Finding Joy in Piano

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.

Demystifying the Classics

Beethoven Waldstein Sonata (1st mvt)I recently had an intermediate level student ask me if she can learn Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, a piece dear to my heart. I’ve performed it several times and I still think the transition from the second the third movement is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Beethoven’s piano music.  I told my student that it was a wonderful piece, but there were many steps to be taken before she could approach such a big work. After all we still had many sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau to learn, and if she wanted to learn Beethoven she should start with Op. 49 No 2.

That conversation has been nagging at me for a while now. I started thinking about my own experiences over the years with teachers steering me towards certain pieces and away from others. I’ve heard “Save the late Beethoven sonatas for when you’re in your fifties and sixties“…“The Weber piano sonatas suit you well”...“You should only work on short pieces because that’s what audiences want to hear“…”Liszt not Brahms“.

Well, the years have flown by and my bucket list is still full of pieces that I hesitate to pull out for fear that I won’t do them justice — Beethoven Op. 101 and 110, the Schumann Fantasy in C, and Schubert Sonata in B flat d960. Intimidating pieces? Yes. But impossible? No.

That’s why Greg Sandow’s recent post hit home and gave me a lot to think about this week.  He says:

But let me press further. Why wouldn’t we believe a new audience is out there, eager for us to talk to it simply, directly, and personally?

Because we believe too much in classical music education. Or, more specifically, we believe that classical music is complex, and that therefore no one can properly understand it, without being specially educated. And even that no one even will like it, even in the simplest way, until they’ve been taught how to do that.

Which seems tragic to me. Do we have that little faith in our music? Or in the people we share our world with? This belief — that, without special education, we can’t spread a love of classical music — seems both insecure and arrogant. One one hand, we’re apologizing for classical music. “Oh, of course you don’t listen to it. It’s so complicated!” But flip the coin over, and we’re just about saying, “Hah! Of course you don’t listen to classical music. It’s way beyond you. But we know all about it, and we’re going to teach you.”

Maybe piano teachers can be part of the change that is needed. By allowing their students to (independently) dig into works that are “beyond” them,  teachers can demystify the piano masterpieces.  Even though they most likely won’t perform these pieces as teens, these students may return to them later in life with a deeper understanding. By challenging themselves this way students will improve their technique, sightreading, and analytical skills. And, perhaps most importantly, students will start to see that this music can be just as accessible as pop, jazz, or contemporary music.

Yes, and by the way, I told my student yes — if she wanted to take a look at the Waldstein she should go right ahead. She was thrilled!

The Independent Student

Great insight into the minds of our teenage students. Take away thoughts:

  • We need to give students a a sense of agency.
  • When given the choice, the student will choose the task that gives him a chance to be creative.
  • When given the freedom to explore, students begin to find questions in everything.
  • Everybody truly wants to learn.
  • This type of creative learning doesn’t involve a lot of fancy equipment.
  • When the adults get out of the way, the students learn.

Now how can we apply these ideas to teaching piano? Maybe the first step is to put away the method books for a while and see what happens.

Step in time

I have a young student who’s made remarkable progress this past year. The only problem is that her fingers practically run away from her. I’ve been trying to help her keep a steady tempo but I recently realized that she doesn’t seem able to feel a steady pulse. I’ve asked her to clap while I play, tap her foot while she plays, count out loud, feel the heart beat of the music, etc. But nothing seems to work.

So this week I asked her to listen to more music at home and dance, march, clap…do anything to keep the beat. I suggested that she start by listening to disco music. I also suggested that she hear her Clementi Sonatina in her head while she walks or runs (she’s on the cross country team at her school.)

How appropriate that I should come across this famous opening scene! Speaking of “stepping in time!”


Creative Collaboration

Up to this point my posts have been limited to piano-related topics. But I saw this video about the collaborative process of composing and I just had to share it. This comes from the blog Being Musical, Being Human written Dr. Robert Woody, of the Music Ed Dept at University of Nebraska. There I’ve found great posts on some of my favorite topics including:  inspiring music students, and what we can learn from non-classical musicians.

He also writes about the group creative process and uses this John Mayer video as an example of what can be accomplished when three professional musicians enter the music studio with nothing and leave 12 hours later with a completed (recorded) song. I like how at the end when they are deciding whether or not to do another take “just for the heck of it…because you never know” John Mayer  says “when I decide that’s the one, the little guy in me sabotages the rest…” But then, he says he’s inspired by the process and can’t wait to go through the song again, this time adding more layers to the guitar solos.

Hmm. How can we add this type of creative collaboration to our piano lessons?

Musical Potpourri

I’ve written here before about how I’ve expanded my piano teaching over the years to include popular music, show tunes, jazz, and even reading from fake books. This is a big shift from how I taught just ten years ago and a far cry from my own piano lessons when I was young.

Of course, part of the reason for this is simple. From a teacher’s standpoint, kids practice what they like to play. Last week, one of my 7th grade students brought in Stand By Me, Surfin’ Safari and It’s My Party – three pieces he polished up in one week. Finally he did some practicing, and it showed! Just two days later, another student brought in the first movement of Sonatina Op 36 no. 6 by Clementi. She loves classical sonatinas. I would say she prefers them to pop songs. What a treat! The melody sang above the Alberti bass. The scale passages were light and even. I had never heard her so prepared for her lesson. (Why does she enjoy playing Clementi so much? Could be because her ballet teacher uses the Sonatinas to accompany barre exercises in dance class.) In the end…mission accomplished. Both students spent time at the piano and put some  extra effort into preparing for their piano lesson.

In addition to motivating the students to practice, another reason I use all types of music is that I’m realizing that my students don’t draw a line between classical and pop and jazz. To them, it’s all music…so what’s the big deal?

One of the great traits of this new generation is that they know what they like and what they want and they aren’t afraid to tell you. Anyone who markets to teens knows that they have developed what Peter Sheahan calls “a BS Detector on their forehead that goes off whenever someone is selling them something that is either not in their best interest or has any hint of insincerity.” Take my children, for example. They developed their own musical tastes from an early age and their choices had nothing to do with the classical music I played for them or the popular music that they heard on the radio or through their friends. My oldest (now 20) has been listening to medieval music since he was in elementary school. My 17-year old listens to Herb Alpert and Dave Brubeck. My daughter introduces me to the latest Indie performers and loves French music. All three have expressed an interest in improvising or writing their own music at one time or another.

Greg Sandow has written about the blurring of the line between classical and popular music in performance. His recent post declares the debate over.  He quotes an interview with Sir Simon Rattle, where the conductor says “everybody is listening to everything.” Further down in the article, Pamela Rosenberg, the former general manager of the Berlin Philharmonic, talks about how the orchestra has started outreach programs which involve collaborations between orchestra members and students.

“The object isn’t to create brilliant young musicians,” she says. “The object is to get kids to unlock themselves—to understand that they also have create potential.”

Ah. Now that “unlocking” bit is what I think this piano teaching business is all about, isn’t it?

Preparing Students for Competition

In less than a week six of my young students will be auditioning for the chance to perform at Weill Hall. As the pressure mounts, I think this is one of those times where I’d rather be in the students’ shoes. However, there are a few things I’ve learned after going through this every January for the past four years…

  • Trust your instincts when deciding which students will enter the competition (no matter what the parents say.)
  • For the early grades, Vandall and Alexander have great pieces that sound big, but aren’t too difficult.
  • Students should know the piece inside out.
  • Memory should not be an issue. Pieces should be memorized months before the competition.
  • Give the students as many opportunities to perform for each other as you can in the weeks leading up to the competition.
  • Pieces peak and then get stale. Time it right and they will peak on the day of the audition.
  • Have your students bring the shoes they are planning to wear into their lesson so they can try the pedal and you can check them out.
  • Remember the judge is human and might have a headache. Who knows, they might not like the music of Vandall or Alexander.
  • A positive attitude from the teacher can make all the difference when the competition results are announced.

And, now that most of my work is done…and I wait for the students to go in front of the judge, maybe I’ll microwave some popcorn and watch a movie.

Listening to Music (all kinds)

Pop singer/songwriter Mika, talks about his composing process here. He mentions that growing up he listened to everything from classical to folk including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Egyptian, Flamenco, Reggae, and American standards – although not too much pop or rock music. If I had to name the single most important thing a young pianist could do to contribute to his musical growth I think I would have to tell them to listen to music — all kinds. Start with a YouTube search for Billie Holiday or Glenn Gould, for example, and spend an hour or more just following the links and listening to music.

I love when my students come in and mention an artist or a piece they like, maybe it was something they played in the school orchestra or just something they heard online. I make a point to find the piece and listen to it before their next lesson so we can talk about it and try to find a piano arrangement to work on. But I especially love when my students take my recommendations and go home and listen to the music I suggest to them.

And in case you’re looking a the white stuff today, here’s clip of Mika singing Let It Snow.

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….

Thank you

Thanks, Claudine, for posting AllPiano on the Classical Network. If you haven’t seen it yet, take time to visit, a bookmarks site chock full of classical music pages from social networks, blogs, artist and orchestra websites.

And to Natalie Wickham from the Music Matters Blog, a piano teacher’s cornucopia of tips, articles and links, a big thank you for posting this.

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