Rhythm Silliness

Every lesson I teach is an adventure.

I never know exactly what to expect when a student walks through the door. Flexibility and creativity are my best friends on lesson days.

This week, I had an especially entertaining lesson with Nicolette* (not her real name, of course.) We both enjoyed being silly and stretching our creative muscles. Moreover, Nicolette learned how to play some difficult rhythms. I think she will remember this lesson for years.

As I’ve discussed in other blog posts about practice hacks, the brain loves novelty. According to the article “Learning by Surprise” in Scientific American (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/learning-by-surprise/),

“Psychologists have known for some time that if we experience a novel situation within a familiar context, we will more easily store this event in memory.”

My band director taught me to count sixteenth notes as 1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, etc. Do you remember this from school? Growing up, I struggled to remember the order of the meaningless syllables, but that’s the only way we were taught to count. Much later, in music school at Ohio State, someone suggested using words for rhythm. It was a euphoric moment for me.

YES! Something memorable and playful! Silly rhythm words!

Sixteenth notes on the page became words like “Peanut butter” or “Mississippi.”

Entire silly sentences can be made up for hard rhythms. Take this one, for example:

hard rhythm

grasshopper, melted chocolate salamander

The example above is from music that my adult recorder ensemble is rehearsing. Some of the players were having trouble counting it, but the problem was fixed as soon as I sang “Grasshopper, melted chocolate salamander.” It’s much harder to forget goofy things.

Back to the flute lesson this week with 9 year old Nicolette. Her assignment this week includes playing a variety of sixteenth-note rhythms. She is a Star Wars fan, and we brainstormed new rhythm words. Four sixteenth notes became our favorite little driod R2D2:

16th notes

R 2 D 2

The rhythm one eighth note and two sixteenths (counted 1 and-a in band) is now Darth Vader or Skywalker:

eighth two sixteenths

Darth Vader

The tricky pattern of two sixteenths followed by an eighth note (counted 1-e-and in band) is now Anakin:

star wars rhythms


We can’t forget the easier rhythms like two eighth notes. They have two names- Yoda or Ewok- because Nicolette and I couldn’t decide which one was better:

two eighth notes

Yoda or Ewok

A single quarter note, we decided, would be “Luke.”

And for a grand finale, two sets of triplets would be the worst bad guy of all “Emperor Palpatine.”


Emperor Palpatine

Can you imagine R2D2, Yoda, Darth Vader and Anakin marching across your music in time to the beat?

Use these if they make you smile. Or make up your own. Remember, the sillier the better!

Update: 6 weeks later, Nicolette and I are still using Star Wars words for rhythms. I’ve started using them with other students too.

A Flute in My Refrigerator, book review

A Flute in My Refrigerator: Celebrating a Life in Music by Helen Spielman; book reviewHelen Spielman

Frustrated with teachers who complain about “students who don’t inspire them,” Helen Spielman dares to suggest that “they’ve got that backwards– it’s a teacher’s job to inspire students.” Throughout her book, Helen’s book examines the student-teacher bond. The relationship goes in two directions and Helen has firsthand knowledge of both. She speaks from years of experience as a private flute instructor, but the essays I found most touching were the ones in which she examines her role as an adult flute student.

Helen’s vulnerabilities and struggles as an adult learner are endearing.

We read about Helen’s first recital in 1996. Overcoming personal obstacles such as technical facility and feelings of self-doubt, the physical obstacle of a snow and ice storm proved insurmountable. However, the concert was rescheduled and triumphantly executed. Even James Galway sends his regards in a series of emails about the concert. This is one of the many threads that are entertaining and touching.

One of the most enjoyable sections of the book is titled “Moments from a Teacher’s Flute Journal.” Delightful stories about students young and old are told with love, and Helen often makes punchlines out of her own mistakes. I laughed out loud when reading this passage:

Charlotte is 10. She’s a smart girl, but she doesn’t talk much. Only with much coaxing does she answer questions about her day at school or her weekend activities.

Today, however, she uncharacteristically volunteered some information all by herself.

“I have lice,” she announced.

Thank you very much for sharing that, Charlotte.

Oh, I can relate to these stories!

Last week I was teaching a middle school student, let’s call her Bethany. As I watched Bethany’s fingers, I thought her flute looked strange, like maybe it was curved in a gentle U-shape. I shook my head and made a silent note to have my eyes checked. Or maybe I was just going crazy– sometimes it feels like that after a long evening of lessons. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Bethany’s flute was bent- the solder joint at the barrel had separated and stretched on one side. The flute had fallen on the floor during band practice that day and now the flute had a distinct curve upward. Bethany’s flute was quickly fixed by the repairman and my sanity was restored. Helen Spielman’s book has inspired me to keep a journal in the studio to write down these precious moments.

A Flute in My Refrigerator reminds me that we teach more than notes and rhythms. Middle and high school students need to know that an adult besides their parents cares about them. I know that my high school flute teacher was like a father to me. The weekly check-ins with my students can make me feel a little bit like a therapist. There are the general opening questions, like “So, how was your week” “You look tired. Are you feeling OK?” “Last week you mentioned feeling overwhelmed. How is everything this week?” And then there are the questions that come from knowing a person for awhile, like “What does your prom dress look like?” “Tell me something unexpected that happened at the competition.” I’ve cried when students have graduated or left the flute studio. I keep a photo album of their senior pictures, our recital group photos, and snapshots I have taken during lessons.

Helen Spielman devotes one essay to the importance of the FLUTE List, an online group that we have both been members of for many years. I first became aware of Helen’s gentle nature and insightful writings on the FLUTE List. You can find it here and join the ongoing discussion: http://www.larrykrantz.com/fluteweb/fluteweb.htm  The following is one exchange I remember from 1997

Posted by List user: I need some teaching hints to inspire (students) to keep on with their music. What do all you experienced music and band teachers do to generate enthusiasm?

Helen: Be enthusiastic myself.

A Flute in My Refrigerator is a terrific memoir about the love of learning and teaching. You need not be a flute player or music teacher to enjoy this book. This collection of writings can be distilled into three wisdoms– Be open, be connected, be enthusiastic. It’s a lesson we can all take from Helen.


For more information about Helen Spielman and her work as a Performance Anxiety Coach, please visit her website at http://www.performconfidently.com

Interlude (R&R in NYC)

Finding artistic renewal on spring break.

It might seem odd to describe a trip to New York City as being restful and relaxing, but I love visiting big cities. The artist within is nurtured by throngs of people going places, by the easy access to art and music, by the diversity of people, by new sights/smells/sounds. Looking out my window today, I see acres of prairie to my right and forest in our backyard, a red barn chicken coop, and endless expanses of sky. Folks in the concrete jungle talk about how they vacation in the country to “get away from it all.” But for our family, city vacations are important for finding a new perspective.

We visited museums, rode the subway, explored Central Park, stared at the bright lights of Times Square, ate food from every corner of the earth, walked until our feet ached, and felt the pulse of the City.

NYC trip

Guggenheim Museum

We took the kids to the Guggenheim Museum where the work of On Kawara was featured. His work is difficult to describe as art. It’s not personal, not particularly beautiful, but definitely difficult to understand. It’s not even clear if Kawara moved living from his art. Nevertheless it hangs in one of the most important museums in the world. The kids are clearly trying to process it too. I wonder what will happen with this in their minds in the future.

A good friend of my husband is the head piano technician at The Juilliard School in New York City. We were fortunate to get a tour of the music school from him. Floor to ceiling windows look out on Lincoln Center and the immaculate studios are huge. Practice rooms are reserved through a kiosk or an app on your phone. In a special climate-controlled area of the building, priceless original manuscripts are available for perusal. My heart swelled with pride upon hearing my 9 year-old daughter say that she wants to attend Julliard when she is older. Although I know the odds are stacked strongly against her (thousands apply for a few precious spots), I was delighted that she could see herself there. A little seed has been planted and I hope she is able to remember this goal when practicing feels pointless.

The kids now know how to get to Carnegie Hall. (Up two blocks and turn right.) Son had chapped lips so he didn’t smile in the picture.

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

We also took the kids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we saw everything from ancient Egyptian tomb art to modern masterpieces. The children were pretty foot-weary by the time we got to the musical instrument collections, but it was important for them to see the history of music as well as the present.

music collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Out here in the middle of America, it’s easy for us to be complacent about music. Even worse, we can feel that hours of music practice is without meaning or purpose.

New frames emerge from travel. I am left with the feeling that as musicians we need reminders that we are linked to the past, the present, and the future of art. Even when we are alone in the practice room, we are connected to an unbroken line of artists from the ancient cave painters to the buskers playing music in the subway today.

Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Artistic renewal takes many different forms. For some, a walk in the forest is the genesis of a new poem. For me, the energy and resources of a big city is the best way to clear out the cobwebs.

The Music Parents’ Guide

Music Parents' Guide bookI can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Anthony Mazzocchi’s book The Music Parents’ Guide: A Survival Kit for the New Music Parent.

It’s available on Kindle on May 1, but I want to own a paper copy because this is a book I’ll want to highlight, dog-ear, and loan out to friends.

Consider this:

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of students start a musical instrument though their school music programs. One or two years later, up to 80% of them quit.

This occurs because parents are not armed with the minimal knowledge required to support their child’s musical growth at home.

Self-disciplined, compassionate, responsible, collaborative, confidant, and proud. These are all characteristics of children who play musical instruments.
What’s more, the benefits of music education reach far beyond the lesson and well into all aspects of adulthood.” -Mazzocchi

You can preorder now on Amazon.

I first became aware of Mazzocchi’s writings through his wonderful blog. The blog offers practical advice informed by his career as a professional musician and teacher. He is also the father of a reluctant young pianist. I can relate to that!

I was inspired to write about my own experiences as a teacher and parent when I read about the high numbers of kids who start musical instruments at school only to give up soon thereafter. Conversations with parents of flute players in my private studio confirmed that adults need support in helping their children practice. Some parents think that if a child isn’t enthusiastic about practicing or won’t initiate practicing on their own, that it means the child has no future as a musician.

Mazzocchi addresses this directly in a recent blog post. He writes

“It’s important to know that just because you need to remind your child to practice does not mean that they don’t want to practice or that they don’t want to play their instrument. Just as you don’t give your children the option of not doing homework, brushing their teeth, or eating, practice should not be optional. Even if that means you remind your child to do it every day.”

My husband and I are both professional musicians and we have to remind our two children to practice every day. I don’t count it as a failure. I have to remind my daughter to clean her room too, but I wouldn’t consider giving up and letting her become a slob.

I believe this book will be an invaluable resource for all parents of musical children. Band teachers, for understandable reasons, don’t give a lot of advice about what to do with the instrument at home. Private teachers offer a bit more support, but I’ll admit we’re not as specific as we should be about all the issues that need to be addressed in the practice room.

Parents of young musicians (and I include myself in this category) need help in two important ways:

  1. We need answers to questions such as “Is 10 minutes a day enough?” “Do I need to be in the practice room with my child?” “How do I know if she is playing something wrong and how can I help her fix the problem?”
  2. We need emotional support to keep up the hard work of motivating children to play music, especially when our children are resistant. We need to be assured that the effort and money is worth it. Maybe this issue is causing friction with your spouse. After reading this book, you’ll be more confident about the choices you’re making.

Put The Music Parents’ Guide on your summer reading list, and we’ll meet back here to discuss.

Helping Kids Practice: Tips for Parents

5 Ways You Can Help Your Child Practice and 4 Tricks To Try At Home

Neither of my parents were musicians. The only thing my dad ever said when I was practicing alone in my room was “Close your door! I can’t hear the TV over you.” Honest. I’m not making that up.

My dad, though he loved his TV, showed up for every single one of my music concerts. It must have made him crazy to listen to all that noise, but I always saw him in the audience clapping and grinning.Today I have two degrees in flute performance and make my living as a full-time musician. I have two kids of my own now and struggle with how to best support their practice.

As the parent of a musician, you’re giving your child an amazing gift by providing him with an instrument, books, music stand, lots of pencils (check out the blog post “The Pencil Problem”), and perhaps lessons. Give yourself a pat on the back. That’s more than many kids will ever get. It’s a huge family sacrifice to listen to the wrong notes, the squeaks, the high notes, the screams of frustration. And you’ve smiled through interminable school concerts and recitals.

But if you are like a lot of parents I know, you want to help your child. You know that she will enjoy the instrument more and have more success if she learns how to practice. I talk about how to motivate your child elsewhere on my blog (see the three posts on motivation, especially “Motivation: Parenting and Practicing”) but this post will focus on the ways parents can gently guide their musical children while practicing at home.

Dad and daughter at the piano

helpful dad

If you are able check in with your child’s practice for a few minutes two or three times a week, you will be helping your student tremendously. It’s not necessary that you be with your child for the entire practice time because it’s important that your child learns how to work independently.

  1. Open up your child’s ear. Young students have trouble listening to themselves. Remember, HEARING is different from LISTENING. (For more on this, please read the blog post “Hearing vs. Listening“) If your child isn’t paying attention to what’s wrong, he can’t fix it. When you are present in the practice room with your child, he will hear himself differently. You can also make an audio or video recording of your child playing his favorite piece of the week and listen to it together.
  2. Gently redirect wandering minds. If you notice that your child wants to talk to you as soon as she is finished with an exercise, the words rushing out almost before the last note is played, that’s a clear signal that her internal dialog is louder than the music. Listen to whatever she desperately needs to tell you but quickly redirect her attention back to the music. If she is having trouble focusing on the music, try some concentration exercises or brain games. (See a future blog post for more on this topic.)
  3. Mobilize resources. My son really enjoys watching YouTube videos of the pieces he is playing. The quality of the performers varies a lot, but even the bad ones give us something to talk about. Many good digital recordings are downloadable for a small fee on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc. Ask the music teacher if there’s something your child should be focusing on for the week. Let the teacher know the difficulties you noticed during the week so the teacher can address these in the lesson. Reach out to musical friends or the internet when you are feeling stuck or frustrated.
  4. Help your child stay organized. Schedule practicing into your family routine. In our house, the children do half of their practicing in the morning before school and the other half before dinner. We try to keep this schedule consistent, even during the summer. Other families report that good times are right after dinner and first thing after school. Keep all the music books in one place so you don’t have to look all over the house when it’s time for the lesson.
  5. Make music a priority. In our house, when the choice is between baseball practice and a piano lesson, piano is always going to win. Ask your child about music class at school. Make sure your child knows that playing a musical instrument is a big part of his life now and into the future. You can even show them some of the incredible research that is being done on the cognitive and social benefits of music. A quick Google search will turn up many research studies or you can read about my favorites in blog posts “Better Brains,” “Brain Imaging,” “Music is the Key To Success,” and “Essential for Being Human.”

I want to give you some extra ideas about how to “open up your child’s ear.” Non-musician parents, don’t worry if your ear is “untrained.” A musical background is not necessary to help guide your child. You don’t need to fix the mistakes, just help your child recognize where there might be problems.

  1. Disturbances in the Force. When Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda detect something is wrong in the Star Wars movies, they are unsettled by it. Wrong notes or rhythms have a similar effect. When you’re listening to your child play and something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably a wrong note or rhythm. When you hear something that makes your ear twitch, try saying one of the following:effect. When you’re listening to your child play and something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably a wrong note or rhythm. When you hear something that makes your ear twitch, try saying one of the following:
    A Disturbance in the Force I sense

    A disturbance

    1. “What was that?”
    2.  “Hmmmmm….”  
    3. “Was that right?”
    4. “Can I hear that again?”
    5. “Check your notes.”
  2. The Game Show. If you have a young child, she may like this game. However, I have to warn you that this idea will not work for every child. My two kids enjoy it (we laugh a lot), but other students in my flute studio do not. Here’s how you play: Every time you hear something odd, make a loud beep or buzz, like the ones you hear for wrong answers on a game show. After the wrong note is corrected, you can have a different sound (like “whoo-hoo”) for praise. This works great if you’re making dinner and your child is in the other room practicing.
  3. Feel the Beat. Tap your toe or bop your head while your child is playing. If you’re having trouble keeping a steady beat, ie. instead of dancing you feel like you’re having a seizure, try one of the following:
    1. ask your child to tap her toe
    2. suggest using a metronome (tips in a future blog post)
    3. lightly tap on your child’s shoulder as she plays
    4. ask her to point out the rhythms that are hard and say “how would your teacher help you with these sections?
  4. Get Creative. If a passage is persistently difficult for your child, you may need to help her get out of a practice rut. Playing things again and again in the same way reinforces the mistakes. Try gently asking “What would it sound like if you played it slower / smoother / backward / …?” You can even be goofy with this. Perhaps you could ask her to play it “as fast as possible” or “jazzy.” The weirder, the wilder, the sillier, the better. The blog post “Practicing Upside Down” explains how turning the page upside down will create novelty and re-invigorate the brain. The post “Articulation Game” includes a game you can play with dice to change the articulations of a difficult passage.

Despite your best intentions, sometimes your ear will be wrong and your child will be playing the music correctly, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Your child will be quick to correct you and that’s OK too because you’ve just made her double-check her work, a useful skill in school as well as music. However, most of the time your ear will lead you in the right direction. Again, you don’t have to know how to fix the problem, but you can suggest resources to help your child and you can bring attention to a problem. You will enable her to look for ways to solve the problem and engage her ear on a deeper level.

Two final thoughts:

  • Slow Down. There are very few children who enjoy practicing slowly, but brain research is confirming what teachers have been saying all along — slow practice with right notes is the most efficient use of time. You’re going to have to remind your child of this… a lot! Check out my blog post “Research on Effective Practice Skills.”)
  • Practicing is Hard Work. Your kid will probably complain about how hard it is. You can help by offering perspective and encouragement. “Remember how hard the first piece in the book was? Now it’s easy for you.” When the going gets tough, seek out a teacher’s advice or scroll through my blog for more ideas on how to practice difficult sections, also known as “woodshedding.”

Your child is lucky to have a parent who cares enough to read this article. It is terrific that you sometimes listen to her practice. If you want to go the extra mile and give a helping hand, bravo! Don’t feel like you have to fix every mistake —your child needs to learn how to push through failures by herself too. When the shrieking, wailing, honking, ear-twitching notes become too much, you have my permission to turn on the TV and ask your daughter to close her door.

Hearing vs. Listening

There is a big difference between hearing something and actually listening to it.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman observes

“Sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.”

Even when we seek to be completely silent, there are still noises.We are all born with the sense of hearing, but musicians must be especially sensitive to developing their powers of listening.


ensemble members listen to everything

Hearing is a passive activity. Our ears are constantly taking in information, much of it background noise. Those little bones in our ears are vibrating whether we want them to or not. Our brains have been processing auditory input since the first day we were born. Most of us are pretty good about filtering out the unimportant noise like traffic and the sounds of the house/office/school. It doesn’t take judgment or discernment to hear a sound because it’s a purely a physical, unconscious process. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud sound, you know that you are hearing even when you are asleep.

Listening, on the other hand, is an active, conscious process. True listening only takes place when were fully aware of the auditory inputs. Listening involves making judgments, and it invites changes. Listening is dynamic. However, listening is a learned process and that’s why it is a skill that must be cultivated by musicians.

Why is deep listening important to musicians?

1. The sound we hear while playing the instrument is different than the way the audience hears it, especially the tone color and dynamics.
2. Because our art is guided by the ear, we learn by emulating teachers, recordings, concerts, masterclasses.
3. Musicians who play wind and string instruments have to make fast and accurate adjustments in pitch.
4. Identifying mistakes is the first step in fixing them.
5. The beginning, middle, and end of notes must be carefully shaped.
6. In an ensemble, the players have to be responsive to one another.

The next time you’re in a crowded place, try focusing on a single conversation. Can you block out the other sounds? This exercise will strengthen your powers of listening.

Parents can help their young musicians by being another set of ears in the practice room. Because listening involves concentration, having another person in the practice room can promote mindful practice. I talk about other ways you can help your child in the practice room in the blog post Helping Kids Practice.

Musicians need to be reminded that expressive elements need to be exaggerated to be heard by the audience. Actors apply heavy makeup when they are onstage. The lights and distance mute the effects of the makeup so that it seems natural from the audience. In the same way, musicians have to exaggerate dynamics, vibrato, accents, etc. for the listeners to perceive them.

The first time I ever recorded myself playing the flute, I was astonished. It was like hearing my voice on an answering machine – shocking and humbling. The sound was remarkably different and suddenly I realized all the little mistakes in tempo and intonation. In graduate school, I recorded all of my lessons. Reviewing the tapes, it was amazing how much information I had missed. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, it is easy to make digital recordings. I believe all musicians should record themselves from time to time.

It takes discipline to develop mindfulness in the practice room. Cultivating deep listening skills has been invaluable to me as a performer and teacher. Beyond the practice room, I think good listening skills have helped me be a better mother and wife.

Happy practicing!

Motivation: A Student’s Perspective

I’ve been playing music since I was 5 years old so I’ve had a lot of time logged in the practice room. Today I’ll share some personal stories about practicing and some tips from my perspective as a recorder/flute/guitar student.

Neither of my parents played an instrument, nor any of my grandparents, but I’m grateful they gave the gift of music to me. My mom likes to tell people that she never had to tell me to practice. I don’t think that’s quite true but my motivation for practicing wasn’t always pure. In high school, I would disappear into my room to practice immediately after dinner, neatly avoiding the clean-up. I still hate doing dishes to this day. Practicing is not always pleasant but it beats doing the dishes.

avoiding dirty dishes is my motivation

avoiding the dishes is my motivation for practice

What is your motivation?

I don’t like doing housework of any kind, but I love checking things off on my to-do list. If laundry needs to be done, I’m much more likely to tackle the basket of clothes if it’s on my list. There’s something about checking that box that I find deeply satisfying. Along the same lines, every morning I think about what I need to get done and create a schedule. On a really busy day, it’s helpful to block out time for my practicing. Because I’m completely enmeshed with my iPhone, I use the “Reminders” app for the checklist and calendar to schedule my practice. When it’s Siri asking me to do something, somehow that feels different.

As you may have read in a previous post (Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), I’m not a big fan of using behaviorism in the form of rewards with young students. However, I’m not above using it on myself! When something is particularly difficult, I’ll set a little reward. For instance, last week I didn’t feel like practicing my guitar though I knew I needed to work on a song for a concert. I told myself that if I worked on the song for 20 minutes, I could have a cup of coffee. That was all I needed to get over the hump.

Know when to walk away.

Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler” is playing in my head…”You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” When practicing becomes too frustrating or too difficult, walk away for awhile. It might be a few minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even a whole day. Building up tension and bad feelings only hurts your practice. Be kind to yourself (and your musical children.) Give the brain time to do its subconscious work. You might be surprised at the miracles that can occur between practice sessions.

Not all practice happens by moving our fingers and blowing/bowing/pedaling/etc. Mental practice can be every bit as useful, often more so. Bring your music anywhere you would a book- on public transportation, while waiting for appointments, to your child’s baseball practice, wherever you may have a few minutes of quiet. I’ll talk more about practicing away from the instrument in a future post. Stay tuned!

Try playing along with a recording. There are many books now that come with CDs or mp3 files, and this can be a lot of fun. Find a recording of a professional playing your piece and see if you can play along. I have found that this makes for entertaining practice without stopping to catch mistakes. Of course, we need to spend time working out difficult passages on our own, but playing with the recording can be another kind of mini-reward for doing the detail work.

I’ve always tended toward introversion; having stretches of alone time during the day is good for recharging my batteries. Reframing practice to see it as restorative – physically, emotionally, mentally – rather than a chore, can make the instrument more appealing. Sometimes, it feels good to practice. On those days when tangible progress is made, when I’m able to be in the “flow,”* when I’m creatively stimulated, I try to savor that feeling and file it away for use on a day when I need it.

What motivates you to practice?

*For more on “flow,” check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.


Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective

Far more time is spent in the practice room than the performance hall.

I have been teaching private music lessons since 1995. One of my primary goals as a teacher is to motivate my students to practice.

In a previous blog post (Parenting and Practicing), I explored practice motivation from the perspective of a parent of young musicians. Another post explores motivation from my personal perspective as a student (Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.) In this post, I approach the same subject and share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned in 20 years as a teacher.

Flute Recital 2012 participants, motivation

flute studio 2012, motivation

Students of all ages like to hear praise.

Giving a student ample performance opportunities is a good way to create opportunities for praise (see my blog post Parenting and Practicing), but there are other ways too. In these days of cell phones, it’s easy to make a video of a home performance and leverage social media for feedback. Upload the video to FaceBook or YouTube. If you make the video private on youtube, sharing it with only friends and family, you can limit the negativity that can come from sharing with the entire world. The very act of making the video can be motivational because of the expected praise. Further, making a video creates a goal (see below) and heightens the practice by encouraging the musician to listen differently. I recently recorded my son performing with his friend at church and uploaded it as a private video on YouTube. The response from friends, family, and their teachers has been overwhelmingly positive.

Think about it: are you more likely to work hard for a boss that is consistently negative about your performance or one that gives you credit for your strengths while sometimes offering helpful suggestions?

I believe it was Kathy Jones at Ohio State University who taught me the value of PCP feedback. (Positive, Constructive, Positive!) In studio class, we were encouraged to give each other feedback by offering two positive observations tucked around a constructive suggestion. Parents, you can do this when you listen to your child practice at home. Overly critical students can benefit from remembering PCP when evaluating themselves.

Caitlin*, mother of five young musicians, shared with me that she asks the children to practice for her, one at a time. Although Caitlin isn’t a musician herself and perhaps can’t hear every error, the kids enjoy their special time with Mom. When my kids practice for me, I like to applaud when they finish a long piece. Hearing my enthusiastic clapping helps them know that I’m listening and that I appreciate their efforts.

Setting goals can be motivational.

Jim* is an adult student in my flute studio. He has recently been keeping a practice journal. In it he lists long term and short term goals. It only takes a minute at the beginning of each practice session to answer the question “What do I need to accomplish with my practicing today?” At the end of each practice session, it’s helpful to review your goals and set new ones for the next practice session. I like to add my goals to the “to do” list I keep on my phone. Checking them off gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Goals can be simple and have a short time frame, such as wanting to work on a new scale or practice for 30 minutes without distraction. Or goals can be long-term, like presenting a full recital. It’s helpful to have some goals that can be easily accomplished and some that will take a year or more to complete.

Anything new or fun can break the tedium of practicing.

Buy some new music. It doesn’t have to be classical etudes. Maybe playing the music from “Frozen” is the kick in the pants you or your child needs. For my daughter’s birthday I bought her a book of pop tunes and Star Wars, both with play-along CDs. It’s not Bach, but I guarantee she will practice more this week.

I’m a flute teacher so I like http://www.flutetunes.com for new music to play everyday. In the comments, please share resources for other instruments.

Read through my blog for some creative ideas for practicing to get unstuck on a difficult passage. Ones you may enjoy include Upside DownMiss It? Mark It! and Rhythm Game

Private lessons can be motivating.

Knowing that a teacher is going to listen to the assignments every week will keep kids and adults on track, as long that teacher is a good match for the student. If you or your child do not look forward to lessons with the teacher most of the time, find a new teacher. Lessons serve as weekly goals and a good teacher will give the right amount of work at the right level so practicing continues to move the player forward. If lessons don’t fit your budget or schedule, seek out other ways to enrich the music practice, such as online forums and music websites. If you are unable to find a teacher within a reasonable distance, investigate lessons via Skype.

Keep it in perspective.

Remember that progress on a musical instrument can be slow and non-linear. Parents, private teachers, and family members (spouses of adult students) can help by providing prospective. Saying things like “Your tone is really improving” or “Last week, that part was hard for you but now it sounds easy.” are encouraging. Ask the musician to play something they practiced six months or a year ago. It can be a shot of confidence to an otherwise bruised ego.

Happy practicing!

Research on Effective Practice Skills

I love to read about the intersection of science, music, and psychology.

I encourage all musicians to read this article reviewing research on effective practice skills by Robert Duke at the University of Texas:


The researchers discovered that it doesn’t matter how long a musician practices something. It doesn’t even matter how many times something difficult is practiced. What does make a difference is how few times the musician makes a mistake. It’s not how many times a section is played right, its the high ratio of right to wrong.

I encourage you to read the article because it lays out the findings of the research much more eloquently than I can here.

My takeaway: The researchers found that the best musicians identified where the problems were and isolated them to figure out a solution. The pianists in this study practiced right notes more often than wrong ones and they slowed down for the hard parts. These practice skills are what teachers have been emphasizing all along. But sometimes we have to hear it in a new way before it really sinks in.

flute drawing

practice skills

Practicing Upside Down

Our brains crave novelty. Literally turning things upside down can give us the new perspective we need.

Feel stuck in your practice? Are your kids complaining the music is “too easy” or are the making silly mistakes?

Turn the music upside down like this:

upside down music

upside down

Then try to play it as usual with the right notes and rhythms. The brain now has to work to flip the staves and the eyes will be reading right to left, down to up.

Another variation is to turn the music on its side like this:

Mozart on its side

music on its side

This idea might sound crazy and though it requires a bit more attention, it’s not as difficult as it seems. I figured out this little trick on my own when I was in middle school band. I was bored by the easy music but found that turning the book upside down created more of a challenge.

In the book A Soprano on Her Head, Eliose Ristad talks about singing while hanging upside down. My yoga teacher says that the inverted poses give us a new way to look at the world.

We can’t keep doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result. (Einstein supposedly gave this as the definition of insanity.) It’s true in life and in practicing.

Try this crazy experiment: give your music a flip and let me know if it turned your practicing upside down.