What Happened at Sonatina Celebration 2020

Introduction

This was my fourth year to participate in the NW Arkansas Music Teachers Association (NAMTA) Sonatina Celebration. My first year’s experience was tremendously positive, as I reported in this blog post. In its 25th anniversary year the festival was online, instead of in person at NWACC’s Bentonville main campus. I only had 5 participants, which is down from last year’s count of 7 students. One day before the registration deadline one of my students broke his arm, or it would have been 6! (He switched to doing right-handed repertoire in lessons for a month and did quite well at it!) Any music festival is usually an endorphin-pumping fabulous time for teacher, students, and families alike, except this year it wasn’t. What happened threw a pall on my studio’s entire experience of this year’s festival.

Before delving into any of that, I do want to say that there certainly were some highlights. The best prepared student earned a superior plus for a performance that had lots of polish. He wore the medal during his first lesson after getting it. It looked good on him. Three of my other students received superior ratings, as well as line item scores and commentary that were spot on to their performances. To be honest, one or two of these performances might have merited a red ribbon, but we got lucky!

As I Understand the Festival…

This festival has become beloved by the 15 or so teachers who participate each year, because it allows for a student to be tested against the piece she is playing. This is important, because there are other festivals that are competitions in disguise. In theory, it’s a safe space whether you are a young student playing an advanced piece, or an older student playing a beginner piece. Each student receives comments in the elements section, which looks at elements such as stage presence, musicality, accuracy, dynamics, and more for a total of 11 line items.

The student also receives a bit of commentary in the further observations section. This may expand upon one of the elements above, or mention something else that doesn’t quite fit in that section. At the very bottom, the student gets a summary score that translates into points and a ribbon color or medal. These points become important because they roll into a lifetime total that awards trophies as students accumulate points annually.

The Top Awards

There are three awards, since the lowest rating of Very Good for three points with a white ribbon is no longer given. The highest rating of Superior Plus for six points with a medal is reserved for the best performances. The second-highest rating of Superior for five points and a blue ribbon is the typical award. Although stats are not typically published after the festival, even though I feel they should be, for full transparency, this seems to be where about 50% to 60% of participants score.

The Red Ribbon

The lowest-given rating of Excellent for four points and a red ribbon is reserved for those performances where there are at least several markdowns in the elements. It could be for a student who plays sloppy and is just inadequately prepared. Or, it could be for a student on the bubble who might have squeaked out a superior on a good day, but this wasn’t one of them.

What Happened

There is typically the element of surprise, since you don’t know how your student will perform live. This year, though, everything was pre-recorded, so that’s not what happened. I personally recorded the student in question along with two other students. The remaining students recorded at their homes. The student in question received what I considered a very harsh excellent rating for what I thought was at least a superior performance. The line item detail and the commentary read very much like a superior performance. Ten elements received the highest rating, and only one markdown occurred in accuracy. The student made a recurring rhythmic error that resulted in that markdown. The commentary also added that her posture was slouched. It’s not something that directly affected her performance, but it was accurate and good feedback.

However, besides that one markdown and one comment, the playing was quite fine. Upon review by the program committee, this was confirmed. However, the rating was not overturned because all ratings are final. Even though this doesn’t make me feel good, I do understand their decision. So why was there such a huge discrepancy between the final rating and everything else on the form? Was it because she was an older student playing a late beginner piece? I hope that’s not the case, because we should encourage students of all ages to begin piano, whether that be at age 5, 10, 15, or even 75! Was it just a clerical error from a judge who was tired from grading too many other students? We’ll never know what happened in the judge’s mind.

The Future

After a week to mull this over, I realize I have only two real choices. Complain or act. How about a little of both?! I am going to seek to join the committee for next year’s festival. Plus, I would like to have an after-action review of this year’s festival as well, to see if there were other cases where the final rating did not seem to derive from the line items and the comments made on the rest of the form. That will be my main input to the judges for next year’s festival: There must be congruency between line items, comments, and final rating.

In Conclusion

I’ve had students get red ribbons before. In each case, it was earned in a way that I described above. What happened was not one of them. That said, I have to be thankful for the good that came out of this festival. Stephen Covey in his famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People preached that you can’t control outcomes. Once you go back inside your circle of control, you find tremendous freedom. Plus, in this case, you get a lot of great feedback. You’re free to remind me of this when I forget in the future!

Bad Grade Report Card. Courtesy Pixy.org
Posted 2020-11-22

Find the Best Christmas Sheet Music for You

This post has no affiliate links. In other words, I don’t get any compensation as a result of any purchases made using these links. I hope this list helps you to choose wisely among the vast amount of Christmas sheet music available.

Introduction

There is so much Christmas sheet music out there! How do you choose? In the fakebook I own, there are over 150 pieces, and there’s another fakebook that has almost double that! I used to skip teaching Christmas pieces, unless someone specifically asked. It was just another intrusion on the 30-minute lesson. I also didn’t know where to find exciting material correctly leveled for my beginners. Fortunately, there are lots of new books out there, particularly from Piano Pronto! There are even choices for new students, the ones who began taking lessons a few months ago, such as a Christmas book from Piano Safari.

Even kids who haven’t learned how to read a grand staff can read notes on a reduced staff, or learn primarily by rote. That’s where teacher inventiveness is especially important. Jingle Bells can be learned by pretty much anyone; you just have to find the right path! It’s not just beginners that benefit from an inventive approach. Rote playing and playing by ear is a legitimate skill that I also teach to older students. Who doesn’t want to be able to hear a tune, and replicate it on the piano?

Lead Sheets vs Arrangements

Also, I love teaching older students the skill of reading from a lead sheet. It’s where you get the melody, chord, and lyrics, and have to put the song together yourself. (Lead sheets are compiled together in collections called fake books or real books.) Crafting the left hand as simple or complex as you desire, and not have to struggle with an arranger’s idea of how to do is quite liberating. It allows the piece to be adaptable by a wide range of skill levels. A late beginner and an advanced student will look at the lead sheet and assemble very different sounding pieces!

However, not everyone is going to have the patience or inclination to learn via lead sheets. That’s why it’s important to choose a correctly leveled book, and not just whatever handed-down book is in the piano bench.

Leveled Repertoire

Leveled repertoire means what it implies – the pieces in a specific book are at a narrowly-defined level. These levels correspond to method books, and are often published as supplemental volumes by those same publishers. In my recommendations, I’m going to group books by larger segments. You’ll then want to go to that publisher’s Website to see examples of the actual pieces before purchasing. For my own students, I am glad to provide you the level that would work best for you, whether it’s stated as Late Beginner or Level 2B.

I have to give credit to my mentor, Nicola Cantan, who provided many of the beginner and intermediate choices you’ll see below. She recorded this YouTube video that takes you inside a number of those choices, and was very helpful to me.

Researching/Purchasing Sheet Music

Where links are provided, they are to the publisher’s sites. I recommend starting there since that’s going to be your best chance to look inside the book. Some publishers like Piano Safari and Piano Pronto only sell materials through their own sites. Other publishers, like Faber (Hal Leonard), as well as many of the advanced materials mentioned, can be bought through your favorite sheet music retailer.

If you choose to purchase these books through Amazon.com, make sure that the book “ships from” and is “sold by” Amazon.com. Otherwise, you may be buying from a 3rd party vendor whose price may be above the suggested retail price. This won’t happen with a music store, whether you buy through a brick-and-mortar shop like my favorite, Cliff Hill Music, or an online vendor like behemoth SheetMusicPlus.com.

Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
  • Solos for Christmas – Dan Coates – 50 Advanced Arrangements.
  • It’s Christmas – Dan Coates – Much thinner book than Solos for Christmas, but there are some better arrangements in this book than the other.
  • Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) – Franz Lizst – Liszt wrote these 12 pieces of late intermediate to advanced difficulty late in life. Some are dazzling, some are duds, and some are in between. Download for free from IMSLP.org or buy the urtext Editio Musica Budapest.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas: Artist Transcriptions for Piano – Vince Guaraldi – If you like the jazz stylings found in the Peanuts movies, and have the chops to play them, this is a must-buy! These classic jazz arrangements are superb.
Not Leveled
  • The Real Christmas Book: C Edition Includes Lyrics – Hal Leonard – Over 150 songs but they are in lead sheet format (melody, chords, lyrics). What’s important is that you know the skill for reading from lead sheets, which can be learned by a late beginner and beyond fairly easily.
  • Hymn Book – If you want to learn the sacred Christmas songs of your own faith tradition, there is no better way than your church’s hymn book! Although the level of pieces in the book are likely to span intermediate to advanced, you can play just the melody line, or the melody and bass line, instead of playing all four parts. You can often borrow a hymn book from your church, donate to your church to take one home, or order one through a music store.
  • In Conclusion

    My choices are presented in hopes that you enjoy as much Christmas music as you can, based on your interest and level. It was silly for me to see learning Christmas music as an intrusion. Done well, it’s a great celebration of why you decided to learn an instrument in the first place. However, there’s no need for a student to get so frustrated learning just one piece. The opposite isn’t good either, where a student loses interest because the arrangements are too easy. Since Christmas music is relatively inexpensive there’s no reason to struggle. You can just purchase something that fits you perfectly.

    Santa Claus at the Piano by Jo-B. Courtesy Pixabay.com
    Last Updated 2020-11-30 | Originally Posted 2020-11-21

    Lead Sheets in Action

    Introduction

    When I came back to piano teaching in earnest several years ago, I learned about the types of skills progressive teachers teach their students. One of them is lead sheets, sometimes called fake sheets. It’s certainly nothing that I studied with any teacher privately or in college. However, I did remember having to “fake” my way through playing from them as the unwilling jazz-band pianist.

    In July 2020, just last month, I became the pianist for my church’s praise band, which plays Christian Contemporary Music. All of the piano scores are lead sheets, not fully-composed music. The notation is pretty basic for the most part. But it does take practice and experience to become skilled at this type of playing. I’m decent but nothing spectacular at this point!

    Predecessor of the Lead Sheet

    Very simply, a lead sheet has a melody with chord symbols, instead of a fully-notated piece of music. This is quite a bizarre concept for many classically-trained pianists, since we’re used to playing from fully realized scores. However, lead sheets have some connection to the types of minimally composed music harpsichordists and organists faced mainly in the Baroque period, but appeared as late as Mozart operas. The harpsichord, along with a cello-like instrument called the viola de gamba, provided a bass line and harmonic support to a soloist. That soloist might be a singer or instrumentalist. The harpsichodist and gamba player would be what you’d call the back up band.

    Figured bass accompaniments from the Baroque aren’t exactly notated the same way as modern lead sheets. However, the concept is the same. For the composer, writing in this style was a time saver. However, the shorthand technique developed to provide the harpsichordist some freedom to arrange the accompaniment according to his own style and the needs of the soloist. Today, many of those parts are available fully written out, because many of us never learn those skills. I encountered them in a keyboard harmony class, which I didn’t appreciate at the time. It was a requirement for all pianists and organists at The Juilliard School.

    How A Lead Sheet Is Used

    There are really several basic components that can be expressed by a pianist in a praise band, depending upon the needs of the group. Our group currently has no percussion, so providing some type of driving rhythm can be helpful to the group. Although there is no printed bass line, providing an improvised bass line can also help if there is no base guitar playing to define that.

    Even though there is a melody printed, it’s more for the lead singer to sing and not for the pianist to play. If the lead singer needs some support with her vocal line, she may ask you to play it. That’s fine at rehearsal, but it’s not really great to be doubling the singer with a piano melody line. There’s much more chord playing and even improvising of some counter melodies with the right hand that can provide more variety to the music.

    Watch Me in Action!

    I’ll update this article with links to the songs that we play at tonight’s service. We’re adding a new Wednesday evening service, starting tonight, as an online event. We cannot do our in-person pre-Covid activities, so this provides a substitute. If you want to watch the service live, you can go to the First Methodist Facebook page just before 6:30 pm to snag the broadcast link.

    lead sheet example
    Several measures from lead sheet “Your Love Awakens Me”
    Posted 2020-08-19

    Music Reading Through Rote Teaching

    Introduction

    I was asked by Sarah Folkerts to write a long-form blog post, on the subject of Music Reading Through Rote Teaching. She works with Nicola Cantan on the Colourful Keys Website and the membership site Vibrant Music Teaching. It all started as a result of my trying to reconcile how something sounds with the musical notation. Perhaps that was bolstered by spending hours of listening to orchestras play and reading along with the score during my formative years. I chose the opening motive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example. This point was peripheral to the article I ended up writing. However, since it’s where the idea originated, I wanted to briefly explain it here.

    Although many conductors get the motive right, there are some conductors who more dramatically interpret the first three sixteenth notes on G as if they were a triple upbeat to the long E-flat. Wrong! There is no accent on that first note. You can see that I believe in faithfulness to the score. However, every note on the page first was heard in the ear of the composer, or sometimes improvised on the piano or other instrument. The notation was just a way to preserve it for posterity.

    Why Do We Torture Our Music Students?

    Why, then, do we fixate on putting the cart (the notation) before the horse (the music)? We can teach preschool kids to sing (or play) many short pieces by rote, so why do we torture our old ones with the notation before they are ready? Read my article to get some suggestions as to when it might be helpful to teach the music before the notation.

    Bossa Nova

    One related point I make to the idea of notation not being the place to start is in music that we fundamentally don’t understand. I first explored this in a blog post from 2018 called Where Music Notation Fails. In a case from last fall, I was helping a very skilled student in my studio audition for a jazz workshop. He had to learn music from different styles, but the bossa nova piece was just not clicking. I had played some music like this in my high school days, but even I wasn’t totally understanding the piece just from looking at the page. After we both listened to a recording of the piece, as well as to others from the genre, the notation clicked.


    Read my article on the Colourful Keys Website: Music Reading Through Rote Teaching


    In Summary

    Please let me know how you like the article in the comments below. I’ve already come up with an idea for a second article that I’d like to get published. Please let me know if there’s something else that you would like to see me write. My goal is to be helpful to my students and their parents.

    Illustration by Dawn Hudson. Courtesy PublicDomainPictures.net

    Posted 2020-08-16

    Piano Parents on the Fence

    Turnover Is Expected and Healthy

    Today begins a new program year for fall 2020 piano lessons. Every year there is some type of turnover. I expect that some families will move away; such is life in the Walmart vendor community of NW Arkansas. I also expect that some older students will want to narrow their focus to just one or two extra-curricular activities. That sometimes means piano is cut. Even really good players approaching the mid-teen years will quit simply because they get involved in academics, a sport, or even a part-time job. That’s okay, and I support a student who makes the tough decision to quit piano because that time has come. I also applaud families who purposely limit extra-curricular activities for their children to allow them to do one or two things really well. Dabblers are never great students!

    Sitting on the Fence Has Greatly Increased

    Occasionally students leave to study with other teachers closer to their home, or maybe to find a teacher who better fits their needs. No one likes to lose students for these reasons, but I cannot control traffic, nor can I be everyone’s best teacher. As you move through the recruitment process, some parents will typically not follow through. However, the magnitude is quite different this fall: Several piano parents who were valuable studio members have put piano on hold. Several other families who seemed very enthusiastic and close to committing have instead climbed onto the fence. Piano parents on the fence are not wanting to try either online or in-person lessons.


    tiny piano keyboard

    Playing piano is one of those pursuits that becomes infinitely more enjoyable as skill increases, unlocking more and more repertoire.


    Online Lessons

    In mid-March, when schools converted to virtual teaching virtually overnight, I did too! I don’t offer the fanciest online lessons; mine are one camera – the one on my iPad! I teach through FaceTime or Zoom. Some teachers use multiple cameras and explore all of the possibilities of screen sharing. Some even continue teaching buddy or group lessons through Zoom as if the students were in the studio. However, no matter how simple or fancy the technology, online lessons are fine for some, but not so great for others. Older students seem to do fine, but the youngest ones seem least able to focus over video. This is even the case when they have an extremely willing parent who in effect becomes my teaching paraprofessional.

    In-Person Lessons

    In June, I offered the possibility for in-person lessons, but all of my families stayed online. Two families transitioned back to in-person lessons in July, and more returned in August. There is an advantage to in-person lessons – seeing and hearing is more difficult even over the best Internet connection. The set up at Central Methodist, the home of Shepherd Music School, is all you could want. We have two grand pianos side by side, with enough space between to provide six feet of distance. We sanitize the keys between families. Require masks. Make temperature checks. Ask for sign-ins to detail everyone present, kids and adults alike. It’s not risk-free, and your comfort has to be there! However, of all the places I go in the public, it’s the one in which I feel the most safe.

    Plan C

    For families that don’t want to do either of those choices, I haven’t found an adequate option C. It’s truly lose-lose, because I lose income that I had planned to have, and the student loses motivation to practice without a weekly lesson as a checkpoint. If a family truly wanted to come back at a designated time, I would be willing to put some games and other fun activities that can promote learning for a reasonable rate. For older students, that might involve a theory or composition project. Or, it might include a different curriculum of age-appropriate independent learning materials.

    Loss of Learning Opportunity

    I’m very concerned about students who fit in that sweet spot of ages 8 to 12. These students are old enough to make great strides in music learning but have not yet become distracted teenagers. As a piano teacher, my goal is to provide a positive experience that in turn will help my students become lifetime musicians. A life of music enrichment, from listening and performing, is a very worthy goal. Playing hymns at church or Christmas Carols at home counts just as much as playing Chopin and Beethoven. Playing piano is one of those pursuits that becomes infinitely more enjoyable as skill increases, unlocking more and more repertoire.

    Feedback from Other Teachers

    I posted my concerns to one of my most trusted private teaching communities for two reasons. One, to see if what I was experiencing was just me, or common behavior. It was the latter! Also, I was looking for feedback on channeling my negative energy into positive action. I got some amazing feedback, which I’d love to share:

    • The 2020-21 season is going to look very different from 2019-20, regardless of what marketing efforts I make. Families are in a different place; why should I expect that my studio to be the same?
    • Even though my marketing efforts have yielded new students, I have to double-down on my efforts to face what every entrepreneur faces when trying to grow a business. Just do it!
    • Some families may eventually come back, some may not. Worrying about that now is an unpaid headache; this will solve itself eventually.

    Thoughts?

    What are your thoughts about fall 2020 piano lessons? Do you prefer in-person or online? What would you say to a family that decides to put lessons on hold in what is actually a very good environment for learning to play? From a personal standpoint, it’s my goal to stay in business as a teacher. I hope to be around to teach both the families who have remained in my studio as well as those piano parents on the fence when they are ready to jump off.

    Photo by Ady April. Courtesy Pexels.com
    Last Updated 2020-08-18 | Originally Posted 2020-08-10

    Sharpen Your Pencil

    Introduction

    When I was in public school, you learned quickly whether the teacher required a pen or pencil for class. Once you got past early elementary school, pretty much every class except for math required a pen. It’s always been a surprise to find that kids typically don’t bring anything to write with to lessons. In case your kids missed the onboarding notice, here’s the announcement once again: Sharpen your pencil!

    Fingering

    The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering. How can you possibly remember what we’ve discussed unless you write it in your score? Sometimes I’ll give two different fingerings to try, each with its advantages. A good fingering often simplifies the execution of a passage. Or, at the very least, it makes it possible to play a certain series of notes.

    Other Score Markings

    There are other things that you might want to write in your score. It might be the metronome marking of practice and goal tempos. It could be to circle a dynamic, or write a reminder on the page. Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme. However, this is much preferable to seeing a page with no markings, which to me means no extra effort.

    Sign of Respect

    I had a boss several jobs ago who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, I guess I just wasn’t thinking, and just plopped down in his guest chair empty handed. He asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for a social visit. He wanted something done, and I wasn’t prepared. Lesson learned. When I see a student with a pencil, I see a student who cares and is ready to learn. When I don’t, I often think back to that day in Fred’s office.

    Sharpen Your Pencil

    In choosing the wording of the title of this brief blog post, I was trying to be a bit clever. Bringing a pencil is one thing, but when you sharpen your pencil, that goes the extra mile. This points to other parts of preparedness, like being ready to play the scale that was assigned, knowing the pieces in your repertoire, and what our goals were from the last lesson. A sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it is a step in the right direction!

    music score with writing
    A student who took my “don’t stop” advice seriously.
    Posted 2020-07-25

    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

    Video Recording Guide

    This article is specifically intended to help piano parents in my studio to make online recordings for recitals and festivals. As so much of music-making has been in 2020, these events have been online-only since March. We might as well get used to doing it well!

    Introduction

    I dedicated my entire April 2020 Monthly Practice Corner article to cover technology for online lessons. The good news is that if you are correctly setting up your equipment for online lessons, you have mastered the important steps towards launching a video recording. Even if you have only done in-person lessons, you may have mastered many of these steps already. This guide is just to help those making their first recordings, since there are best practices to share. Once you do one, the next one will be so much easier!

    Video Hardware/Software

    Apple Devices (iOS)

    Since almost everyone in my studio has an iPhone or iPad, I’m going to start here. For recording, use whichever device has the larger storage to hold your files. That’s going to be much more important versus choosing which device has the newest camera hardware. Before I switched over to doing recordings on a laptop, I would have to erase about half of my iPad apps just to clear enough space to do several takes of short recital pieces. If you do have to delete apps, choose the largest ones that don’t purge old cached data unless you uninstall/reinstall. For me, this was Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Instagram. Even if you have to uninstall a program that is legitimately storing lots of data on your device, you will get it back as long as the main data store is in the cloud.

    Most people can use the built-in Camera app. I liked using iMovie, which is a free download from the App Store. It allows you to do simple editing, including trimming dead space at either end of a performance, or two put several recordings together. 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.

    Samsung, Google, Other Manufacturers (Android)

    I have no experience or guidance to give on recording on an Android phone or tablet. I’d be glad to add a link or to mention helpful hints, if anyone wants to share them. The result of any recording will yield an MP4 file, which works just fine for sharing.

    PC or Mac

    I use an open source program called OBS Studio for video recording on a PC laptop running Windows 10. There is an equivalent program called Ecamm Live on the Mac. Although my experience is only with OBS Studio, I understand that there’s a similar learning curve to learning Ecamm Live. Both are powerful software packages for their respective operating systems, and you shouldn’t try to learn them at the last minute before recording. Each program will export file types that I can use: MP4 from OBS, and MOV from Ecamm.

    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. This is super important, especially if you’re using a phone. Rotate it 90 degrees so that it is oriented wider versus taller!

    man playing piano in park
    Man playing piano in park. Courtesy Needpix.com

    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. It’s also instructive for the student. Your goal is to take just one or two takes, since subsequent takes will actually get worse as you get more picky about the output! Although playing for a camera is different than for a live audience, you may face some of the same performance anxiety. 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.

    I prefer if you can record all of your pieces together, in one file per student, in the order that we determined at your lesson. If you can’t join the files together, I’ll be glad to do it in my editing software.

    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

    Please make sure that you answer the SurveyMonkey request that grants me permission to post photos and videos of your child/children as specified. Most people give full access, but I want you to have a choice since your privacy is important to me.

    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 2020-11-20 | 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

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    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