The Zen of Music Practice

Wednesday, September 30, 2020 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Healthy Music

It seems to be common knowledge these days that music practice is incredibly good for you. People marvel at the amazing benefits they hear and read about, and indeed, the list is impressive and wide-ranging. The usual attention-grabbers are: it improves math and other STEM skills, aids in language and auditory development, trains hand-eye coordination, imparts discipline and dedication, staves of age-related mental decline...it truly goes on and on! 

 

Music is an all-in-one powerhouse of valuable attributes. You could do numerous, separate tasks in the categories listed above in order to make progress in each, but it’s hard to deny how attractive it is to have a single way in which to achieve simultaneous, overall improvement. One-stop shopping, after all, is the ultimate convenience we Alaskans who frequent Freddy’s can all attest to! What’s more, you reap the touted rewards through just the act of focused, goal-centered practice with the intention to continually improve upon skills while learning an art. Those rewards aren’t contingent on pursuing the highest levels of virtuosity with the aim to become a world-class performer; the benefits will come regardless. 

 

Thousands of studies have confirmed the many ways in which music helps people become better thinkers, and the evidence supplies endless reasons for anybody wondering whether taking up an instrument will pay off. There are extensive sources that can provide further detail, and a quick Google search will give you all the insight and reading on the topic you can handle—no need for another lap on well-trod ground here. 

 

But there is another area that doesn’t get quite as much of the spotlight when up against heavy contenders such as helping to grasp geometry and edging up I.Q. The special and unique way in which music provides respite and ritual could be considered music’s greatest gift to the practicer. This is the sheer “om” factor of making music.

 

Soothing yet productive, music practice provides a type of stress relief that speaks to our souls while it entertains our spirit. It requires enough brain power so as to distract the mind away from everyday stressors while replacing the noisy chatter with perfectly ordered sound. In a society that increasingly exacts more time, energy, and effort from us mere mortals, music promises to refill our cups and help us transcend the melee of the pedestrian world.

 

How does this work? Consider first that stopping to spend some time practicing music can feel like actually “Stopping Time”. The pacing and the aligning effect of music gives the sense of an actual pause of the world. A curious mind matched with a melody to develop or some chords to improvise with can take one down a rabbit hole where time and space become relative, and an unveiled labyrinthine landscape of sound and motion can only be navigated by equal parts imagination and music theory. Not to get all metaphysical, but you truly do get lost in the creation of music to the point that it’s as if you have been transported, but after which you get the perk of feeling centered and revitalized, post-excursion. 

 

How can all this lofty mumbo jumbo help people? 

 

Let’s start with the chaos of adulthood. The escalating pace of society along with the demands of our personal and professional lives leave our heads spinning, and we need to hit reset every so often. Adults, as often as kids, can easily fall victim to the minefield of devices and screens that do nothing for true spiritual restoration while they also threaten to blow up all productivity should we plan to tackle a few more items on the to-do list when “me-time” is over. Want to put down the smartphone and do something for yourself, despite realistically only being able to afford 20-30 minutes for a total rebalance of mind, body, and soul? You’re in luck: the music benefit cornucopia cascades forth its riches in record time!

 

The moment you begin to play, beat and rhythm begin regulating your breathing and heart rate, equalizing your brainwaves, and even boosting your immunity! Should you choose to tinker with something slow and contemplative, or up-tempo and jazzy, you will begin to resonate with the particular vibration signature, your body’s 65% water content conducting the sound waves throughout your organs and limbs. If you involve singing (no matter your ability), you can really supercharge the coupled meditative aspects and health benefits due to the increased oxygenation of your blood, boosted lung capacity, and strengthening of your core and diaphragm, all of which are accompanied by a release of endorphins. Together, these effects create a similar outcome of cardiovascular exercise, conscious breathing, and other mental clarity exercises, all-in-one style. Habitual multi-taskers, rejoice!

 

Now, what about kids? Besides music’s ability to make kids scholastically competitive, there are positive physiological effects for them as well. The life of a typical school-age child involves managing homework loads, standardized testing, tutoring, social issues, and extra-curricula. With so much pressure to juggle and excel in everything, the long days can get pretty rough and exhausting. Having a readily accessible refuge (other than a digital escape) is a welcome way for kids to get a breather. 

 

Still, we know all too well the insistent pull of the video game and the difficulty in prying all manner of flashing screens from the hands of kids during any downtime. Conveniently, practicing music provides stimulation and requires problem solving in an engaging, recreational medium—just like those infamous games! Creating their own music presents challenges to kids, but allows for multiple solutions. Conversely, pre-written songs require kids to puzzle out each new level of complexity with exactness. Once mastery is achieved, those skills are applied to the next more intricately composed song, similar to the process of leveling-up in a game. Unlike with video games, kids can easily slip out of music practice and back into the normal groove. And as a bonus, there are lasting cognitive effects that carry over to the next task you take up—a reason I often suggest my students take a homework break and insert their music practice. When they return to the books, they are refreshed and refocused. Win-win!

 

Can’t you just download an app (or apps) for all this? Nope, not this powerful. And to prove my point in the event that practicing music seems a quaint throwback in comparison to our many hypnotic games and sophisticated biofeedback of our mind/body-awareness app’s, just take note of what you’re hearing when you launch many of these games and apps. Is it original music written specially to enhance the activity on the screen, by chance? Probably. Does the cool theme in the background make you want to learn to play it? Naturally! No matter how fancy the graphics, the sounds and the music draw you deeply into that state of flow, illustrating how connected we are to music and how it can create an elevated, meditative, zen state. 

 

Find your own musical haven apart from the everyday clamor, and begin reaping the unique, meditative rewards that only music practice can bestow!


Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, November 2018


QUITTER'S CLIFF: Advice for Avoiding a Dreaded Fate

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Staying the Course

In my line of work, a specific confession is routinely offered up when someone finds out I’m a music teacher: “When I was a kid I didn’t practice.” I can see the guilty party getting ready to wince, almost expecting me to whip out a ruler at this admission. Without fail, what immediately follows is, “But I wish I would have stuck with it so that now I could really play!”

That last part is usually said in total earnest and (I’m pretty sure) not just to escape the whack of the ruler. The specter of the missed opportunity to become a good player haunts many “ex”-music students. Those who gave up their instrument will readily admit not having the discipline to have kept up on practice, yet seem to honestly regret the fateful--and maybe premature-- decision to quit altogether. 

Truth is, there are dozens of obstacles a music student will encounter on the journey that threaten to imperil their enthusiasm for music practice. New activities, seasonal sports, and social events often get prioritized for the short or long-term and will disrupt music studies. School work and family life, both of which must take precedence over all else during certain periods, can end up having unintended consequences on a student’s practice regimen. One week’s faltering leads to resisting parents’ urges to “please go practice”, and not long after comes the fatal blow of a resounding, “I quit!” The tragic scenario plays out again, and as their parents did before them, another generation of children falls to their music education demise, the end.

But is it really fated? Is your child destined to be swept into the abyss as well? Naturally, I’m going to say “no” in the same breath as I say “but”, and that’s because it is necessary to be informed about potential pitfalls that lie in the path of the music student which can derail practice and lead to straight to that cliff.

What could cause your kid’s dedication to waver? Here are two common culprits. 

A biggie these days is overscheduling. Kids are expected to pack a lot of productivity into their days and the sheer number of hours already spoken for can leave little time and energy for music. If your child has a standard school day and homework load, plus a single activity/sport involving 3-5 weekly practices in addition to games, meets, etc. a significant portion of their time is already dedicated. Family commitments, time for friends, and downtime must be factored in as well. If your kid is overbooked, the first thing to go is almost always music practice.

Conversely, some kids have the time but aren’t the best at managing it. While school hours and sports practices occur at preset times, music practice does not. Interestingly, the solution for both the too-busy and the too-distracted is to independently preset time for music practice. I provide both a practice planner and a tracker at the outset of lessons to handle this task. Outside of the weekly 30 to 60-minute lesson, most teachers recommend 20-45 minutes of daily practice with a day or two off. I require a minimum 5 days’ practice and usually tell kids to front-load the practice week according to when the lesson occurs for best retention. This translates to practicing at least the first 3 days after the lesson before taking a day off, then getting two more practices in. 

Sometimes a simple solution is to let practicality win out, however, so I’ll recommend kids pinpoint the two busiest days in the week and plan for practice all other days. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective!

Kids do need to have some brainpower and alertness for quality practice, so timing is key to make sure they have the energy for it. In other words, don’t leave it until nearly bedtime (unless you enjoy unwinding with your practice). One regular suggestion I make is to fit it in with homework: before, between, or after. Music requires mental focus, but is active as well. Doing practice just before homework can make for a natural segue into preparing to “hit the books”. Or for some kids, it works to make music practice a break between homework sessions. Kids find the activity of music practice refreshes them while keeping their brain “on” and able to return to homework. Music can go after homework as well. For kids who look forward to their time on the instrument, saving it for after homework is a satisfying and pleasant wrap up for the daily to-do list. But my strongest suggestion for planning practice? Experiment! Be open to trying out one time for a while, then switching it up if it’s not working. 

Another HUGE detriment to music practice (for any age student, but particularly for kids) is inconsistent lesson attendance. We’re not talking about the occasional sickness, or important and unavoidable school obligation. This pertains more to blowing off lessons just a little too often. By the same token, routinely coming late cuts into lesson time so that little gets accomplished and starts to have a cumulative effect on motivation and morale. Lesson time is precious and we try to cram an entire week’s material into 30 short minutes. Missing a lesson means a student doesn’t get feedback or help for half a month! Whether a kid is anxious to pass a nearly completed song, or is totally stalled out in some cryptic notation in measure 14, absolutely nothing torpedoes progress for a music student like chronically missing lessons.

The take away? You CAN break the cycle of abandoned musical pursuits! Plan your practice, get to your lessons, and keep at it! After all, I’ve never yet heard anyone say, “I wish I would have quit sooner so I wouldn’t have gotten as good as I did.” No one ever regrets continuing their music adventure!


Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, April 2018

BEING A BEGINNER—or—THE PATH TO ROCK GOD STATUS

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Beginning Music

“I... Want to rock and roll all night. And party ev-er-y day,” said almost every soul with a pulse at some point in life. And really, who isn’t inspired to play music when they hear their favorite tunes come on the radio or when they watch another player dazzle every onlooker? Kids and adults equally are mesmerized by the power of music and by the performers who catch their ear. Once bitten by the bug, they are ready to launch into their own musical pursuit with dreams of the day they too can begin “dazzling” in their own right! 

This is great! Inspiration is key to lighting the fire! When you can deny that groove in your soul no longer and decide you will dive in NOW with all the determination necessary from the next Adele, Slash, or Lindsey Sterling, it’s good to be armed with a little insight for your first foray into the world of music. What will it be like starting out as a beginner, whether that beginner is you or your child? What’s it going to take to become a “real” musician or at least a half-way decent player? That last question is one I hear frequently as a music teacher, and it’s an honest question that deserves an honest answer.

First off, let’s start with the obvious. Just as you suspected, learning music takes time and dedication. Yes, it’s true. And what you’ve heard about music being an art, a science, and a math—that’s true, too. At first this may seem academic and maybe a little intimidating, but just realize that those are the very aspects that make you love music so much! Don’t worry, your brain can handle it, and as you learn, it will thrive on this diverse information feed. But also remember this is also why it takes time to get good—your mind is doing some complex stuff as you play music! 

Ok secondly, we need to talk about practice, and this is the big one. “Yes, of course mere mortals must practice,” you might be thinking, all the while secretly assuming the great ones just started playing with god-like skill the moment they touched the instrument. Ha, if only! This mythology appears in movies with regularity, but don’t kid yourself. Absolutely every musician you admire practiced A LOT to get where they’ve gotten to. The ups, downs, challenges, and successes in the practice room built the musician standing before you or crushing it on the airwaves. All the presumed “natural talent” that people want to attribute a musician’s ability to is NOT how they got good and gave them the depth of experience they hold. Nope. Pure practice, baby! There’s no replacement.

Let’s assume though that we’re not talking the world stage or mega concerts in sold out stadiums. How much practice will it take to be able to sit down and just play for yourself or feel comfortable playing in front of others? Much like a typical exercise regimen, I recommend a minimum of 30 minutes a day and at least 5 days per week to get the cumulative effect that allows for steady progress. After that, it comes down to the instrument, the type of music, and the person. Are we talking instruments that pretty much play one note at a time (violin, flute, trumpet) or those that play several or lots of notes at once (piano, guitar, ukulele)? Hint: an instrument that plays single notes will be faster to learn than one that plays multiple notes. And is your desire modern music or classical? Different styles take longer to conquer, depending on the intricacy. And you—what about you? How much are you willing to put into your practice? Time, energy, patience, and focus are your key elements here. The more you commit, the faster you advance.

Let’s focus on piano and guitar for examples since they are easily accessible and popular. Both can work as one-man-band type instruments, but are also frequently played in group settings. You can listen to solo piano or guitar music and not start to wonder where the rest of the music is. That’s because these chord-type instruments can be “the whole orchestra” with no need for additional players. It stands to reason that they also get the most complicated and layered (read: hardest) music to play and tend to take the longest to master. Piano and guitar are universally available though, so they still get the advantage of being most people’s first instrument. Timeframe to excellence? Infinity. But you can expect to comfortably be able to play basic music on guitar after 2-3 years of regular practice. With piano, it’s more like 5-6 years. 

Wait, years?! Basic music?! What?! What if you’re not sure you can stick it out that long? Don’t psych yourself out here. With good instruction and regular practice, the incremental process of learning actually speeds along and everything becomes more natural and easy with every day you spend on the instrument. I find it helps when you relate the years on an instrument to other timelines in your life. How many years did it take to learn to walk and talk before you were just doing those things—three or four? How about something more mundane like: will you still be attending school 3+ years from now (kids)? Will you still hold the same job in the coming years (adults)? Living in the same house? Driving the same car you currently own? If you are practicing music the entire time these other timelines are running in the background, you will likely have a moment where you realize, “Hey, I’ve been playing the guitar for 4 years now, and it’s starting to feel like second nature!”

What starts on Day One of practice is something that will grab and intrigue you, and your mind and muscles will undergo experiences completely unique to learning music. These experiences are understood and fondly remembered by every single musician who was ever a beginner (um, all of them), so you’ll have this in common with every rock star you admire! So now all you have to ask yourself is… what are you waiting for? When will be your Day One?


Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, March 2018

Choosing an Instrument: Are You a Pack Animal or Lone Wolf?

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Choosing an Instrument

How does a person come to play a particular instrument? Some seem born knowing what they want to play, and just naturally gravitate to it. Many will get inspired by watching or hearing another player, and be motivated to try their own hand at it. Others get the family instrument forced on them: Little Johnny WILL play the insert instrument   because we already own one!” 

But what if you have a choice and don’t know exactly where to begin? 

It’s common to feel unsure about choosing an instrument if one of the first three scenarios doesn’t apply to you. Which instrument will you enjoy practicing? Which will you understand? Which will make you feel the most musically fulfilled? Then there are the practical factors to consider: the cost of the instrument and necessary accessories, it’s size and the space it will require, the relative loudness it generates (just how much aggravation might the neighbors tolerate?). 

These are all important aspects in choosing an instrument, but before tackling those logistics we are going to focus on a different area, and ease into the process of making an informed selection. We are going to concentrate on your musical taste, as well as your intent to play solo or with other musicians, to start zeroing in on what resonates with your personal groove. Let’s dive in!

Playing music with others is great fun especially once you get some solid chops going, and for this goal you may want to look into learning a natural “ensemble” instrument. Ensemble simply means group-playing, and while every instrument can be played in a group setting, some work quite easily going solo as well— consider this when contemplating whether you’d prefer to play by yourself a lot, or to get together with the gang for practice. 

Let’s get specific and explore which ensemble instruments are typically combined in particular types of music. 

Rock, pop, and blues predominantly feature one or more electric and/or acoustic guitars, a bass guitar, drums, and vocals either provided by the players or a separate singer. These are the core instruments, however keyboard or piano is often included to fill out the group’s sound. When transitioning into the jazz format, you often see piano come from any center; additionally you might see “horns” folded into the mix, namely trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. And if you go Latin with your jazz, you’ll likely also get some hand percussion involved, possibly steel drums, and maybe a flute!

Folk music remains mostly in the acoustic realm (acoustic means to function “unplugged”), though it can otherwise be played by a lineup similar to the core of your basic rock band. A note about most folk groups: they tend toward the smaller size so if you like a more intimate environment, this is a good way to go! In fact, just you and your guitar can even go the solo route for that truly stripped down sound. If you like the singer/songwriter feel, folk or otherwise, an acoustic guitar is your best friend to accompany your songs’ narrative-style lyrics. For an island twist, a guitar can still serve as your companion or you can switch it out for ukulele, or get retro and try out a lap steel guitar.

Bluegrass groups get a little rowdier and feature all manner of stringed instruments such as banjo, guitar, fiddle(s), mandolin, and upright bass or even the occasional washtub bass for extra authenticity. Multiple, tightly coordinated singers are also a signature part of this style. Like folk, bluegrass favors story-like lyrics and keeps the instrumentation heavily on the acoustic side. 

Speaking of singing, are you enticed by the limelight the lead singer enjoys? Or do you fancy the idea of blending exquisite harmonies within a “surround sound” of like singers? Consider training your voice! A lead singer in a band gets the true rock star experience and acts as captain of the band’s (and the audience’s) musical odyssey, while members of an a capella group get to meld into pure harmonic bliss among three or more singers’ company on a joint voyage. FYI, many people choose to work on singing as a secondary skill, so as to be ready when called on to add backing vocals as needed.

What about drums? We all need a capable drummer in our lives if we’re hoping to have the structure and drive of a good beat to carry the band. And for those looking for an “easy” instrument, be warned: learning the drums is more involved than it may seem. Managing multi-part beats on a standard drum set takes every limb you have! Bringing in additional pieces (a little cowbell in your salsa band, anyone?) presents an even more complex sequence to execute. This is “rub your belly and pat your head” coordination on steroids! Yet drumming is as fun as it looks, and once you master some basic rhythms, nothing feels more primally satisfying. Bonus: when you get good, you’ll be in demand. Good drummers are sought out and often end up gigging in multiple groups!

Finally, we have the piano. This orchestra-in-a-box allows the player to wield so much complexity of sound, that it really can stand alone in the concert hall. When Elton John held a series of concerts in Alaska several years back, he did so completely solo— his many full band hits rearranged for just piano and voice. But piano/keyboard is also common in ensemble music, and surprisingly takes a more background role. There is a standard hierarchy of band instrumentation and a piano is often added to enhance the core players’ sound.

When dialing in the best instrument choice, it helps to know if you want to go it alone or “join together in the band”. Think about what role, lead or supporting seems most enjoyable to you. And hey, if the decision is really keeping you up at night, remember you’re only choosing your first instrument (wink)!


Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, August 2018