I had a wonderful opportunity to chat with Music Educator, Reese Barkhuizen last week and I wanted to share some of his ideas with you. So I interviewed this international concert pianist and teacher to get his thoughts on effective practicing, stage fright and why teachers with performance backgrounds might have more to offer their music students.

Lisa’s Question: What drew you to teaching?

Reese’s Answer: Initially I was drawn to teaching with the hopes of mentoring and training a new generation of musicians. My own natural ability to perform comfortably and a decent natural facility at the keyboard meant that I never had any doubt that I would make music a career. So at the beginning of my teaching career my understanding was that all music students are to be prepared as if they will also follow in the same direction. As I matured as a teacher my goal has shifted quite drastically in this regard. I realized that only a very select number of students have the ability to maybe, and this is a big maybe, make a career as a musician.

For that reason I now aim to teach my students with the intention of creating an appreciation for music, building a future audience of music-goers and more than anything creating an environment where students don’t feel pressured into any specific direction. I hope their interest in music evolves on its own as their understanding of western classical music expands.

Lisa’s Question: Are you better equipped to teach children than a non-performing music educator?

Reese’s Answer: It is my belief that there remains many areas that a performer has intimate experience and knowledge of that a non-performer might not necessarily have. I refer here to matters relating to performance anxiety, memorizing, adjusting to different instruments at different halls, noise disturbance during performance, focus during performance, stamina, efficient practice etc. These are a but a few areas that influences performances greatly and if children master these from the beginning they are set up with an extremely solid performance foundation for the future.

This is of course relevant when one works with a high calibre student that shows promise of becoming a musician. However, it is also a very valuable skill set for the general music student. The ability to inspire students with your own performances goes a very long way in keeping them motivated.

Lisa’s Question: How do you teach a child to practice effectively?

Reese’s Answer: Practicing is extremely individual and one needs to try and establish early on how the student works on his/her own. For that reason I can’t really put a “time” on ideal practicing. Practicing effectively comes from training students to refrain from repeating mastered material in every practice session, this wastes time. Shorter, more focussed bursts of practice have proven to be extremely effective, when the student uses each practice burst to master something new.

Motivation is absolute key in getting students to practice effectively and here one has to again know what motivates a learner to sit down and work. When you figure out the motivation of each of your students you’ll see that their willingness to practice increases significantly. I tend to break down practice sessions into 10 – 15 minute increments and give specific tasks for each block of time. Performance practice is a completely different approach and so practicing evolves and changes with the progress a student makes in the study of pieces.

Lisa’s Question: How do you deal with students who are nervous to perform in front of an audience?

Reese’s Answer: It is my opinion that one has to practice the art of performance with students as often as possible. To teach them how to react when things go wrong on stage and that a “perfect” performance does not mean one didn’t miss any notes is vitally important. Teaching ‘reaction’ is key. I find that if one can be successful in getting students to forget about the notes, memory and all the things we tend to focus on lesson after lesson, then the student might have the ability to perform focussing on what he/she hears, imagery they might feel the music evokes and the physical feeling of what a piece feels like on the piano. To me that makes for a very comfortable and stressless performance.

It is also worth noting that physiologically the body goes through the exact same processes whether one is excited or nervous. There really is no physical difference except that we tell ourselves: “now I’m nervous” or “now I’m excited”. Training children to think of this adrenaline as a positive experience (excitement) I believe does a lot of good for those who may be fearful of performance. Of course the more a child performs the more he/she is able to work on this. So give them as many opportunities as possible.

Lisa’s Question: What long term benefits are there for children who study music? Why does it matter?

Reese’s Answer: It only takes a google search to find research papers, books and articles written about how much children benefit from music instruction. In my class, students benefit from an environment where they can express themselves without fear or favour and so creating a space where a child feels individuality is valued and encouraged. Music instruction is also vital in building appreciation for the arts and more importantly a future audience in a world where arts and music programmes are falling away in school curriculums across the globe. For this reason, and of course many others, music instruction matters.

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Originating from South Africa and currently based in Toronto, Canada, pianist Reese Barkhuizen enjoys critical acclaim as a concert pianist, collaborative artist and teacher. Reese’s performances and studies have taken him from the University of Cape Town to Finland, China, Estonia, the USA and the United Kingdom. As well as a concertising pianist, Reese is passionate about music education and has been an influential teacher/educator for the past ten years. Most recently, he held a position at the prestigious Bishops Diocesan College Prep in Cape Town, South Africa. Reese holds a Masters of Music in Performance.