This past Saturday, October 23rd, we had our third annual Halloween Piano Party. The event made its debut in 2018 but skipped last year due to the pandemic. I decided to do things a little bit differently this year. Instead of doing one event for all, I set up four rolling start times each half-hour so that people wouldn’t have to stay for the entire event. It enabled folks to rotate people in and out of the room so that we had adequate social distance. We all wore masks (the Covid-19 type) except during photos and playing.
Every year is a bit different, but like other years, we had a lot of day-before cancellations. That can be frustrating, like when six students scheduled in the first time block imploded to just one. However, everything turned out okay. The 11 students and their families that showed up made the event a success.
They seemed glad that they had attended, and I even got a couple of nice thank you emails following the event!
Perfection Wasn’t the Goal
Two of the students got to play their memorized pieces for the Sonata/Sonatina Celebration coming up in two weeks. Everyone else got a chance to play whatever they were working on or finished this fall. The goal wasn’t thoroughly-polished, recital-worthy performances. It was simply to remember what it is to play in public, or perhaps for the first time with a supportive audience. Having plenty of opportunities to perform is important, as I mentioned in this older blog post that I just revised.
Tara was the winner of the costume contest, judged by five piano teachers from Ireland, Canada, and the United States following the event.
Candy and Apples
I had some filler Halloween improvisation pieces ready to teach, but as it turned out they weren’t necessary. I have enough older students playing longer pieces that the time flew by! Everyone sanitized their hands after playing, then got a chance to pick up snacks and an apple from the Trick or Treat table.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
Originally Posted 2021-01-29 | Last Updated 2020-01-29
This was my fourth year to participate in the NW Arkansas Music Teachers Association (NAMTA) Sonatina Celebration. My first year’s experience was tremendously positive, as I reported in this blog post. In its 25th anniversary year the festival was online, instead of in person at NWACC’s Bentonville main campus. I only had 5 participants, which is down from last year’s count of 7 students. One day before the registration deadline one of my students broke his arm, or it would have been 6! (He switched to doing right-handed repertoire in lessons for a month and did quite well at it!) Any music festival is usually an endorphin-pumping fabulous time for teacher, students, and families alike, except this year it wasn’t. What happened threw a pall on my studio’s entire experience of this year’s festival.
Before delving into any of that, I do want to say that there certainly were some highlights. The best prepared student earned a superior plus for a performance that had lots of polish. He wore the medal during his first lesson after getting it. It looked good on him. Three of my other students received superior ratings, as well as line item scores and commentary that were spot on to their performances. To be honest, one or two of these performances might have merited a red ribbon, but we got lucky!
As I Understand the Festival…
This festival has become beloved by the 15 or so teachers who participate each year, because it allows for a student to be tested against the piece she is playing. This is important, because there are other festivals that are competitions in disguise. In theory, it’s a safe space whether you are a young student playing an advanced piece, or an older student playing a beginner piece. Each student receives comments in the elements section, which looks at elements such as stage presence, musicality, accuracy, dynamics, and more for a total of 11 line items.
The student also receives a bit of commentary in the further observations section. This may expand upon one of the elements above, or mention something else that doesn’t quite fit in that section. At the very bottom, the student gets a summary score that translates into points and a ribbon color or medal. These points become important because they roll into a lifetime total that awards trophies as students accumulate points annually.
The Top Awards
There are three awards, since the lowest rating of Very Good for three points with a white ribbon is no longer given. The highest rating of Superior Plus for six points with a medal is reserved for the best performances. The second-highest rating of Superior for five points and a blue ribbon is the typical award.
Although stats are not typically published after the festival, even though I feel they should be, for full transparency, this seems to be where about 50% to 60% of participants score.
The Red Ribbon
The lowest-given rating of Excellent for four points and a red ribbon is reserved for those performances where there are at least several markdowns in the elements. It could be for a student who plays sloppy and is just inadequately prepared. Or, it could be for a student on the bubble who might have squeaked out a superior on a good day, but this wasn’t one of them.
There is typically the element of surprise, since you don’t know how your student will perform live. This year, though, everything was pre-recorded, so that’s not what happened. I personally recorded the student in question along with two other students. The remaining students recorded at their homes. The student in question received what I considered a very harsh excellent rating for what I thought was at least a superior performance. The line item detail and the commentary read very much like a superior performance. Ten elements received the highest rating, and only one markdown occurred in accuracy. The student made a recurring rhythmic error that resulted in that markdown. The commentary also added that her posture was slouched. It’s not something that directly affected her performance, but it was accurate and good feedback.
However, besides that one markdown and one comment, the playing was quite fine. Upon review by the program committee, this was confirmed. However, the rating was not overturned because all ratings are final. Even though this doesn’t make me feel good, I do understand their decision. So why was there such a huge discrepancy between the final rating and everything else on the form? Was it because she was an older student playing a late beginner piece? I hope that’s not the case, because we should encourage students of all ages to begin piano, whether that be at age 5, 10, 15, or even 75! Was it just a clerical error from a judge who was tired from grading too many other students? We’ll never know what happened in the judge’s mind.
After a week to mull this over, I realize I have only two real choices. Complain or act. How about a little of both?! I am going to seek to join the committee for next year’s festival. Plus, I would like to have an after-action review of this year’s festival as well, to see if there were other cases where the final rating did not seem to derive from the line items and the comments made on the rest of the form. That will be my main input to the judges for next year’s festival: There must be congruency between line items, comments, and final rating.
I’ve had students get red ribbons before. In each case, it was earned in a way that I described above. What happened was not one of them. That said, I have to be thankful for the good that came out of this festival. Stephen Covey in his famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People preached that you can’t control outcomes. Once you go back inside your circle of control, you find tremendous freedom. Plus, in this case, you get a lot of great feedback. You’re free to remind me of this when I forget in the future!
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!
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.
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!
Recommend me to those you know searching a piano or organ teacher
In late 2019, I received approval to start a new concert series at the church where I work, First Methodist of Bella Visa, called the Curious Squirrel. My mascot is Samuel the Squirrel, a critter who attended and wouldn’t leave my recital at Central Methodist in Rogers. Although he was a nuisance during the recital, he was an inspiration towards my new marketing plan! How I got here is the rest of the story!
When I landed my part-time salaried job at First Methodist in 2012, I received the chance to participate in the professional Wesley Series as an added bonus. I performed in concerts including singers, violinists, and woodwinds. It was really the type of opportunity I had wanted my whole life.
A New Focus
When funding for that series ended in early 2017, after 21 years, I no longer had the opportunity to participate in professional chamber music at the church. So, I decided to go solo on organ and piano. During the past two years, I offered 18 events. The few concerts that weren’t solo involved vocal recitals with Chancel Choir members, and even an Irish Sing-A-Long in March 2019 that I hope to make an annual event.
My goal for these recitals was two-fold: For me, it was an opportunity for me to build repertoire and experience in solo performing. There’s nothing like scheduling a recital to force discipline, even if that means spending 12 hours on the organ in one afternoon and evening to learn a piece to be ready for the next day! For the church, the concerts were presented as a gift for the both church members and the Bella Vista community. It’s so rare in our area to have classical events available. I feel an obligation to give them, to the extent that I have the time to do so.
Try Something Different
All the while giving these free events, I was trying to re-establish a professional concert series at the church, but there was no support for that. Zero. I decided to shift my focus to something that few could object to – continuing education. The church has a small continuing education budget for music, which covers my membership in the American Guild of Organists with a little bit of money left over for things like lessons, certifications, and learning materials.
However, this fund makes just a squirrel-sized dent in the cost of an organ convention, whether it be a regional or national one. Nor, does it cover much towards a summer week-long sacred music class. Church musicians are very isolated in their work, and these opportunities are a wonderful shot-in-the-arm to revive and revitalize church musicians for the work we do in our church communities.
How You Can Help
Pre-Covid-19, I purchased a bright red, squirrel proof box, which accepts cash or checks for any gift concert attendees wish to make towards my continuing education. You can write your check to the church, with a memo line mention of the Curious Squirrel. When I need to make a claim against the fund, I’ll do so with the church administrator.
When I switched over to my bite-sized recital project called the Weekly Acorn in May 2020, I established a PayPal link that can be used for contributions. This link goes directly to First UMC of Bella Vista, but I only receive the proceeds into my fund if you put Curious Squirrel or Weekly Acorn in the Add a Note area.
You can learn about future Curious Squirrel concerts and Weekly Acorn events by subscribing to the Curious Squirrel Newsletter.
Six of my students from Shepherd Music School and one of my private students participated in the annual Sonatina Celebration held at NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) on November 9, 2019. I didn’t post on last year’s festival, but you can read my first go-round at the Sonatina Celebration in 2017. The group sponsoring this, the NW Arkansas Music Teachers Association, is a local affiliate of the National Music Teachers Association (MTNA). This particular festival was started by the group in 1995 to give students an additional chance to perform with no other testing included.
How it Works
Each of the students must perform a piece with Sonatina or Sonata in the title. They choose two contrasting movements to play by memory. The exception is if the piece is an advanced one, in which case only one movement is required. Each session includes around 10 pianists, most of who don’t know each other. In this situation, even the most confident kids sometimes admit to being a little nervous at first. However, the award that’s given is based on how well the students does at playing her piece. Performers are grouped together in age groups, so often there is a wide range of levels, particularly among the older students.
Three of my students received the highest Superior Plus rating, typically only earned by about 25% of all students. The four others received the second-highest Superior rating, which accounts for about half of all students. Lots of practice went into that level of achievement. I was lucky to be the one to help these kids along the way.
It’s Fun but It’s Not Everything
The halo from the Sonatina Celebration has lasted for the past week, but it’s not the end-all goal. Learning the piano is developing a skill that can provide joy for a lifetime. It provides a connection back to centuries of music and musicians. It opens the door for an understanding of the arts in general, which in turn makes life pretty awesome!
It’s said that you can’t officially call something an annual event until you do it at least twice. With that, let me present a summary of our Second Annual Halloween Piano Party. We always seem to have some type of drama before starting. Last year, we couldn’t get into the building because the door code didn’t work. This year, the code worked perfectly! However, I left my footprints behind – literally – in the floor wax as a contractor was working off hours. I didn’t have another way to get in the building, but that didn’t make the contractor any happier with me. Oh well!
We had really good attendance this year! Most of the participants were playing their sonatinas under pressure for the first time. We held this event three weeks ahead of the November Sonatina Celebration. The composers represented included Lynn Freeman Olson, Muzio Clementi, and Anton Diabelli. The pianists could perform in costume, so it wasn’t all that serious. However, the ringmaster below took his costumer as serious as his playing!
This ringmaster means business, on and off the piano bench!
Everyone got a chance to play something fun after the sonatinas were presented. There were some favorite pieces from method books, a Bossa Nova that’s being worked up to audition for a jazz workshop, and a piece by contemporary composer Andrea Dow.
As a reward for the great playing, I distributed some candy bars, Belgian chocolates from Aldi, and Red Delicious apples. Surprisingly, the apples were really popular! And thus, the Halloween Piano Party 2019 came to a close. Sorry, I have no candy left to share, but I can share some pictures. Enjoy!
Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the semester-end recitals, Spring 2019 Finale. Their pictures are below. A couple of brand new students who are very young did not participate, and my two adult students also chose to sit this one out.
New Wrinkle: House Recitals!
I also tried something new this time: house recitals. Since I teach several in-home students who aren’t affiliated with Shepherd, I have to find opportunities for them to play. I often just do in-home recitals just for them, in lieu of a lesson. However, I also like for all of my students to get to know each other, regardless of where they are enrolled.
Figuring out how to do this seemed pretty obvious. Most of my students live in one of three areas. And there are about an equal number of students in each geography. I already had an invitation to check out the spinet piano one of my families had just gotten their daughter, so some of the planning already took care of itself.
At a Church
The first house recital was held not at someone’s home but at a house of God. It was at the church where Shepherd is based since none of the piano parents volunteered their home for the event. The three participants played the beautiful Baldwin grand piano in the sanctuary that is typically off-limits. My most advanced student got the chance to make a mini-recital debut playing much of the repertoire he learned over the semester. One of my adult students also participated, since she felt more comfortable in this small group setting versus the very busy Shepherd recitals.
At a Home
The second group was the one where I was invited to visit the newly-acquired spinet. There were extra adults and kids there in addition to the piano parents and student participating. I played to conclude the recital, as I did in the first event. When it was all over, the kids went into the backyard to bounce on the trampoline, and the adults enjoyed conversation in the living room. Although the goal to play was met in both cases, I much preferred the fun atmosphere of the second recital. This type of recital really benefits from being held in a home environment.
At the Emergency Room
The third group was for a single family with three students that lives a distance from the other two groups. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to a medical emergency that occurred just before I arrived. One learns to roll with the punches!
Last Updated 2019-09-25 | Originally Posted 2018-06-14
I participated in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) regional festival again this spring. I had four students enrolled, the same as last year. Two of those were continuing students; two were new students. This event was held on Saturday, April 6th, in the music building at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I didn’t sleep well and woke up before 6 a.m. since I was petrified by the possibility that I could oversleep. I was scheduled to do musicianship testing, which took the entire morning after my 8 a.m. arrival.
I was able to get pictures of 3 out of my 4 students. That’s because I insisted they stop by my testing room before they left. All of them received a Superior rating of 1, but one did better than that by securing a 1+ as the first alternate to the winner for her level. My studio did a lot better this year in supplemental testing as well, with several certificates awarded for scores of 90 or better in musicianship and written theory.
It is always interesting to compare notes with teachers in the break room during lunch. We discussed the surprises and disappointments of the day, and traded stories about what else is going on in our lives, musical or otherwise. As you can imagine, this event only happens due to the hard work of several volunteers over weeks and months before the event; my helping out on the day of the event doesn’t compare to that! My thanks to them!
Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the year-end recitals. Two made their recital debut; the other two are becoming old pros performing in public.
Since all of the parents have given me consent to post their children’s photos, I have included them in the photo carousel below. I’m really proud of them all, and am excited to hear how they grow over the coming semester.
All of my students have plenty of chances to perform publicly. In this past semester, we had a Halloween performance party and played for the residents at a local retirement community. For those participating in the Sonatina Festival, there was a warm-up recital in Springdale prior to the event itself.
My private students do miss out on the school recitals, but we often have in-home recitals instead. It’s a more intimate chance to perform for their family and friends.