Why do you take piano lessons? As a teacher, why do you give piano lessons? What is the goal? Better yet, what is the purpose?
Some of the students that impress me the most are not the award-winning musical stars, but those who decide to study later in their lives and simply want to make music. I think of an anesthesiologist who studies with a colleague of mine and despite his busy schedule, sets time aside to study and practice piano. In my studio, I have several students from a wide variety of careers taking classes and private lessons and diligently studying and enriching their lives with music.
I want to help my students find their purpose in studying music. Many of them are too young to think about things like this, but for them, I can help guide their parents. It is too easy to turn to a purpose focused on achievement. Sometimes, that is based on festivals and competitions. Some parents come with the "keeping up with the Jones" purpose--their children are taking lessons as this is something their friends do. Others have scholarships in mind--either actual scholarships for musical study, or boosting up a student's resume for college applications.
I'm saddened when a student reiterates what a parent has told them: "You're taking lessons as it will help you with math and sciences and to do better in a career you want to pursue." While it is wonderful and proven through many studies that studying music--particularly piano--has a significant impact on a student's scholastic achievement, I feel sorry if that is the purpose.
Students and their families pay a large amount of money for music lessons, music books, and all of the associated fees. As a teacher, I want both the parent and student to find the real investment they are making: Enrichment in their life.
They are developing a skill that can stay with them for a lifetime. It can impact all parts of their life. They can find simple joy through making music. This is therapeutic and is an investment in our well-being.
Music impacts us. Studying music changes our lives once we discover the true purpose of seeking enrichment. Not awards and achievements, not scholarships...
And really, that is what being an artist is about no matter where or what our career goals are, or where we are on life's journey.
Be an artist. Be enriched. Enrich the lives of others. Repeat...
I grew up as the king of bad fingering. I can remember teachers and adjudicators criticizing my fingering all the way through my younger years. They diligently tried to instill in me good technic and logical fingering. But, the technic and fingering I used worked, so it was a tough sell to get me to unlearn one way and try to do it another. I used proper fingering in the basics such as scales, but everything else was somewhat of a free-for-all.
I think my own problem was made worse from playing jazz and improvising. If I’m improvising a technical lick or phrase, I’m improvising the fingering as well. The fingering usually worked, but wasn’t efficient. It is so easy to allow yourself to practice with and use a bad technic and not even realize the limitations it causes.
When I’m working with a student, I talk less about fingering and more about efficiency of technic. My advanced students know that I could care less what fingering they use unless it is inefficient. Our hands are different. Not only in size, but in what feels natural and is tension-free. While my students know they have flexibility in choosing a fingering that works and is comfortable for them, they know what I’m looking for is efficiency. We talk about avoiding “acrobatics.” Acrobatics cause inefficiency and likely affect the expression of the passage at best and at worst, the accuracy and consistency.
We often have to do acrobatics as we play. Liszt and Rachmaninoff filled their music with acrobatics at times, but not everything is an acrobatic and it is important to recognize when something doesn’t require acrobatics and can be performed efficiently. Just as important, we must do acrobatics consistently and with as much efficiency as possible.
Consistent and efficient fingering takes advantage of the wonderful skill each of our brains is equipped to do and that is muscle memory. It is that wonderful phenomena of learning a passage properly and never really thinking about it again--the hands just do their thing.
Why such bad fingering? Let’s change the question. Why not use the most efficient and effective way to play a technical passage and enable our muscle memory to help us learn things and be able to play them over and over accurately and expressively?
Last week, our new RMM program was given a nice article in a regional newspaper. The article was well-written and gave a great description of our program, but the headline bothered me a lot. "In the Key of Fun" read the headline with a subtitle "...aiming at a wider audience by making [piano lessons] fun."
It left me with the question, "So traditional piano lessons aren't fun?"
I'm sure I used the word "fun" in the interview and am therefore the reason for that headline, but I also remember using the word "joy" many times, yet that wasn't highlighted in the story. Why is it that we crave "fun" but are mistaking a momentary emotion like "fun" or "happy" be what we are looking for when deep inside, we crave release, freedom, relaxation, all of which I feel are better encapsulated in the simple word, "joy."
Recreational Music Making has some distinctives that I am going to highlight today.
Musical expression is one of these and the greatest benefit of musical expression is a general sense of accomplishment. This improves life, builds self-esteem, increases confidence, and gives us joy.
A 2003 study by Barry Bittman, MD that was published in Focus on Caregiving showed that patients who participated in an RMM program were able to decrease the need for doctor visits due to stress. A 1998 study by Frederick Tims, Chair of Music Therapy at Michigan State University showed that elderly participants in RMM programs had increased levels of human growth hormone. Masatada Wachi published a study in the Medical Science Monitor 2007 showing workers who participated in RMM programs had less burnout. RMM has enabled companies to have less employee turnover and has proven to be an excellent team building exercise.
Those of us who are musicians understand this "joy" and this "fun." We know it is much deeper than just fun, but it helps to see actual studies that show specific benefits and improvements in those participating in a Recreational Music Making program.
That is one of the primary reasons that as we launch this new program, three of the four sessions are for adults. We know the benefit is there and hope this new class contributes to the better wellness of people in our community.
Even a seven-time Grammy award winner still has to practice and doesn't always find it fun. In his words, it's sometimes "kind of a slog." But, this great pianist has several suggestions to make practicing more enjoyable and still productive.
Why do you practice? I used to confidently say I worked best with a goal in mind such as an upcoming performance, audition, or assessment. This worked great through my college years, as there was always something ahead and with the guidance of a great teacher, I was continually growing in ability and musicianship.
After graduation, I continued with this event/goal-oriented practice, but after some time, found myself no longer progressing, and even showing some loss in technique in a few areas. Why would this be?
I needed to retool my purpose for practice. We need to practice with a goal in mind, but event-goals don't always work. After graduation, I found myself doing a lot of collaborative work. There were many event-goals, but no specific personal-growth goals. I found myself needing to practice less. I was growing by leaps-and-bounds with sight-reading, but slowly losing technique and depth in my performance.
Now, I try to always set specific goals in practice that are not event-driven. I ask myself things like: What strengths am I using and drawing from to perform this piece? How might I grow and develop those strengths even more? What weaknesses are revealed in this piece? How might I begin to strengthen and improve in these areas? What pieces or exercises would complement this piece or help me grow in the areas of strength or weakness?
Specific goals are good and helpful, but specific goals in practicing are far more than simply accomplishing a good performance. Our goals in practicing should always be more than that. Our practice goals should focus on the question, "What steps am I taking today to grow as a musician?"
The next stops on our little tour as Pianist With an iPad include two additional programs that I have found very useful. I won’t go into nearly as much of detail on these as both are for more-or-less a niche of iPad musicians, but being in a position where I use both, I want to mention them as you may find one or both useful as well.
The first program I’ll highlight is called Music Stand. Music Stand is part of an amazing suite of online tools for church musicians called Planning Center. If you are a church musician, it is very likely your church already uses Planning Center as it is getting to be rare to find a church that doesn’t. Planning Center began as a service planning tool and has developed over the past decade into a full church management suite. Each module is offered and priced separately, so for churches like mine that use a different product for a church management system, I can still use the Services module for service planning.
I’ve been using Planning Center Services since May of 2009. Music Stand was added as an inexpensive add-on in 2010, but it wasn’t until several years later that I embraced it. Just as I had not embraced the idea of using forScore it took me some time to discover the real benefit of using my iPad for music. In 2010, Music Stand was introduced for iPad only, but it is now available for Android as well. My church subscribes to for the low price of $10 per month and that allows anyone on our team to use it. Smaller churches can get it for as low as $2 per month!
The feature set is very similar to forScore. The big difference is that you don’t add songs to Music Stand, you program them into the service in Planning Center. Then they automatically appear, in order. Each week, you simply load up the service plan. You can also look ahead at future plans or behind to find a song from a past plan. A great feature for church musicians is that notes you add to the score are saved and you’ll see them each time. In addition, each user has their own notes, but they can view other users’ notes. This is a great way for a leader to pass on info to the team.
Music Stand works very well for church musicians who participate in multiple churches. The accounts link to the same log-in. While I don’t use that function for that reason, my church collaborates each year with some other churches with a men’s conference. This has made it that all our musicians no matter which church they are from can easily access the music with their devices.
As I already said, Music Stand is an add-on to a program called Planning Center Services. If your church does not already subscribe, you would need an account. If you aren’t the church music leader, ask him or her. Again, it is very likely your church already has an account and this would be only a small additional add-on. I interact with many churches and it is getting very rare to find a church that doesn’t already use this great program. Besides, if your church hasn’t already discovered this gem, I believe they would really find it beneficial.
For the second program I’d like to highlight, we can step away from the church musician side of music and move to the world of jazz. Back in the 1970’s a jazz fakebook called The Real Book started being distributed. The copyrights were not cleared, and royalties were not paid, so this book wasn’t sold on music store shelves, but was sold musician to musician in music school hallways, pulled from a hidden stash under the counter of a music store, or even from the trunk of a car! It was known as the tool any serious jazz musician needed to have. In 2004, publisher Hal Leonard stepped in and obtained rights to most of the music in the original Real Book and the first legal edition came out. Now, this legal edition is the standard any jazz musician or jazz student needs. But wait! I thought this was an article about tools for iPads. That is where iReal Pro comes in.
iReal Pro offers a tool where the chord progressions of jazz charts are published. Melodies are not provided as they can be copyrighted, but a chord progression cannot, so, while iReal Pro seems to have stepped back into the realm of not complying with copyright laws, it really is legit and a great tool for any jazz musician.
What makes iReal Pro even better than just getting a Real Book? The iReal Pro app simulates a rhythm section that can accompany you while your practice. If you play a horn, you’d leave the entire rhythm section playing, but as a pianist, you can easily take the piano out of the mix and play along with the bass and drums.
Tempo, key signature, and form are customizable, so this tool provides a great way to practice. I find this a very helpful tool for a jazz piano student. I regularly ask for metronome practice. This tool provides metronome practice in a much more fun way. It can also help develop swing style or help the student understand Latin style such as clave patterns.
The database of songs is enormous and there are many styles that one can download, or you can add your own songs easily.
While there are many great uses for iReal Pro for the student jazz musician, I would caution to not allow your student or yourself to only play and practice with iReal Pro. A significant characteristic of jazz music is the interaction between players. We “play off” one another often imitating or responding to a rhythmic or melodic pattern we hear. This is a big part of the improvisatory communication style that is inherent in jazz music.
That aside, iReal Pro is a tremendous benefit to a serious student of jazz young or old, and I highly recommend it.
These are certainly two great additional tools for a Pianist With an iPad and both can be easily found in the App Store.
So here is second installment of Pianist With an iPad, a series I began last July but never finished. In this post, we’ll look at some of the tools and benefits of using the iPad for this purpose.
I believe what I’ve found most helpful for me is how the iPad allows me to have organized practice. I’ve been that guy with piles of books on top the piano, or the “black hole” of scores in a backpack or computer bag. I think of so many of the accompanists at music festivals walking around with their rolling suitcases packed with music. The iPad with forScore allows me to be organized. Everything is in one place. It is all grouped, sorted, and I can hold the device in one hand and still have room for a coffee in the other.
I discussed this to some extent in the first installment, but let me go through it here as well. I organize using Genre for instrument. That way, I can quickly pull up every trumpet or trombone piece I have on my iPad. As long as you use logical naming and enter things like composer’s name, it is also very easy to find pieces using search or sort.
I use “Tag” for the student name. This is especially helpful if you are developing a repertoire with another musician. Some of my lists are quite extensive, and others just have a few pieces in them. I love having all pieces for one musician so easily accessible.
I set up Playlists as soon as I know we have a performance scheduled. I’ll name a playlist according to the person I’m accompanying and I also put the date of the concert. Then, I sort my lists according to date. This helps me know the priority order to practice with regards to when I’ll be performing a piece. This is very helpful with college students who give me their repertoire for the year at the beginning of the fall (or in some cases, the spring before). Since I typically have a waiting list for recitals, students are accustomed to asking me early, which is very helpful, but requires some careful organization.
Organization is very helpful for planned programs, but it is just as helpful to keep playing and to grow as a musician. As my iPad library of music has grown, I’ve found I have many great options for sight-reading practice and I tend to pull out pieces for maintenance practice a little more. I have some pieces in the iPad that I hope to learn but have never done so. Having them with me and easily accessible gives me hope I will eventually learn them.
forScore allows you to write notes which can help you practice on the “right things” next time. It is important to have a practice strategy or game plan. Writing notes can help you formulate a good practice plan. There is certainly no need to waste time in practicing, and writing good notes as to what you did at in a practice session can be a tremendous help to you the next time you sit down with your instrument.
One can upload mp3’s into forScore for playback. That is a great tool, but one I don’t find as useful, as the music I am working on, tends to be somewhere else, and I don’t like to fil my iPad with multiple copies of the same song. I have used Amazon Music and Spotify for this purpose. Now that I’ve moved almost exclusively to Spotify, I’d love to see an integration that would enable me to play a Spotify link right from the music page.
Another feature that helps you organize your practice using forScore on the iPad is metronome markings. forScore remembers the last tempo you had for each song file. This is very helpful if you are ramping up a tempo slowly speeding something up, but allowing time for good slow practice. Since forScore assigns the metronome speed to the file, you’ll need to manually adjust it in multiple movement pieces. I would love to see forScore add a feature where we could add a tempo to a specific page.
The metronome easily accessible within the program is a great tool and I lean heavily on metronome practice whenever possible. forScore has the capability to highlight the first beat of a measure, but I find that feature unhelpful for myself except in very rare occasions as often in the instrumental accompaniments I often play, the meter changes regularly. I would prefer the metronome to play louder or give more pitch options that might “cut through” the playing, but one can use a Bluetooth speaker or headphones.
There are many other features that one can use. You can track goals. forScore will track for you how much time you are spending in a piece. I could see some uses of this, but for me, the amount of time spent is far less important than the quality of time I spend practicing.
forScore provides tools for careful practice and marking a score to help you. It is easy to add markings. I regularly highlight, circle, and add courtesy sharps and flats. I like the ability to mark with a variety of colors. Highlighting a courtesy accidental in red helps it to jump out to me. When music has a lot of details rhythmically or accidentals, I’ll typically turn it to landscape mode as I learn the piece. This zooms the page larger and in many cases it is larger than the printed page. It is really helpful to notice small, but very important details this way.
One of the most helpful tools is the ability to edit your score pages just the way you’d like. Does your score have crazy repeats or a D.S. that jumps back several pages? You can simply rearrange or duplicate pages so you can keep stepping forward rather than jumping around. forScore also allows you to create multiple versions of a piece. This is extremely helpful for an accompanist who plays the same accompaniment for many people. Does one of your performers add a ritard and in the same place another prefers a stringendo? Just use multiple versions and remember you have tags and playlists to make sure you have the correct version up.
Concert programming is very easy with the playlists. I save go-to program lists for a jazz ensemble. It helps me remember what is working well with consideration of the flow and progression throughout the performance.
It does take some practice and effort to get a good scan. There is a Darkroom feature within the program, but I have found this inferior to dedicated scanning programs. The fastest way to scan is with a large-scale photocopier with scan capability. These copiers can handle A4 format and the larger pages that music is usually in. Home scanners are usually limited to letter or legal size, so are not as helpful. Far better than the home scanners is software that can be easily and cheaply acquired for the smartphone. I use Genius Scan by Grizzily Labs for iPhone. Even on the large scale scanners it is difficult to get a good scan because music books tend to be large and bindings cause the pages to curl away. Usually, my best scans have come from Genius Scan, but it does take longer to get a great looking scan cropped just right. While getting the perfect scan takes time, Genius Scan is great for quick scans as well. I’ve scanned a piece moments before going on stage as I prefer to have it in my iPad for easy page turns.
It also takes good battery management. You certainly don’t want to be caught on stage with the battery dead or dying. Be active with battery management. Let your battery run down. Don’t use just a little and then recharge right away. I start all performances with a full battery whenever possible. When approaching a large day of accompanying or rehearsing, I turn off WIFI when I’m not specifically using it. On those extra-long days, I avoid using iPad for other things and try to use my phone for email or other ordinary tasks. I replace the batteries in my Bluetooth when I have a major performance. They tend to last a long time, but I don’t like to take the chance. I can usually remember when they were changed last. If I have a few performances close together, I don’t change them for each one, but you can be sure I will a few weeks or a month later when another important one rolls around. If you mark your used batteries, you can use them at more relaxed times—practice, lessons, studio class.
forScore has become a very important tool for me musically as a pianist, but it isn’t the only music reading program I use very regularly. In the next article, we’ll look at two others that I have found very helpful.
Here is a great article on artiden.com that describes mistakes I'm sure every pianist has made at one time or another in our discipline of practice. What "mistakes" tend to trip you up? I struggle with the "how" vs "when" mistake. Too often, I'm under deadline to learn something, so the "when" is looming and that is answered very simply if I just focus on the "how." A mistake she mentions that I have struggled with in the past, but am seeing both musical and physical benefits from is interrupting my practice. Stepping away from the piano even if I seem to be "on a roll." It is better for my body physically to not be in a seated position for hours at a time and it gives my brain time to think and process. Check out this article and see if there are any "mistakes" you might recognize that would help you to correct in your own practicing. Click here for the article.