Auditions and Life Lessons

Auditions offer life lessons

Auditions are like job interviews for musicians. We prepare for hours but have one shot in front of the judges. It’s frightening, thrilling, and weird.

My musical children have not shown interest in studying at a high level or performing in competitions, but I am familiar with the experience, having participated in competitions and auditions for music school.

Non-musician parents will appreciate the perspective of Penelope Trunk whose son recently took an audition at Julliard.

My 11-Year-Old Son Auditioned at Julliard. (http://www.businessinsider.com/my-11-year-old-son-auditioned-at-juilliard-2017-5)

I like her perspective on practicing, that “the art of practicing is finding a process of repetition without boredom.” Some ideas for this kind of practice can be found elsewhere on this blog in the following articles:

Resilience and grit are the new buzz-words in parenting, and music is one of the best ways to teach these skills. Whatever the outcome of Penelope’s son’s auditions, she is raising a resilient child. If you liked this article, another perspective to consider is Amy Chua and her book about being a Tiger Mother.

When we visited New York last year, we took the kids for a tour of Julliard. My husband’s mentor and friend is the head piano technician for the music school. Here’s a picture of my 11-year-old son at Julliard. We weren’t there for an audition, of course, but the building is impressive.

auditions

my son at Juilliard

We can debate the pros and cons of training children to high levels of musical aptitude, but I think Penelope Trunk is doing a good job teaching her child not just about performance but about life. Her perspective as a non-musician strikes me as healthier for parent and child than Amy Chua, whose children have drifted away from music.

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir… And for Life!

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir

As part of an ongoing series about spiritual practice and music, this blog post will focus on the art of listening.

Music practice is an awesome place to explore larger ideas. When we practice music, we create time for working on ourselves as well as our songs. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and so it’s my hope that these skills will translate into other parts of your life.  This deepens our connection with music and offers another kind of spiritual practice.

1. Listen to yourself.

With a critical, but not judgmental ear, listen carefully to the sound you were making. Ask yourself “Is this the best tone I can make today?” If not, play around with all of the variables to see if changing one thing makes the sound better or worse. Concentrate on the physical action of the body. Assess if you are moving from a place of comfort or discomfort. When practicing, focus your complete attention on the music. Can you relate to the mood of the piece? Always be searching for ways to connect breath to sound and stay active with your listening. Practice non-judgement by not allowing the negative voices to diminish you. Instead, turn the inner judges into voices that offer encouragement and gentle, constructive observations.

2. Listen to others.

Try focusing on a different vocal part, perhaps even one across the room. Or listen to the singers on either side of you. Can you listen so intensely that your neighbors sound louder than you? Be mindful of the blend of the entire choir. Notice when the group wants to change tempo, change dynamics, or where people are taking breaths.

3. Be playful and curious.

By engaging your inner child, the music will always stay interesting. Imagine that you have ears in the far corner of the room. Try listening from those ears, not the ones on your head. Listen to how the sound is bouncing off the walls or people or the furniture in the room. Maybe you will notice if something is sympathetically vibrating. Continue to play with all of the variables in your body that change the sound. Give yourself permission to think out of the box. For example, how does the sound change if you curl your toes in your shoes?

listening to a soprano on her head

A Soprano on Her Head

The playful approach to music-making is inspired by Eloisa Ristad and her book A Soprano On Her Head. It is an inspiring work that has been an inspiration for my teaching since I first read it in 1996.

Other blog posts related to this topic:

Hearing vs. Listening

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

Music as a Spiritual Practice

The End of Average – book review

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Are you average?end of average

Author Todd Rose argues that nobody is average. We all have unique, jagged strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists and statisticians use averages to draw conclusions about a group. However, applying the lessons of the average to an individual is not helpful, and can sometimes be harmful. This is called the “ergodic switch.”

Consider this example. A student takes a standardized test and the results show an average score. As you can see from the table below, this student is not uniformly average in all subjects. This student is above average in encoding and visual puzzles but below average in vocabulary. This student has some clear strengths and one area that needs attention. A one-size-fits-all education really fits none.

average?

composite average score

Age of Average

The End of Average discusses how we have arrived at blindly accepting the lie that the average is a valid tool for creating policy. I thought the sections on genes, traits, Quetelet’s social physics, and Taylorism were particularly interesting. The rise of standardization in American culture was slow, but it has a strong foothold in our educational and business systems today.

The central question of the book is

“How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”

The Benefits of Personalization

As a music teacher, I understand the value of a personalized education. Students come to me with unique problems, natural talents, and resources. Some have musical parents; others are the first in their families to study music. Some have natural vibrato; others require years of systematic instruction to learn the skill. Because I work with each student individually, I adapt my teaching. This makes taking private lessons so different than self-directed learning from a book or instruction in school band/orchestra.

My children are fortunate to be in a school system that allows teachers flexibility with the materials they use in the classroom. Through projects, the kids are allowed to choose the direction and intensity of study. For example, my daughter is working on a detailed diorama of Ireland, (shown here with our hedgehog dressed as a leprechaun.) My son who was in the same class last year, chose to write a report for that project. They have different interests and skills, but project-based learning allows them to maximize their jagged learning profiles.Ireland project

Online instruction has offered my son the opportunity to work ahead in math. An online math program allows him to take tests in various math concepts. If he passes the test, he can move onto the next subject area. When it’s new material, the program slows down and teaches him the concept, adding drills until the material is mastered. As parents, we are thrilled that he doesn’t have to complete worksheets on things he already knows. It’s this kind of dynamic, individualized learning that maximizes learning and minimizes frustration.

Wary of Averages

Rose’s book has opened my eyes to the times I have taken the average for granted. From now on, I’m will be much more suspicious when reading articles that try to apply generalizations to specific people. Consequently, I will take another look at the brain scans referenced in Brain Imaging on Musicians, but I hear the school bus… so that will have to wait for now.

Saving for Later

Stick a pin in it – Saving these websites for later.

I keep a running list of articles, websites, leads that I want to investigate further. Here are some of the most interesting ones I have found lately.

I’m saving the article on the Hurrian Hymn for a more comprehensive look at the role of music through history.  The Hurrian Hymn is the oldest record of written music in the West. Written in cuneiform 3400 years ago, the clay tablet indicates pitches to be played on an ancient harp. On this website, you see the stone tablet and hear the Hurrian Hymn played on a recreation of the 9-string lyre.

Our Bones Talk To Our Brains

Our bones create osteocalcin, but when the bones fail to produce enough it can cause problems with blood sugar, anxiety, depression, and difficulty on spacial logic tests… at least for mice. Some of the speculation about the findings suggests that exercise can help maintain bone density. I wonder if the authors of this study have heard about this next study.

Protein Responsible for Linking Memory and Exercise

We know that exercise is good for memory. (See the Healthy Brains blog article and How We Learn blog article for more.) Now scientists have discovered a protein that may be responsible for creating new cells and connections in the brain. Muscles release this protein, called cathepsin, during exercise. Somehow the cathepsin travels to the brain and helps form memories. I thought that the link between memory and physical fitness had more to do with elevated oxygen levels or giving the brain different tasks, but it appears there may be another explanation.

Science Says Silence Is Important for Memory, Learning, and Emotional Health

Add a few more hours to my day, please. In addition to exercising vigorously, I also should be spending significant amounts of time in silence to optimize my brain function.

Singing Changes Your Brain

I’m saving this to share with my church choir as we dive deeper into the mystery of music and spirituality. Bottom line: join a choir! And I’ve got the perfect one for you…

Want to ‘train your brain’? Forget apps, learn a musical instrument

Another article on the many benefits of playing a musical instrument, including greater brain power and better emotional processing. Also discusses the benefits of musical training for people recovering from strokes or struggling with dyslexia.

Science Has Great News For People Who Can’t Sing

The voice is like any other muscle: use it or lose it. But fear not! Even if you’ve “lost it” or never had it, the voice can be trained at any time.

“Music education has loads of scientifically proven benefits: It improves reading and verbal skills, raises IQ, helps in learning new languages, slows the effects of aging, betters memory, enhances self-confidence and so much more. Singing in particular has great physical benefits too. It’s an aerobic activity that increases blood oxygenation, improves heart health and exercises core muscles.”

TED talk on practicing
http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/03/06/518777865/the-most-practical-tips-for-practicing-according-to-science

Music Education Brain Research

Music Education and Brain Research

Music education in the public schools has been under attack for decades.  Although parents and teachers have advocated for more and better music programs, having seen the benefits to students, music programs are often the first programs to be cut when a school is under-funded. Neurologists are now conducting brain research that substantiates what we’ve intuitively always known about the advantages of early music education.

5th grade band concert

5th grade band concert – music education

The Brain and Music Program at USC

Researchers at USC https://dornsife.usc.edu/bci/brain-and-music/ have been conducting interesting experiments that will (hopefully) guide the education system in understanding how important music education is for students.

In October 2016, the USC researchers published a paper

“Neural correlates of accelerated auditory processing in children engaged in music training published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience”
(Volume 21, October 2016, Pages 1–14) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929315301122

detailing the brain activity of students with music training vs. students who had not received music instruction.  Like other studies, their results were conclusive: studying music changes the brain in significant and important ways.

Their conclusion is that

These findings provide evidence that childhood music training has a measurable impact in the development of auditory processes. Although the findings described here are restricted to auditory skills and to their neural correlates, such enhanced maturation may favor faster and more efficient development of language skills as well, given that some of the neural substrates to these different processes are shared. Our findings demonstrate that music education has an important role to play in childhood development and add to the converging evidence that music training is capable of shaping skills that are ingredients of success in social and academic development. It is of particular importance that we show these effects in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” (emphasis mine)

I have blogged about similar research in these posts:

Brain Imaging on Musicians

The Musician’s Brain

I’m wondering how much more empirical data we need to convince administrators that music isn’t just a fun “elective.” Music education is vital to the education of all students.

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

“Goodie Bags” for Reinvigorating Flute Practice

As musicians, there are times when we know we need some help reinvigorating our flute practice.  We might feel like we’re spinning our wheels and not improving. Maybe we’ve prepared everything for the lesson as best as we can but don’t feel like there’s anything else to do. Or perhaps the teacher is out of town and you have another week before she assigns new material. Sometimes practice can feel monotonous and we need a little jolt of excitement to get the creative juices flowing again.

“Besides the lesson assignments, what else can I practice?”

But if you have prepared all the lesson materials and are still looking for something to do (or if you need new ideas to add some excitement to your practice), try the following activity.

Practice Goodie Bags

Print out this sheet and cut on the dotted lines.

ideas for creative flute practice

Notice that there are two columns. One is marked “no flute needed.” Place these pieces of paper in one bag and the items in the “flute needed” column in the second bag. You can fold them in half to conceal the contents. Tape the headings on to the bags like this:

bags of ideas for practice

two bags to choose from

Activities in the “no flute needed” bag include activities online, composition ideas, singing/humming the lesson, and exercising. These might not seem like practicing, but time spent in these activities will help your playing and deepen your musical knowledge.

In the “flute needed” bag, you will find ideas for improvising, practice hacks, and reminders to practice sight reading and record yourself.

You could just choose an activity off the list, but I think drawing from a mystery bag is much more fun. My children use a similar activity for chores. We write chores on slips of paper and draw them one at a time. We also write a few fun activities on the paper to stir things up. They don’t really want to do any of the chores, but when the bag tells them (not me!) they will get to work.

More ideas for general motivation (not just reinvigorating flute practice) can be found in a three-part series I wrote for this blog:

Blog articles on creative ways to practice include

Happy practicing!

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

It seems that the field of neuroscience is exploding with research about how we learn, what our brains need to stay sharp, and how we can avoid memory problems as we age.

Everyone wants to have healthy brains. For many years, crossword puzzles and sudoku were the favorite pastimes of older adults. Music lessons, together with a healthy lifestyle, might be even better.

Consider this article:

Neuroscience says these five rituals will help your brain stay in peak condition

  1. Frequent small victories. Find ways to feel you have accomplished something – no matter how small – several times a day. I like to keep a to-do list but always include simple items that I can easily check off. Instead of writing “do laundry,” I will have smaller tasks on my list, like “gather laundry from kids’ rooms,” “start load of darks,” “hang laundry on line,” “take laundry off line,” “sort clothes,” “fold and put away.” Studying a musical instrument gives you the opportunity to make small gains everyday.
  2. Physical activity. The brain is healthier when our whole bodies are healthy. Take a walk, do a yoga video, ride a bike to the store. The exercise does not have to be intense or lengthy. Just 20 minutes is enough to keep the brain happy.
  3. Learn something new. The brain needs constant use to maintain its edge. This is why learning an instrument is extremely helpful for adults. Music study uses the whole brain. See blog posts “Brain Imaging on Musicians”  and “Practice Builds Better Brains” for more info.
  4. Consider your posture. An upright posture allows for more oxygen and has a subconscious positive effect on our bodies. Hunching, rounding the shoulders, and slouching in a chair inhibit learning and make us feel inferior. Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on this subject is fascinating. Most, if not all, music teachers will encourage good posture when playing a musical instrument.
  5. Get plenty of sleep. Our brains need time to recharge. Researchers have two hypotheses about why sleep is necessary. Some have suggested that rest is necessary for the brain to organize the day’s experiences. Others argue that the brain needs resting time to flush out toxins. The book “How We Learn” also asserts the value of good sleep habits.

You’re never too old to begin music study. My most mature student was in her 60s when she decided to take up flute. If you are already a musician, be sure to change up your practice routine and learn something new every day. Healthy brains equal a long, productive life!

healthy brains

stimulation and variety – he usually plays piano but decided to try the bass flute.

Chrome Music Lab – Acoustics Sandbox

Chrome Music Lab

Check out the Chrome Music Lab, a virtual playground for learning about acoustics. https://musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/Experiments

Chrome Music Lab – Fun with Acoustics!

acousticsClick on something – anything – and interact with the pictures on the screen. There are no explanations, no words even. Jump into the musical sandbox and see the spectrogram of a flute.. or a harp… or even your own voice.

The interface is so simple and visual that people of all ages can learn about acoustics. You don’t need to be a musician to enjoy this website.

Exploratorium

Exploratorium

The Chrome Music Lab reminds me of The Exploratorium in San Francisco. It’s a giant building full of science experiments. My family spent an incredible day there several years ago with our kids, then six and four. I remember one exhibit in particular – it had a motor that was exposed and operational. Our youngest liked turning the crank and seeing all the parts move. I had a “lightbulb moment” about magnets and energy. Husband, who is a pro with small engines, was fascinated by some detail I didn’t begin to understand. All of us learned something new by playing with the exhibit.

The Chrome Music Lab is like this too. Playing with the monkeys and drums, I was reminded of the ethnomusicologist’s way of notating non-Western rhythms. My kids liked clicking on the silly monkeys and hearing the different sounds. Others might observe the visual spacing of the rhythms, as if the sounds were placed on a ruler. Each person will have a different understanding of the activity and unique insights.

Here are a few ideas for interacting with the Chrome Music Lab:

  • Try to guess the piece on the “Piano Roll” before hitting the play button.
  • Find the octaves in “Harmonics.”
  • Use “Arpeggios” to accompany yourself while singing simple songs like “The Wheels On the Bus” and “Twinkle Twinkle.”
  • Notice how the tune changes as you draw in “Kandinsky.” Art becomes music. Change colors for different sounds.

(Thanks, James, for the link.)

Flute Memes: My Favorites

Flute Memes

Social media is overflowing with memes for everything, including music. Flute memes appear on my Facebook page nearly every day.

For your enjoyment, I offer a collection of my favorite flute memes.

Deep but uplifting:

flute memes


I can’t decide if I love this one because it shows all the parts of a flute or because I have a love/hate relationship with IKEA.

 

flute memes


Feeling small before the almighty Bach:

flute memes


Because the flute is not for the faint of heart:

flute memes


This is one I found on the subway in Montreal:

flute memes


The Donald has inspired a lot of memes, but this one is my favorite:

the best termperament


Although not a meme, at least one person has been nearly killed by a flute.

“SERIOUS ACCIDENT AT THE VINTNERS’ HALL. On Tuesday night an accident occurred at the Vintners’-hall, Thames-street, to a gentleman of the name of Ireland, brother of one of the liverymen of the company, which caused great alarm to those who were assembled at dinner on the occasion of the celebration of the Lord Mayor’s-day. He entered the hall a little before 9 o’clock, and took his seat nearly under the orchestra. He had not been there above ten minutes when the flute belonging to one of the musicians dropped from the orchestra on his head. The blood immediately flowed most profusely, and he was for a moment stunned. Mr. May, a surgeon of the neighbourhood, was instantly called in, who found that he had received a slanting wound on the scalp. The wound was dressed, after which Mr. Ireland was conveyed home in a coach. The stewards promptly inquired how the accident originated, when it was ascertained that while the musician was adjusting the leaves of his music-book the flute slipped out of his hand. The man was perfectly sober. It was stated by Mr. May that he did not anticipate any fatal result.”
–unnamed reporter, in The [London] Times, 12 November 1841, page 7


And this one isn’t a flute, but it made me laugh so hard that I have to share it with you.

musician poster

look closely at the mouthpiece


 

Stay tuned, friends. I’ll add more of these gems as I find them. (Updated September 27, 2016)

What are your favorite flute memes?

 

Practice Research: study shows faster, better learning

New practice research suggests ways to make learning more efficient.

Thanks to cognitive researchers we are understanding more and more about how the brain processes information. A practice research study published in January 2016 by Pablo A. Celnik, M.D., looked at how modifications in practice routines can dramatically improve learning. ( http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/want_to_learn_a_new_skill_faster_change_up_your_practice_sessions )

A good blog article about the study can be found here:

Scientists Have Found a Technique That Helps You Learn New Skills Twice as Fast ( http://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-found-a-technique-that-helps-you-learn-new-skills-twice-as-fast )

In this study, subjects were tested on how quickly they could learn a new skill (moving a cursor on a computer.)

The volunteers were split into three groups, and each spent 45 minutes practising this. Six hours later, one of the groups was asked to repeat the same training exercise again, while another group performed a slightly different version that required different squeezing force to move the cursor.

The third group only completed the first training session, so they could act as a control.

At the end of the training period, everyone was tested on how accurately and quickly they could perform the new skill, and predictably, the control group did the worst after their one training session. But the surprise was that the group that had repeated the original training session actually did worse on the test compared to those who had mixed things up and trained in new areas – in fact, the group that modified their training did twice as well as those who’d repeated the original skill.

Did you get that? The group with the varied practice routine performed twice as well as the group that received a second training on the skill. It’s interesting to note that the groups that performed the best received a second training 6 hours after the first training.

The idea that varied practice leads to stronger learning is not a new one. The authors of the above study call this phenomenon “reconsolidation;” others call it “interleaving.” It’s not a new idea. In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey points to two other studies, on badminton and beanbags, that show the same results.

 

Richard A. Schmidt and Robert A. Bjork, “New Conceptualizations of Practice: Common Principles in Three Paradigms Suggest New Concepts for Training,” Psychological Science, Vol. 3, No. 4, July 1192, 207-17

R. Kerr and B. Booth, “Specific and Varied Practice of Motor Skill,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 46, No. 2, April 1978, 395-401

What can musicians take away from these practice research studies?

  1. A varied practice routine is far more effective than doing the same thing over and over again.
  2. Small changes will yield large gains.
  3. Space out practice sessions to achieve maximum retention.

Ideas for varying practice can be found in several of my blog posts, including

Rhythm Spinner

Grouping Game

Bite Sized Pieces

Karate Chops