By Daisy Yau in conversation with Natalia PressmanMusic runs across all cultures through all times. Most would agree that music learning is a good thing. However, many struggle with the commitment that music learning implies – how much does a child need to practice, does my child have what it takes to pass the music exams, am I musically literate enough to help my child?
I had the pleasure to explore what music learning means with Ms. Natalia, the founder and music director of the piano studio Pianissimo in San Mateo. To answer the above questions, one must go back to understand what music learning means.
Q: How has music learning changed over the years?
If we go back in history and look at the great composers like Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, we see that they learn music as a language. First they listened. They listen a lot. Then they start imitating. They copy what their teachers play. Finally, they start creating their own music. They compose. Through this process, they gain an understanding of the sounds, the harmony, the phrasing. And they form an emotional connection with the music. Musical literacy as reading and writing came later in life. Note-by-note reading and writing of music was deferred. Most critical in music was self-expression. In fact, Bach and Mozart would have been offended by people attempting to repeat their pieces down to every detail.
But through the past 50 years, people increasingly considered reproduction of a musical piece as the ultimate goal. With the development of technology for printing and recording, perfect reproduction of musical pieces became even more important. It was thought that such reproduction was “respectful” to the composer. Hence, all the creative aspects of interpretation, improvisation, composition, arranging–were taken out of the musical curriculum.
Thankfully, there are new trends today to revive the emphasis on musical connection in music learning.
Q: What is musical connection?
I was classically trained. I graduated in Music Performance and Education from the prestigious Conservatory of Buenos Aires, Argentina and continued my career in Europe. I played around the world. But … I couldn't play a note if I hadn’t practiced or planned for it. It’s the same for many graduates from conservatories and universities. They are trained to read a score and reproduce it, or interpret it at best. But if you ask, “Can you play happy birthday?” they freeze. There is a huge disconnection..
Musical connection is an appreciation of music as a way of expressing oneself. Indeed musical connection is ingrained through the human experience. Music starts with lullabies and plays at our funeral. There is music at our birthdays, weddings, and every ceremony that has emotional significance to us. It is such musical connections that should be the focus of music learning.
Q: Is practice needed? How can practice be implemented with a goal towards musical connection?
When students are constantly directed as to what is wrong or right, they don't develop self-awareness. Students need to hear themselves first. That takes a lot of mindfulness.
When students do develop self-awareness, they will listen and realize that they are making (at least some) mistakes. Students might face frustration at first, but will learn to problem solve, persevere and value their work. That takes a lot of emotional regulation and skills.
When students do overcome frustration, find solutions and strategies and continue to practice, they will experience the resultד that comes from sustained work. From that, they develop grit, perseverance, confidence and self esteem.
If piano lessons are a sanctuary to obtain the tools for relating to music in a positive and constructive way, then practice should be an application of those tools for relating to music in a positive and constructive way.
Trust the intrinsic joyful experience of music. Music releases dopamine. It calms us, and at the same time activates us. It helps to focus and concentrate at a very deep level. If music is presented as a joyful experience during lessons, kids will want to replicate it at home during practice.
So, what are practical steps for encouraging practice? Provide your child the space for the possibility to replicate a joyful experience with music.
This “space” includes time and place. Kids need structure. They can’t be expected to excel at time management yet. Provide the physical space that creates the possibility of focusing and connecting with music–that means, no TV blasting in the background, no parent talking loudly in a meeting, and no toddler running under the piano. Provide the time–that means, not holding a child up to the expectation of practicing after swimming, horseback riding, and studying a foreign language.
This “space” also includes a mental space. Ask them questions that trigger self-awareness and intrinsic motivation, such as:
- Do you like the song?
- What do you want to work on?
- What do you want to accomplish?
- What challenges are you facing?
- How are you going to overcome them?
- Do you notice any differences between the first time and the second time that you played?
A delicate nuance in providing practice space is whether a parent should participate. To be clear, parent participation does not require music training. A parent can play a duet with a child, but a parent can also simply improvise over some keys while the child plays, or the parent can clap, dance, and sing. Sometimes parent participation creates a great environment for a child to practice. At other times, a child may want a private practice space. Either is OK.
Now there will be days in which providing a good practice space is not possible. That’s OK, because the goal is not to repeat a song a certain number of times. If the goal is musical connection, there are many ways to achieve it. Play an audio or video of the musical piece that the child is learning–even while riding in the car. Maybe point to the score while listening. Ask the same questions that you would ask during practice to trigger the same type of self-awareness.
How NOT to do practice: Making practice an assignment or a chore. That would replicate school. Children are used to it. Most students will be OK with assignments; a few will resist. But either way, they will not see music as a skill for their own growth and enjoyment. Yes, they may master a piece. But it's a missed opportunity for musical connection. Don’t expect the child to practice for a certain time at every session. Help them find what their goals are for that week and think how they will get better, that way they will be engaged in the practice for as long as their focus allows them and make progress every time they practice. Let them explore as well, and play their favorite pieces for fun.
Q: How should a child prepare for a performance?
A performance is the sharing of music that you enjoy. We all naturally want to share something that we enjoy. There should be no pressure, no judgment. Just a celebration of accomplishments.
Of course that does not mean the child will not be nervous. Acknowledge that performing is challenging. Prior to the performance, run through the feelings with the child. And run through ways to calm oneself in face of such feelings. Ask the child, “What’s the worst case scenario?” Even if the child runs off stage, forgetting all her music, what will happen? Nothing. The child will still be just fine.
As we prepare for a presentation of any kind, they can also practice how they will perform. Those rehearsals should be done during the lessons and also at home. Let them practice if they’ll announce their piece, or if they’ll bow, or how they’ll adjust their seat. Help them take a deep breath and listen to the music in their mind before they start. Having tools to cope with their fears and anxiety will help them in many situations in life, on stage and beyond.
Q: What does musical connection look like in real life?
I once had a student who had to stop piano lessons due to the demands of her ballet practice. She was 8 years old at the time. Later on, she had trouble with bullying in high school. Her mom told me that she was still playing the piano for pleasure, and asked if she could resume lessons with me. It’s been 8 years since her last lesson! Of course, I said yes. I introduced her to improvisation, and types of music that reflect her feelings. While searching for music she connects with, she shared with me many feelings and self-reflections that she became aware of through the music. For her, music became a kind of therapy. Music can be very healing.
As for myself, my music learning was built upon musical connection from the very beginning. I could not have learned note reading as I was born blind. I am grateful for that musical connection, and the multiple surgeries that have now enabled my vision.
As a professional pianist and teacher, I had felt that music education was not fostering the joy of music. Many aspects of the musical experience were missing in the lessons. That’s why, after many years of research and experience, I feel compelled to share the joy of music and plant the seed for these connections to grow.
Natalia Pressman is a pianist and music educator with a vast international career. She founded Pianissimo to share the joy of music through psychological science, innovative pedagogy, and cutting edge technology. Her vision is to help her students form a lifetime connection with music.
Daisy Yau is an SPMC Board Member, an attorney, and the children ministry director at New Life Community Church, Burlingame.