Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Practicing Away from Your Instrument, Part 2

The first entry in this series is a bit esoteric. It is based on the idea that we are not just WHAT we do, but also on HOW we do. Those who succeed at a particular task tend to be people who believe that they can succeed at that task and then work hard towards achieving their goal. And people who believe that they can succeed at a particular task tend to believe that they can succeed in other tasks.

So we can also say that if we believe that we can succeed in one thing, we are more likely to believe that we can succeed in another. All too often I have had students (of all ages) tell me that something is just too hard for them. And often, this is a running theme for these students. A new technique, a memorization request, a more difficult piece of music, learning to use the sustain pedal--these are all "too hard". 

The first and most basic way to start practicing away from your instrument is to adopt a new and improved outlook! This is also a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy, in which we learn to notice, challenge, and change our damaging/unhelpful thoughts! The first step is to just notice when we have a thought that something is too difficult for us to achieve--and to try to notice this thought without judging it (or ourselves)! The second step is to challenge this thought and see if it is correct. In other words, have there been times in your past when you have thought something was too hard and you achieved it in spite of that? And the third step is to change our thoughts--this we can do by replacing our negative thoughts with a positive alternate. For example, instead of thinking "this is too difficult", we can decide to replace this with "this will be a challenge, but I will be able to do this with some work!" After a while, this will become a more common way of thinking!

How we approach our life will be, for the most part, how we approach our music--at any level and at any age!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Practicing Away from Your Instrument, Part 1

I vividly remember an experience in graduate school where I was to be performing several selections from George Crumb's "Makrokosmos, Book 1". I was down to the wire on my memorization, and these pieces are not the easiest thing in the world to memorize! For those unfamiliar, Crumb uses not only the keys of the piano, but also the body of the instrument as well as the strings to create unique sounds. For example, he has the pianist put metal thimbles on four of his fingers to play specific strings, either tapping them or strumming them, to create a ghostly sound. 

By "down to the wire", I mean that I had a performance in a matter of a couple of days and had yet to memorize any of one complete movement from this set. I was extremely tired and couldn't make it to the practice room (even though only a five minute walk away). So I laid the music out on my desk and left it there for two days. Every time I passed my desk on the way to the kitchen, bathroom, bed, etc., I would consciously look at the score for a couple of minutes and "feel" my way through the piece. After two days, I made my way back to the practice room and was stunned to find that I had memorized this entire piece without playing a note. It had happened solely through "mental practice"!

The next few posts will be about how one can practice away from your instrument and how to make the most of this time and how to have fun with it! 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More about the "practice habit"

Here are some more ideas...some are more relevant to adults, some more for children.

1. Hopefully your practice area has something beautiful in it to inspire your practicing! There is a window next to my piano that looks out into the woods and sometimes I get to see birds and squirrels playing in the trees. I also have framed pictures of three of my favorite artists/thinkers/philosophers/poets--John Cage, Henry David Thoreau, and Gary Snyder--with some of my favorite quotes by them.

2. This one is for parents--how can you make your kid's practice time "sacred"?

3. Try out different times and practice lengths and know that different things work for different people. The most important thing is that the time that you are at your instrument is really fun and productive. An hour of mindless practicing is not as good as ten minutes of concentrated, mindful practicing.

4. Make improvising, or singing with your piano, or playing older songs you've already learned part of the practice session. This keeps things fun! I personally like to warm up for 5-10 minutes with exercises and scales, go into playing older music for about 20 minutes, and then work on my newer pieces for the remainder of my session.

5. Create small goals for a practice session. These should be reachable yet challenging! For example, perfecting a five measure scale passage a little bit under tempo. Or working toward a better posture on the bench. Or slowing things down a bit rather than plowing through mistakes. Etc.

Hope you like these new ideas!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Creating the Practice Habit want to start playing the piano? Or you want to give your child lessons? I hate to break it to you, but the success is going to depend on ONE main thing. PRACTICE. Yes, the old, completely played out Carnegie Hall joke is true.

So how do we create the habit of practice? I'm going to suggest four different things: time, location, regularity, and mind-body state.

Time: Practice the same time every day! Some students practice the best in the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the evening. This may have to do with your schedule, or your personality. But if you are having a hard time maintaining this, you just might be a morning person and not know it! I have a good friend who swears by morning practice, but is in no way a "morning person". It is just when her brain is the most primed.

Location: Practice in a place that is YOURS. It should be away from distractions, but not tucked away in a depressing, dark corner. Windows work great for practicing, televisions don't. Framed art near your piano may be inspiring. Perhaps even a meaningful memento near your piano! If you are looking for lessons for your child, emphasize that the piano is theirs, and as such, they should treat it nicely and with respect. Put it in a place where it will often be seen.

Regularity: This is more important than length of practicing. Five days a week with half an hour is much better than two days a week for an hour. Those shorter sessions may be much more concentrated and mindful. And it is much easier to create a habit if you're doing something nearly every day! This is especially important for children. I used to practice immediately after getting home every day, even before homework!

Mind-Body State: Approach the practice sessions when happy! Leave the practice sessions when happy! This will encourage you to continue with this habit and put whatever you've done in your session in your mind much more efficiently!

Even three of these is going to go quite a long ways towards to creating the habit of practicing! Good luck! It's worth it...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Prepping for Practice, Part 2 (Readying the Brain)

Music is an incredibly powerful tool. It affects many parts of our brain--those related to memory, emotion, movement, sensory input, and organization to name just a few (cerebellum, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, temporal lobe, sensory cortex, etc., etc.). And because of this incredible power, it is wise to help the brain out a bit to get it ready for the massive amount of input and output it is about to be part of...

Breath is the great balancer of the body. It is an automatic function that we can easily control, which makes it very powerful. Slower breath brings us into a place of relaxation and confidence. After all, who among us hasn't tried to slow down our breath when taking a plunge into a too-cold pool or going in front of an audience to make a presentation? It helps us to be calm and reasonable. I would also add that slowing our breath increases our rate of efficiency, as it lowers anxiety and stress (two things that we experience from a young age that often prevent us from being "the best that we can be").

There are a couple of breath exercises that I like to use, both can be effective in a short amount of time. Try them both. See what works for you! Do these in your practice space before or after stretching the body, whatever works for you.

#1: Watching the breath: That's right...just pay attention to your breath. Don't try to change anything about it. You can count each inhalation/exhalation cycle up to a count of 10, then back down to 1. Repeating this three times (or thereabouts) is often enough for people to fall into a greater state of relaxation and only takes a few minutes. (IMPORTANT: If you get distracted by thoughts, don't worry about it! Just take quick notice of that thought and go back to counting your breaths...if you lost count, start over! No big deal...)

#2: Controlling the breath: Breath in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 6, breath out for a count of 8. Repeat 3 times. After much practice, you may be able to increase the amount of repetitions, but do not force yourself. We are not after getting dizzy here!

Some people like to do a few sequences of #2 and then go into #1...this is a wonderful idea....try it!

Remember: "Prana" is Sanskrit for not only "breath", but "spirit"...and with music, we want to let our spirit (and our emotions) sing, no matter what instrument we are playing...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Prepping for Practice, Part 1 (Stretching the Body)


We must stretch our body in order to prepare for the main part of our practice time. I'm interested in efficient practicing (easy and fast)...and in order for the work on our pieces to be the best and most productive, we need to get our body and mind fully prepared! (You would never run a 3 mile race without stretching for 10-15 minutes, would you? Just because piano practicing works smaller muscles doesn't mean they're not equally important to stretch!) 


The amount of stretching depends on the length of your practice time! I believe that at least 10% of your practice time should be spent on stretching (5 minutes for 30-45 minutes...10 minutes for 60 minutes)

This does not include working on scales, arpeggios, and other etudes that you are currently in the process of learning, or are simply not quite mastered...


Neck, shoulders, and back first...

Here's a quick, effective, and easy sequence:
     --Neck:  Turn your head slowly from side to side, holding on each side for 5 seconds, repeat 3 times
     --Neck:  Bring chin to sternum, then look at the ceiling, hold on each point for 5 seconds, repeat 3 times
     --Neck:  Bring left ear to left shoulder, then right ear to right shoulder, hold each for 5 seconds, repeat 3 times

     --Shoulders:  Roll shoulders slowly in a forward circle, repeat 5-8 times
     --Shoulders:  Roll shoulders slowly in a backwards circle, repeat 5-8 times

     --Back: While sitting on bench, twist body to the left, starting with lower back and twist all the way through shoulders and neck placing right hand on left outer thigh to assist with stretch, then repeat on other side...hold each for 5-8 seconds, repeat 2 times
     --Back: While standing, touch toes (or as close as possible) with non-locked knees (IMPORTANT: Do not PUSH yourself down...rather, let gravity pull you down...hold for 10 seconds

Then move to arms, wrists, fingers...

     --Arms: Stretch right arm across your body using left hand on outside of right upper arm to assist with stretch, then repeat on other side...hold for 10 seconds on each side

     --Wrists: Bring right hand up, bending at wrist, using left hand to assist, then repeat on other side...5-8 seconds each (IMPORTANT: Be very easy on your wrists...they are delicate!!)
     --Wrists: Bring right hand down, bending at wrist, using left hand to assist, then repeat on other side...5-8 seconds each

     --Fingers: Scales and arpeggios are great stretches for your fingers. Play very slowly (1 beat per second) and very loudly, making sure to use your fingers, not your wrists...keep wrists neutral and not stiff...raise each finger as high as you can before bringing them down onto the key (IMPORTANT: You should only use scales and arpeggios that you are VERY comfortable with and do not need to "think" about while doing...the point here is simply getting your finger and hand muscles (and tendons) moving

The next post will deal with preparing the mind for the practice session...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Structuring your Practice Time

There should be a balanced amount of structure and chaos in your practicing. Balanced does not mean equal, it means that they both work together to make your time as effective as possible.

A proper practice session should have three main parts to it: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, just like a well-written paper.

--The introduction should include a warm up for the body (including back, fingers, and wrist)--this is some stretching both with and without the keys, and for the mind--this can be integrated into the body warm-up or can be separate.  It should then include a time to work on technical exercises, such as scales and arpeggios, or more specific exercises (Czerny, Brahms, etc.) for whatever techniques you are working on.

--The body includes first briefly working on at least one piece in your repertoire. The vast amount of practice time should be spent on your current pieces. Creating goals--challenging, yet achievable--can make this the most effective. I will write much more on this later.

--Finally, the conclusion should include playing something that you feel confident with--this can be playing an older piece that you have already mastered, repeating the part of your current piece that you felt great about during your practice session, or improvising.

The chaos fits within the structure...allowing mistakes to occur, improvising when you feel moved to do so, breaking "the rules" when it feels appropriate.

This first post is a HUGE topic, and I will be writing future posts on each of the sections I mentioned above, including: structure vs. chaos, warming up, technical exercises, repertoire preparation, working on your current pieces, improvising, and confidence.

Further posts will include such topics as performance anxiety, self-defeating thoughts, sticking to your program, posture, breathing, and joyful music-making.