Category Archives: Teaching

Getting Started with Languages

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Learning your first song in a language other than your native tongue can be a daunting task. But, fear not! Here are some simple ideas to help you get started singing in foreign languages.

Listen and Repeat

When you’re working on a song in a foreign language, it is a really good idea to listen to it being sung. If you can find a native speaker singing it, so much the better. YouTube and Spotify are both great sources for finding a range of recordings. As you listen, make sure you have the words in front of you so you can follow them. Read and listen to the song a few times, and on the last time through, grab a pencil and make a note of any pronunciations that jump out at you as particularly noticeable. For example, in German, a “w” is pronounced as a “v”.

 

Understand Pronunciation

Pronunciation is a tricky beast. It can be very difficult to find a clear guide to how to pronounce any foreign language without learning how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, you can use different tools to help you. Try using an online text-to-speech generator to get a general sense of the words. Enter the song line by line to hear it read out. It’s imperfect, but should give you a good sense of the basic sound and shape.

I have also found that language learning software can be a great support for good pronunciation. If you have a smartphone or tablet, I cannot recommend Duolingo highly enough. This fabulous app has listening, speaking, reading and writing activities which help you learn all the key singing languages. This will also help you to begin to understand the structure and nature of the language you are singing in which will mean you will be able to communicate the meaning more clearly.

If you are keen to learn more about Pronunciation, A Handbook of Diction for Singers by David Adams is a comprehensive resource for Italian, French and German. This book uses IPA to explain the rules of pronunciation in all three languages.

 

The ‘Allo ‘Allo Rule

The best tip I was ever given by a singing teacher for learning a song in a foreign language was “sing it like you’re in ‘Allo ‘Allo”. For those of you not familiar with this reference, ‘Allo ‘Allo is an old British comedy show set in Nazi-occupied France. It was known for the particularly theatrical accents which often bordered on mockery.

Of course, my teacher was not advising me to mock the language I was singing in. Instead, by aiming for the over-the-top accent when singing, I would end up hitting a quite convincing sound. Thus, if you’re struggling, try to over-exaggerate the linguistic features. Make the German extra guttural and harsh, make the French really pouty, or the Italian very rounded.

 

Find the Meaning

Once you have a grasp on how to make the sounds, it is also important to begin to understand the song in translation. There are some excellent sites around which have translations of art song texts such as Rec Music. Choose one or two you like, and read them over a few times to begin to understand the words. Consider how the meaning of the lyrics fits with the music.

You might also want to try putting the lyrics through Google Translate. This won’t give you a poetic translation, but it will be quite literal. This can help you to identify key words in the text. I often write the translation of a few of the most important words, and the words at key points in the music, so I can see the meaning as I practice the song.

 

I hope these tips will help you to begin to tackle your first foreign language songs and help you have the confidence to explore the whole world of music.

Do you have any favourite methods for learning foreign language songs? Leave them in the comments below.

Why You Need HARD Goals

I’ve written before about SMART goals, but last year, I came across the idea of HARD goals, and it was a bit of a revelation.

What are HARD goals?

HARD goals are big goals. They’re not manageable, or realistic; instead, they’re:

  • Heartfelt – something that you really want to achieve. It’s a goal which you feel strongly about in a way that motivates you.
  • Animated – something that you can imagine achieving. You can really see the day that you’re going to get there.
  • Required – something you feel you have to do. It’s something you need to rather than have to do.
  • Difficult – something that’s beyond your abilities right now, but you are going to go for it anyway.

Think about the great songs from the musicals – none of the big dream songs are realistic, or time-bound. They’re not measurable or specific. They’re big, expansive, imaginary dreams that drive our protagonists forward. Think about Elphaba at the start of Wicked. In the song, The Wizard and I, she describes her heartfelt desire to meet the Wizard. It’s fully of animation with her imaginary conversation. It’s clearly something she feels is required for her future happiness, and it’s definitely difficult! This HARD goal is what drives her through the whole first half of the show (and if you want to know what happens in the second half, you should definitely try to see it!).

HARD goals are what we really find motivating. Why else would humans have climbed Everest, circumnavigated the globe or travelled into space?

Setting HARD Goals

Let’s face it, you probably have a HARD goal or two already. Perhaps it’s a life-sized HARD goal, like wanting to become a professional singer. Or maybe something a little smaller, but no less challenging, like singing in public. One of my HARD goals is to learn to accompany my students on the piano (I’m a first study singer, and only started piano lessons a few years ago).

The first part of setting a HARD goal is to work out what HARD goals you already have. What do you dream of? It might feel stupid, or impossible. It might seem ridiculous. That’s ok. Remember this is supposed to be a difficult goal.

If you don’t already have a HARD goal that comes to mind, try thinking about what you’d like your life to be like in five, ten or twenty years. Where does music fit in? What place does it have? Is it your career? A valued hobby? A way you are volunteering your skills? What kind of music can you play? What qualifications do you have? Are you in a choir? It should provide some inspiration!

Using Your HARD Goals

HARD goals are all about inspiration. They’re the things that drive us forward. Why not write them down? Keep them in your music notebook or on the wall in your room. Keep them in your mind so that when you are struggling to practice, or wondering why you bother, you can remember the goals that make you feel alive.

Our HARD goals can help us to make SMART goals too, and this is what I’m going to talk about next time.

Help! I’ve Lost My Voice!

Image by Cieleke at freeimages.com

Image by Cieleke at freeimages.com

As a singing teacher, the last way I wanted to kick off 2015 was with a bout of Laryngitis, but alas, I am finally recovering after nine days without being able to speak, let alone sing. So what should you do if you end up hoarse, or loose your voice entirely?

Stop Talking! (And Singing)

This was my number one mistake. I had a friend staying overnight when my voice began to go, and instead of sadly sending her away, I carried on talking… I’m pretty sure this is why it’s taken over a week to recover.

In order to recover quickly, it’s important to get as close to 100% vocal rest as possible. If you have a vocal problem, then it’s really important to stop immediately. If you can, take time off work. Even if your work doesn’t involve talking professionally, you’ll find it hard to rest 100% if you are in the presence of your colleagues. Same goes for school.

You should also stop singing. Singing is usually harder than talking, and trying to sing when you’re hoarse can make it worse and delay your recovery. Even if it doesn’t hurt, you should still take a few days off. If you’re still wanting to keep up with your music, why not use the time to work on some theoretical exercises, listen to some new music, or even watch a whole opera, oratorio or concert (you can usually catch them on Sky Arts, or there are plenty available on YouTube).

Keep Hydrated

It’s really important to drink plenty to help your larynx recover. Try to avoid caffeine, and sugary drinks. Warm herbal teas may be especially soothing. Alcohol is especially bad because it is so dehydrating (that’s part of what causes hangovers).

The other thing that can be really helpful is steam. I absolutely love it! Breathing in hot steam can be soothing, and will keep your larynx lubricated which will help reduce irritation. Fill a bowl with a kettle full of boiling water, and then cover your head and the bowl with a towel. Breathe until the water stops steaming (usually about 15 to 20 minutes).

Take Care with Medication

Most “sore throat” remedies like Strepsils will not reach your larynx, so are unlikely to help with your problems. Taking anything that acts as a painkiller can dull sensations and this means you are more likely to think you can speak and then injure your voice. Over-the-counter medications will only relieve some of the symptoms by masking them.

Laryngitis is usually caused by a virus, so antibiotics are unlikely to be effective. However, if it goes on for a week or more, it is usually advisable to see your GP to make sure that it is not a bacterial or fungal infection.

Ensure Good Vocal Health

If you are aiming for good vocal health, smoking should be off the table anyway. However, if you are a smoker, this can make laryngitis worse and delay recovery. It may be helpful to use a nicotine replacement therapy to help you avoid smoking.

Recovery!

Hopefully, if you follow the rules of complete vocal rest, your voice will recover. Once your talking voice returns completely to normal, you can start to go back to singing. It is very important not to try to sing until you are sure that your voice has completely recovered.

It’s vital that you take it really slowly. Start with gentle humming over a very small range close to your speaking range. If there is any catch in your voice, stop and try again in the next day.

Once you can hum over a good range, try sirening on a hum, or an ‘ng’ sound to see where there are catches. It may help to start with a small siren over an octave or so, and then increase it a little each time until your whole range is back.

You can then begin to introduce other exercises gradually. It may take three or four weeks to fully recover, but you will be glad you took the time.

 

So if you’re feeling a bit hoarse this winter, don’t be afraid to take the time out that you need to really ensure you are fully recovered.

For more information, check out NHS Choices for a comprehensive guide.

Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

Why bother with music theory?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Let’s face it, music theory does not have a good rep. It’s like arithmetic and spelling. And actually, that’s the problem…

Most people only ever really encounter the kind of music theory which feels very similar to learning your times tables or how to spell ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. No one enjoys memorising the letter names for notes on the stave, or what key signature is what.

So why bother?

In the same way as arithmetic can, eventually, lead to the kind of maths that can discover the secrets of the physics of the universe or build a skyscraper, so basic music theory eventually leads on to symphonic masterpieces of every ilk from Ode to Joy to the theme from Star Wars. Just the same, I couldn’t write this blog without having a basic grasp of spelling and grammar – nevermind some of the great literary works of the age from The Luminaries to Harry Potter.

Music theory is the key that opens the lock to the secrets of music. Understanding how to construct and deconstruct chords and harmony has made music more interesting to listen to and look at. Knowing how music works can help me to work out how to fit my own voice into the shape of the music – I know whether I am in harmony or dissonant, on the beat or syncopated.

Even simple things like knowing letter names can help with our communication around music. It’s much clearer to say “I’m having trouble with that high E” than it is to say, “Well, I’m having issues with that note there” or “I’m not sure about the note I sing on the word ‘tree'”.

Lots of what we learn in early music theory is actually about learning how to talk about music with other musicians. There’s a whole language which has grown up as a ‘shorthand’ – it’s quicker to say “at the crescendo” than to say “where it gets louder”, and it’s even easier to know what to play when you’re looking at a pair of expanding lines instead of text that reads ‘get louder here’!

So why bother with music theory? Because it’s actually all about learning shortcuts! And once you know the shortcuts, you can get into the heart of the music so much quicker.

I’m not saying it’s not dull, and I’m not saying you won’t find bits of it boring. But, it’s worth fighting through and getting it into your head so you can discover secrets and create masterpieces.

Why is music theory important for you? What helped you to get interested? Or do you not bother with it?

To Enter, Or Not To Enter…?

It’s September. That means for all us music teachers, like the children we teach, it’s back to school and back to work. In the UK, as well as abroad, a new term means we once again face the question: do I enter my pupils for an exam this term?

Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. Maybe it’s a last opportunity before a student moves away, or maybe you put it off the previous term to give yourselves a few more months. Your student might even need to take the exam to get into university. For others, it’s more tricky to decide. Here are a few really important questions to ask before you enter a student for an exam.

Have I covered all the material required for the exam?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

If you’ve not actually taught all the material, this should be a big warning light. There can be as little as five weeks between entries closing and the first possible exam date. Five weeks is not enough time to teach whole songs or concepts. You want to be able to spend the time working on refining and improving what your student can already do.

Would my student pass if they sat the exam tomorrow?

This can be a really good acid test of whether your candidate is ready. If you reckon your student could get the pass mark or a little better if they sat the exam now, then you have plenty of time to ensure that not only will they pass, but they’ll do so comfortably, or even gain a merit or distinction. If your candidate is looking ropey, it might be time to push back a term and give you both a little more time.

Am I considering entering them because their parents/they have asked to even though I don’t think it’s a good idea?

It can be really hard to say no to a parent who is keen for their child to excell, but it’s not kind to a student to enter them too early. If they fail, you may crush thier confidence. If they pass, they (and their parents) might gain unrealistic ideas about their abilities. If you are not happy entering them, bite the bullet and say ‘no’.

Would my student do better by waiting an extra term?

Some students will improve massively with more time, allowing them to slowly and surely build towards success. Others will continue to procrastinate until you put a deadline in front of them. Get the measure of your student – are they likely to work hard in the extra time, or do they need pressure? You can wait forever for a procrastinator to be ready for an exam and many of them may give up entirely if you wait too long.

There’s no right or wrong answer about when to submit for an exam. It’s a careful balance between knowing your students, listening to the parents, and forming your own judgements. Make sure everyone has a say in the choice. It’s often easy to give in to pushy parents, or decide you ‘might as well enter’, so if in doubt, leave it one term and see what happens.

Good luck to everyone who is entering candidates this term. I hope they do really well.

Macro-Micro-Macro

Practice can be daunting. Simply finding time and motivation is hard enough, but the biggest challenge is often the question of what to do when you finally start. Where should you start? And what should you do next?

Rinse and Repeat

Image by Jennifer Brandel on flickr

Image by Jennifer Brandel on flickr

All musicians fall into the trap of the “rinse-and-repeat” method of practicing at one time or another. It can be far too easy to just run a song or piece a few times and count that as practice. We fudge over the difficult bits and focus on what we can do. In the run up to a performance, this can be a good way to practice keeping going, but otherwise, it’s fairly hit and miss as to how effective it is. You will get better simply by singing a song over and over and over – how many songs have you learned just from singing along to the radio? But, you won’t ever be able to really perfect the song without looking more closely. How many times have you discovered that you learnt some of the lyrics to a song wrong because you never stopped to look them up or think about what they were? To really get something perfect, we need a better method.

Go Macro

Rinse and repeat does one thing really well – looking at the big picture. We always need to look at the big picture of what we’re doing. So the first run through at the “macro” level is really valuable.  The problem with “rinse and repeat” is that we just repeat. Instead of using the first run through to identify problems and areas to work on, we ignore the problems and focus on the bits that are working. Unfortunately, the bits that are ok aren’t the bits that need our attention.

When you come to practice, grab a pencil before you sing. Then, as you go through, scribble a star or draw a line or circle at the parts where you’re not sure what’s going on. It’s a really simple, physical and practical way to make sure you know where to go next.

Make it Micro

What “rinse and repeat” misses out on is focus. Repeating over and over doesn’t give us a chance to look at the problems. Instead, we need to zoom in on the issues, and look at the “micro” level to fix the issues.

Image by m kashara on flickr

Image by m kashara on flickr

Look back at your piece – the areas which you marked are the best place to begin to look at the micro level. For example, if you’re having trouble pitching a note, you might have marked the note or the phrase. To try and zoom in on it, try singing through the line or phrase with the note in the middle. Can you identify what’s the problem? Are you flat or sharp? Are you missing your cue? Is it that you’re actually getting the note before it wrong too? Zoom in some more. Try just the word either side. You can even zoom right into the intervals before and/or after.

You need to zoom in until you can get it right three times in a row, or until you are confident of it.

Macro Again

Once you can get it right, zoom out again to the next level. Don’t go right up to the full song! Just add another layer on. So try your previously duff note in the phrase, rather than the whole verse. If it goes wrong again, try to work out what it is that changed to cause your problems. You can always zoom out from 200% to 180% and then back to 200%. Try to zoom out in stages – bar, line/phrase, half the verse, whole verse, whole song.

Once you get back out to a level where a new problem appears, you can zoom in on that one.

Using Macro-Micro-Macro

You can use this process in lots of ways. Micro can mean without the accompaniment, or it can mean a short section with the accompaniment. Macro can mean a single verse, or all three of the songs for the exam one after the other. Micro might mean timing a movement along with the song. Macro might mean trying everything in costume with all the blocking.

You can try and fix everything at once, but if you don’t have time, you can just fix one or two things each day. It might be you have to re-fix a problem each day for three days. Your teacher might highlight some ideas of things to fix, but the goal is to be able to identify problems yourself without someone else pointing them out.

Can’t Fix It?

If you’re really stuck on something, take it back to your teacher. Believe me; your teacher will be delighted! If you’re asking for help, it means you’re practicing at home, and you’re really engaging with the music.

So, there you have it: the Macro-Micro-Macro method. It might not work for you, but if you’re struggling to know what to do, why not give it a try?

How do you face the music and get practicing? What methods do you use to perfect mistakes?

 

I Can’t sing! I’m Tone Deaf!

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Too many people say to me “I’m tone deaf”, but I’ve yet to meet someone who acutally suffers with this disability.

Yes, tone deafness is a real medical condition. Tone deafness is an inability to recognise relative pitch, which is a subsection of a condition called amusia. People who suffer with amusia have some kind of neurological abnormality that affects how their brain processes sound.

There’s a very simple test of tone deafness. Ask a friend to sing or play a high note, and then a low one. If you can tell which note was higher and was lower, congratulations you’re not tone deaf! (If you couldn’t tell, do go and see a medical professional…)

People who have amusia can have a range of problems including being unable to recognise differences in pitch (tone deafness), not being able to remember familiar tunes (like Happy Birthday), not being able to tell whether music is tonal (if it harmonises) or not. Because the brain is complex, this the symptoms can vary massively.

Having genuine tone deafness is like having very severe dyslexia which makes it near impossible to learn to read.

So why do people who can hear music normally say they are tone deaf?

“Tone deaf” has become a colloquial term people use when they’ve not acquired the basic musical skill of being able to hear a note and reproduce it. An person with amusia will not be able to do this because they can’t hear the note. Most people who claim to be “tone deaf” can hear the note just find, but they either aren’t listening to it in a way that they can understand the pitch, or haven’t learnt to listen to the pitch of their own voice.

When we listen to someone speaking, we aren’t always really listening. Have you ever found yourself drifting mentally when someone is speaking and then realised you haven’t heard the question they just asked you? It’s the same with learning to hear a melody. Just hearing isn’t enough. People who are “musical” both hear the melody as a sound, and they hear inside their head – they think along with the melody.

Lots of people learn this skill when they are really young through singing with their parents as children, through attending worship services, or through music at school. Some people don’t, and it’s not that they can’t learn.

Calling yourself “tone deaf” does nothing but convince you and others that you can’t learn musical skills. This is nonsense. Everyone who has learned to speak and listen has musical awareness – pitch and rhythm are part of language, and you use these skills every day. Even babies can tell the difference between sounds that clash (dissonant) and sounds that harmonise (consonant).
If you still think you’re genuinely tone deaf, make an appointment to see your GP, and get checked. You don’t want to be missing out on opportunities if you’re not!

I’m Convinced, I’m pretty sure I’m not actually Tone Deaf – Can I Learn How to Hold a Tune?

Singers rehearsingYes! The simplest way to combat a lack of musical awareness is to get making music. Join a choir, take up an instrument, listen to more music, sing along to the radio! If you have kids, why not join a parents and children music group. There will be loads of opportunities in your local area to make music with others, and the more music you make, the better you will get. There’s also various online games and even a MOOC on musicianship skills on Coursera, if time is pushed.

Whatever you do, stop saying you can’t, because that’s the biggest barrier you face.

Have you ever thought you were tone deaf? What convinced you that you were, or weren’t?

Reaching High Notes – When the Voice is a String Instrument

The voice is fundamentally a wind instrument. We use air to make sound, rather than vibrating strings or hitting objects. However, when we’re trying to reach the high notes in our voice, it’s more helpful to think about a violin than a flute.

elkhart-100fl-fluteWhen you want to make a high note on a wind instrument, we shorten the sound waves by either making the tube smaller. A piccolo has a shorter and narrower than a flute. If you’re tuning a flute or a recorder, you push the head and body together more to sharpen the pitch, and pull it out to flatten it.

Many people try to sing high notes like a flute – they try to make the tube smaller. We tense up in the back of our throats and neck, raise our tongues and generally make all our airways small. This can really succeed in making a high note, but it often sounds pinched or squeezed and not very pleasant at all! It also stops being effective after a certain point. The bone and cartilage makes it impossible to keep making our throats smaller.

ViolinSo what about a stringed instrument? To make the pitch higher on a violin, we fit thinner and thinner strings, and we stretch them tighter. On a violin, all the strings are the same length, but the tension on each will be different. To make any string sound higher, we pull the string tighter – we make it “longer”.

When you want to reach the high notes in your voice as a singer, it’s much better to imagine this process of making your vocal folds longer like a violin string. To make a higher pitch, your vocal folds need to vibrate faster, so we need to increase the tension by lengthening them. Think of it like plucking a rubber band guitar. If you stretch the band more, the pitch gets higher.

Me singingAs you start to sing higher, imagine your vocal folds getting longer. Think about getting taller and longer as you go higher, and open up your throat vertically. At first, this might feel strange, and it might even sound strange because your muscles aren’t used to it. However, you’ll start to find you get a much more pleasing noise on the higher notes, and the range of your voice will increase because you can lengthen and thin your vocal folds much more than you can tighten and constrict your throat.

As you experiment with this, try to keep your tongue low and your mouth quite open as this will mean the sound has plenty of space to resonate in.

To practice singing higher notes and extending your range, try exercises like arpeggios which go from a low, easy to sing pitch, to a high pitch in a single breath. Aim to keep your throat and mouth as open and relaxed on the high notes as on the low ones.

With any luck, starting to sing like a violin will soon help to make those high notes easier to hit and much more pleasant to listen to!

How do you think about your voice when you sing high notes? What exercises help you to extend your range and sound good in your upper register?

Why I’d Rather Clean the Toilet Than Practice (Some Thoughts on Priorities)

After my cold-of-doom which inspired the post a few weeks ago, I have been slowly building back to my normal routine. Or, possibly, a new and improved normal routine. When you get a cold that results in taking steroids for your asthma, it makes you reconsider what is important in your schedule and how you can prevent yourself from having to repeat the experience. I’m try to focus more on the important things, and worry less about the urgent, but not important things – the things I can let go.

One of the things which is important to me is music (duh!). I want to make more time for practice, but it always seems to drift down to the bottom of my list, somewhere below cleaning the toilet and taking out the bins. The question is, why is that? Why don’t I value my practice time more highly, so it’s at the top of my list?

As I began to think about this, I had a startling revelation: what if I don’t practice regularly because it’s too much like having fun.

Image by poison-yvi at freeimages.com

Image by poison-yvi at freeimages.com

See, my to do list is usually arranged so that the “horrible, but necessary” tasks are higher up the list than the “fun, frivolous” tasks. Doing the washing up comes higher than watching the latest episode of my favourite TV show. Calling the utility company comes higher up than calling my mum.

If practicing is so onerous, and so much something I don’t want to do, why doesn’t it come higher up the list? If it’s so hard to practice, and so boring, why will I take out food waste before I’ll sit down at the piano? Perhaps it’s because I actually like practicing!

Maybe sometimes I’m not practicing for the same reason I don’t eat chocolate every day – I don’t think I should be allowed. But, here’s the secret. Practicing isn’t like chocolate. It’s much more like eating a rich, ripe peach – sweet and juicy and it shouldn’t be good for you, but it is! Eating a whole punnet of strawberries seems luxurious, but I bet most doctors would rather we did that every day than eat so much ice cream, or even pasta.

We can get so busy doing other things – the things which feel urgent, or which seem pressing. It can be easy to say that music practice doesn’t matter because it’s fun – it’s a thing we do for pleasure. But can we really say that because something is pleasurable, it’s not important? Music boosts intelligence and memory, it calms our minds, it releases hormones that make us feel happy. Aren’t these things worth something?

Hands Play the Piano - an image from Robert Couse-Baker on flickr

Image from Robert Couse-Baker on flickr

Surely, the things at the top of our to do lists should be the things that make us alive. At the top of our lists should be the things that make life worth living. Yes, we need to clean so we don’t die of food poisoning, but that isn’t why we let all the pleasurable things slip down the list. We let them slip because we worry that we aren’t good enough – our house isn’t clean enough, our inbox is too full, work is left undone. We worry we’re letting others down, and we’re trained not to put ourselves first.

And yet. Will we really call our lives a life worth lived if we hit “Inbox Zero” every day, but at the cost of the things we enjoy?

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how you manage your to do list (be it real or imaginary). Perhaps it’s time to say it’s ok to do the things that give us pleasure. Perhaps, it’s time to let music practice come before the washing up from time to time. I know which one I’d rather be doing!