JKM Turns Four!

So...I haven't written since January (my god) and my only excuse is that I am genuinely insanely busy, but the real reason is probably I'm just not that great at staying on top of my blog, but I do always pay my phone bill on time and you can't have everything. 

So let's ignore all that and start with yay! JKM is four years old! To be fair, JKM turned four some time back in July but the aforementioned busyness distracted me from the fact. I think in the grand scheme of things, four years isn't that long but then again I've never run a business for that long before so why not celebrate?

Some of my students I've had the whole four years, some from before I started working for myself, and I'm lucky enough to find new students every year. I've just recently booked in my Spring concert and I'm going to have almost twice as many students performing as I did last year. Underneath the stress of planning (will there be enough chairs??) I am quietly very proud of myself and loudly exceptionally proud of my students. 

One of my favourite things about the concert is the number of compositions my students perform. The students who generally perform at the concert are between 5 and 16 years of age (I can never convince my older students somehow...) and almost all of them this year will be performing at least one of their own compositions.  

I've spoken before about how composition and improv are two disciplines of music that are very close to my heart. My most recent thing is to see how close I can come to composing in the style of some of my favourites (Yann Tiersen, Einaudi, Philip Glass etc) and improv is always just the easiest way to express everything all the time. I used to only compose for myself (fastest way to improve your notation theory, trust) but with such a broad student base I find it hard to find music, especially for my younger students, to fit everyone's taste without giving everyone the same songs. Add to this tailoring music for an individual student's level and abilities? That's a tricky biscuit my friend.

Thus (love using thus) last year I really got into composing for my students. I can shape a piece around their current skills and also sneak in a bunch of theory without them realising. It's also been a huge help for myself when it comes to understanding genres. I'm a contemporary soul but my 5-year-old students just aren't here for a melancholy cry-whilst-playing moment. They need bounce and sass and songs about unicorns and junk food (actual requests). Being the super-harsh Miranda Priestly-esque critics that they are, I've quickly learned what they like and don't like, but - and here's the important bit - so have they.

From there it's a real short jump, a fall if you will, into making their own compositions. When a student tells me 'I like it but in this bar it should do this' I just say 'show me'. They figure it out by ear and with a little nudge they've made 4 bars of their own composition. We notate on the laptop (MuseScore you're my hero) and they get very excited to see their songs all official looking and their names in the top right corner. 

I once had a parent ask me if composition was that important. They were worried that their child wasn't learning much from 'mucking around'. I genuinely understand how it could sound like that from a distance but there is so much theory involved that it would be a whole other blog post if I went into detail so let me just list you a list, we've got:

  • Chord theory - all songs are based on chords, and chord progressions, and understanding which chords go with other chords and why and oh my god it's just such a huge world and you guys know how I feel about chords so I'll stop before this becomes yet another love-blog to chords.
  • Rhythmic notation - it's all well and good to think of a melody or a rhythm but if you don't understand what it's made of good luck trying to write it down. 
  • Melodic dictation - humming a melody and playing a melody are two very different things, figuring out where a melody goes whilst you're making it up is harder than it sounds.
  • Technical skill - I have a rule for my students, they have to be able to play what they write, so they often push themselves out of their comfort zone because they want to keep the cool rhythm they just wrote. 
  • SO MUCH OTHER STUFF: time signatures, key signatures, articulation, dynamics, arrangement, lyrics (oh yeah we do that too), endings and lions and tigers and bears oh my. 

I hope that's given you a small idea of what these students are learning, all this on top of whatever else we're doing in the lesson. Point being, I write a lot of songs for my students (seriously, I'm thinking of releasing a series of books) and they write a lot of songs, with fun names like 'Jazz Frogs', 'Bouncing Baby Beetroot Blues', 'Origami Ghost' and my personal favourite 'Sad Angry Unicorns'. As an added bonus, once a student has written their own piece, they're 10 times more likely to practice it than something they didn't write, because it's interesting! They want to show it off! And inevitably, they have an idea for their next song as soon as the first one is finished. 

Thus (yessss) ends this ode to composition. My dream is to one day host workshops so that everyone can discover for themselves how easy composing can be. Which isn't to say it can't be difficult, it really can be, especially if you have a specific vision (what's the aural version of a vision?) but after teaching composition to a very broad student base I've discovered a whole bunch of nifty tips and tricks. 

So to sum up: composition is great, JKM turned 4 sometime back in July and I'm not amazing at writing consistent blog posts. But I do write a mean unicorn song. 

-J

 

 

Welcome to 2018

And we're back! That is to say, JKM is back for a brand new year of brand new music and I'm back (in the digital sense) with a brand new resolve to post more consistently but seeing as my last post was from July...? Well that's embarrassing...regardless I'm back and look we'll just see how this whole consistent blogging thing goes ok?

So the new year has brought with it a whole heap of new students and I'm so excited to share my love of music with even more people! As I continue to grow as a teacher, I continue to develop new techniques and methods to suit my ever expanding student base. It really is the most fascinating thing, to learn how a student's mind works and figure out the best possible methods to help them learn. It's a bit like a puzzle, have I ever mentioned that I'm super into puzzles? Sudoku, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, I'm all about it (what an exciting life I lead!) and fitting a new student with just the right method is no different. Sometimes I inherit students from a previous teacher, and I get to see someone else's methods in action. More often than not I learn a thing or two but very occasionally I see some habits that make my right eye twitch a little.

There are soooo many different ways to learn about music. Countless books/articles/YouTube tutorials on the subject and as I say to all my students, they're all correct. However, this doesn't necessarily mean they're right for you. As I've written before, I believe learning all comes down to basic understanding and practical experience. Just the other day I was sitting with a new student who explained to me she knows the basics of ukulele, but she doesn't understand them. If you don't have a basic understanding of your subject and you come across a problem you haven't encountered before, it's likely you won't understand the problem and will therefore be unable to fix it.

Some teachers use what I like to call the 'Show and Tell' method. This generally involves Showing you how to do something, and then Telling you how to do it. This works very well to develop memory-based learning but there's no critical thinking going on and if the student encounters a problem on their own they're not likely to know what to do. What I want from teachers is to 'Show and Explain'. Show me what's going on, and then explain what's going on. Give me the understanding to tackle problems on my own.

One example of the Show and Tell method. I was working in a music studio with various teachers who taught various instruments. There was an electric guitar tutor in the room next to mine who's main teaching method seemed to be shredding out some amazing riff and then asking the student to copy them. When the student (understandably) wasn't able to copy them he would simply say 'no not like that' and show them again. This would continue until the end of the lesson and the student would stumble out with no more knowledge than when they went in. 

One example of the Show and Explain method. A friend of mine was teaching an absolute beginner the basics of guitar. The student was struggling to understand the concept of pitch,  that you could have two E's for example, with one being a higher pitch and one being a lower pitch. The same note but different. It may seem like a fairly basic concept but if you haven't had anything to do with music why would you know this? The conversation went in circles for a bit until my friend showed them the same notes on a keyboard. With visual context, the student was able to understand the concept and move on. 

This is true for just about everything. My ability to speak French improved 1000% once I stopped parroting phrases and actually learned what the individual sounds meant. I can now read French quite well, with my understanding of pronunciation and grammar and the little wiggly lines that sometimes appear above letters. Cooking is another great example, someone can bring you a chocolate cake, and you can eat the chocolate cake, but it doesn't mean you'll be able to make the chocolate cake. 

If you're one of the world's naturally gifted bakers and you can figure out how to bake this cake without any help whatsoever then my previous point remains true, learning comes down to basic understanding and practical experience BECAUSE through practical experience you develop basic understanding. Boom! See what I did there?! Synergy. 

So to sum up, there are heaps and heaps of different things to learn about music, and there are heaps and heaps of different ways to learn them, but the best place to start is understanding the basics. And what's another word for practical experience? Practice! Everyone's favourite thing. If you're a New Years resolution type, apply this method to just about anything and see how you go. I'll do my best with the blog and we'll keep an eye on each other. Happy new year!

-J

JKM Turns Three!

So here we are in July (so much for writing more consistently) and not only is it Term 3, it's JKM's third birthday! Three excellent years of meeting new people, learning heaps and kicking student goals. One thing I've really come to appreciate about running JKM is the freedom is allows me when it comes to teaching. I've always believed that no two people learn the same way, and though I've developed particular methods that can be stretched to fit occasionally I come across a student who needs a whole new customised approach.

These kinds of challenges have really helped shape the way I teach. It's disheartening to me to see students blame themselves for not understanding a problem, or struggling to master a new technique. If I had a dollar for every person who's told me 'I'm just not musical', 'I'm tone deaf', 'I'm not the creative type' well...then...I'd have a lot of dollars. 

At the end of the day it comes down to basic understanding and practical experience. Our whole lives we've had things we didn't understand explained to us. How to tell time, how to tie a shoe, how to do long division. If something is explained well, and you can practice it daily, it will become easier. For example, I can tell the time with ease, I can tie a shoe with finesse, I still cannot do long division. I blame this on the fact I've never had it explained to me and also I literally never ever use it. 

Think back on some of your teachers. Have you ever had a teacher who inspired you to learn more about their subject? Who made you excited to tackle problems or do a really great job on your project? How about the opposite? The teachers who made lessons a blur and you don't remember learning anything from them? These are the teachers responsible for students giving up on a subject. For losing interest, or thinking themselves incapable. I know education isn't the same everywhere but the system I grew up in was based on a 'keep up or give up' kind of model. 

I understand that it's difficult to try to provide a whole classroom of children with 30 different perspectives, I really do. It just makes me angry to think of how many people have given up on something just because the way the textbook (and thereby the teacher) explained it just didn't click with them. The creative industries are as guilty of this as any discipline. It was a commonly asked question at university: 'how do you teach creativity?'. It's a tricky question but that hasn't stopped the tried, true and sometimes tedious methods that are still taught in schools now. 

Have you ever met anyone who's told you they can't sing? Do you yourself think you can't? I got news for you buddy, it's not an innate thing. If you tried once and it didn't go so well (or maybe someone told you it didn't) that doesn't mean you can't sing. It means you're not singing at the same level as the people who practice singing on a regular basis. This applies to literally everything. I've made a great rule for my younger students who are overly fond of saying 'I can't do it!' after one attempt. I tell them it's been proven that you have to try at something for 2 years before you know if you really can't do it. It goes like this:

Student: 'I can't do this scale!'
Me: 'Have you been trying for 2 years?' 
Student: 'No...'

Is it wrong to lie to small children? Probably. Do they generally succeed on their second or third attempt? Yes. 

In a story I've told many times before (feel free to scroll if you already know it) the first time I showed my piano teacher a composition I'd made they said to me 'that's not what I told you to do this week.' This in no way inspired me to continue composing, however, my school music teacher (Mrs. Laycock, you always remember the good ones!) could not have been more encouraging or enthusiastic. I had a string of music teachers growing up, some good some bad but it's thanks to the good ones that I've gotten to where I am now, both with musicianship and teaching. 

This is ever my goal, to inspire my students, to find the right approach that will help them learn. Sometimes I meet a student who's approach to music is well outside the box, but what is that but pure creativity? We're always told to think that way, so why is it when we actually do we're told it's wrong? I've learned so much from these students, different ways of thinking, new approaches to rhythm, melody, coordination, composition. I never understood musical theory growing up but now my understanding is damn near outstanding, having had to explain it countless different ways to countless different students. 

If you have an interest in something, be it music, art, math, whatever, pursue it. It is 1000x more likely you'll be better at something you're interested in, as opposed to something that comes easily but is super boring. If you're not learning from your teacher, find a new teacher. It doesn't mean you can't learn, it means their method isn't working for you, and that's a-ok! Teachers are humans too, we're learning how to teach just as students are learning how to learn. It's well worth finding a teacher you really connect with, because they'll inspire you to do things you never suspected you were capable of. In the meantime, don't give up and if you find yourself stuck just ask yourself: 'have I been trying for 2 years?'

-J

 

 

Back to Basics

It's May! In Brisbane this means the weather is actually super pleasant, beautiful sunny days and nice cool afternoons and evenings. Quite a few of my students have their pianos positioned in a nice sunny corner of the house, which looks lovely, but when it's especially warm it's very hard to look professional when you're sweating and squinting simultaneously.

So aside from bringing cooler weather, May is also the start of Term 2. Technically this happened in April but with the deluge of public holidays we've been having (seriously, it's just getting weird now) lessons haven't been quite back to normal. Over the holidays I never expect a great deal of practice to occur, and it's fairly common to start the first lesson of Term 2 with some revision. We're talking reading, rhythm, coordination, timing - the whole shebang.

Reading revision is always interesting, because for some students it feels as though they've already learned this so there's always this slight confusion as to how they've become less fluent. I'm not entirely sure how many times I've said this now but reading music is just like reading any other language. If you want to become fluent the practice required is of the every-single-day variety. Sure you can read English just fine, because you've spent your entire life doing so. And while treble and bass clef may not be as complex as the English language (i before e except after c is a lie!) they certainly have their own rules for you to learn, memorise and follow. 

While students are perfectly happy to use All Cows Eat Grass, FACE and the rest (does anyone remember the Great Big Demons From Africa girl?) when they're initially learning to read, there seems to be this embarrassment attached to using them later on if revision is required. This is a silly feeling to feel and beating yourself up for not remembering how to read each individual note isn't helping anything.

The way I see it you have two options. Either you're super dedicated to learning to read music as fluently as possible or your pursuit of piano is more of a casual thing and you're happy to learn at a more relaxed pace. If you are the former, you can do a bit of dedicated reading every day (Hi Sandie!) even if you don't play the piano every day. Reading over scores is a fantastic way to learn to recognise patterns within music which is in turn a great way to improve your sight-reading. You'll learn to recognise chord shapes, arpeggio patterns, chord progressions, melodic patterns, rhythmic patterns - the list goes on. Basically it's just a really good thing to do if you want to improve your reading as quickly as possible.

If you're more of a relaxed learner then your option is to relax. Or relax more. Or something, whatever, anyway the point is that if piano fits into your lifestyle in a more casual way then you can't expect to be as fluent as someone who is practicing every day. And there's nothing wrong with that! If you're wanting to learn piano as something that is relaxing and enjoyable and you take away the relaxation and enjoyment by beating yourself up over your ability to read then you've just obliterated the whole point of the exercise. 

Don't do this.

Learning a musical instrument isn't going to be the easiest thing you've ever done. I personally think piano is an easier instrument to learn thanks to the whole visual theory thing (we'll go into that another time) but it's certainly not a pick-it-up-in-two-days sort of thing. So if you're learning to read, or revising your reading remember your options. Again, I've said this before but if you're feeling super frustrated just stop. Go have a cup of tea. Do a little improv or play your favourite song. The reading will happen eventually and the speed at which this happens is entirely up to you. You can go all out and read every day or you can you relax and accept it'll probably take a little longer. 

This turned into a lecture on reading but reading is a fairly basic foundation of piano so I'm going to say I've stayed mostly on topic. We'll look more into the other foundations and visual theory as Term 2 progresses and as I try to write more consistently....

-J

 

The Student Self-help Guide (pt 2)

So quite a little while ago I wrote a blog titled The Student Self-help Guide and I only got through two steps before I was distracted by other topics. So today is a return to that guide to try and cover what I didn't get to last time.

The last guide had Step One: Scales and Step Two: Exercises. Technical work designed to develop your fingers' strength, speed, dexterity and coordination. This is important stuff and if you haven't read the first guide I'd recommend doing that before continuing with this one. Today's guide is going to look into the less physical aspects of piano, and instead focus on developing your aural skills and mental mindset.

So, without further ado:

Step Three: Listening

You might be thinking 'surely this is the most important aspect of music' and you'd be right! If you can't hear what you're playing, then how can you be sure it's sounding good? Now to avoid confusion, I'm not asking if your ears are working. When I say listening I mean the ability to take a mental step back whilst you're playing and analyse your performance objectively. 

This can be fairly difficult to do, especially with a newer piece. Whilst playing there are so many mental distractions, you're focusing on your fingers, on your coordination, triple checking the notes you're reading (I think that's an A, but is it really?), focusing on timing, the list goes on. Now if you happen to make a mistake whilst all that's going on? It's very possible your mental musical train will be derailed. (What a fun analogy!)

One of the first steps in learning to really listen to yourself is to listen to everything without criticism. Play slowly. Listen to just the first four bars. What is the intended emotion? Are you expressing it? Listen to your speed, to your dynamics. Listen to your mistakes and don't worry about them, just acknowledge them and move on. Your goal shouldn't be to get to the end of the song (well, eventually, but not your only goal) but to play the piece the way you'd like to hear it played. You may have your music memorised but if you're not listening to what you're playing beyond if it's right or wrong then you're not really performing.

I would much rather hear a piece that has plenty of mistakes as long as it also has plenty of emotion. If the performer is connected to their music, it's much easier for their audience to connect both to the performer and the piece. So, even if you're just practicing on your own, listen to your piece, and perform as if you were playing for a room full of people.

This segues quite nicely into

Step Four: The Mental Zone

As a teacher it's my job to help my students develop technical and theoretical practices related to music. Reading, performing, composing etc. However, the most common lesson I find myself teaching is more of a mantra. 'Calm down'. My adult students in particular have a tendency to place impossibly high expectations on themselves. My younger students, being in school and learning on a daily basis, accept that piano is just another learning process. My adult students for the most part haven't had to 'learn' in a while, having had their entire lives to master reading, writing, problem solving, tying their laces etc. So when something new comes along it's easy to forget that the skills you take for granted now took some time to acquire in the first place. 

With this in mind, learning an entire new musical language (with two dialects of treble and bass no less) probably isn't going to be the easiest thing you've ever done. Which means it's going to take more than a couple of lessons to get it down pat (that's an odd saying I've never really understood). Add an understanding of timing/rhythm/coordination/dynamics/articulation and maybe you can agree that reading sheet music and playing it perfectly isn't going to come as naturally as say, learning to ride a bike. 

However, much like a bike, once you have it, it will stick with you. Every single student I've ever had has experienced 'the click'. That day where suddenly reading treble and bass clef at the same time just makes sense, the day that playing the C scale parallel hands together just works. If you're dedicating an entire section of your thought process to yelling at yourself and criticising your performance that's an entire section of your thought process that is not helping. If half of your brain is saying 'I can do it!' and the other half is shaking its metaphorical head at you you're going to encounter some issues. That's cognitive dissonance my friend. That's a no-no. 

So. Relax. Seriously, relax. I cannot emphasise this enough. I can't stop you from getting frustrated, and it would be hypocritical of me to try because I get frustrated all the time. However, you cannot beat yourself up every time you make a mistake. It's very bad for your brain.  It's going to take time. You're not going to be perfect after 3 lessons. You're just not. And that is very very ok. Give yourself a mental break, don't yell at your fingers, it's not their fault. And it makes you look like a crazy person. If you find yourself very very close to your sheet music, squinting like Clint Eastwood in the sun, it's probably time to go have a cup of tea. So relax. Take your time, enjoy the learning process, celebrate your achievements. 

And don't forget to listen.

-J

Reading Music (it's really not that bad)

JKM's third year is well and truly underway and it's been a brilliant (and somewhat hectic) start to Term 1. The calendar has filled up very quickly with returning students and some brand new ones (welcome!) and I'd like to remind new enquiries it's best to try and book before the term starts to ensure we can find a time for you. 

Enough admin, today we'll be looking into the fearsome beast that is reading sheet music. I've spoken at length about this before but as I have several new students on board I'd like to return to this troublesome subject. As my students know, I like to develop their skills in technical and aural work, theory, composition, improv and of course reading sheet music. Reading seems like a simple enough concept so why do so many musicians shy away from it? 

I blame the teachers. When I was learning I was consistently told 'this is too hard for you, this is too advanced' and it made those pieces seems big and scary. Instead of answering my questions or explaining a concept I was told I'd 'learn it later'. This is a terrible way to go about things. Time signatures for example. I never, ever, had them explained to me. 'If it's 3/4 or 4/4 then there's 3 or 4 beats in the bar'. What about 6/8? 'Then there's 6 beats.' But why isn't it 6/4? 'You'll learn that later'. 

But guess what? LATER NEVER HAPPENED KEVIN. 

Useless.

The most annoying part is that music theory is all actually very simple. I believe that back in the day when musicians were held in the highest esteem they believed it necessary to convolute the whole thing in order to make music as exclusive and mysteriously unattainable as possible. Now that the value of musicians has somewhat diminished (play for exposure anyone?) the convoluted world of music theory only serves to discourage future musicians from learning. 

Now to be fair, sheet music can certainly look intimidating. Piano is one of the very few instruments where you are required to read two clefs (bass and treble) at the same time. This is essentially reading two stories, in two languages with two different alphabets. Add to this rhythm, timing, coordination and reading a bar ahead...? Seems pretty tricky. Now add expression, dynamics, accents, tempo changes and by now you're probably thinking this was a terrible idea and you should stop now. 

Fear not. When it comes to reading music, and especially sight-reading (seeing music for the first time and playing it hands together) there are a lot of processes. I've narrowed it down to 10.

1. Reading treble clef
2. Reading bass clef
3. Reading them at the same time
4. Finding the keys for what you're reading and playing them
5. Playing the keys for both hands at the same time
6. Applying the rhythm and timing of what you're reading to what you're playing
7. Coordinating the separate rhythms in each hand
8. Applying articulation/dynamics
9. Reading a bar ahead so that the song plays smoothly
10. Applying individual expression. 

When you're sight-reading at your full potential all of these processes become subconscious. To get to that state it's easiest to go through these processes one at a time until you're confident with each one. This. Will. Take. Time. If I had a dollar for every time a student said 'I should be faster at this by now'....

Think of it this way. If you're reading this blog I assume you can read English fairly well. It's a subconscious process, you don't have to think about it. This is because you practice reading every day without even thinking about it. Texts, ads, tweets, road signs, peoples' t-shirts. If you were exposed to sheet music as often you'd be reading treble and bass clef at the same level you read English. You can increase this exposure by practicing more often. If practicing that often isn't possible for you then I'm afraid you'll just need to accept that this. Will. Take. Time. 

I have always taught my students to read treble and bass clef at the same time. Teaching only one clef (usually treble) automatically makes it 'the easy one' whilst bass clef is permanently thought of as difficult. This is ridiculous, wastes a huge amount of time and essentially makes reading a whole heap harder than necessary. I don't tell my students that reading is hard. I tell them it's easy and that they can 100% do it. One of my newest students is 6 years old, and in her last lesson she sight-read through an entire piece hands together. She's only had 8 lessons. 

Now this is probably more to do with the fact that she's an incredibly clever and positive little human than my teaching but the point is she's soaked up everything I've taught her because I never said she couldn't. I believe she can do it, and therefore she thinks she can. And she can. 

I consistently push my students to practice sight-reading hands together, it's a huge mental workout and very good for your brain. It also eliminates 'the bad clef' because neither clef is more difficult than the other. Reading hands together makes reading hands separately seem crazy simple in comparison which in turn makes reading hands together a lot easier. It's a happy little cycle. 

I think that's probably enough about reading for now, I'll get into rhythm and coordination another time but in the meantime have a go at applying the above processes to your own practice. And remember: This. Will. Take. Time. 

-J

 

The Student Self-help Guide

So recently I've had some of my students, and some parents of my younger students ask 'what can we do between lessons?'

The obvious answer is practice. But at the same time that answer is also super vague and unhelpful. Of course you can practice what you've worked on in the lesson, but if you're unsure of a timing issue, or are struggling with some coordination then really what are you supposed to do in the week before your next lesson? Today's blog is going to look into some helpful tips and pointers in regards to how to practice as efficiently as possible without your teacher.

Step One: Scales

'Nooooo' I hear you collectively cry, but as relaxed as I am scales are the one exercise I am a stickler for. Why? Because. They. Are. Good. For. You. Not only for your fingers but I find that with practice you can really work yourself towards a proper zen mental state. The two foundations for any good pianist to consistently work on are dexterity and coordination. Scales really are the fastest and best way to develop these skills. Seriously. Do your scales enough and you'll find you enjoy doing them just for the joy of watching your fingers fly along the keys. If you are not at that point, you haven't done them enough. Your fingers need to be strong individually if they're going to tackle any piece with ease and scales are the best way to ensure you're giving all of them a work out.

A good way to test your finger strength, can you bend each finger at a 90 degree angle by itself without moving the others? Chances are you'll have difficulty with your ring finger and your little finger. Coincidentally, these are also your weakest piano fingers. Go do some scales (or trills for more targeted exercise) and strengthen them up. 

If buff fingers aren't enough of a reason to work on your scales, then consider this. Scales are the foundation of every single song. If you're thinking 'I'm not into classical or theory, I prefer to make my own music, I don't need scales Julia' then you are WRONG my friend. Where do songs come from? Chords. Where do chords come from? Scales. Boom. 

For example, you're jamming on a beautiful chord progression, but you're struggling to develop a melody. Identify your first chord. Let's say it's A major. If you've practised your scales like a good student then you know that A has 3 sharps (C#,F#,G#) and you take this information and use it accordingly. No more wrong notes. 

I could talk about scales all day but I need to talk about 

Step Two: Exercises

Now to be perfectly clear I am not talking about Hanon. All I'm going to say about that particular subject is I don't want to talk about it. By exercises I don't mean tedious repeating patterns designed to destroy your soul and your will to live, I mean the kind you develop yourself to overcome issues you may have with a piece, timing or coordination. 

'But how?' I hear your ask dubiously. The answer...is within you...but seriously if you're capable of identifying a problem you may have then you are capable of fixing said problem. Say you're struggling with the coordination of a particularly tricky bar, what do you do? The answer is not, as a lot of my students seem to think, to just speed up and stumble over it and hope that no one noticed. The answer is to slooooow dooooown. Start with your left hand (the most important hand) and play through slowly. Count. Aloud. If you can't do this then you don't actually understand what it is you're playing. Learn to do this and then repeat with your right hand. Once they are confident separately put them together slowly. If you can't play it slowly you can't play it quickly, even if you think you can. Once your hands are working together confidently at a slow pace, gradually increase your speed until it's consistent with the rest of the piece. 

Speed has a lot to do with developing exercises. Troublesome trill? Slow it down. Chord change chaos? Slow it down. Terrible timing? Slow it down. A lot of piano music comes from patterns. Learn enough patterns and you'll be able to play just about anything. In order to learn these patterns you need to give your muscle memory a chance to become familiar with them. If you consistently whizz through a pattern your fingers aren't learning anything. They're just whizzing, and fun as whizzing is it's not actually making you a good pianist. Some musicians think that by playing as fast as humanely possible they're delivering an impressive performance, but if the piece isn't intended to be played at 1000bpm it's not actually going to sound very good. Your audience won't be able to connect with you or the piece and everyone will go home sad and disappointed. 

The correct speed is very important. As I tell my students, if you want to play with expression you need to have control over your dynamics and your speed. Varying these things throughout your performance (on purpose) will guarantee your audience has a chance to connect with the piece. Einaudi's Nuvole Bianche for example, if you don't know it go have a quick listen to the first 30 seconds. Can you imagine rushing those chords? What it would do to the piece? Would they still break your heart a little? I think not.

I've already written too much and I'm not even at step three, unless you consider step three a lecture on speed - I apologise and I'll make it up to you in the next blog. Now go do some scales!

-J

 

How To Improv(e)

Welcome to term 3 at JKM Tuition! It's pretty incredible how quickly this year has flown by, for me it's been full of new students and musical revelations. One of my passions as a music tutor is the development of compositional skills, and as such I've been doing some reading into the subject. I've discovered that my approach to teaching composition and improv is somewhat unorthodox, at least in the published world, and I've found a few methods that I heartily disagree with. So today's blog is going to look into my methods and my do's and don't's when it comes to composing and improvising. 

One of the theories I came across in my literary explorations spoke of a three-step approach to building compositional skills. Step one was improvisation, in the sense that improvisation is 'spontaneous music making'. In one regard it makes a lot of sense to start with improv, in another it makes no sense at all and I believe it is how you choose to define improvisation that makes all the difference. 

A quick Google search for 'improvisation definition' yields the result: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I personally find it a bit spooky that the first example is 'she specialises in improvisation on the piano' but it only serves to prove the relevancy of this blog. The main point to take away from this is 'created spontaneously or without preparation'.

To me, this means applying your current level of musical skill to what is basically an on-the-go composition. Essentially, the higher your level of skill the easier it will be to apply said skill to your improvisation. To me this means having a deep-down, subconscious understanding of the basics: rhythm, coordination, melody, timing, keys, chord progressions etc. 

I believe this to be miles more difficult than actually composing. Composition gives you the time and freedom to experiment, make decisions, edit them and choose your finished product. You can work to a theme, a title, an arrangement structure. In my experience, any person of any age can compose with confidence, especially when working to a template. Improvisation is not so easy.

Part of this has to do with the very very very large amount of options available to a musician, and especially a pianist. What kind of bass line will you choose? Chords? Arpeggios? 5ths? A counter-melody? Will your main melody be complex? Simple? Layered? Mono-tonal? What kind of chord progression will you use? Will your timing be structured or organic? The list goes on, and on and on and on. 

Most students find this fairly overwhelming, and rightly so. It's tricky enough to narrow down your options when making a composition but to make snap decisions whilst improvising? That requires a decent amount of confidence and also the ability to remove yourself from what you're doing. So many of my students will begin a chord progression, and then halfway through stop and ask me 'does that sound right?'

So how to avoid this? One method I suggest is to give yourself restrictions. For example start with a very basic chord progression for the left hand and limit the right hand to a particular number of notes. Work with this until it feels comfortable and then look into how you can experiment. Pick out the combinations and patterns that you liked most and build on them. Take inspiration from pieces you enjoy and don't shy away from 'wrong' notes or unexpected sounds - the most wonderful thing about improv is you can't make mistakes!

An example to experiment with:

Left Hand: C major chord (C,E,G)              Right Hand: Start with C, D and E in a basic pattern.
                   A minor chord (A,C,E)
 

One of the most important things to remember about both composition and improvisation is to start simple. I strongly believe the best pieces are built on a solid foundation of good tones. Listen for the chords or intervals that make you feel something. Experiment with blending chords, for example mixing a major chord with its relative minor. Start simple and layer as you go.

Thus armed with this knowledge, go forth and compose. I'd love to hear what you come up with using the above example so feel free to send me any recordings you make!

-J

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Joys of Making Music

So I've had it pointed out to me that I've been rather slack with my blogging, and this is 100% true, and I'm sorry. So to make it up to you I'm going to use today's blog to discuss two of my all-time favourite musical pastimes: composition and improvisation. 

Let's start with a story. Once upon a time when I was around 10 or so, I started experimenting with creating my own songs. I knew nothing about compositional theory, why particular chords sounded good with others, how to identify my key or time signatures, I just liked making sounds. I took a piece I had labelled The Four Seasons, (why can I still remember that?) and brimming with bashful pride, showed it to my piano teacher. He said 'that's not what I told you to do this week'.

I'll admit, it wasn't the reaction I was hoping for. As a budding composer I thought my song was marvellous, certainly far more interesting than the pieces I was supposed to be practicing. Thankfully my primary school music teacher, Mrs. Laycock (my memory is on fire today) was as enthusiastic and encouraging as any young student could wish. I continued to compose using my self-developed techniques but as my musical education progressed through high school and into my Bachelor, I started to make connections between my compositional methods and the theory I was being taught.

It all came to a head one day when I was with an 8-year-old student. We were flipping through her folder and I came across a diagram of the circle of 5ths. I had never seen one before and asked her what it was. She explained her old teacher had given it to her to help with her scales, but as a looked at the circle I saw what I had spent the last 10 years teaching myself. Patterns, relationships, chord theory. All laid out on a piece of paper with doodles of flowers all over it. 

Mind blown.

Fast forward to now and I still use the circle of 5ths to teach my students what took me 10 years to figure out on my own. I genuinely believe chord theory is the foundation of all good composition and improvisation. If you have a decent chord progression you're basically done. Note that I say decent. Not fantastic, not technical, not complicated, just decent. As I say to my students, if you can't write something simple that sounds good, you're going to have a hard time writing something more complex. So let's start with two chords. 

For example, C major and its relative minor A. I'm not a fan of root chords (1,3,5 - I just find the third so cheesy) and I also believe in lots of space so I like to start my left hand in an octave-fifth position (1,5,8). That's it. No pattern, nothing. Just play your C position, and then move to A. Do this a few times and really listen to the tones. Do you play the A chord higher or lower than the C? Mix it up, which do you like better? Now on top of this your right hand is going to play one note. You're in C major, stay away from the black keys and you can hit whatever else you like. That's it, just a bunch of quavers (or ti-ti's if that's what you're into). Once you've found your one note that you're happy with, look at adding another. Expand from here.

I don't really get into melody/complex rhythm until I'm satisfied my students are really listening to what they're playing, appreciating the various tones. I generally encourage them to start with 2-4 chords at a time. They can play them in whatever order they wish but they're not allowed to change chords until they're very confident handling the first lot. I mean understanding the root chords, inversions, combinations they like, combinations they don't like, etc. Because if you can conquer one group of chords, the rest is just transposition. 

Now for today's controversial statement: I don't really care about melody. 'But Julia!' I hear you cry. 'Surely melody is the most important feature of a song!' And sure melody is pretty important I guess, but chords are where the true power lies. They are the glue, they are the meaning and emotion behind whatever your melody is trying to say. Don't believe me? Play a melody over a chord and it will sound good. Now play the same melody over a different chord and listen to how everything changes. It can change your melody from major to minor, from light to serious, from tonal fluff to a statement hook. Get to know your chords people

I realise I haven't really gone into the differences between composition and improvisation, (first I was slack, now I'm a liar) this has been more of an ode to chords, but this post is already rather long so keep an eye out for The Joys of Making Music Pt. 2 later this week!

-J

 

 

Eye vs. Ear

One of the most common conundrums in the musical world: reading or learning by ear? Which is best? Is one superior to the other? If you've developed one method do you really need the other? I think yes, or more accurately, why not?

Reading music and learning by ear are two skills I believe every musician should strive to possess. I've known many musicians who have learned purely by ear, have near-perfect pitch and can play something having only heard it once before. I've known other musicians who need merely to glance at a piece of music before being able to play it in its entirety. Both abilities are covetable, but the question is not which is better, but why limit yourself to only one?

Most of the people I know who play by ear simply never learned to read. Others had bad experiences, which is more worrying. I've talked (written? typed?) before about the underlying fear many students have when it comes to reading, and it seriously upsets me. Reading music should not be a frightening or stressful time. For starters music has a seriously short alphabet (CDEFGAB) and fun mnemonics to help you remember where the notes go on the stave (Great Big Demons From Africa anyone?). Most new students of mine are reading with relative confidence halfway through their first year - though of course this does vary based on the amount of practice. 

(Bracket conversation: Wikipedia has a fun mnemonic to remember the colours of the rainbow, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo Violet - Run Over Your Granny Because It's Violent. What?)

A method that does not start with reading is the famed Suzuki method. Founded by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, the Suzuki method places a great deal of importance on tone, intonation and phrasing. These are developed through repetitive listening of the Suzuki repertoire and music in general. The idea is the more music a child listens to, the easier it will be for them to learn to play. Reading is only approached after 'the acquisition of good aural, technical and musical skills' (Suzuki Music, 2005) and this will vary child to child.

It's a solid method that has been used by countless musicians. However, my issue with Suzuki is that I don't believe it takes full advantage of a child's sponge-like state, at this stage they can absorb anything, so why not reading? An individual child's acquisition of good aural, technical and musical skills may take some time, by which point reading seems frightening and - to quote an actual ex-Suzuki student of mine - 'pointless'. As developed as her eight-year-old ears are, it's still a struggle to play a piece by ear if it happens to contain more than one sharp or flat, and she has since admitted that it's easier if she has some sheet music to reference.  

Additionally, the Suzuki repertoire consists of a great deal of super classical pieces which in my experience are less than inspiring to most young children. They may learn Bach's Minuet 1 having listened to it countless times but will they want to play it? Doubtful. T-Swizz all the way. 

Which is not to say I have always been pro-reading. As an ex-Suzuki student myself, I relied on my ears for the majority of my young musical life. I loved to hear something on the radio and figure it out on the piano, but as time went on I wanted to understand music, to figure out why there were songs I couldn't play. Through reading I unlocked a whole world of theory that clicked with my aural skills and allowed me to approach music with new-found confidence and enthusiasm. 

Aural skills are equally important. A solid understanding of pitch, melody and chord progressions can make a musicians life so much easier, especially if they're working with other musicians. It's also important to help develop expression and technique, if a student can't hear themselves play they can't hear how they can improve or develop. If a student doesn't have a favourite song to play, I know they haven't been listening enough. 

To sum up, the answer to the Eye vs. Ear debate is Balance. No I don't believe there is a right or wrong way to go about it, but I do think it can be just as easy to develop both abilities to a symbiotic level. Imagine you're giving a speech. You may have learned the whole thing off by heart but isn't it nice to have palm cards? If you can develop your reading to palm card level you'll be amazed at how fluent your playing becomes. Equally, if you can predict where the music is going aurally you're paving the way for your reading. Boom. Synergy. 

-J

 

The Art Of Learning

And we're back! Welcome to 2016, a new year brimming with musical potential. This semester is a fully-booked calendar of continuing students as well as some brand new students just now embarking on their own piano adventures - it's a very exciting time! 

As with all new students, it's up to me to discover the best possible learning method for each individual. This will vary depending on age, prior experience and, most importantly, musical taste. In my experience no two students learn the same way and though I've developed particular exercises and methods for general learning, they need to be tailored to fit the individual.

That said I do follow a pretty regular pattern for every student's first lesson. I call it Covering The Basics and it goes thusly:

Understanding The Keys - finding C is where every piano student starts but I insist on learning to recognise each of the other keys as well. This is to prevent students counting from C and to avoid bad habits later on. I am 100% against learning C as 1, D as 2 and so on. If you can teach a child the key as a number, why not just teach them the correct name in the first place?

The C Scale - one octave hands separately and then together. This is to further establish where all the keys are on the piano and it's also one of the best ways to develop coordination and dexterity. It's also one of the trickiest things a new student is likely to do for a while and if they can accomplish that in their first lesson I find they leave feeling pretty good about themselves. If a student is very young (around 4) I'll concede to a mini-scale (C to G) but still hands together. 

(Bracket conversation: why do I insist on hands together from the get-go? Because one of the most common characteristics I find in new students is a fear of using both hands, which is ultimately the whole foundation of piano. I've met students who have spent a year and a half learning to play with only their right hand. That right hand is very good but you even mention the left and you can see the fear in their eyes. Very unhealthy. Best to start hands together and avoid the drama later on.)

Note Values - this is the first half of what I call the reading guide. Writing down the basic note values - crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, minim, semibreve, how much they're worth, what their rests look like and their rhythmic names - ta, ti, tik etc. We might make up a few patterns together and either clap them or play them on the piano. 

Reading - the other half of the reading guide. I like to draw the treble and bass clefs on staves and I'll ask my student to write in the notes using either old classics such as FACE and All Cows Eat Grass or we'll invent new ones, especially good for the younger kids. A few stand-outs include All Chickens Eat Gorillas and Great Big Donuts From America. The most disturbing was from a 6 year old who turned to me and said 'Great Big Demons From Africa!' I was a little frightened. 

Playing Music - Once the staves are finished I might write some notes in (a few ta's and ti-ti's) and ask them to use their reading guide to play the notes on the piano. If there's time we'll have a look at a bar of real sheet music and, again using the reading guide, play it hands together.

And that's it. But wait! I hear you cry. Surely this is all too much for a first lesson, especially for small children! But in my experience it really isn't. In over 5 years of teaching I've learned to never underestimate my students, no matter the age, and the results have always spoken for themselves. I call the above The Basics because they really are. There is so much more to learn about the piano and music in general and I don't want to spend a whole year teaching a student C position for their right hand. Frankly it's boring, for me and them, and I also believe it's lazy teaching. 

Instead we Cover The Basics in the first lesson. In one lesson they've gone from knowing nothing about the piano to recognising all the keys and playing a scale hands together. They've developed a basic knowledge of rhythm and (most importantly) demystified all those little black dots on a piece of paper. Yes it is a lot of information but this is why we write it all down and by the next lesson we're using what we've covered to learn a song the student loves.

Piano can take years to master, after 20-something years of playing I'm still learning new things every day, but I believe the basics should take up as little time as possible so you can get straight to the good stuff. 

 

-J

Happy Birthday to JKM!

So not only have I been incredibly slack with blogs posts recently, this is also the last one for the year. Boo! Hiss! I hear you say but in my defence the last two months have been crazy busy with an influx of new students and inquiries - so really it's all their fault, not to mention it's about time I had a small holiday! 

In other news, it's JKM's birthday! Though the website has only been running since July, JKM's very first lesson was on the 15th of December 2014. This year has been pretty amazing, I met so many new and wonderful students and held my very own spring concert in which my junior students outdid themselves. It's been a fabulous musical journey and I'm so very excited to continue in the New Year.

Which brings me to Christmas, the most wonderful and dangerous time of the year. Ok, that might be a little melodramatic but for students everywhere the holidays are generally a time of fun, relaxation and...no practice. 'But Julia!' you cry. 'We've worked so hard all year!' and that you have my friends but if you are aiming to be consistently good at music, you must practice consistently. Which isn't to say you shouldn't allow yourself a break. A week or two off can do wonders for your musicality, and you may even find yourself itching to begin again. At Christmas I relax a little and stretch my recommended break time to four weeks but beyond that you're moving into the danger zone. *insert Archer reference here*

Some students are perfectly happy to practice weekly without a teacher, and even if it's only for 10 minutes at a time they're stretching their musical muscles and keeping their minds and fingers in shape. If, however, you are the kind of student who finds they need more than a little motivation when it comes to practice, I highly recommend keeping your break time on the shorter side. 

This all of course depends on why you play music. If it's simply a fun hobby you're pursuing then by all means approach practice in an equally relaxed manner. If it's something you're more serious about, then your practice should reflect that. Essentially it all comes down to fun. Practice may not be considered fun, but being good at piano is. The less you practice, the harder it becomes, the less fun you have. The more you practice, the easier it gets, the more fun you have. Simple!

On that note, I am incredibly proud of all my students who have continuously exceeded my expectations throughout the year. Enjoy your break, relax, and don't neglect your pianos! I have to admit, after what has possibly been my busiest year ever I am looking forward to taking some time off and brushing up my non-existent French (j'aime manger des tomates) so until 2016 I wish you all the merriest of Christmases and a wonderful New Year!

-J

 

 

 

How To Piano

Hello readers, I apologise for the lateness of this blog. I know I've been a little slack with the social medias lately but I've been meeting with a whole heap of new students, which has been both fantastic and also inspiration for today's post!

The wonderful and challenging thing about being a music teacher is knowing that no two students will learn the same way. I believe there is no real set formula to apply to a new student, though I find age and prior experience can give me some clues as to how to proceed. However, there are teachers in the world who do follow a particular set of what I guess you'd call rules. They call them good habits. I call them the three P's: posture, practice and perfection. And I hate them. 

Occasionally I'll come across a student who has had the three P's enforced upon them at some point. I'll ask them to play me through their favourite piece so I can gauge their level, they'll assume the painfully straight posture associated with most pianists and then they'll stop breathing. This is the most common (and disturbing) phenomenon I encounter with new students and it terrifies me. What if the piece goes for too long and they just pass out? They will literally hold their breath until they either turn a page, finish the piece or make a mistake, and this is where the perfection rule comes in. 

To me this is the very worst of the 'good habits'. A student will make a mistake and then they'll go back to the beginning. I firmly believe this is very bad for your mental health. If you make a mistake in life you can't return to infancy and hope you don't do it again. You just keep going. I've told my students if you're playing to an audience the majority will have absolutely no idea you've made a mistake. If you stop and go back to the beginning, then they'll probably notice something's up. I don't require perfection from my students, or maybe I do but I define it differently.

To me perfection can't come from rigorous hours of exercises (another of the 'good habits', don't get me started on Hanon) or an unnaturally straight spine. Perfection to me is seeing a musician who is confident and comfortable. How can you possibly be either of those things when you're worrying about how you're sitting, as opposed to what you're playing? Have you ever noticed that the truly great pianists, Einaudi, Yiruma, Beethoven are famously hunched over their pianos? Sagging over the keys as they put all their energy and emotion into their fingers, their faces getting gradually closer to their hands as if they're listening as hard as they can. Which they are. 

I had a sad moment the other day when I asked a new student which was her favourite piece to play, and she said she didn't have one. Not because she enjoys all her pieces equally, but because there really is no one piece she connects to, that she loves to sit down and play. I am determined to find that piece for her, and then a whole lot more because otherwise what is the point. Why learn folders and folders worth of songs that bring you no joy? 

As a positive counterpoint I have another new student, a 7 year old who complained to me in his first lesson that piano is 'boring and hard'. Looking through his folders I had to agree. I gave him some new stuff and on the day of his fourth lesson he was waiting for me at the door, bouncing up and down telling me he'd practiced every day and could he please play me his song? After a quick mental self-high five I listened to him play with all the joy and confidence I try so hard to instil in all my students.

I'm afraid all my blog posts are becoming rant-esque, but I'm going to blame that on how passionately I feel about teaching and music in general. Music should be enjoyable, relaxing, invigorating, inspiring and if it's not doing anything for you then it's time to examine how you're going about it. I've been called unorthodox but I'd like to think my methods are based on common sense, and an understanding that a 6 year old does not have the same attention span as a 40 year old. Whether you're a professional musician or just learning for fun, find the joy in what you do and the rest will fall into place. And please remember to breathe.

-J

 

 

 

How Music Can Help Your Mental Health

In honour of Mental Health Week I wanted to talk about how music can be so incredibly beneficial to those feeling not their selves, a little off or a little lost. In my many years of playing piano and my not as many (but still a fair few) years of teaching I've personally seen and experienced the positive side-effects of making music.

As a musician, I have found that there is no better emotional release than sitting down at my piano and getting out whatever I'm feeling - generally very very loudly. Luckily I have forgiving housemates who understand, being musicians themselves. What I play isn't necessarily important, or a reflection of my mood (though sometimes it is) and I may choose to vent via some melancholy Coldplay or Yann Tiersen, some angry, bass-heavy improv or perhaps some Beethoven - who being deaf, mad and a genius was the original venter of frustration through music. 

Now here you may feel the need to point out that I've played piano for a long time and therefore it's somewhat easy for me to play what I feel and you're not wrong. But that doesn't mean you need to have played your instrument for 20 years for it to help you to feel better when you're not feeling too crash hot. I've had students come in with various worries: a fight with their partner, problems at work, school/uni stress and after a little chat it makes me so happy to watch those problems melt away for half an hour whilst they're concentrating on a new piece, or getting lost in an old favourite. 

Another benefit is the sense of achievement you feel when finishing that extra line, that second page or even the whole song if you feel so inclined. Sometimes life can throw a whole bunch of bad things your way, and even simple tasks can feel impossible and it's at times like these that I push my students to finish or perfect even just one line of music so they can feel the elation and pride that comes with any burst of creativity. 

What is perhaps my favourite aspect of music is how it can be just for you. When you're feeling low you can generally have a chat with friends, family and dare I say friendly neighbourhood music teachers to make you feel a little better, but occasionally you may not feel like talking to anyone and it's at this point that music steps up. It's like having a conversation with yourself that can either be a distraction or an emotional focus and it's entirely up to you and I love that. Additionally, feeling bad doesn't always happen at convenient hours. Occasionally that free-floating anxiety can wake you up in the middle of the night, or worse the very very early morning and if you're not comfortable calling someone at that hour I guarantee your piano/keyboard won't complain.

There is never a wrong time for music, never a wrong time to learn, never a wrong time to want to feel a bit better about yourself. If music is something you've ever thought you might be interested in, or if you think it might be a beneficial outlet for you - look into it! Below is a clip of me playing one of my all time favourite songs by Yann Tiersen, it's a little melancholy but it never fails to relax me. 

-J

So You Think You Can...Music?

Once upon a time, back in the end days of high school, I faced a dilemma. To enrol in an education degree at university or to pursue a career on a cattle station somewhere in the wilds of regional Australia. This is 100% true. In the end I chose uni but to this day I wonder what would have happened if I'd gone in the other direction, and I still miss cows. You'll notice neither of these options have anything to do with music and throughout high school I never considered music to be a serious career option. I decided that a Bachelor of Education was a 'real' degree that would get me a 'real' job - with presumably 'real' money. 

One semester into my real degree I dropped out. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do but teaching children English and History wasn't it. My sister and her husband spent a long time trying to convince me to enrol in a Bachelor of Music. My excuses were many and included: there's no point, I won't get a job and (my secret fear) I'm not good enough. In the end they registered me for an audition, I went to said audition and I got in, and to this day I have never, ever regretted doing my Bachelor, and later my Masters degree. 

When it comes to music, it is my opinion that the general public are not very well informed on its various disciplines and industries. I wasn't either before I started my degree, and when people would scathingly ask me 'what are you going to do with a music degree, be in a band?' I could only shrug. Now, years later, I have experience in composition and performance, sound production and engineering, project and artist management, teaching at university and of course private tuition. I have loved performing and being a part of a band, I have loved working in studios, producing both my own music and other artists, and I have loved teaching - which is somewhat ironic seeing as I dropped out of an Education degree. 

There are so so many different avenues to choose from when it comes to pursuing a musical career but unfortunately these aren't always very well advertised. What else isn't advertised is how sustainable a career in music can be. Some people assume that a musician puts a video up on YouTube and hopes for the best. There are certainly people who do this but they're also poorly informed on what it takes to be a part of the music industry. Essentially it comes down to the same principle that drives most occupations - hard work. It's not crazy to want to be in a band, to want to be in publishing or distribution, to want to live off making music but you have to be prepared to work for it. Since graduating from uni I have only ever worked in jobs in my field, which is more than I can say for some friends of mine who have finished Education, Engineering and Law degrees. It hasn't always been easy, but I have always enjoyed it.

Long story short, I never thought playing the piano could lead to a sustainable career. I was wrong. It's lead me to multiple career options, to developing skills in a variety of disciplines, to creating connections and networks with industry members all over Australia and now to running my own business. I have no idea what I'd be doing now if I hadn't enrolled in my music degree, but I doubt I'd be as happy. If music is something you love, but you're unsure if it's the right thing to do, I hope this has broadened your outlook. I met a man yesterday who told me he hadn't pursued a music degree because he couldn't read sheet music. I assured him it's not a prerequisite. If something makes you happy don't manufacture reasons for why you shouldn't do it. Just give it a go. Worst case scenario it's not for you but at least you'll know. As for me, if music for some reason doesn't work out I'll most likely end up judging cattle in Toowoomba, which as plan B's go isn't too shabby. 

-J

To Be Examined, Or Not To Be Examined?

One of the most common questions I'm asked in my line of work is 'what do you think about exams?' and at the risk of sounding controversial and un-teacherly I can honestly say I'm not a fan. My own experience with exams was one of stress and mild terror, and that was just the preparation. The exams themselves were conducted by a mysterious man or woman, seated at the back of the room who would listen to me play, ask me blunt, brusque questions and then dismiss me, to emerge shaking from the room with little memory of how I had played or what I had said. It was not a happy time. 

Growing older, I dismissed these memories as childish exaggerations but talking to other musicians I discovered they too shared negative feelings regarding their rise through the graded system. I was curious to see if, like the rest of the education system, the musical exam experience had changed over time. Questioning current young students the vast majority confessed to disliking their exam pieces once they'd played them over and over to perfection, dreading scales practice and desperately trying to memorise the definitive difference between ritenuto and ritardando just in case they were asked. When asked if they enjoyed exams the answer was a resounding 'NO'. 

This isn't to say that exams don't have their benefits. Some students thrive under a structured, disciplined learning regime, enter exams feeling confident and earn grades that give them a positive sense of accomplishment. This can encourage a love of piano, performance and learning in general and I wholeheartedly approve - having seen several students through just such an experience. However, and I say this with feeling, exams are not for everyone, and that's okay!

I've had adult learners tell me they played as children, went through the exam process and promptly decided piano was not for them. I've had young students practice their hearts out and perform fantastically for me only to crumble under the understandable pressure of performing for someone they've never met. I have been outraged to read follow-up reports informing me that though my 10 year old student played their pieces well the 'colour of their tone was not varied enough' and that this somehow warranted a low grade. In what way can this possibly encourage a young student to want to continue? 

I'm ranting, I'm sorry, but this is something I've always felt very strongly about. Sometimes exams can be exactly what you need to focus your learning, sometimes they can be limiting. I teach students songs I think they can play, regardless of the grade. 13 year old C has in the past two months learned five different pieces ranging from grade 3 to grade 8 - because she likes them. We talked about exams and she said she would rather spend the preparation time learning more than three songs of the same grade. I said fair enough. I've had parents worry that their 5 year old hasn't started exams yet, because they assume that's what is required.

What I find is required is an interest and dedication to the exam material, a joy in performance and the ability to judge for yourself what you've done well and what needs improving. This can develop at any age but I don't recommend exams unless the student meets these requirements. An examiner may be fair and positive or they may have already seen 20 people that day and are no longer impressed by anything. Only when you can judge your performance yourself in a open-minded way should you feel ready to subject yourself to a stranger's opinion - so that regardless of the opinion you still actually enjoy performing. 

If you're interested in exams, or if you're interested in your child doing exams, just have a think about why. Talk to your child, talk to their teacher - are they learning to become a professional pianist or is this just a fun extra-curricular activity? Do you play just to relax or are you interested in pushing for a graded performance? There's more than one type of exam, chat to your teacher about which style would be the best for you - which syllabus suits your style or has the most engaging pieces. Learn as much as you can about what is expected and then you can decide for yourself if exams are for you or not.  

-J

Porque No Los Dos?

On an almost weekly basis I ask my students if there’s anything new they’ve heard on the radio, tv etc that they would like to learn to play. My older students tend to know what they like and stick with it so it’s most often the younger students, being more inclined to pursue new music, who are keen to learn the latest chart-topper or YouTube trend. In my teens I was very similar but having grown somewhat older I relate more to my older students, knowing what I like and sticking with it. The music of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift just isn’t my cup of tea (though I respect Taylor Swift enormously as a musician) but when it comes to teaching I’m not really allowed to have an opinion. If 6-year-old L is dying to learn what she calls the “Masterchef song” (aka Katy Perry’s Hot and Cold) then I am absolutely not going to stand in the way of such enthusiasm. When I’m in teacher mode there is no genre I won’t enthuse about and no song I don’t love – though the Entertainer is a stretch. I’m there to encourage, not criticise.

However, I do get upset when students ask me if it’s possible to play their current favourite song. They’ve developed the not uncommon idea that piano is for classical music, and perhaps a bit of light jazz if you’re feeling daring. I had a 15-year-old student, who claimed to be very interested in all things “EDM/tech kinda music” before worriedly asking me if I knew what it was. I assured him that despite being the ripe old age of 24 I did indeed know of it and my two university degrees in music had broadened my knowledge considerably.

(Bracket conversation: a 6-year-old student of mine once overheard her parents congratulating me on finishing my masters degree and then proceeded to tell her friends that her piano teacher was a ‘master of music’. I’ll take it.)

So this keen patron of electronic music, once he was assured I knew who David Guetta and Calvin Harris were, then sighed and told me that even though that was what he liked his mum wanted him to take piano lessons. I told him it was possible for the two to be combined and all was well with the world. But in all seriousness I truly believe that piano is one of the best and easiest ways to introduce yourself to the world of music. On no other instrument (save for xylophones, glockenspiels and related unpronounceable things you hit with mallets) is the concept of musical theory laid out so simply and understandably. I may be biased due to my on/off relationship with learning guitar but I really do believe this.

Even if you have no interest in becoming a pianist, learning such basics as constructing melodies and chord progressions is made much easier when presented with a row of black and white keys. A friend of mine was once teaching a guitar student who was struggling with the concept of an octave, that there could be the same note multiple times only higher or lower in pitch (low C, middle C, high C etc). I brought out the micro-Korg (the very same as in the below video) and all was made clear. What better way to make sense of scales, intervals, inversions and so on? Take this knowledge, and then go do your thing, whatever it may be – constructing dance melodies, intricate guitar riffs, bluesy bass progressions and so on. For myself I was classically trained in the Suzuki method but whilst maintaining that interest I have since developed into what a lecturer once summed up as a ‘contemporary improvisation artist’. Call it what you will, I enjoy making music – whatever the style. Whether it be stubbornly pursuing guitar, fiddling with synths like below or picking up an accordion my years as a pianist have definitely opened many musical doors. So next time you’re weighing up your favourite genre against a piano ask yourself – why not have both?

-J



Do You Feel The Need...?

Last week's blog reviewed the sometimes overlooked abilities of younger students and this week I want to talk about the other end of the scale - adult learners. Nearly every single older student I've ever had has started their first lesson with a multitude of reasons why they can't play/won't be able to learn/will be terrible/have no expectations of themselves. "It's been years" they'll warn me, or "I've never done this, so don't expect much". I find this pretty amusing compared to younger students who will generally just attack the piano purely for the joy of making some kind of racket - harmonious or otherwise. Adults on the other hand generally require much prodding before touching a key and then very tentatively. It is completely understandable to be nervous in your first few lessons, playing for a complete stranger whose job it is essentially to judge your abilities. However, after weeks and months of students berating themselves I start to worry that there is some underlying problem. I consider myself fairly easy-going but there is only so much indulgent smiling I can do people. As a teacher it's my job to help you improve. If I think you're not doing so well on a particular song, or if I can tell there hasn't been a great deal of practice my current students can affirm that I will promptly point this out. Similarly if I tell you you're doing well, you best believe I mean it. It doesn't benefit my students (or me for that matter) to lie about their progress, and I don't believe in sugar-coating. I do believe in helping my students reach a level where they are confident to continue developing their piano skills without me. Which brings to mind another amusing habit of adult students: apologising for anything less than perfection. As I continually point out to them - if you're perfect, then you don't need me anymore.

I do genuinely worry about some of my adult students and their lack of confidence, which is something I generally encounter with younger learners, the main difference being adults tend to swear a whole lot more. I often wonder where this stems from and I've narrowed it down to 'results seen over time', one could even say a need for speed...? As adults we've spent our whole lives subconsciously developing life skills - reading, writing, speaking etc. However when it comes to learning something new it's very easy to forget this, and when we can't conquer a new challenge (even after 4 whole weeks!) frustration begins to set in. I've experienced this myself when trying to learn to play guitar. My poor partner (who happens to be an amazing guitarist) patiently endured days of my cries of 'why can't I do this!' before I realised I sounded exactly like my students. So I told myself what I tell them on a daily basis: 'give yourself a break'. Getting angry at yourself will absolutely not help you improve any faster. As adults we have full-time jobs, we study, we have children, we have lives. I never expect my adult students to practice 3 hours a day every day. This makes piano a chore. You'll start feeling guilty, throwing furtive looks at the piano which appears to be glaring at you accusingly from the corner. I don't want this, you don't want this, this is the opposite of what we want. Instead play when you feel like it, with perhaps a pinch of discipline. Be it 10 minutes before you go to sleep, during commercial breaks, when you've had a bad day, when you've had a good day - give yourself the time to realise your progress is real and you will want to play.

This was a lengthy one and I apologise, but it's something I feel very passionate about. So no more excuses! If there's a new challenge you've been putting off - be it piano or something else altogether - get started. As always feel free to ask any questions in the comments, and check back for next week's instalment!

-J

What Can't Kids Do?

It's been another week of lessons and learning experiences and it's time for another blog post! This week I found myself dwelling on the fact that I am constantly surprised and amazed by my younger students. In my 5 years of teaching I've had to get used to children from the ages of 5 to 13 constantly surpassing my expectations when it comes to concentration, dedication and skill. This has led me to forget about things like difficulty when it comes to picking new music for my students and instead focus on choosing songs that will both entertain and push them. One thing I haven't been able to get used to is the techniques some of my students have learned from previous teachers. One particular example is a 6-year-old student of mine who had learned 'C position'. This involves resting the hand on the notes C, D, E, F and G, one finger per key. When I asked them to play A (the key after G) they gave me a very exasperated look and said 'Julia I don't have any more fingers!'. Another student had learned to recognise keys not as C, D and E but as 1, 2 and 3. When I asked them to play me a C they couldn't find one. One young girl had only ever been given Bartok pieces and was very excited to learn that classical music was not her only choice of genre. I've taught these same kids to play all their basic major scales, 1 to 3 octaves, in both parallel and contrary motion. I've seen them tackle difficult songs purely because they're huge fans of Taylor Swift, Sam Smith and (surprisingly) ABBA. I firmly believe that children learn fastest when they're having fun and so there really is no point drilling the likes of Hot Cross Buns or (shudder) The Entertainer unless there's an interest there already. This isn't to say that a great song will automatically inspire your child to practice an hour a day but it will certainly help, especially if they have an enthusiastic audience! Some of my favourite examples of my kids surprising me include 6-year-old L who composes a new piece each week (always with a hilarious title), 10-year-old H and their excellent taste in Beatle's music and 11-year-old C who learned the entire first movement of Moonlight Sonata before I told her it was a grade 8 piece. This isn't to say you need to start young to be fantastic at piano and next week's blog will be all about my amazing adult learners. Any questions? Feel free to comment on this post! 

-J

Welcome!

Hello and welcome to my first ever blog post! As a music tutor I am endlessly discussing new ideas, theories and philosophies with my students and seeing as I've now entered the world of social media I thought I'd share them online. So often I'm asked how do I teach piano, which is in my opinion a very strange question. In my experience there is no set method that works on every single student. I've taught children under 5 and adults in their 50's. I've taught in person, via Skype, on keyboards, uprights and grand pianos. In every situation it's up to me as a tutor to adapt to that particular student's learning needs. The question I ask is 'what do you want?' Regardless of why you've chosen to learn piano you can speed up the process by explaining what it is you want to learn to your tutor. Not interested in classical? Not a problem. You'd rather compose your own music than play other people's? Fantastic! You've just always really wanted to learn that one song? You can. I've found there's a bit of a stigma concerning piano teachers and it usually involves cranky old ladies, cats and a ruler across the knuckles if you make a mistake. Admittedly, that was my own experience at the tender age of 3 but times have changed people! The world of music is a fascinating mix of old and new, classic and ever-changing and I never tire of helping my JKM students discover their place in it. If you're unsure of where you fit feel free to comment on this post and be sure to check back for weekly updates.

 -J