Saturday, April 22, 2017

OCMS 18th Annual Concert "Totoro and Friends"

Join us next week to celebrate our 18th birthday with special guest, Totoro!

OCMS-SO 18th Annual Concert "Totoro and Friends"
Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 7:30 pm
St. Paul's United Church (200 McIntosh Street, Scarborough, ON M1N 3Z3)
Featuring violinists Simon Lau, Iris Fong, and David Chen; soprano Florence Lee
Conductors: Samantha Chang, and Brian Truong

Overture to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) K. 620 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Double Concerto in D minor BWV1043 by Johann Sebastian Bach
O cessate di Piagarmi by Alessandro Sacrlatti
Chère nuit by Alfred (Georges) Bachelet
Carmen Suite No. 1 by Georges Bizet
Melodyphony by Joe Hisaishi

Sunday, April 09, 2017

How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

How much you practice every day is a question young musicians ask. To read the full article, click here.

What Do Performers Say?

Some of the great artists of the 20th century have shared their thoughts on these questions. I seem to recall reading an interview with Rubinstein years ago, in which he stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably weren’t doing it right.
Other great artists have expressed similar sentiments. Violinist Nathan Milstein is said to have once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”
Heifetz also indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays. You know, this is not a bad idea – one of my own teachers, Donald Weilerstein, once suggested that I establish a 24-hour period of time every week where I was not allowed to pick up my instrument.

What Do Psychologists Say?

When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “ten-year rule” and “10,000-hour rule” which suggest that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain — and in the case of musicians, often closer to 25 years in order to attain an elite international level. Note that the real key here is not the amount of practice required (as the exact number of hours is debatable) but the type of practice required to attain an expert level of performance. In other words, just practicing any old way doesn’t cut it.

Mindless Practice

Have you ever listened to someone practice? Have you ever listened to yourself practice, for that matter? Tape yourself practicing for an hour, take a walk through the practice room area at school and eavesdrop on your fellow students, or ask your students to pretend they are at home and watch them practice during a lesson. What do you notice?
You’ll notice that the majority of folks practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in mere repetition (“practice this passage 10 times” or “practice this piece for 30 minutes”) or practicing on autopilot (that’s when we play through the piece until we hear something we don’t like, stop, repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing through the piece until we hear the next thing we aren’t satisfied with, at which point we begin this whole process over again).
There are three major problems with the mindless method of practicing.

1. It is a waste of time

Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is how we can practice a piece for hours, days, or weeks, and still not feel that we’ve improved all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole by practicing this way, because what this model of practicing does do is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, literally making it more likely that you will screw up more consistently in the future. This makes it more difficult to correct these habits in the future — so you are actually adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these bad habits and tendencies. I once worked with a saxophone professor who was fond of reminding his students that “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

2. It makes you less confident

In addition, practicing this way actually hurts your confidence, as there is a part of you that realizes you don’t really know how to consistently produce the results you are looking for. Even if you establish a fairly high success rate in the most difficult passages via mindless practice, and find that you can nail it 3 or 4 out of every 5 attempts, your confidence won’t grow much from this. Real on-stage confidence comes from (a) being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, because most importantly (c) you know precisely why you nail it or miss it — i.e. you know exactly what you need to do from a technique standpoint in order to play the passage perfectly every time.
You may not be able to play it perfectly every time at first, but this is what repetition is for — to reinforce the correct habits until they are stronger than the bad habits. It’s a little like trying to grow a nice looking lawn. Instead of fighting a never-ending battle against the weeds, your time is better spent trying to cultivate the grass so that over time the grass crowds out the weeds.
And here’s the biggie. We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously — not a great formula for success. Recall from this article that you have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left brain mode when you walk out on stage. Well, if you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don’t know how to play your piece perfectly on demand. When your brain suddenly goes into full-conscious mode, you end up freaking out, because you don’t know what instructions to give your brain.

3. It is tedious and boring

Practicing mindlessly is a chore. Music may be one of the only skill-based activities where practice goals are measured in units of time. We’ve all had teachers who tell us to go home and practice a certain passage x number of times, or to practice x number of hours, right? What we really need are more specific outcome goals — such as, practice this passage until it sounds like _____, or practice this passage until you can figure out how to make it sound like _____.
After all, it doesn’t really matter how much time we spend practicing something — only that we know how to produce the results we want, and can do so consistently, on demand.

Deliberate Practice

So what is deliberate, or mindful practice? Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals and hypotheses. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.
Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of your repertoire instead of just playing through (e.g. working on just the opening note of your solo to make sure that it “speaks” exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening phrase).
Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance (in real-time, but also via recordings), continually looking for new ways to improve. This means really listening to what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, was the first note note sharp? Flat? Too loud? Too soft? Too harsh? Too short? Too long?
Let’s say that the note was too sharp and too long with not enough of an attack to begin the note. Well, how sharp was it? A little? A lot? How much longer was the note than you wanted it to be? How much more of an attack did you want?
Ok, the note was a little sharp, just a hair too long, and required a much clearer attack in order to be consistent with the marked articulation and dynamics. So, why was the note sharp? What did you do? What do you need to do to make sure the note is perfectly in tune every time? How do you ensure that the length is just as you want it to be, and how do you get a consistently clean and clear attack to begin the note so it begins in the right character?
Now, let’s imagine you recorded all of this and could listen to how this last attempt sounded. Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result? In other words, does that combination of ingredients convey the mood or character you want to communicate to the listener as effectively as you thought it would?
Few musicians take the time to stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can correct the error permanently.

How Many Hours a Day Should I Practice?

You will find that deliberate practice is very draining, given the tremendous amount of energy required to keep one’s full attentional resources on the task at hand. Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and in all honesty, probably not even mentally or emotionally possible. Even the most dedicated individuals will find it difficult to practice more than four hours a day.
Studies have varied the length of daily practice from 1 hour to 8 hours, and the results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day, and that gains actually begin to decline after the 2-hour mark.  The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.

5 Keys For More Effective Practice

1. Duration

Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes for younger students, and as long as 45-60 minutes for older individuals.

2. Timing

Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch, etc. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods as these are the times at which you will be able to focus and think most clearly.

3. Goals

Try using a practice notebook. Keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the “zone” when practicing is to be constantly striving to have clarity of intention. In other words, to have a clear idea of the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently.
When you figure something out, write it down. As I practiced more mindfully, I began learning so much during practice sessions that if I didn’t write everything down, I’d forget.

4. Smarter, not harder

Sometimes if a particular passage is not coming out the way we want it to, it just means we need to practice more. There are also times, however, when we don’t need to practice harder, but need an altogether different strategy or technique.
I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice. I was getting frustrated and kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed. I realized that there had to be a smarter, more effective way to accomplish my goal.
Instead of stubbornly keeping at a strategy or technique that wasn’t working for me, I forced myself to stop practicing this section altogether. I tried to brainstorm different solutions to the problem for a day or so, and wrote down ideas to try as they occurred to me. When I felt that I came up with some promising solutions, I just started experimenting. I eventually came up with a solution that I worked on over the next week or so, and when I played the caprice for my teacher, he actually asked me how I made the notes speak so clearly!

5. Problem-solving model

Consider this 6-step general problem-solving model summarized below (adapted from various problem solving processes online).
  1. Define the problem (what do I want this note/phrase to sound like?)
  2. Analyze the problem (what is causing it to sound like this?)
  3. Identify potential solutions (what can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  4. Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best?)
  5. Implement the best solution (make these changes permanent)
  6. Monitor implementation (do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?)
Or simpler yet, check out this model from Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code.
  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting technique, or experimenting with different musical ideas. Any model which encourages smarter, more systematic, active thought, and clearly articulated goals will help cut down on wasted, ineffective practice time.

Written by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D. and published in The Bulletproof Musician, date unknown.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Being A Musician Is Good For Your Brain

People who play an instrument are sharper and have faster reaction times. That’s the suggestion of a study from the University of Montreal. Click here to read the full article.

Playing music keeps your brain sharp. 
Science has shown that musical training can change brain structure and function for the better, improve long-term memory and lead to better brain development for those who start in childhood. 
Musicians may also be more mentally alert, according to new research. A University of Montreal study, slated to appear in the February issue of the journal Brain and Cognition, shows that musicians have significantly faster reaction times than non-musicians. 
The findings suggest that learning to play a musical instrument could keep your brain sharp as you age, and may help to prevent certain aspects of cognitive decline in older adults. 
For the small study, the researchers compared the reaction times of 19 non-musician students and 16 student musicians who had been recruited from the university’s music program and had been playing an instrument for at least seven years. The participants included violinists, percussionists, a viola player and a harpist. 
Each participant was seated in a quiet room and asked to keep one hand on a computer mouse and the other on a small box that occasionally vibrated silently. The participants were instructed to click on the mouse when the box vibrated, when they heard a sound from the speakers in front of them or when both things happened at once. The stimulations were done 180 times each.
As hypothesized, the musicians had significantly faster reaction times to non-musical auditory, tactile and multisensory stimuli than the non-musicians. 
Landry says this is likely because playing music involves multiple senses. With touch, for instance, a violin player has to feel the string on her finger, but she also needs to listen for the right sound to be produced when she’s pressing on the string. 
“This long-term training of the sense in the context of producing exactly what is desired musically leads to a strengthening of sensory neural pathways,” Landry told The Huffington Post. “Additionally, using the senses in synchronicity for long periods of time ― musicians practice for years ― enhances how they work together. All this would lead to the faster multisensory reaction time.” 
Previously, Landry also investigated how musicians’ brains process sensory illusions. Together with their previous findings, the results suggest that musicians are better at integrating input from various senses, the study’s authors noted. More studies are needed, however, to determine whether and how musical training might slow the natural cognitive decline that occurs as we age. 
“Playing a musical instrument has an effect on abilities beyond music,” Landry concluded. “We’re only now starting to better understand the benefits of musical training and they seem to range beyond simply playing music.”

Written by Carolyn Gregoire and published in The Huffington Post on January 13, 2017 and updated on January 26, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

10 tips for a successful orchestral audition

Here are some fundamentals for orchestral auditions which will most likely result in positive feedback. To read the full article click here.
1. Show your artistic depth with every note
Yes, you must demonstrate mastery of a number of basics to be successful in an audition. Too often, however, people are afraid to go further and convey real musical understanding by taking a sophisticated view of the music. What’s on the page should be clear, but don’t stop there. Committee members are musicians, and musicians gravitate to tasteful and inspired playing, in an audition or otherwise.
2. Accept the unknowns
You can’t control what the hall will sound like, whether there will be a screen, or who might be warming up next to you. Practise thriving in atypical conditions by simulating them: get a few people together to hear you in an unfamiliar room, set up a makeshift screen and have someone else choose the order in which you’ll perform the repertoire.
3. Make a beautiful sound all the time
More candidates receive negative attention by producing substandard tone than from any other single factor. Pay close attention to treatment of short notes, and avoid playing so loudly or softly that you lose control of the sound.
4. Orchestral playing is communal, but auditions are solitary
This means certain choices about bowings, fingerings, tempi, and other variables could be different than if you were playing the piece in an orchestra. For example, a slightly slower tempo that allows everything to speak cleanly and clearly is preferable to a quicker one where things feel blurry and rushed.
5. Solid, specific preparation is the best antidote for anxiety
You will feel nervous excitement leading up to (and perhaps during) the audition. This is human.  Building the ability to keep nerves in check and your mind focused starts during practice, long before the audition. Have very specific opinions, and practise to retain knowledge of technical aspects such as bow distribution and vibrato that allow you to shape phrases exactly as planned. An audition is not a time for vagueness. Knowing and practising exactly what you hope to reproduce in the audition gives you a constant stream of thoughts to focus on in performance, allowing your mind much less room to go astray. As I tell my students, ‘Just do your thing, and let other people find ways to eliminate themselves.’
6. Recordings are a mixed blessing
It is important to develop a musical understanding of each work that is independent from any recorded interpretation — even a great one by the very group you are auditioning for. Seasoned orchestral musicians have played the standard repertoire many times under different conductors. There is no ‘official’ tempo, fingering, or bowing for any piece. Satisfy yourself with your playing rather than trying to re-create something from an orchestra’s recorded history.
7. You can make errors
No player relishes making an unexpected mistake early on, but remember that your general level of musicianship and instrumental control is what the committee will remember. The difference between a fluke and a general tendency in someone’s playing is quite easy to discern, and a committee can generally forgive a couple of minor missteps in an otherwise well-played, artistically satisfying presentation.
8. Play the instrument you’re comfortable with
Players sometimes borrow great instruments for an audition, assuming that a superior instrument is a real advantage. However, you can only sound your best on an instrument with which you are completely comfortable. If you’re unhappy with your instrument, don’t worry too much about it – a committee will focus more on what you are doing than on the instrument itself.
9. Play the way you play
I often hear of players ‘adjusting’ their playing to cater to what they think a given committee wants. This is a potentially unproductive mindset that can put candidates outside their comfort zone in the audition. Every committee should want to hear someone with valid, sophisticated musical ideas and the technical means to express them. Aim for this broad goal, using the repertoire to express your unique sense of style and musical understanding.
10. Play for people you respect, including those who don’t play your instrument
Feedback from someone who doesn’t know the challenges unique to your instrument can be very enlightening. Great singers and pianists often have insights about the music of Mozart and Schubert, to name just two composers, which can be revelatory to string players. If success at an audition depends in part on showing real understanding of the music we are playing, we must develop a view of the repertoire that transcends our own instrument.
Advice provided by Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Brant Taylor, published on The Strad on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Musical Scales May have Developed to Accommodate Vocal Limitations

For singers and their audiences, being “in tune” might not be as important as we think. The fact that singers fail to consistently hit the right notes may have implications for the development of musical scales as well. That’s the suggestion of a study from the University at Buffalo. Click here to read the full article.
At issue is not whether singers hit the right or wrong note, but how close they are to any note. It’s what researchers call micro-tuning, according to Peter Pfordresher, a UB psychologist and lead author of a new paper with Steven Brown of McMaster University published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.
The researchers studied three groups of singers of varying abilities: professionals, untrained singers who tend to sing in tune and the untrained who tend not to sing in tune. They weren’t listening for whether the singers were hitting the right notes, but rather how close they were to any note.
Pfordresher and Brown found the groups did not differ in terms of micro-tuning, although they were very different aesthetically.
“Our proposal is, maybe scales were designed as a way to accommodate how out of tune, how variable singers are,” Pfordresher says. “We suggest that the starting point for scales and tuning for scales was probably not the tuning of musical instruments, but the mistuning of the human voice.”
The space between Do and Re, for instance, is heard by playing two adjacent white keys on a piano keyboard and provides that kind of liberal spacing.
“When you look around the world, you find there are a couple of properties for scales,” says Pfordresher. “There’s a tendency to have notes that are spaced somewhat broadly, much more broadly than the fine gradations in pitch that our ears can pick up.”
This broad spacing helps all kinds of singers, including the nightingale wren, a bird whose virtuosity has been the province of poets since antiquity. Pfordresher says earlier research by Marcelo Araya-Salas found that flexibly tuned instruments like violins and trombones were more in tune than the wren’s song.
Written by Bert Gambini and published in UB Now on February 27, 2017.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Benefits of Choral Singing

While vocalists may just seem like the non-instrumental musicians, all musicians should at least sing in a choir as there are many psychological and physical benefits to choral singing. Many musicians sing in choirs and if you aren't singing in one, you're missing out on this unique pastime. Members of a choir benefit greatly - outside of the musical box.

The idea of a community is strengthened through choral singing. Research led by psychologist Nick Stewart of Bath University showed that people who participate in a choir experienced a bond of togetherness and they felt more involved than others in different social activities. Choir members end up having a better feeling for social well-being.

A number of studies have revealed that there are mental health benefits of singing. A year-long study discovered that participants diagnosed with depression found that some of them ended up no longer being depressed after spending one year in a choir. Other studies have also shown that singing in general releases endorphins (the feel-good chemicals from your brain). Oxytocin helps control stress and anxiety and oxytocin levels are boosted in group singing, which will aid to high-school/post-secondary students who may have a lot on their plate to be less stressed.

Aside from the psychological benefits, choral singing also grants several physical benefits. Singing requires breath control and will help with deep breathing. The deep breathing that is needed in singing results in more oxygen intake and better circulation.

Choral singing isn't just simply singing in a group. Choral singing is a full experience that grants psychological, social and physical benefits to each and every member. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Musician's Survival Guide - Problem of Time Management

"Sorry mom, I don't have time to practice" - The number one sentence that was said by more than 200 young musicians (age 13 to 17) who were surveyed by Amy Nathan about the pain of studying music. Finding time is a huge problem that everyone had to deal with in their life, including elders and child prodigy. None of them will always have time to made another run-through. Flutist Paula Robison once said that "There were times I didn't want to practice. When you're at that age, there are so many other things you want to do."

Here are some helpful tips of fitting practice into a busy day by teen experts of Oxford University:

  • Same Time: Some musicians will set up a daily routine of practice schedule at the exact same time each day, thus it will be easier to remember once it became a regular habit.
  • Different Time: Other musicians will change their practice schedule from day to day in order to create more variety into the "daily grinding" of practice, and can be depending on daily activities.
  • Split Time: Many musicians don't practice in a hour-long session; they split their time into a short period spread over the whole day.  Not only this method can let you to not be tired, it also can help musicians that will wander off somewhere else to be focusing on what they are doing.
For more information, tips, and guides on how to "survive" the world of young musicians, click here.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Mandarin Makes You More Musical?

Mandarin makes you more musical - and at a much earlier age than previously thought. That's the suggestion of a new study from the University of California San Diego. Click here to read the full article.

An international team of researchers shows that among the preschool set – or young children between the ages of 3 and 5 – native speakers of Mandarin Chinese are better than their English-speaking counterparts at processing musical pitch.

The researchers conducted two separate experiments with similar groups of young Mandarin Chinese learners and English learners. They tested a total of 180 children on tasks involving pitch contour and timbre. Where the English and Mandarin speakers performed similarly on the timbre task, the Mandarin speakers significantly outperformed on pitch, aka tone.

Mandarin is a tone language. In a tone language, the tone in which a word is said not only conveys a different emphasis or emotional content, but an altogether different meaning. For instance, the syllable “ma” in Mandarin can mean “mother,” “horse,” “hemp” or “scold,” depending on the pitch pattern of how it’s spoken. Mandarin-language learners quickly learn to identify the subtle changes in pitch to convey the intended outcome, while “ma” in English can really only mean one thing: “mother.” It’s the linguistic attention to pitch that gives young Mandarin speakers an advantage in perceiving pitch in music, the authors conclude. “We show for the first time that tone-language experience is associated with advanced musical pitch processing in young children,” the study co-authors write.

But that said, don’t ditch music lessons for language, or language lessons for music. It’s still true that to succeed at music, you need to study music. And learning an additional language is a demonstrably good thing in itself, too – whether or not it makes you a better musician.

Written by Inga Kiderra and Anthony King and published in UC San Diego on January 18, 2017.