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The Ergonomically Correct Pianist

March 19, 2016

by Ashley Pontiff

Instructor of piano, flute, and voice at The Lesson Studio

An ergonomically correct pianist = a happy, healthy, exquisite performer!

 

Natural Mechanics: The Piano and the Human Body

By understanding how the natural mechanics of the human body work, and aligning our natural mechanics with the natural mechanics of how the piano is made to respond, we can attune to more precise performance techniques. These precise performance techniques can be applied to every genre of music and help bring out the nuances that only natural playing can, as well as prevent injury caused by improper use and unnatural movements. Just like athletes, musicians must maintain their health and do everything in their power to prevent injuries if they are to excel and be successful. Unlike most athletes, the motion musicians use to play is largely repetitive. Repetitive motion can put strain on your joints, ligaments, and tendons. The only way to combat the weakening of joints and tendons is to utilize numerous muscles, tendons, and ligaments (particularly stronger, larger ones) as your mechanics for playing as opposed to isolating smaller ones.

 

Dorothy Taubin was a piano teacher who revolutionized piano technique by studying human body and piano mechanics, and aligning a piano technique that utilizes both in its most natural and ergonomic form. When playing a single note on the piano, the action should come from the forearm, and not the isolated finger. The action built in to the piano, should serve as a springboard to lift the arm and hand back up after playing. The more lift you have before you play, the greater the spring from the keys you will obtain. If there is no initial lift, there is no spring. Think of jumping on a trampoline. The higher you jump up initially, the bigger the bounce you will get in return.

 

As an experiment, try playing one note repetitively for 1 minute by isolating the single finger from the other fingers when playing. Which muscles, ligaments, or tendons are being used when you isolate one finger from the rest? How tired or sore do your finger, hand, and wrist become? They probably become pretty sore and tired, or will eventually. Then, try playing one note repetitively for 1 minute by using the forearm muscles to gently lift and lower your wrist, hand, and finger to play the note. Use the spring from the piano to bounce the arm back up as you prepare to play again. Notice that now you are using more muscles, ligaments, and tendons and the action is being distributed across more areas of your arm and hand than in the first trial where you isolated only one finger. Also, by allowing your arm, wrist, hand, and finger to work together, the piano’s natural mechanics (springboard action) are being utilized and are now doing some of the work for you. With this technique, you are no longer pulling or lifting to bring your finger and arm upwards. Once you initiate the first preparatory lift, gravity does the work in allowing you to play the note, and the piano action does the work in spring boarding your arm, hand, and finger back up out of the keys. By allowing your arm, wrist, hand, and finger to work together in one fluid motion, the workload is distributed to various muscles, ligaments, and tendons in order to accomplish a task. By learning this technique, your body is now operating naturally and in sync with how it was designed.

 

Creating Balance at the Piano:

Creating balance at the piano begins with how we sit at the piano. We must make sure we are well balanced and feel comfortable and relaxed in our seated position. If we are not balanced, muscles, tendons, and ligaments tighten in order to hold us in a balanced state, and can create tension in our arms, wrists, fingers, neck, shoulders and other parts of the body. This tension does not allow for free, relaxed movement nor proper natural playing technique. A student that is unbalanced at the piano has to “hold on” somehow. For example, a student whose feet do not reach the floor must hold at the point where they can make contact. So, students in this situation brace their feet against the face of an upright piano and hold on with their fingers to the keys. They often start to lean back to balance themselves on the bench because their arms are extended forward over the keys. This is a very tense, uncomfortable way to sit and injury can result from making the body do something against its own natural mechanics for an extended period of time. We must be stable in order to play without tense muscles. All the involuntary stress that unbalanced playing puts on the body causes mental fatigue, excessive strain on the body, and less than desired musical sound.

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A Few Quick Tips For Creating a Well-Balanced Seated Position at the Piano:

How do I know if my bench is too LOW or too HIGH for me when sitting at the piano?

-Elbows Align with Keys √

 

When seated upright at the piano, your arms should be able to hang relaxed without raised shoulders, and the point at which your elbow naturally lies (when hands are placed on the keys of the piano) should align with the tops of the keys. Wrists should not be bent upwards or downwards from your arm and fingers should be at a natural curve downward toward the keys. To correct this alignment, adjust the bench up or down so that your elbows align with the tops of the keys.

**If a bench is not adjustable, or does not go high enough to achieve this alignment, place sturdy foam garden kneeling pads, books that won’t slide, or carpet squares on the bench in order to raise the seat.

 

What if my feet don’t touch the floor?

-Use a Stool or Propped Up Books √

 

Feet should be firmly planted on the ground to maintain balance. If a student’s feet do not touch the floor, use a stool or prop up books underneath their feet to raise the ground level, so that they feel balanced and stable at the piano. Once this adjustment is made, make sure that the bench is not too far forward causing the student to lean back.

Follow these Ergonomic tips and you’ll soon be on your way to being a happy, healthy, exquisite performer!

 

For more information regarding the Dorothy Taubin Technique, natural playing, and photos explaining proper seated positions, read “The Well-Balanced Pianist” at

http://www.wellbalancedpianist.com/bptaubman.htm

 

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How will YOU speak through music?

March 12, 2016

By Eric Siegel

Practice, for some, can be harder than playing the instrument itself. Practice is easy when we start simple. Just about everything in music can be broken down into fundamental but little bits that need to be committed to memory. When you confidently know the note names, note values, each fingering, etc., you find that you won’t just be playing the music – you’ll be reading it, too! When you can read music, your vocabulary and ability will increase to intermediate concepts like phrasing, dynamics, and tempo/rhythm change. With enough retention, you might even forget that you’re reading the music at that point. You’ll be back to playing it, but with emotion and a more mature sound. Music really becomes a language.

Is it how much you practice that will make you better? No!!! Practice isn’t always how long you play your instrument. Practice is taking what is learned in lessons and applying that knowledge to your time playing your instrument before meeting again. In a world attached to busy and ever-changing schedules and so many people and things to take responsibility of, take 15-30 minutes of your day to get better at even just one aspect of your playing. Then, commit that to memory. Another day, another dollar.

Air is free, so breathe it all in – and lots of it! Flute, clarinet and saxophone aren’t woodwind instruments for no reason. Woodwind instruments are inoperable without a pair of lungs and lots of air, after all. They possess the clearest sound and tone with air backed up with abdominal (tummy) strength and control. Without an instrument in hand, try putting both your hands on your lower back and take a deep stomach-breath. That’s both of your lungs expanding. We need to use – one more time! – LOTS of air because the air has a bit of a ways to travel!

Have you ever blown air across an empty glass bottle and you’d hear it make a tone? The direction and speed of the air you’re blowing causes the bottle to vibrate fast enough to create a sound. The same principle stands with playing the flute, but optimal sound comes from knowing where to “point” the direction of the airstream, as well as air speed. Unlike the clarinet and saxophone, creating a flute sound doesn’t come from blowing into the instrument with a wooden reed. The speed of the air is what causes the flute to vibrate and, thus, sound. This makes flute tone all the more unique from clarinet and saxophone!

A clarinetist could hold the prestigious role of concertmaster for a world-renowned wind ensemble, but have just as much fun improvising with a big band if he or she wanted to! The clarinet has a recognizable sound that is versatile and uniquely colorful. Part of that is due to its dark wooden body, unlike the brass-bodied flute & saxophone. Whether an instrument is conical or cylindrical also affects what it will sound like; in this case, clarinet and flute possess cylindrical bodies.

Saxophone is arguably the instrument closest-sounding to the human voice. It has the ability to string out the emotions, energy and other characteristics of any genre. It can sound as beautiful to you as it sounds harsh to me, or vice versa! Just as every human being has a voice, every saxophonist has a sound.

How will YOU speak through music?

Creative Processes and Products- Order and Chaos in Dialogue

March 5, 2016

Jim Simmons no guitar

By Jim Simmons

When beginning to write your own music, you will quickly discover the need to record your ideas. Soon after this discovery, another usually follows: namely, the need to make decisions about the ideas that have emerged.

These two problems have many solutions, and that is a good thing, because as you grow in your craft, so too, will your craft change. Even stranger is the fact that your creative process will also undergo its own changes and life cycles. Let me give an example:

Genesis used to write all of her chords down on paper, with the lyrics underneath, but now that her guitar technique has improved beyond simple chord playing, she’s found it difficult to describe what her guitar accompaniment is doing with words, letters, and symbols on paper. After trying to notate riffs and ideas simply by labeling them as they occurred (idea 1, idea 2), she became frustrated at never quite remembering what she had played. So, then Genesis began to video herself playing the ideas.

Now, what could some of the hidden difficulties be in the new approach? Perhaps our song writer still has the necessary and difficult task of sifting and choosing before her, and this may not just apply to different sections of the song—perhaps, she’s discovered there are two versions of a section that seem equally satisfying, and she can’t choose between them.

I have recently been undergoing certain changes in my own creative process, similar to the ones described above. I want to offer a few encouragements to any creators out there who’ve struggled with such challenges.

First of all, your song, project, piece, whatever it is—it doesn’t have to be the end-all-of-all perfect artistic/musical statement that you make. So, don’t feel the need to put all of your ideas into one song/piece/etc. Hopefully, you’ll write more in the future, so leave something else to say for later projects. Secondly, if you have differing versions of a musical section, that may be a good thing, since deliberate variations often lend interest to the listener. Regarding creative process, remember that just because it’s a “process” doesn’t mean it has to be systematic. It’s true that sifting through videos, audio recordings, lead sheets, and other sorts of sketches can be a chore, but such work will always bear fruit. Even if you wind up creating “too much” material, you may eventually use some of the leftovers to get you started on another work.

Lastly, creativity is, in my mind, more a way of life than a means to an end. It’s true that an artist should seek to share their work with others, and that it’s a shame when an artist never gets their ideas out of their head. But, similarly tragic is an artist haunted by perfectionism and the fear of failure. As good as you (and I) want that song, or piece, or project to end up sounding, creating music and art are values in-and-of-themselves. So, on one hand, be passionate about the quality of your finished product. But, on the other hand, be free, messy, methodical, imperfect, and committed to the chaotic, ordering process of creativity.

Here are some videos documenting a piece as it grew. I was sick at the time, and not very concerned with my playing technique, so some of the notes sound pretty bad, and some of the videos end with me more frustrated than satisfied, but I am so glad I can now reference these for the new version of the piece that is now underway.

 

Happy Creating!

Jim Simmons

 

Part 1

https://youtu.be/yV2omIwbb6w

 

Part 2

https://youtu.be/ImQ7S7SCTkM

 

Part 3

https://youtu.be/mAmsnKcG0f4

 

Part 4

https://youtu.be/myDghjcYWUc

 

Part 5

https://youtu.be/a4ACWH5A2IM

 

Part 6

https://youtu.be/0J0FYVyhJqI

 

Singing More than Just the Words

October 12, 2014

By, Catherine Behrens. Voice instructor at The Lesson Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music can bring about strong emotions, bring back old memories, and soothe our tired bodies at the end of a long day. As musicians, it is one of our chief goals to move people with what we do. We want to give a message to our audience that will leave them changed after they have heard us play or sing. There are many things that go into creating an impacting performance, but there is one tool that I want to focus on that is specific to singers. We have words. Composers and songwriters choose their lyrics very carefully. Whether they have taken inspiration from a great poet such as Shakespeare, Dickinson or Goethe, or if they have written their own, these words have been crafted to evoke emotion. When we sing, we sometimes get so focused on all the technique (which is super important!) we forget about the words. So here are some ideas on how to get the most meaning out of your song.

First, write out your words on a separate piece of paper and read them out loud. If there is a part that doesn’t make sense to you, really focus in on it. Try and figure out if it is symbolic or literal. Maybe it’s a metaphor or a description. If you still don’t know, talk to other people about it. Your teacher, family members, classmates, anyone who you think might be helpful in understanding what the writer meant. Keep reading it to yourself until the message of the words, and what you want to get across when you sing it, becomes ingrained in you. This is also a fantastic way to help memorize your songs!

Next, go into each individual sentence and determine which words are the most important in that sentence. For example, if you have something like “Never mind I’ll find someone like you” I would pick “mind” and “someone” as my two big words (although next time I sing that phrase I might pick “find” and “you”). This is probably going to be a little different for everybody, which is great because that’s going to make your interpretation unique. Once you have your words for each sentence or phrase, go through your music and underline them to remind you that those are the words you want to highlight. When you sing them, give them just a little more love than the other words. Making them pop like this will give your listeners a road-map of what is important in the music.

Finally, invest in what those words actually mean. It isn’t enough to have a head knowledge of what you are singing about, you should be feeling it too. So if you are singing a love song, and you’ve never been in love, maybe try to think about a friend that means a lot to you, or a family member. Make the lyrics your own. If you can’t relate to it, neither will anyone else. The thing that makes your favorite artists so good is that they move you. Maybe it moves you to dance, or cry, or to change the world, but you are feeling those emotions because the artist felt them first. Now it’s your job to feel those same things and pass it on the the next person.

So, at the end of the day, be sure you know what your song is about, and that it means something to you. Whether it’s Mozart or Rihanna, look at what the words behind the music mean. They cared a lot about how those words fit into music, and you should too. So dig deep and make the world listen to your song!

Guitar Tips!

May 5, 2013

by Mike Furry, Guitar instructor at The Lesson Studio

As a guitar player, it’s easy to overlook rhythm because we seem to be so focused on playing the notes but the rhythm is as important if not more important than the notes themselves. I could be playing the hippest notes but if my rhythm isn’t discernible then it doesn’t matter what notes I play because music is really the amalgamation of both harmony and rhythm. I could also be playing really bad notes but if I play them with a discernible rhythm then I certainly have a better chance to communicate more to the listener than if I was playing indiscernible rhythms.
In order to understand how rhythm works, it needs to be internalized. What do I mean when I say internalized? When a musicians is able to keep a steady pulse while playing a piece of music, without any outside help (drums beat, clapping, etc…) then the notion of rhythm has been internalized by that musician. In order to gain that internalization we must…PRACTICE. How do we practice rhythm? The use of a metronome is virtually incalculable to the skill of internalizing rhythm.

A metronome is a practice tool that produces a steady pulse (or beat) to help musicians play rhythms accurately. The pulses are measured in beats-per-minute or (BPM). Most metronomes are capable of playing beats from 35 to 250 BPM. The metronome is designed to help you maintain an established tempo while practicing, and learning difficult passages.

There are plenty of free online metronome sites that allow you to utilize a metronome without having to spend any money on it. When using a metronome start simple. I would suggest playing one note per beat (one “click” on the metronome equals one beat). After your comfortable playing one note per click, then try to play two notes per click. What does that mean? That means play a note on the click and play another note halfway between the first click and the second click. This creates a rhythmic imagination where we can understand where the middle of the beat is without hearing a click on the middle of the beat. From most people, this is the genesis of their rhythmic imagination or rhythmic internalization. From there try dividing the beat into three (triplets) and 4 (sixteenth notes). Once your comfortable playing these divisions of the beat, then try to play them at faster tempos by increasing the BPM. This internalization can then be applied to the songs that we learn and allows us as musicians to better replicate both the harmonies and the rhythms of the music that we love.

Mike Furry, Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Should I Leave it in the Car?

April 9, 2013

By Beth, Violin/Viola instructor at The Lesson Studio

When one plays a musical instrument, it is important to know not just how to play it, but how to take care of it as well. Almost all instruments are sensitive to heat, humidity, and general handling. This is especially true with violins.

The body of the violin is held together with a special epoxy. While we all know that it is glued together, what we often forget is that this glue is meant to break down at some point and let the instrument come apart. Why? In extreme temperature and/or humidity fluctuations, the wood reacts by expanding or contracting. In order to avoid cracks and further damage, the glue simply ‘lets go,’ allowing your instrument to come out unscathed, minus an open seam.

If you have an open seam on your violin, you need to take it to a luthier or repair shop as soon as possible. Playing on an instrument that has an open seam is dangerous, as the violin is not stable, and certain techniques could seriously compromise the violin structure and sound.

In order to protect your violin against open seams or other damage, it is important that you keep it in a stable temperature/humidity environment. Do not leave your instrument in your car for an extended period of time. What is an extended period of time? More than fifteen minutes. Heat and freezing cold can do equal permanent damage. In the picture on the left, the violin was left in a car, and the varnish melted, creating a wet, smeared finish. On the right, a violin cracked when left in the car. Both scenarios represent repairs worth hundreds of dollars.

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violin_crack1

The above damage to the violins is easily avoidable. Just treat your instrument like it is an animal or human. You wouldn’t leave a dog in a hot car for three hours in the summer, or your child in the car for an hour in the winter with no heat. Your violin is no different. Take your violin with you into the store, restaurant, or work. Most people won’t give you any trouble, and understand that an instrument is something to be protected. Your violin will thank you!!!

Beth Barnadyn, Violin Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Beth Barnadyn

Scales & Why You Should Practice Them

August 17, 2012

By Casey Cormier, Guitar & Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Casey Cormier, Guitar Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Casey Cormier

“Eat your vegetables before dessert,” says Mom.  “Stretch before taking the field,” says Coach.  “Practice your scales before playing that song,” says music instructor.  What do all of these things have in common?  Many consider them boring, or unnecessary, but all are good for you!

I’ve been asked many times before, by all ages of guitar students, “do I have to play this scale?”  I always say, “You don’t have to, but your hands will thank you for it in the long run”.  Scales help stretch your fingers, improve your picking and fretting technique, and prepare your wrist for those challenging chord switches.

Of course, the ability of the student should inform what scales he/she practices.  For beginners, the C major scale is great practice for the open position natural notes, ear training (do, re, mi can be sung along to it), and outlining the C major chord.  For intermediate players, the pentatonic scales (5 notes per octave) are great for strengthening the wrist, and provide barre chord approximation as well as lead guitar preparation.  For advanced players, playing the modes – Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, and so on – is equal parts ear training, technique building, and hand strengthening.  Not sure what some of the terms above are?  Don’t worry, you’ll learn as you progress on your instrument of choice.

Scale practice of all types can become stale, so it’s important to mix it up with some exercises.  A metronome is always useful for pushing one’s abilities.  For guitarists, try string skipping, playing in 3rds (do, mi, re, fa, mi, sol), and alternate picking to keep it fresh.  No matter what, you’ll have that song to look forward to after a quick warm-up session, and be surprised by how much easier playing will become!

The Primary Text

June 1, 2012

By Mike Furry, Guitar, Instructor at The Lesson Studio

ImageRock is a term that has a lot of ambiguity. In his book, The Primary Text, author Allan Moore refers to the music as the primary text. He also argues that musicologists are too busy looking at social factors to determine the validity of a composition. The focus should be on the music itself.

There are several conflicting definitions of what rock means. Some say rock music is a rebellion against pop music. Some say it is pop music itself. Instead of trying to define rock music, it’s best to focus on the stylistic conventions in order to understand it. The techniques that are used to analyze classical music should also be used to study the music of popular society. Unique terms are essential in order to draw parallels between classical analysis and rock analysis. Historical, political, and sociological factors are also relevant in understanding music.

Rock has its own unique style. The music can be identified through specific techniques, such as electric instrumentation, guitar solos, and studio sound production. Because it is always progressing and changing with the times, ultimately there can be no definitive definition of rock, and there are many ways of articulating that musical sound. Finally, remember to always keep an open mind when listening!

A Little Encouragement Goes A Long Way!

May 16, 2012

By Greg Warren, Saxophone, Flute, and Clarinet Instructor at The Lesson Studio

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As we all know, it takes a lot of consistent effort to get to where playing an instrument is stress free. For beginners especially, they realize that music is challenging and takes practice. One of the ways I engage my students is by giving them a choice—or a guided choice—of a song they might want to play, regardless of the instrument. For example, I have Flute players performing Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Saxophone players performing The Tokens “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Let’s face it—every musician deep down wants to be a Rockstar! The reason these songs are successful for beginners is because they already know them, and have a connection to them through some avenue of pop culture.

This does not mean that the rudiments are not important. They are the basis for a solid foundation and success. The pop style music is just a great way to get young musicians to play their instruments. It is amazing how much more a young musician will practice a song if they have a connection. With any luck, in the future, they will gain respect for the rudiments and an understanding of why they are important.

On another note, summer is upon us, and young musicians are being asked if they are going to continue playing in Middle School. Many of them will say yes, and many will drop out. There is one thing I’ve learned—if parents encourage young musicians to play over the summer, they will be more prepared for the rigors of a new musical ensemble. A little bit of encouragement goes a long way!

Nurtured By Love: Reflections On the Suzuki Method

May 2, 2012

By Alexa Massey, Cello, Instructor at The Lesson Studio

The Suzuki Method is a rich musical philosophy based on the life work of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki. As I come close to the end of my first year of studying Suzuki Pedagogy at the University of Denver, I have found myself reflecting on several significant points of the Suzuki method which have not only nurtured me as a person, but also shaped me as a musician and teacher.

The point that has affected me most deeply is Dr. Suzuki’s emphasis on talent being nurtured and created rather than inborn. Even growing up doing the Suzuki Cello books, I had not internalized this part of Suzuki philosophy until recently. Many people feel quickly discouraged and give up at endeavors at which they don’t immediately display exceptional “talent.” Suzuki inspires a pro-active sentiment, and makes me realize that my weaknesses are due to lack of effort, consistency, and/or lack of correct environment and instruction, rather than due to an inborn lack of ability. Dr. Suzuki has also made me take a second look at my apparent “talents”—and made me realize that my strengths are not due to a magical, inborn ability within myself, but rather the day-to-day conditions and priorities of my life, opportunities I’ve taken advantage of, as well as years of guidance from excellent teachers and constant support from my parents. It is these factors that have led to my success. Suzuki’s philosophies are motivating because one cannot feel hopeless about him or herself if they really put this principle into action every day of their lives. He teaches us that, “only through action can the power of the life force be displayed. Ability develops through practice.”

Dr. Suzuki’s work with disabled children has been especially moving to learn about. His “unorthodox” methods and relentless personal creativity show that, with effort and dedication, even a very young blind child can become a musical virtuoso, such as his Teiichi Tanaka, whom he describes in detail in his book Nurtured By Love. Dr. Suzuki’s dedication to this child helped him establish a way to express himself, build his self-esteem, offer him a social outlet, as well as give him opportunities to shine and touch people with his music through performance. I’m sure that his childhood and life were greatly enriched by music. Through his work with students such as Teiichi, Dr. Suzuki teaches us, “any child is able to display highly superior abilities if only the correct methods are used in training.”

While Dr. Suzuki turned out many talented young students, I believe that his method develops sensitivity, discipline, endurance, and a beautiful heart because of his belief that every child can. If music was treated like an exclusive “club” that only the elite or genetically pre-destined could join, then he would be building a foundation built on ego and personal insecurity. It would not reap true art. Because of his faith in all children, this philosophy instills real self-esteem and fine character that is not based on a child’s achievement, but rather the inherent worth of their soul and their infinite potential. His philosophy creates children with strength and humility of character. Dr. Suzuki lived the principle, “character first, ability second.” Dr. Suzuki teaches us to, “never loose your humility, for pride obscures the power to perceive truth and greatness.” By believing in the potential of every child, he was coming from a place of humility, greatness, and strength.

The world of music is so much more than a hobby or afterschool activity; it is a way of life, and something to keep the spirit alive in a world that will always have darkness.