What is the worst mistake a beginner-level musician can make?

Answer: Not finding the correct teaching methodology. Let's compare and contrast my sister's and my childhood music education with our father's.

Our father got his Ph.D. from Cornell, worked for decades at Bell Labs and Bellcore, and has nine patents, so he is a pretty smart guy. He has had a lifelong passion and dedication to music. From age ten, he took piano lessons for over seven years, practicing up to eight hours on weekends. In spite of this dedication, he was unable to achieve more than intermediate level proficiency as a pianist. No one who is passionate about music should yield that kind of result for that amount of effort expended - this is absolutely heartbreaking. But when you are not taught music fundamentals the correct way, and not taught how to practice an instrument the correct way, this is the normal result. Heaven forbid if you run into the wrong teacher, and end up thinking you have no talent.

For the first seven years of my life, my mom taught me what she could. She tried to get me to read music but probably wasn't patient enough, and I learned to play by ear. Then my father's boss at Bell Labs told him there was a prestigious piano school called The French School of Music, in Plainfield, NJ. The teacher and founder of the school had studied at Paris Conservatory when four famous French composers were alive and Gabriel Fauré was director of the conservatoire. I began taking private piano lessons and attending solfege classes there, eventually taking lessons for ten years. The solfege training was "fixed do" training and taught:

  • sight-singing while conducting time, 

  • two piano ear training (where the teacher would play a note, series of notes, or chord, and students had to replicate this on a second piano), and 

  • music dictation where the teacher would play something and students would have to figure it out and write it down. 

Almost immediately, they discovered I had absolute pitch. The teacher also taught efficient piano practice methods. Three months after starting lessons, I competed in the NJ Music Education Council piano competitions, made it to the finals, and came in third place. The next year, first place. 

My little sister was three years old at the time, and sitting in back of solfege class with the parents when I started taking lessons. Six months later, she leaned over to mom one day and asked during the two-piano ear training portion: "why can't he get those? Those are so EASY!" A mother turned around in complete shock, the class stopped while the instructors tested my sister, and they discovered she also had absolute pitch. Eventually, I performed in Carnegie Recital Hall nine times, and sis played there ten times.

During the 14 year period when sis and I studied at French School, and over the 92 year history of this school until transitioning to a new partnership with duCret in 2019, numerous French School students also played at Carnegie, went on to attend top notch conservatories, became professional musicians, and / or excelled in other disciplines as doctors, lawyers, technologists, etc.

Why did this school get such outstanding results? Solfege classes focused on learning music fundamentals. Every week we would break down and sightread a new piece of music. That meant by the time we went to our instrument lessons, we could focus on technique and musicality, because what was in our brains already mirrored what was in our teacher's brain.

There is so much more to say, and to this end, our family has attempted to explain this school's methodology so that future music students have access to what we once had. At the very least, it would give people enough information to recognize the right teacher and teaching methodology, even if it differs from our experience. My dad has dedicated the decades of his retirement to writing a book called "Fundamentals of Piano Practice", available online in PDF form and for sale in paperback form. I realized in 2017 that the solfege portion was missing and wrote the "Solfege Teaching Guide", which is readable by all, not just music teachers. In fact, if you are a parent or prospective parent you must read this, so that your child has the best possible head start with respect to developing a solid foundation in music fundamentals. This is also online in PDF form and for sale in paperback form.

A quick summary in terms of efficient piano practice - the most important techniques to learn a new piece quickly include:

  1. Focusing on the hardest parts first, often both the beginning and the end

  2. Practicing hands alone

  3. Using the "continuity rule" (explained in my father's book) to practice one bar at a time plus the next note repeatedly until you get it, then the next bar plus the next note repeatedly, string together the first two bars plus the next note, etc. After gaining proficiency with a particular section hands alone, try hands together also using the continuity rule, such that you have full overlapping coverage in practice and can eventually play a piece from start to finish without stopping.

  4. Using the "got it, forgot it" method where, instead of practicing for two hours straight, maybe practice for 15 -20 minutes using the continuity rule, go eat breakfast, come back for another 15 -20 minutes to practice again, doing this periodically throughout the day. This technique engages the subconscious in piano practice as well, such that by the end of the day, instead of one large practice session, students have run through multiple practice sessions and may discover something that seemed impossible in the morning is now playable by end of day.

In terms of solfege, I'm working to put all 171 exercises from Dannhäuser Solfège des Solfèges Book 1 online in a Udemy series titled "Solfege and Music Fundamentals". As of August 2019, Part 1 and Part 2 are available. Part 1 is free and covers exercises 1 - 3, has lectures on ear training and music dictation, and explains the structure of the course and what our solfege classes were like (as best as possible, given that the training is online versus the brick and mortar experience we had). Part 2 covers exercises 4 - 19. Part 3 will cover exercises 20 - 39, Part 4 will cover exercises 40 - 59, etc.

If there are 100 enrollments for each of the most recently released parts, this will indicate there is enough interest to work on the next module. If there are 1000 enrollments for Part 2, it will become free. There will also eventually be a "Solfege Student Guide" to accompany the Udemy course. Our hope is to create a baseline that shows what practical, effective, and efficient music education looked like at French School, from "music kindergarten" level up to being fully prepared to step into a conservatory environment.

How You Can Help

If this resonates with you, an option to help support our efforts would be to buy a copy of "Fundamentals of Piano Practice" or the "Solfege Teaching Guide".

If you know young children or students who are passionate about music, give them a unique birthday or Christmas present by introducing them to the Udemy course "Solfege and Music Fundamentals Part 1". If they enjoy this method of teaching, enroll them in Part 2. This is quadruply true for children who come from disadvantaged circumstances. You will change their lives, the way ours were forever changed, for the price of a meal.

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FEATURED TRACKS

2019 / 4:56 Intro, on Udemy. Part 1 can be found here.

2019 / 1:03 Singer conducting time, exercise 17 (Udemy)

2013 / 4:49