Poll Results: When Students Forget Their Books

Looks like most of us are pretty comfortable teaching a lesson even when our students forget their books! I think that is wonderful. The longer I teach, the more comfortable I get with this!

The "other" responses were both the same - that they have backup books in case this happens! I think that is an excellent practice and we would all be wise to have backup copies of the method books our students use - not only for when they forget their books, but to help in lesson planning.

Have a wonderful day!


Teaching Tip Tuesday: Look Inside the Piano!

Teaching Tip #2: Look Inside the Piano!

So, this may be a silly question...

...but have your students ever seen the inside of a piano? Do they actually know how it works? Do they know that the sound is made by hammers hitting strings? Have they seen the dampers at work? Do they know how the damper pedal works? Do they really have an understanding of how cool and intricate the inside of a piano is, and what an amazing instrument this really is?

If the answer is no, then waste no more time - open up that baby and let them climb up on a chair and see it in "action" (pun intended)! Then let them play some notes or a piece or some arpeggios with the damper pedal (if they haven't tried it already) and not only will they have lots of fun, but will also understand why it sounds the way it does.

Photo Credit:
     GBHPhotoArts | CC 2.0

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Note Spelling Off of the Bench

Sometimes, especially with the younger students and their shorter attention spans, you just need to get off the piano bench! This week in my studio we have been playing a game with my grand staff flannel board and some big, colorful fuzzy pom-poms from the craft store.

We take turns rolling a fuzzy onto the board (like bowling!) and then see if we can name the note it lands on - either by line or space, or by the actual note name if the student knows them. 

After all of the fuzzies are on the board, it's fun to try playing it on the piano and see what song we came up with!

This is also a fun way to teach note names to a student, or as a fun alternative to flashcards. I think that children learn so well by play, that the more creative teaching aids we can use in our studios, the better they will learn and the more fun they will have!

What are some fun ways you get off the bench during your piano lessons to teach concepts in creative ways?


Teaching Tip Tuesday: Keep a Teaching Journal

I'd like to start a new feature here - Teaching Tip Tuesday! This will feature simple teaching tips and random ideas that I have gleaned over the years through my experiences with my students.
Here we go!

Teaching Tip #1: Keep a teaching journal!

One of my favorite ways lately to keep track of miscellaneous ideas and gems of teaching wisdom that pop up during lessons is to keep a teaching journal. I keep a notebook inside my piano bench, and whenever I try something that was particularly effective, or have an "aha!" moment with a student, or just have a fabulously brilliant or fun idea, I jot it down in here for future reference. I have found that without writing these things down, I tend to forget my awesome ideas.

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When Students Forget Their Books

Have you ever had a student arrive at their lesson, only to announce that they accidentally left all their books at home?

As ridiculous as it sounds, I think we all have experienced this in our studios at one time or another. The question is, how do you respond to a situation like this?

Get annoyed?
Send them home?
Teach them anyway?
Schedule a make-up lesson (which really isn't fair to you, since it's their fault they forgot their books in the first place)?
I recently had a student call an hour before a scheduled lesson to tell me she forgot her books that day so she would just skip this week and come next time (she had already paid me, so it wasn't my loss). Do we just let the student miss a valuable week of lessons and slow down in their progress?

I have gotten to a point in my teaching where when something like this happens, I no longer panic and instead see it as an opportunity for a great piano lesson!

There are oh so many things you can teach a student without their books! In fact, shouldn't we as piano teachers have enough musical knowledge to teach a student a great lesson without needing to rely on a method book as a crutch? It may be wise to try and keep a copy of your students' method books in your own library to pull out in these types of situations...but even if you don't have their exact book, there are SO MANY things you can do at a lesson instead.

25 Things to Do at a Piano Lesson When a Student Forgets Their Books

Sight read.

Have a 30-minute theory lesson.

Work on scales/technique.

Try some fakebook playing/harmonization exercises!

Transpose a hymn.

Teach them about your favorite composer and listen to a piece.

Show them a YouTube video of one of the GREATS performing a piece the student is working on.

Play duets.

Talk about how to accompany.

Teach them how to conduct music.

Listen to music from your iTunes and practice finding the underlying beat.

Using their knowledge of primary chords, help them figure out how to play "Happy Birthday to You!"

Get out a piece from your own library and have an entire lesson on how to learn a new piece.

Teach them about good practicing tips.

Show them the inside of your piano and teach them how it works.

Teach them about the damper pedal and let them play simple arpeggios while holding down the pedal.

Do some ear training.

Make up some musical question and answer phrases.

Teach them about major & minor, then have them listen to excerpts of pieces and identify if it is major or minor (or sounds "happy" or "sad").

Teach them about simple transposition by changing from one five-finger position to another.

Improvise a song about a thunderstorm. Or a train. Or Halloween.

Have a lesson on a new technique, such as staccato or legato.

Teach them the blues scale. Improvise some blues riffs!
Have a few music theory games on hand to pull out in situations such as this.

Quiz them on flashcards.

Have a flashcard "spelling bee" and see how quickly they can spell words with their flashcards (cage, face, age, facade, ace, etc.)
Have confidence in your experience, your training, and your musical knowledge, and don't even flinch - teach them a stellar lesson on something you usually don't have much time for during the lesson! After all, are we not trying to produce well-rounded musicians? Use this opportunity to round out their music education a bit and focus on something other than their repertoire for one week.


Making Music Musical: Finding The Point

Happy Thursday! Here comes another installment of how to teach our students to go above and beyond just playing the notes and to truly polish a piece and create beautiful music - Making Music Musical!

Once one has mastered playing beautiful phrases and has worked on finding the balance in the music, what else can be done to really polish up a piece and make it MUSICAL?

After working out individual phrases and achieving good balance, it is wise to take a step back and see the big picture of the piece. How do the phrases relate to one another? What is the function of each phrase in the context of the entire piece? How does each section of the piece relate to the others? What is the overall direction of the dynamics of the piece - does it start soft and climax near the end at forte, or does it have a forte section followed by a piano middle section and then a recap of the forte section? What are you trying to say with the piece? What is the whole point? 
Rachmaninoff - image source

Each piece that Rachmaninoff played was meticulously shaped around a culminating POINT - a climax of sorts. Sometimes it was in the middle of the piece, sometimes near the end, but the whole aim of the piece was to build up to this one important point.

What is the whole point of your piece? Where is the climax?

In Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson, the story is told of a concert given by Rachmaninoff where he felt that he completely missed the point of the piece. During intermission he was in a horrible mood.

A woman describes, 
"we finally reached the artists' room, where we saw at once from the expression on Rachmaninoff's face that he was in an awful state: he was biting his lip furiously, his complexion was yellow. As we opened our mouths to congratulate him he exploded in complaint...'Didn't you notice that I missed the point? Don't you understand - I let the point slip!'"
I love Rachmaninoff's description of what "the point" of a piece is:
"...[Rachmaninoff] explained that each piece he plays is shaped around its culminating point: the whole mass of sounds must be so measured, the depth and power of each sound must be given with such purity and gradation that this peak point is achieved with an appearance of the greatest naturalness, though actually its accomplishment is the highest art. This moment must arrive with the sound and sparkle of a ribbon snapped at the end of a race - it must seem a liberation from the last material obstacle, the last barrier between truth and its expression. The composition itself determines this culmination; the point may come at its end or in the middle, it may be loud or soft, yet the musician must always be able to approach it with sure calculation, absolute exactitude, for it if slips by the whole structure crumbles, the work goes soft and fuzzy, and cannot convey to the listener what must be conveyed." (Bertensson, p. 195)
Can you believe the amount of polishing and effort that can go into making a piece really musical? If we can even pass some of this knowledge of expression and music-making onto our students, then what a wonderful thing! What a joy to be able to pass on not just the knowledge of how to basically play a piece and understand the theory behind it, but to really make music and achieve beauty. Isn't that really the whole point?

To illustrate this concept of THE POINT, here are a couple of pieces I have played, and where I think THE POINT is. Of course it might differ depending on the pianist and their individual interpretation. That is the beauty of it - deciding for yourself what you want to say with a piece, discovering where the important climax may be, and then shaping the entire piece around that.

Example #1 - Ravel's Jeux d'eau

Oh how I love this piece! I played this for my sophomore recital in college. At this point I hadn't heard of Rachmaninoff's "POINT" concept, but I remember whenever I played this piece I looked forward to this one part, and tried to build and build to this awesome point that climaxed at a fortississimo and culminated with a descending black-key glissando. Ahhh, I love it!

Here is Martha Argerich playing Jeux d'Eau - to watch my "POINT" start at about 2:10.

Example #2 - Schumann's Traumerei

The "point" that I circled in this piece is found at the very end, the third to last measure, and it is the big chord with the fermata.

Start at about 1:55 to hear Horowitz execute this "point" beautifully!

Can you help your students find the culminating point or climax in their pieces? Help them understand how to really bring out this part, how to build up to it or whatever the piece may call for, in order for it be beautiful and make the whole piece make sense. Happy music-making!


Book Review: A Century of Wisdom

Every once in awhile we get little reminders of why we as music teachers do what we do, and why music is so important in this world that we live in. One of those reminders came to me this week in the form of a book. I had the opportunity to read an excellent book, "A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor." After I picked it up I could hardly put it down!

The book chronicles through vignettes and personal accounts the amazing life of Alice Herz-Sommer, a Czechoslavakian pianist and piano teacher who survived the concentration camp Theresienstadt during the Holocaust. She went on to live and teach in Israel for many years, and now at the age of 108 she lives in London and still practices the piano for at least three hours daily - playing the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert.

Theresienstadt was a place where many "privileged" or educated Jews were sent during the Holocaust, before being shipped to Auschwitz. Notably, there were many musicians sent there, including Alice and her family. At one point there were at least four concert orchestras made up of Theresienstadt prisoners. Alice was allowed to practice for one hour each day (all by memory), and she gave many, many recitals and concerts. Hers is a story of how music literally helped to save her life. Music allowed her and others in the camp a reprieve from the horrible realities taking place. It is ironic that the Nazi guards ordered them to perform more frequently, and in allowing them their music they actually helped save them. It allowed them to escape their horrible reality and to be uplifted by the meaning in the music. The music was their "sustaining power," their way of "remembering [their] inner selves, [their] values." The music provided comfort and hope to not only the musicians performing, but to those listening.

Alice has lived her life, despite her horrible experiences, with optimism, energy and gusto. This book is an inspiration and a breath of fresh air. Despite its serious topic, it is uplifting and optimistic (just like Alice!). It talks about her experiences during the Holocaust, but also her fascinating childhood where she got associate with people such as Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka, and Sigmund Freud; her happy post-war years in Israel as a pianist and teacher; and of course her most recent years and the music and good friends who continue to sustain her and bring her joy.

As a pianist and teacher myself, I quite enjoyed the sections that talked about Alice the piano teacher, the outstanding influence she has had on her students, and the importance of music in her life. As Alice said, "I am richer than the world's richest people, because I am a musician."

The book will be released March 20. I highly recommend it to any piano teacher, musician or music-lover!

Enjoy this video clip of Alice Herz-Sommer talking about the power of music to help keep them alive in the concentration camp. "Music was our food," she says. 

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