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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Learning to productively say, "Forget you!" in the practice room

You may already find yourself saying this a lot in the practice room...

"FORGET YOU!$&%&$*&*&%*&#!!!!!!!!!!!!"

In most cases I suspect that phrase isn't being used in the most productive way.  I'm here to turn that around.

Picture's practice time and you've decided to tackle that nasty passage you have yet to defeat. You give it another go...and then another... but you're still getting tripped up every time. Most people I know will diligently persist in this vein until they are ready to tear their hair out. Trust me, I know because I've been there myself. What I've learned to do instead is to ask myself a question such as, "Is there a better fingering?"  This question is a great way to lure me down a different path,  away from the one that ends at a brick wall with my head banging against it.   Often times it only takes a few tries to discover a fingering that enables me to play the passage correctly, comfortably, and musically after only one or two attempts. I love those moments!  Who doesn't?  It makes me feel like I rule the world, that I am the master of my own domain, and that I can do anything.  Corny?  Perhaps...but I'm sorry, it's true.  Must be that adrenaline rush that comes from success and from saying (or shouting enthusiastically), "FORGET YOU!!" to or at your old fingering.

It's not always a less-than-ideal fingering that is the issue, by the way.  It depends on the instrument and the moment.  Here's a general list of the options to play around with based on the instrument:

Pianists:  fingerings, hand distribution (which hand is playing which notes)
String players:  fingerings (including which string to play on), bowings
Wind/brass players:  fingerings (that's why there are alternative fingerings!), breath placement
Singers: breath placement, placement (falsetto? chest voice? head voice? a mix?)

While you're practicing, if you are stuck, check to see if you can move past the issue by changing one of these factors.

Exploring more options and daring to move away from the composer's, a teacher's, or editor's own choices, especially after some experience and successes, can be a fun and effective way to practice because it is a sure-fire way to ensure that my mind is engaged.  Problem solving like this can also be incredibly empowering as it reminds me that I have actually learned something through the many years of working at my instrument.   It also saves endless time and frustration in the practice room which is a really important asset of this technique because as I always tell folks, it's what we do in the practice room physically and mentally, that we'll carry onto the stage when we perform.  If we have practiced a passage ad-nauseam without success and with a feeling like the passage owns us, we are going to walk onto the stage feeling apprehensive and wondering what's going to happen.  This technique allows us to take the reins earlier on in the process so that we can feel like we are in control of the piece, even the tricky bits.

I want to end this post with a little story that demonstrates the power of this technique.  Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to play piano at two masterclasses that have been taught by the cellist, Zuill Bailey.  Time and time again he has asked students about shifts that are obviously giving them trouble.  He likes to ask why they are doing it the way they are.  Have they considered another fingering or bowing?  Usually the student can't really respond with a good answer besides, "Because it's in the music" or "My teacher told me to" after which he then asks them how it's working for them.  How often do they get it right in the practice room?  Usually they respond in the negative which leads everyone in the audience and on the stage into a bit of a chuckle-fest.  Why?  Because it's so obvious when it's addressed in this way.  Why should we keep trying something when it's clearly not working?  Why should we expect something to magically work when we're on stage performing in front of a world class artist?  Mr. Bailey then follows up by offering a possible alternative and having the student try it.  Once they hit on one that produces success he then has a little contest between the old fingering or bowing and the new one.  Whichever one enables the student to play the passage three times in a row consistently is the one that wins.  More often than not, it's the new version that wins, surprise, surprise!  In this demonstration, the power of having a choice and of being able to say, "FORGET YOU!" to something that's not working is so clear.

Now we just need to bring it into the practice room and to see how fun it can be to tell ourselves a nice way, of course!

Quick note to folks that try doing this but are still frustrated.  Half the battle is knowing where the problem spots are so pat yourself on the back for at least knowing that!  Then take it to a teacher, a friend, or a friendly practice coach (like me!) and ask for some suggestions.  I'm sure whoever you ask would be delighted to help out if they can.  And if they don't want to help you, you know what to say.  "FORGET YOU!!"  (Just joking...kind of.)


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Want to know what I think about practicing?

A few weeks ago Sam Rao, the CEO and developer of a soon to be released practice app called Practicia, asked me to do an interview with him.  As usual I had a bit of a difficult time keeping my answers short and sweet - I always have so much to say about practicing!  I wanted to share the interview here since we covered a lot of ground.  And if you want to read my blog post about Practicia, just click here.  Enjoy!

PRACTICIA: What started you on the path to thinking about practicing and becoming a practice coach?
EAS: My role as a practice coach evolved very naturally alongside my role as a piano collaborator and accompanist. I spend a lot of time in practice rooms with students for rehearsals and I have a very hard time just playing. Maybe I should say it this way – I have a difficult time keeping my mouth shut, especially when I can tell that a musician is frustrated with a certain passage in the music or when I hear the same mistakes being made. As soon as I started speaking up and offering to help musicians work through problems I realized what a relief it can be for people to have some guidance in the practice room. Of course teachers are crucial in helping students learn the art of practicing but more often than not the time spent with one another is only an hour a week during lessons. Students are then left on their own for 7 times that amount if they practice an hour a day. If they practice 3 hours a day, 6 times a week, that’s 17 hours. That’s a lot of time to be frustrated - too much time, in my book.

The teachers of the students with whom I have worked, have also grown to value my work because I act as a fresh, new voice. It’s like a common issue that parents deal with - as a parent I can tell my child 10 times to do something but have no effect on her. But if a teacher or someone she respects asks her to do the exact same thing she immediately follows through. I enjoy helping teachers by reinforcing and elaborating on what they are trying to teach their students and being there in the practice room to help bring the process of refinement from the studio into the practice room – to help the students become independent “practicers”.

Last but not least, I was encouraged to take my role as a practice coach more seriously when I began tweeting about practicing several years ago. It quickly became clear that there is a lot of mystery that surrounds the topic and I felt it was time to change that. Being open about my frustrations and joys in the practice room and on the stage has inspired a lot of valuable conversation between professionals, amateurs, and students alike and that’s a good thing, I think.

I truly believe people want to talk about practicing and to learn how to improve what they do on their own – my goal is to be there to guide and to cheer folks on in that pursuit because regardless of whether or not they become musicians professionally, the skills learned by practicing well are the skills that are most needed in our society – problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and persistence.
PRACTICIA: What is the value of a practice "boot camp"?
EAS: The practice boot camp gives me the opportunity to look at the whole of what a musician is doing in the practice room rather than just focusing on specific issues that they might have. When people sign up for this service I ask them to videotape themselves while practicing for either one large chunk of time, preferably around 45 minutes, or in smaller chunks. It’s amazing how reluctant most people are to doing this! That, in itself, is very revealing. I then watch the recordings on my own and am able to pick up just about everything I need to know to begin the work of revamping a client’s approach to practicing. Through the video recordings I am able to catch visual and audio cues, many of which are psychological and have nothing to do with technique, that give me a glimpse into what’s going on in the client’s mind. After putting together a detailed list of recommendations, I go over them with the clients, either in person or via the Internet, and answer any questions that they may have. Together the client and I come up with a plan of action for the next week or so after which they make another recording for me to review after they’ve had a chance to tweak their practicing. After another follow-up the client is usually well on his or her way to adopting a new attitude that allows them to healthfully and effectively work independently.
PRACTICIA: How did you come up with the title "Beyond the Notes" for your website?
EAS: I came up with that name back in 2009 when I started writing my blog by the same name. One of the things I’ve noticed with young musicians especially is that there is a strong focus on the individual notes on the page. All those black dots tend to overwhelm rather than inspire. My goal is to help musicians see beyond those black dots in order to see the fascinating language they create and to learn to speak in that language so that their own emotions and experiences can be spoken through music.
PRACTICIA: In your opinion, why do most students struggle with practicing?
EAS: I believe many students struggle because done the traditional way, full of mindless repetition while counting down minutes on the clock, it is usually mind-numbingly boring and devoid of creativity and thought. It isn’t fun to practice that way. And when practicing is mindless, effective practicing tends not to happen which means mistakes are more likely to occur and endless repetitions take forever to be fruitful. We are human. We like to see results. We like to feel successful. The traditional way of practicing, in my opinion, doesn’t get us to that point which is why heading to the practice room can often feel like torture. I truly believe that if we can make practicing a creative process, a mystery that requires us to ask lots of interesting questions, or a game that encourages us to quickly and accurately learn music, practicing can become something that musicians look forward to and not dread
PRACTICIA: What are the most common practice flaws that you have observed?
-Playing too quickly or too slowly.
-Not stopping when mistakes occur to figure out what caused the mistake and problem solving.
-Starting from the beginning too much of the time.
-Starting with the easiest material and leaving the hardest parts for later, when you’re brain and body are already tired.
-Talking to oneself negatively rather than giving oneself neutral feedback.
-Not having an understanding of rhythm, meter, and pulse.
-Trying to do too much at once (learning left and right hand at the same time; a singer trying to learn pitches, rhythms, and text at the same time)
-Not isolating problem spots and then once learned, working it back into the fabric of the piece.
-Depending too much on the metronome to provide a steady pulse.
-Not writing fingerings, bowings, breathes or accidentals in the score.
PRACTICIA: How can teachers help improve the quality of student practice?
EAS: I think teachers can help the student develop a healthy vocabulary to use in the practice room. Rather than saying, “That was horrible!” for instance, the teacher can help the student re-think how to address what they didn’t like and to rephrase it in a more neutral tone… “I think I want a more warm sound here. Let’s try that again.” I also think teachers can help students to see what good problem solving can look like. Lessons go by so quickly that I think it can be tempting for us as teachers to jump right in when we hear something we like to direct what should be done rather than walking the student through a process. Time may not always allow for this but a little bit would go a long way. Or perhaps teachers could intentionally set aside a portion of a lesson now and then to do some guided practice with their students

I would also encourage teachers to livestream or videotape their own practice sessions for their students to watch. As teachers, we are like superheroes to our students. I don’t think they realize that we too are human…that we have good and bad days in the practice room, that we get stumped, and that we make mistakes, even. I livestreamed my practice sessions for a while a couple of years ago and was amazed at the positive feedback from teachers, professional musicians, students…everyone. Practicing is an art, but it shouldn’t be a mystery.

With the soon-to-be-unveiled app, PRACTICIA, teachers will also be able to check in on their students’ practicing and to offer suggestions during the time in between lessons. I’m very eager to see how we can use this to encourage more thoughtful, encouraging, and effective practicing.
PRACTICIA: How can parents (especially those without a musical background) help their children work better?
EAS: Instead of focusing on how much time is spent in the practice room, a pretty common thing for parents and teachers to focus on, parents can help their kids choose small, do-able, mini goals. When something gets in the way of achieving those goals, parents can help the student problem solve. “Why are you stuck? Do you know what bowing you’re supposed to be doing? Do you know what fingering you should be using?” Parents can also ask questions to inspire creativity. “What does this part of the piece sound like to you? Does it sound like someone who’s happy? Do you think there might be a conversation going on here or maybe even an argument?” I think parents can also help students to identify when they need to walk away from the instrument when they are getting frustrated and problem solving isn’t getting anywhere. Sometimes breaks are necessary but this can be challenging to accept when the focus is on getting in that half-hour the teacher requires every day. Keep this in mind, though - bad practicing can undermine good practicing in a very short amount of time and the state of mind a musician tends to have when practicing is the state of mind they will have on the stage in performance. Cultivating a positive attitude in the practice room will pay off when it comes time to perform.

In summary, even if a parent doesn’t have a musical background I believe he or she can help the student move away from practicing that is boring, mindless, and frustrating.
PRACTICIA: What do you think about extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation in practicing?
EAS: I am not a huge extrinsic motivation fan myself but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing. Ever since I started music, when I was 5, I have been intrinsically motivated and for that I’m grateful. It probably saved my parents and my teacher a lot of stickers and M&Ms too! But I realize I may have been a bit of an odd child. With that said, I think that especially with younger children, rewards can be very motivating as long as they aren’t bribes. (They are different!) I do think, however, that a good goal for parents and teachers is to help make music learning and practicing creative and positive enough that children will quickly become inspired on their own to engage mindfully in practice. They will see that how they choose to practice and deal with difficulties directly affects the outcome and then those outcomes keep improving and they see and hear what they are capable of, magical things can start to happen in a self-directed way.
PRACTICIA: What is the value of practicing away from the instrument? Can it be overdone?
EAS: I am a huge advocate for practicing away from the instrument for many reasons. It inspires creativity and kinesthetic learning; it enables a student to process notes on the page without involving technical issues that arise the minute he or she is at the instrument; it can also be done anywhere, anytime. With younger students I think practicing away from the instrument can be overdone. Students need a certain amount of time with their instrument, developing technique and making musical patterns part of their language. As students get older, however, I think the ratio between at-the-instrument and away-from-the-instrument practice can shift. There are many stories of professionals that learn pieces on the plane on the way to the concert – that’s definitely one end of the spectrum and would be an interesting goal for any musician to shoot for eventually.
PRACTICIA: How important do you think is musical knowledge (theory, solfege etc) in practicing?
EAS: I think it is very important – it is one way to get “beyond the notes” and leads to interpretation rather than just regurgitation. But theory can be intimidating for many students, myself included, which is why I think it’s helpful to teach those things in a way that directly applies to the music students are learning. They are more open to learning the concepts if they can see that knowing the theory can help them make decisions with regard to how they want to play the music. With solfege, understanding what the value of solfege is can make the process of learning it more palatable. I’m not a big fan of the “Just learn it, it’s like taking your medicine!” approach to teaching these concepts.
PRACTICIA: How did you come about writing your book "Inspired Practice" and what is it about?
EAS: My book was a bit of an experiment. For several years readers of my blog had told me that I should write a book but I found the idea very intimidating. To me, my blog is like my personal journal. It doesn’t feel as set in stone as a book. My fear was that I’d publish my thoughts and then the next week I’d change my mind about everything I had written. My compromise was to put together what I call a coffee-table book for the practice room and music studio with nuggets of information that I find myself telling people and myself all the time. Because I’m a very visual person, I wanted to also include good images that would illustrate those same concepts. I also decided to throw in some quotes that I find particularly inspiring, some by other musicians that write about practicing, others by non-musicians. My hope was that people could turn to a different page in the book every day to give them a burst of inspiration for their practice sessions.
I am just starting work on another book that I’m very excited about. I’m avoiding the traditional format again, choosing instead a workbook format for both students and teachers to help encourage creative score investigation that will be flexible enough to be used by students of every age and level. I’m very excited about it!
PRACTICIA: What are your top three bits of advice to students about practicing?
- It’s about mini goals accomplished, not about time.
- It’s about process, not the end product and perfection.
- If you approach practicing using your whole body in harmony with your whole mind, with creativity, curiosity, and problem solving skills, your practicing will bring you to a place of security and originality that will allow you to deliver performances you’ll be proud of and that audiences will receive as a very unique gift.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Insisting on seeing possibility after the storm

It's been a while since I last posted. A lot has happened over this past year, some of which has been challenging physically and emotionally but in all honesty I really don't regret any of it. I find myself now in a completely different place and time and even though part of me tells me I should be wallowing in self pity, I won't. I am happy. A little lost perhaps, but definitely happy.

I have been quite vague about my situation much of the time because I don't like to get wrapped up in drama and because I don't like to speak when I'm in the midst of a storm. I prefer to wait until the dust has settled so that I don't say something I might regret. But I woke up this morning with a very clear voice telling me it was time. So here we are.

Some folks may remember that a few years ago my husband was denied tenure at the institution where he had been working. We decided at that point that we didn't want to pick up everything and move in the search of a new career in academia. We live in an absolutely gorgeous part of the country and our school system is a very good one. We decided to stay and my husband started teaching voice privately. I had already started working as an adjunct professor and accompanist at another local college and I also had a lot of work freelancing around the area so I focused on my work and found myself at the piano most of the time I was awake, seven days a week. In many ways it was a dream come true. I had all the work I needed and I had students at my disposal to hone in on my beliefs about teaching and music.  It was during this time that I also bit the bullet and started my own practice coaching business. All of this kept me busy until May of this past year. In January I had started to experience some overuse issues and by the end of the semester, after playing for about 25 different recitals,  my body clearly shouted, "STOP!"   At the same time my position at the University became quite complicated so I decided it was time for me to see the closed doors for what they were - an open door to something new.

So here is where I stood by the middle of the summer...

I had no official job and almost no playing commitments so that my body could heal; I was looking forward to a handful of speaking engagements about practicing and music education around Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida; and I was eager to have more time to concentrate on research, writing, and my business.  I realized pretty quickly that this year had the potential to be an extraordinary one, even with all the mystery, insecurity, and lack of finances.  I applied for a full-time job at the university library where I had just resigned in an attempt to be a "responsible" adult but apparently that wasn't meant to be.  Then one day I was at the local toy store with my daughter when the thought crossed my mind, "I wonder if they ever have any job openings here."  I looked around for the owner thinking that if I saw her there I would ask her then and there - a thought that is completely out of character for me.  She wasn't there so I shelved that idea.  A week later I was up in Pennsylvania having some Alexander Technique lessons when I received an e-mail from the toystore saying that they had part-time positions open.  Needless to say, I felt like my stars were starting to realign, granted in a completely different constellation.  But in my book any type of alignment was a step in the right direction.

Now I work in a fantastic toystore part-time that's within walking distance of our house and have time to do what I need to do to try to kick my practice coaching business in the rear to make something finally happen. In this past month I have thirstily gobbled up books about practicing and education that are turning my brain into a whirlwind of ideas, I have busily been putting together my presentations for my upcoming workshops, I have been carefully rebuilding myself as a pianist, I've begun work on a new workbook I'm cooking up for musicians and teachers, and I've enjoyed spending more time at home with my family.  I truly couldn't be happier!  Yes, I could be making a lot more money (I'm currently earning minimum wage which has really opened my eyes to what it's like for a huge part of our population in this country), I could have a job that gives my family "benefits" (but what does one have to sacrifice to get them?), and I could have a job in academia (but again, at what cost?) but in all honesty I'm finding it terribly amusing to watch my life play out right now.  I truly sense that something is in the works...I just don't know exactly what it is.

There you have it!  That's what's been happening in my life.  I suppose I could be grumpy about what's transpired but I'm not.  I realize that I have been handed a gift.  At times I felt like I was in the middle of a storm this past year but now I feel like I'm climbing up the rainbow that has served as an encore to what came before.

So here's to the journey!  And many, many thanks to everyone in my life that has given me so much incredible support.  I am so very grateful.

P.S. - If anyone has any thoughts about what I could be doing next, by all means, please do share!  And if you want some practice coaching, check out how I can help.