Thursday, July 21, 2011

Crazy About Scales!

As a musician, one of my favorite ways to start a practice session is with scales. As practice time is often limited, I don't always take the time to do so, but when I do I have SO MUCH FUN!

I don't know when my little love affair with scales started, but I think it was sometime in college when my teacher showed me all the many ways I could get creative with scales and arpeggios. Up to that point, scales had been super boring and monotonous- 4 octaves ascending and descending with the metronome, arpeggios, cadences...where's the fun in that?! But a whole new world of possibilities was opened up to me when I realized I could play scales in parallel 3rds/6ths/10ths, perform both scales and arpeggios in parallel and contrary motion, vary my dynamics, articulation, was exhilarating! Suddenly scales transformed from boring drills into exciting, creative experiments. I started to enjoy that part of my daily warm-up so much more and continue to enjoy it to this day.

Having the rare opportunity to warm-up with scales yesterday reminded me again how much I enjoy them and also got me thinking about the role we as teachers have in finding creative ways to inspire our students. There are teachers who merely teach, then there are those who inspire. I make it my goal to be the type who inspires.

What does it mean to be a teacher who inspires? It means constantly thinking outside of the box and looking for creative ways to approach new concepts. It means embracing new ideas rather than sticking with the tried and true. It means taking the time to learn what makes each student tick and then finding ways to teach to those specific needs. It means being willing to make mistakes. It means being a teacher who teaches with excellence but also has fun!

Being this type of teacher does mean more work. It's a lot easier to stick to the middle of the road and never go outside the boundaries of what's comfortable looking for new ideas. But the incredible rewards of the extra work make it all worthwhile!

So what do you do to inspire your students and motivate yourself to go the extra mile to make sure it happens? Did you ever have a break-through moment as a student where a particular teacher made a musical concept come alive for you?


  1. I have always started with scales every time I sit down to play, and teach my students to do the same. I have never found it boring but then, I do a more abbreviated version than you describe. Two octaves up and down, followed by the I-IV-V7-I chord progression in the full octave position.

    I try to inspire my students by my enthusiasm for music and for any progress they make. I make sure they don't get discouraged, by breaking down their challenges into smaller challenges at which they can succeed. Many of my students tell me how much fun their lessons are, and how much they love to come to lessons.

    I don't remember any "aha" moments with my teachers, although I'm sure I had them. The "aha" moments in my own learning, ironically, seemed to mostly happen in the years after piano lessons, when I was my own piano teacher. I always wondered why none of my teachers had taught me those things, and I vow to do my best not to leave such "holes" in MY students' learning.

    But I remember three students in particular that caused me to have "aha" moments about how I could improve my teaching methods. And my students often have "aha" moments during lessons that are so exciting to us both!

  2. Thanks for your comment Jan. You sound like a very encouraging teacher! It's true that some students can get overwhelmed if they're faced with too much of a challenge. That's what makes teaching so much fun (and so rewarding) for me- the opportunity to get to know each individual personality. Some of my students jump at a challenge and will work extra hard to accomplish a task with enthusiasm. Others get easily discouraged if they don't succeed immediately, and interpret their mistakes as failures, rather than just part of the learning process. As teachers, we have to assess how to assign material, and how to approach teaching it in a way that will make the student feel successful without being overwhelmed.

    I'm curious to hear more about your 'aha' moments in the years after lessons. What did they involve? Thoughts about sightreading? Harmonic analysis (when my first teacher tried to teach me about this I was COMPLETELY wasn't until years later that it finally 'clicked')?

    I have to admit that there are times when I realize that my students have inadvertently sustained 'holes' in their learning. Whether it was my approach to them as a student, or perhaps something I'd just assumed they understood, or maybe a concept I hadn't stressed enough, it's always humbling to me, and keeps me constantly on my toes and determined to keep learning!

    On the other hand, I have had the privilege of seeing the proverbial lightbulb go on in a students' head during a lesson- nothing like it- I agree!

  3. This is a bit long--sorry, but you asked! The "aha" moments in the years since I took lessons? Ha, when you're 60, that can be quite a while ago, so I had to do a little thinking to remember. Some of this I learned by accident/experimenting; some things I picked up from others or in my reading.

    The two biggest discoveries:

    1) The meaning and importance of rubato and cantabile. I had learned to play with a bit of both in my lessons but don't know if those terms were used--they were not stressed because I didn't come away with them impressed into my thinking. The rubato, cantabile, and other interpretation I used were only as marked in the book--I didn't really feel it on my own. I now introduce and emphasize them to my students early on--in the first year.

    2) My physical position at the piano changed and improved after I quit lessons, which I took from nine through college. As it did, my interpretation and "feel" improved immensely. I had been very self-conscious and lacking in confidence, so I sat very upright at the piano and only moved my arms and hands. Once I was no longer playing for a teacher's critical eye and ear, I found myself loosening up and moving a little. I sat a little more forward, leaned a little into my notes, played from my body--not just "finger-playing." In doing so, it felt like I became almost part of my piano, not just "perched" on the bench. People at church began to comment on my interpretive playing, and wanted me to teach their kids to play just like that!


    With difficult passages, especially if they involved speed or "funny" counting, I learned not to get hung up on each individual note or count (as a Christian, dare I use the term "legalistic"? ha). I learned to keep my eyes on the big picture and the main beat and not worry if each little piece of the ornamentation was exact. This relaxed me physically and mentally so that I ended up finding I COULD do it better than when I had tried so hard. Playing with more rubato also helped me to handle difficult passages much better than the legalistic approach!

    I always had a good hand position, with fingers curved and wrist nicely raised, but I discovered that if I raised my hand just a tad bit MORE, things went even better--I explain it to my students as pretending your hand is a daddy longlegs--raise his body just a bit more and let those legs dangle down.

    I realized that I had the freedom to take some liberties with pieces, whether hymn arrangements or classical--I don't have to play the pedaling or dynamics or tempo as written. Yes, I should learn Beethoven or whoever as written, as for a piano lesson or performance. But when I play it for myself, it becomes MY music as I interpret it. I play it how it feels to ME and that is OK! Sometimes it comes out quite different!

    I sightread well but don't improvise well, so for years I always played pieces exactly as written. Now, if I don't like one part of a hymn arrangement, I have learned that I can delete a section, change some harmonies or a transition, etc. Now I will end up being able to play something in church that before I avoided because it had a part that was weird, pretentious, bland, too difficult, too short, too long, etc. I imagine a lot of people do that, but when I finally realized I could do things like that, it was a major light bulb moment!

    The "aha" moments that came from students: 1) Learning that I didn't have to continue using the same method books I learned from. 2) Learning to break down my teaching into bite-sized bits more effectively so that no students fell through the cracks. 3) Learning how to use positive encouragement more and negative comments less to keep students more relaxed and in a learning frame of mind. (I now seldom say things like "no" or "that was wrong.")

  4. Jan- WOW! Thanks so much for taking the time to write with such detail! I totally agree that there are things that you can learn in lessons, and things you can only learn on your own, in time. Part of that is maturity, learning to get 'beyond ourselves' and let the music speak without getting hung up on perfection. I have made several discoveries in my years as a church musician that have forever changed the way I view music. Teaching also affords those breakthrough moments- both for me personally and for the students I teach.

    Your comment was an inspiring reminder to me of the fact that we never stop learning and growing as musicians!

  5. So.....let's hear about YOUR discoveries??

  6. as they say...that's a topic for another post ;) one I hope to do sometime soon. I've thought about it several times!