Blog

Grieg Galore

Introduction

My professor of keyboard harmony at The Juilliard School, Baruch Arnon, suggested that Edvard Grieg was a first-rate composer for the piano. Mr. Arnon was an all-business type of instructor, so when he gave off-topic recommendations it was worth noting. Grieg is one of those composers that a pianist typically knows, but doesn’t know well. As a child, I had played Elfin Dance for a National Piano Guild of Piano Teachers exam. As a young adult, I heard the Holberg Suite played in the string orchestra arrangement played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I knew that some day I had to play that on the piano. The story of Grieg Galore follows.

From Holberg’s Time

The connection between falling in love with that work and learning it took more than 30 years! The five pieces that make up this suite are dances written in a Baroque style to honor the eponymous Dano-Norwegian playwright. Though Grieg wrote the pieces in 1884, they celebrate Holberg’s 200th birthday. Thus the framework of the Baroque, with the unmistakable Norweigan romantic harmonies worked into the dances. Even though the Holberg Suite is much more well-known in its string orchestra arrangement, it was originally written for piano.

I programmed this work as part of my Piano Postludes, which take the place of organ postludes at First Methodist once per quarter. The Chopin Waltzes I played in May worked so well in the online church format that I sought to play more piano music. To listen to each one of the movements, you’d have to fast forward to the end of each church service between May 31st and June 28th. They are available on the Facebook page of First Methodist. While you are welcome to do that, I plan to reprise these pieces. They will appear either on a mini-recital or on my Weekly Acorn series.

Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1

Certainly more famous, but not originally written for the piano, are the orchestral pieces written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. From the smattering of incidental pieces, two suites were extracted, the first of which has best stood the test of time. When most classical aficionados think of Peer Gynt, they are likely thinking of the four individual pieces comprising this suite. Despite being originally written for orchestra, these pieces work really well on piano.

When I originally conceived doing the Holberg Suite as part of Piano Postludes, I thought programming the Peer Gynt on the Weekly Acorn would be the perfect complement for one June program. However, they are a bit trickier to learn than I first assessed, so I will instead debut them in July.

After he died, Grieg’s music quickly came to be regarded as old-fashioned. But his influence was particularly apparent on the French composers of the early 20th century. Ravel said that, other than Debussy, there was ‘no composer to whom I feel a closer affinity’.

Classic FM Website

About Grieg’s Fame

Grieg never attained the fame of other contemporary first-rate composers. I think there are two obvious clues. One, he stuck close to his Norweigan roots, including melodies from traditional music in his compositions. Two, he didn’t like to travel, and only did it begrudgingly. One might say from today’s perspective that he was poor in marketing!

Although Dvorak was very much a composer in the same mold, championing his Bohemian routes, he took a more international approach. He left Prague for a three-year stay in the United States. He cemented fame in the United States that endures to this day by composing his New World Symphony. The piece is filled with American musical and literary references. While Grieg took a different route, his music is wonderful, and deserves to be celebrated! A concise history of Grieg’s life can be found on the Classic FM Website.

Learn More

Photo of Edvard Grieg in 1888. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-06-23

External Celebration

This article first appeared in my Curious Squirrel Newsletter in May 2020.

Introduction

Although I could be confused about what day it is upon waking even in normal times, I’m pretty aware of what day of the week it is in general. Like everyone else, my driving schedule has little to do with work; it revolves more around grocery shopping and picking up my bread order for our local artisan boulangère. Perhaps I’m lucky that my workdays are similar to before: online instead of in-person piano lessons on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Plus, working at the church on Wednesday; yes, complying with social distancing including a maximum of four people in our fairly large sanctuary!

What Week Is It?

That last part is the weird part. Wednesday afternoon would be our choir rehearsal, and I’d typically practice into the evening after eating a communal dinner. Now, my Wednesday work revolves around recording the next Sunday’s service: starting with our two or three hymns, accompanying a soloist for the offertory, concluded by playing a prelude and postlude. Sure, there’s still the practice, but practice for the next recording. I feel like I’m playing a part in a movie. While others have lost connection to the day of the week, I’ve lost connection to week of the year. I didn’t feel much during the second half of Lent or Holy Week, and I don’t feel much now during the Easter season.

External Celebration

Sure, I’m probably partly to blame, because in full confession I haven’t kept up my daily Bible reading and prayer. That inward discipleship, as much as it would be good for me, isn’t what my soul is craving. It’s external celebration. It’s shouting Hosannah on Palm Sunday, and The Lord Is Risen on Easter Sunday. It’s hearing my music director’s bad puns at choir rehearsal, and one of those occasional long reminiscences. It’s sitting at a communal dinner in Becker Hall and hearing a bit of gossip from church folks that I wouldn’t have expected!


“Inward discipleship…isn’t what my soul is craving. It’s external celebration.”


What Do You Miss?

Church has always been a big part of my life. Since age 15, it’s been about job and worship together, except during college and for a brief time when I first arrived in Arkansas. Perhaps the church isn’t big in your life, but you have some other place of celebration that you miss. It could be your workplace, choir rehearsal, or a particular eating spot where you meet your friends once a week. What is the one celebratory thing that you truly miss about your weekly routine? I’d be glad to publish them in the next newsletter, either credited or anonymously!

If you liked this article, perhaps you’d also like to subscribe to the monthly Curious Squirrel Newsletter? It’s published on or just after the first of the month, and there’s no spam on the side!

Luncheon Photo First Methodist of Bella Vista – Dec 2019
Posted 2020-05-05

Do Your Best

Introduction

My title is rather open ended, but it was meant to be more specific. Unfortunately, there was no catchy subject line that fully captured my sentiment. Perhaps this is better: Do your best, despite these crazy times, in preparing for our video-recorded recital! Since we can’t have a recital in person, we will be presenting a recital as a compiled set of recordings. We’re used to seeing this now. People recording bits and pieces that are stitched together for worship services, interview shows, and even Saturday Night Live! It should be really interesting.

Each home has different types of pianos. Some have been recently tuned and repaired; others could still use a bit of TLC! Some recordings will be made on a cell phone, a tablet or laptop computer. What hasn’t changed is that this is a celebration of accomplishment. It’s about a dozen children, who along with their parents, have worked to keep learning going, despite an overnight change to social distancing and online education in mid-March.

Be Prepared

The preparation I’m talking about is for recording, versus a live recital. If you think you are lucky not to perform live, then you have never recorded yourself before! Having the choice to re-record, if a particular take didn’t go well, means a potential for many other takes that also don’t go exactly as planned. Then, you have to figure out which one is the best of the worst. I do this all the time when I record myself! If you are looking for a post in getting pieces ready for performance, look at my November 2019 post Make Those Refinements.

Since you know you are going to be recording yourself, don’t wait until the last possible moment to practice making recordings. You’ll want to hear yourself back, and perhaps this will help you work through a problem area that you’ve been avoiding or let you know you need to adjust your device in some way.

Recording Day

Now that you’ve practiced all that you can, and have made some sample recordings during that final practice, you’re ready to make your final recording(s). Try to make just one or two takes of each piece, and choose the one you like the best, or perhaps hate the least. If you’re making lots of mistakes, either adjust the entire tempo to be a little bit slower, or do a little emergency practice on the area that needs help. Don’t worry that your performance is not perfect, but does it well represent the best you can do?

Submit Your File

If you have to choose between takes, don’t agonize too much between what likely will be pretty similar performances. Your fellow pianists and their parents will enjoy whatever you present, as long as you’ve made a good effort. Learning how to record is an acquired skill, and unfortunately you need to acquire that skill now! The good news is that you’ll know the process in case you’ll ever need to do it again, whether it be for a summer music festival, or a college application.

Enjoy

Enjoy hearing your playing as part of our piano studio. You’ll have a chance to hear the work of some kids you know, and some who you no doubt won’t know. Make sure to pay attention to the other students so you can mention something you enjoyed about each person’s playing. Be prepared to offer a compliment to every fellow pianist in your recital. Don’t worry about the constructive feedback – that’s my job! Good luck!

Good luck! Do your best!

Photo by Gerd Altmann. Courtesy Pixabay.
Posted 2020-05-01

Music of Worship at Westminster Abbey

Dr. Zehring reminisces about his doctoral research in London in the early 1980s.

After arriving in London, I spent eight hours a day for six straight days in a small windowless room in the bowels of the old British Library, in self-imposed isolation, sifting through 300-500-year-old books – church registers, music manuscripts, Royal warrants, anything – looking for mention of Richard Minshall, Robert Devereaux, any evidence at all that I could use to connect either one of them with the other.

After all that time, I felt I really needed a break from the writer’s cramp and eyestrain I was having, so one afternoon I thought it’d be a good idea to come out into the light and visit Westminster Abbey. Annette and I arrived just as they were about to begin their daily evensong service.

Understand that in addition to being a major tourist attraction, the Abbey continues its daily functions as a working church. When there’s a service, the vergers shoo away the tourists from the chancel and altar areas, rope it off and seat those who wish to worship in the choir stalls. Then they proceed with the service while the non-worshipers continue their tours throughout the Abbey staying outside the roped-off enclosure. So there we were, sitting as close to the director of the Westminster Abbey choir as we are to each other in our choir loft on a Sunday morning.

When the organ prelude began, there was a sudden hush in all the babble of voices and a cessation of the popping of photo flashes from the crowds that filled the outer aisles and the nave of the Abbey. This hush continued as the choir processed singing the first hymn. Once the spoken portion of the service began – the scriptures and the prayers – the hubbub resumed and continued until the choir sang the Psalms and the anthem. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the extraneous noise of the crowds outside the chancel/altar area subsided until the anthem was over, then it ramped up again. It went on through the homily and only stopped when the recessional hymn was being sung and throughout the organ postlude. I remember saying to Annette, “That tells you something about the power of music in worship.”

The point I want to make is that whether we realize it or not, what we do as musicians in worship has a profound effect on people. Whether it’s in Westminster Abbey or the First United Methodist Church of Bella Vista, Arkansas, the music of worship has the capacity to transport people beyond the limits and confines of the ordinary and the routine and, while the music lasts, causes them to become focused on something greater than themselves, something richer and deeper than they can experience in any other circumstance.


“Music of worship has the capacity to transport people beyond the limits and confines of the ordinary and the routine.”


It also alters our perspectives as musicians. Idly humming a tuneless melody can subconsciously lighten the burden of an everyday chore, singing along with an earworm that gets stuck in our minds, working out a tricky passage in choir practice – going over it again and again – until it’s right or providing musical inspiration for our congregation as we sing our responses and anthems on a Sunday morning; it all works to lift our spirits, strengthen our faith and give glory to God. And if I might paraphrase the last word of a verse from a well-known hymn: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in song.”

I hope you’re all staying safe and happy; practicing social distancing, heeding the advice of the medical professionals and that you will, of course, keep on singing.

Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Zehring is the Music Director at First United Methodist Church of Bella Vista, Arkansas.

Photo by Σπάρτακος. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-04-23

Video Recording Guide

This article is specifically intended for my studio’s online recitals due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I will be periodically updating this article throughout the spring 2020 as we see what works and what doesn’t.

Introduction

I dedicated my entire monthly practice corner article to technology for online lessons. I realized that a video and audio recording guide would be helpful, and to get it started now versus waiting until early May! Recordings are important for posting to the Internet and social media, as well as for self-study. You can learn a lot by listening back to yourself when you’re not engaged in playing.

However, we’ll all need to learn these skills as we seek to document a crazy semester on video since we’re unlikely to have an in-person recital in May. The basic idea is to have everyone video record themselves, submit their recordings to me, and I’ll create a couple of recitals out of them. Let’s first discuss how to do the recordings.

Video Software

iOS (Apple)

Since everyone has an iPhone or iPad, I’m going to start here. You want to use an iPad if you have a choice, but an iPhone will do. First, if you don’t have iMovie, download it from the App Store. It’s Apple software, which means it’s not only free, but fairly easy to use. I’ve made a short YouTube video that takes you through the entire process, from recording to exporting. The one snag will be that you may not have Dropbox on your device, which means you’ll have to do the transfer from your PC or Mac. This support post from Apple should do the trick to establish a connection between your device and your computer, if you don’t have one established. Please transfer the file(s) in MOV format to the Dropbox link I have provided. I will convert your file to MP4 format using the VLC Media Player.

Windows PC

You can also record using your laptop or a desktop using an external Webcam. Microsoft offers the built-in Camera program in Windows 10 to shoot video. I haven’t tried it, but it appears to be simple to be use. When you finish shooting your video, you can upload it to Dropbox directly from your PC. Please make sure it’s in MP4 format so that I don’t have to do any file conversion.

Device Placement

If you don’t have a microphone stand, music stand, or something that your device can attach to or sit on, then use a small table built up with books and put it a foot or two to the side and behind the pianist. The angle used in my YouTube video above works well. Also, make sure your device is placed in landscape. You probably don’t have to think about this if you’re using a tablet. However, if you’re using a phone, place it so it is wider than it is high.

Record Early and Often

Please don’t wait until the last moment to do your recording. It’s good to do some testing recording, to make sure that you have your camera set at a good place, and to make sure that your playing is as good when you’re practicing as when you’re recording. Although playing for a camera is different than for a live audience, you may face some of the same fears. It’s better to get used to playing for, and ignoring, the technology!

Grouping Your Recordings

I will also let you know how to group together your recordings, but the general guideline is below. Also, super important: Between movements, or between pieces, please put your hands in your lap for two Mississippis (one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi). Then, put them back on the keyboard and continue when ready.

  • If you are a younger student playing several short pieces, please record them all in the same file, in the order that we decide.
  • If you are playing a sonatina, please record all of the movements in the same file. If you are recording shorter pieces, you may put those in a separate file.
  • If you are involved in the Debussy Children’s Corner project, please record those pieces separately. If you are assigned two pieces, you can either record them consecutively, in performance order, as part of the same file. Or, you can record them as separate files and I can splice them together.

Dropbox

Hopefully, all of you already use Dropbox. If not, I’d strongly urge you to try it out, even if it’s just for our project. It’s really the gold standard for cloud-based file storage, and works incredibly well for exchanging files securely. If you would like an invitation to get started the software, I’d be glad to provide. It doesn’t benefit me at all, to my knowledge at least, since I’m on a paid plan with massive storage. However, with the free plan, you often can get more storage simply by inviting others to sign up for the software.

Permission to Post

I am sending a SurveyMonkey request that adds video recording to the photo permissions I sought earlier in the program year. I didn’t anticipate making any videos, until Covid-19 shook up our world, so I want to make sure you are okay with my posting plans. I am planning to offer a private Zoom event for those who either don’t get the recordings to me in time or don’t want to have their videos uploaded for public viewing.

Stay Tuned for Updates

This video and audio recording guide will remain a working document for us, as we find out what works (and what doesn’t). I’ll update and send you a link or reminder once any major changes are made. Let’s see what kind of playing fun we can have, even if we have to do it within our own four walls!

Gustave Caillebotte painting
La Leçon de Piano by Gustave Caillebotte at Musée Marmatton Monet (Paris 16th). Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-05-03 | Originally Posted 2020-04-13

Technology for Online Lessons

Introduction

At first, I was reluctant to post this article as the April 2020 addition to the Monthly Practice Corner. How does Technology for Online Lessons belong here? First, we couldn’t keep learning online without a minimum of technology know-how. Bravo to you for figuring this out so quickly! Second, there are lots of tweaks that can be made, regardless of whether you buy new equipment. That sounds like practice to me!

Many music teacher have written articles on this subject since confinement began. However, I wanted to put together what I’ve done, in hopes it might help you too. Whenever an option is available at no cost, I consider that first. I also take the long view – making recommendations that might help beyond our hopefully short time of social distancing. Let’s get started!

Bandwidth

There are several things you can do to make sure you have the best speed possible. One is to call your provider to ask what’s available. I did this just before the Covid-19 pandemic, and received a higher-speed connection for a lower price. I don’t say you will be as lucky, but the squeeky wheel gets the grease!

One further tip is to try to test your upload speed on whatever device you are using. Yes, I did say upload and not download. This isn’t Netflix, where all you care about is download speed. The upload speed is what you need to present your playing to your teacher. Test your upload speed on your device using Google, or the old standard Speedtest by Ookla. If you have at least 10 Mbps, that’s good enough. If you don’t have that much, there are several things you can do:

  • Ask your other family members to avoid streaming video or playing online games during your lesson. Web browsing or even Social Media, without video, is probably not a big factor.
  • If you’re using a laptop or desktop, directly connect via a network cable to your modem. These cables come in lengths of 50 and 100 feet, and are worth the trouble to plug and unplug!
  • If you’re using a phone or tablet, you must rely on strong Wi-Fi. Thus, try to move your modem closer to your piano, or even your piano, if it’s electronic, closer to your modem. If neither is possible, perhaps upgrade your modem, if it’s more than several years old, or get a repeater to boost your signal.

Device

Tablets are better than phones. Typically, larger devices have better cameras, audio, and battery life. Remember to charge your device before a lesson. If that’s not possible, plug it in to a charger during the lesson if your battery is low. Laptops have the advantage of a larger screen size, but they don’t necessarily work better than tablets. Plus, their size almost dictates having a music or specialty laptop stand for support.


How to Optimize Your Device for Faster Wi-Fi Connection
  • Turn off background app refresh
  • Free up storage space to enable optimal buffering
  • Reboot your device periodically
  • Clear the cache regularly (However, this means having to enter your passwords again)

Device Stand and Holder

Many of you are using a table or chair with books to prop up your device. If you have a standard Wenger or Manhasset music stand, that can work even better! The best placement is a couple of feet past the end of the keyboard, and high enough to show both the keys and the student’s face as well.

If you’re looking to spend money for a better solution, I suggest buying a microphone tripod floor stand. My model is a Samson MK-10, which gives me the added flexibility to use it as a boom stand with a Webcam over the keyboard. You can purchase a phone or tablet holder to mount to it. Besides the two uses mentioned, the stand could be used with a microphone, a camera, or a digital audio recorder like the Zoom H4N. Just make sure that you are aware how the holder connects to the stand. Make sure to get a 1/4″ male to 5/8″ female adapter if necessary.

Software

I am currently using FaceTime and a one-camera approach on my iPad. The donwside about this is that the default camera is going to show a mirror image, so high is low and vice versa. There are a couple of tricks I’ve discovered I can use when necessary. If I need to show a full keyboard view, I can swivel my device on its stand 180 degrees and turn on the back camera. It takes about 10 seconds to do, and has the disadvantage of not being able to see my student. However, if I just need to show a finger crossing or a chord, I have a melodica on a music stand just behind the iPad. That only requires switching to the back camera and switching back once I done the brief demonstration.

I do like Zoom when used with a laptop, especially used with a WebCam in addition to the built-in camera to create an over-the-keyboard view. I might do that on special occasions, or when creating short video lessons. However, I find it unnecessarily complicated for regular lessons.

Microphone

Your built-in microphone is probably sufficient. This is a really tricky one, since most inexpensive microphones have become much more expensive due to current circumstances. The Fifine microphone I purchased a few weeks ago was $5 above pre-Covid-19 times, and is currently selling for $5 more than I paid. A lavalier or lapel microphone is also probably fine. There is a risk in overpaying for any microphone right now.

Also, pay attention to the connector. A lightning connector will only work on older Apple devices, since Apple abandoned that connector for USB C in 2019. The Fifine microphone comes with an old USB A connector, which is perfect for a PC. An inexpensive adapter can also make it useful on an old or new Apple device.

In Conclusion

Yes, you already have most of the technology for online lessons! So now you have to consider if there are any facets of online lessons you’d like to improve? The best improvement to any online lesson is by maximizing bandwidth and have an optimized device. Those two tasks are most likely free.

Most of the other ideas suggested aren’t free. Purchasing a device holder and stand adds to the online lesson experience, and will be useful past social distancing. So would purchasing an add-on microphone. Both are important steps in making quality recording for posting recordings to the Internet or simply for critique yourself. I’d recommend thinking long and hard about the proper way to buy technology. As Nicola Cantan from Colourful Keys says, figure out what your problem is first. Then, find a shiny tech device to solve it, and not vice-versa!

Image by Divya Gupta. Courtesy Pixabay.
Last Updated 2020-04-22 | Originally Posted 2020-04-12

Feel That Beat

Please Note: This page has Amazon Affiliate links. It’s a simple way to support my Website without costing you anything.

Introduction

I was tempted to call this post Hear the Beat, not Feel That Beat. See the pullout quote below if you’re unfamiliar with the lyrics of the title song of the musical 42nd Street. However, there’s a big difference between hearing and feeling. When you hear good musicians, you can feel that beat because they do, too. However, if you’ve ever heard a group recital with lots of beginner piano students, I bet that’s not the case. On behalf of all piano teachers, I’ll take the blame, since we as a profession spend so much more time teaching note reading than the underlying rhythms that are attached to those notes. Yet, a listener will more easily forgive a few note errors than when the sense of rhythm is lost several times.

Before proceeding, I readily confess to conflating beat and rhythm, for good reason. When a quarter note is held too long (rhythm), the beat is lost. When a student doesn’t hold to a steady beat, the rhythms become skewed. So what’s the solution? Read on…

Use Your Own Percussion

There are lots of way to establish a beat. Clap. Walk around the room. Patsch – it’s a German/British English word that indicates smacking of the legs by the hands. Tap – on a closed keyboard cover or a table. Count using either metric (numbered) beats or use Kodaly syllables (tah, tee-tee, ti-ka-ti-ka).

It’s difficult to get students to break down the music in such a way. However, once a student breaks the rhythm down, it’s naturally easier for him to play it correctly when combined back with the notes. In order to keep reinforcing the primacy of rhythm, I use either method book activity pages or Piano Safari sight reading cards. It’s important to keep adding more complex rhythms as the student encounters them in his music.

Hear the beat
of dancing feet,
It’s the song I love the melody of,
Forty-Second Street

Title song of film and Broadway musical 42nd Street, Lyrics by Al Dubin

The Dreaded Metronome

There is not much that is dreaded by the music student as much as having to use a metronome. To the student who doesn’t understand the device, it’s just an obnoxious ticking device that makes playing more difficult. Yet every mid- to late-beginner has to at some point be introduced to one. For the beginner student, it’s typically used to make sure that notes with the same rhythmic value are played evenly. Sometimes the last beat of a measure or phrase gets extended as the student sees a bar line and thinks that’s a good pausing place. Or, it’s a way to regulate the rhythm of contrasting note values, like the quarter and eighth notes.

After a student gets a good sense of rhythmic values, she tends to use the metronome for tempo regulation. Every piece has a final tempo and good practice tempos. As a rough rule of thumb, once a student works out the notes and rhythms well enough to play more or less in time, we are aiming to get the piece to 80% of the final tempo, or 80 beats per minute (BPM). Once the piece is clean at that tempo, we can move the tempo progressively to and beyond the final tempo. Practicing a little faster than the final tempo is good in order to see what difficulties remain. Plus, it helps the performer know he is okay even if it starts too quickly or accelerates midway.

What Kind of Metronome

I used to be against metronome apps on principle. It just seems strange to turn a $400 device into a $25 one. Then, I found myself routinely grabbing for my iPad with its two tempo apps during piano lessons. When on the road, sometimes it is easier having one less physical object to carry! If you always have a phone or tablet with you, and prefer it to a separate device, look no further than Tempo – Metronome with Setlist. It was $2.99 when I last checked, and has iOS and Android versions. Everyone likes free stuff, but with music apps, don’t hesitate to purchase, especially at a negligible price like this. I included metronomes in a comprehensive app review for beginner students in mid-2019.

Although I love old-fashioned pendulum metronomes, they are a poor choice for most music students because they are fragile. Drop it, overwind it, or simply leave it properly wound without using it, and your device will soon cease functioning. If, after that warning, you still want a pendulum metronome, the German-made Wittner brand is the gold standard.

The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is one that has been in production in a similar form for decades, and is still the best-selling metronome according to Amazon.com. Its analog dial allows you to choose any tempo within a second. For people who hate analog, or want to save a few bucks, I’ve included the Seiko DM51B Metronome. I don’t understand why anyone would want to use the long-press up and down buttons instead of an analog dial, but at least you have a choice!

In Conclusion

To feel that beat is important in music. It’s not something that’s achieved just by older, more advanced, musicians. It can be done from the very beginning, as long as the instructor is willing to insist on playing correct rhythmic values. Playing rote pieces, and figuring out songs by ear also help in establishing the beat. It doesn’t have to be drugery, requiring the metronome to be frequently used as a crutch. In the best case, it should be seen as a friend who checks up on you during your time of need!

Image by Aleksandr Zherlitsyn. Courtesy Pixabay
Posted 2020-03-01

Music as a Focusing Tool

We live in a distracted age, where focus can be as fleeting as the obedient dog who loses it when he sees a squirrel in his peripheral vision. Music is a place where multitasking just doesn’t work, so it makes sense that it might be a good focusing tool for children. Music activates brain cells on both sides of the brain. Parents have to love that fact, but the child just wants to have fun. Is it possible to have fun while giving the brain a healthy workout? In my experience, the answer is a resound yes!

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing structured activities, even if they are (hopefully) fun like the piano. Establishing good practice habits takes time, and parental involvement is going to be key especially for younger students. However, practice becomes self-sustaining for kids who really enjoy playing the piano. If you’re looking for some inspiration for getting your kids to practice, please visit the monthly practice corner posts I write each month for my Piano Parents.

This post was inspired by two online articles I came across in my reading. The article about practice from UC Berkeley is not specifically about music, although it applies well to it. I was most encouraged by the experiment that showed how kids as young as six and seven are able to grasp the concept of deliberate practice! The NY Times piece is a guide to parents to limiting their kids’ tech, by age. Limiting tech time is a good opportunity to insert the great focusing tool of music!

How to Motivate Kids to Practice Hard Things (UC Berkeley)
How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use (NY Times)

Distracted Boy Cartoon
Distracted Boy Cartoon by www.amenclinics.com. Courtesy Flickr.
Posted 2020-02-19

Hello Chopin Waltzes

Introduction

I just kicked off the fourth year of offering classical piano repertoire to conclude worship at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Piano Postludes happens every three months, during the months of February, May, August, and November. For four weeks during each of those months I play pieces according to a common theme. You can get a feel for what I’ve done in past years of Piano Postludes, but this year it’s all about Chopin! As in, Hello Chopin Waltzes! All 17 of them.

Why Chopin?

After completing my project of playing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier Book One of J.S. Bach, I decided that I should do something completely different. Even though you might consider Chopin’s romantic sweep to be quite different from the high Baroque style of Bach, there is more connection that you might think. His 24 Preludes, Op. 28, are written around the circle of fifths, with alternating major and minor keys. Pianist Josep Colom demonstrates how certain of Bach’s compositions were an obvious influence on Chopin. His Confluences album Web page provides sound file examples.

I get that church goers aren’t interested to linger to listen to long postludes. My hope is that these bite sized pieces will be more appealing to those folks. I’ll always have my small group of loyal fans who will stay for whatever I want to play for them. And I’m so thankful for that! People have told me that they can’t attend my post-church recitals due to brunch plans or missing the chance to socialize over coffee and pastry. Hopefully these bite-sized pieces – most are less than 5 minutes long – will take care of that!

My Connection

I will be forever indebted to my master teacher, German Diez, who introduced me to the very first of the waltzes, the Grande Valse Brillante Op. 18. He studied for 10 years with Claudio Arrau in New York City after leaving Cuba before the Fidel Castro era. I listened to a recording of Arrau playing this waltz recently, and said to myself “he plays it remarkably similar to me!” Picking this piece back up has always been easy because I first learned it when I was young! Since I’m writing this post just after starting the project, you can now listen to this first installment on Facebook Live. You don’t have to have to be logged into Facebook nor even have a Facebook account.

In Conclusion

Bach will still be on my mind. Since I’m also an organist, he’s never far away. But it’s time to say Hello Chopin Waltzes! I won’t be recording each week’s installment, but at least there’s one to give you a taste into my love of Chopin. I also plan at some point to put together all four Chopin Scherzi that I played as Piano Postludes last year to present in a recital.

Daguerrotype of Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin in a daguerrotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-02-06

Make Sight Reading a Priority

Introduction

When I write my monthly practice corner article, I typically think about the struggles my students face in their learning.  In many cases, I struggled with the same issues when I was a piano student.  However, not in this case, since sight reading always came very easy to me.  I began piano at age 9, which probably helped. Students who begin later tend to grasp the concepts in note reading a lot more quickly than their younger counterparts. However, both younger and older students often find note reading to be quite vexing.  That’s why I make sight reading a priority in lessons!

Definition

What exactly is sight reading?  Simply put, it’s the ability to quickly grasp what’s important in a musical score, and translate that to the piano on the first try.  A great parallel would be to how well a student learns good reading comprehension. It’s important to be able to read a passage of text to summarize the main points while not getting bogged down by details.

Sight reading in music is just a first step. It’s great to quickly grasp what’s on the page, but it’s another to make a music from it.  Often, there are technical difficulties to be worked out, plus lots of nuances that can only be worked out by lots of practice.  Plus, in certain styles of playing, like jazz and pop, sometimes only the bare essentials are notated.  It’s up to the student to know the correct style of playing, manipulate the chords, and do a lot of listening to be successful.

How to Learn It

Now that we’ve identified what sight reading is and its role in playing piano, how do you best learn it?  Music educators have learned that using landmarks (memory notes) and intervals to be the best method, long term.  If you learned piano back in the dark ages, like when I did, your teacher would have typically used a middle-C based book. I bet you remember these books, where your thumbs were constantly fighting for middle C!  You would have been drilled on mnemonics like Every Good Boy Does Fine, for the lines on the treble clef, and the acronym FACE for the spaces.  It sounds great, right?  

However, going back to the analogy with book reading:  How effective would you be if you had to speak the alphabet every time you see a new word?   As a kindergartner, it might work fine, but it would hinder a second grader!  I’ve had an early intermediate student who cannot start a new piece without consulting that every good boy nonsense.  I never taught this method; it’s something he learned from a former teacher several years ago.

The primary method books I use, the Music Tree and Piano Safari, both have regular sight-reading as part of the curriculum.  I often use the Piano Safari sight reading cards even with students of different method books. They are helpful in developing good note-reading techniques.  As a student progresses, he learns new landmarks, which cover all of the Cs up and down the staff, in addition to the Gs on the treble/G-clef and the Fs on the bass/F-clef.  He then uses the small intervals like 2nds through 5ths to identify notes that are above or below those fixed landmarks.

Benefits

I also have a student transpose certain pieces when she gets into the late beginner level.  Once she plays a piece in one key, I ask her to play it in a different keys.  What I don’t tell her is that she is simultaneously learning how to read new clefs!  That’s really helpful, since we as pianists often have to play with other instruments. Some of these instruments transpose (like the trumpet or clarinet) or don’t transpose but read in different clefs (like the viola and cello).  You can’t work at your best with these musicians if you’re stuck trying to determine whether every good boy does fine!

Another benefit of being a good sight reader is to hear music without playing it.  When I open a score, the music pops off the page.  This has enormous implications when learning new music, shopping for new scores, and even for determining which pieces to program.  I can quickly find pieces that will work for a particular occasion by scanning them with my eyes, not needing to sit down at a piano.

In Conclusion

Now you know why I make sight reading a priority. It’s one of those skills that every teacher needs to nurture, and remediate when the level is not up to par. As a teacher, I can only do so much to instruct the best method for note reading. It’s up to the student to practice the skill on his own. If a student is young, it’s up to the parent to help the student establish the skill. Note reading isn’t everything, but it is a really big thing!

circular music score
Photo by Sebastien Paquet of George Crumb Music Score. Courtesy Flickr.
Last Updated 2020-02-05 | Originally Posted 2020-02-04