What A Lesson Looks Like

Introduction

Many prospective piano parents ask me how I teach. I prefer to answer with what a lesson looks like since that removes a lot of the variables that go into this very loaded question. Just to simplify this a bit, I’m going to describe here what a lesson looks like for a beginner. I teach intermediate and advanced students as well, but they tend to be much more customized since they involve older students.

Rote Playing

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention note reading first, since it is a fundamental skill since modern staff notation was invented 1000 years ago. While note reading is extremely important, more important is getting the child immersed in playing the piano. Many adults also enjoy rote playing, as an addition to their regular written pieces, because it gives them a break from studying the written page. In one 30-minute first lesson, I can teach 2 or 3 rote pieces that give the student the chance to immediately connect with the instrument.


What Is Rote Playing?

Simply put, it’s a way of learning that resembles how we typically experience many of our first experiences in life, like tying our shoes or riding a bike. Small patterns are introduced in a follow-the-leader style. Those patterns are put together to form a short piece. Each new piece will become more complex, by adding additional fingers or more complex rhythms. In short, it’s the quickest way to learn a simple piece when you haven’t spent many months learning the intricacies of note reading.


Is learning the piano always fun and easy? No and no! But there has to be some element of both of these in lessons and practice, or interest will wane quickly. Rote playing connects the ears, hands, and brain of the student in a way note reading doesn’t. Besides giving the student a quick way to build repertoire, it prepares her to deal with note reading challenges when they are presented.

Note Reading

Note reading is what would be considered a traditional approach, and it’s still an important part of lessons. I’m including all of the pieces learned as a result of learning this notation. For the typical beginner, much of the challenge in learning a new piece is deciphering the notation versus the difficulty in playing the piece. This can be seen in how readily they pick up rote playing, which subtracts the reading element.

In the piano method I typically use, Piano Safari, reading is approached carefully and methodically for younger students. For older students, grand staff reading occurs much more quickly. Younger students start with pre-notation reading on the black keys, then proceed to the white notes as they become more familiar with the note names. Once that’s comfortable, grand staff reading is presented.

Technique

Technique is important in playing, but the youngest student needs to have experience with playing with one or two fingers before getting all five fingers involved. Piano Safari presents an innovative set of simple skills called Animal Techniques. They comprise seven building blocks of piano technique, which we would learn otherwise haphazardly as a piece calls for them. By learning these techniques early, we can set a great foundation for playing that will help for a lifetime of piano playing.

I start my students on pentascales, also called 5-finger patterns, as soon as they are operating with all five fingers. Once pentascales are fluent, we go on to learning 2-octave scales. That’s about as far as we get at the beginner level. Learning technique is foundational for playing. By working consistently on it as a separate discipline, we encounter difficulties that will eventually appear in their pieces.

Improvisation

Improvisation is an activity that I’ve come to appreciate later in life. When I was a kid, I was never introduced to it. I never enjoyed composition, which is considered to be the written form of improvisation. The good news is that you can enjoy improv, and even become really good at it, without moving on to the composition stage.

Music improvisation simply means to doodle. It’s the musical equivalent of drawing on a napkin or scrap paper. That’s really different than composition, which is like getting out the oil pants and applying the brush to canvas. Improv for kids typically involves a set of rules or limitations intended to make the process less overwhelming. At first, it might involve just the notes that are under one hand, and playing just quarter notes. Later, we can extend the range of notes and rhythms, which can lead to short pieces.

Some kids really enjoy this and do it at home as part of their practice. Others try it but don’t really enjoy it. The important thing is that they get a chance to be the creator of their own works instead of just the interpreter of other people’s compositions.

Conclusion

I’ve introduced you to four activities that comprise a beginner’s lesson. We sometimes don’t get to do all of these activities every week. However, I try to rotate them in, so that each activity happens fairly regularly. Lessons are a wonderful chance to learn about and make a connection with music. I love exploring alongside each child to encourage and bring out their creativity in ways that often surprise them.

Last Updated 2021-10-09 | Originally Posted 2021-10-08

Going the Second Mile

Introduction

I remember seeing this expression on a motivational poster decades ago, where a runner is shown in full stride with no one else in sight. I get it, the others gave up before going the second mile. It’s an interesting expression in the figurative but not literal sense since real runners don’t tire easily. Most wouldn’t probably even bother to lace up for just one mile!

Origin of the Expression

However, it turns out that this expression isn’t about runners at all. Going the Second Mile has Roman and Biblical roots. As you may know, one of the feats of the Roman empire was to create an elaborate road network not previously seen in the ancient world. The expression “Many roads lead to Rome” comes from that. Any Roman soldier or citizen could ask anyone traveling along the road to help carry his/her load for exactly one mile. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus tells anyone who is so asked to go two miles. Of course, Jesus doesn’t say just go an extra 100 yards; he makes it clear we are to go far beyond what is expected!

Inspiration to Carry On

I think about this instruction when inspiration is lacking, and the urge to quit is swelling! Sometimes the burden seems too heavy, and just getting done sounds good. I won’t lie, I often feel that it’s hard to keep going and I just want to quit early. That’s true whether I’m trying to make my step count for the day, at the computer, or on the music bench. I try to keep thinking how good it will be to complete that second mile, and sometimes it works!

The Struggle of Piano Students

I’ve seen the same struggle at work in my piano students, particularly as they arrive into the early intermediate repertoire, where pieces double in length and become more complex between the hands. Some of them come to lessons with a first-mile attitude. You can see it when they come in saying they only practiced hands separately, or that they’ve only gotten a partial way through their piece. To be fair, there are some advanced pieces that require several weeks to get through. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about bringing a beginner mindset to intermediate pieces. They haven’t fully embraced arriving at the higher level.

However, some of my students don’t seem phased by longer and harder pieces. They try their best, and they sometimes surprise me at how far they’ve gotten or the achievement they’ve shown. They’ve learned the secret that a piece double the length isn’t necessarily double the work. Lots of those passages repeat. They are much better readers than they used to be and can cover more measures in a practice session than they used to be able to cover. They’re okay with certain passages being complex and don’t just stop and give up when they encounter a hard passage. They know I’m here to help them figure those out.

Thoughts?

What are your struggles in going the second mile? Where do you find it easy or difficult to go on?

Last Updated 2021-09-21 | Originally Posted 2021-09-19

Train Your Ears

Introduction

Ear training isn’t something that I do enough with my students. It’s really difficult trying to fit so much into a half-hour lesson, which is the length of time that most of my students choose. I use the phrase train your ears, because I’m going way beyond the discipline of listening for intervals. It also involves listening to styles of music. You need to use different types of articulation. Hearing with precision is an important part of playing with precision. Let’s get the dissonance out of the way first!

Dissonant Intervals

A dissonant interval is one that sounds wrong. Technically speaking, it’s either a 2nd, 7th, or a tritone, which itself has two different names! Each of the above intervals, when played in isolation, sounds like someone made a mistake. That’s frequently the case, since dissonant intervals aren’t a large part of beginner repertoire, except when a mistake is made. I try to use the mistake as a learning opportunity, so I say “Does that sound right?” Most of my students will instantly know that I only ask that question when it doesn’t sound right!

Sometimes, the student played the correct notes but is practicing at a slow tempo that exaggerates the dissonance. In other words, when sped up to a proper tempo, the dissonance will make more sense as a part of the longer phrase. In cases like that, I point out that such dissonances are ways of transitioning between consonant intervals on either side. Sometimes it takes a brief dissonance to travel between those two places.

I especially love discussing the tritone. It’s a series of three whole steps connected together, which make a sound that is very unstable, and typically resolves up to a 6th, or down to a 3rd. It’s a fun interval to discuss in lessons since for centuries it was considered the devil’s interval. It certainly has the sound of conjuring no good when heard in isolation. However, these two notes are sometimes just part of a larger dominant 7th or 9th chord, and the notes determining that are in the opposite hand.

Consonant Intervals

Technically speaking, the 3rd and 6th are the consonant intervals, while the 4th, 5th, and octave are perfect intervals. I will take students through the differences between these intervals when it’s the right time during theory discussions. However, for the purpose of this post, I’m mostly concerned about the differences between notes that sound right and those that don’t.

Listening for Inversions

Listening goes well beyond whether something sounds correct or not. It also concerns whether a chord or note is played in the correct disposition. I’m not talking about whether it’s sunny or cranky, but what note is at the bottom. In any chord, we can have the root at the bottom, called root position. Sometimes the third or fifth is at the bottom, which is called first or second inversion, respectively. This gets a bit complex, but essentially we need to listen to determine that the notated chord is what we played.

Listening for Style

Often it can be helpful listening to a recording, especially when the style of the piece is unfamiliar. Even in beginner pieces, there’s sometimes an indication that the eighth notes, which are written as though they are even, are to be played in a swing style. In that case, they sound like they belong to a triplet, where the first note is twice as long as the second.

Some styles of music are hard to pick up from the page. I’d include anything that isn’t standard to our ears. I worked with an early advanced student on a Bossa Nova piece that just didn’t click until he listened to a recording of the piece. The printed score is where we start, but it shouldn’t be where we end our work!

Listening for Articulation

Broadly brushed, there are three basic articulations, with increasing length, from staccato to detached to legato. These are details that aren’t emphasized in depth at the very beginning of musical study, but become more important as the student climbs through the beginner levels. A performer on a recording making these differences can often help the student understand how to produce them herself.

In Conclusion

This is just an example of the type of listening we do in lessons, in order to try to connect the notation on the page to the notes on the piano. Combining theory with listening can be an effective technique, even if I don’t point that out per se. Students who become good critical listeners to their own playing tend to be more successful pianists. For that reason alone, I try to let the student figure out the error, instead of taking the easier route of pointing out what went wrong.

Image by Asoy ID from Pixabay
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2021-09-18

Two Tough Conversations with Prospective Piano Parents

Introduction

As a piano teacher, I find myself doing lots of things besides teaching lessons. For instance, I’ve added sanitizing skills to my arsenal! That includes supplying hydrogen peroxide and clean clothes to make sure the piano keys stay Covid-free! One of the more normal side activities is to speak to parents about teaching their kids. This happens a lot at the beginning of each semester. Turnover is part of the business due to the number of families that move into and out of our area each year.

I spent quite a lot of time on the phone recently to two parents who inquired about lessons. The difficulty in both of these cases was that the children are studying with other teachers. That’s not a conversation I ever enjoy having, even though there’s the possibility I could get a new student. These were two tough conversations!

Don’t Poach

I have no problem teaching a transfer student after a piano parent decides to switch teachers. Yet, I approach that situation with some trepidation. I don’t want to find myself on the short end of the stick as the next disappointing teacher! But, in no case would I ever try to persuade someone to switch to me. This needs to be the parent’s decision. I don’t poach!

First Conversation

The first conversation was with the parent of a 6-year-old child. The parent asked me if lack of performance opportunities might be a negative for her child. I said no, given that at that age, motivation from the lesson itself should be enough. Lessons should be fun and inspiring, which encourages practice at home. That creates a positive feedback loop. Performing is a nice add on for a young child, but it’s not a major focus. That 30-second performance at the end of the semester might be fun, but not a major factor.

There was a separate vibe I was getting that the lessons themselves might be the issue. The parent needs to observe the dynamic between teacher and student and to understand the goals being set. As for why practice isn’t happening, that’s more complex! The lessons might be boring and uninspiring. Or, the lessons might be fine, but the child isn’t getting enough structure so that regular practice happens at home. The best I could offer, besides the advice that the parent become a more intentional observer, was an evaluation lesson to give better feedback.

Side Note – Structure Comes from the Parent

Regular practice at home for young children starts with the parent. There are some kids who are self motivated, but that’s more the exception than the rule. There are some kids who rebel. Why? Some kids might have too many activities, but other might want to play. Immediately rewarding activities like Legos, Beyblades, or gaming compete hard with piano practice. I can only provide the instruction, not the practice structure at home.

Second Conversation

The second conversation was with the parent of a 12-year-old, who was generally happy with her child’s lessons. She, too, mentioned lack of performances as a reason she might switch teachers. Not knowing the child, I had no idea whether that child even liked to perform. Regular performance becomes more important as students mature as musicians and as people. That’s still not a reason for me to persuade the break up of what sounds like a good teacher/student relationship. I encouraged the parent to stay with the current teacher for now.

In Conclusion

I do offer lots of performance opportunities for my students, at least in normal times. During the pandemic, we can’t have recitals in person, or visit a retirement home. Performance has gone online for now, and that has pluses and minuses. My two tough conversations didn’t yield new students, and that’s okay. Perhaps each of these students would be a good addition to my studio at some later date. However, that has to be the parent’s decision, without coercion. Plus, I don’t want to jeopardize my good standing in the local teaching community. Yes, I have a few slots still available, but the right students will find me soon enough!

Image by user1505195587. Courtesy Pixabay.com
Originally Posted 2021-01-29 | Last Updated 2020-01-29

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.

If Unsure, Go Simpler, Not More Difficult

Although I think it’s great whenever a student wants to try to learn a difficult piece, don’t make this the occasion to go for a touchdown when you just need a field goal. We typically don’t think about learning Christmas music until it’s almost too late. If you have just two or three weeks to learn a piece, try to learn one at your current level, or even one that is a level easier. That way, you can easily learn a piece to share with family and friends, and perhaps a couple more pieces.

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

All of the books here should only be attempted by those at the early intermediate level. If you are still a late beginner, or even on the beginner/intermediate bubble, heed my warning earlier in this post. I’d recommend one of the Faber 2A or 2B books listed above instead.

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 2020-12-27 | 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 that became 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. Unless you have one of those uncanny minds, 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 simplifies the passage by using sound fingering principles.

    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 marking or write a reminder on the page. (Slow down here!) Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme as you’ll see in the picture below. 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 named Fred who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, when I apparently wasn’t thinking, I just plopped down in his guest chair empty-handed. Fred asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for tea and scones (or coffee and donuts). He wanted something specific done, and I wasn’t prepared to take notes. 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 a good start. When you sharpen your pencil, you’ve gone 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 I expected you to cover during your practice since your last lesson. Sure, a sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it shows you are serious. And that has to count for something, right?

    music score with writing
    A student who took my “don’t stop” advice seriously.
    Last Updated 2021-09-12 | Originally Posted 2020-07-25