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.
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
This past Sunday, there was a NY Times Article on the importance of music education in everyone’s life. I feel like it was written specifically for music teachers! The author interviewed some of the top performers in numerous and diverse industries and has found a surprising number had deep musical training from Condoleeza Rice to Allan Greenspan to Paula Zhan to James Wolfensohn to Steven Spielberg to Woody Allen and Paul Allen.
[box] “I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.” – NBC White House Correspondent Chuck Todd[/box]
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!
Aimed at parents , home-schoolers and teachers of young children aged 3 to 6 years old, the book is really an app which delivers a learning system including audio, video, animations and my unique color system. It spans the first month and a half of lessons that in my private lessons would cost over $200! There is no experience required and no need to read traditional music notation. In fact, the problem with most music books and teachers try to present too much information at once. By breaking down the learning process into micro steps, I’ve helped hundreds of kids learn to play piano, (and guitar) whilst having proper technique, and learning music theory, traditional notation and even composition.
For those of you who have been unable to get on my roster, this is a great way to virtually start lessons with me. There’s even a free sample that gives you the first lesson for free. And this is just the beginning, I’m already working hard on the next volume as well as a support website PlayPianoForKids.com
It was a great recital last Saturday at the Carroll Gardens Library in Brooklyn. With 30 students performing and a house of over 100 guests, we had a lovely time and everyone did their best. Thanks again to all the parents, grandparents, friends and family who came to show their support, love and appreciation of our young performers! And special thanks to Jeff Schwartz and the entire staff of the Carroll Gardens library who graciously let us use their space and even set up the chairs for us!
Apologies for the site being down all of last week. But we’re back! Here’s a quick update and enjoy the week off for Thanksgiving!
As many of you know, in each of my lessons, my aim is to address 3 main areas: repertoire, reading and music theory.
This is building up a collection of pieces that your child can play from memory and perform in public.
It allows us to work on technique and bring music to life whilst giving a great confidence boost and joy in playing. This material I often present using my own color notation which enables your child to learn a piece as quickly as possible and then memorize it. Many of you are using Suzuki material for this repertoire whilst others are working on a combination of Suzuki with jazz, blues, pop and world music.
To learn to read music is truly a great skill. To be musically literate opens a whole door to deeper appreciation. Reading music is not as difficult as it seems, but requires a steady practice diet. I will usually not start this until we’ve been playing a repertoire of about 7 to 10 songs. I use a proprietary method of notation to get them up to speed quickly with simple and then complex pieces.
This is the nuts and bolts of music. We get under the hood and see how music is structured and built through games, exercises, composition, dictation and listening. It makes music fun if you know the how and why. It also changes your listening and deepens your appreciation of music. It can be quite abstract at times which is why we have many many activities and games built up over a long period of time.
I realize not everyone has a massive music collection at home and I’m often asked, “What should we be listening to?” I’ve recently written a series articles for Jill Simeone’s lovely parenting blog Cozy Owl which address, Early Childhood Music, Essential Listening and Music for A Road Trip.
In the near future, I’m hoping to post playlists of Music Every Child Should Hear via this site.
NOTE: Winter Music Session
The winter music session is starting on Monday November 28 and will run until February 11. I will be sending out invitations for the limited openings available to those on the waiting list. If you would like to join the waiting list, please go to the contact page and click the link.
As a teacher of music, this is a common question I hear. Every child is unique and while there is no one right answer, I can offer a few guidelines.
One of the first “games” I play with my younger students is to have them order the letters of the alphabet. This is a chance for them to show off their knowledge, build confidence and break the ice with their new teacher. I do this by giving them a stack of flash cards, each with one letter on it. By connecting this to the musical alphabet, there’s usually an “a-ha” moment. So if you’re child knows their ABCs, it will be easier to connect the dots to the musical alphabet.
Having a child who is passionate about music is probably the most important thing. The amount of time required to master these new skills and concepts is great. Has your child been asking about music lessons? Do you listen to music around the house? Does your child sing spontaneously? If so, these are all great signs that your child is ready for more musical challenges and instruction.
Fine Motor Skills
Many kids, especially younger ones, have difficulty controlling different fingers. With these children, I usually spend more time on singing, clapping and movement activities designed to internalize basic music concepts. With piano, these kids can play melodies with one finger. Other instruments may need to wait.
Voice is the instrument we already own. With all of my students, we sing, clap and speak out all of the songs we are working on first, to internalize their rhythms, pitches and phrasing. As we develop our voices, we can start to work on specific techniques like diction, phrasing, acting etc.
Piano is the easiest external instrument for anyone to learn. It does not require physical strength nor the building up of calluses or specific breathing techniques or lip tension. For all of my students, regardless of instrument, we spend some time learning the notes on the piano.
Guitar requires strength to press and hold down the strings. This gets easier the older the student. Check my website for recommended half-size guitars for younger students.
I would recommend piano as the first instrument anyone learns and then if there is interest, to move to other instruments. I currently teach piano, voice and guitar and may offer wind instruments at a later date.
A previous article about the Goals of Beginning Music Lessons will also give you a better idea of our first weeks of lessons and whether your child is ready to embark on the magical journey of music.
NOTE: This article came about from a conversation and a request from Melissa at Hip Slope Mama. The article will soon appear there too.
Ignite the passion, fun and excitement of music within
Introduce the names of the notes
Connect those notes to their location on their instrument
Connect those notes to standard written notation
Through achievements, build their sense of self confidence and self worth.
To go through these steps, I have a variety of techniques and methods. Steps 1 and 2 are usually not a problem. If you know only the first 7 letters of your ABCs you know all the names of the notes in music. Connecting those note names, A-B-C-D-E-F-G to where they lie on a guitar or piano or xylophone can be a challenge, especially for 3 to 5 year olds. Once students know where the notes are on the instrument, we can make music and the fun begins!
I have experimented with many methods out there. One method is to use color to correlate note names to keys. I’ve been doing this with some of my younger students with great results. This is not synesthesia, where a person actually perceives one sense with matched with another like say “middle C is always a certain hue of red.” It’s using what is readily available as a transmission system that is highly developed in all but the color-blind.
However, there is a caveat. One has to know when to remove the “crutch of color” to allow the student to walk on their own. Otherwise they never progress to the next level.
For example, some electronic keyboards have a feature of a “follow me” type game. The student presses “play” and the notes play out a song whilst lighting up the proper keys. This is similar to a video game called Piano Wizard. The student presses the colored piano keys to play the game which is like a version of Tetris. The falling colored eggs or blocks line up with the piano keyboard. This may seem like a good idea, but it really actually interferes with the connection of note name, sound and location on the instrument. The student is wrapped up in just playing the game and winning points. I had this exact experience when I used this game with my son who was, at the time, just getting to know where the notes on the keyboard were. The game became a crutch and hindrance to advancement.
By using a removable translucent colored tape, I can correlate note names to the keys. Being removable is key. Once we introduce other methods of knowing where the notes are, the colors can get in the way.
I’ll write more about these and other methods in future posts.