Tuning the Piano- how often and why is it important?

Every six months we have our friendly piano tuner Ric Moor come and spend an hour with Max (what our piano has been named last week). He makes sure the piano is tuned up and ready for students and for Greg & I to play on. He checks the action, makes sure the sound is good, fixes any buzzing the keys may make on the strings and lets us know if the fabric around the hammers need to be replaced. It’s an important job that Ric has. He makes Max sound good and in effect, he makes our students and Greg and I sound good.

I go to students houses to teach them on my travel days. Most have digital pianos but some have acoustic ones and often they are out of tune or damaged in some way. This can be discouraging to students. It’s like driving a broken car - you need all the parts to work in order for you to feel confident getting from point A to point B; students need to feel confident that what they are practicing will be reproducible on another instrument. If pedals or keys are not working well, or the sound is not in tune, how they learn their piece may be altered and they may have difficulty playing it on another instrument.

So please please, PLEASE keep your instrument in good working order - it helps your student!!

Practice Schedule? What's That?

Around here we love a schedule, a procedure or anything that helps students succeed. For some of my older students who have larger, more complex pieces we stumbled upon the idea of a practice schedule. It’s pretty simple. We start with a goal - an end goal of when the piece needs to be completed by and then we make a schedule for what needs to happen every week before that in order to achieve the goal. Check out this example:

This student has an exam in January and that was the goal we were working on. So each element of her exam was scheduled out. She needed to be able to play all of the items in bold at her lesson that week and still accomplish the goals for the material that wasn't in bold for that week. This process has helped a number of my students - have you ever used anything like this before?

It's October, how do I get my child to practice?

October is a tricky month. September is usually filled with new pieces and a fresh start but once October comes around it’s more challenging to get students to stick with practice. Based on our experience there are a few tips that work well for motivating young children to practice but I researched a few other tips and I’ve linked to those articles as well.

  1. Routine is essential. I suggest that students practice at the same time every day - or on the 5 days that they have agreed to practice. Set a time and make it piano time. No excuses. Like brushing your teeth piano practice should be a non-negotiable.

  2. Remove distractions. This may seem obvious but it can be challenging with open concept houses. Try to limit radios or tv sounds, have other children find something quiet they can do for the duration of the practice so they won’t interrupt, and remove your phones/ipads and other distractions like large timers. I know that I find my phone a distraction so I leave it out of the studio when I practice.

  3. Sit with your student. Kids of all ages need positive reinforcement and often just sitting with your student can give them the encouragement that they need. No need to worry that you “don’t know” how to play piano - your student DOES and they can teach you. Read the lesson notes and ask questions about them to your student.

  4. While you are sitting there with your student and they are moving through their practice notes why not play a game with them? There are so many options for practice games and I’ve linked to a site with some good ones here and here and here is a pdf of some games you can use that I got from The Fame School years ago.

  5. Have your piano student goof off- and by that I mean have them make up their own piece and play it for you. Have them explain what’s happening in the piece and what they like about it - self expression is part of what we are teaching when we give music lessons!

  6. End on a positive note. Have your student play a piece they are proud of- or that they already know and love. This builds confidence in their abilities.

October Practicing is Spooky!

For October I’ve borrowed a practice chart from The Practice Shoppe so that you can colour in one leaf for every activity you complete for our challenge. But there’s a catch! October has 31 days! So when you complete your last challenge item for October make sure to draw a jack-o-lantern or pumpkin on the back of your chart! Remember to bring in your completed chart to your lesson in November!

Student Post- Steps to Learning A New Piece

Hi My name is Aiden and these are the steps that I go through to learn a song.

  1. Look at the first note and where it is on the piano and loot to see if you have the right fingering.
  2. Put the metronome at a slow speed
  3. Practice hands separately 
  4. Do the parts that you are having the most trouble with 3 times in a row with no mistakes
  5. Practice the spot that you need help on until you get it.
  6. Practice transitions
  7. One you get the whole song add dynamics
  8. Speed up the metronome
  9. Make sure you can place the piece at speed
  10. After, memorize the song

Hope these steps helped.

 

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Student Post- How I Overcame Challenges with Rhythm

Hi my name is Olivia,

Not that long ago I had trouble with rhythm.  I got really mad when I couldn't do it.  But now what calms me down is I just take a break for 10 or 5 minutes and then I try again.  If I got mad again I would take a break for 15 or 20 minutes at that point I didn't get mad anymore.  Thanks for reading my letter.

By Olivia

 

Olivia was having trouble with rhythm and while I suggested that when she got super frustrated she take a small break and come back to her piece, what really worked for her is to count out loud with a metronome and then count and clap with the metronome.  

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Student Post- Mental Piano, Dealing with Frustration

 Mental Piano 

Many students who learn piano may be curious and ask how does one deal with the frustration of practicing piano and learning, and completing piano lessons. Well, here are your answers.

How does it Happen?

Frustration happens when your mind is all focusing on how to perfect your piece or scale and you are trying too hard to make it perfect; your brain may get lost in doing trying to do this. Frustration may also happen when you are not focus enough on what you are doing, such as practicing piano, but you still want to do it like when you are focused, e.g. not being in the zone, tired, or having external distractions. These are things that may cause one to be frustrated while trying to practice, learn, and/or complete piano practice or lessons.  

Ways to prevent it

There are many ways to prevent yourself from being discouraged. 

  1.     1.Be true to yourself: sometimes you just don’t want to play piano, everyone gets it. But remember and be sure to play it later when you are ready.
  2. Have confidence: be confident to do the piece and persevere in doing the piece
  3. Calm yourself: think calmly and try to clear your mind of distractions, don’t worry too much about things.
  4. Clear your place of piano playing from any distractions: have a good location for practicing with no external distractions around. 

Solutions by the writer

Hi, my name is Elijah and I have been playing piano for quite a while now.  The above listed points that can frustrated students in playing piano have all occurred to me in the past. However, I now have some strategies on how you and I and you can cope with frustration. Sometimes you will need to walk away for a while and then come back to the music piece or scale later, to freshen your mind or calm yourself down. You need to breathe as well as think calmly, and trust yourself that you can complete the piece eventually. There is really no need to stress about anything!

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Student Post - Balancing Art and Sport

Extra Curriculars and Piano

Managing piano with life is a difficult thing when there’s so much that has to be done. As a 16 year old student athlete, I have a hard time fitting piano into my schedule. In the next few paragraphs, I will be sharing ways to manage your time, to use it to relax and to help focus.

Time Management: 

Being able to manage your time is an asset in life. Managing your piano schedule wont just help you practice more, but it will also teach you an essential life skill. I find practicing first thing in the morning, works best for me. I get it done right away and I don’t have to worry about forgetting to practice, or squeezing it in last minute. Some might argue that practicing at night  works best for them. That’s totally fair because its about what works for you, not the next person.  Having an agenda  or calendar is an easy and organized way to manage activities and practices. I prefer reminders on my phone since my mind is constantly racing and I tend to forget about things.

Focus:

Focusing is a difficult task when you have a million things to do, but If you can focus for even ten minutes to work on a piece, or even just going over an old one, then you’ll be better focused for the next thing on your to-do list.  When you det your mind on one goal, and you achieve it, you feel good.  If you focus on that one measure that you’ve been stuck on for a while and finally smooth it out, there’s a sense of satisfaction that you start to crave. You can get that same feeling in everyday tasks, and it’ll slowly get you to focus on the task at hand. 

Relaxing:

Piano shouldn't be a stressor in your life. Instead, it should be used to help you focus, escape reality, or to chill out.  If you are feeling overly stressed about things, take a step back and re-evaluate your situation. If you find its piano that’s working against you, try and find a way to fix that, whether its slowing down how much you play, or asking your parents to stop pressuring you so much. If there are other stressors in your life, try using piano to calm you down. Have one song that you really enjoy and know so well, and get lost in it. Use piano as an escape and to relieve you from stress.

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Student Post - Overcoming a Dislike of Practice

Overcoming Practicing

 

 

Practicing is going awesome because of my favourite piano teacher Emily. I overcome practicing by using the chart that Emily made me.

 

 

The chart show’s me what days I need to practice. The chart looks like this Tuesday 30 min, 5 min piece A, Sneaky Sam, beat 132. Also I need to play the piece staccato or legato also my dynamics. Then the octave scales, contrary motion, broken triads. Then I do my four-star day 1&2. The chart helps me organize my time. It also helps me by setting a goal for this week.

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Student Post- Practice Tips from a Student

Dear Piano Students,

My name is Addison.  I am 8 years old. Mrs. Emily has been my teacher for almost 1 year.  I enjoy learning new songs and making people happy when they hear my music.  I've learned how to play a lot of new songs.  My three favourite songs right now are:  Circus Tumblers, Stepping Stones and The Frantic Ant. When I am learning a new song sometimes I get frustrated and overwhelmed when it is difficult. When this happens I know to walk away from my piano and do something different like reading.  After my break when I'm feeling better I try again.  Mrs. Emily taught me to break the song up into pieces. I keep trying over and over again until I master the song.  If you ever feel frustrated with piano you could try what I do.  Happy playing the piano!

Your friend Addy

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Practice S-L-O-W-L-Y, and we mean at a snails pace

Slow practice is used by the top musicians to make sure they really know their piece. Rachmaninov was notorious for doing this (and who can criticize HIM!?).  But WHY practice so slowly?

  • when learning a new piece this can help to give your brain time to learn the piece

  • when you have a section that moves super fast - it can help you to gain control and develop better fine motor skills needed

  • what about places that need dynamics or ornaments? This is a great opportunity to get better at those details in your piece.

  • You already know your piece backwards and forwards? Try it super super slow and see what details you can add!

  • Memorization happens easier if you do it slow. (just sayin')

Slow practice is better practice according to the great musicians and who are we to argue with  Rachmaninov?!

Thanks Practicing The Piano!

 

Random Practice doesn't mean Random Practice, if you know what I mean

Before you think that I'm advocating that everyday you practice at different times, (which goes against my whole philosophy of practice times) relax!  I'm not saying that at all.  Keep your routine but change up WHAT you do while you practice - change it up every day if you like - and see what happens!

Students who choose a few choice areas to work on and rotate through them often work through material faster than students who choose to play the piece from start to finish every time for their allocated practice time.  We already know that.  But I'm going to share with you something that the Bulletproof Musician shared with us on his blog - an ACTUAL schedule.

He suggests 3 minute time chunks 

  1. 3 minutes of spot A

  2. 3 minutes of spot B

  3. 3 minutes of spot C

  4. 3 minutes of spot A again

  5. 3 minutes of spot B again

  6. 3 minutes of spot C again

  7. etc

Trying out a different way to practice can make practicing seem less like drudgery and more like an exploration of the music.  What are your best practice tips?

PS - thanks to the bulletproof musician for his post

To Cram or Not To Cram, that is the Question

Greg and I can always tell if a student has "crammed" their practice into a few hours at the end of their practice week.  Often details are overlooked, students are unable to comfortably play their piece under the stress of a lesson, or they have not been able to resolve a problem we have asked them to deal with.

Cramming does not make for good practice.  It's great for getting a short term result, but without sustained practice this is only a short term benefit. Students often forget what they have crammed and it becomes a waste of time for the student.  And before you ask me is this true?  Yes- and there is evidence!  According to the BulletProof Musician blog (I'll link at the end of this post), students who spaced their learning outperformed their colleagues who crammed their learning into a single day.  the Bullet Proof Musician notes that spaced learning (in our case practice) is more effective because you don't forget as much.

So for our purposes, don't cram practice - space your practice over your week and review what you've practice daily so you don't forget!

Piano Practice - listening is the key!

Piano practice should include lots and lots of repetition, which can be discouraging to younger students (and to big students too!). So how do we make it count? We listen!

  1. divide your piece up into chunks. Student's know the importance of "chunking" their work. When you do this, look and listen for problems - are your notes correct, are you using the correct fingering, did you remember accidentals, what about your rhythm? Make sure to play it correctly an odd number of times!

  2. If the section is new, check out one area to focus on. Maybe look at your notes - get them all squared away and then focus on your rhythm - use a metronome! You choose your area.

  3. See if you can memorize just that section and really LISTEN to your piece. Can you hear anything that sounds off? If so, maybe that's a problem area and investigate it with your music.

Listening is one of the most important skills we forget about.  Next time you practice, try listening to what you're doing!  It could make the difference between a good piano practice and a great one!

 

Piano Games - why they can be useful for practicing

I use piano games in my lessons;  not all lessons and not every lesson, but I do use them.  I find them helpful to get students to relax and concentrate on a topic we have been learning - and I find that if students bring the games home it reinforces the topic even further.  In school teacher lingo - it's extending the learning.  

My younger students tend to have access to the games in our studio - and I find it helps them immensely.  And my older students often get a "treat" when we play games in lessons.  Overall it's a strategy that has helped me keep students attention, extend the lesson and engage students who otherwise may not be interested that day.

If you have a student at home who is struggling with their practice games can help get you back on track.  I have a number of piano practice games that I employ and here are 3!

1) For doing repetitions and drills: get 7 coins, legos, action figures (whatever it may be but 7 is the magic number) and put them on one side of the keyboard.  Every time a drill/repetition is done well they move an item to the other side of the keyboard.  When they have moved all of the items they are done that job for the day. 

2) For reinforcing keyboard awareness - if students are telling you they can't remember what the keys on the piano are, use this game (magically they remember!).  Cut out 14 smallish pieces of paper and write the musical alphabet on them (one letter per piece) so you have 2 sets of letters. Choose two game markers (one penny and one dime work well) and your student puts the marker of their choice on one end of the keyboard while you put yours on the other.  Place the two piles face down and at the same time turn over the card.  You and your student each move your marker to the key identified on your individual cards moving closer to the middle of the keyboard.  Do this until you have gone through your cards.  The individual who has their game marker closer to Middle C is the winner.   (Susan Paradis has a great pdf for this game, from whom I originally heard of the game!) 

3) Gather a bunch of legos or your Mr. Potato Head. For every job done well (repetitions, playing a number of pieces, etc) during practice, the student gets to add a lego piece to their creation or add an item to Mr. Potato Head.  This works well with repetitions for students who are learning how to move their hands around the piano as they have to find their spot again after they add to their creations. 

I'll post more practice strategies for reluctant practicers so check back for more!

Enjoying a Holiday Break Without Loosing What You’ve Learned

Next week is our last week of lessons for 2017!  Can you believe it!?! So how do you maintain what you’ve learned while you are taking a (much needed) break?

  • Play a concert for your family of all of your favourite pieces!
  • Compose a piece and play it for your friends (use our composing challenge to help you!)
  • As you pass the piano every day play one element of technique (a scale or a triad or even everything from a particular key!)
  • Call a relative up and play a piece for them on the phone or via Skype!
  • Play one of your pieces super fast, super slow and then just right
  • Wake your family up with a concert! (but not too early!!)

Teach Piano Today has a great colouring sheet to help you while you are off!

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What To Do When Your Child Won’t Practice (Part 2)

Wednesday's post had some solutions for the resistant practiser. Here are a few more!

  • Where are they practising - is the piano far away from where the rest of the family is spending time or is the piano in a place that is distracting when they are working? Sometimes parents put the piano in a place that is far away from where the rest of the family congregates during practice time (like a formal living room when the family spends time in the family room) because they want to limit distractions and feel students can concentrate better. While I agree with this logic, often if students are practising alone this removal from family activity can feel very isolating and practice might start to be perceived as a punishment. If moving the instrument into a more common area is not possible, sit with your child as they practice. Make it a special time for you and your child - a thing to celebrate and makes them special. They get your undivided attention for the duration of practice and they are not distracted. If you can move your instrument to a more common area this might make your student feel better about practising. They can show off what they know to the family and other family members might encourage them to practice and then celebrate what they have accomplished.

  • Are they practising by themselves? Like the above point - practising in isolation can feel like punishment. For young children this is challenging - they need help remembering to practice and to stay on task. Helping young students on a daily basis can build confidence, their skill base and enjoyment of practice. Pre-teen and early teenagers can befit from having a parent sit with them from time to time - it shows you are interested in what they are doing and they get to show off to you. The key is that for children, practising is not something they will do on their own (for the most part) and they need your support to be successful with it.

  • Is practising something that happens sometimes or is it a routine you implement every day? My mother made me practice at 7 PM every day. Regardless of if it was a weekend a holiday or my birthday. 7 PM came around and I had to practice. This made a world of difference in how I viewed practice as a teenager and as a young adult. Even now sometimes 7 PM comes around and I think that I need to practice. Routine helps remove the negative stigma.

  • Do they worry that practising will be a very long time? Set a timer and show students that practice time goes pretty quickly and celebrate what has been accomplished.