Learning Music is Like Learning to Read

Learning music and learning to play an instrument is a long-haul activity. It’s like learning to read.

When children start out learning to read, they must start with basic building blocks, learning the letters and letter combinations, and their sounds. Then, they slowly put together sounds to form words. When they begin to read sentences, they cannot read fluently. They start and stop, processing each word.

It’s hard work and exhausting, at first. They don’t have the stamina to read extended passages, so books for beginning readers are very short. They may have one word or one sentence on each page. It can take years before a child is ready to read chapter books.

While some children may catch on to reading more quickly, no one is born a reader.

We hope that children become readers, that they catch the “reading bug” and find enjoyment in reading. We hope that, eventually, they will discover books on their own and that those books will activate their imaginations and satisfy their curiosity.

This is a long process. We don’t give it a few months to see if they “like” reading, because we know how long the process takes. Some may never develop the desire to pick up an unassigned book, but we give them the resources anyway.

Helping children learn to read and enjoy reading requires parents and teachers who understand the process of learning, who are patient and encouraging, who help children overcome frustration, who share inspiring books with children, and who model reading themselves.

All of this has a parallel in music.

Learning music is difficult, and it can take a great deal of time, even years, for a student to become proficient. Good teachers are patient and encouraging, help students work through their frustration, and celebrate progress. Parents and teachers can inspire students by introducing them to great pieces and modeling a love for music by attending concerts or playing or singing themselves.

I believe music is as valuable as reading, intellectually and culturally. It is worth an equal amount of investment in time and effort.

What is the Best Practice Schedule?

I was talking to a student’s dad earlier today who wanted to make sure that his son, a beginner, was getting enough practicing done. Kuddos to this dad who is invested in his son’s musical education! The conversation inspired me to write this post and share my own thoughts about practicing, regarding both how much to practice and when to practice.

How Many Days a Week?

I generally suggest that students practice five days a week (I include lessons as a “practice” day.) So, that would be a lesson plus four other days. Some might be surprised that I suggest five days a week and not tell students to practice every day.

This is for two reasons.

First, practicing every day is just not going to happen. If I tell a student to practice every day and they fail to live up to that expectation, they’re probably going to feel bad. We don’t need to start off the next lesson with that bad feeling! Five days is more manageable. The student is given permission to take two days off!

But there are rules! Students must practice the day after their lesson, and they should not take off two days in a row.

Practicing the day after lesson is so important that the family routine may need to be considered when scheduling lessons. If the student has a lesson on Thursday, but Friday is always crazy and hampers practicing, there’s a good chance that could cause the student not to progress well. Try scheduling lessons on a different day, when you know the following day will allow for consistent practicing.

Obviously, illness and traveling interfere with practicing, and sometimes life just happens. But skipping practicing two or more days in a row should be the rare exception, not the rule.

The second reason I tell students to take off two days a week is that the mind needs some “down time” to process what the student is learning. Learning an instrument involves a process of training electrical pathways connecting eyes and ears and muscles. Similar to how our muscles need to rebuild after strength training, the mind needs to heal and knit together all the networks that are stretched and challenged during practicing. This will allow for more effective practicing after a day off!

How Many Minutes a Day?

The number of minutes a student practices is mostly going to be determined by their level of skill.

Longer, more complicated pieces require more time. I would recommend the length of practice time to be four to six times the length of the longest piece (or movement) of music the student is learning. Not every piece will be in the same stage of learning; some parts will be review, others will be brand new. Some sections will be easier, some more difficult. But multiplying the length of the longest piece by four to six times should allow a sufficient amount of time to thoroughly cover the lesson material over the course of a week.

For beginners, the time should be about four to six times the length of the entire week’s assignment. If the beginner has three little songs, and they add up to about three minutes of music, practicing for fifteen minutes a day is sufficient. If the student is not able to successfully learn the material in this amount of time, or if the student gets bored before the time is up, speak to the teacher about adjusting the workload.

Beginners are not only developing those neural pathways, but they are also learning how to sit and focus intently on one thing for an extended period of time. This length of time should grow as they learn but expecting them to sit for a half-hour when they start out is too much. Learning an instrument requires much more concentration than watching a half-hour TV show, which has more going on and even commercials to break it up.

What Time of Day?

The time of day does not matter, but the student should practice at a time when they feel refreshed and have energy. Being tired will not help the brain process the information nor send quality signals out to the fingers.

Practicing does not have to take place in one single session! Fifteen minutes can be split into two sessions of ten minutes and five minutes, or even three sessions of five minutes. Likewise, longer practice sessions can be split up.

Do what is going to make it easy to get practicing done. Is there time before school or work? Time before dinner? Right after dinner? It is helpful to tie practicing to other routines. For example, a child might always practice while the parent prepares dinner. Even listening to beginners is more pleasant than listening to the news!

Let me know if these tips help you or your child set up a system for practicing that is more manageable and effective. Keep up the good work!

It’s All About Focus

Playing the piano, or any instrument for that matter – including singing – is not just a fun skill to learn. Training in music is training in focus.

Beginning musicians, of course, start out with just a few things to focus on. But as their capacity grows, they are able to focus on more. They learn to notice, pay attention to, and execute minute details.

Advancing pianists will pay attention to which finger plays which note, for how long, with a specific dynamic and articulation, the right phrasing and tone, and the right style, all the while making sure they are situated on the bench correctly with good posture, their head and shoulders, arms and hands all positioned properly, and the foot maneuvering the pedal and blending the notes well. When they practice, musicians are learning to manage all those details at once!

What a skill!

Wouldn’t every teacher and future employer love a student or employee who has been specially trained in “focus?”

In the early 20th C, Nadia Boulanger, a world-renowned music teacher of many now-famous composers, said of focus:

“Anyone who acts without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life. I’d go so far as to say life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.”

Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger

According to Ms. Boulanger’s philosophy, training in music sets up one for a life well-lived. That developed ability to focus transfers to every area of life! No wonder so many musicians end up in highly specialized careers, like medicine and astrophysics!

Do you want to learn to play the piano? Write your own music? Perform more confidently? Understand music better? Become a more valuable member of your ensemble? I can help you reach your goals, and I want to hear from you!

Why Learn Scales?

I make my students learn to play scales on the piano. Most start learning scales within the first year of study. Some teachers feel that scales are not that useful and should only be learned in context of a piece of music. But others, like myself, disagree and see scales as a necessary part of piano technique and musical development. You may ask, “But why? Will I ever use scales?”

The answer is YES! You WILL use scales when playing the piano! Learning scales WILL help you become a better pianist.

  • Scales help you develop more spatial awareness along the piano keyboard. When playing scales, you must go up and down the keyboard in octaves, leaning to the right and left to get up to the highest and lowest notes. By playing the scales, you can feel the distance different octaves and how far away they are from your body’s core and the middle of the piano. You also gain a very solid feel for the distances between the individual notes of the piano: where different black and white keys are located, the difference in feel between half-steps and whole steps, and the feel of different combinations of notes. In short, scales help you memorize the layout of the piano.
  • Scales help you understand key signatures. When you learn their scales, you are also learning theory. You begin to internalize, both mentally and physically, the association of sharps and flats in each scale and corresponding key signature. Scales provide the foundation for music theory.
  • Scales help you play more smoothly and quickly. You begin to recognize scale-like patterns in music and are able to choose appropriate fingering which allows for more fluid playing. Drilling scales in practice helps you execute these passages fast and effortlessly.
  • Scales help you be a better sight-reader. Because you have memorized the piano keyboard, because you understand key signatures, because you can identify patterns in the music and predict fingering, you can approach a new piece of music with more confidence and be able to process it more fully the first time seeing it. While the specific piece of music might be new, you will approach it with a toolbox of skills that is developed from learning scales.

Scales are not just exercises. They are a foundational music tool for learning.