piano that has been tuned and maintained within the last year.

You need a comfortable bench at the correct height for your size. When resting your curved fingers and slightly rounded wrists on the white keys in the middle of the piano your arms should come out at slightly less than 90 degree angle. Your shoulders should be relaxed but your back is tall and straight (but not straining to be so) Exaggerated wrist bend or straight arms = too close or too far away from the piano.

You need a footrest if your feet cannot rest comfortably flat on the floor. Additionally, it is very difficult for a child to maintain focus during their piano practice if their feet are dangling in the air. Feet resting flat and still increases focus and creates what I call your “dance space” – a solid unit of good posture, healthy finger, wrist and hand position, feet grounded and comfortable. This consistent and solid foundation allows for a lot of expressive body movement while playing, which many good piano players engage in BUT their dance space remains a solid unit from which the movement flows. The arm, hand, wrist, finger, elbows, shoulders, back, and feet move as one beautiful unit. Motion is typically generated from from the hips while seated on the bench. The dance space can move to the right or left and real power comes straight down from the shoulders and a slight lean forward from the trunk.

You need a good light on or near your piano. It is not fun and too difficult to practice when you can’t really see the keys or your sheet music. Just sayin’.

You need to follow your teacher’s instructions for every practice session. I have yet to meet a student who has memorized my practice instructions perfectly and has no need to refer to their assignment sheet or notes I have written on their sheet music. I have met plenty who take a glance, get it wrong, practice the wrong thing for a week or two, or three – and have to painfully un-learn the wrong thing and re-learn the correct one. Tremendously frustrating and completely preventable. One of those things that makes people think piano lessons are a drag and really stupid.

You need a reasonably quiet environment while practicing. Not church-like reverent silence, but a time and place when it is possible to carefully read the instructions, go though the assignment one item at a time, experiment without feeling self-conscious, and hopefully fall into the flow of relaxed concentration and the deep satisfaction of hearing yourself improve as you apply your best effort.

You need to gather your materials and have them ready when you begin. Metronome, assignment sheet, songbooks, tablet/phone/laptop for online ear training exercises, a sense of curiosity about what musical puzzles you will solve today, and a pleasant attitude. Like really there are worse things than learning how to practice and play a musical instrument, yes teenagers I am talking to you. I love you but sometimes your determination to be cool is not cool with me as it effectively torpedoes your potential to stretch out and truly achieve something better. Learning requires vulnerability and risk taking. I can promise you as your teacher that your sincere efforts will never be mocked or belittled by me. So have your damn metronome ready when you practice so there is no need for weak excuses about why you still can’t come in on the and of 2.

And that’s it. Good instrument, bench, footrest, light, some quiet, posture, hand position, follow the instructions, have all your stuff ready and be uncool enough to sincerely try. Voila, the prefect practice session. Repeat at least 4 times a week between lessons to see encouraging results and grow as a human being.

Featured Student, Sarah

Sarah has been studying piano with me for about the past 5 years. She has an enthusiasm and joy for music that is energizing to be around. When I am teaching Sarah and she is singing along with her right hand part because it’s so beautiful to her, I often wish I could teleport home to my piano and play for hours, to have lots of fun at the piano just like she does.
Sarah doesn’t discriminate with music. She falls in love with classical pieces, pop songs, jazz standards, and lullabies. Many times I have played a new piece for her and her eyes widen in surprised delight. ” Ooh, I LIKE that one!” she says breathlessly as the notes strike her ear for the first time.
This year Sarah is discovering her own practice strategies, which of course fills me with teacherly pride. I have long believed that practicing is much akin to puzzle solving. How do I put this song together? What steps are needed, in what order, to facilitate the magical transformation from disjointed segments to a unified whole? This process is different for every student of music.
As a teacher I can suggest strategies that work for me, others that my teachers have shown me, and create new ones that address the puzzle at hand for the student on the bench beside me. But there comes a time when the student, if they are to continue with their studies, has to devise their own puzzle solving practice devices. Things that work for that individual person. Nobody knows your brain better than you, I say to my students. You have to figure out how to put this information into your individual brain, in a way that makes sense and in a way that you can remember and draw upon. I can guide, suggest and critique, but I can’t put the information in there for you.
If I could, I’m pretty sure I would be the greatest piano teacher the world has ever seen.
But in the meantime I will look to Sarah for inspiration as she tries, struggles, and succeeds on her journey with music.

Featured Student, Rebecca

I started teaching Rebecca when she was about 6 years old. For the last 5 years she (with her mom’s help) has been wonderfully consistent with her attendance to piano lessons. She continues her lessons throughout the summer and very rarely cancels during the school year. I know if Rebecca has another event that conflicts with piano lessons she and her mom will schedule a make-up lesson rather than miss a week of piano. This is pretty remarkable because Rebecca is a hockey kid. She gets up at an ungodly early hour at least twice a week for practices and games. She is the only girl on a boy’s team. She travels for games and tournaments. She does summer hockey camps. I have had very few hockey kids as piano students in my 12 year teaching career. It’s one of those activities that tends to crowd out everything else if you’re serious about it. Rebecca is a rare bird who is gifted athletically, academically, and creatively. She is also polite, friendly, and easy to teach. I often try and say something funny to her because I enjoy her snort and giggle combination, and I marvel that in addition to all her talents she has a sense of humor.
Rebecca is the only student I have ever taught that continued piano lessons with a broken arm. She was quite little, maybe 6 or 7 when it happened. Despite a large cast that extended past her elbow she managed to keep playing. She figured out how to position herself at the piano so that she could still play with both hands. I decided then, even though I hadn’t known her for very long that I would take her seriously and that this was a child to watch out for in 20 years. (Maybe less if she makes Team Canada for Women’s Olympic Hockey) I have a lot of respect for Rebecca because she knows how to combine hard work with her talents to take her where she wants to go, and because doing a really good job is important to her. She practices piano with dedication and her playing is expressive with good time and accuracy. She is also the only student I have taught who has performed a memorized 12 page long Coldplay song at a recital with no mistakes. Her fearlessness amazed me that day.
Every Wednesday Rebecca greets me at the door while holding on to her enormous dog Baden as he attempts to shake her off so he can knock me over while he kisses me to death. I always laugh to see this medium sized girl gamely attempt to subdue a much stronger more powerful creature than herself. She never gets cross with him and she never gives up. I love that about her. She reminds me that determination and a good attitude are an unbeatable combination in this life.

Beginning Of Term Piano Lessons Newsletter Sept. 2015

The Mobile Piano Geek

Piano Lessons Newsletter
Beginning Of Term
September 2015

Hello Lovely Parents and Students,
Here we are, at the beginning of another year of music study. For some of you, the first year of piano lessons. (How exciting!) I for one am refreshed and full of energy, ready to teach and learn with you all year long. Well, at least until December and winter break. Here is some information from the wonderful world of piano lessons I would like to share with you.

Practicing:
Piano lessons without consistent, effective practice results in a painful experience for student, teacher, and parents. A painful lesson experience leads to associating music study with frustration, boredom and resentment. This is the opposite of our intentions as teacher and parents, as music provides so many amazing benefits to a person’s physical, mental, and social health. I recommend building piano practice time into your family or personal calendar. This will address the problems of procrastination, ‘not enough time’ and negotiating every practice session with your child. Try building in at least 4 practice sessions every week. Some general guidelines I use are:
6 – 7 year olds 15 minute sessions
8 – 9 year olds 20 minute sessions
10 – 12 year olds 30 minute sessions
Teens and adults – 45 minute sessions with at least one longer session of 60 min + every week.
It’s also important to consider your practice set-up at home. A room at a reasonable temperature, a footstool for young children whose feet don’t yet reach the floor, a chair or bench at the right height, and a quiet environment free of distractions all go a long way in making a practice session feel comfortable and not something to be endured.
For more information, please see “Practice Tips For Beginners” at http://www.alisonmaira.com

Piano Maintenance:
Acoustic pianos should be tuned and inspected once a year. If it’s been longer than one year since your piano has been serviced, now is a good time to get it done. Electric keyboards do not need yearly maintenance but sometimes need to be cleaned by a technician when dust and dirt builds up inside them.

Cancellations:
Each student receives two free cancellations per school year. Subsequent cancellations will not be credited or refunded. All cancellations can be rescheduled for a make-up lesson if the student desires. Contact me for availability.

New:
This year I am adding ear training exercises and flashcard drills on a rotating basis throughout the month. Ear training is the skill of identifying specific pitches aurally, and flashcards reinforce music vocabulary.

Accepting New Students:
I have a time slot available for one new student. If you know of anyone who is interested in piano lessons please feel free to pass along my contact info.

Music Enrichment Activities:
Practicing a piano assignment for a weekly lesson is one part of a musical education. Here are some suggestions for additional activities:
– play for fun, just mess around at the piano.
– try to figure out familiar songs
– buy some sheet music and learn songs you like.
– go to concerts. Seeing music performed live can be so inspiring.
– listen to recordings
– watch videos of live performances on you tube
– research composers or songs you are studying. Youtube is a good option here as well.

Website:
I have posted more student performance videos on my website. You can find them by going to Current Students, and searching by student name. I started a Featured Student series this summer and will be posting another Duet Series soon.

Follow Me
Please join me on facebook, twitter, and Instagram.
https://www.facebook.com/alisonmaira
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https://twitter.com/alisonmaira1
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You can follow my blog too at http://www.alisonmaira.com

Thanks for reading!
Cheerio,
Alison

Here We Go Again

It’s the first day of school. After a lovely, relatively lazy summer of teaching some casual lessons here and there it’s time to get back in the saddle. I’ll see all my students this week and many of them will not have touched their piano since June. Which I am okay with, by the way. If it works for your kid to have summers off and go outside and generally go crazy I support you 100%. I will have those little whippersnappers set up with a new practice routine and review assignments before they can say “Why you gotta be so strict and yet hilarious at the same time?!” I had a busy day yesterday – a busy week, actually, getting ready.

work table

My work space. All the essentials, netflix controller included.

stickers

New stickers. Got some new littles starting this year and I want them to enjoy collecting shiny things for a job well done.

new student binders

New student introductory packages. Everything you need to get started in the wonderful world of piano lessons, provided by your guide The Mobile Piano Geek.

new binders

Oh I am not messing around this year. The dollar store sells binders now and I have a deep need to organize. Technique worksheets, Duets, and Ear Training exercises are in the house. BAM. We’re gonna work on this stuff on a rotating basis every week and you’re gonna love it.

And there you have it. Happy New Year. I have two more duets binders and a transcription binder to make, I’m out. *drops mic*

Thinking About Practicing.

Sometimes I wonder what I have spent more hours on, thinking about practicing or actually practicing. As a seasoned list-maker I have made plenty of mental and written lists organizing all the elements a musician needs to address. There’s a lot to consider. There are broad categories such as fully notated music, reading lead sheets, improvisation, scales chords and arpeggios, and transcription. There are temporary, specific projects like pieces to be learned for other people i.e. as an accompanist.  A conscientious musician will also be aware of the specific weaknesses in their playing and practice remedies to smooth out these rough spots. There’s also different feels and genres to master, playing uptempo, transposition, and the weird little bugaboos about your particular instrument that need your attention. Jeez, it’s so hard to not go off on all these things separately. Stay tuned for like a hundred future blog posts on practicing.

I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the past 20 years of studying music and each one has offered something different about how to approach practicing.  Now I am into my second decade of teaching and I spend year after year trying to guide my students into good practice habits. The advice I offer my students is a combination of what my teachers told me to do, things I accidentally discovered, research, careful observation of successes, and experiments that worked. I should add, teaching beginners how to practice is a critical, sometimes maddening task and how a beginner practices is completely different than how a self-directed musician practices.  But if I do my job right, the solid foundation of good practice habits can take a student from beginner to advanced and then to professional musician if they so desire (and may the lord have mercy on them if that is the case). Here are some of the tips I offer my beginners and their parents:

1. Make sure you have a quiet place to practice where no one will interrupt you.

2. Gather your materials ( practice assignment binder, songbooks, lesson books, metronome, pencil) and have them ready at the piano.

3. Open your piano binder and turn to this week’s assignment sheet that I have written for you.

4. Follow your practice instructions carefully. Ask your parents or teacher for help if you need it.

5. Practice slowly. Go slow enough to keep a steady beat, play the correct notes, and use the correct fingers. If you make mistakes, you are playing too fast. Slow down and try again. The speed of your playing will gradually increase as your fingers become more confident.

6. Be kind to yourself. Learning how to play music takes a lot of effort and there will be many mistakes along the way. Don’t give up! You can do it. You will feel so proud of yourself every time you master a new song. Share the songs you have learned with your family and friends. Sharing music with others can help spread happiness.

7. Build practice time into your family or personal calendar.   Set aside at least four 30 minute sessions every week, and make it part of your weekly routine. This eliminates the problem of ‘not enough time’ and procrastination.

8.  It is not a waste of time to practice for ‘only’ 5 minutes. Small frequent sessions work very well for many people, especially young children. Do not fall into the trap of avoiding practice because you don’t have 3 uninterrupted hours to devote to that piece that really needs work.

9. Take breaks if necessary.  If you are becoming filled with rage or frustration, STEP AWAY FROM THE PIANO.  Come back later with a clear head and renewed optimism. It’s just piano.  No one is going to die.  It’s supposed to be fun and fascinating.

10.  Patience, young padawan, patience. There is no way to know how many times it will take before you master it. 99% of the time it will be more than you think it should be. Every repetition takes you closer to your goal. You will get there. And it will be worth it.

 

 

 

The Role Of Parents In Practicing

A few weeks ago, I had a really good lesson with a great student. He had clearly practiced his assignment during the week, and showed wonderful progress in all of his songs. I said to his mom afterward, as I was on my way out “Thank you for your help, he’s sounding really good. I can tell he’s been practicing the material and it shows”. She said ” Oh, I didn’t really do anything. I encourage him a little bit to play when people come over, and I think it helps that the piano is in a central location in the house”.
I went on to my next lesson and thought about what she said. I think that mom has actually done a lot to support her child’s piano studies. She created a comfortable practice environment, which is so important. And she gently encouraged her child to play and practice, which is also key. In my observation, children benefit greatly from parents who are aware and supportive of their music studies. Note, I did not say they benefit from someone who is on their case every day of their lives and criticizes their efforts to play the piano mercilessly. But a little awareness and encouragement go a long way. The most successful, engaged piano students I teach all have parents who are enthusiastic about their lessons, check in with them periodically regarding their practicing, provide a comfortable practice environment (good lighting, not too cold, central location in the house that is not isolated from everyone else, and no tv on while the student is practicing) and build piano practice into their child’s routine. Setting aside consistent, predictable practice time is a really effective way to help a child gain confidence and enjoyment from their playing and in their lessons. This in turn leads to steady progress, which leads to more enjoyment and sometimes, even more practicing. It’s a virtuous circle that if set up early in a child’s first exposure to a musical instrument may last a lifetime.
Of course it’s difficult to find the time (and sometimes, the motivation) to practice; I still struggle with this myself. Life is busy and there’s always something else that can be done first instead of sitting down at the piano. To be honest, I rarely “find” the time if it’s not scheduled.
That’s why I definitely believe that parents who set up a practice routine for their children are doing them a big favor. Procrastination and bargaining can be eliminated early on…now is piano time, it’s in the schedule. I also suspect that many kids secretly feel relieved when boundaries and expectations are set for them in this way. There is no confusion, the task is quickly done, and it feels great to accomplish and finish something.
The younger a child is, the more guidance she or he will need in establishing effective practice habits. A greater proportion of the responsibility falls on the parent to help, support, and encourage. This responsibility gradually passes from parent to child as the student grows and takes on the challenges of self directed practice. And that is a beautiful thing to witness over the years, in my experience. What’s also evident to me is that every child still appreciates parental encouragement regarding their piano playing – even the teenagers – as they grow more independent. I guess that support just takes on more subtle forms, but it’s still important.
Giving your child the ability to express themselves musically is a precious gift. It’s something that could stay with them for their entire lives and give much joy, satisfaction, and inspiration along the way. (not to mention increasing their intelligence, helping them handle stress, and allowing them to connect with others). In my opinion, a parent’s role in helping their child derive the maximum benefit from music study makes the difference between a boring,frustrating, okay experience and a rewarding, confidence building, fun, and creative one.