Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Feature: John Mayer's "Born and Raised"

Man, I love John Mayer. Call it a man-crush or whatever, I simply cannot get over this guy. Yes, I know he comes across as a jerk in every interview, but when he picks up his guitar it simply overcomes all of that for me.

I have loved each of John Mayer's albums up to this point, so I was expecting another home run with "Born and Raised." I wasn't disappointed.

Yes, I'm going to highlight the two obvious choices off the record, so I apologize if you were hoping for some hidden treasures. Again, I'm just hoping to give the reader enough interest to check out the record and give it a thorough listen.

With that in mind, here are my two 'must hear' choices from this album.

"Shadow Days"

"Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967"

Both of these tunes hit me squarely in the ears, heart and mind through a combination of brilliant lyrics, subtle melodies and harmonies, and fantastic orchestrations. No virtuosic intensity here, just great storytelling.

Happy listening!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Do I really need to read music?

I get asked this question all the time. "Why do I need to read music?"

Well, imagine if you couldn't read English. First, you wouldn't be reading this post. Imagine if someone had to read everything to you everyday, from street signs to magazines, to text messages and Facebook status updates. How would that be for you? In a word, debilitating.

Certainly there are lots of good people in the world - brilliant, even - that can't read or write. But those people, almost without exception, would encourage you not to follow their path. Reading and writing are the gateway to learning and communication on a much higher and more efficient level.

The same is true for music. Of course, there is much to be learned from listening and imitating. And there are many great musicians who never learned to read or write music. But the written version of what you're hearing can allow you to be more expressive and accurate than you could ever be without seeing it. Written music also fills in more of the "why" of the music, sort of like how books can tell you a character's thoughts, but the movie rarely can.

For my money, reading music is as critical to the musician as reading and writing your spoken language is to the average human being. Not doing it won't end your career, but gaining the skill can only make you better.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Turkeys and flying

You've heard this story before, but it bears repeating. And I'm sure there are much better versions out there, but you'll get the point.

There was a group of turkeys that wanted desperately to learn how to fly. As they watched the sky, they saw other birds soaring on the winds, and were envious.

"We're birds, too," they said, "there's no reason we shouldn't fly." So, they asked the mightiest bird in the sky, the eagle, if he would teach them how to fly. He agreed, and invited them over to his home the following afternoon.

The eagle was a great teacher, and the turkeys were quick, enthusiastic learners. Before long they were lifting off and landing, and by the end of the day every one was able to fly and soar on the wind. They thanked the eagle, clapping him on the back and expressing their gratitude. Some even hugged him.

Then they all walked home, just the way they had come.

I remember the first time I ever heard this story. I was thinking, "Seriously?! They WALKED?!" And that's the point of the story. The turkeys learned something that could have had an impact on almost every part of their lives, and they treated it like a toy.

They didn't allow the new skill, knowledge and perspective to make them better - to change their behavior and their lives.

Too many students (including some of mine) learn how to make themselves better, whether it be from a class, a rehearsal, a lesson or even YouTube, but then they go right back to doing things just the way they have been. It's almost like they refuse to adapt and change even when they know what they need to do to improve.

They learn how to fly, then walk home.

Here's to my students - and students everywhere - who take to heart the knowledge that they gain in classes, from their teachers and from their own observations, and allow it to change them for the better.

Happy flying!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It takes a village, Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two part series about getting the most out of private lessons by guest blogger Emily Sorensen*. For part one, click here

Parental involvement is absolutely critical for student success, regardless of the instrument and age when beginning lessons. I was once told that if your child is taking lessons then you as the parent are too; this is especially true of younger students. So if you have a basic understand of things you can expect to do as part of the team it becomes easier to support your student and make the decision to invest in lessons. So here are some things you can expect of yourself.

  • Communicate
Again, the importance of communication cannot be overstated. As a parent you need to be aware of the teaching schedule and how it aligns with your family’s schedule; very few family commitments truly sneak up on us. Family vacations, school concerts/performances, holiday parties and most other family activities find their way onto our calendars well in advance and it isn’t unfair for teachers to expect and require at least 24 hours notice to reschedule a lesson with no repercussions. You can expect that if you fail to notify your teacher 24 hours in advance that you won’t receive a make-up lesson AND you still have to pay for the lesson time you canceled. Make life less complicated and save money by marking your calendar a week in advance of a planned missed lesson to notify your teacher. If you know you are going to be missing several lessons during an extended period of time (ie-summer break or an exceptionally busy family time) consider taking a leave of absence and getting on your teacher’s waiting list until you can more consistently focus on lessons. 

You should feel comfortable talking to your student’s instructor about questions or concerns about any part of music lessons. Learning to play a musical instrument is similar to learning a foreign language. It takes time, consistent effort and a lot of practice time. Your teacher is familiar with the process of learning lessons and can help you coach and encourage your student at home, so feel free to bring questions to lessons or call or email the instructor as agreed upon. 

  • Pay on time
One of the best things you can do for your student’s experience is pay on time. Unless your student is paying for their own lessons it can get awkward for your student to have to deal with the financial aspect of lessons and can be hard for them to focus in their lessons or to bring home the message to you about paying. It is much easier for all parties if you take on the responsibility of making sure payments are made on time.

  • View lessons as an investment
Music lessons are a gateway to future opportunities. It is also important to remember that learning an instrument is a progressive experience; each skill needs to be mastered before moving to the next in order to have success. In a previous post about knowing if you’re getting a good deal (link here) I talked at great length the points that help you know if your investment is worth it. At some point your student could use their skills to help pay for a college education. And really, if the goal is to learn something new and to participate in the creative process, well that’s a lifetime investment.

  • Expect reality and train for goal behaviors
Your student will experience plateaus, discouraging times and growing pains while learning an instrument. It’s like weight training, losing weight or any other skill that requires mastery. There are plateaus. Expect it and prepare for it. But in the same vein, there will also be many, many moments of intense excitement too! Every time they nail that riff they’ve been struggling to learn, the times when they finish a method book, when they master their recital piece. Well it’s those exciting times that help pull them through the growing pains and plateaus. As a parent when those plateaus come, encourage and remind them of the great times and sometimes you may have to be a little persistent about helping them make through practice sessions. 

When a student starts lessons the goal is the consistently practice and to focus during the lesson time and being willing to stick it out during the frustrations too. All the promises that they will do it are soon forgotten when it’s hard and they feel frustrated. This may leave you wondering why you bought the instrument that isn’t being played and why you’re paying big bucks each month for lessons. As tempting as it is to get frustrated and discouraged right along with your student; don’t do it! This leads me to the next point.

  • Take an active role
For the ultimate success of your student you can expect to take an active role in lessons. I was told as I was preparing to sign one of my children up for lessons at a young age, “oh, you’re taking lessons too?!?!” This was said in a joking manner and with a little sarcasm; however, I find it extremely true. If you are really ready for your student to be successful, go to lessons with your child, at least until you have coached your student into healthy practice habits; and especially go if you have a young student. You’re being at the lesson allows you to assist your students memory during practice times and coach them through specific items. If you are willing to be this proactive during the beginning of your students lessons, your student will have a higher rate of success, more enjoyment of their instrument and develop better habits through you role.

  • Hold your student accountable
This is the absolute most important expectation for your student’s success. When your student signs up for lessons make sure they understand they are agreeing to be consistent about practicing their instrument, showing up to lessons and working to learn. THEN hold them accountable to their end of the agreement. 

Your student will not magically learn an instrument or improve on what they know simply by walking into a private music instructor’s studio. Many students think that by simply showing up at lessons with no other work or practice they will become this amazing rock star or concert musician. And then become confused, frustrated and quit when it doesn’t work out as they imagined it would. NEWS FLASH! It doesn’t work that way. Any way you look at it, learning to play an instrument takes work. Hold your student responsible for their potential and encourage them to do what it takes and then follow through with them. 

Many factors lead influence your student’s success in private music lessons. Be assured that it is a team effort. The teacher, the student or the parent cannot make it happen alone. There will be times when the student is extremely discouraged and often as parents we’re ready to allow them to quit because we’re already over booked. Take it all into consideration, but be aware as you have and follow expectations for yourself and your student’s teacher the team effort will make it easier to continue and get over the “growing pains” of learning something new.

Best to you and your student as you embark on an amazing journey in music education and creation!

*Yep, Emily is my wife and best friend. She's also an experienced musician and was the administrator at our music teaching studio where she worked with about 20 teachers and over 100 students. She dealt with all of the day-to-day operations, including interfacing with parents and students. In short, she knows her stuff.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Getting "rewired"

When I was in college, I decided to supplement my percussion education by taking drum set lessons from the great Jay Lawrence for a couple of summers. He had (and still has) a huge reputation, and I was beyond excited to get started.

At the same time I was playing in a very fun, Dave Matthews-esque band, and I had been telling my mates how much better I was going to be, and how glad I was that I was taking lessons. Due to the summer schedule, it was about six weeks - and hence, six lessons - before we got back into a rehearsal and I was able to display my newfound skills.

There was only one problem: I had not improved. In fact, I was much worse. Awful. Terrible. Discombobulated.

My band was furious. We had a bright future, and as far as they could see I was throwing a huge wrench in the works by trying to change my approach through lessons. A couple of the band members actually went so far as to tell me that I needed to quit - immediately!

I knew that lessons were the right thing to do. Jay was awesome, I was learning a ton, and it seemed that I was gaining skills. So, at the next lesson, I asked Jay about it. Why would I play so terribly if I was actually making progress?

Jay's answer has stayed with me, and I've passed it along to my own students over the years. It's a paraphrase, to say the least, but here's how he explained it to me:

Have you ever seen the inside of a computer? Imagine what it looks like. There are a lot of set parts - boards and ports and power related components - but, by and large, it's a ton of wires. Wires everywhere that connect everything to everything else. 

Well, basically what we've done over the last six weeks is yank all of the wires out of their places and start to put them in new places, wire by wire. We're "rewiring" you, so to speak, and when we're done, you'll be a much, much better "drumming computer." But for now, there are still a lot of loose wires and parts that aren't functioning totally correctly yet. 

As we keep working on you, more and more "wires" will be put in place, and you'll function and play better and better and better. Just keep practicing, and keep challenging yourself.

That explanation, in addition to making sense, has been proven true over the years. Because of Jay's influence and approach, I've been able to kick some bad habits and develop a lot of techniques, skills and styles that were never a part of my old "wiring."

Thanks, Jay.

As always, happy drumming!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It takes a village, Part 1 of 2

Guest blogger Emily Sorensen*, former Play Music Educational Studios administrator, takes a look at the parent's role and perspective in getting the most out of private lessons for your student. 

As a parent it can be difficult to know how to interface with your student’s private music teacher. This is part one of a two part series with some tips and suggestions to help you team up with your student and his/her music teacher to increase your student’s success.

As a parent you can expect a short list of characteristics from your student’s teacher regardless of his/her background. Some of these characteristics include:
  • Professionalism
Many of us associate professionalism with the corporate industries and, more often than not, associate beatnik and hippie stereotypes with the music industry and aren’t sure what to expect with music instructors. So many of the things in this category seem like common sense, but because of the aforementioned stereotypes, it bears repeating. 
  • Personal grooming and good hygiene: A professional music teacher should appear to care about personal grooming and hygiene. Something as simple as showing up in clean clothing in good repair can make a big difference in your student’s ability to focus during lesson time. 
  • Punctuality: The teacher should be punctual. Being on time and organized prior to your student’s lesson allows your student maximum time to get through material and both teacher and student are able to concentrate. 
  • Legitimate skill set, instrument knowledge and current industry experience: In a previous post I wrote about knowing how you are getting a good deal for the money you spend and a big part of professionalism is having a legitimate skill set and knowledge of the instrument they are teaching as well as current experience playing their instrument.  
  • Interest in your student’s progress: One of the biggest professional qualities your teacher should have is caring about your student’s progress and skill development. In a hard economy many people who played in junior high and high school or took lessons for a while and need to make a little extra money might start teaching lessons. Often times those can be, “my personal music history,” lessons and not much by way of progress for your student. Yes, a teacher needs to have experience and be able to relate to your student’s current experience, but the overall goal needs to be about your student.
  • Communication
The importance of good communication cannot be over emphasized. Everyone’s experience in music lessons is enhanced when good communication is expected and practiced. Sometimes that means being willing to say something that seems common sense or seems like it could go unsaid. Again, communication should be professional and tactful at all times. As a parent, never feel bad about asking a question or expressing a concern. You should feel comfortable expressing yourself and expecting your teacher to be clear with you and your student.
  • Clear Expectations and agreements
This goes hand in hand with communication, but is worth pointing out specifically. You should be able to expect a clear list of expectations for your student and you. This often will include expectations about payments, practicing, attendance, rescheduling and make-up lessons, personal emergencies, studio group activities and suggested memberships and such. However, don’t expect the list of student/parent expectations to be all inclusive. There is not a way, nor should it be required, to account for every possible scenario. More often than not you will find that professional teachers who are willing to communicate their expectations for you and your student are willing to listen and work with you as long as you don’t try to take advantage of them.

In addition to a list of expectations for you and your student, a list of clear expectations and agreements about your teacher’s behavior should be part of your lesson experience. Teachers should communicate with you how and what to expect as far as their policies, personal emergencies, rescheduling and make-up lessons, holidays or no lesson weeks and how they handle the non-lesson elements of their business (payments, credits, statements, receipts, referrals, etc.) Again, the list can’t possibly include every situation and scenario, but should provide for open and clear communication.
  • Pricing Structure & Payment Policy
This is another element that goes hand in hand with communication, but is important enough to discuss as an individual point. Good music teachers are in business. As consumers, we often overlook the arts as businesses, but it’s extremely important to remember your private music instructor is providing a valuable service, and this is an important part of how they make their living. Imagine if you went to work and didn’t get paid on time or consistently and often you were carrying your employer with a balance they owed you at least one month behind. Keep this in mind as you are paying for lessons, and expect a clear pricing structure and payment policy from a professional private music instructor. 

A clear pricing structure will include a price per lesson, often based on the length of the lesson. 20 (for younger or beginner students) 30, 45 and 60 minutes are common time increments for lessons. The longer your lesson time the more you can expect to pay. Also, the more educated/experienced the teacher, the more you can expect to pay for lessons. It is expected that you pay for lessons a month at a time and at the beginning of the month. It is common for teachers to charge an additional fee for paying later in the month. Some pricing structures offer a discount for paying in full on time, however, this is less common so it shouldn’t be expected as part of a good pricing structure. Before you begin lessons, be prepared to carefully read and discuss the pricing structure and payment policies. Nothing can ruin a lesson experience like miscommunications about money - so be clear about your expectations and what is expected of you. 
  • Knowledge of available resources
This seems like a silly expectation to have for a professional private music instructor. However, it would surprise you how often you will need to talk to your teacher about where to purchase items, software, supplemental materials, instrument upgrades, music camps and many more items that are indirectly related to lessons. You should feel confident in your instructor’s knowledge and comfortable asking for information. Many times you won’t need to ask because the instructor will volunteer the information about resources, but you should expect to be able to get an answer if you ask your instructor.

In part two of this series we'll explore a team approach to student success. We’re looking at what parents can expect to contribute to their student’s success.

*Yep, Emily is my wife and best friend. She's also an experienced musician and was the administrator at our music teaching studio where she worked with about 20 teachers and over 100 students. She dealt with all of the day-to-day operations, including interfacing with parents and students. In short, she knows her stuff.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Do it right!

I have used many basketball metaphors and analogies in writing for this blog, and it's time I share some of the reasons why.

For starters, sports and music have a lot of elements in common. They're both about a long term commitment to mastery of a certain set of skills. And that involves always learning, practicing and being willing to adjust.

Another reason - probably the main one - is my high school basketball coach, the late Steve Hodson. Coach Hodson was a stickler for proper technique. He would absolutely blow a gasket if you shot the ball incorrectly, make or miss. But if your form was good - even if you shot an air ball at a critical time - he'd give you a nod and a clap and encourage you to shoot again.

So, why was the coach such a technique stickler? He believed that sacrificing good technique for any reason, even for a critical basket now, would rob you of future scores.* That always using the proper technique would, over time, garner a player more points and, therefore, more wins.

This is one of my fundamental educational philosophies: If you do it right, every time, you'll get consistent results in terms of sound, execution and musicality.

Of course, there is much more to be said about technique, but that's for more future blog posts. For now, just remember to do it right every time if you want to get consistent, long term results.

Happy drumming, and make the most of it!

*Not to mention the fact that poor technique can increase your risk of injury.

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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