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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!

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

Piano Teaching Philosophy

Introduction

From time to time, people ask about my piano teaching philosophy. As a response to this, I wrote the following thoughts months ago but never published them. However, there’s only so much you can learn from a conversation. When you’re near the end of your interview process, I strongly suggest that you schedule an evaluation lesson. Both teacher and student should be comfortable before beginning what could end up being years of learning together.

Piano Teaching Philosophy

I believe that art and music are important to the education and enrichment of the lives of children and adults alike.

Piano lessons are expensive, so they should be undertaken with a commitment to get the most out of them, for the time that they’re pursued.

Learning to play the piano should be fun, though it’s not always easy. Proper technique, good rhythm, and sight-reading are necessary through all stages of learning. Written music theory and ear training are also important to round out all of the concepts learned at the keyboard.

Each student has his/her own needs, and I accommodate those as part of the learning process. Some pursue piano for recreation, others are more serious and ready to score high at the upcoming festival. Stickers motivate some but not all. In other words, lesson plans are tailored to the student’s ability and goals.

The process is as important as the final result. Learning how to break down a new piece of music and put it back together, and then doing it all over again, is what inspires me. Humility comes from realizing that there never will be a perfect performance. There is always an opportunity to learn something new from a great composer!

Posted 2018-05-29

Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy

This post, Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy, is the second in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I invested in a reasonably priced online course given by the Upbeat Piano Teachers, a team of two – Sara Campbell and Tracy Selle. Sara was mentioned in a Webinar given by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). As a result, I listed her as a piano teaching resource in this post, which speaks about her own site and blog, Sara’s Music Studio.

So far, so good! All of the information was helpful and well put together. Now it’s time to do the homework assignments during the short window of time the course instructors are available to facilitate. There are two Q&A sessions, after which we are on our own.

What is the point? Technology has made online lessons possible. There are just several pieces of equipment needed to get started, including a laptop and a Webcam, or just a tablet with its built-in camera. Add high-speed Internet and you’re ready to go! It’s not much more complicated than that.

So why use it? The most obvious reason is to eliminate the need for makeup lessons when the problem is getting to the lesson. It could be inclement weather, a transportation issue, or even minor illness. Makeup lessons are the bane of music teachers everywhere, so why not try online lessons to teach during the allocated teaching time? There are some instructors who extend this technology to provide distance learning. This can occur if either the student or the teacher moves away, but both parties want to continue lessons. It also allows a teacher with special skills to teach outside of her geography.

One of the surprises of the seminar was the idea of video learning. This is offered where the student can’t show up for his lesson and isn’t available for an online lesson. The teacher can use the lesson time to create a customized video with specific instructions for the student. The student then has to watch the video within a short window and perform the assignments to be ready for the next lesson. It’s also possible to create a series of generic video lessons ahead of time to be offered to a student when it’s not possible to create a customized video.

That’s it so far! I’m excited to do all of this work, and then engage with parents and students to get started!

Posted on 2018-05-28