Time and Place

Introduction

Time and place have more to do with practice than any others. For some, they are tightly linked, but for others, they may not be. If you’ve been finding it difficult to get a practice routine established, or your old routine doesn’t work any longer, make this powerful combination your best friend.

Time

Exploring time on its own, as I did place, you need to find out when you have blocks of time that you could use for practice. Once you find out where your free time is, you need to decide what are the best blocks of time to schedule practice. If you have an acoustic piano, or you don’t want to use headphones with a digital one, you will likely have restrictions about practicing during sleeping hours. You also might find that your energy is not good at certain times of the day, and avoid those as well.

Once you find a good time for practice, you might just be disciplined enough to sit down to practice, or you might need a Motivation Ritual to get started. Depending on your practice goal, you might want to make it a time that’s repeatable each day, so that you have some likelihood of practicing at least several days per week. You could instead just choose whatever time you have available, and rely on the place to be the deciding factor.

Place

Some of you might be saying, but I have just one choice. My piano is where it is. If you have an acoustic piano, that may very well be the case. If you have a digital piano, however, relocating it might be much easier. Your piano should be somewhere that makes it conducive for practice. If it’s in a common area where there is high foot traffic, competition with TV or video games, or a host of other distractions, it might be time to move it.

If you can’t relocate your home instrument, do you have a secondary place where you can practice? I’m sort of lucky that I’m affiliated with several churches, so I have options for both piano and organ practice. However, even having an alternate location once or twice a week might be worth exploring. Or, maybe you can find an inexpensive used portable digital piano that you could put in a better location of your home or office. Yes, one of my students has considered the latter!

Time and Place

While I tried to purposely keep time and place separated, you’ll see that they interconnect quite a bit. If you’ve read anything that I’ve written about my practice, you will quickly understand that I am not a good model for your practice. I practice just two or three days per week and usually practice for a long period of time. That’s the exact opposite recommendation I give to most of my youngest students. However, my model might work for teens and adults who have lumpy schedules and need to fit practice around life.

My time and place are typically at my church job in Bella Vista, where I work three days a week. In particular, I find that Friday and Sunday to be my best options for practice, where I can spend at least an hour or two, sometimes more, on the piano or organ. That is at a peak energy time for me, and I have two beautiful pianos from which to choose.

I have a decent home instrument, a Yamaha U1 studio upright, but it’s not a grand piano. It’s not my preferred place to practice. Plus, when I’m at home it’s typically early in the day or late at night and so the time doesn’t work out. Another strike for place is that I find myself most reluctant to practice at home because I’m trying to conquer housework, cook and clean dishes, keep my plants alive, answer emails, and much more. Spontaneous practice, just for fun, is not happening in that environment.

In Conclusion

I hope I’ve encouraged you to think about time, place, and their interconnection. I first read about this in the context of a visual artist, who like me, finds that she does her best work when in a studio, not at home. I don’t remember her specifics, but they were similar to mine. The best space has few distractions, whether they be of the drudgery type, like dishes and laundry, or of the fun type, like a giant HDTV. If you have only one place to practice, you might have to tweak your practice time. Try a few different ones to find what works. Then make it stick!

Last Updated 2022-03-10 | Originally Posted 2022-03-10

Track Your Practice Time

Introduction

You’ve decided to learn piano, but do you have a practice goal? I talk about how to Set a Practice Goal in a separate blog post. Once you set a practice goal, it can be helpful to see if you’re meeting that goal. I can guarantee that you won’t be able to meet your goal without sufficient practice. I’ll start by showing you how I track my practice time.


More About Practice

While practice time is a key component, there’s more you can learn about practice. Visit my Teaching Posts page to see the articles I’ve written on this complex subject.


How I Track My Practice

I use the free version of an app called Toggl, which allows me to track both how much and what I’m practicing. I also have a notebook to write details about my practicing, but some days I do that better than others. I’m also posting a practice summary online to show that I have to practice, too!

I consider this a better way to document my practice than documenting it in 30-second clips as you’ll see from certain Instagrammers. I’ve been very consistent in posting so far, but I did only make it for the first 4.5 months of 2021, so we’ll see how long it lasts!

Why Tracking Practice Is Important For Me

My practice is going to look a lot different than yours because my goals are different. I have to prepare for weekly church services at First Methodist, so I schedule my practice for both piano and organ around the rehearsal and service time I spend in Bella Vista. I don’t practice every day. When I do practice, it’s often for 2 to 3 hours per session.

I have goals aside from what’s required to fill the prelude and postlude slots for each church service. I have specific projects to learn the music of a Black composer (H.T. Burleigh) and a female one (Amy Beach). Some pieces from any of those side projects may end up in a church service, but I can pretty much guarantee the book I bought to learn salsa from the classical pianist’s perspective will not. I want to become a more well-rounded musician, which I hope will also inform my teaching.

What Works For You?

If you just want to make sure you are putting in the effort, you may not need to track at all. You might just want to use a simple silent timer. You can set it to countdown – ding, you’re done. Or, if you like practicing, use a timer that allows you to accumulate time instead. Most digital ones do. You can also use a watch or clock if that’s not too old-school for you!

Even if you do decide to track, you might just do it for a week or two, just to see if your practice time equals the effort you think you’re making. You might be surprised that the reality doesn’t meet your expectation. I like Toggl, but your best choice might be a scrap of paper, a Post-It, or a little notebook. Find what works best for you.

In Conclusion

To track or not to track. That is the question. Yes, you should commit to practicing. How you decide to make sure you are putting forth the effort is up to you. Hopefully, these ideas have been helpful. Please let me know!

Last Updated 2022-03-08 | Originally Posted 2022-01-04

Good Enough

Introduction

“Never good enough” was the original title I proposed for this post. That along with “How to discourage and demoralize a piano student” as the short description. I hope it’s obvious I don’t endorse any of this “never good enough” stuff. However, I experienced it first hand during my first two years of piano study at music school. I noticed a lot of this, across many students and teachers, during the six years I spent earning my BFA and MM degrees.

I realize that I had a lot to learn and that constructive criticism is key to learning how to make a piece better. However, spending an inordinate amount of time on a piece and picking it to death is not the road to success.

Several Possibilities

When a piece isn’t getting better, it might come down to insufficient practice time. For a performance major in a degree program at a music conservatory, you’d hope that’s not the case. However, I find that often in school-aged children in my own private teaching. Sometimes a student gets to a particular point and doesn’t have the time or motivation to pick the piece apart further.

In many such cases, I’ll just suggest that the piece is put to the side for now. Typically, much work has been done, and the piece will be better approached with fresh eyes several months down the road. In the meantime, I might assign a similar piece by the same composer or era, since that can deepen understanding. Of course, there are times where we have to push to the finish. Then, I’ll try to help pick apart the most challenging spots to give the student that last push.

In some cases, I may have misjudged the difficulty. The student has really tried his best but just isn’t ready to make more progress. This sometimes happens with what I call stretch pieces, pieces that are intentionally assigned above the student’s current level. This can help the student to reach beyond her limitations, but it can also lead to a dead end. Even if the piece can’t be completed right now, it can always be reconsidered down the road.

Balancing the Load

Students tend to learn best when their repertoire is at a level that nudges them without overwhelming them. I often rely on graded repertoire books to help me do that. However, there are times when I want to push a student by intentionally assigning a level or two above where they are currently studying. I have tried this with transfer students if I suspect that they have not been challenged enough.

Part of balancing the load is to know when to assign pieces that are below the current level of study. I routinely suggest that approach at Christmas, where a student will want to learn several pieces in several weeks. There just isn’t enough time to learn at level, unless the student will be satisfied to learn one piece over several weeks. That’s a better fit for an advanced student who might be entering a competition or talent show and understands the benefit of working on a piece longer.

In Conclusion

It’s easy for a piano teacher to go into criticism mode and not see the bigger picture. There is an optimal path for each piece assigned to a student and it’s up to the teacher to sniff that out. Sometimes a piece is close to recital ready, and a student should be given another week to do better. Another student might be near his limits, and it’s time to call it. Good enough. Be honest and don’t sugarcoat, but also acknowledge the progress that has happened. Tomorrow is another chance to do better.

Last Updated 2021-11-22 | Originally Posted 2021-11-22

Halloween Piano Party 2021

Introduction

This past Saturday, October 23rd, we had our third annual Halloween Piano Party. The event made its debut in 2018 but skipped last year due to the pandemic. I decided to do things a little bit differently this year. Instead of doing one event for all, I set up four rolling start times each half-hour so that people wouldn’t have to stay for the entire event. It enabled folks to rotate people in and out of the room so that we had adequate social distance. We all wore masks (the Covid-19 type) except during photos and playing.

Every year is a bit different, but like other years, we had a lot of day-before cancellations. That can be frustrating, like when six students scheduled in the first time block imploded to just one. However, everything turned out okay. The 11 students and their families that showed up made the event a success. They seemed glad that they had attended, and I even got a couple of nice thank you emails following the event!

Seven contestants and one toothy pumpkin!

Perfection Wasn’t the Goal

Two of the students got to play their memorized pieces for the Sonata/Sonatina Celebration coming up in two weeks. Everyone else got a chance to play whatever they were working on or finished this fall. The goal wasn’t thoroughly-polished, recital-worthy performances. It was simply to remember what it is to play in public, or perhaps for the first time with a supportive audience. Having plenty of opportunities to perform is important, as I mentioned in this older blog post that I just revised.

Tara was the winner of the costume contest, judged by five piano teachers from Ireland, Canada, and the United States following the event.

Candy and Apples

I had some filler Halloween improvisation pieces ready to teach, but as it turned out they weren’t necessary. I have enough older students playing longer pieces that the time flew by! Everyone sanitized their hands after playing, then got a chance to pick up snacks and an apple from the Trick or Treat table.

Prior Year Halloween Piano Parties

Originally Posted 2021-10-29 | Last Updated 2021-10-29

Terrific Technique

Introduction

What is terrific technique? It’s an aspiration for any pianist at any level because it makes playing easier. What’s not easy is talking about it. I realized there must be a reason that I hadn’t covered this topic previously in my Practice Corner articles. Is it because technique is a given, and doesn’t merit discussion? Or is it just a harder topic to flesh out? I think it’s both!

Simply put, it’s the nuts and bolts of piano playing. But there’s a lot more. Theory. Injury prevention. The way to scale up to harder pieces. Let’s look at each of these a bit more.

Nuts and Bolts

Everything we study in technique is in preparation for playing repertoire. The seven animal techniques we study in Piano Safari are immediately followed by pieces that contain those elements. Five-finger patterns, diatonic and chromatic scales, and arpeggios show up regularly in piano literature. By learning these in advance, we can more easily tackle pieces that have these elements included.

Theory

Studying 5-finger patterns, scales, and arpeggios is a great introduction to music theory. We need to know what sharps and flats appear in each key and learn the triads (chords) that are commonly found in each of these keys. That leads to discussing simple chord progressions, and identifying these in the pieces we’re playing. This kind of theory work can also help in memorizing pieces. Often, just a basic awareness of chords can help in those transitions where different sections go in different harmonic directions.

Injury Prevention

When I Googled the topic of teaching technique, I was looking to make sure I didn’t miss anything obvious. Even though I’ve lectured on and written about the Arrau Technique, injury prevention wasn’t top of mind when I was determined to finally write this post. That sort of makes sense, because injury prevention often only comes to mind after the injury has occurred. People sometimes require carpal tunnel surgery. Other pianists go to study the Taubman technique post-injury. I was lucky to find a teacher and a way of playing that prevented those injuries in the first place.

Many pianists and teachers know how to play in a healthy way. One of the reasons that I wanted to learn more about Piano Safari is that the animal techniques are very sound and similar to how I was taught to play. I asked Julie Knerr where she developed these techniques, and she said that they came from a variety of leading pedagogues. That said, not every teacher is enlightened on how to play and teach healthy technique. Your body will typically give you plenty of warning if you’re on the wrong path.

Harder Pieces

Playing correctly and having good technique helps when it’s time to try pieces that are more difficult than what we’re comfortable playing. For the past many years, I wanted to learn the Goyescas of Granados, among other difficult pieces. Every time I approached the first piece, Los Requiebros, I only got as far as the third page. It’s just so hard. But, as I dug in a little more, I was able to work through that piece, and a couple of the others, even though only one of them is ready for prime time.

In Conclusion

Technique is one of the four pillars of my teaching, along with rote playing, improvisation, and note reading. Over time, as students pass from beginners to intermediate players, rote playing and improvisation fade to occasional treats. At that point, technique remains a part of lessons along with the study of repertoire. Acquiring terrific technique may not always be fun, but it is so worthwhile. Each higher level of playing opens a student up to a whole new set of composers and pieces to discover.

Last Updated 2021-10-25 | Originally Posted 2021-10-25

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. The others gave up before going the second mile. I’ve known both mid- to long-distance runners, and most of them wouldn’t bother to lace up just to do a mile. But what the expression originally refers to has nothing about recreational runnning.

Origin of the Expression

Going the Second Mile has Roman and Biblical roots. 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. Because Rome ruled much of the world, 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. Jesus could have said just go an extra 100 yards, but 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 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, finishing up work on the computer, or getting a piece in shape on the music bench. I try to keep thinking how good it will be to complete that second mile, and often 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 haven’t gotten far 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 2022-03-11 | 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