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A Word about Learning and Memorizing…

Here is a new way to look at understanding human memory: the memory unit. I consider the basic functional memory unit to be the amount of material which can be played or studied six times and then played by memory the seventh.

This is based upon the limitations of the short term memory. These limitations are 10 – 15 seconds and 5 – 7 “chunks”. A chunk is a single idea which can be made of many individual bits of information. A one octave C major scale can be looked at as either 8 chunks, where each note requires a new idea. Or a single chunk, the entire scale being conceived as a single idea which contains all of the note and fingering information.

The short term memory only lasts about 10 – 15 seconds before information is dumped. If the memory is re-heard (read: rehearsal) within this time limitation and the content can begin to be moved intact into the long term memory.

This is a critical point. I once had a student tell me that they always got lost in a particular passage in the middle of a rather long phrase. They had attempted to memorize this passage working in sections which exceeded the capacity of their short term memory and the information was not moved intact to the long term memory. They simply had no idea of what was in the middle of the phrase.

I know this sounds rather technical and mechanical, however, our brains are chemical machines and consequently do have a predictable pattern of behavior at a certain level. Try this experiment: Select one measure of music, play it 6 times, close the music and play it again. If you are successful, you stayed within the contents of the short term memory. If not, either you played really slow, taking longer than 15 seconds, or didn’t group the notes into any chunk or pattern. Next expand to a two measure passage, and then three and four measures. At some point you will reach your limit; that is your memory unit.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Rule #12 EAT AN ELEPHANT.

The only way to eat an elephant is also the only way you can learn a 30 minute concerto: one bite at a time, any more and you will choke on it.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Commandment #9) THOU SHALT NOT WIGGLE THY BOTTOM ON THY BENCH.

Though there are some artists who regularly bounced around on their benches, I don’t think this is a mannerism suitable for most players. Your playing levers (arms, wrists, hands, and fingers) need a stable fulcrum in order to operate with maximum efficiency. Moving around reduces the stability of the primary fulcrum (the torso) and can be spatially disorienting. I think the best models for our students are not the young stars who emote and gyrate as they play but rather the really old timers who sit with great repose and make the least extraneous effort.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com

 

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The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given #2 by Sarah Flanagan

This is the second installment of Sarah’s wonderful words of wisdom.

The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given
(Or… What Every Potential Music Major Should Know)
By Sarah Flanagan

“Majoring in music is a marathon – not a sprint!”

This isn’t rocket science, but when Andrew told me this, it geared me up for the years of majoring in music that I was about to face back in 2002. Before college I felt like I could do just about anything with only a little bit of work. Once I started though, I felt like I couldn’t do ANYTHING without a LOT of work. My how perceptions change when you are in the heat of the battle, but remembering that it is a marathon and not a sprint gave me the gumption to suck up the difficulties and hold out for the end. Few runners run a marathon to come in first place, because there is only one first place to be given out. But all marathoners run to finish the race and finishing such a great distance makes you a marathoner. Not finishing just makes you a runner. I was so happy to finish my musical marathon and thankful for this wonderful piece of advice.

My freshman class started the year with over 50 music majors. By the end of 4 years of college, I believe only 30 were left. I was proud to be one of them.

“Question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time!”

I think this is actually a proverb of some sort that Andrew likes to pass on to students. Without actually looking it up, I might guess it was originally from Africa or someplace exotic like that. I can just imagine sticking a fork into the tough hide of an elephant and imagine how long it would take to just chew one piece of elephant, let alone eat the whole beast. What an overwhelming task without even considering how it might taste!

What Andrew was referring to were the elephants in our piano practice though. Our elephants can be difficult passages, extremely long and involved pieces, our struggle to make ends meet, or anything we feel overwhelmed with at any given time. We all have elephants we need to get past and if we don’t realize the right way to get past them, we might just find ourselves trampled by them.

I have learned that big and difficult things take time, effort and patience, but they are well worth it in the end. The elephant is not impossible to eat! If I take a bite at a time and take those bites regularly, I know I can overcome it. The added benefit is that much patience and perseverance is learned in doing so.

“…Wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Prov. 13:10

What words of wisdom were given to you along your musician’s journey? Which wise words remain important parts of your life even today? I can think of so many more wise words from so many other people in my life. I’m thankful I have them and I am thankful now as a teacher I can pass them along.



The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given by Sarah Flanagan

Today’s and tommorow’s posts are from guest blogger Sarah Flanagan. I have known Sarah for about 10 years. Her success as a musician, teacher, and most importantly a person has made me very proud to play a small part in her life.

The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given
(Or… What Every Potential Music Major Should Know)
By Sarah Flanagan

My name is Sarah Flanagan and I am a former student of Andrew’s.
I took piano lessons from him during the summers revolving around the beginning of my college career. Actually, I came to Andrew to bring me up to speed right before college and then whenever I was home from college I continued with lessons. The summer before freshmen year my new college teacher gave me an assignment to start a Chopin prelude, a Debussy prelude a Beethoven sonata, and a Bach prelude and fugue. I was psyched about the pieces but totally trembling inside too. I needed to be whipped into shape in order to survive my freshmen year and Andrew gave me the tools and advice needed to make it through.

Fast forward almost 11 years and I am now a certified piano teacher with a degree in Keyboard Pedagogy from Cedarville University in Ohio (2006). I keep myself busy with a full studio of piano students, accompanying for the Village Voices choir, accompanying soloists, and playing piano for church. I have just recently finished my term being Secretary of the Downers Grove Music Club. Previously, I had been Vice President of the Downers Grove Music Club and Membership Chairperson for ISMTA Naperville Chapter. Aside from music, I also enjoy gardening, exercising, cooking, organizing women’s meetings for church, and taking care of my husband and dog.

I sometimes think about all of these things I do and positions I have held and wonder what they all really mean. I am certainly not as decorated as many of the teachers out there. Though I do what I can, I very much understand that there are higher degrees to be obtained and loftier positions to be held. When I think deeper into the places I find myself in life though, I think back to the people who have helped me get there. I haven’t achieved the highest degree, but the degree I DO have would be deficient if I had never taken the little golden nuggets of wisdom that many teachers and supporters have given along the way. I could hold more prestigious positions, but the positions I have held mean nothing if I haven’t learned something from the people I deal with in the various organizations I’ve been a part of. I could have twice as many students, but the students I have now would learn nothing if I hadn’t learned some things myself.

All along the way I have been given pieces of advice and pieces of encouragement that have stuck with me and have kept me patient, sane, grounded, calm, and steadfast in my musician’s journey. I’d like to share a couple simple pieces of advice that my former teacher shared with me several years back that have helped me along my way (which includes college and beyond). You may even want to pass these along to your own students who are making their way to college this year.

“Learn to say ‘No’ because many opportunities will arise and you can’t do everything, but you need to be able to choose what things are most important to you and go with them.”

Andrew told me this the summer before I went off to college. I attribute it to my success as a music major. He was right! I couldn’t do everything that presented itself to me. My piano professor expected me to practice daily at least 2 hours BEFORE I did my regular homework. I was left with very little free time at the end of the day, and so I ended up saying “no” to a lot of things in order to focus on doing the things I wanted to do the most. Admittedly, a lot of times I ended up using that free time to relax and enjoy time with friends. And that was ok. I could do the things I wanted to do because I learned to say “no.”

Required reading in one of my pedagogy classes junior year ended up being a book called “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud. I highly recommend this book as it speaks more in depth on this subject. It’s a good read for musician or non-musician alike.



Commandment #8 Thou Shalt Practice Thy Scales

These are the building blocks of all technique. Certainly in the “common practice era” scales were the basic building blocks of music however; the sequential finger work found in diatonic scales is most certainly applicable to more modern sequential patterns. Scales are actually very hard to play well and need the special attention they receive. I have known several adult players who had reasonably developed techniques, yet had never spent much time specifically on scales. This was very evident in their scale playing and other passage work. Smooth flowing scale passage involves a very high degree of technical mastery which is very hard to achieve without specific and extensive effort.

It doesn’t take hours of daily effort (though that is not a bad idea when one is younger and occasionally when one is older) but a lot can be accomplished by even 10 or 15 minutes every day, right at the beginning of the day. Plan out a technical regime of scales, arpeggios, chords, and etc. in all keys for the month, you will find that your progress becomes accumulative. The effort in learning D major will improve the performance incrementally of all other keys. After a couple of years of this effort you will find yourself with a great mastery of the basic building blocks of Western music.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com

 

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Rule 11) KNOW THE LANGUAGE.

Music is a foreign language and it has many dialects. There is vocabulary, grammar and syntax, meaning and context. As with any language, the better you understand all of its subtleties, the better you can express yourself in that language.

If you compare the harmonic language of Bela Bartok with Serge Rachmaninov’s you can see a significant difference in their use of dissonance even though they lived at the same time. The most stringent dissonances in Rachmaninov’s music would be almost consonant in Bartok’s music.

Understanding the syntax of music allows for a quicker and more accurate recognition of patterns and structure. Without this understanding everything is meaningless randomness which happens to sound nice. While French may be pleasing to listen to as a harmonious language, I have no idea of the meaning behind those sounds so my appreciation and understanding is severely limited.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



The Ten Little Idiots

Allow me to venture into a slightly un-politically correct analogy. Back, many years ago, when I was just a child there was a children’s song with a colorful and history: “Ten Little Indians” whose original title was: “Ten Little Injuns”. I have often used the phrase “10 little idiots” to describe my fingers. I complete the analogy with the idea that the 10 little idiots were controlled by the Chief Idiot. As I have worked my way through the rehabilitation of my left hand I am seeing the legitimacy of this idea. The initial surgery was followed by a very difficult staph infection which necessitated two additional operations. My left hand was in pretty bad shape when I began my occupational therapy. It wasn’t until about 5 weeks after the surgery before I began to tentatively play the piano again. I had about 40% range of motion in my fingers and probably about 30% in my thumb. In terms of strength my guess is my left hand was 20% of my right hand.

After a few days of 15 – 30 minutes of playing I had be able to move my hand enough to play Bach’s inventions and simple Haydn Sonatas. Once I felt comfortable enough with the physical act of playing (learning where the limits of range of motion were mostly and what motions were painful) I began to turn my attention to musical expression. To my great joy I found that even with this sad excuse of a hand I had no difficulty in doing whatever I wanted to do expressively. Granted speed was and is still limited (but getting better every day) my ability to express music did not reside in my little idiots, it was all up to the chief.

You don’t have to train the fingers; you have to train your mind.

The ability to imagine YOUR fingers, wrists, and arms doing something is the critical issue. Just because you heard someone else play something means nothing if you cannot imagine your own fingers doing the same thing.
I have found one of the best exercises to learn chord voicing is to split the chord between the hands. Play the important note in the right hand and everything else in the left. Work at it until you have the color you want and listen very carefully to the dynamic level of each note. Now repeat the chord with just one hand. Now that you have heard your hands playing the balance you wanted, even though it took two hands, you will arrive at needed physical solution to your musical dilemma. It wasn’t because you drilled your hands into submission, but rather you taught yourself the proper amounts of weight to put into each note and even though the lesson was taught with two hands, it provides enough information to make a one handed effort much more successful.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Rule #10) DO IT RIGHT, NOW!

Your subconscious mind records your actions without judgment. It doesn’t know you missed the F# again, and AGAIN! Every mistake becomes part of your learning. That repeated mistake will to take on a life of its own, like a monster from a horror flick; it never dies and has a hundred lives to torment you with.

Slow, careful practice is the only route to success, to speed up before you have cleaned up will simply give you a fast mess.

There is no time like the present to be perfect!

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



Rule #9 Listen in Depth

Back in my student days it was a cumbersome or nearly impossible to listen to different interpretations of a work one right after the other. The school library may have a few duplicate recordings but not many. Today you can hear dozens of different renditions on uTube of just about anything. Try this exercise: Listen to the first minute of a work played by four or five different musicians. Do it again and this time observe the different details of tempo, dynamics, articulation. Observe how the music changes as these details are changed. How does tempo change the character of the melody? How does the articulation change your focus of attention? Is there a counter melody somewhere in the accompaniment? How does this affect the texture? A great piece of music cannot be played fully all at once; it contains more material than can be brought out in a single performance. Learning to listen below the surface can open a whole new horizon of understanding.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com