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.

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.

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

  1. Make or update your business cards and distribute them every place you can.
  2. Develop a simple website and be sure that it is easily searched for on the web.
  3. Put your name in other online music teacher directories.
  4. Put up ads on grocery store bulletin boards.
  5. Take lots of gigs.
  6. Get to know a lot of teachers in your area. They may refer people to you if their studio is full.
  7. Get to know homeschooling groups. You can schedule lessons during the day time and have your evenings free.
  8. Be a part of various musical organizations like MTNA or the local music club.
  9. Be in touch with music teachers at your local schools.
  10. Get a sign for your lawn or your car advertising your music studio.
  11. Your word of mouth – spread the word at your church, job, or at your child’s soccer game that you are looking for more students.
  12. Make a brochure about your piano studio.
  13. Tell everyone on Facebook.
  14. Whenever you email your current students, tell them you have openings for their friends.
  15. Create a YouTube video about your studio.

Special thanks to Sarah Flanagan.

Andrew Remillard