Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Importance of Concert Attendance in Music Education

One aspect of music education that is often overlooked by students and their parents is the importance of attending concerts of all types. Regardless of the genre of music, hearing live concerts provides positive reinforcement of concepts learned in private lessons. Here are just a few of the additional benefits students receive while going to a concert.

  • They are exposed to a variety of sounds that widens their musical interests. Music comes in many different styles. As a growing musician, it is important to experience a variety of them. Most of our students are familiar with pop, country, and R&B through what they regularly hear on the radio. Concerts are an easy way to check out other types of music as well. Consider attending a concert featuring blues, jazz, or classical music. Hearing these sounds may develop an interest in learning more about music of a certain era or written by a specific composer.
  • Students develop their aural skills. Music lessons train the hands and muscles to make music. However, the ears must be trained as well. Exposure to high-quality performances allows students to more clearly recognize their own mistakes and develop the ability to distinguish between what is great or mediocre playing.
  • Concerts provide a standard of playing. While sitting in the audience, students hear a performance to compare themselves against in areas such as tone quality, rhythmic precision, dynamic contrast, and overall performance. Additionally, these live performances show students the level of playing that they can obtain with consistent study and effective practice.
  • Students explore the sounds of other instruments. Did you know that a pianist can learn a lot from listening to a trumpet or cello? While some issues discussed in private lessons are unique to the instrument being studied, other concepts can be heard clearly in other instruments. A pianist can strive for a smooth connected line like a violin would play or the sharp attack that might come from a trumpet. Exposure to a wide variety of instruments helps students explore the possible sounds of their own instrument.
  • Concerts connect the student to a larger community of musicians. It is often easy to develop the false assumption that you are the only one practicing so hard when you don't interact with other musicians. It's fun for students to realize that the person on the stage was at the same level they currently are once upon a time. Additionally, many concerts provide opportunities for students to briefly speak with the performers after the final curtain.
  • Attending concerts is FUN! After all, isn't the joy of music why we're taking lessons in the first place?
Now go to a concert, enjoy the music, and have fun exploring something new!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Determining Lesson Rates

One of the most important decisions a music teacher will make when beginning to teach privately is their rate. It is also one of the most challenging because of the multiple issues that must be considered.

  • What is the average rate for private lessons in your area? While this will not be the final consideration in setting your personal rate, it is vital information to have. This ensures that you are not underselling yourself nor setting a fee so high that you seem unaware of your competitors' rates.
  • What is your level of education in the field? How long have you taught privately? There are some wonderful piano teachers who have had very little formal training in music. However, advanced degrees in music bring with them higher levels of skill and pedagogical knowledge. Your rates should reflect your advanced training. Similarly, an experienced teacher brings more to the table than a neophyte and should expect to garner a higher tuition.
  • Where are lessons being conducted? If you are commuting to your students' homes, a higher tuition is expected to cover fuel and vehicle maintenance. It's also important to consider other lessons that cannot be taught as a result of your commute. Remember, you are being paid for your time as well as the service you are offering. Many parents are willing to pay a higher fee for the convenience of having the lessons brought to the home.
  • What studio expenses and fees are included in the tuition? Decisions must be made from the outset about how you will handle the acquisition of music and other teaching materials. Don't forget to consider things like printing expenses, recital rentals, and instrument maintenance when setting your fee as well.
What other things do you consider when setting the fee for lessons that you teach? What lessons have you learned over the years that would be helpful to new teachers entering the field? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Piano Teacher Institute

I fervently believe that it is essential that musicians seek out opportunities to improve their skills as performers and teachers. Professional development can come in many forms: attending conferences and seminars, reading recently published books and journals on the topic, as well as participating in web-based events. As 2015 got started and I found myself returning to private piano teaching, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in Joy Morin's online Piano Teacher Institute.

PTI is a 6-week course that addressed topics from the business matters related to the piano studio, to selecting student repertoire, and conducting the initial lesson with a new student. In addition to weekly reading assignments transmitted as PDF files, the course also included multiple writing assignments that would generate feedback from Joy and a weekly video chat with other students enrolled in the course.

Before I begin my personal reflection on the Piano Teacher Institute, I need to be very transparent. I opted to participate in the winter session because it appeared that I would have much more time to devote to the class. As soon as PTI began, my schedule changed sharply and did not permit me to be as active as I had hoped. Having said that, I still found Joy's course to be informative and very beneficial.

In my personal opinion, the PDFs that accompany the course are worth the price of enrollment. They present material in an approachable manner that is well-reasoned and carefully researched. I also appreciated the "For Further Reading" lists that are found at the end of each chapter; these lists have contributed to my professional reading list as I continue to explore the area of piano pedagogy. Because the files are PDFs, downloading them was very easy and ensures that I will be able to consult them again in the future. My only complaint about the readings provided was that they did contain several typographical errors -- mainly related to spelling and grammar -- that seemed to slightly diminish their professionalism, although they did not significantly impact the message that Morin was conveying. (I know that PTI is a relatively new offering for Joy and anticipate that the documents will be revised in the near future as she continues to make improvements and adjustments.)

The weekly writing assignments offered opportunities to think about a wide range of topics. Some focused on the theory of pedagogy while others allowed students to reflect on how the concepts discussed were reflected in their own studio and teaching. With at least 6 assignments of varying lengths each week, I found them to be very time consuming and was not able to complete any of them. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to receive feedback from Joy, but the magnitude of the assignments as well as my personal schedule created an overwhelming situation that I couldn't get past. However, in the weeks since completing PTI, I have found myself completing several of the suggested writing tasks and have seen the benefit of the exercises in my personal teaching.

The weekly video chats were amazing! Housed in Google groups, the video conferences were easy to access. Since it is expected that students may have a conflict with the scheduled chats, videos are uploaded for later viewing as well. The conferences are conducted in an open-discussion format. Joy begins the discussion with topics in the week's lessons and the conversation follows participant interests. Occasionally, a conference can be dominated by an out-spoken participant (or by the fact that some of the others are too shy to jump in); Joy was quick to gently bring others into the discussion without putting anyone on the spot. Sometimes I think I would have liked a few more directly posed questions -- "Kennith, what are your thoughts about....." -- especially in the early weeks to help pull some of the more shy students into the discussion and assist with the creation of our online community.

I highly recommend piano teachers consider enrolling in the Piano Teacher Institute. Whether you are a newbie to the teaching profession or an experienced pedagogue, I am confident that you will be energized, challenged, and encouraged by the content as well as by Joy's gentle personality. If possible, participate in a session of the course when you have a little more time to devote to it. I would estimate that in order to really glean all of the information contained here (and to complete the written assignments adequately), a teacher would want to allow at least 10-15 hours weekly to interact with the material.

To learn more about PTI's upcoming schedule and tuition costs, visit While you are there, make sure to check out Joy's piano blog, Color in My Piano.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Adventures in Improv

Improvisation has never been one of my strengths as a performer. I would much rather read from a score -- even sight reading difficult material -- than make material up in the moment. I prefer to stay with my strengths. Sadly, it's not always possible to avoid improvisation. I have a humorous story to share with you that happened last month.

I received a phone call from my former church employer asking if I would consider "serenading" the youth group at their upcoming Valentine's Banquet. While I wasn't excited about going back to the church to play, I have fond memories of working with these students and thought it would be a fun way to connect with them briefly without making a long term commitment. My understanding of the request was that I would play 2 or 3 songs for the students before moving on to other aspects of the program. I was certainly in for a major surprise when I arrived at the site.

Upon entering the festivities, the coordinator gave me an agenda for the evening's event. The outline showed that I would begin playing upon the students' arrival and continue until the arrival of the entree! I would break for the meal and then resume playing for the remainder of the night. In my current line of work, I am not committing a large amount of repertoire to memory. For this particular event, I opted to load a few selections into my iPad rather than bringing multiple books. When all is considered, I had six pieces of music with me ---- and I needed to play for nearly 2 1/2 hours! I'm suddenly realizing that I am going to be doing a lot of improvising!

Now that I have found myself in this situation, there is no other choice than improv. It wasn't as painful as I expected (although it's still not something I want to repeat any time soon), but I also learned a few important things about successful improvisation.
  • Maintain an awareness of harmonic structures. Before launching into anything TOO creative, I found it helpful to establish a key clearly in my mind. I would venture to the relative minor briefly and lay the groundwork for the use of secondary dominants. It was important to always know what key I was planning to work in and how things moved within that key.
  • Keep the harmonic progressions simple! Since I am not an experienced improviser, it was important for me to stick to very basic progressions. Even though I used most of the same progressions throughout the night, I still found that I could achieve a variety of sounds by alternating the meter, tempo, and style of the music while repeating familiar (established) progressions.
  • Allow the melody to guide your movement. As I played, I wasn't thinking about composing everything at once. I focused on a melodic line and allowed the tune I was hearing in my head to find its way to the keyboard. Since the basic chord progressions were simple, I found it fairly easy to provide harmonic support for the melody since I was employing pentatonic melodies for the most part. (Using pentatonic scales just made it easier to avoid unintentional modulations to other keys unexpectedly....a lesson I learned the hard way!)
  • Relax and enjoy the music. I had to accept the fact that I didn't know what the music was going to sound like in advance. I couldn't be overly critical about fingerings or execution. I simply had to breathe and let the music flow. Once I convinced myself that I had enough information about music in my head to improvise successfully, I found it was actually rather fun.
Since I'm the improv novice, I welcome your comments. What are some of the most important things you tell someone as they begin to experiment with improvisation at the piano? How did you first discover the joy of improv as musician? Post your stories and ideas in the section below.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Planning for a New Transfer Student

One of the most daunting situations I find myself in as a piano teacher is taking on a transfer student. Unlike students I have taught from the beginning, I have no idea of the student's skill set, goals, or work ethic. Sometimes the student has been convinced that she is a better player than she actually is. Other times, I find that a previous teacher has left the student with gaps in their training.

I have made my fair share of mistakes with transfer students over the years and have learned a few lessons that I would like to share with you now. Here are some of the things I do in the first few months of work with a transfer student.

  • Build a list of repertoire studied. It's always interesting to look at the pieces that another teacher has assigned a student. This is helpful in establishing the student's comfort level, commitment to hard work, as well as their expectations. It can also provide valuable information about areas of study that have been neglected.
  • Evaluate their skills thoroughly. Although a student may have "worked on" scales or Hanon exercises, their mastery of said skills may be lacking. I intentionally have my students demonstrate various technical skills -- either in repertoire or exercises -- during our early lessons to determine what they are capable of doing. Very often, these evaluations also reveal a lot about the student's understanding of music theory.
  • Talk openly with the student about their previous teachers. This is not an opportunity to bash a colleague. Rather, it is a chance for your student to express their insight into their own development. If the teacher was seen as "too demanding", you might anticipate a low level of commitment to challenging repertoire or a student who become easily frustrated. If the teacher is described as "old-fashioned", your student may be looking for modern sounds. Listen for the cries for help your student is sharing rather than passing judgment on a colleague's abilities.
  • Back up a few steps and have early successes together. Transferring teachers is tough for the student as well as the new teacher. It takes time to become familiar with how each other works and to develop the trust needed to continue making progress. I have found that it is nice to toss in a piece that is slightly below the student's ability level that can quickly be whipped into shape. Not only does it provide an early victory, but it also allows the student the opportunity to experience the teacher's approach from the introduction of the piece through the polishing process.
  • Willingly leave the old material behind. Every teacher has been there at some point. The student is either playing repertoire selected by a previous teacher that you would NEVER have assigned or has developed bad habits that are going to be incredibly difficult to correct. I find that it is perfectly acceptable to honestly tell the student that we're going to leave the piece for now and return to it at a later time. Most of the time, my students appreciate the fresh start and find success with the piece when we return to it later.
  • Find the music that they LOVE to play. Although it's not always the case, often times a transfer student comes to us with a certain amount of burnout. Take the time to find out what it is about the instrument that they first fell in love with and help them re-ignite their passion for making music. It may be a departure from your plan for their development for a while, but the detour will ultimately pay huge dividends.
 Now it's your turn. Share your tips for beginning work with a transfer student in the comments below. I still have a lot to learn and would love to grow from your experiences.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Page Turning 101

Every collaborative pianist knows that some page turns can make our jobs very difficult. If technology is not being used, it is essential to find a good page turner that you trust. Turning pages in a recital is not for the faint of heart and can be incredibly stressful. Here are some of the pieces of advice I share with neophyte page turners that work with me.

  • Preview the pieces before going on stage and ask questions.  There's nothing worse than trying to figure out exactly where the Da Capo goes back to while you are sitting under stage lights. Take the time necessary to familiarize yourself with repeats, first and second endings, and codas. If you are uncertain about anything, ask the pianist before the concert begins. It's also a good thing to make sure you are certain where each piece ends!
  • Prepare the pages for smooth turns if necessary. The pianist has probably made most of the page turns in rehearsal using the bottom corner of the score. That means the upper corners that you are using are still in fairly good condition. You want to make sure that pages are not stuck together and that you are aware of the paper's thickness.
  • Always stand to make the turn. Standing ensures that your arm will not inhibit the pianist's sight line and keeps your body out of the way of the physical activity.
  • Watch out for leaping bass lines! Inevitably, the publisher will place busy passages in the lower registers of the piano at the page turn. This is where issues of the page turner's height and arm span come into play. If you are afraid you will get in the way of the player's left hand, consider standing at the very end of the piano and making the turn.
  • When do I turn? The answer to this question will vary for every pianist and for every situation. When you are just beginning to turn pages, pianists will often give a nod at the time for the page turn. However, the ultimate goal is to develop enough of a relationship on stage that such cues are not necessary. When making the decision, it is important to consider the complexity of the passage, the tempo of the piece, the performer's body language, and any cues written in the score. These will generally give you an idea of just how comfortable the collaborator is with the material that is coming next.
  • Turn the page! This is not the time to make a slow graceful turn of the page. Grab hold of the corner and TURN! (Just make sure you don't fling the entire score into the floor! That creates an entirely different problem....and, yes, it really did happen to me.)
  • If a problem occurs, be proactive. Pages may blow in a breeze from the air conditioning unit. A page might have been inserted into the binder upside down. Maybe you turned too many pages. Don't just sit there.....react! You are an extension of the pianist and are allowing him to keep his hands on the keyboard. The more proactive you are, the more confident the performer is that everything is going to be just fine.
When playing in a college setting, I generally recruit a single page turner for the entire semester. Yes, it makes things easier to simply have to make one request and have all of my engagements staffed, but if I ask you to repeatedly turn pages for me, it is intended to be a compliment. I trust your musicianship as well as your comfort on stage. That trust means that I can breathe a little easier and keep my focus on the task at hand -- making beautiful music.

What advice would you give a new page turner? Have you had a page turning nightmare? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Taking the Show on the Road

I am very happy to say that the majority of my students are now taught in my studio at Bartlett Music Academy. It is convenient to have several students come to me in a single location. At times, I have a student who cannot come to the Academy for various reasons. Here are a few crucial issues that I have learned are important to consider when asked to teach in a student's home.

  • Scheduling is more involved. There is now more to consider than my own availability. I must consider the family's plans as well. Travel time must be calculated (both to and from the lesson). It can make it very difficult to plan anything else before or after the scheduled lesson.
  • Limited control over environment. Thankfully, my current situation in my student's home is marvelous! However, in other settings you may find yourself teaching in a high traffic area with lots of distractions. This can prove difficult for the most engaged student and is multiplied for young beginners.
  • Fees must be altered. Not only are you now charging for your expertise, it is also important to factor in fuel costs, travel time, and the transportation of teaching materials. As a general rule, it is my recommendation to charge at least $10 above your normal rate for each lesson.
  • Limited availability of teaching resources. If you are like me, when I'm in my studio I can easily lay my hand on whatever teaching aid I need. When working as a traveling teacher, we must anticipate resources that might be needed or have an idea that includes items easily attained in the home. 
  • Quality of the instrument. In the student's home, we provide training on the instrument that they are playing daily. While there are some benefits to this set up, it can also be challenging. So many of our explanations are significantly impacted when using an out of tune piano. It can an awkward conversation with a parent when requesting the instrument be repaired and serviced.
Currently, I am only teaching in one student's home. None of these issues are a problem....but I'm keeping them in mind for when the next student inquires about the possibility of in-home lessons. What other issues do you consider before agreeing to teach lessons in a student's home? I would certainly benefit from any insight you are willing to share in the comment section below.