Author Archives: mail201

Myths of Music Practice #3

Myth 3 – You Can’t Practise Without Your Instrument

Think you can’t practise if you don’t have your instrument with you? Think again. Maybe its too late or early in the day to play, perhaps your voice, lip or hands are tired, but you still have the interest to practise a little longer. Even if there’s no reason why you can’t play, there’s evidence to show that it may actually be advisable to do some of your practice without your instrument, using only your imagination.

Mentally rehearsing a piece or exercise, hearing in the mind all aspects of the sound including pitch, rhythm, timbre and volume, is something many successful musicians do. Just as in real practice, they’ll stop at the difficult phrases, taking care to deconstruct them and vividly create in the imagination all the sensations of improving that tricky syncopated rhythm, difficult leap or subtle crescendo, ‘hearing’ it just how they want it to be.

This art of practising in your imagination is often referred to as ‘mental imagery’. It involves sharpening your ability to hear music in your head (sometimes also called ‘audiating’ or ‘auralising’) and when used alongside your usual physical practice can help improve your playing by ear, memorising, sight-reading, improvising, composing and performance skills.

Mental imagery practice is such a powerful tool that it creates visible changes in the brain. An experiment by Pascual-Leone et al (1995) examined what happened in the motor cortex, in people who practised a piano exercise for 2 hours a day over 5 days. Using transcranial-magnetic-stimulation the scientists could see that the part of the brain responsible for finger movements enlarged over the 5 days. That’s interesting enough, but a second group of people in the experiment practised the same exercise for the same amount of time, only in their imagination. Amazingly, the scientists found the same changes to the brain occurred in this group as in those who actually played.

Though neurologists are now able to explain how it works, concert musicians have known for a long time how effective this kind of practice can be. The famous pianist Glenn Gould (1932-82) wrote: “In my opinion, the only really successful way of learning a work… is to do so quite away from the instrument”.

Pianist Gina Bachauer (1913-76) never started a new piece at the piano. “I try to read it for 15 or 20 days in bed in the evening before I touch a note” she stated, “to see what the composer’s message is.”

Spending time in mental rehearsal can help us feel less nervous in performance too. We can take the opportunity not just to imagine ourselves playing very well, but visualise ourselves in different locations, different clothes and conditions, allowing our mind to familiarise itself with the process of the performance and therefore be more relaxed when the exam or concert comes round.

Its not only musicians who benefit from these techniques. Successful athletes tend to engage in more mental rehearsals than less successful individuals. Basketball star Larry Bird, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, and golfer Tiger Woods have reportedly gained their expertise through a combination of physical practice and mental imagery.

Find out if it works for you. Why not aim to audiate a new piece before you begin to play it? For a piece you already know, record and review your playing of it before and after running a series of mental rehearsals. Take note of anything you think changed due to your imagery work. If you notice improvements, then including mental imagery in your practice could be just what you need to lift your musicianship to the next level.

References

Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills.

A. Pascual-Leone, D. Nguyet, L. G. Cohen, J. P. Brasil-Neto, A. Cammarota, M. Hallett

Journal of Neurophysiology Published 1 September 1995 Vol. 74 no. 3, 1037-1045.

J. Roberts, G Guertin, eds., Glenn Gould Selected Letters (Toronto: OUP, 1992), 52.

A. Marcus, Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (Neptune: Paganiniana, 1979), 11-12.

Advertisements

Myths of Music Practice #1

Myth #1 – Your Practice Should Sound Good by Catherine Cowan

While we should aim for our performance to be engaging and rewarding to hear, the same should not necessarily be said of practice. The goals are completely different and we are unlikely to achieve our best practice by simply playing the piece beginning to end, forging past any difficulties as best we can.

Think of it like a computer game, you’re walking through a town and you have to respond to situations along your journey that need your help. Don’t just walk past – the aim is not to get to the other end of town as quickly as you can, but to collect points by helping out with difficulties you meet on the journey. Those semiquavers in bar 7 that are running out of control? Stop and find a way to get them back in time. You notice a hesitation in bar 11. How can you get those notes to flow without pausing? To win points you must identify issues and create solutions.

Breaking down a piece in this way is likely to sound odd and disconnected to a listener and once a tricky passage is correct, you may need to repeat it many times in order to have it feel natural. This is probably not going to sound particularly pretty but will reap great rewards for the player.

There’s no limit to the extent you can break down your playing. In her first weeks of college, a cellist friend of mine was advised to play no pieces at all, in fact no more than the single note G for days. Under the careful guidance of her tutor she was able to improve her expertise dramatically in this way!

It is often said in instrumental teaching ‘the slower you go, the sooner you get there’. For practice to be its most efficient it’s very likely that some passages will need to be played extremely slowly, and a listener may even lose the sense of the melody. Rachmaninov, one of the world’s greatest ever pianists is described as practising so slowly that the piece was at first unrecognisable.

“I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached… I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising … at such a snail’s pace that it took me a while to recognise [the piece] because so much time elapsed between one finger stroke and the next.” – Abram Chasins, American composer. (Chasins, Abram. 1967 Speaking of Pianists. New York: Knopf, 44.)

Lots of helpful practice techniques that are likely to carry the player through to a greater level of ability can be hard for someone else to enjoy listening to. I frequently recommend my piano students to enjoy crashing out some really dissonant sounds in their practice. For example, in learning a scale you might take all the notes from one hand position that would normally be played melodiously one after another, and play them all at the same time in a cacophonous cluster. Its not sweet on the ears but can be very effective at developing mastery of movement around the keyboard.

My advice would be to free yourself from the tyranny of having always to make sounds pleasing to others. Your practice is not for an audience, it is for you, to experiment, to make a racket if need be, to delve deeply into the piece and get to know it until it becomes part of you.

Do you have any strange sounding practice techniques that help you?

Myths of Music Practice #2

Myth #2 – Practice Makes Perfect by Catherine Cowan

Are we practising in order to achieve perfection? I actually find the idea of ever reaching that illusory goal rather scary. Perfection feels to me like a dead end, a point beyond which there may be no more discovery, catharsis, challenge or fun. It is something completed, motionless and moribund. This contrasts starkly with my view of music making as being alive, dynamic and in a constant organic state of change, as we ourselves are.

If perfection is an imperfect goal, our musical imperfections are perhaps not to be too disparaged. Miles Davis said ‘Do not fear mistakes, there are none’. We can interpret this in many ways, but it reminds me that being temporarily unable to perform something as I want it, is not the same as failing. Over years of teaching I’ve seen that ‘mistakes’, when handled well, are one of the most effective routes to becoming truly proficient. On top of which, humans are inclined to value things that are hard to come by, higher than things which are readily available. Ultimately we’re probably made happier by something we had to work for, than something easy. If a little wrestling with a piece, initially making various errors makes us happier in the long run, its hard to see mistakes negatively.

If all people mean by ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ though, is that through practice we can get the most out of ourselves, its hard to disagree with that. As in many areas of life, we tend to get out what we put in. However do take care what you put in. It would be easy to practise every day and still end up with something disappointing. Over years of teaching I’ve seen people memorise rhythms without being certain they are correct. I’ve seen students laboriously practise scales with fingerings they don’t mean to use or repeatedly play with awkward, unhelpful muscle tensions.

Sometimes the student is even consciously aware its not right, but feels they will get better if they keep repeating it anyway. I’m not sure that’s true.  Habits, helpful or not, can be formed quickly. Whatever activity your brain is experiencing, it is in a sense practising it, whether we like it or not. We might say ‘Practice Makes Permanent’. Permanent is an exaggeration but it does seem in the nature of the brain that we become more likely to do, say, think or feel whatever we did yesterday and the day before.

Use your practice time wisely. Consult the notes from your lesson. Before you repeatedly play that difficult section you may need to slow down considerably, count, clap, imagine, sing, listen to a recording or annotate your score for example. Break the task up, creating stepping stones to the eventual goal. When you’re confident its just as you want it, only then go ahead and repeat until effortless.

Errors can be a very healthy part of the journey for a musician, as long as you notice them and respond accordingly. I’m not sure I even believe in perfection in this context. No-one is perfect and there’s no one correct way to play a piece.

Recording artist Drake said ‘I was born to make mistakes, not to fake perfection’. Its an important point. The thought of having to achieve perfection can be paralysing. Plenty of talented people refuse to perform for fear of making mistakes, while some students give up their instrument entirely, because they don’t achieve unrealistic, false goals they set for themselves. As singer Pete Seeger noted, ‘The easiest way to avoid wrong notes is to never open your mouth and sing. What a mistake that would be’. Practice doesn’t have to make perfect, as long as its done with care and understanding, it should make for a more fulfilled musician and audience, and that’s perfectly good enough for me.

Give Classical A Try!

Suggestions for those dipping their toe into classical music for the first time, by Catherine Cowan.

I never liked P.E. at school. I wasn’t in with the sporty group and I did not want to be an athlete. Teachers assured me that wearing embarrassing uniform and repeatedly chasing a ball in foggy hockey fields was ‘good for me’ and when their patience wore thin they mistook for rebellion my look of distaste.

Today, I recognise that same look on some of my students’ faces when I suggest they add some classical music onto their playlists. Often protests focus around the idea that classical music is boring, difficult and irrelevant, written hundreds of years ago by old men in dusty wigs.

Not all classical music, like not all exercise, is the same. Nowadays I’ve discovered there’s more to sports than hockey and I’ve found ways of keeping healthy that I can enjoy – pretty much anything where you don’t have to hit a ball (the balls usually hit me!) So if you’ve heard classical music you didn’t like before, keep looking. Chances are some of it you will love. How about Steve Reich’s mesmerising ‘Clapping Music’, Stravinsky’s unhinged ‘Danse Sacrale’ from Rite of Spring or Einaudi’s therapeutic ‘I Giorni’.

The BBC have assembled lists of classical music you may like in an initiative called ‘Ten Pieces’ and put together short videos about each one. My favourites include: ‘No Place Like’ by Kerry Andrew which involves beatboxing and body percussion; the dramatic bellows of ‘O Fortuna’ by Carl Orff that you might recognise from tv shows like Britain’s Got Talent; and Antonin Dvorak’s profoundly peaceful Symphony no. 9 2nd Movement.

Classical music can also contain some of the most exciting virtuosic playing you’ll see. Back in 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote a violin concerto in D major after a disastrous three-week-long marriage and subsequent suicide attempt. It was so difficult to play it was declared “unplayable” by Leopold Auer to whom the work was dedicated. You can watch Janine Jansen wrap her fingers around those relentless semiquavers here. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments in classical performances. See Yuja Wang’s hands fly around the keyboard playing Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ for example.

Its exciting to hear lots of musicians today putting their own spin on classical music. Pianists Anderson & Roe have modern twists on classical pieces and classical twists on pop music. Watch out for their versions of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and their contemporary take on Schubert’s terrifying ‘Der Erlkonig’.

Classical training has featured in lots of pop and rock musicians lives. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, producer and DJ Zedd, Annie Lennox, Elton John and Tori Amos are just a few who have studied classically before achieving worldwide fame in other genres.

The world of classical music is vast. Enter it with the mind of an explorer discovering a new land. It spans music from many different countries over several centuries. There are no rules for its performers or composers. They employ all manner of instruments from acoustic to electronic and non-musical objects (or no instruments at all, as in John Cage’s ‘4 minutes 33 seconds’ of silence!) to evoke every reaction and emotion you can think of.

There are no rules for its listeners either. I’m not convinced repeatedly chasing anything around in a foggy haze is good for you whether that’s hockey balls or music you’re unmoved by. If you’re not impressed by something, articulate what you don’t like about it if you can and move on. Indulge your musical curiosity and I hope you’ll share with me your most exciting discoveries.

The Magic Of Music

The Magic Of Music by Catherine Cowan

Researchers in various fields are now confirming what many musicians including myself have long believed – that music not only somehow moves us and expresses our emotions, it also has the potential to shape and develop our minds, to improve our mood and even our health.

Click here for an interesting article from The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/24/want-to-train-your-brain-forget-apps-learn-a-musical-instrument

In “Music – The 4th ‘R’”, a booklet compiled by the Music Education Council, the National Music Council and the Music Industries Association, there is a fascinating overview of the growing body of empirical evidence linking children’s learning of music with significantly improved abilities in other subjects. In short, learning music can help children improve their

•reading ability

•ability in maths, science and engineering

•speech-fluency in native and foreign languages

•memorising capacity

•reasoning and problem-solving, as well as team working and social skills, ability to handle stress (performance pressures) and of course artistic ability.

“It has often been recorded that the left half of the brain is bigger in musicians than in non musicians. This part of the brain is important in verbal memory. Musical training before age 12 is now known to lead to better verbal memory. Music training expands the area of the brain used to play the instrument and also stimulates more general physical changes in the brain, benefiting other faculties”.

Ian Robertson, “Mind Sculpture” (Bantam Press), MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge.

There are many intriguing studies in this area. For example:

•Kindergarten age children who were taught the rhythm and melodies of folk songs 40 mins a day for 7 months showed significantly higher reading scores than a control group.

•Pre-school age children who received daily singing lessons and weekly keyboard instruction for 8 months performed significantly better on tests of spatial reasoning that those with no music tuition.

•The College Entrance Examination Board recently announced that students who studied either music performance or music appreciation scored higher on both verbal and maths portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in 1995 than did those who had not studied music.

Studies are also being undertaken that show musical engagement has many benefits for the mature learner too, keeping the mind agile and providing a great method of relaxation.

Indeed it is not only our learning abilities that can benefit from a structured interaction with music. Music is also increasingly used as a therapy, proving an aid in treating common diseases and conditions including asthma, heart disease, ADHD and Alzheimer’s. (For more detail see “The Mozart Effect” by Don Campbell – there’s a copy in York library). It is also becoming accepted that engaging with a cultural pursuit such as music gives us a better chance at longevity.

The literature discussing the vast and varied benefits of musical activity is large and growing. It is not within the remit of this site to review the research but simply to bring attention to it for those who are interested. I’ve noted below some of the texts I’ve studied. They make fascinating reading.

1.Blacking, J. (1973) How musical is man? Faber & Faber.

2.Charness, N., Krampe, R. Th. & Mayr, U. (1986) The Road to Excellence: the acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, ed K.A. Ericsson, Erlbaum.

3.Davidson, J.W., Howe, M.J.A., Moore, D.G. & Sloboda, J.A. (1996) The role of parental influences in the development of musical performance. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 14:399-412.

4.Ericsson, K.A. & Charness, N. (1995b) Abilities: evidence for talent or characteristics acquired through engagement in relevant activities. American Psychologist, 50:803-804.

5.Feld, S. (1984) Sound structure as a social structure. Ethnomusicology, 28:383-409.

6.Hargreaves, D. J. (1994) Musical education for all. The Psychologist, 7:357-358.

7.Howe, M. J. A. (1975) Learning in infants and young children, Macmillan.

8.Howe, M. J. A., Davidson, J. W., Moore, D. G. & Sloboda, J. A. (1995) Are there early childhood signs of musical ability? Psychology of Music, 23:162-176.

9.Howe, M. J. A. & Sloboda, J. A. (1991c) Early signs of talents and special interests in the lives of young musicians. European Journal of High Ability, 2:102-111.

10.Lehmann, A. C. (1995) The acquisition of expertise in music: efficiency of deliberate practice as a moderating variable in accounting for sub-expert performance. In: Perception and cognition of music ed. I Deliege & J. A. Sloboda, Erlbaum.

11.Manturzewska, M. (1990) A biographical study of the life-span development of professional musicians. Psychology of Music, 18:112-139.

12.Marshall, C. (1982) Towards a comparative aesthetics of music. In Cross cultural perspectives in music, ed R. Falck & T. Rice, University of Toronto Press.

13.Miller, L. K. (1989) Musical Savants: Exceptional skill in the mentally retarded, Erlbaum.

14.O’Neill, S. (1994) Factors influencing children’s motivation and achievement during the first year of instrumental music tuition. Proceedings of the third international conference on music perception and cognition, University of Liege, Belgium.

15.Papousek, J. (1995) Musicality and infancy research. In Perception and cognition of music, ed. I. Deliege & J. A. Sloboda, Erlbaum.

16.Parncutt, R. (1993) Prenatal experience and origins of music. In: Prenatal perception, learning and bonding, ed. T. Blum, Leonardo.

17.Schlaug, G., Jancke, L., Huant, Y. & Steinmetz, H. (1995). In vivo evidence of structural brain asymmetry in musicians. Science, 267:699-701.

18.Sloboda, J. A. (1985) The musical mind, Clarendon Press.

19.Sloboda, J. A. (1991) Musical expertise. In: Toward a general theory of expertise, ed K. A. Ericsson & J. Smith, Cambridge University Press.

20.Sloboda, J. A. (1996) Deconstructing the talent account of individual differences in musical expressivity. In: The road to excellence: the acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, ed, K. A. Ericsson, Erlbaum.

21.Sloboda, J. A., Davidson, J. W. & Howe, M. J. A. (1994a&b) Is everyone musical? Musicians: experts not geniuses. The Psychologist 7:349-364.

22.Sloboda, J. A., Davidson, J. W., Howe, M. J. A & Moore, D. G. (1996) The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. British Journal of Psychology 87.

23.Sloboda, J. A., Hermelin, B. & O’Connor, N. (1985) An exceptional musical memory. Musical perception 3:155-170.

24.Sloboda J. A. & Howe, M. J. A. (1992) Transitions in the early musical careers of able young musicians. Journal of Research in Music Education, 40:283-294.

25.Sosniak, L. A. (1985) Learning to be a concert pianist. In: Developing talent in young people, ed B. S. Bloom, Ballantine.

26.Trehub, S. E. (1990) The perception of musical patterns by human infants. In: Comparative perception, vol 1: Basic mechanism, ed M. A. Berkeley & W. C. Stebbins, Wiley.