Frederic Chiu at PMTA

Saturday morning I gave a presentation at the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Music Teacher’s Association which was held close to home this year at The Inn at Pocono Manor. My topic was “Innovative Performance Opportunities for 21st Century Students” and my goal was to encourage teachers to provide their students with many varied performance opportunities, both formal and informal, and stop stressing kids out with one big end-of-the-year Spring Marathon Recital.

That evening I was fortunate to attend the recital of guest artist, Frederic Chiu.  The scary drive through a heavy Pocono Mountain fog back to the Manor last night was well worth it! The first half of the program included the lyrical (Chopin), the colorful (Debussy and Ravel) and the percussive (Prokofiev) culminating in the symphonic for the second half of the program – the exhilarating Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Mr. Chiu’s powerful command of the keyboard seemed to come from somewhere deep inside, since his upper body was practically still during his performance. Earlier, during his morning workshop, Mr. Chiu spoke about the balance of body, mind and heart and his performance demonstrated this to perfection.

Interestingly, one aspect of Mr. Chiu’s teaching program, Deeper Piano Program, involves cooking. I asked him about this after the recital and he explained how the process of putting together a dish is similar to his method of learning a new piece. Much of the work is done away from the piano, taking the piece apart and putting it back together. I suppose the analogy can extend to adding spices and stirring it all up. Unfortunately, many of us learn our music start to finish on the bench because that’s the way we’ve been doing it since we started lessons.

After hearing Mr. Chiu speak and perform, both live and online, I realize just how important it is for piano teachers to start their young students out with a well-rounded musical education (listening to music, moving to music, learning basic theory, studying the score) and try not to rely so heavily on keeping the children’s butts on the bench and noses in the method book.

2nd Friday at The Music Studio

Madame Butterfly – Angelica Cordero

On Friday, June 10, 2011, The Music Studio will host artist, Angelica Cordero, for Clarks Summit’s 2nd Friday Art Walk featuring illustrations from ‘Fugue for Arachne’ by Jason Smeltzer, and a new series of opera posters including Madama Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Magic Flute, The Pearl Fishers, and La Boheme.

Music provided by the young pianists from The Music Studio.

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!”


Daniil Trifonov plays Chick Corea

Daniil Trifonov is one of six finalists in the 13th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition and today he’ll be performing the Schumann Piano Quintet Op 44 (streaming live here) . I became a fan of his during the International Chopin Competition where he placed 3rd. He’s only 20 years old so I know we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Classical BRIT newcomers

The 2011 Classical BRIT Awards are being held right now at Royal Albert Hall in London. (You can follow the tweets here.)

Deutsche Grammophon pianist Alice Sara Ott is one of the nominees in the newcomer category. In this video she talks about how she started piano, one of her signature pieces – La Campanella, and practicing.

Other nominees in this category are classical guitarist Milos and violinist Vilde Frang.

All three amazing young musicians!

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.

Improvising basics

I like to write. Tell me to sit and write anything I want to and I’m hamstrung. But give me a writing prompt and I dive right in.  I feel the same way about free piano improvisation. If I sit at the piano and play anything I want to how will I know if it’s any good? What am I supposed to be listening for? And as a teacher, how can I teach students to improvise over a chord progression if I’m not clear on exactly how to do it myself?

I came across this video by Dave Spicer from Brisbane, Australia. He is the director of the School of Music Online and has an easy to follow explanation of how to improvise a right hand melody over a chord in the left hand using resolution/tension notes and passing, circling and extended tension notes.  Several light bulbs went on all at once for me while I was watching this! Classical, jazz, rock, whatever the style…this is what melody and harmony all boils down to.

Now, instead of a writing prompt, I’ll just take a chord. Any chord.

Gosh, I can’t wait to adapt this for my students who are all learning major, minor, various seventh chords!

A message of positive energy

My social network of choice is Twitter and like Erica Sipes, I too have found a great support group of musicians that I can check in with any time of day (or night) to bounce around ideas, get inspired, or just chat.  I’ve recently been reading about one Twitter friend, pianist Wayne McEvilly, and his work with Mozart in the Schools, a program he implemented in 1974 when he recorded all 17 Mozart piano sonatas on a 5 disc set and distributed it to elementary school classrooms in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  He says the Mozart Sonatas send the students a “message of positive energy” and a “general attitude of all is well” – the same message he sends out through his Tweets every day!

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.

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?


On Friday I had the pleasure of meeting pianist, Bruce Brubaker, and giving presentation to the piano students and guests at New England Conservatory in Boston for the Friday Morning Piano Seminar. I was happily surprised to see that so many of the students intend to do some teaching after graduation. We talked about today’s piano students and their expectations, new performance venues, modern teaching repertoire, and how the Internet is changing the way we do just about everything as far as piano goes.

Later that evening I was walking through Copley Place and came across this display from Project Beethoven.

Announced in the late summer, Project Beethoven invited unknown designers in the Boston area to submit a design inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Aspiring designers from surrounding schools submitted illustrations showing their work, all hoping for a chance to be selected as one of the 10 finalists who would actually create their garment for display at this unique fashion show.

I particularly like this design by Candice Wu from the School of Fashion Design.  I guess it must be the keyboard motif around the waist. Here’s what she has to say about her inspiration:

The asymmetric hemline is like the edge of a piano. My gown reflects the essence and feel of Beethoven. All these details are combined to convey the mood and feel of Beethoven at the concert hall.

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?

Matt and Kim

Some Matt and Kim for a Friday night. Why? Well yesterday I came up the sidewalk to my house and heard my daughter playing the piano. These days she doesn’t play the piano unless she’s truly motivated. Well she’d learned this piece partly by ear and partly from a YouTube tutorial. It sounded great. A catchy tune and don’t you love that the keyboard is tossed around and taken everywhere?

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.