Thursday, 9 October 2014

Conservatory or not. And which one!

Let's start by assuming that you, or your child, are already taking music lessons.  Practices are happening, but of course, never as often as they should!  You think it's time to add to your library of music books.

You head to your music supply store to find that there is a plethora of publications available to you. From the Conservatory of Canada, the Royal Conservatory and sometimes even ABRSM publications.  You are overwhelmed with choices.  There are methods created by the publishing companies as well to consider, some better than others.  If you are lucky, the store will have a professional on staff to help guide you in your choices.

At my school, I love to chat with students to discover where their interests lie.  This ensures that I am steering them in the right direction in their book purchases.

After discussions with your teacher, you should be able to decide whether or not you would like to follow a conservatory's curriculum.  There are as many arguments for as there are against following a conservatory.  I will quickly argue both sides to give you a better picture of your options.


You want to learn to play for your own pleasure, no pressure.

You don't want to learn scales or classical stuff.

You want to be able to play by ear, figure out songs that are current.

You don't want the stress of following a prescribed set of rules or goals and you don't wan't to do examinations.


You want to learn to play for your own pleasure, no pressure.  (yup, that one stays!)

You don't like scales but don't mind them too much.  You like all kinds of music.

You want to be able to play by ear, figure out songs that are current.

You like setting goals, having a set plan.

As you can see, the differences are slight but important.  I believe that choosing to follow, or not follow a conservatory curriculum comes down to your style of learning.  Some people like books and plans while others prefer a freer approach.

I think you can learn successfully either way, as long as you keep your musical goals in mind.

Now, let's assume you are choosing to follow a conservatory curriculum.  Which one to follow!

I'll argue the pros and cons of two very different ones available in my area.

First, the Conservatory of Canada and the Royal Conservatory have a few differences, but at the core, they are similar enough that I will discuss the Royal Conservatory since it is the one I am most familiar with.  For the second conservatory I will discuss l'École de musique Vincent-d'Indy.  I am the only affiliated teacher outside of Québec ( to my knowledge ) that teaches this curriculum but I believe it shows such a different approach that it makes it a valuable method for comparison.

Without going into too much detail, here are a few similarities between the two systems.

RCM (Royal Conservatory) and V-D (Vincent-d'Indy) both have large resources and facilities.  Both offer advanced training at their headquarters - one in Toronto and the other in Montréal.

Both offer examinations and at higher levels, these can earn students extra high school credits where they are accepted.

Both can direct you to teachers that follow their system.

Both encourage musical growth through a set of prescribed markers that allow the student to grow at a reasonable pace.

Now for a quick view of some differences between the systems.

RCM is very friendly for all students.  Anyone who practices an adequate amount can enjoy successes with this system.  The requirements for passing exams are not overwhelming and the repertoire is friendly.  This conservatory also offers a super easy way to purchase the required books. For every grade level, they offer publications through Frederick Harris Music Co. that include technical requirements (scales...), sight-reading and rhythms..., as well as repertoire and studies.  So four book and you are set for your year.

RCM offers an accessible way to achieve your grade levels in music and there are many teachers in most Canadian areas that teach through this system.  One obstacle is that it does not offer many French publications, although you can do your theory exams in both official languages.

V-D is a very academic system.  Although this conservatory also offers graded examinations, to achieve success here, you need to give more of your time to your music.  This curriculum takes the students through a more comprehensive course.  It includes from the very beginning: music history, solfège (sight-singing), dictée (writing down the music you here),  theory and an aggressive amount of technique (finger work).  Although some of these are also available with RCM, they begin much earlier with V-D.  They offer lots of their own publications as well as other choices to make life simpler.  There is a financial drawback to this system in that it is harder to find all your repertoire in one book.  On top of that, you need to get the different books to help you satisfy all the requirements. This being said, they offer a much larger choice of repertoire and students who put in the time progress to higher levels of musicianship faster.

V-D will only recognize a teacher that has supplied them with their credentials, which include a university degree in music.  A teacher cannot send their students for V-D exams unless they are officially affiliated with Vincent-d'Indy.

So, when choosing a course of action for your music education, do your research.  Sometimes the simplest way is the best way, and other times, a little research can secure you the experience you need.  Also, there are many different conservatories to choose from.  I only tackled two here to give you an idea of the different avenues you can takes.

A few words of advice.  If you are shopping for a music conservatory for yourself, or for your child, remember this:  no one has ever complained of learning too much.  And finally, find a teacher that will not underestimate the student's capacity for learning.

Enjoy the journey!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Length of Lessons

How long should lessons last?

Parents will go either way on this question.  Some believing that to get anywhere, kids should start with long lessons (like an hour), regardless of the age of the child.  Others believe that 30 minutes is plenty, again regardless of age and even level of playing.

I will generalize my answer since of course, each child is different, but even keeping those differences in mind, the following rule of thumb still stands.

The 30 minute lesson.

Regardless of age, private lessons should begin at 30 minutes.  It is easy enough to increase the time should the teacher deem it necessary.  A three year old will get to spend time on the instrument, mastering basic techniques and will also get to spend time playing fun games that will teach basic theory.  The 30 minutes will also allow the child to build a relationship with the teacher.  This is vital for a young child.  Wanting to spend time with his or her teacher can actually be THE most important motivator at the start of music lessons.  The love of music usually comes a little later.

For the older child, 30 minutes is about the time they should practice each day and so the teacher will have just enough time to run through the material being studied.

The 45 minute lesson.

There comes a time when the teacher simply cannot review and work on everything that the child is practicing during the 30 minute lesson.  When you start seeing comments like 'work on everything else' or 'will look at pieces next week', you know it's time to increase lesson times.

At the very beginning of learning music, children should practice between 10 to 20 minutes a day.  This should increase within a few months at the very most.  Once they have more material to work on, the natural progression is for longer practice times.  Longer practice times means longer lessons.

The 60 minute lesson.

Your child is now proficient on his or her chosen instrument.  He or she has been playing for a few years and is serious about practicing and progressing.  Examinations are usually being taken by this time.

Two lessons a week.

There may come a time when the teacher asks for the student to take 2 lessons a week.  A serious music school will provide opportunities for the second lesson to be taken in a group setting.   The first lesson remains private, with the main teacher.  This second lesson can be invaluable to work on technique, theory and ensemble work.  A different teacher can easily take over this lesson.

By taking these two lessons per week, the student has more time to work on repertoire with his or her main teacher.

Basic Guidelines to follow

Lessons should be long enough for the student to go through most of his work, whether pieces, technique or theory.  Of course, during festival or exam time, priority will be given to specific material. During these times, the student will have to learn to practice the peripheral work more autonomously. There may not be enough time during lessons to go through everything.  But at regular times during the year, everything should be looked at or at least mentioned.  If week after week the teacher runs out of time, consider adding to the lesson.

If, on the other hand, your child feels that the lessons drag on, two factors may be quickly considered. One, the teacher doesn't know how to manage the allotted time, or the student is not practicing enough and progress is slow.  This means that the teacher constantly reviews the same material and never adds anything new. This makes for a very long lesson for all involved.

Hopefully, I have given you enough food for thought to help you navigate this issue.  Please post any questions you may have.  I'll be happy to answer any concerns.

Play on!

Monday, 7 April 2014

What to practice

Is that what your teacher wants you to practice?

I never heard you play that before?

Stop fooling around and get to work!

Ever heard those statements?

I have had so many discussions with parents about what their kids SHOULD be practicing that I think this is definitely worth a few words.

Firstly, I am a firm believer that ANY time spent on their instrument is good, regardless of what the kids are doing.

Secondly, I would hope that they ALSO spend conscientious learning time.

In a perfect situation, the child reads her teacher's comments for the week and runs through everything assigned daily.  That's in a perfect world.  If your child actually does this, you and her teacher must be congratulated on a job well done!

Encouraging your child to follow the teacher's guidelines will go a long way in setting up good work habits.  Obviously if your child is too young to read autonomously you need to read the notes for her. Think of this as an investment in her learning skills.  This time you give her will pay off!

What to practice is relatively easy when you are sitting with your child.  It becomes more of a challenge when the child practices alone.  It takes time for the skills of good practising to develop.  If you are not allowed to sit with your child (some kids hate having a parent oversee their practices), you can still check their work by "happening to walk by"!

Rarely does a child innately know what the correct sequence of work should be.

So, a good basic daily practice schedule could look like this:

1.    A few minutes (10 to 20) of warm-up exercises.
These should be easy, stress free (as in, no physical tension) exercises.  They can become progressively quicker and more demanding as the fingers and body warm-up.

2.    An easy piece to complete the warm-up.
A piece that needs to be up kept for a recital or just a favourite piece are good candidates.

3.    Technique and scales can now be done.
Use of the metronome can make these even more valuable.  Proper technique is better than speed!

4.    Pieces/Repertoire
Practice pieces, going over difficult passages before actually playing through.  If a child constantly just plays through a piece (which most kids do), they reinforce weaknesses and never actually finish pieces correctly.

5.   Ending
This is a good time to do sight-reading, solfege or any other work that is not just playing.  If your child needs a break in her practice, she can insert these anytime.

6.   Fun stuff
If all went well and the student would still like to play, well, let her!  Composing, playing favourite pieces, or just banging around is a great way to reward herself for the good work she did.

If you are battling with a child that simply doesn't want to practice in such an organized way, be creative.  Mix it up.  Some parents find that doing one day of pieces and one day of technique seems to work best.  Others believe that practicing every other day sits well with their child.  If your bidding musician is not goal oriented and taking lessons for pleasure only, then this can be more encouraging.

On the other hand, if your child wants to participate in festivals, competitions and examinations, a more structured practice schedule is in order.

Just remember that in the long run, most kids will not turn to music as a career choice.  What IS important is to give each child time with an instrument so that they may have the opportunity to be creative and find the magic in music.  Playing and listening to music can be a meditative tool for a life time.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Cost versus quality of Music Lessons

Without getting into a great philosophical debate about what should and should not be included in the education your child is receiving through the educational system, let me state clearly that music and the arts in general do not take up enough space in the curriculums created by most school boards.

It seems to me that more money is given to schools for computers and gym equipment than art supplies and musical instruments.  I realize we need to keep our children fit and exercise is of the outmost importance, but couldn't we get kids to play outside after school and save everyone loads of money on school equipment?

Physical activity is accessible through community centres, parks and backyards, for free, but we still pay extra taxes to have bigger gyms and more fitness equipment in schools.

Bands in schools need to raise funds to even get instruments to play on.  Parents have to rent instruments at a cost if none are available through the school.  If kids want to play in a competition, fund raisers are put in place and parents fork out more money to cover the costs.  I have been known to write cheques for hundreds of dollars for my child to play in a national competition with her high school band.  Some families just can't afford these activities.

For those who have the budget, music lessons are a great way to get children involved in the arts.  Most schools simply cannot give a child the resources to see him past very basic rudiments on an instrument. The irony is that most kids WILL benefit from playing a musical instrument.

Study after study have proven that kids who play an instrument at school will see better grades, higher self-esteem and lower drop-out rates.  Governments just don't seem to see the correlation between art dollars and students' successes.

So onto the subject at hand, cost of music lessons.  I would like to address the gift you are giving your child before we put a dollar sign on it.

Work ethics
Eye hand coordination skills
Brain development of the highest order
Learning the read another language (music)
A communication device that transcends words
World history (through composers and music eras)
World culture

I will stop there because I will run out of space.  Music is, to me, one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.  That being said, for a proper music education, you will most probably have to pay.  The odds are, your school will not have all the support your child will need.  Of course, by the time your child is a teen, you can choose to send him or her to a specialized high school with a great music program.  Still, you may need to supplement an ambitious child's learning with private lessons.

When you choose your child's teacher, important decisions will have to be made.  Budget is certainly one of them.  Location of lessons (at your home, in a private studio or an academy) and schedules will also be priority.  Funny enough, lots of parents will take into account these aspects but never actually ask about the teacher's credentials.  I see it everyday.  There is an assumption that all teachers are created equal, if not in attitude and personality than certainly in training.  NOT TRUE!

I have had the unfortunate experience of finding out that one of my students (an intermediate level student), was teaching at a neighbourhood music school.  Not only was she teaching, but she was teaching voice, for which she had no training.  She was a pianist!  Having this girl as your child's teacher would be a waste of your money.  Something might be learned, but perhaps not.

You must ask for qualifications.  There are no governing bodies to protect parents from charlatans when it comes to the quality of music lessons.  Anyone can set up shop.  Whether in a private home, or a neighbourhood studio, questions must be asked.

If you are lucky, you will find a teacher that is associated to different groups that require a certain level of training.  In Canada, we have the Teachers Music Association that requires a university degree in music.  You can also check if your potential teacher has sent students to exams through conservatories. Asking for references is also a good idea.  We are talking about someone who will potentially become important to your child so being picky is a good thing.

Depending on your child's goals in music, all of the above will have different degrees of importance when deciding which teacher to go with.  Meeting the teacher is vital.  At out Academy, we match the student to the teacher we feel will be the best fit.  Styles of teaching can vary.

Teachers who can take children to different levels of competition (if that is of interest) will usually have a stronger academic background.  Teachers who incorporate music theory, history and composition will also usually have more experience.  A teacher who offers performance opportunities and encourages goal setting can be motivating.  Being able to prepare students for examinations is also a good sign that your teacher is qualified.

Beware of the teacher who doesn't ask if your child has an instrument to practice on!  Beware of the teacher who doesn't suggest books to purchase.  Beware of the teacher who hands out photocopies and only photocopies.  Beware of the teacher who cancels at the last minute, all the time.  After a few lessons, watch your child's reaction before lesson time.  Are they eager or anxious?  Anxiety because they did not practice doesn't count.  I mean, anxiety about having to spend time with the teacher.  Is your child super charged after the lesson?  Talkative, excited?  Are you made to feel welcomed in the lesson?

So now to the cost o
f music lessons.  I can honestly say, music lessons are not anywhere near the top of the list when it comes to expensive extra-curricular activities.  But as for value for your dollar, it may just be the most cost effective activity out there.

Take for example my family and figure skating.  My youngest skates.  Every time she wants to practice, I have to pay.  I pay for the ice time and the coaching. She skates 5 times a week.  She has a hand full of coaches who all charge by the minute.  When she competes I need to get her a special dress.  I pay the seamstress.  I pay for the coach's time at the competition (travel included). When her feet grow, I need to buy her skates.  Oh, the blades are not included!  Gotta get those too.  She needs special clothes to practice, the ice is cold.  All this can be applied to hockey, gymnastics, dance...

You need to drive your child to each and every session.  We are talking time and gas.  Your child can only fully develop at these activities when they are outside the home.

Now let's compare piano lessons.  You drive your child once a week (perhaps twice if you have a child that is more advanced).  You only pay for the teacher's time.  Not for the space.  That's included.  Your child can go to the lesson in the same outfit they wore at school.  They can practice for free, at home, anytime.  You may choose to buy a new outfit for a recital, but it's not mandatory.

You will need to provide your child with an instrument.  This is a one time cost if you buy a piano.  For violin or guitar, you will need to rent or buy a smaller size instrument and as your child grows, you will change sizes till you get to adult size.  Rentals are an affordable way to go.  For under $20.00 a month you can rent just about any instrument.  You can also trade instruments.

You will need to purchase books.  Think of these as a literary legacy your child will be able to enjoy and pass on to his or her children.

Where I live, music lessons will vary in price from $15.00 to $30.00 for a half-hour.  Master classes can be pricier.  Let's say you get a teacher for $25.00 per half-hour.  At 4 lessons a month, you are talking about $1,000 in lessons for the school year, give or take.  Now let's say your child practices an hour a day, 5 days a week. That's 200 hours a year.  Look at practice time as an investment in the cost of lessons.  So at 200 hours a year of practice, divided by the cost of lessons, the practice time costs $5.00 an hour.  I don't know of many extra-curricular activities that cost you $5.00 per hour.  And this includes the teacher's time!

Don't assume that if you pay more for the lessons, you will have a better teacher.  You must do your research, ask friends, get references.  The quality of the lesson is really all that matters.  Your child must be engaged, motivated and excited about learning.  They must want to practice, at least sometimes!

In our society, music lessons are not particularly expensive.  You may be spending more a week on coffee than on lessons.  The beauty of music though is that the gift lasts forever.  Your child may not ever dance past his or her teen years, but they may very well still pick up the guitar.

So, giving the gift of music lessons to your child is...priceless!  In the right teacher's hands, your child can develop a passion that will last his or her life time.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Parents Role in Practice

So if you have read by previous blogs, you understand that I have a thing about children and music lessons.  I own a music academy and have taught for 20 years.  I employ around 18 teachers and the school services over 300 students.  I know about music lessons and what works and doesn't work for practices.

I have a few (like 100) suggestions that can help ensure good practice habits for children.  So let's start with common questions parents have about their role in practicing.  Let's base our questions and answers on the premise that you want your child to succeed in music learning and develop strong self discipline.

How often should I get Anne to practice?
Paraphrasing Suzuki, you only have to practice on the days you eat.

How long should a practice last?
As long as it takes to get through everything the teacher has set out for the week.  (more on this a little later)

Why do I have to remind Alex to do his practice all the time?  or  Why should I have to remind Alex to practice all the time?  or  It's not my job to remind Alex to practice all the time is it?
You have to remind Alex to practice because he is a child (teen) and is learning self-discipline.  This is not a skill most kids are born with.  It took perseverance on your part to toilet train him, it will take perseverance to learn the habit of practising also.  It IS your job.

How can I help Julianne when I know nothing of music?
First of all, SHE is the one learning music, not you.  The teacher should be able to set up the lesson so as to answer most of Julianne's questions.  You don't need to do any teaching, you need to be present (more on this a little later)

Why is it always a battle to get Matt to practice?
So many reasons for this one.  I need a whole section for this one, so a quick answer is that no child hates music, no adults hates music, so we have to dig a little to find the problem.  (more a this a little later)

How can I help Megan stay on track?
That's one of the best questions.  That's why I saved it for last.  The very best way to keep Megan motivated and on track with her learning is to be interested.  Be present and show pleasure in her accomplishments.  I will expand on this and then go back to answers 2, 4 and 5.

Plenty of parents have tight schedules and all they can do is drop their child off at the door for their lesson.  Hey, if that's what has to happen, well at least you got John to his lesson.  Other parents drop them off then sit in a waiting room reading or socializing.  That's fine too.  But the best case scenario is for the parent to come into the lesson, if at the very least to say hello to the teacher.  This is THE perfection opportunity to sum up any issues or victories that occurred during the week.  Take 20 seconds to say that John had a huge project and it ate into his practice time.  Or that John did extra practice this week and seemed very motivated.  Maybe the teacher knows why and can play off on that in the future.  This is precious time to create a team atmosphere that will help John progress.

If you can stay during the lesson, you show your child that this is a special time that you carve out of your week to see her learning.  You can't do it at school, but you CAN do it in her music lesson.  This in itself can be all she needs to stimulate her love of music and practicing.

And don't forget to praise her on her work, not her talent, or how good she is.  You MUST praise the effort.  There is little value in praising blue eyes for which a child has no control.  So don't praise her ease of learning, or her apparent talent.  Congratulate her work ethics, her determination, her effort.

Only by being present can you be honest in your praise and encouragement and motivate Megan to stay on track.

Now onto length of practice.  When your child first begins lessons, the odds are that 10 to 15 minutes per day will be plenty.  At this point, lessons are jammed with information and little practical stuff.  As the weeks progress and depending on your child, it will take her longer to get through the material handed out by the teacher.  Be wise.  A 3 year old should not be practicing the same amount of time as a 6 year old.  A 3 year old can handle practicing 5 to 10 minutes with a few additional moments for fun and instrument exploration.  A 6 year old can handle 20 minutes within a few weeks and some kids can do 40 minutes a few months later.  This is dependent on material and ease of learning.  If everything is a struggle for your child to master, shorter sessions will go a long way to keep the love of music alive.

A child working on his grade 8 examinations should of course be practicing longer.  I am always surprised by advanced kids who come into the lesson, proud to tell me they practiced 30 minutes everyday!  I expect students at this level to be spending at the very least one hour at their instrument a day.  At the VERY LEAST, on bad days....  For kids who are putting in 2 hours or more a day, it is a good idea to split the time up.  Perhaps some in the morning before school and then again after.

Parents who wonder how they can help their child when they know nothing of music, please read above.  Being present in the lessons will help you better understand teachers' expectations and keep you in the loop.  You get double the value for your buck!  You learn as your child learns.

As for the child who hates to practice?  You need to ask yourself a few questions first.  Did the child ask for lessons.  Did he choose his own instrument or was it imposed on him.  Was the chosen instrument a wise choice.  Is he constantly being criticized for not practicing, not practicing enough, not practicing well....

A child who comes into our studio wanting to take up drums at the age of 6 must be evaluated.  Some kids are actually able to play and count at the age, but they are rare.  Drums can be so much fun at first, but the banging of random rhythms will wear thin quickly.  Same goes for a 7 year old who wants to play guitar.  Again, this is doable, but the odds are the child has a romantic notion that he will be playing like his rock hero in no time.  The reality is that he will be playing one note for a long time and as his hand gets stronger, he may play a chord or two.  It takes time to get to be a rock hero. Meanwhile, strings cut into little fingers and sounds come out weird.

It is wise to start with piano or violin.  These instruments (particularly piano) are easy on little bodies. The piano makes a lovely sound right away!  You also get to learn tons of extra music stuff that other instruments won't teach you right away, like reading in treble and bass clef.

Whatever you do, remember to let your child know that you enjoy hearing him play.  Funny sounds will happen and mistakes too, but try to reserve your comments for the hard work.  And never laugh at the funky noises, unless your child is laughing first:)

We call it playing music because it should, ultimately, be fun.  Hard work has its rewards.

Being present is the best present.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Goal setting for effective practice

Getting kids to practice their music everyday can be challenging.  If your child is asked to run through everything on their list at each practice, tedium can easily set in.

Although much can be said about rote learning, it is not the most creative nor inspiring way to learn. Seeing kindergarteners sitting in a circle and reciting the alphabet in a singsong way can be charming and effective for learning the order of letters.  But reciting the alphabet in this way does not teach a child to read.  It teaches him or her the order in which the letters are placed in the alphabet.  In the scheme of things, knowing that order is not particularly valuable.  I have never been called upon to give the correct placement of the letter L within the alphabet in any job.  So learning by rote is effective for some things but deep learning with understanding is done by different methods.

Therefore, scales should be learned by rote only if the student understands the relationships between tons and semi-tons, the different modes and their usage in music.  It actually makes learning more interesting when you understand the why and how of things.

How does this relate to goal setting in practices?  Well, if the child can find something specific to work on instead of running through the piece by rote, learning will be deeper and the practice more effective. Running through a scale 3 times with the wrong fingering is less effective than running through it once slowly while paying close attention to correct notes and fingering.  Understanding the logic of a specific fingering, the relationship of a particular scale to its relatives, all this information can make for a quicker more effective practice.
Reaching your goals



Some kids like journaling and this can definitely be used in practice.  Keeping track of details can be time consuming in the moment but quite a time saver in the long run.  A simple entry such as:
      SCALES:  Eb Major and relatives.  Trouble with left hand fingering today.

This entry will prompt a practice response the next day if read before she starts her scales.  Her time will be spent correcting the exact thing that needs help and not just running through the scale, maintaining the mistake.  It takes much longer to correct a mistake that is practiced over and over again than to fix it right away :)

Stop and fix

When starting to play a piece or exercise, at the first sign of a hesitation or mistake, the student should stop.  They should back up a few bars and try again.  If the glitch is still there, "buttering" it can help. Running over it slowly from all angles, using different techniques such as hands separate, playing different rhythms, changing tempo, then play the section through again is constructive work.  If it's fixed, they can start back at the beginning and try playing the passage again.  If they need to slow down a bit as they approach the fixed area, that's ok.  If the problem persists and they have time, students should continue working on it.  If not, they should be aware that this is where they need to start again the next day.

Work one thing throughout

Your child could decide that on any given day the aim would be to fix one thing, like technique for example.  Whatever they play, they concentrate on hand position or finger action.  This is a very good way of quickly fixing basic problems for the long term.  This kind of work may not allow for loads of concentration on others aspects of performance, but the payback is well worth it.

If all these ideas are too specific for a student's style of practice, then let me leave you with one thought. Never practice without forethought.  Before starting anything, think of one aspect of the piece that needs tackling and go do it.

Enjoy the music!