The Secret to Sightreading

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
The Secret to Sightreading

Many musicians are worried that their sightreading skills are not strong enough. Yet, sightreading is seldom made a regular part of practicing.

The Real Goal of Sightreading

It’s important to spend a little time at each practice session reading something new. (You won’t be surprised to hear this, but I recommend 10 minutes a day.)

Don’t worry about getting every note. Playing all the pitches perfectly is not the real goal of sightreading. The real goal is to go through the music at a steady tempo – without stopping.

Think about it: In the real world of rehearsing and performing with other musicians, everyone needs to know where they are on the chart at all times. You and all the other musicians have to end up at the same place at the same time – even if you missed a few notes!!

The Secret to Sightreading without Stopping

The secret to playing without stopping is constant counting. If you can’t play the notes in one measure, just keep counting and jump back in at the next downbeat. Do not lose your place!

Even if sound stops coming out of your instrument, you are staying in time and following along visually. This counts as “not stopping” when you’re sightreading, so keep your eyes on the page!

Being willing to count even when you’re missing some notes may mean changing your usual concept of playing a song “correctly.” Instead of focusing on playing the right pitches (even if you occasionally stretch time), you’ll need to focus on correct rhythms (even if you occasionally play the wrong pitches).

Keeping this rhythmic integrity in your music will make your sightreading stronger over time. Eventually, you’ll be able to play more and more of the pitches themselves.

Why Sightreading Seems So Complex

Sightreading is an unusual process. Unlike reading language, in which your only task is to interpret the meaning of symbols (letters and words) on the printed page, sightreading music contains an extra element:

Your brain must interpret the symbols (notes) and send messages to your muscles so they can play your instrument.

This is a complicated process. To keep your muscles in shape for sightreading, they need regular practice. Much like speaking a foreign language, sightreading is a “use it or lose it” skill.

So, keep some sightreading materials in your practice area and take a look at them every day.

And, remember: Never stop counting!

“But I Don’t Read Music”

I hear from a lot of rock, blues, and folk musicians who tell me that reading music is irrelevant to them. They play everything by ear and don’t see how reading sheet music could help them be better musicians.

What I’ve found working with thousands of musicians, ensembles, and bands in every genre is that seeing music on paper – whether it’s traditional notation, chord charts, or tablature – can help musicians understand the structure of songs and help them play rhythms accurately.

Plus, there are a lot of great teaching materials that use music notation. If you can’t read music at all, you’re missing out on some very helpful information.

My Advice to All Musicians – in Every Genre

I take a specific stand: Pop and jazz musicians should learn to read, and classical musicians should learn to play by ear and improvise. That way, everyone gets the best of both worlds.

Anything you do musically that makes you uncomfortable can only lead to musical growth. Constant growth and improvement is always the goal for our musical journey.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

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Practice First

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Making Time for Music

Too Busy to Practice?

If your life is busy, you may find it challenging to “fit in” your practice sessions. Day after day, practicing can take a back seat to other tasks: paying bills, homework, business travel, commuting, shopping for groceries, etc.

Here’s the solution: Practice first.

That’s right. Do your practicing before any of your other activities.

When you do, something miraculous happens. You still have time to finish everything else on your to-do list, and you practiced! That’s much better than skipping your music to do the more mundane things in life.

Effectively Using This Strategy

For some people, this means practicing first thing in the morning. Others might need to practice immediately after work—before returning emails or making dinner or checking that text or logging onto Facebook.

Students can benefit from practicing immediately after school, before homework gets started and definitely before any social media or free-time activities.

This practice tip is one of the most powerful ones around. Don’t underestimate its power! It helps procrastinators and helps people who never feel there’s enough time for their music.

Amazingly, if you follow this advice, you’ll still have time for your non-music responsibilities. It’s as if finishing your practicing gives you more energy and allows you to get everything else done more efficiently!

Benefits in the Rest of Your Life

Plus, there are psychological benefits: You will feel better about yourself, about your day, about your accomplishments, and about your commitment to something you believe in that makes your life better.

And you know that guilt you feel when you skip doing your music? That terrible feeling will be eliminated from your life!

Your practicing deserves to be put ahead of other day-to-day tasks. Try practicing first—even if it feels uncomfortable. The laundry and mowing the lawn can wait!

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

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Avoid the SAD Syndrome

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Avoid the SAD Syndrome

Many musicians have a habit of practicing in a way that will never lead to success in a performance.

Their practicing is full of uncontrolled stops and starts. Their playing is interrupted each time they make an error (or think they’re about to make an error!!).

Stopping and Starting is SAD

I call this process the “SAD Syndrome.” SAD stands for Stop And Do-it-again.

While in the grips of the SAD Syndrome, musicians sometimes re-start by going back a few notes, and other times they just forge ahead. Either way, they are teaching their muscles to play mistakes.

Worse yet, during the pause in their playing, some musicians blurt out a quick “Oh” or “Sorry” or “*%^$@#.” These words pass their lips almost unconsciously.

Stopping and starting creates stress and a lack of confidence. It can even lead to memory lapses and stage fright.

If it happens to you, it’s time to build new practice habits!

4 Ways to Avoid the SAD Syndrome

Here are a few suggestions to avoid the SAD Syndrome:

1. Slow Down
Practice at a slow, controlled tempo. When going slowly, you can anticipate and avoid a mistake before it even happens! This will allow you to keep playing successfully. The key here is the word “controlled.” To stay in control you may have to go much, much slower than you think you “should” have to. Please: Be willing to go slowly enough that you stay in control!

2. Practice a Shorter Section
Run just a few bars at a time. When each section is perfect, you can put them together to form longer sections of music. If you have to, run just one bar at a time.

3. Work on Transitions
Make sure you can transition from the end of one section to the beginning of the next section. Too many musicians skip this step, yet it is crucial to your ability to keep going – no matter what – during performances. If the SAD Syndrome plagues you during transitions when you practice, you may be in for a train wreck on stage . . .

4. Keep Counting
Often, the SAD Syndrome occurs because a musician plays an incorrect pitch. Instead of stopping if you hit a wrong note, keep playing in time. Get to the next note, placing its rhythm correctly in your count. Making rhythm, tempo, and counting as important as pitch in your practicing is a game changer.

You Can’t Stop on Stage!

If you’ve found yourself struggling with the SAD Syndrome, try all four of my suggestions and make a big change in your practice techniques.

And remember: Your performances will be a mirror of your practicing. When you’re on stage, you’ll have to play without stopping. So, it makes sense to play without stopping while you’re practicing.

For more information on the psychology behind the SAD Syndrome and how we limit ourselves by our very definition of success itself, read my blog post on how to change your thinking about success.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Achieving Goals, Music, Music Lessons, Music Performance Tips, Music Practice Tips, Performance Preparation | Leave a comment

Prepare for Any Performance

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
6 Steps to Prepare for Any Performance

From Learning to Mastery

Once you can control all the notes for an upcoming concert, audition, gig, or other important situation, the practice room needs to become a performance preparation room. During this phase, you go from learning to mastery.

Mastery means automatically performing your music from start to finish and feeling in control the entire time. One of the components of mastery is the ability to perform without stopping — no matter what!

Why is this level of mastery so important?

Because stopping is not an option during a live performance!

The 6 Steps

Here are six specific practice room steps to take if you really want to be a performance master:

STEP 1: Visualization A
Hear the music in your head and feel yourself successfully performing it. Instrumentalists will do this visualization without their instruments. Vocalists will do it without vocalizing anything at all. Any difficult issues during your visualization will probably be real issues on stage. Make sure you feel comfortable throughout this visualization!

STEP 2: Visualization B
Picture yourself performing flawlessly on stage in front of your audience. Feel calm, cool, and collected. Know that you are in control!

STEP 3: No Stopping
Run each section without any pauses whatsoever. This may mean initially going more slowly than you want. So be it. You’re working on mastery, not winning a race.

STEP 4: Control Each Section
Be able to run each section of your music — in any order. If your song has six sections, try each section in random order or backwards from the last section to the first.

STEP 5: Tighten the Transitions
When each section is under control, make sure you can easily transition from one section to the next. Run the last few measures of one section into the first few bars of the next section. This transition itself can even become a Practice Loop.

STEP 6: Put It All Together
Perform the sections in order. However, you don’t have to start by going through the whole song! Again, if your music has six sections, you can do sections 4, 5, and 6 or sections 2, 3, and 4. Try different combinations. Eventually, you’ll easily be able to play sections 1 – 6 (which is the entire song) flawlessly!

Preparing for Performance Success

These techniques will prepare you for performance success. Once you can run all 6 sections of our example song, you are actually doing the same activity as you’ll be doing on stage. You’ve gotten to the end of the practice process!

And, if you keep up the two Visualizations throughout this process, you will be building confidence. This confidence makes you mentally and emotionally ready to be on stage so that all your efforts aren’t simply focused on physical control of your music. Your thoughts and feelings matter when you’re on stage!!

At that point you’ll need to take things to the next level – which I’ll cover in next week’s Practice Tip.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Achieving Goals, Music Performance Tips, Music Practice Tips, Music Rehearsal Tips, Visualization | Leave a comment

Recognize What You Do Well

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Recognize What You Do Well

Accomplishments vs. Problems

Do you recognize your accomplishments and feel good about them? Many musicians are guilty of focusing only on the problems in their playing.

It’s important to know what aspects of your playing need improvement. All musicians — beginners and virtuosos alike — want to be better in the future than they are today.

And, make sure you notice the progress you have made.

A Lot is Going Right!

Let yourself know that you’re working hard, that you’re getting better, and that you’re glad you’re going through the process of learning new music and more advanced techniques.

Don’t become one of those musicians who plays an amazing show but leaves the stage down on themselves. Thousands of notes that were perfect, yet they focus all their thoughts and energies on the three notes they missed.

That is not healthy!

A balanced approach is better. Congratulate yourself for what’s going well and acknowledge what needs fixing. Remember that music, like life itself, always has room for improvement—but needs to be enjoyed today.

3 Techniques for Achieving Balance

1. Praise over Frustration
When you’re first learning something and are able to get through it very slowly, don’t immediately get frustrated and say, “I can’t perform this up to speed.” Of course you can’t! You just learned it! Praise yourself for learning all those notes.

2. Balance Your Assessments
When you record yourself, listen back and notice what you’re doing right as well as what needs more work. List five things that went well before you focus on what can be better. This balance will silence your inner critic and make you more objective.

3. Use Positive, Direct Language
Use positive, direct language with yourself as you plan how to improve a specific area of the music you’re learning. It’s better to say, “I need to make sure those E flats are in tune” instead of “Oh, my intonation is terrible.” Vague, overblown statements are not only untrue, they’re unhelpful.

It’s Not About Perfection

Musicians aim for perfection. But, they need to realize that being perfect is not humanly possible.

Since there will always be room for improvement in your musical life, be sure to notice everything you’re already doing well. This will make your pursuit of perfection a happier, healthier journey.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

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Stage Clothes

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
The Performance Preparation that Nobody Does

Whether your performance garb is white-tie and tails or a vinyl mini-skirt, you need to be sure you can play well in your stage clothes. Hardly anyone double checks this before an actual gig!

Feeling Comfortable at Home

Many musicians practice in the comfort of their own home. They wear sweatpants, shorts, T-shirts. Perhaps they are barefoot. This is fine. You should feel comfortable when you practice. The last thing you want to worry about when you’re practicing is how you look.

Thinking About Being on Stage

At some point, you’ll need to start thinking about playing in public. This means deciding what to wear on stage.

Stage clothing causes problems for many musicians. There are stories of opera singers whose corsets constrict their breathing, backup singers who can’t sit down in their too-tight mini-skirts, rock guitarists who can’t bend their arms in their leather jackets, pianists whose brand new shoes keep slipping off the pedals, and brass players whose suit jackets are so tight they can’t raise their horns to their lips.

You do not want any of this to happen to you.

Instead, you want to feel good when you perform. Try to select clothes so you won’t be too hot or cold. Be sure you can move around easily. Stay away from itchy fabrics. And, if you’ll be standing on stage, wear shoes that are comfortable.

Real Preparation for the Stage Experience

Do a run-through at home or in your rehearsal studio wearing your stage clothes. Even better, have a full dress rehearsal in the performance space itself. (Yes, there’s a reason it’s called a “dress” rehearsal!)

If there are any problems caused by your stage clothing, you’ll have time to make changes before you walk on stage for the real performance!

Going through your music wearing your concert clothing is part of the transition from practicing to performing. You’ll feel more connected to the actual gig and be much better prepared to be on stage.

And, wearing your stage clothes while doing a complete runthrough of the material you’ll be performing soon on stage is the ultimate performance preparation. There’s something that changes in us when we start thinking about how an actual audience will be judging us. They’ll not only be listening. They’ll be watching too. How you look matters to them!

Your Stage Clothing Does Matter

Stage clothing is extremely important. What you wear on stage can define your musical genre and make a bold statement about who you are as an artist.

But, please, make this statement at home first. Don’t let your clothes create a performance disaster…

The Effects of Performers’ Appearance

I wrote an interesting blog post a while back that compares performers in different genres and how they look on stage. It’s fun to compare yourself to others as you decide what to wear.

And, did you know that there’s proof that how performers look on stage affects the outcome of competitions as much as how these performers actually sound? Strange, but true.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Motivation, Music Practice Tips, Music Rehearsal Tips, Performance Preparation | 1 Comment

Do SOMETHING Every Day

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Do Something Every Day

It’s important to make practicing a regular part of your life. Even on the days when you don’t want to do anything musically, it’s important to get started.

And you may be in for a pleasant surprise:

Often, just the process of getting started makes you forget your negative thinking and enjoy the practice process.

On other days you won’t enjoy practicing. So what? It’s not realistic to think you will have fun every time you work on your music. You can’t let any negative thoughts get in your way. Even if you don’t feel like being a musician today, just do something!

Can’t decide what to practice today? Then, do exactly what you did yesterday. It doesn’t matter if you feel you are improving or not. Due to the natural shape of the learning curve, you won’t notice improvement on a daily basis anyway.

By being conscientious and paying attention to the details of your playing, you will be making improvement–whether you recognize it or not! Much of your practice time is spent building muscle memory, and your muscles need a constant reminder of the sequences they need to go through to perform accurately.

Even if you are not consciously aware of this process taking shape, it’s important to give your muscles the practice they so desperately need.

There’s no rule stating you have to or you’re supposed to or you should play through a whole piece flawlessly. That’s called performing! Most practicing is about focusing on small details. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just go get some work done.

If you skip today, it will be easier to skip tomorrow. At that point, you’ll have a negative trend. This cannot be tolerated…

So, do something today! Do anything! Just make sure you practice your music, even if it’s just for a few minutes. After all, my entire Ten Minute Virtuoso method is based on the premise that a small amount of focused effort each and every day is the only surefire way to make meaningful progress.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

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SMART Goals

Using the SMART Goals System to Get What You Want

Setting goals is great. Accomplishing those goals is even better! Everyone working on new skills, getting ready for competition, growing their business, or trying to get their ideas heard and accepted knows how important goals are.

Yet, few people use a system to help them set and attain goals.

A number of years ago, when I was on the music faculty at San Francisco State University, my students were struggling with achieving their goals. I was determined to help them solve their dilemma.

Unfortunately, the music world was full of advice like, “Practice harder,” “Take more auditions,” and “Perform more often.” This advice wasn’t exactly what my students needed. So, I looked outside the field of music to find a process that could help my students – and, really, anyone succeed.

What I found was the SMART Goals system.

The SMART Goals system was developed decades ago to help businesses assess and achieve their project management goals. That seemed a far cry from what my students needed. But, with some tweaking and experimentation this system has turned out to be just right not only for the business world, but also for creative artists, athletes, and just about anyone with an important goal in their life.

Each letter in the acronym SMART stands for a property that makes it more likely that you will attain your goal. Here they are:

S = Specific

M = Measurable

A = Attainable

R = Risky

T = Timed

If any one of these elements is missing, problems will occur when trying to accomplish the goal.

By giving my students a process to develop and analyze their goals, and by having them put these goals in writing, an amazing change took place: They were able to have more success and to feel better about the process that made the successes possible.

This system actually changed how they use their practice time, how they prepare for those auditions and performances, and how they think about themselves. I now encourage everyone to include SMART Goals in their life. This is a terrific tool to help you create what you want in life.

In later posts, I’ll go through each of the properties that make up the SMART Goals system.

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Redefining Success

One of the things that plagues musicians when they practice is stopping playing, making a quick correction, and restarting.

I call this the SAD Syndrome (SAD stands for Stop And Do-it-again), and I’ve seen it happen in my own practicing as well as with my students and musicians who play at my master classes.

There are many reasons that musicians hesitate or briefly stop playing. The main reason is that they “missed” a note. Missing a note to almost every musician I’ve ever talked to means not playing the correct pitch.

For some reason, pitch has become the most important element in defining a “successful” run-through for most musicians. Pitch is deemed more important than rhythm, dynamics, tempo, or tone.

Very few musicians will stop playing if they stretch time to make sure they hit all their notes. The same goes for missing a rhythm.

In the same way, it’s a good idea for musicians to stop reacting so strongly when they play an incorrect pitch. There’s no inherent reason to stop your playing for a wrong pitch any more than there is for a wrong rhythm or dynamic.

One way to avoid the SAD Syndrome is to actually re-define success when you’re playing. This new definition of success is simple: Do Not Stop.

If your new definition is to keep playing, suddenly rhythm becomes as important as pitch. You’ll focus on your count and on placing your notes in their correct locations. Playing an incorrect pitch simply won’t matter. When you keep playing, you will get to the end of your song and be finished.

This process is the true skill musicians need to be successful performers, and you need to work on this in the practice room.

To be successful playing continuously, you may need to play a little slower than you would like. This is absolutely fine. You are trying to eliminate the SAD Syndrome from your practicing, and you will need to take special measures to get this scourge out of your life.

Re-define your musical success by making rhythm as important as pitch. And, whatever you do, work your hardest to eliminate the SAD Syndrome!

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End of 2017 Goals

Time to Set Your 3-Month Goals for the End of 2017!

Happy October! Time to set your 3-month goals for the end of 2017. Then work backwards:

  • monthly goals
  • this week’s goal
  • today’s goal – which is what you practice now!!

This process can be done in minutes. Doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just a little bit of thinking about where you’re heading will make all the difference when you practice today!

I’ll be posting here in my blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter over the next week or two about how to set goals and, more importantly, how to achieve them. Please share these posts and comment on them!

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