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.

 

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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.

!Ole!

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