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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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

Practice! Practice! Practice! 10 Tips Every Student Should Know

Practicing is essential, no matter what instrument you’re learning. And good practicing etiquette will improve your playing ten-fold. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your practicing time:

1. Don’t just play, think. Thinking and visualizing what you want to achieve out of each practice session will help you improve at a much faster pace. Before you start practicing, ask yourself what the end goal is, and visualize yourself getting there.

2. Good posture. Whatever instrument you play, or if you sing, check that you are standing or sitting correctly. Your back should be straight, chest up, and feet planted firmly on the floor. Check that you are properly holding your instrument and that you are relaxed and comfortable. Poor posture can affect your playing ability and could even lead to injuries if not corrected!

3. Make sure you warm up. Spend a few moments, at the start of each session, to warm up. This can be done through finger exercises, scales, triads, rudiments, solfège (for vocal students) and many other warm-up exercises. The key is to keep them simple and start slowly; working your way from easiest to more challenging pieces.

4. Stay positive. Be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you believe it, then it will come true. Stay positive about everything; even those pieces or studies that seem difficult today! I often remind my students to look back in their methods books to songs they used to find difficult, and now can play with ease. Perceive everything as a challenge, but also keep in mind that any challenge can be overcome with the right positive attitude.

5. Sight read. Sight reading is a great way to improve musicality in many ways. It can help with reading notes, rhythm, ear training and theory. To get the most out of sight reading, be sure to do a little bit each time you practice.

6. Hear what you sound like. One of the best ways to improve your own playing is to hear it being played back to you. Recording yourself while practicing will allow you to focus entirely on listening, and you will be amazed at what you didn’t hear while playing. It doesn’t have to be high-quality recording, either – I use iPhone’s Voice Memos, a standard free app. Hearing your mistakes from a new perspective (or for the first time!) will help in correcting them faster.

7. Get into a routine. Strive to practice daily – even for as little as 20 minutes. It’s best to get into a routine for practicing; in the morning, after school, or before going to bed. It’s better to practice a little bit everyday than for hours at a time only once a week.

8. Be comfortable. Where you practice is another important thing to remember. Ideally, you would want a practice area that comfortable and free from distractions, with proper lighting, good ventilation and a comfortable seat.

9. Have all the right equipment. Don’t start practicing unless you have everything you need! Make sure your books, sheet music, metronome, tuner, amp, capo, and CD player or laptop (if needed) are all within reach for easy access. This gives you more time to focus on the music, and you’ll be able to play everything properly and with precision.

10. Reward yourself! Every time you accomplish a tough piece or learn a song you’ve always wanted to master, go ahead and reward yourself! Self-motivation is great and will further inspire you to keep learning.

Best websites for music theory games

Here are some handy websites for students (and teachers) who are looking for fun, interactive games for learning theory rudiments:

MusicCards.net: MusicCards.net is an “ever-growing collection of highly customizable online music theory flash cards.” Great for beginner  students learning basic rudiments as well as advanced learners looking to go further. Incorporates both piano and guitar note naming exercises.

Music Note Name Flash Card Game: An interactive game of note-naming flashcards for bass and treble clef (including leger lines!). Grades you as you go and offers feedback and tips. Gives students the option to download the program as a .zip file right to their desktop, for future use.

Free Online Music Flash Cards: A fan favourite! (Make sure your Flash player is updated and installed) Highly interactive and animated; great for younger students.

Musical Flash Cards (WCU): A great user-friendly resource for naming notes and key signatures.

Music Quizzes & Games: Giant database of over 130 quizzes and games relating to music theory, note-naming, rhythms, terms and history.

By no means is this a complete list of everything that’s out there on the web, but it’s a good starting point.  If you have a site to add to the list, post a comment below!