Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Playing the Harpsichord

   We have all had lots of fun playing the harpsichord lately. All of my classical students were already playing Renaissance and Baroque music, but now they get to experience the music as it actually would have been played 'back in the day'. 

   We've discovered that the instrument is really quite limiting. We can't play with dynamic changes, we can't emphasize particular notes. Staccato notes don't sound too much different than regular notes. We can play legato, but lifting at the end of a phrase is a lot less complex. We just take our finger off the key and that is the extent of our phrasing. We don't need to use the larger, more overt romantic-style phrasing and lifting. And of course, there is no sustain pedal.

   Everything we play sounds gentle and soft. This is so much different than the piano! So far, its been a really fun experiment. Soon, my 4th and 5th graders will be getting serious and learning to play harpsichord specific literature as we learn about the Baroque era and it's music in this summer's Baroque Class. 
I can't wait!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Harpsichord has arrived!

Its here, its here! I'm so excited- my harpsichord has arrived and I'm having so much fun experimenting with different literature. Wow, what a difference between the harpsichord and piano. Besides, the obvious ones, of course, the harpsichord is quite limiting. One of the first is that when playing, all the energy comes from my hands and fingers --no arm weight. Second, the keys are physically smaller so when I reach for an octave I get a 9th. Phrasing and "graces" (ornamentation) are really all you have to get your point across. Trills, mordents, and other graces and far easier to execute on the harpsichord. An extended trill is a breeze!

This week my students were able to play a harpsichord for the first time. My classical students all had Renaissance and Baroque pieces ready! This is such a unique opportunity for my students to really understand why Renaissance and Baroque keyboard music is what it is. And just how important the invention of the pianoforte was to music. Playing Bach on the piano and trying to explain why we use such a limited dynamic range -- and then playing Bach on the harpsichord -- are really too different matters entirely. Sit at the harpsichord for an hour, and it becomes suddenly clear.

My instrument is tuned to A=440, but the temperment is Kirnberger III. This is almost like tuning a house of cards....get one thing wrong, and the rest of the notes quickly follow. It begins with and A at 440, then a "perfect" 3rd (I know, I know, but that's what they call it). Everything is then tuned by ear in consecutive 5ths. Once two octaves of fifths are complete, the rest is tuned in octaves. Needless to say, this is going to be hard to do. I am NO expert in tuning, that's for sure!

Each key has 2 strings tuned at the octave. (4' and 8'). There is a knee lever for operating just the 8' and a hand stop for the 4'. My students had fun operating the knee lever and hand stops to see what kinds of combinations of timbre they could produce.

This is a fantastic student-level instrument and its theoretically portable to take to an event (if you are prepared to tune it). I am looking forward to my first specifically Baroque concert next March. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I have to say I don't have too many problems with fingernails in my studio. Generally, this is only an issue with new students. Once they are used to clipping their nails and how it feels when they play, they just seem to keep them short. I generally only need to remind parents once or twice. And for my students who are old enough to clip their own nails, I just hand them the clippers at the beginning of the lesson, if they forget during the week.

There are those who, in the past, have come in continually with long nails (long enough to click on the keys). I have tried everything....lecturing, reminding parents, phone calls, emails, parent conference, newsletters, posters....almost nothing will change the repeat offender.

My solution for long nails:
Immediately clip the nails of one hand only to allow them feel the difference as they play. 

I don't mind doing this in the lesson. What could be done at home for free, is now costing the student approximately $1.00 per minute.

I've had 2 repeat offenders in my studio and its no coincidence that both were chronically poor practicers. Twice, I even had teens show up with acrylic nail tips! No kidding! In the presence of the parent, I offered a choice:  1. Cut them off right now and we will proceed with the lesson. or 2. You can go home without a lesson (or makeup or refund- that's my policy). Both cut them off.

Why does this happen? I think they just aren't practicing.  How could they be with those nails? Because if they are practicing, its with dropped hand positions and flat fingers. And this is how some of them come to the next lesson- flat fingered. One of my students has been doing this for so long, I can't even correct his hand position anymore.

So this week, when he came (once again) with long nails, rather than handing him the clippers and giving him my 400th lecture and explanation of how this has negatively affected his hand position, I just clipped the nails of one hand and left the other. I then asked if he felt the difference. He said he did.

We'll see. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Yearbook Pages

Yesterday, one of my students told me that they love taking piano with me because it was more fun than their classmates' piano lessons because I play games, have fun recitals, and parties. What a nice compliment!

It takes a lot of planning and work for all that fun. And my yearbooks are typically full of page after page of all those fun times. The opening page features our "menu" of events and goes like this-

2011-2012 Menu of Events
WaterMusic Festival
Summer Cabaret
Back-to-School Party
Autumn Adult Recital
Halloween Party
Fall at the Mall
Christmas Recital Pizza Party Rehearsal
Christmas Recital
Topsy Turvy Week
Game Week
Adult Wine & Cheese Rep Class
Competition Rep Class
State Keyboard and Theory Testing
Double Scoop Recital
State Competition
Awards Recital

In between the event pages full of photos from each event, I have several miscellaneous pages of :

Markerboard Art

This "Listening Art" picture was last year's winner for yearbook cover:
Listening Art

Old pictures of the students on a page called "Remember When..." 

Its amazing how fast they grow!

Guess who?
This year, I have 2 new pages of "Guess Who? games" On one page I have various pictures of my students performing with their back to the camera....lets see if they can guess who the student is? 

Guess who?

On the opposing page, I have a picture of just their hands! Can they find their own hands on this page? (Not so easy when faced with a page full of hands...)

And of course, I have the standard pages of each student individually posing at the piano.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Year in Review

 My studio year is almost finished and I've been busy organizing the hundreds of photos taken over the course of this year to put into my annual yearbook.  I found some cute sticky photo frames at Bed, Bath & Beyond to put on my waiting room wall and made a "mini-yearbook" by posting some of this year's highlights. For the rest of this studio year and on into summer, my students and parents can catch a glimpse as they wait for lessons.

For the makings of a fantastic yearbook, I recommend Mixbook. My yearbook will be bigger and better than ever this year!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Aural Learners

   I have a few students who are aural learners. This can pose a problem when my student already knows the melody but we are trying to master the qualities of a piece that have little to do with the melody. Ode to Joy is one of the biggest offenders. My aural students will insert the dotted quarter/eighth combo where none exists in the print edition they are reading.

   Is inserting things that don't exist a federal offense? No, of course not. I'm all about creativity, but beginning sight reading skills are not the time to add or omit things our ears and eyes overlook. I teach beginning sight reading by building on the ability to read and silutaneously play exactly what is written, even if our ear objects. There will be time enough for "creative sight reading" (aka improvisational reading)  when they are more advanced and the creative insertions become based on musical and theoretical knowledge, not the inability to execute the printed score.

   Sight reading requires precision. The ability to read, count, and use correct articulation are the starting points. Staying in tempo is also crucial...especially when the family might be standing behind my student and singing along!

   When my students come into lessons with a piece they are excited to play that they already know melodically and then overlook the dynamics, articulation, rhythm, counting, tempo, fingering, accidentals, I can only wonder what I'm doing wrong. But then again, who wants to sit around counting and lifting when you are just so excited to dive and and begin playing? I think that kind of philosophy comes with age and experience. What can I do for my young student in the meantime? Here are a few steps:

1. Write in the counts.
Have the student write the counts under each note- away from the piano.

2. Tap and count the piece at the table.
Begin with two-handed counting on the table. (LH taps bass clef, RH taps treble clef).

3. Incorporate dynamics into the tapping.
Once they have worked out the tapping, do some soft tapping and heavy tapping for dynamics.

4. Incorporate articulation on the piano key cover.
We pretend to play the piece on the piano key cover using fingers rather than flat hands to tap and count the piece. When there is a lift at the end of a legato, we lift just as if we are playing the piece on the keys. If there are staccato notes, we do the same. If we need to, we pull out the rebounder to reinforce staccato or sing the melody to reinforce legato.

5. Play the piece on a digital piano or keyboard with NO sound!
Here, I can have the student play the piece with counting, articulation, and the metronome, but the melody is not interfering with their over-powering aural skills.

6. Once all the muscle work is done, take it back to the piano.
Now that my student has practiced the piece several times without the melody interfering, we can go back to the piano and play the piece as its written!