As a music teacher, I’m often asked about reading music. Some parents want to know,”Will my child learn to read music?” These are usually parents who have had musical training and see the benefits of being able to read music from the last 1000 years of music literature!
Music notation is an incredible invention. It is so concise, brief and elegant in it’s description of what would have been a lost experience. But that’s the problem. It’s so concise and symbolic, you need years of training, practice and conceptual development to simply read music. It’s well worth the effort though. Learning to read music unlocks the doors to vaults and vaults of incredible music by the masters from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Stravinsky to Bernstein to Miles, Bird and Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name just a few.
But My Favorite Rock Star Can’t Read Music
Others want to know if they “have to learn to read music.” This is usually from parents who struggled with reading music and really did not enjoy the process.
I can see both points of view. While yes, there is a great value in learning to read music, many of the greatest musicians cannot read standard music notation. Paul McCartney is just one example. And no one would ever claim Sir Paul is not a “real musician” or songwriter.
The Old School Traditional Way
Traditional music teachers often start with reading music. They want to do this because it is teacher-centric. It’s easier for teachers as there’s so much music written with traditional notation.
Music notation is over 1000 years old!
Ye Olde Songs…yawn
So, often, this old school, easy way for teachers, is also focused on older music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, if you want to connect with younger students, you need to find a common ground. You need to connect them with their music. No, you can’t start immediately on the latest songs on the radio. But you can accelerate the learning to get to that goal much quicker.
Accelerate Learning Techniques for Music
At Park Slope Music Lessons, we feel that to present the written music first is backwards. It’s like teaching grammar rules before even learning to say hello!
Our curriculum, the Musicolor Method®, works by giving students an experience of playing first, while building up technique and then gradually presenting the language of music through games and activities. It’s much more entertaining and twice as effective!
By empowering children of all ages to immediately start playing, there’s a huge boost of confidence. Emotion is part of all learning. How do you feel if you don’t get it? Dumb? Confused? Frustrated? But what if you could learn to play a simple song within the first five minutes of your first lesson?
Take a look at our videos, and the rest of our site. You will see we have helped so many kids here in Brooklyn and now around the world learn to make music in a manner more organic, fun and fast.
Life Skills Through Music
And that leads to building life skills transferrable to school, work…everything!
Did you ever go to a library or coffee shop just to have a bigger desktop? There’s something so spacious and freeing about just having more physical workspace right in front of you.
Last week, I visited several co-working spaces in New York City just for that reason. Having a bigger desktop is incredibly freeing. It opens up your thinking.
And it’s the same thing with your internal mental workspace. Years ago, I came up with the metaphor of the mental desktop. This is how I imagine each child learning. As I begin teaching a 4-year-old, they can only retain one note at a time in their mental workspace.
Over time, we begin chunking that into two and three-note phrases. Over time, we begin expanding their “mental desktops” to be able to hold complete phrases and sections. It is incredible to witness!
Each child’s progress is individualized.
There are no hard and fast rules of how many days or weeks it will take to expand from two notes to two measures.
But sometimes we overestimate how much a particular student can retain. Sometimes the student will shut down and not want to do anymore. They’ll refuse to even try! Other times, it’s as if we’ve gone backwards.
I’ve had some parents complain about their kid’s slow speed in learning how to read music. But it’s similar to learning to read words. You can’t skip ahead. That will only lead to confusion, frustration, and overwhelm.
The core principles of the Musicolor Method include a 7 step framework of teaching and learning. The first is the Growth Spiral. Every organism in the universe follows this spiraling outward from a central core. You can see it in the petals of a flower, microscopic cells and the macroscopic like the cosmos. It’s how growth happens, physical and mental. You can’t skip from the inner to outer rings.
Another principle is called the Stepping Stone Principle. Imagine you are trying to cross a stream. Your guide (the teacher), picks a path and even lays out some stones for you (the student) to cross over. If the stones (lessons) are too far apart, the students falls in the water. Some may even get swept away or drown. Putting the stones too close leads to boredom and perhaps the student also gets stuck there.
These principles are not something taught in music education programs. It’s my distillation of what I have learned from other effective mentors and reflection on my teaching experiences.
So what if your child is not progressing to your expectations?
Well, the first question to ask is: Are they practicing every day?
Practice is a learned skill.
You need to teach them how to practice. It’s not about cramming. It’s creating a routine that then becomes a habit. We are all made of our habits, good and bad. Learning to practice takes effort at first, but quickly becomes a routine. It’s all about finding even five minutes at the same time every day. This makes it easier. Brushing your teeth was not something you just did on your own. Your parents taught it to you. It’s the same with music.
If practice is happening, then most issues dissolve. But please be patient. If your child seems to be going slower than their friends, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. Skipping ahead will only make things worse. Trust the process and practice.
When I was a kid, I felt like loneliness was my best friend. It’s not like I wanted to be around him. He just clung to me.
We were the only Asian family in an all-white neighborhood in a suburb of New York City. The typical question was,
“What are you, Chinese or Japanese?”
As if those were the only two options.
“I’m Thai, Chinese and Korean.” I would try to explain.
This answer was usually met with bewildered stares and silence. Mind you, this was long before kimchi tacos, Pad Thai noodles and Sriracha hot sauce were even a blip on the radar of the general public. Heck, most people hadn’t even heard of sushi back then.
My New Best Friend
Somewhere along the way, though, I discovered music, who quickly became my new best friend. It was through music that I began to feel less alien, foreign and an outsider and more like “just one of the gang.” Through the bonds of shared passion for Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, I found new friends.
Music was the social lubricant and the universal language of our tribe.
I was 14 and teaching myself to play guitar. I needed to get better fast! Thus, I began to learn how to learn and how to practice.
I dove deep into technical exercises and repetition. I studied the form and structure of music. And I improved rapidly. I began to realize that I could improve my results by focusing on the things that gave me better results and leaving the rest behind. This was before I had ever heard of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule which states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. By focusing on that high leverage 20%, I was able to improve much more quickly.
One day I realized something profound.
Practicing what I already know is a waste of time. I need to practice what I don’t know to improve!
The Practice of Practice
Now, I am a professional music teacher, and I strive to teach the practice of practice to all my students.
Last week, I held a Parents Curriculum meeting where I shared my core belief:
“Learning a musical instrument is one of the best paths for personal development.”
It requires knowing how to study, learn and focus. These skills affect everything in life. Cultivating these skills will transform your child’s life forever.
Most people, kids included, will enthusiastically start a project like learning an instrument with great enthusiasm and a lot of willpower.
But there’s a problem with willpower.
Many world leaders, CEO’s and military commanders know about decision fatigue. It’s been proven- there is a finite amount of decisions you can make in a day.
It’s why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit everyday. He saved his decisions for designing life-changing products. It’s why President Obama didn’t choose his meals. (I don’t know about Trump.) Why waste limited resources?
It’s the same thing with practicing, and the good news is that you can design a practice routine.
Many successful people have a morning routine. New parents are familiar with creating a sleep routine for their infants.
It’s the same with practice.
By creating a practice routine that is at the same time everyday, in the same location, you begin to cultivate a habit. Willpower is required at first, but then it becomes a trigger that sets the routine in motion.
So take some time to consciously design a successful practice routine for your child that then becomes a daily habit. It will transform your child’s life and make your kids more successful. And, through the shared love of music, it may even open doors of friendship, too.
I believe music education is vitally important as it teaches one of the most important skills of childhood…confidence.But it’s not the egotistical, brash arrogance posing as confidence that is plaguing our society.
Rather, we parents want our kids to be a clear channel for intuition and spirit developed by learning the laws of the Universe so perfectly exemplified in music.
We are all vibrating, resonating beings.Let’s lift ourselves by resonating with the highest vibrations!
Come join us
This Saturday, June 10, 2017, we will host our Spring concerts at the Park Slope Library on 9th Street and 6th Avenue.
We have an 11am show and a 2pm show in the lower level auditorium. Free and open to the public. Come check out what your kids and neighbors have been working on for the last few months.
We have a diverse and eclectic music program including everything from Bach to Beethoven, Folk Songs to Lady Gaga, classic rock to the blues, original compositions and songs and, of course, music from Disney’s Moana.
What can we do to help our children become successful? It’s a question that reverberates deeply in every parent.
[box] “To give our kids the best possible potential for a successful life, we need to teach and model for them how to work well.” – Cal Newport[/box]
The summer I was 10 years old, I would ride my bike every morning to my local public library. There, I would greet the librarian, Mrs. Mascolo, and take home a stack of books: everything from mysteries to biographies, science fiction, and history.
For most of the day, I would be hidden among the leaves, high up in my backyard willow tree, diving into worlds far beyond my backyard.
There wasn’t much else to do in my suburban town.
To me, the book was the ultimate escape. I could sit reading in the tree all day, until Mom would cry out, “Andrew! Dinner time!”
Today there are so many ways to escape.
I doubt I would have spent so much time reading books if I had the options available today. Every kid has a “pocket computer” that can instantly look up anything, listen to music, “talk” to just about anyone, watch movies, videos, take photos, and play games.
It’s a blessing and a curse.
As a parent, I love the ability to “find my friend” and track my son’s location. I can instantly message him and send automated reminders for appointments with the orthodontist.
But these options have made a problem. A problem of focus.
With the lure of instant gratification, our attention has become shallow and scattered. (Note the rise in cases of ADHD.)
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
To be a contributing member of society today, one needs to achieve mastery of multiple areas. As the pace of innovation increases, we need to learn new skills, behaviors, and tools that didn’t exist a few years ago!
And to do this, we need to learn “how to learn.” We need to develop the muscle of concentrated focus. It’s a skill that is not inherent. Simply clearing away the noise is not going to make you a master of focus. It’s a skill that needs to be cultivated, honed, and practiced.
Perhaps because I was bored and lonely in my teens, I spent hours and hours practicing guitar. I felt like I had to “catch up” to all the other prodigies who started when they were 5 years old. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was engaging in the “10,000 hours” rule that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his fascinating book, Outliers – The Story of Success.
The basic idea is that it takes a long time, about 10,000 hours, to achieve mastery in anything.
The Zen of Practice
Studying a music instrument is like a zen practice on the art of practice! It cultivates attention skills required for deep focus. In psychology terms, they call it deliberatepractice: repetitive performance of intended cognitive or psychomotor skills.
This is what will set apart your child for their future life success.
Deep work is not an inherent ability but a skill that needs to be practiced.
You can’t multi-task your way to mastery.
Multi-tasking is not a real thing.
Studies have shown that you are not actually doing more than one thing at the same time, but rather jumping between two or more things quickly. This results in a slow-down and lowering of quality of attention. So when you want to get things done, you need to go into the world of Deep Work.
Success is not about innate abilities / talent, but rather skills of focus, courage, action, and perseverance.
So the next time your child sits down to practice, take a moment to be fully present. Listen deeply, observe, and praise something specific. Your gift of attention and focus is a reward in itself. You are showing, not telling, that this is important and a priority.
And you are showing your child the path to mastery and success in life.
Note: also see the excellent TED Talk and book by MacArthur genius award winner Angela Duckworth.
[box] “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint The greats were great cause they paint a lot Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands Ten thousand hands, they carry me” – 10,000 Hours by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis [/box]
“There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers…practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.” – Malcom Gladwell Business Insider
My family loves to watch American Idol as well as The Voice. These competitive singing shows are fun and introduce a new audience to a lot of great songs, old and new. The shows are both well produced and fun and get you involved with each contestant’s story so that you care whether or not they make the cut.
One thing that stands out for me is the subject of song choice.
So many of the judges comments on these shows go something like, “That was the perfect song for you.” But who’s helping these fledging artists make these choices?
Last night’s American Idol had a lot of interesting re-workings of old songs in such unusual ways. There was a slow, introspective almost morose version of “You’re the One That I Want” – the song from Grease. There was a female singer doing a version of an Adam Sandler song! That is probably the first cover he ever got. So interesting! Talk about “making it yours.”
A&R is not Accounts and Receivables
In the early days of the recording industry, there were specialists at the record companies. They called them “guys with ears.” These Artists & Repertoire or A&R men (they were always men) were the specialists in matching the singer with the songs. This art of song selection is the true magic behind some of the greatest music stars. The most famous of these A&R men are guys like John Hammond who discovered Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday to name a few. Other legendary music executives could be considered “guys with ears” like Clive Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston and ran several record labels, or Ahmet Ertegun who founded Atlantic Records. Clive was a lawyer, so how he came to be a guy with ears was just pure passion, innate talent and personal interest.
Nowadays, most artists are expected to write their own music or have a very specific view of the kind of material they are looking for. Everyone needs to know what is their “own music.”
So how does this relate to teaching music?
Find the perfect song for the student and you are golden. You no longer have to TRY to motivate them. The student is so self-motivated – it’s what they want to do.
To do this, you need to get to know your student. What makes them excited, not just musically, but in life? What are their interests, passions, causes, fears? What do they care about? Who do they love? Who loves them?
The material you select together will be putting words/ideas/feelings in their mouths and mind. It becomes a part of them, their reality. The choices you help them make become a part of what makes them unique.
When you find that next song, don’t just play it like everyone else. Experiment to find what is their own way. Change it up. Make it faster, slower! Do it with a reggae lilt. Do it in a bossa nova style. Change the key. Make it a minor key. Most of all, make it their own. Play it like it they wrote it! Find their voice.
The “song” can be more than a song
It’s the same in every subject, whether it’s soccer, physics, macramé or Chinese lessons. Having a mentor to guide one on a personal path can be the difference between passion and drudgery.
Find the song, and the next, and the next, and the life path will be clear. At every stage, a different “music” is required to guide, lift and release into the exact place of purpose, whether it’s on the stage of American Idol, or any other field of endeavor. Every lesson is a lesson in life.
“I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.” – Rainier Maria Rilke
All parents want the best for their child and after-school is an opportunity for extra enrichment beyond the classroom.
Yesterday, The Atlantic published an article, After-School Activities Make Educational Inequality Even Worse. The author, Hilary Levey Friedman, interviewed and followed 95 middle-class families over 16 months who were involved in soccer, dance and competitive chess. She identifies 5 skills she believes separates middle/upper class children from less fortunate children and which she calls Competitive Kid Capital. There’s some overlap here with Angela Lee Duckworth’s concept of Grit which I discussed previously. Though Friedman didn’t profile music students, these all overlay very well with music instruction and recitals.
1 – The Importance of Winning – In music there is not necessarily winning and losing, but if you didn’t get the right notes, or you didn’t perform as well as you did at home, then, there’s a sense of a loss. All of my students are pretty hard graders on themselves when asked, “How did you do on that piece?”
2 – Learning from Loss – this is resiliency and happens everyday you practice at your instrument. You’re going to make mistakes, but what matters is what you do next.
3 – Time Management – Music is a time based language- you need to keep the beat – events happen over time. Having good rhythm and timing to correctly and effective communicate a beautiful piece of music is one aspect but so is the management of practice time over weeks and months for a big recital. Will you be prepared? This is life!
4- Adaptability – you need to go with the flow – some days you’ll feel different and you’ll play the music different because of that. But also making small corrections everyday on technical issues is a way of adapting.
5 – Grace Under Pressure – performing in front of a roomful of strangers can be a very intimidating experience. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I’ve seen some of my students blossom over the years and these skills will be useful in the classroom, the job, the board room, anywhere. I wrote this article Why Music Recitals Are Like Life Skills 101 a few years ago.
A new study reports that older adults who took lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not.
“It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played,” said Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and an author of the study, which appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.
What’s incredible is that this is 30-40 years later! And these people may never have continued on an instrument after their childhood music lessons.
With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.
Repetition is the Mother of Skill
How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived! He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.
As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.
Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.
The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.
The famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,
“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”
You could say the same of music. Know the notes.
How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.
Tell A Story
To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.
Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature. Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story. Take a look.
I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!
Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”
So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.
Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.
Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.
Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.
How To Memorize Music
In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.
Chunking It Down
To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.
An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.
At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.
Writing as a Memory Aid
Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.
Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice
without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.
I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!
My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!
An Odyssey, A Memory Palace
There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.
There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.
The Benefits of Memorization
Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!
We had such a great recital last Saturday and it made me think of how important these events are for so many reasons.
Recitals are like so many things in life. It’s a due date when you need to really know something well and you need to show it in public, in this case 100 of your friends, families and peers. Think of the times when you had to present a paper or a case or a sales pitch at a specific time and day. The recital is preparation for that. It’s a deadline.
Discipline and Mastery
Preparing for the recital is also like life. The discipline required to learn, memorize and perform the pieces is the same discipline you use when you are in college working on a term paper, at your job preparing the big powerpoint presentation to your clients, presenting your court case to the judge and jury and so on. There’s a level of mastery that needs to be achieved in a recital. Nowadays, it seems there’s less encouragement or paths to mastery with all the instant gratification of digital downloads and games and apps. We don’t let our children go 5 seconds before we step in to help them with a frustrating problem. Mastery requires discipline and a commitment to “do it again…and again.” Self-help guru Anthony Robbins speaks of the 10,000 hours it required to master a skill. Malcolm Gladwell describes some great outliers including Bill Gates in Outliers: The Story of Success. It does take a lot of time, discipline and repetition to master anything. And music lessons culminating in a recital is a training ground for discipline on the road to mastery. Even better to start at such an early age!
In my past life as an actor and television host, I had to memorize lines all the time. I remember this as an incredibly difficult task. My acting teacher gave us the trick of writing down the lines over and over to internalize them. And then to say them back in multiple different rhythms and phrasing. Along the way, I started to notice certain patterns in the language and even structural groupings of how one paragraph was almost like a variation on a previous one. We’ve done many of these things in the music lessons as I ask my students to play the second part first, or play it at triple speed and then play it with your eyes closed and then play it as if you were dancing. And then somewhere around the 100th time, the notes stop being just a sequence of sound events, but they start to flow and have a feeling of their own. “It’s like I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore.” is the phrase I’ve heard from several of my students.
Anxiety is a big part of any public performance. There was a survey somewhere I saw that listed people’s top fears in order of worst to least. At the top was public speaking, followed by death by burning! Incredible. Most people would rather die burning at the stake than have to speak in public. A recital is a public performance and by repeatedly going through the process, the anxiety lessens over time. 2 years ago, I remember a number of students in particular looking rather ill before their turn. Now, those same kids are still nervous, but it’s not the same panic attack level, rather a heightened level of awareness with a confidence that they will fly through.
Mistakes will happen as in life. In fact, how often do things go exactly the way you want them to? Almost never. Your goal is to minimize them. But you can never achieve 100% perfection, you wouldn’t want to. To play like a machine is completely useless. It’s the mistakes that make you sound human and gives you unique expression. As described in a recent NY Times article about what makes music so expressive, researcher Daniel J. Levitin at McGill University and Edward W. Large at Florida Atlantic University recorded a concert pianist performing a Chopin etude analyzing it for speed, rhythm, loudness and softness. They then recreated the performance with a computer stripping it of any human variances, in other words, making it more perfect. They then scanned the brains of listeners as they listened. The results? Perfection is boring.
Another thing discovered by these researchers is that music can give us emotional hits by creating a subtle change from a pattern. In all of my lessons, I’m always showing the structure lying underneath the piece of music we are working on. Whether it’s the grand scheme of section A followed by section B or even just how the notes of one measure actually are spelling out an F chord. It’s the same in real life. There’s an order and structure to how things are put together, whether it’s a sandwich, a computer program, a resume or a social network.
Possibly the best part of a recital is the immediate feedback from the audience. There’s no waiting around for an acceptance letter in the mail, if you did well, you know it right now! And if not so well, then you know that too. What’s great about our recitals is they are safe space, a controlled environment as everyone is there rooting for you. It’s your home court and we all want you to make a slam dunk! And if you don’t, we’ll empathize with you and give you a hug too. It really doesn’t matter – you did your best. And there’s always the next recital.