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Ballet Pianist

Ballet pianist. Those are two words that I thought I would never say again! Between 1987 and 1994, I had two separate jobs as a ballet pianist. The first was at Rockland (NY) Community College during a gap year after my bachelor’s degree. Then, after I got my master’s degree from The Juilliard School, I worked for several years at the Connecticut Conservatory of Dance and Music in New Milford, Connecticut. This school anchored an old industrial building, built with solid brick that was perfectly re-purposed as a performing arts school and apartments.

I was living at home in Orange County, New York, at the time, and the daily drive was pretty long. I was taking classes at New Paltz College (SUNY) towards an elementary school teaching certificate, which I earned, but it didn’t end up generating a job when I needed one. For about a year, I took a pretty full load of classes in the morning, drove to the school in the afternoon, and then returned home fairly late at night. It was about three hours driving total. I really don’t know how I got my homework done, but somehow I made it work!

As for my skill at the craft as a ballet pianist, it wasn’t great. I was successful at figuring out, most of the time, what type of music was appropriate for a particular exercise. I was not a good improviser, and am not much better at that today. Unfortunately, that’s an important skill to have if you want to be highly successful in this work. I also lost some joy in playing the piano when I had to adapt pieces written by great composers into regular eight measure phrases played at an inflexible tempo. The tasteful flexibility of tempo might be the hallmark of a great musician, but it’s a disaster for dancers!

More than 20 years after I last played for a dance class, I saw a group email asking my local organization of piano teachers if anyone would be interested in playing occasionally for auditions and exams at the NWA Conservatory of Classical Ballet. It seemed promising since the pay was good, and the school is just over one mile from my house. Fast forward: I just completed my second year of playing at the school this past week, though these last two days I was battling a nasty fever. Playing for the exams has been a lot of fun and rewarding. The auditions are sometimes a little challenging, but the visiting teachers are always very nice.

The school itself is tucked away in a nondescript area on J Street in SE Bentonville. It is one of the few ballet schools in the U.S. that teaches the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) curriculum, which is widely known in English speaking countries outside of the U.S. It was founded by Margie Bordovsky and her daughter Mariah to continue the legacy of RAD teaching in Northwest Arkansas established by Peggy Wallis. They present performances throughout the year, but the highlight is The Nutcracker, presented annually at the Arends Arts Center.

ballet dancers
NWA Conservatory of Classical Ballet – used with permission
Posted 2018-03-19

Piano Teaching Resources

Summary

I often find piano teaching to be difficult. Each student comes to you as an individual learner, with different needs from the next child. What motivates one student doesn’t motivate the next. What’s hard for one kid is simple for the next, and vice versa. Fortunately, there is an amazing community of teachers who offer lots of piano teaching resources, much of it free.

I explore for inspiration on the Web in several different ways. Much of it comes through Webinars from the Music Teachers National Association, to which I belong. When I find a good site, I’ll click links that lead me to find other great sites. If I’m looking for something specific, I often find it just through a Google search.

Update

As part of a recent continuing education project, I have dived a lot deeper into three of the resources on my original list, and found a brand new one to share as well. These are grouped under Recently Helpful. The other resources under Also Worth a Look are carryovers from when I first published this post.

Recently Helpful

Piano Picnic

Ruth Power comes to piano from a different angle than most others in this list. She grew up loving to play piano by ear, figuring out songs she heard on the radio. This while taking traditional piano lessons and going on to a bachelor’s degree in music. I took her free course Ear Bootcamp, which was offered as a teaser to her more formal paid course Songs by Ear. She not only gave me a teacher discount but gave me permission to offer modules of the class to my students, sort of like a site license, at no extra cost. How cool is that?

Sara’s Music Studio

Sara interviewed Ruth Power just before her Ear Bootcamp began. I ended up adding a third project to my summer list as a result. My second summer project was taking a course Online Lesson Academy that Sara offers with her colleague Tracy through the Upbeat Piano Teachers. I wrote a separate blog post on that subject.

Tim Topham

Tim is an amazing source of inspiration who has a very extensive Website. I’ve hopped onto many free teaser resources he offers, including newsletters, Webinars, and downloads, while resisting frequent pitches to become a paid member of his Inner Circle. I’m sure the Inner Circle is great, but it’s really expensive and outside of my budget for continuing education right now

Inside Music Teaching

Philip Johnston is a blogger and publisher of two books that I have purchased as teacher resources. Check out the posts that rotate through the jumbotron on his home page. One of the books that many of my students know first-hand is the very expensive Scales Bootcamp. I use this in lessons for students learning the correct fingering on full octave scales once they’re ready to move past pentascales. Philip, if you ever read this, please lower the price on this book, as I would ask all of my students to buy it! I bet you would make up in spades on volume what you would lose in per-book profit!

Color In My Piano

Joy Morin talks about her studio, her influences, and inspiration for other teachers. Most recently, she released a really cute Post-It note project. The free download provides the basic Microsoft Word templates that allow you to affix notes to a page and type your own text. The upsell is to purchase some inspirational messages she designed by hand, then digitized, that can be printed on these notes. It’s really a clever idea, but I think I’ll stick to designing my own notes for now.

Also Worth A Look

Pianimation

Jennifer Fink inspired me to put together a version of her floor staff carpet, using cards that she developed to relate intervals to that staff. I created a separate portable felt board that I loan to parents to help young learners with the staff.

Piano4Life

Teacher Natallia created this Circle of Fifths Chart that I use with students. I use it to check off scales learned in major and minor.

Last Updated 2018-07-30 | Originally Posted 2018-03-12

Chicago Weekend Getaway in February 2018

Today’s blog post is something different, a travel report on a Chicago weekend getaway I took in February 2018. As an organist, my weekend trips often are from Thursday to Saturday, since I don’t get paid if I’m not on the organ bench on Sunday morning! The reason for scheduling the trip was due to an expiring free Hyatt night that I wanted to spend in a large city. Since Chicago turned out to be the best deal for my frequent flier miles, off I went!

I wanted to book the Hyatt Regency Chicago, in the heart of the Loop, but I had to settle for the Hyatt Regency at McCormick Place, several miles to the south. The room was spacious and had a nominal lakeside view, given that you had to look far over the smattering of buildings to the east to see Lake Michigan. The McCormick Place Convention Center, the large Marriott and Hyatt, and the Wintrust Arena give the area a very modern and safe feel, though the half-mile or so walk from the green and red CTA (“L”) stations at Cermak (22nd Street) is a bit dicey late at night. After one time of walking it, I waited for the bus the next time so as to leave nothing to chance.

For my last trip to McCormick Place, to retrieve my luggage to transfer to my new hotel, I took the Metra rail from Millenium Station on North Michigan Avenue. These trains can be a great alternative for many neighborhoods in the city as well as the main transit choice for the suburbs. Though the Metra trains are not covered by the CTA pass, I was just interested to see how this South Side train worked. I did get the unexpected experience of walking directly through a break in the annual convention being held by the Nation of Islam. Travel is made richer by experiences like these!

I had loose plans to do a lot of things, but I ended up just seeing a movie and visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art as my big events. I realize that I could have seen a movie anywhere, but it was up in Lincoln Park so I got to tick off another neighborhood visited. The museum was just a couple of blocks from The Tremont Hotel, where I stayed my second night, and it was an experience! It’s the first full-scale contemporary museum that I’ve ever visited. The entire concept of this type of museum is the opposite of a traditional or even modern museum. The permanent collection is tiny, and most of the square footage is set up to host temporary exhibits that rotate every few months. My favorite exhibit was a single room that juxtaposed Alexander Calder miniature mobiles with some smaller objects by Jeff Koons.

My best meal of the trip was a late breakfast at Yolk – one of several renowned breakfast/luncheonette spots in the Loop. Another must stop for me are original Chicago third-wave coffee shops. I made it to both Intelligentsia and Dollop. Can you believe that pour-over coffee at both chains is at least a dollar cheaper than the price at Onyx Coffee Lab in Northwest Arkansas?!

Have you visited Chicago recently? What was your trip like?

If you liked this post, please visit my Chicago travel guide.

Posted 2018-03-05

Artwork Gift

It’s not every day that you get an artwork gift from one of your piano students. I was really flattered when I received the drawing from a six-year-old piano student that I had the pleasure to teach for several weeks. She was part of a small group of students that I taught while the director of the Shepherd Music School was on medical leave.

Most rewards you get from teaching have to do with seeing your students progress. However, it’s nice to be thanked in such a personal way that only a young person can do. Perhaps that’s a good lesson to all of us, to remember our friends and colleagues. The smallest gestures are the easiest to make but are also the ones we easily forget.

Artwork Gift

Last Updated 2018-03-17 | Originally Posted 2018-02-28

Bitten by the Bach Bug

This winter, I have not suffered any type of cold or flu that is going around.

However, I have been bitten by another bug, that of the long-dead composer, J.S. Bach. How it started was rather random: I was reading an article on the NY Times Website about András Schiff, the Hungarian/British pianist whom I first saw perform at Tanglewood when I was a teenager. The article mentioned how Schiff had recently played the entire Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, a set of 24 preludes and fugues written in every major and minor key.

Typically, these types of performances are done in small spaces and often on period instruments, attended by a small cadre of dedicated fans of early music. This performance was opposite in almost every way: the performance was at the London Proms Festival, held in cavernous Royal Albert Hall, which has over 5200 seats. The piano was a modern Steinway Model D. More impressive, the performance of just under two hours was by memory and without intermission.

As a young piano student, I had to learn a few of these pieces to satisfy requirements for music school auditions, juries, and degree recitals. But they were never fun! The organ seems to be the perfect instrument for Bach, where the pedalboard can help out when there’s just too much to play in two hands. Comparing the organ, an already mature instrument, to the various keyboards of the time isn’t fair. However, after hearing Schiff play these pieces, I decided it was me who needed the second chance!

So, I decided to learn the entire volume of Book One as well, though in my own way, at my own speed. I will play the first four preludes and fugues as piano postludes at church during the month of February and add several more every few months until I finish sometime in 2019. At first, they won’t be memorized, and I’m not even committing to ever perform them as an entire set memorized. It’s about the journey, not the destination. So far, as I work through the fourth prelude and fugue in C# minor, a particularly difficult one, it’s going a lot better than it did 30 years ago!

Update: If you’d like to see how the project ended, read my Auf Wiedersehen Bach WTC Book One blog post.

Last Updated 2020-01-12 | Originally Posted 2018-02-02

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

Learning MailChimp

One of the many items on my social media list was to write a monthly newsletter and to organize it via MailChimp, a leader in email campaigns. Each task in its own way was daunting. However, by staying at it over a number of days, I got it done and learned a lot along the way. The good thing about doing most complex things is that it will be easier the next time. Or so one hopes!

That said, please check out my January 2018 newsletter via this link. I’ve found that some experience subscribing through MailChimp to be challenging, so please contact me if you’d like to be added manually.

Please let me know if this newsletter is helpful, or what I may change to make it more effective. Constructive criticism is welcomed!

Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2018-01-11

Learning YouTube

As a performing artist, it’s important for me to be able to share video recordings with others in an organized way. Sure, friends and family will appreciate it, but so will colleagues and anyone to whom I want to market my services. For me, this includes parents looking for piano teachers, people hiring for gigs, and potentially those hiring for bigger opportunities.

The only way you used to be able to access these recordings was via a Google search, or via a nested menu on my church’s Website. Currently, all of the recordings on my YouTube channel were made at church as part of some live event, whether it be a church service or a concert. Thanks to Troy Jorgensen and Alan Yount for recording and uploading these videos.

Though it took awhile to figure out how to do this, it’s possible to create a link to these recordings, and organize them in a way that makes it very user friendly. Currently, I have three listings (YouTube speak for categories) of accompanying: vocal solo, choral, bell choir; and two solo listings: piano and organ. In each of these, I decided to organize the recordings by the date descending, so that new recordings always appear at the top of a listing. It’s my intention that over time the older recordings should fall to the bottom and potentially be removed.

The only thing I wasn’t able to do is to get a nice URL since YouTube requires you to get some notoriety first, namely 100 subscribers. That might take awhile. Until then, I’m identified as UCVxDCUK8217ovuc3dSDOwNw – that’s at least three license plates long! The actual hyperlink is much longer, so I just made this link.

So, please check out my YouTube channel, subscribe to it, and tell me what you think! Would you consider putting together something like this for yourself?

Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2017-12-21

Sonatina Festival Success

Two of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the annual Sonatina Festival held at NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) on November 11, 2017. The group sponsoring this, the NW Arkansas Music Teachers Association, is a local affiliate of the Arkansas State and National Music Teachers Association.

Each of the students must perform a piece with Sonatina or Sonata in the title and must perform two contrasting movements by memory unless the piece is of significant complexity, in which case only one movement is required. Since this is essentially a public performance, with parents, teachers, and a judge in the audience, even the most confident kids will admit to being a little nervous at first. However, it helps that the end goal is not competition, but to play the best possible since everyone has the possibility to attain the highest ribbon and score.

Below are those students, playing a four-hand arrangement at a piano lesson, who earned the red ribbon (excellent) and the blue ribbon (superior).

Sonatina Festival participants

Please Note: A version of this article was first posted on the Shepherd Music School Website
Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2017-12-17

Beethoven Bagatelle Strikes Gold

As part of my job as a church organist, I occasionally program a series of piano pieces.  Frequently they will be a series of compositions by the same composer, such as the Impromptus of Schubert or Songs without Words by Mendelssohn.  For the month of November, I planned a number of unrelated pieces that I wanted to play.

Since I haven’t played a lot from memory recently, I went with the easiest from the set of pieces first, the Bagatelle “Für Elise” by Beethoven.  I expected that it would receive at best a few pat compliments since it is not a difficult piece for a professional musician.  My surprise was how much I connected with people by playing this.  My only reasoning is that it’s a piece many adults know first hand since it’s one of the first pieces played past the beginning level.

Still, in my mind, the compliments were outsized compared to other pieces where the difficulty was so much higher, yet didn’t connect in the same way to my listeners.  It even sparked the interest in an adult who came up to me afterward to say he was considering taking lessons again.

I’m sure there are many lessons to draw from this, but the most obvious one is not to be afraid of doing something simple or easy, as long as you do it well.  In retrospect, the reaction I received shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I had a similar reaction when I heard the piece on a CD played by Claudio Arrau, one of the great pianists of the 20th century.  It was the inspiration for me to re-learn this piece!

Last Updated 2018-01-15 | Originally Posted 2017-11-07