Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Celebration 2015 - A Review

If you are one of my Facebook friends (and in some cases, just a friend of a friend), you have seen at least some of the videos of piano arrangements of favorite Christmas carols that I recorded this year and referred to as my Christmas Celebration. Now that the project is over, I thought I should share some of details about the process as well as some lessons I learned.

How it all began....

While with my family over Thanksgiving break, several comments were made around the dinner table about how family members were going to miss hearing me play Christmas music during the holidays. I decided it would be fun to record a carol arrangement for each day leading up to Christmas to share with them on Facebook. When I returned home on November 30, I began the recording process.

Making the videos....

This project was originally intended for my family, so production value was not a primary concern. The videos were recorded in my piano studio at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas using the Camera app in my iPad. I literally balanced the iPad on a music stand, punched the record button and sat down to play. After getting an acceptable performance -- a daunting task at times -- I used the video editing capabilities found in the Pictures app in order to clean up the beginnings and endings of videos.

The plan was to daily upload videos to both Facebook and my YouTube channel. All 25 videos currently reside on YouTube for easy retrieval in the future.

What happened next was surprising.....

On December 1, I uploaded the first video to my Facebook account and explained what my plan was for the month in this initial post. I expected this video (an arrangement of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) would have 75 total views or so. As the day progressed, I watched the view count climb. By that evening, the video had been viewed over 1,600 times. Facebook friends were thrilled for me and expressed their excitement for this project. (When I compiled the final tally of total views on December 26, this initial video had over 2,600 views.....the highest viewed posting of the project!)

With so many views, I quickly realized that this project had the potential for reaching a large audience and I wanted to give the best performances I could. In order to use the best instrument available -- the Steinway grand in my office -- all recordings needed to be completed before leaving Plainview for the holidays on December 14.

The final results.....

On December 26, I revisited each video on Facebook and YouTube to determine the total number of views. During the 25 days of my Christmas Celebration, I had 14,956 views! (Incidentally, 1,347 of those views happened on December 24 and 25.)

Because I enjoy looking at statistics, I could not resist determining which videos were most popular. The top 5 videos of this year's project based on number of views were

  1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (posted 12/1) - 2,626 views
  2. Grown Up Christmas List (posted 12/4 in memory of victims of San Bernadino terrorist attack) - 1,066 views
  3. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (posted 12/3) - 1,021 views
  4. Away in a Manger (posted 12/5) - 724 views
  5. O Holy Night (posted 12/24) - 677 views
What I learned from the project....
  • Recording and editing takes a lot of time! Even though I was just using apps on my iPad, the recording process ate up a lot of my spare time. I will definitely allow more time when planning future projects.
  • Consistency is vital. While driving home to Arkansas, I experienced some technological difficulties that prohibited me from posting at my normal time. My Facebook account was flooded with questions about when the next post would appear. People had gotten used to a routine and noticed when things did not happen as scheduled. I quickly stopped at a rest area, cleaned up my profile of the questions, and posted a statement that the day's video would be delayed until I arrived at home.
  • Sharing videos greatly expands the reach of social media. My profile is public, so anyone can see what I post there. However, as family and friends began to share the videos on their own timelines, my audience grew immensely. I began to receive friend requests from people who had seen the videos on a mutual friend's page and wanted to make sure they didn't miss any of the fun. I had not asked anyone to share the videos...but I'm certainly glad they did! The more people viewing the videos, the more fun the experience became.
  • Comments and likes are very encouraging. As I reached the middle of the project, I began to get tired and wondered if people were beginning to get annoyed with the volume of posts I was making. It was great to hear encouraging comments from friends I haven't spoken with in years, letting me know how much they were enjoying the daily videos. I tried to reply to as many of these comments and messages as I could, but I quickly realized it would demand all of my time to do so.

Where do we go from here?

This has been the question I have been asked repeatedly in the days since the Christmas Celebration ended. Are you going to do this again next year? Will you post something throughout the year? Some of these are easier to answer than others. Let's see if I can provide some answers now.

  • Will I do another Christmas Celebration? Plans are already underway for the Christmas Celebration 2016. I had a lot of fun recording the music and sharing the holiday spirit with friends near and far. The videos were repeatedly referred to as a Christmas gift and I want to give the gift again next year. My intention at this time is to offer 25 new arrangements (although you may hear some of the same carols) to keep things fresh.
  • Will I continue to record throughout the year? This is still up in the air. Offering Christmas videos is possible because it comes during a slower time in my academic life. I'm not ready to hang up my video hat entirely though. I am considering posting videos -- featuring hymn arrangements as well as Classical repertoire -- each month. Bear with me as I figure out how (and if) this is a realistic goal.
  • Do I take requests? Sure! I'll gladly take suggestions of carols or hymns you would like to hear recorded. I just don't promise that I'll necessarily do them. It depends if I can find a nice arrangement that speaks to me musically.
Beyond that, I don't know a lot more. I'm considering posting the videos on my blog site instead of to my personal Facebook account. I'm checking into obtaining microphones and cameras to improve the quality of the videos. An audio recording (that often-requested CD) is not entirely off the radar. At this point, I'm just enjoying the process of sharing my music with friends and family near and far. Thanks for being a part of the 2015 edition of the Christmas Celebration. If you have ideas that you think might be helpful for future projects, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Establishing a Daily Warm-Up Routine

Most people have a specific morning routine they use daily to get the day started. One of the first things in my daily routine is a trip to the refrigerator for the first Coca-Cola of the day. Afterwards, I'm ready to continue getting ready for the day ahead. Just as we establish a routine before venturing out the door, it is essential that we establish a daily routine to prepare our hands, ears, and mind for the day ahead at the piano. I firmly believe that the time we spend at the piano at the beginning of the day is among the most important -- and most commonly neglected -- part of our preparation as pianists.

Why is the warm-up session necessary?

  • It activates muscles that have been at rest during the night. An athlete would never consider beginning intense training without first stretching the muscles that were going to be involved. For far too long, pianists have ignored the fact that our daily regime of practice and performance places a similar amount of strain on the hands, arms, fingers, shoulders, and back as the exercises of world-class athletes.
  • Warm-ups provide an opportunity to have a heightened awareness about issues related to technique. In my present playing situation, much of my day is devoted to addressing issues of collaboration and musical shaping of the line. It is very easy in those times to shove thoughts of technique and facility to the back of my mind. The morning warm-up allows me to bring this important element of my playing to the forefront of my mind and make it my primary concern. This leads to my next point.....
  • The warm-up is an opportunity to notice unusual sensations. Pianists sometimes find themselves keeping insane rehearsal and performance schedules. For many years, I viewed these busy seasons as times that I was consistently ready to play with very little stretching needed. While I am able to get things moving with very little effort on most mornings, I am learning more and more just how important the morning session is, especially in these busy times. The warm-up is a time to confirm that everything is moving efficiently and smoothly in my hands and arms. It is also a chance to take note of any soreness or pain that may be present. In the safety of the warm-up session, I can begin to assess the source of the discomfort and initiate the appropriate response -- whether it's cancelling rehearsals to rest, playing only certain repertoire, or making a visit to my doctor.
  • The warm-up session also awakens the ears to quality sound production. Because much of the morning routine is played at a slow tempo (more on that later), it provides our ears a chance to intensely listen to the progressions we are creating as well as the quality of the tone we are producing. The best pianists realize that clean technical playing alone is not the goal of our labor; technique is a means to the end of producing the best sound possible.

How long should the warm-up be?

  • The answer to this question varies greatly among pianists. It depends upon how much time is available, the demands of the day, and how much playing you have been doing recently. On a typical day, I like to allow at least 30 minutes of relaxed warm-up before beginning any substantial work. I refuse to play at all without a minimum of 15 minutes alone at the piano.
  • Here are a few contributing factors that I have discovered in my personal playing that determine the length of my warm-up.
    • The longer I can spend gradually warming up my hands, the better the day will go because my hands just seem to work better.
    • However, I also find that less time is required to adequately warm-up if I have been playing daily in a healthy way. In other words, if I have rehearsed for no more than 3-5 hours the previous day (with adequate breaks), I find that my hands quickly return to a performance level. The same is not true the day after a performance!
    • Different types of playing require different types of warm-ups. I approach my morning routine differently when I am performing a recital than I do when the day is devoted to practice and ensemble rehearsals. I'm simply aware of the physical demands of the various situations and adjust the degree of warm-up accordingly.

What does a typical warm-up session look like?

  • The session as a whole progresses gradually from slow to fast movements. This ensures that muscles are appropriately stretched before demanding too much strain on them and greatly reduces the risk of injury.
  • Rather than having a full routine that I complete each day, I have an arsenal of tools that I use. This keeps me from getting bored and I find that I actually look forward to this initial bit of playing each day.
  • Regardless of what else is planned, every warm-up session begins with a series of scales. I normally play through most of the major scales -- 3 octaves ascending and descending -- just to get the fingers moving. When I feel that my fingers have begun to function, I move into some of the following areas.
  • Exercises/etudes. Throughout my training, the works of Czerny and Hanon have been an integral part of my technical development. I find that I return to these works on a regular basis because of their familiarity and my awareness of how my hands should feel while playing them.
  • Arpeggios. These exercises most commonly appear early in the week. Since I generally do limited playing on the weekend, I find that the long, sweeping gestures of arpeggios are a good way to get my shoulders and forearms moving as they should.
  • Sight Reading. I find that sight reading can be a positive part of the warm-up process. I intentionally play repertoire under tempo and pay close attention to the gestures demanded and my approach to them. I especially enjoy playing intermediate pedagogical material as well as the early sonatas of Haydn, Clementi, and Mozart.
  • Bach. Rarely do I program the works of J.S. Bach for public performance, but I tend to play at least one of his compositions each day. I find that his works are a wonderful way to start the day and awaken the hands, eyes, and ears. Right now, I am slowly working my way through the Preludes of the WTC. Other favorites are the Inventions and Notebooks as well as the Suites.
That's my daily routine. I would love to hear your thoughts about the importance of the warm-up session as well as what you typically play each day. I want to learn from your experiences as well, so share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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.

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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Importance of Great Beginnings in Music Education

Beginnings are vitally important. A great novel often grabs the reader's attention with the opening sentence. Hollywood blockbusters ensure their success through lavishly staged opening segments. Educators emphasize the importance of the first years of life to a child's intellectual development. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a solid early foundation in musical fundamentals is essential to a student's long term success.

The start of the new year is the perfect time for parents and teachers to evaluate the progress their beginning piano student has made thus far in their instruction. For many, the greatest problem is not determining whether or not progress is being made, but determining the cause when slow progress is observed. In my own teaching, I have discovered a few recurring issues that appear to contribute to the situation. I have listed them here in an order that I find helpful in discovering the underlying issue.

  • Unrealistic expectations. Because beginning piano students often excel in other pursuits, it is sometimes difficult for parents to realize that progress in music may come at a significantly slower pace. Like the acquisition of a new language, it takes time to become fluent in music. While it is not likely that your student is a prodigy like Mozart, discernible progress should be expected at a regular and steady pace. A child may struggle for a few weeks to grasp an elementary concept; this should not cause extreme concern. If the child continues to struggle with the same issue for more than three or four weeks with no discernible progress (assuming lessons are occurring regularly), it is advisable to look for a deeper cause of the stalemate.
  • Insufficient practice. "There are no shortcuts." I find this is often the cause of limited musical advancement that is overlooked by both parents and students. Regardless of how talented a pianist is, there is no substitute for practice. Consistent practice time at the piano is necessary to master new skills and to develop musicality. What should be practiced? Practicing is much more than just playing through the entirety of your repertoire. For starters, daily attention should be given to correcting errors, building technical skills, navigating challenging passages and shaping the melodic line. Instruction on how to practice and what to practice should be discussed in the piano lesson. How much practice is necessary? That's a common question that cannot be easily answered across the board. As a general rule, most beginning students should expect to invest at least 20 minutes in diligent practice each day. Rather than strictly focusing on the amount of time, however, I encourage students to use improvement as their motivation for daily practice.
  • Lack of parent-teacher communication. An open line of communication between the adults involved in the student's musical development is always extremely beneficial. The parent can provide insight into what is happening between lessons while also sharing areas of student frustration and confusion. The teacher that values parental input will be certain to provide information about supplemental resources (e.g. flash cards, technology aids, and additional music) that can aid the student's development. The most common method of parent-teacher communication comes in the form of a lesson notebook; with the increased use of technology in music instruction, electronic methods of communication between the home and studio are becoming more common, too. Whatever the method, the home communication allows the teacher to clearly state the week's goals while sharing additional information with parents. If a formal system of weekly communication has not already been established in the lesson, the parent should feel free to inquire about its development.
  • Misunderstood concepts. When a child is facing a road block in his musical development, a misunderstanding of an essential fact may be the root problem. A professional teacher should identify such circumstances quickly and develop a plan for correcting the error. If a parent observes a season of little progress, a gentle, non-threatening conversation with the student might reveal the misunderstanding that can then be communicated to the instructor. If the instructor becomes defensive when the issue is brought to their attention, it may be a signal that a more harmful problem exists.
  • Insufficient instruction. Once we have eliminated the above issues as the source of minimal student development, it then becomes necessary to examine the quality of instruction. Not everyone who can play an instrument is qualified to teach. Questions about professional training and teaching experience can often be obtained from a studio website or casual conversation with the teacher. Parents may also seek out information about the teacher's reputation in the community. If the instruction is found to be inferior, it is imperative to the student's development that a thoroughly qualified teacher be found as quickly as possible.
    • As a further note on the topic of instruction, it is also important to realize that no teacher is best in every situation. A pedagogue that specializes in adult beginners might not be the best fit for an adolescent student. A piano teacher with limited experience might not be a good fit for the student who is interested in the competitive circuit. Students with special needs will most greatly benefit from teachers who have specialized training and experience with similar students. Each situation is unique. The parent's best tools in making a decision about their child's study is information and personal intuition.
  • Absence of talent. As a last possibility, we must state that in extremely rare circumstances, a student may simply not possess any musical talent. I have never encountered a student who could not achieve some level of musical advancement through private instruction. Before allowing your student to be lumped into this "no hope" category, I recommend speaking frankly with all music teachers the student has encountered (school and private teachers, past and present) as well as other respected music professionals. The last thing that should happen is to have a child's musical interests crushed because of a poor assessment of their musical potential.