Music Mastery Practice Tips Newsletter, Issue 10

February-March 2010

SNOW SNOW SNOW!!! You would think with all of these days of being "shut in" due to blizzards that I would have had plenty of time to get my February Newsletter out actually in the month of February. Alas, was not to be. Snow days for me means snow days for my two boys, plus providing daycare for my two-year-old nephew and seven-month-old neice. Talk about a three-ring circus!

Welcome to all the new subscribers! The list is growing exponentially, up to about 10 new subscribers a week! Thank you for your interest!"

Check out my interview on all things education for the Who Hub website. It contains my most recent thoughts on the state of education today. You can even ask my opinion on something in the text box on the right!

The P.M.E.A. State Convention is coming up in April. This year it is being held in the city of my youth, fabulous Pittsburgh, PA! I will be serving as a chaperone for the All-State Ensembles festival (free room and board, free food, free conference fees, free tickets to the All-State concert!). When not on duty as a chaperone, I will be attending clinics and browsing the vendors floor at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. If you live in the Pittsburgh area or are planning on attending PMEA yourself, contact me and we'll hook up. I will also be "live tweeting" several of the events and archiving them on my web page using the hashtag #PMEA. Be sure to follow me @thomasjwest to catch the tweets and pics. Someday when I have a smart phone, I'll include some sound bytes, too.

Magazine Interview! back in September, I was interviewed for an article in Flute Talk Magazine on the topic on online instrument lessons via webcam. The article goes to print soon. I will let you all know when it becomes available.

Music Educators from Around the World "Talk Shop" on Twitter!

Following in the footsteps of #edchat and #educon, a music education undergrad from the University of Miami hosted the first ever Music Education Chat last week on Twitter. I was honored to be a part of the inaugural chat, and look forward to tomorrow night's second session. Read more about the first chat and how you can join in the conversation here.

Recommendation of the Month

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The Sony ICD-PX720 Digital Voice Recorder is a battery-powered digital recorder that is intended for recording verbal dictation. It is not intended to record instrumental music performances, however, if a student does not have access to a reliable internet-ready computer at home, they can use a digital recorder like this one to benefit from recording their performances. Band and Orchestra directors can buy one of these and have students sign them out in order to make recordings. This model has a USB connection, so the recorder can be plugged into a computer and transfer the recording. Read more about the benefits of recording your music practice here. Where there's a will, there's a way. Students who do not have reliable access to the vast array of recording methods online or even on Windows XP can still make recordings to analyze themselves and share with their teachers.

February Highlights

The following articles were the most widely-read on in the month of February:

Neurology Applied: How Science is Bringing Music Instruction Back to Expressive Development: You have between your ears the most advanced processor ever seen. With the advent of MRI, CaT scans, and now PET scans, neurologists have made amazing discoveries in just how amazing the human brain really is. Their research gives us clearer and clearer pictures of how the human brain assimilates new knowledge, practices that knowledge, and is amazingly flexible and pliable in its application. Read more

10 Tips for Including a Metronome in Students' Practice: Students are reluctant to use a metronome because it "is frustrating" or "makes everything harder". This perception is due to the fact that they can "play it better" when they are allowed to make their own fluctuations in tempo than they can when they are required to maintain pulse. Once students work with a metronome for some time, under the guidance of a teacher, they begin to understand how valuable it can be. Here are some tips for incorporating metronome work into the practice of a student who does not use one. Read more

Are First Act Instruments Worth the Low Price? An Investigative Report: Because First Act instruments are sold in bulk retail and toy stores, they naturally get the label of being "toy instruments" and not for serious music students. Most music teachers I know scoff at them, calling them "instrument-shaped objects". But, is this really the case? Are these quality instruments that are just marketed differently? Read more

A Brass Player's Primary Tool for Tone Production - the B.E.R.P.: Any brass player worth their salt knows that the instrument itself is basically a channeler and amplifier for the thing that really produces the instrument's vibration, which happens to be the human lips. A brass player spends the majority of their practice time developing control, range, flexibility, and tone quality of the brass embouchure in much the same way a vocalist works for control and ease of use of the vocal folds. Read more

Flute Teaching for the Non-Flutist:Unless flute was your major instrument, it is likely that your ability to demonstrate proper flute embouchure to a student is limited. The best way to learn, of course, is to pick up a flute with your students and learn along with them. Read more

This Month's Practice Tip: Mental Rehearsal Works!

I have written a full article on this topic previously, but it is a powerful tool that most people have no idea is even possible, let alone effective. Mental rehearsal can be defined as "Using mental visualization of a physical movement with the intention of transferring the movement into a subconscious state of execution." By subconscious, I mean a state of automatic "muscle memory" where conscious attention on the muscle movements is minimal. For example, we have all (hopefully) rehearsed standing and walking to the point of subconscious mastery. Mental rehearsal is a process that allows a person to visualize a physical skill and program the neural pathways with the correct sequence of impulses to perform the skill with greater degrees of autonomy.

Modern neurological research supports the idea that before the body can perform a series of fine muscle movements, the mind must visualize the correct sequence of motor skills. It is possible for progress to be made on a technical passage of music without actually physically practicing the instrument.

Now, it must be said that the operative word in that statement is progress. You can not use Harold Hill's "Think System" from The Music Man to magically learn to play an instrument without ever touching it.You can read every book ever published about clarinet playing, you can memorize the fingering chart, you can interview clarinet players, and you can mentally rehearse, but if you never actually physically manipulate the instrument and send the neural signals from the brain to the muscles, you can't play the instrument.

If you are a practicing student of the instrument, however, mental rehearsal is another tool in your "bag of tricks" to apply to music you are working on. It is particularly useful in situations where actually practicing the instrument is not possible, such as traveling on a bus. Here are some suggestions for using visualization and mental rehearsal in your music practice:

  • Choose a location to do mental rehearsal that is conducive to being solitary and uninterrupted.
  • Begin with controlled breathing: Breathe in for a count of three, hold it for three, and release for three. Cycle this three times.
  • One of the most challenging thing for most people about mental rehearsal is the mind's tendency to get derailed by extraneous associated thoughts. If you find your mind wandering in the midst of the process, catch yourself, allow the thought to pass into stillness, and begin the mental rehearsal again from the beginning.
  • Be sure to focus on the process of performing the passage of music in the mechanical sense. Picture each fingering, each bow movement, each breath happening exactly as it should in perfect flowing motion. Do not focus on the results of the practice without going through the practice sequence first.
  • Mentally rehearse the sequence of fingerings etc. just as you would physically - go slow enough to be certain that you have visualized every detail of the passage correctly. Then, repeat at a faster tempo until you can visualize every detail of the passage performed at the tempo you wish.
  • Just as with physical rehearsal, successful repetition of the visualization is essential to wiring together the correct neurosynaptic pathways for the brain to automate the motion.
  • Focused mental rehearsal for at least fifteen minutes can yield positive results when you return to the instrument physically.

Mental rehearsal not only can provide benefits to a student's performance, it can also have the added benefits associated with meditation. One of the most powerful things about mental rehearsal is that the mind can establish a pattern of thought where the music is performed without tension. Tension is the primary cause of reduced effectiveness in all music performance, no matter what the instrument may be, including the human singing voice.

If you have had positive or negative experiences with mental rehearsal, consider sharing your story with me.

Until next time,


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