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

Long Road to Chopin Scherzi

It began as a teenager…

The four Chopin Scherzi have always had a special place in my heart. I was looking for a flashy piece to play for a local scholarship competition when I was a senior in high school. My teacher Susan Starr suggested that I learn the first scherzo, though it would be a tough go to learn in just three weeks, with at most two lessons beforehand. It was tough to learn, and I didn’t learn it well enough to place in the competition. I did end up playing for one of the winners, though, as a collaborative pianist!

As a 17-year-old, I was very impressionable. I got to know many of the pianists who were on the scene, since I went to several solo piano recitals and concerto appearances at Carnegie Hall during my senior year, often on school nights! Although I never heard Ivo Pogorelich play live, I do remember listening to his recording of the Chopin Scherzi on my Sony Walkman as I waited in the infamous Port Authority Bus Terminal to get home. Someday maybe I’d play all of those pieces as well! Back then, he dressed like a rock star and had hair that matched.

Virtuosity needed but don’t forget the musicianship…

Although a large hand is helpful, what makes Chopin difficult is the frequent stretches between the fingers, and the weird passage work that isn’t made easier by simply knowing your scales and arpeggios fluently. Of course, having good technique, including scales and arpeggios makes playing Chopin possible. However, you also have to learn his unique, frequently-occurring virtuosic passages as well. Despite all of that, the music needs to keep shining through despite all the difficulty.

Learning and relearning is hard work…

While I was at Purchase College, I added the third scherzo to my repertoire, and at some point, I also added third ballade, maybe during my gap year between Purchase and Juilliard? However, I guess I lost the urge to complete the set with the missing two scherzi. That came later, a lot late, as in last year! It wasn’t until last 2019 that I relearned the first and third scherzi and learned the second and fourth for the first time. The performances were far from stellar, and my playing of the fourth was pretty awful in spots!


Chopin’s Four Scherzi
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An arrival point…

This year, I finally feel like these pieces are starting to sound decent. They’re not yet memorized, which will be the next step since turning the pages during passage work detracts from the performance. There are also still some rough patches, which only can get worked out by repeated playing in practice and for some “tune-up” recital audiences. Even famous recitalists play for friendly audiences with a hushed invite list and zero publicity. It’s the type of thing you need to do to make sure you are giving the professional venue your very best playing.

Success depends on your metric…

It’s easy to get depressed by listening to pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, or even newcomer Kate Liu, because my playing is not anywhere near theirs. However, it’s back to a level in some ways similar, and in some ways even better than when I was in music school. That’s quite difficult to do when your life doesn’t revolve around performing. So many people leave music altogether after graduating with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. If they stay in music, they often don’t have the time or energy to practice after spending their days in administration or teaching lessons.

Enjoy…

Please enjoy this project for what it is! And just in case if you’re curious, I looked up Ivo Pogorelich. He sort of disappeared from the concert stage for a long time, and his recent recordings have gotten mediocre reviews. Age has also not been kind. With a bald head and an aged face, he looks more like an Eastern European hit man on an episode of a TV crime drama than a former rock-star pianist! I have the memories from that old cassette tape, but it’s anyone’s guess where it actually is. Besides, I’m too old to remember that!


Chopin’s Four Scherzi
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score of Chopin Scherzo No. 4
Near the end of the Chopin Scherzo No. 4
Last Updated 2020-09-04 | Originally Posted 2020-09-04

Law of the Farm

Introduction

Sometimes it pays to relate the complex world that we create for ourselves to simple principles. Stephen Covey did this when he discussed the Law of the Farm in his manual on life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Learning a piece of music is not much different than planting a tomato. You have to be attentive from the beginning to the end of the process. I’m sure you’ve seen the difference between a tomato that is scrawny and one that is a spectacular celebration.

Sure, there are always external factors in farming, but that takes away from looking at the farmer’s role. There are some farmers who are more successful than others because they do everything in their power to produce the best result. The same is true about the factors that go into producing the best musical results!

Time And Attention Are Important

I try to have the conversation early on with my students and their parents about a good amount of practice per day. I talk about it in my post Guide Your Child to Independent Practice. While that article discusses guidelines towards practice time, it doesn’t discuss the limitations to practice. Some children might be able to focus for 10 minutes, whereas some might be able to focus for up to an hour. Focus might be easier on some days than others, or at certain times during the day. Lack of focus isn’t the only limitation to practice.

Distraction can be an enemy as well. It can be from a device like a cell phone, where you end up being your worst enemy. The distraction can also look more old-fashioned, as an adult student recently related to me. He sits down for his 30-minute practice session, but he’s frequently interrupted. It might be a work call, followed by his child who approaches with a homework problem that needs to be addressed. For him, waiting for that perfect block of time never comes along. Sometimes, it’s better just to start, then find your way back to the bench.

Frequency Is Also An Important Factor

Regular practice is the key to most students achieving the best results. However, that isn’t possible for some older students or adults whose free time is lumpy. They might participate in sports, which tend to have complicated schedules. They may have family obligations as well. The good news is these folks tend to have the gift of longer focus. They might be able to find those two or three days where they have longer blocks of free time, and they are able to take advantage of them. I often encourage my pre-teen and teen students to transition to a more realistic schedule of practice based on their particular schedule.

Advanced Preparation

If there is anything relatable to the Law of the Farm it’s allowing plenty of time for recital or festival preparation. I make sure my students have plenty of time to learn a piece for a festival or recital, and I do the same for my own performing. If I have a recital coming up in a month or two, I try to get a jump on my practicing, because I cannot afford to get behind. However, I know that there will be weeks that certain things take precedence over my practice, and the same thing happens to my students. The good thing about advanced preparation is that you can deal with practice obstacles early enough to get back on track.

Sometimes, even advanced preparation doesn’t make the difference. It could be a timing issue, where a student gets involved with another school activity that parallels the critical practice phase. That commitment becomes consuming, with little time left over to practice. Sometimes a student just gets into a practicing funk, where finding joy on the piano becomes more important than the original goal. Although life is full of second chances, sometimes it’s clear that time wins and it’s better just to drop an unrealistic goal. The good news is that the next opportunity is likely to be just several months away.

Enjoy The Gift Of Time

You’ve probably heard many successful people say that their best ideas came to them away from their actual work, which for us would be on the bench. They might have had a discovery in the shower, while driving, or in the middle of their walk. The same is true with us. Our practice doesn’t end when we get off the bench. Our brains process all kinds of things even when we’re not intentionally focusing on them, but time is the key here. If you practice at the last minute, you don’t allow time to be your ally. I don’t want to come to a musical discovery about a piece two days after an important performance.

I Come Up Short, Too!

A couple of years ago, I performed a piece on the organ where I played the notes correctly, but I didn’t understand the musical style. It was an early Baroque piece by a composer whose music I hadn’t previously played. Since I was performing in a musical style rather foreign to me, I didn’t understand the larger form of the piece as well as I should have. There were lots of nuances that went unexpressed, trills that weren’t well-executed, and the registration was not varied enough. When I performed it the next time, the result was so much better.

There are also more times than I’d like to admit where I left the note learning to the last minute. The Law of the Farm applies to me too! Even if I was able to fool some or most of the people in the room, I disappointed myself. If you are your worst critic, you already know how that feels!

The kids that practiced hard did well, and those that didn’t, didn’t!
(Said during a break in the action on a long day of semester-ending juries)

Professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

In Conclusion

While I don’t recommend your wearing overhauls onto the concert stage, I would recommend paying attention to the Law of the Farm. There are no shortcuts to musical preparation. I have had my own farming successes and failures, and I’ve observed lots of good and bad farming practices through student performances. I’m talking about observation, not judgment. I may not know what limitations affected any particular performance, just like I might not know the heat or rainfall irregularity that impacted a growing season. I do know that all students, regardless of potential, can produce results that might even surprise them if honor the Law of the Farm.

Photo by Don Graham of Iowa corn fields. Courtesy Flickr.
Last Update 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2020-01-01

Keep Pushing Forward

One of the challenges of learning new music is that there are literally so many notes. When I look back on the four Chopin Scherzi that I learned anew (2) and relearned (2) this year, that’s 82 pages of printed music. When organizing, musicians usually think in measures. Even using measures, there are 967 measures in the 12-minute Fourth Scherzo. How do you tackle pieces that are so daunting in length? Keep pushing forward.

There are plenty of metaphors out there about facing Goliath, an 800-pound gorilla or a large elephant, but the concept is the same: Take small bites. I write in pencil a small date/time code to identify my latest stopping point. It’s something that I did years ago when reading books, mainly because I constantly lost bookmarks. My goal in each practice session is to move forward from that spot about 50 measures or so. Of course, I have to loop back to practice difficult spots earlier on, but I have to always keep pushing forward!

One thing that I’m careful to do on longer pieces is to front-load learning. Tackle the difficult parts first, then leave the easy stuff for the end. Even though each Chopin Scherzo has very different musical themes, the construction is remarkably similar. I start with the the measures from the beginning through to the beginning of the middle section. Then, I skip forward to the coda (at the end), which tends to have some new material that is typically indicated at a rapid tempo. Once done there, I make my way back through the recapitulation, which lay between the middle section and the coda. Then, after all that hard work, I get to learn the middle section, which is almost like the ice cream or cake at the end of the meal!

In addition, I’ve also sometimes used a practice notebook, much like the spiral notebook I ask my students to use for their lessons. Lately, however, I just make my practice notes in Trello. It’s really helpful to have some type of journal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s written or electronic, as long as its consistently used. The more music I have to learn, the more organized I have to be. Using the traffic light colors alerts me to how well I’m doing. I use five colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, and green to indicate my progress on each piece.

I’m sometimes jealous of my school-aged students, who have regular practice routines built into their schedules. I practice when I’m already around a piano. That’s typically after teaching or after my work at the church. I do have a very good Yamaha U1 48-inch upright at home, but I almost always find something else to do at home. Sometimes it’s good to be somewhere that you have limited distractions!

man pushing large boulder
Photo by Sam Beebe/Ecotrust. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2019-09-03

Schumann and Beethoven To Go

Listening to music in the online era seems a bit more like just another computer task, whether it be shopping online or even writing an email. The only difference is that it’s served via a music platform, like YouTube or Facebook Live, instead of some other computer, tablet, or cell phone app. So why not Schumann and Beethoven To Go, since that is how it is likely to be consumed?!

As I just hinted above, my virtual audience is much larger than my physical one. I’m not going to rehash my thoughts of my last blog post, but instead, continue to focus more on my online audience. The move to thinking about an online audience has been quite a challenge. I allow extra time to get my live stream ready before each performance. I post to both Facebook and Instagram both before and after events, in order to entice and provide listening links, respectively. After each Facebook Live event, I edit the recording to eliminate dead space, give program information, plus provide launch points for each piece and movement.

So what inspired me to put together works by Schumann and Beethoven? Before I explore that, here is a link to the concert program itself. I first heard Schumann’s Papillons in a recital given by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I remember sitting on stage in Symphony Hall in Boston as he thundered those octaves at the beginning of the second episode. That immediately dismissed any notion that this was a lesser work. It may not be as virtuosic as some of Schumann’s later and longer works, but it provides many challenges – including those very octaves!

Beethoven’s Second Piano Sonata, Op. 2, No. 2, is brand new to me. I selected it since I already played the first sonata in college, as well as several others sprinkled through the entire catalog. I don’t have a goal to learn all 32 sonatas, but I figured that with the first two sonatas learned, I might want to learn a few more eventually. It’s humbling to realize that a lifetime of piano playing hasn’t made learning anything by Beethoven any easier!

Now that I’ve offered Schumann and Beethoven To Go, I’m wondering whether I should have offered any food or beverage pairings. Okay, I’ll leave it right there, because I really now have to go practice!

two coffee cups
Photo by Alexas_Fotos. Courtesy Pixabay.
Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2019-05-28

Great Success and Utter Disappointment at my Last Recital

Great success and utter disappointment might be a slight exaggeration. However, it shows the range of emotions I felt after giving what I consider to be my best organ recital on Sunday, April 28th at First Methodist in Bella Vista. My playing was really pretty decent, even good at times, and was about the best I could have expected. The Widor Toccata was the only piece that I had learned before this year. Anyone listening to me now versus several years ago would notice significant improvement. I am well on my way to playing the organ in mid-life as I did the piano when I graduated from music school.

I didn’t have a large network through which to market the recital, but I got the word out early, and even let the program sit for long enough to make a change from a shaky to a solid final selection. In the last year or so that I have been giving piano and organ recitals at the church, I have been getting audiences between 12 and 35 people, so I reasonably expected that I’d at least hit the low number, despite it being the Sunday after Easter and there being a couple of competing activities at the church.

Oh boy, was I wrong about that: Only five people showed up. That included my page turner, Music Director Larry Zehring. He reluctantly pitched in when I couldn’t find a single volunteer from the choir.

Strangely, I wasn’t as bothered by this as I might have been in the past. After all, I do broadcast and archive my recitals via Facebook Live, so they do have an online afterlife. The primary motivation for giving the recital was to prove to myself that I could do it. Having an audience of any size to hold me accountable was really the main criterion. This counted! Playing to an empty house, even in the best circumstances, is still just practice!

As I go forward, I need to be clear about my motivation, and what is and isn’t important. I have to focus more on the great success and less on the utter disappointment. I have to realize that most people are more concerned about their brunch plans than noontime recitals. Plus, there are only so many fans of the organ. Whenever I hear a national recitalist in Tulsa, there are barely 50 to 100 attendees for recitals that are free of charge. Maybe this was a reminder from God to keep looking inward, instead of outward, as performers want to do. I did well and should let Him take care of the rest.

two thumbs in opposition
Image by Gerd Altmann. Courtesy Pixabay.
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | Originally Posted 2019-05-05

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

Fear or Laziness?

I was practicing after teaching this week, something I do whenever I have the chance. When learning new pieces, I sometimes find it difficult to get started. Once I get started, it’s sometimes difficult to keep making progress. Such was the case in trying to get through the entire Chopin Scherzo No. 2. It’s a new piece for me, with 780 measures over 23 pages that I’ll perform as a church postlude on February 10th.

It was really tempting to just practice the portions that I already knew, versus getting further into the piece as I must. One of the techniques I use is to mark the date at the furthest point that I have practiced. Then, I use that endpoint as a starting point for the next practice session. What was frustrating this particular evening was that I really needed to move forward quite a bit to stay on my timeline. And I was having a hard time doing it.

That’s when it dawned on me…was this fear or laziness? Or a combination of both? My particular challenge is one that I set for myself. I decided a while ago to commit to learning lots of difficult new music on both the piano and organ. Even if I’m the only one who knows I didn’t do my best, it bothers me.

I’m in good shape right now on that piece, and on the other pieces that are upcoming. But that will only remain true if I keep remembering to battle these two foes, fear and laziness, by continuing to push forward each time I practice!

Posted 2019-01-31

One Very Bad Experience

I had a wonderful run recently as the substitute pianist for the Bella Vista Women’s Chorus (BVWC). My performance agreement included two rehearsals and three concerts with the group, but ended with the final concert this past Tuesday. I had high hopes as I arrived at the venue, since the first two concerts were really successful.  The lobby and grand parlor were beautifully appointed, and a very shiny baby grand piano awaited me. However, during the choral warmup, I learned that this concert was not going to be the success for which I hoped.

There were five to six notes that were sticking, including the A4.  This is a pitch in the center of the piano known as the tuning pitch used by orchestras. When several of your pieces are written in D Major and F Major, it’s impossible to avoid this note, since it’s part of the tonic chord! The problem was that if I transposed pieces, I ran into other notes that were broken. For instance, there were two sticking notes in the bass, a B-flat and E-flat in the bass, so in avoiding one problem I encountered another.

To someone who doesn’t play the piano professionally, this may seem like a minor deal. Perhaps this piano would have been a treasure compared to the ones used by the Jewish musicians who were trying to make music to keep their sanity in Theresienstadt. But this is an upscale retirement community, not Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, which purports to care about their residents by providing the means for groups like the BVWC to bring the joy of music that we all need.

Some of the residents I talked to between the warmup and the concert asked me how I was dealing with the problem of the broken keys. I said not very well!  They were fellow pianists who had mentioned the problems to the staff many times over the past several years without any success.  It was clear to me, even without their confirmation, that the piano had not been maintained for years.  I noticed that the instrument was also wickedly out of tune.  Pianos do go out of tune mildly due to seasonal changes in the temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.  This was instead pure neglect.

While playing in the concert itself, I frequently lost my place in complicated repeating passages as I scanned ahead on the page for the A4.  I was trying to avoid playing that note so as not to injure my hand. I chose to play in octaves low and high trying to avoid the broken notes. As a performing musician, I don’t make a lot of money, especially when working with all-volunteer groups. When the opportunity to make music is taken away from me, there is nothing left.

Lesson learned. I will insist that the concert organizer confirms that the performance instrument is completely operational.  Simply put, all 88 notes play correctly.  It’s a welcome bonus if the piano has been tuned recently, but sometime in the last year is the minimum standard. As a backstop, I will be adding a clause to my standard performance agreement:  If a piano is not completely operational, I am free and clear to walk out of a performance and still receive the performance fee.

Posted 2018-12-12

Bach Reaches Audience

It took me a long time to program Bach on a sufficient basis during Sunday worship. At the first job where I was organist and choir director, I avoided playing him altogether. I feared people would not connect. At the next job, I played some Bach, but not a lot. At my current position, where I’ve been since 2012, I’ve fully embraced him. I challenged myself to play the entire Orgelbüchlein, as Bach intended, from Advent to the end of the Christian year. It was extremely meaningful to me, though rarely did anyone make a comment. Bach reaches audience? Not so much!

Now, I’ve moved over to the piano, and am one-third of the way through Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And it’s going pretty well! I wasn’t surprised to hear feedback at the beginning of the cycle. It’s a big project, and the first Prelude and Fugue are pretty well known. However, I didn’t expect comments on the fifth, even though it’s one of my absolute favorites. Or the seventh, which is unusual in almost every way, and certainly not a piece I’m yet comfortable playing. But I do hear comments each week!

The comments are all over the place, as you would expect from people who are mostly hearing these pieces for the first time. But the fact that there is buzz, and that people are sitting through the performances, is enough to make me smile. They are connecting to pieces written nearly 300 years ago, when the piano was still in its infancy, and many other instruments were still evolving as well. I think with great music, people know innately that it’s special. I’m just glad to be the tour guide during this two-year journey.

I’m sure there are some folks who don’t connect at all to these pieces. Hopefully, something else that I’m currently offering, or played in the past, has been meaningful to them. My philosophy is to offer a concentrated yet varied program of the best music that I can learn and perform. Music can provide deep personal meaning to so many lives, including those who I may never get to know other than a passing Sunday morning greeting.

Posted 2018-08-27