We’re almost through the first month of 2012 and many of us have reached a point where we’re beyond regret making those resolutions and have just pretended that they were never made in the first place. As you can see, my goal of posting more frequently has been less than stellar (though I have moving and running my studio full time to use as an excuse). The only possible silver lining this year is that if the Mayans are right, this will be the last time we have a chance to annually disappointment ourselves.
For those of you who have resolved to learn an instrument in 2012, first, I salute you. It’s a noble and rewarding undertaking and I wish you much success. Secondly, and I really really mean this: Hang in there.
I hope this edition of Making Music Fun Again brings you some conviction and helps you in whatever way to scale that mountain. Some of it is admittedly pretty obvious advice but it’s still worth being said.
Back to Basics. Nothing can be fun all the time. Athletes, painters, carpenters, clowns, and practitioners of every discipline ever will all tell you there is always a certain amount of due diligence that must be endured in order to excel. Even someone seemingly born with high levels of talent and natural ability still have to start somewhere, and nobody is too skilled to drill the fundamentals.
My students spend a lot of time mastering scales, chords, and Hanon exercises. I’ll drill more advanced students with arpeggios, theory questions, and ear training exercises as well. Glamorous it ain’t and it gets tedious in a hurry, but it’s such a vital part of musicianship that I’d be doing them a great disservice to let them slide on it.
Adult students usually understand this harsh truth, though they submit to it grudgingly if at all. Ultimately, mastering one’s scales is much more helpful to a new music student than, say, mastering the chord progression to Crazy Train, though it’s less than one-thousandth as much fun.
That’s why I recommend letting scales and exercises serve as a warm-up. Start with a specific time limit–five minutes or so–and practice nothing but scales for the allotted time. Get it over with in the beginning of your practice session and then work on something more appealing. I know it’s a tough sell, but not unlike that diet or exercise routine you committed to, it will get easier and open more doors for you in the long run.
Try explaining this to an eight-year-old, though, and be prepared for blank stares. Younger students don’t see the value of repetitious practice and run out of patience fast. They want to play and have fun and they want to do it now. No matter how much I insist that improved finger dexterity is its own reward, they don’t buy it.
For them, nothing works like bribery. A lot of my colleagues swear by stickers and little trinkets, but by and large many of these colleagues have never experienced video games. If I’ve learned anything about the gamer generation (mostly from being one of its early mind-slaves) it’s that a well-crafted reward system coupled with a sense of achievement triggers a major serotonin release for–well, just about anyone, I’d imagine.
Instead of focusing on the tedium, I turn it into a game. Better still, a competition—against yours truly.
Allow me to elaborate: At the end of lessons, my students look forward to a game of some sort, usually something quick and completely unrelated to music like Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman (only when they earn it; remember, this a reward, not a right). To make it more interesting, I allow them to earn bonuses that give them a leg up in the game. A student who, for example, plays each scale assigned that week receives a “double-turn” for Tic-Tac-Toe or maybe a sombrero for their Hangman victim.
This doesn’t seem significant until they actually face off against me, because I won’t hesitate to crush them at these games and celebrate by drinking their tears in a martini glass. It sounds cruel, but rather than get upset, most students become determined to win, and the bonuses they receive from playing well and being prepared are the only sure-fire way to do it. A sticker loses its luster as soon as the glue wears off, but they’ll froth at the mouth all week for a chance to vanquish their gloating teacher.