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"Ins and Outs" of Music Practice: Spring 2010 Survey Results (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this two-part blog article, we presented an overview of the results of our Spring 2010 Survey, in which Hunterdon Academy of the Arts received very high marks from its students and their parents. Although the Survey rated HAA "far better than other music schools," it also revealed a couple of concerns. Among these, a few respondents wondered why this past year we have asked our students to keep track of their daily and weekly practice sessions, and some called for more clarification of the "ins and outs" of music practice.

In previous years, at least one parent a week would visit our office to talk about

guitar lessons flemington

 the difficulties their child experiences with practicing. "My child wants to quit"; "my child hates guitar [piano, flute., etc]"; "I can't fight with him/her about practicing anymore"; "he is not progressing quickly enough" were just a few of the complaints we kept hearing. Some parents also asked us directly for guidance on how to help their child prosper in music lessons. After brain-storming with both faculty and parents, we concluded that for many students to have a more rewarding experience in their lessons, we as teachers needed to help them set realistic goals and develop a systematic practice routine to reach these goals. As an important part of this process, we asked students to keep a detailed account of their practice efforts in their "Practice Record Book," which we handed out for free to each lesson student at the beginning of the school year.

As professional musicians and music educators, we are passionate about making music. But truth be told, even for us there are times when we have to supplement our passion and enthusiasm for music with a healthy dose of discipline in order to progress. It is not unlike exercising or being on a healthy diet: we love the process especially when we see results, but it can be hard work to stick with it until we have reached that magical number on the scale. But how, exactly, to stay disciplined? Fitness experts agree that keeping a "food diary" (where you log in everything you eat) will dramatically increase your chances for success. Too much work? Maybe, but the "food diary" produces tangible results, and makes you account for that giant piece of chocolate cake you ate but somehow tried to forget about.

The "food diary" is quite similar in purpose to the "Practice Record Book" we introduced last year, which asks students to log in their practice days and times. The booklet helps students stay on track in pursuing their goals, by documenting step by step their efforts and accomplishments along the way. It teaches them that more often than not, frustration in a music lesson has nothing to do with the instrument itself but mostly with the effort they have put into learning it. For parents, understanding the results of their child's music lessons is also a financial issue: without some weekly practicing, their child will not be able to move forward in her next lesson. This means that you are paying for essentially the same lesson twice. Still think logging in practice times is a waste of time?

Over the past year, we've kept a close eye on student progress, and we're happy to say that using the "Practice Record Book" has yielded some amazing results! Have you ever seen the sparkle in a child's eye when she performs on stage, accomplishing, almost miraculously, something she never thought she could do? Well, we're confident that you'll see a lot of these sparkles at our year-end recitals this coming Saturday, May 15, at 1 PM, 3 PM, and 5 PM at Stanton Reformed Church (1 Stanton Mountain Road, Stanton, NJ 08885)

Come join us; admission if free! 

Get directions to Stanton Reformed church HERE.


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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