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Matova Music School

Champaign-Urbana-Savoy, IL  

Matova Music Studios
   Champaign-Urbana-Savoy area IL

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Practice: A time for discovery and awe

Posted by Nelly Matova on October 18, 2019 at 10:15 AM

The main problem for all students learning an instrument is practice time. It is a struggle for all involved: students, teachers, parents. Seen as a recurring burden, it takes away from the real meaning of learning an instrument. And what is that real meaning?


            During practice time one discovers many things.

1. Wow! -- interesting music, if I could only manage not to make errors

2. Maybe I can try just this measure a few times so I become better at it

3. Wow, I made it better!

4. I actually am getting good!!

5. What is the real mood of this music? Do I feel it?

6. Do my hands move smoothly?

7. How are my fingers feeling and looking?

The list is endless. The point here is that we do not just repeat stuff with a bored mind, thinking about other things and staring at the clock. For success we need to engage the brain, listen to our sound, continuously ask ourselves questions and give the answers back in sound.

Feel each of your movements. You will be amazed how smoothly the body works when playing an instrument. The smallest movement creates such a lovely gentle sound. You think your fingers cannot do this? Well, the good news is, they can, everyone can do this. BUT… only a few are really patient enough to observe themselves and give their body time to refine these movements, given by nature. So: don’t sabotage yourself. Give your fingers a chance to do what they need to do.

The take-away here is: for a lack of real effort leads nowhere. Since when is brain effort considered difficult and painful? Often looking at students thinking and focusing during lesson I feel they are in discomfort. Why?? Is is that difficult to navigate seven notes in a scale??

A desire for constant fun and brainless activity creates a generation that expects everything instantly and without effort. It prevents our children from understanding and feeling things of real value, it robs them from cultivating sophistication of the mind, soul, emotions, and senses. It robs them from discovering their limits and pushing them. It robs them from developing real self-esteem. And, in the case of learning and instrument, it robs them of a lifelong friend.

Practice is a process of discovery: about music, and about oneself. Practice gives balance, calms the soul, gives a sense of improvement, feeds curiosity, and builds character. Listen to the sounds you make and ask questions, answering them with sounds: are my notes even? Do my fingers move easily? Do I keep the tempo?

Discovery is a process. Life is a process. Discovery makes life interesting. So now, maybe practice time will be a discovery time full of surprises.

Happy discovery time!

Daily goals + the famous 10,000 hours success mark

Posted by Nelly Matova on April 5, 2019 at 11:20 AM

We all have heard that 10,000 hours is cited as mark of people who have mastered some skill or other. For sure, this principle applies to mastering a musical instrument.

Most people have no real idea what they embark upon when they sign up for piano lessons. And I am glad it is this way. If they knew the amount of discipline, dedication, and hard work that come with this decision, many of them might bale out instantly! Luckily, by the time they realize the need for regular practice, many of them are already hooked on "music making," and this is what keeps them going. The pride of achieving some new skill, and the satisfaction of being able to play different musical compositions, help along the way.

So let’s do some math. 

If a beginner practiced 300 days for 30 min. for one year, that is 150 hrs. Impressive, right? And still that beginner had 65 days off during the year. 

How about if a second-year student practiced for 1hr daily (2x30 minute sessions) for 300 days? This is already 300 hrs.

To become a real professional performer one needs at least 4 hours daily practice, which equals 1, 200 hrs. per year.

So if you total 450 hours for the first 2 years, and 900 hours over for the next 3 years, that is 1,350 hours total over 5 years of learning the piano. If you practice 4 hours a day for the next 6 years, you are nearly there, adding 7,200 hours of practice. So, after 11 years of dedicated learning and 8, 550 hours of practice, I guarantee you will be at a professional level. If you started at 7 years old, by your 18th birthday you will be very good. That is how the concert pianists are doing it (they might practice even a bit more after that 18th birthday mark).

I can now see some people unhappily imagining how they could otherwise be spending these first 300 hours: on TV shows, games, or just hanging around not doing much. Yes, we live in a culture of instant gratification, and many of us don't like effort. But here is the news-flash: All solid skills require effort, and people who avoid this painful truth are kidding themselves.

You want your airplane pilot to have enough flight hours training, so he can land safely?? You want your surgeon to have enough practice hours, so he can operate successfully? You want your attorney to have enough court experience to defend you successfully? So why, then, do people still favor the idea that an easy, effortless way exists? Oh, games. But here is the truth, people who create these games spend countless hours in developing them, so this is also hard and skilled work.

How do we get past these depressing numbers of practice hours, and maintain the excitement and the fresh will to keep learning piano?

The answer is super simple: SMALL DAILY GOALS, doable, achievable, EVERY DAY.

Don't just sit and play from the beginning to the end of your music trying to get 5 repeats, or 30 minutes, to pass. THIS DOES NOTHING for your improvement! Setting GOALS is how you practice, with focus, until you achieve the result. 

For each practice session, have a small goal: “Today, I will master this little segment of 4 measures in the Right Hand that gives me a hard time.” Be focused, and slowly play that segment until you feel no hesitation, all notes are correct, and you feel confident that you have mastered it. Sometimes you will need more time for a difficult music passage!

Meeting each goal is a VICTORY! You already have improved! Then make another small goal and start working on it!

Never sit down to practice without having a clear, set goal for your practice time. Smaller goals are easier to achieve, and, gradually and constantly, they boost your self-confidence; as a result your interest in practicing is stronger every day as you see the results after each practice.

Parents, help your children to learn how to set these small goals. First do it with them, then ask them to do it by themselves.

Day by day, goal after goal, you will be improving and moving towards this mark of 10,000 hours.

You might not reach that level, but you will learn to play well and you will have gained confidence and skill. Did I mention that you can transfer this same approach to all areas of learning? 

Happy Practicing! Do set your small goals before you start!

The art of practicing music

Posted by Nelly Matova on March 12, 2019 at 1:00 PM

This is a scary dreadful word for everyone who has decided to study an instrument. Here I will share some advice about how to practice and what is best for students who want to deal with the stress of practicing.

Is practicing really scary? WHY?

Well, it takes time (time out from those endless computers games), it requires focus and thinking (how we hate to practice instead of watching meaningless reality shows, cooking shows, games, soap operas), and requires being proactive and responsible (how we don't like any of this).

So what to do? First answer the question WHY do you need to practice? Because you want to achieve something, to learn something new and improve your skill. Because everything meaningful and worthwhile in life comes only with effort, and anyone saying the opposite is intentionally leading you towards failure.

So where is the fun? Fun is in the action of solving the puzzle called a music score, and learning it, being able to play it every time you wish after that. The fun is in thinking!!!

All good, but a child cannot think this way. So without parents to remind, to help and to guide, achievement obtained through practice will not happen. So now parents may be feeling angry, at one more thing for them to supervise. But it only takes 10 min.! What more important could you do in this short time?? You need to create the habit, the routine and make sure it is not changed.

So how should we practice?

Little children and first year students should practice 5-10 min. per day, either in the morning, or 5 min twice per day. Start by warming up the hands by playing with one finger only (the 2nd, or 3rd), up and down the keyboard with each hand. Then, learn one of the pieces in the assignment. Next time, warm up and do the second piece from the assignment.

Parents: when supervising please observe and correct POSTURE (TALL back), LEGS (both firmly on the floor, not crossed), FINGERS (LIGHTLY CURVED SHAPE), DISTANCE FROM PIANO (ELBOW length), HEIGHT OF THE BENCH (your child’s arms should appear horizontal to the keys, not coming up from underneath).

Second-Third year students: here we acquire more complex skills, so practice should be different and longer (30 min. per day). This is the time the serious foundation is built for lasting success.

Start with a slow warm-up (2nd and 3rd finger up/down key sequences) then play the assigned scale at a slow tempo. Parents! LOOK FOR RELAXED WRIST, OVERALL relaxed feeling. TALL BACK, FEET grounded on the floor. To assist with practice you can use a cooking clock or other timer to measure each section of daily practice.

Continue with the assigned technique building exercise. All this for 5 min.

The next 10 min are for learning your music. Start with the newest piece and work on difficult segments and passages by repeating and polishing them. Do not repeat fast, but slow; the goal is to be without errors. This is the only way to learn to play always without errors. You consistently need to teach your fingers to play ONLY in the correct manner, by doing it at the slower tempo first. Try to memorise these excerpts at the same time. When needed, during the lesson I write specific instructions on which sections need to be practiced more. Focus on them. Before this is done, DO NOT PLAY the composition in its full length.

Next 10 min.: practice the piece which is older and needs only polishing, here you can play longer excerpts and focus on expression, correct pedal, dynamic, and character. Listen actively: do you play the correct notes, chords, is it soft or loud? Is this correct? Look at the music! If some technical errors appear, isolate the segment and repeat slowly a few times.

Last 5 min: Always finish your practice with a piece which you know and enjoy playing.

Your 30 min. practice can be divided into two (morning, afternoon) sessions; start both halves with slow warm-up and scales. Use the first half for the newer composition, and in the second, practice for the older composition.

This way of practicing gives fast results, so just use it. Looking forward to your comments.

How to find a piano teacher?

Posted by Nelly Matova on September 20, 2017 at 10:55 AM

Occasionally I stumble on adverts like "cheap piano lessons" or teachers offering some deal. Let's think for a minute. Do you look for a cheap dentist? Or surgeon? I suppose you don't, because they can harm you.

Well, it is the same with a piano instructor. While less visible, they can certainly harm your children physiologically. You get only what you pay for.

Who advertises cheap lessons? People without a relevant degree or proper experience, people who need a quick buck and are not interested in a long term commitment to your child, people who have other things on the side and only teach for a hobby. In general, people who should know that they are not expert enough. Do you want a dentist who is actually a singer to fix your teeth? Or do you want a surgeon whose training is as a construction worker?

Well, it is the same in music. You get what you pay for. It is your decision. Most piano teachers have graduate degrees and have studied for decades. This education comes with a high price tag, and they value that. They know stuff. You want one of these teachers.

But what can go so wrong with an amateur teacher, you may ask? For a start, a wrong hand position and uncorrected poor body posture from the beginning can lead to injuries, stiffness, inflamed tendons, and problems with the back and neck. These conditions can slowly creep into the hand and body until it is too late. Then it can take years for a good pedagogue to fix that, if indeed it’s actually possible to fix it. Then there is the matter of the wrong use of the pedal, which I see over and over. Is it worth the initial saving?

But, you may argue, we want just to try, we don't want our child to go professional, only to learn a few melodies. Yes, I know, but it is still the same. You don't get the cheapest surgeon because you need surgery only on one leg, or to operate on your intestines?? Do you go for a cheap botox because it is only on one wrinkle? Yes?? No??!

So: how to go about finding a good professional?

Ask what they have studied. For how long? Keep in mind that if your teacher is a trumpet player and has never played piano, he/she most likely has no idea about hand/body work on the piano, or maybe not in enough detail to work usefully with children and adults. Yes, he/she may know about music or style, but it is not enough.

On the other side, people with a degree in composition, theory, or conducting will have studied piano for decades. Often it is requirement for them in order to study for said degrees. What about teachers with an MA in piano? Excellent choice! On the other hand, please don't go for someone who leads a band, orchestra, etc. and has him/herself only had a few lessons in piano. Be really careful with someone who has a BA in general music education, in general they do not understand the importance of proper piano teaching technique.

Search the internet. Ask to see prospective teachers’ credentials. Go visit the teacher's lessons and talk to parents at the studio. Ask for referrals from friends. But, do not go for adverts for "cheap piano lessons" or " big discount."

Everyone who knows his art got there after years of study, and this is pricey. Value their effort to get there, respect them, and value your money.

Now find your child a seasoned piano teacher. Happy learning, and good luck!

Holiday Gift Certificates

Posted by Nelly Matova on November 14, 2014 at 2:25 PM

Have you met the people who always said "I need to to this, or that" but they are not organized to do it. Maybe you have friends or relatives who always wanted to learn to play the piano but never found a teacher or bought the music book. Well, you can help. Get them a gift sertificate for one or two lessons. They will try the lessons and will make decision soon. 

Gift ceritificates for piano lessons are good way to introduce someone (child or adult) to the world of sounds. Without any long term plans they will try and fell if its for them. Yes, some home practice is required in order to progress, but if one likes it would enjoy it. After all, don't you need practice to learn how to sweam, dance ballet, learn another language, learn to drive? Is not much different. What is different is that, one can be hooked to play and enjoy music for life. Is there a better Holiday gift? 

What to do? I haven't practiced all summer...

Posted by Nelly Matova on August 19, 2014 at 7:45 PM

Hello dear piano students, 

Yes, you are getting ready for the new school year and suddenly you realize you haven't practiced piano much this summer. What to do???

Resist your first impulse to go and start playing fast to compensate for the lost time.

Start with slow warm-up. Give the hands time to remember what they used to do well (let's hope this was the case!)

Play some scales, SLOW with no force on the hands. 

Then play some easier music you used to play well in the begining of the last semester. 

If it feels fine, then you start working SLOW on your current music. 

Since, you haven't practiced whole summer do not do it for 3 hours now. Clearly, your hands are rusty and need time. 

Practice a few times a day but for a short time (10 min) and gradually move to your standard practicing routine (I hope you had one) in a few days.

If you haven't had a good routine now is the time to find your own best pace. Make your own plan!

Happy practicing and successful new school year. 

Enjoy your new piano performance achievements!


Posted by Nelly Matova on June 6, 2014 at 1:15 PM

You want to learn to play the piano but you don't like to practice. WHAT TO DO?

1. Approach the practicing as a game

2. Set up small practice sessions (10 min. each) two or three times a day. Build a habit .

3. Set up a small goal for each practice. Try to reach your goal in the time you have. Concentrate!

4. PLan your practice time and each time start with different music from your lesson list to avoid boredom.

5. Reward yourself for each goal you reach in your practice. 

6. Finish each practice with something you play well or just have learned. 

7. Remember, all the small practices acumulate over time. Before you know it, you will be playing the piano. 


Take care of your hands

Posted by Nelly Matova on May 23, 2014 at 5:45 PM

These are simple rules to guarantee the health of your hands. 

Wash your hands before you practice.

Always start your practice with warm up.

Always start the warm up playing slow. Remember it is like warming up before running long distance, or warming the car in the winter. NEVER SKIP WARM UP!

Be gentle on your hands. Take 5 min. breaks for every 15 min. of practice (for beginners) and every 20 min. (for intermediate students). For more advanced students with longer practice time: alternate 20 min. practice with 10 min. hands rest.

Best is to split your practice in two smaller daily practices. The results are better. Warm up twice.

If you miss a day of practice, add up the time to the following three days.

Have a system: after warm up one day start with the piece which needs most work, the next day start with the one which needs the least work. Have fun planning your practice!

In the winter: coming from outside give 10 min. time to your hands to adjust to the room temperature and then start your practice.

Use protective hands lotion when outside in the winter and wear gloves.

In the summer: after playing volleyball or basketball, give your hands a rest for at least 45 min. before you start practicing the piano.

Remember: practicing piano gives a great exercise to your hands and brain. Enjoy it.


Express Summer Program

Posted by Nelly Matova on June 28, 2013 at 4:40 PM

The second round of Express Summer Program starts July 1st. With two weekly lessons students really advance fast. Lots of fun playing piano.

Summer Express Program

Posted by Nelly Matova on June 4, 2013 at 11:00 AM

I have started my Summer EXpress Program. Week 1. I am expecting exciting results from the students. Busy time for me too, with two lessonsper week for each student who attends this program.