10 Commandments


The most important thing in music is rhythm, the most important thing to rhythm is the beat, and the most important thing to the beat is its steadiness.

I can play a familiar melody such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, and make it completely unrecognizable by radically changing the rhythm. However, it is still easily recognizable if it is played in a serial tone row, (maintaining the melodic shape while using large leaps and wild chromaticism) but keep the original rhythmic patterns.

There are two components to a secure sense of rhythm. First you must KNOW where in the score the beat falls. The beat can be any note value assigned as the primary rhythmic motive function. You must understand where in the score these beats occur.

The next part is the “Loving”. You must have a physical sense of the beat. There is no guessing allowed in the beat. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, jump up and down, tap a foot, tap a toe, count out loud; do something to physically feel the presence of the beat or pulse.

Now put these together. Know where you belong in the score as these beats you feel come by. No matter what, you must be where you belong! If your playing is controlled by a steady, known beat, with a thorough understanding as to where you belong in the score with the beat, you will have a secure rhythm. Failure will make your playing rhythmically unintelligible.

One of the things which intervallic music reading teaches us is the correlation between the arrangement of notes on the pages and physical act of reproducing the music on the piano. The movements we make in the act of playing are choreographed directly from the score, as the notes go up the page, we play higher on the keyboard and the shapes of chords are expressed by various and uniform hand shapes. There is a parallel understanding available to us in regards to rhythm.

Musical notation indicates proportional values; two of these equal one of those and three of these equal one of those. The most fundamental aspect of good rhythm is maintaining a steady pulse. The note value assigned to that pulse is irrelevant, the only thing which matters is deciding which note value will be assigned the pulse and keeping that pulse steady. The next step would be to understand which rhythmic signs are equal to two (or three) of our pulse and which signs are half the value.

As in note reading, the ability to name the notes has nothing to do with the ability to play the notes; naming is simply for the convenience of communication between people and with ourselves, the mastery of beat numbering and subdivision syllables will never yield effective rhythm. You can say all the right numbers and syllables, but if you speak them without any reference to the beat or pulse, this knowledge will not give you the correct rhythm. And again the numbers and syllables simply provide a means of identification and labeling and nothing else.

Learning to maintain a steady pulse is something which best begins with some type of larger motor gesture than we experience with simple finger movements. Finger movements are poor pulse keepers for many reasons but primarily it is often a different finger moving for each pulse which weakens the relationship between the movement and the pulse. I have often told my students I really didn’t care what they did, tap their foot, jump up and down, shout… just do something very noticeable. You have to feel the pulse to be aware of its steadiness. I understand, taping ones foot can be unsightly in a performance setting, but it is a very effective method for having a physical action, separate from playing, to keep a steady pulse. As the student matures the foot taping will diminish anyways, learning to feel a steady pulse is just too important not to find something for the student to do.

One of the advantages of foot taping is the built in subdivision. The top of the movement represents the half subdivision.

The most complex musical notations (with the exception of some very modern scores) can usually be broken down to simple 2:1 and 3:1 relationships. Even in the presence of 128th notes; they also have a simple 2:1 relationship to 64th notes. If you assigned the pulse to the 4 beamed 64th notes, the 5 beamed 128th notes take on the same rhythmic simplicity as quarter and eighth notes. As comfort and tempos increases it is a simple matter to move the pulse to the next values, the proportional relationships remain the same.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of rhythm is the meter, sometimes strangely called the “time signature”. The typical explanation for the meaning of the two number will often go like this: “X is the number of beats in a measure and Y gets the beat.” That is pretty worthless! Yes, this information may be partly true, but it doesn’t tell us what those two numbers mean. A more succinct and accurate was of express this information would be to say: ” There are X number of Y’s in a measure.” A perfect example of why the first expression is inaccurate can be found in most compound meters notated in 3/8, 6/8 and 9/8. We most commonly count these meters with the dotted quarter receiving the beat which is a value not present in the first explanation, though it seems to imply there should be.

But neither of these explanations tells us what it means. We should think back to the very origins of music. The original musical instrument was the human voice and we had metered poetry set to simple melodies. The most effective settings were those which fit best with the alternating patterns of accented and unaccented syllables and whose cadences matched the punctuation of the poetry. The meter reflects this poetic patterning. Each meter is made up of accented and unaccented beats, which when text is present, and well set, is reflected in the organization of each measure of music.

So back to our original idea. You must know and love your beat. You must know in the musical score the location of your beat. We can add to this in time the relative importance of that beat to all others based upon the meter of the music. And Love is a feeling, so you must feel your beat; it has to have a physical reality to you.


In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius gives his son Laertes the advice to above all else to be true to himself. Honesty with one’s self is a lifelong process. In the world of music practice it can begin with the simple step of writing down how much you practice. Even if you never total the time or even give it a second look, you have established a measure from which to judge your efforts.

Goal setting is critical for any endeavor. If the requirement is to have a piece up to tempo by a certain date, you can break down the steps necessary for the accomplishment.  If these intermediary steps are not met, you must be honest with yourself that the larger goal is in danger and likely not to be met unless additional effort is made.  If a secure memory is the goal and little has been committed to memory a week before the deadline, don’t kid yourself, a secure memory is not likely to be the outcome.

We will bear the complete responsibility for our success or failure for the vast majority of our life. While as a student, it is easy to be dependent upon your teachers to order and plan your work and goals.  However, you are a student for only a short time and will have to order and plan your work for decades after your student years.

While it helps to record our activities so we have a written record of what we did, rather than relying upon a faulty memory, we can learn so much more about the practice of practice with just a little thought and planning. If you treat your practice as a scientific experiment in learning, your learning specifically, over time you will make significant gains in the efficacy of your work. I was motivated to learn about cognitive psychology because of my very slow learning and poor progress as a young student.  What I learned allowed me to improve my practicing and learning efficiency by orders of magnitude. I have been a slow learner and a fast learner, being a fast learner is much more fun!

The last thing we want to happen is to become neurotic about our record keeping and cease to enjoy this  journey of discovery, so only keep those records which you find helpful in your understanding of what you did and the results your efforts yielded. However, keep in mind it is easier to have too little information than too much.  Sometimes your data may only point to an interesting observation but because you failed to collect enough information you cannot know for certain. So at first try to collect as much information as you can and after you have a better sense of what you need to know to reach your conclusion you can begin to focus your collection more closely.

Here are a couple of examples of how we can do some very simple experiments, with ourselves as subjects, and our learning styles/habits/procedures as the point of query.

When starting with a brand new piece of music we are immediately faced with the task of figuring out how to approach its unique problems. It is often suggested that you begin by playing through the work. This helps in getting a sense of the structure, common musical patterns, and areas of difficulty. Assuming you have done whatever you feel necessary on this issue, we can begin at the beginning.

With your very first page of music you have several choices as to how to handle the music.  Will you play it from beginning to end before repeating it? Play it half way? Phrase? Line? Measure? How many times will you repeat your chosen unit before moving on? How do you know which combination of all these variables is most appropriate for you today with this particular piece and its unique  problems? While cognitive science can give us some general guidelines as to capacity of our short-term memory, the effects of repetition, recencey, latency, etc. on how we move information from our short-term memory to our long-term memory the application is more art than science. Only with careful self-observation can we become aware of what may be our particular needs at a specific moment.

So try this experiment with a multiple page piece which remains roughly consistent in difficulty throughout.

On the first page, play the first unit of music, whether it is a phrase or line. If it takes longer than about 15 seconds, play a shorter unit. Play it three times without speeding up and observe your progress. Do you feel you are at least familiar with the music now? Play it a fourth and fifth time. Did you make any more significant progress? Continue this process throughout the whole page. With each unit observe at what repetition point  you felt your progress slowed, that is the point further effort started yielding less improvement  compared to earlier efforts.

On second page of music double the length of material. If you were playing one line, play two; one phrase, this time do two phrases. Now compare the results with the first page. Do you still have the same sense of “familiarity” as you experienced on the first page? Did the progress in learning increase or decrease? Are beginning to notice a “sweet spot” in the repetition count before your improvement slows?

On the third page, treat the whole page as your unit.

At this point it is probably becoming quite obvious which level of breakdown allowed you to absorb and retain the most information.  So far we have addressed two possible variables in our practice, the length of material and the number of repetitions.  How long of a section we work on and the number of repetitions we find most useful are impacted by  your understanding of music theory, technical demands relative to your technical abilities, and your focus and attention.

Continue working through the whole piece using the unit size you found most advantageous. When you have completed the work one time, put it away for a day, you need some time for this information to be processed and the time will give the slight variations in repetition and attention to become less of an issue for the next part of the experiment.

On the second day, repeat the entire process using the section length you settled upon on the first day. Observe the progress you make per repetition. Has the “sweet spot” moved? You will no doubt find yourself speeding up some now, try to keep this under control. Playing faster by definition will make the music harder, which introduces another variable to our experiment. We are looking to see how quickly we can absorb new music, not how quickly we can speed it up… yet.

So, at this point we are beginning to get a sense of how many repetitions it is worth doing before moving on to the next section at the very earliest stages in the learning process. For your own understanding of the learning process it is a worthwhile exercise to use the rejected breakdowns on two other pieces to better understand why they did not work as well and what their inherent weaknesses were for you. However, just because they were inappropriate at this early stage does not mean they will not be useful later on.

You should make a notation for your records of the following: composer, work, relative difficulty for you (was it below your current ability, comparable to recent works, or harder than what you have been playing), selected working unit length, some  type of note about the density of the music (more dense usually means smaller units), average or range of repetitions which yielded the best results, and also observe if you found that after a certain number you actually got worse.

Since for most of us, our musical aspirations exceed our ready technical equipment, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time working on increasing our tempos, sometimes by very large margins. There is a school of thought which says we should not attempt music which is significantly above our current playing ability. I think the answer to this is very subjective and very dependent upon the personality of the individual. Some people may find challenges which take long hours of effort, with no certainly of success very discouraging.  However, I find life quite boring without multiple skill bending projects going on simultaneously.  This next experiment may prove more useful if you of the later group, but I think even if you are more comfortable with less difficult challenges you may find some useful understanding here.

Now that we have worked through our piece at least twice and as many as four times with the chosen breakdown unit,  we have become quite aware where is the hardest material. Nothing will ruin a piece faster than a difficult couple of dozen measure which always lag behind the rest of the music in performance. So in keeping with Rule #4 of Practicing: hard stuff first.

We first must find a base line tempo, a speed we can play the passage with no less than a 95% success rate. In all likelihood, this will a much slower tempo than you image it needs to be. Record this tempo in your notes. After we find the speed which we are just able to play successfully, we need to find a tempo which is “easy” to play. The primary, if not the only determinate of difficulty is speed. If you played the section at the rate of one note per hour, you would certainly find it easy, no matter how dense the music was. If you had ten minutes to play a note, I dare say it still would be easy. We are essentially looking for a speed which is slow enough that we can think about everything we are doing and yet fast enough we don’t take all day to get through it once.

A funny thing happens when you start looking at some of these numbers in how they relate to other human activities. In weight training a similar procedure can be done. When doing a new lift, athletes  will look for a weight which they can lift only once. Eighty percent of that weight however will yield them a weight which they can lift 7 – 10 times, which is often a repetition number they are also looking for.

Eighty percent of your maximum successful tempo will often yield you a speed which is near that sweet spot of slow enough to study and think and fast enough to repeat often. Your results may vary some, I would only use results slower than 80% though, never faster.

Now for the experiment. Play through your passage at this tempo. Make sure the unit is short enough you can get through it in 30 – 45 seconds. It is important that you remember in detail what you did so that you can learn from the experience. After successfully playing through the passage move your metronome up one standard notch. (I will discuss standard metronome numbers vs. smaller increments at a later date.) Continue to move the metronome up with each successful completion. If you start making mistakes, repeat the speed. If the mistakes continue, slow down 2 – 3 notches and continue to move up the tempo once the problems are fixed. Observe what happens as you approach your baseline. Do you find a sudden increase in difficulty or do you roll right past it? Continue raising the tempo until you find the number you can’t move past. You can check this by slowing down a couple notches and trying again. If you continue to fail, you have reached your limit for the day. If you can, continue to move up until you fail again, this will probably mark the end. Record the numbers which you had all of these experiences.  Again put the music away for the day.

The very next day repeat the entire process, however this time the proceeding’s day top speed becomes your new baseline. Again, start at no more than 80% of that number and work your way up the metronome. Observe and record if you experience a sudden increase in difficulty and your final speed.

Do this for several days. After you have 5 – 7 days worth of data what observations can you make? Which days experienced the largest increase in tempo? How much slower was the progress in the later days? If it helps graph the numbers, over time you will start seeing some very predictable results.

The next stage would be to repeat the entire process on some new material, however this time start at 70% below your baseline and observe the results. There is a flaw in this approach however, by starting slower you will be assured of having more repetitions before you reach your baseline… or will you?

As a final stage start at 50% of your baseline. Do this with two different sections. In the first section go up one notch at a time and in the second go up two notches at a time. There can sometimes be very different results, a lot will depend on other factors such as the difficulty of the music.

There are many other experiments which we can do at various stages in the learning process and by applying just a dash of scientific method can teach us a lot about how we learn best. Hosting practice camps during summer months can also give you the opportunity to show your students how to learn how they learn.

Did you see that “p”? What does “senza sordino” mean? Did you see that accent? Some scores are full of performance instructions and others have no obvious markings. The details can include the obvious dynamic and expressive markings and also the much more subtle harmonic and melodic “markings”. Work to understand every word and symbol a composer uses and also look for the stuff “between the lines.” Every composer has a harmonic vocabulary which is unique to them. Harmony shows the ebb and flow of emotional tension. In order to understand the form and function of phrases you must start with the harmony; which chords contain the greatest emotional tension and where does that tension get released?

Andrew Remillard

Though there are some artists who regularly bounced around on their benches, I don’t think this is a mannerism suitable for most players. Your playing levers (arms, wrists, hands, and fingers) need a stable fulcrum in order to operate with maximum efficiency. Moving around reduces the stability of the primary fulcrum (the torso) and can be spatially disorienting. I think the best models for our students are not the young stars who emote and gyrate as they play but rather the really old timers who sit with great repose and make the least extraneous effort.

Andrew Remillard

These are the building blocks of all technique. Certainly in the “common practice era” scales were the basic building blocks of music however; the sequential finger work found in diatonic scales is most certainly applicable to more modern sequential patterns. Scales are actually very hard to play well and need the special attention they receive. I have known several adult players who had reasonably developed techniques, yet had never spent much time specifically on scales. This was very evident in their scale playing and other passage work. Smooth flowing scale passage involves a very high degree of technical mastery which is very hard to achieve without specific and extensive effort.

It doesn’t take hours of daily effort (though that is not a bad idea when one is younger and occasionally when one is older) but a lot can be accomplished by even 10 or 15 minutes every day, right at the beginning of the day. Plan out a technical regime of scales, arpeggios, chords, and etc. in all keys for the month, you will find that your progress becomes accumulative. The effort in learning D major will improve the performance incrementally of all other keys. After a couple of years of this effort you will find yourself with a great mastery of the basic building blocks of Western music.

Andrew Remillard

Technical facility is only developed with repetition, sometimes massive amounts of repetition. And here lies the problem. It is very easy to let the mind wander far afield as we slug through the 20th or 30th repetition of some passage. On a certain level mechanical facility is only arrived at when conscious control has faded far into the back ground. A certain degree of “mindlessness” is our goal. But this is not a time for day dreaming, but rather a stepping back and becoming mindful of a higher level of activity. As mastery is achieved incrementally, you become aware of a larger context. You fit the details into the larger context of the phrase or series of phrases.

Andrew Remillard

While this might be self evident to those of us who have made daily practice a life time discipline, we shouldn’t assume everybody shares our understanding of its importance.

In the studio of a client of mine there is a poster showing the difference in how long it takes to do 100 hours of practice. At 5 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week, it takes 4 years to practice 100 hours, but 30 minutes a day it only takes 9 months to do the same work.

Cognitive scientists can also demonstrate the greater learning efficiency which occurs to more substantial study periods done on a very regular basis. The 30 minute per day practicing student will actually accomplish 5 or 6 times as much learning with the same total time invested as the 30 minute per week student. Athletic coaches figured this out long time ago, hence the daily practices most school athletic teams employ.

Andrew Remillard