Tag Archives: piano practice

Distractions, Distractions… How to Banish Them With a Great Plan – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

“Hmmm… I really should go and make that cake I was thinking about yesterday…” 

“ I wonder if I could add a PowerPoint presentation to my history assignment…”

“I forgot to schedule the doctor’s appointment…”

“Oops… I can tell I should clean out the kitty litter…”

It’s great that our minds work so well to remind us of the things we need to be doing. It’s not so great that they tend to remind us at times when we should be concentrating on something else! Having your to-do list constantly jumping into your head when you’re trying your best to concentrate on practising the piano is far from ideal. You really need to be focusing on what you’re doing.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

 

Our brains have limited cognitive resources and we can’t be completely productive and engaged if we have baking and assignments on the brain. So what can you do to stop this happening?

Be clear about your intention before you start. Have a plan.

 

Researchers at Florida State University hypothesized that developing an “implementation intention” – a plan of how, where and when a project would be completed – would help to wipe other thoughts from the mind and make it easier to focus on the task at hand.

After studying 73 students in three different groups (a “plan” group, a “no plan” group and a control group) in a variety of situations, they concluded that the group who had planned their tasks before distractions were thrown at them not only performed better at their tasks, but also remembered more about the distractions. Because they were clear in their minds about what their plan entailed, distractions didn’t bother them as much and their minds were clearer.

However, simply brainstorming your plan doesn’t suffice; the plan needs to be specific. You also need to commit to the plan; the intention to follow through needs to be a big part of the deal.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

So where does piano practise fit in with this philosophy? If you sit down at the piano with the simple intention to practise, chances are your mind will be distracted by all the other things you should be doing… cooking, homework, cleaning etc. Instead, decide on a plan of what you intend to achieve for that session. Your teacher may have given you notes at the previous lesson outlining the areas that need work and this is a good place to start. Pick a passage that needs work, or a technique that requires improvement and decide what result you would like. For example, you may need to work on your two-note slurs and your plan could be to play five times an exercise you have been given by your teacher, then transfer that improved skill to your piece and play it three times. Or you may need to work on a list of scales; your plan could be to play each scale until you can play it three times in a row without error. Whatever you know needs work.

Basically:

  • Think about what you need to do;
  • Make a plan that is achievable;
  • Define the parameters of the plan; and
  • Commit to your intention to carry out the plan.

I’m sure you will find your practise sessions more productive and that’s a bonus for everybody!

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

Does Your Child Have a Secret Weapon? – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Young pianists who are successful usually have one thing in common… great parents!

As we start a new term, it’s a good time to take a peek into the world of the piano parent and how much their involvement and attitude can shape their child’s journey. Trevor from Teach Piano Today  has written a great article explaining this, so there’s no point me trying to rehash it.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

I will say though that I had a learning experience very similar to his and it made all the difference in the world. My parents didn’t let my sister and I quit as soon as we felt either too challenged or bored (because both things will happen at different times), they were involved in our practise sessions and they certainly made piano a priority. We always knew it was a commitment.

Have a read through Trevor’s words here and see if you are being a secret weapon in your child’s success.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

Getting Through the Holidays – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Let’s make this school holiday period about the word ‘more‘.

MoreWithout being restricted by the kids’ school routine, you probably have more time. What does this mean for piano practise?

Don’t break the practise routine you have running through term, but use this opportunity to have more fun with practise.

Become more involved.

Create more interaction.

Understand more about what your kids are playing.

How do you do this? By asking them questions. Ask them about what they are playing. Ask them to show you how to do something. For my students, I can supply some flashcards you can use. Following are some examples/suggestions to get you started:

  • What part of this piece do you find the hardest? Can you play just that part for me?
  • Can you play a scale with your eyes closed?
  • Can you show me how to play the last note and then nod at me when it’s time to play it?
  • Can you play this piece in slow motion?
  • Can you follow me conducting you? (Vary the speed and have them follow you).
  • What story do you think this piece is telling?
  • Can you pick one bar and clap the rhythm? I’ll try to copy you.
  • Can you explain to me what this means? (Pointing to any marking on the music).

It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answers. It is all about getting them to think about what they are doing and sharing it with you. They will love being able to teach you something!

If there is something they can’t answer, have them make a note to ask their teacher, but don’t dwell on it; move on to something else. You want to keep it interactive and fun.

Throw a different question at them every time they practise and you might be surprised how eager they are to share with you. Have fun with it 🙂

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

How to Practise When You’re Not Really Practising Part II – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

It’s likely that nowhere in the world does there exist a child who loves to practise. It’s just not how they are made. As adults, we can understand the reasoning behind the philosophy and appreciate the resulting improvement, but for kids it is a necessary evil… a drag.

So while we want them to learn to appreciate it, it doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally throw some fun in there for them as well. Chances are they won’t even realising they are practising!

If you find your child’s interest is waning or you’re just tired of the battle, give some of the following ideas a go:

  • Piano teacher in Wallsend NSWHave them pick one of their pieces and turn all of the notes into twins. i.e. play every note twice.
  • Roll dice to determine what bars of their piece to play. If they are playing pieces more than a couple of lines long, also add the value of the dice. For example, if they roll a 3 and a 6, they should play bars 3, 6 and 9. Keep playing just these bars until they can play them from memory.
  • Get into rockstar mode… stand up to play and have them strike their best rockstar pose.
  • Have an adult conduct them at varying speeds. If the adult waves their baton (whatever you can find in your kitchen, or even a piece of paper rolled up) fast, the child should play fast. Slow down the conducting and the playing should slow down as well.
  • Piano teacher in Wallsend NSWPlay only the first note in each bar. Write out this new melody.
  • Have the child make a paper aeroplane and throw/fly it towards the piano. Wherever the plane lands is the octave in which they should start playing their piece. If they miss the keyboard, they have to play the piece normally… three times!

Adding some fun and variety into some of their practise sessions will hopefully keep practise fresh for your child (and less stressful for you). Plus, a less mundane practise is much more likely to be effective and beneficial. See what other ideas you can come up with 🙂

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

Keeping Your Body in Tune – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Today I am having an operation on my shoulder. It is a subacromial decompression (or acromioplasty) to relieve the impingement that has caused me pain and greatly restricted movement for the past twelve months. When I first visited the physiotherapist he was not the least surprised to hear I was a pianist and piano teacher. He said shoulder injuries are not uncommon in our profession. So that started me thinking about how as creatives, we often don’t adequately look after the physical side of things.

Back up straight, feet flat on the floor, arms at right angles, hands high, fingers curved. We have all heard those instructions many times. Good teachers will establish correct posture at the first lesson and will continue to reinforce it. But we tend to think this is solely for better technique and ease of playing and forget that it also serves to protect our bodies.

Playing the piano is not just a mind-finger-piano activity. It is an holistic experience that incorporates our whole body (along with our mind, spirit and emotions), so we need to look after our body not only to harmonise all these aspects but also to compensate for the hours we spend sitting at our instrument.

As musicians, we use a vast array of muscles to play an instrument, but rarely are we encouraged to exercise these muscles. Hundreds of muscles in our body work together to help achieve the nice tone we produce. The reasons why our arms, hands and fingers are important are the most obvious, but we also rely on other areas. For example, our hips affect how we sit and need to move freely to support our torso as we reach up and down the keyboard.

In not considering the physical strain we are placing on our bodies, we instead tend to abuse them. We lean forward, hunching our shoulders, to peer at the music (particularly when concentrating on a troublesome passage), which causes the back to ache and places undue pressure on the shoulders. We sit in the one place for too long without moving, or we sit incorrectly, creating problems in the back, hips and thighs. The tension of concentrating can create stiffness in the wrists and hands.

Piano teacher in Wallsend NSW

So what do we do about this? We need to be aware of the quality of our movement. Are our movements tense or free? Awkward or smooth? Are we at the keyboard in a position where our muscles and ligaments are working for us or working against us? We can train for a better quality of movement by training attention and awareness.

Stretching and exercise are vitally important. Just as an athlete stretches and prepares before and after exercises, so should musicians before and after playing. Significantly, stretching can prevent injury. However, it also helps to strengthen the muscles and if done regularly, can also slightly lengthen them, which leads to them becoming more efficient. Long hours of practise can also cause tension in the muscles, which stretching will help to release.

Muscles that work better are more effectively prepared to perform, so by stretching and exercising, you can more quickly develop skills and move forward. The new-found balance you feel will inevitably reflect in the quality of your performance.

Tara Davidson from All Better Bodies is a stretch specialist and a massage therapist, so she understands the body and how keeping it in top physical shape can affect all areas of our lives. This includes being supple and flexible in the areas that are affected by and used to play the piano.

Stretch classes are run by Tara twice a week in Toronto, NSW; Tuesday mornings (9.15-10.00am) and Thursday nights (6.15-7.15pm). Be sure to ‘like’ her page – All Better Bodies – for more information and ongoing help with health, fitness and nutrition.

Tara has devised and recorded a short stretching routine that is great for any pianist to run through before sitting down at the piano. Give it a try!

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

 

When is the Best Time of the Day for Piano Practice? – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

I am not a morning person. Not by any stretch of the imagination. As an adult, I have become a night owl who rarely sees the sun rise. However, on those occasions when I do, I can truly appreciate what I am missing. You can watch and feel the world coming alive. The air is crisp and fresh… and so are our minds.

One of the first questions I am asked by new students or parents is how often the student should practise. This is often followed by asking when they should practise. The short answer is of course, when it best suits the family, because making the effort and starting the habit of practise is worthwhile at any time.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t times of the day that are better than others. Think about when your kids are most alert and present. It is usually in the mornings, before the pressures of life, study, friends and other activities come along to befuddle their brains. They may be bouncing off the walls after escaping the school gates, but it doesn’t mean their concentration is at optimum levels. You would be familiar with the regular battle of having homework completed!

First and foremost it is our minds that play the piano – not just the fingers. Your mind must be active at all times. Five minutes of concentrated practise is far more valuable than five hours of moving your fingers while your mind wanders.

In the morning you have the highest level of concentration. Practising in the morning becomes part of your morning routine and you don’t need to worry about fitting it in to the rest of your day. That’s not to say it is easy; your mind probably won’t want to do it. But it will get your brain firing on all cylinders so you are ready to jump into the rest of your day.

Most young learners are able to focus and maximise their learning if done early in the day.

Piano teacher in Wallsend NSW

Sunrise photograph courtesy of Doreen Laforest, Sydney NSW

 

As a bonus, research has shown that we are at our most creative in the morning. The part of the brain that controls thoughts is still snoozing, so is not curbing your creativity.

Of course, many students complain that they have to get to school and can’t practise in the morning. The easiest solution is to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier. But if you can’t, you can’t. As I said earlier, I’m not a morning person, so I understand the struggle. The next best thing is to just spend 15 minutes practising one section. Often a couple of shorter sessions can be more effective than one long one.

Remember to consider your neighbours – if getting up earlier means practising at 6am, you may find you are reported for noise disturbance!

The most important thing is that whatever time you pick is a time when your mind is refreshed. Remember the purpose of this practise is to really concentrate on your playing. When you pick a time, schedule it in so it becomes part of your family routine.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

 

 

 

 

When is My Child Ready to Start Piano Lessons? – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Nowadays – more than in previous times – there seems to be a desire for kids to be involved in many different activities and as early as possible. Young kids are like sponges and we want to feed their curiosity and eagerness.

Music lessons are no exception.

Like any activity, each child is different and will be ready at different times, but the following list will help you determine whether your child is ready to start formal lessons:

Attention span

Can your child sit still and concentrate for 20-30 minutes? Even though most teachers today will vary the lesson with off-the-bench activities as well, it is still a solid half hour of concentration, with much of that time spent at the piano. It’s not the same level of concentration as sitting still watching a movie for an hour.

Reading and writing (and ‘rithmetic)

Fluent reading and writing is not necessary to be able to play the piano. However, confidence in the basics is. The musical alphabet uses the first seven letters and the child needs to be comfortable with their order both forwards and backwards. As well as learning the note names, reading music also involves counting (note values). This concept is based on fractions (eg a crotchet is half the value of a minim).

Fine motor skills

Having the control and dexterity required to correctly hold a pencil helps kids with the fine motor skills needed at the piano. Can they use scissors well? Can they colour fairly well ‘between the lines’?

Reading from left to right

Does your child correctly track from left to right and top to bottom when they read a book?

Recognising patterns

Being able to see patterns and recognise up and down assist with both reading music and keyboard recognition. The keyboard includes groups of two and three black notes and the patterns within these groups are used to establish note locations. Moving up and down the piano according to tone is important, as well as being able to see that notes written on the music are following a particular direction.

Physical strength

Does your child have enough strength to depress the keys using the forearms without undue pressure from the fingers? Can they support their hands on their fingers? There is a physical aspect of piano playing that needs to be developed and this usually occurs between the ages of 6 and 8.

Piano teacher Wallsend NSW

From a very young age, Miss B was always encouraged to indulge in her passion for music but didn’t begin formal lessons until she was physically and emotionally ready – at age 8.

Beat and Rhythm

Does your child sway or move in time to music he hears around him? Can she clap in time? While rhythm can eventually be taught, it is much more difficult to understand how to count music if they can’t hear the beat.

Accepting Criticism

Piano teachers are generally a caring and encouraging bunch of people. However, doing our job involves correcting errors and teaching new things. We will always do it as nicely as possible, but a child who is resistant to being either instructed or corrected may need to wait a little longer before starting.

Agreement to regular practise

Music is not a one-day-a-week commitment like many other activities. These days there are few extracurricular activities that require kids to daily put in a concerted effort. Before starting lessons, you need to ensure your child will be agreeable to daily practise.

You should also assess your own availability to help them. While your teacher will provide your child with all the tools they need to succeed, when the parents are involved children tend to progress more quickly than students left to their own devices. Particularly with young students or beginners, a parent sharing their interest and giving encouragement goes far in their development.

For all the above reasons, I prefer to not start students until they are around six years old.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but objectively checking off the points above and waiting until your child is ready to learn with the least amount of stress possible will usually work in their favour.

If they are not yet quite ready for formal lessons, you can still indulge their passion for music by enrolling them in general music appreciation classes. This will also expose them to a variety of instruments and music and will also allow them to develop a good sense of beat and pitch, which will be a huge asset when they begin piano lessons.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

Three Sure-Fire Ways to Improve Your Playing – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

I know I talk a lot about practising, but it is so important I can’t ignore it. Practise is the vital component of being able to play well. The linchpin. The thing that brings everything else together.

You can have the best teacher in the world and turn up every week for your lesson, but if you do no work in between lessons, you simply will not improve. Because of this, I post often about practicing. Different tips and techniques will resonate with each person or family, so I like to throw into the mix as many ideas as possible.

These three points are not really tips, though – they are fundamentals. They are the three things I push with all my students from day one. I’m sure sometimes I sound like a broken record!

If you are having trouble with a particular passage, any one of these techniques will help and often a combination is even better:

Slow down

Slow down and take your time. It can be frustrating when you know how the piece sounds and you just want to play it at speed so the familiar sound and what you are playing are closer together. But playing too fast doesn’t allow you to really pay attention to what you’re playing or note the areas that need additional work.

It is not necessarily easy to play at a very slow speed and discipline is required, but once you see the value it is much easier to stick with the technique. Practicing slowly helps with a range of aspects:

  • Establishing correct fingering;
  • Phrasing;
  • Wrist and arm movement;
  • Understanding chord structure; and most importantly
  • Note accuracy.

It allows the brain more time to comprehend every aspect of the piece and understand the overall picture or structure.

Physically, it can also help with tension. When we are playing a difficult passage, we will often subconsciously tense up and become stiff, particularly with fast sections. When playing slowly the body is more likely to relax, allowing for more freedom of movement and improved sound quality.

Speed can be built back up but bad habits are harder to unlearn. Also, your brain has already learned all the necessary movements so speed is just about thinking faster J

There is no such thing as too slow!

Count out loud

Even though I have been playing for over 40 years, I still find counting out loud is the easiest way to get my mind around a complicated new passage. It is particularly crucial for beginners and works excellently in conjunction with the point above about slowing down. Counting out loud helps develop a sense of rhythm; the physical act of counting makes the rhythm more dominant and the hands tend to follow.

As an extension, clapping the rhythm can also be useful; it allows you to hear and understand the rhythm before adding in the melody.

Separate hands

Similar to pulling difficult passages out of a whole song, playing with separate hands helps to reduce complexities into manageable tidbits.

Piano teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Practising the left hand separately.

Think about technical development in areas such as scales and arpeggios – it is always learnt playing with separate hands first. Even the AMEB technical syllabus introduces new concepts with separate hands for a grade/year before they are brought together the following year/grade. It is only once these techniques are mastered that the hands are brought together. In many cases this philosophy can be taken into the pieces we play as well.

Playing hands separately allows the muscle memory of each hand to be continually reinforced, which makes it easier to then bring them together.

Practicing hands together is not twice as hard as practicing hands separately—it is at least four times as hard. As your playing becomes more advanced you will come across pieces where each hand is a separate voice or voices, and you want to hear and understand how they sound in isolation so each one can be shaped into an independent voice before putting them together.

Separating the hands is useful in the majority of instances, but may not help in pieces where the melody is constantly flowing between the two hands.

So if you are struggling with a difficult piece (or passage), remember the three golden rules:

  1. Slow everything right down.
  2. Count out loud.
  3. If still having trouble, play each hand separately.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

Common Piano Practise Mistakes (Part 2) – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”
– Unknown

With our longest holiday period of the year upon us here in Australia, students will have six weeks in which they will be practising with no input or guidance from their teachers. That’s a long time to be getting nowhere if they aren’t practising effectively and efficiently. Two weeks ago I posted about some common mistakes make by students when practising and how to overcome these issues.

Following are some more tips that will help you practise effectively not just over the summer holidays, but at any time:

Using incorrect fingering. Sometimes the fingering noted on the music may seem either unimportant or too difficult, but the truth is it is always there for a reason. It is usually moving your hand to where it needs to be for optimum movement (and minimal confusion). Being consistent with fingering also calls upon your muscle memory, allowing you to learn the piece with more stability.

Practising too fast. I know I have mentioned this many times before, but it is so important to slow down and take your time. It can be frustrating when you know how the piece sounds and you just want to play it at speed so the familiar sound and what you are playing are closer. But playing too fast doesn’t allow you to really pay attention to what you’re playing or note the areas that need additional work. It’s much easier to increase speed once the piece is correct than it is to have to slow down later and try to ‘unlearn’ mistakes.

Piano teacher Wallsend NSWHaving your piano in an out-of-the-way location. Having your piano or keyboard tucked away in a spare room or an area of the house not regularly accessed doesn’t encourage regular practise. Out of sight, out of mind! Have your piano in a prominent position in the house so it acts as a constant reminder.

Not counting out loud. Even though I have been playing for over 40 years, I still find counting out loud is the easiest way to get my mind around a complicated new passage. It is particularly crucial for beginners and works excellently in conjunction with the point above about slowing down. Counting out loud helps develop a sense of rhythm; the physical act of counting makes the rhythm more dominant and the hands tend to follow.

Watching your hands instead of the music. When you watch your hands instead of the music, you tend to learn the piece with mistakes; playing by ear and using memory take over from reading what the music is asking you to play. When you do need to look down to your hands, try to just avert your eyes rather than move your head, or it is more difficult to re-find your place on the music when you lift your (moved) head back up.

Practising “in bulk”. Shorter, regular practise sessions are far more effective than one very long one. Once you are aware you are becoming mentally fatigued, you should stop practise and come back to it when you feel more alert.

 

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW or mobile lessons are available in the eastern suburbs of Lake Macquarie.

 

How the Non-Piano-Playing Parent Can Help Their Piano-Playing Child (Part 2) – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

“I don’t understand what she’s playing, so I don’t know how to help.”

This is a phrase I hear often from parents who have no musical training themselves. Because they don’t know the details of the music, they worry they can’t help their child with their practise. This is most definitely not the case.

I wrote two weeks ago about the practical ways a non-musical parent can help their piano student child (that post is here) but believe it or not, you can also help them improve their playing.

1. The most important thing you can do is simple. Listen. That’s it. Listen to them practise. You will hear their pieces often enough that you may surprise yourself when you realise you can pick up mistakes. You don’t need to know how to fix it, but you can stop them and have them go back over that section.

2. Don’t be afraid to say, “Again!” I’m sure you are a music listener, even if you aren’t a musician yourself and your ears will know if something doesn’t sound right. Tell them to play it again. And again. This also works really well for scales and technical work (and my students are used to hearing it – I don’t let a scale go until they have played it without error).

3. Sitting with your child for the first five minutes of practise can have a huge impact on your child’s musical success. For starters, it allows them to realise you are listening and involved and know exactly what they are doing. Use this time to ask them questions, which can be done in two ways:

  • Be nosy. Ask them questions about what they are playing. Pick something the teacher has marked and ask them why or perhaps select a word of terminology or an articulation mark on the music and ask them what it means. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answer… they are having to think about it; or
  • Ask general questions, such as, “What is the hardest part of this piece? Can you play just that part for me?” or “Can you clap the rhythm of this bar for me?” I can provide flashcards containing samples.

Chances are they’ll get quite a kick from teaching you something as well 🙂

Piano teacher Wallsend NSW4. Encourage them to really listen to what they are doing… and listen yourself. If they play a section a few times and it changes from halting to fluent, congratulate and encourage them. Ask them what they are trying to achieve.

5. Most people can feel a basic rhythm so you should be able to tell if the rhythm is uneven or inconsistent. Ask them to show you how they count the piece/section and have them count out loud as they play it.

6. Don’t expect them to always play their pieces through. Often working on smaller sections is more beneficial. I always teach my students to “pull out” the troublesome section and work on that alone until it has improved. We can put the piece back together at the lesson if they have refined each of the sections. Sometimes a teacher may set only sections (or even just one hand) rather than the whole piece.

7. Tell them to slow down if they’re having trouble. Speed can be built back up but bad habits are harder to unlearn. There is no such thing as too slow!

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW or mobile lessons are available in the eastern suburbs of Lake Macquarie.