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The Necessity of Structured Piano Practice (By Drew Spradlin)

One of the most common things I hear adults say, whether they are a parent of one of my piano studentsFlemington piano lessons or a friend/acquaintance, is that they regret quitting piano when they were children. There is a variety of potential reasons for discontinuing music lessons, but the majority of cases I’ve noticed as a teacher involve a lack of time. Today’s children, for the most part, are quite busy – even busier than the previous generation perhaps. Regardless of generation or time constraints, the case of a young student quitting music lessons is ultimately caused by some amount of disinterest.

An overwhelming number of young students are involved in multiple extra-curricular activities. With so much going on, it isn’t surprising that interest may wane in one activity or another, especially with activities requiring tough practice.

Music, of course, is one of these instances. Much practice and repetition is necessary in order to advance. This is the key to maintaining interest – progress.

All students deserve success and to see themselves achieve goals they and the teacher have set. These achievements cultivate a sense of independence and the ability to create personal long-term goals. Without progress a student will certainly become bored or unhappy with music. This is why it is crucial that parents assist with maintaining structure to each music practice session.

Teachers usually outline goals or issues to be addressed by the student for the following week. I tell all my piano students and their parents that frequency, in practice, is much more important than the total amount of time practiced. If only one particular goal, or issue, is focused on in each short practice session it will maximize progress dramatically. Create a practice schedule; mark off issues addressed, and on which days each were practiced. The frequency of practice sessions allows all the concepts and goals learned to remain fresh in the student’s mind.

This routine will yield surprising results, and will take much less time than anticipated. And of course, it will ensure that students see themselves succeed!

Drew Spradlin, Piano Instructor at YOUniversity of Music and Arts/Hunterdon Academy of the Arts

Take Piano Lessons with Drew Spradlin!

In It for Life! (By Piano Teacher Rose McCathran)

One of my earliest memories as a piano student includes my firstpiano teacher flemington Rose McCathran piano recital. I was five years old at the time. My parents had brought me to my piano teacher's studio on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I sat down amongst the other students. My teacher, Mrs. Pughe introduced herself and gave a lovely welcome to the audience. Just afterwards, she turned to me and sweetly said, "Rose, would you like to play now?"   I said, “No.”

To this day I chuckle at my honesty as a five-year-old. I remember genuinely not wanting to perform in a room full of people (bigger than me) whom I barely knew. Mrs. Pughe politely invited another student to begin the recital and somehow successfully came back around to me later.

I enjoyed my lessons but sitting down to practice at home was a struggle. I remember the arguments I would have with my mother about how I did not want to practice daily. One day they reached quite an angry level. “I want to quit!” I screamed. My mother said, “Ok Rose. You can quit, but you have to call your piano teacher and tell her. You also have to tell your grandfather.” His name was Vito Mason and he was an amazing and celebrated choral conductor. I never had the temerity to do either, so I stuck with it. Though Mom must have slipped my struggles to Grandpa because one night I got a very good pep talk about how I would one day thank my mother for her incredible determination and encouragement in fostering my musical talents. My mother is a smart lady. She never forced me to continue but rather knew that if I really wanted to quit I would have told Mrs. Pughe and Grandpa myself.

To make a long and rich story short, over the years I absorbed wonderful knowledge of music and became more and more inspired and motivated to practice and meet goals. My lessons became more enjoyable, I benefitted from the process and notion of progress, and I gained more performance experience, which helps immensely in combating performance anxiety. I never again said “No” when asked to perform. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life dedicated to music the moment when I accompanied my middle school choir and was congratulated at the end with a roaring applause. I had worked so diligently for months on this piece of music and during the applause this incredible sense of happiness and accomplishment overcame me. I glowed all evening and from then on I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Now I have successfully completed my Bachelor of Music and Master of Music in Piano Performance and Pedagogy from Westminster Choir College, where I studied with Ingrid Clarfield. Professor Clarfield became another incredible mentor in my life and has deeply inpired me to love teaching and to experience the profound artistry of pianism.

I am happy to be on the piano faculty at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts, working with my students and cultivating their motivation, love, talent for music. My grandfather (a life-long mentor) was right; I am thankful to my mother and also my father for being so supportive when I was young.

Rose McCathran, Piano Instructor at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts

Music Practice: Smart, Not Hard! Or, The "Pen Game" (By Richard Woo)

I don’t necessarily believe in going through mindless repetitions when practicing music (see my last blog, Stop Practicing, Start Playing!), but sometimes I just cannot execute a certain passage successfully.  The thought of practicing the passage “five times a day, every day” turns me off from playing my instrument, to be completely honest.  But if I make the trouble spot small enough (sometimes it just comes down to two notes, or a measure plus the next beat), and I keep the number of repetitions to a minimum, then I can bear the thought.  This type of practicing becomes useful and efficient.  I don’t just practice hard, but I practice smart.

I play the “pen game” with my students during the lesson when they cannot figure out (or did not practice) a certain spot.  The objective is to play the passage three times in a row perfectly.  When they play it once correctly, they take one of three pens from one side of the piano and move it to the other side.  Subsequently, each time they play the passage correctly, they move another pen over.  If they make a mistake, then they return the pens and start over again.  This game takes a lot of mental and physical concentration, especially when it’s time for the third try and the pressure is on.  (They can also put pennies or jelly beans in a jar to mix things up at home!)

This exercise may sound cruel to some (I personally wince a bit when I hear “play the passage three times in a row perfectly”), piano lessons flemingtonbut I have three ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Let the student control the pens.  He or she decides for him/herself whether the trial was successful.  In the beginning of the week, they may be more forgiving as to what counts as “perfect.”  The day or two before the lesson, however, they may be tougher on themselves.  By having the student be in control, the process becomes less of a test or punishment and more of a game.  The student gains independence in the ability to evaluate his/her own progress during the practice session.
  2. Another important condition of the game is to make the passage small enough for possible success.  The smaller the passage, the less frustration ensues.  The passage must be short enough in order to isolate the issue—often a fingering change, big leap, etc.  If even one measure is too much to handle, then perhaps try using one hand alone (for piano students).   The key is to make the seemingly impossible task much more manageable.
  3. The last step of the game is to integrate the passage into a larger whole—in other words, start at the beginning of the phrase or section and play through the passage to the end.  (This should seem much easier after playing the pen game with the isolated passage!)  This integration is often ignored during practice sessions and leads to the familiar “I played it so much better at home, I promise!”  Trust me, I’ve been there with my own teacher during my weekly lesson.  The reality is that we have not simulated the whole picture enough when we practice at home.  Then when we are put on the spot (during a lesson or performance), external factors come into play, and we freeze up. 

It may be tough to encourage smart practicing for ourselves as well as (and even more so) for young kids.  I find that the essence behind the “pen game” strikes the perfect balance between reinforcing a tough passage effectively while keeping the practicing session fresh and exciting.  Students generally enjoy playing the game with me during lessons, so try doing the same with them at home.  (Also, please let me know if pennies or jelly beans makes things more interesting!)

Request a Trial Piano Lessons with Richard Woo at no cost to you!

Richard Woo teaches Piano at award-winning Hunterdon Academy of the Arts in Flemington, NJ

Stop Practicing, Start Playing! (By Richard Woo)

As a child, I had always enjoyed making music.  However, I struggled to muster up the discipline to practice 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.  I a\dealt with what Stefanie Watson describes as the “ick” factor in practicing (see her recent article on this blog, "Practicing a Musical Instrument, or Eating Cilantro?").  I feel like we might regard our nutritional and financial practices with the same reservation—that is, when we regulate our diets and maintain a consistent regimen of going to the gym 3 times a week.  We might also allocate a regular portion of our income for savings and limit our luxuries in order to remain financially stable.

This is all responsible, sure.  But I believe that the perspectiveadult piano student 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

I’m sorry I didn’t practice, I had [insert excuse] (By Brian Michalowski)

I am definitely not the first person to write aboutpiano teacher Brian Michalowski practicing and I am certainly not going to be the last. I feel, however, that this is such an important topic and every music teacher should share his or her opinions and thoughts.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines practicing as “to perform or work repeatedly so as to become proficient.” That doesn’t sound very fun, does it? I’m sure it doesn’t help when music teachers like myself are constantly reminding you that practicing is important and needs to be done. After all, with everything else we have to do in our lives, who has the time to practice? Unfortunately, I am going to repeat that practicing is important and needs to be done. Yet, I am going to say something that you may not have heard before--practicing can be fun!

Most of the students I teach are either young beginners or within the first five years of their piano training. At this age, many students do not willingly sit down on the piano bench on a daily basis without having to be reminded of the need to practice. Most of my student’s parents also tell me that they themselves have no musical ability and are unable to instruct their children at home. As a result, practicing often becomes an activity with negative associations since it is often precipitated by a fight, or it is not done at all and excuses are made (hence the title of the blog).

It doesn’t matter how much experience a parent has with music, they can and should be a part of their child’s learning process. One way to accomplish this is through role reversal, by allowing your child to become the instructor teaching YOU. Now that your child is forced to think about the material from a different perspective—that of a teacher—practicing, as teacher preparation, becomes an integral part of communicating the information to you. Moreover, going through this exercise, your child will more easily retain the material she has learned.

Even if you never had piano lessons before, there are certain elements and technical issues in your child’s piano practice you can keep an eye on. You can remind him to keep his shoulders down, wrists straight, legs straight and feet flat on the floor (unless they can’t reach!), even though you may not be able to help with complex note reading. These issues are incredibly important for you to watch out for at home because they are usually the hardest habits to break with only 30 minutes of lesson time!

Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher about more ways to become involved. Practicing should be a stress-free and simply fun time for child and parent to spend together. After all, if we can make it enjoyable for children now, you will see the hard work and commitment develop down the road…and then maybe you will not have to apologize for a lack of practicing due to [insert excuse].

Brian Michalowski, Piano Instructor

If music be the food of love, play on! (By Rose McCathran)

I am so blessed to have met my husband at college whileRose McCathran Piano Teacher studying music. We both came to Westminster Choir College to study piano performance and pedagogy with Ingrid Clarfield. Every semester, Mrs. Clarfield would pair students in her studio to serve as “practice buddies.” Once a week, these practice buddies would meet and play for each other to prepare for weekly piano lessons and studio class performances. My first piano buddy was Ryan. Over the course of my first semester at Westminster, Ryan and I met every week and critiqued each other, providing each other with insight on how to improve the technique and artistry of our piano performance. It was during this experience that Ryan and I became close friends. Over the course of the next two years, Ryan and I maintained a strong friendship and supported each other through our enriching college experience. We grew closer together through the power and the beauty of music.

Out of our great friendship grew a beautiful romance! Our dates included local performances, musical lectures, and even Elton John concerts. One May evening, Ryan asked if I would like to sight-read through a piano duet that he had just composed. We sat down at the piano together and looked at the piece. The title was “Habanera d’Amore” and I noticed it was written in my favorite key: f minor. We began playing from his beautifully hand-written score. It was so lively and fun to play. Around measure 53, I noticed there were some words written in the score. I leaned in to get a closer look. The words were: “Will you marry me?” I’ve gotten surprises sight-reading music before, but not quite like that one! Ryan got down on one knee and gave me the most beautiful ring. We were engaged!

We are now happily married and Ryan continues to compose heart-felt music. We continue to create and enjoy beautiful music and we look forward to all of the wonderful musical experiences that we will share in our lifetime together!

Rose McCathran, Piano Teacher

Practicing a Musical Instrument, or Eating Cilantro?

Practicing an instrument is for me a lot like cilantro.

Let me explain.

I used to really dislike cilantro. Indian food was tainted by its smoky, pungent flavor. In Mexican food it was an something to be picked around in salsa and guacamole. Any other cuisine and it was simply an unpleasant surprise. Ick.

That same "ick" factor is one that all too frequently accompanies the idea of practicing an instrument. Speaking to my own past experience, it's so much easier to go for a walk on a sunny day than it is to sit inside and work out a technical passage in a piece, or, heaven forbid, practice scales. Again, I say "ick." However, even in cases when the sun is shining, the weather is balmy, and all of Nature cries out to me, I often find myself in front of the piano, working assiduously and often

Stefanie Watson, Piano Teacher at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts.jpg

 even happily. How is this possible?! One word: cilantro.

It wasn't a conscious choice to overcome my distaste for cilantro. On one experience eight or nine years ago, I unexpectedly ended up with a hefty garnish of it in some soup. I took a spoonful, and can still remember thinking, "I never want to taste this flavor again." Yet bit by bit, I began to discover that guacamole wasn't completely ruined when cilantro snuck its way in there. I didn't have the urge to spit out my dal when that little speck of green weaseled its way onto my spoon. Soon, I bought my own bunch of the herb and consciously added it to recipes, and even, dare I say, enjoyed eating the results. Perhaps it's just something for which I had to acquire a taste, but I truly believe that introducing it in subtle, effective ways was my key to falling for cilantro.

Likewise, through my various esteemed piano teachers, I've discovered that there are ways to tackle an issue that don't involve beating your head against the wall (figuratively or literally). No more repeating two measures over and over again with the hopes that your hands will decide to cooperate and miraculously work the way they ought to. Instead, for example, find a way to use rhythm to trick your brain into focusing on something else while simultaneously teaching your body exactly what it needs to do. Or, for younger students, perform your pieces for an audience of stuffed animals, one time for each "friend" that listens. Be inventive. Make up little self-rewards. But above all, find Mary Poppins' "element of fun" that makes the medicine go down. I truly believe that practice shouldn't be an onerous task, but it should be one done conscientiously. In the words of one of my graduate school professors, Judith Nicosia, "Practice makes permanent." If a passage is learned wrong, it takes FAR longer to un-learn than it would have to study it carefully and accurately in the first place. That spoonful of soup with the mouthful of cilantro took years to overcome; the notes I memorized incorrectly in my Beethoven sonata took no small amount of time to fix either.

Above all, I am of the opinion that the majority of prejudices in life, culinary, musical or otherwise, can be overcome with an open mind and the right attitude. Whether you're talking about some food you dislike or sitting down to finally learn how to play an A-flat arpeggio, give it time and the proper context and you may just find that there are ways to overcome your bias. So, whether your opponent is a multifarious plant whose leaf and seeds have totally different names (cilantro and coriander, incidentally) or a seemingly insurmountable piece of music, my advice remains the same: give it a try. Baby steps. Open mind. Take a bite.

Bon appetit.


Stefanie Watson

Piano Teacher, Hunterdon Academy of the Arts

Flemington, New Jersey 

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