One Piano Parent Listened

When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!

She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.

After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!

Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!

Posted 2019-06-28

Spring 2019 Finale

Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the semester-end recitals, Spring 2019 Finale. Their pictures are below. A couple of brand new students who are very young did not participate, and my two adult students also chose to sit this one out.

New Wrinkle: House Recitals!

I also tried something new this time: house recitals. Since I teach several in-home students who aren’t affiliated with Shepherd, I have to find opportunities for them to play. I often just do in-home recitals just for them, in lieu of a lesson. However, I also like for all of my students to get to know each other, regardless of where they are enrolled.

Figuring out how to do this seemed pretty obvious. Most of my students live in one of three areas. And there are about an equal number of students in each geography. I already had an invitation to check out the spinet piano one of my families had just gotten their daughter, so some of the planning already took care of itself.

At a Church

The first house recital was held not at someone’s home but at a house of God. It was at the church where Shepherd is based since none of the piano parents volunteered their home for the event. The three participants played the beautiful Baldwin grand piano in the sanctuary that is typically off-limits. My most advanced student got the chance to make a mini-recital debut playing much of the repertoire he learned over the semester. One of my adult students also participated, since she felt more comfortable in this small group setting versus the very busy Shepherd recitals.

At a Home

The second group was the one where I was invited to visit the newly-acquired spinet. There were extra adults and kids there in addition to the piano parents and student participating. I played to conclude the recital, as I did in the first event. When it was all over, the kids went into the backyard to bounce on the trampoline, and the adults enjoyed conversation in the living room. Although the goal to play was met in both cases, I much preferred the fun atmosphere of the second recital. This type of recital really benefits from being held in a home environment.

At the Emergency Room

The third group was for a single family with three students that lives a distance from the other two groups. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to a medical emergency that occurred just before I arrived. One learns to roll with the punches!

Posted 2018-06-14

ASMTA Regional Festival 2019

I participated in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) regional festival again this spring.  I had four students enrolled, the same as last year. Two of those were continuing students; two were new students. This event was held on Saturday, April 6th, in the music building at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  I didn’t sleep well and woke up before 6 a.m. since I was petrified by the possibility that I could oversleep.  I was scheduled to do musicianship testing, which took the entire morning after my 8 a.m. arrival.

I was able to get pictures of 3 out of my 4 students.  That’s because I insisted they stop by my testing room before they left.  All of them received a Superior rating of 1, but one did better than that by securing a 1+ as the first alternate to the winner for her level.  My studio did a lot better this year in supplemental testing as well, with several certificates awarded for scores of 90 or better in musicianship and written theory.

It is always interesting to compare notes with teachers in the break room during lunch.  We discussed the surprises and disappointments of the day, and traded stories about what else is going on in our lives, musical or otherwise.  As you can imagine, this event only happens due to the hard work of several volunteers over weeks and months before the event; my helping out on the day of the event doesn’t compare to that!  My thanks to them!

Posted 2018-04-18

Different Kind of Feedback

I received very different kind of feedback after performing a new piece in my repertoire, the Chopin Scherzo No. 2: “I am glad that you learned that for yourself and that you shaered it with us!” It’s not the typical response following a performance. I knew that the comment was well intended, coming from one of my favorite people at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Still, it took a while to sink in what that actually meant.

While my reasons for wanting to learn new repertoire on the piano and organ are multi-faceted, it’s clear that they are all related to my goal to become better at both. I encourage my students to set and achieve goals, in a way that’s appropriate for their age. If I find a child is shirking responsibility, I try to address his responsibility in the process. One of the many benefits of piano lessons is becoming responsible for one’s work. The piano is just the tool that allows that to happen.

Performance is the natural culmination of music study. If you’ve taken the time to learn a piece, you should share it with others. Recitals and music festivals are the formal way to do this, but there should be other ways too. Performing for family, church, school, or a retirement community are equally valid. Live performance gives you feedback that you can’t get in any other way. Plus, it helps focus and refine your work, since there is a fixed date on the calendar that will make you accountable!

Learning and performing go hand in hand for me. I couldn’t imagine learning and then not performing. I have had some students, particularly adults, who have no interest whatsoever in public performance. That’s okay too. What doesn’t work well is performing without learning. Yes, I have performed more times than I’d like to admit without being sufficiently prepared. Building an audience is difficult, and it’s important to do your best. I’m grateful to have the chance to learn new pieces, polish old ones, and share them with my audiences and inspire a new generation of musicians.

Posted 2019-02-20

What is your goal?

I got the chance to do quite a bit of reading during time off from work, especially following Christmas Eve, which included two services and a very difficult organ recital in between those broadcast via Facebook Live. Without looking for it, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the New York Times titled I’ll Never Be Rachmaninoff. It was written by an adult piano student who returned to the piano following a long absence. Her goal was clear; but what is your goal?

It’s not the first time I’ve written a post based on the recreational benefits of piano study, but I think it always comes across better in the first person. Jennifer Weiner tells the story of finding teachers, and how study positively affected her life and daughter as well. Ms. Weiner was a very competitive person in youth and in life, so the last thing she needed was to resume piano study with the hopes of becoming great. Her goal was to be good, not great, and she describes her journey towards just that. Thus, the title of her article is particularly compelling.

I try to remember to ask my students about their goals and to regularly check in with them that lessons are meeting them. Often, especially with younger students, the goal is pretty general, just to play better, and the means to get there isn’t specific. For other students, particularly teens and adults, there are more specific goals in mind. It might be to reach higher levels in classical study, to play pop songs, or to play Christmas carols for their family.

One of my adult students had that last goal. She just reported back that it went well. For this particular student, the focus was short-term, to play a series of Christmas carols well enough for a sing-along. She enjoyed it enough and received enough positive feedback that she’s considering more study, though not right away. That’s great!

Whatever your goal is in piano study, I hope to help guide you there. Whether your goal is to be good or great, I think Sergei would approve!

Posted 2019-01-02

Listen to the piano

I’m often asked by piano parents for recommendations on buying a piano. It’s a loaded question. I often have to ask several follow-up questions before giving an answer that will satisfy what they are really asking. In ideal terms, I’m thinking about the instrument that would best serve the student now and several years into the future. In practical terms, the parent is often looking for a bargain and something that will work now. It’s sometimes even difficult to get a parent to consider an acoustic instrument, even when money isn’t the primary constraint. How can I possibly make more of a dent, to get someone to try to think differently? Listen to the piano.

Since I perform quite a bit, I play a variety of instruments. Most of them are acoustic instruments, but there are occasions when they are electronic. There are those grin and bear moments, like when I played for a birthday party earlier this year with a borrowed 61-key electronic keyboard, damper pedal not included. Not all electronic experiences are like that. I often get to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Although there are other companies that make legitimate keyboards, I really like this model just because I’m most familiar with it.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played a keyboard without feeling compromised. I’m not talking from a purist or snobbish viewpoint. Listen to the piano. How does it sound? To me, there’s only way to produce the sound that a piano should have, and that’s with a hammer hitting a string. Sound sampling has greatly improved during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. They just aren’t real!

I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through social media. She often posts students playing her old American-made grand piano that has a sound that could only come from that instrument. Between the moving parts of hammers and strings and the fixed ones like the iron and wood, each piano has a story to tell. Listen to the piano. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. All spinets have the compromise of a drop action, but they can still sing and inspire.

Listen to the piano. That’s how I’m going to start when next asked this question. Perhaps my advice will go unheeded. But maybe that will cause some piano parents to pause to listen. And who knows? That might make all the difference!

Update: My former Knabe spinet is now in the home of a new piano student, as a result of the purchase of a Yamaha U1 48-inch upright.

Updated 2019-06-24 | Originally Posted 2018-12-23

Festive 2018 Finale

Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the year-end recitals. Two made their recital debut; the other two are becoming old pros performing in public.

Since all of the parents have given me consent to post their children’s photos, I have included them in the photo carousel below. I’m really proud of them all, and am excited to hear how they grow over the coming semester.

All of my students have plenty of chances to perform publicly. In this past semester, we had a Halloween performance party and played for the residents at a local retirement community. For those participating in the Sonatina Festival, there was a warm-up recital in Springdale prior to the event itself.

My private students do miss out on the school recitals, but we often have in-home recitals instead. It’s a more intimate chance to perform for their family and friends.

Here’s to continued success in 2019!

Posted 2018-12-21

One Facebook Share

One Facebook share. Most of you have probably shared something on Facebook. Marketers encourage us to do this all the time since they understand the power of multiplication. I expect that maybe a dozen of my followers might see the photos I post of my students, typically from their performances at festivals or recitals. A few people may even like the photos. So what was different in this case? One Facebook share!

One of my piano parents, who apparently has a very large friends list, decided to share the post including her daughter. It blew up – in a good way. The stats are attached at the bottom. This post was seen by 418 times, and of those 25 liked it, and 6 commented on it. Just from one share!

I wrote a post this summer called Small Action Big Impact, of which this could be a part two! Though in that case, I was talking about a review on a Website, which was viewed by more people than I could have imagined. The principle is the same. So at this time of Thanksgiving, I’m reminded to make the effort to be ever thankful, whether that’s expressed in a smile, a kind word, or even a note of encouragement or thanks. It also makes me redouble my effort not to hurt anyone through an unkind word due my impatience or judgment. You never really know what impact either may have.

Posted 2018-11-26

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