I am always delighted with the highlights of classical musicians from Strings Magazine. From a recent article on the rising fame of violinist, Vilde Frang, I was happy reading about her upbringing, mentors, and education. She, too, loves Ann-Sophie Mutter, as I do, but her intense preparation and devotion to her instrument from an early age made a way for her path to take her too her idol, carving out the way for her to be where she is today–a world-class soloist and recording artist.
I was particularly struck by her description in the article of the sacrifice required to become what she is today. Mutter had clearly spelled this out to Vilde when she auditioned for and received a scholarship to Mutter’s foundation. “She told me that there’s such big competition out there and if you really want to make a living out of your violin playing, you have to move to Germany, you have to study, you have to finish school, you have to spend full time on your performing and practicing.” In my own experience watching other musicians intently, “full-time” goes above and beyond the regular scope of a “9-to-5” job. It is all encompassing–emotionally draining practicing for long hours each day; rehearsals and practices with other musicians, accompanists, orchestras, often late into the night; answering emails and phone calls; recording practices and performances; intensive listening and study of scores and parts. It is far more than just putting in a few hours of thought and practice. These professional musicians are in a realm similar to elite athletes. The flawless execution and moving performances are the result of such intense living. When I listen to their recordings, I am moved even more considering the hours and years of work that goes into such expression that can be so invigorating, calming, refreshing, and emotional to my soul.
I also smiled to read her descriptions of two of her teachers in Germany that were in such contrast to one another, and the good that those opposite interactions did for her playing and progression. A “healthy contrast” as she describes it. One teacher was immensely caring and loving and the other “was like cold showers every lesson. He would not hesitate to tell [her] exactly what he thought…”
I have reflected on my teachers, past and present. Some I looked forward to seeing each week, and others I dreaded. Some were warm and encouraging, and others were more harsh. I needed both types of music education. The key for a teacher to succeed in reaching, pushing and encouraging a student is getting the balance right between a caring atmosphere, and one that has high expectations and demands that enable the student to reach out of their comfort zone and see the possibilities that lay ahead of them. There must be inspiration to make the sacrifice of all the practice, frustration, and diligence worth it.
I look forward to listening to Frang’s recordings. Knowing a bit of her background will certainly make them feel more personal and real as I do. And isn’t this connection in humanity what we all seek and hope for? Commonalities that bind us together, and greatness and talent that gives us hope and appreciation for what is possible. Music truly can make life beautiful.
It’s finally summer holidays and I am so happy to feel an easing in scheduling, teaching and practicing. Don’t get me wrong–my student-load remains the same and often increases, and I practice the same amount, however, I enjoy the sunshine, flexible morning lessons, and having my children home to work and play with.
I love summer lessons because I see my students progress in leaps and bounds, even taking breaks for holidays and camps. There is a refreshing that comes in new material and summer-specific goals that propels this progress. I always emphasize a healthy balance of play and work that seems to invigorate my students, and myself.
I know a few teachers who feel quite the opposite, experiencing student turnover, students who do not practice, and vacations that last several weeks which halts progress and enthusiasm. It can be unsettling and discouraging. Learning to see the positives in the ebb and flow of a private music-teaching studio is key. Leaner times call for honing skill, technique, and planning future solo recitals. It is also a great time to connect with other teachers and learn from each other.
Major life events can upset a smooth schedule, as well. For example, I already know that I will be moving across the country or overseas, again, next summer. I know that my private teaching will be put on hold for at least a month, but I look forward to this time in my personal practice and study of teaching. I evaluate what has worked well in my teaching studio in the past, and plan a few alterations, new books or methods to try.
For students–Plan to practice consistently through the summer! Plan to be experimental, trying new ways of practicing, and picking music outside of your comfort zone that may be fun and challenging in a new way. Set a summer-specific goal to accomplish to keep your focus clear and effective.
For parents–Encourage your child through your example. Is there a new skill you have been wanting to learn? Share that with your child and tell them that you plan to practice that skill when they are practicing their instrument. Share your progress and check in often. Encourage consistency and work around your vacations and outings with a positive attitude. Practicing should never feel like a punishment. It should feel like an accomplishment! My own children know not to ask for friends to come over or other special privileges until they have practiced (right now it’s piano and drums for my two oldest).
I would love to hear what works for you! How do you encourage summer practicing?
Here are a few other articles on summer music tips:
I am asked all the time what age is best to begin music lessons. Parents want the best possible start for their child, and knowing the best time to begin is an important part of ensuring commitment, growth, and success in learning any instrument. My education and experience is in teaching the violin and piano.
To respond to the enquiring parent, I always ask them to tell me a little about their child who is interested in beginning the violin or the piano. Do they love music? Have they been to a performance or concert that really moved them? I also ask the parent a bit about themselves and their desire to have their child begin lessons. Are they willing to encourage their child’s efforts and commit to practicing consistently? What is their goal for their child in taking private music lessons? Knowing these initial expectations helps me as a teacher to give the best recommendation for a child to start private lessons.
The best age? My flat answer is 6-8 years old. During these years a child has learned to read, and their fine motor skills have become more refined. Their attention span is long enough to stay engaged with a great teacher for a 30-minute lesson. They are able to practice mostly on their own, following directions from their teacher. They feel a great sense of achievement and pride in their work as they see their skills rapidly increase from the start. The whole lesson experience starts off on a much more positive and progressive note than beginning at younger ages.
I have taught many, many children that are younger than my recommended age to begin, the youngest ones being age 3. In this situation, it is imperative that the parent understands the rate of progress of the student will be different, and the commitment and involvement of the parent is somewhat greater. Lessons for younger students take on a different format to utilize a shorter attention span and maximize their enjoyment of the instrument and the time together. This is to ensure that their love of the instrument will grow as they spend time with their teacher and the parent in practicing together. I involve the parent in the lesson as much as possible, enlisting them to take notes, teaching them alongside their child so that quality practicing can happen at home together. Some of the best musicians and performers were introduced to their instruments at very young ages. Knowing this can help parents to be patient with a slower rate of progression in skill and capacity with their young child.
Each child is different and I love teaching all ages. Parental involvement and support is important at any age. While I recommend parents wait to pay for formal private lessons until their child is age 6-8, I also feel it is important to say that any age beyond that is a great time to start. I know musicians who developed a love for their instrument during Junior High or High School, or much, much later in life. Sadly, it is all too common for these later ages to have difficulty finding great teachers who are willing to teach any age. Some teachers only know how to teach children, or do not see the point to teaching older students.
I feel strongly that music is a source of great joy and deepens our life experience. Music is for all ages, stages, capacities, and abilities. Many of my favorite students are adults. What courage and dedication it takes to begin a musical instrument later in life! I have so much joy in seeing them perform and reach goals that they thought were impossible when we began lessons together.
The best way to ensure success in beginning private music lessons is to find a great teacher. Find one that gets you, one that you feel a connection with, one that is as committed to your goals as you are. You can read my previous blog post on how to find a great teacher here.
Here are some great resources on the best age to begin music lessons:
This one is personal. As a child, youth, and young adult I don’t recall feeling overly nervous to perform. There was a healthy amount of anticipation, butterflies in my stomach, cold fingers, even self doubt, but nothing debilitating. I was often excited about dressing up for a performance and excited to share something I thought was pretty cool about myself. Memorization seemed to come easily and was uninhibited by any nervousness or performance jitters. I felt somewhat invincible, truthfully.
As I applied and auditioned for acceptance into my Master of Music program, I’ll admit I was still a bit heady having put together my resumé of a brief lifetime of experience and qualifications. That audition marked an abrupt change in how I dealt with and managed stage fright. There were no horrific memory slips or mistakes, just a quiet realization that I was a fish out of water–a fish that thought they had been in water all along, until that point. You see, I had purposely taken a twelve year break from active study and performance of the violin to pursue other worthy goals and passions. My Bachelor of Science Degree was in Business, with a Minor in International Business. I also had earned an International Studies Certificate after a semester of intensive study in the Middle East. A distant world away from and degree in music. I had continued to play and love to teach and perform during that time, but bad habits had taken hold, my skill had plateaued and even declined. I tried to focus on the fact that I had been accepted to my masters program and that there was a place for me to grow and progress there.
Facing the rigors of a Master of Music in violin performance forced my eyes wide open to the very real possibility of failure and a lack of control. My previously manageable performance jitters became overwhelming, even crippling. Playing for the professors and faculty was petrifying. I felt disdain from the women professors who seemed to scoff at the thought of a mother with the audacity to return to the music world and earn a graduate degree. Not all of them were this way, but the sentiment wasn’t veiled in anyway. Interestingly, playing to a concert hall full of music lovers was somehow less frightening than playing intimately for a small group of close friends and those who knew me best. I shared my deepest fears of performing and failing with my husband and a few select friends and supporters, who always encouraged me to continue anyway.
At a lesson before a solo recital my first year, I confided in my teacher that I was having trouble managing my fears of performing. I shared what a frustration it was to know the amount of work and effort I had put in, and knowing I was fully capable of incredible performances as I had rehearsed over and over again in an empty hall and in the dressing rooms off stage some afternoons. Those solo performances with no audience but empty chairs were soul performances. The kind where my heart would connect to my violin, tears would well up in my eyes as the music overwhelmed my senses. I lamented to my that I didn’t know what would come out of my violin when it was time for the performance that mattered to faculty and other students, and that my nervousness was preventing any heart from being a part of the performance.
He knew me well by then. He knew my dilemma, and had observed this stumbling block. He shrugged his shoulders and suggested beta blockers.
Beta blockers? I was unfamiliar.
The use of beta blockers among musicians has become quite common since the 1970s. The effect can lower blood pressure, hence, leading to a greater calm in performing and auditioning. According to arts medicine specialist Dr. Alice Brandfonbrenner, “Beta-blocking drugs, primarily propranolol, have proved to be safe and effective for many musicians as one means of temporarily controlling the negative physiological symptoms of performance anxiety.” Negative symptoms are anything that inhibits your best performance. A racing heart that becomes a distraction, hyperventilating or not breathing at all, cold/sweaty/hot hands, shakiness, scattered and distracted thoughts, crying, vomiting–there is a huge range of what is experienced. For a musician, the purpose of using beta blockers is to calm these negative symptoms of stage fright. There are also positive symptoms of stage fright that you don’t want to lose. A healthy amount of nervousness can lend to greater passion and energy in a performance. A quickened heart rate can give one greater intensity and purpose in sound. One can learn how to harness this energy to better communicate through performance and feel authentic on stage. Positive nervousness can keep one on their toes, at attention to the music they are sharing. Because beta blockers aren’t selective in their side effects, it’s difficult to know what positives a musician may dull in taking them.
Because I already had extremely low blood pressure at this junction, beta blockers were not an option for me. I had to actively search for other methods to help me turn my stage fright into an asset to my performances. I wanted to harness the positive symptoms of stage fright and subdue and control the negatives I experienced.
Knowing my struggle, a dear friend and avid golfer gave me a book that she said helped her golf game. This book was written to the musician, The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey. It’s tagline promised to “overcome obstacles, improve concentration and reduce nervousness to reach a new level of musical performance.” It really was just what I needed. It helped me to identify my specific weaknesses and thought processes that were fueling the fire of my stage fright. I learned to control my thoughts in a different way while performing that increased my connection to the music I was sharing. I learned to breathe while performing. (My breathing would slow to almost nothing and had previously been an unconscious response that limited my muscle movement as the decrease in oxygen settled in).
I wasn’t fixed overnight, however, the benefits and changes to my ability to perform began to improve. I find much greater joy in performing now. I do not worry about nerves, only to the extent that I want to ignite them to give greater connection to my audience and the works of music I perform. I teach the techniques I have learned in my lessons with my students every day. It was powerful for me and I know it is a benefit to them.
I will share specifics in future posts, actionable items that my students and parents can use to understand their own stage fright responses and how to work with them in powerful ways. For now, I share this resource that was such timely help for my own journey in performance. No beta blockers required.
Here are a few interesting reads on the use of beta blockers:
Paganini’s influence on composers and performers was remarkable and decisive. Upon hearing Paganini perform in Vienna, Joseph Bohm was convinced that Paganini was the greatest virtuoso that had ever lived. Bohm’s experience convinced him not to seek greater achievement, but to retire from performing all together. This was not the decisive effect that Paganini had on all that heard him, however.
In Paris in 1831, the young pianist Franz Liszt, went to one of Paganini’s performances. Liszt, who had a natural tendency to be showy, was spurred on to new heights upon hearing Paganini. He was thunderstruck, and immediately sought to transfer Paganini’s effects to the piano. Not only did he model himself on the manner in which Paganini performed, his long blond hair and dramatic facial expressions imitating the black hair and fiery passion of Paganini, but Liszt was also profoundly influenced by the possibilities of composition for his own instrument. Liszt followed Paganini by composing his own fantasies or variations on popular opera pieces or orchestral works, making them more showy and elaborate. He was one of the first of several composers influenced by Paganini to compose his own version of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, known as Grandes Etudes de Paganini, as well as Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après des Caprices de Paganini (see fig.2). He made them so monumentally difficult that he was the only one who could perform them at the time, and very few pianist can conquer them today. Liszt, so inspired by Paganini’s virtuosity, did for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin.
The Romantic era had turned into a time that demanded limit-pushing virtuosity in all the musical arts. Liszt was not alone in following in Paganini’s footsteps. Henri Herz, a very popular pianist with a lighter technique than the heroic Liszt, pleased audiences for several decades on the principles of outstanding virtuosity that Paganini had conditioned the public to expect of performers.
The expectation of virtuosic achievement extended beyond violin and piano. The bel canto style of singing, which had been emphasized by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, shifted to a more dramatic technique to match the virtuosic feats that were being accomplished on other instruments. Harold Schonberg commented that “such great singers as Giovanni Rubini, Luigi Lablache, Maria Malibran, Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient, Pauline Viadot-Garcia, Gilbert-Louis Cuprez and Enrico Tamberlik were as popular as the pianists and violinists.” Beginning with Paganini, these great performers had an immense influence on composers of the nineteenth century. Prior to this revolution, the great composers had all been gifted performers as well. There now seemed to be a new age of great performers who only performed the works of others. Examples of such a pure virtuosos are Hans von Bulow and Karl Tausig.
Many composers used Paganini and his compositions as direct inspiration for their own works. In addition to Liszt’s Grandes Etudes de Paganini and Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après des Caprices de Paganini, there are Chopin’s Etudes, Schumann’s Studien nach Carpicen von Paganini, Op. 3, and Etudes symphoniques. Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and others later used the famous 24th Caprice as a theme for extended piano works. Chopin, in particular, was greatly influenced by Paganini and sought to extend the “frontiers of keyboard technique.” Focusing on Paganini’s roots, Chopin composed Souvenir de Paganini for solo piano, based on a folk song from Venice, Italy.
Despite his heroic status and the sweeping changes he brought to performers and composers alike, Paganini’s final years were not spent in happiness and luxury. After a failed business attempt in the casino industry, his deteriorating health required his retirement to Italy in 1834. He died of cancer of the larynx just six years later, leaving his estate to his only son, Achille, whom he loved. Believing the rumors that he was in league with the Devil and a heretic, the Catholic church denied his burial near a church. In 1845 his remains were moved from the French Riviera to a private plot in Parma. They were then reburied in 1876 in a Parma cemetery. Paganini left his famous violin, the “Cannon”, to the city of Genoa where it is on display to this day.
Niccolò Paganini’s broad impact on the Romantic era through performers and composers alike stands in stark contrast to the humble circumstances in which he was born. In today’s terms, he was assuredly a child prodigy who found his voice through the violin at a young age. His unsurpassed abilities in expanding the realm of what was possible on the violin changed the ambitions of other instrumentalists and composers who witnessed his performances, and continues to inspire and challenge musicians today. Despite there being no possible recordings of this great artist, exploring the possibilities for any instrument will ultimately lead back to his uncanny skill and bravura.
From 1810 on, Paganini worked as a free agent of sorts, travelling across Europe and gaining superstar status among concert-goers and the general public alike. After a debut concert at La Scala, Milan, a music critic recorded:
He is without question the foremost and greatest violinist in the world.
His playing is truly inconceivable. He performs certain passage-work,
leaps, and double stops that have never been heard from any violinist.”
As he travelled, always performing, his gaunt figure ignited suspicions as to the source of his abilities. Even his family name seemed to point people to the “Pagan” roots of his fame. He became quite ill with what was likely syphilis, and began taking large and regular doses of mercury and opium to manage the symptoms. The side-effects of such a treatment were deterioration of eyesight and tremors. Despite this deterioration, he continued to wow audiences with his effects and performances. It was during this time of failing health that he finally travelled outside of Italy and began to have an impact on more than his local public.
In 1828, he accepted a long-standing invitation by an Austrian chancellor, Count Metternich, to come to Vienna. His impact on the city is difficult to truly measure. Rumors of his talent had circulated outside of Italy for nearly twenty years which meant that his concerts were filled to capacity at once. The price for a ticket was five times the going rate, and the sum was quickly dubbed a “Paganiner”.
Looking gaunt and pallid for his first concert held in the Imperial Ballroom, he performed his Violin Concerto in B Minor. Faber writes:
Its opening movement makes huge demands on both instrument and player,
alternating passages of intense lyricism with bravura displays of the
virtuoso’s art: flying staccato,amazingly rapid double stopping, trills in runs
or maintained on one string while another carries the tune. Paganini…added
a level of technical difficulty that only a violinist with perfect intonation and
bowing control, and apparently superhuman dexterity, could achieve.”
Franz Schubert, who was a regular at Paganini’s Vienna concerts, said of the second movement of the concerto that it was as though he heard an angel sing. The third movement has become a main exhibition piece for violinists even today, and was received with great enthusiasm. This level of virtuosity had never been seen before.
His second Vienna concert, just two weeks later, was attended by all of the Imperial Family that were in Vienna. The hall was filled three hours prior to the concert and many thousands had to be turned away. For the next three months, he performed constantly. His marketing power was utilized by manufacturers of snuff, ties, pipes, napkins, billiard cues and powder boxes. With his international fame established, he continued to tour throughout Europe with much acclaim. He performed in Berlin, Warsaw, London, and Paris, astonishing audiences everywhere.
Part 4 will speak to the effect Paganini had on musicians and composers.
I have been practicing consistently for nearly 30 years now. Three decades! But seven years ago, my practicing and teaching changed for the better. My violin teacher at the time was always referring to “organic” practice–a term that seemed fuzzy to me at best. He was urging me to feel a natural connection to the way I approached everything from my bow hold, left hand position, vibrato, and the music itself. I tried to meditate my way into that ‘fuzzy’ state of being, thinking if I willed it to be so it would just naturally happen. But it didn’t. At least not for me. I knew there was something more I needed to learn to get into that organic connection with my instrument and the music.
I happened upon an article, now lost in the information overload of the internet, that talked about the scientific studies behind practice, how the brain processes my efforts and makes connections to form new capacities and abilities, and the importance of addressing mistakes quickly so that they don’t become permanent problems. It profoundly affected how I thought through my own practicing, and how I began to teach my students to practice.
From that point, I began to talk to my students about what I called “Smart Practicing”. Now, I realize I am not the first or only person to identify purposeful practicing this way, it’s just the easy identifier I bring up with my students each lesson. “Tell me about your practicing this week,” I will ask. “What Smart practicing tools did you apply? How did you apply them?” Each student will have different approaches and methods that work best, but the essence of it is to step back from mindless repetition and filling up a set amount of time. We talk about setting specific goals with each practicing session, making an effort to hone in on something small and approaching it from various angles.
For example, let’s say a student is struggling with a transition from one chord to the next. We step back to identify the voices that want to shine through in the music and the specific movement(s) that those particular voices require. Perhaps we will place all the fingers and continue using the bow for the whole chord, but only sound the voices that we have identified. We might roll the chords as a different way to engage the bow, pushing our mind to focus on something new in how we practice. We look at where the fingers were before and where they are going next. We talk about dynamics and how much bow to use, experimenting with several different options to identify what feels right and sounds best. We may set down the instrument and take a few moments listening to different recordings of the spot we are focused on. We may watch different performers and how they approach the section. In all of these steps, it is important to observe, notate, and write. My student’s immediate worry is that they won’t have the time to play through it ten plus times as they normally would. And then I reassure them, the brain will accomplish more with this deliberate, intentional, purposeful approach. I tell them to trust the process. Trust their consistency. They will feel a difference in their playing. I also find with myself and my students that when practicing is intentional in this way, all of the music is benefitted. I will not have time to scrutinize every note and section and transition, but working on difficult passages, or focusing on phrasing a lyrical part then translates to improving all of the music. My ability and capacity are increased overall. This broad benefit is what excites me the most in Smart Practicing.
Another critical aspect of Smart Practicing that I feel strongly about is that it can be detrimental to focus to narrowly, or singularly, on one skill for too long. I loved this study by the University of Southern California:
Variable practice improves the brain’s memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task.
The student, upon identifying a passage or transition that they want to work on, should set a timer anywhere from five to ten to fifteen minutes and only focus on that singular aspect for a set amount of time. This can be difficult in that the student often feels if they just spend more time working on a difficulty that it will surely improve. There is a point of failure, however, where continued practice, stress and worry over a part can cause it to unravel and break down further, causing more mistakes and frustration. Once the timer goes off when they have done their Smart Practicing on a particular item, I tell them to move onto something else. Perhaps in a different piece, a different skill altogether. It allows the brain to rest, rebuild, and process the work that has just happened. The student can move onto another passage that they want to work on just as purposefully. The brain will engage and continue to work, but having a step away from the previous intensity will make a difference.
From the study mentioned above, senior study author Carolee Winstein said,
We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity.”
Some of my students like to have steps written down and so we identify those together in their lesson journals, as they apply to their individual pieces. They then have a guide to practice practicing during the week. When they truly make efforts to be so engaged, I can tell immediately in their playing at their lessons. It doesn’t mean that they come back to lessons with performance-ready pieces and exercises, but it does mean that I see greater strides of improvement over mindless practicing and repetition.
Cindy Ann Broz created an acronym for her students to use with S.M.A.R.T. practicing. She writes:
Survey the piece by playing it through from beginning to end 1-2 times. Be sure to take note of the difficult sections.
Mark (in pencil) the sections of the piece that are most difficult for you to play. Use brackets or parenthesis. If you miss a certain note consistently, mark this note with a circle. Mark in key signature or accidentals if you miss them more than once. This is especially important in keys that have more than 3 sharps or flats. If the piece has a double sharp or double flat, circle this note along with the preceding and following notes.
Focus practice Attention on the difficult/marked sections. Practice circled notes by playing the note in context with the several preceding and several following notes. Practice double sharps and double flats by playing the circled notes first, then playing them in context with the preceding and following measures. Practice bracketed sections slowly, and then gradually increase to the appropriate or designated tempo.
Replay the entire piece or study with a special focus on playing into and out of the difficult passages. Polish easily executed sections.
Tie Together all elements of the piece. Practice dynamics, tonal elements, and tempi. Polish entire piece.”
I have used this acronym with some of my students as it helps them remember basic steps to be more engaged in their practicing. There are many articles about practicing across all skill and interests. I find that they can all be applied to practicing music.
Some other articles on practicing strategies that I have learned from and use that may be of interest:
natesviolin.com “Tired of Losing Practice Battles?”
lifehacker.com “The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill?”
time.com “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect'”