Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Change of Scenery

Our practice routines are normally quite structured and regulated. I tend to begin my day at the piano with scales followed by either Czerny, Hanon, or the opening section of some Baroque or Classical piece that gets my fingers moving. After this, I'll begin to move to issues in my repertoire that need attention or polish before moving on to learning notes in new pieces. It's not uncommon to hear a few measures repeated multiple times to gain control or commit the passage to memory.

Not only are our processes marked by routine. I tend to enjoy practicing late in the morning and then again before dinner. There is a dent in the floor below my piano keyboard where I have regularly placed my feet while playing. The routine of our practice can sometimes become a hindrance as well. At times, our practice sessions can benefit from a change of scenery.

Last week, a black key (specifically the D# above middle C) detached from my piano while I was practicing Jeux d'eau by Ravel. Who would think that a single key would have such an impact on the rehearsal process? With auditions and performances on the horizon, I couldn't spare the time off because my piano was out of commission. I needed to find an alternate space to practice.

What I found was the sanctuary of the church I'm currently attending. That single session was invaluable! Because of the size of the room, I began to hear things I hadn't noticed in my home studio. For pianists, a new space also involves a different instrument. The sanctuary grand, a Baldwin, had a very sluggish action that didn't respond as I had hoped. (Am I the only pianist that CRINGES when I see a Baldwin that I'm expected to play? Inevitably, I tend to find them everywhere I go.) Even though I wasn't immediately getting the warm tones I desired, I was getting an opportunity to work on my adaptability to new situations.

This summer, take a chance, break out of your comfortable routine, and schedule a rehearsal in a different location. In addition to churches, you might investigate theater spaces, libraries, or even a private home with higher ceilings. If your instrument is easily moved, think about practicing in a secluded park among a cluster of trees. Wherever you choose to practice, the unusual setting will reveal aspects of your playing you weren't hearing before. Who knows? You might even find yourself inspired with a new interpretation or approach to the music. That's the ultimate goal of all of our practicing, after all.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Recruiting Students

In a recent conversation with a colleague, the topic of student recruitment was raised. As we talked about the necessity and challenges of recruiting quality students to our college programs, I began to realize that the challenge is much the same for a private teacher as it is for the college music department. As I've continued to reflect on this topic, these are a few key factors that came to my mind.

  • Visibility is essential. In order to draw students, they must know where we are and what we have to offer. A teacher or music department that does not have an active performing and/or lecturing schedule is certain to fall away into obscurity. What does this look like? In addition to recital appearances, the teacher should also actively participate in adjudication and master classes as a clinician whenever possible. Visibility is further enhanced through a powerful presence on social media outlets. Hosting various workshops, festivals, and group instruction opportunities can also put a music department on the radar of potential students.
  • Know your limitations! No teacher is strong in every area of musical instruction. Know where your strengths lie and focus on recruiting those students. A small music department with strengths in musical theater, accompanying, and classical performance should not focus their recruitment efforts on jazz players. The students will be disappointed, the faculty will not shine, and a negative reputation for the institution will result. Focus on what you know best and do that with excellence!
  • Don't ignore the community's impact. Some of the best marketing around comes by word of mouth. Look for opportunities to involve the local community in your music making and reap the benefit of positive feelings about your program. Music departments might host a community choir or theater group. To reach families with young children, a school could offer quality musical instruction at a reasonable price through a community music school. The private teacher can be an active participant in their local chapter of MTNA and participate in local amateur activities while establishing themselves as a gifted professional. Additionally, the private teacher might provide short seminars through a local arts council. Interactions of this type can often lead to greater involvement in the future.
  • Foster a sense of stability. If a private teacher wants to recruit a number of new students, families must sense that you are investing in the long-term development of the students. You have to put down some roots in the community. Music departments must make strides to eliminate constant faculty turn over. What serious student in their right mind would plan to attend a school where there is a high probability that they will have two or three different master teachers over the course of their collegiate career? That's the Catch-22 in higher education. Many small schools want to develop greater draw and retention among music majors, but they are unwilling to invest the finances to permit qualified, passionate faculty to make a long-term investment in the department necessary to build the program.
What other actions that lead to successful student recruitment and retention come to your mind? What has been most effective in your personal studio or college music department? What challenges have you faced? I'd love to hear about it all in the comments below.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Online Marketing for the Musician

Much of modern business is done digitally. We go to the Internet to find services we need while making comparisons and seeking the best value. Music is not exempt. Music professionals must have an online presence to establish their credibility and reach a wider audience.

I was reminded of the importance of my own Internet presence last spring. I received a phone call from a music professor in central Mississippi asking if I would adjudicate a piano festival. I was excited to participate and wanted to thank whoever had recommended me. As our conversation continued, I learned that my blog, Facebook page, and video performances led him to his final decision.

When I first began my career, I had no idea how to begin marketing myself. I still do not claim to be a master in this area and have much to learn. Here are a few things that I have learned about over the years that I offer as ideas to get you started in online marketing.

  • Create a website. This is the first point of contact for most people on the Internet. It sort of functions as your home base. Many sites offer inexpensive hosting and make basic designs accessible for the beginner. I highly recommend purchasing a domain name that is easy to remember and allows your clients to find you.  (My website is currently used exclusively to schedule rehearsals with me.)
  • Blog regularly. I've struggled with this point myself. Nothing draws attention better than regularly written posts that are honest, informative, and thought provoking. Collaborations began as a blog focused on chamber music; its focus quickly broadened to include teaching, rehearsal techniques, pedagogy, and anything else that came about as I began to pursue a career as a pianist. It's fine to have a mix of humorous and scholarly posts. The most important thing about blogging at the start is consistency.
  • Make video and audio recordings available of your work. Most of us immediately think of uploading videos to If you are like me, I also have audio files that would get lost on the video-based site. I have found to be an easy alternative for housing these audio files. Ideally, you will include links to your sample performances on your website. Just remember that these sites also benefit from fresh material; update your recordings as often as you can.
  • Offer scheduling of rehearsals and lessons online. This has been a life saver for me! Rather than rehashing the details here, check out this post from November, 2013 for information about my positive experiences with the website  
  • Facebook pages are relatively easy to set up and can reach a wide audience. Posts can include links to blogs, audio and video files, announcements about upcoming appearances, as well as sharing information about your daily musical life. Your goal is to get people talking. The problem can sometimes come in finding the balance between too many and too few posts. It's a balancing act that depends upon your audience.
That's just the tip of the iceberg of online marketing for musicians. The summer is the perfect time to begin exploring one or two of these. If you begin a blog or Facebook page, add a link in the comments section below. I'd love to follow you and find out what's going on in your corner of the musical world as well.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Example of Failure in Public School Music

A few weeks ago, I attended my niece's middle school choir concert. I have never been more appalled by a student concert! The program featured 3 choirs -- a girls' advanced ensemble, a beginner girls' chorus, and a traditional mixed group -- and 8 soloists selected from the groups through an audition process. If I didn't feel the need to support my niece, I would have walked out as soon as her choir had finished singing.

Let's examine the concert. Truthfully, the choirs did not sound that bad -- they were just very young. The tone quality was certainly not on par with other middle school choirs in the area. The repertoire was exclusively arrangements of pop songs. I realize this is the music the students enjoy, but the one-sided approach does little to develop their skills and prepare them for success as they enter the high school program.  Of the 8 soloists, only 3 or 4 showed the ability to confidently maintain pitch. To go further, only 2 of these students displayed appropriate polish to be included in a public performance. The evening's pianist did not provide the driving rhythmic vitality the young voices desperately needed.

In my opinion, the failure of this concert rests firmly on the shoulders of the director. Her comments throughout the concert gave some insight. She did not speak with authority or conviction; rather, her comments came across as bumbling because of lack of preparation. She constantly referred to the fact that these songs represented artists she enjoyed. I wonder how much thought was given to their educational value for the young singers? Most damning, however, was her statement that this was the first departing class that had been entirely under her direction. In other words, the choral program no longer reaped the benefits of the teachers who came before her.

Perhaps this concert was an abnormal performance for this choral program. Every musician knows that you are only as good as your last performance. Sadly, I can now understand why funding is being pulled from arts education in the public schools if this is the result. It's time to make it a viable option financially for excellent musicians to teach our children rather than having to settle for anything less than excellent musical training.