Think of a time you really wanted something. You just had to have it. Did it seem as if the more you wanted it the further away it got from you?
Now think of a time when you really didn’t need something, but it would be nice if you got it. Did you seem to get “that” more often and more easily?
Funny how it works.
What was really happening is you were thinking of either process or result.
Compare a popular dude to a guy who obsessively wants a girlfriend. The desperate usually don’t get what they want. The “abundant” usually do.
Take a sports game for example. Usually a team gets out of sync when they’re thinking of results. They play “not to lose.” They’re afraid of losing and as a result actually lose the game (too much focus on results). The team who ends up winning is the team who is in a flow, the team who actually looks like they’re having more fun than trying to win (focus on process).
That’s why good coaches reward hustle, no matter the end result. Because when you work hard you get good results. When you work for results, you usually don’t work hard (or you work harder than you have to).
So when you sit down to practice piano, or whatever it is you do, let go of the results. The point of practice is not to get every note right. Focus on enjoying the process and loving the action and as much as possible.
A composer loves to compose, she doesn’t aim for the result of a composition. The composer loves the journey of writing the music because she knows the destination of finishing the composition is over in a heartbeat.
Love the act of creating more than the creation itself.
Think process over outcomes.
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If you’re in the field of teaching, you’re in communications. If you’re in business, it’s about communication. Ditto if you’re a parent.
In fact, EVERYTHING is about communication.
Unless you’re a hermit, you can count on human interaction being part of your everyday life. Whether you’re making a business transaction or having a friendly conversation, if you want success you need effective communication skills.
Let’s break down some important aspects.
There is nothing that will give you more transparent information than observing a person’s body language. And it’s the simplest one to get good at. All you have to do is start paying attention; practice will get you good real fast.
Sometimes what a person says is not what they mean. This doesn’t mean that people are liars, most of the time it’s coming from a good place. Many of my piano students are genuinely concerned that if they say what’s on their mind they’ll offend me or hurt my feelings. Or for whatever reason, they feel embarrassed and don’t want to be judged. “I practiced EVERY day (I barely practiced but I don’t want you to be mad at me).”
So when a student tells you yes but is shaking her head side to side, that’s a sign you need to dig further. Then again, when she’s looking at her feet or not making eye contact with you it might just mean she’s shy!
Body language is also the easiest way to gauge a student’s interest (yawning!).
There have been many times a student’s attention has waned during the lesson (eyes staring outside, disengaged posture, etc.). Where in the past I would continue talking obliviously, or even thought it was rude, now I see it as a telltale sign to change things up. Of course, sometimes they’re just plain tired or it’s late in the day (common sense).
In terms of using body gestures, I’ve learned that you can get a point across or help them dig deeper with something as simple as a head nod, head tilt, raising an eyebrow or just giving a suspicious look. 80% of the time I’ve just blankly stared at a student and they interpret it as, “keep thinking” or “you haven’t done everything you can yet.” The beauty of this is that the student can take your one gesture to mean many different things and find their own correct solution.
I sometimes also go the other extreme and totally exaggerate my movements, which can be fun…
But in order to get fairly good at reading a person’s body language, and also communicating your own, you have to have other processes on autopilot. So if you still have to think about what you need to do in that moment then you won’t have enough mental resources for observation in the first place.
Oh, and one other thing: don’t forget to smile =].
Be cognizant of the language that you’re using. As a teacher, it’s especially important that I use the right words.
What does that mean? Well, what is the purpose of your words? Do your students really understand you?
If the majority of your students are young (mine) this means “dumbing” down your content. I’m not saying that to insult their intelligence, they just haven’t gained an expansive vocabulary or an understanding that encompasses the complex ideas and concepts you may be trying to explain.
In fact, even when I was in college there were many times when the professors would say things that went completely over my head. And when I looked around at my classmates I could tell they all shared my confusion.
Don’t make the mistake and assume they understand everything you’re saying. And don’t blame it on them if they don’t either!
So keep in mind that the more complex the topic, the simpler your explanation needs to be. If you think about life, the most complicated problems often have very simple solutions.
Use not only simpler language but also economic language (the least amount of words to get the point across). This is to make sure they don’t get bored (attention span) and that there’s more time to play piano (action/hands-on).
But it’s also a paradox. Sometimes you’ll want to expand on ideas by using examples from your own life or sharing a personal story. In this case make the descriptions as colorful as possible. Use metaphors and vivid language to keep the student engaged.
In my personal life I don’t tend to use a lot of academic language. With people I hang out with I’m comfortable being my typical California self. And with some students this approach works great because an informal atmosphere is what they best respond to.
But I also see the bigger picture with my older students, particularly those in high school. They’re not going to be studying piano forever (I wish) and the majority of them, if not all, will be going to college. If there’s one important skill I developed during my collegiate experience, it’s being able to clearly articulate my ideas. So with these students I try to create structural guidelines in conversation and help them develop the language they’re going to need in their pursuit of higher education.
Because I’m a teacher I feel comfortable switching back and forth between formal and informal language. If that’s not you then just do what comes naturally. Don’t force it.
One last helpful tidbit: Affirmative, positive language is better than the opposite. Example: “Try to remember” vs. “Don’t forget”
Delivery > Content
A picture may be worth a thousand words but in this case, content matters less than delivery. What’s more important is HOW you paint, not WHAT you’re painting.
Think about your typical trip to the grocery store. When’s the last time a clerk looked at you with wide, bright eyes, a toothy smile and sincerely asked how your day was? Most of the time they’re just mechanically going through the motions. They’re saying, “how are you?” but what you really hear is, “I hate my job.”
When you listen to a song on the radio, the words aren’t that particularly poetic (grade-school language if we’re being honest). It’s usually the “swag” behind it, how the artist is expressing themselves.
When you hear different motivational speakers, it’s not the words they’re using that really get the point across. Listen to the inflection of their voice and the wide range of “dynamics” that they’re using.
Think about the tone of your own voice. What is the energy that’s coming across? Are you being loud enough to be heard? Are you being monotone?
Also keep in mind you don’t have to be loud to get the point across. Intensity can be conveyed with a whisper.
Although I’m discussing empathy last on this list, it’s by far THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE. The reason? If you don’t have empathy, it doesn’t matter how good you are at the other forms of communication I’ve laid out.
To quote the great, late Zig Ziglar, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
For a student to even want to listen to you, they must know you care. This means prioritizing their feelings over yours. It’s about understanding where they’re coming from: what shapes their ideas and beliefs, what their living situation and daily life is like.
Always be aware of how they’re feeling at that moment and adjust accordingly. Put yourself in their shoes.
Remember that no one’s perfect. I get into a slump from time to time but as a professional it’s my job to bring my best to each lesson because whatever I feel, my students will feel as well.
Kids are very intuitive, much more than most adults give them credit for and they’ll know when you’re fakin’ the funk. It’s not about putting on a mask or a fake smile, it’s about giving them value and letting them know that, no matter how you’re feeling that day, you appreciate your time with them.
Ziglar also said that the act of selling could pretty much be summed up as a transference of feeling. And so, it’s the same with teaching and communication.
Give them your best and they will give you theirs in return.
It can be learned
The takeaway is that anyone can become an effective communicator. If it’s something you think you have to be born with, think again. It just takes practice and humility.
If you care about having a fulfilling life, you need to be good at communicating. Life is not only about achieving your goals and dreams, it’s about people. It’s about making connections, forging relationships and enjoying each other’s company.
The journey is only a lonely one if you make it that way.
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“But I played so well at home.”
o goes the story of many pianists who don’t understand the difference between practice and performance. But once you understand what that difference is, all you need to do is employ the right strategies to be as successful in performance as you are in practice.
In my opinion, the biggest difference between practice and performance is control.
There’s nothing glamorous or fancy about real practice. Imagine Leonel Messi or Roger Federer. You can bet their practice is (or has been) focusing on one single move for hours at a time until they completely master it.
Think of practice as the distortion of reality by drilling a specific move until it’s “automatic.” In practice you can repeat a certain move ad nauseam. Can you imagine calling a timeout during a game to practice a move for 30 minutes before resuming? It’s like watching a DVD at home compared to watching a movie at the theater (get it?).
In short, practice is structured, methodically rehearsed and habit-building.
Performance, on the other hand, is another beast altogether. If you practice the right way things can randomly (frustratingly) go down the gutter.
Back to this idea of control. A saying in football is that the best team is the one who manages their time the best. Think about that.
Manage your time because you can’t control your outcome.
For the 2015 season, there was no NBA team that scored higher than a 50% in terms of field goal percentage (shots made). That means they miss half their shots! Every NBA team! Do you think that applies to their practice? Of course not, that number’s usually 100% if not 200%.
And don’t forget luck.
If you look at the most pivotal moments in professional sports, sometimes it comes down to pure dumb luck. The ball literally bounced their way.
So knowing what you know now, how do you practice for performance?
It’s simple, really. Practice performing.
What does a team do when they want to simulate the game experience? They scrimmage. But remember that scrimmages are a very small percentage of their practice. It could be 5% or 10%.
If you scrimmage too much, you will lose the valuable skills and knowledge you gained through practice. So make sure your run-throughs (performances/scrimmages) are just to evaluate where you’re at.
Here’s a formula that will help:
10 practices = 1 successful scrimmage. 10 scrimmages = 1 successful performance. So that’s 100 practices and 10 scrimmages just to get 1 good performance.
Now all that’s left is for you to execute.
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Playing in a piano recital is a bit like the expression “let the chips fall where they may.” Meaning that you can’t control what happens in a performance, unlike practicing at home.
One example I use to illustrate this difference to my students is by asking them, “What’s the difference between watching a DVD and going to the movie theatre?” [Next time you go to the movies, try raising your hand and asking them to pause the film while you use the bathroom xP]
But I never liked the idea of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. Although you can’t completely control how the performance will unfold, there are things you can do to prepare your piano students to play their potential.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the objective and goal for each individual student. As a teacher, find out what you want each of your students to achieve and reverse-engineer it. Objectives and goals must be custom-tailored to where each student is at in their musical journey and development.
For example, consider a first-time performer. For these newbies, we want to set expectations and standards as low as possible. However, this isn’t an excuse for them to tank their performance; it’s to make their experience as pressure-free and enjoyable as possible. The goals at this level are simply to have fun and make it to the end of their performance.
For my more experienced students we raise the standards. When recitals feel “normal” for them, we can begin focusing on more challenging objectives. We talk about how their last performance went and I provide my own feedback as to what went well and what needs improvement. We focus on stage presence and communicating confidence with posture. On the stage, their goals are to play through their mistakes as seamlessly as possible, keeping a steady rhythm no matter what happens and allowing their expressiveness (dynamics, ideas, phrasing) to come out.
The proper mindset for a recital is that it’s not a competition. It’s an event to share your progress or test out new ideas. If anything, you’re competing against yourself. The audience and fellow students are there to support you. It’s amazing to me that sometimes a student will be shocked when I say that everyone is rooting for you, that they actually want you to do well.
With every student there are practical activities they can participate in to bring out their best performance, or at least their best effort. Keep in mind, though, that the end goal for all students should still be to enjoy themselves in the moment as much as possible. I also want them to look at each performance as a learning experience. It’s not about getting all the “right notes” or “not making mistakes.”
A successful performance has nothing to do with accuracy. In fact, what the professionals do better is not playing “perfectly”; it’s the way they react or respond to mistakes or memory slips that makes them different. Focusing on getting the “right notes” or “not making mistakes” will get you more mistakes. [As an exercise, try not to think of the color BLUE]
You (also) get what you don’t want.
For our recent piano recital I had many students, if not all, “rehearse” at their lessons. This entailed literally sitting at their chair, walking to the piano, playing, and bowing after finishing. At the same time I would ask questions such as: What is your cue to play? When are you supposed to bow? How many times do you bow? Why do you bow? Where do you go after you finish playing? The point of these questions is not to make them think more, it’s to help get them out of their heads. Seems like a paradox, right?
Well let me tell you, on recital day these kids are unbelievably nervous (especially if it’s their first time). This little event is a big deal for them. So it goes without saying that I want them to feel as comfortable as possible. Confidence will come in the knowledge that they know what to do every step of the way. Instead of freaking out, they’re waiting for their cue. Instead of shaking in their boots, they’re reminding themselves of when they’re supposed to bow.
Taking the focus off of yourself is a lot like volunteering. One of the reasons people enjoy volunteering so much is that it puts their attention onto something more worthwhile. In much the same way my hope is that the students will take their focus off of how nervous or scared they feel and onto the experience and audience in front of them.
As a side note, many students’ stage fright comes from lack of experience, not enough preparation, or even a traumatic childhood event. Lack of experience or getting past a trauma is not an immediate fix, but preparation is something we can do right away.
One huge mistake is trying to cram right before a recital. Many teachers start way too late to prepare for a recital, performance, or piano exam. Their motto is start slow, finish fast. But the proper execution is to start fast and finish slow. What I mean is intensely practicing as if the recital is next week when in fact it’s 3 months away.
Set buffer deadlines [mini-deadlines] instead of one big deadline. It’s like giving yourself a few safety nets instead of just one. Then as the recital approaches they can adjust and have a more relaxed strategy or continue to practice as hard as they want, all the while taking solace in the fact that they are extremely well prepared.
A great method to gauge a student’s preparation is to ask the following question: Is this the best you can play at this very moment? If they say yes, they’re ready! No means more practice.
This is a great question because it allows the students to intuitively tell if they’re good to go. It permits them be honest with themselves and when they can be self-honest, it makes for a powerful incentive to practice more. I’ve found that when students are lagging behind their practice, this question jolts them out of their seats. It’s like a button gets switched on for them and they practice without me prodding them.
And even if they don’t make it in time, it’s still a learning experience. Whatever the result, it’s good for them to know that they could have come better prepared. It’s a spark I hope will motivate them for the next time around.
The last thing I would say is to help each student believe in themselves. I had an incident with a student where his preparation was not going well. My gut reaction was to be critical, wondering if he wasn’t practicing because he was being lazy or undisciplined. It was an eye-opener when I realized he simply didn’t believe he was capable of playing well. He didn’t think that piano was something he could be good at. Luckily, we found out in time to have a great turn-around.
Remember what Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
So when opportunity comes knocking, you can be sure I want my kids to be prepared to create their own luck.
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I’m going to confess something. I’m a practice nerd. Like Star Trek nerd. I get super excited about practice, man. We talkin’ bout practice. Today, I just want to share a few practical strategies and tips you can use right away to make an effective and efficient piano practice.
Now when I say “automatic,” I don’t mean to become a mindless practicing robot. What I really mean is that practice is just a habit. You can make practice feel as natural as tying your shoes or brushing your teeth (unless that’s not normal for you… ew).
The journey to get there is tough… but the reward is oh so sweet.
First, set up your practice “environment.” Make it conducive to you wanting to practice. Why do you think restaurants are dimly lit at night? I read about a study saying low lights make a person more hungry or comfortable enough to stay longer. I don’t know how much truth there is to that but all fast food places seem to be as bright as the sun 24/7 (think about that).
So hang posters, quotes, pictures, pretty much ANYTHING you can think of that will inspire you to practice. Get rid of ALL distractions, your environment is supposed to be 100% motivation. If phones are ringing, a TV is on in the background, or even the kitchen is luring you towards its refrigerator (FROZEN PIZZA!), that’s a no-no. I remember my most influential piano teacher actually had a practice “shed” in the backyard away from the main house.
Second, start small. You have to walk before you run and crawl before you walk. Too many people overwhelm themselves by setting gigantic, unrealistic, impossible goals. You’re not going to conquer Mount Everest on your first hike. Progress is made by baby steps, not huge leaps. Start as small as 5 minutes if you have to. When that feels normal, add a minute or two. If that’s too much, back off and try again. Small wins lead to huge victories.
Third, for those times you don’t feel like practicing. Two things are inevitable in life: death and taxes. In your pursuit of excellence, there’s a third one to add: plateaus. When you’re trying to build consistency over the long run, you will hit a wall guaranteed. It’s inevitable. But remember that you can climb over it and resume your journey.
So when you reach a plateau, remember to try something simple. Just sit on your piano bench/chair. That’s it. Literally just sit there and wait… set a timer and stay for at least 5 minutes. I’m pretty sure you’ll get down to business within a minute or two though.
But what if you sit there for the full 5 minutes and leave? Well… you got bigger problems I can’t fix buddy!
I actually got this idea from fitness. There would be days where I would rather count the hairs on my dog than exercise. When I was feeling this unmotivated I simply made it a point to change into my workout gear. That’s right, I made changing my clothes THE goal. And it worked because at that point you pretty much have no choice to exercise since changing back into your day clothes will make you feel as embarrassed as that time you peed your pants at school (everyone’s been there).
Fourth, make sure you get a calendar. Not an app, an actual physical calendar. There’s nothing more satisfying and motivating (notice a theme here?) than seeing your progress visually. When you “x” out each day of successful practice, you’ll naturally feel tempted to keep the chain going. Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld did this. One day he woke up and made a commitment to write one joke every day for an entire year. Think of how accomplished he must have felt when he looked up and saw 365 consecutive X’s on his wall.
Fifth, make the commitment to do it 30 days straight. This will be your toughest challenge but once you accomplish a whole month it will be smooth sailing. If not, you’re going to struggle and your practice routine will resemble a roller coaster ride (not the good kind). Scientifically speaking, it takes about 30 days for your brain to register something as a habit, a.k.a. “normal.”
So to wrap things up, making something “automatic” does take some work. You want to think of it as a pyramid of little tasks that you do every day for that one big goal. Remember, it’s a mountain you have to hike one step at a time. When you get there it’s as easy as pie.
Hope to see you at the top.
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Reverse-engineer your search for a piano teacher: Ask, “what do I want in a teacher?” Then, find someone who suits your needs.
So what are you looking for? Do you want someone who knows music fundamentals like the back of their hand? Do you want a fun and enjoyable experience? Someone who’s good with kids? Is it important for your child to build a personal connection or do you want the focus to be on a “music education?”
Once you clarify what you want, the next step is to accept that no teacher can deliver 100% of what you’re looking for. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and that applies to professionals as well. Shaq was one of the greatest big men to ever play the game of basketball… and one of the worst free throw shooters of all time.
Make a compromise and think of the top 2 or 3 qualities you want a piano teacher to have and pay attention to the following caveats:
Know why? Because it’s EASY to teach talented students. They’re more or less what you would call auto-didactic, students who are really good at teaching themselves, or self-learning. These students will thrive in any environment and most likely with any teacher. I have a few of them and I’ll tell you the most important thing is to not get in their way.
Here’s the most important piece of advice: look at the teachers’ roster of students. If you’re looking for someone who’s good with kids and beginners, make sure their studio is packed with kids who are beginners and have a great connection with the teacher.
People are who they surround themselves with. Every studio reflects their teacher. It’s just like how a professional football team will take on the personality of their head coach.
So when looking for the right piano teacher, make sure you take your time and do your research. Your wallet and your child will thank you later.
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When it comes to taking group piano classes or private piano lessons, have you ever wondered which is the better choice?
Today, I want to share with you my personal opinion on the pros and cons of each path so you can make an informed decision.
The immediate, obvious advantage of group piano is having a peer group. When we’re alone not all of us can stay motivated to do whatever it is that needs to get done. It’s hard to see the value (yet) of developing skill at something unless we can compare ourselves to others.
Advantages of Group Piano
So the greatest advantage group piano class can give you is one of accountability. The pressure of not wanting to be the one holding the class back is usually enough to make the average student want to put the work in every day. That’s why mastermind groups and team sports are such powerful social incentives.
And let’s face it, the piano is the loneliest instrument you could ever choose to want to play. Unless you have a rock solid self-discipline it’s hard to keep going without other people to relate to. If you don’t have a strong internal compass, private piano lessons are going to be a tough sell for you.
As a side note, I have to admit that I was always jealous of violinists and other instrumentalists. Having the orchestra as a creative and collaborative outlet is a luxury that pianists usually can’t count on.
Disadvantages of Group Piano
Learning is not a one-size-fits-all model! If you don’t fit into the “average” standard of the group you are placed in, you’ll always stick out like a sore thumb. For example, if you’re always ahead of the curve you’ll have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up each time.
But what’s worse is if you’re the one struggling. Do you really want to be the black sheep that’s always playing catch-up? This could be potentially even more detrimental for a younger student since they are more likely to identify with their peers and haven’t developed the backbone of an adult yet. Cue the feelings of shame and embarrassment.
Unrealistic comparisons and expectations can lead to traumatic experiences.
Another thing to keep in mind is the size of the class. Did you know that the larger the group, the less likely each member will be accountable to each other? In Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence,” he talks about this rule as being the law of numbers. I’d encourage you to read that chapter in more detail. The short of it is that people are more likely to be responsible when they are fewer in number than when they are in a big group. So if you happen to have 40 or more piano classmates… good luck.
Onto private piano lessons.
Advantages of Private Piano Lessons
The biggest advantage (provided you have the right teacher for you) has to do with choice. You can choose to progress effortlessly. Or you can work out of your comfort zone. You’ll become better at your strengths while addressing your weaknesses, all at your own pace. Most importantly, you can choose the type of music you want to play (I hope).
Of course there are many private teachers who don’t give students this option. Many of my transfer students were playing music that they weren’t interested in at all, some of them for a FEW YEARS. Talk about having their curiosity and passion ground into the dirt! In my studio I let my piano students choose all their own music. As a teacher I have a hard time understanding why you would take that freedom away from them.
Disadvantage of Private Piano Lessons
Now, the hardest part and biggest disadvantage of individual lessons is self-accountability. In my experience, adult students struggle the most and have a difficult time being consistent. An important lesson I try to hammer home for them is that they have to be responsible for their own actions. Mommy and Daddy won’t be there to make you practice. What I desperately try to communicate is they have to both create rewards and self-punishments for themselves.
No consequences = no results.
No rewards = miserable experience.
No system in place = a waste of time.
Younger students who have the benefit of a solid support system (parents, environment + teacher) don’t have to bear the responsibility of doing it all on their own. If the right structure and incentives are in place, they will practice.
Of course you can try giving ALL the responsibility to your kid. Let me know how that one goes…
In conclusion, I don’t have anything against group lessons but in my opinion they lose their benefits quickly. If you want to use them as a quick, short-term boost, go for it. Whatever gets you start.
Yes, private piano lessons are definitely more challenging and most of the responsibility will fall on you but ask yourself, do you really want to have to depend on other people for motivation?
I say rise to the challenge. It’s worth it. Because that’s what life is all about, isn’t it?
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