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Piano Lessons for Baby Boomers! Cognitive Benefits of Adult Music Study

A wonderful trend in today’s society is that of older adults becoming actively involved in making music. This is particularly true of Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 (between World War II and the height of the Vietnam War). During retirement they have the leisure to pursue music, a long-held dream for many. And the benefits are like frosting on the cake.

In a study at the University of Florida, researchers found that adult students who studied piano for 6 months were able to complete cognitive tests more quickly. Essentially, as the brain forms new neural pathways by learning a new skill, age-related decline is reduced. Much other research substantiates this conclusion. Piano playing — what a joyful way to reduce the possibility of dementia and grow older gracefully!

In his book aptly titled Never Too Late, Baby Boomer John Holt tells of learning to play cello in his 40’s. His dedication and discipline energized him with a new outlook on life. As he developed his musical skill, his capacity for creativity increased. His scope even broadened to other involvements such as performing groups and speaking engagements.

As accompanist for our local chorale, I make music with over a hundred adults, primarily Baby Boomers. Again, they have the resources and free time to engage actively in producing music. their sustained focus results in finely-tuned performances given with much joy. And their benefits include health and well-being, camaraderie, and broader horizons — performances have now expanded to singing tours both locally and in Europe.

So keep making music your whole life long … and you will find deep satisfaction as you develop this skill. Perhaps real progress in our society will be a return to the musical hearths of the early 1900’s, where virtually every home had a piano, played on by young and old together.

How to Practice! Hints from Great Musicians

The lazy summer days are dreamily floating by, and fall is getting closer… you’re gearing up for a fresh start in school or work…and getting motivated to practice well this year. But how? What’s the formula for playing that music better than ever?

Actually there isn’t a formula. However, principles can be applied to achieve the most in your practice time, whether you’re grabbing your flute to play ten minutes before supper or have an hour to hone your piano skills. Let’s see what some of the great musicians have had to say about practicing:

Persistence and Humility: When the great cellist Pablo Casals was 84, he was asked why he still practiced 4 hours a day. He answered, “I keep practicing because I believe I am making progress.”

Mental Practice: Romantic period pianist and composer Franz Liszt advised, “Think it ten times, play it once.” He also noted the solitary nature of practicing: “Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist.” (translated)

Repetition: Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, a formidable pianist, was practicing the piano when his friend came to the door. Hearing Rachmaninoff repeat the same two bars, the friend gave up and walked away after 200.

Interpretation: Create a work of art as you play. French composer Claude Debussy noted, “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”

Timing: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart commented on the value of rests: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

Expression: We play out of our souls, and to express what others feel. As singer/composer Billy Joel says, “Musicians want to be the loud voice for so many quiet hearts.”

Mastery: Perfect practice makes perfect. Trumpeter Duke Ellington strove for perfection, and he performed what he could play well: “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

Self-Confidence: Own the piece you play! As the soulful singer Aretha Franklin expresses it, “Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you’re doing. If you’re not going to be confident, you might as well not be doing it.”

Now let’s go practice!

How Does a Piano Work?

inside pianoJust as we can switch on an electric light without being aware of the intricacies of electricity, so we can play the piano without knowing how it actually works. But knowing will enhance our playing and expand our appreciation for the capabilities of the modern piano. A terrific explanation is given in this video: Secrets of Piano Action

Here’s a further comment from my engineer father regarding variations among piano makers due to patents: “All pianos use basically the same mechanism – a mechanical advantage between the key movement and the hammer movement of approximately five to one so that when the hammer strikes the string it (the hammer) has accelerated to the speed at which it creates a substantial impact and the resulting sound.  The exact arrangement of this mechanism varies from one manufacturer to the next, because of patents, but they are all using the same principle.” (Victor D. Ellison, patented aircraft instrumentation)

How far today’s piano has come from the days of harpsichord and then pianoforte! But that’s a story for another day.

Recommended Orchestral Classical Listening

Enduring music has much to teach us. We need to catch the passion of these composers and be inspired toward our own creative bent. As Dmitri Shostakovitch declared, “If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.” This is a starter list of wonderful classical music from one genre, the orchestral repertoire. Enjoy, and add to your own list! Here is the link if you’d like to print the document: Recommended Orchestral Classical Listening

                                   Composer, Period, Music                                  

Bach ~ Baroque, Brandenburg Concertos 1-6, Double Violin Concerto     

Barber ~ Modern, Adagio for Strings

Bartok ~ Modern, Concerto for Orchestra

Beethoven ~ Classical, Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7, 9

Berlioz ~ Romantic,  Symphonie Fantastique

Bernstein ~ Modern, Overture to “Candide”   

Brahms  ~ Romantic, Symphonies 1-4 

Britten ~ Modern, Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra

Chopin ~ Romantic, Piano Concertos

Copland ~ Modern, Appalachian Spring, Rodeo

Corelli ~ Baroque, Concerti Grossi 

Debussy ~ Modern, La Mer

Dvorak ~ Romantic, Symphonies 8,9, Slavonic Dances, Cello Concerto

Elgar  Romantic, Enigma Variations

Gershwin ~ Modern, Rhapsody in Blue

Grieg ~ Romantic, Piano Concerto, Peer Gynt Suite

Handel `Baroque, Messiah, Water Music, Fireworks Music

Haydn ~ Classical, Surprise Symphony, Trumpet Concerto

Holst ~ Modern, The Planets

Khachaturian ~ Modern, Gayane Suite

Liszt ~ Romantic, Hungarian Rhapsodies

Mahler ~ Modern, Symphony 2 “Resurrection”, 5

Mendelssohn ~ Romantic, Violin Concerto, Italian & Scottish Symphonies

Mozart ~ Classical, Symphonies 25,29,35,36,38,40,41

Mussorgsky ~ Romantic, Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain

Orff ~ Modern, Carmina Burana

Prokofieff ~ Modern, Classical Symphony, Peter and the Wolf

Rachmaninoff ~ Romantic, Piano Concerto 2 (“Rocky 2”), Symphony 2

Ravel ~ Modern, Piano Concerto in G

Rimsky-Korsakov ~ Romantic, Scheherezade

Rodrigo ~ Modern, Guitar Concerto

Saint-Saens ~ Romantic, Carnival of the Animals, Piano Concerto 2

Schubert ~ Classical, Symphonies 2, 5, 8 (Unfinished), 9

Schumann ~ Romantic, Piano Concerto in Am, Symphony 3

Shostakovitch ~ Modern, Symphony 5, 10

Sibelius ~ late Romantic, Symphonies 2, 3, 6

Smetana ~ Romantic, The Moldau

Strauss, Richard ~ Modern, Also Sprach Zarathustra

Stravinsky ~ Modern, Rite of Spring, Firebird Suite

Tchaikovsky ~ Romantic, Symphony 5,6, Violin Concerto,Piano Concerto 1

Vaughan Williams ~ Modern, Symphony 8, The Lark Ascending

Vivaldi ~ Baroque, The Four Seasons

 

 

Grateful to Teach

AS I BEGIN TEACHING TODAYErin and Ethan with S
(A Statement of Gratitude)

I am grateful that my work is meaningful to me.

I am grateful that I am helping others develop skill, discipline, competence, self-esteem, confidence, creativity, mental acuity, coordination, sensitivity, and variety of other skills and abilities that help them be more fulfilled human beings.

I am grateful that others entrust me with their time, their musical education, and their stories.

I am grateful for my students, and for what they share with me, and for helping me learn to be more flexible and patient.

I am grateful for the parents and for their interest in their children.

I am grateful that, through the gift of music literature, I am able to keep company with the thoughts of master musicians.

I am grateful for my teachers who taught me this wonderful art.

I am grateful that I’m in a field with an infinity of things to learn, and that I can always choose to learn and teach something new and interesting.

I am grateful that I am an educator, and that something I do or say today might ripple through the generations and touch someone two hundreds years from today.

I am grateful to be who I am, where I am.

(adapted from Forrest Kinney)

It’s a Recital!

 

“I’m playing in  Bambi widescreen  a recital!” Did you say that with anticipation or anxiety? Delight or trepidation? Let’s discuss what you might expect at a flute or piano recital, your appearance and preparedness, how you handle nerves, and concert etiquette.

Although recitals differ from studio to studio, certain aspects are similar: a teacher’s students gather together to play music for each other. Often programs are handed out for the benefit of students — “Am I next?” — as well as audience — “What a great piece! I hope Johnny gets to play that one.” The audience of family and friends is highly supportive, boosting the players’ confidence. And when recitals are held every three months or so, students’ consistent progress is noted and applauded. While some students may play works in progress, others are more polished and often memorized, and still others demonstrate ‘show biz’ — simply getting through it by the seat of their pants.

A student’s attire at a recital should be tried and true. This is not the venue to try out new shoes, for example — “Whoops! Hold onto the flute; I feel tippy in these heels!”. A new accessory can be surprising: years ago one of my piano students was so enamored and distracted by a new scarf she’d draped across her arms, that she got lost in her piece. The best attire is dressy yet comfortable, so the student is free to focus on making music.

However, the real preparation for a recital is not the ‘day of’ externals, but the week-to-week internal preparation, developing a piece from bare bones notes to a musical experience. Within each week is daily practice and progress, and within each practice session are moments of both concentration and enlightenment. As the student learns increasingly about the composer’s intentions, he/she can share that from a personal level with the audience.

And it is this very act of sharing with the audience that is the key to turning nervous ‘jitters’ into anticipation. During solo performances growing up, I tried to ignore my nervousness. But facing a case of nerves is much better, because it diffuses the adrenalin rush. Preparedness again is key here: pianists can handle the onset of tremulous fingers if they have worked out safe and secure fingerings throughout the music, hands separately and hands together. And flutists can deal with the nervousness that leads to shorter, shallower breaths by working out where to breathe comfortably from start to finish in their piece.

Finally, a word about recital etiquette — it’s really an extension of the Golden Rule: listeners should show respect for each player, no matter if the interpretation was different from theirs. Be encouraging with applause and comments afterwards as well. Likewise, players should “invite the audience in” as they begin to play. Also they should bow afterwards: bend over looking at the feet long enough to mentally say, “Thank you”. The reward of a recital is the music, a treasure to be given and received.

Stage Fright … Let’s Face It!

Stage fright — is it a malady to be overcome, or can it be turned to advantage as we perform? What is stage fright? The sudden rush of adrenalin, nervousness, clammy hands, breathlessness, and inability to think clearly is very common to performers.

“Let’s face it” … walking onstage a few weeks ago to perform the Saint Saens Tarantella duo for flute and clarinet with Skagit Symphony, my onset of nerves was unexpected, and unwanted! During the orchestra introduction I assessed my nervousness on a scale of 1 to 10, found it to be at least a 7 … well, maybe a 6, even a 5 or 4 … by the time I lifted my flute to play the opening statement with the clarinet, my tension had dissipated and I was fully ‘in the moment’. Stand your ground and face those nerves!

My favorite practical antidote to stage fright is bananas, which have beta-blockers that counteract the peaking adrenalin. The best approach seems to be eating half a banana an hour before soloing, then the other half ten minutes before. (Before a Vivaldi piccolo concerto a while back I ate two bananas, and was so relaxed I nearly walked off the front of the stage into the audience!) At my flute and piano studio quarterly recitals I generally put out a bowl of bananas for performers.

There’s a great suggestion to practice as if you’re performing, and perform as if you’re practicing — with the same sense of comfort and relaxation as in your home. After all, practicing should be fun and free of tension, an attitude we want to carry over to performing. For added performance security, particularly with memorized music, it is helpful to note about five ‘landmarks’ in the piece — for example, modulations or new themes. (I actually draw a little map on a notecard, with abbreviation symbols, dynamics, keys and so forth.) This helps to visualize the piece from start to finish (and even to return to a landmark if memory is elusive).

Releasing stage fright also involves relaxing control. This begins in practice, where exaggerating will expose such areas as shaky rhythms and awkward leaps (Piano leaps really do look closer in outer octaves, and flute leaps reveal if one is indeed blowing through the phrase.). So let the wrong note come out, rather than ignoring mistakes. Performance will only be as accurate as the practice, so prepare well, and confidence will soar accordingly.

When we relax control of a well-prepared piece, we can share it with the audience rather than letting our ego get in the way. This interaction with listeners, sharing from our heart to theirs, is really why we perform — then music has its fullest meaning. We are alone on stage, but we look forward to connecting with the audience, who bounces it back. Let’s re-envision nervousness, then, as anticipation — it’s from the same adrenalin!

The Effect of Music on the Nervous System

How does music affect our nervous system? What if children were involved in music all through their educational years? A lecture by Nina Kraus in 2011 entitled Music for the Development of Auditory Skills synthesizes scientific study in this area of neurology. Here’s the link:     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp32um7VVe0

It turns out that music is indeed a powerful vehicle to change neuronal function, and it continues to do so as long as we live. Musical experience not only enhances memory and attention, but it strengthens the brain mechanisms that underlie reading.

Musicians constantly relate sounds to meaning — for instance, harmonic relations such as major and minor chords, dynamics that signal mood, and tonality. To go a step further, music facilitates sound-to-meaning learning for non-musical tasks as well. Kraus gives the example of a father hearing his baby crying, distinguishing the type of cry and responding accordingly. So keep listening to music and playing music, and your non-musical tasks are enhanced as well. The educational implications of music are huge, from childhood through the rest of our lives!

Bach’s Versatility and Genius

This week’s Flute and Piano recitals entitled “Life of Bach” have just begun to scratch the surface of this amazing man’s genius. Consider his Crab Canon when placed on a Mobius strip:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUHQ2ybTej

At our recitals students taught each other by saying these cards in their own words before playing:

1. Johann Sebastian back was born in Germany over 300 years ago. Musicians named Bach were known as organists and choir directors all through the area north of Bavaria. But J.S. Bach was the outstanding member of the greatest musical family the world has ever known.

2. When Mozart heard a rehearsal of a Bach piece he said, “Now there is music one could learn from!” Later he said, “Bach is the Father of all music.”

3. When Bach grew up he was known for being an outstanding organist and a composer. He was such a great organist that one day when he was practicing in a village church a passerby said, “Well, that is either J.S. Bach or an angel playing in there!”

 4. Before Bach’s time all keyboard playing only used 8 fingers. Bach introduced using the thumb by curving the hand.

5. He used counterpoint, independent melodies played all at once and sounding great together.

6. Bach’s motor rhythms give energy and life to his music.

7. Both his parents died when he was 10, leaving Bach to live with his elder brother Christoph. He taught Bach violin and harpsichord, but he became jealous when Bach copied his book of pieces from the composers of the day. He hurled the book into the fire, and Bach was devastated…until he went to the keyboard and realized he could play all the pieces by heart!

8. Years later Bach had a musical duel with a Frenchman, held in the King’s court. At the tea the day before, both players were urged to improvise. Bach did so beautifully, but the Frenchman Marchand said it wasn’t really his custom to play before the scheduled time. So, they all waited for the next day…when Marchand was nowhere to be found. He had left town.

9. After boarding school in Luneburg, Bach was employed by Duke Wilhelm, who told him he could only write Scripture music, nothing instrumental. But Bach broke the 8:30 curfew every night to practice with his instrumentalists, and every morning he would pay the fines for doing so. Finally, he landed in debtor’s prison.

10. Prince Leopold rescued Bach from prison and the old Duke. He asked him to write instrumental music, the type of music needed at court.

11. But Leopold’s new wife Henrietta told Bach his music was morose, and wanted him to play Italian jigs. So, Leopold helped him get a job at the Thomas Schule. There he could write both instrumental and sacred music.

 12. At the Thomas Schule Bach’s goal was to write liturgical music to follow the church year, for a five-year cycle. So, a young church member could enter the church at age 13 and not hear the same piece of music twice until he was 18!

13. In Bach’s final years he reworked and refined his earlier music. Copying so much music, he at last went blind. At the top left of each composition he wrote’ “Jesus help me.” And upon completion he wrote “Soli Deo Gloria,” “to God be the glory.

14. Bach died without becoming famous as a composer, because Italian rococo music had taken over. His music lay forgotten, even a stray piece used as butcher paper to wrap meat. But 75 years later Mendelssohn found his music on shelves in the Thomas Schule and resurrected it. Since then his music has been beloved by musicians everywhere.

 

Why Practice Music?

Why should we practice? Does it really make any difference? Is it important to carve out time for daily music ‘workouts’? How should we practice?

The brain is comparable to a muscle, which develops and strengthens with workout. As we practice — review and seek to improve our mastery of specific music — neurons (brain cells) become more efficient, fire more quickly, and have stronger connections. 

Because our neural pathways can be strengthened, we can have a ‘growth-mindset’ (a new term by educator Carol Dweck). So rather than thinking with a fixed mindset: we can’t play that piece of music any better, it’s as good as it’s going to get, so there’s not much point in practicing … instead realize that we actually can increase our musical capabilities, even our very intelligence. We can approach the piece with various creative strategies to conquer its challenges. Then daily music workouts will show measurable improvement and success.

This kind of practicing is mindful and purposeful. In fact, when we find ourselves daydreaming, playing carelessly without focusing, it’s time for a break. After all, it’s not that practice makes perfect, but…perfect practice makes perfect.