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26 Sep 2014

How-NOT-to Learn to Play a Music Instrument

Piano on the streetAs if often happens, you may spend hours trying to learn to play your favourite music piece but it seems to be getting only worse. The problem often hides in ignoring the important mechanisms of our brain functioning. We repeat what we want and the way we want. In most cases, the image of learning a new music piece looks more or less like this: we play the work from beginning to end in the needed tempo, it seems. However, we don’t manage to wade through. Stumbling at a difficult place, we try to start from where we left or a bit earlier if we can’t resume from where we stumbled. Familiar situation, isn’t it?

We continue publishing helpful articles for those who learn to play a music instrument on their own, without a teacher’s assistance. Below you will find a few most wide-spread mistakes during such self-teaching.

Choosing a Wrong Tempo

Each of us wants to finish what’s been started as soon as possible. And that is clear – everyone would like to enjoy the result of all these efforts the sooner the better. On the other hand, many know that it is necessary to start learning a music piece in a slow tempo. But most often a ‘slow tempo’ is seen as the one that ‘I can handle now’.

In our perception, the scale of tempos looks like a ladder upstairs: the farther, the faster. As soon as we feel comfortable in the new tempo and ‘can handle it’, we try to play in a faster tempo, repeating again and again. This method leads to what musicians call “overplaying”, when even the easiest parts can no longer be performed well.

Advice:

There are a lot of techniques for reasonable distribution of tempo at the practical classes of piano, guitar or any other instrument. We would like to suggest one of them. It is possible to handle the three tempos – slow, medium, and fast – in such a way that in the fast tempo it would be still possible to perform without mistakes. In the beginning, the difference between the three tempos should not be significant. It’s essential to go back to performing in medium and slow tempos. The amplitude can gradually be increased, but the important condition in all the three tempos should be the correct performance.

Performing with Mistakes

It’s important to make a firm decision NOT to put up with such performing. Because our brain memorizes our actions and is guided by a simple formula: “if we do it, I must memorize it”. Of course, hearing the false note we realize that we’ve made a mistake. But our brain has already managed to memorize the false phrase pretty well and for long. To erase the mistake from the memory, we would need to repeat the correct version multiple times.

Advice:

Get some patience and try not to be in a rush learning the piece. You should be concentrated on the intoning of music phrases. As it is quite hard to stay focused for a long time, it is necessary to make pauses every 20-25 minutes of the class. Be prepared: there will be mistakes anyway. But keep in mind the fact that careful and correct performing will save you a lot of time and will eventually lead to the necessary result.

Repeating the Piece from Beginning to End

Performing of the entire piece is the purpose, not the means. Therefore, no matter how bad we want it, unless you are sure of every single note, don’t get tempted to repeat the new piece from beginning to end as it will inevitably lead to memorizing mistakes that we talked about in point 2.

Advice:

Learning a music piece is not just playing the instrument, it is a thinking process that consists of analysis and synthesis. Every music composition has its structure. Take a pencil and divide the piece into parts that are complete music- and meaning-wise. First make large parts. To find them, pay attention to the change of tonality and tempo that often takes place at the transition from one part to another. If the composition takes up more than one page, each big part will most likely be divided into smaller parts.

Start learning from finished phrases and smaller structures. After the first phrase is learnt, move on to the second one. As soon as you can perform two parts separately, you can unite them in one. But before that, practice the transition from one part to the other, covering a few notes from the first measure of the first phrase. Joining the third with the forth works the same way, as well as joining the first two parts with the second two. Thus, gradually extending the learnt fragments, you will build up the entire piece. The most important here is not to be in a hurry. Try to listen closely to the repetitions and look for new colors every time.

Underestimating the Role of the Music Beat

Unfortunately, this ‘invisible’ mistake is most often left unnoticed by the performer. From the outside, it can be perfectly heard that in most difficult places the musician starts playing slower, destroying the measure borders, but to the performer it seems that the entire playing is even and smooth. This is called “time unsynchronization” – the discordance of the real time and its perception by the musician. Most often the difficulties are caused by short durations, nontypical note groupings or the complicated rhythm that can’t be promptly processed by our brain in real time.

Advice:

Learning technically complicated parts use the principle of analysis and synthesis described in point 3. Learn difficult passages and rhythmically complicated (as it seems at first sight) fragments separately. With the help of a pencil mark the notes that fall within the metric parts of the bar. First try to slowly sing the difficult fragment and find out how the notes are placed within the metric parts.

Learning difficult passages should better be started from the off-beat. First learn the off-beat and the strong beat, then the remaining passage leading to the next strong beat. Feel the intonational aspiration to the strong beat.

And the main recommendation: carefully choose the music piece for learning. There will always be time and strength for learning the music you love. And it means that you will be able to surprise your friends and relatives with the splendid performance of your favourite pieces. In the future, we will get back to describing the most common mistakes in learning new compositions and will prepare some other advice on how to avoid them. Stay with us!

Photo: “Piano on the Street”. Author: Asher Isbrucker. Source: Flickr.com, License: Creative Commons 2.0.

10 Sep 2014

New Sheet Music for the Academic Year!

Cello beginner

The hot time of summer holidays and vacations is over and in many countries autumn is the time when kids go back to school. One can now hear the sounds of piano and violin coming out of the school windows, and once in a while you may stumble into people carrying music instrument cases of all types and shapes.

MusicaNeo wishes success to all students and teachers in the new academic year and invites everyone to visit the special section of our site “Educational Sheet Music” which is regularly updated. Here we gathered over 14000 music scores recommended by their authors for use in the music learning process. About 1000 music scores in this section are dedicated to those who are making their first steps in mastering the art of music.

Music pieces by contemporary composers are of special interest, as today many music contests for children include in their program compulsory performing of contemporary music. All MusicaNeo users have an opportunity to contact the composer directly and to ask questions concerning the interpretation of the music works placed in the catalogue.

MusicaNeo authors often combine creative work with educational activity. Their professional experience is displayed in own educational music pieces. We would like to point out the high activity of guitar teachers who have published a lot of free sheet music for guitar and guitar ensembles.

It’s also important to mention other valuable materials that can be useful for those on the way to conquer the music Olympus. Links to the relevant sections can be found at MusicaNeo homepage.

“Maestro-in-the-Making” project

MusicaNeo’s educational project came to life due to the joint efforts of our musicians’ community members. We received enormous support from composers and teachers who responded to the call to support music education worldwide. Over a hundred compositions took part in the competition. Twelve most interesting compositions became part of the sheet music book that is now available for free download at MusicaNeo.

Free Blank Sheet Music

During the educational process every musician experiences the need for blank music sheets. At a special page at MusicaNeo you can at any time download for free the necessary music sheets for various sets of instruments. Here you’ll also find the sheets with large scale staves that are handy at music lessons for beginning musicians. In case you haven’t found a sheet with the needed template, please contact us and we’ll add it to the site in a short time.

50 Piano Pieces by Ernst Levy

We can’t help but draw your attention to the unique opportunity that’s available only to MusicaNeo users: our sheet music catalogue contains the music heritage of the brightest representative of the Swiss composition school of the 20th century – Ernst Levy. 50 music pieces that he composed for piano at the beginning of the 50-ies of the last century can be considered one of the most interesting music materials for learning to play piano. Inspired by Bartok’s “Microcosm”, Levy’s cycle did not receive the recognition as broad, even though it deserves it no less. For those who prefer to choose lesser known music pieces for their educational or competitional program, 50 piano pieces by Levy is a true find.

We are once again congratulating all music students and teachers on the beginning of the new academic year – MusicaNeo wishes you success in conquering new creative peaks!

Photo: “'Cello beginner”. Author: Steve Snodgrass. Source: Flickr.com, License: Creative Commons 2.0.

10 Jul 2014

Children in Opera: Wearing Adults’ Shoes?

Jackie Evancho

Nessun dorma!
Il nome suo nessun saprà…
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!

Death, horror, eternal love, tragedy and beauty – all this usually makes part of a classical opera as we know it. But what if all this drama is conveyed by a tiny 9 year old kid on stage?

In the last years, there have appeared a lot of ‘music sensation’ titles on the Internet featuring children singing classical masterpieces – the prodigy opera performers of young age. The 10 year old Jackie Evancho amazes America's Got Talent jury with a splendid performance of Ave Maria, the 11 year old Clark Rubinstein is called “the little Caruso from Boston” and is giving a solo concert singing in 7 languages; and the 9 year old Dutch girl Amira Willighagen records a full-length album of operatic arias, including Nessun Dorma ‘with Luciano Pavarotti’.

Watching these little tender stars singing such powerful arias no doubt WOWs the wide public offhand. But to look a bit deeper into the matter – is it appropriate for a kid to take up the adult repertoire of this kind?

History already remembers a few examples of such early talents. Let’s take the 1999 case of the 12 year old Charlotte Church, a girl who managed to hit the highest notes in a fierce fascinating manner that immediately conquered the listener. Or a much earlier example of the 15 year old Anna Gottlieb who in 1787 sang Barbarina from The Marriage of Figaro, and two years later – Pamina from The Magic Flute by Mozart. Sadly, the stories of these children who could sing far beyond their real age didn’t end very well. Having matured, the voice of Charlotte lost its power and luster, and Anna got bogged down in poverty when her voice finally broke.

So why didn’t the girls proceed in glory and success when they grew up? Unfortunately, too often a prodigy kid’s interests are not at all at heart. The phenomenal singing of an innocent child is not only impressive and exciting but can be exceptionally profitable in many ways. And too often adults (including the parents of the kids) do not understand that this fame and profit puts child’ physical and mental health at stake. Opera is a serious music genre that requires a lot of hard work, experience and understanding, it is not just deep-throated singing. Of course, both Jackie and Amira can sing beautifully, but can a child like that have a real idea of what opera is and perform it with actual understanding of the text?

According to the professor of psychology at Boston College, Ellen Winner, kids who have been pushed into adult activities like that are often deprived of real childhood and skip the important transitional period they need. In the future, such a child can be psychologically wounded once he/she realizes that he/she is grown and not ‘special’ anymore. Not mentioning the physical side of the whole process, when the delicate child’s throat and voice can be permanently damaged and broken for good. One might compare children opera singers with little weightlifters lifting heavy iron for someone else’s wow, entertainment or profit.

On the other hand, would we know of Mozart if he as a little kid hadn’t been pushed for practicing and carried all over Europe in concerts? But wait a minute, voice wasn’t Mozart’s instrument. If a prodigy child performer’s, say, piano is broken, another one could replace it. Unfortunately, that’s not what could be done to a kid’s voice.

But what if the child is really good? Should parents prevent him/her from singing some extra? No way – let them sing! Provided the child develops naturally under the supervision of music experts, with vocal chords regularly examined and proper training chosen relevant to the age (Amira is a self-taught YouTube girl, by the way). Why put them in oversized shoes that could shatter their walk. Let the kids be kids, after all?


Jackie Evancho, Amira Willighagen, Putri Ayu singing Nessun Dorma.

Photos: "Jackie Evancho" by Justin Higuchi. Source: Flickr.com

13 May 2014

Perfect Pitch: Pros & Cons

Ear Note by Molly GermaineThe “ear for music” is a mysterious and unexplained thing. For the first time you may face this phenomenon when enrolling your child into a music school. The procedure of checking whether the kid has an ear for music or not usually looks as follows: a certain melody is played on the piano and the child is asked to sing to it. Besides that, depending on the amount of your luck, the entrance examination may also include having to repeat a rhythmic pattern, perform a popular song, or, if you are out of luck, to name all the notes. While ‘ear for music’ is a popular term, the ‘absolute pitch’ or ‘perfect pitch’ is normally heard only within the circle of professional musicians. I first heard it myself while taking exam at the music school for gifted children. Here’s how it happened.

The examiner, a skeptically disposed teacher, asked me to name the note I had just heard.

– But how can I name the note if you didn’t allow me to hear the tonality?! – I asked, surprised.

– Just like that. Simply tell me what note do you think it was – the teacher replies.

– Hm… but how can I know?! – I think to myself, and say aloud: – Perhaps, E…

For the next few seconds a silence settled, disturbed only by the ticking of the wall clock over the piano that suddenly seemed so deafeningly loud.

– E-flat, - the examiner pronounces slowly and watches me closely.

That was the only time when I got close to feeling that special kind of attention that’s given to children with perfect pitch. Why the only time, you’ll ask? Simply because I do not have perfect pitch. I have a very common music ear, and the (almost) correctly guessed note was just a lucky coincidence.

The curious thing is that many scientists interpret the perfect pitch as an inborn-only ability to ‘imagine’ sounds and define their pitch. And, as strange as it may sound, already from birth this ability can be “developed to different extents”. For instance, someone can define the notes played on piano only, or even played in a certain range only. Others can hear the pitch regardless of the tone color, up to hearing “at what pitch” the door creaks or the bee buzzes. But in both cases the distinctive feature of such an exceptional ear for music is its inborn nature.

My solfeggio class consisted of 12 pupils, all of which, except a boy and me, had perfect pitch. I had to do the melodic dictations “by feel”, silently singing each sound to myself and counting the needed notes from the key tones of the scale. While I needed about 8 playbacks for all the calculations and 1-2 more additional revisions, my classmates needed only 2-3 playbacks, even though the teacher prohibited making notes while the music played.

Camino del Lago del Valle by Ignorant WalkingBut there are two faces to everything. I noticed an interesting peculiarity: children with a perfect pitch often have difficulties with music theory. And here’s why. Imagine that theoretical studies are a long way from the bottom of the mountain to its peak. The way itself would be the study of the theoretical basics – the structure of intervals and chords, their relations, roles in tonality, etc. While reaching the peak would mean the ability to solve a musical task, in our case – the correct writing down of a melodic dictation or defining the chords in a harmonic chain. Those who know the theory can distinguish the sounds played in a music fragment on the basis of their theoretical knowledge. And the perfect pitch kids would have to go all the way up from analysis to solution.

Such pupils can be compared to travelers who were taken to the top on a helicopter and who don’t know how to find their way back down. I often observed the following situation: those with a perfect pitch, when asked to name the chords, could name the notes but couldn’t explain their harmonic functions. It was pretty clear to me: why do they need to learn the functions if they can already hear the notes played? Nevertheless, the teachers were of a different opinion and the perfect pitch wasn’t protecting anyone from a bad mark.

Just like travelers, after conquering a mountain peak, get some fit muscles as a bonus, perfect pitch holders, on their way to develop it and master musical relations for solving a musical task, receive theoretic music thinking as a reward.

In conclusion, I’d like to address all those who haven’t been given the absolute pitch by mother nature: in the end, it doesn’t matter how many talents you’ve got, but the way you multiply them does. There are many ways to conquer the peak. It is important to understand which way leads you up there and stick to it until the peak yields to you.

Photos: "Ear Note" by Molly Germaine, "Camino del Lago del Valle" by Ignorant Walking. Source: Flickr.com

 
   
 
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