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Halloween Performance Party

We had a lot of fun at the Halloween Performance Party, but not all of it was scheduled. Samuel the Squirrel didn’t appear as he did during my recital at the church two weeks ago. This time, we couldn’t get into the building; the code for the keypad didn’t work. Luckily, the custodian saw me and let me in the building. One of my students came up to me to let me know that there was a stranger in our performance space. It turned out to be one of my students in disguise as Napoleon Dynamite!

Although it was disappointing that only 4 of 12 students showed up, which included some last-minute cancellations and no-shows, we had a good time anyway. The Sonatina Festival participants went first. This was the first time they were performing their newly memorized pieces in front of an audience. When it comes to performing from memory, I find that a couple of warm-ups really help to work out the nerves and the memory issues. It’s better to mess up in front of one’s fellow students before going into the formal warm-up where they will be grouped together with students of the other participating teachers.

After we finished the Sonatina Festival performances, it was time for anything but sonatinas! My adult student played a Christmas Carol and a repertoire piece, one of the festival participants played a Burgmüller study, and I played the Halloween-appropriate Funeral March for a Marionette by Gounod. This ended the playing portion of the party, though I had a lot of candy still left to give out. It was composer trivia time!

Each of the students gets a subscription to Piano Explorer magazine, which I think of as the piano version of the children’s magazine Highlights. Each month a composer is featured, with Schubert and Scarlatti being the most recent ones. There is even a quiz at the end of each issue, which is where I found many of the questions I asked. Turns out the kids hadn’t done their reading. Worse, according to one student, Schubert composed in New York City. At that point, the parents cashed in! They answered pretty much all of the questions, despite my giving some very generous clues. The kids were happy that there was enough candy left for them to take at the end. For me, it’s good to know that I have to do a better job of follow-up and to set the scene for what a composer’s life was like once-upon-a-time!

Here is a picture from the party, which I almost forgot to take since I was having too much fun. And, to be honest, I was still trying to figure out how Schubert made it to New York from Vienna!

Posted 2018-10-29

Guide Your Child to Independent Practice

Background

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing assigned tasks, even if they are related to a (hopefully) fun activity, like the piano. Parents don’t always remember to check that their child is doing the work that is assigned. The result? Progress in lessons sometimes comes to a grinding halt. The good news is that a little bit of time spent checking assignments and practice, in the right way, can be extremely helpful!

In my experience, true independent practice does not emerge until the teenage years. When it comes earlier, it’s a real blessing, but it’s not typical! For a young student, check-ins should be regular. For pre-teens who have not yet reached independence, spot checks are good once in a while. You know best how your child functions, and how often you need to follow up. After all, you’re probably already harassing them to get their homework done for school, right?

What you can do

If you have a younger child, please consider helping to structure your child’s practice time. This can be as simple as setting a timer and letting your child know when to begin and to end. I suggest 20 or 30 minutes, which varies by age and level. Once this routine is established, see if your child can take it over himself, or whether he needs some help from time to time. Also, check in once in a while to see that time is spent on the entire assignment, which typically includes some aspect of technique (5-finger pattern or scale), activities, and learning pieces. If you don’t understand the assignment itself, ask your child to describe it to you.

Of the three parts of the assignment, activities are most often avoided. Activities comprise several activities: written theory, keyboard harmony, sight-reading, rhythmic drills, and ear training. Even as a graduate student at Juilliard, I was in the majority of pianists and organists who didn’t spend as much time on keyboard harmony as I should have. Our amazing instructor warned us that we would be sorry later on for not taking it more seriously, and he was right! For the most part, kids avoid doing this work because they don’t like it; I can relate to that. However, occasionally it’s because they don’t understand it. In that case, I am more than happy to help a child work through a new or confusing concept.

For your pre-teen, give her some independence in her practice sessions, to the extent that she has earned it. Check-ins can be different than those for younger children. It can be as simple as asking to hear a piece she is playing, or discussing what goes on in a lesson. Be sure to ask once in a while if she still finds the piano fun and meaningful.

What I can do

There’s a lot more I can do with pre-teens and teens once they’ve achieved some fluency on the piano. I make a special effort to check in often with pre-teens and teens about what they want to do, whether that’s incorporating playing by ear, playing from lead sheets, and to offer different styles of pieces in addition to their normal classical repertoire.

In Conclusion

I can only help my students progress to the extent that they put in the work at home. Raw talent only gets you so far, and every student faces roadblocks that only time and practice can break through. When the student, teacher, and parent are working together, great things happen! And, we have a lot of fun along the way.

Posted 2018-10-24

Small Action Big Impact

What small action makes a big impact? A review or a testimonial! Let me explain…

I visited Pryde’s Old Westport, a famous kitchen store in Kansas City. You have to look, but tucked away in a corner of the basement is a pie shop, open only three days a week. I asked at the kitchen store checkout if the pie shop was open. Fortunately, yes. However, it’s been a while since I’ve been there, and now it’s run by a new tenant, Ashleigh.

I curiously proceeded to the counter to place my advance order. The posted sign said that I had to order a minimum of two of the small pies, which are basically the size of a large hamburger. Ashleigh explained that these pies are baked in groups of four, so taking single orders makes it difficult. But she said yes anyway. And I’m so glad she did; the pie was so delicious. I thought briefly about how I could repay her kindness. And then it hit me, write a Google review!

If you’re more of a Facebook person, do it there instead! I wasn’t asked to write a review, but I knew it could make a difference, especially to a new business that is trying to build a following. It took me all of maybe two minutes. Weeks later, over 200 people have read my glowing review. I have since taken the time to write reviews for several other businesses where I’ve received exceptional service. Please understand – I rarely respond to those annoying requests for reviews, like the ones you get every time you stay at a hotel, eat at a restaurant, or buy a third-party product on Amazon.com. However, if something sticks out as being exceptional, I try to do my part.

Here’s your call to action! Take one moment to review a great experience you’ve had on either Google or Facebook! And while you’re at it, if you would like to throw some praise my way, either for my teaching or performing, please add one that I can use on this Website. I will be so happy you did!

Posted 2018-09-10

Festive Fanfares and Finales

Background

I write a short monthly article for the church newsletter featuring the music I present. It’s a great opportunity to share my plans on both piano and organ, including my weekly selections and any upcoming seasonal recitals. Occasionally, a story gets left on the table, like how I came up with the eclectic mix of five Festive Fanfares and Finales that will be played during the postlude in September 2018.

Connection and the First Two Postludes

Connection is very important for organists since we play an instrument that is all about solitude. Plus, we tend to run very specific daily routes where it’s a huge surprise to see other randomly. Despite that, I’m proud to mention the personal connection for each of these pieces! The first postlude, a short toccata by 19th-century French composer Auguste Larriu, was recommended by someone who recognized me from the Facebook Organists’ Association. She is a good friend with one of my fans from two churches ago in Danbury, Connecticut. The second postlude is a rousing arrangement of A Mighty Fortress by Diane Bish. Talk about fans? She is an absolute favorite of church congregants everywhere that I have played. Though church organists may have their own list of favorites, this woman is the people’s favorite, hands down! It’s natural to want to play some of her arrangements.

Two More Postludes and a Bagpipes Joke

The postlude for the third Sunday is an arrangement of a famous bagpiper’s tune, transcribed for organ solo by Sean McCarthy. He is the longtime organist at the First Presbyterian Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, which proudly celebrates their Scottish roots. For me, it’s a chance to play a great tune without having to actually hear bagpipes. To recast the old joke violinists tell about the viola: What do you call 500 bagpipes at the bottom of the ocean? Five hundred too few! The fourth postlude is called Roulade by Gerald Near. The French title refers to the rolling structure of the piece. It’s a new piece to me that I’m looking forward to performing for the first time! I was introduced to Gerald Near by Alec Wyton, who told me I should learn a bunch of his works. He was right!

Final Postlude

Speaking about Alec Wyton, the final postlude of the month is his famous Fanfare, written for the state trumpet that is installed on the back wall of the immense Gothic Catedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan. Though he was music director there for two decades, he was serving at his final church post in the bucolic town of Ridgefield, Connecticut when I met him. We served on the board of a tiny chapter of the American Guild of Organists in Danbury, Connecticut. I eventually studied with him for a couple of months and championed his work afterward in honor of our friendship. It’s sort of a difficult piece to play without the extra third manual and a mounted en chamade trumpet, but I’ll do my best!

In Conclusion

The next time you see some programming of a diverse set of pieces, ask the musician for the backstory. You might make a new friend quickly! I guarantee that the program didn’t happen by accident. Each connection is like a gold coin in a treasure chest!

Posted 2018-09-04

Bach Reaches Audience

It took me a long time to program Bach on a sufficient basis during Sunday worship. At the first job where I was organist and choir director, I avoided playing him altogether. I feared people would not connect. At the next job, I played some Bach, but not a lot. At my current position, where I’ve been since 2012, I’ve fully embraced him. I challenged myself to play the entire Orgelbüchlein, as Bach intended, from Advent to the end of the Christian year. It was extremely meaningful to me, though rarely did anyone make a comment. Bach reaches audience? Not so much!

Now, I’ve moved over to the piano, and am one-third of the way through Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And it’s going pretty well! I wasn’t surprised to hear feedback at the beginning of the cycle. It’s a big project, and the first Prelude and Fugue are pretty well known. However, I didn’t expect comments on the fifth, even though it’s one of my absolute favorites. Or the seventh, which is unusual in almost every way, and certainly not a piece I’m yet comfortable playing. But I do hear comments each week!

The comments are all over the place, as you would expect from people who are mostly hearing these pieces for the first time. But the fact that there is buzz, and that people are sitting through the performances, is enough to make me smile. They are connecting to pieces written nearly 300 years ago, when the piano was still in its infancy, and many other instruments were still evolving as well. I think with great music, people know innately that it’s special. I’m just glad to be the tour guide during this two-year journey.

I’m sure there are some folks who don’t connect at all to these pieces. Hopefully, something else that I’m currently offering, or played in the past, has been meaningful to them. My philosophy is to offer a concentrated yet varied program of the best music that I can learn and perform. Music can provide deep personal meaning to so many lives, including those who I may never get to know other than a passing Sunday morning greeting.

Posted 2018-08-27

Practice Makes Better

I had just completed my first day of teaching in a new year at Shepherd Music School. It was a long day since I included some make-ups from the day before due to being sick. I shopped at the mall grocery store, where chicken is on special one day a week. Having put those in the car, I took a brief walk around the village of closed stores. Wow, it was great having the energy to do more than move from kitchen to couch to bed on repeat! Practice was far from my mind, or so I thought!

Unexpectedly, I ran into Dave and Buster’s, which is the new tenant in the old food court building. I’m always interested in investigating new businesses, no matter what they do. However, I will admit to especially liking those in which adults are encouraged to act like kids. I walked in, put $5 on a card, and had enough credits to casually play about 30 minutes worth of games. I even earned enough tickets to cash in for a ping-pong sized high-bounce ball.

There was a real mix of games, from those that were pure chance to ones where skill and experience are important. That’s especially important because just a little bit of an edge can mean scoring big versus earning just a couple of tickets. And that’s when it hit me. I was drawn almost exclusively to those games that required skill. After playing the basketball toss, Skee-Ball, and the piano game, I wanted to do it again and again. Yes, I wanted to practice, because practice makes better! Of course, getting really good at any of these games just unloads your wallet. At least you get to cash in your tickets for some merchandise that is almost exclusively branded with the Dave and Buster’s logo!

Practicing the piano follows the same logic. I want to practice my new repertoire to perform it to the best of my ability. Depending upon the difficulty, learning a new piece could take just a couple of hours in one sitting or dozens of hours over many days.

When I set minimum practice standards for my students, I think about what I go through now and then. I sometimes show students my books, filled with fingerings and practice markings. I don’t feel bad asking my youngest beginner to practice at least an hour a week, which could be just 20 minutes a day over three days. For an older beginner, I’ll ask that to be stepped up to 30 minutes a day. My best student, who is solidly intermediate, practices about 3 hours per week, typically 30 minutes per day over 6 days. It’s not a crazy or excessive amount, but it’s enough. Lessons are extremely productive: feedback is offered, practice solidifies the suggestions, and then we move on to new pieces fairly quickly.

Practice is where the real learning happens. Sure, I may be effective in giving guidance, suggestions, even a fingering that might work better. But it’s the student who determines what to do with all of that. I can’t take credit for what happens at home. I can just brag on my students who have done the work themselves, and be happy that I have had the chance to guide them along the way!

Posted 2018-08-16

Summer Lessons Experience

I just completed my first full year of teaching at Shepherd Music School. When I last taught in a similar setting, the school closed over the summer. Students could study privately as long as it wasn’t onsite. In that case, my summer students were a subset of the ones that I had from the school year, and tended to be the more serious ones. I wasn’t recruiting or adding any students. And, as expected, most of them came back to the school in the fall.

At Shepherd, we teach year round, adding students at any point, though we do tend to add most new students in August, January, and June, at the start of our fall, spring, and summer sessions, respectively. The summer session is really designed to be flexible. You can take just a couple of lessons, or you can take as many as you can fit in, which typically is eight.

There was one parent who was very clear about trying out the short summer session to see if her five-year-old was ready for lessons. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. But with others, the expectations were not set at the beginning: Students who I thought were starting a long journey were just like summer campers. This was not only a common theme at Shepherd, but something I read quite a bit about on piano teacher community Facebook pages.

I don’t have anything against a student studying just in the summer, per se. However, it’s one thing to teach a summer student who is at least a few years into their journey. You can work on some repertoire, and offer some artistic and technical suggestions along the way. It’s another thing to teach short-term a student who doesn’t read music, hasn’t learned how to keep a steady beat, doesn’t know how to hold their hands, nor play in a relaxed yet focused way.

Perhaps there is a way to offer a short curriculum that offers some type of closure, which I think could be helpful in two ways: 1) It provides the student a sense of accomplishment, and 2) It shows the parents clear progress in a brief amount of time, which may encourage further lessons.

This all sounds good, but the caution is that some serious shortcuts to the long-term learning process might have to occur. The biggest gating factor to a young learner playing recognizable pieces is her reading level. In order to learn these pieces, he might have to be taught by ear to guarantee a result. There’s nothing wrong with playing by ear as long as the parent understands that learning to read will take longer if it’s not made the top goal for the student.

So, my goal for next summer is offering more customized lessons, based upon stated up-front goals. I’m hoping that this not only adds a little music into the lives of my new students, but might convince the parents that this really should be a year-round activity, not just a summer camp experience.

Posted 2018-08-08

Looking Back at First Friday

My year-long project of preparing to host a booth at First Friday in Downtown Bentonville came to pass last night. It was geared to increase enrollment at Shepherd Music School, where I teach. I won’t lie, it was a tough process and I was near the breaking point a few times along the way. Our booth was very simple, yet coordinating all of the pieces and people consumed time and energy beyond any prediction.

This is actually the fourth time today I’ve written about the event today, including a post to the Shepherd Music School first, then to Facebook and Instagram, followed by an After-Action Review to the two parents and two instructors who supported me in this endeavor. I was ready to call it quits there, but decided I should put a tiny commemoration on my blog, too, for those who may read this later.

I’m glad to say I did this, and that I’m not sure how much better I could have done, given the circumstances. Whether this event was a success is really an open question. We didn’t get any enrollments for the school, but we talked to plenty of parents of young children who may think of us when it comes to taking lessons in the coming years. And I learned tons as well, including that you can really entertain young kids with inexpensive craft projects!

Posted 2018-08-04

Summer Project – Playing by Ear

This post, Summer Project – Playing by Ear, is the third in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I honestly had enough on my plate with my other two projects: researching iPad apps and learning how to offer online lessons. Obviously, I was wrong since I immediately attached to the charisma of Ruth Power when I saw her on a Webinar. As a result, I completed her free Ear Bootcamp and then enrolled in her formal course Songs by Ear.

Playing by ear is important for a musician, though it’s not a skill that many piano teachers, me included, find time to include in lessons. I find it a nice sideline to include when discussing harmony, which comes up both in the Arkansas state music curriculum and in method books. It’s nice to show how simple chord progressions such as I-IV-I-V-I serve not only as the basis for many childhood songs but also for popular music. Some of my piano students will see this in action sooner rather than later.

I’ll expand on this topic as my experience with learning how to teach playing by ear expands, but I just wanted to share some of what I’ve been up to in preparation for teaching this fall!

Posted on 2018-07-27

Piano Miniatures

What are piano miniatures? My definition would be any piece that’s no longer than five minutes and unmistakably describes its composer. You might think of these as piano encores, and you would be right. The only difference is that I don’t want to save them just for the end of a recital. They can stand on their own, and deserve to be shared whenever the opportunity arises.

I am going to be learning and memorizing these to be shared in a variety of places, including where I am the church organist and where I teach piano. However, I’d also like to share them in other places, wherever a piano is found and I have permission to play. I would like for these to be my calling card! In order to keep track of my project, I will be posting both my repertoire and where the performances took place, on this page.

What’s your reaction to my experiment? Will it be well received? Would you welcome a piano miniature in your life?

Miniature Pianist

Last Updated 2018-06-21 | Originally Posted 2018-06-04