Friday, April 27, 2012

Competition Thoughts

Rep class students review their video recordings
and make final corrections.

   Training my students for competition is such a difficult task. In the end, they are judged on a perfected performance. But what does that really mean? Perfect in the eyes of the judges? Perfect in my eyes? Perfect in the student's eyes? Perfect in their parent's eyes? These are all relative.

   When these definitions are at odds, I get stressed, my students are stressed, and their parents get stressed with me. My students have put in around 350 hours of practice on their pieces. With all that work, why aren't the pieces just great the way they are? Why do I keep making them fix and change things in their performance? Well, any teacher who has experienced competition knows the answer to that. We are tweaking performances right up to the day of the event. We know what they will be up against, even if they don't.

I train my students to play to the best of their ability, and then I push them some more.
They must walk into this event with a piece equal to their peers.
They must play the piece with artistry and perfect accuracy.
They must have stage presence.
They are trained to deserve first place, even if they don't get it.
They must endure weekly critiques of their performance.
All this is no easy task, even for the most thick-skinned professional.

   Just because they put in hundreds of hours of practice, attend rep classes, record their pieces , and review video recordings of their performance still doesn't mean they will win anything at the event. As a teacher, I know that anything can happen in competition. Melt downs, memory slips, strange piano, bad shoes, bad judges. Or more likely, despite my student's difficult pieces, hard work, and perfected fabulous performance, and stage presence, another teacher's student waltzes in and mops the floor with my student's measly little songs.

   So why do it? Because, first of all, maybe they will win something. Be honest --what teacher doesn't want winning or recognized students? Even if its honorable mention. The need to be recognized is human and feels great. But if they aren't recognized, I know they have represented themselves (and me) to the best of their ability and so do they.  They don't need to win a thing to prove to me what they've achieved. They prove their worth every week in their lessons. They recognize their hard work. They know they are really at the top of their game. They are proud. I am proud. They are great pianists. They know how highly I regard them as hard working, dedicated piano students. They have worked toward a goal and achieved it. The excitement of preparing the pieces and then playing them in front of an audience full of trained ears is fulfilling for any pianist. We all want to feel recognized and good enough...

...but I'll be glad when its over and so will they. I love them all! I think they are awesome! They've earned a vacation!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Beethoven Wasn't So Great"

   Who doesn't know the author of this quote? Lucy said it because Schroeder loved Beethoven, of course, but Beethoven never had his picture on a bubble gum card, so he couldn't have been that great. If getting your picture on a bubblegum card (or baseball card) is good enough for Babe Ruth (and certainly Beethoven) its good enough for my students.

   This is my answer to full size 8.5"x11" certificates that have cost me a fortune in card stock and ink. This is a 3.5"x 2.5" baseball card on card stock that will go into a baseball card page saver in the front my student's notebooks this fall instead of expensive certificates crammed into the back of their folder, all but forgotten.

   The local diner we eat at has this very type of page inserted into their menu with the daily specials- like Open faced-turkey sandwiches and Eggplant Parmesan... yummmm.

   Not only will they have a photo from the event, they'll have a fun visual record of their performances and repertoire.

   For more info about the Double Scoop Recital shown in the photo, click this link.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What to do with piano lessons?

Colleen performs her arrangement of "Misty" with her jazz combo.
I recently had a couple of students ask what they can do with piano lessons other than practice at home and come to the lesson. Good question. What does a child do with piano skills? What does an adult student do with piano skills? Of course there are the usual recital formats associated with lessons, but here are a few change-ups. Consider them my two cents worth:

1. Play at church
Many churches permit students to play during offertory or other services. This a is a great opportunity to perform in front of others and share your gifts.

2. Hold a family recital
What's wrong with having your own solo recital at home? Have students choose their favorite pieces from lessons and create their own program. Set up chairs in the living room and dress up. Invite the family to come at a scheduled time and start the show. Make popcorn and drinks for your refreshments after the recital. (It sure beats sitting together in a room silently, each on their own electronic device....)

3. Learn a new instrument
Are you kidding? As we all know piano is the BEST foundation for learning any new instrument. I am a HUGE advocate for encouraging my students to learn as many instruments as they can get their hands on. This is not a threat to my business, on the contrary, this make them better pianists!

4. Join Marching Band
As a 5-year veteran marching band mom, I can ASSURE you that these kids not only love what they do, they are fantastic musicians and you don't have to worry about them hanging around with a goth crowd or piercing their faces. Junior and Senior Drum Corps is quite another matter.....

5. Learn the Tuba and join a community band.
I don't think I've met a band director yet who doesn't desperately need low brass. Community bands are loaded with adult music students. They generally have a great time and there usually aren't too many egos to check.

6. Wine and Cheese Rep class
This is a huge hit with adult students. Once a month or every 2 months hold what is essentially a cocktail party for adult students. NO spouses allowed! Allow the students to play without a critical audience. Just let them have a glass of wine, eat some hors d'oeuvres, and play whatever they are working on in lessons (no matter what condition its in) and enjoy an evening of new friends and music.

7. Play at an Open Mic night
Adults and children alike can play anytime at the Music & Arts open mic night. There is usually a good crowd and students really have fun playing their pieces.

Susan runs through "Don't Know why" at Open Mic to prep
for the Cabaret.

Allison performs her arrangement of "How High the Moon"
with vocals and jazz combo.

8. Play at a club that has a piano. 
My adult students participated in this last fall. Families could come in and order coffee and lunch, while the adult students performed "Autumn" pieces on the piano.

9. Accompany for a vocal instructor.
Vocal teachers don't always accompany their own students. This is a great opportunity for more advanced students to utilize their piano skills.

10. Accompany for school chorus.
I know lots of students who have done this. Generally, the chorus teachers allow piano students to accompany a song or two for concerts.

11. Play with your church praise band.
I have an intermediate student who learned "He is Exalted" so well and beautifully, that she is prepared to play with her praise band. What a great opportunity to play with a group of professionals!

12. Play at a Bed & Breakfast
Will (adult student) performs "Satin Doll"
on piano with his jazz combo.
Last summer my students took part in a summer cabaret at the Annapolitan Bed & Breakfast in Annapolis. They had the chance to actually play with several professional musicians at this event. We learned to comp from a professional jazz player and to play from a lead sheet. A few of my students have the talent to sing and play at the same time and they had the chance to showcase this talent at the cabaret.

Then we worked on some jazz tunes and at the end of the summer, performed for a crowd of over 100 people!! It was an unforgettable event!

Susan sings and plays "Don't Know Why" at the Cabaret.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Something other than piano

I was thinking back to the times this past year when we were working on music for something other than piano. There are so many reasons I like to take time to do this with my students. These photos are from events that take place every year. My students are always eager to participate and being chosen for some ensembles is an honor.

I have always encouraged my students to play as many instruments as they can. And with a small rental fee, they can learn an orchestral or band instrument at school for free. Many of my students play other instruments and could really have some fun with this in piano lessons. I'm glad summer is coming to give me some time to think about a fun activity we can do next year that really showcases not just the piano skills, but their skill as musicians.

Here are a dozen reasons I like to advocate making music together in my studio.

1. Playing together requires a firm sense of rhythm.
2. Playing together requires a firm sense of tempo.
3. Playing together requires cooperation.
4. Playing dynamics together take lots of practice and sounds great.
5. Piano lessons are not just a solo sport anymore.
6. Students understand that they are a part of something bigger.
7. Playing together creates great memories.
8. Playing together helps students make new MUSICAL friends. 
9. Students can take pride in the beautiful sounds created by an ensemble.
10.  Playing together improves overall musicality.
11. Playing together isn't as scary. There is strength in number.
12. Ensemble music is fuller sounding than solo teaching pieces.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Perfect Piano Hands

 Well, you just never know whats going to happen next......when Molly came in for her lesson this week, she had a big surprise to show me. Her science fair is coming up at school and she has been really busy working on a new invention to help students perfect their hand positioning.

   She spelled it out very clearly on her display- she wrote about how mastering a perfect hand position is so important for future playing and getting it now will help students become better players down the road. She has a picture of herself demonstrating her invention and then in conclusion, she is describing how her piano teacher used it (that's me!) and it worked really well.

No kidding, it really DOES work!

   I usually use a stress ball or fuzzy ball to place under my student's hands to help them with shaping their hands correctly. Then I remove the balls so they can play their piece. But with Molly's invention, you can (theoretically) play with the balls strapped in place- ensuring a good hand position. Incidentally, I must admit that like the way her pinky is shaped. I can't count the number of "sleeping pinkys" I see in a week's lessons. I sure hope she gets a patent on it really soon before someone steals it away.

   I cannot put into words just how proud I am of her work and her clear devotion to piano! She is going to make a great piano teacher someday. Great job, Molly!!


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Demonstrating Staccato

"Guess what I am?" 

   This is what I asked Grace when she came to her lesson this week as I was jumping on the rebounder. She guessed! I'm a staccato note! She was so excited to try, she jumped right on and became a series of staccato notes as I played "Maracas" by Kevin Olson*.
This is such a fun way for me to not just explain, but actually demonstrate what I want them to do with their fingers and hands and arms when playing staccato notes. I told my students that it was not so much about about how we hit the note, as much as it was how we get off the note. Like getting off the trampoline by jumping up. As I demonstrated, she could quickly see the object wasn't to jump and land, but to jump up and up and up again. She went to the piano and executed this articulation perfectly; making her hands "jump on the trampoline". 

   Then it was my turn to jump while she played "Maracas". The fun thing about "Maracas" is that its not just a series of staccato notes, but it contains what I think are MUCH needed counted quarter rests. So when we were jumping, we also had fun trying to quickly stop jumping for each quarter rest. She said she never expected to get so much exercise during a piano lesson. Thanks for a fun tune, Kevin! And for a fun lesson, Grace! 

*This piece is located in Helen Marlais' 
Succeeding at the Piano, Lesson & Technique Book- Grade 1. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Creating Studio Space

 This post describes how my current studio space came about. I hope by sharing my story, I can give someone reading a good idea for creating their own space.


When I began teaching in my current home, I taught in my very small living room with an upright piano and 2 kitchen chairs. I advertised in the Pennysaver, hung signs around the neighborhood, and had 4 students.

Once I decided to create a space "designated" for a studio, I chose to use an unfinished addition behind our kitchen designed for a pantry, junk, and our washer and dryer. We partitioned the 1/3 of this space off with a wall - moved all the junk to the other side, insulated, drywalled, bought my first ever grand piano, some cheap carpet, and created my first real studio space. I had 8 students. It was a risky venture. Not to mention that when students came in for lessons, they had to walk through my living room and kitchen first....I always had to be sure my dishes were done. ug.

I outgrew this space after 2 years. Holding a recital was just too tight for comfort and I knew I wanted a larger space and a waiting room- I don't like doing dishes.

I had to move the upright out just to fit the chairs for a recital.
And you can see the kitty door- it was the only way kitties
could get to the litter box....not very professional.

The next big decision was to give up the other 2/3 of the space I had now grown accustomed to for my pantry, laundry, storage, and tool workshop, and dumping ground for all our junk and use it instead to create income. The only thing it had been creating was a bigger mess.

One very difficult decision was moving the washer and dryer from what was left of our "backroom", to the kitchen (in our small home, there was nowhere left to put it). But in the end it wasn't so bad after all. Our kitchen comfortably held the stacked system...but the move did require the first of many visits by our plumber & electrician. These are the types of decisions I had to make to get the new studio.

We had the world's largest yard sale, threw away a lot, and re-distributed what was left of our "junk" elsewhere in the house. Once the backroom was cleared out, it was a question of the usual construction.

The next question was just how students would come in, and where they would wait. The only solution was to give up another room of the house --my office. This would be the perfect space for a waiting room and I didn't really need that much office space anymore. My office window became the entrance to the waiting room. The office door became the french doors into the studio. The back corner where the file cabinet is became the powder room.

An old walk-in closet housed my research library when I was working on my doctorate-but I didn't need all that space anymore. I found a picture on the Internet of a closet-office and decided this was a perfect solution!  Now its my private office space.

Left- the photo I found online to design my closet-office.
Right- my office

Thankfully, I have an in-house carpenter and I was willing to help in any way I could. In the end, this saved us a bundle in labor costs. It wasn't easy, and it took an entire summer to finish. Having a deadline was a big help in finishing.

In the end, I have a studio space large enough for student-only events like my Back-to-School party and my Halloween party. When students aren't around, the waiting room space doubles as our family study and when students are around parents and siblings can wait comfortably without entering my personal living space or using my bathroom -- and I don't have to do the dishes!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

More Than Just Flashcards

   I'm a big fan of flashcards. Being able to drill over and over is a good way to learn the notes. Its like learning the words of a foreign language. If I were teaching French, rather than piano, my students would not learn to speak French fluently if they only spoke the words once a week for 30 minutes or so. They have to go home and practice the words I teach them in the lesson over and over everyday so when I use them in the next lesson (and every lesson thereafter) they understand me.
   But what good are the flashcards if my student can't put them into practice? If I teach a student by rote only, aren't I teaching them the equivalent of "Whens the next bus?" or "Where is the hotel?". Likewise, if I only teach them to sight read on a sight-reading flashcard at the piano, they learn to associate a note with a key or hand position without an understanding of anything else. Kind of like knowing how to speak French, but not all that sure of what they're saying and still unable to read with comprehension in French. I know, I did this myself when I learned to play the viola. I saw the note, knew where to place my finger on the neck and that's where it ended. Needless to say, I hit a brick wall and could not advance. I can also pronounce words and read in Latin, French, and German....but don't ask me to tell you what I'm saying. I am the queen of hitting brick walls!

    I work with my students on the grammar of music and I expect them to speak fluently and become conversational. So when they "speak French" not only do they know the French alphabet, know how to pronounce the letters, read and speak individual words, but they also need to be able to read with comprehension, formulate complete sentences AND hold a conversation that makes sense. These are all very different skill sets. And when playing the piano, my student should be well-versed in ALL OF THEM.

   So when I do flashcards, I do them in conjunction with the piano keys. They have to know the letter name at random when they see the card, but also know where that particular note is located on the keyboard. There are lots of C's on the piano, but only 1 middle C. There are lots of F's on the piano but which one is the "face" F?

   The photo above is just one of many ways I do this. In this example, I'm not using flashcards at all. I say a word of a sentence to the student and they place the note on its staff line or space (they are already placed in the photo for example only) and then they also place a stone on the keyboard. I like the keyboard in the picture because it has all 88 keys.

   I set the colored stones up for beginning students to reinforce the idea of the 5 line notes and 4 space notes and the B,C,D in the middle of the clefs. The clear stones have the letters names written backwards on the bottom with a sharpie. Its easier than using stickers or glue.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

No practicing allowed!

   As a piano teacher, my job is to teach myself out of a job. My students should be able to play any piece of piano literature with knowledge, musicality, and confidence without having me around. That's why sight reading is a skill ALL of my students are required to perfect.

   Each week students choose a book from a variety of supplemental piano material organized by level in my borrowing library. Boxes are marked A-E in order of level. Sight reading is always assigned a level beneath the student's ability- sightreading is not supposed to be difficult or worked on- its just to be sightread.

   Once they choose a book they want from the two boxes of their sight reading ability, they take it home to play through it once and only once. I remind my students that they are not allowed to "practice" the sight reading assignment! They really get a kick out of this because who has ever heard of a piano teacher that says "DON'T PRACTICE!"? They are expected to play through the ENTIRE book that week- without working out any particular pieces --unless of course, they have a favorite.

   When they come to their next lesson, I choose one or two random pieces and the student chooses another. If they can play the pieces by counting, observing dynamics, tempo, and articulation WITHOUT my spoon feeding it to them or reminding them throughout the piece, they earn credit for that book.

Once they have earned credit for 25 books, they proudly and happily earn this: