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.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

My Symphonic Band Experience

Last semester, I had the opportunity to play the first movement of Eric Whitacre's Ghost Train with the Symphonic Band at Union University. The score was tremendously challenging and required a lot more preparation time than I first imagined. Issues were compounded because this was my first experience playing in a large ensemble like this. Now that I've had some time to reflect on the experience, I have realized that this type of ensemble playing (as opposed to traditional duets) can be very beneficial for developing pianists.

  • Following a conductor is a skill that is developed over time. As soloists, we often vary the tempo slightly (e.g. rubato). Although many soloists use rubato much too freely in my opinion, it can be done with great musicality. As I played in the larger ensemble, however, rubato was no longer a viable option. Strict adherence to the conductor's rhythm patterns are essential and requires great discipline on the part of each participant.
  • Playing in a large ensemble redefines what it means to "know" a piece.  Not only must the pianist know his individual part, he must also be aware of what is going on in the other voices of the ensemble and how things fit together. This places greater demand on the pianist's listening skills and is a wonderful opportunity for collaborative pianists to refine their skill in this area.
  • Ensemble playing brings musicality to non-melodic material. Much of what I played in Ghost Train was not the important line that needed to be heard above all else. My challenge became developing an opinion of how to shape the line in my personal rehearsals that allowed the most mundane passages to remain musical. Once I had formed that opinion, I then had to execute it in the rehearsal and see how it worked as part of the greater whole. Sometimes the conductor provided feedback, but not always. It became my responsibility to assess my playing in light of the entire sound spectrum that surrounded me.
  • Balance and issues related to voicing became very real. Pianists often address issues of balance in their solo playing. I personally enjoyed watching a small ensemble of instrumentalists playing together in rehearsal until they were satisfied with the overall balance. Some of the things I saw and heard have now been added to my personal rehearsal toolbox as I deal with issues of balance as a soloist.
  • Practice is no longer a solitary pursuit. I think this is one of the greatest lessons for a collaborative pianist to learn. When I'm rehearsing music for an ensemble -- whether it is a symphonic band or a work for voice and piano -- the time I am investing is not benefiting only me. The ensemble is rewarded because of the time I invest; sadly, the converse of this statement is also true.
Not every pianist has the opportunity to play in a large ensemble. However, every pianist CAN seek out ensemble opportunities of some sort in which they can participate. Collaborative playing takes the experience beyond our instrument alone and permits pianists to become part of a musical dialogue much greater than themselves.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Professional Piano Teaching - by Jeanine M. Jacobson

Professional Piano Teaching: A Comprehensive Piano Pedagogy Textbook for Teaching Elementary-Level Students is a valuable resource that should be on the teacher's shelf. The book is quite readable and offers multiple examples for consideration. Carefully organized into clearly defined chapters, I found Jacobson's text to be extremely beneficial as it allowed me to focus on a single aspect of the complex process of piano teaching in each chapter. From her examination of method approaches to the discussions of teaching rhythm, technique, and sound development, Jacobson addresses our profession in such a way that clearly establishes her as an authority with lots of experience and expertise.

Perhaps most valuable for the new teacher (or those of us returning to the private student after a long sabbatical) are the chapters that conclude the book:  "The Business of Piano Teaching" and "Evaluation of Teaching." Over the years, I have found that the source of frustration for many teachers comes from not having clearly established policies that they feel comfortable implementing. Whether the issue relates to tuition, scheduling of lessons, or maintaining records, Jacobson offers sage advice in a way that makes the necessary task much more manageable. Additionally, Professional Piano Teaching reminds us of the importance of regular evaluation of our teaching as we pursue greater levels of excellence -- for the benefit of our students and the profession as a whole.

In conclusion, I wanted to share with you a few of the "nuggets" I found in Professional Piano Teaching. These words of wisdom have already impacted my personal teaching and I anticipate returning to the text repeatedly in the coming years.
  • "While isolated mistakes are common to all pianists, learned mistakes result when students do not understand or forget the necessary information. Once a student kinesthetically learns a piece incorrectly, it is very difficult for him/her to unlearn it. To eliminate frustration for both the teacher and the student, it is sometimes best to drop the piece and study the same concepts and skills in another piece." (p. 105)
  • "Pedaling is a listening skill, not a physical one, but a physical motion is needed to create the correct musical sound." (p. 170)
  • "Just as university professors organize lectures, ministers outline sermons, and public school teachers prepare plans that organize the day's activities, piano teachers should plan what to teach in each lesson and how it will be taught. . . A lesson plan brings focus to the lesson and assures learning, progress and accomplishment. Teachers should not be afraid to alter the lesson plan when the student has practiced more or less than expected or has trouble with the assignment. The lesson plan provides structure so the teacher can confidently provide a valuable learning experience, regardless of the variables." (p. 206-207)
I highly recommend Professional Piano Teaching regardless of how long you have been in the profession. I am confident that Jacobson will inspire and challenge you. What books have you found to be most beneficial to your growth as a teacher? I'd love to have your recommendations to add to my personal reading list.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why Fingering Matters

My adult piano students struggle with using secure fingering when playing. Whether I am dealing with a hobbyist or college music major, the question is always the same....why does it matter which finger I use? Isn't the goal to simply play the right notes?

Such questions display a lack of understanding about the musical benefits of good technique -- including, but not limited to, fingering patterns. In her wonderful book Professional Piano Teaching: A Comprehensive Piano Pedagogy Textbook for Teaching Elementary-Level Students, Jeanine M. Jacobson sums up the importance of fingering in the following passage:
Appropriate fingering makes playing more comfortable and solves technical problems while reducing tension. When students do not observe the written fingerings, they often play pieces with different fingerings every time. This results in several mental etchings of the same musical material, with the mind choosing, at random, a different fingering for each subsequent encounter. Because accurate playing of the piano is a physical habit and no consistent fingering habit has been established, learning of the piece is delayed. Furthermore, poor fingering habits make it more difficult to focus on musical aspects of performance. (Jacobson, Professional Piano Teaching, 169)
In addition to Jacobson's eloquently worded defense of fingering, I would add the following benefits of focusing on secure fingering patterns.
  • Good fingering enhances melodic phrasing.
  • The study of fingering patterns ensures the technical development of the entire hand - especially the use of fingers 4 and 5 - and does not rely solely on the more dominant fingers.
  • Carefully thought out fingering allows the performer to easily transition between sections of the music.
  • Secure fingering often allows strong fingers (i.e. dominant fingers) to arrive on strong beats, producing a fuller sound while eliminating technical challenges.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bach Chorales in Piano Instruction

I have found that many young pianists struggle to play four-voice harmonizations. Because of the many benefits that come from studying them, I require college students enrolled in class piano to play both traditional hymns and Bach chorales. Here are a few of the benefits that comes from this area of study:
  • Awareness of voice leading. Few composers understood counterpoint and voice leading better than Bach. By playing the chorales, pianists take the principles they have learned in theory and apply them at the keyboard.
  • Re-enforcement of harmonic progressions. Chorales clearly establish traditional dominant-tonic relationships as well as others that will aid the student as they develop their own skills to harmonize melody lines.
  • Develops aural skills. Chorale playing requires the pianist to be aware of multiple lines at the same time, ensuring that each voice is shaped independently. This attention to various voices increases the student's aural skills.
  • Emphasizes the importance of thoughtful fingering patterns. Bach's compositions require careful planning in order to musically navigate the multi-voiced passages. Students find themselves exploring alternate fingerings, finger substitutions, as well as dividing inner voices between the hands as they play these technically demanding works.
  • Prepare students for choral accompanying assignments. It seems that one of the most demanding duties of any musician working in an educational setting is providing piano support for voices during choral rehearsals. Many times, the vocal parts can be more technically challenging for the pianist than the actual accompaniment. Bach chorales and their emphasis on voice leading allow the student pianist to develop skills that will be beneficial in similar scenarios.