Ever hit a rough patch with practicing? In those times, you may wonder, “Will all this effort pay off? Will I (or my child) even continue playing piano throughout adulthood? What’s the point?” Maybe the most important benefits are not musical. What if there are character traits being cultivated that don’t fully blossom till later in life? As an adult, I’ve grown in my appreciation of being a pianist more than ever before- especially when it comes to the skill of reading music. I can find 6 correlations in which piano has benefited my life as an adult. Piano is:
In order to follow notes on a page, one is forced to focus. Sound is abrupt, therefore you immediately feel a change in your current state. The very nature of listening to piano keys is calming and contemplative. One can feel the body relax and the mind clear. Worries from that day are forgotten. All that matters in this moment, is this flow of energy that wraps around you. When I play classical music in particular, I am transported into an even deeper meditative state. I observe how my emotions rise and fall with the music. These specifically arranged harmonies, clashes, and musical phrases push me into the world of a composer some hundred to several hundred years ago. There’s so much culture, history, and emotion that I am now witnessing via their ears and experiences. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling. I’ve become increasingly interested in how classical music is designed because of this meditative factor.
Laughing, crying, socializing…there’s many ways of releasing expression and playing an instrument is also one of them! This is especially beneficial to personalities who are not naturally expressive with words. When it’s hard to understand your feelings, music comes in for the rescue. Being vulnerable with an instrument can feel safer than with a real person. Songs are also more forgiving and comforting to your emotions, than say, a boxing bag. On conflicting days, experiment with playing your own melodies. If you find your emotions being absorbed by the keys themselves, you’ve found another way to communicate or release. Who knew that a good practice could make one feel stronger and anew.
3. Delayed Gratification
How many people do you know who are comfortable with delayed gratification? I find them few and far between, after all, now-days there’s simply no need. You want a specific meal? You got UberEats to pick it up for you. You want another blanket? Amazon will bring it to you tomorrow. You don’t like the movie you’re watching? Within seconds, Netflix has plenty more options. You want another associate to help you on a project? Post a job and you’ve got lots of applicants. It doesn’t take much effort to get results. Learning any instrument, will teach you otherwise. That mentality of “little effort, immediate reward” needs to be tossed out the window. Even talented musicians are only as good as they practice. It takes months, sometimes years, to get just one piece down. You might feel you are “not quite there yet” forever and you have to be okay with that. You practice the same measure 30 times, morning and evening, and MAYBE you’ll be happier with it tomorrow. As I’ve grown older, I have noticed there’s something quite admirable about someone who can work hard, stay focused, and commit to a challenge without knowing when and if the reward will come. It may be these people will stand out in a growing competitive world.
Part of learning an instrument means you have to practice it daily. Practicing 4 hours on the weekend won’t get you there as fast if you had split up that time into 30 minutes everyday. The key is to practice on a daily basis- and that’s a kind of discipline that will take you far. Remember any new skill requires more effort in the beginning than later. If you are constantly stuck in the take-off, you’ll constantly feel how hard it is, never seeing the benefits. Once you do see the benefits, you won’t mind being disciplined as much. Imagine how much more ahead you are once you’ve already gone through this cycle. These experiences give you real world knowledge and will give you a realistic perspective when choosing to engage in a new discipline.
5. Dismantling Fear
Eleven pages of sheet music laid out in front of you will feel overwhelming. Organizational skills are crucial here. How can I make this realistic? Where are the patterns in this piece? How can I break it down and still accurately piece it back together without losing myself? A music teacher takes that responsibility upon themselves and shows a student different techniques in breaking a piece down. Suddenly, a student realizes, “Actually yes, I can do this.” When you experience this again and again, song after song, you start to believe that anything (even the overwhelming projects) can be done. As long as you have the skills to organize the challenge into smaller manageable parts- of course it can be done. As an adult, being faced with new challenges, I face it with a sort of confidence because I’ve already had some training in knowing how to be my own navigator.
6. Identifying Patterns
Being able to find patterns in one’s life can save years of lost effort. A good music teacher will train you to look for patterns in the sheet music before you play your piece. Yes, it’s great if you can read notes accurately on the whim, but it’s better (and more efficient) when you can spot patterns in the piece even before you play. What’s even better than that, is mixing the two! Can you identify patterns in real time? These are all things we work on as we read music. Imagine if we applied this to real life situations. Do you know the patterns in your daily life? How do we respond under pressure? What do we turn to when we want to check out? How does your partner behave when they are holding back? What kind of friends is your child drawn to? Think about how much faster you get to know yourself, your loved ones once you’ve been conditioned to pick up patterns.
Those are the six benefits that have been my favorite in my adult life. Of course, the benefits of learning an instrument are vast- increased focus, creativity, multi tasking, coordination are just a few more. If you’d like to know more, you can refer to this blog that already has study links attached.
The recital day had arrived. It’s a mix of emotions- excitement and anxiety. A few minutes before the recital began, a mother came up to me saying, “Sam is refusing to play. He’s too nervous.” I immediately thought back to how hard he had worked to learn this song. He was playing it just fine a week ago. What can I do to calm his nerves? I tried talking with him, but it was evident that his emotions were too high. I ended up skipping over his name in the program during the recital.
How can one perform well with such elevated levels of emotion? When we practice piano pieces at home, there are no hormones disrupting your physiological state. It starts while you’re waiting for your name to be called. Hands get sweaty, heart beating, legs trembling, and suddenly…I can’t feel my fingers. How can I finish my song when I can’t control my body? Can I train myself to suppress a stress response? Or do I have to learn to deliver an excellent performance with pressure?
Meeting high expectation in front of an audience can cause a nervous reaction that inhibits fine motor functioning. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s hard to do one thing correctly, let alone three or four things at once. Thoughts such as “I have to play it perfectly” “I can’t make too many mistakes” “If I mess up, then they won’t think I’m good” and “I only want them to see how well I can play”, resembles an individual that is struggling with performance anxiety due to high expectations.
I decided to interview a few students that seemed to have no nerves on recital day. They performed their piece to the point of perfection. What’s their secret? Well, I asked and here’s their response (keep in mind they are 13 years old and under):
“Practice in front of other people- 5 or more. Do it a couple times until you are comfortable”
“If you mess up, just continue, because it doesn’t matter. People don’t always know”
“Just keep going, don’t worry about the mistakes”
“Imagine that no one is there. Like I’m in my room practicing, I don’t think of the people watching me.”
“Pretend everyone’s just wearing their underwear”
As you can see from those responses, it’s a style of thinking that will determine your success. To be able to perform well, one will need to prepare their mind for the big day. Here are some tips to that will promote confidence and help minimize the pressure of a performance:
1) Muscle memory beats anxiety
A performance piece demands hours of practice and repetition. After a while your fingers play on their own and there’s no need for the brain to concentrate on reading music. You become very proud in this moment, because you don’t feel like you are “working” anymore. The song has molded as a part of your body. Muscle memory saves a many performances.
2) Practice in front of an audience
Sometimes it just takes 1 person to start the nervous reaction. Invite your family, friends, or neighbors to come watch you play. Another tactic I use with my students, is filming them. It can help set the stage for the big day and the more you practice performing in a stressful setting, the less intimidating it will get.
3) Have a Plan B
When you can’t regain feeling in your fingers or if you can’t get past a difficult part, know how to finish the song on a good note. There’s usually a part of the song that you know very well and are confident in, so practice easing into that part and tying it into the song finale.
4) Accept the worst
First, ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen? Whatever that is, you will free yourself if you can accept it. If the worst is not being able to complete the song, or making multiple mistakes, and it happens during your performance, the best thing you could do for yourself, is be okay with it. You might be surprised at how much energy you’ll find in that moment.
Know that it is better to try and gain some type of experience versus gaining none. Sam wasn’t mentally prepared, but I believe if he had been willing to work on these four steps, he could perform his song well.
You can. You can absolutely have a student master musical techniques, note-reading, rhythm, and ear training. It’s just like teaching someone how to multiply numbers or drive a car. Eventually, the skill can be learned. But of course, there are always those that are better than others. What makes a musician stand out? Here are my thoughts.
First, mastering a skill takes hours of work. When people discover my occupation, they usually exclaim,
“Oh I’ve always wanted to learn piano! Can you teach me?”
But do you know what you’re asking for? Are you willing to commit at least several hours a week to piano? Yes, I expect that you will review homework at least 20-30 minutes a day, which adds up to about 3-4 hours of your time throughout the week. To be able to do that, you need to depend on a motivation powerful enough to bring you back day after day. It could be outsourced, or it could come from within. A parent demanding their child to practice 30 minutes before they are able to watch their favorite show for example, is motivation coming from the outside. Recital performances, sibling rivalry, and meeting teacher expectations are other outsourced examples. If music is always “work” for you, then your motivation is most likely outsourced- that kind of musician can only go so far.
But my golden students are the ones who are motivated from within. Those are the students I can rely on and know, they will be musicians for life. That inward motivation can come from different sources. It could be a desire to understand music, a new challenge, or a curiosity to know another dimension. For me, it was the discovery of being able to communicate my emotions. It’s a form of therapy if you will. It’s a moment of release, as I like to call it. Being able to express and release emotion through music brings joy to my soul. So what makes a natural musician? It’s a desire fueled by an inward motivation that will always call them back. It’s that inward motivation that makes you stand out from among the rest.
So many times parents ask me, “How long should my child practice to get good?” Well…from the age 8-12, I practiced 30 minutes a day for 5 years. Was I pretty good? Yes, the hard work did pay off. I can safely say, I made my parents proud in my piano recitals and church performances. Did I come to enjoy it? Never. My negative feelings for piano never left during those 5 years of piano lessons. Eventually, my mother's will broke and she allowed me to stop taking lessons. I felt victorious. And I stopped playing piano for several years. So maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. What about, “How can we make piano more fun?” or “How can I get my child to connect to their instrument?”
Sometimes, all you need is a good teacher to fuel that desire. I believe a good teacher makes a student believe that their dreams are not only possible but also, achievable in the very near future. Sometimes, it's a friend, a parent, a community, a society, an admirable musician or celebrity...the list goes on. The point is to find the origin and the, or lack of, and go from there.
My problem that needed attention ASAP, was that I had no connection to the music I was playing. It was dull and boring to me and limited my ability to envision what I could actually do with this skill of playing piano. If my piano teachers had stepped in to broaden my view of piano, I could've lit that spark of musical passion much earlier. Once it was lit, I couldn't stop dreaming of where music could take me. It was a new, exciting, and powerful world.
After slamming the door shut on piano and all my negative feelings associated with it, I was eventually able to reset my mind and put that resentment to rest. However, the desire to connect to music sought for another way. The fact was, I was musical. Music drew me in and music has always been a powerful force in my life. My mom knew this, she saw my talent and that was why she fought the battle for so long. But she didn't know how to press the "activate" button. Once you activate a musician, the desire to make music is eternal. (Now...can you make a musician or must you be born one? That'll have to be another blog...) My re-introduction to the music world was through the guitar. I chose the guitar because it screamed cool to a teenager. But more importantly, this time, I chose to begin this musical journey. I chose the music I wanted to play. Playing guitar eventually sparked my desire to re-learn piano and experiment with other instruments such as violin and percussion. I began pecking at the piano, trying to play songs by ear that I had heard on the radio. I wanted to be apart of the music that I liked to listen to. I watched YouTube videos, I asked other musicians, I was intrigued- my image of the piano finally changed- and I actually went out of my way to start practicing the piano. But this time, it didn't feel like practicing. The piano didn't equal boring sheet music anymore. Some days I practiced an hour, sometimes more, and some days it was 15 minutes. Except I didn't call it practicing. I saw it as a hobby- it was fun. And there is no set time for fun. I had now found a great way to communicate and create.
Some of my music students practice their advised 20-30 minutes as often as they can during the week, but the ones that excel are the ones that never time their practice sessions. They're focused on reaching the goal rather than the time. To recap, check the student’s vision. Is it there? We want to make sure what's fueling the student comes from within. This will be evident when the student subconsciously setts goals for themselves. Next, how strong is their vision? Can the teacher or parent help fuel it? Support, even a little, can take a student a long way. Once my students reach their goals, they feel the work has paid off- they feel like champions. And being a champ, is fun.
"Practice hard, not hardly," my childhood piano teacher would remind me at the end of every lesson. But what does "practice hard" actually mean? What does it look like?
Time is usually a good way to measure a practice session, especially in terms of accountability. When I first began teaching, I would follow this chart:
Beginner: 15-20 minutes 4-5 times a week
Intermediate: 30 minutes 5-6 times a week
Advanced: 45-60+ minutes 5-6 times a week
I still say it’s a good generalized chart to use on almost any developing skill, but it didn’t take long before I realized something was off. I would find my students still stumbling over songs after a week or two of practicing. I began to wonder how much of those 30 minutes were actually used for sharpening the brain. As we all know, quality is better than quantity. There are practicing methods that are better than others.
So let’s talk details:
1. Warm up: 5 minutes
Beginners: scales, chords, easy pattern exercises
Intermediate/Advanced: advanced scales, chord progressions, Hanon and/or Czerny technique exercises
Why? Warm-ups feel like a waste of time. I know- I also thought the same. But, warm-ups actually make piano playing easier. They strengthen your finger muscles, improve techniques and build better mind control. With your control and technique grounded, it will be much easier to read and play a song. Save some frustration and do your warm-ups.
2. Note reading: 10-20 minutes
All levels should practice their assigned notes ON REPEAT. Before, I’d say “Practice this for 10 minutes”, but I’ve found that saying “Practice this piece 5 times” worked better. If you don’t repeat, your brain can never build on those new connections being formed.
Now be sure to pay attention to this, because here’s the trick to learning faster. You’ve got to dissect the song - such as practicing the left and right hand separately, and then breaking the song into sections. Practice section one 3-5 times before moving on to the next section. Then combine section 1 and 2, before learning the third. The smaller the sections, the better- especially if you’re a beginner. This allows the brain to familiarize the finger patterns and notes, so then your muscle memory can kick in, which allows the brain to relax and focus on less. Anytime you overwhelm your brain, you move backwards. Not to mention, you will hate the learning process. Double backwards.
3. Listening Exercises: 10-15 minutes, or even 5 minutes several times a day
A favorite of mine is learning songs by ear, which I heavily implement in every student’s lesson. We tend to look forward to this part. Since we depend on our ear and memory, I tell my students it’s important to practice this particular song several times a day (especially in the beginning) so you don’t forget the music. I tell them, “play it after our lesson, before you go to bed, and first thing in the morning- just to check that you haven’t forgotten it.” I come back a week later, and they’ve got it perfected. It works.
You will find that this practice session looks very similar to the lessons I give. Yes, I’m glad you noticed. Now you’ll see, you’ve known how to practice all along.
One more thing- notice in the Practice Chart, I mentioned how many times in a week one should practice. This is especially important because repetition is gold. You can have the 20-30 minute practice session perfected to every detail, but if you do that just 1-2 times a week, it’ll take us forever to move forward. Just like any hobby, you cannot get better at basketball or mathematical times tables without repeating the practice several times in a week. For example, let's say you're busy all week and only have time on the weekends, so you decide to make up for the time lost and put in several hours into one session. Then you get too busy for the next 5 days, and repeat another cramming session. That method of learning will take much longer and before you know it, discouragement sets in. You see, the brain forgets, and you will waste your time trying to remember the new things you've learned rather than building on them. So yes, 15-20 minutes 5-6 times a week is going to get you farther than 3-4 hours on the weekend.
I am a firm believer in practicing- there's no way to reach your goals without it. However, I am also a firm believer in fun. If practicing causes constant emotional struggle, there is something wrong. Something needs to change. If you continue to grind against resistance, soon the brain will begin to flash PIANO = BAD. Once you get to that point, it will be very difficult to reverse, and the changes necessary will need to be more drastic and will involve more time. If you are a parent or a student who struggles with practice, please don’t continue just grinding on. You might’ve skipped an important step. My next blog, “My Child Doesn’t Want to Practice” can help redirect to a better approach.
My musical journey is now being painted out for you. Read about my experiences and my discoveries. This blog is dedicated to my hard working students and supportive parents. Sending a big thank you to Leslie for being my editor and helping me organize my thoughts.
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