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

Introduction

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

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

Video Software

iOS (Apple)

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

Windows PC

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

Device Placement

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

Record Early and Often

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

Grouping Your Recordings

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

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

Dropbox

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

Permission to Post

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

Stay Tuned for Updates

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

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

Technology for Online Lessons

Introduction

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

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

Bandwidth

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

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

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

Device

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


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

Device Stand and Holder

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

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

Software

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

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

Microphone

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

Feel That Beat

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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

Music as a Focusing Tool

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

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

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

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

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

Make Sight Reading a Priority

Introduction

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

Definition

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

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

How to Learn It

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

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

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

Benefits

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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