A Piano Teacher’s Manifesto

Originally published some years ago as What Are Piano Lessons For? this is my manifesto on the purpose of piano lessons.  This is a manifesto that emerges from my experience, that reflects my values, and that frames everything about my piano teaching, about my writing for piano teachers, and about my composing for piano students. 1. Piano lessons are for learning how to do cool stuff on the piano. Cool stuff starts with things like playing familiar melodies, creating glissandi, using the sustain pedal, and moves on to more sophisticated cool stuff like creating a balance between the melody and accompaniment, voicing two parts within one hand, being able to control tonal variation, learning to recognise and perform any number of patterns (both by sight and by ear), knowing how to make different chords and chord sequences, being able to play a chromatic scale – fast, being able to play scales in contrary motion, or thirds apart, or sixths apart, creating different effects

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  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,

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Key Signature ≠ Key

It’s the 21st Century. We’ve had modulations and chromaticisms, bitonalities and even atonlities, and you’d think that in 2011 we’d have a modicum of sophistication regarding the tonal centres and key relationships we discover in the music we play. But no, an insistence that the key signature tells us the tonal centre of a piece of music has gone from being an example of anachronism to being a deplorable trend in most major Australian cities (!). To be fair, we do call those congregations of accidentals at the beginning of each line of music a key signature; that is, this term implies that the accidentals signify a key rather than simply the notes required to be played a tone or semitone higher than the straight note name pitch. But in a post-atonal, neo-modal world it defies experience to assume that an absence of key signature signifies the C Major/A minor duopoly. Imagine my horror/bemusement/outrage/despair some 10 years ago on seeing a

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Standing-Up Music

A question that comes up all the time when I present seminars to piano teachers: what about the students who are too small to reach the pedals/the extremes of the keyboard? The answer: Standing-Up Music. This is the same music as the normal kind, but you (the teacher) decides when the physical reach of the child requires the music to be ‘standing-up music’. Move the piano bench away from the piano, and let the child find their own standing-up position that allows them to access the bits of the piano they otherwise could not, and they’re away. Don’t be concerned too much about posture in this circumstance – the goal here is complete engagement with the instrument, and working towards an ideal sitting posture that the student will use in diploma examinations and the like is a completely inappropriate goal/fixation. Work with the body of the student the way that body is today. Teachers with experience know that once students

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Safari (AMEB Preliminary, Piano for Leisure)

Quite a few visits to my blog are made by (who I can only assume are) students and teachers who want more information about specific pieces of mine included in examination syllabuses. So I’m setting myself the goal of writing a post about each of these pieces – it might take a while to get there, but one by one I’m determined to work my way through them! Safari comes from Very Easy Little Peppers, and is a piece written entirely on black notes. There’s a lovely tradition of black-note-only pieces written for students in the first years of study and when writing this piece I deliberately set out to add to that oeuvre. Many of the most popular piano methods (in 2011, maybe not when you took piano lessons!) start students playing on the black notes (the antithesis to the March of the Middle C Thumbs approach). I have thoroughly enjoyed incorporating into my teaching a wonderful black-note-only improvisation activity for students

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Grouch: some teaching notes from the composer

This post is woefully overdue: Grouch has been on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 3 piano syllabus since 2009 (the syllabus expires at the end of this year, 2011), and YouTube has its share of student performances from around the world! Grouch is an unusual composition in the Little Peppers series in that so much of the piece is built of a single unaccompanied line (albeit shared between the hands). This means that clarity is especially important, as is tone. With the melodic material cascading from one hand to the other students will need to give particular attention to matching the sound from one hand to the next, and be warned: this is far more challenging than matching tone from one finger to the next! An additional challenge is that the melody-sharing does not always happen in the same way: the right hand plays a D at the start of bars 1 and 2, but at bar 3 the left hand plays

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Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

One of my ‘rules’ for a while now has been that students need to do at least 100 hours practice to get from one grade to the next. My assertion is that if you managed a B/merit in your last exam then another 100 hours practice will get you to a B in your next exam. If you want to guarantee a B+ you’ll need to do 120 hours, and if you want to guarantee an A/distinction  you will need 140 hours. Of course, if you only manage 75-80 hours practice you should be only just able to manage a C!! But if you achieved an A/distinction result in your previous exam then 100 hours (or not much more) should deliver you an A result in your next exam too. I was chatting about this with Samantha Coates (Ms BlitzBooks!) and she was sharing anecdotal evidence she’s been gathering on this idea [that a certain number of hours will get

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The rationale behind the Getting to books

Back in January I had a great time doing a short tour (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth) with Samantha Coates (of Blitz Books fame) and Abe Cytrynowski (the inventor of the fabulous ScaleCard system). In Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth we just did a long morning session at one of the larger retailers in each city, but in Sydney Samantha hired the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium and we did a full day event, along with amazing catering and an events team that worked like clockwork. The day ended with an energetic panel discussion. We took questions from the more than 100 teachers present, and did our best to cover everything in the 45 minutes scheduled for the panel. Despite our best efforts there were still questions left unanswered, and we collectively promised we would address each question at http://www.blitzbooks.com.au but as it turns out many of the questions aren’t really appropriate for Sam’s theory/sight-reading/note-reading/general knowledge oriented website. So here I

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