“Oh no. Not yet another blog post about music practice!!!!!” I hear you say.
As I travel around our schools to work with ensembles and with teachers in the classrooms, I see so much musical potential in our schools but not enough students realise that it takes some dedication and time spent in practice at home to tap that potential. The Rewards are great – both in personal achievement but also in group participation in orchestras and ensembles. To experience a moment of joy from a successful solo performance is a great feeling but even better to practise your own part at home and then to share that moment with a whole orchestra or ensemble.
Achieving those ‘God’ moments:
Last year in our Captivate Strings Showcase, we experienced some real ‘God Moments’. I coined this term when, after the concert a few days later, one of the parents sent me a beautiful email in which she thanked me (I accept her thanks on behalf of our dedicated team of teachers) for allowing her daughter to experience the musical journey and she stated in her email that in the concert: “God was present”.
I coined the term: ‘God Moments’ to define that moment in music performance when students (or even adult musicians) reach technical proficiency but also a level of emotional interpretation of the music PLUS, when that emotional interpretation is clearly understood and shared with the audience. Note that technical proficiency is required first of all. It is not emotionally satisfying to hear a Bach solo sonata or an improvisation on a Miles Davis melody that has an outpouring of emotional interpretation but has incorrect notes or timing.
The question that I would like to raise here is at what stage should the teacher introduce emotional interpretation and when is the student encouraged to explore that emotional interpretation in their practice?
My Eastern European Violin teacher at the Conservatorium many years ago, whilst I was studying ‘Legende’ (A very emotional piece) by Polish born composer, Wieniawski; would roll a cigarette and exclaim “My Gott Boy!!! Close your eyes and think of a beautiful girl!!” I don’t remember if this method helped me to attain the correct emotional interpretation of the piece. I have not suggested this to my students!
But I digress. The teaching or acquisition of emotional interpretation is such a huge topic for discussion that it would take many blog posts to cover it. I am certain that I would receive many responses with varying degrees of consensus. My point in mentioning it is tied up with the “Why” of practice. Student motivation increases greatly when they have attained sufficient technical skills to begin to understand the context of what the composer was feeling when they created the music – even better if the student can begin to connect to that context. My experience is that it is vitally important right from the beginning for the teacher to wisely choose repertoire that the student can attain at a technical level and achieve a cultural/emotional connection. This can be a great learning journey for both teacher and student.
A very interesting point about emotional interpretation comes from the concert pianist, Anna Goldsworthy in her autobiography; “Piano Lessons”. Her Russian piano teacher describes the importance of ‘inside hearing’ and feeling the inside pulse. Anna struggles to try and listen with this inner hearing: “For a moment I understood her meaning and caught the pulse of the semiquavers like a wave. I felt the freedom of ‘inside hearing’: the astonishing dissolution of technical problems through a slight change in perspective, a different way of listening.”
It is my desire that parents and students reading this blog post might nod their heads and recall a moment in practice or rehearsal when they felt the ‘inside pulse’, that indefinable moment when all of those scales and exercises came together in a point of musical perspective; a ‘slight change of perspective, a different way of listening’.
Music should be fun:
“Music should be fun” is a catch cry I hear often from our students in the classroom and in the Captivate String Things Program – yes, but we should also derive deep satisfaction from mastery of skills and attainment of knowledge and great joy from being a part of a team and performing such works as ‘Winter from the 4 Seasons’. Great satisfaction comes when the seemingly tedious twenty something F#’s being played in the viola sectional rehearsal and the descending chord sequence being practised by the double bass section all come together towards the end when “Mr Rooke puts all those parts together”.
Teachers also need to understand that it is great to have some fun activities, but also to channel those fun activities into deeper learning & understanding. In fact, when I am mentoring teachers in the classroom program, I stress the need to get the instruments tuned and the class playing something simple and attainable ASAP in the lesson. This is why we started the Captivate Orchestra Workshop with our ‘Captivate Version of La Bamba’. This was very simple to sight-read but is comprised of a repeated ostinato pattern in A major – a different pattern for everyone but a musically satisfying exercise to limber up and start the workshop.
Both in our own practice at home and also in the classroom or music lesson, we need to mix up our tasks of the easy and fun and easily achievable with the more difficult tasks that we have yet to master. This has long been identified amongst cognitive psychologists as the ‘zone of proximal development’ “The idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy” (Guitar Hero: The New Musician & The Science of Learning by Gary Marcus) Video game developers have long known about this ‘zone’ and pre-test their games to ensure that they contain just the right amount of challenge to reach the next level whilst allowing a certain satisfaction in easily achievable tasks.
Just last Friday I was working with one of our talented teachers to push a year 4 class to a higher level of understanding with placement of the 1st finger. At the end of the lesson, the children asked to play La Bamba. (Book 1 – String Things) We ended up playing it 3 times over. It’s a very simple repeated open string pattern but it was fun. Enough fun for the class to ask to play it 2 more times. But we had already achieved deeper understanding of listening to and adjusting the sound of a Major 2nd by listening to the rest of the class and adjusting the placement of the finger. Then applying that knowledge and skill in performance. (One Finger Samba – String Things Book 1)
Putting the puzzle together:
We can achieve ‘God Moments’ as individual performers but I believe that the real joy comes when we Share the Musical Adventure of playing our own individual part in a bigger ‘musical picture’. I believe this is best outlined in the introduction at the front of our own String Things Level 2 books used in our Strings things program in Catholic Schools:
“Learning music should be an adventure; a discovery of history and culture, as well as learning new and exciting skills and feeling a great sense of achievement. Learning to play a musical instrument is also about learning self-discipline and enjoying music-making together in ensembles; whether it is with a friend as a duet, with some friends on guitar, piano & drums playing Jazz or Folk music or with a whole string orchestra at your school, it is an exciting adventure that is always best when it is a shared experience.” Excerpt from the Introduction of “The String Things Method Level 2 by Phil Rooke
The ‘What’ & ‘Why’, Now – the ‘How’
So, all of the above is the ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Musical performance. It is vital to know what we are aiming towards in performance so we can have our ‘eyes on the prize’ as I say to students when we are talking about our practice at home. But we also need to be self-motivated. I believe we should have some experience of live musical performance – something that we can aim towards. Hearing a great piece of music performed live by real musicians can often be an ignition experience for our students in schools.
I encourage our talented classroom and specialist teachers to perform for students when the opportunity arises. It might even be in response to a question. I see a part of my job as a Music Educator in Catholic Schools as connecting outside performers to our schools. Here is a wonderful acoustic string trio; “The String Contingent” performing at a concert and workshop at St Mary MacKillop Primary School a few years ago. I always like to find performers that not only perform in our schools but also directly engage and involve the students in those performances.
In recent weeks, leading up to our Captivate String Workshop and in various school ensemble rehearsals, I have been trying to convey to students and indeed to parents two main facets or elements of Music Practice:
Time – there is just no way around this factor. You just can’t turn up to an orchestra rehearsal, open up the case and expect to play the part. Our highly qualified and dedicated teachers have had to spend a lot of time to reach a level where they can just look at music and play it. There are still challenges for them.
In the words of J.S. Bach: “What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.” In other words, the great Johann Sebastian Bach had to invest a great deal of time to reach a state of mastery in performance and composition. He is challenging us in this quote to at least equal him using our ‘natural talent’. I would suggest that there have been very few people (if any) in history that could achieve the same level of mastery as J.S. Bach without a large investment of time.
“Deliberate Practice” In his paper, Practice Makes Perfect…But, What are the Keys to Effective Practice? (Click here to download the PDF), Michael Griffin outlines the need for repetition: “When a stimulus is repeated often enough, a new connection or neural circuit is made.” This is both a challenge for us but also very exciting. Just think – when we ‘get it right’ and then we repeat, our brain is growing neural pathways. We can effectively extend or ‘renovate’ our brain through repetitive music practice! Wow!
Furthermore, to maximize the use of repetition, psychologist Gary Marcus in his book; Guitar Zero: The New Musician & The Science of Learning, emphasizes the need of ‘focusing on one’s weaknesses rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths.” Further, Marcus points out that; “Engineers might call this taxonomy (Identifying and rectifying errors) a task analysis; I’d call it a gigantic challenge”.
Well….Gary Marcus is right. It is a difficult for any of us to identify our errors and then to focus on just that bit. I know as a teenager, when I picked up my violin and I could play something well, I wanted to impress – parents, friends, etc 😉 That is in the nature of teenagers everywhere – but identifying our weaknesses and striving to make ourselves better people is the mark of great musicians, academics, sportsmen and sportswomen. It all starts with how we approach our music practice – this can lead to self-discipline and a new way of working across all learning areas.
The great Australian musician and educator, Richard Gill even describes difficulties in focusing on the difficult passages and technical mastery:
“As a sight-reader I had not made time to practise properly. I was catching up – reading music and learning a repertoire. Scales, arpeggios, chromatic scales and all the essential ingredients to establish a good technique for playing the piano went by the wayside as I travelled the music highways and byways of this fabulous repertoire.”
In other words, the famous Mr Gill was so excited by musical possibilities and the wonderful world of musical repertoire at his fingertips that he found it challenging as a young musician to focus his practice on the immediate task at hand and developing technical facility. Needless to say, he must have worked hard and having had the privilege of being a student in his “Choral Techniques” class at Sydney Conservatorium during the ‘80’s, he most certainly has a vast knowledge of repertoire. But in the early stages of his musical development, the task of self-evaluation and repetition even for Richard Gill was a challenge.
So…we have learned that as well as putting the time in, we need to use lots of repetition and analysis. We need to be honest with ourselves about the tricky bits, slow them down BUT – there is one more strategy we can use in our striving for musical proficiency. My good friend Michael Griffin calls this ‘Chunking’. This is simply the identification of musical patterns that may be challenging you. Identify those bits, slow them down, practise them many times and then identify where else in the piece those same patterns appear. This is great news, because this is a great time saver.
I would recommend that you click on the link to Michael’s web article: Learning Strategies for Musical Success. There is a link on the page to download the podcast. It is well worth taking the time to download and listen. Michael Griffin unpacks the techniques for ‘deep learning’, metacognition, chunking etc. These are all strategies that go together to help us become more self-disciplined and self-motivated in our music practice.
So, we have picked up a few tips about concentrating on the ‘tricky bits’, slowing down and repetition from music educators, Richard Gill and Michael Griffin. We have gained an insight into emotional interpretation from Concert Pianist and author, Anna Goldsworthy and for an insight into how our brains work when we are practising music, I highly recommend downloading the iBook or purchasing the hardcopy of: “Guitar Zero: The New Musician & the Science of Learning” by Psychologist and Author, Gary Marcus.
For a quick read for students & teachers, please click on my Summary of Practice Ideas & Techniques.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Give Me Excess of It. Gill, Richard. 2012 Pan MacMillan Australia Pty Ltd
Piano Lessons. Goldsworthy, Anna. 2009 Published by Black Inc., an imprint of Schwarz Media Pty Ltd, Melbourne Victoria
Guitar Zero: The New Musician & The Science of Learning. Marcus, Gary. 2012 First published in Great Britain and the Commonwealth by Oneworld Publications
Click here to read Michael Griffin’s “Learning Strategies for Musical Success”
Also Michael’s excellent article: Click here to download the PDF for “Practice Makes Perfect but….What are the Keys to Effective Practice?
Lastly, I would like to add a video from a previous post. I was shooting video at the “Youth in Jazz Competition” at the Richmond Club a few years ago and my friend, Jazz musician John Morrison was adjudicating. John told this wonderful story just before delivering the adjudication about a gig he played with his brother James for the King of Thailand. We can extract some great motivation from this story: Musical Skill is not something you can download from the internet. Prince or Pauper, you have the opportunity to work at your music and achieve great skill.