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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."
My daughter Emily has been attending Hunterdon Academy of the Arts in Flemington since 2011. She started out in Musikgarten's toddler classes and after a while added Actingarten classes to her HAA activities. After aging out of both programs, Emily signed up for Piano Lessons, Showkids Choir, and Acting Classes. She just can't seem to get enough of HAA!
Over the past six years, I've been proudly watching Emily develop her music and acting skills and in the process becoming more confident at school and other activities. As Emily has achieved performance milestones at HAA, I have been sitting on the sidelines recalling activities I attempted and failed in childhood. One such activity was ballet which I took for 2 months at the age of seven before being permanently dismissed and told to ‘find another activity’ which I was capable of doing.
That rejection and failure never left me. Nearly two years ago, I heard about a local adult ballet class so I signed up, took a deep inner breath and gave dance a second chance. It was a life changing choice! The teacher, Nancy Dow, welcomed us regardless of our experience or abilities. Not only did I make it past two months, but I performed in a showcase, filmed and produced a 75 minute video documentary about the journey, and am currently embracing a new year of ballet knowing that I am capable of doing more than my teacher from childhood believed was possible.
When my birthday rolled around in August, I made a pledge to try something new or revisit something I previously failed at each year for the remainder of my life. I made this declaration on my social media accounts. Many friends told me they were inspired by my journey to revisit and conquer past failures. So many parents spend their days sitting in waiting rooms while their children live life and learn new things. I think it’s important for adults to step aside from this sedentary station and take a class or two themselves.
For many years, I have wanted to learn to play the piano. One day while my daughter was in Show Kids Choir, I approached Ruthie and asked if adults take music lessons at HAA. She assured me they do and immediately encouraged me to take a trial class to see if I liked it- you won’t know unless you try. I inquired about lesson and teacher availability during the days and times my daughter is at HAA. While I was initially hoping to sign up for piano, Ruthie mentioned that Darryl, the new violin teacher had availability that would work for me. Violin… the instrument I have always loved and revered, but played rather unsuccessfully as a child. Throughout five years of lessons, I was always relegated to second violin, seated so far in the rear of the orchestra that I saw more of the backside of the stage curtain than the audience during school performances. However, the idea of working Darryl was very appealing given the numerous times I heard his violin and viola playing wafting into the waiting room. I was so impressed by his skill as a musician and his calm, friendly personality that I decided to give violin a second chance, much in the same way I had given ballet a second chance. Ruthie, being the sensitive and encouraging person she is, completely reassured and encouraged me to do a trial class the following week.
I would love to say that I was nothing but excited and confident in the week leading up to my trial, but I was beset with nerves. All I could think about was how poorly I played the violin as a child. I even had a conversation with a close friend, James Goodwin, who happens to be a strings teacher and a professional bassist. I was hoping he would talk me out of taking the trial by telling me it was silly for an adult to take lessons after so many years. Instead, he not only told me how good it would be for me to pick up the violin again but he promised to help me get my long dormant violin lesson-ready. So, it seemed that violin lessons were meant to be.
The day of my trial arrived. As soon as I walked into the classroom I explained my apprehension to Darryl. He completely put me at ease with his reassurance and gently approach to the lesson. He is so patient and encouraging. Darryl’s responsiveness to my musical interests led him to recommend that I listen to a recomposed version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for homework. Having a teacher introduces me to music and techniques I could not discover on my own. I am so thankful that Darryl was free to take me on as a student at a time that works for me while my daughter is in choir. I am continually blown away by the quality and skill of the instructors at HAA.
After my trial class, I stopped by the office and signed up for weekly lessons. It’s going to be an investment of time and money, but I know it will be worth it on many levels. I am very excited to have violin back in my life and can't wait to learn and improve. I have already started a daily practice regimen and find playing the violin to be stimulating physically, intellectually and artistically. Taking lessons is also enhancing my daughter’s musical experience. Seeing me practice encourages her to practice. She was so excited the first time she heard me practicing scales that she applauded heartily. What encouragement! I think she has learned some of that from her time at HAA.
I believe it’s important to embrace our interests and dreams in spite of past failures or discouraging statements by others. Along the way, we will inspire others by sharing the various contours of our journey with them. While the ballet school of my childhood saw me as a cog in their elite machine, schools like HAA seek to unlock the beauty and potential of each student in a non-competitive, ever encouraging atmosphere. They do this by consistently hiring kind, patient, and skilled teachers. One thing I have always felt at HAA is acceptance. It’s a place for creative people to be themselves while growing and developing as actors and musicians. This is so important in a society that is rapidly devaluing the arts. As the bearer of a BFA in Visual Art, I cannot imagine a landscape without artists, musicians, actors, dancers, poets… creative people who add limitless layers of beauty through their interpretation and expressions of life. And in order to keep this happening, we must make face our fears and past failures, pick up something new (or old) and believe that learning is a lifelong journey.
The beginning of a new year holds great promise. It provides an opportunity for us to leave “in the past” any disappointments, shortcomings, and discomfort we may have experienced during the previous year. At the same time, the start of the new year also allows us to build on previous accomplishments and take them to a new level. So here we are on January 1, looking both back and ahead.
It is a moment when many of us define their personal New Year’s Resolutions. We make them in good faith, but come March, how many of us will still abide by them or even remember what they were? As Joseph Luciani says, 80 % of New Year’s Resolutions Fail because we tend to be over-ambitious in choosing goals that lie well beyond our capacity to attain, or because we may lack the experience in managing setbacks on the path to reaching our goals, be it saving a certain amount of money each month, losing x number of lbs, etc.
Part of the problem is that resolutions often involve sacrifices that take us way out of our comfort zone or are difficult to love and enjoy. Most of us resolve to exercising daily for two hours not because we enjoy exercising but because we want to lose 40 lbs by a certain date, with the ultimate goal of making an improvement to our health or feeling better about our physical appearance.
Learning a musical instrument is a different kind of challenge, though it is one that deserves to be among your resolutions and goals to achieve this year. Of the many reasons why music lessons are so high on my priority list, I will focus on the five most important ones:
1. Music is forever. The ability to make music, once you have learned at least basic musical concepts and skills, is yours to keep for life. Playing soccer at age 80? No, unless you want to make a fool out of yourself. Playing the guitar? Absolutely! With ease, and a smile on your face.
2. Making music brings people together because instruments--traditional ones at least--don’t play by themselves. If you can play an instrument, you will have friends and likely some admirers as well. Over time, you will also find friends interested in making music together with you!
3. Making music is immensely enjoyable. The learning process does require a concentrated effort to develop and maintain your skills. But at the end of a tricky practice session, what remains is your passion for music and love of the instrument.
4. Making music offers you an island of sanity in the craziness of your daily life. Regularly set aside some time to experience the calming effects of music and explore the sea of emotions it holds!
5. Music lessons improve mental focus. You will learn to read and interpret a new language--musical notation. Expressing that language on your instrument requires you to develop some special fine motor and coordination skills. Your ability to focus will improve even further as you begin to memorize the songs you are learning.
Are you ready to start (or restart) music lessons this year?
We’re asked this question frequently. Though I’d prefer not to use this phrase, the answer is, “it depends”--on many different variables. Let me elaborate by bringing up a familiar comparison. Studying a musical instrument is very much like learning a new language, an experience all of us had at one point or another in our lives. Both involve learning how to read and write symbols on a page, understand the deeper meaning of these symbols and how to use these symbols in practice, i.e., when communicating with others.
Critical to both also is our (time) commitment to the study process. Is it every day all day long? Toddlers learn a language this way, as do students having a “full immersion” experience in another country. At the other end of the spectrum, is it 30 minutes a week? Of course, results will vary dramatically, depending on your answers to these questions.
Another crucial factor is the quality of instruction: is your teacher barely proficient, or are you thriving under the tutelage of a language teacher who is a native speaker, or a musician with significant professional accomplishments on her instrument?
But the parallels between music and language studies go even further. There is no denying that speaking any language on a high level takes great effort, just as playing any musical instrument to professional standards requires years, and sometimes decades, of study. In the language and music teaching communities, there is also agreement that some languages are harder to master than others--think of Chinese as a particularly daunting example--just as certain musical instruments produce at least basic learning results more quickly than others. As a case in point, consider violin vs. drum.
So when we’re asked how long it takes to learn a musical instrument, the questions from our perspective are: what would you like to accomplish with your music studies? Impress with quick results? Explore a possible career opportunity in the arts? Play music for stress relief, and as a hobby? Or would you like your child to take on music studies as a means to develop disciplined work habits, goal setting and project management skills, and encourage competitive achievement? Your answers to these questions guide us in setting realistic expectations and advising you on your most suitable options.
This month we’d like to showcase a student who surprised us with a wonderful performance at our recent Thursday Night Lights concert on Flemington Main Street: 16-year-old Sydney Atkinson.
What do you study at YOUniversity of Music and Arts, and who have been your teachers here?
I am taking classical guitar lessons with Tom Amoriello and I’m a part of The True Voice Project with Adam Kishbauch!
What do you like about playing the guitar?
I like that I can create something beautiful just by pressing down on some strings. Every time I practice guitar, I feel like I’m accomplishing something and slowly the parts that I practice get better and soon the entire song comes together!
You did a fabulous job performing for our recent Thursday Night Lights event on Flemington Main Street. In fact, the video clip we’re publishing with this article was taken that very night. You sang several songs while accompanying yourself on the guitar. How did you become interested in being a singer/guitarist, and is your guitar teacher (Tom Amoriello) working with you on the vocals as well?
Taylor Swift was a big influence because it was so unreal to me to see a girl like her on stage with her guitar singing songs that she wrote when she was only sixteen! Yes, Tom [Amoriello] is working with me on playing classical pieces as well as playing music I can sing with. Playing both types of music at the same time is very cool because the techniques I learn with one style can be transferred to the other.
What kinds of music do you play? Who are your musical idols? Are you composing your own songs, and is songwriting something you are interested in pursuing further?
I play a lot of different music, however I play most of my classical studies and a mix of pop songs and alternative____________. My musical idols are a mix of famous musicians and some maybe not so famous artists. I lived in Memphis, Tennessee for a while, and one of my close family friends, Ryan Paule, was in a local band. He was the first person to give me the opportunity to perform out in public and meet other local musicians, some being given great opportunities themselves, like Patrick Dodd! My dad’s friend, Jeff LaQuatra, was the first person to introduce me to classical guitar, and, of course, there’s also Taylor Swift! I have written some songs, but recently I haven’t written anything new. However, I am definitely interested in composing new music!
What do you like about being a student at HAA/YOUniversity of Music and Arts?
I love that being involved here has given me the opportunity to work with people of all ages! Getting to interact with people my age with The True Voice Project is helping me prepare for jobs and seeing people younger and older than me play complicated pieces of music on their guitars is wonderful because I can see what I need to work to improve on!
We know that you are a member of our True Voice Project ensemble, but do you currently play in a band, and if so, tell us more about that.
No, I’m currently not in a band but it’s something I’d love to do.
What kind of music do you like to listen to in your free time?
I listen to a mixture of different music, though I find myself listening to a lot of Alternative Rock and pop.
What would you like to do after graduating from high school? Any plans to pursue a music career?
I would love to pursue a career in music, weather I’m playing and writing the music or producing it. I would be happy in any and all aspects of it.
Other than your music studies, what are your favorite activities?
I like to cook, bake all kinds of dairy free treats, and I like to crochet hats, gloves, and scarves.
What else would you like to tell us about yourself?
I have a dog named Barney, one younger sister, and two parents who all support me very much!
This year we are seeing an increasing number of Music Lesson Students signing up for extended lessons. Consider the following five common reasons why students decide to upgrade their music lessons to 45 or 60 minutes:
1. Commitment. When you extend your lessons, your outlook on your music studies changes from the inside out. Not that you were trying to “wing” your lessons before, but it clearly takes much greater focus--and preparation--to have a meaningful one-hour lesson experience! And that’s a good thing. You are enjoying your daily practice time because you are challenging yourself to achieve more on your instrument than you ever have before.
2. Go-getters. Students on one-hour lessons are go-getters. Extending your lessons doesn’t mean you’ll be just doing more of the same. You are actually taking your playing to an entirely new level. Your teacher will introduce you to new musical worlds you didn’t even know exist, and you will play songs that become more challenging as your skills develop.
3. Goal Setting, perseverance, and achievement: As you set higher goals for yourself, you become more systematic in how you go about achieving anything in life. Extended music lessons teach you that in order to master the bigger pieces and more difficult songs, you must first work on some short-term goals. You learn that perseverance pays off.
4. Confidence. With more daily practice and more guidance from your teacher, your confidence level will rise. This is especially important when you perform for others. Since your skills are much more advanced, you have greater control over your performance, and enjoy your time on stage.
5. Package deal: Longer music lessons also allow you and your teacher to work on skills that are closely related to your playing, such as music theory, technical studies, ear training, and in some cases even song-writing. In combination, all of these contribute to improving your playing and performing skills.
Looking at a piece for the first time can be very intimidating. Oftentimes students do not know where to begin with their new piece. Teachers can give an introduction to the piece, but it is the student that has to partake in the process of learning it. They must know and understand all aspects of the piece before they can begin. I have just started reading a book entitled A Piano Teacher’s Legacy, which includes articles and speeches made by Richard Chronister. Upon reading this book I feel as though I have grown as a teacher and I would like to share some of the concepts brought up in this book about how a student learns.
Based on the work of Maria Montessori, there are three stages of learning. The first stage is preparation, which is to place the new object into the student’s environment. The teacher casually talks about this object and this in turn introduces it to the child. Eventually the student will start associating the object with the word. By not putting any pressure on the student to remember something he will naturally progress into the second stage of learning, presentation. In this stage the teacher is continuing to help the student by naming the object. However, the child should be able to correctly identify the object amongst others. It is interesting how there seems to be a demand for the student to name an object, but is this really the most important aspect? As teachers, we should realize that the name of the object will come in time; the more important aspect is that of learning. The final stage of learning is association. This is when we ask the student what the object is and he in turn will say the name of the object, instead of just pointing it out. Every student enters each stage when he is ready, so instead of always “telling” the student, think about how beneficial it is to allow each to learn at their own pace.
Amnada Prakopcyk, Piano Teacher
Many beginning students of music may wonder what learning theory has anything to do with learning to play the piano, and still others wonder how it will ever be useful. I wondered the same thing when I first started learning, and I certainly wish now that I wanted to understand it more then, because it probably would have saved me a lot of time. Learning theory allows a musician to see patterns, to understand the structure of a piece, and can save a lot of time practicing, making the process much more effective. There are many other benefits and reasons to learn music theory, but the quickest rewards can be found with simple songs in beginner method books. I had a student look at a short song in a lesson, but it proved to be quite a struggle because of the rapidly changing range of notes. The student was trying to read each individual note and therefore, it proved to be far more of a challenge than was actually there. After talking about major chords and their inversions in previous lessons, I asked the student to tell me the chord in each measure and the response was quick and simple. After a light bulb moment, the student was reading the song perfectly almost immediately after stumbling through it just moments ago. Applying their knowledge of music theory saved both of us a lot of time practicing note by note. With this approach to learning piano, students can more rapidly move past learning notes and where the keys are located. They learn about music, which is far more important, because then one has the tools to eventually understand music’s deeper purpose of emotion and beauty.
By Brandon Eldredge, Piano Teacher at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts
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
In comparing notes as music educators, we quickly realized that each of us is trying to address very similar student and parental concerns especially with beginning lesson students. Chief among these are nagging doubts that the child/student won't stick with the lessons in the long run. This fear determines a number of crucial decisions many parents and students make about starting lessons:
What's wrong with this picture?You get the cheapest instrument--maybe even a free one you found in the classifieds--only to discover that it sounds poor, has mechanical problems, and is hard to play properly. Then you hire an instructor who may not be qualified to teach your child (which is why s/he is inexpensive in the first place). Don't assume for a moment that teaching beginners is easier than teaching advanced students; in fact, the opposite is true! Now you are finding out that your teacher doesn't know how to guide your child, let alone on an instrument that barely works and does little to inspire practicing. But you still feel so good about saving money that you can barely contain your excitement when your new teacher also agrees to coming to your home and rescheduling any lesson your child will miss. Great deal, except that your child is now taught in an environment where the phone rings, the TV is on, and siblings and pets are running around during the lesson. Additionally, you are telling your child that it's OK to miss lessons because they will all get rescheduled. No loss, or is there?
How much harder would you like to make it for your child to succeed in music lessons?
The above scenario--poor teaching on an inferior instrument and in an informal environment that lacks structure and public performance opportunities (recitals)--is, sadly, all too common. It turns initial concerns that your child may not stick with music lessons into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This set of external circumstances, rather than lack of musical talent, is the single most important factor in a student's decision to quit lessons.
What if my child won't quit music lessons?
Rather than doing your best to make your child drop music, think for a moment what the future would hold if he won't quit! Is it not a reasonable assumption that you are signing her up for lessons because you at least hope that she will stick with it long-term and make music an important part of her education? If so, why wouldn't you make sure she has a decent instrument to learn on, one that sounds good and is in working order? Why would you not provide her with the best teacher you can afford to allow her to make progress on the instrument and gain a sense of accomplishment along the way? Why would you not rather enroll her in a respectable music program that she attends regularly to receive instruction from a proven professional, interact with peers, find role models, and be featured in school-wide performances?
Still feel good about saving a few bucks?