While in college I started teaching piano lessons regularly. I could play piano, compose and improvise on a standard college level – but teaching was a whole different animal. Thankfully, I had great teachers growing up and could call upon my experiences with them to help the lessons become productive as quickly as possible. The methods were helpful to a new teacher because they had written out instructions for teachers and students. They also isolated concepts into lesson books, theory books and performance books.
After years of training in an area we accumulate patterns and habits that effect every aspect of our experiences. We acquire information and knowledge that was intended to improve the way we perform or express our abilities. Of course this makes us better, but this information and knowledge can also hold us back in the long run if we use it as a way to become overly critical and negative when experiencing our own playing, our peers’ playing, our peers’ students or anyone performing in our field.
There have been times when I would feel that my rate of improvement didn’t line up with the large chunks of time I was spending at the instrument practicing. Sometimes practicing a lot isn’t enough. We need other methods to elevate our playing and bring cohesion to all the concepts we are working through.
It’s inevitable that playing music leads us to situations where we are judged or critiqued. The venue can be as simple as a single performance, a rehearsal, a festival, an audition, press reviews, social media comments or countless other platforms.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I had when learning to play music came during a painfully frustrating time. I was trying to work out a lot of Bill Evans material in college and I just couldn’t make it sound good. I spent a lot of hours that didn’t equate to improvement. I was studying with an amazing teacher who could rip through the stuff with ease. He also sensed something wasn’t clicking and said, “You know, everything comes down to triads.”
I was excited to be placed in the Miles Davis Ensemble at the beginning of a college semester. Miles was one of my heroes and our leader said we were going to do original music in the style of the famous quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This made me more excited because I wanted to write music in that style to learn more about it.
Creativity can be an elusive quality to develop. There are many kids and people who seem inclined to do their own things and do them their own way. As teachers, we often categorize these students as creative and do one of three things:
- We spend time letting them explore their ideas. Often enamored with their ability to create , we try and not to push them too hard in directions that are not inline with what they want to do so we don’t squash their joy and passion for creativity.
- We try to snap them into our program, curriculum or methodology. We don’t encourage creativity until they get certain things on our agenda as teachers within their grasp – if ever.
- We do some combination of numbers 1 and 2 above. We dedicate time to both exploration and method.
Finding Delight in Our Own Performances Shifting Perspective to Entertain Ourselves and Our Audiences
Helping students get ready for performances has become one of my favorite things to do. I believe that deep down each child who wants to take lessons does so because they’ve been inspired by performances – either live performances, recordings or videos. When they realize they can be responsible for these performances themselves and not just moved by others’ performances, the process becomes very exciting for them.
Having a great performance is the biggest reward a student can have for all their hard work. They don’t need awards and prizes. Brain scientists have built a lot of evidence through their research that kids younger than 12(ish) years old don’t need rewards for their actions. They are motivated simply by experiences and learning… It’s our adult students who need the rewards!
I grew up taking traditional lessons and would often perform several times a year for recitals, festivals, competitions, adjudications and school functions. In college I pursued a jazz performance degree. However, after all of that I felt that performances were still stressful at times. I was often unable to let things fly and play to my potential – even after “winning” festivals and competitions. Often, the only thing that made me sure that I had a good performance was the feedback I was getting from others. I really was missing the point of connecting to an audience because I was focused on meeting other people’s criteria. By waiting for an adjudicator, teacher or parent to tell us when we met their approval; we have given up our individual voice as performers.
I often get transfer students who are highly decorated pianists. They have “won” a lot of things. It takes about a year or more of really hard work to get them in charge of their performances. It’s sad that they have to go through this emotionally intense work. They have played a long time and have accumulated a list of criteria from all of the adjudicators, master class teachers, camps and private teachers. However, they often don’t know what they want to hear and who they are in relation to these influences. They only know what they think someone else wants to hear and base most of their musical decisions on that – it’s like being an insecure teenager for life.
I didn’t learn how to hold a room until I let all of this go. It took going on tour playing difficult, original music with a band I was in with my friends in college. We probably played a couple hundred nights a year. At some point I said, “Screw it, I’m going to play what I want to hear and how I want to hear it. I’m going to entertain myself with this performance.”
At that point, there was an immediate shift in the audiences’ reaction. All the years of playing in front of recital audiences and adjudicators trying to give them what they wanted was fruitless. They would simply take delight in my delight if I only knew how to find it. If we don’t learn to take delight in all the concepts being stressed to us by our teachers, clinicians, adjudicators, etc; then we really haven’t learned the concepts.
Here is one of my favorite methods to help us (and others) become delighted and excited by our own performances:
Perspective Shift: This is simple, yet effective. A student will play something for me, often waiting for me to start through the list of things we need to work on. However, I simply ask, “If you played that at the big concert hall downtown, how much would you pay to go hear yourself?” Sometimes I’ll have to help them out and say, “The last time I went to see a concert, tickets were $50. Would pay $50 to go hear yourself play that?”
At the beginning they typically laugh and say “no”.
Then I ask how much they would pay to hear what they just played. They often respond with $0 or $5.
I ask why… And they usually respond in a monotone voice by reciting a list of everything they’ve ever been told in lessons. “I didn’t do the dynamics well, the balance was bad, the phrasing was bad, I missed a note in that one sections, etc.”
Then I say (being 100% honest), “All those things you listed off were ok (maybe not great). I’m not so sure the reason you pay $50 to go hear a performer is to hear them do all the things on that list. Is that why you went to the Rihanna concert last week?”
Then I’ll ask them to try again and see if they can make it so that their performance would be worth $15 to them.
They play again and sound immediately better – more energy and enthusiasm.
I’ll ask them if they got up to $15 and they don’t really know but they are a little more aware of their sound and tone.
Once they start playing with a lot of much higher level of self-awareness, then the magic can start happening.
Dynamics, phrasing, balance, time, feel, groove, storytelling can now be used by them to create more value in their performance. These concepts are now for them to use as devices to tell their story with sound – rather than ways to meet an audiences unknown criteria. They are listening to themselves as an audience member and making decisions based on what they want to experience as a listener.
Of course this “value” has nothing to do with the dollar amounts we’re tossing around. The value is how much they value their own playing and music. Now all of the sudden, phrasing takes on a whole new meaning to this student. It has value. Because if they do it really well, then they will be more delighted to hear themselves at the concert hall. Top dollar is simply means they are finding more delight in their playing. And if they find more delight in their playing, so will everyone else who hears them.
After a lot of work on this. I’ll ask them if they would pay $50 for what they just played and they respond, “yes”.
I often say, “I agree”. The difference now is that they didn’t need my validation or agreement.
They already knew. They communicated with the audience that lies within them – the most important one.
There have been conferences and talks I’ve attended where teachers and parents lament how enamored their kids/students have become with video games and online gaming. There is a common feeling that it takes away from their other activities – whether it be sports, schoolwork, music lessons or other more traditional activities.
Improvisation is More Than an Activity It's one of the most fundamental abilities needed in music and life
I sensed that something was amiss after a wave of students, teachers and players came to me over the course of a few years wanting to learn to improvise. Many of them had taken jazz improvisation classes or gone to clinics/camps only to come away uninspired or confused. Several of them had worked out of books that presented certain patterns or pieces to improvise over or with. While others had tried to learn transcriptions and extract applicable concepts.