My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Looking to puzzles to learn how to piece together music

Have you ever tried to put a jigsaw puzzle together with the pieces turned upside down? My guess is your answer is something along the lines of, “No, why on Earth would I do that?”

Good response. Why would anyone even think to do that?

Perhaps it’s to make a really important point?

Many musicians, especially young musicians, read music in a way that’s similar to trying to put a puzzle together upside down. It doesn’t matter if they’re sight-reading or if they’ve been working at a piece for weeks, many view the music in a way that in my opinion severely limits the ease at which they can process the music and inhibits their ability to interpret it in a musical way.

Let’s go back to looking at puzzles. If you happen to have a puzzle lying around, pull it out and give my challenge a try. Turn all the pieces over so all the backs of the pieces are what you’re looking at it and see how you fare. What do you have at your disposal to figure out which pieces go together? All you have to go on is whether the piece is an edge piece of an inner piece what type of connectors the pieces have – let’s say they’re usually innies and outies, or female and male. (I won’t go into the details of which are which. If you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you can figure it out.) That’s really not a lot to go on so in order to put together the puzzle we end up having to resort to a lot of trial and error. And if you’re not good at finding a method to keep track of what combinations you’ve already tried this process can be very time consuming, uninspiring, frustrating, and downright painful.

Not much fun, right?

All right, so let’s flip those pieces back over and try again.

Ahhhh…now we have more to go on! We’ve got the shapes of the puzzle pieces, the colors and patterns, and knowledge of what the puzzle’s picture as a whole will be. With all these extra clues we get more strategies to use too. You can put the edge together first, using color, pattern, and shape to help; you can focus on trying to find pieces that create specific items in the picture; you can put together pieces that all have a similar graphic pattern or color.

Strategies bring successes…
Success brings a completed puzzle…
A completed puzzle brings a sense of accomplishment…

Now we’re having fun and wanting to do another someday.

How we process notes on a page of music is similar to how we process puzzle pieces. If we see all those notes as individual notes that are differentiated only by specific letter names it’s like looking at those puzzle pieces turned upside down. The end result is that it’s much more difficult to see how the pieces relate to one another and work together to create a larger picture, or part of a picture.

If instead we look for patterns in our music, if we consistently look for interesting clues, we’ll find that music learning is not only easier, but also more musical because those same patterns and clues can naturally lead us into the world of musical interpretation. Each time I look at a puzzle piece, whether it’s an actual puzzle or to a piece of music, I see new clues, new patterns, or new colors. With each new discovery comes a burst of excitement and inspiration. And as pieces start to fit together my understanding of what I’m creating becomes clearer, making me even more motivated to complete the puzzle and to share the bigger picture with others. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s creative. It’s one of the many reasons why I love learning music.

Now I have to take a moment to admit that sometimes puzzling can be a struggle, usually because of the puzzle itself. I will never forget the day my dear husband, early in our marriage, brought one home that made me quickly want to embrace gardening instead. It was a puzzle of hundreds, maybe thousands of penguins standing on an iceberg in a snowstorm. It was basically like trying to do one of those upside-down puzzles although at least I did have more than one color to go on – I had two: black and white. If I wasn’t such a stubborn person I would have given up early in the game but instead I decided to approach it like I do music. I tackled it in small chunks of time and started looking for as many clues as I could. I quickly came to realize that the puzzle wasn’t just black and white; it actually had many shades of both of those colors. As soon as I realized that, it became much easier to finish it. That’s not to say it was as fun as other puzzles I’ve done but still, it got done and in and I learned something in the process. That’s what mattered. Thankfully most of the puzzles and music I learn are not penguins standing on icebergs but are instead endlessly exciting and interesting. 

On an ending note, a plug for my favorite puzzle-making company of all time - Liberty Puzzles.
Examples of their whimsy pieces
Made out of thick laser-cut plywood in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, their puzzles are the most exquisite, delightful puzzles you will ever put together. They are also unique in that their piece shapes are not like the ones in your grandmother’s puzzles. In fact with Liberty Puzzles it’s pretty rare to be able to distinguish edge pieces from inner pieces – they are all completely unique. To add to the fun they include what are known as whimsy pieces which are pieces in the shape of something – a person, bird, dragon…it makes putting together these puzzles a different kind of challenge but one that is well worth it!


The most recent Liberty puzzle I completed. So much cool detail! 

With that little infomercial over, (not paid for by the company but out of my deep respect for them) happy puzzling, everyone! Whether it’s a jigsaw puzzle or a musical one, remember to keep looking and use your eyeballs and your brain. The big picture is sure to come together more easily that way!


Thursday, July 25, 2019

A gathering of musical minds!

I get a lot of interesting emails thanks to this blog. Most of them are not ones I end up responding to. Fortunately a few months ago I got one that did very much interest me. It was a request from the website www.sheetmusicnow.com to contribute a tip about musical success for an infographic they were wanting to put together for their website and social media accounts. Of course coming up with just one was painful so I ended up sending them a handful to choose from. (Honestly I don't know why I like Twitter so much since I obviously have a difficult time editing my brain.)

They sent me the final result today and I couldn't be more honored. I hope you enjoy these nuggets of wisdom from these other musicians, some of whom I know but most are new for me to discover too. Click here to see it.

And if you're curious about the other tips I sent them that they didn't use, here they are...
  • Constantly check in to see who you are as a person and as an artist. What you find is what you should share, in the music you perform, with your colleagues, with your audience. Also be open and eager to learning about your colleagues and their music. It is through people and connections that you’ll find success and happiness.
  • You will excel as a human and as a musician if you learn the art of giving yourself objective, constructive feedback on a regular basis. Constantly check the language you use with yourself with the goal to use the same language on yourself that you’d use with someone else.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Art of Practice Performing: bringing performing into the practice room

I don't really know where I got the idea to start making practice performing a part of my regular routine but it's now something I rely upon all the time and that I attribute to my comfort on the stage.

Let's start with what practice performing is to me.

Practice performing is a time in my practice sessions when I take off my practice hat and pretend like I am on stage performing in front of an audience - no stopping and no negative verbal commentary, with a focus on delivering a performance full of musicality.  Those are the basic facets.

Practice performing can be done at any point after I've learned the notes of a particular section, movement, or piece and when I can play it at a tempo that is somewhere in the ballpark of where I'd ultimately like to perform it.

What are the benefits of practice performing?
  • Because I set the goal for myself not to stop no matter what and to say not-so-nice things to myself out loud during practice performing stints, it's great practice for when I actually do perform. It takes practice to know what to do instead. If I really do a number on a passage and my brain starts dishing out lines like, "you should have practiced more" or "you're not ready" I purposefully play a more productive, objective mental tape that I've prescribed like, "Keep singing" or "where do I want to go with this phrase?"  Doing this in the practice room on a regular basis makes it much more likely that in performance I'll choose more positive tapes and have a healthier attitude.
  • It's a good assessment tool throughout the later stages of learning a piece. So often it can feel like I'm never going to get it up to speed, or that a difficult passage won't ever be comfortable. When I push myself past my comfort zone by asking myself to practice perform I often surprise myself in a good way. I realize that I can, in fact, make it through with some amount of grace and musicality in spite of missed notes or improvised passages. That's an encouraging thing and worth a lot in terms of getting me back to the practice room, especially when I'm at that frustrating plateau stage.
  • Practice performing gives me a chance to switch from leaning on the analytical, left side of the brain (I like to think of it as the nerdy side), to the more creative right side. In the process of learning music and during most types of practicing the left side is what I strive to be in touch with a majority of the time. That's the side of the brain that helps solve problems and analyze the music. But that's also the side that I'd rather not have come to the party when I walk on stage. It's the right side of the brain that brings music to life, that brings creativity and imagination to a performance. When it comes time to perform and nerves kick in, guess which side likes to present itself more? Yup, the nerdy, analytical side. That's why I invite my creative side into the picture on a regular basis during these practice performing stints. It makes it more likely that I'll be able to find it when I want it at performance time.
  • Often when I do practice performing I record myself so that I can listen back, not to listen for all the tiny mistakes or to allow for those annoying negative tapes to start playing, but rather to listen as if I'm an audience member. Does the music have a natural flow? Does it have a good sense of architecture about it? Are there highs and lows? Does the phrasing sound natural? Sometimes in listening back I hear hidden melodic lines I hadn't noticed before or I'm moved by a harmony that I hadn't yet noticed. It's a way to encourage constructive feedback rather than self-defeating criticism. Self-defeating criticism will cripple a performance and can be felt by the audience. Constructive feedback will allow a performance to go on successfully and in a way that can be enjoyable, even for the performer. 
  • When I know that I'm going to do a practice performance of something later on in a practice session it makes it much easier for me to focus on the disciplined work and problem solving that needs to happen beforehand. 
  • Practice performing helps me to fall in love with the music all over again. It also helps me get back in touch with why I study music and why I perform for others. I remember that it's not about all the individual notes being the right place at the right time, it's about the music behind those notes. 
Is practice performing fun? I think at first most musicians would answer with an emphatic "no!"; we would rather not think about performing since it's often fraught with a lot of anxiety. But just as we have to practice our music on a regular basis, I believe performing also needs to be practiced, with or without an audience. So next time you're in the practice room, take off that practice room hat and step onto the stage for a moment. You never know - you might find that performing can be pretty fun, especially when it's just for yourself and your imaginary audience. 


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Guest Post by Nathan Holder: Social Music Anxiety

A word from Erica first and then we'll get to Nathan's wise words: I met Nathan through an email he sent me about a book he's written, I Wish I Didn't Quit. I rarely respond to these emails but when I looked into his book and his background I was intrigued. I read through his book and found that he has a fresh way of looking at the purpose of private music instruction and how we can use views such as his to increase the chances that young musicians will stick with music lessons for a longer period of time. After passing on my responses to his book to Nathan and having a bit of an email chat, he asked if I'd be interested in having him write a post to be shared on my blog. I liked his topic since I'm a bit of a Twitter junkie and because I really appreciate what he has to say, so without further ado here's his post! Enjoy. And then "go be you" as he says. 


I’ve just finished practising some chromatic patterns that are really challenging me, but I’m glad that I’m finally getting to grips with them. That last hour of practice has just flown by and it’s getting late so I decide to stop for the evening. Almost as subconsciously, I reach for my phone and immediately open Instagram. I hardly have to look at my phone to access any social media apps these days; if only my fingers could navigate scales and arpeggios in the same way!
I scroll down and I see that one of my friends has posted a video of them playing their piano. I unmute the video and smile. The smile quickly turns into a look of bewilderment.

3,049 views. 

He only posted this video a couple of hours ago. I click on his username and let out a slightly audible gasp.

7209 followers! When did that happen?

I keep scrolling and see a great professional shot of another musician friend taken at one of her recent concerts.

492 likes. 16 comments.

A few profiles later and another friend of mine has posted a picture of himself in LA, about to perform at an international festival.

883 likes. 27 comments.

I check the last picture I posted of myself. 

85 likes. 2 comments. 1 is spam.

I turn my phone over in disgust. When will I get more followers? When will my videos get more comments and views? When will I get that endorsement deal? Am I not good enough? Not good looking enough? Not friends with the right people? Wrong instrument? Maybe I should just give up.

It’s so easy to look at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms and instantly compare ourselves to other people. Those who appear to be consistently on tour, consistently gigging, consistently uploading pictures in great venues with great artists. They get their random musings retweeted, funny videos shared and seem to be supported by many organisations.
If those things aren’t happening for you, it’s easy to feel that these posts are taunting you, reminding you of all the things you don’t have. The awards you didn't win. The artists you could have performed with. If only you had paid more attention in music classes. If only you were a different gender. If only the clothes you wore were more revealing…

I think it’s important that we talk about how social media affects us as musicians. Seeing what other musicians post can stop us from sharing moments from our own musical journeys, only because we feel that our pictures or videos don’t look or sound as good as other people’s. It’s important to remember that there will always be people interested in what you do and who you are, on or off social media. Just imagine if Miles Davis had seen a post from Dizzy Gillespie and decided to never record an album? Or if Adele decided that Aretha Franklin’s music and legacy meant that no-one would care about what she had to say through her music? 

The fact is, we often have no idea about what goes on behind the scenes in other people’s lives. We have to be careful not to see other people's posts and use that to start telling ourselves how talentless, unattractive or boring we think we are. You are as unique and special in your own right just like they are. Like Jill Scott once said of Erykah Badu, ‘We all have our own thing, that’s the magic. Everybody comes with their own sense of strength and their own Queendom. Mine could never compare to her’s, and her’s could never compare to mine’. Even though someone else may have a larger following, more gigs or an endorsement, it doesn’t mean that you never will. It doesn't mean that the person is deliriously happy with their lives or even that their sense of self-worth is dependent on the likes they receive either. Their journey is their journey. Yours is yours. Express yourself knowing, as the jazz standard says, There Will Never Be Another You.

It’s also important to remember that you are not just a musician! You may be a brother, sister, aunty, parent, bookworm, gamer, writer or a foodie! Being a musician is only a percentage of the things you do, and is in no way an indication of who you are as a person. People will rarely share every aspect of themselves online and if you try to compare your whole self to the small percentage that others share about themselves, no wonder you can end up feeling as though you aren’t enough. As much as you can, try to separate what you do from who you are, even if it means spending less time looking at what others care about, and spending more time on what you care about.

If you feel any of the emotions I’ve written about in this post, don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to the people around you and I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how many people have had similar thoughts to you. If you need to take a break from Instagram or Twitter then do it - it’ll be waiting for you when you get back. As much as I think (and know) that social media can be a powerful tool to help you learn and grow, it’s increasingly important to understand how you feel in relation to it. No matter what, don’t let other people’s pictures or videos stop you from sharing your practising, your gigs or your music.

You never know who you might inspire.

And I guarantee there is someone looking at your profile who wishes they could be like you!

So be you.

Be sure to visit Nathan's webpage where he regularly publishes informative posts and podcasts. You can also follow him on Facebook, and Twitter.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Practicing and performing when faced with a migraine

Practicing and performing music has many challenges. With migraines, they are magnified. As with any job, when coming face to face with yet another one, I am also faced with the question, "How am I going to get done what I need to get done?"

I know I am not alone. Every day I find musicians on Twitter that are asking this same question so I thought I would spend a few minutes sharing my experience in the hope that it will help others in the same boat feel a little less alone and a little more understood.

For me there is a difference between how I deal with practicing and performing when I'm dealing with a migraine. With performing I feel there aren't really many options since it's very difficult to cancel a performance, especially when it involves other musicians. But there some things I keep in mind.

  • I lower my expectations. My goal is simply to get through the performance as gracefully as possible. More often than not I lose the ability to sing along with the music and to immerse myself in musical intention so I've come to accept in situations like this that I may have to perform in a way that isn't as musically satisfying to me. Very often it feels like it's truly an act of survival and I have to trust that my years and years of being musical and my musical training show through in spite of what's going on (or not going on) in my head.
  • I count on adrenaline helping me out. While I'm playing music, my migraine usually fades into the background slightly so I try to stay positive and look forward to a little relief while I'm playing.
  • If I'm performing by myself I very intentionally take the edge off all the tempos that I can. When I'm experiencing a migraine my brain has a very difficult time working as quickly as it usually does. There is also less coordination between my brain and my body so having a little extra time to let my brain reset or catch up with itself can be beneficial. 
  • I actively remind myself to breathe whenever I can - before I start playing, in between phrases, during rests, and right before difficult sections. It can be so tempting when I'm in pain to hold my breath, as if that will get me through the situation faster. Unfortunately that's not very helpful and tends to make matters worse. 
  • I'm intentional about keeping my eyes relaxed and I try not to focus on reading the notes on the page quite as much. Staring and not blinking can make my migraine worse. 
  • Along with the previous point, I rely more on my memory of how it physically feels to play the music. This keeps my brain from getting too busy and stressed which definitely doesn't help the pounding in my head.
When it comes to practicing, there's a lot more flexibility. A lot of my friends on Twitter mentioned that they rarely practice when impaired. That's understandable and perfectly acceptable since most of us end up having to spend much of our time hiding under a blanket in a dark room without any sound, doing nothing except waiting for the migraine to decide to take a hike. If I'm fortunate enough to have a low to mid-grade episode, however, I do try to practice a little bit, especially if I'm getting ready for a performance. I use the same tips listed and very intentionally choose modes of practicing where speed and perfection are not the focus. I also do a lot of practicing with my eyes closed since that helps with the sensitivity to light, and I keep the volume either at piano or pianissimo. Doing both of these things are good for practice sessions when I'm feeling good but I find them especially helpful during these times. And more often than not these exercises end up deepening my interpretation of the music and improving my ease of movement. I guess that's a positive aspect of having migraines. I may as well make lemonade from lemons, right?

To all my fellow sufferers out there, I'm so sorry you're dealing with them too! Go easy on yourself. And if you manage to get through a performance or to eke out a somewhat decent practice session, no matter how short, know that you are a superhero in my books. Pat yourself on the back gently and then hide back under your covers and rest knowing that you are amazing.

Feel free to leave your own thoughts and suggestions based on your experiences in the comments. And if someone has a foolproof cure for migraines, do let us know. 

If you want to read more about my personal experiences with migraines and searching out solutions for myself, here are two more that I've written: