SMART Practice

Fox’s Fireside – Summer Camp Edition

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My wife is a genius!

Well, I knew this before I married her in 1978, but every day I work “side by side” with her on music education projects like the South Hills Junior Orchestra Online Academy (SHJOOLA – pronounced shah-ZOH-lah), I discover even more of her amazing “hidden” talents and insights!

Donna Stark Fox is the author of 99% of this Fox’s Fireside.

We launched SHJOOLA and other digital/virtual/alternative programs (like SHJO.clips) to keep our community orchestra instrumentalists practicing inspite of the school closure and restrictions caused by the pandemic. We want to foster our players’ self-confidence and motivate even greater focus on new growth and achievement in instrumental technique, key literacy, ear-training, musicianship, personal goal-setting, and artistic enrichment. As the character Jean-Luc Picard from the Star Trek Next Generation series says, ENGAGE… in the pursuit of their own inspired initiatives in music learning!

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During the first week of SHJOOLA, we introduced this SMART Practice Primer (download and adapt to your own practice regime). The philosophy comes from my wife’s (ahem) 55+ years in the field of music performance as a violinist and pianist and a versatile career of 38+ years in the public schools teaching strings, band, general music, elementary chorus, musicals, etc.

What are the secrets of practice success? Past Fox’s Firesides address many issues of time, goals, focus, mentors, problem solving, and various playing techniques. (You may also peruse this catalog of past articles and our SHJO.clip library here.)

This article hopes to bring out a new approaches to “practice builds self-confidence…”

Are you ready for SMART Practice?

  • Schedule time for practice by using a calendar.
  • Find a quiet place to practice and gather everything you need.
  • Set goals. Write them down, make them measurable, and be specific and realistic. Check them off and “raise” your goals frequently.
  • Gather your equipment, including your instrument, music stand, chair, pencils, music folder, metronome, and tuner.
  • Chart your practice with a list of what to practice, because writing it down is a promise to do it!
  • Keep a reflective journal to organize your thoughts, to analyze and to set new goals.
  • Regularly make audio or video recordings of yourself and keep them in a file in a folder on your electronic device.

Smart Practice 1

Success starts with a plan!

Begin with a long-range goal/dream.

  • I will perform a solo with a symphony orchestra.
  • I will become a professional musician.
  • I will play in a college orchestra or band.
  • I will enjoy music throughout my adult life.

Set medium-range goals.

  • I will play a Mozart Concerto before I am 16.
  • I want to upgrade to a better-quality instrument when I am 14.

Set and rest short-term goals on a weekly and even daily basis.

  • This week, I will play the Bach Fugue with accurate fingerings and pitch.
  • This week, I will play the Bach Fugue at performance tempo.

Here is an example of one violinist’s SMART Practice plan:

 

Practicing with a plan

Tips on SMART Practice

  1. Warm-up with drills and exercises.
  2. Identify the key of each selection you are practicing.
  3. Play the scale for the key you have identified, using a rhythm or articulation pyramid.
  4. Select a passage to improve and mark the fingerings in pencil.
  5. Say the note names in half notes. (“If you can say it, you can play it!”)
  6. Be sure you practice every note as a half note using the fingerings provided by the conductor.
  7. Use a metronome to “keep it honest.”
  8. Practice VERY SLOWLY using the original rhythm and bowings/articulations.
  9. Gradually increase the tempo by “inching up” on the metronome.
  10. How many times have you played the passage correctly?
  11. Ten consecutive times right today, and ten more tomorrow, will already make the passage 20 times better than it was before!
  12. Schedule your next practice session.
  13. Reflect in your journal and set new short-term goals for tomorrow!

 

smart practice is training your brain

Training your brain is SMART Practice

  • Practice is a process.
  • Practice is all about habit development.
  • Practice leads to self-confidence.
  • Practice is an opportunity for self discovery.
  • Practice is cumulative.
  • Practice is where you can make mistakes privately.
  • Amateurs practice to get it right.
  • Professionals practice so that they never play it wrong.

This is your brain on SMART Practice

Variety is the spice of life and music variations challenge the mind!

You may have heard these strategies before:

  • First make it easier, then progressively harder.
  • First subtract (e.g. remove slurred notes) and then progressively add more challenging elements to the music (dynamics, longer phrases, articulations, fingerings, positions, memorization, etc.)
  • First play it slower, then progressively faster.
  • First take smaller sections (measure by measure, phrase by phrase), then progressively expand to larger sections, eventually being able to play the entire piece.

practice rubric

Try these rhythm and articulation pyramids on your scales, warmups, etudes, and any difficult passage in the music. Taking “baby steps,” create a new way to learn the part…

More to come… Part II will dive into additional recommendations for personal music problem solving with numerous examples.

Keep at it! You’ll make us all proud. Most importantly, especially yourself!

PKF

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The mission of the nonprofit South Hills Junior Orchestra is to support and nurture local school band and orchestra programs, to develop knowledge, understanding, performance skills, and an appreciation of music, to increase an individual member’s self-esteem and self-motivation, and to continue to advance a life-long study of music. Members of the Orchestra learn, grow, and achieve positions of leadership to serve their fellow players.

The second half of our 37th season (Spring 2020) was postponed due to school closures and the pandemic. We are now offering SHJOOLA – the South Hills Junior Orchestra Online Academy. The program includes virtual sectional rehearsals, special workshop seminars via Zoom, and remote music learning activities, both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and provides a one-year subscription to MusicFirst Classroom, PracticeFirst, Sight Reading Factory, Musition (music theory), Noteflight (score notation) and other apps. Western PA instrumentalists are welcome to apply for membership in one of the 25 remaining “seats” in SHJOOLA by contacting Managing Director Janet Vukotich.

(For more information about SHJO, please visit www.shjo.org.)

This and all Fox’s Fireside blog-posts are free and available to share with other music students, parents, directors, and supporters of the arts. For a printable, hard copy of this article, click here.

 

© 2020 by Paul K. Fox and Fox Paws Publications

 

Photo credit from Pixabay.com:

“Camp Fire” by Chris Aram

 

 

TEAM = “Together Everyone Achieves More”

A Twist on an Old Fable… Who Really Won the Race?

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Eric Thibodeau

 

Before you do anything else, I want you to “take four,” fire up your computer, and view this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xevQ2yTyK9Y.

foxsfiresidesWhat is the moral to the final story of these two racers… the turtle and the rabbit?

To all student instrumentalists: SHJO and your school music ensemble represent a “TEAM” – not only inspiring your own creative self-expression and skill development, but learning to communicate, connect “symphonically,” and come together with all the musicians to achieve common goals.

For similar advice, we can go all the way back to the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

According to Wikipedia, synergy is the creation of “a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.” The term synergy comes from the word synergos (συνεργός) meaning “working together.”

Another way to reflect on this concept is with this parable “Whose Job Is It” (author unknown) demonstrating apathy:

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.  There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

If you want to create the life and musical success you want, don’t be like Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. Be true to yourself. Take responsibility for your life! Don’t let Everybody, Somebody, Anybody or Nobody stop you from doing what you need to achieve what you want and deserve for yourself and the TEAM!

The “take-a-ways” from this fable? What is your charge “for the good of the TEAM?”

  • Take personal responsibility for defining what life and musical success means to you.
  • Take personal responsibility for building your self-confidence. (Practice!)
  • Take personal responsibility to participate in rehearsals regularly. (Attend every week!)
  • Take personal responsibility for developing the competencies (skills) and preparations (focus on the hard passages) you need to succeed in the music.
  • Take personal responsibility for putting sufficient time seriestoshare-logo-01into the “TEAM.”
  • Take personal responsibility for building and nurturing relationships in the orchestra that will help you promote success.
  • Take personal responsibility in supporting the TEAM in “fun” raising (socials) and fund-raising projects… as we used to say back in the 60s, “be there or be square!”

At a SHJO rehearsal last Saturday, I expressed concerns that the reality of inconsistent attendance and inadequate at-home practice is making it difficult to rehearse and achieve progress. However, rest assured, I know our concerts will be great!

In every fifth-year anniversary milestone of SHJO, we have given back to those who have given us a very special gift… a permanent home. Our fund-raising efforts are lagging behind and we need all Friends of SHJO to “step up to the plate.”

In the future, you will have the opportunity to engage with other booster members and their leadership team to proceed toward our fund-raising goal of $12,000 for a gift to our gracious hosts, the Upper St. Clair School District. Ads and patron donations received as we go forward will be acknowledged in future concert programs, and we look forward to your generous assistance.

You are encouraged to peruse the South Hills Junior Orchestra website. Under “Resources,” check out the free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

 

SHJO35yr

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “a community orchestra for all ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

Pizza, Batting Averages, and the “Ten Times Rule!”

Photo credit: FreeImages.com, photographer Sean Myers

More Practice Tools for Musical Preparation and Building Self-Confidence

foxsfiresidesInstrument lessons and orchestra practices provide opportunities for the music teacher to impart a few “tricks of the trade” in reading and then practicing music. I call these my “Craftsmen Tools” for successful musical construction… one note or one line of music at a time.

Take it from a world-famous maestro! According to Itzhak Perlman, practicing effectively “comes down to listening. What are you listening for when you practice?” He advises, “Just reduce it to small increments, two or three bars, and try to get a hold of everything at the same time… You can accomplish a lot more in less time. Practicing slowly is extremely important. Then you can figure out what’s going on. Nothing escapes you.”

You may have heard my reference to “cutting pizza” for the focus on a specific section, passage or “slice” in the music in order to repetitively drill to learn the notes. I suggest to my students that they should “take it small and take it slow,” and then gradually speed up the excerpt. Psychologists and education experts know that humans cannot absorb/retain/recite huge amounts of data at one time. (That is one of the reasons, for example, we separate long numbers with hyphens, like phone numbers, zip codes, and the social security identification. We CAN remember two, three and four digits at a glance, but most of us feel a little overwhelmed to memorize five or more numbers or places!)

In learning a new piece of music, the recommendation is to divide the work into segments. Our fast-paced life-style and hectic schedules do not usually allow for “gulping the whole thing” at one sitting (or playing through the entire folder of music, every note including the easy whole notes and rests). It is equally important to prioritize the “hard spots” in the music, and use slowed-down echo practice to our advantage. Labeling each section, and even going as far to marking the date each time it is practiced, will help our instrumentalists to focus on things that seem hard, logically plan (at first out-of-sequence), problem-solve, learn the day’s “goal,” and eventually put the pieces back together.

seriestoshare-logo-01At lessons, some music teachers refer to batting averages, and point out how a .333 baseball hitting average is outstanding in the Major Leagues (when big-league pitchers are throwing 90-mile hour balls at you), but terrible for a musician who plays one note right to two notes wrong. Since each practice session builds neural-connections across brain cells (physical “memory” to do the skill again), in order to “play it right” consistently, we have to repeat it accurately over and over again, thus “the Ten Times Rule.” Musicians have to achieve a .950 or better average, and practicing their challenging musical “slice” ten times in a row will do the most good. Cumulative effort over different sessions or days is also the key to success! If a hard passage is played 10-20 times today, repeated 10-20 times tomorrow, another set of 10-20 drills the next day, etc. until the part can be played perfectly “in a row” every time, the player will have NO WORRIES when it comes time to perform it at the concert.

Several months prior to my senior viola recital at Carnegie-Mellon University, I told my professor I was a bit nervous. He said I was not practicing enough (on the hard sections). What I did not understand at the time was I lacked this drill-method of practicing to build my self-confidence and improve my “batting average.” If nothing but perfect sounding or “reruns” of music comes from your practice session, you are not properly focusing on “one slice at a time” nor winning with “the ten times rule!”

Take a trip to the South Hills Junior Orchestra website. Under “Resources,” check out the three sets of free “Series to Share…” additional “Fox’s Fireside” issues by Paul K. Fox, and “Music Enrichment Workshop” presentations by Donna Stark Fox.

PKF

© 2017 Paul K. Fox

 

SHJO35yr

This “Series to Share” is brought to you by… the Founding Directors of the South Hills Junior Orchestra (SHJO), “a community orchestra for all ages” based in Western Pennsylvania. Feel free to download a printable copy and distribute to music students, parents, teachers, and fellow amateur musicians.

SHJO rehearses most Saturdays in the band room of the Upper St. Clair High School, 1825 McLaughlin Run Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15241. New members are always welcome! For more information, please go to www.shjo.org.