1. How to practise smart
How many times have you heard music teachers telling their students to “Practise at least 3 hours a day!” or “You have to practise every scale and arpeggio at least 10 times daily”?
The fact is, the number of hours you practise is not that important. What is important is HOW you practise.
For example, when you are practising your instrument, are you listening to yourself? Are you aware of what you are playing? Are you counting accurately? Are you playing the correct notes? How is your intonation, bowing, breathing etc.? Are you following the dynamics, articulations, tempo changes and phrasings marked in the score? Do you FEEL the music? Are you playing musically? Are you using a pencil to mark down notes for yourself?
Or are you daydreaming, thinking of what to eat for dinner, or what movie you are going to watch this weekend…. oblivious to your mistakes while your hands are moving mechanically on their own?
For the former, so long as you are able to focus and be aware of how you are practising, you do not need to practise for hours and hours. Even if you only have an hour a day to practise, you will surely improve much quicker than hours of non-productive practising like the latter.
Another thing to note is that, every time you practise a piece, there is no need to practise from the first note to the last note. You can start by practising what you find is the most difficult or challenging passage of the piece, and just focus and work on the passage until you can get it right. If you still have some time to spare, look for the next difficult passage and repeat the same process. This means that you can start practising, for example, from the middle of the piece, then go on to the end of the piece, then back to the beginning of the piece. Once you have more or less mastered the difficult passages, you can then start practising from the beginning of the piece all the way till the end. This way of practising beats playing the piece from the first note to the last note, over and over and over again. Once a bad habit is established, it will be very difficult to rectify it, so please make sure that you are practising accurately right from the beginning, whenever you learn a new piece.
Try it, and let us know if it works for you.
2. Benefits of practising with a metronome
Throughout our years of teaching and doing piano accompaniment, we noticed that many students do not use the metronome and they dislike practising with the metronome.
The reasons they gave were many, such as “It’s too noisy”, “It’s very difficult”, “I can’t keep up with the metronome”, “The metronome is too distracting” or “It’s very boring”.
Well, sorry to say that, so long as you have a metronome or mobile phone metronome app in good working condition, the metronome is always right.
The purpose of the metronome is to keep your pulse steady. If you find the metronome too fast for you, it means that your speed is too slow. If you find the metronome too slow, it means that your speed is too fast. It’s that simple.
What you can do is to adjust the metronome speed to one which you are comfortable with (for example, a crotchet = 60), and start practising from there. Once you get the hang of it and is confident enough to play the piece a little faster, you can increase the metronome speed by a few clicks (for example, a crotchet = 64), then another few clicks (a crotchet = 68), and keep practising this way until you’re able to reach the speed stated in the music. From our experience, by the time you’ve reached the stated speed, assuming that you have been practising diligently with the metronome, you would have much better control of your speed. If you find yourself rushing through a piece or slowing down too much, turn on the metronome and keep it on until you are confident enough to keep a steady pulse without the help of a metronome.
Another benefit of practising with the metronome is that, no matter how nervous you are during exams, competitions or concerts, you will still be able to maintain a steady speed as the pulse is already ingrained in you. Not only that, the metronome will also enable you to notice if you are playing extra beats or not enough beats in a bar or passage. It will also help you to focus better while practising, and it will enable you to be more secure technically especially during technically demanding passages or pieces.
You can use the metronome not only for pieces. You can also use it when practising scales, arpeggios, and also any technique exercise, or whenever you find the need to.
Try it! It’s fun!
Note: When buying a metronome, get those battery- or electronically-operated ones. Better still, download any free metronome app from your smartphone. Those old-fashioned triangular metronomes which require you to wind it up from the side will not function accurately once the winding mechanism deteriorates over time.
3. Know your foreign terms
There are three main foreign languages often seen in music scores: Italian, French and German. The very basics of these foreign terms can be found in theory from Grade 1 to Grade 5. It is very important to know what these terms mean so that you are able to interpret the pieces accurately.
For example, if the speed of a piece is marked “allegro” (which means fast, lively) but you play the piece “andante” (at a walking speed) or “adagio” (slow and stately), this would affect the character of the piece. Even if you were to play all the notes 100% accurately, you will not be able to bring out the character of the piece accurately.
Similarly, if a piece is marked “maestoso” (majestically) but you play it “grazioso” (gracefully), the piece would sound wrong. When you think of the word “majestically”, the first image that pops out of your mind would be the King or Queen making a grand entrance. When you think of the word “gracefully”, the image that pops out would be that of a ballerina dancing gracefully across the stage. These are two very different images and characters.
Let’s imagine this scenario: you are learning how to cook, but you do not know the meaning of “boil”, “broil”, “bake”, “grill” and so on. Even if you have put in all the correct ingredients, if the cooking method is wrong, the dish will turn out wrong.
Whenever you encounter a foreign term, write down the meaning beside the word itself, so that each time you practise the piece you will be reminded of how to play it accurately. There are music dictionaries found in music stores, or you can simply Google the meaning of the word.
Following the markings in the piece shows your respect for the composer. The markings may come in many forms, such as speed markings, dynamics, articulations and phrasings. The composer took great pains to put in the markings, so please follow them religiously, assuming that there is no printing error in the edition that you are using. A performer or interpreter of a piece is like the “middle man”, passing the message from the composer to the listener. You wouldn’t want to pass the wrong message, would you?
4. Fun with scales and arpeggios
The word, “Scales” has long been the “enemy” of many students for years, even up till now. The single most common reason they gave for not practicing scales is, “scales are so boring”.
Yes, scales may seem boring, but do you know that in almost every piece of music, there are fragments of scales and arpeggios here and there? Three very good examples are Mozart’s Sonata in C, K545, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 for violin and piano, “Kreutzer” and Liszt’s Un Sospiro. If you know your scales and arpeggios inside out, you can immediately spot them in any piece and you will almost immediately know which fingerings to use. This will save you a lot of time and effort.
Scales and arpeggios are the most important, basic technical foundations. Below are a few ways to practice them to make them more interesting:
- Practice with dynamics. For example, you can use crescendo when ascending the scale, and decrescendo when descending, and vice versa. You can also alternate crescendos and decrescendos between alternate octaves to create a “swelling” effect. You can also practice one hand playing loud, the other hand playing soft.
- Practice with articulations. Instead of playing legato or staccato all the way, you can try alternating different octaves with different articulations. For example, you can play the first octave legato, the second octave staccato, the third octave legato and so on. You can also use a “two by two” method, for example, slur the first two notes, then staccato the 3rd and 4th notes, and slur the 5th and 6th notes, then staccato the 7th and 8th notes and so on. You can also practice this way “four by four”. To make it more challenging, you can practice each hand doing a different articulation, such as right hand legato, left hand staccato. You can also switch articulations between both hands at different octaves. This method is especially useful because from our past experiences with students, many have difficulty handling different articulations in both hands.
- Practice with different rhythms. Instead of playing every note at the same speed, try using dotted rhythms, triplets or alternating between groups of four quavers and four semiquavers, and vice versa. You can also invent your own rhythm.
- Practice a different scale in each hand. For example, left hand will play C Major and right hand will play G Major. Or left hand in D harmonic minor and right hand in F# Major. Or left hand in Ab melodic minor and right hand in Eb harmonic minor. This is very challenging and students need to know their scales really well before they can attempt this method fluently and successfully.
So now you know, practicing scales and arpeggios can be very fun and interesting. You can mix and match the above 4 methods or use them all together. Or simply use your imagination and create your own style and method. You can improve your technique and have fun at the same time. Try it!
5. The importance of visualisation in music
What is visualisation? Visualisation is the ability to see or form images in your mind. It is like watching a movie but it happens to play in your mind. It is usually an image of a future event. In your mind, you can see, hear, feel and smell. Almost everyone has visualised before, but most did it unconsciously. If you have never tried it before, below is a scenario that you can start with.
Close your eyes and imagine seeing yourself on stage, seating at the piano, playing to a full house at Carnegie Hall. It is your own solo recital and you gave a flawless and amazing performance. Feel the happiness and pride when the appreciative audience gives you a thunderous applause and a 5 minute standing ovation. See yourself standing on stage, grinning from ear to ear, soaking in all the attention, your heart filled with joy and glory. See your parents sitting in the audience. See them brimming with pride and clapping their hands till they are red and swollen. Hear the applause. Hear shouts of “Bravo”. Hear cameras clicking away. Feel the heat from the stage lights. Feel your perspiration dripping down from your face. Smell the bouquet of flowers you are holding.
You can create your own scenario. It’s up to you to decide what you want.
Visualisation is very important before one goes on stage for a performance, or before going into the exam room. You can do it a few days before or on the day itself. Its up to you. It works differently for different people.
You can also use visualisation to practice your instrument. Instead of physically playing a piece, read the score like how you would read a book, hear the piece and feel the expressions and emotions in your mind. In short, hear and see the piece in your mind as how you would play it physically. The moment you have a very clear mental idea of the piece, it will be much easier for you to execute it. Many successful performances are results of visualisation. It not only works for music, it also works for other areas of your life too.
Make visualisation a part of your life and you will soon see how much more you can achieve. Good luck!
6. Common mistakes made by students
Throughout our years of teaching and doing piano accompaniment, we notice some common mistakes made by students:
Counting: We notice that many students do not have the habit of counting. They tend to play what they think is correct. They do not take note of the time signatures and note values. If they do not know how to count a certain rhythm, they would usually fake through it and hope that it is correct. When we ask them to count out loud while playing simultaneously, they cannot do it. Their pulse would be like that of a drunkard, and their rhythm would be all over the place. This is why we encourage practising with the metronome as mentioned in article no. 2, “Benefits of practising with a metronome”.
Key-signatures and accidentals: We have seen students who do not take note of key-signatures, accidentals, or both. They do not bother to find out the key of the piece, for example, is this piece in D major, or G minor? And when they encounter accidentals, they usually forget this important rule: if the note in a particular bar has an accidental, this accidental applies to the rest of the exact same note in that bar. For example, if middle C in this bar has a sharp in front of it, the rest of the middle Cs in this same bar will be played as C sharps, assuming there is no change in accidental. Similarly, if the G above middle C has a flat in front of it, the rest of the exact same Gs in the same bar will be played as G flats. To remind yourself of any key-signature or accidental, simply take a pencil and write them in beside the “affected” notes. This way, you will always be reminded to play the notes accurately.
Not listening to themselves: Many students we’ve encountered practise their instruments without listening to themselves. They simply let their hands move automatically while staring blankly at the score. It is not surprising that they do not notice their mistakes and they keep practising the wrong things. One important thing to take note is that, if you do not bother to listen to your own playing, do not expect people to want to listen to you play. Simple as that. So if you want people to sit down and listen to you play, or even pay to attend your concert, then please start by listening to your own playing, and do your best to practise as accurately as you can.
Not finding out the meaning of foreign terms: Please refer to article no. 3, “Know your foreign terms”.
Very limited basic theory knowledge: Basic theory knowledge is very important. It can help you to understand the piece better. The fundamentals can be found in theory from Grade 1 to Grade 5. It is important to know the value of every note and rest, different time-signatures, key-signatures of all the scales, the technical names of the notes of a scale, the basic chords and many others. The theory books we recommend are Lina Ng’s theory books, Grade 1 to Grade 5. The instructions are easy to follow and the exercises are easy to do. After you have completed every grade, please do past years exam papers to test yourself. Start by choosing papers from the most recent years and work backwards, ie. 2016, 2015, 2014 and so on. You do not need to do all the way till year 2000. So long as you score 90 marks and above for every paper, you can proceed to the next grade.
7. How to choose a music teacher for your child
As parents, there is nothing more frustrating and annoying than hiring the wrong music teacher (MT) to teach your child.
Every month, you pay a few hundred dollars to a MT to teach your child a musical instrument. After some time, you may notice very little improvement in your child’s playing. You may also notice that your child has been playing the same pieces over and over again, or that your child is struggling with the instrument. But the MT still sings praises of your child, telling you how talented your child is. You could sense that something was not quite right, but you don’t know exactly what.
With so many MTs out there, what major qualities should parents look out for?
A. Qualifications + Background
Always check the qualifications and background of the potential MT beforehand as a MT will either make or break a student.
A MT who can teach well may not be able to play well, and a MT who can play well may not be able to teach well. The ideal is to have a MT who can teach well and play well.
When looking for a MT, find out how qualified the MT is, such as, is the MT a Grade 8 certificate holder, or a Diploma, Degree or Masters / PhD / Doctorate holder?
Having a Diploma, Degree or PhD does not guarantee that the MT would be able to teach well, or even teach at all, but having these qualifications does more or less ensure that the MT has a higher chance of knowing the fundamentals well enough to teach accurately. When in doubt, Google Search for more information on the MT. Ask around and find out as much about the MT as possible before deciding whether or not to hire him. This will save you plenty of time and money.
B. Experience + Fees
Parents have to ask: How many years has the MT been teaching? How experienced is the MT in teaching a particular instrument or a particular level? How much are the fees?
A young piano teacher in his mid-twenties recently returned to Singapore from the USA with a Masters Degree. With hardly any teaching experience, he immediately charged $150 per hour per lesson. His reason for this high rate was that he had a Masters Degree.
Similarly, a young cellist who recently graduated from XXX conservatory charges $200 per hour per lesson, simply because she is a full-time musician with XXX orchestra. It is unbelievable how she can charge such a high rate when she has yet to prove herself as a capable and responsible teacher.
Remember Point A?
Having impressive credentials does not guarantee that the MT is able to teach well. An “expensive” MT does not equate to an experienced and good teacher. Parents must not judge how good a MT is by the rate he charges.
C. Teaching Method
Every MT has his own teaching method. It is important to note that one size does not fit all, meaning that a good MT will not use one teaching method to teach every child. He has to look at your child’s strengths and weaknesses and decide on the best approach to teach your child.
He also has to take into consideration your child’s character. Is your child able to take criticisms? Is your child so sensitive that a little criticism will send him crying? For the former, a stricter and more direct approach could be used. For the latter, softening the words and attitude would be more appropriate.
Besides, a good MT will do his best to get to the root of any problem your child faces, and will do his best to solve it.
Please ensure that the MT teaches your child more than three exam pieces a year. Playing only three pieces a year is very boring. Even if your child were to score a Distinction for the exam, it does not mean anything if all your child ever did was to play three pieces for the entire year.
“Sensitivity” means how quickly the MT is able to detect your child’s mistakes.
When your child is playing for a potential MT during the initial meeting, observe what the MT says and does. Does the MT keep quiet and say nothing much, or does the MT point out immediately mistakes made by your child? After showing your child the correct way to play the piece, does your child play better or worse?
Ability to detect your child’s mistakes immediately shows that the MT is alert. Some MTs may allow your child to finish playing the piece before pointing out the mistakes. This is ok too. Most importantly, the MT must be able to pinpoint mistakes accurately and quickly.
A responsible MT ensures that your child has lessons regularly, and that your child makes constant progress. He will not “disappear” for a few weeks nor will he ask an “assistant” to take over his teaching job.
There is an exception if, right from the start, the MT tells you that he would be travelling overseas often to perform or conduct masterclasses, and your child may have to miss lessons once in a while. Are you ok with this? If yes, hire him. If not, look for someone else who is able to give regular lessons to your child.
F. Ability to demonstrate
A competent MT will be able to demonstrate on the instrument for your child. He doesn’t need to be as proficient as a world-class performer, but he should at least be able to demonstrate well enough to bring the message across to your child.