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

Piano Teaching Philosophy

Introduction

From time to time, people ask about my piano teaching philosophy. As a response to this, I wrote the following thoughts months ago but never published them. However, there’s only so much you can learn from a conversation. When you’re near the end of your interview process, I strongly suggest that you schedule an evaluation lesson. Both teacher and student should be comfortable before beginning what could end up being years of learning together.

Piano Teaching Philosophy

I believe that art and music are important to the education and enrichment of the lives of children and adults alike.

Piano lessons are expensive, so they should be undertaken with a commitment to get the most out of them, for the time that they’re pursued.

Learning to play the piano should be fun, though it’s not always easy. Proper technique, good rhythm, and sight-reading are necessary through all stages of learning. Written music theory and ear training are also important to round out all of the concepts learned at the keyboard.

Each student has his/her own needs, and I accommodate those as part of the learning process. Some pursue piano for recreation, others are more serious and ready to score high at the upcoming festival. Stickers motivate some but not all. In other words, lesson plans are tailored to the student’s ability and goals.

The process is as important as the final result. Learning how to break down a new piece of music and put it back together, and then doing it all over again, is what inspires me. Humility comes from realizing that there never will be a perfect performance. There is always an opportunity to learn something new from a great composer!

Posted 2018-05-29

Give Yourself Permission To Suck

It’s said that perfectionists never get anything done. Despite that somewhat true saying, the expectation is often that we shoot for perfection. There are even expressions for those who don’t, like “close enough for government work or jazz.” Fortunately, there are enough folks who see that lie for what it is. As Sierra Teller Ornelas suggests in this article (h/t Kara Cutruzzula), give yourself permission to suck!

I remember trying this on for size as a freshman at New England Conservatory of Music. I took a class in violin, which was offered primarily as an introductory class for music education majors. For me, a performance major, it was just for fun. I learned first hand why it’s virtually impossible to learn violin, with any proficiency, as an adult: we know how bad we sound! Learning to draw the bow in a pleasing way takes months for everyone, whether child or adult. Fortunately, children don’t know (or care) how bad they sound, until they sound good. Henry, a double-bassist down the hall in my dorm, reminded me in case I wasn’t sure. He demanded that I go down to the basement practice cells because I was that bad!

That doesn’t mean we should purposely do badly. What it does mean is that you can’t possibly do something extremely well, without lots of experience doing it badly at first. As a professional musician, I know that my first performance of any new piece, despite thorough practice, will always be the worst performance. Hopefully, my worst performance will still be good enough to be perfectly acceptable, maybe even better! Ms. Ornelas explains this in her work as a television writer and producer:

You’re taught this insane work ethic, so if it’s not perfect, it’s garbage. And the way you actually create art is by making garbage first, and then getting better and better. And so giving yourself permission to suck is such a hard thing to do.

Legendary salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said basically the same thing decades ago: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly…until you can do it well.” And I’m sure plenty of sages have said similar things. As Ms. Ornelas said, “Make mistakes in front of as many people as you can.”

Posted on 2018-05-21

Want to Be Rich?

Do you really want to be rich? What does that even mean?

To the author of this New York Times article, Jessica Knoll, it’s clear we are talking dollars, not cents! (h/t Kara Cutruzzula) It’s not often that a writer has this much self-confidence, coming out swinging about money as though she were an investment banker on Wall Street!

Though I don’t measure my artistic success purely in terms of dollars, I do like that she explains how she wants to attain her goals through a multi-stream income. Instead of just getting paid for writing a book, she wants to make royalties from selling her book. Plus, she is pursuing getting that book optioned to a television or movie studio, and even to get paid again for adapting it to a screenplay.

Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights.

I’m very intrigued by this author and will study her career. Though the article is deadly serious, there are twinklings of humor to be found. I like where she pokes fun at a male author who errantly thought he sold in the most foreign territories as a first-time novelist.

What are your thoughts about measuring artistic success solely on capitalism?

Posted on 2018-05-15

One Thank-You Note

One thank-you note. What made it special? It was the only one!

I recently agreed to take on a block of accompanying for juries at the University of Arkansas. Fourteen to be exact. For each student, there were two half-hour rehearsals, plus playing for the jury itself, about 8 to 10 minutes long. The pay was decent, and really there was no need for a special thank you other than the check I will eventually receive. However, one student S took the time to handwrite the thank-you note below. The stationery on which it was written was accordion folded with each of the letters from the words “thank you” represented.

I wish I could say I practiced the art of saying thank you, whether in written or email form, as often as I should. Cheers to S! She has this part of life down pat!

thank you note
A Special Thank You Note

Posted 2018-05-12

How to Respond

Are you ever at a loss for how to respond to a situation that has happened in your life? One of the most influential books I read, while I was a twenty-something, was The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. It isn’t a career advice book per se, but it has wonderful insights into how to be the best you can be in your work and personal life.

From time to time, I think back to quotes from that book to help me in a particular situation. They tend not to be the actual Seven Habits, as wonderful as they are, but nuggets of wisdom that are sprinkled throughout. I sometimes share the advice, whether or not it was welcome! Years ago, when I received a lame excuse from one of my high school choral scholars at St. Tim’s Episcopal Church, I would say “use your resourcefulness and initiative (R & I).”

Although that’s my favorite quote, that’s not what I was looking for in this situation. I luckily found the exact quote I needed through a Google search: “When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other.” In this particular case, I was at the far end of the stick, on the receiving end of someone else’s decision. It helped me to realize that I was in control of my reaction and that I could choose my own response. It is liberating to know that you have that freedom.

If you have never read this book, or realize it’s time to re-read it, please do so. And use your R & I to get it for free:

  • It may be on your bookshelf already.
  • Borrow it from your public library.
  • Do you have Amazon Prime? You can borrow one Kindle book per month. That’s something I just discovered!
Posted 2018-04-16

Real Job

It was a typical Sunday morning for me. At around 7:45 a.m., I rushed out of the choir room, having concluded playing for a short choral warm up. Before I got a chance to go into the sanctuary, climb the stairs to the chancel, and approach the organ bench, where I would put on my organ shoes, choir robe, and organize my music, I got stopped in the hallway. It started innocently enough. A person with whom I’ve chatted on occasion jokingly said, “you showed up today.” I playfully retorted, “well I don’t get paid if I don’t show up.” I thought that was it, but then she continued by saying, “I’m sure you have a real job.” Ouch!

Those were the words – a real job. Not: “a day job.” Not: “you must do something else during the week.” Not: “I’m sure we don’t pay you enough that this is the only thing you do.” All of these would have been totally innocuous and I wouldn’t have questioned it further.

So what does that mean? A real job? When I was thinking about careers as a teenager, I didn’t envision what exactly I would do with music, despite getting my first paying church job as a 15-year-old at a country Methodist church, and picking up another one when I was 17 at the Reformed church down the street. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these two churches would eventually merge, and I was in on ground zero of it all!

While I was in music school, I was solely focused on piano. Sure, I got asked to substitute for a church service here or there, or play for a wedding or a memorial service. However, it wasn’t until a Baroque trumpeter, then just a fellow student at Purchase College, wisely said the following: “I predict that you will make more money on the organ than you will ever make playing the piano.” Though that wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to hear, I had a sense he might be right.

I luckily found a really accomplished organist, whose main job was theory professor, who offered to give me lessons for free. Though I had previously known how to turn on the blower and operate the drawknobs or stop tabs on a console, I wasn’t an organist. I played at the organ! While many pianists compete to find pianos on which to practice at music school, I had the pick of several amazing pipe organs in the music building and across the street in the performing arts center. I could practice just by arranging to get a key or making a phone call.

Perhaps you have never seen an organ console. Below is the one I play each week. As a bonus, I took a picture of the organ itself, which correctly termed, is the thing that makes the noise, versus the console, which just instructs the organ what noises to make. While this console is pretty basic compared to many more elaborate ones, there are relatively few people who know how to play one, including most pianists who are either too cool or scared (or both) to do so. While I’d admit that my dashboard is nowhere near as complicated as on larger instruments, it is still somewhat intimidating. Does this help to qualify playing the organ as a real job?

Although there is no minimum degree organists must have, you will find that many accomplished ones have a Master of Music (M.M.) degree like I do. Others typically have a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree, though there are some overachievers, like the music director at First UMC of Bella Vista, Larry Zehring, who has a Ph.D. in Music. That’s a fairly rare degree among musicians, since most who call themselves doctor earn the less academically rigorous and more performance-based Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) degree. I wonder how many people realize that church musicians are typically just as educated as clergy, who to be ordained have to obtain the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, in addition to jumping through a set of hoops decided by denomination. Is that enough education to qualify one for a real job?

To be fair, there are very few people who work just one job in music, including those fortunate enough to land full-time church work or a college professorship, both of which typically come with full benefits. My job is just a part-time one, roughly 12-15 hours per week, without any of those benefits, and unfortunately without a cost of living increase in the past six years. Many churches are struggling, including the one where I work. I get that in some ways I’m lucky to still be paid to be there. However, while I’m at church, either on the organ bench practicing or playing for a service, or on the piano bench playing for the choir or preparing one of my Piano Postludes, I never think about whether what I’m doing is real or not.

It was close to noon on that same Sunday morning in which I spent a lot of time reflecting on what this person said. I was playing the final hymn of the late service, and it happened to be the tune AURELIA, composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley. You probably know it by the words The Church is One Foundation. Samuel Sebastian Wesley is one of my favorite 19th-century choral composers. He descended from a line of composers, including his father Samuel, coined the English Mozart, and his grandfather, the hymn writer Charles, who is the brother to the founder of Methodism, John. I found comfort in being a part of this history in my playing, even if I was the only one who sensed the significance. That was real to me!

I’m currently a fellow in a program called Artist INC, being held at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. This is the second year that the program has been offered locally, after being founded a number of years ago in Kansas City, and running in quite a few cities scattered throughout the middle of the country. After just two sessions, with six left to go, I’ve already heard many other artists speak of their struggles. There are all kinds of struggles, but a quite common theme is lack of respect of our chosen profession.

Although the majority of participants in the program are visual artists, we all struggle to make a living through our work, and to convey to those around us that what we do is a real job. But this is no pity party. We come to learn. We need to become better engaged within our artistic circles. That can sometimes be more difficult than addressing our patrons, clients, and fans. A central focus is to look inward, to take some of the same skills we’ve used at becoming disciplined in our art and becoming disciplined in other aspects of our career.

Perhaps Sunday morning’s comment came at the right time. If nothing else, I have a great story to share with my fellows at our next session!

organ console
Organ Console at First UMC of Bella Vista

organ
Organ at First UMC of Bella Vista

Posted 2018-04-10

Energy Giving or Energy Draining?

I read this really inspiring advice from a Kara Cutruzzula, a blogger and freelance writer who publishes a simple thought each day via her newsletter. I’ve subscribed for a couple of weeks so far, and so far I’m really impressed. Kara addresses life as either energy giving or energy draining, though she uses a different word for draining!

Before you do anything today, ask yourself:

Is this about to be an energy-giving activity or an energy-sucking activity?

Applies to everything!

Pay attention to what—and who—is sucking the life out of you, and suddenly you’ll have so much more to give.

I thought about this in terms of my own life, and it really gave me a new perspective. One of my worst energy drains is found in open loops. When last checked, I had 104 items that were due today listed in my to do app. Many of these are either “waiting on someone else” to get back to me, or are those tiny errands that need to get done, but aren’t of utmost important. Somehow, grocery shopping gets done, but sending damaged items back to Amazon doesn’t!

I’d have to say that “waiting on someone else” is most frustrating, because it’s not always clear how or if I can close these loops. These can be things like:

  • Trying to convert a prospective piano student into an actual one. Lots of flakiness happens between the moment that you make an appointment to meet, either for an interview or first lesson, and the actual date/time it’s supposed to occur.
  • An idea that you’re gung-ho to try but you haven’t gotten a firm commitment from the decision maker required to make it happen.
  • Getting paid promptly for a gig or service that I’ve performed. It doesn’t seem to matter the amount or even how well I performed the task.

There are pretty much just three things to do: 1) follow up, 2) wait, or 3) drop it. I don’t have any great answers here, except that I have found that following up on a pre-set timetable seems to work best. There’s no need to worry during “wait” if I know that the next follow up will happen next week or next month. I’ve found that dropping things is healthy, since nothing in life is truly final, except life itself!

What are your energy giving and energy draining activities? How do you cope?

Posted 2018-04-02

Same As Last Week

Every teacher has written “same as last week” in a student’s assignment book many times. It happens when your student hasn’t practiced a bit – or very little.

You give the lesson, and maybe you touch on some different topics that you didn’t get to last week – like technique, scales, or theory. But when it comes to writing in her assignment book, you cross out the old date, write in the current date, and write same as last week. But what happens when you find yourself doing this a second or third time? How do you help the student get unstuck?

Here’s the letdown – I don’t have the perfect answer. I think one of the answers has to be to get the parents involved. It’s important to let them know that progress has stopped since they are funding the lessons. There is some risk in this approach, in perhaps losing a student sooner rather than later. However, this approach keeps my reputation intact.

I think another answer is to dig deeper to uncover the issue. In my experience, it rarely is pure laziness. It might be the repertoire, and that can be remedied by assigning a piece of a different musical style. I was about to quit piano lessons when I was about 13, though I had progressed quite far and had even played for church services and weddings. A book of highlights from The Sound of Music kept me going.

For younger students with difficulties learning how to read music, I have a different approach that works. I take a short break from the method books and design some activities using colored pencils.

Sadly, the main reason a kid gets stuck is that she is overbooked. She really wants to do better, but just doesn’t have enough time left over from school and all of her other activities to practice. Sometimes this leads to her quitting the piano altogether, but more typically it just results in a long plateau that has to be suffered by both student and teacher until a spark happens, practice picks back up, and growth resumes.

What have I missed? What are some other approaches to getting unstuck? What is your experience with this issue, whether in music, school, or even life?

Last Updated 2018-11-28 | Originally Posted 2018-01-15