Thursday, June 30, 2016

Helping Struggling Students in Group Settings

Teaching piano in a group setting is becoming more and more common. There are advantages to the set-up. We can teach more students with less time since much of the early instruction can be introduced in the same way for most students. For many teachers, however, the situation can be challenging and intimidating. Few of us were taught in a group, so transferring concepts from an individual delivery to one appropriate for a lecture hall can be tough. What's more troublesome is how to offer help to students that are struggling with a concept. Do we hold the rest of the class back or begin teaching a bunch of private lessons in a large room? Here are some of the ways that I have found to offer help to a struggling student while maintaining the structure and integrity of group instruction.

Repetition! Repetition! Repetition! Once a new concept has been introduced and the task has been successfully completed by the majority of the students, it is time to begin working on something new. However, mastery of the recently achieved skill also needs to occur. When you have students that are struggling with a skill, try to find a piece that refines the newly acquired skill while also introducing a new concept. This allows the struggling student to continue focusing on the problem area while offering practice for the rest of the class without making them feel as though they are stalling out. If you can't find an appropriate piece, consider composing one yourself or assigning composition projects to your students.

Move from the known to the unknown. Whenever possible, connect new skills to those that have already been mastered for easier understanding. For example, before introducing scales that involve the crossing of the thumb, I have students play a melody that requires the index finger to reach over the thumb. By experiencing the movement of the finger out of the 5-finger pattern, students are ready to begin exploring how the hand naturally moves with a finger cross.

Include instruction on how to practice. Students generally want to succeed. They understand that personal practice is necessary to succeed. What they are often missing is a full understanding of HOW to practice. Demonstrate how to pull out sections of the piece to focus on. Help students develop practice techniques that lead to mastery of that section. Encourage students to use similar approaches in their private rehearsal. As you introduce new practice techniques, students will become more capable of determining what technique is most helpful for each passage.

Offer mini-lessons. Before asking students to play for a grade, I try to offer a brief mini-lesson a few weeks in advance. These short 5 or 10 minute sessions pull students out of the group setting and allow them to get personalized attention. After a student plays the piece (or assigned segment) for me, we begin with an evaluation of the performance before identifying the next step needed to arrive at the desired outcome. If several steps are needed or the student seems overwhelmed, this is an opportunity to develop a road map or practice path that breaks the final goal into smaller, achievable goals. If a practice path is developed, it is advisable to include deadlines for each small goal in pursuit of the final outcome. With support and reassurance, the student will gradually become confident in creating their own road map to practice success.

What additional suggestions do you have for ensuring that all of your students succeed? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Will You Play for My Wedding?

It's a question that most pianists will hear repeatedly throughout their career. I've played for more than my fair share of wedding ceremonies. Family weddings. Weddings of college friends and fraternity brothers. Other friends, acquaintances, as well as random individuals have contracted my services for their special days. Now that I've played so many weddings, I can confidently say I have made some mistakes and learned a few lessons along the way. Here are some of the tips that I wish someone had told me when I first started this summer rite of passage for the pianist.

  • Establish your base rate. Playing for weddings is part of the business of making a living as a pianist. It is important that you know your base rate as well as what services are included. Average rates for pianists vary by location, so begin by doing some research on the average cost of wedding musicians. Once you know the range, determine how busy you want to be and set your rate accordingly. As you set your rate, take into account your level of experience, availability, and professional credentials. At this point, it is also helpful to determine what basic services are included/available for every wedding you play. In my current situation, I don't want to play ceremonies very often, so I have a rate at the higher end of the spectrum that includes processional pieces for the bridal party, a standard recessional march, and the accompaniment of one vocal solo. If other services are needed (e.g. prelude, postlude, transposition), there will be additional charges.
  • Have a list of suggested pieces available for the bride at your first consultation. When you speak with the bride, get a sense of what type of wedding she is looking for. Is she a traditional bride or is she looking for something "different" from the norm? Is there a strong religious component to the service that needs to be reflected in the music? As you define various wedding scenarios, you will be able to suggest appropriate pieces. If the bride has something specific in mind, be able to clearly state if you know the piece and have music in your library or if it's something you will need to obtain and learn. The latter situation will be reflected in your fees.
  • Realize that most brides and wedding coordinators you work with are not musicians. This means that they can't always clearly tell you what they need. It is your job to read between the lines, offer ideas based on your expertise, and make the music work. (The same can be said of many of the "singers" that are asked to perform at the wedding. It's not unusual to find that they are a merely a friend who can carry a tune, but has no formal training.)
  • Speaking of singers, carefully craft your policy on transposition and the use of lead sheets. Do you offer these services at all? How far in advance must transpositions be finalized and unchangeable? These skills are highly specialized and require more time than learning an arrangement from the page. Make sure that your comfort level with these skills are reflected in your rates. (If I'm going to transpose something with just a few days notice...that's fine, but YOU WILL PAY DEARLY!)
  • Determine any exceptions to your established policy. Hopefully, every pianist has friends and family members that they will want to celebrate with as they prepare to marry. Most performers offer their services at a reduced rate or even offer them as their gift to the couple. Work through these exceptions in your own mind -- but don't advertise them to potential couples -- in advance so you can make sure that you are taking care of yourself in all circumstances. My personal policy is that I play for members of my immediate family for free; "immediate family" is based on my definition and no one else's. Additionally, I have made it a practice to offer my services as wedding gifts to a select group of fraternity brothers. I have identified the years included and have made very few exceptions based on personal relationship with men who fall outside of those specific years. Anyone else that falls into an "exception" category -- close family friend, extended family, other fraternity brothers -- are offered a reduced rate. I let them know what the ceremony would normally cost and then inform them of the discount. Sometimes these individuals are insulted that I don't offer to play for free; others insist on paying the full rate. I have found it important for me to remember that while this is a joyous celebration for the couple and that I want to celebrate with them, it is also a business endeavor for me that I have to be compensated for.
Let's end this post with a few HELPFUL TIPS I've learned over the years during wedding rehearsals and ceremonies.
  • Meet vocal soloists 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the rehearsal. If you meet earlier, you will end up doing more playing and the bride inevitably becomes involved. Additionally, wedding rehearsals rarely begin on time, so you will have a little wiggle room. If everyone has learned their part, this should be more than enough time for the rehearsal. In the event that additional rehearsal is absolutely necessary, it is always possible to hang around in the sanctuary for a few minutes after the wedding rehearsal to fix problem areas.
  • Processionals can be the most problematic portion of the rehearsal. Suggest to the coordinator that the party walk through the processional without music first so you can get an idea of how much music will be needed. Truthfully, you are just looking for cues to make transitions to the next piece of music (e.g. last member of the bridal party, movement of the mothers, etc.) and making sure everyone knows where they are going before adding music to the mix.
  • Keep an eye out for sight line problems from the piano. If there is an issue, mention it to the coordinator quietly and together come up with a solution. In most cases, the last groomsman/bridesmaid is able to communicate with you without distracting the audience's focus from the center of the ceremony. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Keeping Practice Fun

Summer is here and we are all hoping to have a little fun! There are vacations to take and holidays to celebrate. In the midst of it all, it is still important to maintain a semi-regular practice routine. I've found that I do better with my summer practicing if I look for ways to make practicing feel more like a game. In other words, I'm looking for ways to keep practicing fun. Here are some of the key components I try to include.

  • Variety is the spice of life. I make sure that I am working on a variety of styles of music -- classical, musical theater, sacred, jazz -- as well as ensembles (solos, duets, choral, etc.) I can also ensure variety in my practice sessions by shifting my focus throughout. After working on shaping phrases in one piece, I focus on things like memory, learning the notes, rhythm, or dynamics in the following selections.
  • Not every piece everyday. It's summer, so I need to feel that my practice schedule is a little more relaxed. After all, my mind and body needs to rest as well. So I don't feel the pressure to get to every piece I'm working on in each rehearsal. How do I make sure that everything is getting needed attention though? I'm finding that a practice journal is extremely helpful in keeping track of what I've done and revealing what still needs attention. (I'll be talking more about my experience with practice journaling in the next few weeks.)  I'm also finding that sometimes solutions reveal themselves during the summer months when we just put the piece away for a few days. It's an amazing thing that I don't fully understand, but I'm loving the reality of it.
  • Change up your normal routine. Think about your normal practice session and look for ways to make it different this summer. A change of scenery is always a great option. If you can play a different instrument for a little while, that's wonderful. Perhaps you can change the visual appearance of your setting by adding a vase of shells or a new painting on the wall. You can also change the routine by trying out some new practice techniques. Since many of us teach young students as well, summer is a great time to get in touch with your inner child. Is there a practice game you've been thinking about? Try it out in your own repertoire and see what kind of results you get. Not only will you be doing something that might be rather fun, you'll also be perfecting techniques to share with your students in the fall.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Help for the Church Pianist: Chord Charts

Today's post is the first in a new series here on Collaborations. "Help for the Church Pianist" will explore various aspects of the pianist's role and challenges in the modern congregation. Special attention will be given to pianists with little or no collegiate training who are serving congregations that use blended and/or contemporary worship music. To begin, let's look at one of the most common problems for the modern church pianist.

Every church pianist faces this most challenging situation at some point. Rehearsal is only a few hours away and you receive a new song to learn. The only problem is that you are not given a score to read; instead, in your hand is the dreaded chord chart!

Chord charts and lead sheets are very similar, so the terms are often used interchangeably. The distinction between the two is that a lead sheet will include a single line of music (melody line) printed with accompanying chords. Chord charts simply have the lyrics with chord symbols floating over them. (And we hope that the included chord symbols are actually correct!)

How does the pianist approach these uninformative pieces of paper that we need to use to create a satisfying accompaniment? Here is my process.

  1. Learn the melody. Whether dealing with a chord chart or a lead sheet, begin the process by listening to a recording. Pay special attention to the tempo and overall style. At this point, weed out all of the extra runs fluff the singer may have added on the recording and learn the melody as simply as possible. After all, that is the melody that the congregation will most likely sing. Once you have the melody in your ear, begin to pick it out on the piano. If you prefer relying on notation instead of memory, this would be the time to write out the melody on staff paper. It might be time consuming now, but it will be incredibly beneficial later!
  2. Determine the key. Before beginning to work out the accompaniment, make sure you know what key the song is going to be performed in. Start by establishing the key used on the lead sheet/chord chart. The key signature, chord structure, and melodic line can all be used to come to a final answer. However, accept the fact that many of today's contemporary artists perform music in keys much too high for use in most church settings. If your worship leader provided you with a chord chart, it is probable that your worship team is guitar driven and you will be expected to transpose on the spot. One clear way to know if the chart will be played in a different key is to watch out for "capo" markings......they are normally found at the top of the chord chart and will read something like "Capo 2." (If you're not familiar with how a capo works, talk to any guitarist around for a quick tutorial.)
  3. Block chords under the melody. Now that you know the key, you can begin to put chords under the melody line. Keep everything simple right now. Root position chords will help you make sure that the chord progressions make sense. If you run into chord symbols that look like F/A or Eb/F, simply play the chord listed above the slash (or those before the slash) at this point in root position. As you play, listen for chords that are unexpected; you will want to highlight these in your final performance. Also make note of any chords that are difficult for you to spell. You'll need to be very familiar with all chord spellings in the next step.
  4. Try to play the melody with some harmonic support in the right hand alone. I know this sounds tedious, but it will make the transition to your final arrangement much easier. I promise! Play the melody in the upper voice of the right hand and add as much harmonic color as you can by adding the other notes of the chord below. This step of the process builds fluidity in your playing, forces your right hand to use various inversions of the chord, and ensures that you can provide melodic support at any time that the congregation seems to struggle during the learning process.
  5. Add octaves in left hand. Now that you have harmonic structure in the right hand, you can fill things out by adding octaves in the left hand. In most cases, you just need to play the root of the chord.  In other words, if G is printed above the lyrics, play two G's in the left hand. (If you want to add more richness to the sound, experiment with adding the fifth of the chord in the middle of the open octave.) The exception comes when you see chords that include slashes -- like F/A or Eb/F. These types of notations indicate chord inversions or pedal tones in the harmonic progression. The note listed after the slash should be the bottom pitch of the chord you play -- the lowest note in the left hand. So when you see F/A, the easiest solution is to play an F triad in the right hand (using the right hand inversion you decided on when playing the melody and harmony with that hand alone) and an A octave in the left hand. Does it make a difference in the sound? Most definitely! Taking the time to include these inverted chords will make the bass line of your accompaniment move smoothly and help the listener anticipate the harmonic progression of the song.
  6. Lastly, add embellishments. I'll talk more about embellishing in a future post. For now, just understand that this is your opportunity to add things to make the sound more exciting while still supporting the melodic line. Consider including scales and arpeggios to anticipate a vocal entrance. Is there a long sustained note at the end of the phrase? This is the perfect place to add a short counter-melody (as long as it works within the framework of the basic chord.) You can also embellish the left hand to help propel the rhythm. You can often find inspiration for a rhythmic embellishment by thinking about the bass guitar's approach to the song. In a slower song, arpeggios in the left hand can provide a simple accompaniment to a melody that is largely slow and static.
As you can see, chord charts and lead sheets provide the pianist with only the basic information about the song. It can be overwhelming and frightening to have so little direction. It can also be very freeing and give you license to make the arrangement your own. Take a chance, try something new, and see what happens. You might discover that you enjoy working from chord charts after all!