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

Find the Best Christmas Sheet Music for You

This post has no affiliate links. In other words, I don’t get any compensation as a result of any purchases made using these links. I hope this list helps you to choose wisely among the vast amount of Christmas sheet music available.

Introduction

There is so much Christmas sheet music out there! How do you choose? In the fakebook I own, there are over 150 pieces, and there’s another fakebook that has almost double that! I used to skip teaching Christmas pieces, unless someone specifically asked. It was just another intrusion on the 30-minute lesson. I also didn’t know where to find exciting material correctly leveled for my beginners. Fortunately, there are lots of new books out there, particularly from Piano Pronto! There are even choices for new students, the ones who began taking lessons a few months ago, such as a Christmas book from Piano Safari.

Even kids who haven’t learned how to read a grand staff can read notes on a reduced staff, or learn primarily by rote. That’s where teacher inventiveness is especially important. Jingle Bells can be learned by pretty much anyone; you just have to find the right path! It’s not just beginners that benefit from an inventive approach. Rote playing and playing by ear is a legitimate skill that I also teach to older students. Who doesn’t want to be able to hear a tune, and replicate it on the piano?

Lead Sheets vs Arrangements

Also, I love teaching older students the skill of reading from a lead sheet. It’s where you get the melody, chord, and lyrics, and have to put the song together yourself. (Lead sheets are compiled together in collections called fake books or real books.) Crafting the left hand as simple or complex as you desire, and not have to struggle with an arranger’s idea of how to do is quite liberating. It allows the piece to be adaptable by a wide range of skill levels. A late beginner and an advanced student will look at the lead sheet and assemble very different sounding pieces!

However, not everyone is going to have the patience or inclination to learn via lead sheets. That’s why it’s important to choose a correctly leveled book, and not just whatever handed-down book is in the piano bench.

Leveled Repertoire

Leveled repertoire means what it implies – the pieces in a specific book are at a narrowly-defined level. These levels correspond to method books, and are often published as supplemental volumes by those same publishers. In my recommendations, I’m going to group books by larger segments. You’ll then want to go to that publisher’s Website to see examples of the actual pieces before purchasing. For my own students, I am glad to provide you the level that would work best for you, whether it’s stated as Late Beginner or Level 2B.

I have to give credit to my mentor, Nicola Cantan, who provided many of the beginner and intermediate choices you’ll see below. She recorded this YouTube video that takes you inside a number of those choices, and was very helpful to me.

If Unsure, Go Simpler, Not More Difficult

Although I think it’s great whenever a student wants to try to learn a difficult piece, don’t make this the occasion to go for a touchdown when you just need a field goal. We typically don’t think about learning Christmas music until it’s almost too late. If you have just two or three weeks to learn a piece, try to learn one at your current level, or even one that is a level easier. That way, you can easily learn a piece to share with family and friends, and perhaps a couple more pieces.

Researching/Purchasing Sheet Music

Where links are provided, they are to the publisher’s sites. I recommend starting there since that’s going to be your best chance to look inside the book. Some publishers like Piano Safari and Piano Pronto only sell materials through their own sites. Other publishers, like Faber (Hal Leonard), as well as many of the advanced materials mentioned, can be bought through your favorite sheet music retailer.

If you choose to purchase these books through Amazon.com, make sure that the book “ships from” and is “sold by” Amazon.com. Otherwise, you may be buying from a 3rd party vendor whose price may be above the suggested retail price. This won’t happen with a music store, whether you buy through a brick-and-mortar shop like my favorite, Cliff Hill Music, or an online vendor like behemoth SheetMusicPlus.com.

Beginner
Intermediate

All of the books here should only be attempted by those at the early intermediate level. If you are still a late beginner, or even on the beginner/intermediate bubble, heed my warning earlier in this post. I’d recommend one of the Faber 2A or 2B books listed above instead.

Advanced
  • Solos for Christmas – Dan Coates – 50 Advanced Arrangements.
  • It’s Christmas – Dan Coates – Much thinner book than Solos for Christmas, but there are some better arrangements in this book than the other.
  • Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) – Franz Lizst – Liszt wrote these 12 pieces of late intermediate to advanced difficulty late in life. Some are dazzling, some are duds, and some are in between. Download for free from IMSLP.org or buy the urtext Editio Musica Budapest.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas: Artist Transcriptions for Piano – Vince Guaraldi – If you like the jazz stylings found in the Peanuts movies, and have the chops to play them, this is a must-buy! These classic jazz arrangements are superb.
Not Leveled
  • The Real Christmas Book: C Edition Includes Lyrics – Hal Leonard – Over 150 songs but they are in lead sheet format (melody, chords, lyrics). What’s important is that you know the skill for reading from lead sheets, which can be learned by a late beginner and beyond fairly easily.
  • Hymn Book – If you want to learn the sacred Christmas songs of your own faith tradition, there is no better way than your church’s hymn book! Although the level of pieces in the book are likely to span intermediate to advanced, you can play just the melody line, or the melody and bass line, instead of playing all four parts. You can often borrow a hymn book from your church, donate to your church to take one home, or order one through a music store.
  • In Conclusion

    My choices are presented in hopes that you enjoy as much Christmas music as you can, based on your interest and level. It was silly for me to see learning Christmas music as an intrusion. Done well, it’s a great celebration of why you decided to learn an instrument in the first place. However, there’s no need for a student to get so frustrated learning just one piece. The opposite isn’t good either, where a student loses interest because the arrangements are too easy. Since Christmas music is relatively inexpensive there’s no reason to struggle. You can just purchase something that fits you perfectly.

    Santa Claus at the Piano by Jo-B. Courtesy Pixabay.com
    Last Updated 2020-12-27 | Originally Posted 2020-11-21

    Music Reading Through Rote Teaching

    Introduction

    I was asked by Sarah Folkerts to write a long-form blog post that became 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

    How to Succeed in the Recording Process

    Introduction

    This article was originally intended to help my students prepare for their first recorded recital in May 2020, two months after lessons went online due to Covid-19 confinement. I’m repurposing it to preparing for any recording because it’s a different preparation process from live playing. You might say, yeah, it’s actually easier because you can record yourself as much as you want, and then just choose the best take. However, that flexibility can actually make the recording process much more difficult!

    Be Prepared

    There is no getting around the preparation and the memorization, if that’s required, no matter whether you are performing live or making a recording. A live performance means that you have one shot to make it count. Even if you don’t do your best, you’re done once the performance is over. If you don’t do your best in a recording, then you’re faced with take two. Take two leads to take three, and a seemingly endless spiral. There are some techniques to make sure that doesn’t happen!

    Do a Trial Run

    This should be at least several days in advance to your selected recording day. You’re going to find out things you didn’t imagine. Do you have the right batteries for your equipment, if you’re using peripherals requiring double-A or triple-A batteries? Have you tested out your equipment to make sure that you have the optimal camera angle and distance from the instrument? Have you experienced what it’s like to do a recording? Just because you don’t have an audience to make you nervous, the camera can do that all by itself! Know what the process is like so the actual process is no surprise when it comes to recording day.

    What Did You Learn from the Trial Run

    Besides wanting to make sure the process goes correctly, you’ll want to actually hear what your recording sounds like. Are the levels correct? Does your playing come across as intended? Are there problem areas that you need to focus on that can be reasonably improved in a short amount of time? Do you know how to record your takes, so that the editing process goes smoother?

    Recording Day

    Now that you’ve practiced all that you can, and have made some sample recordings before recording day, you’re ready to make your final recording(s). Try to either set a time limit or a take limit. Two or three takes are normally best because your performance will likely get worse, not better, after that number. Use your instinct as to whether a recording was good or bad. Don’t give up on any performance unless it’s so below your normal playing that it doesn’t pay to keep going.

    Make sure to reference each take with a note. On my equipment, each recording is incremented. I write the number of the recording with a note about what piece or movement recorded, and whether that take should be considered. Sometimes I’ll know right away that a recording is not worth considering. On the flip side, I sometimes will know that a particular recording is my winner. Don’t waste time making additional takes or deciding later which one is better if you know on the spot the winning take. Only keep going if you haven’t made a worthy recording and think you have what it takes to make the next take work!

    Adjust on the Fly

    If you’re making lots of mistakes, either adjust the entire tempo to be a little bit slower or do a little emergency practice on the area that needs help. Be realistic as to what is possible at that moment. Your recording should reflect an approximation of what you would do in a live situation and isn’t going to be any more perfect than that.

    Submit Your File

    If you have to choose between takes, don’t agonize too much between what likely will be pretty similar performances. Use your instinct to choose what you think your best recording is, however you judge that for yourself. Remember that your audience, whether it’s a festival judge or the studio families, will enjoy your performance and appreciate the effort that you took to make it happen. Once you’ve completed this process, you’ll get better and more efficient in the process. You may not grow to love it, but at least you’ll learn how to do it! Accept and embrace the process.

    Enjoy

    Try to have some fun during the recording process. If you enjoy your performance while it’s happening, it will likely translate to a better recording. If your recording is part of a recital or other student performances, make sure to listen and offer positive feedback to the other performers. Your peers will appreciate your attentive listening and your kind compliments. Don’t offer constructive feedback; let the teacher take care of that. Good luck!

    Photo by Gerd Altmann. Courtesy Pixabay.
    Last Updated 2021-09-11 | Originally Posted 2020-05-01

    Video Recording Guide

    This article is specifically intended to help piano parents in my studio to make online recordings for recitals and festivals. As so much of music-making has been in 2020, these events have been online-only since March. We might as well get used to doing it well!

    Introduction

    I dedicated my entire April 2020 Monthly Practice Corner article to cover technology for online lessons. The good news is that if you are correctly setting up your equipment for online lessons, you have mastered the important steps towards launching a video recording. Even if you have only done in-person lessons, you may have mastered many of these steps already. This guide is just to help those making their first recordings, since there are best practices to share. Once you do one, the next one will be so much easier!



    Quick Start Guide
    1. Choose your device and put it in landscape mode.
    2. Make sure to capture full body and keys; look at the man playing piano below.
    3. Use the easiest software available for your device.
    4. Allow enough time to make at least several recordings across a couple of days.
    5. Learn how the Dropbox link works; test it with a simple text file.

    Video Hardware/Software

    Apple Devices (iOS)

    Since almost everyone in my studio has an iPhone or iPad, I’m going to start here. For recording, use whichever device has the larger storage to hold your files. That’s going to be much more important versus choosing which device has the newest camera hardware. Before I switched over to doing recordings on a laptop, I would have to erase about half of my iPad apps just to clear enough space to do several takes of short recital pieces. If you do have to delete apps, choose the largest ones that don’t purge old cached data unless you uninstall/reinstall. For me, this was Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Instagram. Even if you have to uninstall a program that is legitimately storing lots of data on your device, you will get it back as long as the main data store is in the cloud.

    Most people can use the built-in Camera app. I liked using iMovie, which is a free download from the App Store. It allows you to do simple editing, including trimming dead space at either end of a performance, or two put several recordings together. I’ve made a short YouTube video that takes you through the entire process, from recording to exporting. The one snag will be that you may not have Dropbox on your device, which means you’ll have to do the transfer from your PC or Mac. This support post from Apple should do the trick to establish a connection between your device and your computer, if you don’t have one established. Please transfer the file(s) in MOV format to the Dropbox link I have provided.

    Samsung, Google, Other Manufacturers (Android)

    I have no experience or guidance to give on recording on an Android phone or tablet. I’d be glad to add a link or to mention helpful hints, if anyone wants to share them. The result of any recording will yield an MP4 file, which works just fine for sharing.

    PC or Mac

    I use an open source program called OBS Studio for video recording on a PC laptop running Windows 10. There is an equivalent program called Ecamm Live on the Mac. Although my experience is only with OBS Studio, I understand that there’s a similar learning curve to learning Ecamm Live. Both are powerful software packages for their respective operating systems, and you shouldn’t try to learn them at the last minute before recording. Each program will export file types that I can use: MP4 from OBS, and MOV from Ecamm.

    Device Placement

    If you don’t have a microphone stand, music stand, or something that your device can attach to or sit on, then use a small table built up with books and put it a foot or two to the side and behind the pianist. The angle used in my YouTube video above works well. Also, make sure your device is placed in landscape. This is super important, especially if you’re using a phone. Rotate it 90 degrees so that it is oriented wider versus taller!

    man playing piano in park
    Man playing piano in park. Courtesy Needpix.com

    Record Early and Often

    Please don’t wait until the last moment to do your recording. It’s good to do some testing recording, to make sure that you have your camera set at a good place. It’s also instructive for the student. Your goal is to take just one or two takes, since subsequent takes will actually get worse as you get more picky about the output! Although playing for a camera is different than for a live audience, you may face some of the same performance anxiety. It’s better to get used to playing for, and ignoring, the technology!

    Grouping Your Recordings

    I will also let you know how to group together your recordings, but the general guideline is below. Also, super important: Between movements, or between pieces, please put your hands in your lap for two Mississippis (one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi). Then, put them back on the keyboard and continue when ready.

    I prefer if you can record all of your pieces together, in one file per student, in the order that we determined at your lesson. If you can’t join the files together, I’ll be glad to do it in my editing software.

    Dropbox

    Hopefully, all of you already use Dropbox. If not, I’d strongly urge you to try it out, even if it’s just for our project. It’s really the gold standard for cloud-based file storage, and works incredibly well for exchanging files securely. If you would like an invitation to get started the software, I’d be glad to provide. It doesn’t benefit me at all, to my knowledge at least, since I’m on a paid plan with massive storage. However, with the free plan, you often can get more storage simply by inviting others to sign up for the software.

    Permission to Post

    Please make sure that you answer the SurveyMonkey request that grants me permission to post photos and videos of your child/children as specified. Most people give full access, but I want you to have a choice since your privacy is important to me.

    Stay Tuned for Updates

    This video and audio recording guide will remain a working document for us, as we find out what works and what doesn’t. I’ll update and send you a link or reminder once any major changes are made. Let’s see what kind of playing fun we can have, even if we have to do it within our own four walls!

    Gustave Caillebotte painting
    La Leçon de Piano by Gustave Caillebotte at Musée Marmatton Monet (Paris 16th). Courtesy Wikimedia.
    Last Updated 2020-11-20 | Originally Posted 2020-04-13

    Technology for Online Lessons

    Introduction

    At first, I was reluctant to post this article as the April 2020 addition to the Monthly Practice Corner. How does Technology for Online Lessons belong here? First, we couldn’t keep learning online without a minimum of technology know-how. Bravo to you for figuring this out so quickly! Second, there are lots of tweaks that can be made, regardless of whether you buy new equipment. That sounds like practice to me!

    Many music teacher have written articles on this subject since confinement began. However, I wanted to put together what I’ve done, in hopes it might help you too. Whenever an option is available at no cost, I consider that first. I also take the long view – making recommendations that might help beyond our hopefully short time of social distancing. Let’s get started!



    Device Setup Video
      My mentor, Nicola Cantan, made this device setup video. I can’t do it better. Go back to the beginning if you want to hear the intro and her lighting suggestions.

    Bandwidth

    There are several things you can do to make sure you have the best speed possible. One is to call your provider to ask what’s available. I did this just before the Covid-19 pandemic, and received a higher-speed connection for a lower price. I don’t say you will be as lucky, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease!

    One further tip is to try to test your upload speed on whatever device you are using. Yes, I did say upload and not download. This is not Netflix, where all you care about is download speed. If you want me to guide you in your playing, I need to receive it well. That’s only possible with good upload speed.

    Test your upload speed on your device using Google, or the old standard Speedtest by Ookla. Every time I find a problem with bandwidth, I go to the Speedtest app on my phone. I want to know if I’m the problem! If you have at least 10 Mbps, that’s good enough. If you don’t have that much, there are several things you can do:

    • Ask your other family members to stop streaming video or playing online games during your lesson. Web browsing and Social Media, without video, shouldn’t be a problem.
    • If you’re using a laptop or desktop, directly connect via a network cable to your modem. These cables come in lengths of 50 and 100 feet, and are worth the trouble to plug and unplug!
    • If you’re using a phone or tablet, you must rely on strong Wi-Fi. Thus, try to move your modem closer to your piano, or even your piano, if it’s electronic, closer to your modem. If neither is possible, perhaps upgrade your modem, if it’s more than several years old, or get a repeater to boost your signal.

    Device

    Tablets are better than phones. Typically, larger devices have better cameras, audio, and battery life. Remember to charge your device before a lesson. If that’s not possible, plug it in to a charger during the lesson if your battery is low. Laptops have the advantage of a larger screen size, but they don’t necessarily work better than tablets. Plus, their size almost dictates having a music or specialty laptop stand for support.



    Technical Tips to Optimize Your Device for Faster Wi-Fi
    • Turn off background app refresh
    • Free up storage space to enable optimal buffering
    • Reboot your device periodically
    • Clear the cache regularly (However, this means having to enter your passwords again)

    Device Stand and Holder

    Many of you are using a table or chair with books to prop up your device. If you have a standard Wenger or Manhasset music stand, that can work even better! The best placement is a couple of feet past the end of the keyboard, and high enough to show both the keys and the student’s face as well.

    If you’re looking to spend money for a better solution, I suggest buying a microphone tripod floor stand. My model is a Samson MK-10, which gives me the added flexibility to use it as a boom stand with a Webcam over the keyboard. You can purchase a phone or tablet holder to mount to it. Besides the two uses mentioned, the stand could be used with a microphone, a camera, or a digital audio or video recorder. Just make sure that you are aware how the holder connects to the stand. Make sure to get a 1/4″ male to 5/8″ female adapter if necessary.

    Software (FaceTime or Zoom)

    I am currently using FaceTime on my iPad. The problem is that FaceTime only allows that simple one-camera approach. I am often scurrying home from in-person lessons, or need to leave home after a video lesson to teach in person. My plan is to eventually use Zoom more often, instead of FaceTime, so that I can set up my second camera with an overhead view of the keys. It provides a higher-caliber online lesson.

    If you don’t use Apple products, I can also use Zoom on my tablet. I just need to know in advance since those calls have to be scheduled; they are harder to create on the fly.

    Microphone

    Your built-in microphone is probably sufficient. This is a really tricky one, since most inexpensive microphones have become much more expensive due to current circumstances. The Fifine microphone I purchased a few weeks ago was $5 above pre-Covid-19 times, and is currently selling for $5 more than I paid. A lavalier or lapel microphone is also probably fine. There is a risk in overpaying for any microphone right now.

    Also, pay attention to the connector. A lightning connector will only work on older Apple devices, since Apple abandoned that connector for USB C in 2019. The Fifine microphone comes with an old USB A connector, which is perfect for a PC. An inexpensive adapter can also make it useful on an old or new Apple device.

    In Conclusion

    Yes, you already have most of the technology for online lessons! So now you have to consider if there are any facets of online lessons you’d like to improve? The best improvement to any online lesson is by maximizing bandwidth and have an optimized device. Those two tasks are most likely free.

    Most of the other ideas suggested aren’t free. Purchasing a device holder and stand adds to the online lesson experience, and will be useful past social distancing. So would purchasing an add-on microphone. Both are important steps in making quality recording for posting recordings to the Internet or simply for critique yourself. I’d recommend thinking long and hard about the proper way to buy technology. As Nicola Cantan from Colourful Keys says, figure out what your problem is first. Then, find a shiny tech device to solve it, and not vice-versa!

    Image by Divya Gupta. Courtesy Pixabay.
    Last Updated 2021-02-15 | Originally Posted 2020-04-12

    Playful Preschool Piano Teaching

    Introduction

    Nicola Cantan’s new book, Playful Preschool Piano Teaching 1, is about teaching piano to 3-5 year-olds with listening, learning, and laughter (her subtitle) is a revelation. I am currently a paid member of Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching, so some of the concepts introduced were not new. However, it’s a great pocket guide to the challenges and opportunities for young pianists. The reason I’m taking the time to give part review, and part explanation of the book is that I think it could be very helpful to piano parents. Although I don’t currently teach anyone in preschool, I find many useful applications of the material to the several 6-8 year-olds I teach. If you are hands on with your children, you may find this book a revelation to early childhood learning in piano and beyond.

    Maria Montessori

    The Italian physician and educator is given a lot of credit early on in the book, with good reason. “Play is the work of the child.” That’s the quote attributed to Montessori that Nicola uses to describe her own approach. If you’ve ever spent any time with a young child, you will find that a child at play is not like an adult at leisure. Adults often look to leisure to disconnect from reality; children look to play as a chance to connect with it. When a child uses building blocks, builds sand castles, or even draws with crayons it’s an attempt to bring order to their world.

    I’ve seen this first-hand in a lesson I had recently with a 5-year-old. He took a detour from the topic I introduced, as he wanted to learn something related to what I mentioned. The parent softly chided him to pay attention, but in truth he was paying attention and was quite engaged. His focus quickly returned to my topic once I answered his related question.

    Play is the work of the child

    Maria Montessori, Italian physician and educator

    Challenges to Learning

    A child’s ability to learn piano in the traditional sense is greatly diminished below age 7 or 8. By the traditional sense, I mean the capability to sit fairly still, focus on note learning, and put together pieces with little to no help from a parent. However, there’s a world of learning that is ready to tap into with the very young. Developing the ear through singing is one of them. After all, singing came first in ancient cultures, followed by the use of musical instruments. Kids love to sing, and can quickly transfer that ability to picking out notes on the piano for a piece of music, with one finger in each hand. This occurs well before they develop the ability to read notation for that same piece.

    Note reading is difficult for all kids, but much more so for young ones. That’s true even when introduced slowly and methodically. The child has to learn about different shaped notes, with different durations. Then, she sees them placed on these lines, spaces, and sometimes above or below this staff, as we would call it. Plus, we expect them to associate all of this to white and black notes on the keyboard. Nicola explains this utter confusion in nonsense nomenclature, and calls the piano itself a toofpranie. Using this imaginative language, she shows how a child becomes confused and anxious when asked to quickly put all of this together to play their first song, at their first lesson.

    Improvisation and Imagination

    Nicola’s approach is much more imaginative and improvisatory. Even learning the patterns of two and three black notes on the piano is difficult at first. She relates each set of black keys to an animal, and conjures up stories that they can use to experiment with the keys. They eventually learn all of the notes, white and black. Plus, they have a great time getting there since there are so many fun games and songs used to guide their way. Reading music is not an obstacle. It’s just one part of lessons that includes singing, improvisation, musical story telling, and of course, rhythmic exploration.

    With just singing and rhythm, you can do a lot. Fortunately, the young are very able to learn note values well before they can identify them quickly on the page. Again, there is adaptation needed, since kids don’t clap well early on. Instead, using patsching, or slapping the thighs, works better. They can also walk around the room to experience quarter notes and half notes. Good luck trying to get a 9-year-old to walk around the room to fix a rhythm problem! Movement in general is something to be encouraged when teaching these little ones, since it helps them connect into and use their abundant energy.

    Technical Limitations

    One of the most apparent limitations a young child hasis the ability to use all five fingers. This can extend up to 6- and 7- year-olds as well. Most young pianists only have the ability to use one finger on each hand at a time. Good pre-reading method books start with the second (index) finger, and then offer the third (middle) finger as an alternate. However, at some point, these books will introduce a piece that requires both 2 and 3 to be used. Then, finger 4 gets added shortly thereafter.

    What happens if the child isn’t ready? Simple – play the piece with just one finger, cycling through 2 through 4 to make sure each gets a chance to develop. Playing with 2 to 3 fingers will come when the child is ready with the teacher’s guidance. The thumb and pinky, fingers 1 and 5, are in some ways an adult pianist’s strongest tools. However, they are the last to be developed in a young pianist.

    In Conclusion

    There is a lot involved in teaching very young pianists. Playful Preschool Piano Teaching to addresses this adeptly. I readily admit that I am only partially down that road. I am in deep respect and awe of those who successfully teach 3-5 year-olds! However, I’ve become more and more convinced that students don’t need to wait until age 6 or older to begin, if the circumstances are right. The child has to be receptive. The parent has to be involved. The teacher has to pace learning in a way that works. The benefits could be immense. As Nicola says, a child’s innate musicianship can be developed from a very young age, and can lay a foundation that is hard to match when compared to a child that begins much later.


    Footnote

    1. The book is listed on my Piano Lessons – Books page, found under the top menu Teaching > Links for Current Students

    Photo by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay
    Last Updated 2019-11-01 | Originally Posted 2019-10-31

    Music Apps for Beginners (and Beyond)

    Summary

    Last summer, I committed to testing a bunch of music apps that I could recommend to my students. The result of that work is in this post. It took about a year to discover that I only consistently recommended two applications, plus a metronome app for those who didn’t have a separate metronome. I’m working through some recently downloaded apps that I’ll most likely add to this post, but it’s time to clean up my old post and start anew. Here is my list of music apps for beginners and beyond!

    But First…

    There is a bit of a bias towards iOS versus Android by app makers in education. Even though I’ve been only a PC owner since the early Windows days (and yes, I remember DOS!), I solely use an iPhone and iPad. I don’t have the resources to buy Android devices just for testing. However, I have tried to provide alternatives, and would be glad to work with any of my students to see how they perform. It’s in my best interest to recommend the best tools, since it makes lessons easier for me and my students!

    The biggest lesson I learned is you get what you pay for! Free apps can be helpful to try out a paid app, but don’t expect to rely on them for anything past that. When I first tested out music apps, I tried going the free route and was totally frustrated and wasted so much time! If I recommend an app, it will be worth the $5 or less that most of these cost. The good news is that all of these apps are one-time purchases, not a monthly or yearly subscription. You own it for as long as the developer continues to support the app – which hopefully is a long time!

    Highly Recommended

    Note Rush: Music Reading Game

    Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes. It’s great for students who are rapidly expanding their reading of the staff, and need a bit of fun along the way.

    Device: iOS, Android

    I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, and I sometimes demo it with students by sight-singing, instead of playing notes on the piano. It’s a hit with any student to whom I introduce it. The app uses the device’s microphone to identify pitches, and it has calibrated perfectly wherever I’ve tried it. If your piano is wickedly out of tune, it may not do so well! It’s pretty easy to use, since you choose from one of several pre-loaded levels. You could also customize your own choice of note ranges if you’d like something more challenging.

    If you are a beginner and note reading is going smoothly, or especially if you are past beginner method books and playing intermediate literature, you might want to skip this app. However, at least half of my students in method books could benefit from using this app along with the landmark and interval training that I provide.

    Rhythm Lab

    Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen. It’s useful for beginning through intermediate students.

    Device: iOS only
    Android Alternative: Rhythm Cat

    This is a super fun app, and I find it I recommend it a lot for transfer students whose teachers have not been as strict with note values as I am. While I typically recommend it for students who need it for basic note values, like half notes vs quarter notes, the app could also be helpful for learning more complex rhythmic notation that anyone continuing into more difficult music will face. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or when things get difficult, this is your app!

    The interface is a bit complex and the judgmental applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but I look at that as just a minor irritation.

    Metronome Apps

    Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome

    The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is listed at the bottom of my piano books recommendations. It is an old fashioned metronome, not an app. I have to include it because it’s still my top recommendation instead of, or as an addition to, an app.

    Price: About $25

    This model has been around in some form for several decades, and price has not changed much during that time. It’s an old-fashioned, electronic metronome that requires one 9-volt battery to run.  It’s not quite as old school as the Wittner Taktell, the German brand dating back to the 19th century that I grew up using.  So that makes me just a half dinosaur!

    Why buy this and not just solely rely on a phone or tablet? Sometimes having a device dedicated to doing one thing is the right choice. If you need to charge your phone, or if you are sharing a device with a sibling or parent, it may not be available when you need to use it. It’s the type of device that you will only use occasionally. However, when you need to use it, you want it to be on your piano, in your piano bag, or maybe both!

    Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

    A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

    Device: iOS, Android

    This is the app that I often will use in lessons, since I already have my iPad out to mark attendance, check my schedule, and it is convenient to use. I have a Wittner on the top of my piano, and carry two different Seiko models in my separate piano and organ repertoire bags. It’s not as fun as the Super Metronome Groove Box, especially if you want an app to provide a backing track for playing pop songs. You get what you pay for; this one is much cheaper!

    Super Metronome Groove Box

    This is a more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, and compound meter.

    Device: iOS, Android

    The free version is just awful, but I’d try before you buy since you can get a feel for it, despite it timing out after just 16 measures! When I bought it, the price was $6.99. That’s was $4 more than I paid for the Tempo app above. You do get a much more feature-rich app. If you play some rock and pop, and want to play along with a metronome to develop a steady beat, or just because you enjoy having a rhythm section behind you, this is the app! If you just want to check an occasional tempo or play along for a few measures, stick with Tempo! 

    What’s Ahead?

    I’m always looking for other apps to try, and would like to add to my list to make it more comprehensive.  If you like apps, I’d be glad to forward you lists of them from other teachers that I follow, with the caveat that just because they liked them doesn’t mean either you or I will!

    Posted on 2019-07-25

    One Piano Parent Listened

    When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!

    She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.

    After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!

    Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!

    Posted 2019-06-28

    What is your goal?

    I got the chance to do quite a bit of reading during time off from work, especially following Christmas Eve, which included two services and a very difficult organ recital in between those broadcast via Facebook Live. Without looking for it, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the New York Times titled I’ll Never Be Rachmaninoff. It was written by an adult piano student who returned to the piano following a long absence. Her goal was clear; but what is your goal?

    It’s not the first time I’ve written a post based on the recreational benefits of piano study, but I think it always comes across better in the first person. Jennifer Weiner tells the story of finding teachers, and how study positively affected her life and daughter as well. Ms. Weiner was a very competitive person in youth and in life, so the last thing she needed was to resume piano study with the hopes of becoming great. Her goal was to be good, not great, and she describes her journey towards just that. Thus, the title of her article is particularly compelling.

    I try to remember to ask my students about their goals and to regularly check in with them that lessons are meeting them. Often, especially with younger students, the goal is pretty general, just to play better, and the means to get there isn’t specific. For other students, particularly teens and adults, there are more specific goals in mind. It might be to reach higher levels in classical study, to play pop songs, or to play Christmas carols for their family.

    One of my adult students had that last goal. She just reported back that it went well. For this particular student, the focus was short-term, to play a series of Christmas carols well enough for a sing-along. She enjoyed it enough and received enough positive feedback that she’s considering more study, though not right away. That’s great!

    Whatever your goal is in piano study, I hope to help guide you there. Whether your goal is to be good or great, I think Sergei would approve!

    Posted 2019-01-02