Survival guide targets young musicians

Book: Performance ordeals, lack of practice time strike discordant notes in the hearts of students.

January 04, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

M.H. Jennifer Yeh remembers well the clammy hands, the hot flashes, the fidgeting and the nausea that always came before a musical performance.

She never conquered the feeling totally, not even by the time she was in high school. But she discovered some strategies that helped -- like worrying less about what her teacher or audience may think and performing for her own enjoyment.

"You have to look at discouragements as hills to climb over," says Yeh, 19, a Cornell University freshman from New Freedom, Pa., who has studied piano and violin since age 7. "They are a source of motivation. You can't win every time. You have to learn to do better."

Amy Nathan, a Baltimore native and mother of two teen-age musicians, knows well what Yeh has gone through. For three years, she's been surveying beginning musicians to learn what bugs them most about their studies and collecting advice from older teen and professional musicians who remember their own youthful ordeals.

The results are to be published in mid-April as "The Young Musician's Survival Guide/Tips from Teens & Pros" (Oxford University Press, $18.95).

"Music can be a kind of lonely undertaking," says Nathan. "I thought it would be good to open things up and let kids talk to each other a bit."

An estimated 3.8 million, or 1 in 10, American children study musical instruments in elementary and middle school -- and millions more are enrolled in private study. But for many, music lessons can be a painful experience.

From stage fright to obnoxious fellow orchestra members, overbearing teachers, boring music, difficult pieces and frustration with one's abilities, the list of young musicians' complaints is not a short one.

And with children's schedules increasingly crowded with sports and other extracurricular activities, the challenge of finding enough time to practice an instrument makes it even tougher.

"You shouldn't have to feel like you're the only one who has trouble finding time for practice or who makes mistakes," says Nathan, 54, whose son Noah, 13, plays saxophone and piano and Eric, 16, plays piano and trumpet.

Like the proverbial route to Carnegie Hall, top complaints of young musicians involved practice, practice, practice. Young students had trouble making time for it. Others found it difficult or boring and struggled to get motivated.

Nathan was surprised to find the pros had similar complaints. Andre Watts, who soloed with the New York Philharmonic at age 16, admitted to her that he often struggles with difficult piano pieces at first.

"Here, he's been doing this for so many years, and he still starts at zero," marvels Nathan. "Then one morning he wakes up and he can do it and he can't figure out why he thought he couldn't do it before."

In her survey of about 200 students she contacted through music schools such as Baltimore's Peabody Institute and teachers from across the country, the author discovered some creative solutions.

Many recommended that practice be broken into shorter periods spaced throughout the day -- perhaps 15-minute chunks -- instead of an hour or more at a sitting.

"I remember I had a piano lesson on Friday nights. It made it hard to find a balance between friends, the piano lesson, and sports," says Andrea Sematoske, 19, a bassoonist from Shrewsbury, Pa., and sophomore at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., whom Nathan interviewed for her book.

"Music wasn't a burden," she says. "I wanted to be there, but this was Friday night. I had to reschedule it."

Others suggested using practice time to work primarily on the toughest passages and to keep the pace slow. Some wanted to remind youngsters not to get discouraged: A new piece may sound bad at first, but practice will make it better, she says.

"Some of the professionals turned out to be quite bad at practicing, too," says Nathan.

Find your musical selection boring? Ask the teacher to let you work on at least one piece you like. If you find scales boring, try practicing in different rhythms or compete with yourself to see how long you can go without a mistake.

Having trouble with an orchestra seat-mate? The students suggested that criticisms from fellow musicians be ignored and complaints you may have of fellow musicians be shared only with the section leader or conductor.

"If the guy next to you points your stand in the wrong direction, you have to learn to talk to him about the problem or get a new stand," Nathan says. "In an orchestra, you have to work on teamwork."

Performance jitters like those Yeh experienced were a common complaint. The pros suggested focusing on the music and not making a face when you do make a mistake.

"Contrary to popular belief, most people in the audience are rooting for you," Nathan recalls a veteran musician telling her. "They may even have paid money to be there. Even judges are usually on your side."

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