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Practice Tips and More

Here I've compiled all the practice wisdom I've shared in my email newsletter. Subscribe to the email newsletter Paula's Music Notes!

General Practicing
For Piano Students
For Voice Students
Just For Parents

General Practicing

1. Practice in Small Chunks. When practicing a difficult piece, or a difficult section of a piece, break it down into very small chunks, one or two measures long. Put all of your attention on this little bit and play or sing it several times.

If you still have trouble, break it down even more and work on just two or three beats. Try to figure out exactly which notes are difficult for you and why. As you master these small bits of music, you'll have an easier time learning similar bits in the future.

It's important to keep all your attention focused on the small area that you're working on. If you try to just sail through the whole piece over and over, your attention gets stretched really thin and you won't think deeply enough about the difficult parts. If you don't really think about them, they'll just always be difficult for you.

2. Don't just start at the beginning of a piece everytime you practice and try to play or sing all the way through. If you get hung up somewhere and then start over, you'll end up practicing the beginning more thant the rest. Then you'll always know the beginning better than the end.

Try mixing up the measures or phrases of your piece in a different order, or even playing or singing the last measure first and then moving backwards until you reach the first measure.

Of course, it won't sound like an actual piece of music that makes sense, but that's OK. That will give you a chance to hear the piece in a different way, which will help you learn it better. Then, you can put all the parts back in order and really make music with it!

3. People of all ages can benefit from writing their music practicing into their planner or todo list. Most schools provide a homework planner or weekly homework packet to help kids and parents keep track of what work needs to be done.

Many of my students struggle to remember or find time to practice their music. Most of these have had a lot more success getting it done if they write it into their planner, along with their school assignments.

If you don't use a planner, or if it doesn't really work for you, find a place that you look at every day -- bathroom mirror, bedroom door -- and make a colorful sign that reminds you to practice every day.

Techniques like this work for most people, but some of us (like me) need to personalize our reminder systems more than others. This is a great opportunity for you or your child to figure out what works and what doesn't for you/him and to create ideal reminders and habits.

4. Don't cancel the lesson just because you weren't able to practice!   We all work toward an ideal of practicing pretty much every day. But sometimes life gets in the way. We get sick, we go away for a long weekend, we're in a play or have a final exam to study for. That's just how life is.

So many parents ask me if they should cancel the next lesson because their child didn't do a whole week's worth of practicing, or maybe didn't do any at all. The answer is no. If you've gotten out of the routine of practicing, skipping a lesson is just going to make it harder to get going again.

Have you ever noticed that, when you skip a lesson, your music study begins to feel kind of far away? Like a close friend who moved away, and suddenly you realize you don't think about them as much any more?

Any time that you miss practicing or miss a lesson, you need a little extra push to bring your study back into the front of your mind. So please don't combine missed practicing with missing a lesson. You'll just have a harder time getting started again.

5. Play old songs that you practiced last month, last year, last decade   Return to a song that you haven't played or sung for a long time. Often this means a piece that's easier than what you're working on right now. You may be surprised at how much easier it seems than when you were first learning it.

You may also find that you play it a lot better than you ever did before. This gives you a chance to notice and appreciate how much your skills have improved over time.

Playing old songs is an especially good thing to do if you're feeling frustrated with a difficult piece. It gives you some perspective about how far you've come in your music study.

6. Find out what time of day is best for you to practice.   Different people need different practice schedules. The best time for you or your child depends not only on what other things you have to do each day, but also when you have enough and the right kind of energy.

Some people can dash in the door from school or a sports activity and go right to practicing. They may even feel energized by the last thing they were doing.

Others need time to decompress, be quiet, have a snack, or talk to family members. Some people practice best in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some in the evening.

You may need to experiment to find out what works best. Also think about distractions. Is it hard for you to practice when other people are around? Do you get drawn into what they're doing instead of focusing on your own work? Do you feel inhibited about playing music when others are listening?

For most people, the ideal practice time would be when others aren't interrupting them. It's important to be aware of all these factors when scheduling your or your child's practice time, but it's also not always possible the practice at the perfect time.

So let these ideas be a guide, but don't let your quest for the ideal schedule get in the way of getting some practicing done every day.

7. Why improvising is important.   When we study music, we usually spend most of our practice time on learning pieces that we've been assigned, usually pieces that have been written by a composer and printed in a book. We put a lot of effort into learning to play the piece "right." We kick ourselves when we make "mistakes."

All of this is important, and we can't learn musicanship without it. But it's not the whole story. In order to fully develop as musicans, we also need to use the creative side of our brain (and our spirit).

Every practice session, and every lesson should include some improvising time. Improvising means sitting down with your instrument and playing without instructions. It means beginning without a goal and seeing where the moment takes you. It means leaving the door open for inspiration to come in.

Some people find improvising easier and more natural than reading music. They would happily spend their whole practice session that way. Others may be afraid that they won't have an idea, or their ideas won't be good enough.

But everybody needs to do it, just as much as they need to work on reading and technique. And yes, this includes singers.

8. Don't try to play or sing from memory too soon.   Every time we learn a new piece, there's a point in the process where we want to stop reading and just fly from memory. The piece is starting to feel familiar to us, we're getting comfortable with it, and we THINK we know what comes next.

The truth is, sometimes we do know, and sometimes we don't. We probably know certain bits of the piece in our memory, but not other bits.

This is the point where a lot of people wander away from their printed music and start practicing incorrect notes, rhythms, words, etc. This is the point where you have to make yourself keep paying attention to your printed music.

Depending on the style of the music, and why you're learning it, it may be fine for you to change the piece later on and make it your own. BUT, if you start doing that when you only have the piece halfway learned, you'll never learn it completely correctly, and it will sound sloppy.

It takes a lot of patience to keep your attention on reading the notes when you feel like you're kinda sorta ready to take off and make music. But if you stick with the printed page a little longer, you'll realize there are more details that you need to notice in order to memorize it thoroughly.

This can make the difference between sloppy playing and actually mastering the piece.

9. Do you or someone you know have trouble singing on pitch? Try this free video that can help!    I've met so many people who say they can't sing, and what I've discovered is that most of them actually could. They've just never learned the coordination needed to match their voice to a pitch that they hear.

If your larynx and at least one of your ears work _somewhat_ (notice I didn't say "perfectly" or 100%), you should be able to learn to match pitch with your voice, given some practice and the patience to do it.

Even people who seem to have been born singing had to learn some basic coordination between their hearing sense and their vocal muscles. They probably "practiced" without even realizing it when they were small children.

If you're not one of those people, it's not too late. You can sing on pitch, too. You just need to work at it a little, and you may need someone to guide you. Please try this free video, and feel free to pass it on to anyone that you think might benefit from it.

It makes me very sad when I see people who have the impulse to sing but think they can't. I've created this video to try to change that!

For Piano Students

1. Proper hand position is very, very important. Beginning piano students, especially young children who are growing into their finger strength and dexterity, often don't want to curve their fingers.

"Curve your fingers" has become "that annoying thing" that piano teachers say over and over, and many kids don't want to do it because it takes more effort. It seems easier to just play with flat, fully extended fingers.

The truth is that when we play on the tips of our fingers, with fingers curved and the wrist and back of the hand level, our fingers are much stronger and safer than when we let them flatten out. We also have much better control over our fingers in that position, and we're able to play quick notes correctly.

As I watch kids work on this, I see that, for most, the 4th (ring) finger is the hardest to keep curved the right way. Our 4th fingers start out weaker and less independent that the others, so they usually need some extra attention when we're learning to play with fingers curved.

Keep an eye on your 4th fingers to make sure they aren't flattening out as you strike a key, and that the first knuckle behind the nail isn't bending backward. When any finger bends backward, it becomes weak and hard to control, and if you push down on it hard, like when you play loudly, it could actually get hurt.

So please take the time to practice curving fingers every time you play. After a few weeks of attention, it will become a habit and you won't have to think about it any more. Your fingers will just do it automatically.

2. Begin with Hands Separate.   When a new piece is challenging (and most are), don't just jump in and try to play both hands at the same time. You'll probably make lots of mistakes, plants the seeds of bad habits, and you might even feel discouraged about the piece.

Work out one hand at a time. You choose which hand to do first; either is fine. This way you can put your full attention on one hand's part at a time. Only put the hands together when you feel comfortable and confident playing each one separately.

If you found the rhythm easy when you played hands separately, you may still need to count carefully when you put hands together, especially if there's syncopation, or if the rhythms are just very different.

For Voice Students

Singing in a chorus. I say the following with enormous respect for choral conductors everywhere. Sometimes, as an individual singer in a chorus, you may be told to do things with you voice or your mouth that aren't really in your best interest.

Students often show me exercises and jaw contortions that they've been told to do in a chorus, and some of them are very strange. "Strange" doesn't always equal "bad," but over the next few weeks, I'm going to offer you some guidelines that may help you figure out what's best for you.

Please show respect for your conductor or teacher. Don't argue about these things, just quietly make choices that are healthiest for you. Remember, your choral conductor is a musician playing an instrument, and you and all your fellow singers are the instrument. It's like each singer is a key on the piano, or a string on the guitar. Your conductor's goal is to get the best possible sound out of the entire instrument.

Your goal should be to find a balance between working cooperatively in the "big instrument" and keeping your own voice healthy.

#1 Oversinging -  If your conductor repeatedly asks you to sing louder, and you already felt like you were singing with your full voice, don't oversing. Oversinging is when you get that feeling in your throat like you're pressing.

You shouldn't ever feel a sense of forcefulness in your throat. Feeling intensity in your breathing muscles is fine. Feeling intensity in the way your voice makes your body vibrate is fine (but sit down if you feel dizzy). But feeling intensity in your throat is not OK.

#2 You want me to stick how many fingers in my mouth?   If your conductor asks you to wedge a certain number of fingers into your mouth, do it only for a moment. Show your conductor that you're willing to participate in the exercise, but don't keep your fingers in your mouth for a long time.

Conductors do this when they see some of their singers spacing off and hardly singing at all. The goal is to get those people to open up their mouths and sing with energy and commitment. The problem is that, if you really do use your fingers to stretch your mouth open, your jaw muscles tighten up.

Try it right now and see what I mean. Tight jaw muscles make your voice sound worse, not better. Please show respect for your conductor or teacher. Don't argue about these things, just quietly make choices that are healthiest for you.

#3 Dark tones and strange vowels.   Sometimes a choral conductor will ask singers, especially kids, to sing with what we call a dark tone or dark vowels. This is where you put the sound farther back in your mouth than normal, or pull the sides of your mouth closer together (the opposite of smiling). It might make your words sound like you're using a silly, exaggerated English accent.

Just like the issue of wedging several fingers into the mouth that I talked about last week, this is meant to correct something that some people are doing. If your conductor asks you to do this, it's because some people in your chorus are singing with a flattened or nasal tone. This is especially likely if people are singing the vowel "eee" and smiling, or if the backs of their tongues are coming up and blocking off the passage to their sinuses.

Take a moment to figure out whether you're doing one of those things. Do your vowels sound clear and natural as you sing, or do they sound harsh? Are you trying to imitate a famous singer or someone else in your chorus whose voice you admire?

Make sure that you're singing and forming your words in the way that's natural for you. Would you be comfortable talking that way? If you're singing in a natural way, then you're not the person who needs to make the funny dark vowels that the conductor is asking for. Only change the way you sing if you honestly think the advice is meant for you.

Please show respect for your conductor or teacher. Don't argue about these things, just quietly make choices that are healthiest for you.

Just For Parents

1M. Young children simply can't be expected to remember to practice on their own every day. I know some parents worry that reminding their child to practice turns it into a chore and takes the pleasure out of playing music. Some parents think that, if their young child doesn't remember on his own to practice every day, that means he doesn't really want to play music.

I disagree. A young child won't practice regularly unless a parent or babysitter helps her remember to go do it, and remember what material to work on. Music study is a great opportunity for you as a parent to teach your child how to pay consistent, repeated attention to a learning task, and how to see that attention pay off.

Write practicing on the calendar, or make a sign to hang somewhere in your house where your child will notice it every day and be reminded to practice. You can't expect your child to remember to practice every day without your help, but guiding him to get it done daily will build the skill to get things done independently in the future.

2. How old does my child need to be to start...Piano?   It really depends on the individual child and how they feel about playing the piano. My rule of thumb is, I'll start with a 4 or 5 year old if it was the child's idea. A child that young is most likely to have a good experience in piano lessons if he thought of it himself.

If the lessons are more Mom or Dad's idea, it's better to wait until she's 6 or 7, and has some experience with going to school. There are some methods that start teaching piano at age 3. That may be appropriate for a few kids, but I think it's really hard for most, and could turn into a bad experience that turns a child off to music.

If you have a 3 year old who asks for piano lessons, I can point you to a few colleagues who are focused on early childhood music, and can work with your child in a way that suits a 3 year old.

3. How old does my child need to be to start...Voice?   My rule for most kids is not to start lessons until after the age of 12 or 13 for girls, or after the voice changes for boys. In other words, wait till puberty. I prefer to let their instrument grow and mature untampered with until then.

I make an exception to this when a child is doing a lot of performing. If he is using his voice a lot in front of an audience, if directors or peers are pressuring her to sing louder and to belt a lot, then I believe that child needs guidance.

Without the guidance of a voice teacher, a child may overuse or misuse their voice, developing unhealthy habits that can eventually lead to vocal damage.

If a young child is highly motivated to sing and asks for voice lessons, I will often work with them on ear training and performance skills, rather than real vocal technique. This allows them to develop as a musician and a performer, while leaving their voice free to "be a kid" until they're old enough for serious technique.

If you're wondering whether your child should have voice lessons now, or should wait, please ask me!

4. How old does my child need to be to start...Guitar?   This depends on the size of the child and the size of the guitar. Many 6 year olds are physically big enough to start on a child-size guitar. Kids who are smaller for their age may need to grow a bit more before they can manage a child-size guitar.

A great option for really small kids who are sking to play the guitar is to start with the ukelele. It's much smaller, only has 4 strings, and the strings are nylon so they're easier to press. I teach ukelele, and I can start young kids on the guitar. If they decide to continue past the basics, I can recommend a good guitar teacher for you.

5. What should my child sit on at the piano?   Back in February I wrote about proper hand and finger position, but the other half of this issue is sitting at the right height.

When your child sits at the piano, bends his elbows and places the tips of his curved fingers on the keys, his forearms should be parallel to the floor. If you can achieve this by seating your child on your piano bench or a household chair, then that's fine.

Too often I see a child sitting on a surface that's too low for her to put her hands on the keys correctly. You may be able to get your child up high enough by seating him on pillows. Look for pillows that are firm enough to provide a boost, but not so firm that she slides off.

Next time your child practices, take a moment to look at his arm angle and see if he's up high enough to play on the tips of curved fingers, with forearms parallel to the floor, and shoulders and elbows low and relaxed. If not, think about using a booster seat, a different household chair, or maybe getting an adjustable piano seat. If you're using a portable keyboard, make sure the stand is set at the lowest height.

Search guitarcenter.com for adjustable seats

Search craigslist.org for adjustable seats

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Fall 2016