Mount Rush-no-more….And How to Get There

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A teacher recently asked on one of those wonderful internet music teaching forums how to get her middle school and younger students not to rush in recitals. I saw lots of interesting and inventive answers about metronomes, playing with the cd, etc., but reading those answers, I realized that my younger students don’t rush when playing in public, even after they make some pretty egregious mistakes. I then polled many of my recitals’ spectators one by one to see if they noticed anyone rushing. Nope. Want to know my secret?

Here it is, but first I have a confession to make.

I don’t use a metronome on my students.

I can hear the collective gasp all over the English-speaking music world. But I really don’t. And here’s why.

First of all, time doesn’t really exist – it’s a perception. Haven’t you noticed that when you’re having fun, time flies? Conversely, ask any woman who has been through natural childbirth how long the minute (only a minute!) that a labor contraction actually lasts seems to last. Have you also noticed that an accompanist trying to hold back a rushing student usually doesn’t succeed and winds up running after him? So all the metronomes in the world aren’t going to help if, once they’re turned off, the student’s perception of time is skewed. So why is this? What messes with a student’s sense of time?

BODY MEMORY (it may not be remembering what you want it to):

A well known violinist, who I won’t name as I haven’t asked his permission, once told me that he had decided to learn the Barber 3rd movement (presto in moto perpetuo), listened to recordings, put them away and started practicing. But no matter how much he practiced, he couldn’t get it up to tempo. He then listened again to the recordings and discovered that he was playing much faster than those recordings. His conclusion was that the body has a memory and plays up to it’s habitual level of discomfort. Students usually start rushing when they get to the difficult parts, even when they are no longer difficult, as body memory takes over – it isn’t happy until it’s miserable sort of thing. So make students aware of this phenomenon, remind them that the once tricky parts are no longer difficult and not to let their bodies dictate tempo. Remembering to breathe through it helps, too.

THEY STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT THEY”RE DOING AND START THINKING ABOUT THEMSELVES:

“Uh-oh, I made a big mistake (memory lapse, wrong note, whatever they find upsetting).” And things go in a downward spiral from there. They get flustered, convinced that the whole world heard that mistake, it’ll be on the front page of the NY Times, and so on. What has happened here is that they have forgotten two cardinal rules of playing music in public:

  1. Think about what you’re doing, what you’re going to do without ever (and this is the hard part) thinking about what you have just done. I liken it to driving down the street while looking back to see where you have just been. “What’s going to happen?” I ask my students. “Disaster,” they answer. Upon getting flustered, adrenalin flows and they want to get the whole thing over with as fast as they can. Ah, the poor accompanist. (I pay mine very well, just in case.)
  2. Think about the music, not yourself. Allowing yourself to lose control means you let that monkey in your head take over and you are only thinking of yourself instead of the music. And that is really a very serious thing, indeed. To transmit your anxiety, your thoughts, your fears is not why we play music for others.

THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY REALLY WANT TO ACHIEVE

If they don’t know what they want, how are they going to get it? Sometimes, students don’t have  clear ideas what they want to do with a piece. Just hearing it a million times isn’t enough. Playing by rote is not interpreting the music. And you can ask even rank beginners to interpret, have their own ideas and be aware of rhythm and pacing, among other things.

THEY RUSH WHEN THEY PRACTICE

They need to be reminded that how they practice is how they’re going to play and to always remember that they’re playing for the universe, not themselves. Music is something you do every time you play a note, even a scale, and deserves respect. A metronome doesn’t teach you this.

THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY ARE REALLY DOING WHEN THEY ARE PERFORMING. Continue reading

6 August 2018

I’m Sick of Being the Expert

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On a teaching forum a totally exasperated and earnest teacher asked what to do with an 8 year old, disruptive, rude and disrespectful kid. Oh boy, have I been there!

The first step is to decide that this child isn’t a problem but has a problem, or better, a series of problems.

What could they be? He is really smart, knows he doesn’t know everything but won’t admit it, doesn’t have the discipline to accomplish what he wants, doesn’t like authority figures telling him what to do, his mind moves much faster than his body could ever do, he can’t control himself well (and he knows it), and he is precocious in some ways but is still a little boy. And this is just for starters. He may also really want to play the violin but doesn’t want to let on (that would give you power), is afraid he can’t do it and doesn’t like failure. In fact, he’s terrified of it. This kid is a mess and if someone doesn’t help him get a handle on himself quick, he could be headed for trouble.

What to do?

Well you could pull the old “I’m the boss here and you’ll do as I say, or else,” schtick but it probably won’t work in cases like this and you’ll wind up “firing” the student or getting fired yourself. Or you could try this: Continue reading

27 June 2018

Must Passion Become a Profession?

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“I have a passion for music. I don’t want a music degree because I don’t want to be a concert musician [as in a solo artist] and I can’t really afford it. What do I do with my passion for music? I’d like to generate an income from it. although I already have a job outside the music profession. What to do when you have a passion burning in you?”

An interesting dilemma for a grown-up would-be professional in the music world.

Why should you do anything with a passion but enjoy it? As a teacher I hear this a lot from my students: they love music, ergo they should make a living from it. I discourage any of my young students from devoting themselves only to music. I firmly believe you have to have Plan B. So much can go wrong in the life of a musician from slicing a finger and occupational injuries to the unfortunately common occurrence of just plain not being able to find a job. Some of my students get misty eyed and their lower lips tremble when I say this, but it’s my moral obligation to tell them the truth, even if they don’t want to listen.

What we often forget is that music makes everything better. Until it doesn’t. That is, it isn’t music that’s the problem, it’s thinking that our passion must be our profession. I would like to remind everyone that lots of people have a passion for cooking or the, er, amatory arts but that doesn’t mean they must make a profession of it… Why do young musicians feel this way?

Part of the problem is their teachers, both passively and actively.

1. Passive encouragement. You, the teacher, are a wonderful person, you play divinely well, you probably perform a good deal, or you make sure your students go to concerts where they see glamorous soloists. You are the very embodiment of what a musician (and hopefully a teacher) should be. You are a fantastic example – and there’s the rub. One of the reasons you teach is probably (not necessarily) because you can’t make a good enough living playing. Your students don’t notice this. They just see the romantic, glamorous part of you that they want to see and, let’s face it, you probably don’t go out of your way to discourage it either. Ego alert! It’s also a wonderful affirmation of our teaching that our students want to follow in our footsteps.

2. Active encouragement: (You) “OMG, this is a fantastic talent which must be developed at all costs. He/she’s the 21st’ century answer to Heifetz!” The only problem is that we may forget that there are a lot of fabulously talented young virtuosos out there who can’t get a decent job or develop a satisfying and remuniterive solo career. And we often forget one other even more important thing, in my view: if a student has a talent for a musical instrument, he probably has talents for other things that should be at least explored if not developed. If we insist that our students (and their parents) dedicate themselves body, heart, soul and bank account to music, then we may be doing them a disservice. We must also remember how easy it is to convince parents that they have a wonderful prodigy on their hands (even if it isn’t true). It takes very little to turn a perfectly normal mom into a stage mother. So we must tread carefully. Do we really want to encourage another Lang Lang (with corresponding father)? In my experience, for many being a professional musician is often a vocation or a calling, much like becoming a priest, and there’s little a teacher or parent can do to discourage this – but we have to be on guard about unduly influencing those on the fence. The fact that a student “can” doesn’t mean she “should.”

Nourishing a passion and making income from it are often two different things. No one should Continue reading

21 May 2018