Monday, January 31, 2011

Question of the Week: Jan. 31, 2011

I'm looking forward to a lighter-than-usual week. Three of my students are out of town and my church choir director is in St. Lucia which means no rehearsal on Wednesday. I have to admit that I feel a somewhat guilty pleasure in the prospect of a bit more free time this week! :)

With Valentine's Day coming up, I'm looking for some great ideas for short activities I can incorporate into my student's lessons for a fun change. I have a few ideas, but I'd love to hear from other teachers! So:

Do you have any Valentine-themed studio activities/games you plan on using in the upcoming weeks?

I'll share some of my ideas at the end of the week, but in the meantime, please share your own ideas!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Some Advice From the Teacher on How NOT to Bring Your Students to Their Lesson

There are times as a teacher when I have to wonder just what a student's parents are thinking! I'm sure other teachers all have their own stories to tell as well. It certainly keeps life in the studio interesting.

I had a student come to a lesson this past Friday in a horrible mood because he had been at a sleepover party and his father had taken him away from the party for his piano lesson. As soon as the lesson was over he'd be going back to the party. This is just about the worst set-up for a lesson that I can imagine. The child had no desire to be there, his mind was back at the party. He was completely unfocused for the entire lesson and every few minutes was asking how much time was left in the lesson. His lack of interest and focus in turn rubbed off on me and made me less patient that I should have been.

It was one of the worst lessons I've taught in a long time, but under the circumstances I can't imagine it having gone any differently. By the end of the lesson I was irritated with both the student and the parents for having brought him under those circumstances. It was unfair to me and to their son.

As I had had no idea of the situation until they showed up, I don't see how I could have prevented it from happening, and I tried to handle it to the best of my ability. Has anybody else ever dealt with a similar circumstance, and if so, how did you handle it after the fact?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Possible Repertoire for Funerals

I posted a few weeks back about a funeral I played for at church and the fact that I was interested in hearing about funeral repertoire books used by other church pianists. Well this afternoon I opened an email from Sheet Music Plus introducing some new piano releases, and what did I discover but this book:

What Can I Play for Funerals arr. by Cindy Berry

I have used other music composed by Cindy Berry in the past, and have been pleased with the variety, the accessibility, and the response I have gotten from the congregation. It certainly looks like a book to check out!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Question of the Week: Jan. 24, 2011

To continue with this month's theme of rhythm/pulse/beat/etc...

Do you require your students to count out loud, and if so, do you have any hints/tips/ideas on how to make it something fun?

I'm hoping to get some really great tips on how to make counting less of a chore for my students!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Further Thoughts on Metronome Practice (This Week's QotW)

This past Monday, I posed this question:

As a teacher, how do you introduce the metronome in lessons? When do you feel a student is ready for the metronome? Other than the metronome, what do you use with your students to help instill a good sense of pulse?

I try in instill the idea of a steady musical pulse, or 'heartbeat' from the very first lesson. I require my students to say the rhythms out loud and then to count out loud once we learn about time signatures. In the rote pieces I teach, I encourage the kids to sing the words or at least hum the song in their mind while they're playing.

I believe that pulse is something that has to be internalized through much repetition and drilling. I have found that making students actually verbalize- whether through counting out loud or by turning on the metronome- is MUCH more effective then leaving them to their own devices, even if the student claims to be counting 'in their head'.

I've used the metronome even for some of my younger students. I don't usually assign it for home practice, but we'll turn it on in the lesson- especially for songs that may be about clocks- and pretend that the metronome is the ticking clock.

A thorough understanding of pulse and the ability to maintain a steady pulse is an extremely important skill to develop and it can't be stressed often enough. The key is finding creative ways to help develop the skill.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How do You Turn Pages?

I've been accompanying choirs since my middle school days, but this past Wednesday night at choir I found myself all of a sudden struggling with the basic concept of coordinating page turns while accompanying the choir. I don't know if I was just extra tired this week (I was- and still am- battling a cold) or whether my brain just wasn't fully engaged, but for whatever reason I started having major problems executing smooth page turns. I'd turn too early and lose my place, I'd turn too late and leave a few beats of awkward silence or hold a chord from the previous was awful! And once it started my heightened awareness of the problem only made matters worse. As I'd near the end of a page my mind would start racing and I'd think "ok, I have to get this page turn right" and I'd agonize over it so much that I'd mess up anyway. UGH!

I don't know why, but as a music professional it seems that just when I feel I've earned my title I find myself plagued by amateurish problems of this nature. I guess it's good to review the basics every now and again. ;) Every day since then when I've practiced I've really focused on how I'm prepping for my page turns. And I've realized that I really don't operate under any kind of standard formulae for page turning. It happens when it happens. Some places I have to turn early, others I turn late.

Do any other musicians have a formula or rule you use for page turning? I'd like to be able to have a bit more of a set formula to take into my future years of accompanying!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Are You Going to Cross This One Off?"

Does anybody else have students like this? Students who view the sole purpose of the lesson being getting the piece(s) from last week 'crossed off' so they can move on to the next piece(s)? I have a particular student who predictably turns to me after the completion of each piece at his lesson and says:
"Are you going to cross this one off?"
It happens every week, at every lesson, after every piece, without fail. Never mind how well or badly he may have performed the piece, for some reason he conceives the whole process to be:
1) I play the piece 2) You cross it off 3) We move on
Not exactly! I've patiently explained to him time and time again that there is more to learning a piece of music than just playing it and getting it crossed off. I'll ask questions like: "Did you add in all the dynamics?", "was the rhythm correct here?", "were you counting", "what is your hand position in this measure", etc. and together we'll discover if the piece is really truly learned.

You see, I believe that learning a piece is about more than just getting it 'crossed off'. There's more than just the printed notes. There are the extra details that make it come alive. And there's a difference between a performance where the student painfully struggles to make it through at even a slow tempo with half-hearted execution of dynamics, articulation, and hand position changes, and a performance where the student confidently incorporates all those details at a steady tempo that assures me they have a firm grasp of the piece. And more than that, that they have a firm grasp of the concept the piece was written to teach.

Each piece in a lesson book teaches or reinforces a concept, and as teachers we need to be aware of just what that something is and whether or not our students understand it before we cross off the piece and move on. Jason over at The Piano Pedagogy Page had an excellent post on just that issue that I stumbled upon the other day. As a teacher, there are times when I give in to the 'Cross It Off and Move On' syndrome, because it's the easy way. Students tend to gripe when they have to work on a piece for another week. But if we want our students to have a firm musical foundation, that's a small price to pay.

I've made it a goal to start making sure each piece is learned, and learned well, before we cross it off and move on. This involves talking through the piece with each student after the performance and helping them to discover (with a little help from me!) just how well-executed their performance was. Hopefully over time my students will not only become better performers, but better critical listeners as well.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Positive Report on Student's Metronome Struggles

Last week in my follow-up posting about metronome use I shared a lesson where I had this very fact quite realistically demonstrated to me by one of my students.

Well, I'm happy to report that this week's lesson was a complete success! My student arrived and immediately played the song- with pretty near perfect rhythm! And when I asked if metronome practice had been part of the weekly practice, they replied in the affirmative.

If you're like me, each week of teaching provides enough moments when you're about to tear your hair out that one success like this is worth talking about! I was greatly encouraged to see that student had not only followed directions, but had worked hard at fixing the problem. Wish more of my students followed this example!

Furthing Ones' Musical Education: The National Music Certificate Program

I've been doing some research into continuing education classes available for music teachers. I've been operating my studio for 5 years now, and am finally getting to the point where I'm moving beyond the ebb and flow of beginner/elementary students, and starting to have a solid base of intermediate students. Since this is new territory, I've been searching for options to get more knowledge on how to approach this particular level of student.

There are several programs and websites I'm looking into, but the one that has caught my attention recently is the National Music Certificate Program. While the program offers testing for students of all ages and levels, they also offer teaching and performing certificates. I'm really interested in pursuing this option.

Has anyone else ever enrolled students in this program, or have you ever taken exams through the program yourself? I'd love to hear your feedback on the program!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Question of the Week: Jan. 17, 2011

I can't believe that January is half over already! Where does the time go?

Last week, I posited a question about using/over-using the metronome. I provided my own thoughts yesterday afternoon, but I'd like to keep to the same vein this week with a few more rhythm-related questions.

As a teacher, how do you introduce the metronome in lessons? When do you feel a student is ready for the metronome? Other than the metronome, what do you use with your students to help instill a good sense of pulse?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this, and as always, I'll be posting my own this coming weekend.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Thoughts on Metronome Practice (This Week's QotW)

At the beginning of the week, I posed this question:

How important do you feel the metronome is for daily practice in your studio? Do you make it a requirement or just a suggestion? Can it be overused?

And, wouldn't you know it, I had the perfect illustration of the usefulness of metronome practice this week! I had a student working on memorizing a piece who came back to me this week super excited about the work he'd put into memorization. And then he started playing...

The rhythm was TOTALLY wrong! I sat there and listened to him perform, cringing through the entire performance as his rhythm errors continued throughout the piece. At the end, I handed him back the music, discussed a few of the pertinent areas, and then we tried it again- this time with the metronome. And guess what- the counting problems magically fixed themselves!

I had asked him to practice with the metronome while memorizing the piece, but since I could tell it hadn't happened (hence the rhythm errors!) I stressed again that he MUST ALWAYS practice this week with the metronome.

It's amazing to me how students can really not seem to hear their rhythm mistakes, even when they are counting out loud. Sometimes, just relying on a students' own ability to count just isn't enough. Enter the metronome.

As my studio continues to grow, I've become increasingly convinced as to the indispensability of the metronome in daily practice. Not only does it force the student to slow down, it also ensures the students feels and maintains a steady pulse.

I don't often use a metronome with my younger students, except maybe as a fun exploratory exercise, but for those who are at a late elementary level and beyond, I think it's too valuable of an asset to overlook.

Whether you make metronome practice a suggestion or a requirement depends largely on the individual. Some students take every suggestion to heart and follow through, others won't and need more specific directions (ie orders!). If you know your students well, you should be able to tell which method is needed.

Finally, can the metronome be overused? I think so. While some practice is essential to help a student in developing pulse and learning the benefit of slow practice, too much metronome work can result in a lack of musical expression and a rubato feel. Students need to understand the value of pulse, but also the fact that a good sense of pulse is relative to the larger construct of the piece as a whole, and that each piece will require a different emphasis.

So there you have it, my rather wordy answer to the QotW! Hope this gave you some food for thought. Stay tuned for next week's question.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Top 5 Reasons I LOVE Pianos Adventures

Looking back on it now, I can't remember exactly what made me finally decide on using Piano Adventures for my studio, but I can say that I've never once regretted it! Here is a list of the top 5 things I love about the series:

1) Visual Appeal: Let's face it, most students (at least mine!) gravitate toward musical material that is visually pleasing. Books with catchy illustrations, bright colors, and a 'modern' format are more likely to grab and hold a student's attention. I love the bright colors, the illustrations, and the easy-to-read, not too busy, format.

2) Musical Selections: Over and above the visual appeal, the variety of literature contained in this method is outstanding. From original compositions by Nancy and Randall Faber, to sound arrangements of well-known tunes, to actual classical literature, the variety of styles allow every student to find something they love.

3) Supplementary Materials: In addition to a Lesson, Theory, and Technique book (the 3 I use as my foundation), this method offers so many other options. There are supplementary performance books, the PreTime to BigTime library which offers additional literature on a variety of themes, classical supplements for more advanced levels, sightreading materials; the list goes on and on! And the material is graded so that it's easy to find supplements for every level of student.

4) A Method for Everyone: From the earliest of beginners to adult students, there is truly a method that works for every age and level of skill. I've been consistently impressed with every level and every track, from My First Piano Adventures all the way up to Adult Piano Adventures.

5) A Sound Instructional Method: The manner in which Nancy and Randall Faber present basic music and theory concepts is outstanding. Each level builds on the previous level, reviewing and adding new material. This ensures a firm foundation if the material is taught well.

So there you have it! My top 5 reasons for using Piano Adventures. Anybody else have their own reasons to add?

Upcoming Series: Piano Adventures Method Evaluation

In my studio, I use Nancy and Randall Faber's Piano Adventures method books. As a child first starting piano lessons, I was taught from Francis Clarks' Music Tree series, and this was the series I first started using as a student teacher. However, upon opening my own studio I did a lot of research on methods and decided for several reasons to change to the Piano Adventures method. I have been extremely satisfied ever since!

Over the coming weeks I hope to share more about my experiences with this particular teaching method and give a brief evaluation of each level in the series.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Question of the Week Series

At this point, there aren't too many people reading my blog, but my hope is that that will change over time! In light of that fact, I've decided to post a question each Monday for feedback through the coming week. It may be a question pertaining to my personal skills as a pianist, an issue about church musicianship, or a teaching dilemma I'm at a loss as to how to handle. Through the week I'll ask other readers to provide feedback or suggestions.'s the first installment of my new QotW Series:

How important do you feel the metronome is for daily practice in your studio? Do you make it a requirement or just a suggestion? Can it be overused?

Additional Studio Foci for the Spring

Yesterday I shared about my spring practice incentive. That's an activity that's always fun to plan, and even more enjoyable as I see my students get caught up in the spirit of the competition.

In addition to the spring practice incentive, however, I have a few other drills I'm incorporating into weekly lessons.

1) To help my students develop a better sense of familiarity with the keyboard and basic intervallic recognition, I'm using the Across the C's sightreading sheets from Natalie Wickham's Music Matters Blog. I love how these worksheets drill spatial and intervalic concepts. The series is also great for drilling additional concepts like: looking for repeated patterns, reading ahead and preparing the next hand position, and maintaining a steady pulse. These sheets are easily accessible, which allows the student to feel a sense of accomplishment.

2) For students who need a bit more work on note recognition, I'm assigning Notes in the Fast Lane sheets from Susan Paradis' website. I've been amazed at how much my students (especially the guys!) love this activity.

3) Another concept I'm really emphasizing for my intermediate students this spring is pulse. This means (oh no!) metronome work. I'm not one to assign a huge amount of metronome practice for my students, but for those who seem to struggle with feeling and maintaining pulse, I've made a resolution with myself that I will start incorporating more metronome work into their weekly assignments.

I'm sure that as the weeks progress I'll start pulling out additional drills to address new issues that crop up, but these were ideas I decided to incorporate right from the start, and I'm hoping to be able to give a positive report in the weeks to come on the success of each drill!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Studio Practice Incentive: Spring 2011

This past week was the first week of lessons for my spring term. I had a lot of fun coming up with an idea for this term's practice incentive, although, to give credit where credit is due, it was really my husband who inspired the idea behind the contest.

Once Christmas is past, my brain jumps ahead about 6 months and starts wishing for warmer, summer-type weather, so to keep with this theme, my spring practice incentive is tropically centered.

My students are participating in two different contests this spring. At their first lesson, I handed out a page for their activity binder with information about the two contests.

Practice Incentive #1: Just Mon-key-ing Around

This contest involves each students' weekly practice. I created a palm tree and the students' monkeys climb the palm tree as they add up practice minutes and days. I have always struggled as a teacher with whether it's better to emphasize how much students practice or how well students practice, and while I still haven't come to any definite conclusions, I felt that the contests that emphasize collecting practice minutes generally result in greater diligence on the part of my students. You can see in this picture the palm tree I created with all the monkeys piled up at the bottom waiting to begin their ascent.

Practice Incentive #2: I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts
I try to encourage memorization with my students whenever possible, but there are some students who just struggle with committing music to memory. I decided to make memorizing a goal for my studio this spring and created a contest to help inspire my students. Each student has a palm tree and they collect one coconut on their tree for each piece they memorize. I hope to encourage my students to take the idea of learning a piece by memory to heart and help them develop good memorizing habits and skills. You may not be able to see from this picture, but a few of my students already have coconuts on their palm trees!

It may still be winter here in Maryland, and cold to boot, but I'm dreaming of the tropics and I hope to see my students excel this term with these two contests!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Funeral

I'm providing music for a funeral service at my church this afternoon. I didn't know the woman at all, but she was a long-time member of the church who passed away this past week.

Funerals were never a part of my performance experience until I came on staff at Springfield Presbyterian almost two years ago. My first post out of college was at a church that had a much younger congregation and I played for several weddings for members, but never any funerals. Springfield, by comparison, has a much older congregation. I've played for several funerals in my time there, and not one wedding!

As I was pulling out music and running through repertoire for the service earlier this morning, I got to thinking about what makes good 'funeral music'. I have several books I find myself consistently referring to when I'm looking for repertoire, but I'm curious to hear from some other musicians as well. Does anybody have any great resources for funeral music? I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, January 7, 2011

First Week of the New Term: A Review

Take a deep breath or a sigh of relief, and let it all out. Yes, I have made it through the first week of lessons this term. I typically find that the first week of the term is even harder for me than the last. I've spent hours upon hours prepping and planning, and then it's time to put it all to the test! I spend a good portion of each lesson introducing the term practice incentive, handing out additional worksheets, and orienting my students toward the term goals.

After a brief break, it always takes me a week or two to get back into the swing of the weekly lesson routine. And it seems that it usually takes the students a week or two to get back into a regular practice routine as well. It's always amazing to me just how detrimental even one week off can be to a student whose practice habits and progress have been shaky over the previous term.

I also find myself expending about twice as much teaching energy the first week back. Why? Because I'm trying to start the term out on a positive, enthusiastic note. I go all out trying to spread a contagious enthusiasm to my whole studio, and the end of the week usually leaves me feeling pretty exhausted!

I do want to share a bit more about this term's practice incentive (which I think has been a HUGE hit with my students this week) and several of the other ideas I'm using in my studio this spring, but that's a project for another day. Tonight I just want to sit back and reflect on the week.

It's been a good week, with it's ups and downs. Some students disappointed me with their lack of practice and discipline over break, and I could tell they hadn't touched their music or even thought about piano once. But others surprised me completely! I had several students show up for lessons who had worked above and beyond what I had required at the last lesson. Some students surprised me with memorized pieces.

Through the week I found myself freshly inspired for the coming term with ideas and concepts on how to motivate my students. So, while it wasn't an exceptional week, I find myself satisfied with my personal accomplishments as well as those of my students. Here's to a successful Spring 2011 Term at Discoveries Piano Studio!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

First Choir Rehearsal of 2011

Last night was our first choir rehearsal of the new year. It was great to get back and see everyone again, although our numbers were a bit sparse! Hopefully next week will see an increase in numbers. :)

I used to dread the start of a new choir season, if only for the massive volume of new music I would be handed by the choir director. When I first started my job at Springfield Presbyterian Church, we were at the end of the choir year, so I didn't get hit with too much music, but the follow fall was a different story. At the first rehearsal I got hit up with a HUGE stack of music. I left that evening feeling more than just a little overwhelmed.

But as time has marched on, I've learned to anticipate, and even enjoy a new season and new music. As a church pianist, there are several things I have learned (and continue to learn!) that make my job as accompanist more manageable, and even enjoyable!

1. Being handed a stack of music does NOT equal; you MUST have all this mastered by next week. That stack represents an entire season or more of music. Focus on the coming month first and then work from there.

2. You most likely won't ever perform all the music. Each season, there are several pieces that our director decides not to have us perform for various reasons. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen until AFTER we work on it for a bit, so I still need to learn the music.

3. Learn the choral parts first. Generally the first week or two on a new choir piece the director won't even ask for the accompaniment part as we just work on drilling notes for each vocal part. If I familiarize myself with the vocal parts first, that takes a load off my back, helps me comprehend the piece more fully, and makes me more secure when drilling parts with the choir.

4. You don't have to play all the notes!
Yep, I've become pretty good at fudging, substituting, filling in, or whatever you want to call it. There are some times when I don't worry about being able to play every single note that's written in the music. I'll substitute with other chord tones, and sometimes leave out the extra octaves. My job is more about support and providing a backdrop for the choir. I'm not a performer.

5. It's a collaborative effort. This is perhaps one of my favorite things about accompanying- it's not all about me! It's a group effort between me, the director, and the members of the choir. If we're not in tune with each other, it's going to fall apart. As a member of the team, I need to be cognizant of what's happening around me, and ready to adapt at a moment's notice.

6. BE FLEXIBLE! This is super important! As accompanist, I always have to expect the 'unexpected' and be ready to go with the flow. This kind of goes with #5, but flexibility is so important that I felt it deserved it's own spot. :)

7. Have fun. Also super important. When I work with our choir, it's not about how well we perform. First and foremost, our goal is to bring glory to God through the music we perform. And our second goal should be to have fun, enjoy the music, and communicate that joy and excitement to the congregation.

That's just a small snippet I've learned in the past almost two years in my current church position. And even now, as I face a new season of music and another stack of choir pieces, I'm excited about the months ahead!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year = Studio Blog!

I'm so excited to be starting a new venture in the form of a studio blog. This is a project I've wanted to start for about a year now, but I kept putting it off. But no longer!

This blog is still in the creation process, but I hope to add to it in the coming weeks and months, sharing the successes and frustrations of my life as a piano teacher, offering and receiving advice from other teachers, providing creative teaching ideas and games, and getting to know teachers from all over the web!

Please bear with me as I get things up and running here, and feel free to drop me a comment anytime if you have suggestions. Welcome to my blog! I look forward to getting to know you all!