It Takes Two Generations…

This year I have had a handful of gorgeous beginners taking lessons with me. I’m trialling new material for beginners and I need a cohort of children of different ages, genders, interests and learning styles so I can really test a range of approaches I believe will be more effective than the approaches I’ve used in the past. I haven’t auditioned these new students prior to accepting them into my studio –  inviting a diverse group of children to explore the piano and learn musicianship and performance skills with me gives me my best chance of testing my material (as well as keeping me on my toes!).

Of all the diversities amongst these beginners the greatest is probably this: some children come from families of professional musicians while some come from families where no one has ever learned an instrument.

What does this mean? On the surface it means that I can write “start on F sharp” in a notebook of one student while in the notebook of another I need to draw a keyboard map with an arrow on the starting note. Or, a little bit deeper down, it means that I can assume at-home practice support for some students, while with others I need to assume that the student is the most expert musician in the home (no small difference between the two students!).

On a practical level it means I can get through much less in a 30 minute lesson with a child whose parents don’t know how to help at home than I can with a child whose parents can fluently read notation and who themselves engage in daily practice. It takes a lot of extra time to make sure a six year old will understand a task than it does to give an off-hand instruction in passing to a parent.

Just the other day I was talking with the father of the one of the families who have had no previous experience learning musical instruments. He was telling me about how much better their young child was doing since we had established firm routines both for attending lessons and for practicing at home, and how much more enjoyment the child was getting from the experience now that daily sessions at the piano were taking place. The father said a friend of his had told him “It takes two generations to make a musician – the first generation learns how to learn, and then the second generation has parents who know what it takes to really become a musician.”

The father said he was excited to know he was laying the foundations for the next generation to have the chance to really master an instrument.

Musicians are accustomed to long-term planning, but I was completely awe-struck to think that this family was investing in the grand-children yet to be born –  a couple of decades away from even being thought of, and still some twenty-five or more years away from taking lessons themselves.

As much as I would have liked to have disagreed with his friend, I couldn’t. It definitely takes more time to develop musicianship for the whole family than it does just for the youngest member. It’s not about loving music or knowing a lot about Beethoven or Count Basie. It’s about everything from how to engage in problem-solving, dealing with delayed gratification and the impossibility of perfection, through to knowing the names of the keys of the piano, understanding how the sound is made, how notation represents sound, that the experience of making music through the piano is far more than simply pressing the right keys at the right time, and specific knowledges such as “what is a cadence?” and “how do I use a metronome?”.

If you’re a parent who has no background in playing a musical instrument I’m sure it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of things the piano teacher accidentally takes for granted along the way. Don’t be overly worried about this – the teacher won’t have enough time in each lesson to fill in all the gaps and still keep your child engaged and enthused about their learning, but in time you’ll become an expert, I promise!

Here are the absolute basics that you need to know to be able to support your family’s journey into profound musicianship:

1. You simply cannot miss lessons. Unless you’ve just had a car accident, your child has a communicable disease, or your grandmother’s funeral couldn’t be scheduled any other day. Your child having extra homework that night or wanting a playdate with a best friend simply doesn’t cut it as a reason to consider skipping a lesson.

2. Practice has to happen every day. Even if it’s just for three minutes. The act of commencing practice every day precedes the act of engaging in prolonged practice every day! Get your child into the habit of playing her or his instrument daily and to a certain extent the practice will take care of itself.

3. Practice might not mean playing through a piece from beginning to end. In fact, practice rarely means playing through a piece from beginning to end. The teacher will give your child clear instructions each week as to what is required, and you need to respect these instructions – which means you need to know what they are. Teachers traditionally give written practice notes, but these days some teachers may even make a quick video demonstrating the correct practice approach. Use whatever the teacher gives you as a guide for what will take place that week at home.

4. You need to have books of music at home. The best indicator of a child’s capacity to develop literacy skills lies in whether the home has books, and the same holds true of musical literacy. If you try to insist that the teacher work from one book instead of three you are deliberating limiting your child’s capacity to learn. The price of music keeps changing in today’s internet-distributed book economies, but a rough guide is that you should be budgeting between $A125 and $A200 (that’s Australian dollars) for each child’s annual print music spend. Less than that and you know your child isn’t making particularly good progress! This amount will change from one country to the next, but I’d suggest $US80-150 would be about right for students in the US (music is just cheaper in the US, less to pay for postage/shipping), and about £55-90 in the United Kingdom.

5. Your beginner student child should be learning new music almost every week. If your child isn’t learning new music almost every week (there will be weeks when new music isn’t assigned, but these should only be from time to time, not every second week) it means something isn’t going right with your child’s learning (probably due to issues with practice at home). Talk to the teacher about how you can better support the practice for pieces assigned for a second, third or even fourth week.

6. Writing the names of all the notes in is a total waste of time and will drive the piano teacher completely nuts. Sometimes a piano teacher will write in the name of one or two notes, but writing in the names of all the notes is like asking your child to read a book one letter at a time: it’s boring and it doesn’t even make any sense. Being able to read music at the piano is about seeing the shapes and knowing what that will feel like to perform, and even having a clear sense of what it will sound like (the word for that is audiation – imagining sound). Don’t ‘help’ in ways the teacher hasn’t asked you to – and when you have a brainwave it will almost certainly be a good idea to discuss it with the teacher during the lesson before putting it into action!

7. The lesson time is when you should talk to the teacher, not afterwards. The teacher will either have other students, other appointments, or a really short dinner break at the end of your child’s lesson. It’s not OK to expect the teacher to discuss matters with you outside of the lesson time as a matter of course. Make the odd phone call, feel free to send an enquiring email or text message, but the time directly after your child’s lesson is sacrosanct (and not dedicated to you). It might be the teacher’s only chance to use the bathroom in five hours. :-) Of course, if the teacher wants to talk to you then by all means, chat away, but don’t assume that the teacher has this time available otherwise.

8. Just because you need to remind your child to practice does not mean that they don’t want to practice or that they don’t want to play their instrument. Just as you don’t give your children the option of failing to brush their teeth, bathe, eat or get dressed, so doing practice is not optional, even if that means you remind your child to do it every day for a decade. You are the parent: you make the rules. No one ever reached adulthood and said “I wish my mum had let me stop learning the piano”…

9. Think long-term. In other words, don’t plan to ‘try’ piano for six months to see if it’s a good fit – if you want your child to learn to play the piano you need to be internally committing to at least three years of lessons and practice. Then you can reflect on how things are going. This isn’t about being a tiger parent, it’s about being realistic about what’s involved in gaining musical skills. That 10,000 hour rule? You can have an awful lot of fun during that first 100 hours of piano practice, but you’re still only 1% of the way (if that) toward being amazing.

10. You may not realise how easy it is to play the piano, and at the same time how hard it is. There are very cool things students can easily learn to do at the piano which may give you the impression your child is a genius. Feel free to enjoy this sensation, but don’t be disappointed if the next week your child reverts to just being the cool, fabulous kid that you know and love. Some things that pianists do that appear easy are actually very hard, and some of the impressive things pianists do are ridiculously straight-forward to execute (if your teacher just shows you how).

11. If you want your child to learn to play the piano, then get a piano at home for your child to practice upon. Seems kind of obvious. Sometimes there are great reasons why you end up choosing to buy a digital piano, and these days there are just fantastic digital pianos available. But often parents choose woefully inadequate pretend pianos and think it will be as good: it won’t. If you can’t afford lessons AND a piano then postpone lessons for six months and use the savings to buy a decent instrument (digital or acoustic). Practicing on an inadequate instrument will set your child back by years in the long run – get this sorted as quickly as you possibly can.

12. Grab every chance you get to sit in on your child’s piano lessons. You will be a hundred times more likely to be able to support your child’s practice if you’ve been observing the teacher working with your child throughout the lesson – from how to use the body (shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingertips, proper seating position, etc.) to how to practice each piece to getting to understand the lingo (staccato, arpeggio, inversion, etc.). You have the chance to get your own free tutoring just by sitting in on your child’s lesson!

13. Participate in studio recitals every chance you get. You will be amazed how much your child is motivated by playing at and attending recitals – they get to hear music being performed by more advanced students, and they begin to build programs of pieces they are comfortable performing. And don’t project any nervousness you may feel onto your child – children don’t know they are supposed to feel nervous unless you tell them (or they have an anxiety disorder, which is a completely different matter), and you have an opportunity to develop confident public presentation in your child in this musical setting.

14. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. This one makes me smile, of course, because one assumes you’re reading this on the internet, and believing it. :-) The truth is that your teacher is going to be able to give you much better advice for your child than you will find chatting to random people/teachers on an internet forum or by searching YouTube for tutorials. If you don’t have a background in playing a musical instrument you won’t know what to trust and what is nonsense. Find a reputable teacher who you trust and like, and get educated (along with your child) and develop your capacity for discernment.

15. Share what you know about your child with the teacher. Does your child have a morbid fear of spiders? An allergy to cats? A learning disability or a processing disorder? Don’t wait for the teacher to figure it out by themselves – by sharing what you know about your child you won’t be preventing the teacher from building a positive relationship with your child, you’ll be facilitating immediately great learning experiences. Thing is this: piano teachers are fairly canny – because playing the piano is so holistic a learning activity you might even find that the piano teacher is alerting you to quirks in your child’s learning behaviours that will help you finesse their school-based learning! Piano teachers are often the first to notice problems with vision, dyslexia, problems with proprioception, processing problems, pronounced learning styles (which may be the basis for trouble in the classroom), even synaesthesia, simply because they are spending 30, 45 or even 60 minutes one-on-one with your child, and maybe this is the first chance your child has had for that kind of regular, professional adult attention. You and the teacher are a team working to make your child the best person he or she can be. :-)

Follow these 15 guidelines and you’ll find that you are fast-tracking your family’s musical development! Enjoy the transformation!

Pedagogy Saturday and Permission: A Sober MTNA Conference Post

When one chooses (somewhat chaotically) from 5 possible tracks at a conference, criss-crossing from one theme to another specialty, as the spirit moves, throughout the day, it can be difficult to sense a theme or make an assessment as the zeitgeist.

Today I attended sessions from the Artistry, the Disability and the Jazz/Pop tracks, and to my surprise there really was a distinct theme running through the whole of my day: permission.

From Forrest Kinney giving teachers and students permission to improvise without ‘knowledge’ through to Peter Mack giving teachers (and by extension, students) permission to be musical in the way they perform/interpret notation, to Barbara Kreader giving teachers permission to broaden their curriculum beyond classical repertoire and Scott Price giving teachers permission to alter their teaching methods to meet the needs of children with autism – everyone was doing it: giving us permission.

What I liked about this was the sense of being in the middle of a tsunami of professional change: all the presenters were saying “you don’t have to do things the way you’ve always done them”, in so many disparate ways: Deborah Rambo Sinn discussing fingering for small hands, for example, and Kristin Yost demonstrating ideas for recitals with a rhythm section.

But, on the negative side of the ledger, I figure that all this permission-giving reflects a series of lacks in our profession:

  • a lack of confidence in ourselves,
  • a lack of competence at things we intuit are important,
  • a lack of understanding of current educational thinking,
  • a lack of general knowledge about the world, and
  • a lack of critical thinking skills.

Of course, that’s what people come to conferences to address: the lacks they feel they have in their professional praxis. But the presentations were each, in their own way, more about saying “It’s OK to do this” than about anything else: the nuts and bolts were very frequently less important that the over-arching idea that teachers should feel free to do things in ways that make musical sense.

I’ll repeat that: teachers should feel free to do things in ways that make musical sense. And I can’t for the life of me understand why music teachers need to be given permission to do that.

How did music education reach this point – where musical sense has such a low priority that we run conferences to assure ourselves that is, after all, important?

Sober thoughts, indeed, at the end of my 2013 Pedagogy Saturday!

MTNA 2013: About to Begin

It’s Music Teacher Conference time here in Los Angeles.

I’m all checked in to the Disney Hotel here in Anaheim and have just finalised my choices for tomorrow’s marathon Pedagogy Saturday sessions.

There are five tracks this year: Advanced Piano/Teaching Artistry, Collegiate/Young Professional, Jazz/Popular, Recreational Music Making, and Teaching Those With Special Needs, and those attending Pedagogy Saturday can mix and match to their heart’s content.

Which is just as well, because I’ll be attending moments from each of the tracks (with the possible exception of the Collegiate/Young Professional track, for the obvious reason that I’m not a college student; neither, it pains and entertains me to say, am I a young professional).

From surviving and thriving with small hands through to assessing whether/how performers can serve both audiences and composers; from teaching children with autism through to teaching children with dyslexia; from exploring creativity as a teachable skill through to  meeting the needs of a YouTube generation; from incorporating popular music into recital programs through to the challenges of teaching on a cruise ship – there will be plenty to keep me going tomorrow.

I’m fascinated that the MTNA is now offering a certification to teachers as specialists in “Recreational Music Making” – this is a very different kind of piano teaching to the one most piano teachers will have experienced, and I’ll be interested to see how teachers respond to these new initiatives (which are backed by big players in the business end of the business).

The Jazz/Popular track is jam-packed with goodies, and I wonder how much this track will compete with the Recreational Music Making track in attracting crowds to the presentations, and how much it will overlap with the same issues RMM covers.

A full day exploring special needs (and how music teachers can better address them) in the context of individual lessons is tremendously exciting to see. I’ll be interested to see how much of this is about building a framework for understanding as compared to putting forward cutting edge approaches to individualised music/instrumental education for high needs students.

I’m still too much of a stranger to US music education culture not to get a naughty twinkle in my eye at the phrase ‘teaching artistry’ (such a puffy kind of notion, this ‘artistry’ – how about ‘stage-craft’ and ‘musicianship’ and ‘stylistic awareness’ and ‘individuality’?!), but, whatever the name of the track, this is the mainstream end of the day, the nuts and bolts of performance, looked at from one angle or another.

Part of the challenge organising my tomorrow has been that the tracks are all operating on completely individualised timetables: one presentation might finish at 10.20 while another begins at 10.15 – that kind of thing. I will be doing some discreet slipping in and sneaking out throughout the day, wanting to wring every last bit of participation I can from my day.

I won’t be live-blogging! I’ll be too busy trying to get to the Safari Room from the Castle Room and back to the Magic Kingdom Ballroom for that, I fear. But if I get to the end of my Saturday with enough energy left over to write up some thoughts you’ll see them published here, about 24 hours from now. Even if it’s just to say I spent far too much time in the Adventure Room…

The Hal Leonard Australia 40 Piece Challenge 2013: suggestions for getting started

In 2013 Hal Leonard Australia is running a 40 Piece Challenge. And I’m very excited by this news.

The challenge is to teachers primarily – can your students each learn at least 40 new pieces in 2013?!

This challenge is not a random, out-of-the-blue event. There’s a massive back-story to the development of this 40-Piece Challenge, which you can read about here (when I get around to writing it). But the point of the whole exercise is to encourage students to learn, perform and experience far more music than our exam-focussed culture usually allows. And to do so in order for students to develop much better reading skills and much broader musicianship, which will lead our students to be more likely to play the piano for the rest of their lives (no matter what grade exam they make it to before they stop taking piano lessons).

This post isn’t about convincing you that this challenge is a good idea – there are plenty of posts I’ve written that already argue the case, and plenty written by other people as well, for that matter.

What I want to do is give some suggestions for how you can prepare for the 40 Piece Challenge, bearing in mind lessons in Term 1, 2013 are at most 9 weeks away (depending on when you read this!). There are three principles you need to keep in mind when planning repertoire selections for this challenge.

#1: Mix up the degree of difficulty of the pieces you assign.

If your Grade 5 student learned 7 pieces last year when they were a Grade 4 student there is no way in the world that they are capable of learning 40 Grade 5 pieces this year. Assign 1 or 2 Grade 5 pieces at the start of the year, but also assign repertoire that is Grade 3 standard, Grade 2 standard, Grade 1 standard! 40 pieces a year means in practice just over 1 new piece every single teaching week of 2013, and that means students need to be completing a piece every single week. This won’t be possible unless you have an appropriate mix of degrees of difficulty in the repertoire.

#2: Give the student less choice than you usually would.

You are assigning an average of one new piece a week, every week. You just don’t have the luxury of taking all of February to play through the exam lists and come up with a program for the year. A good rule of thumb: the easier the piece the less choice the student has. You are the teacher – you plan out an appropriate course of study for the year. The good news is that when students know they only need a week or two to master a piece they don’t really mind so much if they love, love, love it, or not.

#3: Encourage students to make their own suggestions for repertoire.

This can be a tricky path to follow – students can suggest music that is far too hard, poorly arranged, with limited pedagogical interest! But students will understand that the plan is to succeed in meeting the 40 piece challenge, and this is an opportunity for them to learn a lot about how to select their own repertoire: they will want to master the music within a reasonable time-frame and they will want to share with you their musical inclinations. This also becomes your chance to learn a lot about your students, and you’ll probably get to know music you’ve never heard of before, as well!

In addition to these three principles for selecting repertoire, I suggest there three principles for implementing the challenge once pieces are assigned:

1. Expect a high level of achievement with each piece. Near enough is good enough, but near enough means at tempo and with flow and with communicative intent, not a bald reading-through without any sense of what the music means. So performances need dynamics, articulation, voicing and balance, used of pedal and so forth! If this seems too big an ask you need to be looking at easier material, not at lowering your standards.

2. Start with a slew of material. Let’s stick with our hypothetical Grade 5 student. Week One of 2013, assign two Grade 5 standard pieces (meeting your student’s expectations) but also give a couple of pieces from Grade 1 or Preliminary or even P Plate Piano 3 standard, along with another at Grade 2 or 3 standard. You’ll be assigning another two pieces the next week (probably both at the Grade 1 end of the spectrum), and you need things to be moving right from the start.

3. Explain directly and clearly what your expectations are regarding each piece, particularly in regard to time frames. For a piece of music 4 or more grades below their current exam-standard, tell students they have one week to learn the piece, two weeks if there’s some catastrophe like a house fire. Make it understood that these pieces are not supposed to take a whole term to master, that the whole point is learn these easier pieces as quickly as possible and move on.

And finally: how do you structure your selections? Where on earth do you find 40 pieces for each and every one of your students?!

Suggestion 1: Use the Getting to… books or some other repertoire collection as the staple from which you draw repertoire selections. The Getting to… books have 30 pieces in each (maybe 29 in some cases?), so having one of these volumes a few grades below your student’s current exam-standard will give you a wealth of repertoire choices with only one book purchase. And the New Mix collections are now available up to Grade 3 standard – these collections can be particularly useful for higher grade students who need a break from their ‘serious’ higher grade repertoire!

Suggestion 2: Old exam books also provide many potential options for easily-mastered pieces. (Either your own, that you want to sell second-hand, or to loan, or the student’s own exam books from previous years!)

Suggestion 3: Have your student purchase one or two books by contemporary composers of jazz and popular music influenced compositions. Kerin Bailey, Christopher Norton, Sonny Chua, Mike Cornick, Manfred Schmitz, John Kember, Matyas Seiber, Gerard Hengeveld, Alan Houghton, to name just a few, are composers whose works will appeal to many of your students. Pick collections that are on the easy side for your students. My own Little Peppers books are very easy pieces in this style, particularly if you choose the Very Easy Little Peppers collection!

Suggestion 4: Don’t forget to consider arrangements! There are hundreds of books with arrangements of anything you care to ask for, from orchestral themes through to film music through to Elvis hits through to One Direction through to Glee and back again to jazz standards and folk tunes and musical theatre songs and… well, the list really does go on.

Arrangements can connect with your students in surprising ways because they already feel the music is part of their lives. Your only issue is making sure the arrangements are pianistic. Fortunately, these days there are plenty of great arrangements available, and I’ll be posting more about my recommendations in the weeks ahead.

And at this time of year it would be remiss of me to not mention the plethora of Christmas carol arrangements available at any standard. [See Anita Milne's article in the recent Piano Teacher Magazine, where various collections are recommended for specific grade levels.]

Suggestion 5: Make sure your student understands the cost of books for the year. For many years now (since 2000!) I’ve been recommending that teachers tell families to budget $150 per student per annum for books. In the past three years the price of print music books has generally fallen by at least 25% (in some cases the prices have fallen to half!) as a result of the strong Australian dollar, so I would think that any student could find 40 pieces without even needing to spend $75, but certainly for $150 there will be an abundance of great material to choose from and to take the student forward into 2014!

I know there are a lot of teachers keen to embark on the 40 Piece Challenge, and I hope these principles and suggestions help a little in transitioning your students into a repertoire-rich year!

Vendetta

Vendetta has been on the AMEB Grade 4 piano syllabus for over 10 years now, and in the current (2012-14) period is a Grade Five piece in the Trinity College piano syllabus (as well as featuring on other syllabuses, such as NZMEB, ANZCA and Guild). I’ve been promising teaching notes for some time – so many apologies for the very long delay!

Vendetta is a tango.

I don’t know that I thought about the tango angle particularly when composing the piece, but tango was exactly the right emotional energy I needed the night Vendetta was composed. This was back in the mid-90s when I was juggling piano teaching, various universities studies, writing and producing music theatre, working as an accompanist for a glamourous gospel singer, doing some quite random recording gigs and goodness knows what else – I can’t really remember.

But I do remember – most distinctly – writing Vendetta.

My boyfriend at the time had recently decided he needed a break. A relationship-break kind of break. Kind of. I’m not sure what he wanted exactly, other than the chance to date other young women while still maintaining some kind of relationship with me. Think some kind of Sex and the City storyline from which we are all supposed to draw a moral about What Not To Do In Relationships. Well, we [should] all know what not to do in this case, but I wasn’t quite sure how not to do it, so the night I wrote Vendetta my sort-of boyfriend was on a date with one of my sort-of friends.

That should pretty much be all the teaching note you need.

BUT, in case it’s not, I’ll spell it out: I wrote Vendetta quite intentionally to have something better to remember the night for than simply remembering it as the night my boyfriend went out on a date with someone else. I wrote Vendetta to make the night considerably more worthwhile for me than it was going to be for him.

And it seems that I succeeded in that ambition, which just goes to show young women everywhere that these stories do sometimes have happy endings. [Ah, yes, there's the moral.]

Oh. No. I didn’t end up with that boyfriend. Goodness me, no. Not that kind of very sad happy ending. No. You don’t want to end up with those boyfriends, girls, trust me. The story of who I ended up with comes many chapters later in the book.

But back to the music: Vendetta is a tango.

These days, with various tv dancing shows aimed squarely at family audiences, many of our students have a bit of an idea as to what tango sounds like and looks like, and there’s really no excuse to not use the internet to get a really good feel for authentic tango, both in the sense of the dance and of the music.

As to the notes: Vendetta is in A minor. Worth keeping in mind when you play the first left hand broken chord: there’s no F sharp! I only mention this because some clips of performances YouTube seems premised on the belief that this piece begins with a B minor chord (with an F sharp) rather than a B diminished one (with an F natural). One of these days I’ll get some recordings of myself playing these pieces up on YouTube or iTunes or SoundCloud, but til that day reading the music accurately will tell you all you need to know.

Pedalling: First, don’t even attempt to learn this piece unless you know how to pedal properly! You’ll have enough else to be preoccupied with without learning to pedal being on your to-do list!

Second, I’ve shilly-shallyed in my decision-making regarding the pedalling in this piece, and you can find two published editions (the original Pepperbox Jazz 1 – yellow cover – and the Faber Music-published Pepperbox Jazz 2 – deep orange cover) with conflicting pedalling instructions in the opening sections! What it really comes down to is your piano and your performance venue. If the room has a very dry acoustic, you should pedal more; if the room is very resonant, pedal less. Once you get to bar 19 you should probably start pedalling no matter what the room sounds like, but do use your own judgment! It’s about making a successful performance, not about slavishly following instructions!

Rubato: feel free to stretch the time here and there (it may well help create a kind of wicked charm in your performance!), but always, always maintain the tango character of the piece.

Touch and tone: don’t be too gentle with this piece (see back-story above) – the melody should announce more than coax, and when you pull the dynamic back the mood should still be intense. It is not a love song! Enjoy the part writing (when the right hand has two parts), and work to create separate sounds for each of the parts, even if played in the same hand. This is very challenging for a Grade 5, let alone a Grade 4 student, but working towards this goal will produce a more brilliant performance.

As always with music at this standard of difficulty, change the fingering to suit your own needs – the fingerings indicated might well reflect what worked for my students at the time of publication!

And for those teachers and students who like to know about modulations, rest assured – this piece does not modulate at all, and don’t let an examiner tell you otherwise. It’s A minor from beginning to end.

Any other questions? Please do feel free to ask me anything you like in the comments below…

Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

Back in second half of 2006, when I was 14-16 weeks pregnant, Gina Wake (from Hal Leonard Australia) and I did a two or three week tour launching Getting to Grade Four. And then, between weeks 28-31 of my pregnancy (and when Gina was 15-18 weeks along in her pregnancy!), we toured the nation again launching Getting to Preliminary New Mix and Getting to Grade One New Mix. In retrospect we don’t know what we were thinking.

But talking to piano teachers at this cusp moment in my life, this about-to-be-parent phase, meant that teachers who had known me through my seminars since as early as 2000 were sharing this transition with me, celebrating the arrival of motherhood on my resumé and giving me some great advice along the way.

One teacher said to me with quite a twinkle in her eye “I wonder how becoming a parent is going to change your piano teaching…”

“So do I!”, I exclaimed back. I’d always said that people who think that having a baby isn’t going to change their lives are dangerously delusional and/or completely failing to appreciate that the whole point of having a baby is to have your life changed. So the idea that my piano teaching would change as a result of raising a child of my own seemed obvious.

And yet – I’d been teaching since I was 14 years old. I’d already seen my teaching change simply because I’d gained maturity. I’d seen my teaching change because of new ideas I’d been exposed to when undertaking studies in non-musical disciplines (linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, French, film studies, and so on). I’d seen my teaching change because I’d taught classroom music and experienced first-hand the calibre and conditions of New South Wales high school music education. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d started presenting seminars to other piano teachers. And I’d seen my teaching change because I was composing and publishing music for students to play.

Becoming a parent was just going to be another one of these enrichments that changed my teaching.

When I resumed lessons with my much-reduced number of students and an 8 week-old baby, the biggest change was that I needed to schedule breaks between every lesson to facilitate breast-feeding. And as my son grew a bit older I needed to stop teaching earlier in the evening to facilitate his night-time routines, and I had far less time to organise the administration of my teaching practice.

To be honest, as the first few years of my son’s life passed I was quietly surprised at how little my teaching was changing post-parenthood, organisational rather than qualitative changes.

More notable was how my experience as a piano teacher was shaping my approach to being a mother.

After more than 20 years of piano teaching I had experienced all kinds of different parents: parents who were always two minutes early, parents who were always five minutes late, parents who quibbled over money and parents who arrived at the start of each term with their chequebook open. I’d had parents who didn’t realise there’s any benefit to practice between lessons as well as parents who sat with their children to practice every day, for years, for each child in the family. There were parents who told me they just wanted their child to learn ‘for fun’ and parents who discussed how we should shape the next five to ten years to enable their child to gain a music scholarship or earn a diploma before the end of Year 10. Parents who barely spoke English and parents who thought migrants posed an unfair educational challenge to their children. Parents who were keen to sit in on lessons, parents who used piano lessons for a sleep in the car.

Chief amongst the approaches I’d quietly bemoaned along the years was the parent who uses the piano lesson as a kind of baby-siting, an expensive but enriching weekly event which requires no further engagement on the part of the student or the student’s family between sessions. Why invest the money in lessons each week if you can’t be bothered supporting the practice between lessons, even a little bit?, has been my bordering-on-exasperated thought. Don’t you know how much more your child could be achieving?!

But all of a sudden, I get it.

You’re exhausted. Years of parenting a child who doesn’t seem to need to sleep have finally compounded to deplete you of even the tiniest reserves. It’s a miracle if you can make it through the day without losing it between dinner and bedtime. The piano teacher wants your child to have practiced this week? It’s a feat of extraordinary proportions that the child got fed, for goodness sake, that they’ve turned up to their lesson in clean clothes. But you know that your child loves this 30 or 45 minutes each week, or at least you’re pretty sure they do, and you know that your child is getting quality one-on-one attention from a teacher who is invested in building a long-term learning relationship. AND you know that music is super-fantastic for the brain. Whatever is happening in the lesson is absolutely worth it, because it’s more than you can provide on your own.

I get it.

The piano teacher talks to you about your child’s capacities, potential and achievements based on weekly, focussed experience working with your child. You get to tell the teacher what’s been going on in the life of your family, what’s been making practice or organisation tricky, and the teacher makes some suggestions or sympathises or tells a joke. You know that the teacher wants good things for your child, and that they have been spending the past half hour thinking hard about the best way to help your child grow and develop. So what if this week was a disaster in the practice department? The piano teacher is part of your network, your support team. You’re not going to give this up just to save a few bucks.

I get it.

And I also know, from all my years as a piano teacher, that even without practice at home a child can still (miraculously) make something resembling progress, can still play happily at recitals, can still be a joyful musician. Not anything like a professional musician. But still happy. And it makes complete sense to have your child experience this, even if you can’t (for whatever reason) support your child’s at-home practice the way piano teachers might tell you you should.

Piano lessons aren’t always about playing the piano. A successful lesson might not even involve touching a keyboard. A great outcome for a student might not even have anything to do with music.

And that’s totally, completely, and always OK.

I think I really, truly knew this before I became a parent. But these days I think I marvel more – how extraordinary a thing it is that a student finds an hour a day to practice! – how tremendous that the whole family attends the end-of-term recital! – how spectacular is an improvement in posture! – how thrilling is a memorised performance!

Parenthood has underlined to me how the whole enterprise of learning is miraculous. And how it’s a privilege to participate in that miracle every day.

Bach v Handel v Scarlatti v Telemann (and so on)

My most advanced student and I sat down the other day to decide exactly which works would go into his diploma program (exam in November/December) and which would get the flick. My student had been working on the Bach C minor Partita, but as much as we both loved the Capriccio we were struggling with the notion of turning the other required movements into part of his performance program. It all just seemed so turgid, with a displeasing noise to signal ratio.

Could we get away with dispensing with this major work from his program? How would the balance of the recital be affected by taking this out of the equation? We pulled out the syllabus and thought about replacing this selection with a Prelude and Fugue. And we had no trouble identifying some Preludes on the list that would show off this student’s strengths and sensitivities to best advantage. It’s just that when we came to think about him learning a Fugue it just didn’t seem right. For him.

Now, I usually find that fugues are a bit of an IQ test – it doesn’t really matter what the personality of a student, a very clever student will find joy and beauty in a fugue. But this student is as smart as they come, and fugues simply aren’t his thing. I can see that quite clearly, even though we’ve only been working together for a couple of years. His insistence that he doesn’t like fugues is also not immaterial to this judgment.

So back to the drawing board.

A lone Handel Suite (No. 8 in F minor) sat on the list, pretty much the only alternative if we were to include a Baroque presence in the program. I pulled out the Henle collection and to our mutual delight we found that the spirit of this suite exactly suited the student. The suite still has a fugue in it, and has pretty much the same kinds of forms and movements that we’d been working on with the Bach, but the mood, the tone, the energy of the music was of a completely different nature, and we happily agreed that this was the new direction needed.

I’ve been practicing the suite since that lesson (I had only a passing familiarity with the various movements) and discovering that while there are plenty of tricky passages and technical challenges the music feels ‘easier’ – not so much easier to learn as easier to relate to. I’m kind of a Bachophile (or Bach maniac, if you will), so this discovery is challenging my sense of musical identity in a fairly substantial way.

Meantime, I’ve (finally) been reading Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes, a book that was published in 2002 and that I first came across in a massive chain bookshop in a London shopping mall in 2006 when I should have been collecting some groceries. Having gone out of my way to buy the book in unlikely circumstances (and delaying dinner for a group of 4 to boot) one might think I’d have read it without delay. Of course, it’s just this week I’ve plunged into this profound and refreshing book about playing the piano.

Right there in the first chapter Charles Rosen talks about the ‘gymnastics’ of Scarlatti. ‘Gymnastics’. Never a truer word spoken, about Scarlatti at least – his music is the absolute embodiment of the gymnastic spirit. Many a gesture in a Scarlatti sonata feels as if one is performing a complicated tumble with the ambition of landing again on the balance beam once the skillful leap is complete. I’ve always loved playing Scarlatti. His music resonates with the larrikin in me.

But if given a choice I would generally choose Telemann over Scarlatti. So very many of his keyboard works feel natural to me, like meeting someone whose sense of humour, taste in movies or political orientation exactly matches your own. Telemann moves the way I like to move, physically (the gestures required to perform the music) and harmonically/rhythmically and structurally. Scarlatti feels more like quirky friend.

Meantime, Rameau mostly seems like a complete alien*.

Bach brings tears to my eyes while Handel induces my lips to smile. I feel happy delight with both Telemann and Scarlatti, one because he does what I would do, the other because he does what I would not.

Can it all be explained by a Myers Briggs assessment? By the times in which we live? By the teachers we’ve had along the way? By our star signs?

All theories welcome…

*Disclaimer: I have not played a fair percentage of Rameau’s keyboard music, so I would be very excited to be dissuaded from this current position. Please share your Rameau favourites with me!

POST-SCRIPT: Yes, I know. I start talking about Charles Rosen’s fabulous book and then just leave it at that. I will certainly be talking about Piano Notes some more in the weeks to come.

Is the Study of Piano Declining in the United States of America?

This topic in the Tuesday afternoon line-up of MTNA Conference presentations seemed almost arcane on the page of the conference booklet, especially by way of comparison to other topics with immediate practical application in the 30 minute piano lesson. And the question seemed one of those asked-and-answered types: is the study of piano in decline? Hell, yeah. Who doesn’t know that, right?

But I’m an arcane-topic kind of chick, so I bounded with enthusiasm into this panel presentation-discussion. It was already impressive just checking out who was in the panel: Peter Jutras, who is the editor of the wonderful Clavier Companion; E.L. Lancaster, who is both Vice President and Keyboard-Editor-in-Chief of Alfred Publishing; Brian Chung, Vice President of the Kawai Corporation; Gary Ingle, CEO of MTNA; Mike Bates, Senior Member of the Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America; and Sharon Girard, NCTM, a private piano teacher since 1976 in Connecticut.

To begin: college-level study (and beyond). The raw number of students taking piano as their major for the undergraduate degrees in the United States has increased significantly over the past twenty years (roughly a 25% increase), numbers for masters have increased slightly (currently around the 1000 mark)  and numbers of students enrolled in doctoral programs with a piano major have increased astronomically (currently around 1000, up from only about 400 less than ten years ago). But these raw figures don’t tell the complete story. More and more piano majors (all levels) are international students (so these figures don’t reflect piano learning activity in the US in any case); there are more options for students to choose from when selecting their music major (so students who might previously have taken piano are now specialising in some other aspect of music); there are more students studying music (so the proportion of students piano majors  in comparison to the entire student population cannot be inferred from the raw data).

What are piano teachers in the suburbs, cities and small towns noticing? An increase in adult students and in very young beginners (4 and 5 year olds) and a sharp decline in beginners aged 9 and 10. The GFC seems to have had a pronounced (negative) impact on enrollments, but further to this there seems to be a decline in the value parents in 2012 ascribe to piano lessons in the broad education of their children. From my Australian perspective I was also fascinated to learn that school teachers are drivers of enrollments in piano lessons! In Australia school teachers have absolutely no impact on the propensity of a child to begin lessons – and if anything, their neutral impact skews slightly negative. But in the US many children learn band instruments through the school, and so children can still have an instrumental education without taking private piano lessons. Apparently it’s the band teachers who promote piano to some large degree, and when those teachers don’t encourage piano lesson enrollment a sharp decline can be seen.

Next: sales of educational and classical print music. These sales have declined since 2006, but only slightly (4%), and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a ripple-on effect of the GFC. The breakdown of print music sales in the US works out at something like 19% Classical Music, 19% Christian Music and 13% piano methods, with the bulk of the remainder being taken up by pop titles. This proportion appears to have held steady. In any case, print music sales are a poor indicator of piano study, because younger siblings often use the print music older siblings used before them, and it’s entirely possible that in a climate of financial restraint parents are more likely to seek these kinds of economies.

We move on to sales of instruments: grand pianos, uprights, digital pianos and keyboards. There has been a massive decline in sales of grand pianos since 2005 – down from 35,000 then to around 12,000 now. Seeing as most new grand pianos are purchased by institutions and very rich people it’s possible to infer that the rich people are being careful and the institutions have had their budgets slashed – neither of which reflects on the current number of piano students in the US. It’s when we get to the other categories that we see some interesting trends. Upright acoustic piano sales are also consistently down, as are sales of digital pianos. The category that is doing just fine (although not increasing, particularly) is the under $200 keyboard. These instruments are purchased by parents who want to invest the bare minimum to afford their children access to music education, with the intention to trade up if their child demonstrates prolonged interest and/or aptitude. In the US roughly 1,000,000 units of this kind of keyboard has been sold every year for the past decade. Do the instruments live in the back of cupboards? Who knows! This statistic is as enigmatic as the numbers on grand piano sales in terms of establishing a trend of piano study decline in the United States (although it potentially reflects an opportunity).

Meantime, the percentage of MTNA members who teach the piano has been increasing. Again, this fact doesn’t really tell us anything: are memberships of MTNA in decline or are they increasing? Has there been a recent trend of the teachers of particular instrument families to not sign up to the Music Teachers Associations? Has the MTNA been catering very well for piano teachers of late, and dropping the ball as regards the other instruments?

One comment was made by a panelist that I found very interesting: “we live in a culture of deflection and distraction”, a comment intended to speak to a broad trend away from educational practice that engaged students in critical thinking and practical skill acquisition. I tend to take the view that gaming cultures are educationally preferable (in so very many ways) to traditional classroom practices, and I further take the view that learning the piano is much more like a game than it is like a traditional school classroom learning experience. But I suspect this comment reflects some things that are particularly true not of Western culture but of American culture.

Comments were opened to the audience, and one emerging theme (reflecting comments also made by panellists) was the tension between sport and piano in the broad culture of childhood in the US – this idea that you either play soccer or you learn the piano, the idea that promising students find themselves pressured into team sport participation that then compromises their musical education, and so forth. Implicit in this theme was the notion that parents these days just don’t get what piano lessons are for (as touched on above), that soccer and team sports are widely seen to provide benefits for children while piano lessons do not.

Another theme (again, reflecting comments already made by panelists) was that piano teachers are not very marketing savvy, and that they are not very technology savvy. Sometimes these two lacks merge into one big piano teacher fail, with piano teachers not taking advantage of the internet to reinforce community awareness of their services and not taking advantage of social media to communicate with current and prospective students. There was an implicit sense that piano teachers do not look at their teaching as being a business (much in this theme was not unpacked, but, I think, broadly understood by the audience).

A third theme was that piano teachers are often quite rigid in their idea about what they do; instead of looking at their available skill set and thinking about a range of services they can provide to the community, teachers imagine that their real job is to provide the same kind of piano lessons as those they received, last century. Some comments from the floor detailed the wide ranging activities some exception-to-the-rule teachers engage in in order to have a solid business model.

In short, I felt as if this session were the first two pages of an introduction to a 350 page book on the topic; we just began to frame the conversation when it came to an end. And as fascinating as what was said was what was not. What about socio-economics? Are there some parts of the United States where piano study is thriving? Some cities that are doing significantly better than others? [I can't imagine piano lessons are as common as they used to be in Detroit, for example.] Are language issues an impediment to piano study? [The paucity of Spanish-language piano methods, for instance, as compared to Spanish-speaking population in the US surely indicates a swathe of the population disengaged from piano study.] How about the decline of the use of the acoustic piano in churches and other worship settings? [Once upon a time many not-wealthy churches would have a good, mid-range grand piano in addition to an organ.]

The panel mentioned the rise of online, do-it-yourself-by-watching-videos-and-buying-the-book piano study, and this touches on another aspect of this topic. It could be that piano/keyboard study by volume has seen no significant decline, but there’s every chance that the national pianistic skill set is in decline.

It’s a fascinating time in the United States, a time of substantial cultural reframing and contention. The study of the piano could well be a case study for this rethinking of what it means to be an American with an education (even if you never did make it to college)….

Pedagogy Saturday at the MTNA Conference 2012

I’ve never been to an MTNA Conference before. In fact, my music education conference experiences to date have been restricted to events held in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Malaysia. Fantastic conferences, each and every one, but each on a rather modest to cosy scale.

Walking in on the first event of Pedagogy Saturday brought home the huge difference in population base between, say, Western Australia and the whole of the United States of America. The massive Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel (capacity in theatre mode of around the 1900 mark) appeared to be half-full of teachers sitting chock-a-block, each hanging off the wonderful words and thought and insights communicated by Nelita True.

I only got to hear the tail end of the masterclass, but the ease and joyfulness with which Nelita approached her master-teacher role were an inspiration and she perfectly set the tone for the day. An understated wit and a deeply empathic approach to the preoccupations and concerns of the student made every moment in this masterclass a delight.

Many of the teachers wanted to ask Nelita questions right then and there,  but she was bustled away by a charming Irish man who assured us all we would get the chance to interrogate Ms True at the end of the day. The man was so charming, in fact, that I noted his name and decided to attend his session later in the day.

But first up I listened to Scott McBride Smith and Steven Spooner discussing issues of fingering. I’m always wary of a duo effort in a presentation – it can so easily become one person talking and the other nodding, or two people politely disagreeing with each other for the duration, or one person outshining the other despite both having equal time. This presentation was none of these things, instead being a joyous exchange of anecdote and information all feeding into a shared perspective on the rights and wrongs of  pianistic fingering praxis. There was so much great thinking in this seminar that it really deserves a blog entry of its own (forthcoming).

Next up I split my time between Marjorie Lee discussing ‘her unusual immersion-style teaching’ and a panel of piano competition organisers discussing their perspective on the capital C competition. This split between sessions was prompted by Marjorie Lee not having a lapel mic, and therefore being inaudible to the back half of the filled-to-capacity room (in which half I happened to be). After nearly 30 minutes I was desperately irritated by only catching every third sentence (if I was lucky) so I popped next door to hear the competition organisers discussing competitions from their point of view.

The difference between the piano teaching and learning cultures of the United States of America and those of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Canada, etc. (think former British Empire) comes down to this: competitions v exams. In the nations of the Commonwealth music learning is measured through examination-assessments where the progress of the student is described in terms of graded benchmarks; teachers strive to have their students pass with flying colours and to have them progress through these benchmarks as quickly as possible. I’m beginning to realise that in the US teachers have competitions as the primary source of validation, and so teachers strive to have their students win competitions. This is a substantial cultural difference, upon which I intend to blog further…. And if you’re a teacher from the US reading this entry and you disagree – please let me know I’m getting the wrong end of the stick here!

I then popped back in to hear Marjorie Lee wrap up (and to hear some of her students play) and with the benefit of this competition culture information from the session next door I realised that what Marjorie is doing (amongst other, different things) is fast-tracking students into this competition success by not getting hung up on that other great US educational measure of learning, the method book. I really would love to have heard her presentation again, both in the sense of being physically able to hear it and in the sense of having a better understanding of the culture in which her teaching operates.

Following this I accidentally missed most of Yoheved Kaplinksy’s masterclass (damn you, jetlag) before racing downstairs to secure a seat for Peter Mack’s charming presentation “Lower the Rear End of the Elephant Slowly Onto The Keys”: Teaching Basic Artistic Concepts By Using Colourful Imagery. What I did catch of the Yoheved Kaplinsky masterclass demonstrated an elegance of approach to the piano, a swiftness of insight and a precision of communication – ten minutes left me desperately keen to see and hear more…

Peter Mack was, in fact, the Irish man who had so intrigued and charmed at the start of the day when thanking Nelita True. His seminar was a whirlwind of ideas about communicating deep and complex truths about musical learning, how to perform music, and more specifically in the latter half of the seminar, about how to play the piano. Metaphor, imagery, narrative and lateral thinking can be magical shortcuts to understanding, and Peter Mack’s many examples were as brilliant as they were entertaining. The session could have gone on for twice as long and still have left us wanting more.

And I think I particularly liked Peter’s session because he thinks almost exactly the way I do; case in point: Julie Andrews. How many seminars have I begun by making reference to Julie Andrews when I’m talking about starting at the very beginning? So imagine my delight/surprise to see on the handout from this seminar this sentence: “Julie Andrews was wrong”. Of course, Julie Andrews wasn’t wrong about anything, it was Maria who was wrong, or even more properly Oscar Hammerstein, or even more properly the lyric Oscar Hammerstein wrote. But Peter Mack and I blithely go about our seminars announcing Julie Andrews was wrong. Snap.

Marvin Blickenstaff’s presentation on getting technique right with elementary students right from the start rounded off the day before the closing event: a panel (Nelita True, Peter Takacs and Peter Mack) answering questions from the floor. Marvin Blickenstaff is one of those truly exceptional music educators who seems able to address the technical needs of the student at the same time as he addresses their human needs. He approaches music-making as a profoundly human communicative event and process, and this session was a joy. What is amazing to me is that this was my overwhelming impression of his seminar, but when I look at my notes taken during the hour I have a succession of specific ideas and insights into developing good pianism in beginners; bullet points like “practice raising shoulders to the ears and then dropping” and “do it in the air first” and “make an O with the fingertip to the thumb” – practical ideas that don’t convey the philosophical approach to music education that underpinned this presentation.

My favourite moment of the panel that concluded the day was when Nelita True talked about the importance of students learning to support each other (rather than compete with each other) in order for them to become musicians; she shared a gorgeous story of a young student who, at the end of his years of study with her, thanked her for helping him become a charming human being.

I missed about three quarters of the scheduled events of the day (thanks to four options being scheduled for each session!) but my first ever Pedagogy Saturday was an absolute delight – so many insightful, generous and entertaining presenters, so many approaches to making beautiful, meaningful communication through the piano: such music teaching as makes the world a better place.