Category Archives: Pedagogy

New York!

After a full day of traveling from Manhattan, KS to Manhattan, NY, we arrived this evening (Friday, March 23) at our hotel, the Hilton New York. Registration for the MTNA Conference closed at 6 p.m. so registration will have to wait until tomorrow morning. The first session tomorrow, a piano master class with Nelita True, starts at 8 a.m.

Breakfast will have to be early …

Saturday, March 24.

First things first.  I don’t do mornings.  I especially don’t eat before about 10 a.m.  Cup o’ tea, yes, fine, but oatmeal has to wait until my stomach is awake.  And my stomach, like me, doesn’t do mornings (I get physically almost-ill when I force it).  So.  Having to somehow fit in the registration process and some kind of breakfast and getting to the Grand Ballroom in time to get a good seat before 8 a.m. would be a bit of a challenge.  Even though Mark and I splurged and got a room in the conference hotel, thereby minimizing / eliminating any kind of commute, we got up shortly after 6:30 a.m. to allow enough time to find our way around on this first morning.

Just in case there would be a line at the registration table closer to the 8 a.m. Master Class, I went through registration first, then breakfast.  My hunch was correct:  when we walked past registration at 7:50 a.m., there was a long line.

There is a “Marketplace Cafe” which serves breakfast and lunch in the hotel but you certainly pay for the convenience of staying in the hotel … Breakfast buffet is $30 which I suppose is ok if you have two hours to sit and nosh and sit some more and eat and go back to the buffet several times because, you know, you have two hours.  We didn’t, so we carried out some fresh fruit and an egg-and-bacon sandwich both of which were excellent.

My stomach survived food at 7:30 a.m.  and at 7:55 I was seated in the Grand Ballroom, eagerly awaiting Nelita True, whom I had seen, heard, witnessed some 17 or so years ago.  I also have the four videos “Nelita True at Eastman” which give you a taste of her teaching which defies superlatives.  Her master class this morning was outstanding, of course.  I was again blown away by her wit, her humor, and her warmth. It’s such a tricky task to work with a student you’ve never met, in front of hundreds of people, on camera, finding the things that matter most and which you hope you can address (successfully) in 45 minutes …  Among the many favorite quotes from this morning:  “your mind was ahead, you threw that away”  –  “could this have more drama? You’re being so nice …”  –  “offbeats must be like a nudge in the ribs – don’t be too polite!”  and  “… could you make that just a bit more evil?” followed by her observation that composers like to use chromatic scales when they want something to sound sinister.

After the master class, at 9:30, I had to choose from four different sessions, two of which were of particular interest to me:  “A practical guide to fingering – breaking free of tradition” and “Approaching Anna Magdalena and the Two-part Inventions”.  I started with the fingering session and caught the tail-end of Bach.  I particularly appreciated that Scott McBride Smith and Steven Spooner (the fingering session) not only had a hand-out at the door but that they offered to email the hand-out to anyone who didn’t get one at the door because they had run out.

At 10:40, there were again four sessions to choose from.  I was equally interested in “Dancing the Baroque Suites and Romantic Dances” and “Lecture and Clinic: Basic Technical Principles / Troubleshooting the problems right away”.  I chose Technique and learned that especially with teenagers, the reasons for poor posture (slouching mostly) differ between girls and boys.  Teenage boys very often grow awfully fast and their bodies can hardly keep up, so Theresa Bogard recommended that boys work out and strengthen those new muscles to get stronger and feel better about this new body.  Teenage girls on the other hand often pull their shoulders forward, arms close to the torso, because they feel the need to protect themselves – Theresa reminded everyone that as teachers we must make sure we provide a safe (emotionally safe) environment for them.  Much talk about wrist and elbow and shoulder and rotation.  What I found interesting was her suggestion that wrist problems can come from being a Type A personality who has this need to control.  She suggested that it’s ok for the brain to be Type A, but the body must have a drink at the bar and relax.

Lunch across the street in a little deli Mark had scouted out earlier; we met up with two of my colleagues and had a very pleasant lunch together.

1 p.m. another master class.  Like Nelita True, Yoheved (Veda) Kaplinsky had interesting things to say about the extremely well-prepared performances:  “no matter how good one is, there are always other ways to look at things”  –  “Chopin’s long lines become easier if you insert commas”  –  “Rotate; think of circular rather than sideways.  Sideways twists the hand”  –  “this LH is not a lyrical legato, it is not necessary to actually connect the notes from key to key”  –  “a nocturne is not a lullaby” (this one made me smile because I had just the other day told one of my students the very same thing) “don’t use the loud section of a nocturne to wake people up – engage them from the beginning”  –  “do not just create affectation, do not just try to create an effect; make it sound more natural, more genuine” (and then she described and demonstrated where and how exactly to be more genuine).

2:10 p.m. I started with “Technique: it’s not just for fingers anymore” and sat in for a bit of “The essence of Chopin’s style” – actually, sitting in was impossible as the room was packed: just as many people standing and sitting on the floor as were seated on the chairs … So I stood for a while.  While I don’t think my Hungarian teacher in Germany was a Chopin specialist per se, she certainly knew and therefore taught us how to play and interpret his music.  I was a bit surprised to hear the presenter tell the audience that he finally figured out that “sotto voce” means left pedal in Chopin.

Mark and I had stayed in touch via texting; before the next session at 3:20 I took a short break and we went across the street to a Starbucks for some lemon bread and a latte, and then walked half a block to a nice little green space, “Urban Plaza”, to sit and catch up.

“Right from the start” with Marvin Blickenstaff made me wish he’d get in touch with Sheila Paige.  And by the time I sat in for a bit on “Back to Bach: performing the Partitas on the modern piano” I was tired and not really able to absorb any more teaching information.  So I sat in on the business session “Communication and Marketing” which offered some valuable tips on how to market your business.

Mark and I went back across the street to the little deli but were disappointed this time:  it looked like the buffet foods had been kept warm since lunch, and the clientele and therefore the whole atmosphere was very different from our lunch experience.  Worst though were the mosquitoes – not what I would have expected in March!

Earlier, Mark had showed me that from the street in front of our hotel we can see Central Park, a couple blocks to the north.  The Central Park.  He knew that the one thing I would not want to go home without having been to was Central Park.  We walked the couple of blocks to and then around the south-east end of Central Park, taking pictures along the way on this perfectly mild spring evening.

A full and filling day.  Tomorrow, in addition to events and a master class, the exhibits will open, and at 5 p.m. will be the premiere of the long-awaited documentary “Take a Bow:  The Ingrid Clarfield Story”.

Sunday, March 25.

Last things first.  The premiere of the documentary: “TAKE A BOW – The Ingrid Clarfield Story” will easily become the emotional highlight of this conference.  The video is very good, but to sit in a room with others and watch, witness the documentary, together – it was almost a spiritual experience.  To suddenly burst into laughter, together, to see others nod their heads in agreement, to hear emotional sniffs, to smile, together – it was very very special.  There was a standing ovation at the end, as much for Ingrid Clarfield (who, along with her husband, was in the audience) as for the maker of the documentary, Lu Leslan.  It was a very emotional experience.

Every time Mark and I travel overseas, we hit what we have come to call “the third day”.  That’s when the excitement from traveling and being somewhere else has worn off and overwhelming exhaustion sets in.  Nothing but a good long nap, and general lying low, helps on that third day.

This morning, after the exhibitor showcases ended at 9 a.m., I was exhausted and in no space to take in any more information, so I went back upstairs to our room and lay down for a nap.  45 min later I felt better and was ready for the day.  I skipped /missed the Opening Session, went straight to the Exhibit Hall and browsed.  Lots and lots of good stuff … Sigh.

11 a.m.   Marvin Blickenstaff’s “Intermediate Piano Master Class” was a delight – I had seen his teaching on video and knew that I would not want to miss an opportunity to watch his teaching live.

With another exhibitor showcase at 1 p.m. there wasn’t too much time for lunch.  Mark and I wandered, rather unsuccessfully, around the hotel neighborhood which is littered with little cafes and delis, street vendors and markets, couldn’t find anything that looked good.  Mark didn’t feel good so he went back to the hotel room to lie down, and I went across the street to yesterday’s deli and got some lunch from their buffet.

The Henle Urtext exhibitor showcase was surprisingly interesting.  Norbert Gertsch emphasized the challenge of determining what the “real” urtext of a composition is.  Is it the first publication?  The manuscript?  What about changes / corrections the composer made after the first publication?  One way they deal with this is by offering an extensive appendix (instead of foot notes which tend to clutter the page, often necessitating extra page turns).  He stressed particulars of Henle editions such as the non-glare, cream-colored paper which is easier on the eyes (especially in performance situations under artificial light), the fact that the paper won’t tear even if you turn the page quickly (as you must when performing chamber music), the binding of thicker books which allows them to lie flat, etc.  Barbara Fry, my teacher when I was growing up in Germany, insisted on Henle editions – except for Chopin where it had to be the Paderewsky edition, or the Cortot édition de travail (study edition) – so I am well familiar with Henle and the benefit of using an Urtext edition.

Back to the exhibitor hall … I turned in many of my coupons and received special goodies, such a sheet music samples etc.  Another short break so I could dash across the street to Starbucks for a moccha, hoping that it would help alleviate my headache.  Mark had been out and about but we had kept in touch via texting and were able to meet there.

“A Natural History Of The Piano” by Stuart Isacoff was interesting and witty.  Mark had bought the book for me the moment it came out, and since the presentation was a one-hour reduction of the book I multi-tasked: listening for a bit, checking email, etc.

After the video premiere, we went to a place called “Astro” which served delicious and plentiful Greek fare.  Mark had had a late lunch there to try it out and decided it would be a good place to have dinner.  They do have a website but it is not at all as appealing as the restaurant itself so I won’t post it here as it would probably give you a completely different / wrong impression of the real thing.

Tomorrow promises to be another full day, with probably no time for a nap.  Exhibitor showcases, the Keynote Address with Benjamin Zander, and, like yesterday, there will be a group of four sessions all at the same time (one such in the morning, one in the afternoon) – very difficult to choose just one!

Monday, March 26.

Anyone who has seen Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk on YouTube or who has experienced him in a live speech knows that the moment Zander opens his mouth to talk you’re in for a treat.  His Keynote Address was an elaboration on his TED Talk.  I loved the way he used the image of birds flying over the fences that keep the sheep in to illustrate long lines in music.  As an exercise to make the audience experience bigger pulses and longer lines in music, he had us – hundreds of musicians and music teachers – sing Happy Birthday to one of the members whose birthday happened to be today, subsequently working on individual phrases to improve.  I may not have been the only one who noticed that this may have been a bit of a moot point – we know about phrasing, and pulse; so the very first rendition where at the end we spontaneously broke into (more than) 4-part harmony was already quite spectacular.

Randall Faber in his exhibitor showcase talked about how they have been incorporating the latest in brain research in their method.  There are now second editions available for several books in the Piano Adventures series.

While I didn’t have much time to listen to Joanne Haroutounian present her new book “Fourth Finger on B-Flat” it sounded interesting enough so I ordered a copy.

Zenph Sound Innovations looks like a really promising idea – I had read about it in one of our journals already; it was interesting to see it in action.  At this time, the price is prohibitive for a private piano teacher with a relatively small studio.

Another piano master class:  this one with Alexander Kobrin who worked on two Chopin pieces.  Regarding rubato in Chopin, he said, “He writes it in when he wants it.  If not, just let it flow – semplice.  That doesn’t mean to play metronomically – we don’t breathe metronomically.”  –  “If you play slower it must be because something is different (such as a new voice in the accompaniment) – listen to what is different, so it has purpose.”  –  “sostenuto, don’t push it forward, it is not yet exciting”  –  “gentle, but polonaise”  –  about LH leaps: “don’t jump – you don’t want the accent from landing”  –  “don’t play faster than you can hear! Don’t let the fingers just go up and down.”  –  “In Chopin, unlike Liszt, every note has a purpose – you must hear every note!”  –  about a tricky ornament which the student played in a somewhat forced manner: “Don’t sound so angry”  –  and “intense but not hysteric”.

There was not enough time to go out for lunch and browse the exhibition hall, so Mark brought me some carry-out lunch I could eat in between things.

More exhibitor showcases:  “The Carnegie Hall Royal Achievement Program” (how much more prestigious-sounding can you get? Not only Carnegie Hall, but Royal, too!), and “Ultimate Music Theory”. At 2:15 there were again four very interesting sessions (all at the same time) and after sitting in for a bit on the Debussy presentation I went on and listened to “The Inclusion of Students With Disabilities”.  Most interesting for me were the personal stories of the two presenters.

More browsing in the exhibition hall.  The greeter (hall monitor?) at the entrance noticed that Mark and I were chatting for a bit by the entrance before we said good-bye (Mark was going to go back upstairs to the room) and suggested that we could get a day pass for Mark (who is not an MTNA member) so we could browse together.  I enjoyed being able to show Mark some of the things I had found, and being able to point out composers such as Dennis Alexander etc. who were available to answer questions and sign books.

For dinner we found another deli, this one much larger and, I thought, a bit nicer than the one across the street.  In defiance of normal dinner fare I had cheesecake and hot chocolate.  Back to the hotel room for a long nap, and then right back to the deli where, this time, I had foods from the buffet:  some hot pasta, chicken, veggies, and delicious cold salads, including some cold salmon.

Very much looking forward to tomorrow’s piano master class with Menahem Pressler.

Tuesday, March 27

Two of my colleagues and friends, Bonnie and Lee, had originally signed up for the Steinway tour but then changed their minds.  Since the tour plus getting there and back was going to take a good four or five hours I didn’t sign up – didn’t want to miss half a day of presentations, but Mark eagerly accepted their offer to take one of their invitations.  He wrote about it here.

8 a.m. exhibitor showcases offered a choice of 3-D Piano with Fred Karpoff; Hal Leonard new releases; the International Institute for Young Musicians with Scott McBride Smith, Steven Spooner and Jack Winerock; and Stipes Publishing’s Keyboard Fundamentals.

Since I purchased 3-D Piano when it first came out I skipped that presentation.

The Keyboard Fundamentals looks like an interesting book but the horrid voice leading (parallel fifths and octaves and leading tones left and right) in the demonstration of chord improv was appalling and unprofessional; it cheapened everything else.

The International Institute for Young Musicians is located in the middle of the USA: in Lawrence, KS – a mere 75 minutes from where I live.  After a short talk about the Institute, there was a (much too) short master class with three high school students.  Adrian Saari performed Liszt’s Waldesrauschen stunningly, effortlessly and beautifully – Steven Spooner commented on the fact that Adrian’s playing was able to draw the audience in at 8 a.m., even more astonishing considering that Adrian, in response to Steven Spooner’s question, admitted to not being a morning person … If he plays like that at 8 a.m. I wonder what he sounds like at 8 p.m.  His is certainly a name to remember.

One of the several highlights of this conference followed at 9:15 a.m.: Menahem Pressler had graciously agreed to give a master class. I could tell that I wasn’t the only one who had left the previous presentation(s) early to secure a good seat in the Grand Ballroom where Mr Pressler was going to be: by 9 a.m. the hall was filling up. Mr Pressler didn’t mince words when commenting on students’ performances … he was genuinely impatient and displeased when a student didn’t do well. It was clear that he expected a lot from the students, but not unreasonably so. And, of course, the few times he said “Yes!” or “Good!” – as genuinely as he had said “No!” before – it really made an impression.

More good stuff still before noon:  “Practice With Your Students”, a presentation by Martha Hilley, covered the many ways we can help our students be more productive in their practicing; and another Louis B Nagel presentation, this one on “The Six French Suites”.

At 1 p.m., Alfred Music Publishing presented more new music, but the really interesting stuff happened in Murray Hill (room):  “Special Students, Unusual Circumstances, Creative Technology” (Yamaha Corporation).  I walked in late, so I missed the introduction but what I heard and saw from then on was yet another emotional highlight of this conference:  Daniel Trush and his father introduced Daniel’s Music Foundation which, since 2005, has been providing free musical instruction to individuals with developmental and physical disabilities in the NYC area.  Connie Wible shared experiences from her own studio, encouraging the pitifully small audience to look into this special field of music teaching.

The fact that every day so far has brought at least one very emotional experience was not something I had expected when I decided to attend this conference.  I expected to learn, to review, to run into old colleagues / friends, to browse the exhibition hall – but I was not prepared for this to be an emotional experience. Mark said a few times that he could hear in the tone of my texts how very special some of the events were.

Tuesday afternoon and I was a bit running out of steam.  I knew from the beginning that this would be a time to be overwhelmed, with plenty of time back home to digest.  At 2:15 I sat in on “Strategies for Reliable Memory in Music Performance”, yet another presentation that was clearly planned for a smaller audience:  the room was packed and the air was getting stale and rather warm which made it a bit difficult to focus.

More exhibition hall browsing, and purchasing …  I am finding lots of very good books and materials.  MTNA had recommended that especially those of us who travel via airplane bring boxes to ship purchased materials rather than having to pack our suitcases with heavy books.  Mark and I decided to pack two suitcases with our clothes etc, and put the smaller of the two bags into a slightly larger one, thereby having three suitcases to bring back home.  One of them would be a carry-on = no extra bag fees.

For dinner we went to an Irish Pub Mark had tried and liked for lunch.  We met with Bonnie and Lee and had a fabulous dinner together.  One of the nice things about having had a (nearly) full glass of beer is that one doesn’t seem to mind when the waiter acidentally spills most of the rest of said beer on one’s clothes (and purse, and bench) …

Last conference day tomorrow.  No more master classes, no more exhibition hall, just presentations, and the Awards Brunch (which I hadn’t signed up for).

Wednesday, March 28

I had been looking forward to Amy Greer’s presentation “Let’s Play Ball! Motivation and The Music Lesson” but unfortunately – perhaps because I was tired (physically as well as mentally) – I found her nasally voice hard to take.  So I switched to “It’s More Than Just Being Nice” about the MTNA Code of Ethics.  Perhaps it was very telling, indicative of the role the issue of ethics plays in music teachers’ lives and organizations that this presentation was pushed (?) to the end / fringe of the conference – I had overheard quite a few people say that they were leaving Tue evening or Wed morning, presumably because there was nothing of worthy interest going on Wednesday.

“Playing Together: The Chamber Music Experience for Beginning and Intermediate-Level Pianists” was certainly of worthy interest.  I particularly liked that Kiyoshi Tamagawa tied his presentation in to other conference events: references to the Menahem Pressler master class, Benjamin Zander’s Keynote Address, etc.  It made it more – personal? relevant? and less like something that could have happened anywhere anytime, just another presentation.  With Mark’s cello studies (beginning of book 4 now) and my about-to-begin viola studies, I am looking forward to trying my hand at chamber music, looking forward to arranging tunes or original late beginner / early intermediate piano works for piano trio.

Mark had been taking wonderful care of me, being there to text or meet in person, bringing me lunch and mochas (spell check doesn’t know about mochas, wants to change it to ‘machos’ …), sharing the exhibition hall experience, taking pictures of me with contemporary composers I met and had asked to sign some of the books I had purchased; he had also been able to “do New York” a bit on his own – Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library, Fifth Ave – but we were looking forward to doing some of these things, and more, together.

On our second evening, we had already walked to and around the South end of Central Park.  Wednesday, after the last session (bitter-sweet –  what do you mean, That’s it? …), we walked to Fifth Ave (away from Central Park first) because I was hoping to do some shopping.  Found some basic clothing articles at H&M (familiar from Germany) and jewelry at the Fossil store, but nothing that would say “New York!”.  Lunch at Pershing Square – delicious!  Back, in light rain, to the hotel, and after a while, out again.  Broadway, Times Square, Junior’s Cheesecake (they are famous for a reason …), Fifth Ave toward Central Park, The Apple Store, FAO Schwarz …  Grateful for good (“sensible”) walking shoes … The weather was mild again, friendly, so beautiful to see the trees in bloom.

Thursday (yesterday), we traveled back to Manhattan, KS.  11 hours after we got up, we were back home.  To sleep in my own bed, take a shower in my own bathroom – ah, yes.  Having until Monday to come back and go back to teaching was excellent planning.  Right now I am in this delicious in-between stage – part of me is still in NY, I can still hear the traffic, still feel the energy …

A week-end in Kansas City

(Originally posted by Mark on his site)

Sibylle and I just had a fantastic weekend in Kansas City. We took in Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance with the Kansas City Symphony Saturday evening, spent the night in a wonderful hotel near Country Club Plaza, treated ourselves to a late night snack at Cheesecake Factory, visited some of our favorite shops in Leawood and Overland Park, and attended a Stanislav Ioudenitch piano master class.

It all started on Tuesday when I discovered that Yo-Yo Ma was going to be performing in the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts with the Kansas City Symphony. We were stunned to discover that there were still tickets left. Exactly two seats for the Saturday evening performance.

Knowing that the drive home is two long hours in the dark we started looking around for a place to stay. We choose the Courtyard by Marriot on J. C. Nichols Parkway and were delighted with our room and the entire experience there. The hotel was originally apartments, and the hotel has preserved much of the 1920s charm in the building. There are still milk closets in the hallways that allowed milk delivery while maintaining peace and privacy in the apartment. Our room, while cozy, was clean and wonderfully inviting.

The concert with Yo-Yo Ma was exquisite. When I was a child, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, my father took me to see him and Emanuel Ax play. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen him play live twice. The Dvořák Cello Concerto performance was very good. His encore performance of the Sarabande from the D Major Bach Cello Suite was simply superlative. After the performance we treated ourselves to a late night snack at Cheesecake Factory. We each had an appetizer and a piece of cheesecake. We returned to our room around midnight completely satisfied with our evening.

Sunday we had a long lazy start to the day that included the breakfast buffet in the hotel. Around 11:30 we headed south to Leawood and Overland Park to visit some of our favorite shops. Sibylle found two sweaters and I got a chance to visit the Apple store and drool over the iPhone 4S I’ll be getting in a couple of weeks when I am eligible for an upgrade. We also shopped at Whole Foods, picking up a small lunch there too.

Park University north of Kansas City has an excellent music department including Cliburn Gold Medalist Stanislav Ioudenitch. Sibylle learned that he was giving a piano master class at UMKC on Sunday afternoon, so we timed our shopping to allow us to return to central Kansas City to attend. Even a beginning cello student can learn many things from a well presented master class.

We packed a lot in to two days (especially since Sibylle had her normal Saturday lessons prior to our departure Saturday afternoon) and enjoyed every moment of it. Recently we almost forgot about a cello recital in Manhattan and had to rush to the hall. The spontaneity of that evening managed to make it better. Our trip to Kansas City this weekend had that same air of spontaneity, and it too has been wonderful.

Between competitions

Three weeks ago, my students qualified at the district level for the state level of the KMTA Fall Auditions.  One week from today, they will compete at the state level, same repertoire, no changes allowed.  Which means we will have had four weeks between the two competitions.  Which means we had to find ways to keep the pieces alive and well without wearing them out.  The pieces were already practically perfect (or else they wouldn’t have qualified for state), so “practicing” in the sense of “improving” had to take on a new meaning.

Four weeks / lessons suggested four different areas of focus:  week one, LH alone; week two, RH alone and some hands together; week three, practice to start from anywhere, hands separately as well as hands together, with metronome; week four, get back to practicing to perform.

The first three weeks were meant to find anything that wasn’t absolutely perfect, anything where things might possibly fall apart.  I kept telling my students, “If I smile happily when you make a mistake it’s not because I am mean but because I am glad we found this snag at your lesson – and not at the competition!”  Most students had snags here and there, things they were not aware of, things they thought they had down just perfectly fine …

Next week will see some of the same work we did the week before the district auditions:  the major challenge for pianists is that we don’t get to take our instrument with us, we have to make do with whatever instrument we encounter at a competition / recital / audition.  To prepare for that, I ask my students to perform on the other piano, the one they don’t normally play.  It looks just like the one they normally play but it feels, plays, and sounds completely different which means they have to instantly adjust their touch in order to get the sound they want.  We may leave the bench too low, and not use the footstool which really cramps the smaller students.  They have to kind of crouch, and reach, and – do the kind of playing that when I see other students do it at competitions gives me the hives because it is just so unnatural and uncomfortable and unhealthy, but I explain to my students that this may be what they have to deal with and adjust to at a competition. Kind of like preparing for disaster and hoping that we will not need it.  (So far, we haven’t.)

We may review the videos I took at the district level.  They are interesting and revealing because I had the camera at the very back of the hall = some of the sounds disappeared before they reached the camera – even though the student, up on stage, was able to hear everything just fine.  But – for a performance – we must aim to project the sound to the very corners of the performance hall, not just the few feet around the piano.

For some of the students, it will be their last week of lessons with me.  I hope to make it particularly successful and fulfilling.

Ferien!

As much as I love teaching, I am so very ready for a break now.  There were days recently where I thought that the end of my eight weeks of summer teaching can’t come soon enough.  And it wasn’t that students had become worse or that teaching wasn’t as much fun as usual – I simply need a break.  ~  Mark reminds me that part of what makes the summer exhausting is that because everyone’s schedule constantly changes, no two days are the same, no two weeks are the same; there’s no routine, no predictability, part of me is constantly busy trying to keep track of the ever-changing schedule.  I’m not complaining, as a matter of fact I enjoy being able to encourage parents to take advantage of the fact that my schedule can be so much more flexible in the summer.  But it wears on me.

My vacation now for the next three and a half weeks is of course only a vacation from teaching actual lessons; I will still be busy preparing the fall schedule, catching up on reading and watching videos, among many other piano and teaching-related things.

I have recently become “friends” with a number of pianists and musicians on facebook many of whom routinely post links to very interesting videos, videos of performances (student and/or professional), teaching demonstrations, as well as music and teaching-related articles, etc.  Over the last several weeks I have accumulated a long list of links of videos to watch and articles to read “when I get to it” …

A colleague of mine who studied with Sheila Paige is lending me some of her videos which are so chock full of information that during normal teaching days I cannot digest more than one video a day.  So, I am looking forward to having more time and leisure.

Last summer I had a young Asian student who consistently played one part of his assignment particularly well:  his pieces from Beyer Op. 101 were unusually well-prepared and musical (the other pieces not so much).  When I commented on it, the mother told me that there are videos of a Chinese pianist/teacher available online who demonstrates each piece, performs it, shows how to practice, etc.  The mother made her son watch the videos and follow the instructions.  With beautiful results.  So.  I have started to record videos of my performing some of the pieces my students play, some at practice tempo with metronome, for them to watch at home in order to refresh their memory of what we started at the lesson.  Mostly this is about technique and to set a musical example of what I expect the student to aspire to.  Time-consuming, and not usually something I like to do on normal teaching days when I have only 15 minutes in between so many other things.

And then of course there are the things that have nothing to do with piano or teaching:  I look forward to spending more time gardening (I hand-weed the lawn …), smelling the roses I recently planted (yes, in the 100 degree heat of the summer but I couldn’t resist the “all bedding plants 50% off” sale), watching the immensely cute little frogs and less-cute toads that have decided to live on the deck, the patio, in the planters by the entrance …

I look forward to not having a schedule.  I look forward to doing things when I get to them, not because they’re on the calendar and need to happen at a certain time.  I look forward to breathing space.  Sitting on the deck, in the heat, feet up, dripping with sweat, smiling.

Minute Details

While I remember, from 35 years ago, that my teacher always emphasized that dolce and espressivo were not the same, more importantly that you can play dolce without being espressivo and the other way around, dolce meaning sweetly and espressivo meaning expressively, I do not recall actually unterstanding the difference – or perhaps I intuitively understood, but never to the point that I could explain it to someone else which would be a basic requirement for teaching. 

 None of my teachers since has even mentioned that there was a difference, and in my own teaching I always felt lucky that no student ever questioned how they were different. 

Many years ago, I was fortunate to learn (from a video by Maurice Hinson I believe) one more way to translate dolce:  the literal translation of “sweetly” isn’t really helpful for pianists – “would you care for some sugar on the keys?” – but “gently” is.  So, that’s what I have been teaching my students:  dolce means sweetly which means to play gently, the way you would hold a baby (animal, or human). 

But I still didn’t really know how to describe the difference between dolce and espressivo.

Out of the blue, this morning, I got it.

Dolce refers to the touch, how you play each individual note, how you touch the key.  Espressivo refers to how you shape a motive, a phrase, melody, a musical idea.  As my teacher said 35 years ago, two completely different things.

Now I get it.

Survival of the Strongest

Many years ago, Chuck Gardner, my favorite Methodist minister, managed to weave some secular history into one of his sermons.  While I don’t remember the sermon itself, nor the context, the piece of history stayed with me.

According to Chuck, in the un-enlightened Middle Ages, parents didn’t really feed their children until they were about 5 years old.  The little ones got table scraps, the left-overs no one else wanted, they searched under the table (if there was one) for stuff that might have fallen down, much like some people’s dogs nowadays.    Appalling, isn’t it.  I remember him saying with a chuckle, “The SRS would have had a field day …” (SRS being the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.)

How could parents be so – mean? so uneducated?  Didn’t they know that children need good food in order to grow into healthy adults?  Of course they didn’t know that.  To them, a young child was a burden, something that wasn’t useful until old enough to help in the field, the kitchen, etc.  Something that more often than not might die before being old enough to be useful.  So, according to their thinking, why would you waste precious food on something you weren’t sure would live to be of use?

To our thinking, this is as irrational as it gets:  not feeding a young child good food because he/she might die …  One can only imagine the number of children who died – because they were malnourished!  And the number of children whose bodies, due to lack of nutritious and plentiful food, were too weak to fight off diseases or stand cold weather or recover from accidents.  Which, I suppose, only served to reinforce their parents’ attitude, “See, Mother, I told you he was too weak to make it!  Glad we didn’t waste good food on him.”

One could argue that only the strongest survived.  But even those strongest, I would like to argue, would have been even stronger had they been given a good start by being fed nutritious meals.  

We still have a bit of this attitude today when we claim “that which doesn’t kill you makes you strong”.  I beg to differ.  Take my mother who grew up during WWII.  While she was lucky enough to be evacuated, along with her younger sister and her mother, to a small village north of Frankfurt, south of a big forest which obstructed the view of the village to incoming (from the North) British bombers, thus in no immediate danger, the food that was available to them was inferior.  This inferior food didn’t kill her, but it didn’t exactly make her strong either.  There are many causes for brittle bones, but I blame hers on the lack of good food during a time when her body would have needed it to build strong bones and muscles.

Of course, good food and generally good care do not guarantee that a child grows up to be a healthy adult.  There are diseases, accidents.  Nor does a lack of good food necessarily mean that a child’s health is forever doomed.  There are no guarantees.  But we know that our chances of living a healthy life improve greatly if we set a good tone from the beginning.

And yet, when it comes to piano lessons, so many parents descend right back into the Middle Ages; it’s frightening.  They don’t want to invest in a good instrument or a good teacher because they are not sure that their child will stick with lessons.  Their argument:  let’s wait and see if the child is “interested” or “shows promise”.  How is this different from those parents a couple hundred years ago who waited until their children showed that they were strong enough to survive before they were fed the good stuff?  Yes, again, the strongest will probably survive.  But even those strongest would be stronger if they had had a good foundation via a good instrument and/or teacher. 

And what about those who are perhaps slow to show interest or whose talent lies dormant for a while – even with a good instrument and teacher?  What about those who need a bit of extra tender loving coddling care to bring out their talents?  They will certainly be turned off by an inferior instrument, perhaps being told that they lack talent. 

I have had several students over the years who initially showed no apparent promise and then suddenly burst into bloom.  I have also had students who showed “promise” initially but then lacked the desire to build on it.

I would propose that all children deserve good food, caring parents, good instruments and good teachers. 

From the beginning.

Teaching siblings

Many a parent, when inquiring about piano lessons, asks if there is a discount for siblings.  While I understand the parents’ point of view, they apparently haven’t thought this through with the teacher in mind. 

Teaching siblings is usually more work rather than less for the teacher because I have to be careful about possible sibling rivalry.  For instance:  should we or should we not use the same book/pieces for all siblings?  In many cases it is better to NOT use the same book so as to avoid unfair comparisons because I have never had siblings who progressed at the same pace exactly.  One is usually faster than the other, if only for some time, and the resulting comparison can be very frustrating and depressing for the slower student, in particular if it is a younger sibling who happens to be the faster student – which is often the case because they have had the advantage of hearing the older sibling practice and play the pieces they then get to learn!  (They don’t have to be in the same book at the same time for these comparisons to happen.) 

As far as scheduling lessons goes:  while parents may think it would be easier to schedule their children all in a row, for the teacher it is far easier to find time for one 30- or 45-min time slot in a day than for two or more 30-or 45-min time slots in a row, especially in an already fairly full schedule.  

I once heard of a teacher who suggested that we should actually charge more for siblings …

Mastery

Time to re-post this entry from two and a half years ago:

I take my work as a piano teacher very seriously, and part of my job is to teach how to perform. Most students and parents underestimate what it takes to perform successfully in public. I have very high standards for myself and for my students, and dismissive comments about a proposed performance, such as, “oh, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just for church …” are unacceptable.

I enjoy teaching all ages and levels, and my goal is always to teach towards mastery. Mastery is different from perfection. A piece may be “perfect” but the skills necessary to perform the piece may not have been mastered.

People tend to think that the first year or so of piano study is not as important because the student is “only” a beginner, but they couldn’t be more wrong! Having to re-teach and re-learn after the student was allowed to acquire bad habits is not only frustrating for both teacher and student, it is highly unfair to the student.

The following is from an article by Bruce Berr, first published in the Autumn 1999 issue of Keyboard Companion (which has since changed its name to Clavier Companion), a professional journal published by The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the support of keyboard pedagogy in all its varied aspects:

Newer teachers sometimes assume that because students are at an elementary level, they cannot play their pieces with mastery and artistry – this is not true! This is a matter of confusing standard with level. Instruction on any musical instrument is based on mastery learning. This hinges on the highly-successful completion of each unit of study along the way, especially and particularly the first few. Since students have varying levels of aptitude, and learn at different paces and in different ways, the main variant should be how much time and reinforcement is needed for that mastery, not the degree to which that mastery occurs.

To be more specific, when a well-taught student at any level successfully learns a piece, the student’s performance is virtually as good as the teacher’s:

  • The physical approach is reliable and natural.
  • Fingering is consistent and secure.
  • Tone quality and rhythm are solid.
  • Legato and staccato are clearly played and differentiated.
  • Dynamics and dynamic differences are boldly projected.
  • The performance authentically communicates the title and mood to a large degree, to any music listener (not just the trained ear of the teacher).
  • There is flexibility in all of the above (except fingering!); one slight change in something, intended or unintended, does not cause a cascading failure and meltdown.
  • Playing the piece is enjoyable.

This is true even for the beginner’s first few lessons! Yes, perhaps there are subtle nuances of shaping and timing and other aspects that a more advanced player might bring to an early-level piece. And an older player may understand the music on a deeper intellectual and emotional level, but these are not absolutely essential for each piece to shine and express. If we focus too much on these exceptions, they can become a smoke screen that hides from us an essential fact: if students’ final playing of most of their pieces is not excellent or very close to it, we are in effect building a structure whose foundation is of questionable strength to support what will be added on later.

Setting a goal of complete mastery right from the start, communicating that goal repeatedly to the student, and giving the student the means for meeting that goal – all of this acts as a springboard for many good habits: efficient practice, careful listening, etc. Conversely, if our initial goals for each piece are not set to the highest standards, we sell students short before giving them a chance to fully blossom into what they can become.

Embarrassing

The following is from an article in the K-State News Insider (online).

By playing the video game Rock Band for an hour, K-State students were able to help a pair of psychology professors with their research to understand how people can achieve flow while at work or while performing skilled tasks.

Clive Fullagar, a professor, and Patrick Knight, an associate professor, found that — like Goldilocks — most people achieve flow with work that is neither too easy nor too hard but just right.

“For those students who have a moderate level of skill at Rock Band, the song has to be moderately challenging and match his or her skill level for optimal enjoyment to occur,” Fullagar said. “That has broad implications for teaching. It means that if we want students to enjoy or get a lot of satisfaction out of classes, we need to assign them challenging tasks but make sure that they have the skills necessary to meet the challenges of those tasks.”  [Emphasis added]

The researchers wanted to see how people achieve flow — a state of mind that occurs when people become totally immersed in what they are doing and lose all sense of time. It’s an intrinsically motivating state, which means that people are engaged in the task for the pure enjoyment of performing the task and not for some extrinsic reward.

Posted in Research

 

This is “RESEARCH”??   News-worthy research??  Please show me one teacher for whom the above is news. 

The difficult part for every teacher is of course to find “challenging tasks” while making sure that the student has “the skills necessary to meet the challenges” – and that’s where even the most experienced teachers once in a while fail.  Perhaps not because they weren’t paying attention but because students have a habit of learning not in a straight line but in phases:  it is perfectly possible for a student to struggle with a concept for quite a while, and then suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, they get it.  Sudden change of skill level.

Or, your beginning piano student suddenly doesn’t even remember where Middle C is because “we got a new puppy!!” …  Sudden, if temporary, change of skill level.  

But, please, do we really need “research” to prove what every teacher already knows and aims to incorporate in his/her teaching??

songs on white keys

In the course of discussing ideal first pieces for beginning piano students, one of my teenage students suggested “the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music”  – not so much because it is easy but because she loves it, and “everybody knows it.”  She proceeded to quickly play through the tune – melody only.   She started from C, and curiously, played the entire song on white keys only.  She didn’t seem to notice? or mind? that it didn’t sound quite right.  There are a few modulations in this song which necessitate a few sharps here and there, and a chromatic passing tone (B flat) at the end.  As this song wasn’t really the topic of our discussion I didn’t want to spend too much time on this, so I just quickly played the tune for her, correctly, and pointed out that she had missed some black keys.  We proceeded to other pedagogical issues and then her repertoire. 

On my long way home – it is two hours from Manhattan to Olathe – I kept thinking about how she could have missed the sharps and the B flat in this song.  Played on white keys only, it sounds kind of like the song, but not really, and I didn’t understand why she didn’t hear that.  I concluded that she must have picked out the tune by ear and “all white keys” was as close as she could come to the real thing.  I also concluded that the sharps would make sense once she’d know about modulation – something we hadn’t covered yet, at least not in enough detail to relate to this song.  So, always looking for a chance to teach a new theory concept, I planned to introduce modulation at the next lesson. 

I started yesterday’s lesson by sharing with her that I had been thinking about the song, and my conclusion that the necessary black keys would make more sense once I taught her about modulation.  She had a smile on her face and was getting ready to say something but I was too enthusiastic to teach about modulation, I didn’t want to stop and listen to what she had to say.  Short intro to modulation, demonstration, she got it, and then, when I finally finished, she spoke up. 

The reason why she had played the song on white keys only, she explained, was that that’s how her school music teacher had taught it to her class.  I didn’t understand.  Surely her music teacher wouldn’t teach a song with wrong notes?  Well, she continued, white keys only is easier than a black key here and there, and the teacher had explained that teaching about sharps and flats would be too difficult and the students wouldn’t get it and that’s why she left them out.  Apparently none of the other students noticed or were bothered by this.

So, I suppose we could, in order to – simplify?, also play Für Elise on white keys only:  try it, play E-D-E-D-E-B-D-C-A.

Or we could teach to spell with consonants only, leave out vowels. 

Simplification gone wrong.

.

Simplifying and arranging is a skill, it is actually something that I include in my lessons: how to simplify without losing the essence of the story. 

I refuse to teach – I won’t even listen to – “easy arrangements” of piano literature.  Things like the Moonlight Sonata transposed to D minor, condensed to one page and arranged to fit a five-finger “position”, etc.  (heard it at a Talent Show once).

But skillful simplifying teaches the students to find that which is most important.  Which note out of a difficult-to-reach chord can be left out without changing the character of the chord?  Which of the way-too-many notes in a melody can be cut without losing “the melody”?  Whether or not we actually end up playing a (slightly) simplified version, the students have gained a greater understanding of that which they are playing.