Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fostering Student Enthusiasm

Every teacher longs for the day that students show enormous enthusiasm for the topic. When the newfound excitement is the result of a "lightbulb" moment or finally connecting two seemingly unrelated concepts, the thrill is immeasurable. I have witnessed this student excitement repeatedly in the past few days.

Several of my students have attended concerts this week and have found it invigorating to make connections between the classroom lectures and the realities of the concert hall. Nothing brings a smile to my face quicker than hearing a student tell me how much they enjoyed the experience. For many of the students, it was their first time to attend a classical concert. Their expectations (despite my best efforts) were low. When they finally grasp the concept that they understand more about the concert than they had anticipated, they are thrilled and let down their guard, enjoying the experience for what it is.

Once the thrill of new knowledge has worn off, the challenge becomes finding ways to continue fostering the excitement in the life of the student. That's where I'm finding myself these days....attempting to motivate some students to continue in their academic pursuits while trying to build enthusiasm in those who have not yet tightly screwed their "lightbulb" into the proverbial socket. The challenge of multitasking is what makes the art of successfully teaching students so difficult and incredibly fulfilling!

Monday, September 24, 2012


Last weekend, I had the good fortune of hearing Gabriela Montero play the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Montero's playing was exquisite and exhilarating.  While I enjoyed the Rachmaninoff, what most caught my attention was what happened upon her return to the stage for bows.

Montero explained that improvisation had been a tradition of many great composers throughout history and was something that she had enjoyed since her childhood.  She then proceeded to improvise for the audience.  What I found most impressive was that she accepted a suggested theme from the audience;  the selected song was Elvis Presley's Hound Dog. This was certainly one of the last songs I would have thought to consider for improvisation. The resulting experience was phenomenal! As I left the auditorium, I began to consider the role of improvisation in my own music making and in the lives of my students.

Montero mentioned that she had always enjoyed improvising and seemed to imply that it was something she could simply do. Did she really have no one teach her about improvisation? Is improv something that you are simply born with or you don't have it? In my own musical life, I have never considered myself imaginative and thought that only composers can create new sounds. While I understand harmonic progressions, I find myself tied to the page when I play. When I attempt to improvise, I am afraid to depart from the sounds that are defined as safe and acceptable.

I have equated improvisation with a skill set needed in jazz performance only. Since I am not a jazzer and have no aspirations to become one, I have never seen a need to develop my inner ear. After witnessing Montero's performance, however, I realize that I have been shutting out an entire dimension of music making that can only enhance my own performance.

So the question becomes how do I begin to learn how to improvise? It certainly doesn't come naturally to me. I struggle to simply let go and follow the music wherever it may take me. Often I find that a figure reminds me of a melody I know and I begin to play that work. How do I get past the fear that I'll make a mistake that will simply not be acceptable? While I'm learning how to improvise myself, are their exercises I can introduce to my students so we can grow in this area side by side?

As you can see, I don't have any of the answers.....just lots of questions. I don't think I'm the only one out there that is petrified at the thought of improvising in front of an audience. I would love to hear from those of you who have explored the magical world of improv and found comfort, joy, and personal success. Where did you start? What tips are you willing to pass on as I begin my own journey into this foreign realm of music making?  Leave your experiences, stories and suggestions in the comment section below.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Necessity of Weekly Lessons?

On Saturday, I had a very successful lesson with my newest student. It was clear that he had worked hard and was making progress on the pieces I had assigned just a few weeks earlier. Due to a conflict with my schedule last week, we hadn't seen each other in two weeks. At the end of the lesson, his mother informed me that they would be out of town the following weekend. Because of the lesson time we found that would work for both schedules, these know that cancellations like this will be more of the rule than the exception. We have mentioned that bi-weekly lessons might be a feasible solution. That got me thinking....are weekly lessons absolutely essential for the intermediate and advanced student?

Of course, I believe that the ideal situation is for student and teacher to meet weekly in order to check progress and give direction. For many teens and adults, however, such a schedule is tough. (Who am I kidding? It's often difficult for the teacher to find another lesson slot each week!) Will bi-weekly lessons be so bad? Is it possible to provide adequate guidance to keep the student busy for 2 weeks without overwhelming them in a single session?

Without launching into my personal opinions (as they currently stand at least), I'd like to hear from the other teachers out there. Have you ever given a student lessons every other week? What did you find to be the biggest challenges? Do you have suggestions of things to make sure I am aware of from the start of this arrangement? I'm really looking forward to hearing from all of you!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Teaching with a Hymnal

One of my late elementary students is also my niece.  She is showing lots of promise as a vocalist and intends to pursue music as a career. She is passionate about church music and enjoys playing it. So a few weeks ago, I decided to use her as my guinea pig and experiment with using the hymnal in my instruction to students actively involved in the church.

Let's begin by understanding a few things about Sara. Her innate musical abilities surpass her technical skills at the piano. Because the sounds of a traditional method book have not captured her interest, she has resisted practicing. That's when I decided I had nothing to lose with this experiment. Here's how things have progressed so far.

I found that the hymn Jesus Loves Me is in C Major in my congregation's hymnal (The Celebration Hymnal). We began with a simple sight-reading exercise of the soprano line and discussed how the pianist's eyes and ears work in union together to learn a familiar piece of music. Sara enjoyed playing a familiar piece, so I took things a step further and encouraged her to play the soprano and alto lines. This proved to be more challenging, but definitely possible. It was also an opportunity to further discuss thirds in preparation for our first introduction to chords and harmonic progression. Sara found the greatest challenge in overcoming the hand shifts required to play the piece. Since it was a familiar piece, however, she was willing to apply herself and work through the difficulty.

Today's lesson was a wonderful experience for both of us. Sara had put in the time to successfully get through the entire hymn. After her performance, she mentioned that she was still struggling to make things sound smooth -- a perfect segue way into my instruction on the importance of carefully chosen finger patterns. Rather than moving into her method book today (which I admit I use as a crutch since I'm still developing as a teacher), I thought this might be a good time to begin discussing chords. To my great surprise, Sara grasped the concept quickly and discovered the natural relationship between the dominant and tonic. This week, Sara is going to experiment with creating a chord chart for the hymn as well. I'm interested to see what she comes up with and which method she feels more comfortable working with.

I'm not certain how long we'll continue to use a hymnal in our study of music, but for the moment it is proving to be an invaluable tool. Are you using the hymnal or some similar tool in your studio? I'd love to hear the assignments you are using and the results that you're experiencing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bouts with Brittan

A new semester has begun and that means I have lots of new music to learn. It's actually one of my favorite times of the year. I thrive on getting all of this wonderful music in my hands that I'm not familiar with and getting to plow through it so I can learn the notes as quickly as possible.

This year has an added "treat" for me. I'm one of the pianists for opera workshop. This term features Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. This is going to be an interesting experience for me since I am not terribly versed in the British composer's works and it will be my first time to play rehearsals for a full-staged opera. (Previously, I've only played scenes or assisted during vocal coachings.)

I picked up the score late in the spring so I could learn the music over the summer. I worked through a few passages, but quickly realized that I really don't like the show. Its harmonies are challenging and often feels extremely repetitive. At the end of August, however, the cast and I got together for a rough read through. I was pleasantly surprised! Intellectually I know that is a perfect formula, but it was so nice to realize that this short opera is not going to be the horrendous experience I was anticipating. Thankfully I'm only responsible for 1 hour of rehearsals on Monday afternoons most weeks. A few passages are going to demand a lot of work on my part to just get through them, but most are actually quite pianistic.

I know I'm going to learn a lot through this experience. I'm certain there are things I should be preparing for that I am omitting because of ignorance. What was the one thing you wish someone had told you when you played for your first opera? I'll keep you all informed of what's happening as we progress through the semester.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Constantly Changing Circumstances

Flexibility is not a quality that comes naturally to me. I have a plan and generally like to follow that plan to the project's completion. The past few weeks have required lots of flexibility for me personally. I think some of the lessons I have learned will make me a better teacher and performer.

For the past couple of weeks, I have struggled with a horrible sinus infection paired with a separate infection in my lungs. Needless to say, I was pretty miserable and really didn't feel like doing much of anything. The junior college where I work has a policy of not canceling class under any circumstance. In an effort to insure that learning continues, it becomes easy for faculty to feel as though they are being punished rather than cared for during illness and difficult times. My sickness was the worst during the first week of classes. I could have gotten a sub, I suppose, but my students did not have the elementary knowledge they would need to perform an assignment without my presence that would not have been a waste of their time. I decided to pull myself out of bed for the week and teach the classes, modifying the lectures on the spot. Many of the concepts that I normally demonstrated vocally were not possible this semester because I could not produce a sound! Some portions of the lecture require more energy than others, so I found myself re-evaluating course progression in order to allow me to catch my breath while attempting to insure that students were making important connections between concepts.

My responsibilities at the church didn't go on vacation either. It became clear early on that the plans I had made would have to be altered for at least two weeks. This wasn't as difficult at the situation at school, but it still demanded attention.

On Saturday, I'm finally beginning to feel like a human again and I'm looking forward to my first lesson with the new student transferring into my studio. I have planned for the lesson, selected repertoire I think he will enjoy, and developed a plan for how we will progress this term. At our initial meeting together, I was impressed by his musicality and his willingness to tackle demanding repertoire. We began our time together on Saturday by reading the opening passage of Schumann's Knecht Ruprecht (Op. 68, No. 12). It was then that I made a startling discovery. You guessed it...the student can't read bass clef! When I asked how he had learned to play the things he presented to me initially, he revealed that he had simply counted the lines and spaces to figure out the left hand notes. Since he was able to play complicated left hand passages, his former teacher simply assumed he was reading the notes.

My plans for the term immediately changed and I had to decide on the spot how to salvage this lesson that was suddenly not going to go according to my plan! I introduced reading the bass clef and moved on to another piece that had a static bass part. Why? I didn't want the student's first lesson to be completely frustrating and I needed to have some time to regroup and decide how we were going to proceed in the coming weeks. I still don't have a clear vision of how we'll move ahead, but I'm anxious to see his progress when he comes back this week. I'm seeing a lot of left hand works and piano duets on the immediate horizon. It's a good thing that I'm learning to be more flexible......or else I'd still be tied in knots because my plans had fallen through before they even started!

Fortunately, the constantly changing circumstances is part of what I find exciting and thrilling about a life in music!