Music Reading Through Rote Teaching

Introduction

I was asked by Sarah Folkerts to write a long-form blog post, on the subject of Music Reading Through Rote Teaching. She works with Nicola Cantan on the Colourful Keys Website and the membership site Vibrant Music Teaching. It all started as a result of my trying to reconcile how something sounds with the musical notation. Perhaps that was bolstered by spending hours of listening to orchestras play and reading along with the score during my formative years. I chose the opening motive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example. This point was peripheral to the article I ended up writing. However, since it’s where the idea originated, I wanted to briefly explain it here.

Although many conductors get the motive right, there are some conductors who more dramatically interpret the first three sixteenth notes on G as if they were a triple upbeat to the long E-flat. Wrong! There is no accent on that first note. You can see that I believe in faithfulness to the score. However, every note on the page first was heard in the ear of the composer, or sometimes improvised on the piano or other instrument. The notation was just a way to preserve it for posterity.

Why Do We Torture Our Music Students?

Why, then, do we fixate on putting the cart (the notation) before the horse (the music)? We can teach preschool kids to sing (or play) many short pieces by rote, so why do we torture our old ones with the notation before they are ready? Read my article to get some suggestions as to when it might be helpful to teach the music before the notation.

Bossa Nova

One related point I make to the idea of notation not being the place to start is in music that we fundamentally don’t understand. I first explored this in a blog post from 2018 called Where Music Notation Fails. In a case from last fall, I was helping a very skilled student in my studio audition for a jazz workshop. He had to learn music from different styles, but the bossa nova piece was just not clicking. I had played some music like this in my high school days, but even I wasn’t totally understanding the piece just from looking at the page. After we both listened to a recording of the piece, as well as to others from the genre, the notation clicked.


Read my article on the Colourful Keys Website: Music Reading Through Rote Teaching


In Summary

Please let me know how you like the article in the comments below. I’ve already come up with an idea for a second article that I’d like to get published. Please let me know if there’s something else that you would like to see me write. My goal is to be helpful to my students and their parents.

Illustration by Dawn Hudson. Courtesy PublicDomainPictures.net

Posted 2020-08-16

Piano Parents on the Fence

Turnover Is Expected and Healthy

Today begins a new program year for fall 2020 piano lessons. Every year there is some type of turnover. I expect that some families will move away; such is life in the Walmart vendor community of NW Arkansas. I also expect that some older students will want to narrow their focus to just one or two extra-curricular activities. That sometimes means piano is cut. Even really good players approaching the mid-teen years will quit simply because they get involved in academics, a sport, or even a part-time job. That’s okay, and I support a student who makes the tough decision to quit piano because that time has come. I also applaud families who purposely limit extra-curricular activities for their children to allow them to do one or two things really well. Dabblers are never great students!

Sitting on the Fence Has Greatly Increased

Occasionally students leave to study with other teachers closer to their home, or maybe to find a teacher who better fits their needs. No one likes to lose students for these reasons, but I cannot control traffic, nor can I be everyone’s best teacher. As you move through the recruitment process, some parents will typically not follow through. However, the magnitude is quite different this fall: Several piano parents who were valuable studio members have put piano on hold. Several other families who seemed very enthusiastic and close to committing have instead climbed onto the fence. Piano parents on the fence are not wanting to try either online or in-person lessons.


tiny piano keyboard

Playing piano is one of those pursuits that becomes infinitely more enjoyable as skill increases, unlocking more and more repertoire.


Online Lessons

In mid-March, when schools converted to virtual teaching virtually overnight, I did too! I don’t offer the fanciest online lessons; mine are one camera – the one on my iPad! I teach through FaceTime or Zoom. Some teachers use multiple cameras and explore all of the possibilities of screen sharing. Some even continue teaching buddy or group lessons through Zoom as if the students were in the studio. However, no matter how simple or fancy the technology, online lessons are fine for some, but not so great for others. Older students seem to do fine, but the youngest ones seem least able to focus over video. This is even the case when they have an extremely willing parent who in effect becomes my teaching paraprofessional.

In-Person Lessons

In June, I offered the possibility for in-person lessons, but all of my families stayed online. Two families transitioned back to in-person lessons in July, and more returned in August. There is an advantage to in-person lessons – seeing and hearing is more difficult even over the best Internet connection. The set up at Central Methodist, the home of Shepherd Music School, is all you could want. We have two grand pianos side by side, with enough space between to provide six feet of distance. We sanitize the keys between families. Require masks. Make temperature checks. Ask for sign-ins to detail everyone present, kids and adults alike. It’s not risk-free, and your comfort has to be there! However, of all the places I go in the public, it’s the one in which I feel the most safe.

Plan C

For families that don’t want to do either of those choices, I haven’t found an adequate option C. It’s truly lose-lose, because I lose income that I had planned to have, and the student loses motivation to practice without a weekly lesson as a checkpoint. If a family truly wanted to come back at a designated time, I would be willing to put some games and other fun activities that can promote learning for a reasonable rate. For older students, that might involve a theory or composition project. Or, it might include a different curriculum of age-appropriate independent learning materials.

Loss of Learning Opportunity

I’m very concerned about students who fit in that sweet spot of ages 8 to 12. These students are old enough to make great strides in music learning but have not yet become distracted teenagers. As a piano teacher, my goal is to provide a positive experience that in turn will help my students become lifetime musicians. A life of music enrichment, from listening and performing, is a very worthy goal. Playing hymns at church or Christmas Carols at home counts just as much as playing Chopin and Beethoven. Playing piano is one of those pursuits that becomes infinitely more enjoyable as skill increases, unlocking more and more repertoire.

Feedback from Other Teachers

I posted my concerns to one of my most trusted private teaching communities for two reasons. One, to see if what I was experiencing was just me, or common behavior. It was the latter! Also, I was looking for feedback on channeling my negative energy into positive action. I got some amazing feedback, which I’d love to share:

  • The 2020-21 season is going to look very different from 2019-20, regardless of what marketing efforts I make. Families are in a different place; why should I expect that my studio to be the same?
  • Even though my marketing efforts have yielded new students, I have to double-down on my efforts to face what every entrepreneur faces when trying to grow a business. Just do it!
  • Some families may eventually come back, some may not. Worrying about that now is an unpaid headache; this will solve itself eventually.

Thoughts?

What are your thoughts about fall 2020 piano lessons? Do you prefer in-person or online? What would you say to a family that decides to put lessons on hold in what is actually a very good environment for learning to play? From a personal standpoint, it’s my goal to stay in business as a teacher. I hope to be around to teach both the families who have remained in my studio as well as those piano parents on the fence when they are ready to jump off.

Photo by Ady April. Courtesy Pexels.com
Last Updated 2020-08-18 | Originally Posted 2020-08-10

Adult Piano Lesson Experiment

Scenario

I’m sure that you’ve heard the classic cliché: The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results. How does this relate to adult piano lessons? I’ve come to the conclusion that most adults are not able to sustain a long-term commitment to the piano. There are some success stories, but in general, it ends sooner rather than later. All of a sudden it hit me – what if the problem is the interval? Enter the adult piano lesson experiment!

The reason for wanting to try something different is that I feel I connect well with adults. I’m willing to take the risk of making much less per student since I believe less frequent lessons will give that adult the opportunity to succeed. I’ve rarely found that adult students don’t have the talent (oh, that word!) to succeed. Adult students can sometimes cover material at several times the rate of a young child. It’s almost always a matter of practice time. Adult students often don’t protect their practice time. They ultimately succumb to the many by demands for their time. School-aged children don’t have this worry – their practice time is often protected by these same adults!

A Possible Solution

Monthly lessons! Let me explain. My experiment would begin with a 50-60 minute lesson. We would talk about goals and then make a plan to reach those goals. Although I will would want to include some traditional teaching – note reading and sight reading in each lesson – I would also like to cover chord progressions, playing from lead sheets, and even playing by ear. There would be follow-up 30-minute lessons each month for the next five months, and there would be an option to schedule additional lessons at the same rate as the other lessons in the package.

There will be a financial incentive to prepay for each six-month cycle, with the opportunity to cancel given a minimum of 30 days notice. Any remaining money paid-in would be refunded. A month-to-month option will also be offered at a significantly higher rate since there is a higher cancellation risk for me.

As a way to help bridge the gap between lessons, I will offer email support. I want to offer encouragement and answer questions. Getting off track for a week or two won’t sabotage the entire plan like it would in weekly lessons. I also plan to create a series of blog posts specifically targeted to my adult students as well. My ultimate goal would be to build a community of adult students that includes a twice-a-year adult piano party just for them.

What Do You Think?

Does this sound like an idea worth trying? I’m willing to give it a try, for six months to a year. I already have some adult students who might be interested to enroll. I expect there may be some bumps in the road, and the need to tweak the program. However, at some point, I have to see whether it’s a viable long-term option. I hope it provides an affordable, low-commitment chance to gain a new skill or reconnect with an old one. If it works, great! I would spread that idea to my fellow colleagues and their studios. If not, I want to say that I gave it my best shot!

Posted on 2019-07-26

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

Summer Project – Playing by Ear

This post, Summer Project – Playing by Ear, is the third in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I honestly had enough on my plate with my other two projects: researching iPad apps and learning how to offer online lessons. Obviously, I was wrong since I immediately attached to the charisma of Ruth Power when I saw her on a Webinar. As a result, I completed her free Ear Bootcamp and then enrolled in her formal course Songs by Ear.

Playing by ear is important for a musician, though it’s not a skill that many piano teachers, me included, find time to include in lessons. I find it a nice sideline to include when discussing harmony, which comes up both in the Arkansas state music curriculum and in method books. It’s nice to show how simple chord progressions such as I-IV-I-V-I serve not only as the basis for many childhood songs but also for popular music. Some of my piano students will see this in action sooner rather than later.

I’ll expand on this topic as my experience with learning how to teach playing by ear expands, but I just wanted to share some of what I’ve been up to in preparation for teaching this fall!

Posted on 2018-07-27

Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy

This post, Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy, is the second in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I invested in a reasonably priced online course given by the Upbeat Piano Teachers, a team of two – Sara Campbell and Tracy Selle. Sara was mentioned in a Webinar given by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). As a result, I listed her as a piano teaching resource in this post, which speaks about her own site and blog, Sara’s Music Studio.

So far, so good! All of the information was helpful and well put together. Now it’s time to do the homework assignments during the short window of time the course instructors are available to facilitate. There are two Q&A sessions, after which we are on our own.

What is the point? Technology has made online lessons possible. There are just several pieces of equipment needed to get started, including a laptop and a Webcam, or just a tablet with its built-in camera. Add high-speed Internet and you’re ready to go! It’s not much more complicated than that.

So why use it? The most obvious reason is to eliminate the need for makeup lessons when the problem is getting to the lesson. It could be inclement weather, a transportation issue, or even minor illness. Makeup lessons are the bane of music teachers everywhere, so why not try online lessons to teach during the allocated teaching time? There are some instructors who extend this technology to provide distance learning. This can occur if either the student or the teacher moves away, but both parties want to continue lessons. It also allows a teacher with special skills to teach outside of her geography.

One of the surprises of the seminar was the idea of video learning. This is offered where the student can’t show up for his lesson and isn’t available for an online lesson. The teacher can use the lesson time to create a customized video with specific instructions for the student. The student then has to watch the video within a short window and perform the assignments to be ready for the next lesson. It’s also possible to create a series of generic video lessons ahead of time to be offered to a student when it’s not possible to create a customized video.

That’s it so far! I’m excited to do all of this work, and then engage with parents and students to get started!

Posted on 2018-05-28