Sunday, June 17, 2012

Where in the world is Gould and Fall Piano?

Well, Robyn along with 4 of our piano students are in Salzburg visiting Mozart's home. Tomorrow they continue on to Munich!

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Transformative Piano Lesson

I've been thinking a bit about something one of my students said at the end of a lesson last semester. "I always come into my lesson feeling terrible, and by the end of the lesson I always feel so much better." I think that this is the highest praise I have ever received.

So, here's a bit of background about this student: She came to me as a high-school sophomore, and she is now a junior. Her life has been filled with drama from the first week of lessons to the present, both from home and school. While she came to me as a late beginner, she has shown that when she has the opportunity to practice, she knows how to work, but because of her situation at home, her practice is frequently infrequent.

So how is it that during the course of her 1 hour lesson each week, her outlook on life changes? More importantly, can I make this happen for all of my students?

When a student comes to their lesson, they, and I, have had a week full of experiences. That means that we frequently have a bit of baggage to set aside before we can get anything done. When the student walks in my studio, they expect me to ask two questions. "What are your points?", and "Any news?". The first question requires them to take stock of how their week of practicing went and how prepared they are for their lesson, while the second question gives them an opportunity to drop their bags at the door, so to speak. News will be positive or negative, but it's never neutral. Students who are carrying unacknowledged "news" will not have a productive lesson. Their minds will be preoccupied. Furthermore, when students relay their news, it gives me an opportunity to either celebrate or sympathize with them. Then, I can say something like, "Let's set that aside for now, and get to work."

Usually this is all done in the space of 3 to 5 minutes at the beginning of the lesson, but occasionally, I will allow the 1st 10 minutes for this sort of sharing. I learn a great deal from these short conversations. Most directly, I find out a bit about what has been going on in my student's life, and how it might be affecting their practice schedule. I learn more subtle, and often, more important things as well. I learn what kinds of events qualify as newsworthy, and how effectively my students cope with those events. I frequently find myself weaving subtle analogies into my practice instructions that mirror the kinds of problem solving skills that are needed to deal with the real life problems that they came in with. Things like, "you have to look for your mistakes in order to fix them", or "if you are always rushing from one phrase to the next, nobody will understand what you are trying to say" can provide some insight into how they might solve their extramusical problems. I can also frequently find ways to relate the expressive content of the music they are playing to their news, and can use the music to either amplify or transform what they are feeling.

While all of this is happening, all the student knows is that they are being constantly challenged with one task after another. All the while, I am pointing out the things they are doing well, and how they can either expand on that, or apply it to something else that they are struggling with. They find themselves successfully solving, or at least improving, one difficulty after another. In the end, this is what I think is most therapeutic about lessons. Hard work with tangible results always improves mood, increases  confidence, and fills a person with hope for the immediate future. Combined with the effect of the music itself, lessons can be a powerful positive influence on students.

Does this work for every student all of the time? No. But, when a student already has a strong desire to learn to play the instrument, the focusing, listening, critical thinking, and technical skills that are engaged in the course of a lesson can transform a student's view of themselves and their world for the better.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What is Fun?

"I just want piano lessons to be fun".

The first words from almost every parent new to private music lessons.

My response, "Me, too!".

I wonder how many parents have thought about "fun" the same way I have. The implication is there should not be much work involved, and the expectations kept low.
Now, let's take a look at all the different kinds of "fun" our piano students have had over the years, keeping in mind most of the items on this list came about only with hard work.

Being able to play "Ode to Joy" ~ Learning "Star Wars" finally ("I've been waiting so long for this moment!") ~ Passing the "Amazing Scales Race" with a 1/2 lb. of chocolate ~ Going on field trips and hearing a piano recital for the first time ~ Being musically ready to play "Fur Elise" ~ Nailing their piece in the studio recital ~ Learning their first "big piece", whether it's a sonata, suite, sonatina, etc... ~ Winning a ribbon in a competition ~ Being asked to play in a competition, festival, etc... ~ Finishing a lesson book ~ Learning a piece they thought was hard ~ Playing as fast as they can ~ Playing expressively ~ Playing duets ~ Playing with an ensemble/orchestra ("I can't wait to do it again next year") ~ Wowing friends and family at the recitals ~ Getting the phone call that said, "you made it"! ~ Winning $1,500!!!!

Now, that's fun!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Your Piano May be Celebrating Halloween Year Round.

 I find some spooky stuff in old pianos.  Here are some recent photos from an old upright that I recently did some action work on.  Granted, this old piano has been around since the dust bowl, but I don't think most people know what can lurk under those dark cracks between the keys.  I find this kind of mess in pianos pretty frequently.  Aside from the obvious piles of dirt and debris, this piano was hiding some old coins, tons of straight pins, and something sticky that had been spilled between the keys.  Thankfully, this piano was free of mice.  (Mice love pianos.  They tend to make nice soft nests under the keys using the various felt parts from the piano.  This piano was probably too dirty for them.)
Dirt like this accelerates the wear on the action.  It gets into all of the felt parts, such as the hammers, the dampers, and the various felts under the keys.  The smallest of objects under the keys can upset the proper function of the piano.  So, when regulation adjustments need to be made, (nearly all pianos need some), the action needs to be cleaned first.  If mice have visited, that can complicate things.
Piano owners can help minimize this buildup of dirt by keeping piano lids closed when not in use, and by running the crevice tool on their vacuum over the tops of the keys a couple of times a year.
Either way, if you have had your piano for 10 years or more, it is likely overdue for a good cleaning.  Ask your piano technician about this when you call to arrange for your next tuning, and listen carefully to the pedal squeak.  It could be a mouse.  Eek!
The keybed after cleaning, with new green felt punchings

Saturday, October 1, 2011

You want me to do WHAT for $100?

I got a call at about 9:30 on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago.  The caller was a local middle school music teacher whom I have never met.  She had a job that she needed done.  She wanted someone, me or someone I might know, to record the piano accompaniment for the performance of her upcoming show.  The songs, she says, are pretty easy and, while she can't spend a lot of money, she would be willing to pay about $100  for the service.

Silence on my end.

"I might be able to raise that to $150", she says.

"umm...." on my end.

"If that's too insulting, then I can keep calling around."

At this point, I already know that my answer is NO.  But, I decide to probe a bit further anyway.

"Where do you teach?", I ask.  She tells me, and I make a mental note of it.  I don't think I have any piano students who currently attend her school.

"What show is it?"  She replies with the name of a piece of fluff: it's kiddie theatre that I recognize.  I'm thinking to myself that there is probably a CD available that she can get from the publisher.  I'm also thinking that what she is asking me to do is probably illegal.

More silence...
"If it is too insult..."
I interrupt, "Well, let's think about it for a second.  How long is the show?"
"Between 45 minutes and an hour, but there is quite a bit of dialogue"
"O.K., then how many songs are there?"
"Um...there are 12 songs".
"So, you want someone to make a performance quality recording of your show for a little more than $8 a song?
"Yeah, I guess that's about right."
"You know, that is more than a little insulting.  First of all, just to get the piano tuned for your recording might cost $100."
"Yeah.."  Nervous laughter.
"No, really!  Not only do you have to have an instrument that is going to sound half-way decent on a recording, but it should probably be tuned.  That eats up your $100 and then some right there.  Plus you either have to have recording equipment and know how to edit audio, or hire a recording engineer.  You might also need to rent a space to do the recording. Then, aside from all of that, you are expecting me to record and prepare your tracks for a CD that you can play at a public performance, all for $100?  Yeah, that is really insulting."
"Well, I thought maybe a student would want to do it."

In an attempt to end the conversation gracefully, I told her that I would think about it, and if anyone came to mind I would give her a call, but that I wouldn't call her back if I couldn't think of anyone.  I tried to smooth things over a bit by acknowledging that it must be difficult to put together a show on a limited budget.  She replied by saying that we are all in the same boat, and we musicians need to help each other out.  That made me really angry, but I let it go and hung up.  Rest assured, she hasn't heard back from me.

After hanging up the phone, I looked up the name of the publisher, and her school's performance was listed under "upcoming performances".  (Usually, when you do shows like this, you don't purchase the music, you rent it, and pay a royalty.  Any recordings of the show are usually strictly prohibited in the licensing agreement.)  On further investigation, I noticed that there was an accompaniment CD available for rehearsals and performances.  Somehow, I didn't feel obliged to call her back to let her know.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kids will complain

As a private piano teacher, and former school music teacher, I've heard a lot of kids complain. They have complained about having a new assignment, a quiz, theory homework, not getting to sing the warm up they want, wishing music class lasted longer, wanting class to be shorter, having to stand up, playing scales, learning a difficult piece, learning a piece they think is too easy, siting by someone they don't want to, the weather, their lunch, their current position in line, etc., etc......I've heard the phrase, "I don't feel like it" countless times. So, why is it that when a student complains about piano lessons, which they invariably do at some point, do parents feel like they have to take action and quickly get them out of lessons? What's wrong with listening to the complaint of the day, providing empathy ("I'm sorry to hear that."), and then saying, "I'm sure things will get better"? (which they invariably do!). Students who complain about school aren't allowed to quit school because they are momentarily frustrated. Kids shouldn't be allowed to go on a junk food only diet just because they complained about eating their vegetables. The point is, kids will complain about everything. EVERYTHING! I think it would be sad to keep them from learning and reaping the life long benefits of a musical education just because they complained.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Valuable Reference for Piano shoppers is now free!

The book that I most frequently recommend to my friends, students, and tuning clients for becoming a savvy piano shopper, is now free online!  The Acoustic and Digital Piano Buyer by Larry Fine (formerly published as The Piano Book) is updated twice a year and can be found at  The many articles in this book should be required reading for all pianists, but this book is especially useful for those that intend to purchase a piano.