Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Positive Thinking

This video is on the mark. I wish that all of our students' parents would drop the positive thinking paradigm. (Some of them have!) Learning a skill as complex as piano is not all smiles and warm fuzzies. There are rough patches to get through and walls to climb over. Frequently a student's preparation is lacking and the teacher must be the bearer of bad news. Sometimes students get upset when this happens, but that is not the teacher's fault. Honest, constructive criticism is not abuse, even if a student cries upon hearing it. Honest, constructive criticism is, in fact, a large part of teaching in general. People seem to forget that. We're not cheerleaders, we are teachers!

Friday, March 26, 2010

2010 MTNA Convention

Last night, Robyn and I returned from the MTNA Convention in Albuquerque, NM, our old stomping grounds.  The convention was fantastic.  Nearly 2,000 teachers, students and other presenters attended this conference of the oldest professional music teachers association in the U.S.A.  The highlights for us were the talks by Frederick Chiu on stage fright, Randall Faber talking of course about piano adventures, and hearing the winners of the MTNA national competitions.

We are back home feeling a bit tired but also reenergized with new things to teach and share with our students.  In addition to tons of stuff given away by publishers, we spent more than $500 on scores and other resources for use in our studio.  We are going to need more shelves!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Achievement Day Coasters

Over the weekend, Robyn and I worked as evaluators for the Fort Collins Music Teachers Association 'Achievement Day'.  Not only is this a great learning opportunity for the students that take part, it is a great opportunity for teachers to learn a bit about the world outside of their own studios.  Unlike competitions, achievement day participants include more than just the cream of the crop which allows evaluators to get a sense of what is really going on in other teacher's studios.

There are of course the precocious elementary school students who are used to excelling at everything, and the occasional dedicated High School student getting ready for college auditions. But most interesting to me are the "coasters" -  the kids who stick with piano for years doing a minimal amount of practice.  Coasters make steady but very slow improvement.  Coasters are the kids who have had lessons for 5-7 years and are still in method books.  They are almost slackers, but because they show up for lessons and even practice a bit during the week, they squeak by.  They have neither a drive for excellence nor a real desire to express themselves through music.  They hide in mediocrity,  that comfortable limbo that avoids the highs of success, or the lows of failure.  As a result, they do almost nothing for exceedingly long periods of time.

So, what keeps kids in this state of blah?  What prevents them from throwing themselves into something, anything, that interests them?  Is it possible to somehow teach a coaster to become a climber, an achiever, or an artist?  Should it bother us to have coasters in our studios or should we simply be glad they come to their lessons each week?  Should we allow these students to continue with lessons?  Can teachers influence a student who coasts in every other aspect of their lives to do something different with piano?

One thing is certain:  Coasters are no fun to teach.  They are predictable and lack the curiosity that enlivens the work done in lessons.  So, should we teachers keep dragging these students along?  I don't know.  I will say that I have had more than one student switch from coaster to climber.  I take no credit for the switch, however.

I know what to do with slackers:  Let them slack elsewhere.  I know what to do with climbers and achievers as well.  It's the coasters that are the challenge.  Thanks to achievement day, I know that ours is not the only studio  dragging a coaster or two along for the ride.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Amplify one, then amplify all.

Last night was the final round of Greeley's version of the Kiwani's Stars of Tomorrow competitions.  We had three students from our piano studio make it into the finals and they all played quite well, but none of them won.  Nonetheless, it was a very positive experience for all.  Furthermore, all of the winners played well and deserved recognition.  Elementary, Middle, and High School divisions were all awarded to pianists all from the same family.  The Best in Show award went to a high school violinist.

O.K., here is the gripe.  This is a talent show that accepts any kind of performer.  Singers and dancers are very popular and are always amplified.  In between singers, there are young pianists that are not amplified.  They sound like they are playing in another zip code.  The only way to compete in this situation is to resort to theatrics and banging the piano to smithereens.  Therefore, tasteful, polished performances don't stand a chance against loud, crass, and sloppy playing.  This is especially true in the elementary and middle school divisions because of smaller hands and smaller sounds.  If everyone were amplified then the pianists would be on equal footing with the 7 year olds singing something cute, the middle schoolers singing something country (and flat!), and the High-schoolers singing something inappropriate.  Not only that, but the expressive players would be on equal footing with the pounders.

It would be nice if they would have the piano tuned as well.  Maybe that's why they won't amplify the pianos...

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Middle School Piano Students

Students in middle school are more likely to quit piano lessons than any other age group.  Why is this?  Here is a list of reasons.

  1. Students are more self conscious of gender roles.  Boys frequently quit at this age because "piano is for girls".  In elementary school, we have roughly the same number of boys as we do girls enrolled in lessons.  By high school, girls outnumber boys by about 5 to 1.
  2. Students are developing their sense of personal identity and are attempting to separate themselves from things they perceive as childish.  Students that started in elementary school can begin to view piano as something for kids.
  3. Students are being allowed to make more decisions about what they do.  Piano lessons are often the most challenging activity kids are involved in.  Because kids at this age have difficulty seeing the long term rewards of playing the piano, they will frequently want to quit at this age because it is too hard.  Parents frequently will decide that they no longer want to "fight this battle", so the student is allowed to quit.
  4. There is greater peer pressure to fit in.  Since piano is a pretty solitary activity most of the time, it is vulnerable to outside pressures.  When competing against more visible activities, such as sports, piano can be a hard sell.  Plus, most middle school bands and orchestras have no chair for a piano.  
So, how do we keep these students?  I think positive adult musical models help.  Assigning more popular music helps motivate students and gives them something that they are willing to play for their friends.  Offering group classes for students of similar ages can really help as well.  Taking students to piano concerts can help students envision piano as something for adults.  That can be a powerful motivator for a middle schooler who is trying to appear less childlike.  

No matter what we do, Middle School is a challenging time for students and their parents.  As teachers, we can do our best to be supportive and use our best motivational tools.  For parents, we recommend love and logic.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What qualifications does one need to teach piano?

I am continually amazed at how many people in my community teach piano who have little or no expertise in the subject.  People who barely play the instrument themselves take money to teach others the fundamentals of piano playing.  As a pianist who has dedicated the last 20+ years to the instrument, it is quite frustrating to see bright, enthusiastic young minds, eager to learn music, taken in by teachers who may have had lessons in high school, but quit because it was too hard.  There are teachers who can't sight read the simplest of music. There are teachers who can't count dotted rhythms. There are teachers who can't match pitch. There are teachers who teach using untunable  instruments that were built before we had the automobile.

How do I know this is true?  Because I talk to these people.  I meet them when I tune their pianos at home or at church.  I've even met them at local MTNA meetings.  I see a couple of old method books sitting next to the piano, and I ask "are you taking lessons?".  They will then say "no, I teach piano".  I will then say, "Oh!  How long have you been playing?"  Then they tell me something like,"Well, I had voice lessons in high school, and I've sort of taught myself to play.  When I had kids, I needed some extra money, and when I inherited this piano from my grandmother, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to start my own studio."  I then try to hide my feelings of disgust.

Is it not unethical to take a family's money and a student's time teaching a subject which is beyond your own comprehension?

Sorry for the rant, but it has taken 10 years for Robyn and I to build up a full studio in Greeley.  Why so long?  Because, there are a multitude of housewives and retirees who take private students, but have no qualifications and no business teaching.  None of them charge enough to make a living, some of them barely charge anything at all, and some of them copy music illegally for their students.

So to answer the question, "What qualifications does one need to teach piano?"  The answer is obviously none.  It is up to parents to have high enough standards to seek out qualified teachers for their kids.

New Class

We have decided that having 19 students in our studio at one time is a bit much, so we are splitting the 6th-12th grade class into two parts.  High school students will now meet at 1:00-2:00 for master-classes.