Playing Pop, and (all that) Jazz: Chord Chart literacy

A cliché I used to find myself confronting as a young musician in the mid-late 80s and the 90s was the idea that the world of pianists divides into the classically trained and those who can read chord charts. It shook the foundations of many a musician’s world that I had a B.Mus. degree  and I could still read a chord chart. To be fluent reading a ‘chart’ while also being able to play the Pathetique seemed to be about as musically transgressive as it was possible to be. Needless to say I found the fuss rather ridiculous and just wanted to get on with making music. In 2000 I started presenting professional development seminars for piano teachers and when I would ask “who can read a chord chart?” maybe 10% of the teachers at the seminar might put up their hands. Eleven years on and that percentage has almost flipped: I estimate at least 75% of piano teachers these

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Piano Lessons for Life

Piano teaching has been a part of my life since birth (my mother resumed her at-home piano teaching when I was three weeks old) and a part of my professional existence since I was 14 and started giving lessons myself. Teaching at such a young age provided many lessons to me beyond the usual teenage job learning curve: I had to create invoices, prepare materials, plan learning sequences, discuss the progress of students with their parents, coordinate timetabling, engage in professional development, and so forth. This learning curve was much facilitated by teaching under the watchful eye of a mentor-mother, but even so, these are considerable responsibilities for someone who won’t be allowed to vote for another 4 years. The most challenging aspect of teaching as a 14 year old was, without doubt, talking with the parents. Fortunately my early students practised well enough, and everyone paid their fees on time, so two of the biggest piano teacher communication challenges

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Repertoire Rules (for students)

These rules are rules about students and repertoire, but really these are more rules for piano teachers… So for any students reading this post – this is the stuff your teacher should know! In the 11 month history of my blog I’ve discussed how  students having access to more books of music is going to have a positive impact on their musical literacy, and how learning a large number of pieces each year will have commensurate educational benefits. I’m not going to rehash either of these posts, but rather cut straight to: what are the rules we need to apply to students and their repertoire? First up: a rule of thumb. If your student learns less than 26 pieces per annum they will be bored. They may not tell you they are bored, but they are. If learning 6 pieces a year truly engages their curiosity they must be almost entirely disinterested in learning to play the piano. On the other

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Choosing Repertoire

I’m preoccupied this week with thoughts revolving around how we choose repertoire for our students.  I’d like to be able to say with rather than for our students, but most of the time the student gets at best a veto (not quite the same thing as being actively part of the process). This topic was one I spoke on at the 2009 Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference held in Sydney in July, and at that time I titled my presentation Repertoire Roulette, attempting to draw attention to the hit and miss nature of a piano student’s repertoire selection, the element of risking something valuable (the attention and long-term interest of the student) if we should happen to stake our lesson time on a piece of repertoire that doesn’t come up a winner. If only the pieces of piano music we use in our teaching came with guarantees. Or at least a warranty. So here’s the thing that comes first, something which

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Judge Not: the question of assessment (beginners)

The really big question when talking about assessing piano/instrumental students is: are external assessments of piano students a motivational tool, encouraging serious effort which certainly would not be made if an external assessment (and the possibility of failure) were not looming OR are piano exams something that strips time from the lesson that could have been spent developing a wider knowledge of the repertoire, a more varied technical expertise and a broader set of musicianship skills? A firmly believed, but often not-expressed, view amongst piano teachers is that the use of graded assessments often ends up being a way for students (and their parents) to compare themselves with their peers, and this competitive perspective can undermine the motivational benefits that an assessment deadline can deliver. I’ve recently been spending a great deal of time considering the benefits of assessments for beginner pianists, many of whom may be as young as five years of age.  It can be exciting for beginner

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What do you look for in a method (book one)?

The P Plate Piano launches began on Sunday with an event at Coffs Harbour (for those unfamiliar with Australian geography, a seaside town roughly halfway up the coast between Sydney and Brisbane) with a small number of piano teachers in attendance.  Notice had been short and, in any case, there are not a large number of piano teachers in smaller centres like Coffs Harbour (population, an estimated 66,000). Having a small group meant that we could run the launch event a little more like a conversation, or a discussion group, and I took the chance to ask the teachers attending about the choice of method book they make for their current students. P Plate Piano Book 1 starts at about the place most method’s book one finishes off, so the discussion was highly relevant to the music we were about to look at. Astonishingly, no two teachers used the same method. Maybe less surprising was the consensus that none of

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P Plate Piano: the composers in Book 1

The P Plate Piano series will be available for sale in Australia on November 4, so I think it’s time for me to talk about the composers whose material I’ve used to create this series. Book 1 starts at roughly the point that a traditional method Book 1 ends – students are expected to know the basic mechanics of playing notes on the keyboard, reading steps and skips (2nds and 3rds), staccato and legato, rests, basic dynamic markings, and to be comfortable playing black notes and reading flats and sharps when placed directly before a note, while all the time playing within a set five-finger position. There are precious few composers who choose to create works within these extremely restricted parameters, but I found that, about 200 years after piano lessons really started taking off in the middle class, there is now at least a body of work from which to select the very best at this early stage of study,

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Does anyone teach transposing anymore?

The title of this blog entry is a little misleading, as in fact I wonder if anyone ever did teach transposing to more or less every student who passed through their door. But be that as it may, I genuinely do wonder if anyone does teach transposing anymore. Once upon a time piano exams would include some kind of exercise that needed to be performed in a variety of keys. In the 70s and 80s (when I was taking piano examinations myself) the English examination board Trinity College required students in the lower grades to perform the first few bars of some of the exam pieces in either the dominant or the subdominant, or a tone higher or lower, or some other pair of transposing options according to the grade of the exam.  During this time both the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College also offered Keyboard Musicianship examinations, which consisted of aural, sightreading, transposing and

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Song of Middle C

Ever since I started my piano teaching career at the age of 14, I’ve  attempted to provide appropriate ‘waiting room’ materials for my piano students, things that are engaging enough to promote quiet waiting behaviour for the the 2 or 3 minutes (hopefully no more than that) that might pass between the student’s arrival and the start of their lesson proper. Good and well, but finding books or activities that fit the bill is actually quite a bit more difficult than it seems.  One solution, Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-sections series, seemed ideal – lots to look at, an educational element, all the kinds of things that one looks for in this circumstance. But one day the students started giggling as they looked through, and giggled loudly enough that it was distracting to the student whose lesson was just concluding. Turns out Mr Biesty has incredibly included somewhere tucked away on every page of his cross-sections one poor soul caught in

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