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.


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:

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.

If I were a 16 year old piano student…

If I were a 16 year old piano student here are five things I’d like my piano teacher to ask me to do.

  1. Record a piece of music, make a photo montage video and post it on YouTube. Maybe it would be something I’d do on FreshBrain.
  2. Get a couple of friends together for a chamber music recital to raise money for The Humane Society. Well-behaved dogs invited.
  3. Write a piece of music for the piano…and I can use any part of the piano and any type of notation I want.
  4. Figure out how to do a mash-up and then do one.
  5. Work on an etude by Chopin or Moszkowski and see how fast I can get it in one week…with all the notes in place, of course.

Teaching Piano Students

CzernyThe other day I ran into the mom of one of my piano students in the check-out line at the grocery store. While we were chatting, another young mother behind me chimed in. “She was my favorite piano teacher,” she said. It took me a moment to realize she was talking about me. I was embarrassed that I didn’t recognize her. When I got home I pulled out old newspaper clippings and found that she’d played in a one of my recitals almost twenty years ago. The students come and go and it’s important to remember that although as teachers we may see hundreds of students over the years, the average piano student may have only two or three piano teachers in their lifetime, and the piano teacher is one of the only teachers that a student will see one-on-one. I thought about that today when I saw this and this.

Sarah Newton writes about the student/teacher relationship which is much more important than that old Czerny book anyway, wouldn’t you say?

Beginner Hand Position

This video comes from ISSTIP (International Society for the  Study of Tension in Performance), and organization which was founded by one of my former teachers, Carola Grindea, and I’m happy to say that this is exactly how I instruct my students in how to lay their hands at the piano. Over the years I’ve gotten away from teaching the students to play with curved fingers…it seemed to cause too much tension. The pad of the fingertip is the most sensitive and that’s what we use to produce tone color. Playing on the bony tip seems to only produce a percussive and harsh tone. Be sure to check out the forums at ISSTIP.