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This is Cara from Hunterdon Academy of the Arts and for this month's "Tips and Tricks" series, I wanted to give you a few tips on what to do when you feel like you're stuck in a rut in your Music Lessons. Or you're lacking motivation and need some new sparks in your musical life. But instead of hearing it from me, I thought I would ask some of our teachers who are actually in the classroom with you what they do, or what they would tell you if you're in this situation.
Pete B., Guitar Teacher: "For those of you who might be stuck in a rut whatever instrument you might be playing, every kind of music you play. I found that in my personal experience, what has always helped me progress and stay interested and motivated is keeping my ears open, and I always try to find new artists, new instrumentalists just to stay inspired because you gotta see what's out there and how other people have done it. You never know when you're gonna find something that makes it be like I want to do that. And when you find that, you can really take it and run with it."
Kristen B., Acting Teacher: "So my advice for Actors is: if they ever feel stuck for inspiration or feel a lack of motivation, or if they just don't know what to do or where to go, or if a part is stuffing them, a role is stuffing them, I really really really really suggest meditating and I know that that's infuriating and crazy because we are just like so used to go go go go go, but if you just take a moment and clear your mind and not think about anything for five minutes--and I know that that seems like a really long time--you'll be able to look at everything with a fresh new perspective and with a clear head and it's magic, it really is!"
Russell H., Violin Teacher: "I would say that there are many times in playing and in anything that you might do, you may have reached some sort of a plateau and you feel like nothing is going anywhere and then you know that's when you're kind of in a rut, and I think the best thing to do--not that there are other ways around this--but I find what works is just to go out and do something different and leave whatever it is you're really stuck in, just leave it alone, leave it behind, go out to do something else. But then come back to it at a later time, whether it's the same day or another day. As you come back, your mind is more open, I think, to pick up where you left off and move on."
Gail F., Violin Teacher: "My suggestion for finding a way to motivate yourself is to find music that you really enjoy playing. You can go on YouTube and find some songs that you really like, suggest some songs to your teacher and then see if your teacher can find the right key for your instrument that you can play that piece."
This is all responsible, sure. But I believe that the perspective can be a bit skewed. Only the most self-disciplined of us could maintain such nutritional and financial order in our lives by viewing (and wording) the above philosophies as such. Wouldn’t we rather choose tasteful yet healthy food selections, embark on physical activities that coordinate well with our busy daily routines (such as parking a bit further from work in order to incorporate an extra 10 minutes of walking a day), and spend money in such a way that supports our needs while truly making us happy?
Dr. James Goldsworthy, one of the professors from my graduate music program, imparted an extremely influential philosophy regarding practicing. As an alternative to practice rooms, he gave us the notion of “play rooms.” In “practice rooms,” students repeat a tricky scale passage 20 times with a metronome. In “play rooms,” however, students explore various ways to play a section according to their musical desires and curiosities.
Personally, I would rather enter the “play room.”
This may all sound appealing so far, but we need to be realistic. How can a student incorporate playing their instrument at home on a consistent basis if they have cross-country after school every day, band on Mondays and Thursdays, yearbook on Tuesdays, and gymnastics on Wednesdays?
I myself have had this kind of schedule all throughout my middle school and high school years. I remember finding it extremely difficult to find a block of 30-45 minutes to sit with my instrument on any day other than Fridays and Saturdays. But I found that after dinner and before watching a half-hour of TV (my only relaxation activity for the day), I could sit with my instrument for 15-20 minutes. I learned to focus on the two measures of my music where the fingering is tricky. Or I used these 15 minutes to play my favorite song, but experimented with different interpretations—more lyrically the first time, and a bit more rhythmic and upbeat the second. These short sessions became relaxing for me—a refreshing break from the stresses of school work. I was quite surprised at how much easier a piece seemed when I focused on these small goals throughout the week before Friday came along, when I finally had time to sit down for a full block of time. This was easier than waiting until Friday to figure everything out from scratch.
Additionally, I was able to make music on a consistent basis throughout the week on my own terms rather than dreading the weekly lesson where I had to admit to my teacher yet again that I could not find a 30-minute block of time to practice every day. Even after high school when I went off to college and stopped taking music lessons, I had perceived making music as a form of relaxation, where I could sit down with my instrument even for just a few minutes a day whenever I choose. Because this is what I had done throughout my childhood.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Rather than “practicing” everyday to prepare for a weekly lesson, play music throughout the week to indulge your musical desires and curiosities. Your journey with music can then last you a lifetime.
To learn more from Richard Woo, take a complimentary trial piano lesson with him!
Richard Woo, Piano Teacher
Do you have children in music lessons? Are you wondering about the pace of progress in lessons? Does your child seem frustrated or want to quit lessons entirely? If so, we would like to offer some advice on how you as parents can help your child prosper in music lessons.
When you watch and listen to a good music performance, you may think that playing an instrument is easy. But first impressions can be deceptive. The truth is that learning an instrument is a difficult process that involves diligent practice to achieve good results. Aside from learning what the notes are and how to produce them, learning an instrument requires the development of fine motor skills and in most cases, complex hand-eye coordination and coordination between both hands. If your child is not turning into a master performer within your first month of lessons, please be patient and don't expect the impossible. Give it some time, and you will see tangible results. Ultimately, your child will be very proud of his or her successes along the way!
Along with this, encourage your child to stick with music lessons, and practice regularly. Even with regular practice, however, some students will progress faster than others. This is normal! We are all individuals going through life at our own pace. Since learning an instrument is tricky, your child needs your soothing guidance when hands and fingers just can't follow yet what the brain is telling them to do. As adults, you do have a better perspective on life; you do know that good things take time. So don't add further stress to the frustration your child may be experiencing in learning that C Major scale. Encourage, but don't force!
Purchase a good-quality instrument:
Too often we see students struggle with their music studies for the wrong reason. Upon closer scrutiny, quite a few of these students are practicing on poor instruments. When purchasing an instrument, please consult your (prospective) teacher for advice. To be sure, there are many great deals on the market, but some of these "deals" will all but guarantee that your child won't be taking lessons for long. If even a professional teacher is struggling to play your instrument well, imagine how frustrating, if not impossible, daily practice must be for your child!
What if my child wants to quit?
Don't allow your child to quit at the first sign of trouble. Ask lots of questions to get to the bottom of the problem, and you may be surprised at some of the answers. The solution may be readily available. Sometimes the piano is placed in a room with so much distraction that it is impossible for a child to focus. Moving the piano to another room may fully address the problem. At other times, scheduling a lesson right after school may be too tiring for your child, however conveniently the lesson time may fit into your personal schedule. Needless to say, a combination of fatigue and low blood sugar will not improve the lesson experience! In this case, all you may need to do is reschedule the lesson for another day, and your child's attitude toward music lessons may change radically. In other words, don't just quit without first removing all potential obstacles on the path to happy, creative, and fruitful music lessons.