May 31, 2013

Practicing Matters

Remember when you took lessons as a kid and you never practiced? With the exception of a very select group of individuals, nearly everyone who has studied an instrument went through a time when they didn't practice. Even professional musicians like myself went (and go) through these periods. You went to your lesson with a guilty look, told your teacher you didn't practice, and then everyone sighed and your teacher managed to fill the next 30 minutes with guilt-ridden teaching. Or maybe you thought you could get away with it, and just fake you way through it. Teachers know.

Listen, it happens. Sometimes practicing takes a backseat to other important things. And your teacher wasn't really all that mad at you because you had let them down. Your teacher was mad because it sucks to teach kids who don't practice. That's the secret of music teachers. We might say, "you're really letting yourself down", which in some cases is true with particular high-potential students, but overall a 30-minute lesson (or god-forbid a 60-minute lesson) with an unprepared student is hell.

Also, little version of you, you're not the only kid who didn't practice over the last week. You're the first student of the day and I have 10 more students to go, only 2 of whom have practiced. That' one hour of interesting teaching and four hours of oh-my-god-when-does-this-end. And you probably feel exactly the same way.

I know, I'm getting paid regardless of whether the student practices. But a student who doesn't practice also doesn't improve, and a student who doesn't improve usually ends up dropping out of piano lessons.  And a teacher who loses students feels: A) disappointed, B) frustrated, C) scared because of lost income.

For a teacher who has to struggle through an entire day of lagging students, it's easy to go home feeling like what you are doing has no purpose. It's easy to feel like you're just yelling at brick walls. Teachers in general are undervalued in our society and music teachers are as well. We have chosen a path teaching what we love (and in fact, music is something that most people love) in order to continue the tradition of musicianship. A music teacher is essentially serving a public good by contributing to a culture of music while sacrificing financial reward. To feel like your dedication to the public good isn't paying dividends is what feels bad.

Parents, students and future parents of students:

You (or your student) needs to practice. If they don't, your favorite teacher will burn out.

May 24, 2013

New Album

I've finished writing songs for a new album. It will arrive soon. That is all.

May 23, 2013

Drumming in the Apartment

I started taking drum lesson a little over a month ago and have been having an absolute blast. It was something I'd been wanting to do for a long time and finally decided it was time to learn.

One of the things that had been keeping me from learning was the inability to practice in my apartment. Other musicians know that apartment living is often not conducive to mastering your instrument. I've actually taken to cutting down my piano time because of disturbances to my neighbors. Headphones on my electric piano (or an electric drum set) will not help because the problem isn't the sound, it's the vibrations. Every time you stomp on your kick pedal, or depress a key on the piano with some force, the impact is sent into your floor (more-so for hard wood floors) making it vibrate and act like a big drum. Even if you can't hear it, the people below you can. Even if you're on the bottom floor, there's a chance the vibrations are being sent up your walls to the people around you. So you can understand why I was nervous about taking drums.

I did a lot of research on drumming websites and found a particularly novel solution that involves drilling holes into sheets of wood and separating them from each other with tennis balls. This looked a bit too expansive for fitting into my office, plus I just needed something basic to fit a few pieces of equipment onto. I've got a real drum set at a different location, but for my apartment I just needed a few things to practice on. Here's what I ended up with, first the padding:

I bought a few things from Target and some other stuff I had laying around. From the floor up:

On the bottom is a really squishy bath mat with a rubber surface on the bottom. These are great because not only does all the squishy-ness absorb vibrations, the rubber keeps it from slipping.

On top of the bath mat I've got some nice thick bubble wrap. Putting layers of air between the impact and the floor is the best way to get rid of vibrations, and this bubble wrap is thick enough to not pop, but still has large air pockets.

As you can imagine, piling layers of squishy materials on top of each other will not make for a very secure practice area. I put a sheet of cardboard on top of the mat and bubble wrap for a more secure surface. That's the only purpose of the cardboard.

Partly because the carboard was ugly, partly because it was slippery, and partly because I wanted a tiny bit more absorption, I put a simple towel on top of the cardboard, and that was it!

Now as said, I'm not using a real drumset, just some cheap stuff to practice on:

From left to right (excluding the throne):

Hi-hat with practice pads on it. This is probably the noisiest part of the set still but it's still pretty quiet. The only downside is that the pad on the top cymbal makes it a bit hard to practice open hi-hat playing or left foot pedaling. 

Vic Firth Practice pad on a snare stand. It's super quiet and replaces a snare drum for practicing.

My kick pedal is being played into a combination of pillows. Read below to see how I put that thing together.

On the far right are some simple guitar hero drums that were languishing in my parents' basement. Those aren't totally necessary (I just added them yesterday) but I was finding myself wanting something else to hit when practicing my fills and they simulate toms really well.

There's no ride or crash cymbal because I didn't find them totally necessary at this point, however I can use one of the pads on the right to simulate a ride for coordination only.

The most complicated thing (and potentially disruptive) was the kick pedal. This is where a lot of the annoying impact would come from. I ended up doing the following:

The "bass drum" itself is a seat cushion tied to a crappy $4 pillow (it was actually two pillows for $4 at Target). The back pillow provides all the dampening you could want while the seat cushion provides a harder, bouncier surface to imitate rebound. It's also slightly audible so you can hear if you're striking correctly. It's not totally perfect, but it works just fine for beginner practicing. Behind that pillow contraption is the box the pedal came in with a 25lb free weight inside of it. The pedal needed something to attach to or it would just flop around, so I stuck one flap of the box out, put the weight inside and duct-taped the opening up so that it looked totally normal except for that one flap. I then attached the pedal to that flap, stuck the pillows between the pedal and the box, placed the box against the wall and the pedal on the padding and voila, no impact or extra sound!

The thing is not totally secure, meaning parts rock around a bit as you play, but overall it hasn't been distracting. I imagine this kind of thing would be of little help to a more accomplished drummer, but as a beginner who lives in an apartment, it's been perfect!

May 16, 2013

Odd Couples

We have this tendency, with composers born and active around the same time, to automatically pair them together. In piano literature classes we compare and contrast their styles (I actually just did this today with two of the subjects below) and treat them as though they worked in essentially the same vein whether or not they actually did. I mean, they were both composers right? Here are some of those composers, why they are paired together, and what makes them different.

Claude Debussy and Marice Ravel

Ah the original odd couple. Maybe this comparison is the reason why Ravel told everyone he was actually Basque and not French. Or maybe it's why Debussy slept with so many women. Or probably none of that. Debussy and Ravel were both operating at the same time, were both extremely successful in their own lifetimes and both composed in what could be called an impressionistic fashion (although they both apparently hated being called that, more in common!) although they styles diverge after that. Debussy can be thought of as a bit more amorphous while Ravel often composed in stricter tempos with a concrete pulse. Of course, they both dabbled in the opposite but overall Debussy feels more like clouds of notes without an emphasis on melody, whereas Ravel often weaves fine melodies above spinning accompaniment. Entire papers and books have been written on the topic if this strikes your fancy. Does it strike mine? Not really.

Scriabin and Rachmaninoff

I've always found this pairing odd. Scriabin, the doomsday-bringing mystic and Rachmaninoff, whose biggest eccentricity was that he refused to join the 20th century are always paired together in books. They were both Russian, born and active over basically the same period of time, but apart from a contest in which Rachmaninoff placed first and Scriabin second (an actual contest, not the concert-hall popularity contest that was also won by Rachmaninoff) these two had quite divergent lives and musical styles. Scriabin got lost in theosophy (woo cults!) and Rachmaninoff basically had a straightforward life. Scriabin's music sounds like Chopin from the future and Rachmaninoff sounds like Chopin from....Russia. Rachmaninoff was so rooted to the past that he was quoted on saying that 20th century music held nothing for him. Although that didn't stop him from putting on a bunch of concerts of Scriabin's music after his death in 1915.

Webern and Berg

I like to imagine these two students of the Second Viennese School (note: not an actual school) hanging out awkwardly with Arnold Schoenberg in his small flat in Vienna. In my mind the three of them are sitting in the parlor, sipping coffee out of tiny cups and listening to Schoenberg talk about the difference between atonality ("not my bag") and pan tonality ("my bag!"). Webern desperately wants to leave, but Berg is all "but he's our great teacher, we must respect him!"

Ginastera and Albeniz and Granados and De Falla

These guys all have the characteristic of speaking Spanish, therefore they get lumped in together. But Ginastera wasn't even from Spain, de Falla lived longer than the other Spaniards, and they all wrote pretty different music.

Schumann and Schubert

Their names both start with "Sch" so they get compared. Honestly. I guess they both died young, wrote lots of art-songs, and exemplify the Romantic movement (albeit in different eras) as well, but I'm pretty sure it's just in their names. To put it simply, Schubert was acted as a bridge from the classical era and Schumann was as romantic-era and individualistic as you can get.

May 2, 2013

Sticker Stash: Djeco Animals

I have some favorite stickers. And as usual, the kids don't really like them all that much. And these stickers aren't even wacky! They're just really finely designed animals, from French children's company Djeco. I'm really drawn to the style of design on these animals, and many of them are quite large meaning you really get to appreciate the artistry of the stickers.

You should really check out their website at which, despite long loading times, is incredibly awesome. I wish I had an excuse to buy all of the cool games and stuff they have on there.

Oh, and one more reason why I love these stickers, the squirrel on the right side of this sheet:

May 1, 2013

The Studio Recital Skid

I have my spring studio recitals coming up this weekend and I couldn't be more excited. Not excited because I love recitals, excited because soon I will be done with the studio recitals.

Studio recitals have become the bane of teaching for me. Typically I will pick out recital pieces with my students about 5-7 weeks ahead of time (adjusting for any breaks we might have) so that we can learn the piece, get it memorized and then have some lessons for the piece to settle in. The problem with starting them that far in advance is that despite all of my efforts otherwise, kids will focus on their recital pieces and neglect all other practicing for over a month.

I will emphasize the fact that we're going to continue working on other pieces and keep progressing, and that it's on the student to keep the recital piece active, but on the back burner. It doesn't work though, especially for the spring recital. I don't know if it's that kids are tired of working on new pieces and like the familiarity of something they've already learned, or if there's just a fatigue around all things "school" at the end of the year. Regardless, the pace of learning of most of my students slows to a decrepit, barely-alive slither.

The kids may not realize it, but I get bored listening to the same piece week after week. It sounds great, actually it sounds REALLY great. Kid, you're playing this piece the best I've ever heard a student play it. I just don't want to hear it again. I want to hear you get better at piano, not Rabbit Times".

I actually have a hypothesis that my students would get better faster if there was no recital to slow us down. Some kids get really excited about the recital and are constantly asking me when the next one is. Those kids are usually the ones that move through the material quickly.

The recital will be fun. The kids will look cute, and they'll mostly play really well. I'll be proud of them, and their parents will be proud. But I just can't wait to move on to new things.