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Developing a Classical Piano Repertoire and Building a Music Library
You don’t need to be a concert pianist to take the time and effort to develop a substantial repertoire. What does “repertoire” mean anyway? In short, the repertoire is a set of works or songs that make up the core or foundation of the pianist. (Technically, a “song” has lyrics, while a “work” or “part” has no lyrics. The word “song” is often misused.) Many pianists believe that you must keep all the parts “under your fingers” or play easily at all times and that this constitutes one’s repertoire. However, I believe that repertoire implies something more comprehensive. Let’s now examine the term and explore the most efficient ways to develop, expand and nurture it:
Five golden rules for building a substantial piano repertoire
1. Practice, practice, practice
2. The microcycle jobs you are currently practicing
3. The macro-cycle works throughout your life
4. Consider that no job is “done”
5. Constantly add books and sheet music to your library
The first rule of thumb hardly needs explanation. To become better and more skilled at anything, one must do it, do it often, and love to do it with all one’s heart and soul. Tiger Woods didn’t become a great golfer by eating junk food and watching TV. The best surgeons in the world didn’t get there by hanging out in bars and drinking beer. Likewise, an aspiring pianist who wants to have fun and succeed playing hundreds of songs or works will never get there by neglecting to practice regularly. Ideally, one should not practice out of compulsion, but out of love for music and a burning desire to improve.
The second rule of microcycling works is the pianist’s short-term plan, which can range from a few weeks to a few months or perhaps a year at the most. This is what most people mean by the word “repertoire”, as it is the time frame in which you can sit down at any time and play (preferably from memory) a certain number of works. I’ve found the best results for microcycling by focusing on about five jobs at a time. For example, I will often spend an entire week practicing exclusively one piece (like a Joplin rag), the next week exclusively another piece (like a Mozart sonata), and the following week exclusively another piece (like a Liszt etude ). Then, I might not touch them at all for two months, and when I go back to one of them, it feels like “meeting an old friend”, which accelerates its relearning phase. What used to take a week to accomplish now takes just a few days. Ideally, the pianist should try to learn, forget, and then relearn the pieces in monthly, weekly, and daily cycles. This is the timeless, endless plan I follow when practicing and preparing for my YouTube videos.
The third rule of macrocycling works constitutes the pianist’s long-term plan, which can range from one to ten years. A thirteen-year-old just starting out usually doesn’t realize that what is learned in these formative years lays his/her musical foundation for life. Writing this article at the age of 47 and having started piano at the age of 6, I am constantly amazed at how resilient and powerful the human brain really is. For example, I started practicing Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso this week after it had lain dormant and completely untouched for 27 years, and I was shocked when it came back to me memorized again in just three days. What took me three months to learn well at 20 took me just three days to relearn as well or better at 47. This is one of the intriguingly satisfying aspects of piano music and repertoire. All music ultimately remains in your consciousness and forms your “musical identity” until the day you leave this earth. It’s never too late to learn piano, develop a repertoire, and harness the power of musical memories. After I work on the Rondo Capriccioso for a week and record it for YouTube, I probably won’t touch it again for a few years.
The logical successor to the third rule of macro-cycling is the fourth rule of considering a job that will never be finished. When I was an 18-year-old music freshman in college, I thought things were “done” after I performed them in a recital or concert. My usual plan of action was to work on a certain number of pieces for a semester or year, “finish” them, and then move on to the next pieces my professor assigned. Now at 47 I can’t help but chuckle at my youthful innocence. As shown with my Rondo Capriccioso experience, I have learned over time that no job will ever be finished. never. The piano repertoire with micro and macro cycling is the bread and butter of the pianist’s musical life. These cycles continue until the end just like food and water. I am constantly reviving works that were once thought to be finished and I have never been more satisfied with my musical evolution and progress.
While the first four rules constitute the mental or intangible components of developing a large piano repertoire, the fifth rule of continually adding books and sheet music to one’s library constitutes the physical or material component. Just as one cannot wash the dishes without first buying or obtaining plates, glasses, and utensils, a pianist will never succeed in developing a large repertoire without buying or obtaining printed music. Most people refer to all printed music as “music pages”, however, this is really a misnomer. Technically, “sheet music” refers to single works up to about four pages maximum. For example, I recently ordered “My Heart Will Go On” from my favorite record company, Sheet Music Plus. (Although I am primarily a classical pianist, I also like to practice pop music from time to time.) Being a single title, it is rightly called sheet music. On the other hand, “Complete Rags For Piano” by William Bolcom, from which I also ordered it Sheet Music Plus, is not a sheet at all, but rather a “music book” or “music volume” because it is thick and contains 21 titles. (Please excuse this clarification, but the term “music site” is often misused.)
I love my music library and still play from the books I’ve had since I was 10. I’m always finding new books and sheets to buy, treasure and add to my library. I am constantly branching out and exploring new repertoire. In the internet age, the use of free PDFs has become too rampant in my opinion. PDF prints often only last a few weeks at most because they are so easily lost or torn. Sometimes I rely on free PDFs, however, 98% of my music library consists of sheet music and books that I have paid for. Although any music published before 1922 is in the public domain, and thus legally free to all, one is fooling oneself by relying too heavily on free PDFs. Books last a lifetime and can be used and reused until the end of life. Refusing to buy music and trying so desperately to get it all for free is like eating off paper plates and plastic containers. A pianist will never expand his or her repertoire tremendously without acquiring physical accessories (ie books) along the way. Let’s close with a story.
Once, when I was teaching piano at a college, a student came to his class with the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata copied on twelve thin sheets of fax paper. They did not stay on the music shelf and kept falling to the floor. This went on for an entire semester until almost all my hair was pulled out and I had a coronary. Forever after that, I stopped using PDF prints in my studio and started encouraging students to buy the music from a store, like I used to do when I was in college (pre-internet days, imagine that!). If my student had invested a little money in a volume of Beethoven’s sonatas (as much as it costs to go to a movie and order popcorn), he would have had the Appassionata as well as thirty other wonderful sonatas for the rest of his his life. . However, instead of investing in his future he chose the free path. The moral of the story is that quality and longevity prevail, and that it is in one’s best interest to develop and nurture a lifelong music library. Immaterial and material work in unison. Physical and non-physical. Yin and Yang. (In Chinese philosophy, “yin” or “feminine” equates to the immaterial or transitory aspect of practice and cycling, while “yang” or “masculine” equates to material accessories such as music books and sheets.)
So here it is in a nutshell: practice, microcycle, macrocycle, no work is ever done, keep adding music to your library. These are the five golden rules for building a great piano repertoire. Thanks for your time and happy exercising!
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