From Aspiring Composer to Aspiring Learner
I joined the academy of western music exactly two years back; with one steady goal- learn enough music to be able to compose within a few months. Having a strong base in the rhythm and lyrics departments, I figured that the tune was the only ingredient I had left to acquire, in order to make music. Rather than the violin, the guitar or the flute, I decided to play the King of all instruments- the piano (because once you chalked out the plan for a song in the piano, it’s very simple to extrapolate that plan and implement it in an orchestra). Like most ambitious people with a “how hard could it be” attitude, I was deluded by the thought that creativity thrived on ignorance. I felt that learning music gave the mind a fixed direction to think. This meant that learning would make you narrow minded in the way you’d approach new compositions and eventually, you will just end up becoming another artist with a perfectly predictable collection of tunes in a compact disk. On the other hand, if you were ignorant about the technicalities and just had a basic sense of what sounded good, you would sit in front of the piano and hit random notes in different combinations till you eventually discovered what sounded nice. Since you’re not really thinking in terms of playing “this chord for this note“, your mind would essentially look at the possibility of “12 different keys (5 black and 7 white, per scale) for each note” that you try. So this lack of bias would definitely yield something unique. Moreover, every song would have a whole new flavor of that uniqueness. All this sure does seem theoretically possible. But only when you actually sit in front of a keyboard and hit those keys hopelessly do you realize that you don’t seem to be going anywhere. So I realized that I had to equip myself with the fundamentals of the piano to some extent. Thus, despite my reticence, I enrolled for the piano course to get no more than a very basic idea which would prime my fingers and get me in the zone to start composing.
But as I sat in front of that beautiful contraption of strings, hammers and ivory keys, its very majesty drew my fingers to perch on its keys gracefully. Suddenly, even the mistakes I made while playing, sounded like music to me. I was able to connect with every single semitone that the instrument produced and felt an increasing need to delve into it. Since then, every single piano class (which is unfortunately only once a week) has been a source of happiness and escapism from everything else. My parents gifted me a digital piano (no, it’s NOT a keyboard, it’s a whole lot more identical to a piano in terms of the number of octaves and the behavior of the keys) during my second week of class and are still struggling to keep me away from it, even when I have to read for exams in college.
This journey has changed my approach towards music completely. For a very simple and relatable example, most of us have this mindset that any song on the piano can be divided into the main melody that we hum, which is played by one hand and the chords (or the bass or the background in general) which is played by the other. That does seem a bit simple because it makes you feel that once you figure out the tune, you can play the chord that’s centered round the first note (main note) of each bar. But right from my first class, that belief changed completely. First of all, the non melody hand needn’t necessarily play the whole chords. It can even play singular notes which perfectly fit like siblings to the corresponding melody line. Also, the role of each hand can be interchanged in different sections of the song. So, the background notes needn’t necessarily sound deeper (low pitch) with respect to the melody. Most importantly, the chords govern the way the tune proceeds, so if you have been selecting your chords based on the melody you have conjured, you haven’t been doing it right. This also implies that there can be a song with both hands playing only chords throughout, but there can never be a song which only has a melody component. Apart from making my jaw drop, these above facts prompted me to explore this world more to see what else I don’t know. My teacher, Mr. Srikanth Gnanasekaran, told me that it was time I started listening to classical composers, because I could only learn more if I listened more. Naturally I started with Mozart and Beethoven and soon, all those very common reverse tones, elevator songs and Nokia ring tones that we hardly pay attention to, became masterpieces to me when I studied the actual way they had been written. Every single chord transition that changed the mood of the song taught me a lot about progressions and instilled in me a huge sense of respect for the thought processes that those great composers were blessed with.
But what if I told you, that those few pieces were just the beginning of an era of musicians whose songs become more complex and intricate? Bach, Mozart and Beethoven laid the foundation for the composers of the next century to build up on. Soon, there was a surplus of musical geniuses in the post Beethoven period- the Romantic Era of Music. These Romantic Era composers have been the most significant influences in my musical learning.
Essentially, every composer spoke the same language “music”. But the way they conveyed their thoughts and interpretations of their life is what changed the music they made. Every song I listen to is like a movie where the notes speak to me to tell me different stories, show different moods and paint a picture of the way its composer looked at life. Who would have thought that I would reach a level where I can sit through as long as 75 minutes of a single song which is only instrumental? The fact that I would travel so far down that path which no one (including myself) expected me to even consider taking, is STILL pretty hard to digest for most people. My friends are still astonished when they think of the way I moved from “whoa! Eminem just dropped a new album” to “dude!! Have you heard Chopin’s Waltz in B minor, Opus 69- number 2?” The only exams I enjoy reading for are my grade exams. Through these tireless 2 years, as I moved through 4 grades, I don’t recall a single instance that I don’t want to relive. To sum it all up, I’d say that this piano course has made me more patient. It has slowed me down and given me the thirst to learn, rather than an ambitious thirst to achieve. I can never imagine what I’d do without my piano beside me in life. Yes, like I said before, learning music does make the mind move in a particular direction, and all I can say is that I really like the direction in which I am going, thanks to the Academy of Western Music.
Piano Student (Trinity, Grade IV) -Academy of Western Music, Chennai.
Finding motivation to practice: music-learning grounded in social experience and demystification
Perhaps one of the most common problems that we as musicians have (and by musicians I mean everyone involved in music) is finding motivation to practice. I hope this paper will provide you with some tips and methods to help you find motivation to practice, and make the learning process more rewarding. Ideally, motivation should come from within each of you and your own interest in music. Practice should not be something you dread, and it should not be something to be endured. You should be able to enjoy your practice, find it rewarding, challenging, and even fun. No-one likes to be forced to practice, and nobody (believe it or not) likes to force anyone to practice. So, the main question this piece of writing seeks to answer, at least to some extent, is: In what ways can we as musicians find motivation to practice?
A brief search in Google of ‘motivation to practice’ produces typical suggestions that encourage students to:
These are all good suggestions that can certainly help to motivate students to practice. However, they miss an important factor in finding motivation to practice: they are not related to the act of music-making or the music itself. This paper argues that students can draw motivation to practice from the act of music-making and the music itself.
Learning and the social nature of music:
So, we’ll begin with some of the most common factors that people who make music like about it. The most common assertion offered by musicians is that it is extremely enjoyable to make music with other people. Music is and always has been primarily a social act that happens with other people. Most of the acclaimed musicians in history had very social musical lives. Given the social nature of music, it should be a priority of people who learn to make their music-making and learning as social as possible. The issue I have with the way I learnt was that I did it in a very isolated way. I would practice the piece of music I was learning, go to my weekly lesson and play for my teacher, and then go home and practice for the next lesson. So, apart from the occasional performance, my teacher was, by and large, the only person who heard me play on a regular basis. I found this demotivating because I felt very isolated and wasn’t sharing the music I was making or the learning process with other people. In short, my learning was not social which goes against the social nature of music.
So, when I was about 21, I changed this. I played to friends on a regular basis and got them involved in the process of learning of piece of music. I’d ask them what they thought of certain passages, or if I was having difficulty I’d ask if they could suggest anything that could help. And I did the same for them.
I found this motivating for a number of reasons:
I would encourage those seeking motivation to practice to play to people other than their teacher on a regular basis. Moreover, if you can make music with other people on a regular basis, you will vastly improve as a musician.
Understanding through musical analysis
Analysis is quite a scary word for a lot of people, but I think it’s a very important tool for musicians to motivate themselves to practice. Analysis can be very simple, and it can also be very complicated. In fact, it can become so complicated that it is rendered useless, in my opinion. This sections describes the basic tools you should be learning and utilising from the beginning of your studies that will help demystify music and motivate you to practice by making the music more accessible.
We’ll begin with points / activities that surround the piece you are learning:
With both of these points you can include your friends and family and share your new found knowledge.
We’ll now move on to musical analysis:
Analysis can go even further, but for me these areas are a great starting point to help you develop as a musician.
So, How does this help with motivation to practice? Essentially, this kind of analysis makes the music more accessible. It:
Setting musical goals
Setting realistic musical goals to achieve in a practice session organises your practice. Almost all musicians will have been told at the beginning of their studies to practice for 30 minutes a day. This is good advice, but can be supplemented with the setting of daily musical goals. For example, instead of saying ‘I will practice for 30 minutes today’, you might say: ‘I will learn the first 8 bars of this piece of music’. Instead of adhering to the traditional 30 minutes of practice, you could practice until your goal is achieved. Having a clear goal will make your practice more efficient and help you get motivated to practice.
It is important to implement manageable goals. One way of doing this is to divide your teacher’s expectations into 5 or 6 daily tasks. If the first task is to work on the first section of music, the second task will be to work on the second section of music, and so on.
To conclude, this article has introduced three important approaches to learning that can aid students find motivation to practice which can be bracketed under the following themes: the social nature of music, musical analysis, and setting musical goals. It is hoped this article aids students find motivation to practice which holds as its focus and ultimate goal an adherence to the social nature of music.
Music Teacher & Doctoral Researcher (University of York)
The Struggle to the Competition
I’m thankful to four people: my teacher, my mother, my father and my grandmother for the third place that I won in the All India Junior Level Kawai Piano Competition.
Without my teacher, I couldn’t do any thing. He slowly, patiently, indefatigably taught me all the pieces I needed to play. Mr. Srikanth Gnanasekaran really helped me while I failed, lifted me when I stumbled, and pushed me high when I was low. Another teacher, however, taught one of the songs to me. In Dubai, where I used to live, a wonderful teacher named Ms. Valentina taught me the song, Menuet. Most of you would not have heard it. It was composed by Johann Mattheson and it’s included in Trinity Grade 2, 2012-2014 book. Mr. Srikanth tirelessly made sure I played the pieces to a certain level before heading for the competition in Bengaluru.
My mother sat with me everyday, enduring even the unendurable pieces and making sure I got better. She politely listened to my pieces and made sure she properly expressed where I had gone wrong. She encouraged me to go on and made sure my playing was audible. Without her I would have stopped preparing properly for the competition.
My father sat with me whenever he got the chance. He has an unquenchable thirst for music and could not stop listening to it. He would make me play, correct my mistakes, help me learn new pieces, and encourage me to go on. My father used to play the mridangam (a percussion instrument used in Carnatic music), so the difference between my mother and my father is that my mother was more fixed on the melody, while my father helped me out with my beat. Without him, my tempo would have been gone long ago.
This is the surprise one. You must be thinking, “How could his grandmother help him get ready for his competition?” You would not believe it, but when everybody else left saying I played badly, my grandmother stood by me, making me practice the piece again and again until I got it right. She would say a very popular saying “Practice makes perfect!” She could not come for the competition in Bengaluru, but listened to the recording that my parents had done. She congratulated me as soon as we arrived here in Chennai. Without her I would not have believed I could do well in the competition.
These four people with their talent, encouragement, and indefatigable thirst for music really helped me to be among the top three in this competition.
When I came to class that day, sir told my parents that there was a competition hosted by Kawai in Bengaluru. My parents immediately said yes. I was incredibly nervous. How would I do in a contest? Would I do well? Would I not do well? I’d never been to one before. The only place I’d performed was my old school’s talent show! I was so frustrated I couldn’t even play properly! So after the class I went and had a long think about it. Should I do it or should I not? This same argument went on until I got my award. Then, the warring parts of myself finally came to an unanimous conclusion. I should have. I definitely should have.
Suhrit Venkatvardhan (Age: 10 years)
Piano Student –Academy of Western Music, Chennai.
What is performance anxiety?
For many musicians, it’s a common scenario: you stand backstage about to go on, you may feel your chest pound, your breathing grow shallow, your stomach fluttering, your hands sweaty, sometimes shaking, your shoulder blades hurt. It’s bad enough that you have to experience these unpleasant feelings, but you also worry that they will ruin how your music sounds onstage. You head down, to the center of the stage and can feel the sweat trickling down your neck. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you might faint (a good exit strategy from the situation).
Anxiety is a normal part of life, and a small amount of anxiety can help kick us into action to do something we have avoided. But stage fright or performance anxiety is the anxiety or fear which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially.
MPA or Music Performance Anxiety
MPA has been divided into two distinct types:
Cognitively anxious musicians portray consistent thinking styles about their playing and performing. They might have negative biases in their self-perceptions before and after a performance; “It’s going to be rubbish,” “I’m a terrible musician,” They can show heightened concerns about the consequences of performances; “Everyone heard that note,” “I am disappointing the audience”.
Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms that are experienced during an anxiety provoking event — tremors, dry mouth, dizziness, all caused through over arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.
Source of MPA
For those who’ve struggled with it, accept MPA as an inevitable part of performing. For them it is a “conditioned fear” that was acquired in childhood, when they were made to perform and had a bad experience. The brain learns quickly to avoid danger and once it decides that audiences are scary, it’s not about to change its mind. Fear associations are stored in a small organ in the brain called the amygdala, and there they remain for the rest of our lives.
There are many contrasting reasons for why a musician feels anxiety when taking the stage. Psychologist Glenn Wilson has divided the sources of musical performance anxiety into three categories: the task, the situation, and the person. (Klickstein, 2009; Lehmann, Sloboda & Woody, 2007, ch. 8; Wilson & Roland, 2002; Valentine, 2002).
How to deal with performance anxiety
Many have advised musicians that the key to a successful performance is over-preparation. “Practice your music so much that even your worst rendition still sounds pretty good, your body will deliver it onstage without thinking”. According to this view, you can have utmost confidence and no reason to worry going into a performance.
When well-intentioned performers pass on their advice of “what worked for me,” the result can be a diagnostic mismatch: one person’s prescribed treatment does not fit the underlying cause of another person’s anxiety. For example, the common recommendation of doing extra practice performances in the recital hall (source = the situation) will not help if your anxiety really comes from attempting music that is just too difficult for you (source = the task). No amount of breathing exercises or relaxation techniques will erase symptoms that have been brought on by irrational and/or negative thoughts and perfectionism(source = the person).
More common are recommended cure-alls, ranging from the silly (“imagine your audience in their underwear”) to the simplistic (“practice, practice, practice”). This reflects the fatalist attitude mentioned above, in which musicians accept anxiety as a fact and resign to battling symptoms without considering what’s causing them.
Performance means different things to different musicians. It seems that many musicians adopt an anxiety-related performance perspective early in their development (Thomas & Nettelbeck, 2013). A preventative approach starts with identifying the source.
A recent study showed that how you think about your musical instrument can affect your susceptibility to anxiety (Simoens & Tervaniemi, 2013). These researchers identified several attitudes that musicians may hold. They can feel united or “as one” with the instrument, they can see it as something to hide behind, or they can think of it as an obstacle to overcome between themselves and an audience. As might be expected, the research revealed that those with a united mindset had the lowest scores of performance anxiety. They also scored favorably in other measures of well-being, including confidence and the experience of positive feelings or boost during performance. The researchers suggest that those who feel united with their instruments can more freely express themselves and be less vulnerable to the opinions of others.
As musicians, the way we think about performance results from our past experiences and the musical cultures in which we’ve developed. It can be a difficult and unpleasant exercise to try to identify the attitudes and thought processes in ourselves that undermine our performance success. But the wealth of past research on performance anxiety has indicated that the most damaging thoughts are those that are irrational and negative “I am going to forget the words” “I’ll never do well” “I’m going to miss that note” “I never get this right”. What needs to happen, however, is to acknowledge these negative thoughts, expose them for their faulty quality, and, most importantly, replace them with realistic and task-centered thoughts (see Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012).
Effectively changing your own thinking or cognitive restructuring, as psychologists call it does not happen without some work. Fortunately, the work that is required is, in a way, familiar to musicians, practice. If you’ve determined that the source of your performance anxiety is your own inner dialogue, then you can practice new thought patterns. Irrational and negative thinking will fade as you deliberately rehearse thoughts that are realistic and that focus on the true nature of music making.
Hoffman, S. L., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2012). Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(1), 17–28.
Klickstein, G. (2009). The Musician’s Way. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians. New York: Oxford University Press.
Simoens, V. L., & Tervaniemi, M. (2013). Musician–instrument relationship as a candidate index for professional well-being in musicians. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(2), 171-180.
Thomas, J. P., & Nettelbeck, T. (2013). Performance anxiety in adolescent musicians.Psychology of Music. Published online before print July 31, 2013.
Valentine, E. (2002). The fear of performance. In J. Rink (Ed.), Musical performance: A guide to understanding (pp. 168-182). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, G. D., & Roland, D. (2002). Performance anxiety. In R. Parncutt & G. E. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance (pp. 47–61). New York: Oxford University Press.
Woody, R. H. (2013, August). Stage Fright: What to Do When the Problem Is You. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/live-in-concert/201308/stage-fright-what-do-when-the-problem-is-you
Woody, R. H. (2012). When Practice, Practice, Practice Isn’t the Answer. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/live-in-concert/201207/when-practice-practice-practice-isn-t-the-answer
M.Phil (Psychology), Associate London College of Music (ALCM)
Vocal Instructor –Academy of Western Music, Chennai.
Baffled By Beats
I still remember when I was a kid my parents always would play a song or clap aloud to draw my attention towards them. At the sound of music I would pause anything that I would be into and extend complete attention to listen to that I hear. It wasn’t about the lyrics or the tune of what I was listening to, it was ‘that’ magic element of the music that kept the lyrics and tune going – the rhythm. Rhythm was a fascinating concept that kept me engaged as a lad. Anything and everything that would get caught between my fingers I would use them as sticks and bang on a door, utensils, sometimes on my dad’s head even trying to understand the concept of drum beats. As days moved on I discovered that it was a percussive instrument that would create a feel and tempo of the song and is therefore the ‘backbone’ of any band. The drum is a very popular instrument that all cultures have in common! The role of a drum kit is loud and dominant as the lead vocals in most music styles! My passion to learn drums grew stronger and yes did land me as a distinction holder in the 8th Grade percussion exams from the Trinity college of London and eventually my passion became my profession as well. I love being a Drum tutor!
In history, drumming and the use of percussive instruments have had a significant role in people’s lives. Not only do the people who play these instruments enjoy them, but it is said that “there is as much pleasure participating in, as listening to and admiring to it”. The use of drums has been recognized as being able to put people into spiritual trances throughout history. The drum set is a musical instrument with great power and presence that gives the “pulse” or backbone to the music it is incorporated with.
I view drumming as a way to complete the inner self. Drumming is helpful in relieving stress and improving physical and mental well-being. Playing the drums has very positive effects on brain development and coordination. Drumming is also beneficial to hand-eye coordination and improves reflexes and develops muscles. Learning to play the drums gives enough instant gratification to be enjoyable for the beginner student, yet can be challenging and difficult enough to keep even the most seasoned player engaged and interested in learning more.
1. Drumming can help students grow academically; it can improve students’ ability to concentrate and compliment their studies in the arts, math, science, language arts, history & physical fitness.
2. According to scientific research, playing music, and hence drumming and playing percussion, increases the development of various regions of the brain, including the corpus callosum, motor and auditory cortexes.
3. Playing drums and rhythms can be an optimal experience and encourages participants of all ages to achieve flow.
4. Drumming is a healing art and therefore it can give participants of any age a better sense of well-being.
5. Hand drumming (and regular participation in any form of percussion playing) increases the physical stamina of students.
6. Drumming increases body awareness & kinesthetic development; drumming helps students develop graceful coordination and self-control.
7. The process of drumming engages both the linear, rational left brain and the creative (intuitive right brain).
8. Playing rhythms improves listening skills and increases children and teens’ ability to focus for extended periods of time.
9. In general, the increasing of rhythmic skills – and the learning of any musical instrument – increases students’ confidence.
10. Playing rhythmic music helps students to take notice of the rhythms and beauty in nature and their surroundings.
The above stated facts are indeed amazing and I have experienced it myself being a drummer. My role as a drum tutor at the Academy of Western Music (AWM), Chennai is a dream come true thing. The AWM offers a great music learning ambience and experience to its students and opportunities to the faculties here. As a tutor, every session is exciting, and the top notch instruments make the teaching and learning all the more interesting at this music academy. If you find your child baffled by the beats, Academy of Western Music is the place for him/her to master the art. Enroll him; let him enjoy the experience of the enthralling beauty in beats.
F. Terence Nathan
Drum Instructor –Academy of Western Music, Chennai.