Winter Weather Woes

    During the Winter months, instruments are subjected to extremes in dryness and coldness. Understanding how your instrument is affected by these two factors can help you look out for any signs of damage in need of repair. 

     Since stringed instruments are made of wood, they shrink and swell with fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Although your instrument and bow will be affected in a variety of ways, the following are the most common Winter weather ailments: 

     In dry weather, pegs tend to shrink and their contacts in the peg box become loose and eventually slip. One solution is to use a friction-enhancing agent such as peg compound (peg dope) or peg drops (I prefer drops as you don’t need to remove the peg from the instrument to apply the product). The other solution is old-fashioned elbow grease: As you turn the peg, use mild to moderate pressure to “screw in” the peg into the pegbox. Take care not to use too much pressure, otherwise the pegbox can crack. Please be careful not to over-tune strings as they break more easily in cold weather. If you are not experienced with tuning with pegs, I recommend taking it to a violin shop or a teacher for re-tuning. 

     Another way low humidity affects instruments is cracking and seam opening. Many wood glues need moisture in the air to work. If left without moisture for too long, the glue tends to become brittle and loses its ability to bind. You’ll know you have a seam opening if you experience a huge drop in volume (which is most noticeable in the lower two strings). To prevent this, simply use a hygrometer (an instrument which reads humidity levels) and install a humidifier (such as a Dampit). Ideally, you are looking for a humidity level in the case of about 50-60%. If you end up having a seam opening or crack, it should be re-glued immediately. Simply take it to a reputable violin shop, and have a professional luthier repair it. 

     Don’t forget about your bow! Bow hair tends to become shorter in cold weather, and when you transfer your bow to a warm stage under hot stage lights where the stick expands, it can be overly tight and possibly break under the excessive tension. Monitor your bow’s tightness constantly, and make sure to always loosen it when you are not playing.

Increasing Speed Through Sequencing & Coordination

     Sports psychologists believe that there is an inverse relationship between speed and accuracy - that is, the faster you play, the less accurate you will be, and vice versa. However, if you’ve seen any world-class performer, you’ll agree that high speed and flawless accuracy are both attainable at the same time. The secret is in understanding how sequencing and coordination play a role in developing both aspects at the same time.

“The Train Method"

     The Train Method involves dividing the music up into small rhythmic cells (anywhere from two notes to one measure). These cells are then practiced by playing the cell itself plus the first note from the very next cell. Think of the cell as a ‘train car’ and the additional note from the next cell as the ‘coupler’ which connects one train car to the next train car. Once two train cars are independently mastered, you may then practice them together as one larger train. Continue mastering new train cars, then adding them on, until the whole passage or piece is one long, giant train! Essentially, “train”ing helps the brain effectively sequence a long chain of notes. 

“Need for Speed”

     Once you’ve “train”ed the whole piece together, you are ready to work with a metronome. Choose an extremely slow tempo that allows you to play the entire passage with 100% accuracy and comfort. You want to feel completely in control of how coordinated the passage is, with no jerky motions, pauses, or hesitations. Once you’ve reached this level of mastery and comfort, you may then advance the metronome by one click. Aim for two to four clicks per practice session, until you reach the desired tempo.

“Rhythm-izing” the Passage

     Eventually you may reach an upper limit of how fast you can go by using the “Need for Speed” method. This is due to a lack of reflexive coordination and can easily be trained by applying rhythms to your passage. Divide the music up into groups of two or three notes. Assign one note in the group to be held long while the other note(s) in the group should be played as quickly as possible. Once you feel completely comfortable playing the sequence, switch the placement of the held note, and repeat. By creating this reflexive response in the brain, you will be engaging a “domino effect” and be able to play much faster! 

Reducing Tension

     Many musicians suffer daily from playing-related pain and discomfort, and an alarming majority of them believe pain is a normal consequence of perfecting their craft.  At its core, all playing-related pain is due to physical inefficiency.  Watch out for these three common problems:

Rigid Bow Holds

     Most players don’t realize that the majority of the bow’s weight rests on the strings while playing, minimizing the amount of effort needed to hold the bow.  Instead, many people try to control and suspend the weight of the bow with the fingers and thumb, causing plenty of undue stress.  

     With the middle of the bow on the string, challenge yourself to relax the fingers of your bow hold so that more of the arm’s weight sinks into the string, instead of creating weight through the index/middle fingers & thumb.  Remember that leverage for your bow is best supplied from the height of your elbow, rather than from the small, weak fingers of your bow hold.  Be careful that you don’t drop the elbow too much, otherwise, you may supinate the hand so much that it peels the bow off of the string.

Excess Left Hand Pressure

     Many string players tend to push down harder than they have to, especially while using vibrato.  Often, the intensity of the music is so great that this bleeds into our playing as physical tension.

     Try an easy one octave scale and notice how hard you are pressing into the fingerboard with your fingers.  Do your fingers have to press that hard?  Try to reduce the finger weight until just before the sound becomes fuzzy.  You want the finger to stop the string, creating a new pitch length, but you don’t want to play so lightly with the fingers that it doesn’t produce a stable sine wave.

Raised Shoulders

     Your shoulders should be relaxed and “stacked” on top of your ribcage, instead of suspended by the rhomboid or trapezius muscles.  

     Violinists & Violists: Check that your chinrest/shoulder rest combo is the proper height and angle so that both arms can be level.

     Cellists: Check the height of your endpin, and the angle & tilt of your instrument to make sure that your arms are able to access the instrument easily and efficiently.

2016 Practice Contest Results & 2017 Practice Bank

     In 2016, students at NMS participated in the 2016 Practice Contest and competed to be one of the first few people to master sixteen pieces of music (or 160 lines of music for advanced students). I am happy to announce the winners of the NMS 2016 Practice Contest:

  •      1st Place - Kiana Thacker, cello - $60 gift certificate
  •      2nd Place - Malia Thacker, violin - $40 gift certificate
  •      3rd Place - Cierra Shaw, violin - $20 gift certificate

     Congratulations to all of the winners! ——————————————————————————————————

     For 2017, we will have a new type of practice contest that I am calling the Practice Bank! Just like in 2016, students will earn points by mastering repertoire and receiving “yellow stickers” on their weekly assignments. However, this year will not be a race against others, and will instead focus on individual accomplishment. Regardless of the student’s current ability or level, each student will be able to achieve and be rewarded for their efforts.

     Students will then trade these points at the end of the year for a special prize that is uniquely tied to their hard work!

2017 Practice Bank Rules & Regulations

  •   1 point will be awarded for each “yellow sticker” or every 10 lines of music (whichever yields more).

  •   Points will be totaled at the end of the year on December 31st, 2017.

  •   Students will receive a gift certificate to in a dollar amount equal to the total number of points they have earned.

  •   In order to receive awards, participants must be current students in good standing with the Nguyen Music Studio.

  •   For students who did not win the 2016 Practice Contest, any remaining points from 2016 will be carried over as their starting balance for the 2017 Practice Bank.

         If you have any questions about the 2017 Practice Bank, please don’t hesitate to ask. I look forward to a fruitful year full of individual accomplishment and achievement! 

Lesson Lengths & Frequency

     Often, I get asked what an appropriate length of time is for lessons.  Many factors including attention span, age, work ethic, and learning style play a role.

Beginning Students - In general, I recommend that beginning students start out with 30-minute lessons once per week.  If a student has a particular slant towards kinesthetic learning, 45-minute lessons may be recommended.  At a minimum, your lesson length should provide enough time to assess what you’ve been working on and explain new assignments, with time left over for any questions to be clarified.  Lessons at this stage build up over time to include a healthy “diet” of repertoire, etudes, and scales.

Intermediate Students - At the beginning of Level 4 in the NMS curriculum, I recommend students increase their lesson time to 45-minutes, once per week.  Typically, we begin to incorporate solo Bach at this level which runs on a different timeline than the typical three pieces in rotation that students have gotten used to in Preparatory through Level 3.  Due to the increased workload, students simply require more instruction time.

Advanced Students - When students begin Level 6 in the NMS curriculum, I consider them advanced students, and I recommend that they increase their lesson time to 60-minutes, once per week.  Typically, we introduce orchestral excerpts at Level 6, which adds a third layer of study: Repertoire/Etudes/Scales, Solo Bach & Orchestral Excerpts .

Special Circumstances:

Bimonthly Lessons - For students who display an incredible amount of discipline and who are beyond the rudimentary stages of building left and right hand form, bimonthly lessons may be an attractive option.  Usually these lessons are in 60-minute increments so that all of the repertoire studied over the two-week period can be addressed, while giving time for assigning new material.

90 & 120-Minute Lessons - Longer sessions are only recommended when preparing for an important performance or audition, or for chamber music ensemble coaching.  Usually, you’ll need enough repertoire to warrant a longer session, with the maturity and attention span to match.

"Fixed" Versus "Growth" Mindsets

    As 2017 begins, many of us have turned our attention to our New Year’s Resolutions - things we’d like to change or do differently than we have in previous years.  Whether it’s making more progress in our careers, relationships, being more active, or devoting more time to the things we love, our goals are well-intentioned.  

     However, many of us have also experienced a moment where we start to lose the motivation, drive and willpower needed to achieve those goals, and our gym routine or our dedicated practice time gets pushed aside.  Believe it or not, our ability to persevere when things become difficult is a direct result of a mental state that favors a capacity to grow versus one that celebrates perfection and ease.

     Psychologists refer to a “fixed’ mindset as one which means being perfect and having things come easily.  Someone with a fixed mindset might say, “I feel successful when I don’t make any mistakes” or “I feel successful when something is easy for me, but other people cant do it.”

     Conversely, a “growth” mindset highlights a capacity to learn, grow, and make progress over a period of time.  They might say, “I feel successful when something is very difficult, and I try really hard and I’m able to do something I wasn’t able to do before” or “I feel successful when I work on a project for a long time and I feel like I’m starting to figure it out.” 

     A Columbia University study found that people with a fixed mindset who believed that things should come easily (and if they don’t, then it must be a sign that they can’t or won’t be successful) were more likely to give up when they struggled and avoided challenges in which they believed they would not be immediately successful.  On the other hand, people with a growth mindset who believed that potential is not outwardly apparent and that change and growth is always possible, did not see struggling as a sign that they have reached their limits and showed more grit when faced with adversity because they believed they would “eventually figure things out”.

     So, the next time you’re thinking of letting go of your New Year’s Resolutions, remember that it’s not about being perfect and having things be easy.  Instead, focus on the little bits of progress you’ve made, however small it may be, and know that the next revelation is right around the corner!  For more information, click here!

Music & VARK

There are many statistics which claim that students who study music score higher on exams than those who don’t. Even more impressive is the study conducted by Forbes magazine which states that an astonishing 93% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have had music education in their lives. But does studying music actually make you more intelligent or increase your chances for success in life?

Most people have a preference for one of the four learning styles (Visual, Aural, Read/Write & Kinesthetic), and those who excel in several categories are referred to as multi-modal learners. In general, the type of learning style you prefer makes it easier to communicate with and learn from people who employ specific teaching and communication techniques.

For example, if you are a Visual learner, you might enjoy a short film conveying the appropriate information. If you are an Aural learner, you may prefer to converse with others to gain information. If you are a Read/Write learner, you may prefer to read an article or pamphlet that lists information. And if you are a Kinesthetic learner, you might have to “learn by doing” and take a more hands-on approach to acquire information.

So how does music relate to learning styles and VARK Performing on a musical instrument engages all four styles of learning! Visual information is acquired by watching the hands on the instrument and the music, aural information is gained by using critical listening skills to assess one’s playing, read/write information is obtained by reading sheet music and making notes in the music, and kinesthetic information is gleaned from the awareness needed to control one’s body movements and know which physical movements correspond to which results.

The more you are exposed to a particular learning style, the better you become in receiving information in that way. Since musicians are constantly learning in all four ways, they capably absorb information regardless of the style of communication used, creating better students and more capable teachers, leaders, and communicators.

To find out more about VARK and your learning style, visit! They even have a test which caters to younger students. Enjoy!

What Should be on my Practice Stand?

    Which assignments you should be practicing from day to day may seem like a mystery.  If you focus on only one piece, you may forget the ones you worked so hard on before that.  A lack of preparation may extend your study of a piece by two to three weeks and make every moment frustrating to endure.  Breaking up your priorities into five distinct categories makes the learning process both efficient and enjoyable!

Scales - Juilliard, a famous arts school in NYC, recommends that 60% of your total practice time be spent on scales.  With 24 different keys in one to three octaves, there is more than enough variety to fill up your scale practice time!  If you’re still looking for more ways to spice up your scale work, you can always practice them in broken and solid 3rds, 6ths & octaves, as well as arpeggios, and of course all sorts of different styles of bowing patterns!

A Piece or Etude at Your Level - You should always have one piece on your practice stand that is challenging, but not intimidating.  The majority of the piece should consist of techniques that you have already learned in the past with one to two brand-new ideas or concepts.  Often, a mirror is a great tool when learning such pieces since the work is almost entirely technical.

A Piece or Etude Ready to be Refined - This is a piece that you have already learned all of the technical aspects to and are now ready to focus on more musical issues like phrasing, style, ensemble, and expression.  This piece is perfect for a recording device as it will give you insight into how your interpretation is living up to your expectations.

A Piece or Etude Beyond Your Level - This piece will initially seem intimidating and unfamiliar as you begin to make sense of the various aspects or techniques that are involved.  Slow practice is essential here, as is listening to a variety of good recordings and studying the score.

A Piece or Etude Ready for Memorization - This piece has been completely mastered both technically and musically.  There should be no undesirable habits that would make embedding them into your muscle memory detrimental.

The Benefits of Attending Concerts and Performances

     Musicians know how helpful listening to professional recordings can be when learning a specific piece of music.  You can glean a general idea of rhythm, pitch, and even some ideas on tone and interpretation.  But in an age of YouTube, Netflix, and other online media, why is it still valuable and necessary to attend live concerts and performances?

 Concert Etiquette - When to clap, what to wear, and what you can expect during a concert program are all traditions that have existed for over 300 years in the concert hall.  Learning about audience culture not only elevates the concert experience, but it also fosters mutual respect between listeners and performers.

 Acoustics - Seasoned performers know how to adjust their playing style to suit dry as well as lively venues.  How you sound to the audience is very difficult to judge onstage, so the only way to study how acoustics actually works is from the viewpoint of the audience themselves!

 Exposure - When searching the internet for media, we tend to be very specific with what we are looking for.  When you attend a live performance, you have no control over what pieces you will be hearing.  Just being exposed to different styles, periods, performers, and composers will allow you the opportunity to find a new favorite to add to your playlist.

 Music as an Art Form - Music is the only art form that can only be experienced once, at the time of the performance.  Recording engineers have tried to capture the “raw electricity in the air” and how performers instinctually adjust their playing to suit their audience’s reactions, but the only way to truly experience music as an art form is to physically be a part of it.  There is nothing quite like locking eyes with a performer and knowing that they are trying to communicate directly with you!

Practice Smarter, Not Harder!

     Musicians are told to practice if they want to get better, but what is practicing, and how do you do it?  Below are some ideas you can use to make your practice sessions more effective and help you become a better musician more quickly.

  •  Break up your practice time - According to a 2015 British study, adults have an average attention span of five minutes.  After those five minutes, our minds wander and are less effective at learning and creating new connections.  Instead of doing your practicing all at once, consider breaking up your practice sessions into two or three sessions.  You will be able to concentrate for a greater percentage of the time and get more done.
  •  Practice the difficult sections first - It is a poor use of practice time to spend lots of time on music that is easy for you or that you already know how to play.  Instead, spend your practice sessions working on the things that are more challenging for you.
  •  Concentrate on specific goals - When you practice, it is a smart idea to write down your specific goals for the practice session.  “Get better at the violin” is too broad of a goal.  “Be more in tune at measure 15” is a better goal because it is more specific, can be measured, and is achievable within a set amount of time.  Once you have specific goals, you must make sure you stay focused on them during your practice.
  •  Don’t practice your mistakes - If you make a mistake, don’t keep playing and pretend it never happened!  You should stop playing, try to think of ways to solve the problem, and then go back and fix it.  If you don’t try to fix your mistakes, you will only be reinforcing them and increasing the chance that those errors happen again in the future.
  •  Take time to assess your playing - In order to make changes, your brain has to have time to process the new information you are giving it.  Spend a little bit of time between each try to think of what you’d like to change and then possible solutions to the problem.  When you take time to make necessary changes, you will be more successful in reaching your goals!