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Listen, Play,  Sing


  • Writer's pictureRobert Fisher

Every so often I encounter a student who hits a wall in lessons or becomes frustrated with not performing their music "perfectly." Perfection is a noble goal and is the ultimate end goal, but it is elusive! Even the "greatest" in music have spent their lives searching for it. Ultimately, perfection can only be found up above in heavenly realms. We are blessed, however, with the gift of grit. Yes, grit is a gift! Hard work, determination, and steady, consistent progress through challenge is what yields the greatest growth I know of in musicians.

As with many other skilled studies in life, joy and satisfaction in music is about coming to terms with imperfection, working through trials and mistakes, and overcoming adversity. I often see greater reward and passion in folks who develop grit as opposed to those who roll out of bed with talent. Grit is something you develop and bring along with you throughout your entire journey. So, yes, most folks that care about music should aim to play/sing as well as they can ...but nothing is more beautiful than seeing a student overcome obstacles in progress using grit.

So, if you're hitting a wall in your progress and beating yourself up because your music isn't perfect, take a moment to reflect on your goals and progress. Dust off the mistakes. Focus on making small improvements, recover your music and take joy in the process by getting back up on your musical journey. Be in it for the long-haul! Remember GRIT is greater than perfection!

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Sometimes musicians may find themselves in somewhat of a rut when it comes to practice. Younger beginners especially often must learn through discipline, encouragement and careful guidance how to develop practice habits and skills necessary to thrive in music long-term. Seasoned and beginner musicians can always benefit from guided encouragement. Often, creating goals or "Practice Targets" can help musicians with directing energies, efforts and motivation to practice through those inevitable bumps and challenges. Check out these three elements to include in your practice to develop stronger motivation and habits to keep going!

Practice Target #1: STRIVE! Reach for something beyond your current ability! This might sound counterintuitive but reach for something or set a “dream” goal to achieve something in your music that is beyond you now! To grow in music and life, we must stretch ourselves and move beyond where we are. This usually requires that we leave our “comfort zone” and with every step forward we take, there is a risk of failure; but failure is OK and part of the process! To learn and build new synapses in our brain, we must introduce challenges to foster growth. In music, this could mean finding a new piece that interests you that is slightly “beyond” your current ability. It means sight-reading something new or trying a new piece in that “easy” book of songs that turned out to be anything but “easy” to play! Is there a new scale, etude, or skill you have been putting off in “fear”? Is the thought of reading notes in a certain clef, playing a new piece in a new style, or singing a song in a foreign language something you have avoided? Pick one thing to “strive” for in your musical studies, and go for it! Be brave! Again, remember that failure is ok and will happen from time to time. It has been said that “music is not about being perfect all the time; rather, it is about practicing through all the ‘mistakes’ so what we are left with is something that has been “perfected”!

We learn from mistakes and from trying. Improved rhythm, styling, theory, and performance skills – so many things can be revealed and learned from striving to learn something beyond us. It always helps to have a teacher/mentor guide you as you look “beyond” your abilities. You may not “achieve” all you set out to do in this step, but if you are open to the process and give it your all, you will undoubtedly grow and move the needle beyond where you were before you began the process! One side note on selecting a new song, skill, or goal that stretches you: find something that is just beyond reach. Strive for something challenging, but your goals should ultimately be attainable, albeit with hard work and dedication. A simple example is if you’ve learned a scale in one octave, challenge yourself to do two or three or in compound meters, increase the tempo, and so forth. Make sure the goal stretches you but is ultimately attainable if you stretch yourself in practice. If you just learned a scale playing notes at 60 bpm, increase your speed within reason – don’t aim to play at 240 bpm right off the bat because that is far beyond your current ability! We’re aiming for just beyond, not impossible! In the field of education, this is what educators call scaffolding – a term coined by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). As builders erect a scaffold around a building, floor by floor, and the walls of the structure rise higher and higher, so does the scaffold. The scaffold should stay in that “sweet spot” just within reach of the top of the building: something termed the “Zone of Proximal development”. Stay within the sweet spot, and incredibly tall structures can be built most efficiently. In music, if your musical goals (the scaffold) are just within a stretch of where you are, your “musical foundation” will keep growing! Stay in your “sweet” spot as you strive for something beyond, and seek the guidance of a trained teacher who is trained to help you develop this!

Practice Target #2: REINFORCE – Spread your wings within your abilities! Once you have your “STRIVE” goals set, find ways to reinforce all that you’ve learned and your current abilities in music. This could include finding new material or songs at your current level (finish learning those remaining songs in a songbook at your level!). If you’ve learned some scales, why not set a goal to finish learning the rest of your scales (use the Circle of Fifths to keep track!)? If you have already learned a piece or selection of repertoire these past months, why not find a way to share these by performing a “virtual” recital or performance? Make a video or audio recording just for yourself, or commit to sharing your music with others! If you’ve learned a piece by a Classical composer or Jazz artist, why not other pieces by other composers or artists in the same genre or category? I cringe inside when I hear a student claim they’ve already “learned Classical music” after learning a single piece by Mozart, or they have “mastered Jazz” after playing or singing just one standard by Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald. You can hear composers across every genre, style, and period turning in their graves! Music has been around since the dawn of civilization, and any seasoned musician understands there is a vast repertoire and selection of material within every genre or style and often within the published works of individual composers or artists. You can spend a lifetime exploring and unpacking the works of Wagner or discovering the musical connections between Blues/Jazz and popular music today. There is plenty of music to explore -find something new at your level and dive deeper! Spread your wings and reinforce what you’ve already learned.

Practice Target #3: Don’t forget to RELAX! Celebrate your achievements and have FUN! Finally, don’t forget to relax and never lose sight of why you’ve chosen to learn music! Hopefully, there is an intrinsic reason or value your find your craft and the art of studying music. Don’t lose sight of this! Do you have a dream to perform on stage one day? Is playing the piano simply something you really enjoy doing to relieve stress and unwind after eight-plus hours of staring at the computer screen? Is singing your favorite tunes a way you connect with others? Is music something that helps you in a spiritual or meditative way? Whatever the case, don’t forget why you do what you do! I can’t tell you how many times I encountered students who were simply stressed and allowed this stress to carry into their musical studies. If you’re overwhelmed, ease up on the gas pedal and play through familiar pieces or songs that leave you fulfilled at the end of practice. There is a time to dig deep and chip away at the big goals, and there are times you need to just rest and relax in your music. Don’t forget your joy at the first stroke of the metronome! I remind ALL my students to strive to find a moment in every practice, rehearsal, or lesson that is rewarding and draws them into your music. I recommend starting practice/lessons with the “meatier” material and challenging repertoire first, then winding your way to a section or piece that is the sweet candy or “dessert”. End your rehearsal or lesson with a run-through of a familiar favorite or that moving passage, or that cheerfully light “duet” that leaves you with a smile. Yes, strive to become better in your craft and expand and reinforce your abilities, but never forget to practice music in ways that leave you wanting to do more at the end! Strive for something that stretches and grows you, build up and reinforce your abilities with the material at your level and end every music session with reminders as to why you love music!

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  • Writer's pictureRobert Fisher

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

What would you say is the most important aspect of excelling in music? Daily practice? Is it mastering technique? Developing artistry and musicality? Becoming experienced in live performance? These are all admirable elements of becoming a well-rounded musician, however, long-term success is built on a solid foundation. That foundation in any rehearsal or performance is built on Warm-ups!

Look at athletes worth their weight as they prepare to compete, and you will see one common thread across all sport categories and classes: these athletes incorporate warm-ups to condition and prepare their bodies to respond at peak level in practice and competition! Similarly, musicians need to prime and prepare their mind and bodies to move and create sound! Music is as much physical as it is mental – preparation and focus in both areas are essential for success. One of the most vital, albeit important things every musician should do before diving into rehearsing or performing is their warm-ups. A solid warm-up lays down a solid foundation for everything that happens afterwards in music.

1) Warm up the body: physical stretching not only promotes flexibility and blood flow but also helps tune the mind to listen to the muscles and body. For all musicians, whether playing an instrument or singing, having dexterity, and engaged muscles used in correct posture is vital. Every musician can benefit from starting with light neck stretching. This translates into more flexibility and easier range of motion for the head as we look at our music.

Moving on to the shoulders and arms, these muscles obviously allow instrumentalists to hold their instruments and hands in correct position. Rolling the shoulders and light bicep/tricep stretches help prepare the arms for motion. For singers, relaxed shoulders and loose arms allow for successful breath engagement and support.

Gently twisting the upper body and core (stomach/back) gently helps alleviate tension built up from sitting or desk work. Singers and wind players understand the core area (including the diaphragm) as the central place to ground their breath. Breathing from the core/diaphragm (and avoiding clavicular breathing from the shoulders), allows for a deeper, more controlled and lasting breath. Proper breathing lays the foundation for tone and sound! For strings, percussion and pianists, a relaxed/engaged core allows for deeper breathing which translates into lesson tension elsewhere in the body and more fluid motion and playing.

Finally, do not forget about the hands! Nearly all instrumentalists use the hands and fingers and gently stretching each digit on each hand can help keep the fingers limber and loose, allowing for more controlled and seamless technique. This also helps with injuries that result from tension in the tendons and muscles used with fine motor movement (avoiding repetitive strain injuries, i.e., carpal tunnel).

Check out this awesome quick guide from on stretches for musicians:

2) Technical Warm-Ups: After stretching the large muscle groups used for playing and breathing, it is important that warm-ups involve some sort of technical challenge and skill work. For instrumentalists, these of course include scales, arpeggios, and etude exercises. For vocalists, this includes sirens, vowel/consonant vocalises, and breath control/sustain exercises. Etudes and exercises that incorporate fingerings, movements, and patterns key to faster playing and developing dexterity are beneficial. It may seem obvious to many that these kinds of warm-ups should be reviewed daily, however, it is shocking how many musicians of all ages and experience levels struggle to include the daily discipline of technique warm-ups in their daily practice or even before performance! It doesn’t require hours and hours of time to review a few scales. Use the Circle of Fifths and pick one major/relative minor key to review and move along the circle, one set per day. This not only gives you a new “challenge” to review each day, but it also ensures that you are familiarized and comfortable with any key presented to you in practice or performance! Whether studying Rock or Bach, Jazz or Pop, musicians who have a firm grasp on their keys, notation and fingerings tend to have the greatest success! When practicing a scale or etude, may of the techniques or patterns can be found in multiple “real” pieces. I share with students the perspective that when they practice one scale, they are essentially familiarizing and partially learning “every piece” that is written in that key! They are doing the initial legwork of learning the key of thousands of songs! Spend five minutes of technique in one key and start the learning process for thousands of pieces familiar and undiscovered – now that sounds like a worthwhile tradeoff!

3) Warm-up the Mind: Stretching and warming up the physical muscles involved with movement and breathing are vital in encouraging the body to be “in tune”. Listening to your body allows you to work with it avoiding/healing from injury and strengthening muscles. The mind is at play and the practice of “tuning out” distraction and “tuning in” is just as vital! Practicing taking a moment each time you sit to play or stand to sing, breath in, and clear your mind from the day’s distractions. Think about the task at hand, whether it be a new warm-up or the next piece you are about to review. Sometimes we are so trained to move from task to task that we neglect giving our minds a moment to pause, clear other thoughts and reflect on the music. Before and after playing, we should take a moment to think about what will be/was played. Think about the key or tonality of a piece. What mood or emotion does the piece evoke? Are there any technical passages or spots require laser focus? Start painting the picture of the piece you are about to perform in your mind, draw in the lines by looking and reflecting at the music, then begin making music and filling in the colors. Obvious to you as a musician? Perhaps. Have you made this mental exercise a habit as your warm-up daily or do you simply “rush” from one etude or technique drill to another mindlessly playing/singing without thinking? It can be easy to turn warm-ups into a mundane drill or chore with little thought. Pause. Reflect. Focus. Engage. We need to warm-up the mind!

Warm-ups are often the most neglected aspect of music making for many musicians of all stages, yet it is the most vital to success in music! The few minutes spend warming-up in comparison to the relatively longer stretches devoted to playing or singing songs make it seem like less important, yet those few minutes can reap rewards tenfold if done methodically. The next time you sit down to practice or perform, remember your warm-ups and hold them to high esteem! If you are faithful and disciplined in warming-up regularly, those first 5-10 minutes of warm-ups can give you the biggest boost to your musical progress!

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