Happy New Year! Why learning music should be your resolution for 2013

This time of year is often a period of reflection and looking upon new horizons; deciding  what didn’t work last year and what to improve, or start, in the next twelve months. Joining a gym, spending more time with loved ones, or pushing yourself up the career ladder are all common resolutions heard around the water cooler. Another popular one? Learning how to play a musical instrument.

Interest in learning music often peaks at this time of year, as people seek to expand their skill set or start something new. No matter what age, learning a new skill can have great benefits, both cognitviely and emotionally. As neuroscientist Nina Kraus discovered recently, learning about music can facilitate getting better at other things, and in ways that can last a long, long time.

A number of her studies conclude that:

Musical experience has a pervasive effect on the nervous system. Our recent articles show that lifelong musical experience enhances neural encoding of speech as well as music, and heightens audiovisual interaction. Our work suggests that musicians have a specialized neural system for processing sight and sound in the brainstem, the neural gateway to the brain. This evolutionarily ancient part of the brain was previously thought to be relatively unmalleable; however, our studies indicate that music, a high-order cognitive process, affects automatic processing that occurs early in the processing stream, and fundamentally shapes subcortical sensory circuitry.

So, go ahead and pick up that instrument that you’ve always wanted to learn — its never too late — and as you can see, the benefits may be more than just becoming a better or happier or more fulfilled person. There is no better time than now to take on something new. 

Happy New Year!

(Source: http://www.soc.northwestern.edu/brainvolts/projects/music/index.php)

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‘Tis the season for holiday recitals: A preparation checklist for students

 

Make sure you're ready for your holiday recital this year!

Make sure you’re ready for your holiday recital this year!

Recital prep 101! Helpful pointers for students working towards a performance this holiday season

Annual or biannual recitals are often a chief component of music schools’ curriculum no matter where you go. And, as a music teacher, I agree that student recitals and concerts are a great way to showcase students’ hard work and give them an extra little push to excel at their instrument.

Regardless of all the benefits of performing, students will get nervous when it comes time to play in front of a crowd. Some don’t worry too much, or they use their anxiety as a way to adrenalize themselves when on stage. For others, their nerves can get the best them, sometimes with catastrophic consequences to their self-esteem once the show is over and curtain is drawn.

The best advice for these nerve-wracked students? Be prepared! Here are a few things to remember in the weeks leading up to your big performance:

Do mock concerts: Have as many little “mock” or mini-concerts in front of a small group of family and friends as you can. It’s often said that it’s easier to be in front of a room full of people you don’t know, than in front of a handful of those you do. If you can get through your piece fluidly in front of your parents, siblings, fellow students or friends, it’s a good indication you’ll be fine playing for a bigger, more anonymous group!

Record yourself: Playing while recording is a good simulation of what it feels like to play for an audience. Additionally, the benefit of hearing yourself played back allows you to correct the mistakes you never may have realized you often make, and add some polish – a touch of rhythm here or sprinkle of dynamics there – to create an even better sounding piece.

Practice mentally: Not all preparation involves playing over and over again! (Though this is never discouraged…) It often helps to mentally prepare as well. Close your eyes and visualize your hands on your instrument as you play, or how you would  breathe and say lyrics as you sing. Visualize the music in front of you, line by line; see what the notes look like and hear what they sound like. Mental preparation is more effective than students think, and will make you more confident in what you’re getting ready to play.

Know the notes: Make sure you know your song, inside and out. Notes, rhythms and finger patterns or positioning should be close to second nature in the week leading up to your performance.

Practice daily: Even if just for 10 or 15 minutes, it is essential for students to practice their piece(s) every day when preparing for an upcoming recital.  Daily repetition will help in memorizing and becoming completely comfortable with the song. For vocalists, it will help to memorize lyrics. Ideally, singers will want to be able to recite their lyrics out loud, just by speaking them as if reading a poem, without any melody.

So you’ve practiced your song for weeks now. You’re ready to go! With the big performance day finally here, what’s left to do? Some tricks to settling any day-of anxieties when you take centre stage:

  • Don’t think you have to start playing right away! Take your time, get comfortable. Adjust your seat, get your music ready, take a deep breath and then begin.
  • If you make a mistake, keep going! A few wrong notes or chords here and there will not be obvious to your audience; if you stop playing completely to starting over, however, it will be noticeable.
  • Try to keep a steady pace. We tend to rush through things when we’re nervous, which increases the chance of making a mistake.
  • Remember you’re up there to showcase your hard work, and your teacher, parents and friends are proud of you! Try to turn your nerves into excitement.
  • Smile, enjoy your time up there, and have fun! Chances are you’ll think it went by too fast when it’s all over.

With these tricks in hand, I hope students will make the most of their recital days. It truly is a fun experience once the nerves are gone and encouragement is there!

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Those in the Ottawa area are welcome to join Barrhaven Music Academy’s annual Holiday Concert, coming up on Saturday, December 22, starting at 12:00pm, at 30 Clearly Ave. Admission is free, but donations of non-perishable items will be gladly accepted for the Ottawa Food Bank. For more information, visit www.barrhavenmusicacademy.com.

 

Want to de-stress, strengthen your lungs and improve musically? Join a choir

With the success of television shows like Glee, it’s not surprising that students young and old are starting to appreciate how much fun singing can be. But did you know how beneficial it can be, both physiologically and psychologically? A few studies have shown that the benefits of singing, while great in a one-on-one environment, can be multiplied when in the right group or choir setting.

20121121-120917.jpgSo, prospective and current vocalists, have you through about joining a choir or singing group? Here’s a few reasons why you should consider it:

Exercise major muscle groups in the upper body

Singing exercises all the major muscle groups in the upper body; your abdominals, diaphragm, shoulders and back all get a workout each time you belt out a tune. Singing is an aerobic activity that improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and encourages you to take more oxygen into your body, leading to increased alertness.

Additionally, with the help of stronger back and shoulder muscles, singing helps improve posture, especially with performing groups. In a choir, it is very vital to sit and, more often than not, stand properly and gracefully.

Develop healthier lungs

Any vocal student or teacher will tell you a fundamental key to proper singing technique and endurance is correct breathing. In a choir or group setting, singers often will learn to negotiate very long passages in one controlled breath, which is very, very good for the lungs. Inhaling deeper fills every inch of our lungs’ capacity and enhances the way we use them, making them more efficient and stronger over time.

It’s been observed that singers breathe remarkably slower than the non-singers. Research suggests breathing slowly, whether regularly or by practice for a few minutes a day, is enough to help some people nudge down bad blood pressure. Meditation, yoga and similar relaxation techniques that incorporate slow, deep breathing have long been thought to aid blood pressure, by relaxing and dilating blood vessels temporarily.

Build confidence and musicality

Students who sing together will increase their self-confidence and also build and understanding of teamwork as the unit works together towards a common goal. In other words, it gets the group physically and mentally active in a new way, and gives them the chance to learn and grow from the other singers in their group.

No to mention the fact that it lets students be creative! Singing groups provide a great artistic outlet for students to express themselves and gain personal satisfaction, improving their overall sense of musicality and appreciation.

Become a better singer

As rehearsals pass and time goes by, choir members will notice development in their singing proficiency, even if minute or gradual. Individuals who’ve had no prior vocal training, those that would see themselves stumble over the harder pieces at first, will slowly increase their repertoire and musical stamina. And, in a group setting, it’s possible this progress will be even faster thanks to encouragement from not only a choir director, but from your fellow singing peers.

Even seasoned vocalists who’ve had, or continue to have, vocal training will see their development increase as their choir experience expands their repertoire and adds to their weekly practice routine.

Eventually, the team of singers (both novice and advanced), will have been exposed to varying speeds of songs, reading new music and memorizing lyrics, which builds up stamina. As a choir matures they will develop a kind of group ‘cohesiveness’, ultimately bringing them more commanding voices and polished techniques as they go.

Get rid of stress

If you’re one that regularly spends their week in front of a computer monitor, scanning heaps of prescribed school reading, or sits through hours of traffic on the way to school or work, a change of scenery and pace is always a good thing. While stress adds up in our daily lives thanks to work or family struggles, being part of a choir or singing group will allow you ‘de-stress’ on a consistent, proactive basis. Think of singing as a way to let off steam in a healthy and positive way. Furthermore, music has a way of igniting our emotions; singing, in turn, is one of the few activities that allow you emotionally peak and delve into an elevated mental sphere, to find release and resist burnout.

Choirs are often seen as the perfect complement to any singer’s regular practice routine. Just like playing in a band would benefit a guitarist or drummer, performing in a choir or singing group will help all singers improve, whether it’s a weekly practice or monthly get together. Ultimately, choir rehearsals won’t even feel like practice – just another opportunity to sing your heart out.

And, as Ella Fitzgerald once said, “The only thing better than singing is more singing.”

 

Hate learning theory? There’s an app for that

Attention students and teachers! Understand & improve your music theory knowledge with this handy app

A colleague of mine, Tashi, introduced a very clever music app to our teaching staff the other day. Tashi, a vocal teacher (and all-around musician – she also plays piano, guitar and violin!), mentioned that she not only recommends this app to each and every one of her growing list of students, but encourages other teachers to take a peek as well.

Called ‘Music Theory Pro’, and available for download off the iTunes App Store, it was developed by Dr. Joel Clifft, a professor of music at Azusa Pacific University and the University of Southern California. It’s used by teachers and students alike on many university and college campuses throughout the US.

So what can you do with it?

The reason why this app is so awesome probably lies in the fact that it is a toolbox full of music theory exercises, games and quizzes, and useful for beginners, intermediate and advance students.

For example, you can:

  • Practice naming notes on the piano and on the staff;
  • Learn key signatures;
  • Get better at intervals, including major, minor, diminished and augmented;
  • Look up chords and inversions;
  • Do ear training, from easy to challenging for the more advanced student;
  • Identify anything from seventh chords and to modal scales;
  • Take quizzes to identify tempos and beats per minute;
  • Complete various exercises in all of the above to sharpen your overall theory skills.

This app is handy because any student can benefit from it; if you are training to be a classical pianist or contemporary singer, or just want to understand the basic rudiments, Music Theory Pro is chock-full of goodies to help anyone desiring to become a better musician.

And, I think most teachers will agree, learning the theory side of things should be a component in all music training! Having an app of this nature right in your pocket is a great way to motivate students by having an easy-to-understand structure and entertaining learning platform…much more entertaining than scribbling notes in a theory book.

Download it here for $0.99: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/music-theory-pro/id390788573?mt=8

The importance of rhythm – and why all students should master it!

What is Rhythm?

The word ‘rhythm’ stems from the Greek word rhythmos, meaning “any regular recurring motion, or symmetry”. In music, rhythm is about when notes, chords, and other musical sounds begin and end. As a result, rhythm is the essential ingredient in all music.

No matter what instrument a student is learning, everyone needs good rhythmic foundation. Melodies, scales and chord patterns are all dependent on a piece’s rhythm. The importance of developing a strong sense of pulse or rhythm is a crucial element when learning to play – and being taught the basics of rhythm starts in the very first lesson.

And, as students’ progress, it will become easier for them to understand why something doesn’t sound exactly as it should – more often than not, it is rhythm which needs work or changing. By developing a good sense of rhythm students will be able to better identify when the pulse or beat is off.

Mastering rhythm is essential for many “rhythm section” instruments:  bass, drums, and rhythm guitar and piano. Even melodic parts, like vocals or lead guitar, need to understand the rhythm in order to play fluidly with accompaniment.

Learning Rhythm

Rhythm exercises should be a part of a student’s daily practice regimen.  Mix rhythm exercises together with scales, arpeggios, songs, and various techniques.

Here are some tips to develop rhythm:

1.    Use a metronome

While playing with metronomes will no doubt make everything tougher, it is a great way to get used to playing with an outside beat. Sometimes, when students tap the beat themselves, or count aloud, they unknowingly slow down in the harder spots, or speed up towards the end of a piece. Using a metronome will allow practicing with a steady, constant beat.

2.     Practice rhythmic exercises

Start out simple and work your way through more complex patterns. Clapping and counting rhythms out loud is a great way to become more comfortable with rhythms, especially for students who learn best through auditory methods. For visual learning, write in the rhythm (1 + 2 + 3 + 4+…) in before playing or clapping.

3.     Understand the time signature

Rhythm is expressed, stated, and describe with a time signature, which defines the note duration and time relationship. A rhythm in 4/4 time will be different than one in 6/8 time, so make sure you understand these values first, before counting or playing.

4.     Watch out for rests, ties and dotted notes

More complex rhythms will have these components which will increase difficulty.  Make sure to spot these tricky parts and work on them separately at first!

5.     Start slow

Any new rhythm should be practiced slowly, giving full value to all notes, rests and any other markings in between. Start as slow as needed so there are no unwanted pauses between sections or phrases – and challenge yourself to go faster once you have mastered a lower speed.

6.     Listen and play along

Listening to the piece before attempting to count, clap or play it will help your ear identify if you are doing it correctly or not. For another challenge, try playing along with the recording and see if you can match the rhythm, once you have a good grasp on it!

Not sure where to begin with your rhythm practice? Download the exercises below!

Exercise 1: Rhythms – Beginner

Exercise 2: Rhythms – Intermediate

Exercise 3: Sixteenth Notes

Exercise 4: Triplets

Exercise 5: Dotted Rhythms

Exercise 6: Syncopation

On the set of Daytime Ottawa

The last few weeks have kept us busy preparing for Music 4 Brynn, and a short while ago I stopped by the studios of Daytime Ottawa to chat with hosts Derick Fage and Lois Lee about the event: