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Learning Musical Instruments – How Do I Improve My Playing?
When asked a question like “how can I improve my playing?” It is my experience that most music teachers and musicians will answer “practice” or maybe “practice makes perfect”. And essentially I agree. There is no substitute for practice, especially practice where the musician is wholly focused on the task at hand, concentrating on the various aspects of the music they are learning and listening attentively to their playing. Even musical savants with uncanny musical powers such as seemingly photographic memory and true perfect pitch must complete years of intense practice before being performance ready(1). One of the greatest pianists and composers, Rachmaninoff could according to Harold Schonberg transcribe whole compositions after a single hearing.(2) Even so, when Rachmaninoff decided to earn his living as a concert pianist, he didn’t dare to go on stage until completing two years of further practice. Some musicians may brag that they don’t practice much but generally you will discover they are either lying or that as an adolescent they sat up all night practicing while others were out mucking around or asleep. But what about the many cases of musicians who do have the drive to practice long and hard but never make the grade? I’ve even had musicians tell me they can “get worse” after practicing.
Most musicians must be familiar with hitting “walls” where they find they simply don’t improve even with extra effort. This is a likely reason that many stop playing musical instruments altogether, becoming frustrated, overwhelmed and believing that music simply isn’t for them. It’s my belief that it’s sometimes not mental will or effort that is to blame, but the method of practice.
Over the years I have occasionally heard an objection to the “practice makes perfect” cliche. Some people like to say, “perfect practice makes perfect”. Implicit in this statement is the idea that the way you practice is important. Sure there is natural variation in all human being’s physical and mental abilities, but in my experience anyone can play a musical instrument well with a little perseverance as long as they go about it the right way. Interestingly, researchers have found marked differences between the way amateurs and professionals practice.(3)
Our human bodies have not evolved to play musical instruments. After all, most instruments are fairly recent inventions in their current forms and continue to evolve themselves. Unlike language and other mental functions, there is no “music center” in the brain. Many parts of the brain are required to both listen to and perform music. Playing a musical instrument well is a complex task. A level of physical strength is required, fine muscle coordination and muscle control are essential and of course extensive mental training and conditioning is necessary. It’s no good being able to produce the best tone in the world if you have no rhythm. It’s no use having a well developed musical appreciation and emotional sensitivity if you have no technical ability and vice versa. A good musician needs to master many skills and therefore, to know how to practice “perfectly” becomes a very complex and difficult question.
Like most musicians, throughout my childhood and adolescence I simply practiced instinctively. The problem here is that sometimes you’re instincts lead you astray. In my experience, most teachers do not give extensive thought to the finer details of how to practice. Most teachers simply tell students what to practice. However as an adult who is almost always pressed for time, I need to know that I am improving every time I sit behind the piano or get on the drums.
As previously stated, this is a very broad and complex topic but I’d like to share some basics that I’ve learnt from my travels in the world of music. For clarity, I have broken up this topic into three main sections: Musicality, technical ability and performance.
I have deliberately listed musicality first because in order to develop technical prowess at your instrument of choice, you need to know what sound you are trying to achieve. When it comes to musicality the most important thing to develop is your listening abilities. This may seem obvious but it takes time and effort to be a good listener. A large amount of listening to music in our modern world is done with no conscious thought at all, however as a child all the skills of listening to music must be learnt. Ever heard a choir of kindergarten students? They inevitably sing out of tune. Because their young brains are still learning the pitch categorizations of our 12 note scale. How about asking a very young child to tap along in time to a song? This is something that can be mastered at a very young age but nonetheless, even simple rhythms found in many songs using 4/4 meter must be learnt. Note how difficult it can be to keep tapping perfectly in time once the music stops playing. For most, sensitivity and awareness of harmony is the hardest to learn but deeply rewarding in terms of a listener’s emotional response.
So to develop your musicality, all you have to do is listen! But attentive listening requires effort. Ideally, only listen to music without any other distractions. Try to listen to music in styles that you are not familiar with, and note the differences to other styles of music. For example, various types of dance music emphasize a strong pulse or beat, some types of dance music achieve a dance feel while overlaying several rhythms at once eg/ Latin percussion. Classical music often focuses on thematic and harmonic development, jazz music contains intricate solo lines and variation, pop music highlights catchy melodies. When listening to any type of music involving more than one instrument, focus in on the different parts of the music. For example, when listening to jazz or rock can you sing the bass line? Can you hear what cymbals the drummer is playing? Singling out the different instrument lines in a piece of music will also help develop your sensitivity to harmony both homophonic and polyphonic. A 4-part fugue by Bach is a fairly complex piece of music using four separate but related lines or “voices”. It’s also not the type of piece you will hear on most radio programs. Why not challenge yourself with something like a Bach prelude and fugue or two? Or perhaps a piece by Debussy or Bartok with experimental and complex harmonic development.
For advanced listeners, note the form and structure of the piece of music. See if you can identify the phrasing of melodies or motifs. Identifying repeats and variations will help you to understand and memorize the piece. By focusing on the larger structure of a song you can make a simple song “map”. Knowing the larger structure of a song may lead you develop an appetite for listening to compositions with different forms and structure. If you are a musician, knowing the larger structure of a piece will also help you know where and how to emphasize the different sections. Note the contours of the music, for example, where are the climaxes in the song? Where are the loudest and softest parts of the song?
Good listening involves anticipating what is coming next. Your brain will do this automatically to some degree but you can help it along. For example, try to figure out how the rhythmic patterns repeat so you can predict them. How many repeats are there? It takes listening time and experience to develop a mental portfolio of musical conventions allowing you to anticipate the music to come. And often, the way that a piece adheres to or varies from your expectations will trigger emotional responses from you the listener. A piece of music may set you up for a perfect cadence for example, or for a return to a previously stated melody. It’s often when these “rules” or expectations are not followed that a piece of music becomes interesting and more enjoyable to listen to.
Try to identify in words what exactly it is that you love about your favorite music. Music is so powerful an art form because it can reach inside you and somehow illicit intense emotions and pleasure in the listener. Music goes far beyond being simply “happy” or “sad”. Subtle and beautiful emotional shades can occur when you listen to music you love. For example, I love music with a sad wistful tone, that is reflective, poignant and beautiful but I hate pessimistic or dreary music. Yet both could be classed as sad. I love powerful, energizing and dramatic music, but I don’t like reckless, raw anger. Fully absorb yourself in the music you love. At this point it is helpful to do some analysis and try to identify what specific aspects of the music are combining to give you this powerful emotional response. The timbre of the instruments and rhythms used are important but particular attention should be applied to the harmony of the piece. Are there any chord progressions that really do it for you?
Finally, when playing music, good listening habits are not easy to learn, especially for young children and for amateurs at the early stages of learning a piece. Your brain is focusing on many different activities such as controlling your muscles, counting time, making sure you’re hitting the right notes, relaxing and anticipating what is to come. On top of all this, you need to step outside yourself and listen to the sound you are producing. So whenever possible, shift your focus momentarily, pretend you are a passive observer in the room and listen. Personally, I find it extremely useful to play both the piano and the drums with my eyes closed from time to time. Am I playing it exactly how it should be played? Developing your musicality means being a perfectionist forever developing a finer attention to detail.
Music teachers and sports coaches alike tell their students to relax. This is the number one basic rule for technical development at any endeavor that requires fine muscle control. Often teachers simply shout “relax” at their students while the student gets progressively more tense. Obviously, you cannot entirely relax your body or else you will quickly end up lying on the ground, limp and listless. Relaxation is the art of relaxing all the muscles in your body that are not needed to execute the music. In addition the muscles that are needed should contract only so far as required and no more. The phrase “economy of motion” comes to mind. Relaxation is annoyingly difficult to master and it’s something that I am constantly working on every time I practice. Relaxation is muscle coordination. Eg/ Are your shoulders hunched? Is your mid section or upper leg tense? While playing you must observe the state of your entire body. When you decide to play a note or hit a drum skin, you don’t have conscious control over exactly which muscles your body will contract in order to execute the movement. While you may not have full conscious control, when practicing you are conditioning your muscles to move how you want them to move through repetition. Focus in on how it feels to play a particular passage. Experiment with different motions and keep the motions small but not rigid. Practicing quietly and slowly can really help with relaxation. Try to feel the weight of gravity holding your hands down on the piano keys or your feet down on the drum pedals. Often when fully relaxed you will have the sensation of playing from your upper arms or upper legs even though your extremities are where all the action is. Try to learn what it feels like to play relaxed.
One of the biggest differences between amateurs and professionals practice is that professionals focus on the difficult parts of a song and break them up into small fragments whereas amateurs waste time trying to play a piece from start to finish. Small sections are a great way to do many repetitions where it matters. In addition, you can often simplify difficult sections. Eg/ playing hands separately at the piano is essential especially when learning a piece. Or for drummers, try dropping out the right hand momentarily, or left hand, or left foot etc. When practicing small sections do not be afraid to play fast. Slow practice is great for relaxing and for fine attention to detail, but slow playing will most likely use different muscles in different combinations to fast playing. Ideally, small simplified sections of a piece should be able to be played faster than the final tempo you’re aiming for.(4) In addition, vary the start and finish points of these small segments. A smart musician knows that it’s often the notes around a particularly troublesome spot that cause problems. Eg/ Do you have a two octave jump before you have to play that long trill? Then practice the jump and the trill. Do you have to swivel from one side of the drum kit to the other before executing the 4-way coordination pattern?
If you play an instrument, sooner or later chances are you will be playing in public. And performing in public is the real test of your ability as a musician. Performing poses many challenges such as an unfamiliar room or even an unfamiliar instrument, often no chance to warm up and of course nerves. Performance can be quite stressful but can also be a hugely rewarding and fun. The better you know your repertoire, the higher the chance of you and the audience enjoying the show. To perform well, memorization is always desirable. To help with memorizing try to spot patterns and logic in the music. Work out the structure of the song. Identifying chords and harmonic elements may help. Memorize small sections at a time through repetition and try to recall the notes visually in your mind.
To become performance ready, there is a lot of mental work you can away from your instrument. Run through the piece in your mind and try to imagine each note. This is actually very hard to do, but it confirms that you really know a piece. The renown pianist Glenn Gould would run through songs in his mind, singing and fingering the music on an imaginary piano.(5) Before the invention of the radio and gramophone, score analysis was much more widespread amongst musicians. It was far more commonplace to analyze a score and sing the musical parts aiding the learning of a piece before even playing a note.
It is certainly worthwhile recording yourself preferably on video as part of your practice. The process of recording is a good test in itself because the pressure is on when you press the record button. And watching or listening to yourself play can help you pick up parts you’d like to change or mistakes you are making.
Before performing, focus on the task at hand and take a few deep breaths. Run through the first song you are about to play in your mind. Realize that you are most likely a little apprehensive and nervous. Your heart is probably beating a little faster than normal and your adrenal glands may even be firing up. Take your time and make a conscious effort to relax. Once you have started, remember to keep focusing on the task at hand and absorb yourself in the music. Don’t shift your awareness to what is going on around you and don’t contemplate how you’re playing. If you catch yourself drifting, focus back on the music and your playing. There’s plenty for your mind to worry about contained in the task of executing your music well so simply concentrate on making the best music you can and you will be fine. It may take a little time before you start feeling a comfortable but generally most people find that once they are away and going, everything’s OK and can be a lot of fun. Try to keep just ahead of the music in your mind, focusing on what is coming up as well as listening closely to your sound. Try to relax before difficult sections. Being too apprehensive of a difficult part is not helpful. Trust yourself in these situations, relax and let your sub-conscious take over. It’s too late to improve now, you might as well have fun. If you make a mistake, never stop. The larger structure and the mood of the music probably won’t be affected. And perhaps you can find some comfort in knowing that even famous concert pianists such as David Horowitz made the odd mistake.
I hope some of these tips have been helpful.
Tim S Robinson http://www.timrobinsonmusic.com.au
1. Jourdain, Robert, Music the Brain and Ecstasy 1997 p. 200
2. Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. 1981 p. 537
3. Howe Michael J.A. The Origins of Exceptional Abilities 1990 p. 92
4. Chang, Chuan C Fundamentals of Piano Practice 2007 1.II.6
5. Documentary, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould 2009
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