Friday, July 29, 2011

Compositions for Children

I have been highly interested in putting together a program of music intended specifically for children.  As I began the search, I found the common works we would expect - Debussy's Children's Corner and the Schubert and Schumann Albums for the Young.  As I began to look deeper, I discovered a couple of additional works that I wasn't familiar with that are proving to be quite rewarding.

First on my list is Musiques d'Enfants (Op. 65) by Prokofieff.  This set of 12 pieces are rather short and are trickier than they first appear.  Not only am I finding them to be wonderfully rewarding to perform, several of the pieces are appropriate for intermediate students who are wanting to explore Russian music.

The other set that is on my plate at the moment is Children's Songs by Chick Corea.  The first 15 songs were originally composed for the Fender Rhodes with the remaining songs intended for the acoustic piano.  Corea states that any of the songs can be played on either instrument.  These are proving to be a little more difficult to become intimate with at this point.  While the Prokofieff grabbed my ear from the outset, Corea's works are less pleasant immediately.  I anticipate that as I spend more time with them in the coming weeks these pieces will become just as appreciated and treasured as the others.

Do you have suggestions of pieces that I might consider adding to my program?  I am thrilled that I have the opportunity to work with children in my church position as well as my teaching and thought it would be fun to present a program that reflects that aspect of my life.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: Why Mahler?

Recently I came to realize that while I know quite a bit about musical trends and movements from a historical perspective, my knowledge of the biographies of many of the major composers is less than complete.  As part of my personal goals, I am beginning to add biographies to my reading list.  The first biography that I completed was Norman Lebrecht’s fascinating book Why Mahler?  How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.

Lebrecht paints a stunning portrait of a musical genius who feels as though he belongs nowhere.  He is not accepted by his Viennese home, finds no relief in Judaism, and is never comfortable in the United States.  Additionally, his works are often overlooked and considered inferior by many of the critics of the day. 

Lebrecht is also careful to present the love between Gustav and Alma with honesty and clarity.  Alma’s penchant for exaggeration – or blatantly lying – to present her life in a favorable light is addressed on numerous accounts.  Their mythological love is handled with dignity and simple honesty.

One of my favorite scenes comes at the end of the biography.  Returning to Europe on board the SS Amerika, Alma is putting the couple’s daughter Anna to bed.  Mahler knows that he is going to die soon, so “he gives final orders to Anna Moll [a family friend].   He wants to be buried beside his daughter Maria in the Grinzing cemetery, without fuss, and just ‘Mahler’ on his headstone.  ‘Anyone who comes to look for me will know who I was and the rest don’t need to know.’” (Lebrecht, 194)  This Devil-may-care attitude is indicative of Mahler’s life and career.  Such a fitting end for an interesting and passionate man.

Why Mahler? is written in three major parts.  Section I deals with some frequently asked questions about the man and his music before launching into a thorough biography in Section II.  The final section examines issues of interpretation and will be a valuable resource to any student of Mahler’s orchestral works. 

Lebrecht explains the need for this final section by telling us about Mahler’s views as a composer and conductor.
Mahler was, on the one hand, a precisionist who tried to leave nothing to chance and, on the other, a dreamer in pursuit of an unattainable perfection.  Recognizing these limitations, he licensed conductors to use their discretion when performing his works.  “If after my death something doesn’t sound right,” he told Otto Klemperer, “then change it.  You have not only the right but the duty to do so.” (Lebrecht, 212)

Lebrecht then launches into a detailed analysis of major recordings of each of the orchestral works, citing successes, failures, and missteps by leading conductors.  Lebrecht is quite thorough and provides both historical and contemporary examples.  While this section is not a page-turner like the biography, the extensiveness and breadth of the discussion makes it an enormously valuable resource.

Wonderfully written in a mostly flowing prose style, Why Mahler? is an excellent book to add to any music historian’s and performer’s library.  Whether you are looking for a simple introduction to the life of this composer or intimate details, this book will certainly have what you are looking for.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Teaching in Students’ Homes

As the summer begins to wind down, I find myself finalizing plans for a new year in my piano studio. With the decision to move to a new location comes lots of excitement as new students are preparing to begin learning about piano playing. My former students are just beginning to contact me about their future plans. One option that is available to them is the possibility of continuing lessons in their homes. When I initially made the offer to these students, I honestly didn't expect that any of them would opt for that. I am happy to say that I have a student who plans to continue studying with me and I will teach her in her home. I feel perfectly comfortable with this family so I am not terribly worried about the process. However, now that I realize this is a valid option for many students, I have begun to consider the pros and cons of teaching private lessons in student homes.
Here are the positive aspects
that I have come up with so far.
  • Stable schedule.
    If a cancellation is going to occur, there is a greater responsibility on the family to notify me so I don't arrive unexpectedly.
  • Fewer cases of forgotten music.
    Although they may not be able to place their hands on the music immediately, there will be fewer opportunities for losing music by transporting it from piano to car to studio.
  • Community awareness.
    I anticipate other families noticing that I am visiting at the same time each week and associating my presence with the sounds (hopefully pleasant) coming from the house. It's just another opportunity to publicize my studio and possibly secure additional lessons.
  • Teaching on the home instrument.
    Students sometimes have difficulty transferring the concepts learned in the studio to their home practice environment. By teaching in the home environment, I anticipate that we can establish some routine to follow for the remainder of the week that we have demonstrated in the lesson.
  • Parental presence.
    Parents are always welcome in my studio (as long as they are not distracting to the lesson), but few of them actually take the opportunity to observe. Teaching in the home creates a greater likelihood that the parent may be working in a nearby room, hearing the comments and instructions given to the student. This scenario offers increased inquiry from the parents about assignments and progress. It also insures that I will have solid face time with parents each week; no more drop offs of a student without at least seeing the adult.
  • Increased pay.
    Let's face it – earning a higher rate for the lesson is one of the primary reasons any of us would consider teaching in the home. Parents are aware of the cost of gas and are willing to pay an additional fee since they do not have to travel. Additionally, they are thankful that you are fitting their home into your busy schedule.
There are a few negatives
that are a bit of a concern to me.
  • No control of the learning environment.
    Since I will be teaching in a student's home, I will have little sway over the established environment of the home. Will the television be blaring in the next room? Will an older sibling be listening to an ear-piercing CD upstairs? There are additional concerns as well including traffic in the area, pets, and lighting.
  • Quality of the instrument.
    It has been my experience that many parents of beginning students give significant consideration to the financial cost of an instrument with less emphasis placed on its quality. While I understand that some families are doing the best they can to simply have an instrument at all and pay for weekly lessons, a student can be significantly hampered if they never have the opportunity to play on an instrument of the highest quality.
  • Use of technology and manipulatives.
    I am looking forward to adding computer-aided learning to my bag of tricks this year in my studio as well as recording students' lessons for their personal reference. In-home students will miss the benefits of these lesson aspects since I won't be packing up all the equipment to carry in for a single lesson.
  • Student isolation.
    There is simply something to be said for watching students leaving the studio before your lesson time. It was always a thrill to me to catch the last few minutes of the lesson prior to mine and to compare myself to their performance. It's also a great way to be introduced to new repertoire. In the home, the student will miss out on that sense of camaraderie and community generated by being in the studio. I will attempt to alleviate the isolation by making personal invitations to participate in group classes and outings throughout the year.
Do you teach students in their homes? What bullet points would you add to my lists? Tell me about your experiences as well as the positives and negatives you see in the comment section below.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Video: Arnold Schoenberg

We are down to the last few days of summer school, so I have begun an abbreviated look at the music of the early 20th century with the students.  Today we spent a sizable portion of our time together looking at Arnold Schoenberg.  My students were very impressed with Wagner's contributions at the end of the Romantic era, so they were fascinated with Schoenberg.  It is always amazing to me that Schoenberg's advancements move so far forward that he has to abandon tonality entirely.  I cannot begin to imagine the genius that would conceive of this possibility.

In my research for class, I ran across an interesting (and brief) video on YouTube about the composer's life and influences.  Take a few minutes and appreciate the life and music of Arnold Schoenberg.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Adult Piano Lessons

When some people think of piano lessons, their mind immediately imagines a child sitting quietly at a piano, mindlessly practicing dull finger exercises.  Thankfully that is not an accurate image on several fronts!  The aspect of piano lessons that is sometimes most surprising is that adults can enjoy lessons and experience success.

Why would an adult learner want to take piano lessons?  The reasons are as diverse as the individuals.  Some are returning to an instrument of their childhood; many express that they took lessons for a season and now regret leaving the study of music for other pursuits.  On the flip side, some adults find themselves with more time and self-discipline to devote to a new hobby that has always intrigued them.

The benefits of adult piano lessons are both emotional and physical.  My adult students report that they find the routine of a practice regime to be relaxing; they are further transported to a happy place as the sounds of the instrument wash over their ears, cleansing the cares of the day.  Others treat playing the piano as physical therapy, especially those suffering with arthritis in their hands.  The movement of the hands somehow seems to release some of the tension and restore mobility.

Adult learners experience success at the piano due to their increased mental capacity and hand-eye coordination.  In certain cases, however, their increased ability to think logically can become a stumbling block.  While a child simply accepts some musical facts, the adult learner wants to understand the "why" behind the principle.  This deeper voyage into music theory can create temporary frustration for the adult learner, but ultimately leads to a fuller understanding and mastery of musical concepts.

Adult students are self-motivating and highly disciplined.  They are aware that the practicing process brings gradual results and that consistency and perseverance are key.  Because the adult is pursuing musical instruction without pressure from an authority figure such as a parent, the student relaxes more and enjoys the trip rather than focusing all their energies on reaching the final destination.

Is it ever too late to begin studying music?  Not at all...especially when we realize that the joy is in the process as well as the final product. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How Young is Too Young?

Like most piano teachers, I get asked a ton of questions about piano lessons over and over again.  One question seems to come up more often than the others:  what is the youngest student you are willing to teach?  In other words, how young is too young?

I wish there was a simple answer to this question.  No two children are exactly alike.  A 4-year-old may be ready for lessons while a 6-year-old is not.  Here are some of the questions I ask inquiring parents to help them determine if now is the time to begin lessons for their youngster.

  • Does the child have a firm grasp on the alphabet, counting, and sequencing?  These skills are fundamental to some of the basic elements of playing the instrument.
  • Can the child remain focused on a single task for several minutes?  While the lesson is broken up into various segments and activities are varied in order to keep young minds active, the student will still need to be able to remain on task for 5 minutes at a time. 
  • Has the student shown interest in playing the piano?  You would not believe the number of times that parents answer "no" to this question.  While I firmly believe in musical education, it is not something to be forced upon a child.  Placing them in lessons before they are emotionally, physically, and intellectually ready can result in a negative experience.
Once I have asked these simple questions, I begin to get a sense of who the child is - in the parent's mind, at least.  If it seems that the child might be ready for lessons and is younger than 7, I advise the adult that young children sometimes progress slower than their older counter parts.  I cannot predict where it will happen, but there often seems to be a single concept that becomes a roadblock to the young mind and takes a while to get past.  Rather than focusing on what they cannot do, I choose to spend a lot of time re-enforcing what they have already learned in order to insure that they are still enjoying playing the piano.  Generally, the student will let me know when they are ready to explore the new concept again through their questions and we normally have success.

If the parent is cool with a slower pace for the young child, I recommend having a few lessons together without making a long term commitment.  This allows everyone involved -- teacher, parent, and student -- to see if the relationship will work and is worth the investment of time and finances at this time.

If pushed into a corner to give an age, I normally suggest that a child begin lessons no earlier than the spring semester of kindergarten.  There's nothing scientific that I've found to support's just been my experience.  Let me hear from you.  How young is too young to begin piano lessons in your studio?