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?

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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.