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.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Getting students hooked on practicing - game on, video game world!

As music educators and parents of musical students we probably all have in our repertoire of questions, “Have you practiced yet today?” or “How many hours did you practice this week?”  They are the questions we often feel we have to ask but also dread because of the answers, emotions and facial expressions they tend to evoke – I think you know what I’m talking about.

Just for fun, what if we followed the words “practiced” and “practice” with “video games”?

“Have you practiced your video games yet today?”
“How many hours did you practice video games this week?”

I have a feeling we’d get quite a different reaction, wouldn’t we?

There is no question that a high percentage of the population, regardless of age, love playing video games.  For some it is even an addiction.  Personally, I understand why.  Ever since I was young playing games has been a way for me to relax.  As a parent of a young child, it has been a way for me to spend time with my daughter, and as a teacher in a university, it assisted me in teaching students the importance of pulse and rhythm.  (Check out Symphonica if you want to experience a great music game app!) I love video games and often have to check myself to make sure that I’m not spending too much time playing around on my iPad instead of on the piano. 

With that said, I want to say right here and right now that I am also addicted to practicing music.  Unlike video games, however, the appeal definitely did not start until I was much older, when I finally started figuring out how to make practicing interesting, full of accomplished goals, and musical high scores.  As a practice coach, someone who steps into musicians’ practice rooms with them and helps them tweak what they’re doing physically and mentally, I’ve become more and more curious about finding ways to carry what we do when we’re gaming into our practice sessions with the hope that there’s a way to make practicing just as addictive and desirable as spending time in front of a screen.  In this article I want to explore what it is that makes video games the activity of choice for so many and to see if we, as music educators, can learn a thing or two from gaming that can help us make practicing a little less torturous in the minds of our students.

Video games are designed to get us hooked.  I know there’s a number out there for how much money is spent by the gaming industry on research but I’d rather just keep it simple and say, “A LOT!”  It seems they’ve whittled down the list of ways to get gamers coming back to the following must-haves.  Let’s take a look at some of them and evaluate how well practicing music provides these same hooks to keep kids going back to the practice room.

 Getting the High Score
I don’t know if there is a video game out there that doesn’t have a way of scoring throughout the game.  It doesn’t matter if the player is trying to beat his own score or someone else’s, that number at the top of the screen, or wherever it happens to be displayed, is always very obvious and well in the player’s line of sight.  For most people it is the pursuit of improving his or her own score or beating someone else’s that keeps them coming back for more.  And when the player achieves that goal?  Watch out!  The level of excitement and pride is usually palpable and the reward tends to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic, unless you happen to be at the arcades that hand out tickets that can be exchanged for less-than-high-quality-junk. 

Getting students to practice for intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards is immensely beneficial and sets them up beautifully for a lifetime of learning – it also happens to be cheaper and easier for the teacher!   Before students can start sensing these internally motivated rewards, however, we need to teach them how to discover what their current high score is and to be able to know where they are at any given time in that pursuit.  There are apps and programs out there right now that actually are doing this.  The student can play through the piece of music and the program tells them how many notes were correct and which ones were missed.  Personally I’m not crazy about this approach because it runs the risk of teaching the students that absolute perfection is the goal – I’m not so sure that should be a goal in music-making, largely because I think it’s virtually unattainable.  And think about this – at least as far as I know, most games don’t seem to have one highest score.  It always appears that there is no end to the potential for improvement.  Perhaps even video games there is no perfection. 

What I do like about the programs, however, is that they are giving instant, specific feedback to the students and that is something they themselves tend to have a difficult time doing.  I think it would be ideal if we can find a way to get students to be self-evaluating their practice in an objective way, free from the negativity and self-defeating attitude that tends to seep into one’s feedback, so that students can give themselves their own scores throughout their practice and can keep pushing themselves to getting their new highest score before quitting for the day.

Exploration and Discovery of the Unknown
There are many games out there that are all about exploration and discovery.  Some, when you open them for the first time, tell you absolutely nothing about what you’re supposed to be doing or even what the final goal is.  It’s up to you to just start observing and trying things until a storyline and a purpose begins to emerge.  It is the norm with this type of game to find oneself in the same place for an extended period of time, doing practically nothing but thinking.  An outsider might question the appeal of such a game yet obviously they strike a chord in many people, myself included, because when you finally do figure out what you’re supposed to be doing you know that you’ve figure it out not necessarily by pure luck, but through using your brain.  When that happens to me it’s enough to make me feel temporarily brilliant.  Who couldn’t use a little ego boost now and then?

Two of the biggest problems I see with practicing these days are frustration and boredom.  When people think of practicing, they tend to only think of repeating things over and over and over and over again.  Throw in the metronome and then play it over and over and over and over again until it’s “perfect.”  Is it any wonder the student would rather play video games than practice?  What if we help our students see that learning music can also be full of discovery?  I spend a lot of time teaching musicians how to read patterns in the music rather than reading note by note so that they can start to make connections between different pieces, styles, and composers and so they can become more literate in reading music, just as they read books word by word, phrase by phrase rather than letter by letter.  This also enables them to simplify the music for themselves so that tricky passages become easier to understand and to solve.  It can reduce the need for repetitions and can give the students something to put their mind to when they do have to do them.  It’s about inspiring students to always be using their brains rather than simply shutting them off and waiting for progress to happen on its own.  As we all know, successful performances rarely happen randomly.   But when it happens as the result of a student’s problem-solving skills, creativity, and discovery, he or she will realize what they are fully capable of and that is usually enough to keep them coming back for more: more practice, more guidance from their teacher, and more performing!

Video games often put the players into someone else’s shoes; often times it’s someone completely unlike who they themselves are.  Whether it’s a sweet little magical boy in LostWinds, a hero in a role-playing game, or a detective in a mystery, those moments in front of the screen offer the gamer the opportunity to slip out of his own shell and to try on something new.  As with the last hook discussed, it allows the player to tap into his creative side and to express emotions and characters that he or she may not feel comfortable expressing on a day-to-day basis. 

Music offers the same role-playing activity if we choose to tap into that side of expression.  I love to ask students of any age and ability what character or characters they are trying to portray through the way they are playing the music.  More often than not they look at me like I am completely crazy.   If we can encourage young musicians to feel comfortable trying on different characters while they play, just as they do in video games, I think we’d find that it’s easier for them to get personally involved in what they are doing.  They will once again be using their brains, but in concert with their emotions and their untapped expression.   Just think of the high-scores that can come from that!

Feeling needed by others
I have yet to try online role-playing games like World of Warcraft because of how powerful these games can be.  In many cases players become so involved they can end up neglecting work and family, choosing instead to focus on their virtual community.  That concerns me.  But I think it’s important to figure out what the hook is in these games that make them so powerful.  I think it all comes down to gamers feeling like others need them. 
Even though there are far more negative effects this hook has on gamers, I think educators can and already do use the “all for one and one for all” mentality when it comes to playing in a band or other ensemble.  How often have we said to students, “Come on!  You are letting the group down.  Tonight you have to practice that hard part or else the concert is going to be a disaster!”  I’m not personally a big fan of this exact approach, but I do think it can be good for students to realize that they are part of a team when they are working musically with others, whether it’s a small or a large ensemble.  For students playing an instrument that doesn’t typically have a role in a team experience, I encourage teachers to find or make opportunities for them no matter how hard that might be.  For duos, trios…anything that takes them out of their little world and helps them to realize that they have something to offer others musically too.

Call me crazy, but I truly believe that as music educators, we are in the position to help young people discover within themselves the power of their mind and their ability to create magic through the medium of the arts.  We live in a time where their intelligence tends to be measured by tests that ask them to fill in bubbles on a page.  We live in a time where young people don’t know how to answer open-ended questions because they are so accustomed to having to give the only right answer.  It’s no wonder to me that they often don’t know what to do with themselves in the practice room.  They fear making a mistake, which of course is inevitable.  They get bored playing note after note after note without understanding how those notes can actually create a story.  And they are more often than not isolated and not understanding how this practice time can benefit them.  But how do those same children feel when plopped in front of a video game?  Do they fear making a mistake? Do they bottle their feelings up?  Do they require physical rewards to keep playing?  No, they don’t.  Because gaming helps them connect with their talents, their creativity, and their persistence.  It makes them feel good!  Wouldn’t it benefit us to try using those same hooks?

(As an interesting side note, I regularly took breaks while writing this article and guess what I did?  Yep, play a game on my iPad. )

Game on!!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A taste of something different - Annie Moses Band's Fine Arts Summer Academy

As a long-time blogger I frequently receive emails from people in the music industry who are wanting to know if I'd be willing to feature them on my blog.  I always check everyone out that contacts me but rarely do I agree to do a post because I consider this platform a place for my own ideas.  But last December I received a query from the Director of Development for the Annie Moses Band, a musical organization I hadn't yet heard of.  After doing some initial research I found myself unable to write my typical, "Sorry, but no thank you" response.  One of the first things I discovered was that the band and summer music academy they host are located in Nashville, Tennessee.  They're not exactly our neighbors, but now that I've lived in southwest Virginia for almost a decade, I feel somewhat of a connection to their crossover style that is a fusion of classical, bluegrass, folk, and jazz.  The second thing I discovered was this video they had on their website that gave a taste of what the Annie Moses Band does during the summer to inspire young musicians.

I was amazed by the unbridled enthusiasm that was palpable both on and off the stage.  Upon reading more about the summer academy I decided I wanted to find out more.

In January I spent an hour or so speaking with Ben and Alex Wolaver, the cellist and violist of the Annie Moses Band.  It was clear to me that we all share many of the same beliefs about music-making and how it can transform young people as musicians, offering them a voice for who they are as individuals.  I was impressed by their flexibility to work with many different types of musicians and talents regardless of their prior experience, and their desire to create shows that energize not only the performers themselves but also their audiences.  The Fine Arts Summer Academy is a different type of summer experience that seems to speak to so many of the ideas I believe in myself.  It is for that reason that I decided to ask Annie Wolaver Dupre, the group's violinist and lead singer, some questions as a way of introducing them to all of you.  My hope is that this might spark some interest in the hearts of some adventurous young musicians out there!  I'm so intrigued I may have to pretend to be a kid again to experience it for myself.

Beyond the Notes: Tell us a little about the Annie Moses Band - who you are, your background, and how you came to form your band.

Annie Wolaver Dupre: The Annie Moses Band is a classical crossover artist made up of me and my 5 siblings. Instrumentally, we are a string quartet with a rhythm section as well as harp, guitar and mandolin.  Vocally, I take the lead while several of us sing BGVs [background vocals]. The total package is 12 players and about 16 instruments. Yes, it’s a big crew!

We grew up in Nashville, TN where our parents are award-winning songwriters and composers. They wanted us to have the best musical education and started us at about 4 years old on our respective instruments. Initially we intended to pursue classical careers and the family moved to the NYC area while we studied at Juilliard. That was when we started the Annie Moses Band.

We wanted to perform music that was personal in its style, message and creativity. Our love of genres - folk rock, jazz, fiddle fusion, Americana and classical became the springboard for a sound that was naturalistic but innovative.  We love what we create and that we get to share it with audiences. 

BtN: How did the Fine Arts Summer Academy (FASA) come about?

AWD: The Fine Arts Summer Academy started at almost the same time as the Annie Moses Band. As we began touring around the nation, many parents asked us questions about navigating the musical development of their children. Around that time, we served as the artistic directors for a small arts academy in North Carolina. Through that experience, we saw the tremendous need for programs that combine classical training, commercial music development and great performance opportunities. FASA became our outlet to develop that kind of program.

BtN: What is your mission through your summer academy?

AWD: To provide life-changing performance experiences in elite venues, allowing students to develop as both musical technicians and engaging performers. Our students are featured in a series of festival style performances in Nashville, TN on world-class stages like the The Grand Ole Opry House and the Bluegrass Underground.

Music is one of the greatest spheres of influence in our culture. We believe that artists have a responsibility to be people of integrity. So there is also a focus at FASA upon the heart of the student and teaching them that their character is the wellspring from which they communicate through their art.

Ultimately, we want to take young students from the practice room to the concert hall alongside professional musicians so they can taste the thrill of high-level music making. 

BtN: Unlike many traditional music camps, FASA doesn’t have a typical audition process since students are only required to have had one year of music study prior to attending.  I’m curious about how and why you came to the decision to be so inclusive.

AWD: So often summer academies and their classes are divided into “haves” (those with money and support) and “have-nots” (those with no money or support).  We wanted to operate on a different model - an inspirational model - where people at various skill levels perform together.   

The music performed at FASA is orchestrated and arranged by our musical director, Bill Wolaver, in three tiers of skill. Intermediate and beginning players can perform alongside very advanced players with each student being challenged at their own level.

In addition to the orchestra, every student is placed in small ensembles or bands that perform in commercial music settings i.e. fiddle, rock, Celtic, etc. These groups perform music that is specifically designed to showcase the skills of the students involved. The level of customization we provide is unmatched.

Much of this vision comes from our Artistic Director, Robin Donica Wolaver. She grew up with very few musical opportunities but went far with music as both a performer and educator. She knew that there is a great injustice when often the hardest workers don’t have access to the best education.

We grant access to high-level education and performance to everyone, provided you can meet our high standards with courage and hard work.

BtN: You teach students about much more than just how to play their instrument.  Can you please share with us what else the students learn?

AWD: This is the best part of FASA! Because our classes are focused on preparation for elite and challenging performances, there is a strong focus on what it means to perform! How to command the stage, emote the feeling of the song or piece, capture the heart of the audience! For many students their entire musical education has been a technical focus. We are really good at practicing, but we want to be performers. So coaches work on stage deportment, the musical arc of a piece, choreography and movement, in addition to technical execution. 

BtN: In watching the video clip of the final performance it seems that there is an amazing amount of energy on the stage and in the audience.  What do you think is the formula for that type of enthusiasm?

AWD: That enthusiasm comes from the top down. The Annie Moses Band, the artistic and musical directors, Maestro Pak and the 80 faculty and mentors who instruct and perform create an environment that is highly demanding, but also supportive, loving, and joyful. We have a lot of fun at FASA! The friendships that spring up during the event are often deep. And when the audience sees the performance, they are witnessing excellent creators giving from the overflow of their heart, both love and joy for the music and each other.

BtN: Can you describe a typical day at FASA?  

AWD: During week 1 students have classes in technique, orchestra or chorus, commercial ensembles and bands, master classes, and private lessons. We also have evening workshops on music business and taking your artistry to market as a professional. 

During week 2 all the tracks of study combine to put on a line up of performances culminating with the Gala at the Grand Ole Opry House!

BtN: Something unique about your festival is that professionals perform side by side with students   What do you and the other professionals involved gain from those experiences?

AWD: The level of faculty at FASA is exceptional.  We pull from many of the brightest graduates and performers coming out of the nation’s best schools: Juilliard, Berklee School of Music, Cincinnati Conservatory and others. These performers are young, enthusiastic, high-skilled, and a great inspiration to the students.  

In numerous conversations, I hear first hand how much our faculty enjoy seeing growth in our students.  Because of the flexibility in our performance material, our teachers and mentors are able to engage students in an unparalleled way - using a different key, simplifying a passage or adding complexity to make a part more challenging.  This is all due to our in-house arranger, Bill Wolaver.  Growth in our students isn’t something we hope works out - we create the environment that makes growth happen.

As an experienced performer and instructor I can say that the final performance hits a level of energy that is exceptional even for me. 150+ performers collaborating in this kind of concert is just exhilarating. I am always astonished by how much students grow in such a short time. 

BtN: What would you say to students that have only received classical training and haven’t had much experience delving into different genres?  Will they feel like they have a place at FASA and what do you think they will get out of such an experience?

AWD: You won’t be alone! Every year we have students who come from a strict classical world and are nervous about jumping into alternative styles, but have no fear! We have incredible mentors who come from many backgrounds- studio musicians, commercial performers, as well as classical educators, and we will place you with players and music that will be super fun.  

BtN: What are 3 things that students attending FASA walk away with? 

AWD:  A knowledge of their own capacity for greatness.
The inspiration to work hard and find the best opportunities back at home. 
That music is about communicating love and joy to the audience and each other.

BtN: Is there anything else you would like to say to anyone who might be interested in the Fine Arts Summer Academy?

AWD: We can’t wait for this year! Come out and perform alongside us! Go to for information and to register.