Thursday, July 30, 2015

Home Recitals

A few years ago, I ran across an article detailing one pianist's experience of presenting a small tour of intimate recitals in the homes of various friends and family members throughout the country. The idea intrigued me, but I wasn't certain it would be something I would be interested in. It seemed like so much work without much return or benefit. The concept returned to my mind last week when I was able to watch a preview recital of pianist Richard Fountain via Facebook that he played in a home while visiting family out of town. The success of this experience has led me to once again consider the pros and cons of home recitals.

The home recital is more relaxed and intimate by its very nature. It is a perfect situation for the performer to try out new repertoire before appearing on the main stage. Additionally, it allows the audience the opportunity to interact with the artist in a casual setting and encounter music with which they may not be familiar. A reluctant concert goer will be more comfortable experiencing something unfamiliar in a friend's home than in a stuffy concert hall.

One of the things that most attracts me to home recitals is the opportunity to share my passion for music with an audience in a non-threatening, relaxed manner. There is no pressure to be "informed" about the music; the audience simply gets to enjoy the sounds while sipping a beverage in a comfortable chair. Questions about the music and the learning process are welcome, but the discussion will likely be less academic than that which might be commonly encountered in a traditional concert setting.

A few challenges immediately come to mind when considering a home concert. Obviously a quality instrument needs to be available to the performer. In most metropolitan areas, a piano can be rented for a nominal fee if one is not already available in the home. While I would prefer to play on a nice grand piano, it is possible to elicit beautiful sounds from consoles and uprights that have been properly maintained as well. If we are willing to play on instruments that might be "less than ideal," the experience might be less intimidating for the audience as well as the prospective host.

Another concern for many performers is audience size. The purpose of the home recital is not to reach the masses with our music. Rather, the focus of these concerts is found in the intimacy between the audience and performer while allowing the artist to test our repertoire in a small venue. An audience of twelve to twenty guests would result in a packed house (literally!) in many home recital venues. With the use of technology that is readily available to many today, it is possible to expand the concert's audience beyond the geographical boundaries of the host home with minimal equipment.

The artist is probably not going to earn much money from a home performance. I would honestly be surprised to receive much more than a meal and possibly lodging. So why play a home recital? In addition to the benefit of trying out new repertoire alluded to earlier, it is also a way to reconnect with friends and colleagues while making new acquaintances (that might lead to future gigs). Most importantly, it is another opportunity to share the music we love with an audience we may never encounter from the concert stage. As a professional artist, some of the expenses associated with the home recital may be tax deductible; you will just want to speak with your tax professional before embarking on your adventure.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear about your experiences with home performances as well as your thoughts about their benefits and potential pitfalls.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Does Attire Really Matter?

This blog is devoted to all things related to music. So why in the world would I address the topic of attire in this week's post? Isn't it true that my performance is the only method of communication with which I should be concerned? We would like to think so, but the reality is that our wardrobe speaks to our audience long before the first note has sounded. If our clothing communicates negatively with the listener, it can be a very difficult task to regain their trust.

Discussions about clothing can be hot button topics. "How dare you comment on my wardrobe when it is my sound that you are judging!" I've repeatedly heard this cry of frustration during recital hours and jury exams at schools around the country. Before going any further, let me be very candid. I am not a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination. When given the option, I much prefer casual and comfortable. I have been guilty of making questionable choices related to wardrobe in performance. Having learned from my personal mistakes, it is my aim to help young musicians avoid some of the awkwardness I've experienced first hand. In that spirit, here are some practical tips related to performance attire.

1.  Recognize the power of the initial appearance on stage. When stepping on stage, it is important to exude confidence and professionalism. While our posture and countenance help to convey these attitudes, clothes can either enhance or detract from our message. The more professional your appearance, the more confidence the audience has in your abilities. This allows them to relax and creates a better performing environment for you.

2.  Every performance should be viewed as a potential job interview. You never know who is in your audience and what opportunities they may have available for you. If two singers perform with equal skill, the ultimate choice of who to hire for a gig may be entirely subjective. Appropriate attire can be the tipping point in such situations....so never allow your clothing to become a detriment.

Whether it's fair or not, my experiences suggest that vocalists tend to be held to a higher standard than other musicians in relation to performance attire. This can be especially difficult for performers in academic settings. My suggestion is to elevate your clothing options any time you are performing for your studio in the middle of a busy day of classes by wearing at least what qualifies as business casual attire. This clothing sends the message that you understand the importance of your performance while allowing you to maintain a level of comfort for the rest of the day's activities. Departmental recitals, juries and master classes should be treated more formally, similar to an early evening recital. In other words, semi-formal attire is appropriate, meaning that men should probably wear a coat and tie. The performance is formal, but we have not reached the elegance of a black tie event. Tuxedos and evening gowns are reserved for large ensemble performances and important solo recitals.

3.  Never be under-dressed! Just as you would not attend a funeral wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, you never want to walk on stage dressed worse than the members of the audience. Since you will be in the spotlight as a performer, you want to be one of the best dressed people in the room. While in school, information about appropriate attire for various performances often becomes clear as you get to know the situation better and follow the example of upperclassmen; if you are in doubt about appropriate attire, dress semi-formally. You will never be penalized for looking too nice on stage.

Speaking of knowing the expectations of a specific circumstance's appropriate attire, it is also important to realize that the dress code for any event can be adjusted over time. Just because the event was business casual last year does not mean it will always be that way. As standards change, the message will be communicated by those in authority and may include gentle comments about appropriate attire. If your attire has been addressed by a conductor, director, or faculty member in a past performance situation (whether you agree with the statements or not) and you return to a similar situation without making a significant modification, do not be surprised when you are called on it! (Additionally, it would not be out of the range of possibility to earn lower marks or pay as a result of your attire.)

4.  Fit matters! It is also imperative that your carefully selected clothing fits well. Clothes that are too tight are uncomfortable and will distract you during the performance. On the flip side, overly baggy attire presents a frumpy and disheveled appearance, generating ideas that you failed to thoroughly prepare in the audience's minds.

It is generally advisable to do some rehearsal in full concert attire. There are several questions the artist wants to consider prior to the recital. Does the jacket inhibit my range of motion? How does the jewelry I've selected (especially watches and bracelets) respond to the bowing patterns? Ladies should carefully consider the effects of high heels on their balance and breath support. While it can be fun to select new outfits for special performances, it is never a good idea to see how the garments respond for the first time in the heat of the public performance!

The concert stage and the performance is greatly served as we err on the side of modesty in apparel selections. Thought should be given to the effects of stage lighting on the selected fabric. The audience's proximity to the stage (both distance and angle) can influence choices of hem line and neck line when selecting a dress or evening gown. Modesty and adherence to traditional wardrobe selections on the concert stage should not be viewed as an attempt to stifle personal expression; rather, it is an effort to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations for the artist as well as the audience.

What aspects of clothing do you take into account when selecting concert attire? Have you had a wardrobe malfunction during a performance that resulted from poor planning? Add your voice to the discussion in the comments below.

(N.B. I'm enjoying a vacation with my family next week, so I won't be blogging. I plan to return to Collaborations on July 30.)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

First Experience with Composition Projects

As part of my summer camp for music students, I decided to provide students the opportunity to compose an original work rather than performing a closing recital. Since this year's camp focused on reading, intervallic relationships, and rhythm patterns, the compositional process was the perfect way to move what we had learned from theory to application. There was only one problem: I am not a composer! I have arranged a few hymns in a pinch, but I don't have significant experience with improvisation, much less formal composition. I decided the only way to see how the project would work was to jump in head first and forget about my fear.

I'll begin by telling you that the final results were very successful and the kids had fun creating their own pieces. By no means do I suggest this to be the best method for exploring composition with young students. It was simply the process that made the most sense to me. Here are the steps my students and I used.

  1. Determine the length. We looked at pieces the students were currently playing in their lessons. Students noticed the recurrence of phrases that were four measures long. After some discussion, we decided to aim for multiples of eight bars. (If an extra bar was needed, we didn't fret about it since there were no definite rules for our compositions.)
  2. Generate the rhythm first. We began by reviewing the note values each student was currently using comfortably. Students were then instructed to write a rhythmic pattern that was original and interesting to their eyes and ears. (Earlier in the week, we decided to avoid rhythmic patterns that repeated a single note value for the entire measure to ensure excitement for the audience.) Once students had successfully produced a rhythmic pattern the chosen length of their composition, we moved to step three.
  3. Clap the rhythmic pattern! The composition project was the first activity in our camp that would combine rhythm and pitch, so I wanted to make sure the patterns were secure before adding melody. This also provided the student a chance to experience their compositions at various tempi. This step required the most time from my campers.
  4. Create a melody. Armed with their rhythmic notation, students moved to pianos and began developing melodies that fit the patterns. At this point, my students used letter names below the rhythmic figures as a notational system. (I recommend avoiding this pre-reading notation if students are able to immediately notate their theme on the staff.) I rotated between students, offering suggestions and explaining advanced aspects of theory -- such as why the leading tone wanted to move to the tonic -- in very simple terms. Once the student was satisfied with the piece, I had them play it for me in its entirety to ensure that I was clear of their intentions and the pre-reading notation.
  5. Notation! Students merged the rhythm and notes into standard notation on staff paper. Final copies were given to me to create Finale editions of their creations. With older students, it would be fun to allow them to complete this final step of the process using a trial version of Finale if a computer and printer are available.
There you have it! The students naturally created charming pieces and were not intimidated by the compositional process since each step added a new element and no one told them composing was difficult. I was encouraged to see that students were comfortable venturing into additional experiments in composition on their own using the steps of our process as they enjoyed experimenting to find the most satisfying sounds.

What has been your experience with exposing children to composition? What lessons have you learned? I'm definitely interested in hearing your ideas to try in a future camp.

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 institute.joymorin.com. 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.