Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Take Lessons Now, Earn More Later

A parent of some of my students sent me a link to an interesting story about a new music education poll by Harris Interactive. People who study music during student life are more likely to earn more and pursue higher education later in life. Here’s a quote from the article (on Yahoo! News):

“The poll by Harris Interactive, an independent research company, showed that 88 percent of people with a post-graduate education were involved in music while in school, and 83 percent of people earning $150,000 or more had a music education.” (Source.)

There is also a press release from Harris Interactive that includes some more discussion of the implications of the results. The National Association for Music Educators was also involved in the study, and executive director John Mahlmann has some choice words about the state of music education today:

“Research confirms that music education at an early age greatly increases the likelihood that a child will grow up to seek higher education and ultimately earn a higher salary. The sad irony is that ‘No Child Left Behind’ is intended to better prepare our children for the real world, yet it’s leaving music behind despite its proven benefits...While music clearly corresponds to higher performing students and adults, student access to music education had dropped about 20 percent in recent years, thanks in large part to the constraints of the No Child Left Behind Act.” (Source.)

It is clear that so many of the skills important for success in life are supported and strengthened through the intensive study of music. Everyone can benefit from good musical training. It can teach us about practical discipline and improve real-time focus. Musical training inspires a healthy attitude towards constructive criticism and can teach us how to manage complex responsibilities. It sensitizes us to the world in so many ways. In my opinion (which is shared by many), our national leadership on education needs to wake up and respond constructively to these realities.

Let’s also not forget about that little side-benefit called “personal fulfillment” that music-making can provide. One of the best aspects of being a music teacher is witnessing the look of deep satisfaction on a child’s face after an accomplished performance or an overcome hurdle. All music teachers know this look and what it means. It’s certainly a great enough experience on its own. But when I consider the other long-term effects an accumulation of achievements in music provides, it feels even better to be a music teacher.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Recital Prep: The Three M's

My student recitals are fast approaching. Here is a set of ideas on preparing well for a relatively short performance of one or two solo piano pieces:

Have it Mastered, Memorized, and Moving!

(Don’t you love alliteration, too?)

Have it Mastered: Your pieces should really feel like they are completely “in your fingers” and you should feel confident even in the most difficult parts. Remember that there is a big difference between mastery and perfection. Perfection is impossible but mastery is necessary for achieving a rewarding experience as a performer. Most students who have played for at least a few years have fond memories of a good performance that went well. Think about why it went well, and you’ll probably realize that it was because you were in control, felt confident, and knew your music thoroughly.

Have it Memorized: To most piano students, this means knowing your notes, fingerings, and rhythms. But don’t forget about dynamics, phrasing, articulation, pedaling, tempo adjustments (like ritardandos, accelerandos, etc.), as well as any other stylistic considerations. All of these elements must be incorporated so that your performance really speaks with authority and expression. I also take this one step further: You have not truly memorized thoroughly unless you are able to skip ahead in the music in case of a memory slip. Can you skip to the next section or phrase if you forget where you are? If you can skip ahead successfully, your confidence will only be increased! That, of course, will make it less likely for you to have a memory slip in the first place.

Try practicing this before your recital by forcing yourself to stop sometimes while running your piece. Then see if you can skip ahead quickly. If you have several “markers” you can skip to in any given piece, you will be more likely to save a nervous first performance where memory slips can be common. This is one practical reason why it’s important for students to understand the basic musical forms (ternary, sonatina, sonata, five-part forms, etc.) and cadences (the V-I motion being the most common).

Remember, everyone has memory slips from time to time. Be prepared to skip ahead, and your audience might not even notice if you do have a slip!

Have it Moving: This is about tempo. All too often I see students who are otherwise well prepared for a recital simply play a piece at the wrong tempo. You should be ready to perform at the right tempo without forcing it. It is important for music to flow naturally without feeling hesitant, and this is what I mean by “moving”. Be sure to check regularly on any metronome markings (composers mark them for a reason) and try to get yourself as close to the tempo marking as you can.

Fortunately, tempo markings are often suggestive of a range of tempos. For instance, there is no definitive metronome marking for “Andante moderato.” What’s important is to understand that the tempo marking doesn’t just imply the speed but also the character of the music. Play the wrong tempo, and the piece might not really get off of the ground. If a composer marks an absolute tempo (like quarter note = 120), it is usually your duty to get the tempo as close as possible to that marking. But even then there is some freedom. Your version of the piece might sound better at 126, while others will be more comfortable at 116. Most composers are actually looser in what they want for tempos than what is evident in the score.

The flip side is that a performance can also be played too fast. Notice that my choice of wording was “moving,” not “frantic!” If you’re simply trying to impress everyone at your recital with super-fast tempos (this notion afflicts the young quite often) you might crash and burn. That’s usually not impressive, even to untrained ears. So keep your performance moving along, but not so fast that you are out of control and your fingers get ahead of your mind. That’s a sure recipe for disaster!

Ideally, these three M’s of performance preparation should be achieved by no later than TWO weeks before your performance. Even better would be three weeks or a month, but then you do run into the danger of having your pieces peak musically before your performance instead of at your performance. You want to sound as fresh and spontaneous as possible. Reaching this balance can be a real challenge, so you must know yourself as a performer and take the right path to avoid “overcooking” your performance. But, to be sure, better safe than sorry – preparing ahead of time is always preferable to stressful crunching at the last minute.

Happy preparation…perhaps more on this topic will appear in future posts soon.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Travel and Work

I'm busy at the "other keyboard" these days. Hey, it's great to have work as a performing musician.

So it's off to IRIS tomorrow for a date playing harpsichord repertoire (Bach's Brandenburg #1 and Stephen Hartke's A Brandenburg Autumn from 2006).

Isn't it amazing how composers are coming back to the harpsichord? (Even the arch-modernist Iannis Xenakis wrote for the instrument!) Funny to think how the instrument pretty much flew off of the radar for composers during the classical and romantic eras.

I bet that pesky new pianoforte invention might have had something to do with it...

More blogging will continue next week, in between Dayton Philharmonic services.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Complete Series on Improving Practice

Chris Foley (The Collaborative Piano Blog) has completed a wonderful month-long series of posts on how to improve practice skills and achieve better results. He wrote a succinct but substanceful post each day of October on this topic - what an amazing accomplishment!

Just in case anybody missed my previous link to this series at the beginning of October, I'm linking now to Chris's convenient post that lists all of these articles by day and topic. His presentation of the material is well-organized and has a definite trajectory, but you can skip around at will by using the links in the sum-up post.

This is highly recommended material for anyone looking for new ideas or a fresh approach to practice techniques. Chris covers everything from goal-setting and practice scheduling to the subjects of memorization and artistic sensibility. 

Thanks to Chris for such a solid and expansive resource!

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