Category Archives: Uncategorized

Look in the Mirror

(the following Thought of the Day was written by Marc Jones  for Facebook)


I admit I am the worst at being critical of myself. I pick everything I do, how I look, what I say apart all the time. Now I’m not as bad as I used to be because I am working on it and I have had many revelations about myself the last seven years. But I still can be my worst critic. We all can be. Why is that?

Well, for me it comes from years of having my self esteem stamped down. Once that happens, and I blame myself a lot for it happening or allowing it to, then it takes a lot of work and time to regain that self esteem. But I am getting there. I think many of you can relate.

When I speak of looking in the mirror and being proud of who you see I’m not talking about the physical reflection altho you all know I believe in taking care of yourself and looking the best you can look for your age and stage you are at in life. What’s right for me isn’t what’s right for you. Know that.

I’m talking about does the image you see invoke pride at who you are inside. Are you loving, kind, genuine, truthful, helpful and empathetic ? Are you giving yet able to receive in gratitude as well? Are you grateful for what you have and not jealous of others and their successes? Do you celebrate others and their accomplishments? Are you faithful and loyal and do you have a good moral compass? Do you embrace good people and reject the ideas of hate and evil and narcissism at any cost?

Basically when you look in the mirror do you see a person who has lived, loved, laughed, cried, hurt and survived only to be stronger and wiser and wanting to do better? Do you see a human being with a heart willing to open it to others yet knowing there is so much more to learn and to love? Do you see a person who tries to not judge anyone but understand we all have our plights in life?

If you can see that person you, like myself, should be proud. You’ve worked hard to get there!

Blessings to you all on this great Saturday!

(Source: Marc Jones, Facebook)


Recently, a disgruntled parent complained that my expectations were unclear.

I scoffed. To me there is not much  that’s more important in the teacher – student – parent triangle than to set clear expectations so I have always been extra careful to communicate these.

I checked with some other parents who immediately reassured me that my expectations were in fact very clear.

Except, they are not really. Clear.

What is clear are my instructions – they are detailed, very specific, aimed at that particular student, written down in the assignment binder, broken down into easy-to-follow steps. The “what to practice” is only a very first step. What follows can be an entire paragraph of “how to practice what you’re supposed to practice”.

I include the student in this process – “What should I write down to help you remember at home what we are working on?” – “What’s a good word to describe the most important thing here?” etc and so on.

But I hardly ever say, “By the next lesson I expect you to be able to do da-da-da.” I guess I assume that if the instructions say “m. 5-8 RH alone” that means that by the next lesson I expect to hear m. 5-8 RH alone.

I did have one student some time ago who during the five-lesson trial period came back to a lesson and said he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with the assignment that said “New: Minuet”. I was baffled: did I really have to spell out “Learn to play the new minuet”?? Apparently so.

My expectations have more to do with – behavior? I am trying to be polite, friendly, considerate, prepared, I start and end lessons on time, and I expect students and parents to be and do the same: they are polite, friendly, considerate, prepared, and they show up on time.

I expect my students to habitually show a high level of enthusiasm, motivation, and commitment. Which means that most of the time they are enthusiastic, motivated, and committed, but not all the time.

One of my high school students, some time ago, apologized for not having been well-prepared for several lessons in a row. Wide eyes when I responded, “I don’t care.” Say what? I explained that I assumed he was doing his best and that I understood that there’s only so much time in a day / week, and that I was glad and proud that he was doing so much other extra-curricular stuff so naturally piano took a backseat for a couple lessons, and I knew he’d get back to spending more time with piano as soon as the other stuff calmed down. But I also appreciated that he recognized that he wasn’t as well-prepared and that he said something.

I guess that is my expectation then: that students (and parents) do their best, and their best is good enough for me.

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 critique 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.


What I have learned

I have been teaching for a while now, and like most piano teachers, I heartily regret the first ten or so years of my teaching career – I had no idea what I was doing. My degree is in Performance and Pedagogy, so I thought I knew what I was doing, but like most piano teachers coming straight out of college, we tend to teach beginners up to intermediate students the way we were taught in grad school: emphasis on interpretation and performance, minute details, some technique, not nearly enough effort and time spent on building a good foundation, nor taking the time for lots and LOTS of repetition.

I shouldn’t be, but I am surprised that I am still learning new and important things. One of the recent most impactful ones came out of my growing frustration when students didn’t play well at a lesson.

I try to be very precise and unambiguous with the things I want my students to work on at home, but still, students were often not as well-prepared as I thought they could be. I remember one student in particular who kind of stumbled through his piece. I realized I was getting angry at his seeming lack of preparedness, especially since we had carefully set up goals and strategies at the previous lesson – and then his mother said, “At home he doesn’t play hands together, he only plays hands separately.” – So why on earth would you try to play hands together at the lesson?? When I asked him to play hands separately it was obvious that he was in fact very well-prepared.

So now, regardless of what a student asks – “Do you want me to play hands together or hands separately?” or “with metronome or without?” or “with the book or without?” or anything else -, I say, “Play it the way you play it at home.”

Sometimes they will say things like “- but I only got through the first two lines” to which I respond, “Then I would like to hear the first two lines.” – “But I only know the right hand” – “Then I would love to hear right hand for the first two lines.”

Once in a while a student seems to struggle with a piece and when I ask, “How do you play it at home?” they may sheepishly say, “Well – I usually play it *really* fast …”  No wonder they don’t recognize the piece when they try to play it at the correct (= slower) tempo for me.

One would think that my students have become used to this “Play it the way you play it at home” but every so often there is a student who plays through a piece and it gets progressively worse and worse. Why?  “I only practiced the first page, I haven’t learned the second one yet.”  So they were sight-reading through the second page (but making it appear like the second page was part of their preparation). I try to explain that that is not a smart idea because it makes it look like they didn’t practice at home.

I guess, it all comes down, again, to communication.


New Students

(publ. Nov. 2021) Over the last 15 months or so quite a few new students have come into the studio, and because I have a strict mask policy I have yet to see their faces. I know their eyes, and I know their voice, and their favorite outfits and their favorite masks; I am sure I would recognize them if I ran into them in a store.

The other day, someone other than a parent dropped off one of the younger students and said she wouldn’t come inside because she forgot her mask. I offered her a mask which she gratefully accepted, and that’s when I realized that it was, in fact, the mother of the student. I had never seen her face, and I was stunned at how very different she looked without a mask.

Yesterday, I asked the mother of another young student if it would be ok for me to take a picture of her daughter at the piano, and if it would be ok for her to pull her mask down for the two seconds it took to take the picture. She said, Sure, Of course, and – again, there was suddenly a completely new person at the piano, it was mind-boggling.

So, now I have started to take pictures of my newer students whose faces I had never seen, at the piano, mask pulled down for a second or two, to reveal the entire face.

I was surprised at how giddily excited I have become, seeing the whole face for the first time ever – it’s like discovering a new person! I had known their eyes, their voices but this is like a new dimension.

We say that you can see the soul of a person in their eyes and I am sure that is true, and eyes can be very expressive, but boy, there’s something about the rest of the face that the eyes don’t even hint at.

Makes me smile, just thinking about the other students whom I get to discover over the next couple lessons! I find myself wondering now, actively guessing what their faces look like behind their masks. (Mark asked if these new students have ever seen *me* without a mask, and – no, of course they haven’t, but most of them have seen a picture of me, without mask.) I think I’ll print the pictures of students’ faces just so I can look at them – and hope that someday, before too long, we will not need masks all the time anymore, and I get to see their entire beautiful faces for real, not just in a picture.


A Sign of the Times

Our town has always had its (small) share of (usually) homeless people, standing in the shade under a tree at the street corner, often close to a grocery store or Walmart, usually with a smallish hand-written piece of paper or cardboard sign, asking for help, food, occasionally money.

Recently, things have become more sophisticated. It is now usually a small family, or mother and children, often Hispanic where the mother speaks no English and depends on the child(ren) to communicate. The signs have become larger, much larger, with large print that is readable from across the parking lot, and the pleas for help have become more urgent, usually mentioning some sort of dire emergency: pregnant without resources, just lost their house in a fire or having been thrown out by the landlord with nowhere to go, one of the children urgently needing surgery, etc. and so on.

Gone is the disheveled look, the temporary-ness of the small cardboard signs. The same few (two or three) families seem to cycle through town, showing up in different places on different days.

The newest, latest, is now someone, sometimes a child (with father nearby), playing a violin, again with a large sign declaring their emergency, often with an online payment option at the bottom of the sign, Venmo number etc. so you don’t even have to interrupt their playing as you give them money.

The music is beautiful, romantic, lush, usually with some orchestral background to the violin solo. While it is not at all unusual for street musicians to have a recording of the orchestra part to their live playing, these recent performances are so obviously NOT live performances – the bowing and the finger movement of the other hand are so terribly out of sync with the music, and the sound of the violin unnaturally carries all the way across the parking lot.

It is not these scam artists whom I consider a sign of the times, but the reaction of the people.

We’ve been under so much stress for so long, helplessly watching COVID-19 ravage our country, raging fires destroy towns, entire counties, with no end in sight. Afghanistan, hurricanes, it just keeps piling up – and there is NOTHING the average citizen can do. We’ve been feeling helpless, powerless for so long – so, when there appears a chance to make a difference in someone’s awful life by helping them – a chance to actually DO something, right here, right now – people jump at it.

Reading accounts on social media, it is touching how quickly people put their lives on hold and go to great lengths to help these unfortunate ones who through no fault of their own are in such dire straights right now. People spend hours and resources to collect money, set up GoFundMe’s, collect resources where to find help (we have lots of them in our town), offer to take them places. – Only, these unfortunate ones show up a couple days later in a different part of town, with the same story, starting another cycle of people going out of their way to help them.

When it is being pointed out to the helpful ones that the boy playing the violin is not actually playing the violin, they get upset, “We were just there! We saw him!”

Which may possibly be a point to be made for public school music education: educate people so they can tell the difference between real violin playing and something fake. 

Your earliest convenience

My brain has trouble processing spoken language when I cannot see the person with whom I am speaking. I therefore have on my website that all communication should be via email. So, I receive emails, inquiring about piano lessons. Sometimes they have specific questions, sometimes it’s just, “Do you have room in your studio?”

Once in a while, the email concludes with “Please respond at your earliest convenience.”

I want to respond and ask, “Why?” Is there some emergency?

I can think of medical emergencies where I depend on a fairly immediate response from my physician. But piano lessons?

Or perhaps they think I need to be told not to dawdle? Because – ?

I don’t get it. And I resent it. If you send me an email with a question, of course I will respond. And I will respond as soon as I get to it. Which is usually the same day, unusually a day or two later, perhaps after the weekend. Which is by the way how my doctor responds, or actually any professional I happen to do business with. And they do it without being told to respond at their earliest convenience. It’s just – normal? I would think? And if they don’t respond right away then there’s most likely a good reason.

Many years ago, an email arrived, inquiring about piano lessons. When I didn’t respond right away, a tersely worded follow-up email basically said, “Well, are you interested or not? Because if you’re not then we’ll look somewhere else.”

I should have said, “Go something-something-unprintable and look somewhere else.” Instead, I was polite and responded that I was in Germany, completely overwhelmed because I was taking care of the memorial service for my mother who had died unexpectedly a couple days earlier, taking care of her affairs, and that I would get back with them when I was back in the States. “Oh.”

Instead of telling me what to do, implying that I NEED to be told what to do, I would suggest something like, “I look forward to your response!” or “We’re eager to get started!” or “Can’t wait to hear from you!”

(In case anyone is wondering – yes, I do take things very literally.)




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.


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)