Mindset Practice Tips

Scaling Musical Mountains Of Mastery

Strategies To Teaching Children Music Without Overwhelm

Teaching music to children is highly rewarding yet extremely challenging if you have never done it.  There’s so much information to cover.  Where to start?  

As you progress in learning any new skill, fact or process, new vistas reveal themselves.  It’s like climbing the mountain of progress.  When you were at the bottom, you couldn’t even see that there were lakes, rivers, and other towns in the distance. Again, as you climb higher, you can now see over the next mountain range and then again new valleys and maybe even the ocean!  

The key to mastery in any subject is to know what you don’t know!

The path to mastery looks something like this crazy list below.  Try to follow along.

  • You don’t know – you are basically a newbie
  • You know – now you know, a little
  • You know you don’t know – you begin to realize what you don’t know
  • You don’t know what you don’t know – then you start to see there are things you probably don’t even know about
  • You know what you don’t know – ah, you figured out what you need to learn
  • You know you know – you have achieved some competence
  • You don’t know that you don’t know what you don’t know – but you still have blind spots.  You don’t even realize it!
  • You know that you don’t know what you don’t know – but now you know there’s a possibility of something else
  • You know what you don’t know that you didn’t know you even knew existed – and you now have something else to learn
  • You know you don’t know – and it never ends!

As a music teacher, I want to guide my student up the mountain.  But looking at that mountain can be very intimidating and scary!  To prevent being overwhelmed, I use blinders of a sort.  Something to get them not to look at the final goal, but to see just the next few steps in front of them.  

Strategies to Prevent Overwhelm In Reading Music

1) The Spotlight

One of the techniques I have used in the past, was a focused flashlight to shine a light on the small passage I wanted the student to focus on in the sheet music.  

A quick aside, I have often been the first person to notice a child’s need for eyeglasses.  Because I see the child every week and am seeing how they focus their eyes or if their nose is buried in the pages, I can usually alert the parents well before the school teachers or nurse.

2) Post-It notes and Pies

I should own stock in 3M already!  I go through reams of these every year!  The power of Post-Its is that they are removable and opaque.  I can cover up the entire page leaving just a “window of focus” for my student to see.  It has been hugely successful as the student then says something like, “Oh, is that all?  That’s easy!”  I can then either move the window or widen it as we progress.

For my younger students, I tell them that learning a song is like eating a pie.

What kind of pie do you like? What’s your favorite flavor of pie?

We go through all kinds of flavors. I’ve heard everything from apple pie to

pumpkin pie, to weird ones like salt caramel apple or oatmeal custard!  

Some strange pies out there.

Then I ask them, “Do you eat the whole pie in one bite?”

“No! Of course, not.”

“You take a slice, right?

“But do you eat the whole slice in one bite?”


“We take a bite, so here’s a little forkful.”

I then cover up the whole page and leave just a little “forkful” of music.

This can lead to fun rewards like a slice of pie if you practice well this week.

3) Bigger Is Better

By copying just a passage of the music and enlarging it to a huge size, it looks ridiculously easy!  I have done this with beginning music readers.  I also use it for memorization games.  You can see this previous post about the Hat Game/Dice Game.

4) Simplified Arrangements

Most of the sheet music for popular music is just not suitable for early beginners.  By using a music engraving software you can re-arrange the piece for your student.  Most of my young ones can’t spread their hands an octave, so just delete.  You can also enlarge the staff, colorize note-heads, do system breaks, and page breaks in more logical places.   Another thing is you can strip out any confusing symbols or terminology until you are ready to cover it.  For example, you may not want to use the word ritardando just yet, maybe write in “Slowing Down” instead.   I will devote a future article about tips for simplified arrangements.

What are your favorite strategies to scale the mountain of mastery?  Please share them in the comments below.

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How to make music practice effective – it can change your life

Men Wearing Makeup Playing Loud Guitars

When I was 12, I discovered something so fantastic, larger-than-life, and electrifying!

It was the rock band KISS.

It was colorful, loud, and crazy. But maybe even more, my parents hated it! All of a sudden, everything else faded away and I wanted to be one of these super-hero-like rock stars, slinging a guitar down at my knees with long hair blowing in the wind.

But I was an awkward, geeky, and lonely kid with thick glasses. And it was too late, wasn’t it? Didn’t anyone who became famous start when they were four years old?

So, I just consumed the music, learning the history of rock from the library books, magazines, and the radio. New York radio station WPLJ used to have a documentary series on the history of rock and I recorded every episode I could. It was pure gold!

The Itch To Play Guitar

I was itching to play guitar!

At 13, I discovered the Rolling Stones! I started digging the sounds of Cream, Led Zeppelin, and then learned about their influencers, people like John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson.  

[By the way, this has emerged as a major success pattern in my life. New interest? Do a deep historical dive and overview of the major influencers. Get the “meta knowledge” first. The big picture.]

Stairway To Heaven

One day, a kid in my neighborhood, Steve Watson, played a school concert with his band. They played “Stairway To Heaven.” I couldn’t believe it! It was like a bolt of lightning went through my whole body.

“If he could do it, then surely I can!

He hasn’t even been playing guitar for more than a year!”

Teaching Myself

I went home and picked up my Mom’s old nylon string folk guitar and began to teach myself. Since I was already playing alto sax since the fourth grade in the school band, I had some musical training. Plus, I had some guitar lessons at five, but that didn’t last.

The Lennon McCartney Guitar Course

I bought the Lennon & McCartney guitar course and started at page one. I was motivated and I started to practice for hours every day. I went through the book page by page and practiced getting each and every exercise and song smooth.

Rolling Over The Bumps

Along the way, I realized that I could get better faster if I didn’t just play the whole thing from start to finish. I could “roll over” those bumpy spots to make them smoother by just doing that isolated part again and again. By practicing the difficult bits, I progressed rapidly.

Catching Up

Within a few months I bought myself a $30 used and battered Hondo Les Paul style electric guitar (with a Tobacco Sunburst) and a cheap amp.  I started practicing up to 9 hours a day!  I was desperately trying to catch up to “everyone else who started at 5!”

Scales, Arpeggios and Exercises

While most kids learn by playing songs, I practiced scales, arpeggios, and exercises. I actually could not play a song from memory until years later!

A Music Practice Virtuoso

I wanted to get good fast and I did left-hand-only exercises, followed by right-hand-muted-picking exercises while watching television. It drove the family crazy. I became a practice virtuoso!

Practice and Life Skills

I never became that rock star. I was close, in that I was a television host for MTV as one of the first 3 VJs to launch their channel in Asia. I got a publishing deal and toured with my band, and I have had many other adventures in my career.


For a while, I felt like the character Zelig in Woody Allen’s film of the same name. It seems I was always on the edge of a new discovery: desktop publishing, television, MTV, film composing, the Internet, advertising and education.

The Practice Mindset

Each time I reinvented myself, it was with a “practice mindset.”

I asked myself questions like:

  • How can I master this material in the shortest amount of time?
  • Who are the role models I need to model?
  • What is the history of this discipline?

Where Mastery Happens

Today as a private music teacher, I work every day with young students from age 3 to 15. Each lesson is really a lesson in learning how to practice. The actual skill-building does not happen in the lesson. Mastery happens at home in the daily practice. The lesson is where we refine “how to practice.”

The Game Of Practice

I’ve just written a book on ways to encourage practicing a musical instrument.  It’s available right now on Amazon and is free as a launch promotion for the next four days.  In the book, you’ll learn more mindsets for practicing as well 53 tips to make practice fun.

Here’s some of the fun, unique and innovative things you will learn:

  • Why learning a song is like eating a pie
  • Why every music teacher should buy stock in 3M, the maker of Post-It notes.
  • How to use beans to motivate (or coins or candies)
  • How to help your child memorize a piece of music non-liinearly
  • Why there is a right way and a wrong way to praise
  • How to make practicing a repertoire like a game
  • Using practice stickers and much more…

You can download the book at Amazon.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments.

And thank you to all the great music teachers I’ve had along the way including:  Andy Blackett, Pete Brasch, Seth Shapiro, Dan Converse, Mark Elf, Conrad Cummings, Ron Sadoff, Jim Petrungaro, Pat Castle, Gene Bertoncini, Joe Lovano, and so many more.

Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset Music Teacher Secrets Practice Tips

My piano students keep quitting

I’ve been talking to a lot of music teachers all over the world.  A common complaint is that there’s “too many distractions” in students lives nowadays.  They blame the Internet, or the video games, or soccer or Instagram or other social media.

In my 8 years of running my kid-focused music studio, I have rarely experienced anyone quitting due to distractions or other things.  Maybe it’s because I interview the parents and make them know what the expectations are.  Maybe because I charge more than a lot of other teachers.

What I think it really is, is having a plan.  Having a clear plan of what to teach each and every child every lesson.

Because I focus on such young children starting at 3 1/2 or 4, I really had to invent a lot of my own methods.  Over the years this method has grown and my teaching lab of daily lessons has honed it to a codified, powerful, and engaging system of teaching.

Piano Lesson Practice Tips

Why Daily Practice For Piano Is So Important And Some Tips

Download this free practice chart for piano

When learning any new skill or endeavor, creating a rhythm of daily practice is the most important.  Why?  By having the same pattern everyday, you create a habit and that’s hard to break – even when you don’t feel like it.  Think about brushing your teeth.  Because you started this routine every morning since you were little, you now have this habit – a good one – that you don’t even have to think about it.  It’s the same with learning piano.

If you just find a time of day when you can practice even just 5 to 10 minutes, then this routine becomes a habit.  My son, who is now 10, started this routine with me when he was 5.  He’s always been an early riser and so mornings are the best for him to practice.  We did make one request, which was more for our neighbors – to please only begin at 8am on weekdays and 9am on weekends.  So now, we hardly ever have to remind him to practice on a daily basis.  It just happens.

Think about the best time for your child.  Is it right before dinner?  Or after?  Or right after school?  Or perhaps it’s first thing in the morning with headphones?

By keeping your practice routines at the same time of day, you are making it so much easier to create a daily rhythm, a routine.  And 5 minutes per day is far better than one day at 3 hours!  Why?  Because it’s the building up of finger patterns, muscle memory and conceptual understanding.  Plus, if you make practice time fun, then it’s also great bonding time for you and your child.  More on this in a future post.

Another little tip to get kids to practice:  sticker charts.  Kids love stickers and if you give them a chart to fill up with beautiful stickers – one per session – they’ll always want to practice.   Here’s a practice chart you can download and print at home.

And here’s a video of my son Alejandro practicing Octopuses Garden at 7.

Practice Tips

Top 10 Practice Tips for Young Piano Students

  1. Location! Location! Location!  – put the keyboard or piano in a central part of your home where everyone spends most of their time.  You will be amazed at how your child will want to show you what they’ve learned!  Family concerts and impromptu practice is still practice and time enjoying the instrument.  So many times I’ve seen parents put the keyboard in the basement playroom only to find that practice motivation to be so difficult.  Of course!  It’s like being banished to the practice dungeon where no one else can hear you!
  2. Set Practice Time At the Same Time Everyday – by setting the same time for practice daily, you create a habit and a routine.  It’s like brushing your teeth.  You never forget to brush your teeth, do you?
  3. Work in Small Bite Sized Chunks of Material – I always tell my students, learning a song is like eating a pie…you don’t take it all in one mouthful.  You cut slices and then take small forkfuls to eat it.  Work on your pieces in small sections, very small for young children.  Micro-steps is how we learn and it never feels overwhelming.
  4. Work On The New Lesson and Review the Old – by always focusing on new stuff first, you constantly are improving.  Review the old pieces.  Have fun and make time to just play.
  5. Sit At The Right Height – Make sure your child is seated at the proper height.  This should be where his/her elbows are level with the keyboard surface.  Piano playing takes place from the arms.  If you are just using your fingers, you’ll be developing terrible habits and perhaps carpal tunnel syndrome years from now.
  6. Praise, Praise Praise! – everytime your child plays something, make sure you applaud, praise the effort and gently correct any mistakes.  Be honest about mistakes, but praise the effort.  If you just praise the results no matter how bad, you will start to lose their trust.  Mistakes NEED to be made and if you have a child who is a perfectionist, try celebrating the mistakes with a high five.  But aim at improving them.  Practicing a musical instrument is extremely high discipline and we need to make mistakes to improve.  It builds character.  Here’s a great article in the NY Times about character and grit being essential for success.
  7. Don’t Over Practice – daily short practice is far better than a long cram session.  Daily practice builds upon the previous sessions and provides the right time interval for your brain to make some new connections and muscle memory to set in.
  8. Practice What You Don’t Know, Instead of What You Know – many children seem to like to go back to the beginning every time they make a mistake.  What starts to happen then is that they know the first part of the song incredibly well, and the next problematic section very poorly.  Get in the habit of not practicing from the start of the piece.  Break it up into parts and shuffle the order.  Start on the hard part.  This is a great way to start memorizing the piece as well.
  9. Set A Goal For Each Practice Session – what do you and your child want to accomplish in this next 10, 20 to 30 minutes at the piano?  Even if it’s something small like get the right hand fingering of the first part of this song.
  10. Celebrate! – Every achievement needs to be celebrated.  The bigger the achievement, the bigger the reward.  This is true in life.  It makes for good psychology and self-worth.  Congratulate your child and yourself often.  Go out for an ice cream after mastering that first piece!  Give a special sticker for completing that phrase.  I always give my children stickers for their lesson accomplishments and a certificate at the recitals.