Different Kind of Feedback

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

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

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

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

Posted 2019-02-20

What is your goal?

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

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

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

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

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

Posted 2019-01-02

Listen to the piano

I’m often asked my advice about what piano someone should get. However, my advice is not often followed, since I’m providing an answer from a lifetime of musicianship and not one supporting a desire to save money or buy a so-called maintenance-free instrument. So how could I possibly make more of a dent, to get someone to try to think differently? Listen to the piano.

Since I perform quite a bit, I play a variety of instruments. Most of them are acoustic instruments, but there are occasions when they are not. I played for a birthday party earlier this year where I was provided with a very short 61-key electronic keyboard, without damper pedal. I’ve also had the chance to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Just for the record – for those of you who refuse to even consider an acoustic instrument – please consider this model. If taken care of, it will provide you many years of enjoyment, and have resale value if/when you no longer want it.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played any keyboard without thinking it’s a compromise. I’m not talking about this from a purist or snobbish viewpoint, though I certainly could do so. Listen to the piano. How does it sound? To me, there’s only way to produce the sound that a piano should have, and that’s with a hammer hitting a string. Yes, I get that sampling has improved greatly during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. But they just aren’t real!

Listen to the piano. I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through an interview on a subscription site to which I belong. She often posts students playing her old American-made grand piano that has a sound that could only come from that instrument. Between the moving parts of hammers and strings and the fixed ones like the iron and wood, each piano has a story to tell, if you just listen. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. There are compromises made when building such tiny pianos, but they can still sing and inspire.

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

Posted 2018-12-23

Festive 2018 Finale

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

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

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

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

Here’s to continued success in 2019!

Posted 2018-12-21

One Facebook Share

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

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

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

Posted 2018-11-26

Halloween Performance Party

We had a lot of fun at the Halloween Performance Party, but not all of it was scheduled. Samuel the Squirrel didn’t appear as he did during my recital at the church two weeks ago. This time, we couldn’t get into the building; the code for the keypad didn’t work. Luckily, the custodian saw me and let me in the building. One of my students came up to me to let me know that there was a stranger in our performance space. It turned out to be one of my students in disguise as Napoleon Dynamite!

Although it was disappointing that only 4 of 12 students showed up, which included some last-minute cancellations and no-shows, we had a good time anyway. The Sonatina Festival participants went first. This was the first time they were performing their newly memorized pieces in front of an audience. When it comes to performing from memory, I find that a couple of warm-ups really help to work out the nerves and the memory issues. It’s better to mess up in front of one’s fellow students before going into the formal warm-up where they will be grouped together with students of the other participating teachers.

After we finished the Sonatina Festival performances, it was time for anything but sonatinas! My adult student played a Christmas Carol and a repertoire piece, one of the festival participants played a Burgmüller study, and I played the Halloween-appropriate Funeral March for a Marionette by Gounod. This ended the playing portion of the party, though I had a lot of candy still left to give out. It was composer trivia time!

Each of the students gets a subscription to Piano Explorer magazine, which I think of as the piano version of the children’s magazine Highlights. Each month a composer is featured, with Schubert and Scarlatti being the most recent ones. There is even a quiz at the end of each issue, which is where I found many of the questions I asked. Turns out the kids hadn’t done their reading. Worse, according to one student, Schubert composed in New York City. At that point, the parents cashed in! They answered pretty much all of the questions, despite my giving some very generous clues. The kids were happy that there was enough candy left for them to take at the end. For me, it’s good to know that I have to do a better job of follow-up and to set the scene for what a composer’s life was like once-upon-a-time!

Here is a picture from the party, which I almost forgot to take since I was having too much fun. And, to be honest, I was still trying to figure out how Schubert made it to New York from Vienna!

Posted 2018-10-29

Guide Your Child to Independent Practice

Background

Let’s face it: Kids don’t always like doing assigned tasks, even if they are related to a (hopefully) fun activity, like the piano. Parents don’t always remember to check that their child is doing the work that is assigned. The result? Progress in lessons sometimes comes to a grinding halt. The good news is that a little bit of time spent checking assignments and practice, in the right way, can be extremely helpful!

In my experience, true independent practice does not emerge until the teenage years. When it comes earlier, it’s a real blessing, but it’s not typical! For a young student, check-ins should be regular. For pre-teens who have not yet reached independence, spot checks are good once in a while. You know best how your child functions, and how often you need to follow up. After all, you’re probably already harassing them to get their homework done for school, right?

What you can do

If you have a younger child, please consider helping to structure your child’s practice time. This can be as simple as setting a timer and letting your child know when to begin and to end. I suggest 20 or 30 minutes, which varies by age and level. Once this routine is established, see if your child can take it over himself, or whether he needs some help from time to time. Also, check in once in a while to see that time is spent on the entire assignment, which typically includes some aspect of technique (5-finger pattern or scale), activities, and learning pieces. If you don’t understand the assignment itself, ask your child to describe it to you.

Of the three parts of the assignment, activities are most often avoided. Activities comprise several activities: written theory, keyboard harmony, sight-reading, rhythmic drills, and ear training. Even as a graduate student at Juilliard, I was in the majority of pianists and organists who didn’t spend as much time on keyboard harmony as I should have. Our amazing instructor warned us that we would be sorry later on for not taking it more seriously, and he was right! For the most part, kids avoid doing this work because they don’t like it; I can relate to that. However, occasionally it’s because they don’t understand it. In that case, I am more than happy to help a child work through a new or confusing concept.

For your pre-teen, give her some independence in her practice sessions, to the extent that she has earned it. Check-ins can be different than those for younger children. It can be as simple as asking to hear a piece she is playing, or discussing what goes on in a lesson. Be sure to ask once in a while if she still finds the piano fun and meaningful.

What I can do

There’s a lot more I can do with pre-teens and teens once they’ve achieved some fluency on the piano. I make a special effort to check in often with pre-teens and teens about what they want to do, whether that’s incorporating playing by ear, playing from lead sheets, and to offer different styles of pieces in addition to their normal classical repertoire.

In Conclusion

I can only help my students progress to the extent that they put in the work at home. Raw talent only gets you so far, and every student faces roadblocks that only time and practice can break through. When the student, teacher, and parent are working together, great things happen! And, we have a lot of fun along the way.

Posted 2018-10-24

Practice Makes Better

I had just completed my first day of teaching in a new year at Shepherd Music School. It was a long day since I included some make-ups from the day before due to being sick. I shopped at the mall grocery store, where chicken is on special one day a week. Having put those in the car, I took a brief walk around the village of closed stores. Wow, it was great having the energy to do more than move from kitchen to couch to bed on repeat! Practice was far from my mind, or so I thought!

Unexpectedly, I ran into Dave and Buster’s, which is the new tenant in the old food court building. I’m always interested in investigating new businesses, no matter what they do. However, I will admit to especially liking those in which adults are encouraged to act like kids. I walked in, put $5 on a card, and had enough credits to casually play about 30 minutes worth of games. I even earned enough tickets to cash in for a ping-pong sized high-bounce ball.

There was a real mix of games, from those that were pure chance to ones where skill and experience are important. That’s especially important because just a little bit of an edge can mean scoring big versus earning just a couple of tickets. And that’s when it hit me. I was drawn almost exclusively to those games that required skill. After playing the basketball toss, Skee-Ball, and the piano game, I wanted to do it again and again. Yes, I wanted to practice, because practice makes better! Of course, getting really good at any of these games just unloads your wallet. At least you get to cash in your tickets for some merchandise that is almost exclusively branded with the Dave and Buster’s logo!

Practicing the piano follows the same logic. I want to practice my new repertoire to perform it to the best of my ability. Depending upon the difficulty, learning a new piece could take just a couple of hours in one sitting or dozens of hours over many days.

When I set minimum practice standards for my students, I think about what I go through now and then. I sometimes show students my books, filled with fingerings and practice markings. I don’t feel bad asking my youngest beginner to practice at least an hour a week, which could be just 20 minutes a day over three days. For an older beginner, I’ll ask that to be stepped up to 30 minutes a day. My best student, who is solidly intermediate, practices about 3 hours per week, typically 30 minutes per day over 6 days. It’s not a crazy or excessive amount, but it’s enough. Lessons are extremely productive: feedback is offered, practice solidifies the suggestions, and then we move on to new pieces fairly quickly.

Practice is where the real learning happens. Sure, I may be effective in giving guidance, suggestions, even a fingering that might work better. But it’s the student who determines what to do with all of that. I can’t take credit for what happens at home. I can just brag on my students who have done the work themselves, and be happy that I have had the chance to guide them along the way!

Posted 2018-08-16

Summer Lessons Experience

I just completed my first full year of teaching at Shepherd Music School. When I last taught in a similar setting, the school closed over the summer. Students could study privately as long as it wasn’t onsite. In that case, my summer students were a subset of the ones that I had from the school year, and tended to be the more serious ones. I wasn’t recruiting or adding any students. And, as expected, most of them came back to the school in the fall.

At Shepherd, we teach year round, adding students at any point, though we do tend to add most new students in August, January, and June, at the start of our fall, spring, and summer sessions, respectively. The summer session is really designed to be flexible. You can take just a couple of lessons, or you can take as many as you can fit in, which typically is eight.

There was one parent who was very clear about trying out the short summer session to see if her five-year-old was ready for lessons. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. But with others, the expectations were not set at the beginning: Students who I thought were starting a long journey were just like summer campers. This was not only a common theme at Shepherd, but something I read quite a bit about on piano teacher community Facebook pages.

I don’t have anything against a student studying just in the summer, per se. However, it’s one thing to teach a summer student who is at least a few years into their journey. You can work on some repertoire, and offer some artistic and technical suggestions along the way. It’s another thing to teach short-term a student who doesn’t read music, hasn’t learned how to keep a steady beat, doesn’t know how to hold their hands, nor play in a relaxed yet focused way.

Perhaps there is a way to offer a short curriculum that offers some type of closure, which I think could be helpful in two ways: 1) It provides the student a sense of accomplishment, and 2) It shows the parents clear progress in a brief amount of time, which may encourage further lessons.

This all sounds good, but the caution is that some serious shortcuts to the long-term learning process might have to occur. The biggest gating factor to a young learner playing recognizable pieces is her reading level. In order to learn these pieces, he might have to be taught by ear to guarantee a result. There’s nothing wrong with playing by ear as long as the parent understands that learning to read will take longer if it’s not made the top goal for the student.

So, my goal for next summer is offering more customized lessons, based upon stated up-front goals. I’m hoping that this not only adds a little music into the lives of my new students, but might convince the parents that this really should be a year-round activity, not just a summer camp experience.

Posted 2018-08-08

Looking Back at First Friday

My year-long project of preparing to host a booth at First Friday in Downtown Bentonville came to pass last night. It was geared to increase enrollment at Shepherd Music School, where I teach. I won’t lie, it was a tough process and I was near the breaking point a few times along the way. Our booth was very simple, yet coordinating all of the pieces and people consumed time and energy beyond any prediction.

This is actually the fourth time today I’ve written about the event today, including a post to the Shepherd Music School first, then to Facebook and Instagram, followed by an After-Action Review to the two parents and two instructors who supported me in this endeavor. I was ready to call it quits there, but decided I should put a tiny commemoration on my blog, too, for those who may read this later.

I’m glad to say I did this, and that I’m not sure how much better I could have done, given the circumstances. Whether this event was a success is really an open question. We didn’t get any enrollments for the school, but we talked to plenty of parents of young children who may think of us when it comes to taking lessons in the coming years. And I learned tons as well, including that you can really entertain young kids with inexpensive craft projects!

Posted 2018-08-04