Posts tagged teaching

Should Piano Tuners be Piano Players?

Is it necessary that a piano tuner know how to get around on the piano? No.  Piano tuners can competantly tune an instrument one note at a time.  HOWEVER, that said, it is an INCREDIBLE asset to know how to play to CHECK the tuning.  My background is in performance and teaching.  I started tuning only about 10 years ago.  When i first started tuning i would then play a favourite song and say to myself “BLECH… this is TERRIBLE!” hahaaa.  Then off i would go fixing what sounded ‘out’.  For a brief period in college i studied ancient Greek language.  The first 3 rules of interpretation are… context, context, context.  Similarly when tuning, the context of a note within a chord reveal pitch.  I’ve spoken about how some notes on certain pianos don’t sound ‘right’ and you can alter them to sound more…mmmm soothing instead of jarring or clashing.  And the way in which you tell if a piano sounds in tune is from playing a song, an arpeggio, a chord or melody.  So is it necessary to play if you’re a tuner? Absolutely not.  Anyone can play 2 notes at a time.  But is imperative to check the tuning?  Absolutely.

How Xbox Helped My Piano Practice

Long before Nintendo, before the days of Sony, before Sega, Collecovision… my dad had invented the Xbox. No seriously. He’s now 86 years of age and well… truth be told he showed me his first Xbox when i was about 5 years of age. Early 70’s… he was WAY ahead of his time… only this “X” box was a chart. OK pictured is the ACTUAL chart from when i was a kid. Call him crazy but these charts are memories of accomplishments for him. Here’s how it works: each time practiced meant one X in the box. Oh THAT kind of Xbox… ya ya… you thought my Dad actually created THE Xbox? Really? Well… not the electronic one anyway. But he DID make the Xbox charts with ruler, pen and paper.

So today i present to you Xbox next generation. Click on the tab above that reads “Free Resources” and there you will find practice charts for Canada’s own technical requirements by grade. Even if you don’t work with a graded system, they are still a fabulous systematic way of working through grade level technique. And so each scale, chord or arpeggio has a row of 25 boxes to be filled in. Remember: practice makes permanent. Enjoy!

Making Rhythm… Rhythmical

Over the years in teaching, you learn that every student has at least one weakness – for some it’s sight reading, others it’s ear or finger dexterity, still others have a problem with rhythm.  Rhythm is one of the more challenging aspects to correct in teaching because it involves an inate sense of pulse.  Does not the concept of ‘beat’ come from that of our own hearts? We’ve somehow ‘mechanized’ this basic concept into numbers and counting, beats per minute (BPM) and metronomes with Maelzel’s markings.  Teaching rhythm IMHO needs to be an extension of movement… of the sensation that we are actually part of time.  Many years ago, i decided (especially with young students) to throw out the concept of counting for 2 reasons: one is that it requires math (2 beats plus 1 beat plus a half of a beat = 3 and half beats plus a…) I found that kids simply got bogged down with the math!!! How crazy is that?  Calm down… for all the Classical formal teachers… don’t panic… i still teach counting but not at early levels.  The second reason i don’t teach counting is due to the fact that i found students were getting confused with finger numbers.  Music doesn’t need to have two sets of numbers going on… one for fingering, the other for counting.  So i abandoned counting… with GREAT success.

What do i do instead? I simply teach rhythmic words… words that remind us of motion. I just want to mention that this is in no way a NEW concept.  Rhythmic words or phrases have been done for decades.  This is just something that i used consistently to teach with.   Here’s the setup:

A quarter note looks like a leg with a big cartoon shoe… let’s call that WALK

Four quarters then (say it) are WALK WALK WALK WALK

Eighth notes usually come in pairs and are faster… well faster than walking would be RUN-NING.  So when you say “running” that represents double the speed and two notes instead of one. Quarter, 2 Eighths, Quarter Quarter would be WALK RUN-NING WALK WALK.  See where i’m going with this?

OK now it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous but hey ALL of my students have learned rhythm in half an hour so… it WORKS.

A Half note is hollow right? It’s not filled in.  This is…. wait for it… Cinderella’s slipper. TA DA! Hahaaaa… and so if you’re walking in glass slippers you need to walk SLOW-LY – this is two syllables but twice as long as a walk.

Half note, Quarter, 2 Eighths would then be SLOW-LY WALK RUNNING… oh and BTW when you say these, they need to be robotic-like… feeling the pulse.

Anyway… if you want more of the musical phrases… i have a raft of them – everything from Swing Batta… to the Sneeze to Beautiful Bicycle… lol… i may never have taught counting but i sure instilled rhythm into each of my students and had a good laugh at the same time.

Practice Practicing the Piano

Without fail i’ve had this conversation at least ONCE with each of my students.  It pertains to HOW to practice.  It’s not enough to just start arbitrarily playing through a song, the student needs to be shown HOW to actually go about learning the nuts and bolts of practicing.  To do this, i usually find the closest book available and i say to the student, “Ok i’d like you to repeat word for word what i am about to tell you.  Ready?” (They ALWAYS nod their heads in agreement)… “Here goes”

In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain – the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground trumeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.” (1st paragraph from The Piano Tuner – EXCELLENT book BTW)

I then turn to the student and say “OK let’s hear it”.  100% of the time they give me a blank stare.  Some start to laugh, some start to look worried… and then i explain that human beings learn in bite sized pieces.  If i were to say the same quote “In the fleeting seconds” – have them repeat that and then move to “of final memory“, the student would remember the words right? Now join the two together.  Do you see where i’m going with this? Learn an entire song? Forget it.  Learn 2 bars at a time? Now we’re talking.  We need to teach students to be brilliant at the small stuff – the short sections.  I tell them “I’d rather have 4 bars done for next week – 4 bars you are completely genius at rather than slosh through the entire song”.  Time and again i remind them of this analogy and the ones who get it will grasp the art of practicing and excel.

PS – if you haven’t read the Piano Tuner, it’s a FABULOUS novel! Get it!

Five Words to Parents

I’ve been asked numerous times by parents what the secret to success is for keeping their children interested in the piano.  Over the years i have noticed five common threads amongst the students who excel.  Invariably most if not all of these are neccessary ingredients in the music learning process with successful students.

1. As parents – be present.  Small story: my dad had a lazyboy recliner right beside the old grand piano i would practice on.  When he would come home, he would love to read the newspaper.  No words were exchanged.  He would just read the paper.  It’s AMAZING how much more focused a child is by just having a parent sitting beside them.  You don’t even need to be musical! You just need to be within earshot.  It can be the kitchen, the living room… just so long as it’s close.  It prevents kids from daydreaming and makes them get down to work.  The end of the story with my dad… he would quite often fall asleep while i was playing and the newspaper would fall to his face – the condensation and ink would turn his nose black.  I would gradually play softer, softer, softer…then BANG! into the Beethoven!  He would just about jump out of the chair.  As a teenager i would laugh and laugh and he would give me the not so approving look and then smirk.

2. Repertoire inspires.  There HAS to be some form of music that you enjoy at the piano or else you might as well be sitting at a typewriter (do they even have those anymore?)  Again, my father would buy books for us not related to our studies in piano that we would read through – jazz, blues and ragtime.  In the dry seasons of practicing – feeling like there is no end in view, I would often end my piano session with some sort of fun piece. Truly, this was one of the motivating factors in writing these six books for my boys to learn how to play. I wanted to combine entertaining (and at times challenging) music with good piano skills. (There’s my shameless plug for my books). So find what inspires your children and go out there and get it!

3. Be consistent. I know this sounds paradoxical, but I have this saying “You can’t love it ’til you hate it”. ANY student who has broken through the barriers of forcing their fingers to learn piano technique knows that it’s frustrating. But the key here is consistency. All too often i hear parents say “we want our kids to just have fun at the piano”. I’m translating in my brain “ok… this means non-enforced practicing”. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state for the record that those students just won’t excel. PERIOD. Reason being – as soon as it’s not ‘fun’, the practicing stops. I tell parents over and over and over: Make piano a part of daily routine. I used to ask my kids “did you brush your teeth, make your bed and practice piano?” It was part of the fabric of the family. That said, i also needed to come to grips with allowing children to make their own decisions about piano – a fine line to walk for sure.

4. Speed of the turn. Why is early music so exciting for kids and as they progress, quite often that enthusiasm wanes? In part it’s due to the fact that as you get more advanced in music, the songs get more complicated and subsequently take longer to complete. There’s a danger here on both the part of the student as well as the teacher. Teachers want the song to reach perfection. Students get bogged down and sometimes drown in a song they feel they will never finish. The longer that song(s) take, the more the fire goes out of the student. As a teacher, i don’t expect perfection from each song. In fact i would much rather play through more songs and take them to the 80% mark than play only a few and try and perfect them. In addition, i would allow each student a ‘drop’ token – they were allowed to just drop one song per year and say “i don’t want to finish this one”. I’m a HUGE advocate of finishing what you start, but even i know that there are times to put songs to rest. But here’s the thing… the faster the rate songs are learned, the more energy it creates in the student. It’s almost like an appetite… they want to consume more when they realise they have the capacity to learn more. And so it should be.

5. Finally, perform. As an adult, the most fun i have had playing is with others while performing. When i was a kid, it was one of the most horrifying experiences. Now somewhere in the middle of those years, a lightbulb went on. I think it was during performance in jazz band in front of my peers. It was the incredible sound of a big  band that i loved and at the same time i received admiration from my friends. It somehow bolstered my fragile teenage ego. I realised i had a feather in my cap – i realised i had skills – i wasn’t just some kid practicing, there was actually a REASON i had played all these years. Isn’t one of the reasons we play music for social benefit? We interact and communicate through sound. How weird would it be if we were taught to speak in public but never had the opportunity to do it? If music is the means through which we speak, why then do we sit sheltered in a corner? Back to reality – we still need to hone the skills – learn the chops – do the woodshedding… but the greatest feeling is to finally peform. As a drummer friend always says (and in this context – regarding performance) “don’t hate, celebrate”.

Practice Makes _________?

Writing lines

If you had to fill in the blank, invariably the answer would be Practice Makes PERFECT.  But i would have to contest that answer.  What i believe to be the TRUE answer is: Practice Makes PERMANENT.  I’d love to take credit for this phrase but it’s not original with me but rather with a teacher i studied with.  I adopted it as one of my favorite lines in piano teaching, however because what i have come to realize is that what you focus on will eventually become habit.  If you learn the song with the wrong notes, the wrong timing or (heaven forbid) wrong fingering, trying to undo the work already done is doubly hard. 

So in my first year of college, my roommate was on the basketball team.  One time he walked into the room and exclaimed “OK that was the dumbest practice i’ve EVER been to.  We got all dressed into our uniforms and instead of practicing, we closed our eyes and imagined ourselves making baskets”.  I laughed when i heard his words.  Visualization is necessary in ‘setting the record straight’.  I have found that quite often in my own practice i need to encorporate ‘Auralization’ (now that word i will take credit for..lol).  We at times need to listen in our ‘inner ear’ to correct part of the song that is in error.  I remember practicing a Brahms piece many years ago and i was struggling with a certain part in the song.  Because half of the time i practiced  it incorrectly, when i stopped and ‘listened’ how the song SHOULD be played, i continued to hear my mistakes in my head.  And from that moment on, i discovered that it’s not WHAT we practice but HOW we practice.  Practice does make permanent and truly, more emphasis should be placed on methods of practicing with students to prevent habits that quite possibly will last a lifetime.

Secret Agent – Piano Book

 

I have two boys that play the piano.  Only problem is… piano music for boys is not exactly exciting.  When you’ve done about 3 year’s worth of music, what’s left to do but (insert yawn here) is 19th century Minuets; boring little doo-dad songs that sound unimpressive, uninspiring and are completely irrelevant to boy’s minds… how do i know this? I’m a graduate of 19th century minuets… yep – true story.  Despite the fact that i finished 2 degrees in classical music, i still find the early years in piano a complete GRIND.  So.. for the fun of it, i started writing music for my boys – things they would like to hear – things they would not only find challenging but interesting.  This book is all about spies… morse code, getaway car, super powers, headquarters – very James Bond, very stealth, very hip ‘n groovy… ok ok ok… i know my kids have told me not to use the word groovy…but, if the shoe fits…. well, you know what they say.  The songs will soon be made available online for purchase.

Repertoire:

  1. Espionage
  2. Chase
  3. Getaway Car
  4. Mission Accomplished
  5. Super Power
  6. Spies
  7. Covert Action
  8. Close Call
  9. Morse Code
  10. Headquarters
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