I don't know about you, but after this wild, smokey week, I could use a little extra musical inspiration!
I've got someone really special for you today. You may not know her, but it's time to get to know her because she's one of the top concert pianists alive today. She's originally from Beijing, lives in NYC these days, and is downright athletic at the piano. Here's one of her top repertoire pieces and one of the most impressive piano pieces of all time (I aspire to play it someday!): Flight of the Bumblebee.
This piece was not originally written for piano! The original, by Rimsky-Korsakov, was written as an interlude for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. It was played by the full orchestra with a violin taking the lead solo.
A number of composers have created piano arrangements of Flight of the Bumblebee. Rachmaninoff's version is quite famous, but nothing really compares to Cziffra's arrangement which is undoubtedly the most difficult (and impressive!) for pianists.
Not many pianists have even attempted it.
Yuja Wang has mastered it!
Now to bring our heart rate back down after that bumblebee 😂 I've got another treat for you. I hope this performance inspires my guitar students as well as my piano students!
Here he is... one of the most influential blues guitarist of all time and a man I think of with particular fondness after living in Austin: BB King! Watch this incredible solo - in which he is so clearly "singing" with his guitar. Every musician on this stage is a Pro!
I wish you great music listening and playing on this delightfully rainy weekend!
Until next week,
🍂 Fall is a natural moment to rebuild practice schedules and strategies.
In that spirit, here are 10 tips from Composer Keith Snell with some modifications from yours truly. These tips are guides, not absolutes, to be balanced with the player's instincts.
1. Schedule your practice time. Decide how many days each week (I recommend 4 minimum) you will practice. Write a specific time for each day in your calendar to practice, and stick to it, just as you would any other scheduled activity, such as sports practice, a play rehearsal, or a class.
2. Practice without distractions. Silence your phone and put it on "Do Not Disturb." Avoid interruptions from family or friends coming in and out of the room where your piano is located. The more you can fully concentrate on your practicing, the more you will accomplish during your practice time.
3. Divide up your daily practice time. I encourage a focus on repetition of assignments rather than a particular amount of time spent at the piano. Rather than attempt to play all your assignments in one sitting, try working with one assignment at a time (tends to take 5-10 minutes) then returning again in the day to play the rest of your assignments. If you end up wanting to play more in one sitting, you can!
4. Spread your practice time evenly over the week. Do your best to practice the same amount each day. Doing all of your practicing in one or two days doesn't work. Daily repetition is needed to accumulate new skills, and it can't be rushed or learned in one session.
5. Have a plan before you start. Decide (with the help of your teacher) exactly what you will practice each day, how you will practice it and for how long (I typically recommend 3 repetitions). Be specific with your goals for each day and for what you wish to accomplish in the week. But remember - most of your learning happens not while you play, but while you sleep. Lay a good foundation and trust that you'll see improvements the next day.
6. Use your metronome and your App. Music isn't just about being able to play a particular pattern, it's about being able to play that pattern steadily at a particular speed. Always start slowly, at a speed you can play everything correctly. Gradually increase the speed as you become more familiar with the piece. You will learn music more quickly and accurately when you practice slowly; and you will feel more secure and confident with the finished work when you play it up to tempo.
7. Start with scales. Playing your scales (and any other technical exercises) first, not only helps get your hands warmed-up, but it also helps your mind to become focused and concentrated before working on your music. Also, if you put off playing your scales to the end of you practice session, you are more likely to skip it.
8. Isolation and repetition. Find and practice the most difficult measures first. Play those measures slowly and hands separately, before putting them together. Set a number of correct repetitions to achieve before moving on. For example, take two difficult measures and play the left hand alone 10x's, then the right alone 10x's, then the hands together 10x's.
9. Sight read every day. Pianists who are good readers become so because they play new music frequently. The best way to learn to sight read is to read new music every day. The more difficult your pieces become, the longer they will take to master, and you are likely to spend less time reading new music, which can result in weaker sight reading skills. Just take five minutes out of every practice session to read a new piece of music to keep your reading skills sharp.
10. Memorize early and often. Memory is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. And, the sooner you start to memorize a piece the more secure your memory will be. Make memorizing part of the learning process. Even with pieces you don't intend to perform, memorize them anyway to help develop and strengthen your skill at playing from memory.
These are all great and will help you make wonderful progress.
You're a human (not a robot) so some days (or weeks/months, if you're going through a tough time) you'll need to go lighter than others.
This can be a difficult balance to find, but it's well worth the effort.
Here's a PDF of 10 Tips for Music Practice in case you'd like to print it to keep it close to your instrument.
I use Nancy and Randall Faber's Piano Adventures series with all of my students. From the First Piano Adventure Series to the Piano for the Older Beginner Series, the Faber Method has been an ideal fit for my teaching priorities.
The pieces selected for each level represent a variety of musical genres from all over the world and allow students to select additional pieces from genres that interest them most. After a relatively short time, students are often able to teach themselves new pieces, which gives them an increasing sense of empowerment.
The books also offer consistent opportunities for composition, improvisation and ear-training, three skills which lay a terrific foundation for composition by developing the player's creativity and voice. The Faber series is also a favorite of mine because of the way it entices students to practice with it's multitude of styles and song choices.
The Piano Adventures APP is a Game-Changer
Then there's the App!
My friends can attest - I talked of little more than the Piano Adventures App for multiple weeks after it's release. Every single song from almost every book, recorded with multiple instruments - complete with controls that allow you to adjust the parts, volume, balance and tempo. There's even a keyboard the student can watch that lights up the correct keys as the song plays!
The App answers all the questions that might stop a student from practicing, like:
What does this song sound like?
How fast should I be playing?
What note is that?
How do the hands play together in this piece?
But the real MVP of the App is the built-in metronome. Playing with metronome is hard! Hard to learn and hard to teach. But the App allows students to hear a metronome beat along with a recorded version of the song they're playing. And that. changes. everything!
But Do they work for Online Lessons?
They really do. The Faber Method has more song options per level than Alfred or Bastien or any other popular piano lesson method out there - and those options have been more important than ever as folks study from home.
The Fabers break their piano information down into 4 books per level (Lesson, Technique and Artistry, Theory and Performance) while most method books just have 2. That structure has helped even my youngest students feel empowered to locate the information they need quickly. -something I'm quite thankful for now that they're managing their own books at home.
Then there's the benefits of working with the most popular piano method series: they're easy for students to find and purchase, there's a host of supplement and supportive materials online, and almost every song from every book has a youtube video to accompany.
Switching to Online Piano Lessons has been a change for us all. So thankful that the piano lesson books my studio has used for years were ideal for the occasion!
“I’ve been struggling with practice lately...”
I can’t tell you how many lessons begin with that sentence. Motivation to play throughout the week, or the lack thereof, is the problem I hear about most from current students.
It makes sense! Consistent practice is easy for the first weeks of piano lessons. After all, you/your child has just signed up for piano lessons and your reason for doing so is still fresh on your mind!
But what happens two months in when soccer practice kicks in four days per week? Or summer begins and you just want to be outside during your free time? Or you get sucked into that new show on Netflix?
This is where conscious motivation (the antidote to the no-practice blues) comes in, and most students need support here.
Internal vs. External Motivation
There are two main types of motivation: internal and external. As Tyler Tervooren explains on his site Riskology.com:
When you’re externally motivated to make a change, the things that drive that change are outside of you and your control. If you’re trying to get in shape, it could be keeping your partner attracted to you, finding a mate, or impressing friends and colleagues. All the data say if these are the reasons you do what you do, it probably won’t last. External factors change, you can’t control them, and trying to keep up with them proves useless over time.
But when you’re internally motivated, you’re driven by a desire to make yourself better. You’re only accountable to you, and that means you control the variables that decide whether you succeed or fail. When those factors are stacked in your favor, the odds say you’ll make lasting change.
The lasting change we’re looking to create here is daily (or at least 4 days per week) piano playing, so let’s look at some specific ideas to encourage that behavior.
Ways to Keep the Motivation Flowing
Helping students stay motivated is a big part of my job as a piano teacher. I get to know each student and what drives them as soon as I can and plant seeds each week to keep that drive growing.
But the actual piano lesson is such a tiny fraction of a student’s week that it’s important to have in-home support to continue that motivation. Here are my top 10 ideas for promoting both internal (I) and external (E) motivation for the piano student in your life:
1. Go to music performances as often as possible - especially piano-centric performances. (I)
2. Offer a weekly or monthly performance opportunity in your home. This can be as formal (dressing up, creating programs, maybe even inviting guests) or informal (PJs and popcorn) as the student prefers. (I/E)
3. Allow them to be the piano expert in your home as quickly as possible. Even if other members of the family have more piano experience, acknowledging the budding expert in a beginning player can go a long way toward helping them play long enough to be an actual expert. (I)
4. If you hear them singing/enjoying a new favorite song, encourage them to learn it on piano! Playing the music they love is the lifelong skill we’re trying to cultivate here - not frequently stepping out of their comfort zone and into new genres as we do during lessons. (I)
5. If you play piano, offer to play with the student in your home (while still supporting their budding expertise)! If they’d rather not play together, invite them to teach you a song or scale that they know and you don’t. The best way to learn - and notice your own expertise - is to teach. (I/E)
6. Encourage them to start an Instagram page for their music! YouTube is great too, but it’s more difficult to fine-tune the privacy settings and requires more parent-involvement for kid students. On Instagram, they can quickly build a following of 50+ friends and loved ones to play for and receive compliments from regularly. And instead of monitoring that selfie they posted all night, they’ll be monitoring their piano audience and planning their next piece to master and perform. (I/E)
7. Download GarageBand if there’s a family iPad or laptop and explore with the piano student in your home. GarageBand is remarkably intuitive and can compel many students to learn more about piano in order to compose what they’d like to compose. (I/E)
8. Help keep the piano area fresh, lovely and inviting: no mail piling up... or piles of anything! The more you orient this area toward the family pianist(s) by adding photos/art/plants that are meaningful to them, clearing lots of space for their books and binders and maybe even adding an additional space (basket or other container) for any additional piano gear they may use, the more time they’re likely to spend there! (I)
9. Encourage exploration of other instruments! This may seem counter-intuitive but more often than not, playing a new instrument increases one’s interest in their primary instrument. (I/E)
10. This is the one I’ve found to be most consistently helpful: focus on the skills they’re building (stronger and more agile hands, better memory, so many new connections in their brains, ability to read music...) more than individual pieces or performances. This is not an activity that one masters quickly and so noticing and validating little bits of growth as they occur can do wonders for internal motivation. (I)
The Pay-Off & The Flip Side
It doesn’t take long to see the results of consistent practice. Students begin to notice new levels of mastery after just one week of consistent playing and progress is exponential from there. There will still be moments of plateaus in their learning process, but a regular playing habit lends a tremendous amount of resilience to those moments.
On the flip side, when a student doesn’t play at home for more than one week in a row, a palpable sense of failure typically kicks in. And when that happens for a few weeks in a row, the student’s belief about piano begins to shift from a sense of budding mastery to a sense that they’re “just not good at piano.”
The above scenario is probably the most painful part of my job. Piano is complex but developing skills you can be proud of is incredibly doable. No matter how skilled a player becomes while studying with me, I want them to leave lessons with the feeling that they can learn any instrument (nay, anything!) that interests them.
A Master of Daily Practice is a Master of Learning
Any adult reading this article is likely very aware of how tough it can be to start and maintain a new habit. But any of you who have pulled this off likely noticed some benefits you may not have been expecting... namely, the next habit you began was much easier to maintain!
Learning your own template for beginning and maintaining habits is priceless at any stage of life. It opens up doors for being able to make any change and learn any topic that interests you. No biggie, right? ;)
(And witnessing the above is easily the most joyful part of my job and, honestly, my life.)
So choose an idea from above or try out your own and run an experiment for two weeks to see if the piano student in your life is more drawn to daily playing. If not, try another. This is one skill that’s so helpful, it’s worth taking the time to crack the code.
From one musician to another, <3
Piano, voice and composition teacher in Portland, OR.