Dozens of Free MP3 Downloadable Classics Especially for Children!

A friend of mine who is writing pre-school curriculum as she homeschools her children came across this fabulous website full of free mp3 downloadable classics! The files are from children’s record series (vinyl records) sold in the US during the 1950’s and 1960’s. I downloaded the “A Child’s Introduction to the Instruments of the Orchestra with Joseph Cooper” recording and am impressed with the quality of the audio. I think there are probably some real treasures here that would be perfect to incorporate into a Piano Camp or Pre-Piano Camp program!

HT: Julia @ Little Lessons for Life

No Hands Left Behind!

The key-notes blog recently posted a question and answer regarding how to strengthen and train the left hand. I thought the tips shared were helpful to keep in mind for both personal practice and when working with students. I’ve got a double-note drill pattern that my teacher taught me several years ago that is still a killer for me, but one of these days I am determined to master it! Ever since reading the free pdf file I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago, I’ve also been incorporating the metronome much more into my practicing and it is making a world of difference. Sometimes it just helps to be reminded of these things I’ve known about for years, but easily slip out of my regular practice routine. And hopefully I’m not the only one! 🙂

5 Benefits of Group Classes

As I was working on his week’s Monday Mailbag post, I began thinking of all the benefits of group classes. And there are lots of them! Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Let me know if you have any other benefits to add!

  1. Collaboration – Whether it’s playing games, performing in ensembles, doing impromptu improvisation activities, or working on a project, there’s something exciting and musically rewarding about students getting to spend time learning and growing together.
  2. Inspiration – It’s so fun to watch the eyes of especially the younger students light up when they watch and hear the music being played by the older students! And even the older ones spur one another on to reach new heights in their understanding and performing.
  3. Competition – In addition to collaboration, I believe it’s healthy to include opportunities for students to compete against each other as individuals and in groups. It’s amazing how hard a student will work to memorize their key signatures if they know that they’ll have an opportunity to accrue points or win a game with that knowledge! 🙂
  4. Appreciation – As students play for and listen to each other they develop a greater appreciation and enjoyment of music. They might not be inclined to watch a five-minute piano performance on YouTube at home, but when I incorporate it into the group class and give them something to listen for and/or discuss about it, they tune in and learn things they might otherwise miss out on.
  5. Fun! – One of the primary goals that all of the parents of my students express on their initial interview questionnaire is that their children enjoy music and playing the piano. And one of the most motivating elements in working hard to learn a skill is having fun in the process. We have such a great time together (myself included!), and I always leave our group classes more energized and dedicated to working hard as a teacher. I see a similar response among my students, thus inspiring me to keep making group classes a part of our studio environment!

How Much Practice Is Enough?

I recently came across this fascinating article titled, How Much Should We Practice? based on the findings of a research paper in the Journal of Neuroscience. The research was conducted by a team of scientists to determine if effective practice time can include not only practice of the assigned task, but also listening to relevant stimuli while performing unrelated tasks. Here’s a brief statement from the research paper:

“Learning was enhanced regardless of whether the periods of additional stimulation were interleaved with or provided exclusively before or after target-task performance, and even though that stimulation occurred during the performance of an irrelevant (auditory or written) task.”

I’m always somewhat skeptical of this or that latest finding that calls into question years of commonly accepted practices. There are always so many nuanced elements that go into a study like this and it’s important to keep in mind one of the basic rules of logic – that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. That said, I am intrigued by the implications and potential applications if the findings of this particular study are to be accepted. How would my practice routine and recommended practice habits for my students look different if I incorporate intentional sensory stimulation? Definitely some food for thought!

I would love to get some feedback from others on this! What do you think of the study and its findings? How do you feel about incorporating these ideas into your practicing and teaching? Any specific thoughts on what you would do differently?

HT: @JonathanRiggs

Monday Mailbag – Scheduling Group Classes

How do you schedule group classes so parents don’t mind the “extra event”? Do you replace all lessons of the week for the group class or work it out some other way?

Some of this has to do with your perspective and how you present the group classes. In my opinion, group classes are a tremendous benefit to students and I present them as an added perk of my studio. For instance, when someone calls and asks what my rates are, I quote them my monthly rate and say, “That includes a weekly 45-minute lesson, plus a group class every 4-6 weeks, participation in all studio recitals, and the opportunity to participate in numerous other festivals and events throughout the year.”

It rarely works out for all of my students to attend any given group class, but I usually have 15-20 students in attendance. Especially for families that live a considerable distance away, it is a bit much to make the trip twice in one week, so they are welcome to choose between the regular lesson and the group class. I know there are some teachers who prefer to schedule groups in place of regular lessons that week, but I’ve always preferred to maintain a regular weekly lesson schedule with groups as an added bonus. Also, I consistently hold my group classes and recitals on Thursday evenings and I put out my schedule for the whole year at the beginning of the fall semester. This gives families time to get it on their calendars and make plans to attend.

Finally, because I promote group classes in my conversations with prospective families and on my website, I’ve actually had people tell me that they want their children to study piano with me because of what they’ve heard and seen. It’s all part of creating a culture of enthusiasm and musical excellence!

I know lots of other teachers offer group classes, so feel free to share your input! Do you schedule groups in addition to or in place of regular weekly lessons? What scheduling approaches have you found to be most effective?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Ask Janet Your Injury-Related Questions

If you’ve been keeping up with the posts this week, you know that Janet Horvath has a wealth of expertise and experience to share in the area of injury prevention and recovery. She has kindly agreed to take specific questions from Music Matters Blog readers and answer them in a post next week. You can either leave your question in the comments below or e-mail it to me. I’ll compile all of them and send them to Janet, then will post her answers next week when I announce the winner of the drawing for her book, Playing (Less) Hurt. This is a great chance to have an expert answer your injury-related questions!

Interview with Janet Horvath

I am pleased to welcome Janet Horvath, author of Playing (Less) Hurt, to Music Matters Blog today to talk a little bit more about injury prevention and the role it should play in our teaching.

1. You come from a very musical family and began playing at a young age. Can you tell us when you first became aware of the importance of proper body use and injury prevention as a musician?

As a young teenager I remember frequently getting lazy with my posture. During high school orchestra rehearsals I would lean back and slump in my seat out of boredom or disinterest perhaps. Soon I experienced daily back -aches. I was really puzzled. Why did my back hurt so often? I, like other young, people didn’t mention it to my parents or teachers. It took me a while to figure it out but I did realize that it was associated with my playing posture. As soon as I sat up properly my back-aches went away. That was the beginning of my awareness, I think, although I didn’t know it at the time. Years later, when I became a college student of the great pedagogue Janos Starker, I wanted to be the best Starker student who ever lived! So I locked myself in a practice room (not admitting that I was also trying to escape from loneliness – I was away from home for the first time in my life). Soon my left arm started to hurt. I believed erroneously that if I played through the pain I’d be a better cellist…right? I continued my rigorous practicing. Soon my arm throbbed and I could no longer deny that I had hurt myself. I had let myself get to the point that I couldn’t use a knife and fork or turn a doorknob, let alone play!  I could do little with that arm, nor play for three months, all the while thinking that my life was over. When Mr. Starker returned from his concert tour that fall, I was so fearful of admitting to him that I was injured. To his credit, he hid his horror quite well! From that day, we began to rebuild my technique from the ground up, eliminating any tension and any awkward postures. It took a good six months to slowly get back in shape – with a new approach – playing with ease.

2. What has changed in your own practicing and playing since you experienced your injury and went through the rehabilitation process?

I have developed a third eye! When I am playing I am always thinking about how I can make it easier for myself. I know that playing without tension, being fluid in my movements, and relaxed, will only help me play with more expression and passion. I avoid playing if I feel an ache or pain. I stop and analyze what I might be doing to cause this. I try to take it easy if I am tired or very stressed. I always warm up. I always take breaks – 10 minutes per hour is a good guide. When that is not possible, say in an orchestra rehearsal, I have developed my Onstage Tricks™ – small moves that can alleviate tension even during performance to avoid risking injury. I vary my repertoire in my practicing so I don’t get “stuck” on one particularly challenging passage or technique. I am always aware that I am an athlete and my body does have its limits.

3. Is there a relationship between injury prevention and artistry in playing?

Making music with passion and artistry, at its best, requires us to be able to “lose” ourselves in the piece of music we are interpreting. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to play with ease and with a beautiful interpretation when we are in pain or so fatigued that all we can think about is getting through a performance. An athlete’s performance is compromised if they are hurting and so is ours. Make playing easy for yourself! When we can play tension free, and with fluidity then we are able to really touch our audiences with our music.

4. Teachers have a limited time with their students each week. How can we best utilize that time to help our students learn and practice effective injury prevention principles?

I think it is essential to include these techniques in each lesson so that it becomes ingrained in students. First, I would suggest a few minute warm up period at the beginning of each lesson. Few youngsters really know how to warm up, mistaking technical exercises for warming up. I have several suggestions in my book, but suffice it to say start not too slow, not too fast, not too high, and not too low i.e. in the medium range of your instrument at medium tempi gentle and easy. I urge teachers to take time in the lesson to uncurl arms and wiggle, to alternate standing and sitting positions if possible, and to spend time discussing a practice plan that varies repertoire. Teachers should be open about the possibility of injury and have an open approach so that a student feels that they can talk about their playing and hopes and dreams, as well as any issues of pain.

5. It seems like the best way for teachers to effectively work with students, especially as it relates to injury prevention, is to be so well-educated and aware of the root causes and symptoms that we can recognize them in our students and be proactive in addressing them. Do you agree? How do you recommend that teachers go about doing this (with reading your book, of course, being at the top of the list!)?

So true! I think there have been generations of teachers who have had no injury prevention training themselves, so they are at a loss when a student becomes injured. Today, musicians play longer hours, and they play more difficult repertoire with increasingly difficult challenges at younger ages and at higher levels. Hence, injuries are on the rise and we cannot get away with technical and postural imperfections. Teachers must learn how to instill injury prevention as a mindset in their students (and yes my book covers quite a gamut of suggestions and information, as well as resources for further help).

6. Any additional comments?

I want to emphasize that several injuries may present themselves with similar symptoms. It is essential when there is a persistent problem not to self-diagnose, but to seek expert professional help. There are many Performing Arts Medicine Centers springing up all over the country. These medical professionals know the challenges of playing an instrument. The sooner you get a diagnosis and you are treated, the better chance there is that there can be total recovery.

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to enter the drawing to win an autographed copy of Janet’s book, Playing (Less) Hurt.

An Excerpt from Playing (Less) Hurt

Just to give you even more of an idea of the helpful information you’ll find in Playing (Less) Hurt, the book I reviewed yesterday, here are two brief excerpts that Janet has given me permission to share:


  1. Body size, build.
  2. Conditioning.
  3. Muscle imbalances due to the demands of playing the instrument.
  4. Fatigue.
  5. Joint laxity.
  6. Stress levels.
  7. Misuse: poor technique, poor habits and/or poor posture.
  8. Abrupt changes or increases of schedule, length of practice, instrument type or weight.
  9. Style of playing and lifestyle choices.
  10. Your equipment setup.

Injury Susceptibility Quiz

  • Does your teacher have an intense teaching style?
  • Is your playing style intense, emotional, macho?
  • Is your position awkward or uncomfortable?
  • Do you have a predilection for difficult, pyrotechnical, challenging, loud repertoire?
  • Do you love to slam your bow or slap your fingers into the strings or slam or squeeze down keys?
  • Do you practice mostly at the forte dynamic range?
  • Do you squeeze your instrument while holding it?
  • Do you jam the keys down, even when playing softly?
  • Do you lose track of time when practicing?
  • Do you have difficulty saying “no”?
  • Do you clench your jaw or grit your teeth?
  • Do you schedule back-to-back rehearsals, gigs and performances?
  • Do you play in spite of fatigue and pain?
  • Do you fling your fingers off strings or keys?
  • Do you grip your bow tightly or grab your fingerboard or squeeze it?
  • Do you play without warming up?
  • Do you play a very large, heavy or very resistant instrument?
  • Do you play with a heavy bow, keep your strings high or use a worn-out, ill-fitting chin rest?
  • Do you stretch to reach notes or keys?
  • Do you hold fingers uplifted and/or curled?
  • Do you hold stretches, double stops or chords down?
  • Do you snap your elbow when changing from downbow to upbow?
  • Are you a tense, stressed person?
  • Are you depressed?
  • Do you neglect to warm-up?
  • Do you sleep poorly?
  • Are you physically inactive?
  • Are you overweight?
  • Do you consume more than two cups of caffeinated beverages a day?
  • Do you take drugs or drink more than a moderate amount of alcohol?

Review and Giveaway of Playing (Less) Hurt!

Recent years in music pedagogy have given rise to discussions on injury prevention. Janet Horvath, author of the recently-revised book, Playing (Less) Hurt, makes note of this in one of her introductory statements: “Only in recent years, though, have we begun to acknowledge perhaps the biggest challenge of all: the very real obstacle of physical pain.” One need not look far to find formerly aspiring musicians whose hopes and dreams have been circumvented by physical pain and injuries. Even though I have never personally dealt with such a disastrous experience, this is a topic that has become very important to me in my roles of musician and teacher. Again, Janet expresses my sentiments well, “The elimination of pain is not simply an end in itself. True ease of expression allows you and your instrument to resonate freely, and when you achieve a state of physical serenity, your audience can feel it.”

Cellist Janet Horvath was a literal victim of the pervasive “no pain, no gain” mentality – a flawed maxim whose death cannot come too quickly for those who have been destroyed by its assimilation into the habits of the practice room. After going through an intentional process to recognize her limitations and learn proper technique from the ground up, Janet experienced victory and has since become a strong advocate for injury prevention. Playing (Less) Hurt is full of the realities of life as a musician, and does an excellent job of both identifying and then addressing the issues that face all musicians, but particularly those who perform regularly. I especially appreciate the “Top 10” lists scattered throughout the book that provide an easy overview and reference for the topics covered.

Top 10 lists include, “10 Potential Factors Contributing to Overuse”, “10 Danger Signals”, “10 Onstage Tricks That Can Be Done Even While Playing”, “The Musician’s Survival Kit: 10 Essential Items”, and many others! As you can probably tell, Playing (Less) Hurt is highly practical. It is also chock-full of thorough explanations of various types of injuries, accompanied by illustrations and photographs to aid understanding. In fact, the wonderful illustrations are perhaps the best part of the book for me! I have been to numerous workshops on the importance of warming up and practicing good injury prevention techniques. It’s usually not too hard to implement them when I’m teaching a student at the piano, but I always forget the specific activities that are good for warming up prior to playing. No more! This is a marvelous reference (for my students, too, who will realize that I’m really not crazy for having them warm up prior to practicing!).

In addition to all the great content on injury identification and prevention, Janet also includes several heartening chapters for those who have experienced injuries and want to regain the ability to play their instruments. The final part of the book is a collection of related resources for everything from books to practice planners to websites, and more. I am so grateful to Janet for drawing on her experiences and expertise to provide us with such a tremendous resource that can help other musicians, teachers, and students avoid having to go through the same painful ordeal she did!

Janet Horvath has generously offered to give away an autographed copy of her book, Playing (Less) Hurt, to one Music Matters Blog reader! Just leave a comment below to be entered in a drawing to win the autographed book. The drawing will end at noon on Thursday, October 28, 2010. The winner will be selected using a random number generator.

Monday Mailbag – Setting Up a Website for Students

Can you talk more about your “Studio Splog” website? I’ve been so intrigued the few times I went on and saw the variety and interest that your students showed in postings on it! How can you set something like that up and what guidelines have you given them?

Sure! It’s a website I started last year as part of our Exploring a Galaxy of Music practice incentive theme. There are several options for setting up blog-based websites for your students. The one I prefer is WordPress. If you already have website hosting, you can set up a similar student site as an add-on domain. Or, if you don’t have a site, you can have it hosted for free on the WordPress domain. Or you can buy a hosting account and use it for a site. So, there are several options for setting it up! Blogger is another popular blog interface that you may want to check into.

Once you have the blog up and running, you can search for and select a theme that allows for multiple author listings on the sidebar. This isn’t essential, as WordPress automatically has the capability for multiple users, but I thought it would be nice for the students to see their name on the sidebar and for others to be able to click and go right to all the posts written by a particular student.

When you set up the installation, you will receive the admin login information that will enable you to access the “Dashboard” of the blog. This is where you control all the settings, themes, users, etc. If you go to the “Users” menu option, you can add additional users and define their role. I added all my students and made them an “author.” This allows them to write posts and submit them for publication, but then I have to review and approve them in order for them to be published on the blog.

As far as the actual posts, sometimes I would encourage a student to post something based on what they were studying or learning in conjunction with their lessons. Other times they just took the initiative to post video clips they discovered or thoughts that came to mind. We also did quite a bit of recording and posting audio clips on the blog, because this was pretty exciting for a lot of the students!

So…that’s some of the info about the student blog. I’ve been blogging for about five years now so it was pretty easy to get things set up for my students and walk them through how to access the site and write their posts. If you’re new to blogging, though, or are interested in learning more about how to start a blog, feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them. Also, does anyone else have a blog or website to which students contribute content? Do you have any platforms or tips on what has worked well for you?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!