The Art of Teaching

The Art of Teaching is different from, say, the art of painting, or the art of playing an instrument, different from the art of tuning a piano, or the art of making a beautiful home.

If you mess up your painting, you’ve got a messed up painting. If you mess up on your instrument, you messed up a piece of music. If you don’t do a good job tuning that piano, then you’ve got a messed up piano which is annoying and can be expensive to fix.

When you mess up in your teaching, you are messing with a human being.

So, why is it that people who know how to play their instrument but have NO training in regard to teaching are let loose on pupils?

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe some poor and inexperienced teaching. One of the two teachers had a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, in addition to a frenetic and somewhat chaotic personality (and teaching style). While this teacher was without a doubt very experienced, the lesson itself was not a very promising sign of things to come: it was crammed full with irrelevant information (way too much theory that would not be applicable/useful for several weeks), redundant information (without checking with the student what he already knew, this teacher “taught” concepts with which the student was thoroughly familiar already), and way too little actual instruction on the instrument. The student was not given sufficient time to try out the new concept and then make sure that it was sufficiently understood to be taken home and practiced for a week.

The other teacher had a much more pleasant personality and some day will probably be a good teacher. At the moment, however, this one has neither the experience nor the training to teach a beginning student. After grousing about how inexperienced this teacher was, I came to the realization that it was not inexperience but the obvious lack of pedagogical training which made the lesson unsuccessful.

We all start out “inexperienced”. None of us are born with experience. There’s a first time for everything. There’s a first time a physician performs an exam or a surgery. There’s the race car driver’s first race.

What sets these people apart is the fact that before their first “real” thing they did spend time, usually a very long time, observing their masters, and then learning to practice their craft, usually under the guidance of their masters.

For some reason, people think that as long as you can play an instrument, you can teach. I actually once overheard the wife of the head of a music department at a university tell one of the professors something to the effect of “I don’t understand what there is to learn about teaching: you gotta love kids and you gotta love what you do.” There. She said it. What more could there possibly be to it?

There are, of course, “natural” teachers, just like there are “natural” psychologists, people who have an instinctive, intuitive, “feel” for people. But think of the training a psychologist has to undergo before she is allowed to practice her craft!

My wish list for pedagogical training of any future teacher of musical instruments includes:

•mandatory lesson observations of different masters in their field, more than just once or twice please;

•study the art of teaching their particular instrument: while there is some flexibility, there is usually a certain order in which things need to be learned (master addition before you attempt multiplication) or else you end up with an unreliable foundation;

•study the teaching literature for their instrument: just because you grew up with a certain method doesn’t mean it’s the best;

•teach many, many lessons under the supervision of your teacher/master. In the beginning, this should take the form of observing your teacher’s lesson (of another student) and taking over for 5 minutes to teach a certain concept. Over time, you grow into teaching an entire lesson, more time and you’ll be creating your own lesson plans.

In short, some form of apprenticeship.  Think about a physician’s first surgery. Regardless of how simple the surgery, the physician has most likely observed this surgery many, many times, then, with more training (reading about it, studying all aspects of it, passing tests to prove she understands all aspects of it), assisted in this surgery before she ever gets to touch a patient without supervision.

Of course, you say, well, with surgery – you have to be that careful.

But why should a student’s learning process be different from surgery? As a teacher who gets transfer students, I see all the time the damage a teacher with insufficient training can do to a student who doesn’t know any better.

I dream of a world in which we hold (the training of) teachers of musical instruments to the same standards as physicians, psychologists, and other professionals in charge of human development and health.

(Originally published Nov 19, 2009)

Competitions – who gets to go?

I have in my studio many ambitious and competitive students and parents. Naturally, they want to enter competitions, and win prizes. So, the question is:  who gets to go??

When a student or parent asks whether they get to “do that competition”, I have learned to ask, “Why do you want to enter this competition?”  Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer can be vague: “Because we did it last year?” or “Her friend does it” or such. For me, those are not good enough reasons.

Of course every teacher has their own way of determining whether a student should enter a competition, but for me, I have decided that two things need to be in place:

One, the student has to demonstrate a strong desire to excel. All the time, not just when there’s something “in it” for the student such as a competition and therefore a possible prize. If the student doesn’t seem to have this strong desire to excel then the parent has to have it.

Two, the student needs to benefit from the competition. Preparing for a competition is a lot of work, tedious work, and for some students that’s exactly what they need: a goal, and a deadline. For other students having that kind of pressure is not constructive. And of course, students can have different needs from year to year.

And every year, sigh, I misjudge at least one student …

thou shalt

In an article in the October 2006 issue of Clavier, Greg Brown says the goal of The 5 Browns is

to relax some of the formality of concert etiquette that might discourage people from attending classical music programs. We don’t mind when people applaud between movements of a work; it just means they like the music.

Say what?  Dilute the clear distinction between the educated who know that thou shalt not clap until the end of a work, and on the other hand the hapless, uneducated, uninitiated, who – heaven forbid – applaud enthusiastically after a particular beautiful or rousing movement even though there’s more to come?  (I am not talking about the people who clap because they think they are supposed to clap but have no clue where and when.)

Why is it that we hold the inseparatability of a multi-movement work so sacred? Can you imagine an opera where no one claps until the very end?  The singers wouldn’t know what to think!  Or imagine a rock concert where people start to clap at the beginning of a song because they recognize the song and show their enthusiastic anticipation of what’s to come. (Ah, yes, I hear ye, “But a rock concert is not the same as a classical concert!”  That’s right.  A rock concert is usually sold out, to tens of thousands of people, who want to be there.)

I once attended a concert with a woman who politely started to clap immediately at the end of a piece – even though the end of the piece was particularly quiet and there was the afterglow of the last couple of notes still in the air.  Her clapping actually disrupted, destroyed the lingering scent. When I mentioned this to her she said that she felt obliged to clap because otherwise the performers might think that she didn’t like the piece.

What I would really like is a performance world – and I have read that this is how they do it in Israel – where you clap when you feel like it, but only then.  No more holding back your enthusiasm after a movement that excites you, but likewise no polite applause at the end of a piece whose performance you didn’t like.

There are other cases of  “thou shalt” – traditions that we hold onto religiously, because we think we’ve always done it this way, although a closer look at history would prove us wrong.

Among the most passionately fought wars in piano pedagogy is the issue of memorization.  For most of the 20th century, pianists performed from memory, and teachers required their students to memorize.  While there are students who seem to memorize effortlessly without even trying, memorization is actually a skill that can and needs to be taught and learned, just like sight-reading, or playing by ear.  The issue of whether to require, some will say “force” students to memorize, has been at the heart of many articles and discussions in professional journals.

What seems suspiciously absent from these discussions is the distinction between memorizing and performing from memory which is a completely different issue.

I teach memorization skills because they are an important part of a good piano education.  Those of my students who have studied with me for a while know better than to ask, “Do I have to memorize this piece?” because my answer is always the same: “If you do a good job practicing then you cannot help but memorize along the way.”  The implication being that good practice trains all the elements of memorization:  finger memory (because you have played the piece a million times), intellectual memory (because I have asked you to explain all the details of the piece and you have trained to play hands separately and from anywhere in the piece), aural memory (because you know how it sounds), visual memory (because you know what it looks like), and so on.  Memorization then becomes a mere extension of practicing, a different aspect of practicing, but not a separate issue.

My students are required to memorize their performance pieces.  But I don’t require them to perform from memory anymore.  If all that separates the student from a great performance is the comfort of having the score in front of him (I call it a security blanket), as a visual reminder, then he gets to use the score.  If there’s any suspicion that the student needs the score to read the notes, then we know that the piece is not ready for a performance.

The one criterion for a good performance is that the performer enjoyed performing and the audience enjoyed listening.

play – practice – perform

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part One

Playing, practicing, performing are the three basic ways we spend time at the piano. Neither one is better or more important than the other, all three are essential. They are related, yet distinctly different. It is therefore important and necessary to define what it means to play, to practice, and to perform.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  Whatever happens is ok. Wrong note? No problem. Tempo all over the place? Don’t worry about it.  Which is probably why we call it “playing for fun” – because it’s fun not to have to worry about stuff. “Messing around” at the piano falls in the playing category, as does trying out new pieces.  One could compare playing to the way one meets people at a party or public function: due to the setting, interactions are usually less thorough, less intense, than in a one-on-one meeting. You will probably not take the time to divulge your inner-most secrets to every single person in the room – as a matter of fact, it would be inappropriate to do so; nor would you spend the time and resources (questionnaires etc) to get to know every last little detail about everyone present.

When you practice, the goal is to improve. This requires two things: you need a goal (what do I want to improve?) and you need a plan, a strategy (what do I need to do in order to improve?). Having a goal but no strategy is similar to having a destination but no knowledge of how to get there. On the other hand, having a strategy but no goal will make you wander aimlessly.  It is helpful to have an evaluation system in place: how do I know when I have reached my goal?

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  A pianist in a recording studio does not have a real audience, but he/she is playing as if there were an audience because once the CD or DVD has been published, it will be listened to, and/or watched by an audience. When you perform for a real/live audience, you get one chance at presenting your piece and for that reason it is different from playing. Most people underestimate what it takes to perform. They think that performing is like playing, except with a lot of concentration because you don’t want to mess up.  They think since you know how to play, you should – with a lot of concentration – be able to perform.  However, that’s like saying you’re qualified to give a speech just because you know how to speak.

Even though all three elements – playing, practicing, performing – are equally important, this is not how most students and pianists spend their time at the piano: we tend to spend a huge amount of time practicing, some time playing (feeling guilty because we’ve been told that we should be practicing), and even less time performing. We especially don’t practice to perform. This means our performance success is based on luck (“Just focus and you’ll be fine!”) rather than skill (“I have practiced to perform, I am well-prepared.”)

 

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part Two

A different frame of mind is required for each of the three basic ways we spend time at the piano.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  In other words, you don’t care what happens. You should not care. The point is not to care. The moment you care, you are actually practicing.

When you practice, the goal is to improve.  In other words, you must care. You must listen and take stock and correct and aim to improve.  If necessary, you must interrupt your playing in order to fix something. You must be prepared to interrupt, and to repeat short sections. If you don’t care, you’re not actually practicing, you are playing.

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  In order to perform successfully, you must leave the “practice” frame of mind behind. You may take mental notes of your performance, but any accidental deviation from the perfect ideal must not distract you or interrupt your playing. It takes practice to change one’s frame of mind, intentionally, from practicing to performing.  Naturally, there is more to successful performing but this different frame of mind is probably the thing students and pianists overlook the most often.

Grousing

My biggest gripe with piano teaching is not what you’d expect – students who don’t practice.

It is the parents.  For the most part, I have wonderful parents: they are involved, interested, supportive, good communicators.  But there are a few bad apples and they really sap my energy.  I have been saying for a long time that I can handle pretty much any student, supposedly difficult or untalented or otherwise not ideal, as long as I get along with the parents, as long as we’re on the same page and they support what I do.

I have a few students who move slowly because they don’t practice as much as they could and should, but they do progress, and the parents and I are on the same page, content with how things work.

In our lessons, my goal is always to give honest and supportive feedback to the student and make sure none of my students leave the lesson until they have understood what it is they are to practice, and how.  I even make the younger ones read my hand-written assignment out loud to make sure they can read my handwriting and understand all abbreviations – much of the assignment often reads like some secret code, “LH 3 mf” for instance.   (And there are students of whom I ask not only “what does LH stand for?” but also to show me their left hand …)

I praise them pretty much every chance I get, but I also let them know when they are not doing well.  I don’t think I have any students who do not want to do well.  So, when they don’t do well it’s usually because they don’t understand a concept or because they are tired or distracted.  To the surprise of many parents, I don’t chide them for being tired or distracted, but I draw their attention to it, put it in words, and then say that we have a choice:  either say, yes I am tired and I need to take a break, or, yes I am tired but I’ll try again anyway.

And I make sure they understand that one is not better than the other.  I wish more people developed some sense and understanding of their state of mind, and their limits.  Somehow, perhaps because of the liberty of being able (allowed?) to say “I am tired/distracted” most students choose to try again and often play better than before.  To students who would benefit from it, I offer strategies for coping with the challenge of playing / listening / thinking while being tired.

While I try to be honest and supportive and praise my students for doing a good job thinking or listening or having patience (when they do), I do NOT comment on their being “talented” or “future pianists” or any such thing.  And parents who gush at their children (in front of me), telling them how talented they are because they understood a difficult concept  immediately lose points with me.   I similarly cringe when I hear parents say things like, “Ms. Kuder wouldn’t be teaching you if you weren’t so talented!”   So very much NOT true.  “Talent” is a promise, nothing more.  I have had “talented” students who were not interested in learning – how’s that good for anything?

Then there are parents who answer the questions I directed at the child, for the child.  When I ask a question, I get so much more out of the answer than just the answer.  Many of my questions are leading questions and I am interested in the student’s chain of thoughts to get to the answer, convoluted as some of those chains of thoughts can be at times.   Some parents interrupt the child if they think that the answer will be incorrect, but even an incorrect answer tells me what I need to know, namely that there is something that hasn’t been understood 100% = something I need to teach.  Or sometimes, students realize as they speak that they are headed in the wrong direction and correct themselves.  So much more valuable than having mom or dad present the right answer!  To me, piano lessons are about learning, and learning doesn’t do straight lines.

Most of my students learn quickly that there is no wrong answer to my question, “What do you think needs more work in this piece/section?” except “I don’t know.”  (Most of them have also learned that “dynamics” is a pretty sure-fire answer as it is such an elusive concept and one that always seems to benefit from more attention.)

Once I observe the student-parent interaction, I find that most students who prefer the “I don’t know” answer do so because their parents don’t encourage them to think, or, worse, jump in every chance they get and correct their child.  No wonder “I don’t know” seems like the safest thing to say …

Addendum:  There are two different ways students tell me “I don’t know” – the one I referred to, above, is not the one where a student honestly doesn’t know and sometimes even has trouble admitting so.  This kind of “I don’t know” actually is more of an “I don’t know and I don’t like that I don’t know!”  The one I was referring to, above, is the one that sounds like “I don’t know and I don’t care and will you get off my back already!”

(Originally posted May 17, 2010)

Edited to add: one way to keep parents from interfering with the lesson would of course be to simply not allow parents at the lesson. But that would only mask the problem because at home the parent *is* there, and interfering. Having a parent at the lesson and seeing the interaction between parent and child helps me understand how things go at home and gives me an opportunity to educate the parent how to help in a more productive way. – Although, I have on occasion realized that there was no educating the parent, that there was too big a discrepancy between how they viewed their role and what I would have needed from them.

Planning and growth

Many, many years ago, when I was still in the first ten years of my teaching career, I was successful. I was able to attract good students, where good meant talented and dedicated, with supportive parents.

So it was quite a shock when the mother of a younger (3rd grade?) transfer student after about one semester decided to quit lessons with me. She explained that her daughter still missed the previous teacher’s daughter with whom she had been good friends, so “piano lessons” had always meant a play date as well.

But also, and more importantly, the mother explained, I just didn’t have a plan. There was no plan in my teaching, she said, no logical progression, no first this then that, nothing to look forward to, because nobody knew what was coming up.

This was a slap in the face. I had been so proud of being more creative than other teachers who used a cookie cutter approach to teaching: same method for every student, same materials, same pieces on every recital.

I easily dismissed her criticism, and explained it away as the uneducated opinion of someone who simply did not know how to appreciate my creative approach. After all, if this had been a real problem then other parents would have said the same thing, right?

Wrong, of course.

I now know – but don’t remember how I came to learn – that she was absolutely correct of course. I now value having a plan, thinking ahead, designing individual assignment sheets for my students (printed out ahead of the lesson). I try to balance having a plan and at the same time being creative in the implementation of the plan, and I always try to pay attention and make changes as necessary. I appreciate being able to spend the time to do a lot of thinking about my students, where we want to go, and how we will get there. I still don’t have an answer to a parent’s question, “How long before she’s going to play the Moonlight Sonata?” but I can lay out the (kinds of) books and materials I anticipate using, and in what order.

Different but related: eleven weeks ago I got braces. Because the first appointment with the woman who took care of the financial aspect and offered to explain everything was somewhat unhelpful – every question I had was answered with an enthusiastic and just-barely-not-condescending “Oh – it’ll be so easy!” – I made an appointment with the orthodontist, about six weeks into this adventure, asking if he would share the treatment plan: what are the issues he is seeing, and how will he address them, what are his goals, and how will we get there.

It was a most frustrating experience. He seemed genuinely stumped at these questions. “Well – we’re gonna put braces on your teeth …”  He didn’t mention any specific issues, and when I brought up one of them (that I was aware of), he still would not explain what he planned to do about it but spent a good five minutes explaining why we had to address the issue, and how my teeth got to where they are – something he had already explained in detail at the first consultation.

He emphasized how very individual every patient and therefore the treatment is, using the example of two different kinds of trucks: a Ford, and a Toyota – both are trucks, but very different vehicles. I played along and said, “Tell me about my Ford, then.” Again, he spent most of the time explaining why we had to address issues and how my teeth got to be where they are, but no real answers to my very specific questions.

Afterward I thought, either he doesn’t have a plan (not likely), or he is not used to being asked to explain, or he sucks majorly at explaining. Or maybe he misunderstood my questions as concerns and worries that he felt compelled to make me feel better about. The problem is that I didn’t have concerns or worries, I wasn’t looking for consolation, I was looking for information, something I thought was clear from my questions.

Fortunately, my dentist is very good at explaining, clearly and concisely, so he has on occasion filled in when I had questions.

I guess the orthodontist is where I was twenty or twenty-five years ago: toward the beginning of his career, with enough experience to do his job, but with plenty of room to grow.

 

Standards and Expectations

Many parents, after looking at my website or after the initial meeting where we discuss piano lesson details and the student plays for me, comment that they like that I seem to have high standards and expectations for my students.

They seem to appreciate that their child will be challenged, and seem confident that I know how to work toward pianistic success, taking into account each student’s personality, learning style, individual strengths and areas in need of improvement.

They understand that this is a triangle: teacher-student-parent, and everyone has a part to play. I as the teacher have the training and experience, and desire, to help the student succeed, the student is motivated and enthusiastic about learning, and parents understand their commitment to making sure that their child is well-prepared and has the necessary materials, including a good piano, bench, and so on, to practice at home.

It makes me incredibly sad then when a parent does not see any problem with expecting their child to make do with an inferior instrument and or bench. They seem to think, “Well, of course our instrument is not as fancy as the teacher’s!” but don’t understand that there is a certain minimum standard below which things simply do not work.

The thinking seems to be that as long as the child learns a new song every once in a while, things must be going well.

From the very first meeting, I emphasize the importance of a healthy technique – where technique has nothing to do with plowing through fast and furious etudes, but everything with figuring out how to move at the piano: how to move fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, how to sit well-balanced, etc and so on. It also has to do with developing an ear for sound, and a feel for touch – what sound do I want? and, what do I do to produce that sound?

All of this requires the kind of instrument and bench, plus footstool for short students, that allow them to work on these things, to be able to experiment at home, and work on issues we covered at the lesson. An out of tune piano is actually not as bad as one that does not respond to the student’s touch, or where the keys respond unequally, because it forces the student to compensate in unhealthy ways.

At the lesson, I explain and demonstrate to the parents and students frequently why it is so very important to sit at a good height and distance from the piano. I also use my digital piano to explain and demonstrate – allow the student to experience – the differences between an acoustic instrument and a digital one. I also emphasize that a good digital piano is always better than a not-good acoustic piano.

Once students are at an intermediate level and have developed a good technique, it is not the end of the world when they occasionally practice on a piano that is less responsive. But in the beginning, a good, responsive, instrument is really crucial because we are laying the foundation for a lifetime of success and love for playing the piano.

It is so disappointing when a student struggles with technique – despite seeming to understand and being able to demonstrate that understanding at the lesson – and I suspect that their piano at home may be contributing to their struggle.

A few months ago I asked the parent of a second-year student who played with a lot of tension, especially raised shoulders, whether the bench at home could possibly be too low as that can cause the student to try to compensate by raising their shoulders. The parent thought about it for a minute and then thoughtfully said, “No … I don’t think so.”  –  Fast forward to last week when, after asking the parents if it would be ok for me to look at their piano to see if the piano could perhaps explain the children’s continued struggle with technique, and overall unusually slow progress – and being invited to do so and thanked ahead of time for my time and effort -, when I discover that the stool the children were using was so low that when sitting, the younger child’s shoulders were at the same height as the keys, forcing her to play with straight, out-stretched arms. Even the older child was still sitting much too low, having to reach up to the keys.

The piano was out of tune and not very responsive, keys responding unequally, some of the key tops missing. They had never had it tuned, and from looking inside I could tell that it would take major work, and probably a lot of money, to get the piano to a point where the children would be able to practice the things we are working on at the lessons with any kind of success.

This is a family who had, before starting lessons, met with another teacher who made them “even more determined” to study with me, presumably because of my high standards and expectations.

There is such a disconnect between wanting their children challenged, but at the same time being unwilling to supply the children with what it takes to meet that challenge.

For me, the important issue here is that the instrument and bench are doing actual damage, physical damage. It’s not just that the children are unable to practice at home what we work on during the lesson – that would be annoying, was disappointing -, but that the piano and bench are setting them up for injury and pain. It would actually be better if they didn’t practice at home.

I explained to the parents that their current piano is detrimental to the children’s development, in an email so they could read and re-read and think and discuss, and after they repeated that a new instrument is simply not in the budget, I suggested to put lessons on hold for, say, ten months, and use the money they save on lessons toward a new piano because I cannot in good conscience continue to contribute to this unhealthy situation.

I knew that my thinking here might come across as haughty, arrogant, privileged. I didn’t know how else to say it.

The parents made the decision to discontinue piano lessons.

Contrasting experience: I have recently started to teach two new (transfer) students, unrelated, both of whom had only an electric piano at home, with what they described as unweighted keys. But both of them had somehow been able to develop an adequate technique. The first student hit a wall after a few weeks, with no more progress possible on the current instrument, so I said, Let’s put lessons on hold until they have a good instrument which they said they were planning to get but for now was too expensive. Two weeks later they had bought a new piano, and things are progressing marvelously now. The other student’s family cannot afford a new instrument at the moment but the parent found a grand piano in the university’s Student Union where they go every so often to practice now, in addition to continued work on the electric piano at home, and, again, very satisfying progress is happening.

I suppose it is a matter of what one values. Learning to play the piano is challenging enough without hampering a student with an instrument that is simply not suited to the task. I strongly believe in the benefits of challenging my students but we have to give them the tools to meet that challenge. An Against-All-Odds attitude can be carried too far.

The frustration of not playing well at your lesson

A common complaint of many students is that they never play as well at their lesson as they do at home. They are frustrated but at the same time seem to accept this as a fact, as something that is just the way it is, nothing you can do about it.

Here are my thoughts on this matter.

The reason you don’t play as well at the lesson as you do at home is because you are not as well-prepared as you think you are. At home, you are comfortable and relaxed, and you probably never perform, instead you can always try again if something wasn’t quite right. At the lesson, you are nervous, and you expect to play your piece once and get it correct the first time.

If you want to play at the lesson (almost) as well as at home you have to practice differently: you have to be much more detailed in your approach: hands separately, not just once but many times, with metronome and without, looking at the book as well as from memory, ultra-extra slow, then faster, repeating one measure or phrase at a time, many times, always listening for things to improve (and then improving them), hands together with the same focus as HS, then stringing two measures or phrases together, etc and so on. That way you get to REALLY know the piece, or part of a piece, not just from having played it many many times, but from really understanding. Test yourself: before you start playing a section, look at the book, then look away and name the first note(s). Can you do it?

Since at the lesson your goal is to show me that you have improved or learned something new – show me by playing something, once – you need to practice this at home. With a completely different focus now, you have to set the goal to perform whatever you want to play/perform (whether it is two measures or two pages): start and keep going until you are finished. Do not stop and fix something, even if it wasn’t perfect. This requires a completely different mindset because you have to take mental notes but you cannot be bothered by mistakes. You need to practice to perform especially at the beginning of your practice session, when you are not warmed up yet (mentally, mostly) . The way you play then will be the way you play at your lesson.

Being Creative in the 21st Century

For as long as I can remember, I have been improvising and composing at the piano.

A few weeks after I started lessons, my fourth grade class listened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition, and shortly thereafter I brought my teacher my own arrangement of The Great Gate of Kiev. I believe I did write it down, with what limited experience I had in note-writing.

My “practicing the piano” has from the beginning been interspersed with improvisation: all it took was one accidental wrong note in one of my pieces, and off I went into my own piece because my imagination had been piqued. Sometimes I wrote things down (wish I had saved them …), most often I didn’t.

Now, when I sit down to play the piano I just play and see what comes out of my fingers. Sometimes, when I like it, I keep spinning, and sometimes it turns into a “thing”.

For a long time, I hadn’t taken the time and effort to write things down, but with notation software, and especially the option now to publish through sheetmusicplus, I have started to write my compositions down and submit them for publication. I have chosen not to do paper versions of my pieces, just down-loadable PDF files. I find it environmentally more responsible to not have paper copies of my pieces out there, whether someone buys them or not, but to offer people to print one copy at a time as needed / purchased. It also allows me to make changes, without having to wait for an official second printing.

It’s a form of self-realization. It is definitely not something to get rich by: sheetmusicplus pays a 45% commission on every copy sold, and when they offer a sale, say, 20% off, then I get my 45% off the reduced price. So, for the time being, I’ll keep my day job as the owner of a piano studio, but slowly and not entirely surely, I get to share this other side of me, too.

So far, there’s a Sentimental Waltz, and the first of several Etudes available. Go have a look!

What good are the Arts?

You’ve heard it a million times.  “We need the arts because …” and then come all kinds of good reasons.  For instance, Yehudi Menuhin said in an interview with the UNESCO Courier that “Art develops the intellectual, physical, imaginative and sensory spheres, and hence all human potential.”  He refers to “art as hope for humanity”.

And it can certainly be true.

Disturbing as it may be, however, and as Robert Fulford points out, “The arts won’t make you virtuous and they won’t make you smart”.  It’s not a popular thing to say, and it likely will not be mentioned in the Board of Education meetings when art and music teachers have to lobby, yet again, for more funds – if their programs haven’t been cut already.

Robert Fulford continues,

Great art, alas, has sometimes been loved by monsters, famously the Nazis. George Steiner, the eminent critic, delivers the bad news: “We know that a man can play Bach and Schubert and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”  […] cultured death-camp guards […] eliminated any foolish belief that great art comes with ethics attached. […]

On a more trivial level, we also can’t claim that immersion in the arts will create a lively mind. Art education has produced armies of learned bores. […] As for those who create art, we get it all wrong if we imagine their work makes them admirable in private life.

The arts come “with no guarantees of virtue or enhanced intelligence.”

What, then, does it guarantee? Those who give it their time and love are offered the chance to live more expansive, more enjoyable and deeper lives. They can learn to care intimately about music, painting and books that have lasted for centuries or millennia. They can reach around the globe for the music, the images and the stories they want to make their own. At its best, art dissolves time […]

There is still hope.

(Originally published December 15, 2015)