Friday, December 30, 2011

Making Practicing Easier

   Many parents feel frustrated with practice sessions at home. They often feel the conflict that arises about practice indicates they are bad parents. Children can behave in strange and bizarre ways when it is time to practice. It is not unusual for children to resist being told what to do. As a teacher, parents often appeal to me to tell their children to practice because they feel their child will not listen to them. So, what is going on if this is a universal problem?

Edmund Sprunger has some important ideas on this subject in a book called, "Helping Parents Practice". There are three ideas in the beginning of the book that make sense to me.
1) Children are vulnerable and want to look good in the eyes of their parents. They crave attention as a sign that they are loved. If their actions get attention, good or bad, they feel safer. Keep in mind that your child feels insecure when she is not able play perfectly. When practicing gets hard, behavior can become trying for the parent.
2) When dealing with your child's vulnerability, notice if what you are doing is improving the situation or making it worse. Pay attention to outcome of your suggestions to your child.
3) Prepare yourself to try new ways to infuse your practice time with your child with more calm and help them enter the "Land of Easier". Wouldn't it be great if you, as a parent, had a magic wand to make hard things easy? It is time you told you child that you really don't have a magic wand. But, you can make things easier.

"This book contains specific strategies for working in ways that are easier- and more effective in the long run- than fixing and correcting bad things."
I will be revisiting this topic and ideas to make practice easier in subsequent posts.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Why Are You Giving Your Child Piano Lessons?

Dear Parents,

  Why are you giving your child piano lessons? You may be asking yourself that as the winter holidays come to a close and no one has touched the piano. Let me remind you of some of the reasons you are doing this very good thing.
  1)You come from a musical family and the joy of music has is permanently in your DNA. No? How about these reasons:

  2) You always wanted your child to be bi-lingual and music is one of the most beautiful languages.
  3) Your child showed signs of musicality from the beginning.
  4) Playing and reading music is related to achieving intellectually.
  5) Musicians have skills in self-discipline
  6) You want a well rounded child and the piano is a stepping stone to other artistic endeavors.
  7) Playing the piano is a life skill which benefits others.
  8) You know your teenager will need an outlet for their fluctuating hormones.
  9) Your child needs to learn how others feel and playing music by different composers is a doorway into the soul of another human being.
 10) You don't want to hear your child say,"I wish you had made me practice and learn the piano."

   I cannot begin to count how many adults have said to me that they wish they had kept taking piano lessons. But, to date, no pianist has told me that they wished they had spent their time on something else.
So, chin up, lets go forward and listen to another semester of beautiful music.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Piano Accompanying: Not Just Performance but Service

  Several weeks ago my student played a duet with me during a church service. She is a beginner musician but plays with feeling and thoughtfulness. She had the melody in both hands and I played a accompaniment. Her gift of service was well received and fortified her confidence in playing the piano. My daughter-in-law felt I had taken her advice to heart. "Children need to know why playing the piano is useful." Her words ring true and make it worth the effort to find opportunities to use my student's emerging skills.

  In my church this month the congregation is singing Christmas carols fifteen minutes prior to the service beginning. Two of my students, who attend the same church, are playing carols with me as accompanists. They are new to this skill and I have been singing with them to help them learn to follow another musician. Will they play perfectly? Probally not, but the leaders of this church understand the need to groom the next generation of church musicians. Abiding a few mistakes is a small price to pay for the huge reward of having volunteer, amateur pianists ready to assist a group and to provide music.
  You may have other musical venues to train your students, but I see the most consistent place, for those students who are in my church, is the prelude and postlude times in church meetings. They are not in the spotlight and I "break them in" as duet accompanists with me. Then later I can assign them a time to prepare music for the entire prelude or postlude period.
   I am a volunteer organist and am very vocal about music. Those leaders who organize music see the wisdom in my requests and I have support from them and from their parents.
   I can give credit to my responsibility as a church musician for my staying active in piano lessons for ten years. These opportunities to use my skill made me practice.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Teaching Piano Over the Internet

   We have heard that it is possible and thought how it might work in our studio and now I want to report I have had my first lesson over the internet. My student is my granddaughter who lives a half hour away. I see her often during the month but not every week. She is my guinea pig, and a cute one, if I can say so myself.

   Here are some thoughts on my first experience. There must be some learning curve time. My son and I both had to investigate the best service to use and practice calling each other. I had some issues with Skype on my PC so I was looking for another option. We settled on Google Video Chat because many people have a Gmail account which is what this service requires. Google has a plug-in to download and I had to solve an issue with my Apple Laptop working with Google but I prevailed and we found it very easy to call once the set-up was in place. The easiest service would be for Apple users as their FaceTime feature is already installed. This must happen from Apple to Apple devices.
   My laptop was the best solution to placing the camera at a good angle so that my student could see me and my piano keyboard. I slowed my teaching pace down so that I could show her more on the camera. and her mother was essential in the process as she could correct what did not seem to make sense to my granddaughter.
    Way back in olden times, we dreamed of this but who "wouldda thunk" it would happen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Recital Memories


 I am reflecting on the success of the fall recital. It was not perfection but there was perfection in the overall feeling of warmth and comfort we receive from music. 

We did a few new and daring things.  " Davy Jones Plays the Organ" was actually played on the organ. "Firework" was arranged by a student and played with a new style, while in the second recital the same piece was played as a duet on two pianos. Two students played and sang, which added fun and pizazz to some old favorites. Three students played their own compositions.

My son, the Piano Man, played a fantastic Brahms "Capriccio" and introduced the half steps which undergird the whole composition. I got the whole audience singing "Beethoven's Door" while I played his Bagatelle Opus 33 No.1

  Thank-you to all the parents who encourage and uplift their children in this life long pursuit of acquiring skill on a musical instrument. My aim is to train independent musicians who find joy in playing and sharing their music.


As I post these pictures I feel sad that I did not get a shot of each of my students. Please understand that I was uebermaxed out with things to remember.

"My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.'
Edward Elgar 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Bagatelle

    Every recital an idea emerges among the many pieces my students play which needs to be explored. This time it is the genre of the Bagatelle. The name bagatelle literally means a "trifle", as a reference to the innocent character of the piece. It all started when one of MFPA students played Beethoven's Door, a piece in Book 2. 

                                         It was snippet of music from Beethoven's Opus 33 No. 1.

 I recognized it and turned on the old I-Pod to Alfred Brendel's recording of the Bagatelles. My student listened with interest as the knock, knock part repeated three times.
   "Why does it repeat so many times?" I had an opportunity to explain variation on a theme. Each time the Knock, Knock part appeared it was preceded by a more complex variation. This Bagatelle is challenging with triplets followed by sixteenths and the cascade of sound is a merry wash of color. The best-known bagatelles are probably those by Ludwig van Beethoven, who published three sets, Op. 33, 119 and 126, and wrote a number of similar works that were unpublished in his lifetime including the piece that is popularly known as Für Elise.  
   Several students are playing a Bagatelle, not of Beethoven's, and so I am working the No.1 up myself.

                  It is great fun to play and I hope I can increase my tempo before the week is over.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Recital Time

  It's late fall and I always schedule a recital the Saturday before Thanksgiving. With two weeks left I have some serious questions to ask my student. These questions are conversations starters that help us think honestly about our performance pieces. (Click on resources and scroll down to Recital Time)
  I have hosted close to 50 recitals in my teaching career and the anxious feelings never change. Some students don't get lessons started until late September and 8 weeks is a short time to prepare a challenging piece. Two weeks prior I wonder if they will be ready. But, they always pull it off and life goes on. Next week I will teach lessons at the recital venue and that is the real testing ground. We rehearse our piece, talk about the stiffer grand piano keys, and practice standing on the stage and announcing our name and the piece we are playing. Looking at the audience and talking is very hard for some. I feel pleased when these students overcome their fears.
   Performance is an opportunity to share and show gratitude for those who sacrifice to provide us lessons. Those are the words I say when a student asks, "Why do I have to perform?" These words can sound lame to an anxious child but they are true to me. Thanks, Mom, for guiding me to the bench each day!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fun With Measures

  Explaining time signature is hit and miss with my 5-6 year-olds. I was struggling with the concept of the measure line with my first student of the day and failed miserably. Even when we worked in the writing book and drew the measure lines I felt I was not connecting. The next student was the same age and we were doing the same lesson. I remembered copying  learning tools from Susan Paradis called rhythm blocks. This seemed to do the trick.
    We lined up the cards into 4 count units using my colored pencils as measure lines. This allowed D. to find out what combinations make up four beats. Then we changed the time signature and only put three beats between fences.
   Fences, measures, sometimes words make such a difference in communication. On some days I feel tongue tied and unable to say things that make sense and other days I am right on.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dancing at the Pumpkin Party

   Dances are a huge portion of the repertoire in piano pieces. I often ask my students which they think came first, dancing or music When I taught Kindermusik Young Child the curriculum called for learning circle dances. I had a small space to work in but I found my 4-7 year-old children loved dancing  My MFPA Lesson Book  B has a cluster of dance music right around Tucker's Secret Life. There is a boogie, a bop, and a folk dance. My goal at this younger Pumpkin Party was to prepare my students to accompany these dances. I taught them to start with an introduction to ready the dancers.Then the challenge was playing smooth enough for us to sing and dance with the accompanist. This is not easy for these 5 and 6's. It required weeks of practice on these songs. But it worked and it was the best activity of the hour.
  We danced around a big gathering drum which represented a birch tree to the piece "Russian Sailor Dance". We moved right, then left, and finally stopped and beat the drum through the second line of the song. Tucker was all over the boogie dance. He had some smooth moves.

   I brought back the game Mr. Music which everyone loves and introduced the quarter rest. In the game asking for a rest or being told to rest meant you could not move from your spot. Ah, to have a bit of power is so stimulating.Thanks to T. who was my student helper for one if the parties.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pumpkin Party Success

   Group lessons have a big role in my studio. I have them 3 times a year and my students, on the whole, participate with joy. I work with small groups,4-5 students of similar age or ability, and I have them for one hour. I limit my agenda to three concepts, one always is playing a song for each other. My students want to perform at these lessons and I have come to place that at top priority because of their insistence.
   Here is what I planned and here is how it played out.
   Our Layers Art Project was front and center. I found their definitions of dynamics, articulation, and expression most interesting. Their ideas are vague but they are more familiar than before.I tried giving them a more specific definition with my hands and humming; no words.
   The Halloween composing game was really fun and revelatory. Thank-you again Wendy Chan.It was helpful to mentally review the C minor 5 finger scale first. Those were the notes for their composition. Then we clapped the rhythm cards one by one. The Halloween theme words were tools to solidify the pattern
Then came the test. Could they start with the note they landed on and make a tune in the C minor scale using the correct rhythm? The first student, overcome with nerves, played the rhythm all on one note.

 Okay! What could we try next? The next girl, learning from the first try, went up the scale and back halfway with her pattern. Each player was more creative.
                                              (There is the little rhythm card on the music stand)
What I did not expect was the light dawning on each of them that 5 notes and a catchy rhythm was the beginning of a really cool song.
  Each student then played their piece. A tempo word was chosen by another student and they played it again with this new tempo. I was smart, I am not always that smart, to provide a glossary in the back of MFPA Book 3A so that they had to look up the definition if they could not remember it.
  We ended with layering gooey, sweet toppings on a pumpkin cookies. 
Sorry, parents:(

Another chance to review the layers of musicality.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pumpkin Party for My Older Students

  MFPA students should not have all the fun, so I am having Pumpkin Parties for the older students as well. This will be the first time I have a group together to talk about My Layers of Musicality theme.
We need to discuss if these layers can be more prevalent in our performances. So here is the agenda.
    Learn or review tempo words
    Learn or review articulation terms
    Play for each other and listen for layers of musicality
  1.Learn one phrase of Joy To The World with added layers. See worksheet. Click on Resources and look for Layers of Musicality worksheet.
  2.Take turns choosing tempo words out of a pumpkin. Play a small section at that tempo.
  3. Play Halloween Composing Game, made by Wendy Chan.
  4. Each student plays a current piece and we all listen for layers of musicality.
  5. Share a cookie time.
Invited: 4-5 students on similar skill levels. I do one group lesson a week right into Nov. This replaces their regular lesson.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pumpkin Party Group Lessons

    I am taking all the songs around "Pumpkin Party" to the bank in two weeks time as this becomes the theme for group lessons.
   I hope this is entertaining for you as I review my plans.. I value all my blogger piano friends who give me their great ideas.
   Title: Pumpkin Party
   MC: Tucker
   Goal: Review patterns from A-G
            Let everyone play a piece
            Expose the students to accompanying
            Share some pumpkin cookies
            Sing Pumpkin Party with one child playing
            Have Tucker greet each child and give each of them a ticket for the A train
               bound for Piano Adventure Land.
            Get on the "A Train" with one child playing- circle dance
            Find the missing patterns around the room
            Each child plays their pattern on the piano, the keyboard, or the I-Pad Piano
            Tucker shares his secret life
            Sing while one child plays
            What are the dogs dancing?
                    A-B Bop- circle dance with one child playing
                    Russian Sailor Dance- with one child playing
             Match the notes- Call out a note name and everyone tries to touch the
                note card in the middle with their mini spatulas
             Have a pumpkin cookie

     Invited: Five MFPA students

                 Tucker, you are an inspiration!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Teaching My Own

     Teaching has become as natural as swimming for me. Now I have to explain that I swim seasonally, with great anticipation, and with some anxiety. I have to convince myself that my appearance is acceptable and get over the "what will people think" syndrome. Once that is under control I just jump right in and glide through the water, knowing that I was meant to be there and pulling in all the sensory information I can. Teaching is exactly like that. I love diving into the depths of what I teach, but more satisfying is watching the faces of my students, looking for signs of curiosity, engagement, and delight. From thrashing through waves of "what should they know" has come the stillness of "what will they be".
     My own children have been the tadpoles for developing my teaching style. Oh, I went to college and learned the theory but that did not make me a good teacher. Sitting tall on my own piano bench with The Fidgeter, The Swooner, and The Sponge, was the real forge of my teaching ability. The Fidgeter went on to dance lessons, the Swooner to the I-Pod, and The Sponge learned all I had to offer and culled knowledge from several other competent teachers.
     Can a parent be a good piano teacher? Well, I thought the word parent and teacher were synonyms. If you have children, you must teach. But often a parent and child collide with differing agendas. Here is what I learned from teaching my own.

     From The Sponge I learned to be consistent, to listen to his heart, and to make him learn his notes. Being consistent was a difficult challenge. Habits were hard to make in my day to day living. In other words, I rarely did the same things day after day. My first hurdle was finding a regular time for him to practice. I saw the power of holding time aside for piano every day. In that hour of the day nothing else was as important. The second hurdle was teaching him on a consistent day and treating him as a paid piano student with a scheduled lesson time. This young boy, The Sponge, was very quiet and mostly compliant. That sounds ideal, doesn't it? Actually, because he was not as vocal as my other children I found I had to pay more attention to his non-verbal signals. Learning to see into his heart became possible as I asked more open-ended questions and listened patiently. He had a very willing ear and wonderful short-term memory. Reading notes was too tedious so he memorized everything which served him well until he wanted to learn Beethoven. By this time we hired a piano teacher who gave him an ultimatum; learn to read notes or don't come back. I felt I had failed him. He told me he was quitting on the ride home in the car. She had wounded his pride and I felt remorse for not being more dogmatic about drilling with those flash cards. The harshness of her tactics did the trick. He proceeded to practice note-reading via computer with a vengeance. After two weeks his musical life took a new path. The code was broken and so he started sight-reading everything in his grasp. When he quickly proved that he did not need reminding to play, I faced the challenge of biting my tongue and not telling him to stop practicing. There came the point when silence was more than golden; after hours of teaching it was essential. We cleaned out a shed for The Sponge and put in a second piano. He became a wonderful pianist and a willing father as well.
      Now on Mondays I pack up my I-Pad, my stickers, some small candies for bribes, and colored pencils and go off to teach my grandchildren.

 I have three students in one family. It takes about three hours because they like me to stay for lunch. I am applying the same lessons I learned with my own child. Teach them on the same consistent day, listen to their different needs, and drill those notes. I am more of a novelty as a grandmother because I don't hound them all day long but it would be easy to get relaxed about the routine. I find that I must be stern about following through with practice goals and I challenge myself to do the unexpected to keep them interested. A puppet comes to visit now and then makes lessons playful and full of promise. I see good follow-through on their parent’s part and I know piano lessons are valued in their home. In the future I'm sure I won't be saying,"Gee, I wish I had not spent so much time teaching my own". 
        Jumping right in and gliding through the challenges of being a mother and a teacher has made me a better instructor. I do care about what all my students should know, but I have a lot invested into what my children and grandchildren should be. I hope music is a pathway to expression for them and I hope music teaches them to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that are open to beauty.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bass Clef Patterns

   Some of my off the bench activities include my kitchen floor, not far from my studio. I have been using my black ropes again as I teach the bass clef notes to MFPA Book 2 students. They need to experience the staff in many ways to understand the concept of the staff and the clef signs.'Learning a concept must be reinforced bu using the concept in varied contexts." Marienne Uszler

Sometimes figuring it out is exciting.
   October will bring group lessons back and I know the MFPA students will be having a Pumpkin Party where Tucker the Dog will want to hear every ones rendition of Tucker's Secret Life. This is such an engaging title and I have taken this about as far as I can go.Yeh Tucker!

His song is making my practice incentive art project into a real art display. We are adding sparkly paper shapes as we log into the 300-400 minutes of practice.
    It started out blank and then grew to this. Artistically this is pretty cool. My students are thinking about where to place their color and what shape they want to use. It should be very interesting to see it at the recital in November.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Big Dog Boogie

My First Piano Adventures Book B students are all playing, or have played, Tucker's Secret Life.This big dog boogie is a big hit in my studio. 
 What a great way to introduce the next rhythm pattern I want to highlight. CBAGFE will get much attention as we find different ways to drill this group of notes.Using the white board on my I-Pad, we locate and draw the CBA. The stylus makes drawing so much easier. Thanks Pianoanne for the heads up.

 Next we drill with Note Goal Pro on the I-Pad which has added a new tutor option of showing notes in sequence.

Then with some weeks on seeing these notes as steps we will practice them on Note Squish.

The great sequential lesson book and my added enrichment is making better progress than ever before.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Progress On Practicing Incentive

About 60% of my students are on board with my fall practicing incentive. On board means they are aware of how long they are playing each day, they want to report their minutes, and they have placed their first color shape on the board because they practice 100 minutes or more.
On Board
This studio wide art project will symbolize the many layers of musicality. It allows me to talk about this concept over and over again.

This fall incentive dovetails perfectly with my quest to ask better questions as many of my questions will be about adding more layers of musicality.
I am noticing the difference in participation and awareness as I expect my students to listen and evaluate their  playing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Asking Good Questions

 I am exploring and improving my ability to ask questions during my piano lessons. A passive role is safer for a student but I want my students to be able to think for themselves while they are practicing. Asking good questions is an art form. I find I often ask close ended questions where yes or no is the simple answer. These questions give some assessment but they reveal very little to the student. The best question invites revelation. The open ended question might ask the student to make an opinion or an evaluation. An example might be; how could you make this line sound more mysterious? What would the song sound like if we added a sharp here?

       Questions can be asked before a student plays and after she finishes. Before the student starts to play 
the questions can point to specific places in the music. These questions can give confidence that the task is understood and comprehended. The more difficult questions come after the piece has been played. Here the traditional role of the teacher is to assess the performance. But how can a student learn to evaluate his practice when he is alone if he is never asked to do so at the lesson. The best questions I asked last week were; if you were the teacher what would you say to help yourself play this song? She answered; you need to practice more. Which part needs the most practice? The middle section. Why is that difficult? My fingers get all confused. What fingering should you use in this section? 
  I find that I cannot ask questions in the same way to every student. Some seem to be on the same "wavelength" and others struggle with every question I ask. Those that struggle are often students who are "followers". They like to have the right answer and get wary if they are asked to have an opinion. I am seeing good results with a few of these students. They are trusting me more now and I see more observations skills developing. Does asking all these questions take up too much time? It can, especially if I still do too much explaining. I am trying to cut down on too much "teacher talk". They don't listen. If, however, I engage them with questions they are doing at least half of the talking. What do you think?
 I mindmapped my ideas to help me see the principles quickly. You can see them here. Enlarge the PDF to 75% and scroll down.
 "That's a Good Question" by Marienne Uszler is a great read.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Twin Spirits- Robert and Clara Schumann


"One of the most moving love stories in the world of music is the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann. In 2007, the British producer David Caird put together a music theater piece called Twin Spirits at London's Covent Garden in which Derek Jacoby narrated the romantic and tragic story, with Sting and his wife Trudie Styler reading passages from Robert and Clara's letters and the remarkable diary they kept together in the first years of their marriage. Some excellent chamber musicians and singers punctuate the readings with excerpts from the works of both Robert and Clara."
  This is a lovely DVD, a bit schmaltzy, but lovely. I was enchanted by the marriage diary Robert and Clara wrote together. The words written to each other are as beautiful as their music. Some of the details of their private life reveal their music preferences. Clara found the Don Giovanna score fascinating to play on the piano and of course, the music by Robert.
  They had 8 children in 13 years. When did Clara have time to compose, or for that matter, have time to play? And imagine the overwhelming mental condition of her husband which drove him to insanity. When she was alone she put her efforts into supporting her children, and mentally keeping Robert alive, with concert tours and composition.
 The Schuman's music is performed by superb pianists and vocalists. I found my copy of Traumeri and played with a different feeling after watching this production.