Music Perception


Frequently asked questions about piano and voice studies.

1. How much practice should my child be doing?

I prefer to ask how often, as frequency makes a big difference in a student’s progress. For beginner piano students, 15 minutes a day, 5-7 days a week is all that is required. However, if there is a day that they only get 5 minutes, I prefer that over 0 minutes! If a student practices more than this, then generally they will progress at a faster pace. As a student progresses, I will advise them on how long I think they should practice, but generally when they reach the 2nd method book, they should increase practice time to 20-25 minutes a day, 3rd book 30-35 minutes a day, and 4th book 45 minutes. At the early intermediate level, they should be doing 1 hour per day of practice. Also, practice time can be broken up to have the same if not better effect. So, 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes after school works just as well, if not better, than all at once.

For voice students, a lot depends on where in their development they are starting, their overall health, and what level of repertoire they are learning. Most young beginners should do 15-30 minutes a day, consisting of vocalises (vocal warm-ups) and work on repertoire. If a student is not feeling well, especially if they do not have a solid technique, I strongly recommend waiting until they feel better before practicing. Without a solid technique, they can cause some damage and develop poor singing habits. As with piano, the more frequent the practice, the faster the progress. Also, voice students need to spend time listening to good singing. Since most singers on the radio do not sing with a healthy technique, I will often provide recordings for them to listen to, and should be a part of their practice time as well.

If your child is taking voice lessons, then the answer is no (although a piano would be helpful in finding pitches to sing on). However, if your child wants to take piano lessons, then an acoustic piano or a good digital piano is necessary. A digital piano has keys that are the same size as a regular piano, has all 88 keys, and is not the same as a “keyboard” or “synthesizer”. A keyboard or synthesizer has a very different touch than a piano, and if students begin lessons on these, they will soon become frustrated. Playing piano requires strength in the ligaments and tendons in the hands to press down the keys at different speeds. If a child learns on a keyboard, whose keys require virtually no strength to press down, they will have difficulty when playing on an acoustic piano at their lessons or any performance.

2. Is it necessary for my child to have a piano?

Many music instrument stores in Wausau and Stevens Point offer digital piano rentals. Digital pianos have 88 regular sized weighted keys, so they feel and react like an acoustic piano, but they often take up less space than most small upright pianos. Many of these stores allow you to rent for a period of time and then apply your rent payments toward the purchase of a piano when the lease is done. This is a great alternative for those who aren’t sure their child will enjoy playing piano.

3. What age is appropriate to start piano lessons?
Four or five years is the youngest I will start teaching piano. However, this varies depending on the child’s ability to sit for a 30-minute lesson. If they are too young to begin piano, I recommend Kindermusik classes until they are ready. This class incorporates singing, dancing, playing of instruments, and reading music, and it is a great precursor for piano or voice studies. It is best to set up a free consultation to determine what would be best for your child.

4. What age is appropriate to start voice lessons?
Since the majority of voice lessons are focused on technique, it is best that the student be around 12 years of age. Some can start earlier (but not many), and some should start much later. It all depends on the emotional maturity of the student. The voice is a very personal thing, and often young students take any desire to improve technique as negative criticism of their voice. For children who would like to sing but may be too young for private instruction, I recommend starting in a voice class called Spotlights or Boys Will Be Boys at the Wausau Conservatory that is designed especially for grades 1-2 and 3-4. In a class setting, kids can learn the basics of singing, without the focus on their personal voice. It is best to set up a free consultation so that I can meet with you and your child and determine what their comfort level is.

5. Why take piano lessons?

Music is everywhere in our lives: not only in the home, but on TV, in cars, in stores, in churches, at fairs, and pretty much anywhere you can think of. Creating music is very rewarding for the individual, as it not only gives one a way to unwind after a hard day, there are many side benefits as well. And piano offers its own benefits not found in other instruments.

Piano studies increase a child’s ability in abstract reasoning, a skill necessary for math and science. Being able to play to a steady beat increases a child’s ability to bounce a basketball. Since playing the piano involves using both hands simultaneously, it is one of the few activites that uses most of the brain (about 90%!).

There are a myriad of other studies out there on the subject, as science is discovering what musicians have known all along: that music makes a person more well-rounded. I’d rather not focus on the side benefits of piano, however, becuase the real reason why someone should study piano is direct: it’s a beautiful instrument with tons of beautiful music written for it at any level of playing and in most styles. It is a discipline that requires hard work, but everyone can learn to play and get enjoyment at any level. Many people find careers in non-music fields, and so by taking piano lessons, the student will have a way to be creative and expressive when they are older, which may not be possible in their 9-5 job.

6. Why take voice lessons?
Some people believe that either you can sing, or you cannot. But no one would assume that someone would be able to play the flute or bassoon without being taught how. Of course, there are those with natural talent, and those who have a wonderful voice that may be hidden under a poor technique. The main purpose of voice lessons is to teach the student how to sing – how to be the instrument as well as how to use it – so that they can make the best out of what God gave them. If the student has a passion for singing, regardless of their career path, they can become better at singing – even if they are what some call “tone-deaf”!

7. Why performance?
Sometimes parents and students wonder why I encourage performance. There are many benefits to performing as a part of one’s education. One is that if a student just continually learns new pieces for lessons without any goal in mind, it will often become difficult to actually complete a piece by memorization unless the student is very self-motivated. Periodic performances allow for a student to be motivated by providing a goal to be reached.

Also, the frequency of performances is important. As one teacher pointed out, would you go to a surgeon who only performed surgery once a year? And yet, most studios will only have one studio recital and that’s it. What results is that students get nervous, as they only have this one chance to get it right. The more performances a student has in a year’s time, the less anxiety they will have, and the more enjoyable playing for others will become. Monthly group lessons, playing or singing at a nursing home in December, WMTA Auditions in February (and May for state), and the studio recital in June are all performance opportunities for my students.

Performing a piece has a way of solidifying techniques being worked on in the lesson that cannot happen anywhere else. If a student is able to performa a piece in front of an audience, that technique becomes a solid part of how they perform. It is built-in positive reinforcement! And once a particular piece is performed, even only once, the “kinks” get worked out, and subsequent performances of the same piece generally improve.

8. What is your philosophy on teaching piano?
Basically, I take students at every age and level of ability. I believe everyone can get enjoyment from playing piano. I teach mostly classical, but if a student has an interest in jazz, hymns, or some other style, I will try to incorporate that into their repertoire. Once a student reaches a certain level of playing and theory as determined by the student’s goals, then we can shift the focus to mainly that style.

I also believe in practicing efficiently and creatively. This helps the students progress faster and not dread practice time. Each lesson is spent focusing on finding creative and fun ways to practice a tough spot in a piece, as well as addressing any technique issues. I try to use the repertoire to cover most technical exercises instead of exercise books like Hanon which are repetitive and sometimes boring (if there’s a student that enjoys that, however, I do give it to them!).

9. What is your philosophy on teaching voice?
I believe that everyone can learn to sing and learn to sing better. So-called “tone-deaf” people aren’t really deaf at all, unless they cannot hear other sounds. It is just a matter of tuning the “inner ear” (the brain) and then matching that pitch. This can be done in a matter of weeks or months.

I teach a classical singing technique based on the physiology of the voice. I believe that understanding how the voice and its components work help me as a teacher direct a student to the correct sound. If someone uses their voice the way it was meant to be used, then they will be able to sing in any style by changing the stylistic means, and not the way they sing. I do not, however, bog students down with anatomy; I just tell them enough so that they understand the basics. I do this so that should they study voice with another teacher down the road, they will be able to select a teacher that teaches physiologically sound principles, and not about “fairies fliying in the head,” or some such nonsense.