The Piano Student’s Community

Instrumentalists have always had band and orchestra as their “communities.”  The string players look forward to ‘districts’ and ‘regionals’ every year. Our high school chorus had an opportunity to perform ‘Carmina Burana’ with the Philharmonic. A piano student who also played clarinet once told me, rather proudly, that she was a ‘band geek’ and her favorite time of year was ‘football’ season. These kids bond by participating in rehearsals, performances, parades and even field trips.

But what about the piano students? A shy student may go through all of high school without anyone knowing that they even play piano. They attend their weekly lesson and practice (alone) at home…until they play in the big recital. And then, the audience is pretty much limited to their teacher’s other students and their parents.

But a new generation of young pianists is finding their own community through social media and it’s a global community. In addition to YouTube and Twitter, pianists are discussing all aspects of playing the piano from suggesting fingering for specific passages to analyzing proper finger, wrist and arm motions through some very active online forums.

Here are links to just a few of the most popular and active forums for pianists:

Maybe I’ll see you there….

Marketing Classical Music To Teens

In getting to know a new piano student, I’ve always made a point to ask them what type of music they like. This helps me assign them the pieces that I know they’ll practice. And, of course, if they practice they will improve their technical and note-reading skills, and in turn will improve their confidence and ability to play more difficult works. When I ask them about their taste in music they respond in several ways:

Some students shrug their shoulders as if they don’t care one way or the other. And they really don’t. Others need a little prodding but then they reveal that they like jazz, oldies, pop, ragtime….perhaps a family member plays jazz piano, or their dad keeps the radio tuned to the oldies station in the car….but I can count on one hand the number of students who’ve told me they like classical music.

However  the most enthusiastic responses come from students who’ve heard their peers perform. These are the students that come in to their lesson knowing exactly what they want to learn. They are inspired by the performances of their fellow students.

We all know that practicing piano is a lonely chore for many young students. And preparing for the one big end-of-year recital just doesn’t give students a lot of incentive. If we engage our piano students in regular informal performance opportunities throughout the school year, give them a chance to hear the pieces their friends are working on, and expose them to many composers and musical styles, they will come to their lesson with a list of pieces they want to learn.  Who cares if they all want to play Clair de Lune, Fur Elise (or even Lady Gaga) all of a sudden! The point is that they are fired up to play the piano.

What does this mean?

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about how kids don’t listen to classical music. They find it boring, too slow, too difficult. Even those students who regularly practice classical music listen to popular music during their downtime, and rarely download a symphony or sonata to their iPod.

Let’s face it.  If we want to get our students enthused about playing piece from the classical piano repertoire we have to let other students “sell” it.

Here’s how it works. The teens perform in a casual setting for the younger students. They play a classical recital, with some jazz and pop thrown in. They’re having fun. There’s no struggle. No judges or grading. They can dress however they want to. They laugh and talk with their friends between pieces. The audience is composed of friends from school as well as family members. The mood is set. The younger students want to be part of that community.

I guarantee there will be at least one student who attended that performance who will come into his next lesson and ask to learn a piece he heard one of the other students play.

Youth marketing author and speaker, Graham Brown of Mobile Youthasks what is the biggest influence on 16-24 year olds? The answer: other 16-24 year olds.

Stay tuned to find out how young classical musicians are building their own groundswell through community.

Greg Anderson, Piano

Listening to Greg Anderson playing Ligeti Etude 13: “The Devil’s Staircase”and getting myself ready for an extremely busy day. Tonight I’ll decompress with this.

Elle Magazine Musicians

I had a two and a half hour wait at the beauty salon yesterday (my daughter was waiting for her favorite stylist) and had a chance to read the July edition of Elle Magazine and scribble down three musical names to Google when I got home, two pianists/singers and one vocal group.

McKenzie Eddy taught herself how to play piano at age 17 and went on to write and perform original music.  But that’s not all –

Two years ago, after graduating from the University of South Caro­lina, the Hilton Head Island native was touring the East Coast with her funk-rock band Stealing From Bandits and waitressing between gigs, when she heard that hip-hop mogul Damon Dash was looking for an assistant. Today, she runs Bluroc (working with artists such as the Black Keys, the London Souls, and Curren$y), oversees Dash’s new DD172 multiplatform think tank in NYC’s Tribeca (which, with its mash-up of artists, video directors, and on-site engineers, has already drawn comparisons to Andy Warhol’s Factory), is associate­-producing a documentary about Detroit punk band Death with Mos Def, and, oh yeah, regularly sings on her friends’ and Bluroc’s albums. (read more)

Melody Gardot (above) suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 19. Her doctor, after having tried pain killers, creams, pads, therapy, finally suggested she go home and play her piano. She started with her guitar, added her voice (she hadn’t sung before the accident) and is now truly a testament to the healing power of music.

… the Melody Gardot case represents success on an entirely different scale. Music therapy didn’t just allow this young woman to enjoy a relatively normal life after a traumatic injury—it brought out such a gift that she has actually become famous. She has sold more than half a million albums in jazz-friendly Europe. Before coming to Spain, she played three sold-out nights at Paris’ famed Olympia theater, the favorite venue of Edith Piaf (to whom she’s often compared) and host also to the Rolling Stones and Madonna. In America, her 2009 major-label debut, My One and Only Thrill, has hovered atop jazz charts since its release. She performed on Letterman and has found an unlikely fan in NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who reportedly liked to play the album in the Vikings’ locker room last year. (read more)

The L.A. Ladies Choir is a group of women coming together to sing.  They are women with careers in music, fashion, art, and literature. They wear vintage Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax.  They interact with their audience.   Their mission?

The one rule of the choir is to sing joyfully. I don’t care if it’s off-key. (read more)

So my daughter got a Twiggy haircut and I got a dose of musical inspiration!

Piano Technique for Reluctant Students

Put away the Czerny for a while. Here are some quick and easy ways to build finger technique in reluctant intermediate piano students without worrying about reading notes.  Choose one or more, a la carte… put them away and revisit them as needed.

  • Five finger exercises 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 on the first five notes of every major scale ascending chromatically.  Hands separately first. Then together. Work to get each pattern quick and accurate!
  • When the major patterns are comfortable add the minor. Same way. Work for speed and accuracy.
  • Major triads ascending chromatically.
  • Major – minor – major root position triads ascending chromatically. Feel the shape (i.e. all-white key, black-white-black, white-black-white, etc)
  • Major triads root position, first inversion, second inversion ascending chromatically.
  • Minor triads same way.
  • Two octave arpeggios tucking thumb when the second fingers played.
  • Octaves – hands together – C major scale – feeling the arm weight.
  • Octaves – alternating.
  • Octaves – broken.
  • Octaves – impulses. C. CD, CDE. CDEF. etc. – together, alternating, broken.
  • Diminished 7th chords  – reaching the octave first, then adding fingers 2,3,4. Ascend chromatically – 4 or 5 a day. Wonderful for opening up the hand.
  • Scales – Starting with C major, then Db, D, Eb, E, etc. I call it the “scale of scales.” Start with majors. Then major-minor right up the scale.
  • For finger independence hold all five down and lift one at a time while holding the rest. Students make up their own patterns.
  • For fun…try upside down reaches. Start with an octave reach. Then while you hold finger 5 down, flip your hand over (palm up, fingers down) and reach the thumb up to the next octave – inside of the elbow facing the ceiling. Nice for stretching.

Have more suggestions? Please add them!

Goal-oriented Practice by Gretchen Saathoff

Goal Oriented Practice by Gretchen Saathoff

I saw myself as I read Gretchen Saathoff’s new e-book, “Goal-Oriented Practice – How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer.”

  • Simply sightreading…never really practicing.
  • Always starting from the same spot in the music.
  • Not thinking to turn on the metronome.
  • Guessing at the meaning of unfamiliar musical instructions.
  • Jumping up to answer the phone, or worse, carrying on conversations with various teenage children that wander through the room.

But, just as Gretchen’s e-book was easy to read, organized and to the point, I see how my practice routine can be streamlined.  Starting today (thanks to Gretchen)  here is my plan. I will:

  • Organize the music on the piano and get all the printouts from IMSLP in binders.
  • Order a new copy of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas so I can write my own fingering in and return the two copies I’ve borrowed from two different people.
  • Plug in the metronome and set it back in its place…hopefully the cats won’t find it again.
  • Write down my practice goals for the week.
  • Find a chair in the house that really works for my piano and look into buying an adjustable bench. Mine is just too high.
  • Set aside one uninterrupted hour each day this week to be fully present while practicing.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

In the meantime, I recommend that any pianist (or piano student) who’s living in the real world of deadlines and distractions head over to GretchensPianos for more tips and ideas for productive practice.

Improv at The Music Studio

The Music Studio

Thursday night we had some guest musicians performing an evening of free improvisation at The Music Studio. Ron Stabinsky, Jack Wright, and Bob Marsh combined sax, amplified classical guitar, voice, piano, trumpet and kept the lucky audience engaged from the first note. (Notice the basket of light bulbs in the pre-recital set-up photo above…they were later to be used inside the piano!)

Interestingly the performance coincided with my second read-through of Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book, Free Play, and the writings on his website. Here he talks about teaching:

Some people think that improvisation equals jazz. Jazz is one of the manifold forms of improvised music, but what I do and what many other improvising musicians do is not jazz. When I teach I am not promoting a particular style. When I pick up a violin and perform, I have certain forms that I gravitate to and a set of styles which has become mine over the years. But as a teacher, I feel that my job is not to teach students to play the kind of music that I play, but to rather create the context so that they can create their music. The payoff is seeing the eyes of the students as they stand up on stage with nothing between them and the audience – seeing them as they experience the incredible empowerment of becoming independent creators. A fantastic alchemy happens, a thrilling sense of doing something that perhaps even a week or a day before they couldn’t have dreamt that they could possibly have done, and to discover that it is possible. The word “empowerment” has become a bit overused in our day, but I can’t think of a better word to describe what happens when you see the gleaming eyes of students who are giving their first improvisational performances.