Last week, my wife and I went uptown to the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. We went to see Latin History for Morons, the one-man Broadway show by John Leguizamo.
For those who don’t recognize his name, he is a Colombian/Puerto-Rican American comedian and actor seen in movies such as Super Mario Bros, Moulin Rouge, John Wick, and many others. But perhaps he is most famous as the voice of Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age movies.
Here’s a trailer – you can see actually see the full show on Netflix.
The show is funny, poignant, and troubling at the same time. It is filled with truths about the invisibility of the contributions of Latinos to America.
Growing up, I too felt invisible many times.
Now, being invisible may not seem like such a big problem. But if you don’t have proof that someone like you has tread the path, then you have internal doubt.
It’s a psychological problem; an issue of mindset.
Here’s an example of this from athletics. Before Roger Bannister broke the track record for running a minute in under four minutes, no one believed it was possible. Within two months of his record at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, someone else also ran a sub-four-minute mile. Since then, many others have done so.
On a logical level, we know that just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But it’s so much harder to believe.
One of my greatest mentors was my high school music theory teacher Andy Blackett. He had this uncanny ability to always make you believe more in yourself, to dig deeper, and to know that it could be done.
“You can do it.”
In the world of music education, I still see a great division between the haves and have-nots. Many of the first-world cultures have realized the secret power of music education and have made that a mandatory part of growing up. Through learning music, you become empowered.
But in my travels throughout other parts of the world, I’ve seen a gap.
And it’s completely understandable. Who cares about music lessons when you’re still worrying about covering the basics of food, shelter, and clothing?
But as the world rapidly moves to a massive middle class, the opportunity to close the equity gap only increases.
As Leguizamo says in his show, “the future is Latino”. I’d like to contribute to that future.
I’m super thrilled to announce my songbook Piano For Kids Vol. 1 is now available in Spanish.
It’s called Piano Para Niños Vol. 1. I hope this to be the first of the entire series. And yes, I’m still working on the English Piano For Kids Volume 4, with Volumes 5 and 6 in the wings.
If you have my English version, then it’s almost exactly the same. A few of the songs had to be rewritten as the original English didn’t make sense in the Spanish context. I’ve also included popular Spanish folk song Los Pollitos.
I’m hoping this book series can help to unlock the potential of millions of children in the Spanish-speaking world.
“You can do it!”
P.S. As a self-published author, it would help greatly if you could leave a positive review. Thank you!
Though she had already been working with young music students, Carol found that it was often difficult to transition them from early childhood classes to learning to read and play instruments. That’s when she came across the idea of using color as learning scaffolding and The Musicolor Method Masterclass.
Carol has since adapted the Musicolor Method to work with her youngest preschool students, as well as some of the elementary school kids. She loves how they take to color and can learn to play faster and with more fun.
Carol Koczo Manassas, VA
First instrument: Piano Age I started playing music: 8 Other instruments: Voice Number of years teaching: 35+ Number of current students: 15
Interviewer: Christy Goldfeder
Currently listening to:
All kinds of music: pop, Broadway, classical.
I’ve taught music as a side job for years
Many times, I was also involved in choral groups. I have always been involved in music in some capacity. For a long time, I might have just one music student while I was working outside the home.
I got really interested in History Preservation, and I got a degree in it, but it didn’t really help me get into the workforce. I kind of fell back into music again and started focusing on it more.
Right now, I teach all levels
I know one of Andrew’s philosophies is to focus your attention on one set of students.
For a while, I has a school like that. I had been focusing mostly on the 8-12 year olds.
When I started as a private contractor with Take Lessons, it opened the door to any age from as young as 5 to 60. That kind of changes with teaching also. In some ways, it makes it more challenging and a little harder to keep track of who is where and when.
I wanted to focus more on younger students.
I started searching for something to make it easier for me to teach younger students, because they were so challenging. I hadn’t really taught that age before. So, that is what led me to The Musicolor Method Masterclass.
I spent a lot of time looking at and reading some of his articles about his philosophy and his approach.
I was searching for something that would help me, and I think it was during those articles I began thinking this may be something I am interested in.
I just knew it. It was a gut feeling that this was something that I thought I could work with, I liked the overall approach, the structuring of the program. I think it was, you know, I think I just thought this is pretty neat. So I am going to jump out of my box and try it.
I started using the color for different ages
I started using it with 8 year olds and even one of my 12 year old students. I adapted The Musicolor Method to different ages. Most everyone of them really took to the color really quickly. It was like “Oh, that’s easy. I can identify that the red is C and I can look at it and match colors.”
It was so easy for the kids, and I kind of thought they would take to it easily.
Prior to finding The Musicolor Method, a lot of what I had seen with the color was connected to rhythm—like with Boomwhacker sticks. They’re long tubes, and what you can do is use them for counting and for music.
That is another reason why I decided to take The Musicolor Method Masterclass. I realized that Andrew had actually put color into a piano format and he had evolved it so that we could use both hands.
The business lessons helped me think differently about my teaching
I am an analytical person. I think reading some of his thoughts, how he wanted to approach and structure the program and the philosophy behind it was beneficial. It helped me organize and look at my teaching in a different way.
I noticed right away that the program was very organized. Very thoughtful in the way in which he put together his program. I did like the approach overall.
It’s been well worth the investment
I know he has added things since I took the Masterclass, for example, when to buy your first piano and a few other things. All of this is helpful.
He created the whole package. He is always making changes too, and he is always presenting information differently. I couldn’t quite believe how much information and work he had put into his program. It’s been worth the investment.
Overall, I am a big fan.
Another thing that I liked that I haven’t done, is I like that he included some of the other string instruments in the program. It’s something that’s just a little different for younger students to be exposed to. I like that the information is available if I do want to use it.
I know this is a complicated process, but I am very pleased with everything he has done and continues to do. I am glad I did it.
Why I’d recommend The Musicolor Method Masterclass
I never realized when I was taking piano that it was that hard to teach. There have been a few times that I have looked at students and said, “Hmm. How did I learn this?” I think it is harder to teach than one would think.
I think Andrew’s approach has made it easier. You don’t have to use so many words, you rely more on the visuals.
There are a lot of layers to the Musicolor Method. Andrew has put a lot of thinking into, how and when you want to bring a certain idea into the lessons.
I think putting all this together into this format has been really good. I don’t think I could have done it.
After a long recovery from surgery, Anne was wondering if she would ever be able to have the stamina and drive to teach music again. She reconnected to her love of early childhood education, and her passion for playing, when she came across the Musicolor Method.
Now, Anne has reinvented herself as a private music teacher to preschool and elementary age children. She’s got a thriving, part-time business with a waiting list of eager students.
Anne Vardanega Sydney, Australia
First instrument: Piano Age I started playing music: 7 Number of years teaching: 38 Number of students before The Musicolor Method: 3-4 Number of current students: 14, plus waiting list
Interviewer: Christy Goldfeder
Currently listening to:
Bohemian Rhapsody movie soundtrack.
I’ve loved music since childhood
I started learning piano at 7 years old. I studied for 5 years, and I took exams for it in high school for what we call here in Australia, the HSC. In the U.S., I suppose you would call it your high school graduation.
I didn’t actually think I was clever enough to study music to graduate from high school. But I was encouraged by an inspiring and dedicated teacher who told me that I could do it.
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher
At University, I studied early childhood education, and I included music in my teaching studies.
I was actually a musicology major. I didn’t have to actually do a performance, but I had to do musicology arranging and composing. I absolutely loved it.
Professionally, I focused on classroom music. I played the piano, the guitar and sang with my students.
I had my son when I was 30. I taught early childhood music classes with him. He was able to come along when he was 2-5 years old.
My son’s early music lessons were a disaster
He started at age 4 with the piano, and it really didn’t work. At that time, there didn’t seem to be childhood classes that bridged early music and formal lessons. If he had the Musicolor Method back then, he would have loved it.
My son started studying guitar in school. Now, he and his wife are professional musicians living in New York.
I started performing later in life—teaching was always first
My son inspired me to learn bass guitar and voice and start performing in my 40’s. I was the bass player, backup singer, and music director of the church.
When my son was older, I got a job at his school teaching High School music and as the performing arts convenor. It was a role that I loved.
I was helping students perform for their exams, their performances and prepare for their graduation. At the end of the year they were doing performances.
My son and his fiancee (now wife) said, “Why don’t you start off because you have your early childhood background, your general education background. Why don’t you start teaching piano?” So I taught Kinder Music and Music Theory after the school year was over.
The Musicolor Method created the next phase of my career
I was recovering from hip replacement surgery, and I was actually feeling quite down and out. I was thinking that I might not be able to teach any more.
Andrew contacted me through LinkedIn, and he sent me information about his program.
As a parent and a teacher, I already knew there was a gap for young musicians. That’s what I had experienced with taking my son to piano lessons at age 4 – they were way too hard and really turned him off learning piano.
I could see the value in the Musicolor Method right away.
Plus, I have always loved color. If I showed you around my house see you got bright color paintings. The creative use of color in the Musicolor Method really appealed to me too. And it has been fantastic.
The kids are engaged and excited by the colors
I just loved the colors, and the children took to it straight away. My students started singing a lot more, which appealed to me as an early childhood teacher.
We love singing songs and they loved collecting the ribbons. I made a fun folder for them. We could go slowly through it, it didn’t matter how long a child had to stay. I could slowly go with the child depending on how they were developing.
It bridges beautifully with the early childhood years of music with 3-4 year olds. It’s the perfect solution until they’re a little older and can go on to reading music.
I believe there are still not a whole lot of good resources that bridge that Kinder music phase in young children. A lot of books have young students playing on the black keys. I do utilize that as one tool for visualizing different positions on the piano, but it gets boring, and it is not as creative as the colors.
The colors inspire creativity and compositions
I do integrate composition a lot in my lessons as well because the colors make it so easy for the children to write something. I am putting together a book actually, to show Andrew what our studio here has composed.
The kids get inspired by something that happened at school, or being on a holiday, or even by the stuffed toys I have in my studio. They use all of them to write song.
Even if they are struggling with playing with five fingers, they can still be creative. I love that. If they were learning traditionally they wouldn’t feel so good about themselves as musicians.
My part-time roster is full
I have students from age 4-9 on the Musicolor Method, and I have some older students who have gone on to other instruments but they come back to practice with me. But they actually started with the Musicolor Method.
I use it to build that transition solidly so that my students don’t lose that love for music or say it’s too hard.
The Musicolor Method helps connect with older students too
One student is turning 11 this year. I have actually said to him, “I think you need a better piano teacher now because I just focus on early childhood.”
But he’s still with me, learning harder songs like Star Wars and Harry Potter. We’re also learning chords, Beatles songs, and having fun singing together. I think that is quite interesting that he could really go to a different teacher, but for him, it is about the connection and the fun and creative process. He can play without the colors, but he still enjoys that creative side.
There are two older girls, and they are playing clarinet and saxophone. They are in grade 6. They are both in bands and they come back to me to practice. I don’t play clarinet or saxophone, but they feel confident enough with me to come back for me to help them practice. Their moms pay me to help them, I feel that connection is there to support them in their music journey.
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!”
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.
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.
True or False: There is usually only one right way to do something.
Try to answer that quickly and without much thought. Which are you? I’ll get to why in a second.
I just returned from my fourth trip to Colombia, South America, where my wife has a very large and loving family – what a beautiful, magical country! It was a nice break and it gave me a lot of time for reflection, meditation, and reading. It gave me the mental space to get curious again about things I had forgotten about. One of these things was how I’ve noticed the shifting attitudes on music education.
In the USA, I’ve been seeing more media coverage about the positive aspects of music education. But at the same time, I’ve been noticing a difference in mindset among music teachers, parents, and society in general.
The first mindset is like this:
Music education is a nice way to give a rounded education and especially if you want to be a professional musician
You should teach classics first… and then branch out from there
There are strict technical exercises that produce the desired results
There is usually only one right way to do things
There are tried and true methods that have been handed down through the centuries
The second mindset is like this:
Music education is a great way to teach life skills regardless of professional career choice
Music lessons are like exercises for physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development
All music styles/genres are valid
Technique can be very personal
There is no single right way to do anything
Music is constantly changing and so is the art of teaching with new methods coming online everyday
And it is the two mindsets that can sometime cause friction. I’ve seen it in forums where teachers have criticized and bashed each other based on difference of mindset. In many ways, these two mindsets are the basic differences in society. The first is “change is uncommon – let’s stick with the good old days” and the second is “Change is the norm – let’s embrace change.”
What Factors Contribute to Each of These Mindsets?
When I was young, my parents were more of the first mindset. They saw music as a way to a “well-rounded education.” But when I started to get “obsessed” with music, they became concerned. Being immigrants from Thailand and Korea, they wanted a safe and secure career for me. I had been brainwashed with a mantra. If someone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would just blurt out, “A doctor, lawyer, or an engineer.” It was automatic. My parents kept trying to instill in me that music was just a hobby. And yet, you can’t deny your true calling. My brother, sister, and I are all actively engaged in the arts! It’s kind of funny now, but it was pretty hard as a teenager.
In Colombia, I asked some of my wife’s relatives about music instruction and it was still a pretty rare thing. While Colombia is booming and getting international attention as a top destination for both travel and business, life can still be hard. Good jobs are in demand. I heard many stories of young graduates waiting years to get a job in their chosen profession or going back to school to switch professions. It seemed that getting a job came down to luck and knowing the right people. So in an environment like that, who has the time and money to put towards music education? This is the first mindset.
Contrast that mindset with the one prevalent in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, where there is almost a de facto understanding that private music instruction is just a standard part of growing up. There is no question you will be enrolled in music, dance, art, sports, or a combination of all of them! Most of my students are so fully booked that switching a time slot is a major hurdle. It’s like those puzzles where you can only slide one piece to move another!
Why Has Music Education Become an Afterthought?
I am more of the second mindset and would like you to consider shifting with me. As a parent, I believe that music education and arts instruction are an essential part of my child’s life. I began my whole teaching studio focused on children because of this. My wife also shares this thinking and has made it her life’s mission working at multiple non-profit organizations throughout her career. Currently she is Senior Director of Operations at ExpandED Schools whose mission is to expand the school day to include more extra-curricular activities that are just as important as math, science, and reading.
You may have heard of a movement known by the acronym STEM – which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. There has been a cry for more of this educational push in the United States as they say we are lagging behind in these skills in the workplace. This to me is like the first mindset.
STEAM is a counter-movement which adds an “A” for Arts. But I would still include the language arts of writing and reading which are inextricably linked to thinking. And of all the Arts, music alone has been proven to be the most beneficial for brain development. As the late Steve Jobs was quoted as saying on what makes Apple great, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
What Makes Music Education So Important?
Besides all the things you’ve heard before like life skills of focus, discipline, persistence, grit, and study skills, I believe music is just part of our world. It is in our DNA! It is the voice of God that is vibrating through us to create everything we experience. By learning the laws of music, you align yourself with the universal principles of creation. It’s like the sea we swim in.
Music is pure emotion and we all have our own music. By connecting the internal music with the external mechanisms of creating, producing, and sharing music, we are surely becoming more harmonious, beautiful, and sensitive people. And isn’t that what we all want? World peace. Our peace. A beautiful heart.
So if you are more of the first mindset, here’s a challenge. Try on the second mindset as if you were trying on a new coat. Wear it for a few days, weeks, or months. Then, decide whether to keep it.
I leave you with a quote from Heraclitus: “The only thing that is constant is change.”
It’s All About Choosing The Right Music At The Right Moment
As a music teacher, your job is not only to educate but also to inspire. To truly connect your student to music, you need to know a bit about them. What kind of music do they like? Do they have favorite artists or genres? But what about the earliest experiences of music?
Be The Guide For Your Students
Preschoolers and young children are usually blank slates with little music exposure and are looking to you to introduce them to the world of music. It’s your job to play, perform and recommend playlists for them at home. The huge success of the Suzuki method is driven by the use of the pre-recorded music that you “program” the child from an early age, just like listening to a language tape.
Playlists for Music Students
I created some suggested listening and singing songs for young children a long time ago. These were all songs I sang to my son when he was a toddler and what they share are simple melodic structures and very simple harmonies, often just two chords, the tonic and the dominant. They are also just great for introducing early students to listening to music and eventually learning these tunes on their instruments.
Order of Listening
After folk songs, an introduction to early Classical and Baroque music is a great choice. Actually, following the full history of music makes a lot of sense as it is builds upon itself developing greater harmony, color tones, length, etc. And, you are doing a wonderful history of music in a nutshell, whether the student knows it or not.
Songs To Sing To Your Toddler – Some Suggestions
Hush Little Baby
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Kum Ba Ya
Kookaburra (usually thought to be an Australian folk song, it was written by a camp counselor in 1932)
Michael Row The Boat Ashore
French Children’s Song (Petit Papa)
Oh How Lovely Is The Evening
You Send Me (Sam Cooke)
Zippity Doo Dah (By The Sherman Brothers for Disney)
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Simon & Garfunkel)
Under The Boardwalk (The Drifters)
This Little Light of Mine
When MTV Used To Play Music!
I used to be a VJ for MTV. (That’s Video Jockey for Music Television for those of you who weren’t around when the television channel actually played music videos all day, everyday.) What most people didn’t realize, I had no influence on what was played and when. It was all done by the “programming department” who decided which videos to play and what order to play them in and how often.
Programming Your Child/Student
“Programming” is what you are actually doing by introducing great music to your students.
A real DJ (or VJ) would be making song selections based on mood, audience and the emotional arc desired. I’ve done this a few times in my life, and it’s a thrill to see how you can shape the crowd based on song selections and timing. You can really bring a crowd to a frenzy!
Student Preferences Lead To Enthusiasm
Well, the same thing happens when you are planning your lessons. After a while, say a few months, you are going to have a good feel for who your students are. You should be noticing what types of pieces they really respond to and start offering more in that direction.
Older students are usually beginning to show real preferences and some may have a favorite artist, rock band or Broadway Show with songs they want to learn.
Music Teacher As DJ
This past week, as I’ve been prepping for lessons, after many students took the summer off, I’ve gone through my past lesson notes to see what could be that perfect next song for the student? What song would offer a new challenge that is not too overwhelming? And I realized, it’s just like being a DJ, only on a longer macro scale.
Song Selection Examples
My 11 year old piano student K was learning “Titanium” by David Guetta which led me to “Flashlight” performed by Jesse J as heard in the movie Pitch Perfect 2. A perfect segue!
My 8 year old piano student L was so into “Maps” by Maroon 5 and “Happy” by Pharell Williams…what should come next? Hmm. Still programming that one for later today.
What songs have you used to inspire and what did that lead to? Please share in the comments below.
I can’t ever recall a time when I’ve had so many requests for the same music from virtually all of my students. Disney’s film Frozen and it’s incredibly catchy music has captivated every kid I know. And especially since the songwriters live in my neighborhood!
I’ve taught Let it Go (you can see my easy arrangement here) so many times that I’ve had to try to restrict how many play it at the recital. (Boy that would be tough to sit through!)
Here’s something that is perfect for a young 5 year old girl, Do You Want To Build A Snowman? I’ve greatly simplified it for my student Stella, and now you can teach it to your kids.
With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.
Repetition is the Mother of Skill
How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived! He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.
As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.
Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.
The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.
The famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,
“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”
You could say the same of music. Know the notes.
How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.
Tell A Story
To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.
Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature. Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story. Take a look.
I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!
Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”
So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.
Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.
Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.
Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.
How To Memorize Music
In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.
Chunking It Down
To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.
An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.
At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.
Writing as a Memory Aid
Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.
Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice
without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.
I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!
My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!
An Odyssey, A Memory Palace
There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.
There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.
The Benefits of Memorization
Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!
Many of you are struggling with playing cleanly and smoothly. This simple technique can help you to relax your fingers to pay more fluidly. Developed by Glenn Gould’s mentor and longtime teacher Chilean pianist Alberto Guerrero, it aims to retain a relaxed muscle memory. You can learn more about this in the wonderful documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.
One of the core concepts of my approach to teaching music to young children is the use of colors to represent pitches. I’ve used this with great success on both piano, guitar and in reading music notation.
Those of you studying with me have already seen my piano covered with translucent tape and my guitar with colored stars up the fretboard.
Here’s a link to that highlighter tape that I use. Thanks to my son’s first grade teacher Melissa for the great tip.