The Blessing of Professional Development “Tithing”

The Blessing of Professional Development “Tithing”

piano teacher's tithe

Piano teachers are a professional cohort driven by a desire to do good in the world much more than by a desire to do well in business, so it’s no surprise that in the quest to share the love of music in our communities many teachers struggle to come to terms with what it means to be a small business owner. Because that’s actually what piano teachers are, whether we really want to admit to it or not.

Sure, many teachers give lessons in their own homes, and this blurring of the lines that comes from the business venue doubling as a residence contributes its small part to the struggle teachers have to face the mirror, look themselves in the eye, and say “I am the owner of a successful small business”.

To start with, very few teachers understand that the fee they charge is an entirely different thing to the money they earn. Your rate is $25 an hour? Great! You’re probably earning, at best, $15. You are charging $50 an hour, and think that sets you miles apart from people you know who are making $40k a year? Even if you are teaching 60 students, no, you’re not coming too close to that figure, at all.

Because piano teachers are a business, not employees, the money we earn has to cover all the things that contribute to our businesses being, firstly, possible, and also being successful.

In the “making it possible” category we have expenses such as:

  • owning (or renting) at least one piano of an appropriate teaching standard
  • owning (or renting) a piano bench (or two, or three), and a chair appropriate for you (!)
  • acquiring a working library (for your own reference) of sheet music
  • any local licensing fees that may be payable (as required by local government)
  • phone calls/texts to maintain communication with the families of your students
  • electricity costs involved in running your teaching space
  • the cost of any furniture you deem necessary for your teaching space (most people have some kind of a desk, at least!, and some kind of bookcase/storage space)
  • costs incurred in invoicing (maybe that’s negligible, but maybe you bought a computer program, or subscribe to a service that streamlines managing this aspect of your work)
  • the cost of any games, toys, stickers, charts, flashcards, whiteboards, highlighter tape, etc. you use in the course of your teaching
  • hiring of venues for recitals
  • insurances for public liability related to injuries that may occur on our properties or within our teaching studios

In the “making it successful” category we have the expenses above, but we sometimes forget to include other essential elements for running a successful teaching studio in our budgeting, such as:

  • ongoing professional development –  ongoing lessons, attending conferences, online seminars, professional journal subscriptions, and so forth
  • membership of professional associations
  • social media and online/mainstream media presence expenses – costs involved in owning a domain name, maintaining a website, having professional head shots taken, hiring or purchasing costs of equipment used to further the social media/online presence of the business, etc.
  • fees for a professional accountant
  • trophies, awards, rewards, prizes

I grew up in a community that believed in the Old Testament money-management principle of “tithing”: 10% of the money coming in gets set aside for a higher purpose. Now, I expect there are plenty of piano teachers who live their lives according to this religious principle. But I’d like to take this idea and explore it a little in relation to the secular reality of being a small business owner who is also seeking to do good in the world.

When we use up all the money we earn on our everyday living expenses – rent/mortgage, food, clothes, school fees, transport expenses, medical insurance and expenses, and so forth – and we fail to “tithe” our income for the purpose of making our teaching better, we fail not only ourselves as professionals, but we fail the very communities we are seeking to help.

If we, as teachers, are not engaging in our own learning and development then we are not just stagnating – we are contributing to having our knowledge shrink, and our fluency as professionals slow. Our fires burn lower as we fail to tend to our own need to learn, and our teaching suffers as we have less and less experience outside our own four walls upon which to draw.

Money is only one side of the, ahem, coin. We also need to tithe our time – setting quiet moments apart where we can explore and learn without a sense of deadline and due date. Without time spent exploring repertoire, ideas, games and techniques that are new to us, our own teaching becomes hemmed in, limited.

To be able to experience the blessing of tithed time and money, however, we need to be responsible with how we share ourselves in our communities. Charging fees that leave us feeling that we cannot afford the money to engage in our learning, working so many hours that there is simply no more time left for our own development – these are choices that are disrespectful, not only of ourselves, but of our students. Even students with the most modest ambitions will be happiest as a learner with a teacher who experiences their own learning renewal each year.

This is not about unrealistic goal-setting – it’s about a proportioned commitment to keeping our teaching possible and successful.

Wherever you find yourself as a teacher today, do yourself this service: promise yourself that you will spend 10% of the fees you take in expanding your own learning, and that you will set aside the equivalent of 10% of the time you teach to engage in learning of your own.

  • Buy that big repertoire series you’ve been thinking will energise your teaching, and spend time at the piano getting to know all the pieces in every volume!
  • Order in that book on music history, or music and the brain, or that favourite composer of yours, that you’ve been longing to read – and then read it!
  • Take that trip 3 hours away to that day-long seminar that looks so good – you’ll learn things from your fellow seminar-attendees, the seminar-giver, and you’ll make some friends!
  • Go to that concert that seems like an extravagance – you’ll find yourself coming back to teaching with new ideas, even for your tiniest beginners!
  • Take that course on video-editing – your students will love having you help them document their performances!
  • Start participating in a beginner’s Italian conversation class – you’ll love having some insight into the language we so often use in music notation!
  • Learn another instrument!
  • Learn something completely unrelated to music and piano teaching – you’ll be learning what it feels like to be a “learner” and this will keep your teaching in great shape!

Just as those who tithe find it to be a blessing, so you will find this professional “tithing” brings multiple blessings to your work as an educator.

How Many Arpeggios Are There? Really?

How Many Arpeggios Are There? Really?


My colleague and friend, Samantha Coates, was wondering aloud on Facebook the other day just how many arpeggios there were. Not just 12 major and 12 minor arpeggios, but what if you counted all the inversions and included dominant 7ths and diminished 7ths, and all the permutations of arpeggios there might be?

Sam’s original count reached 132, and she then experimented with how long it would take to play them all: 11 minutes and 30 seconds. But then the concept of articulations was raised, and then the idea of major 7ths, minor 7ths and minor-major 7ths… At which point I began to wonder if we weren’t already well over the 1000 mark in terms of all the different arpeggios there might be.

So I broke it down, and this is how it went:

First up, we’re talking 12 keys X 3 inversions (root, 1st, 2nd) X 2 qualities (major/minor – I’m leaving out augmented and diminished because they get covered in the 7th chords below) in similar motion. That’s 72.

If we practice them contrary motion we’ve immediately doubled them. 144.

If we practice them hands a 5th/6th apart we all of a sudden get another 72. So that’s 216.

And if we practice them contrary motion, starting a 3rd/4th apart we get another 72, so that’s 288.

Then we do 12 keys X 4 inversions (root, 1st, 2nd, 3rd) X 7 qualities (diminished 7th, dominant 7th, major 7th, minor-major 7th, minor 7th, half diminished, augmented 7th) X 2 motions (similar/contrary) and that adds another 672. So we’re now up to 970.

If we practice each of these 7th chord arpeggios (there are 84 of them) in each inversion (4 of them) a 10th (or 9th/11th, as the case may be ) apart, then we get an additional 336. So, 1306 total so far.

But wait. Of course: diminished arpeggios tessellate. So, in fact we need to remove from the count all the repetitions of tessellating arpeggios. That’s ALL the inversions other than root of the diminished 7ths, so we need to subtract 72.


Cool number.

I’d love to leave it there, but what if we then practiced the 7th chord arpeggios in contrary motion starting a 3rd/2nd apart? There’s another 336 *minus* our tessellating dim 7ths (36), so that’s 1534.

Of course, this is assuming that both hands are using the same articulation.

If we perform the arpeggios with just four basic articulation variants: both hands legato, both hands staccato, one hand legato the other staccato, then swap which hand is which, then we end up with a total of 6136 different arpeggios to practice.

And it’s perfectly appropriate to want more complicated articulation differentiations than this: both hands in two-note slurs, for example, or both hands in three-note slurs, or in a two-note slur followed by two staccato notes, or two-note slurs in one hand, staccato or legato in the other… Each new variant, if applied to all the arpeggios, sees us adding 1534 to our total. And the same articulation can be performed with different underlying metrical shapings, so that needs to be taken into account also. Let’s go with these options, without worrying about metrical shapings other than 4 note groupings:

  • legato
  • staccato
  • RH legato/LH staccato
  • RH staccato/LH legato
  • two-note slurs
    • as above, but the two-note slur occuring on the off beat
  • RH two-note slurs/LH legato
    • off-beat version
  • RH two-note slurs/LH staccato
    • off-beat version
  • RH legato/LH two-note slurs
    • off-beat version
  • RH staccato/LH two-note slurs
    • off-beat version
  • three-note slurs
  • RH three-note slurs/LH legato
  • RH three-note slurs/LH staccato
  • RH three-note slurs/LH two-note slurs
  • RH legato/LH three-note slurs
  • RH staccato/LH three-note slurs
  • RH two-note slurs/LH three-note slurs
  • two-note slur + two staccato notes (2+2, for short)
    • displace the pattern by one note (the two-note slur *ends* on the first note of the arpeggio)
    • displace by two notes (the arpeggio begins with the two staccato notes)
    • displace by three notes (the arpeggio begins with one staccato note followed by the two-note slur)
  • RH 2+2/LH legato
    • + 3 displacements
  • RH 2+2/LH staccato
    • + 3 displacements
  • RH 2+2/LH two-note slurs
    • + 3 displacements
  • RH legato/LH 2+2
    • + 3 displacements
  • RH staccato/LH 2+2
    • + 3 displacements
  • RH two-note slurs/LH 2+2
    • + 3 displacements
  • three-note slur + 1 staccato note (3+1 for short)
    • all variants as for 2+2 articulation above (total: 24)

So that’s 73 articulation variants times 1534 kinds of arpeggios. 111,982.

And that’s before we add in rhythmic variation. Let’s conservatively estimate we have 4 of these variants we’d like students to master: LH 2 against RH 3; LH 3 against RH 2 – hands start 2 octaves apart; dotted rhythm one hand, straight rhythm the other. And let’s only apply this to the first 13 articulations listed above. That’s 4 rhythms X 13 articulations X 1534 arpeggios. 79768. Plus the 111,982.


ANY variation of dynamic contour doubles this number. So, say we practice

  • piano,
  • forte,
  • RH piano/LH forte
  • RH piano/LH forte
  • with a crescendo and diminuendo,
  • with a diminuendo and a crescendo


Now we reach the best calculation of them all: if it takes Sam 11 minutes and 30 seconds to play through 132 arpeggios, anyone want to figure out how long it will take to play through this million-odd?

69 days, 14 hours and 33 minutes. Without a break.

Putting it another way: 41 and three quarters of 40-hour working weeks. If Sam started tomorrow she’d be knocking off at lunchtime on December 21.

You’re all very welcome.

P.S. Samantha Coates is the brains behind the very wonderful ScaleBlitzer app. I promise it won’t make you practice arpeggios from now til Christmas. :)

Vendetta: backstory and teaching notes

Vendetta: backstory and teaching notes



Vendetta is a tango.

I don’t know that I thought about the tango angle in any conscious way, 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 glamorous 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 (Vendetta has been included in many piano examination syllabuses, including AMEB Grade 4, ongoing, and Trinity College London Grade 5, 2012-14) 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: A warning is in order. 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. And a confession: 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 a. your piano and b. 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…

Where did the 40 Piece Challenge begin?

Where did the 40 Piece Challenge begin?

40 Piece Challenge

I honestly didn’t expect the 40 Piece Challenge to go global the way it has quite as rapidly as it has. This backstory post was supposed to get written in plenty of time for anyone interested, and I know I’ve already missed that window.

Here’s the deal…

Once upon a time I was a teacher in Australia teaching my students the way teachers in exam-oriented and competition-oriented culture have always taught – spending between 4 and 9 months working with students on their exam/competition repertoire (the 4 month kids were doing two exams/competitions each year rather than one) and then having a few months per year for “fun” pieces that weren’t “for” anything.

Students working this way would be learning between 6 and 10 pieces a year total, as a rule. The more students progressed in degrees of difficulty the more their sight-reading skills lagged behind. And at the end of about 10 years of serious study throughout their childhood the students would cease lessons with a slew of certificates and awards and probably never really play very much again.

The students who could play quite well by ear tended to be the ones who kept on playing after formal lessons stopped. And that struck me as signalling that there was something very wrong, possibly even unethical, with the way I was teaching. Shouldn’t 10 years of serious study equip you for a lifetime of engagement with your instrument?

In the year 2001 I was doing a series of workshops around Australia on technique for beginners. I was asked to give this series of presentations and I felt as if I really wasn’t the most qualified on the subject, so I began reading all kinds of treatises and manuals and histories and pamphlets. One three page article at the front of an etudes collection really struck a chord with me. It said something along the lines of “how on earth can students be expected to gain a wide variety of skills, let alone an understanding of musical thinking and pianistic style, if they only ever learn 6 pieces each year? Our students should be learning many times this number, 40 or so at least each year, if they are to have any hope of truly mastering the instrument”.

Gosh, I thought, this guy could be talking about me! This is MY students he’s referring to! He really knows what it’s like to be a teacher in Australia at the start of the new millennium.

Now I have no idea where I read this – it’s somewhere in my vast library – but the salient element here is that when I got to the end of the article I realised this guy wasn’t talking about me at all, or musical life in Australia. The article was written in the mid-1800s, in the middle of Europe.

Right, I thought. So this has been going for literally ages. Time to take this guy seriously.

So in my tour that year (2001) when I spoke about teaching technique to beginners I also talked about this revolutionary idea from the mid-1800s, that piano students would develop better skills and deeper understanding if they learned more music. Uh-huh, nodded the encouraging but sceptical piano teachers. “Tell you what”, I said, “I’ve just started getting my students working on more pieces and in a couple of years I’ll be able to report back.”

“You do that”, replied the encouraging but sceptical teachers.

Well, it wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. My students weren’t overly impressed that I was asking them to learn double, triple, quadruple the number of pieces they learned the year before. Why?, they would implore. I’d explain the logic and they’d smile and nod, and they liked me, most of them, so they did their best.

Part of the trouble was where to find the vast quantities of repertoire the students were going to need. Christopher Norton’s Microjazz books seemed like an instant no-brainer inclusion – the kids loved so many of his pieces, and the collections were amply laden with repertoire. Learning extra pieces from exam books was equally obvious – so long as there were sufficient pieces the students would want to learn.

In 2002 I pitched an idea to Hal Leonard Australia. How about we produce a repertoire series that matched up with the Australian Music Examination Board and the Trinity College exams and the ABRSM exams and the other local exam boards operating in Australia (ANZCA, for example), and presented 30 graded pieces at each grade level in a logical learning sequence, including plenty of works written in the 20th century. Teachers have so much trouble sourcing these pieces – and it’s vital for students to play the music of their own time.

It took about a year to get the green light, and in 2003 we launched the Getting to series – Preliminary, Grade One and Grade Two. And that’s all we ever thought we were going to make. So many students drop out after Grade Two…

By the time I was presenting the professional development seminars that launched this repertoire series I had about 30 months experience implementing my new repertoire-rich teaching regime, and so I could report from the trenches just how it was working out.

It was working out just like the guy in the mid-1800s had said it would. Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowly down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!

On the other hand, I’d had some dodgy moments along the way as well. Students who resisted the repertoire I was assigning. Repertoire that was getting bogged down over time. But I was paying attention and learning from my mistakes. One of the big lessons I had learned was that I needed to compete with the external assessment values of the exam systems. The students needed to feel as if learning each and every piece was actually important, the same way they felt about their examination repertoire.

I began the 100 Piece Medal. When students had learned 100 pieces they received a medal at the end of year recital. Beginners could manage this in their very first year if they worked really hard! Older students became motivated to learn easier pieces so they could reach the arbitrary target of 100 pieces sooner – and best of all, every time I assigned a new piece students would be excited and leave their lessons telling parents “I got three new pieces today!!!” all aglow because they were getting closer to the medal.

In 2004 we took the 100 Piece Medal studio-wide. I’d been teaching with my mother, Anita, and my sister, Suzanne, through the 1990s, and we had a massive studio when taken as a whole. By 2004 Suzanne was in London, so we were back to a studio of about 70-80 students (still plenty) who by this stage had had at least a year of two of learning in a repertoire-rich fashion.

In the professional development seminars I was giving around Australia and New Zealand (and in Malaysia in 2006) I kept talking about teaching roughly a piece a week (the origin of the 40 Piece Challenge number – there being roughly 40 teaching weeks in the Australian school year) in order for students to be developing all-round keyboard musicianship and knowledge.

In 2009 I started this blog, and very soon began writing about the principles involved in teaching students to be learning a wide variety of repertoire right from the beginning, and discussing the benefits this approach brings.

In January 2010 I did a tour with Samantha Coates of Blitzbooks fame and with Abe Cytrynowski, of ScaleCards fame (both Sam and Abe are the brains behind the amazing ScaleBlitzer app), and my part of the day long seminar was to talk about this idea of a repertoire-rich approach to teaching. By this stage there were teachers present who could testify to the impact of teaching LOTS of pieces each year to their students, and by this stage I couldn’t ever imagine going back to the way I’d taught before and the repertoire-rich teachers agreed: how tedious that would be!

In January 2011 I did a tour with Gayle Kowalchyk and Dan Coates, a series of day-long seminars organised by Alfred. My job was to be the MC and – you guessed it – to talk about repertoire-rich teaching and learning. A whole new teaching crowd came along to these seminars. Teachers who’d never heard me talk about this approach before. One of them quizzed me hard on the day he attended in Melbourne, and a year later he wrote this blog post.

I was writing some articles for Piano Teacher Magazine, and the editor, Gina Wake, and I discussed the magazine backing this repertoire-rich approach, and next thing the 40 Piece Challenge was born. And that’s all it was – a challenge to teachers to change their teaching, to commit to not being limited to one set of exam pieces and a couple of Christmas carols each year. No rewards or prizes. Just a challenge.

Then I was at NCKP in July 2013, and had a fabulous dinner with some of North America’s most fabulous piano pedagogy writers: Diane Hidy, Forrest Kinney and Wendy Stevens. I told my dinner companions about the 40 Piece Challenge. Cool idea, they all said, and Wendy said, hmm, I’d like to do a 30 Piece Challenge with my students this year… She blogged about it and instantly the 40 Piece Challenge had gone global, albeit with a numeral change.

By the time September 2014 rolled around the Northern Hemisphere was gearing up for its second year of 40/30 Piece Challenges, and teachers were blogging about their experiences over the previous academic year. This mid-19th century idea had gone full 21st century.

So here we are. February 2015. There are now students who began learning this way, who have no idea what it might be like to only learn 10, 8, 5 pieces a year,  who are old enough and advanced enough to begin teaching students of their own.

It’s global, and it’s now generational.

And this is the story of how the 40 Piece Challenge began.


The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas


This year my piano students have been absolutely mad keen on learning Christmas carols. Not so much keen to work on them in the lesson, but enthusiastic to the extreme about having sheet music they can easily read to produce a performance of some of their favourite Christmas songs. I’ve been under serious pressure to get the right books in for each of these students – in time for them to be able to play at least one or two Christmas tunes with family and friends in the lead-up to Christmas.

Jingle Bells is the clear winner in the popularity stakes, but We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night and Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer have also been excitedly greeted by students flicking through their new Christmas collections.

Now, I have no idea whether my students really did end up playing these songs for their families at Christmas. My own family has a tradition of hosting a back-yard carols-by-candlelight each year, with forty to fifty friends and family in attendance, my brother-in-law leading the singing, me on the piano, and the kids (my own, my sister’s, the children of our friends and family) each having a role to play in the evening’s proceedings, either singing a verse of a Christmas carol as a solo, or playing an instrument, or reciting a poem or telling a story. Every child gets to be a part of it.

Santa Claus visits each year, and the faces of the children are always lit up with the wonder that is a whitely-bearded man, unseasonably dressed (we’re always worried he’ll pass out from heat-stroke), handing out presents and pretending reindeer are parked down the road waiting to take him back to the North Pole.

That’s what Christmas is, to me: magic, music, and children. It’s about family and about community, sharing, nurturing and celebrating, through food (so much food!) and through music.

My seven year old son shocked us all, the other night, at our backyard carols, when he insisted on accompanying us while we sang Deck the Halls. I got booted off the piano, and Tom took over. He’d never properly practiced it but he’s not at all shabby playing by ear, and so the delighted backyard assembly sang along to Tom’s unrehearsed rendition, and it all went surprisingly well. That’s Christmas.

The ten year old daughter of friends down the road volunteered to perform with her younger brother – they sang a Christmas song she’d composed just the day before. It was fantastic! Who knew Olivia was a song-writer?! She’s been taking piano lessons this year, but they sang a cappella, and it was perfect. That’s Christmas.

Ethan, the five year old son of a cousin of mine, was next – he suddenly wanted to share an action poem he’d learned about five lonely Christmas trees. Rhythmic, choreographed, and spoken with an insanely adorable lisp – his contribution was spontaneous, unscheduled, and we were spell-bound. That is Christmas.

This whole holiday season it has never occurred to me to encourage the children in my life, students, neighbours, relatives, to practice. Why would you?

Practicing is something you do to get ready, and this is the time of year is when all that preparation bears fruit. This is the time for playing along with the singing, for sharing the music that is within you, for knowing that your contribution is valued because it’s yours, not because it could score high marks in an exam, first place in a competition, thousands of views/shares/likes on social media platforms.

It is vital for us, as music educators, to demonstrate to our students that there are seasons to our practicing. Not every day is for arpeggios and metronomes and sonatinas and etudes. Some days are holy days – days where our musicianship is about our connection to others, not our devotion to the practice room.

There are teachers out there who see Christmas as an interruption to the true meaning of piano lessons, and for you I have just this to say: these times of connection to our communities are the essence of musicianship.

The everyday practice days will roll around again soon enough. Learning to be a better musician while also learning to be a better person should always be our goal. Take these days to practice being a part of (not apart from) the human race – this is what Christmas has always truly been about.

What Does a Piano Lesson Cost?

What Does a Piano Lesson Cost?

what does a piano lesson cost?

Signing up for piano lessons means committing to practice, attending lessons and paying the fees on a regular basis. What should your budget be expecting to include when you sign up your child (or yourself) for piano lessons?

In some parts of the world there are music teacher organisations which provide recommended minimum rates for their (qualified and experienced) members to be charging, but no matter where in the world you are you will find a massive range of prices being charged for a piano lesson. Why?

Education and Qualification: Some teachers have spent many years studying music at a university level and have multiple degrees and diplomas in performance, piano teaching and music theory, even composition and musicology. Other teachers have never taken any kind of study toward a diploma, degree or qualification, not even a piano exam… Some teachers engage in ongoing professional development every year (attending conferences, taking courses, engaging in research) while others don’t ever bother with professional development at all.

Performance experience: Some teachers have extensive concert-giving experience, including participating in the world’s highest profile piano competitions in their late teens and twenties and performing concertos with leading orchestras and conductors. Others have extensive experience as collaborative pianists (what we used to call “accompanying”, a field that until very recently had no substantial competition track). Others have experience performing as pianists in other settings, such as providing background music in restaurants or shops, being a keyboardist in a band, or playing for church services and other religious events. And then there are teachers who never really performed much at all in any context…

Teaching Experience: Some teachers have taught hundreds of students and given over fifty thousand piano lessons. Other teachers have only had two or three students before and only given twenty lessons so far.

Geography and Local Cost of Living: Where lessons are offered can make a big difference in the price paid. As is the case with real estate, lessons in the big cities are often substantially more expensive than lessons in the country. Fees are charged in the context of the local, not national, economy. Teachers live in the local economy, and so do their families.

Demographics: Are there a lot of children in the neighbourhood? Is the local adult population demographically likely to want to take piano lessons? Do the local communities value the piano as a musical instrument of choice? These demographics have a substantial impact on demand for lessons.

Cross-subsidisation of the business: Many piano teachers don’t factor in the true cost of delivering lessons when they calculate their fees; piano teachers often have no training in or native capacity for business. The price of the lesson needs to cover ALL the costs of providing the service, but often the costs are covered under the family budget instead and this results in the service being able to be provided for less than {cost + labour}. Other teachers calculate fees factoring in the full impact of costs.

What fees cost last year: Teachers are loathe to raise fees by too much in a single year, so often the fees a teacher charges this year are largely determined by what they charged last year + 2-3%, or + $1, or maybe with no increase at all. On the other hand, if a teacher hasn’t raised their rates in a very long time they might realise they need a big jump to keep the business operational.

Reputation/Word of Mouth: Teachers who are highly recommended by the families they teach very quickly fill up with students. Teachers who are so busy they can’t fit in all their prospective students are under no pressure to not raise their fees. Teachers who struggle to attract students, on the other hand, may feel pressure to keep their rates steady or even lower them.

Piano lessons are very different to other kinds of consumer services in that they consist of a long-term relationship where the teacher is planning a learning sequence over a number of years, responding to the individual needs and interests of the student as those needs and interests appear. The lesson involves the development of physical skills, listening skills, analytical skills, story-telling, reading, writing, organising, planning and performance skills, with lashings of emotional IQ development thrown in on the side. Choosing one teacher from another isn’t as simple as selecting the brand of toothpaste you use or a restaurant for a meal, and it’s nothing at all like buying a new pair of shoes.

In a way, the price is one of the least important considerations in choosing a teacher, except for the purpose of being able to budget – you want to know what to expect.

So how much does a piano lesson cost in 2014?

In the United Kingdom the Musician’s Union recommends a minimum hourly rate of £31, while in Australia the various state Music Teacher Associations recommend rates between $A60 and $A78 an hour. In both these countries you can find lessons for less than these amounts (take it as a sign that the teacher has no qualifications and/or limited experience), and you can find lessons for a lot more (take it as a sign that the teacher has qualifications, experience, reputation, and possibly a waiting list, and doesn’t mind earning more!).

But in the United States there are no associations permitted to recommend minimum rates, thanks to a local quirk of the  the US Federal Trade Commission. So I’ve done a bit of a search, and am in the process of collating data from all over the USA, rural counties, major metropolises, north, south, mid-west and coastal…

Roughly speaking, in cities like New York and San Francisco you will be looking at rates starting around the $100 mark and quickly heading north, if you are wanting to learn from someone with qualifications, experience, and great word of mouth, and there’ll certainly be a premium attached to that figure if you want lessons in your own home. Utah seems to be the state most notorious for insanely cheap piano lessons (think $10-15 an hour) from people who really can’t play that well themselves and have absolutely no training (no offence intended, Utah!). But in most places you will find that lessons cost somewhere between $40 and $75 an hour for a well-qualified teacher who knows what they are doing and has a track record to prove it. It’s important to note that in the US different state-based taxation regimes can create hugely differing conditions for running a business – so comparing these prices as a guide to the piano teacher’s take-home pay would be a mistake!

A follow-up post (coming very soon!) will detail the mosaic of pricing that is the state of piano teaching in the US.

If you’re a piano teacher from anywhere in the world and interested in sharing data from your local area please feel free to contact me via my facebook profile (I’m the only Elissa Milne there, and my profile is public). There’s a huge value in sharing information about ourselves with our colleagues and with the public, and I’m delighted to facilitate a little of that exchange!

Series 17 – Part 2 (some answers)

Series 17 – Part 2 (some answers)

There’s really no bad news, not even a single bit: the AMEB’s Series 17 is a collection that does exceptionally well in catering for the vast range of interests, urgencies and fixations of the Australian piano teaching world. David Lockett and the review team (Glenn Riddle, Jody Heald and Helen Smith) have taken a meticulous approach to delivering a series of repertoire collections that will serve the assessment process – as well as piano pedagogy – well.

Let’s start with that grade-deflation question. Have we seen a shift in the goal posts of any of the grades? Is Preliminary continuing the march to Grade One standard repertoire?! Short answer – no. All the pieces are very well graded. There are some easier and some harder pieces in each grade collection, but nothing to elicit outrage or confusion. More detail from me soon in a separate post.

Appropriate length? Delightfully so! Very few works that take too many pages, and none that are garrulous or engaging in “busy-music”.

Appropriate emotional content? What a relief – music in the Grade 5-7 bracket that doesn’t assume the life experience of a 45 year old.

This is a deal maker/breaker in my books – if you’re making a collection that will be primarily used by 10-15 year olds then the music should be emotionally appropriate, just the same way we don’t expect or want adult themes in movies and television being shown to this age group. Titanic, the movie, has an M rating, for goodness sake, and we expect 12 year olds to perform repertoire of immense emotional intensity? Come on.

Series 17 gets it so very right – choices that are all age appropriate, while still encompassing a massive emotional range.

Layout? The music has a distinct AMEB look to it (not a bad thing, in my book!), and the layout is neither too spacious nor too cluttered. An example, the final piece in the Grade 8 book is Ravel’s Rigaudon, a work I’ve used in a 4 page layout (very teensy staves to fit into so few pages) and in a 6 page layout (too much spread). Here the work has been laid out over 5 pages, the sections well designed to fit the page the way the eye works, highlighting the structure, and enabling easy analysis. There’s only one 4-page-turn piece in the whole 9-volume collection, and the 4 page turns (in the Grade 8 Haydn 1st movement of the Sonata in E flat, Hob XVI:49) are the exact right places a pianist would want to turn.

Every grade, the whole way down to Preliminary, is equally appropriate, with generous use of blank pages (where need be) to facilitate the better page turn.

Adequate Australian representation? Well, this question was a bit of a trick, because the AMEB did have as one of their marketing hooks the information that Series 17  contained 25 works by 17 different Australian composers. The AMEB have gone above and beyond, if you ask me, but none of the choices feel at all like a concession to parochialism.

And here they are:

Preliminary features four of us, me with my Salt and Pepper, from Very Easy Little PeppersJennifer Trynes with her The Banjo, from her Progressive Piano Series Book 2, both of us in the studies section, and with Sonny Chua‘s wonderfully not-what-you-expect Dripping Fairy and Miriam Hyde‘s rambunctious Gnomes Marching over there in the 20th/21st century section.

4 Australian pieces fill out the full complement of canons in Grade 1, all canons by Jo Kotchie (demonstrating a variety of moods and shapes, from the wonderfully titled collection A Canonical Adventure). Grade 1 is the collection with the most substantial Australian representation with yet another 3 pieces by locals: Dulcie Holland‘s Around the pool (a study in compound duple, despite being included in the List C section), Margaret Sutherland’s marvellously Mixolydian Sea Shanty from Holiday Tunes, and Jennifer Trynes Puddles (yes, you can hear and feel the jumping in muddy puddles, gumboots and all in this List A study!).

Grade 2 has another Sonny Chua composition, T-Rex Hungry, from A day in the life of a T-rex (a little collection that is also available in duet arrangement, and as a trio!). This is low and menacing, and should, in fact, be played an octave lower than written (that is, an octave lower than it looks as if it should be played in the Series 17 Grade 2 book – the octave lower indication is missing!). For a student who can manage playing sf for a whole piece this composition will be a joy. The other Australian work in Grade 2 is by Margaret Sutherland, Patter Dance, a lively example of unadventurous mid-20th century writing for children.

One of my all-time favourite Australian piano pieces for students is included in Grade 3 – Arthur Benjamin‘s magical Soldiers in the distance, from his Fantasies collection. This piece has the soft pedal depressed for the entirety of the piece, and the effect of distance is completely compelling; a great experience of this effect for young pianists at this stage of development. Graeme Koehne is another Australian composer for whom I have a lot of time, and his 1989 collection of Aphorisms has yielded A closed world of fine feelings and grand design (this link to a performance of the extended and widely recorded guitar version of this piece) for this Grade 3 book. Maybe a bit big, quite literally, for a lot of Grade 3 students, even allowing for a relaxed hand moving across the large intervals and judicious application of the sustain pedal. But beautiful.

Kerin Bailey makes an appearance as the sole Australian in the Grade 4 collection with the lyrical Summer Rain, a lilting exploration of major and minor 7th chords, originally published in Jazzin’ Around 3; an examination collection simply wouldn’t be right without at least one of Kerin’s tunes featured, and while completely unlike his most famous Melinda’s Mini-March, this piece will certainly appeal! The fabulously-named Amanda Handel‘s Stalactite, from her collection Migrations in Music, is one of two Australian sounds for Grade 5, this an eerie realisation of a 3+3+2 rhythmic pattern creating a very convincing experience of the depths of a cave. Also in Grade 5 is  Larry Sitsky‘s Jewish Folksong – dance, from his tremendous Century collection (originally published by Currency Press, now by Hal Leonard Australia) which traverses so many different sound worlds for student pianists (and from which I drew his Didgeridoo for inclusion in P Plate Piano 2).

Elena Kats-Chernin, beloved by many a teenager of recent years for her Eliza’s Aria (remixed here), has written 12 one-page piano pieces (well, in hand-written form they’re 1 page, but – ahem – they’re a wee bit longer than that once they’re typeset) and the twelfth, Cinema, is the Australian inclusion in the Grade 6 publication. Sounding perfectly like music for a silent movie, this piece gives Grade 6 students a chance to get a bit virtuosic if they desire (the composer and the AMEB make it clear that there’s a lot of room for different tempi in performance – no single metronome mark here).

The higher grades: Grade 7 features a gentle Prelude by Roy Agnew, a composer who will be well-known to older teachers – his work was featured in series from a couple of decades or so ago.  Miriam Hyde’s Concert Waltz for left hand is included as a List A Study – an exciting inclusion, in my opinion – there’s a small body of fabulous writing for left hand (including some other pieces by Miriam Hyde), and I’m intrigued to see students and teachers prompted to consider this choice as part of an able-bodied program. Finally, Grade 8 has the wonderful Frangipani, by Ross Edwards, from his Mantras and night flowers collection – a composition derived from a theme by Liszt by way of a Japanese scale; intriguing and a piece that has already been a favourite for Year 12 pianists.

So far so good!

More questions answered and explored in the next post…