Author Archives: Sibylle

Retard!

Retard!

Ever since I came to this country, I’ve been puzzled and appalled by music teachers who use the term “ritard”.

I recently came across it on a website where the blogger talked about taking advantage of “phrases, cadences, ritards, etc… – Whenever I have an excuse, like at the end of a phrase, at big cadences, in spots marked with tenuto marks, or where there are ritards, […]” .

If you were to hear someone use the term “dimins” – would you know what they meant? It’s the same kind of abbreviation as “ritards”.

Yes, “ritardando” is a long word, but so are crescendo, decrescendo, and five-syllable words such as accelerando and diminuendo (which is even harder to pronounce).

The use of the term ritardando varies of course from composer to composer and from one style period to the next: Baroque and Classical composers didn’t seem to use the term (they trusted you to know where and how much to bend the tempo), 19th Century romantic composers actually did not use it as much as one would think, whereas contemporary composers who compose in a romantic style use it a lot. Impressionistic composers do use it but prefer French terminology (en retenant or cedez).

There are two commonly used abbreviations for ritardando:  rit. and ritard.

In scores, whether we find rit. or ritard. seems to depend to a large degree on the edition: Wiener Urtext does ritard., Henle has mostly rit., Schirmer seems to be 50/50, Maurice Hinson and Jane Magrath use rit.

Chopin, in Polish and Hungarian editions, uses rall. or rallent.

Here in the United States, I find the use of “ritard.” appallingly insensitive because ritard. sounds too much like “retard” – a word we have been working so hard to get people to stop using. Retard *is* a word in the English language, and to use something that sounds alike, even though you mean something different (the root is the same, though), shows an appalling lack of concern, especially when it comes from a teacher.

If you want to abbreviate ritardando please use rit. (There is no confusion with ritenuto which is always shortened to riten.)

P.S.: I similarly like to shorten diminuendo to dim. (not dimin.) because it is short and unambiguous, and because it is descriptive: dim the lights, dim the sound.

It’s a brave (??) new world

If things were normal, I would be in Chicago right now, at the annual Music Teachers National Association conference.

I don’t attend every year, but this one I had been particularly looking forward to. I signed up in November, sent my check, booked the hotel room, and after much research decided to book a dormette on Amtrak, mostly so I could take a nap with some privacy. I have never been on a train here in the States and was getting excited about this new adventure.

Because I didn’t have a computer bag – something sturdy, protective, and large enough to hold everything I could possibly need for a day at the conference -, I spent hours on Amazon, looking, measuring, weighing (some of them are surprisingly heavy …), reading reviews, and finally found one that I thought was perfect. It arrived and it is, in fact, perfect. I like everything about it: the sturdiness, the color, how it feels, how it carries, how immensely stable it is: at the moment I have three 1/2 inch binders and several thicker piano books in it and it refuses to wobble even the least bit.

Not being able to be at the conference and meeting people I usually see only at the conference, and attending presentations I had been looking forward to – that was very disappointing.  There are now plans to do things digitally, remotely, electronically, and I am grateful that I will most likely get to – somehow – see at least some of the presentations after all.

It is perhaps a sign of these weird and unsure times, this new world that is anything but brave, that I found myself feeling unreasonably (?) crushed that I wouldn’t get to use my new computer bag. – Like buying a new car, THE perfect car, and then for whatever reason not being able to drive it.

A few days ago, I decided to use the bag anyway: in the studio, next to my desk where it now holds my most frequently used books and materials.

And someday, I hope to use it for real, out in the world again. A brave new world.

Covid-19 and other challenges

Yesterday, the Kansas State Department of Education clarified that “Governor Kelly didn’t cancel school for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year due COVID-19. She closed school buildings. Schools will be working to implement Continuous Learning plans for all students.”

Similarly, my piano studio is closed for in-person lessons but learning will continue, via remote communication. One week ago, I sent an email to my piano students and parents, explaining how we will go about this: most of the learning and teaching will happen via videos my students send me which I will then critique and respond to, via email and/or video. The videos I send to students illustrate a point I was making in my email, or it is a recording of a piece or part of a piece that a student is struggling with – the way I would at an in-person lesson perform for a student (who usually takes a video to review at home). That way they don’t have to try to remember but have something they can re-read and re-watch.

A few parents and adult students responded within a day or three to say, good idea, but how *exactly* do we do this??

In addition to responding to students individually, I also wrote another lengthy email to the entire studio, explaining in more detail *what* to put in the video, what format to send it in (I made suggestions but also said that anything goes, I am not particular), and when to send it – no need to wait until the normal, usual lesson day, but send whenever you have something you want my feedback for.

While there has been a wonderful response from some parents and adult students, actually thanking me for this arrangement to keep the learning going, and sending videos right away and responding to my response, there are parents from whom I haven’t heard at all.

Just like probably everyone else, I, too, am a bit on edge, not sure how all of this – virus, school closings, etc. – will unfold over the next weeks, months. Communication is very important to me, saying please and thank you is important to me, and when I send an email, especially an important one that outlines important changes, I need a response. Doesn’t have to be an essay, just a short “got your email, busy, will talk in a couple days” or “got sick, distracted” or something like that. Anything. To not respond at all is rude.

ETA: a parent to whom I just complained about the above reminded me that “I think the silent ones are the ones that think the same as I thought yesterday: today for certain I will have time to deal with it.“ (Thanks, Yurii.)

So. Deep breath. These *are* stressful times, for everyone.

Changing Teachers

During the first couple weeks with a new transfer student, they will often exclaim when I say or demonstrate something, “Wow – I didn’t know that! My old teacher never told me about this.” Or they will say things like,”I have learned more from you in just one month than from my old teacher in a year!”

When I first started teaching, I naturally assumed this happened because I was such a better teacher than their old one. Then one day, a colleague conducted a small masterclass for some of my students and in the process asked my student in what key his piece was. He gave her a blank look and said, ” – I don’t know?”

I almost fell off my chair. Mouth agape, stunned look on my face, I could not believe he did not remember how we had figured out not only in what key his piece was, but also the key relationships from one section to the next. Whenever I quizzed him at his lessons, he knew all of that. And now – suddenly he doesn’t know in what key his piece is??  I was embarrassed and made sure to tell my colleague afterward, privately, that this student DID in fact know the answer. She just chuckled and said, “I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t teach this piece without going over the key relationships.”

Nice of her, but very eye-opening for me. Now when I get a transfer student who doesn’t “know” something I don’t automatically assume that the previous teacher didn’t teach it.

It also puts in a different light when transfer students gush at how much more they are learning from me than their old teacher: so often it is simply a matter of hearing a new voice, sometimes a different gender, describe or explain something in a new way that makes them pay attention in a way they didn’t with the old teacher. Different environment, different materials perhaps, different vocabulary, and also very simply a bit of adrenaline because everything is so NEW! and not familiar yet.

To parents of teenagers this is nothing new. One of my favorite books as a parent of teenagers was “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall” by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.  In the chapter on “They Don’t Listen to Anything I Say” he imagines the following conversation: 

“Eloise, I think it would be a good idea if you dropped Spanish. You’re spending a lot of time on it, and you’re still failing. I’m afraid it’s pulling your other grades down as well.”

“No, Dad, I can handle it. Just leave me alone. You don’t know anything. I’m doing okay.”

“No, Eloise, you’re starting to do badly, and I think the Spanish is just too much.”

“Dad! I can handle it. I’m doing okay. Now leave me alone.”

Two nights later: “Dad, I’ve decided to drop Spanish. I was talking to Becky’s mother about how I was having trouble in school and she said maybe I should drop Spanish. I think she’s right. Besides, I don’t need it anyway, and now I’ll have more time for my other subjects.”

“What did I just say to you two nights ago?”

“I don’t remember.”

… 

 

On the subject of pianos

I own a piano studio. I teach people how to play classical piano. Acoustic pianos have several unique properties that allow them to produce music that is richly textured, has tremendous dynamic range, and is exquisitely beautiful. Having a good quality acoustic instrument is essential for learning piano and laying the foundation for a lifetime of music enjoyment.

While it is possible to learn to play piano music on a keyboard, I do not recommend it. In order for a keyboard to be acceptable it must have weighted keys and touch. Expect to pay $1200 – $1500 for an acceptable digital piano with weighted keys.

Keyboards without weighted keys, or that do not have a full sized keyboard are simply not sufficient for piano study. (Full sized refers to the number of keys as well as the size of the keys.)

Pianos, like any other manufactured object, have a spectrum of quality; from “piano shaped objects” to world class concert grand pianos that cost more than $100,000. While it is possible to spend tens of thousands or more on a piano, a good quality student instrument can be purchased for as little as $3,000 or $4,000. While there are good instruments available for less than $3,000, less expensive instruments often are in poor repair or have mechanical issues that will make them uncomfortable to play and will hamper a student’s progress.

I am always available to help families look at and decide about a piano purchase. I am thrilled when students and their families ask me to help them make a good piano purchase, one that will last for years and years.

I understand the reality of making a piano purchase. I traded in two quality upright pianos to purchase my first grand piano, and I still had a two year loan to pay off the instrument. Pianos, good pianos, are expensive. Good piano lessons are too. You are investing in the lessons I provide, paying for the 30+ years of teaching experience I bring to each one of your or your child’s lessons. Please invest in an instrument to match.

When your child is 16 and you purchase them a car, it will have good brakes, good tires, and good safety features (seat belts, air bags, etc.). Why? Because you want them to be as safe as possible.

Purchasing a quality student instrument for $3000 or $4000 is an investment in your child’s future. The natural, injury-free technique I teach will protect them from repetition injuries and tendonitis. Having an instrument that is in poor repair, having a fixed height bench that requires an unnatural arm-wrist-hand alignment, having a keyboard that simply can’t produce the music – all of these factors will detract from your child’s success and will potentially risk their physical health as well as their desire to continue piano.

(Written in collaboration with Mark Nichols)

Genius and Little Mozarts

The parents of my young piano students know that I have a serious problem with the name of one of the piano methods for young beginners, “Music for Little Mozarts”.  Not only do I find it presumptuous and misleading, I find it unfair to the children:  they are being taught that if they only try hard enough, they can be “little Mozarts” which leads some of them to think that they are expected to become little Mozarts.

There’s a misconception here in the United States, arising from the statement, “All men are born equal.”   People equate “equal” with “the same”.   The fact is, we are not all the same.  We are born male, female, (or, in moderately rare cases, intersexual – persons incompatible with the biological gender binary); we are born tall, short, in-between, easy-going or not; we are born first, second, the last of ten.  We are not all the same.  Nor should we be.  In a truly great society, everyone finds his/her place, with room and encouragement to develop his/her individual talents.

Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian, speaks of talent:

We can’t bear the idea that some people might be better than us, so much better that we could never be like them, no matter how hard we tried. That upsets our democratic ethos, our belief that all people are born equal.

But raw talent is not distributed equally. By definition, most of us are not exceptional. We are neither particularly stupid, nor especially intelligent. Only a very few are extremely gifted. […] The Mona Lisa, the Goldberg Variations and King Lear were not the work of ordinary people like you and me. They were the work of geniuses, people so much more talented than us that we could never paint or write anything comparable to their achievements, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.

And here’s a thought that’s particularly dear to my heart because of its relevance to piano competitions:

The just allocation of admiration is a virtue that requires judgment and integrity: judgment to distinguish genuine talent from mere showiness, and integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it. Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

This kind of thinking usually doesn’t go over too well with American students and parents who by now are used to receiving some kind of prize or recognition for just about everything.   While I wholeheartedly believe in and teach supporting young people’s efforts and accomplishments, I think this society has gone overboard in its attempt to reward expected behavior.  Making people, especially young people, think that they are exceptional just because they follow the rules or because their work is acceptable is dangerous.

~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~

So, what’s wrong with naming a piano method “Music for Little Mozarts”?  It is the arrogant assumption that all children are geniuses in the league of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  It is degrading to the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to put him on the same level as the majority of people who just happen not to be geniuses.  It reminds me of the story of the 4-year old whose parents manage to grab him just as he’s about to step onto a busy four-lane highway.  The parents, distraught, demand to know, “What on earth and in heaven’s name did you think you were doing?!”  The 4-year-old answers, “I am going to cross the highway because I can do anything if I just believe in myself.”

~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~.~:~

First Impressions

As someone who often has trouble “reading” people, first impressions are tricky for me. I tend to take things literally, at face value.

Last year, a new student was coming for a first meeting. As it was dark, the mother had trouble finding the house and ended up being something like 20 minutes late. She texted, “What is your address?” and “I can’t find your house.” When she finally arrived, she was frazzled, almost panicked, exuding frantic energy, complaining loudly that she couldn’t find the house in the dark and had to drive around the block several times, almost knocking on the wrong door (intent on showing me exactly which house she meant) , etc and so on.  As someone who likes to over-prepare it was a bit difficult for me to accept that she hadn’t realized that she had never asked for my address nor done a google search *before* she left home to know where to go and how to get there.

It turned out that this frantic first impression was a sign of things to come: not every week, but often enough to become almost predictable she would forget books and frantically apologize and explain, or she would show up on the wrong day, or show up 30 min early and then wander around the yard. After a few months I couldn’t take it anymore – “it” being the disorganized and frazzled energy she brought into the studio – and ended lessons.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when another mother came for a first meeting: couldn’t find the house in the dark, panicky when she finally arrived, frantically complaining that it was dark etc and so on. (Just to clarify: we live in a residential neighborhood, where even in the dark you can read street signs; and our house number is on the mailbox as well as on the house.)

There was an immediate feeling of déja-vu, a sinking feeling in my stomach, Oh God, not again – this is NOT going to work.

Turns out that this was a one-time shit-happens event: the mother as well as the daughter have turned out to be delightful, reliable, responsible, a joy to work with.

So much for first impressions.

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.