Thursday, July 25, 2013

PractizPal - A Metronome and More

Rarely do I win anything. Imagine my surprise when I received word that I was the winner of a PractizPal giveaway that I had entered on One Bright Corner. When the green unit arrived in the mail, I knew I wanted to check it out thoroughly and give you my feedback here. Before I start telling you about my PractizPal experience, let me begin my assuring you that I am receiving no compensation for this review and am not a vendor of the reviewed product.

What is PractizPal? To put it very simply, it's a high quality metronome and practice log. Encased in a brightly colored plastic shell, the instrument is extremely durable. (I can confirm this since I dropped it within minutes of having it out of the box!) As you can see from the picture above, the PractizPal features five large buttons to control everything -- the perfect size and set-up for little hands.

The large treble clef button in the center is the hub of the PractizPal. Once the teacher or parent has set the daily practice goal at the time of set-up, students simply hit the button at the start of their practice session and get to work. When they need to take a break, the student hits the treble clef again. If you resume later on the same day, PractizPal picks up with the timer right where you left off. Once the student has reached the practice goal for the day, she is rewarded with a round of applause from PractizPal. Even when you're working in the privacy of your home work space, it's nice to hear appreciative applause for a job well done!

Does the student need a reliable metronome? Click the metronome button on the right side and it starts right away. Use the arrows to adjust the speed of the clicks as needed. What I really like about the metronome is that there are no "special" sounds indicating downbeats and the volume can be set as low, medium, or high. (PractizPal has been handy for me too while working on thickly textured passages. The metronome doesn't get lost amid the sounds of the piano.)

When the student returns to her lesson, she brings the PractizPal with her. The teacher can quickly click the bar graph button on the left side of the unit to view the practice report. Reports are available for an entire year. This has been valuable for me as I worked with my students. We've discovered when practice is hard to fit in. Once the student and parent were aware of the problem, they began to look for possible solutions. The student sensed some level of accountability, parents were aware of expectations, and the results spoke for themselves.

While I've had a good experience with PractizPal, there are some things that could be improved by the manufacturers.

  • Currently, only one student's practice record can be maintained in PractizPal. At a retail cost of $49.99, that's a huge expense for families with multiple students enrolled in lessons. If a single unit could manage multiple students, parents have fewer things to keep up with and there is less likelihood of confusing which unit records which student's progress.
  • While I love the applause that occurs when the practice goal is reached, it would be beneficial to have the timer continue. Students currently have to stop their practice to acknowledge reaching the goal and restart the timer if they wish to continue practicing. That results in an unnecessary interruption that will often stop the practicing all together.
  • PractizPal turns itself off -- a great feature for young students! However, if they forget to push the treble clef button at the end of their practice, the timer continues to run. While experimenting with the unit myself, I forgot to end the session. My practice log records a 15 hour session! That would have been wonderful if it had really happened. Any chance that an exterior microphone might notice that the sound has stopped?
  • Along the same lines with the microphone, I see a wonderful opportunity to allow students to make mp3 recordings of their practice. The recordings could strictly be used for self evaluation or files could be uploaded and emailed to the teacher for comment (especially by students that are only in lessons bi-weekly). Additionally, teachers could record practice instructions and memos for parents as they monitor practice at home.
PractizPal is not a perfect device, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. If your budget allows, I think the unit is a wise investment for every music teacher's studio.  For more information about PractizPal or to order, visit their website at

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: The Mastery of Music

If you've been involved in music for very long, I'm sure that you are familiar with The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey. Earlier this year, I stumbled across another work by Green that I wasn't familiar with --  The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry. The title caught my attention immediately; sadly the book didn't see the light of day under mounds of music and paperwork that demanded my attention.

This week I saw the green cover again and took the time to dive in. What a wonderful read! Green devotes an entire chapter to each of the ten pathways he identifies as necessary for artistry.  The pathways are communication, courage, discipline, fun, passion, tolerance, concentration, confidence, creativity, ego and humility. To assist in the mental organization of the book, Green associates each characteristic with an instrument that is stereotypically associated with the quality. Who can argue with the assertion that trumpet players have loads of confidence? I especially found the humor in discussing tolerance from the perspective of the musicians in the middle -- the violas as well as music managers.

Green's prose is easy going and tinged with memorable phrases. To add to the quality writing, Green includes anecdotes and interviews from leading instrumentalists. Their insight into the importance of the  specific characteristic and suggestions on strengthening that quality in your own life are definitely worth consideration by all musicians. I am certain that I will return to various chapters of the book again and again in the years to come.

Two discussions in particular spoke to me as I read The Mastery of Music for the first time. First was the chapter on courage.  Dale Clevenger, principle horn player with the Chicago Symphony, had this to say about the courage of musicians:
I don't think of what I do as particularly courageous -- but I do believe that what we do is deeply important: we affect the souls of those our music touches. To me, playing music is a very high calling: it is a responsibility, and a sacred trust. Making music may sometimes be difficult and sometimes fun -- but for me, at least, it is first, last, and always an honor and a joy. (Green, The Mastery of Music, p. 65)
What a beautiful expression of why we make music on a regular basis! I immediately found myself ready to rehearse with new vigor after reading that passage.

The other discussion that resonated with my soul was the chapter devoted to creativity. This pathway is referred to as the journey into the soul. In his examination of composers and improvising musicians, Green included several gems that I find it hard to select just one to highlight. So I'll share a few of my favorite statements.

Creativity breeds creativity just as humor breeds humor.  (p. 239)
Most people don't enjoy eating the same food, viewing the same movie, or wearing the same clothes every day. Creativity seems to be inspired by a human desire for variety, uniqueness, and personal expression. While the creative process is always going on within the souls of everyone, sometimes we need a specific inspiration to bring these impulses to an artistic form. (p. 244)
[from an interview with Fred Hersch, jazz pianist] Picasso said that if you want to create art, you have to make a mess. You have to take the time to experiment. You can't get side-tracked by perfection issues if you want to be a great artist. You have to take chances -- and a certain percentage of them are not going to bake. But over time, your batting average will get higher.
I can't offer enough high praise for this inspiring book. Get your hands on a copy and let yourself begin to travel each of the pathways to artistry with new vision.

The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry was published by Broadway Books in 2003. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review of "Music in the 18th Century"

Since summer tends to be a slightly slower pace for me, I try to catch up on some of my academic reading. A quick search on the Barnes and Noble website revealed that a new Norton History series entitled Western Music in Context has been edited by Walter Frisch.  Since the first volume on medieval music wasn't available, I decided to begin with John Rice's volume on Music in the Eighteenth Century.

I found Rice's work informative, insightful, and unique in its approach to the topic. I was surprised to find that the luminary composers that are normally associated with the era -- Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven -- did not dominate the volume. I found it refreshing to explore other composers in the light of the century's history and developments.

Possibly the greatest attribute of Music in the Eighteenth Century was its arrangement. Rather than telling the musical story from a strictly chronological point of view, the music's development was traced geographically as well as historically. It was fascinating to explore Paris in light of the French Revolution, St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, and London in the 1790s instead of just focusing in on the city of Vienna. Rice's prose is extremely well-written and easy to follow. The book seamlessly weaves historical events and political developments with composers and their output. (Additionally, a companion anthology which I did not purchase is also available to allow further study of the era's music.)

Every text has a weakness. In my opinion, Rice's explanation and use of theoretical terms related to the "schemata" identified by theorist Robert Gjerdingen in 2007 was the potentially fatal flaw of the work. I found the inclusion of the schemata explanation to negatively interrupt the flow of the book. I further questioned their inclusion and the validity of their use (a question Rice raises at the end of the chapter). Without the theoretical discussions, I believe the text and accompanying anthology could be a valuable resource in academic settings in the future.

I plan to continue investigating the Western Music in Context series. I appreciate the series' readability while maintaining a high level of scholarship. I'm looking forward to diving into the volume devoted to the 20th and 21st centuries in the coming months.