On Piano Teacher Shopping Part II: Evaluating Commercial Studios

 

Let’s set the stage: You’re a busy, well-intentioned mom or dad to somewhere between one and six offspring. Somewhere between the attempt at karate that didn’t go so well, the post spelling bee tears, and the pizza party finale of soccer season, at least one of these offspring started expressing interest in music lessons. You, being well-intentioned but also busy, are hoping to get them started with piano, which seems practical and readily available in your area. Plus, you have Aunt Marge’s old spinet in the living room that no one plays. This could be a great investment–much better then the ill-fated foray into modern dance!

You remember that you’ve driven past Family Arts and Piano School (Note: This is not a real place) lots of times en route home from school pick up. There is often a “Walk-Ins Welcome!” sign outside, so you figure, why not drop in and see if they can set something up for your burgeoning musician? It’s at this stage in the Piano Teacher Shopping process wherein reading the guidelines and suggestions below could be Hugely Useful to you, dear potential piano parent. Knowledge is power, so read on.

Questions to Ask Before Enrolling 

 

Regarding Facilities and Appearance:

  • Is the lobby or waiting area (if there is one) clean and well-tended? Any place that kids have been is bound not to be pristine, but clutter, chaos, visible grime, or suspicious odors indicate a lack of care and follow-through on the part of the business owners.

 

  • Ditto with the bathroom? Is there soap? Poopie diapers lying in the trash?  You are at what’s supposed to be an educational institute, not a dodgy late night Chop-Suey House #1 or similar. A reasonably clean bathroom should be a baseline expectation.

 

  • More importantly than the common areas–how are the “classrooms?” Are they clean and sufficiently lit? What about the instruments? Even if you’re not a pianist, you can plunk a few notes out and tell if a piano sounds like it’s a survivor from the Titanic. If your kid is learning piano, they need at least an okay instrument to work on. Digital instruments are fine, too, but, for the love of God, ask if it has weighted keys. If it doesn’t, leave. For real. Under no circumstances should you pay 30-40 dollars a pop on lessons that will be conducted on a Casio 63-Key blue light special from 1996.

 

Regarding the Teachers:

A lot of places have anywhere between 10 and 30 teachers of various instruments and specialties on staff. Before you send your kid back for a lesson (even a free trial one) with anyone, please ask these things.

  • Have they had a background check? I know, you don’t want to insult anyone. But the lunch ladies, your kid’s bus driver, the janitors and crossing guards at their school–all had to pass a background check before being permitted to work with kids. Your child will be alone in a room with this person. Many for-profit music schools do not have any sort of checking procedure in place simply because, as a non-public institute, they don’t have to.  It’s up to you if you’re okay with this, but understand that the business owners may know as little about their workers as you do. There is often no required vetting in this business model.

 

  • Do they actually play the instrument? “Well of course they do!” You say, “how else would they be teaching here?” Maybe! But not necessarily. Again, in some schools there is no vetting done. If you’re at a higher end institute, especially one associated with a college or university, any of the teachers are probably at least reasonably accomplished musicians. If you’re just at a random studio because you drive by it all the time, that’s not necessarily the case. Ask the teacher how many years he or she studied, and what their favorite type of music to play is. That will reveal a lot. Often times, teachers at multi-disciplinary studios are pressured by management to also teach instruments they don’t really play. If this is the case and the teacher isn’t a strong liar, they’ll probably tell you if they only dabbled in piano as a child and are really more of a clarinetist or something. Even if they’re super nice, if you want your child to learn piano, the teacher should have some basic degree of proficiency at the instrument.

 

  • Are you able to communicate with them directly regarding your child’s lessons and progress? Some studios are very staunch about limiting parent/teacher communication beyond pick-ups and drop-offs, even going so far as to conceal full names. The fear is that teachers and students will work out arrangements that eliminate the middle-man, so interaction is kept to a bare minimum. While that set up might be better for the business, it’s not great for students and families. A child’s education is a team effort and requires parents and teachers to be allies. If you’re not serious at all about getting your kid to actually play the piano, and just want expensive, musical babysitting once a week, then you could deal with this set-up. If you’re looking to invest some genuine effort in the process, take your business elsewhere.

 

Regarding Policies

  • Can you actually deal with what’s in the contract you’ll inevitably be required to sign? Read it thoroughly. If they say “Pay upfront for 12 weeks, no make-ups, concert attendance required,” don’t be surprised when things sort of fall apart if, six weeks in Wednesdays just don’t work for your schedule anymore. Pick a different teacher, cancel the other Wednesday thing, or be out the remaining 150 bucks. Your pick.

 

  • Does the contract strike you as onerous (e.g. “You must commit to a minimum of two years of study here”), strange (“We will host once monthly fundraising events for The School that begin at 9 pm every third Sunday”), or unprofessional (rife with emojis) in any way? These questions are just another reframing of “Are you sure you want to sign that?” Don’t do it until you are sure.

 

Oh, dear potential piano parent–try to enjoy the journey. I’m glad you’re taking it, and your child will surely benefit from your careful work and follow-through. If you’re an overachiever and want even more helpful info, check out my other post on this matter.

Much love and luck to you and your piano kid!

 

 

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On Competitions: Possibilities, Pros, Cons, and Caveats

The performance room door swung open and two figures emerged into the hallway. The boy shuffled off to one side, not looking particularly distressed, but a little wilted in his  tuxedo. The man charged straight ahead toward a woman, presumably the boy’s mother. “Who put that piece last?? That was his best one, and they cut him off! The other ones had technical issues for sure. Absolutely no chance now…” the red-faced father continued his diatribe, spurred on by alternatively outraged and supportive squawks from his female companion. Meanwhile, my student and his family entered the performance room, unperturbed by the nearby commotion.

Teachers were not allowed to sit in on the actual performance, for fear that they might somehow try to influence the judges’ decisions. (Scenes from the Sopranos and other mob shows came to mind  when I heard of this policy:”New Steinway in your studio, eh Nancy? Really beautiful. It’d be a real shame if something were to happen to it. Really hard to collect on insurance money, you know? Do ya maybe wanna rethink that second place decision?”) I pressed my ear to the door, hearing what I could of a solid, thoughtful performance by my undeniably gifted, though far from “perfect,” nine-year-old student.

At one point during my through-the-door listening, the nearby Outraged Mother emitted a particularly forceful squawk that caused me to turn around. Her eyes met mine “Can I HELP you?” she asked, in a tone that made it very clear she had no desire to do any such thing. “Nope. Just turned around for a second.” I resumed pressing my ear to the door.

My student didn’t win his category of the competition, nor did his tuxedo-clad counterpart. Both players undoubtedly made real musical achievements that day, however: in my student’s case, performing three reasonably complicated pieces at a high level in a high-stress environment. In Tuxedo Boy’s case, inspiring the most intense emotional response that a performance of “Dance of the Gnomes” has ever yielded, anywhere, ever.

In another nearby building, another one of my students was playing reasonably well in her category, though also not taking home a first or second place ribbon.

I was hugely proud of both of them, and we’d gone in understanding that the point wasn’t to win, but to present a high level performance that they’d worked hard to achieve. Neither was overly distressed over the results (both have far more self-possession and resilience than I did at that age, thankfully) and they went about the rest of their day.

The rest of my day was spent haplessly “volunteering” to keep the competition, a requirement of all participating teachers. Though I was pretty much useless in registering the participants (we had three able-bodied adults on hand for this task, and all the participants seemed to know what they were doing), I did get to know a few other teachers better. One in particular clued me in to the existence of a small faction of Piano People I didn’t realize would be involved with this particular competition: The Kids who Only Take Lessons to Win Competitions. “Oh, I’ve had students go to other teachers because the parents think I’m not rigid enough. They want the kids to play the two or three pieces per year, perfectly every time. I don’t work like that”

Two or three pieces per year? For a 10 year old? My students easily play 20-30 pieces per year, with the ones they perform being at a quite high level. Music lessons are an opportunity to discover different genres, composers, and musical concepts, and to build a repertoire. My students will never only play three pieces per year with the goal of absolute “perfection,” because..that’s just not how we roll.

Now, time for my disclaimers: Not all competitions have crazy pageant moms/rage-y dads freaking out in the hallways. Not all kids who win only play two pieces per year and cry themselves to sleep after their tiger mother yells them bedtime threats. Some competitions are fun and have a diverse body of participants with different strengths and wide ranging abilities. My students will still participate in competitions–though probably not this particular one again.

In the event that you have a reasonably bright, mostly hard-working Piano Kid who you’re considering putting into competitions I’ve distilled some thoughts into Piano Teacher Lady’s Competition Pros, Cons, and Caveats below. Keep them on hand as you squint at that application form for the upcoming Tri-Cities Young Artists Aspirational Series Festival of Pianos (or whatever it is you’re looking at.) Maybe it’s worth the 50 dollar application fee and drive to the farthest away of those tri-cities. Or maybe you should tell your kid to go practice their scales and sight-read some more Disney hits.

 

Competition Pros and Cons:

 

Pro: They’ll probably practice more. If your kid has the demeanor and drive that leads you to believe they should compete at all, they will almost certainly be motivated to work harder in preparation. They are naturally performance and achievement driven, and competing could be a good way for them to hone the skills that stem from that drive.

Con: They’ll have to work on the same one, two, or three pieces A LOT. Even if you/your kid/their teacher aren’t taking it to the extreme and only working on competitions all YEAR, the reality is that they’ll have to spend a lot of time refining a small amount of music, which often leads to less time spent playing other things for enjoyment, or discovering new pieces. There is definite value in getting a few pieces up to a very high level of presentation, but if your kid gets bored or burned out easily, you may want to think twice before signing them up. Take heart in any case–unless you’re extremist competition preppers, it will only be 2-3 months of hearing those pieces on an endless loop.

Pro: They could win, and they’ll feel great; or they could not win and experience the Valuable Life Lesson that you don’t always win, and it’s okay. One thing I was happy with in our experience of the competition described earlier was the fact that only 1st and 2nd place awards were given in any given category, most categories having between 6 and 20 participants. The reality was, most kids didn’t win. And it (hopefully) seemed obvious to all involved that all the kids were still well-prepared, terrific little people.  Not everybody needs to get a trophy for a competition to be a valuable and positive event.

Con: They could not win and be completely demoralized. If this is the case–your child/student is fragile enough to be broken spirited and put off of piano as a result of not winning–then probably some changes and other experiences need to happen before putting them in this kind of situation. If your refrains of “winning isn’t what’s important, it’s trying your best” are simply falling on deaf ears, then take heart and keep trying. Put them in some less intense performance situations or low stakes non-musical competitive events to reinforce this. They’ll figure it out eventually. If, on the other hand, you’re the one propagating the obsession with winning above all else, then…”BYE, FELICIA!” Piano Teacher Lady ain’t got time for you.

Pro: They could be inspired to work harder after hearing others’ performances. I never practiced with more drive than while I was at the University of Michigan, because hard-work and artistry were literally completely surrounding me–I could hear it through the practice room walls. Some of my fellow School of Music students had been playing full concerti with orchestras at age 8 and could learn a Chopin etude to tempo in a week. I knew I wasn’t quite in that echelon, but I did my damndest to keep up, and I’m grateful for that experience. I enjoy and use my classical chops on the regular, and would never have gotten there were it not for the flying fingers and keen ears all around me during college.

Con: They might compare themselves excessively harshly to others and feel a sense of futility/desire to give up. Honestly, unless they act on that desire to give up, this one might not be an overall con. Feeling “less-than” or futile in our work is a very common part of the human experience. It’s important to help kids develop skills to find meaning in their own work, completely for its own sake, and to make the most of who they are and what they can do, unrelated to others.

Caveats:

  • Again, every competition is different. Some might attract pint-sized prodigies who practice six hours a day and will make your child’s respectable sonatina movement sound like small potatoes. Others will have kids who are clearly not well-prepared and are simply there because mom said they’re supposed to. Others might be a happy medium, with a lot of good kids, respectful parents, and a supportive environment. Read up on any competition before you sign up. Ask questions of your teacher and the organization putting on the event. If it’s new to your teacher, too, and you can’t garner anything other than the bare bone facts of the competition–be prepared for it to be a wild card. Prepare your kid as best they can, and don’t sweat it.

 

  • Every child is different. You know your child. If they’re a roll with the punches type who practices regularly, they’ll be fine in whatever kind of competition experience they have. If they’re highly sensitive, simply aren’t into the idea of practicing a lot on the same pieces for a while, or like the idea of competing but don’t necessarily have the tools to follow-through…have some talks, and maybe be okay with sitting out on this one.

 

Whether you and your Piano Kid decide to compete or not compete–keep playing. You deserve a trophy for keeping them alive and getting them to those weekly lessons, in my book. Cash prize, if you help them practice regularly.

 

Piano Repertoire 101: A Listening Guide

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There is a lot more to piano music than “pretty background noise.”

 

Solo piano music has a way of getting summarily shoved into one big box marked “Relaxing Background Classical Stuff” in the minds of many listeners. This comes across to me regularly in conversation–someone finds out I’m a pianist and says “Oh, I love piano music! It’s just so relaxing!” or, somewhat worse, “I love that guy Yiruma! I wish I could play that!” Of course, I don’t really fault them: “Classical” solo piano can be very relaxing to listen to, and it’s great that they’re listening at all. (Also, Yiruma’s work is lovely in its own way, but doesn’t make the cut for Essential Piano Repertoire.)

Perhaps you, like the people I’ve described above, also have a soft spot for solo piano music when you’re trying to relax and feel slightly fancy at the same time. Maybe you played a bit when you were younger, and still occasionally squint and chord your way through your old Billy Joel song book. Or maybe you’re a Piano Parent, and your kid is starting to play things with names like “Waltz” and “Sonatina” and you’re realizing that there’s lots of life beyond “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and those awful Hanon exercises. Whatever the reason for your interest in piano music, this Piano Teacher Lady applauds you. The piano has a rich history as one of the most common and accessible vehicle for both “serious” musical study and enjoyment of all types of music in households across our nation. In listening to and/or playing piano music, you are taking part in a significant social tradition, and getting in touch with a discipline that has been studied, refined, written about, and taught for hundreds of years.

It’s with you enthusiastic listeners in mind that I’ve compiled the playlist below. It can be difficult for someone who hasn’t had much formal training at the piano, or doesn’t have  a professional musician in the family, to know what to listen to, and, once listening, how to make any meaning of the sounds they hear. Treat this playlist and my input as a nice casual stroll through an exhibit of great works that were, indeed, written with listeners just like you in mind.

[Side note: This is by no means a comprehensive list–merely a sampler platter of works from four major periods in music history–The Baroque (1600-1750), Classical (1750-1820), Romantic (1820-1900), and the Twentieth Century. Take them for what they’re worth, and go forth armed with more knowledge and insight as you decide what you love and don’t in The Repertoire!]

Piano 101 Playlist

Baroque Works:

  • Prelude and Fugue in B-Flat Major, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1:  J.S. Bach
    • This is a two part work, comprised of a prelude and a fugue. Bach wrote tons of works in this two part format, 48 of which comprise the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier which is a staple in any good pianist’s library. This P and F is among my favorites.
    • The prelude is fast and sparkling– a “touch piece” meant to both show off the performer’s ability but also to excite listeners. It utilizes some big dramatic harmonies toward the end, along with fast runs, and ends in a delicate whirlwind.
    • The fugue employs a favorite Baroque compositional technique called counterpoint. Contrapuntal music will introduce a musical idea called a “subject” (this one is introduced at 1:16 to 1:24 in the recording) and layers together the original and different iterations of that idea (“countersubjects”) throughout the work.  Imagine 3 or 4 different (very skilled) singers coming in at different times, and overlapping with complementary but not identical melodies. That’s counterpoint in a nutshell. This particular piece is sweet and happy in character for the most part, and has an element of simplicity not present in all fugues. Try this for some nerdy fun: count how many times you can pick out that first “subject” introduced throughout the piece, and notice how Bach varies it–sometimes it will be high, low, or woven in the middle somewhere.

 

  • “The Harmonious Blacksmith” from Keyboard Suite V in E Major: G.F. Handel
    • This piece is in one of my favorite forms: theme and variations! (You’ll listen to a lot of these throughout this list.) Handel introduces a pretty straightforward “song” at the beginning to 0:48, which he goes on to present in various forms and characters. Can you hear initial song throughout? In every variation, the simple joy of the theme is present.

 

  • “Les Baricades Mistérieuses”: Francois Couperin
    • Couperin was responsible for many lovely, accessible French additions to the Baroque keyboard repertoire. This piece is one of my all time VIPs for creating an effect of calm, beauty, and wonder. It’s in a Rondo form which means the initial theme recurs again and again throughout the piece, after several divergent verses (which I believe Couperin calls couplets). It has a feeling of perpetual motion without being too fast or frantic, and even the title gets you thinking–What “mysterious barricades” is he talking about? Barricades between people? Between death and life? The mundane and sublime? Music scholars don’t have a hard and fast answer to that, so listen and let your imagination run free!

 

Classical Works:

  • Twelve Variations in C Major on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” K. 265: W.A. Mozart
    • We all know and love “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Mozart loved the tune, too–enough to write 12 delightful variations on it. Enjoy the playful spirit throughout the piece, and take a moment to appreciate the technical prowess required of the performer. Mozart has Twinkles that involve fast hand crossing, attentive phrasing, and of course, fleet fingers!

 

  • Keyboard Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI/50, Movement 1, Allegro: Franz Joseph Haydn
    • Haydn was a contemporary of Mozart and is often noted for the humor and good-naturedness in his works. This piece demonstrates some of the composer’s typical quirky humor, and is a good example of sonata form for those of you whose piano kids are edging into the world of sonatinas and sonatas (or those of you who are just really interested in musical form.) Basically, first movements of sonatas or smaller sonatinas have a beginning, a middle, and an end, known as the Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation. You can read more about sonata form here, or just listen and see if you can hear how the middle section (the Development) gets weirder and tenser sounding,while the beginning and the end share similar motives and the same happy, quirky character.

 

  • Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”). Movement 1: Allegro Con Brio:             Ludwig van Beethoven
    • Another sonata in C Major, but dramatically different than the above by Haydn! This was written during the middle of Beethoven’s compositional career, often referred to as his “Heroic” period…and heroic is an apt word to describe this work! It’s exciting, athletic, and full of bold harmonic changes. In case you were wondering, it’s noted as being one of his most difficult sonatas to perform!

 

  • 32 Variations in C Minor, WoO 80: Ludwig van Beethoven
    • If you’ve studied music at all, you probably remember something about “major” and “minor.” This is the first work on this list in a minor key. If you’re super interested in learning more about the technical definition of that, head on over to the Wikipedia page like a good little researcher. Otherwise, just notice the overall darker, maybe stormy quality, present through most of the work. It’s athletic and dramatic (though not as much so as as the “Waldstein” sonata) and again, from Beethoven’s “heroic” decade (1803-1814ish). After already having listen to the two earlier Theme and Variations pieces in this list, the structure should be starting to sound familiar by now. Even with 32 variations, this work is pretty concise and goes by quickly if you’re not listening closely (I always wonder how many of those variations my audience actually when I played this at a recital in college…it can all start to blur together, I imagine…)

 

Romantic Works:

  • Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Op. 27 No. 2: Frederic Chopin
    • As the name implies, “nocturnes” are character pieces that evoke images or feelings of nighttime. This particular nocturne has some elements of placidity and calm, but far too much emotional intensity (tune in around 2:15-2:40 especially for this) to feel like a lullaby. Try to let the music wash over you and see what feelings emerge. Chopin’s music is particularly good at speaking to all levels of emotional experience–innocence, wonder, longing, sadness. I like to think he had a preternatural insight into the hearts and souls of his listeners–both during his life and into the present day.

 

  • Rhapsody in G Minor, Op 79 No. 2: Johannes Brahms
    • The second member of the “minor key” club on this list! This Rhapsody is tumultuous and intense, but fairly straightforward in its assembly–it’s actually in sonata form like some of the earlier pieces you listened to. Enjoy the thunderous and brooding quality of the work, and listen for a development, exposition, and recapitulation (i.e. an identifiable beginning, middle, and end). Also, if you’re feeling creative–imagine yourself as the pianist playing this! I always felt sort of bad a** as a little Michigan pianist hauling this around to studio classes. Brahms can be gloomy and demanding, but so empowering at the same time.

 

20th Century Works:

  • Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23 No. 5–“Alla Marcia”: Sergei Rachmaninoff
    • While you’re in a stormy G Minor mood, let’s head toward Russia for this energetic, powerful, and highly militaristic piece. Rachmaninoff is Really Russian here (and in most of his music, as I understand): full of fervor, pride, and resolve. From 1:30-2:45 there is some poignant lyricism to be heard amid the marching soldiers clearly alive in the rest of this piece. Enjoy the grandeur, maybe accompanied by some top shelf vodka and a cry of “За здоровье!” [za zda-ró-vye]

 

  • Prelude from Le Tombeau de Couperin: Maurice Ravel
    • Remember Couperin, the French guy from back in the Baroque? Well, Ravel certainly did. He admired his fellow countryman’s work enough to write a sort of homage to him. Le Tombeau is comprised of six movements, each harkening back to common Baroque structures. This one is in my current repertoire, and is a joy and challenge to work on. It needs to be graceful and artistic, but also clear, rhythmic, and quick. If I were to paint this piece, I imagine using a lot of pastels–soft lavenders and grays–with splashes of bold turquoise, fuchsia, and gold. It can be useful to think of music in terms of color–I’ll often have piano kids do some color coding in their music to reinforce louds, softs, and tempo changes. If it’s you’re thing, try conjuring up a little synesthesia, and maybe grab one of those adult coloring books and some nice colored pencils.

 

  • Excursions, Op. 20, No. 1–Un Poco Allegro: Samuel Barber
    • American composer Samuel Barber wrote this piece (and the rest of Opus 20) between 1944 and 1945, so it has an understandably more “modern” feel than anything you’ve heard on this list thus far. You might remember the term “ostinato” from your classroom music artistry at the xylophone as a kid. It’s just the fancy term for a repeated bass pattern, and this piece definitely utilizes one. It’s entrancing in its repetitiveness, ebb and flow. Barber intended to demonstrate American influence and idioms throughout these “excursions,” and you can definitely pick out jazz and blues influence atop and interwoven with that clear, hypnotic ostinato. (On a personal note: I’m forever grateful to a dear friend for introducing this work to me–it will even be used as her bridesmaids’ walking theme at her impending wedding. Congratulations, my dear American to British expatriate, Megan!)

 

  • Roumanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56: Béla Bartók
    • Oh, how I love Bartok! Not only is his music delightful to play, he also wrote many works with students like mine in mind. Mikrokosmos and For Children are wonderful works, and if you happen to be a piano parent with a good practicer who’s been at it for 1-2 years or more, I highly suggesting asking your own Piano Teacher Person about them!
    • These dances demonstrate the Hungarian composer’s fondness for folk music of not only his homeland, but other countries in which he travelled. The six movements of this dance can be translated as follows: Stick Dance, Sash Dance, In One Spot, Dance from Bucsum, Roumanian Polka, and Fast Dance. (Credit to Robert Cummings for these translations.) Enjoy the variety of spirit alive in these pieces, and dance along–Bartok would have wanted it.

 

As I reach the end of this hopefully-not-too-exhaustive list, I feel a Piano Teacher Ladylike satisfaction at having shared with you these works that I find Good and Important. However, I’m not without a twinge of disappointment–nary a single female composer has graced my list. Music history has been regrettably male dominated in many ways–however, opportunities arise even now. Stay tuned for my upcoming post: Powerful Women in Piano: Performers,  Pedagogues, and Composers.

 

 

 

Unpacking Piano Teacher Lady’s Bag of Tricks

This post is part of 2 of a collaborative post with Las Vegas based teacher, Lia Hwang at pocketfuloflearning.wordpress.com Be sure to check out and follow her blog for lots more info and insight from another piano teacher lady! 

 

If you’ve ever spent more than a few minutes working with or taking care of children, you know how quickly things can go from sunshine-y hugs and smiles to sullen boredom to Absolute Chaos. This is why we can’t have nice things–and also why most moms’ purses are stuffed with everything from goldfish crackers to bandaids to forgotten rocks from their offspring’s most recent playground excursion. Similarly, teachers in training learn the hard way about how easy it is to lose control of a classroom when your lesson plan isn’t well put together or planned out, or simply contains fatal flaws like giving a rowdy group of 5-year-olds wooden “rhythm sticks” (speaking from personal experience).

Over the years, through training, research, trial and error, this Piano Teacher Lady has developed a handy Bag of Tricks, which I’ll unpack below. Before you scroll through and take off on your own Amazon/Target shopping spree to fill your bag, though, please consider this: being interested and invested in your students is the foundation of a good teaching relationship, and more valuable than anything you can pull in and out of a bag. Each of your students is a person with a full life–family, friends, hopes, fears, and surely some weird quirks you hope they’ll grow out of before middle school. Listen to them. Respond with compassion and curiosity. If they know you care from the get-go, they have a much better shot of being happy and successful in their music making. That being said–scroll away, and happy shopping!

Piano Teacher Lady’s Bag of Trick

1. Good Curriculum/Repertoire

Every child will respond a bit differently to different method books and approaches. When I’m starting a new student, I gather basic info from the parent: How old is the child? Is he/she reading, and if so, at what level? What do the child’s other interests tend to be? Armed with that info, I make an educated guess as to what method series to start them on, and pull in supplements or make adjustments as needed over the course of our lessons. The following are some of my go-to’s and scenarios in which they work well.

Piano Adventures Primer-Book 5

PA

Best for: The garden variety 1st or 2nd grade beginner (Primer) through older elementary/middle school students who have a good foundation with you or another teacher (Books 1-5). The primer gives a nice introduction to keyboard and establishes basic rhythms with pre-reading pieces before moving into notes on the staff. Subsequent levels are thoughtfully put together and pianistically oriented (especially if you get the “Technique and Artistry” books alongside the “Lesson” books). PA is a good staple method to have in your bag of tricks.

My First Piano Adventures

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Best for: 3-5 year-old Preschoolers and Kindergarteners who are not fluently reading (words, I mean) yet. I highly recommend getting the “Writing Book” alongside the “Lesson Book” which makes it easy to add variety and “off-bench” supplementary activities to lessons. Most of the pieces are clear and manageable for even the littlest learners, with engaging illustrations and cute lyrics. Notes on the staff aren’t introduced until Book B, so you can work to just get the child playing without overwhelming them.

Piano Pronto “Keyboard Kickoff,” “Prelude,” and “Movements” 1-2.

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Best for: Older beginners (you know, those worldly 3rd-8th graders who would surely roll their eyes at “The Tick Tock Song”) and first/second year transfer students, or kids who don’t take well to Piano Adventures and want to play songs that they know. This method relies heavily on public domain songs that are familiar to most kids, so that can be a good motivator for the Piano Adventures skeptics in your studio. Older beginners tend to enjoy learning concepts like the musical alphabet right away in Keyboard Kickoff, and appreciate having “real songs” with cool sounding teacher duets from almost day one.

I don’t tend to use this as my go-to for new beginners in grades K-2 as I prefer to delay notes on the staff until kids have a solid rhythmic foundation. Also, Piano Pronto is pretty minimalist in regards to illustrations, which can be less engaging for very young ones, especially who aren’t reading in school yet.

The aforementioned books tend to be at the top of this piano teacher lady’s bag, but there are certainly more that I highly recommend as For a more comprehensive look into pros and cons of various books, check out “Method Series Reviews and Comparisons”.

2. Stickers

stickers.jpg

I’ve realized that stickers are the subject of some contention among piano teachers, If they’re absolutely not your thing, scroll right on past, but I’m a big fan. They’re cheap, easy, and provide a little instant boost as a reward for solid practice and results in lesson, or even focused good effort on a new piece for very young kids. In my experience and opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a lot of positive reinforcement (especially for the very young ones!), and I haven’t yet had a kid enter middle school still entirely dependent on stickers to get things done. Head to Dollar Tree or Target for the most bang for your sticker buck.

3. To-Do Lists and Sticky Notes

notess

While you’re at Target or Dollar Tree, toss a few pads of cute “To-Do List” style notepads and Post-Its in your basket. Most of my students bring a little notebook with them for practice to-do’s and reminders of things to pay attention to in their music, but back-up notepads are helpful for weeks when they forget, as well as for kids who do better with very simple to-do style instructions. The sticky notes I use mostly for marking pages. Not strictly necessary, but I figure that anything a teacher can do to help make practicing more accessible to the student is good!

4. Portable Dry Erase Board+Markers

whiteboard

Kids love this. Something about being able to write on a shiny surface and then wipe it away and write something else is infinitely more fun than plain old pencils and paper. I’ll scrawl out a quick grand staff and have kids draw and name new notes, draw certain intervals, or write out the notes in a new scale. Other times, we’ll write out rhythm patterns in an applicable time signature and play our rhythms with plastic cups on the floor. Using different colors to draw a spectrum of dynamic signs or to reinforce articulation concepts is fun, too. Mine was this one https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01CZXEJAG/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1, though I’m sure you could dig around to find even better deals. Worth the small investment for the creativity and fun it adds to lessons!

5. NoteRush

noterush

Best $3.99 I ever spent on an app! NoteRush lets you choose a range (e.g. notes around middle C, Bass to Treble C, ledger lines, etc.) and a cute note icon (ladybugs, soccer balls, planets, and plain notes). Students play each note as it appears, and try to beat their time in each subsequent round. This is more effective and practical than simply naming notes on the staff, in my opinion, because the learner has to actually find and play the note on the keyboard. Highly recommend that you get to downloading this if you haven’t already!

6. Extra “Manipulatives”

manips

Anything a student can touch and move around can be helpful for adding variety to lessons. I like my Happy Piano ball (literally just a dollar store “stress ball”) for getting a good round hand shape in young beginners, and the dinosaurs and unicorns (erasers from Target!) for playing key identification games–i.e. Help the T-Rex find Middle C! Again, little things like this are certainly not necessary, but can add a little whimsy to your students’ lessons.

7. A Planner

Super useful for staying organized, being where you need to be when you need to be there, with your bag of tricks at the ready! I tend to prefer my phone’s calendar for this, but if you’re a paper and pen person, check out Lia Hwang’s blog on piano lesson planning here!

My Bag of Tricks is always updating and growing, as any good piano teacher lady’s bag should be. All my love and luck to all my fellow Piano Teacher People out there, and your kiddos too!

 

Bringing back the “Middlebrow”: Music Lessons as a Cultural Equalizer

'The middle class is nothing for you to be concerned about honey. They'll probably all be gone by the time you grow up.'

I first heard that term, “middlebrow,” from my father. He used it in a positive light, as I have come to by default. We were listening to something ridiculously famous (William Tell Overture, perhaps?) on his favorite Classical Pops satellite station. Coming of age in the 1960’s, he, like most children with a decent public school education, would sort of recognize the William Tell Overture, if only from its use in Looney Tunes. They also would probably know who Hans Christian Andersen was, and had the understanding that smearing leftover peanut butter from one’s fingers onto a Degas at the art museum is largely frowned upon. Today’s children, by and large, have a very different awareness of art, history, and the world around them than that experienced by their grandmas and grandpas growing up. No longer does there exist a “middlebrow” culture–a common body of art, literature, and music that was known by and accessible to just about everyone. In the place of this prior uniting body, there is now simply more stark division and unequal opportunities for adults and children alike, dictated largely by race and income.

Although Dad might have had a small case of idealizing “the good old days” as we listened to Rossini,  I don’t think his perceptions were without merit. Education in America, and the livelihoods resulting from it, have at the very least stagnated and in many ways declined over the past 30 years. Laments over the dissolution of the middle class are present at every level of news media and scholarly research. While the 50’s and 60’s surely weren’t some ongoing live-action Norman Rockwell scene, the world of 2018 often looks like something out of dystopian sci-fi. There still exists very Highbrow Culture: only for the elite, academics, those with special understanding and money, and Lowbrow Culture: the mass marketed ideas, music, and “art” delivered to us through our Facebook feeds, shining happily on our children’s tablets, imploring them to buy yet another thing, to click on one more link. There is little in between, just one more factor contributing to the great disparity in outcomes for our nation’s kiddos.

Rebuilding the “middlebrow”–the establishment of accessible works of art, literature, and music to almost everyone who desires–could be one small piece in creating a more equitable world for our children, a more meaningful life experience for them. And here, I put on my Piano Teacher Lady hat: what better way to, one person at a time, start piecing back together that common knowledge, that link to the past and ideas bigger than one’s own, than through music lessons? (It’s necessary now, I think, to take off the Piano hat for a second and step back to clarify: I harbor no grand delusions of creating a better nation one sonatina at a time, elevating the souls of children through Hanon exercises, or any other such nonsense. I argue that music lessons for every child who wants them and can work within their structure are just one small part of one small nudge toward a more well-rounded, opportunity rich upbringing.)

It’s worth noting that the late, great Virginia Woolf and a handful of other scholars disagreed with me in accepting “middlebrow culture” as a good thing. Virginia saw middlebrow works as “betwixt and between”–not having enough artistic integrity to be appreciated by those who could truly understand, but too lofty to be valued by the Lowbrow masses. I like to think that if Virginia were out and about today, seeing the lapse in consistent, valuable knowledge given to some children, and their resulting lack of opportunities to succeed, she’d be more open to the idea of creating a cultural body for them to latch onto and grow from.

inequality1
Have a heart, Virginia: every kid deserves cultural awareness. Middlebrow is better than…”Nobrow.”

Not every piano student is going to be a professional musician (spoiler alert: 99% of them won’t be). Not every 2nd grader will go to college, and not every college graduate will earn a living wage. From where we stand, though, as parents, teachers, and community members, it is our duty to give them every tool we can to make the best out of this life. Real equality of opportunity is still a pipe dream in many ways, but we can at least give our kids a body of knowledge to draw from and to use in working their own way through an unjust world. There is goodness in wanting to reach beyond the mass marketed “low brow art” of Facebook Live to achieve a more thorough and meaningful experience for your children and yourself. Middlebrow culture, like the middle class itself, is worth fighting for.

In every lesson taught in my studio, I try to pull from a wide variety of sources and repertoire. Even some of the simplest folk songs used to teach basic music reading have a rich history behind them. Children’s pieces often connect nicely to other works of art or literature, to other times and places, or to great men and women a student may never have heard of otherwise. (Looking at you, Nannerl Mozart!) Each lesson and practice session contributes to the development of multiple literacies–historical awareness, reading/decoding, basic math, emotional regulation and expression…the list goes on!– for every little piano person, and it is a good teacher’s greatest joy to contribute to this process.

My hope in this new year is that every potential piano family who wants to give their kids the opportunities afforded through private music study is able to do so, and that every Piano Teacher Person values their power to make that small nudge toward a more equitable cultural awareness for their students. I’m doing what I can in my tiny corner of this big world, and am praying for music and upward mobility for all in 2018 and beyond.

Back to School: Making Music Amid the Chaos

Labor Day is fast approaching. If your kids aren’t already back in school, they’re surely in the final days of a desperate countdown to the inevitable. They’re looking pretty on point, though, with their newly trimmed hair, price-gouged Justice graphic T’s, and sneakers that won’t fit by Christmas. You, though, dear piano parent, are probably feeling a sense of low-grade panic far more pervasive than that of your little ones: Your bank account has taken a real hit (Thanks to those charlatans at Justice! BOGO 50% MY A**!!), group messages seem to indicate that you are your carpool group’s beast of burden (“Just till October! Then I’ll have schedule sorted better!” [lies]), and you know your kids will be tired and hostile by the time they get to that otherworldly math homework you absolutely can’t help with–after they’ve finally made it home from Brownies (child 1), Running Club (child 2), and Piano Lessons (child 3).

morningmom

As a Piano Teacher Lady, I recognize my role as one of many colorful rotating characters that add to the chaos of your day–and I, generally speaking, really applaud your efforts. Keeping tiny humans alive 24/7 looks hard. Getting them to play Mozart isn’t easy, sure, but the constant butt-wiping, dietary supervising, night terror quelling that parents do? Amazing, really. As you, dear parent, are trying to assemble your family’s school year routine into something that doesn’t leave you a wild-eyed mess every night, here are a few observations from my corner of your world. Do with them what you will, and know that I am–and most of the characters in your rotating cast are–rooting for you.

     1. Are you sure music lessons are a good idea right now?

I’m biased, admittedly. I’m of the belief that music lessons are a great idea for the majority of families (here’s another post to that end). However there are definitely exceptions. If your tweens have already spent a few years on the piano bandwagon, don’t seem particularly interested/never practice (you don’t have it in you anymore to force the issue), and are completely consumed with their travel soccer schedule…maybe it’s time to call it quits. You’re not morally obligated to keep your kids in piano indefinitely. It’s wonderful to expose them to private music study–I’d say that’s almost a moral obligation–but if you’ve put in your time and it’s not working out, let it go. Your piano teacher will undoubtedly be a bit sad to lose students, but will also appreciate being able to open a slot for another kid who has the time and energy to invest.

If your kids are not totally potty trained, can’t focus on any given task for more than 3  minutes, or are still mastering the art of picking up/eating Cheerios, music lessons are not a good idea right now.

If you’re somewhere in the middle–kids old enough for lessons, interested, busy schedules but not insanely so–then do some teacher shopping and go for it! If lessons/practice are only going to replace dead-eyed screen time, and travel/logistics won’t kill you, then lessons with a good teacher are definitely a benefit to your schedule!

 

    2. Your kid not loving to practice is not sufficient reason to quit or not sign up

Do you always love going to work/church/the gym? If you say yes, then I’d please like to know what you’re on, so I can get some, too. It’s more likely that your sense of reality/responsibility/delayed gratification keeps you from throwing the towel in and becoming a professional Netflix watcher (until your internet gets cut off from skipping the bill). There is much joy in music making, yes, just like there is joy in mastering new concepts at school or in work. Both of these sometimes-joyous pursuits also entail some grunt work and totally joyless moments. Your 7-year-old probably doesn’t have quite as developed a sense of delayed gratification and responsibility as you do, so you’ll  have to push him/her to do whatever their teacher’s practice requirements are. That’s okay! If it’s worth it to expose them to good things and get them to their lessons, it’s also worth it to get them to do what they need to at home.

 

      3. “Communication is key”

I know, I know–it’s a hackneyed phrase. But for real–when times are crazy, communicate with the people in your…community! Unless they suck, your children’s teachers/coaches/babysitters really want them to succeed, and for parents to be satisfied. The piano teacher can’t be of any assistance re: your child turning into the Exorcist girl every night when it’s time to practice if all he/she sees is a smiling student and the back of your minivan. So, talk to them. Text them, answer their emails, ask questions. Try to be polite and appreciative of what they have to say, and I guarantee you will have a valuable ally in managing your little ones. And, for the love of God–tell the carpool parents in that group message that you can’t be the beast of burden all the time. Happy back-to-school. You got this.

 

 

 

On Piano Teacher “Shopping”

When I started showing musical inclinations as a little kid in Linkville, Michigan, it was pretty easy for my parents to settle on a piano teacher for me: Mrs. L. was one of two teachers in Pigeon, the bustling metropolis of 1200 residents about 6 miles north of us. The other Pigeon pedagogue only took older kids who already read music, and Mrs. L’s house was conveniently located between the teeny tiny public library and the IGA with the video rental counter. Done and done.

Mrs. L ended up being great for me. She was in late middle age, eccentric, and favored matte neon lip shades as her signature look. I thought she was fabulous. She taught me to read music, to play my scales, to curve my fingers (but not too much!) She introduced me to my BFF Bach. And by the time we moved on to (pseudo)city life and another teacher in Saginaw, MI, I was ready and well-prepared for a more “serious” approach.

If you live in Linkville, Pigeon, or any other number of teeny tiny rural towns across America, you probably won’t have too much deliberating to do regarding a piano teacher for your child. You will have at most two options, maybe three or four if you’re up for making an hour long trek once a week to the nearest city (where there’s a Wal-Mart and more piano teacher options.) In these situations, I’d encourage you to go ahead and trust the only neighborhood Piano Teacher Lady to teach your little one the basics. Support your kid in their practicing at home, and if it turns out you’ve got an aspiring concert artist on your hands, you can always reconcile yourself to making the 90 minute trek to the even bigger city (with a mall, a hospital, and even MORE piano teacher options!)

smalltown
The splendors of tiny town living….

If you happen to live in one of those slightly bigger cities, or, even better, a family and kid centric suburb of a major metropolitan area (looking at you, Oak Park, IL) then you almost certainly have an abundance of piano teachers in your area. As a pedagogically dedicated, pro-child development, pro-happy family Piano Teacher Lady myself, I would implore you: Do a little research! Don’t just walk into Magic Fingers Music Academy of Little Prodigies because it has a neon sign and is on the way to school, cut them a check, and hope for the best. Ask around at church, in playgroup, on Facebook groups–there might be a perfect fit piano teacher for your child who teaches out of his/her home a mile away, or one who prefers to come to the students’ home. You can give Magic Fingers Academy a try, too, but be aware that many such organizations don’t require their teachers to be credentialed in any meaningful way, and deal with high rates of instructor turnover.  Just something to keep in mind.

As you’re going about your piano teacher shopping, here are a few other things to keep in mind and hopefully result in the start of a “harmonious” (har, har) relationship with your very own Piano Teacher Person.

Reasonable (and arguably necessary) expectations of your piano teacher:

  • Basic Musical Competence/Performance Ability
    • Ask: “Do you get a chance to play much, or are you mostly just teaching?” If they intimate that they played until they were in high school and are doing this as a side gig to bring in cash, maybe continue shopping. Your teacher doesn’t have to be a touring soloist with a degree from Juilliard, but your child will be in a much better position to learn if their teacher can appropriately demonstrate and serve as an inspiration by performing in recitals and discussing their own music making
  • Reliability
    • Be clear about your scheduling needs and expectations, and be willing to be flexible from time if possible. If you are clear and communicative, your teacher owes it to you to reciprocate that and be where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there. Your teacher might be a wonderful pianist with an impressive performance degree, but if they chronically don’t show up for your child’s lesson, text at the last minute to reschedule, or repeatedly seem rushed or distracted, you probably need to keep shopping. Kids pick up on cues from the adults in their life (obvs) and a flaky piano teacher gives off the message that it’s okay to be late, inconsistent, and, ultimately, that their lessons aren’t very important.
  • Some kind of curriculum, lesson plans, and objectives
    • Different teachers use different methods. I have my preferred method series but pull from other collections, the classical repertoire, and stand alone pieces depending on student needs and preferences. If your teacher is a sort of nice enough fellow who shows up at your house, kind of teaches your kid things by rote for 30 minutes, and is very vague about what should be practiced in between lessons, then you’re probably not getting much pianistic bang for your buck. Your teacher should either provide or let you know the materials your child will need, and should be clear about what the child is to do in between lessons.

 

Unreasonable (and clearly ridiculous) expectations of your piano teacher:

  • Immediate, almost mystical abilities to transform your child from a nose picking Shopkins enthusiast to a piano prodigy
      • No teacher can do this. Your kid will probably play one-note-at-a-time hits like “CDEFG March!” and ” Halloween Time” for a solid year, before moving awkwardly on to “boom-chick-chick” style left hand accompaniments with right hand melodies. This is normal. If your kid practices regularly and with good intention, they will likely move more quickly from the awkward “boom-chick-chicks” to more artistically satisfying pieces. Don’t look at your teacher two weeks in and be all “WHY CAN’T HE DO DIS??

    tsungtsun
    Flight of the Bumblebee?

 

  • Boundless flexibility to accommodate your schedule
    • I’m a pretty easy going Piano Teacher Lady and am usually happy to reschedule a lesson for a mutually workable alternate time when given sufficient warning, or in cases of unforeseen emergencies. However, don’t expect your piano teacher to always be able to make schedule changes for you. It’s unreasonable to text on Friday night  “CAN WE ACTUALLY BRING HIM AT LIKE 7:30 AM TOMORROW TO GET PIANO DONE BEFORE THE SOCCER GAME?? KTHNX!” and expect your teacher to just be like ” Okay! I’ll make breakfast for everyone!” Treat your piano teacher how you’d like to be treated, and respect their time. They will likely respect yours, too, and maybe, every once in a while, respond to that frantic text with “Sure! Whatever works for you this week is ok!”
  • The ability to completely change who they are as a person
    • It’s fine to request that your child be allowed to work on “fun” songs of their choice along with whatever your teacher’s curriculum is. It’s even fine to ask privately that your teacher go easier on your child regarding practicing expectations if they’re going through a difficult or exceptionally busy time. However, if your teacher is a fun loving music education graduate who wants to incorporate rhythm exercises, song writing, and listening activities into lessons, don’t expect them to be a harsh, technical perfection demanding “Tiger Teacher.” Similarly, if your teacher is a crusty-ish older man with a  very set way of doing things (e.g. Scales, Hanon, 1 piece at a time, memorization required) then don’t expect him to bend over backward and change his approach for your child. There are many piano teaching fish in the sea. Do everybody a favor and find another one if yours really isn’t working out. It’s okay, I promise.

 

Best of luck to all of you in your piano teacher shopping (or not, if you live in Pigeon.) If you have a free minute, enjoy this video, a beautiful demonstration in failed communication and ridiculous expectations.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Won’t Yell at your Kid during their Lesson

Most of us can think of at least one teacher “horror” story from our school days. How about the gym teacher who called out your weight to giggling classmates during your chubby phase in middle school? Or the homeroom teacher who definitely saw the token class strange/poor kid getting mercilessly picked on for his too-short pants and weird mannerisms but hey, hands off, “the kids need to figure it out!” Or, my personal favorite–the piano teaching nun circa 1955 who kept a ruler floating above the pupil’s knuckles, to inflict immediate regret in the event of a wrong note.

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Wrong day to wear braids, kiddo.

Stories like those–and my own personal collection, most featuring a hawk-eyed first grade teacher on the ragged edge of burn out–serve as good anecdotal reminders of how a teacher’s methods can stay with an individual long after they’ve otherwise successfully matriculated. There is much more than anecdotal evidence, though, to remind me and all the other piano teacher people out there not to be an a**hole to kids during their weekly lessons.

Before going any further, it’s useful to define what I consider “being mean” in the context of a child’s piano lesson. Pointing out and correcting an error in playing is not mean, it’s necessary. Not being clear about what the error even is, demanding that the child play the passage again and again, and making snide remarks about how if they’d done better in their practicing this wouldn’t be happening, though? I’d say that lands squarely in a**hole territory. Being honest about how their lack of practice over a week means we can’t move forward, then helping them construct a better practice plan is by no means cruel…it’s “practical.” Shaming them for having time for other things but not for piano, intimating that you don’t want them there, or playing the condescending comparison game (“Remember what Suzie played at the last recital? She’s amazing. She practices an hour every day. I can’t believe that you’re the same age and can’t find time for 30 minutes”) also pretty unnecessarily hostile.

“Being mean” is not the same as being honest or refusing to act like every student is a “special snowflake” who can do no wrong. Rather, it is depending too heavily on criticism, shame, and the instillation of fear as a means to improve performance. I’m pretty sure most teachers who behave “meanly” don’t do so for the sheer thrill of seeing  a 7-year-old cry over their clunky left hand technique (although a streak of teacher sadism is probably not totally out of the question.) Harsh teachers, I assume, are utilizing the same school of thought as “tiger mothers”: demand nothing but perfection in all pursuits, intermingle making mistakes with utter personal failure, and hope that in the end the “tiger cub” makes very few mistakes and is in charge of their own ridiculously high achievement.

The “perfection or bust approach” maybe works for some families. Piano Teacher Lady is not making a blanket judgment that all very strict parents end up harming their kids’ psyches. (Amy Chua, the original “Tiger Mother” certainly cites some success gleaned from being very hard on her daughters.) However, research seems to show that on the overall, overly critical parenting (and, by extension, teaching) has more negative than positive effects on kids. In 2015,  Scientific American cited a study by clinical psychologist, Greg Hajcak Proudfit, the results of which showed higher levels of error-related negativity in the brains of children with hostile, critical parents, as well as a higher presence of anxiety disorder symptoms over time.

I’m not going to assert that having a traumatic piano lesson once or twice a month will lead to neurosis and anxiety disorders later on. There’s no way to prove that. However, I can logically predict that those traumatic lessons will lead to negative associations with music learning and, down the line, classical music as a whole. A Mozart piano sonata on the Starbucks playlist, instead of being a nice few moments of clarity and grace, will be a reminder of the scales that were never quite clean enough, the fingers that were too clunky to be any good. And, in the here and now, the 10-and-under crowd under the tutelage of an overly harsh teacher is internalizing that music isn’t for everyone, that it’s completely divorced from fun and enjoyment. Their first experiences with music feature it as a lonely game that they can’t really win, yet another source of stress in their young lives.

Of course, some kids will be exceptions. Some will have an exceptionally rare combination of talent, perseverance, and the ability to take things in stride. These kids will make and love music no matter who their teacher is, and, in the right circumstances, they will have great musical careers.

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Concert Pianist Lang Lang as a Child

That being said: kids of the Lang Lang ilk are exceptionally, exceptionally rare. In fact, it’s pretty unlikely that the majority of piano students will even go into music professionally. To that end: Why make music/playing the piano into an ongoing, futile competition for students? Why not approach it with kindness, humor, and the desire to instill a lifelong connection to and appreciation of the arts? You can still correct wrong notes, emphasize the importance of practicing, and explain the bane of clunky left hand playing. Your students will not suffer musically if you’re not a jerk to them, I can promise that.

Music teachers are, especially for very young students, synonymous with music itself. Be patient, be kind, be real. In doing this, you can not only dodge falling into the vast file of “traumatic teacher memories,” but hopefully also ensure that happiness is their overarching feeling when that piano sonata comes on  at Starbucks.

 

 

 

 

 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Recital Season

I know, I know. November and December are already largely taken up by hours of traveling, family fun/trauma, intricate dinner making, messy cookie baking, excessive church services, stressful shopping escapades…and the list goes on. Why throw a student piano recital into the mix, too, you ask? Piano teacher lady says: Because holiday time! There’s a bit of magic in the air, especially for kids. It’s a societally agreed upon time to come together and celebrate, and families are generally used to having a lot of extra festive occasions to attend. Students clean up nicely in red sparkles or clip-on ties, and often enjoy performing Christmas music (if teacher had the foresight to throw it into their repertoire early enough.) Go ahead and exploit seasonal tidings of comfort and joy, pianistically: have your recital, eat some reindeer shaped cookies, and keep the following list handy as you’re keeping it all together.

 

DO:

  • Secure the venue before you schedule anything. If you’re a teacher and have a space for a recital in your house, great. If you’re a piano mom who wants to show off your baby grand and enjoys having eclectic groups of kids in your home, by all means let your piano teacher person know you’d be open to hosting. Pastors and/or directors of community groups you’re a member of are often really nice and would be more than happy to fill their otherwise empty space with joyful plink-plunking. If you go this route, definitely offer a donation or something, even if they don’t ask. (In the name of community building or whatever). Larger studios with multiple teachers usually come equipped with a space for recitals, making this step super easy for everyone. No matter what, feeling good about where your recital will take place will help prevent any unnecessary extra holiday stress for teachers, parents, and students.
  • Be clear about the time, date, and location of the recital well in advance of when it occurs. I like to square away logistics about a month in advance. Whether your studio is small or large, it’s smart for teachers to send out both paper notes and emails with recital details. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to send follow-up texts or emails for the sake of clarification. It’s a cinch that any given date won’t work for every single student and their family, and that’s okay. Do your best to pin down a date that’s not obviously problematic (e.g. the Saturday after Thanksgiving or the day of a big parade in your community) and just go with it. If you schedule it, they–at least most of them–will come.
  • Make sure students know exactly what they’re playing and what to expect at the recital. I usually draw big stars and scrawl the words RECITAL PIECE at the top of the kids music, and tell parents (repeatedly) that their piano kid should be focusing on or keeping up that piece, depending on how long they’ve been playing it and how secure it is. I try to help kids figure out what piece or pieces to play right around the same time I schedule the recital, so I can give them all the related information at one time and then keep reinforcing it. Most school age kids will have participated in some kind of recital or school concert before, and basically know the drill. For really little ones who don’t really get what a recital even is, I try to describe it to them AND sometimes show random Youtube clips of other student recitals. This, I hope, allows them  to visualize the performer/audience set up and not be totally disoriented at their first recital.
  • Have the kids take a bow. It might seem silly or “old-school” but it’s just good concert etiquette. Bowing is the way to say show gratitude for the audience’s attendance and attention, and everyone wants kids to have a sense of gratitude, right?
  • Enlist the help of parents to put together a small reception. Someone brings napkins and cups, someone brings juice, someone brings cookies, someone brings pretzels (or whatever) and badabing! Instant reception. You don’t have to get crazy with gourmet hors d’oeuvres and crystal punch bowls. Just a bit of sugar and some festive napkins is by far enough to give the kids an opportunity to celebrate their achievements.

DON’T:

  • Repeatedly change the recital date/time. If you have to change it once, do so, and be very clear about it. Repeatedly switching things around (especially via text or counting on students to tell their parents) will just lead to confusion and frustration, and your recital will probably not be well attended. Get your s*** together, and follow through.
  • Neglect to prioritize students’ recital pieces. You want your kids to be as comfortable and solid as possible with what they’re playing. Live performance can be super disorienting, so they can’t count on being as focused and on top of things as they are in lessons. Piano parents should encourage their kids to start practice  sessions with their recital piece(s). Teachers should help kids work toward memorization, even if scores are used during performance. Recital day feels better for everyone–teacher, performer, audience–when the kids are as comfortable as possible with their pieces.
  • Spook the kids out about performance. Many kids will naturally already have a bit of performance anxiety. Parents and teachers shouldn’t make things worse by turning the recital into some kind of big, looming test of ability alá the Hunger Games. I don’t like to do differentiating awards/trophies at recitals either (e.g. the kids who practice a lot and play really well get a prize while the other kids don’t. Ability and preparation shine through and a solid performance is its own reward. Not to mention the inevitable heartbreak of no-trophy plunkers. I prefer to minimize tears at my recitals, thankyouverymuch.) I like to emphasize that the recital is a chance for the studio to be together, share what we’ve been working on, and celebrate the season with music. “Practice, do your best, and try to have fun,” isn’t bad advice for the little pianists in your life. Life will give them many future opportunities for debilitating anxiety complete with heart palpitations and diarrhea. Why start that kind of thing earlier than necessary.
  • Make the recital so casual that kids show up in basketball shorts or yoga pants. Just as it’s possible to make too much of a recital, it’s definitely also possible to make it seem like such a “no big deal” situation that students don’t take it seriously. I don’t do a “dress code’ or anything like that, but I do casually ask parents and kids about what the student will be wearing, and encourage them to choose something nice and that makes them feel good. Looking presentable when performing is a sign of self-respect and respect for your audience…and again, who doesn’t want their kid to develop a healthy sense of respect?

 

As I close off this post, teeny snowflakes and bits of trash swirl around in the frigid Chicago breeze, and Ella Fitzgerald reminds all of us bundled up people of Starbucks to “have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.” The holiday season is often cold, hectic, and at times painful,but this Piano Teacher Lady sincerely hopes your next several weeks are punctuated by music, comfort, and joy…even if that’s in the form of a six-year-old plunking out “Jingle Bells” 54 times in a row.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Method Series: Reviews and Comparisons

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Large bird and unwitting cat embark on pedagogical adventures.

Does anyone remember the Noona Young Pianist series? I barely do, either, save for a few favorite pieces from my little pianist years: I liked singing along, loudly, with “Lil’ Liza Jane,” (I remember that it was in E Major because the sharps were vaguely traumatic.) Also, earlier in the series, there was a culturally inappropriate gem called “Chinese Cowboy” featuring lots of parallel fourths and references to a “silk ‘kimon-i’.”

Whatever. The series certainly didn’t harm me, but I don’t exactly credit it with my successful matriculation and career as a pianist, either. These books are hard to find today–maybe somebody got upset about the silk kimon-is? It’s no big loss, though. There are SO MANY methods available for aspiring pianists in 2016. In my teaching, I tend to choose one series for each student to be sort of the stable, reference point, but also pull in supplementary books or pieces from other methods.

Every series has strengths and weaknesses, and can contribute to lessons being more or less fun and varied for both teacher and student. If a teacher is solid and a student wants to learn, it’s very unlikely that choosing the “wrong” series is totally going to ruin their playing for life. However, it’s definitely worth it to compare and evaluate different books before just settling on one series as a go-to. Keep an open-mind, be responsive to students’ needs and personalities, and consider some of my personal Piano Method Yelping below:

1. Hal Leonard Student Piano Library

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Strengths: Kid friendly presentation of the keyboard, basic rhythmic concepts, and the “musical alphabet” in books A and B. After book C, there is a pretty comprehensive introduction of technical/articulation concepts (staccato, legato, crescendo, etc.) and reasonably “fun” corresponding pieces that facilitate those concepts. Similarly, HL features a logical introduction to theory concepts and key areas, with student friendly corresponding warm-ups and pieces. Many of the pieces in books 3-5 require at least a little “moving around” the keyboard, so students don’t get too locked into a single “position” at the piano. (More on this in in other reviews.)

Weaknesses: IMHO, there are way more pre-reading/black key only songs than necessary in book A. The point of having very little beginners play first on the black keys is to simplify the playing process and emphasize rhythm before adding in the matter of distinguishing different specific key/note names. However, the black keys are narrow and often harder to manipulate than one might think and kids are often itching to play on the white keys and make more concrete meaning of what, exactly they’re playing. Throughout the series, the pieces are mostly pretty student friendly and pedagogically sound, but there are a few clunkers especially in book D and book 4 (I’m looking at you “Bayou Blues” and “Spinning Daydreams”.)

Other notes: Book levels 1 and 2 are divided into sub-categories A and B, and C and D. After this, the books are numbered,3, 4, and 5. Most of my students have at least one or two Hal Leonard books floating around in their backpacks. Some of the songs are lackluster, but most are reasonably fun teaching pieces and can be a wholesome part of your students’ musical “diet.”

2. Faber Piano Adventures

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Strengths: Well-done graphics, especially in the earliest books–great for grabbing and keeping student attention. Great mix of introductions to and follow-through of theory concepts (rhythms, time signatures, scales, and functional harmony) as well as technical ones.  There is more of a clear emphasis on pianistic phrasing (e.g. how to play two-note slurs, taper phrases, etc.) as well as general musicianship (key relationships, transposition, etc) than in most other methods, making this one my overall favorite. Additionally, there are tons of supplement books that you can pull in that correspond directly with the main “lesson” books. The Piano Adventures series practically structures lessons for you, with supplementary activities to try alongside pieces, so it’s great for new teachers just getting their footing, as well as students who thrive on really clear structure.

Weaknesses: The “pacing” in most of these books is a little faster than in Hal Leonard, Bastien, and other series, and can be a bit much for some students. For instance, more notes on the staff are introduced sooner than in other methods, and can be a lot for new readers to keep track of. In these cases, you’ll almost have to pull in additional theory worksheets/note name flashcards. The corresponding Piano Adventures Theory books can be helpful, but often don’t correspond directly to what students need the most help on (for instance, an entire assignment will focus on an easily mastered rhythm concept rather than offer more practice on note names or other concepts that a student is assumed to know.)

Other Notes: When using this method, definitely get the “Lesson” books as your main ones to work from, and then pull in “Theory” and “Performance” books as you deem helpful. The “Performance” books often feature a little bit more interesting/pianistic pieces, but don’t have the additional theory concepts and activities in the lesson books. The Piano Adventures books are very well-thought out structured well…highly recommend them as an addition to any Piano Teacher Lady’s bag of tricks.

3. Bastien Piano Basics

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Strengths: Clear and methodical introduction of rhythms in the Primer A, notes on the staff and intervals in Primer B, and chords in Levels 1 and 2. If you get the corresponding theory books, the activities actually match up very well and can be a meaningful supplement to a students’ pieces. Primer B is great to use with 5-6 year olds, as most of the pieces are very short (good for little attention spans!) and several can be mastered within a week for most kids.

Weaknesses: I go back and forth in my opinions on the Bastien books. I appreciate the solid foundation in scales and chords that they provide, but also feel that books 2 and 3 get too obsessed with I, IV, and V7 chords to the neglect of other pianistic structures. Also, the graphics tend to be pretty dated (all the cartoons look straight out of 1974) and there is very little offered int he line of extra activities or technical tips.

Other notes: Basically, I like to keep Primer B and Level 1 around for certain 5 and 6 year olds, or as sight-reading practice books for older kids. I wouldn’t go with this as my primary method, but they certainly have their place if you’re working on getting students to understand and fluently find chords, or to get more solid with intervallic reading (skips vs. steps, etc.)

4. Alfred’s Basic Piano Library

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Strengths: There are many books to choose from. If you get the “All in One” beginner book, it’s sort of convenient–there are written theory exercises right in the book, which is handy, especially for kids with disorganized parents who prefer to minimize books/paperwork when possible. Also, there is a book aimed at “The Older Beginner” which I like to use with 9 or 10 year olds who are just starting lessons. It doesn’t spend too much time on pre-reading pieces, introduces notes on the staff at a pretty steady clip, and features some well-known songs which kids tend to take well to.

Weaknesses: Oh, so many. I’m sorry, Alfred. My biggest complaint is the obsession with various “positions” at piano. G Position. C Position. Middle C position, which features a song called “Thumbs on C!” sure to piss off most self-respecting 7 year olds. There are very few extra activities or practice ideas in the pages themselves, very few technical tips or drills, and often lyrics that are silly without being funny, cute, or relatable in any way.

Other notes: I like the All in One book, sometimes, and the Older Beginner book. Other than that, I skip this method. Sorry to those of you who love it or were raised on it–I’m sure it didn’t destroy you and you’re perfectly competent. I’d just personally rather take my pedagogical business elsewhere.

5. The myriad other methods out there

Hal Leonard, Bastien, Faber, and Alfred are the methods I’m most well-versed in. I don’t know enough about other ones to offer a very comprehensive review, but will offer these generalisms: As a pianist, I wouldn’t touch the Suzuki method with a 39 and a half-foot pole. If you want to, go for it, but do it right and get the certification and everything–don’t just kind of teach kids by rote out of the Suzuki books and hope for the best. (I’ve seen this, it’s not great.) Also, the John Thompson Teaching Little Fingers to Play books might be okay, for some kids. I’m not comfortable forcing middle-C based reading at the very first piano lesson, though, which seems to be the foot JT starts out on.

 

This Piano Teacher Lady has had a very light teaching day. October 31 and I just can’t believe all the kids would rather go trick-or-treating than play piano! Crazy. (Kidding, obvs.) Good luck to all you other Piano Teacher People out there. Be picky, but not too picky, about your resources, and keep on playing!