Using Music to Close the Academic Gap

Stretto Youth Orchestra

There was an article in the Atlantic this week about several long-term studies on how music can impact academics for students in low income schools. While there have been many studies released recently on how music may impact the brain, most of these seem to be short-term studies of small groups in which the authors infer that music is making a difference in brain function based mostly on correlation. These newer studies are long term and the groups in the studies seem well balanced. The schools participating in the studies are seeing very good early results.

Though these studies are far from over, researchers, as well as the parents and teachers of the study subjects, are already noticing a change in the kids who are studying music. Preliminary results suggest that not only does school and community-based music instruction indeed have an impact on brain functioning, but that it could possibly make a significant difference in the academic trajectory of lower-income kids.

This is great news for those kids, and it's also great news for music. These studies are showing scientifically that music is important for a well rounded education. I believe that music is important for cultural reasons — beyond helping students master other subjects, music is important in its own right. However, any study that reinforces the role of music in education is an excellent tool to help get funding and community support for maintaining excellent music programs in our schools.

You can read the article at the Atlantic.

More Advice on Practicing

She plays

It's the start of another school year and a good time to re-think practice routines. I've posted about practicing in the past, but I'm always on the lookout for more practicing strategies.

Deceptive Cadence (NPR's classical music blog) has posted an article called 10 Easy Ways to Optimize Your Music Practice. There are some great ideas for developing musicians, including:

Begin with the end in mind: have a goal for each practice session before you start playing. Just playing through your music isn't the same thing as practicing. Before you start, think: What do I want to accomplish today?

Last year, they posted a series of articles called The Young Person's Guide to Making Music, geared towards parents and students just starting out in music. The article that stands out among these is Getting Kids to Practice Music – Without Tears or Tantrums.

Regular practicing is a path towards self-discipline that goes way beyond music – it's a skill that has hugely positive ramifications for personal fulfillment and lifetime success…. But the trick is that self-motivated discipline isn't exactly first nature for most kids, so it's up to families to help create positive, engaging and fun ways to practice as a path towards self-motivation.

The articles are full of great advice, so take a few minutes to go read them!

The Evolution of the Treble Clef

treble clef

The Smithsonian has a nice article with an overview of the treble clef and how the symbol we know so well came to be.

...So, with apologies to the more musically inclined reader, I looked into the origin of the treble clef and the answer was quite simple. The treble clef, the top symbol you see in the photo above, is also known as the G-clef, which gives you the first clue to its origin.

For more, visit Via a Facebook post by Lauri's List

Daily Kos: Musings on a Middle School Music Festival

This is an interesting article on the value of teaching music in public schools from a non-musician. The author talks about how his lack of understanding in music frustrates him and how he sees his daughter's music teacher bring understanding to her students.

And so I find myself sitting in a music classroom of a local high school waiting for my daughter to perform. There’s another young woman seated at the piano when I sit down and I am reminded that for many students, middle school is a time of painful awkwardness.... She begins playing and I close my eyes and give my imagination to the music…and it’s beautiful. Vulgarian that I am, I even recognize it as a piece that I’ve heard before. I open my eyes and thoughts of awkwardness are gone. At the piano sits a young musician – one who just took me to a place that I cannot reach on my own. It’s so important that music education remain a part of the public school experience. Every student should have the opportunity to learn music if, for nothing else, than for our society’s selfish interest in avoiding failure to identify and foster the next generation of gifted musicians because their families couldn’t afford private music lessons.

Go read the rest here: Daily Kos: Musings on a Middle School Music Festival by someone who doesn’t get it.

Ask a Voice Teacher: Finding Your Own Voice

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. This is the third post in the series and it deals with staying true to one's own voice. Many students come to lessons with very specific ideas about how they would like to sound. They often have a specific singer or song in their minds, but this can lead to problems down the road.

Why can't I sing this song?

I'm very open to students singing pieces that they love and are interested in. It is very rare that I'll tell a student, "I don't want you to work on this song," especially with the options available to move songs to an appropriate key. When I do, it is usually for one of two reasons. Most of the time, when this happens, I want a student to wait until they have improved technical skills for a difficult piece. Perhaps the range is too large, or maybe it requires skill in leaping larger intervals, or it could have very long phrases that require excellent breath control. In these cases, I'll let the student know that we can revisit the song once s/he has acquired the skill necessary.

Sometimes, however, a song is just not right for a singer because it requires a different sort of voice. For instance, I am not a Wagnerian soprano, so that repertoire is off the table for me (not that I mind all that much). In a futile attempt to sing over the large orchestra I would likely damage my voice. Instead, I'm more suited to Mozart and Handel where the orchestra is not as large and my voice can shine over it. It is important for singers to strive toward their own best sound and not try to become something that they are not, which leads to the next question I hear from singers.

Can you help me sound like a specific singer?

The answer is: I can help you sound your best, but that means not reducing your voice to an imitation of someone else's voice. Everyone is physically unique, so no two voices sound alike. Trying to sound like someone else would mean that you have to go out of the way to change your sound. This can lead to vocal injury. Even if a favorite singer has a healthy voice that is in the same voice type (fach) as yours, s/he may be a good role model, but you will never sound exactly alike - and this is a good thing. If we all sounded alike, the world of singing would be very boring. (I sometimes feel like this is happening a bit, but that's another post, entirely.) I try to redirect students' ideas about sound away from imitation and make it more about genre and style. Is your favorite singer Nora Jones? Let's work on some jazz standards. Do you love Luciano Pavarotti? Let's start with some Italian art songs. This way singers can work in a healthy way towards refining their own unique voices.

Do you have a question you've always wanted to ask a voice teacher? Leave it for me in the comments and I'll try to answer it in a future post.


Dealing with Nerves During Performance

In this TEDxBoomington talk, Jeff Nelsen offers some great tools for dealing with nerves during performance. Everyone gets nervous when they perform. When you let that take over, it can prevent you from doing your best.

I try to help students cope with performance nerves during the lesson so that they have some tools to deal with it when it comes up in a real-life situation. I've found for younger students, the most important thing is that they know what will happen at their performance and they know exactly what to do. We practice announcing, bowing and what to do if they make a mistake. I also encourage them to perform for their families at home before they have a performance with a large crowd. As students gain performance experience, they tend to cope with nervousness better.

Ask a Voice Teacher: Why Study Voice?

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. This is the second post in this series and it is for those who are considering voice lessons.

Do I really need to study voice with a teacher? Can't I do it on my own?

Of course you can study any instrument (including voice) on your own, but the benefits of studying with a good teacher are numerous. In the case of voice, it can be easy to fall into bad habits that can lead to major issues like vocal nodes. You need an expert's ear in order to help you get the most out of your voice, to make the best possible art, and to make sure your voice stays injury free. A voice teacher will also help you find new songs, try out new ideas and develop performance skills that will make you a better singer. Because there are so many things to keep track of while singing (including breath, posture, resonance, diction, interpretation and all the things that go into them), even professional singers check in with a trusted teacher to make sure they stay on track. If you just want to sing in the shower, you probably don't need a voice teacher. However, most people thinking about taking lessons will benefit from them. If you want to improve your singing for a choir, if you want to sing karaoke weekly, if you want to sing solos at church, if you want to sing in community theater you will benefit from lessons. If your goals include professional or semi-professional singing of any style, lessons are a necessity.

 How many lessons do I need?

Singing isn't the sort of task that you can take a 6 month class on and then know everything there is to know about it. Even with a doctorate in voice performance I learn new things about my voice every day. For that reason, lessons are open ended.

Sometimes students have a specific goal. For example, they want to learn a role for a musical, or improve an aspect of their singing so that it is more comfortable to sing a high note in their choir. These goals can often be met in several months. Rather than thinking of building a voice for the long-term, this is a coaching session where the student can sometimes learn some long-term skills, but the focus is on a specific short-term goal. Short-term goals are important (even for long-term students), but when the next role comes along or the next technical issue comes up, these students often don't have the skills to meet the new challenges. As a teacher, of course I would encourage students to aim for a lifetime of lessons, but I find that coaching to meet short-term goals can also give students a taste of what they might be capable of in a more open-ended lesson environment.

Ask a Voice Teacher

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. I'll try to answer some of these in a series of blog posts. The first post is for those considering lessons for their children.

At what age should my child start voice lessons?

This is a question I'm often asked by parents of young children who tell me, "She just loves to sing at home! Do you think she should have lessons?" This question is highly debated among voice teachers. Generally, I recommend that students wait until they are at least 10 to start voice lessons. The main concern is that a young child should never be asked to mimic the sounds of a fully mature voice, and a naturally mature and full sound is generally one of the main goals for older voice students. The voice is a complex instrument and requires coordination and a certain level of maturity in order to understand and develop the finer points of singing.

I encourage younger children interested in singing to find a great choir and to study another instrument like piano or violin. This way they will begin to work on the basics of singing (good breath, good posture, basic resonance and diction) and they will learn to read music. It isn't that they won't learn these important skills in voice lessons, it's just that they can learn these skills just as well in a good choir and they will learn other excellent musical skills, which will serve them well in future voice lessons.

There are exceptions to this rule. If a child is regularly singing solos in public, a younger student will often benefit from lessons. Also, if a student is experiencing technical difficulty while singing, lessons may be in order. Additionally, some children mature faster than others and may be ready for lessons earlier. I will always agree to a trial lesson with a young student, so that I can give the best recommendation. Above all, it's important to have realistic expectations for pre-adolescent voices.

Adventures in Teaching: Halloween

Libby Larsen, composer

This year for Halloween I decided that since I was teaching all afternoon, and students would likely come to lessons in their costumes, I would dress up, too. I hemmed and hawed about what to be, but anything too elaborate like a character from an opera seemed too difficult to maintain while teaching. I settled on composer Libby Larsen because I love her music and I look a bit like her if I change the part in my hair.

I thought Larsen would be a great choice, since most young musicians think of composers as old (or dead) European men like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. She certainly goes against that type as a living American woman. Larsen has an excellent section for kids on her website. She includes a letter to students, an interview, and a section on composing music. From the interview:

What advice would you give to a person who wants to compose for a living?

Listen to all kinds of music, as much as you can get your hands on. Make friends with creative and artistic people. Learn to read and notate music very, very well. Listen some more. Work at your music every day. Study the music of other composers. Write everything down. Talk to musicians and music teachers as much as you can. Perform: sing, play instruments, make up your own instruments, and of course, dance!

Read the rest at Libby Larsen's For Kids page.

How to Practice: 10 Tips for New Voice Students

Many new voice students do not have a full understanding of what it means to practice between lessons. Singing through your pieces several times may help you memorize them, but you won't learn how to correct musical and technical mistakes. Students should approach each practice session as they should each lesson; with an open mind, and willing to experiment. This list is by no means complete, but here are 10 tips to incorporate into your practice time.

  1. Record your lesson. This is useful for remembering what to work on between the lessons since there often isn't time for your teacher to make written notes for you. You will also be able to hear the difference your practicing makes over time.
  2. Practice often. It is much better to work on your singing a little bit each day rather than one longer session the day before your lesson. Singers are like athletes; we are training our muscles to perform special skills. Like athletes, waiting until the last minute and doing one long prep session will get you nowhere.
  3. If you are ill, feel pain in your throat, or if you begin to loose your voice, stop singing. Singing should always feel free, not forced. If there is pain or you become horse, you are doing it wrong or there could be a medical issue that may need to be addressed by a doctor.
  4. Warm-up using exercises your teacher introduced in the lesson. Take this time to focus on different technical aspects of singing such as breath, posture, resonance and diction. Often, each exercise is meant to work on a particular skill. If you are unsure what skills go with each exercise, ask your teacher. If you work better with imagery, use the image you've worked out with your teacher for each exercise.
  5. Work on pieces in sections of 4-8 measures. You can do various exercises in each section to work on different technical aspects. For example: to work on breath, sing a section on a tongue trill (rrrr); to work on phrasing sing legato on a vowel instead of the words; or to work on rhythm, count a section while singing. Once each section is perfected you can put the piece back together by grouping sections together.
  6. Take note of trouble spots. If you make a mistake more than once, go back and correct it. Sing the notes on different vowels and then with the words. Then put the trouble spot back into the rest of the phrase to give it context.
  7. Remember that the way you say the words matters as much as the meaning. Work on correct diction as part of your practice time. One way to do this is to speak the words with a resonant voice, both with the rhythm and as you would if you were in a play.
  8. Learn to read music using solfeggio (do, re, mi, etc.) or another system. Learning notation and music theory will help you learn pieces more quickly and you will understand them better. Learning another instrument is a good way to achieve this.
  9. Approach each piece as an actor. Your job is to interpret the intent of the composer and poet/lyricist for the audience. This means you must understand the meaning behind the words and the notes. Practice time needs to include some time for research.
  10. Take time to listen to many other singers in many different styles. You have a unique voice, so listening to others, both those who have voices similar to yours and those who are very different, will give you a better frame of reference for your own voice.

Adventures in Teaching: Women in Music

Wilhelmine von Brandenburg-Bayreuth

Last week, a young pianist was working on a piece by J.S. Bach. I mentioned that his family was full of musicians, his father was one and so were many of his children. She made the point that it was his sons, since women weren't allowed to have jobs, they "just cooked and cleaned." While this is partially true, I told her that women have been well respected as excellent composers and performers as long as we have been making music.

So, in honor of that student, here is part of a list of women in music from Oxford Music. I'm listing a few from those that lived around the time of Bach, but go see the list for important women in music from the year 810 to 2000.

1736 - Julie Pinel publishes a collection of French airs.

1740 - Wilhelmina, Princess of Prussia sees her opera Argenore performed at the court opera in Bayreuth.

1740 - Elisabeth de Haulteterre publishes her Primier livre de sonates for violin and continuo.

There are many more at the link. Timelines in music history: Women in music in Oxford Music Online.

How to Practice: 10 Tips for New Pianists

A girl at the piano

Once students understand why practicing is necessary and how to get motivated to do it, students need to know what to do during a practice session. Many students take for granted that if they just play their pieces over and over that's enough to get better. This is never enough to bring a piece to performance level. Here are a few ideas to get a new student started practicing in a better way:

  1. Warm up before diving into your pieces. Many students forget that scales, arpeggios and other technical patterns are important tools to get your fingers and your brain ready to play. Make it fun by inventing new rhythmic patterns or challenging yourself to play at a fast tempo while staying steady, smooth and even. Take this time to focus on technical details like hand shape, posture and articulation.
  2. Play a piece while saying or singing the note names. If that is too hard you can say the note names while pointing at the notes on the page at first. This helps students become excellent note readers early on.
  3. Play a piece while counting. First count out loud for several days, then count in your head. If the rhythms are new or very tricky, begin by clapping the rhythms while counting out loud.
  4. Play while focusing on the interval shapes. Think to yourself up a 2nd, up a 3rd, down a 5th, etc.
  5. Take time to fix your mistakes. Focus in on the measure where the mistake happens, repeat that measure until you can play it 3 times in a row perfectly. Next put it in context, include the measures surrounding the mistake and then play the entire phrase. When you return to the song the next day, check the trouble spots before you play the piece.
  6. When pieces require hands playing at the same time, start by playing left hand alone, right hand alone, then hands together.
  7. Work backwards in small sections while learning a piece. We all have a tendency to start at the beginning and run through a piece in it's entirety. Instead take the last 4-8 measures first, then add the previous 4-8 measures continuing until you get back to the beginning. This way you give the end some extra practice time.
  8. Use a metronome. Coordinating with a machine may seem counterintuitive while working on art but it will help students be very precise with rhythms while learning so that once they know a piece they can keep that precision without being stiff and mechanical. To get used to it, start by playing scales. When you work on a piece, start at slow tempo; one where the piece can be played perfectly, without pauses. Once a tempo is mastered, students can speed it up. One way to do this is to go up by 5 clicks in each shift, another way is to go 10 clicks faster and then back 5 clicks slower (i.e. start at 90 move to 100 and then back to 95) continuing until you come to the final tempo.
  9. Remember to use your imagination. The reason you work on technique is so that you have the tools to make beautiful music. Make up a story or a picture in your head to go with the piece you are playing. It will make it more fun for you, and those listening will enjoy your performance more.
  10. Reward yourself! End a practice session playing your favorite piece. This will help you remember that your hard work will pay off.

On Practicing

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Girls at the Piano, 1892 - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Good friend, colleague, excellent teacher, and director of Musical Beginnings (where I teach most of my students), Linda, has a blog where she has posts on why to practice and tips on how to get students to practice.

Getting students to practice regularly is one of the biggest challenges of teaching music. It generally boils down to making it a priority. Here are a few Practicing Tips from Linda:

·      Stack the deck with loaded choices such as “Can you help me with these dishes or were you about to go practice?” or  “I’d like you to fold the laundry, unless you were on your way to practice…?”

·      A sticker chart, that old stand-by, works well with younger children. The concept of sitting down to practice 5 Steps Up today so they can know how to play a Mozart sonata in many tomorrows may be too abstract to motivate them. The knowledge that they’ll get to pick a sparkly sticker and that five stickers equals a trip to the park isn’t.

·      A no-screen-time rule until practicing has been done.

Part of getting students to practice is understanding why it is necessary. From Linda's Why to Practice post:

…rarely does a child stop music lessons because they just couldn’t abide their 20-minute-a-day practice regimen. Mostly they stop because they so seldom sit down to practice that they’re not learning to play, and so it gradually becomes less important to both them and their parents. And, the vast majority of our advanced students throughout the years have had a practice routine dictated to them, at least at the beginning...

For more excellent advice and insight, visit Teacher Linda Talks. 

An Adventure in Teaching

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Last week a 9-year-old piano student asked me how long a piece of music can be. It's an interesting question. She asked it because most of her pieces have lasted 30 seconds to about a minute, but we've been working on a piece that lasts more than twice as long as those she has played in the past. Most musical works fall in a range from 30 seconds to several hours. That may seem like a very wide range but if you think of the difference between the length of a pop song on a top forty station and that of an opera from Wagner's Ring Cycle and you begin to get an idea of what might be possible. Really though, a piece of music can be any length of time, as long as there is a way to perform it.

When this student asked the question, It made me think of John Cage's piece Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible). Cage wrote it in 1987, but it is based on an earlier piece from 1985. Most performances of ASLSP have lasted between 20 minutes and 24 hours, but this performance is going to last (is lasting?) 639 years. It is taking place at a church in Halberstadt, Germany. It began in 2001 with a rest that lasted for 7 months, and it will end in 2640. When a sound is changed, it is a major event in the world of new music scholars, who flock to the church to hear it. You can hear the piece as it plays at the projects's website (German). The next change will happen about a year from now on October 5, 2013.

I mentioned to this student the Halberstadt performance of Organ2/ASLSP. She had one or two general questions. I answered her questions and we went on with the lesson. I figured she would understand that pieces can be very long and forget about this specific piece since it's very much outside her experience. This week, I was pleased but surprised when she brought up the piece again. She had thought about it and had many more questions. What instrument is it for? How long is each note? Does someone sit and play all the time? Do people sit and listen? Why was it written? Can it be done faster and if so how fast? As we talked about it I realized that, for her, music was no longer narrowly defined - in at least one respect, it became limitless and exciting.

French Airs Project

Amadis by Lully

I've been working on and off for years on a project of french airs. It started as one of my DMA projects but needs refining and polishing. I'm hoping these pieces will be useful as pedagogical tools.

So often, singers avoid standard French art song repertoire until they reach the sophomore or junior year of college because much of it is difficult. Not only does it require an understanding of advanced music theory, but with a few exceptions they are quite difficult technically.

The pieces I'm working on are from the 17th and 18th century and use a musical language similar (though highly adjusted to the French language) to those in the standard Italian arias singers are so familiar with (the 24 Italian Songs and Arias; and the newer 26 Italian Songs and Arias).

There are some challenges with this repertoire. First, French as it was spoken at that time was not the same as modern French. This is hardly surprising since 17th and 18th century English is quite different from today's English, but since I'm not a native speaker it's harder for me to adjust. Luckily, I found a highly useful online tool, the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago. It includes several dictionaries from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Second, these pieces are only available in the U.S. as facsimile reproductions. Some are available digitally (see the Lully score above), but others are only in hardcopy form at a few libraries. I was fortunate to visit Oberlin College & Conservatory in the summer of 2008 where the Conservatory Library is full of excellent facsimiles.

Lastly, most of the scores include only a figured bass and vocal line or are for full orchestra and voice. The pieces must be arranged so that those who are not specialists in early music can accompany the singer.

This is the part I'm working on refining now. Although I made arrangements for a recital I gave in December 2008, that performance showed me that they still needed improvement. My goal is to have accompaniments that an intermediate pianist can perform, this way it will be more useful for high school level students who often don't have access to excellent pianists. It will also give more teachers the option of playing for their students.

I'll try to post more information as I continue the project, perhaps including a performance and/or a score.

Why Is Music Education Important?

A friend on Facebook (and in life), recently posted an article from The New York Times Well Blog on the importance of early music education called Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits. I have mixed feelings about research that touts music as a gateway for other skills. So often music is viewed as important because it's "good for Math skills" or it "teaches children to concentrate" or that it "strengthens a range of auditory skills." Music is presented as a short-cut for intelligence. These things are all excellent side benefits to music, but what about the importance of music for it's own sake. It was a relief to read this article by Perri Klass that points out that music is valuable in it's own right:

There’s a fascination — and even a certain heady delight — in learning what the brain can do, and in drawing out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education provides. But the researchers all caution that there is no one best way to apply these findings.

Different instruments, different teaching methods, different regimens — families need to find what appeals to the individual child and what works for the family, since a big piece of this should be about pleasure and mastery. Children should enjoy themselves, and their lessons. Parents need to care about music, not slot it in as a therapeutic tool.

For me, music is important because it is an essential form of human expression. Developing skills as a musician gives us a way to understand that expression and participate in it. It does this in a way that no other set of skills does. While more skills lead to more options for expression, musicians don't have to perform at a professional level to participate in it and benefit from it. However, in order to give their performance meaning they need appreciate it as a valuable expressive art; otherwise it is purely a trick-based performance (look what I can do) rather than a performance that communicates a fuller meaning.

Music teachers should start advocating for music for it's own sake rather than focusing on side benefits. The side-benefit approach may convince school districts to keep music programs short-term, or get parents to sign children up for lessons. However, when music becomes secondary to the potential cognitive boost it can provide, it suffers as a second-class subject. Music should be treated as a primary subject, as important as reading and math, because along with reading and math (and other subjects) it is a vital part of what makes us human.