Finding Joy in Piano

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about piano, taught piano, or as a matter of fact, even played piano. But it took another blogger to write a post that inspired me to post again.

Elissa Milne (pianist, writer, teacher and composer) has written a piano teacher’s manifesto. In the manifesto she lays out the purpose for piano lessons. It is what frames her teaching, her expectations and her composing for students.  Every item on the list is spot-on and I find myself wishing I had a copy of this years ago to hand out to parents and students and to hang on the wall as a reminder to myself.

Elissa talks about the “cool stuff” students can learn to do at the piano and then moves on to talk about the emotional benefits of piano lessons. You learn to understand yourself better, as well as other people. You begin to understand your place in history. You engage your brain in a way unlike the way you do with any other activity. Perhaps most importantly, you play for the joy you feel when you’re able to share an effortless performance with an engaged audience.

So, in the spirit of finding the joy in piano once again, maybe it’s time to resurrect this blog. Just maybe.


A message to piano students

Flickr Creative Commons – photo by Johnny Grim

My piano teaching has changed over the years, partly due to a general mellowing that’s occurred after (I hate to admit it) thirty years… but also partly due to the technological upheaval of the past decade. As I’ve talked about before, this new generation of piano students is a generation that has grown up with immediate access to information. Instant gratification has become their way of life.

As Andrew Hickey, blogger behind Faster than Light says:

My generation is starving for useful, thoughtful, intelligent, and inspiring information. If we want to learn how to do something – anything – we can google it, and be on our way; there’s even a how-to-do-everything podcast. If that weren’t enough, Wikipedia has an entry on just about everything, with all links eventually leading back to philosophy. We can learn about the fundamental stuff of the universe – or whatever philosophers ramble about — with a few mouse clicks. For those of us that don’t like reading, there are infographics and videos on every topic out there. When we aren’t absorbing information, we’re expressing ourselves by the millions, through sites like DeviantArt, Flickr, Tumblr, Etsy, WordPress, and more. Perhaps we are too entitled, too lazy, or too impatient, but, we aren’t stupid. I don’t accept that. We have access to more information than any other generation, and we are using it. We are becoming smarter with the information we are using, even if much of it drips through the cracks of obnoxious YouTube videos and incomprehensible memes. Perhaps I’m being sophomoric, but I think the internet is fundamentally good, because knowledge is fundamentally good. Maybe that crazy greek bastard was onto something when he said, “The only good is knowledge, the only evil is ignorance”. And, if you don’t know who I’m talking about, just google it.

I hate to admit it, but I have become one of those people he describes…apparently the exception to the rule considering my age. (Read Andrew’s entire post here.)

Twenty tabs open. Music playing. Headphones on. Lukewarm coffee on desk. Occasionally, I feel less like a person, and more like an amoeba that feeds on tweets, notifications, and followers.

So, to all you piano students, how has this changed my teaching over the past few years? Here are a few things that are important to me as a teacher as we immerse ourselves deeper into the digital age.

Read: The ability to sightread music has become my number one goal for you. If you learn nothing else I want you to be able to pick up a piece of music, any music, and play it. With all the classics available on IMSLP there’s a world of music at our fingertips (and you won’t be able to play any of it if you’re depending on YouTube video tutorials.)

Listen: There’s no excuse for not listening to music. With hundreds of thousands of sound files available online I can’t accept a blank stare when I ask you what you’ve been listening to lately.

Scales and Chords: Most Western music is written using the diatonic scale. There are 24 possible keys that a piece can be written in. Practicing your scales will make it easier for your fingers to find the right notes and for your ears to correct the wrong notes.

Anything Goes:  When it comes to choosing repertoire, I try to introduce you to as many different composers and musical genres as I can but I love when you bring me something I’ve never heard.  And you won’t surprise me with something new unless you listen. (see above)

Random Access: There’s no rule that says we have to finish Book One before we go to Book Two. There’s also no rule that says we can’t skip Book Two all together. Or Book One for that matter. Method books aren’t for everyone.

Creativity:  Most of you high school students have a senior project due this year. Let’s see something that represents real out-of-the-box thinking and entrepreneurship.

Play: If you’re taking piano lessons and don’t take the time to practice, ask yourself why. Would you practice if you were working on different pieces? Is there something you don’t understand? Do you remember what drew you to piano lessons in the first place? Maybe you’d go to the piano more often if you improved your sight reading skills, listened to more music, skipped around a bit in your book, gave yourself an interesting goal…get the picture?

Sightreading for fun

I love teaching piano during the month of December. We put away the pieces we’re working on, skip the scales and exercises, and spend the lesson time sight reading Christmas music…traditional carols, popular Christmas standards like Mel Tormé’s Christmas Song and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, piano arrangements from The Grinch, Polar Express, and even arrangements of Transiberian Orchestra pieces. The students choose pieces to learn quickly for the annual Christmas recital/party.  One of my students, who happens to have a lovely voice, chose Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles’ “Winter Song” to perform this year.

Why is this so important to me? Well, as I told another one of my students this week…learning how to play the piano without sitting down and playing through the music you like, is like learning how to read and never picking out a book from the library.

Chord Piano is Fun by T.K. Goforth

No matter how much we might want our students to practice their Bach Inventions and Beethoven Sonatas, many students just want to learn how to play popular music, and the quicker the better. As I’ve written about before, teaching students how to read chord symbols kills two birds with one stone. The students can quickly get their favorite tunes performance-ready while at the same time getting a daily dose of basic music theory.

TK Goforth is a musician, music teacher and author who’s traveled the world performing professionally with local bands, big bands and jazz combos in Houston, New Orleans and Seattle as well as with bands in Europe, Africa, and the Philippines. As a teacher she makes it her mission to teach students (both children and adults) how to play piano in a way that they could actually use through their entire life. She feels there should be no reason for teachers to hear new adult students say “Well, I used to play.”

Her book “Chord Piano is Fun” is a straightforward explanation of music theory basics. Beginning with an explanation of whole steps and half steps, TK takes the student through the construction of the C major scale and then explains how to build a C major chord. She spends plenty of time on C major with written assignments as well as actual keyboard practice assignments before moving to G major and then F major. A new student will not be overwhelmed by pages and pages of chord and scale charts, but will be able to break down each new concept before moving on to minor scales and 7th chords. By the completion of the book students should be able to write a song and play the blues, in addition to having a thorough understanding of major and minor scales and chords.

Teachers and students: Preview the book here and spend some time exploring TK Goforth’s website. Lots of information and instructional videos for the pianist who wants to get “up and running” with the music they always wanted to play. A great resource!

World Music For Piano – Africa

Since I’m always on the lookout for new piano music for my students I was happy to stumble upon a posting by Kristen Yost where she mentioned Africa by Neeki Bey.  This book features ten songs including a hymn and a freedom song from South Africa, a pop song from Kenya, an Egyptian folk melody and more.  The book is written for late beginner through early intermediate but I am using it with my beginning teen students.

Besides being a great addition to my collection of world music, what I most like about this book is that the students are encouraged to listen and then imitate. In addition to the CD which has three tracks of each song (slow, med, performance tempo), the notes in the book suggest that the students “feel the groove” by swaying with the music, marching, clapping, tapping, etc. (This is a great way to develop those ear training skills!)

In the spirit of getting our students to just “Go Play” I recommend taking a break from dry and wordy explanations of rhythm, articulation and melody. Pick up the book, listen to the CD, try out the pieces, sing along and have fun.

Piano Apps for Beginners

Music for Little Mozarts Screenshot

Now it’s official! The latest generation of children starting piano lessons this summer…kids age 7 and under…will be immersed in technology before they even sit down at the piano bench. I’m so happy that I discovered the Music For Little Mozart app for droid and iPhone just in time to make my job a little easier.

OLE! Multi-cultural Piano Music

!Ole! Sheet Music by Lee EvansI just got home from teaching feeling pretty good about my last student’s lesson. He’s a senior in high school, just counting down the days until he’s free for the summer and then off to college on the opposite corner of the country. We’ve been working on pop music, reading from fake books for the last year or two. In the beginning this was a way to make the lessons more interesting, but now our weekly half hour is just plain fun. Each week I throw in a little sight reading because, hey, it’s April of senior year. Practicing? What’s that?

One of the books I got in my last music book order was a volume of original Latin American Dance music, !Ole! by Lee Evans. We read through a Rhumba today as well as a Conga and a Merengue. We also talked about the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, and to top it off, what do I see on TV tonight? Sugar Ray Leonard dancing the Pasa Doble on DWTS.  So yes, piano lessons are more than Hanon and Clementi.

Today, over at ComposeCreate, Wendy had a terrific guest post by Kristin Yost, Executive Director of the Centre for Musical Minds in Frisco, TX. She talks about what it means to be a “modern” piano teacher. One criteria she uses is “Multi-culturalism. She says:

The teacher embraces many backgrounds and musical tastes in lessons. Teaching music from other countries in order to develop an appreciation for good music in ALL forms. Recently I had the privilege of writing pedagogical commentary for a new series, Piano Accents, and am thoroughly convinced it is our responsibility as piano teachers, to make music from all over the globe come alive, not just music from western Europe.


Please read the entire post – Modern Piano Teacher as Entrepreneur.

More on teaching

This past weekend I happened to be in the same building as a group of about 100 high school students  who were on a “retreat.” As I was entering the cafeteria they were just finishing up their dinner and were receiving their instructions for an evening of silence and self-reflection. There was to be no texting and no speaking for the next few hours. The funny thing was that the group leader was shouting at them as if she were addressing a football team or some military unit. The kids were probably afraid to speak after being shouted at like that and I doubt their silence was a result of spiritually uplifting thoughts.

This made me think of piano teaching and how ironic it is that sometimes in trying to get the most beautiful music from our students, we can easily come across as drill sergeants. Wrists high, fingers curved, sing out the melody, less left hand, watch your key signature, count, Count, COUNT, and you call this practicing?

A typical teaching day for me goes from 3 pm to 8 pm with students every half hour and no breaks. In addition to my 15 minute power nap before teaching and my medium coffee (cream only) which I grab on my way to the studio, I’ve learned that I must wipe the slate clean between each student. I make it a point to address them by name, look them in the eye, and ask them about their day at school before they even touch the piano. And then no matter how much nitty gritty work we do in the lesson, whether it’s figuring out the difference between B below and D above  middle C, or working on the phrasing in a Bach Invention – we always part on an up note.

After my experience over the weekend, I’ve been more aware of how I interact with each student. I’m convinced that a little joking around, or sharing of a confidence, will go a lot further to summon up an inspired musical moment than yet another lecture about the importance of practicing.

SheerPiano: Contemporary Music for Contemporary Students

Dror Perl - Blue

Dror Perl - Original Compositions for all level pianists

I have found that the use of the word “position” in beginning piano lessons is not helpful in the long-run. Many young students quickly become dependent on knowing what position they start on that they never really learn how to read lines and spaces. I find myself telling the little ones that there are 88 keys and since they only have ten fingers they are going to have move their hands away from C position, Middle C position, and G position at some point. Then they have a bit of “scary” fun lifting their hands out of “position” and plopping them down randomly all over the keyboard.

Kudos to jazz pianist, Dror Perl of SheerPiano who has put together a series of “Color” piano books which snap students out of their comfort zone from the first book –Blue, Contemporary Music with a Harmonic Twist. I appreciate the fact  that from the opening pages, the left hand starts on a note other than C, F or G. For example, The man in the blue house, (shown above) starts on G#. The 5th finger of the left hand moves chromatically up to A and then down to Eb and the harmonies are labeled.

As the student progresses through to Red, Jazz, Blues and Funk the rhythms, phrasing and articulations, and harmonies become more complex – perfect for students of all ages who want to dip into jazz and a more improvisatory style.The pieces sound complicated but are still fairly easy to read and memorize.

And who can’t help but love the colors – inside and out!

The 21st Century Piano Student

Listening to this TED lecture by cyborg anthropologist, Amber Case about the compression of time and space, ambient intimacy and simultaneous time interfaces got me thinking about how our teaching methods will have to evolve in the next decades if we are to keep up with the 21st century students. It’s hard to imagine that the traditional private piano lesson where students progress through method books, slowly but solidly building up their knowledge of music theory, technique and repertoire may someday be obsolete. But it’s starting to seem more and more obvious that the teacher who doesn’t at least acknowledge the changes in his or her students learning styles, may find their rosters shrinking.

I have a mixed studio. Some students are not allowed to surf the web. They do not have cell phones or video games and they are not allowed to watch excessive TV.  Their parents stress academics, reading, and hands on activities. They take things slowly, building up their knowledge one step at a time.

Others, mostly teens (and interestingly mostly girls), are fully immersed in technology. The silenced cell phone is the last thing to leave their hands before they start their lesson and the first thing they pick up after they finish playing. I have to admit that I find these students fascinating! On several occasions students have been so motivated to learn that I’m able to explain a concept, such as major and minor scale patterns, and they are able to construct all 12 major and minor scales and triads by the end of the first lesson. They come to their lessons with a list of composers and pieces they’d like to learn. Some have already started teaching themselves and want to make sure they are on the right track. These teens come to their lessons ready to get down to work, not to be spoon-fed information.

Elissa Milne, creator of the P Plate Piano series, talks about teaching the new generation of children and the “deeper-sideways kind of learning” that’s going on.  I think she hits the nail on the head here.

These iPad children interact to learn. They are not waiting to be passively filled with information (as if children ever were), but are actively engaged in constructing their own learning experiences through this technology that does not rely on advanced literacy in the user for functionality. Instead of exploring broadly, children can explore deeply, changing direction and focus as it suits them, not as suits their parents or older siblings. They are simultaneously more prepared to spend time engaging with learning and more prepared to move on to a new challenge if the present activity fails to exhilarate.

This changes the way we can teach, and it must change the way we do teach.

One of the most exciting aspects of P Plate Piano is the range of activities designed for this 21st century style of learning: experimentation, exploration, reconfiguration, extension. This deeper-sideways kind of learning looks like ‘mucking around’ to the traditional teacher or the exam-obsessed parent. But this kind of learning is the kind that creates musicians out of piano students, and unless you become a musician your piano lessons (and your examination certificates) won’t be worth much in the long run.

So, if you’re a piano teacher and you’re reading this you’ve already got a foot in the door. You know how to surf the internet and find music blogs.  Twitter and Facebook are your next step.

But I’m afraid to say, if you’re refusing to use a computer, email, or a cell phone, you might find yourself at a loss when today’s newborn comes knocking at your door for piano lessons in 14 years.

100 Piece Listening Challenge

Every week I’m surprised at how many of my piano students do not listen to music. Not just classical music, but it seems any type of music (except for top 40 pop music.) Many have never even listened to the Beatles – or Led Zeppelin! Anyway this is what they tell me….

So this week I’m issuing a Listening Challenge. I’m asking all of my students to listen to 100 pieces – orchestral, piano, opera, jazz, classical, classic rock, anything…as long as it’s not something they hear every day. They can use YouTube, CDs from the library, their parents’ collection or their own. I just want to get them listening.

I’ve also asked them to keep a listening journal listing each piece along with the composer, performer, a brief description and to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If they attend a live performance, they can get credit for five pieces.

Understandably, when I explained the challenge I didn’t get a very enthusiastic response from my students – that is until I mentioned that the first three students who complete the challenge will receive an iTunes gift card.

Considering that I’ve been under the impression that they don’t listen to much music, I did get a lot of smiles when I mentioned the “prize.” Makes me wonder what they would choose to buy. Hmmm.

Music as Metaphor

I was always befuddled when a piano teacher would tell me to “say something” with a piece of music. Of course, intellectually, I knew that it meant that I was supposed to be more expressive, shape the phrases, sing out the melody, keep the accompaniment softer, etc. But no matter how much I tried to play musically, I was never quite sure if I was saying what I was supposed to say, if I was saying anything at all, or if in fact I had anything to say!

I try not to be so vague with my young students and sometimes we come up with quite silly sentences to go along with the music. This helps with everything from tricky rhythms (think Mississippi Hot Dog) to sentences that go along with unusual phrasing, and very often, story lines to convey emotion similar to Bernstein’s Beethoven example above.

Two days ago I found a surprise gift in my mailbox at The Music Studio – The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein.  What a treat!

Agree with him or not, it’s fun to see how Bernstein compares music to language where a note is a phoneme, a phrase – a word, a section – a clause and an entire movement – a sentence. I find this fascinating, not only because my old questions about how to “say something,” but because it brings back memories of my 9th grade English class and diagramming long and complex sentences. And, I loved those assignments!

An Idea: Pop Up Piano Lessons

When I mentioned to some fellow piano teachers that I was willing to teach a few of my older students “by appointment”, rather than locking them (and me) into a weekly time slot, they were appalled.  I have not changed my mind about teaching “on demand.” In fact, I see two distinct  advantages. Teachers have a more flexible work week and students come to their lessons when they are ready to learn.

To take this idea one step further, I’ve been coming across the idea of pop up schools recently. A pop up school is different, relevant, surprising, challenging and agile. Good Cities describes the concept of pop up schools like this:

Learning could happen everywhere through pop-up education. Much like TED Talks, pop-up education opportunities would be produced by experts, professors, and every individual based on something they know well and can train others on. They would pop up in locations like theaters, YMCAs, elevators, break rooms, restaurants, and wherever there is “wait time” or an equal opportunity for boredom, or when our technology infrastructure realizes an enhancement opportunity—like you might learn about safety while waiting at the DMV. In addition to lessons, the idea would be to provide study and learning tips to effectively train people to be better students at any age.

As an adult I grab my musical inspiration and instruction on the fly. I feel privileged to have online access to excellent piano master classes by Gyorgy Sebok, Maria Joao Pires, and Stephen Hough among others. Why should we teachers be surprised to learn that our students may actually prefer to learn the same way…in short, concentrated bursts?

Some may argue that it takes years to build a solid foundation of finger technique and an extensive varied repertoire.  But I’ve  seen students make very quick progress when they are motivated by a piece they love, a performance deadline, their friends, or a combination of all three.  Besides, there’s no guarantee that the student won’t follow all of his teachers rules and advice only to be asked later by his conservatory teacher to unlearn what he’s learned and start over with Hanon #1 using some new form of wrist rotation, balance, or arm relaxation technique!

What can a student learn in a pop up piano lesson?

A lot. I usually spend one lesson with my high school students explaining major/minor scale construction, key signatures, and the circle of fifths. Still have time? Explain chords and inversions. Give them the basic information and today’s students will take what they need to know and apply it as they see fit. Another idea for the pop up music lesson – devote the entire time to quick and dirty tricks for basic piano technique.  Or how about a lesson in sightreading? Or an impromptu performance class?

Looking for examples of pop up education in action? Check out these links:

Chris Donnelly and teaching jazz piano

Award-winning virtuosic jazz pianist, Chris Donnelly, is on the faculty of University of Toronto and is a terrific blogger sharing his insights on teaching, performing, composing and the business of music.

Recently he’s been writing a series of thought-provoking posts about the “elephant in the room” — incorporating jazz education into the traditional music lesson setting.

I encourage all of my students to appreciate jazz starting out the young students with with books like these, cram them full of  scales, chords and arpeggios in every shape and size, and beg them to listen, listen, listen.  I’d be thrilled if after all that a student would come to me asking for a referral for a jazz piano teacher and hopeful that I’ll recognize the student who needs a push out of my door and into the jazz specialist’s teaching studio.

How do you handle the “elephant in the room?”

(Please visit Chris Donnelly’s blog and listen to more clips here.)

One Half Hour a Week

Here is an example of one day in the week of one of my 10-16 year old piano students:

Wake up at 6 am. On the school bus at 6:50 am. In the classroom at 7:20 am.  In school until 2:50 pm. Soccer practice right after school. Piano lesson at 5:00. Swim practice every evening until 9:30.  Homework until 11:30 pm. Go to bed and start the whole thing over the next day.

No wonder I’ve heard on more that one occasion, “I don’t have time to do the things I want to do.”

Or, as a first grade student recently told me, “My favorite time in school is when we get a time-out so I can put my head down and it’s quiet.”

So what can we piano teachers do in that half-hour from 5:00 to 5:30 every Wednesday afternoon?

Several rounds of Hanon? Nail down the fingering for the f# minor melodic scale? Maybe throw in some Pischna for good measure and finish off with a read through (since there was no practicing) of a couple of Bach Inventions?

Maybe, but I doubt that’s the best way to inspire the overbooked student – one who we all hope will come away from piano lessons with a love of music. One who will attend orchestra concerts and recitals. One who as an adult will sit down at the piano after a busy day at work and read through those Bach Inventions for pleasure.

Unfortunately, most of our piano students are required to spend the better part of their day in what Sir Ken Robinson calls the killers of creativity – the “factory-style” schools born of the Industrial Revolution. This is the very generation of students that has been called the Creative Generation. They are part of a much larger world than the world we grew up in where information is spread faster then ever before and connections are made instantly. They are musicians and artists, collaborators and composers. They are not exactly suited for our current educational system.

In the meantime, private piano teachers are lucky not to be slaves to  standardized testing, lesson planning, and large class sizes.  We actually can make a difference and we can start now. We can make that 1/2 hour time slot an oasis of creativity in each students’ week.

Jeroen Boschma, co-author of Generation Einstein, says this new generation understands our new world better than we do. They are one step ahead of us in many ways.  We will work best with our students when we let them inspire us. When we respect them we will get the respect back.  When we admit we don’t know something we will encourage them to help us find a solution. In other words,  as Jeroen says,  just “be real and be yourself.”

I’ve found that the more dialogue I have in the lesson with my students about what direction they want to go with their music, the more open they become with me and the more we get accomplished. Whether it’s putting together a solo recital for friends and family, finding the best way to practice a difficult piece, or learning a new musical skill – we’re able to work together without one-sided lectures to make that 1/2 hour each week something special.