Getting Proficient

Tips for Making Practice Fun

Big fun at CMCChildren between the ages of 3 and 10 should have a parent present at both lessons and practice sessions. Parents will therefore have a powerful influence over making those sessions joyful learning experiences. Praise is your most powerful tool in this process. Always break down the challenges into small increments, and then praise each success. This sense of accomplishment is what makes practice fun at any age.

Keeping practice time age-appropriate leads to more enjoyment, says Goran Berg, director of the Suzuki program at the Crowden Center for Music in the Community. “Pre-schoolers should stop practicing while there is still a smile on their face,” which could be after increments of five minutes. Rather than setting a timer, try to achieve a number of repetitions of an area of difficulty. Goran uses a counting abacus. After each repetition, the child moves pretty beads from one side to the other. They love the counting process and the repetition becomes visibly concrete. Older kids should practice an amount of time per day corresponding to their lesson time, i.e. practice 30 minutes per day for a 30-minute weekly lesson.

It is more fun for kids when adults aren’t telling them what to do. Goran’s students use dice or lucky cards to assign certain random elements to their practice routine. The youngest kids use picture cards to determine which song to play or how many times to play it. Other learning games like flash cards, melody BINGO cards, and magnetic notes, are available online.

The use of reward systems like stickers and prizes is debated in the music education community. While these small rewards can really motivate students to achieve, some educators caution that such “bribes” can be too much of an end goal. Goran suggests focusing on the musical product as a reward, (a good tone is the reward for practicing tone studies) which also increases intrinsic love for the instrument.

Build a social community. Practice is more fun if you can share it with a peer group. Arrange for group lessons, master-classes, and recitals. Practice exercises or duets with a friend. Look for a teacher or other parents that can provide these opportunities.

Additional tips for older students:

  • Have a practice plan and check off the list as you go. However, mix it up so it’s not always the same.
  • Vary the place where you practice. Outdoors or in an acoustically live bathroom can be fun.
  • Work towards a goal of performance even if it’s just for the family. You might consider entering a competition.
  • Listen to recordings of the repertoire you are playing, even on YouTube. Be critical about what you hear.
  • Play a tune you like by ear and improvise for a while. Add some blues or rock music to your repertoire just for fun.
  • Have fun with a tape recorder playing duets, Music Minus One, or listening to your practice with an outside perspective.

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.

Overcoming Obstacles – How to Nudge Children When They are Resistant

Matt at Keys for Kids Music FoundationPraise, not punishment

Kids will push back if you try to force music on them. But they’re encouraged when you praise their successes both little and big, whether they’ve conquered a tricky passage while practicing or they’ve drawn applause at a recital. Depending on age and temperament, some other forms of rewards may work, including “star charts” and healthy snacks.

Practice made possible

Find the right time for regular practice sessions during the week and on weekends. If it’s right after school and before homework, it might seem like a good break from academic matters. For very young and beginning students, you may want to break practice up into several short sessions, interspersed with other activity. If they can avoid hypercriticism and can manifest helpful encouragement, parents, particularly those with know-how, may want to be present during practice.

Choose the instrument and repertoire that fit

One mom, who’d switched from piano to flute as a child, found her son switching from piano to trumpet, and both were thus able to sustain their interest in music. Another mom, though pursuing a career as a classical pianist, supported her son’s inclination towards rock drumming. Aside from what you want, get some recordings and music books that they want. Kids’ motivation is magnified when they can practice and perform what they like, and exploration is vital to their development.

Reach out towards role models

The Bay Area is a paradigm showplace for a magnificent variety of musical genres, where your kids can discover, in your company, what kind of music they’d like to make. Seek out smaller venues and special events where the kids can get to actually meet the performers and talk with them about following in their footsteps.

It takes a family, and a village

Not all families are musical, but most can be, and singing and playing can foster togetherness, even when not every parent or child is equally gifted or motivated. This spirit can expand outside the house to sharing music with community groups and friends inside and outside of school. Encourage your kids’ participation in sing-a-longs, garage bands, and informal sessions of playing and listening, which can be at least as much fun as sports.

Jeff Kaliss has written about opera and other classical forms for the Marin Independent-Journal and The Oakland Tribune. He is based in San Francisco, and also covers jazz, world music, country, rock, film, theater, and other entertainment. The second edition of his authorized biography of Sly & the Family Stone was published by Backbeat Books.

How Do I Evaluate My Child’s Music Teacher?

Lessons at CMCFinding the right teacher makes all the difference. Start by asking for recommendations from friends and family. You might also want to give a call to the music teacher at your child’s school (they may not be able to recommend someone outright, but they will most likely have advice they’re more than willing to share). Another source is local orchestras. Some of the musicians may take students; even if they don’t, they probably know good local teachers.

Your main goal is to find a teacher who can inspire your child in the style of music they feel drawn to. Of course, that will vary depending on the child and the teacher. Every child is not right for every teacher and vice versa. You’re looking for someone who is energetic and able to communicate well with your child. Watch your child to see how they respond to the teacher as both an instructor and a person. Listen as well to what your child says about the lessons. (At the same time, take everything with a grain of salt. It’s a rare child who doesn’t complain about lessons and practicing.)

As a parent, ask about the overall lesson plan, any performance goals and how they will be reached, and most importantly, the practice plan. An effective teacher not only teaches the mechanics, but also teaches how to practice and progress on one’s own. Instead of just following rote sets of instructions, a child should learn how to listen to what he or she is playing and how to start solving problems on their own. Practicing is not an intuitive progress, and a wise teacher addresses how to practice as part of the lesson.

Changing teachers is always tricky. If the situation isn’t healthy for the child for whatever reason, then change immediately. If your child has reached a point where they’re no longer learning, even though they’re still interested in the instrument, it may be time to look for someone new. Consider paying for an hour of a professional’s time, having them listen to your child and then give an impartial analysis on whether your child needs to work harder or is ready to move on.

Otherwise, don’t be too quick to go from one teacher to another; this only leads to fragmented learning and no progress. Especially for beginning students, use the equivalent of a school year (or at least a semester) as a guide to give the teacher/student relationship time to develop. Don’t be too impatient to have everything come together at once; a teacher may focus on one area only for a time, such as reading music, developing rhythm, or even composing, but over the course of the lessons, the different aspects of learning to play and understand music should come together. And remember, any child’s musical ability will blossom with a teacher who is a good fit with that child’s personality and encourages the love of music and learning. 

Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.

Why Playing in a Music Ensemble is Good for Kids

Crowden Music DayWhen children play in ensembles, they have individual responsibilities but also share the experience of making music with the other players. The size of the ensemble, whether a duet or small combo, or larger groups like chorus or orchestra, really does not matter. It’s just great for kids to be with other kids who understand the language of music and share a particular musical interest—and who understand the work it has taken to even get to that point. There is a common experience of what a rehearsal is, what practicing means, or what a good or bad performance feels like.

A shared musical experience cuts across language barriers, cultural differences, and socio-economic differences to create community. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter where you come from, how long you’ve been playing, or whether you have the best instrument—you are all there to join together to pull off something that requires a common effort, both emotionally and technically. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be at the exact same level emotionally, intellectually, and technically, but rather that everyone does need to feel some level of responsibility for themselves and for one another, and be engaged.

Ensembles require children to be open enough to show themselves, open enough to show effort, and open enough to care. Much like a team sports, if everyone doesn’t carry their weight, the outcome is not always successful. There will be ‘stars’ at every level, but even stars need a supporting cast. Good ensemble teachers and coaches can often make ‘losing’ a positive experience for the entire group, especially when everyone has really given their best effort.

For preteens and teenagers, being in an ensemble during this crucial period of development can be an important anchor. An ensemble that is a good fit for a child becomes a safe shared place for them emotionally, and being in music, especially with friends and peers, helps get them ‘to the other side’ as positive, healthy young adults.

Many musical children are marginalized in public and private school settings when the study of music is considered enrichment, and not basic. When music is cut from school programs, students’ abilities to connect and interact with one another with empathy and emotions diminish. Children need to develop in various ways. Being a positive participant in a musical ensemble develops invested “citizens of the world.”

Doris Fukawa, Executive Director, 
Crowden Music Center, Berkeley
, CA; Director of Ensembles, San Francisco Conservatory of Music Prep Division, San Francisco, CA

How Can Wind Players Deal with Braces?

How Can Wind Players Deal with Braces?The news that your child needs braces can be a big, well, adjustment for both parents and the child. And if they play a wind instrument, questions arise about how a mouth full of metal will affect tone, articulation, and comfort while playing and practicing.

A study by the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics stated that there is a period of adjustment for all instrumentalists, with the high brass and flutists taking the longest time to get used to their braces: an average of two months. Reed players seemed to have an easier time with braces in general. It¹s just a fact that students will have to learn to reform their embouchure (the way they position their mouth) with the added hardware involved.

Teachers agree that playing with a correct embouchure that does not use too much pressure, helps. "The most successful trumpeters don't push the horn up against the teeth, but instead have a flexible 'buzz' in the lips out front," says Scott Weigum, trumpet teacher in San Francisco. Flutist Esther Landau affirms this, however says that students with thinner lips may have more trouble. She says: "When a flutist gets braces, it is like they have just been given a completely different mouth. Some people can adapt quickly to the new topography; others become so frustrated that they end up quitting. Usually, though, if the student can get through the first two to three weeks without wanting to throw in the towel, they will be able to play well enough that they won't get discouraged."

The JCO study states that the most common physical aid recommended by Orthodontists is applying wax to the brackets if they tend to cut into the cheeks or lips. Landau gives another tip: "Flutists should definitely take out retainers when playing, and also the little rubber bands that connect top and bottom braces. The best thing about braces for flute players is how amazing it will feel — and sound — when they come off!"

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.

Determining the Right Voice Type

Basia Bulat, Photo by John BensonOne of the many crucial things a young singer must learn when developing good vocal technique, is "Sing your voice." This means knowing your fach (rhymes with Bach) and understanding its strengths and limitations. The fach system is a set of voice categories originating from the traditional choral divisions of soprano, alto, baritone, and bass. Over the years, more specific categories have emerged, (some verging on the ridiculous, such as "baritenor" and "soprezzo"). The general fach categories are soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. To preserve and strengthen the voice, trained singers know what music is appropriate to their own fach and avoid music that is not.

It is essential that an experienced voice teacher determine a singer’s fach. Singers cannot hear themselves accurately and will usually assume their voices are lower than they are. Fachs are determined not only by range, but by the timbre or tone color of the voice — but only when these qualities naturally emerge after an adequate amount of training and maturity. The singer’s fach can then be further refined to include lyric or dramatic descriptions such as lyric soprano or dramatic baritone. A lyric voice tends to be higher, lighter, and brighter compared to a dramatic voice, which is darker, larger, and richer in tone color.

For beginners, it's important to note that singers do not mature vocally until approximately age 25 and true voice categorization should not be attempted until that process has ended. Technical issues can also disguise the proper fach: A common example is the soprano with an overused and abused chest voice who might have considerable difficulty singing above the staff. These young singers often have the unfortunate experience of being placed in improper sections during their high school choir years and, as a result, never fully establish an upper range.

Young singers should understand that their voices are unique as their fingerprints. Styles and popular culture may dictate which sound is “in,” but no amount of training will change the essence of your true voice. Trust your teacher and accept your natural sound, for that is where the fundamental beauty in your voice is.

Sarah Sloan is a classical singer and voice teacher in the East Bay. You can find her blog at www.sarahsloan.net.