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.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Listening - A vital skill

Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better | Video on

What Julian treasure says in this talk about listening being a skill that must be taught, developed, and nurtured is absolutely true.  This is also one area in which private piano lessons can have a major positive impact.  In teaching piano, guiding my students toward listening for rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre,  and meaning is my primary objective.  When combined with practice strategies and problem solving skills, students gain a powerful set of tools that transfer to every area of their life.

Imagine how many of our problems would evaporate if everyone possessed high level listening, practice, and problem solving skills.  Piano lessons can change the world!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Free advice on used pianos

While serving my community in the dual role of piano teacher and piano technician, I get lots of questions about purchasing used pianos.  I also encounter many pianos in homes that are in various stages of wear.  I tune for people who love and maintain their pianos, people who have hand-me-down pianos that are in desperate need of repair, and some whose piano should be hauled to the dump.  So, to help insure that you will be in the first category, here are some tips on buying used pianos.

1.  Do your homework.  Get a copy of Larry Fine's The Piano Book and the most recent supplement.  The advice in this book can assist you in becoming a savvy shopper and it will  increase your confidence in and enjoyment of buying a piano.

2.  Reconsider and buy a new piano.  You may be surprised how painless it is to either purchase or finance a new piano.  Like everything else, most of the pianos you will find on the showroom floor are made in China.  (Don't be fooled into thinking you are buying American.  Unless you are buying a new Steinway or Mason Hamlin piano, you are buying a piano that was built overseas.) As a result, there are tons of entry level pianos, both grand and upright, for less money than you might think.  The advantages of buying a new piano include: a manufacturers warranty, which can extend to 10 or even 15 years; free tunings over the break-in period (at least one, sometimes 2 or more tunings are given by the dealer); a blemish free instrument, inside and out.  The primary disadvantages are that there is a break-in period of several months where the piano will not hold its tuning very well as the strings have not yet stabilized and are still stretching.

Whether you end up buying new or used, plan on spending at least as much as you spent on your newest set of living room furniture.  Pianos are way more complicated than a coffee table, but for some reason people think they should be able to get a good piano for around $500.  Before you read on, you need to add a zero.

3.  If you are buying used, avoid buying a really old piano unless it has been competently rebuilt.  Parts wear out, felt compresses, soundboards lose their crown and crack, and rodents and insects such as moths and termites can add to the entropy.  Unless you are buying a recently rebuilt piano, you may end up spending a lot more than the purchase price just getting the piano into playable condition, or you may have to pay to have the thing hauled to the dump.

4.  A piano on which all of the keys "work" may still be unplayable and untunable. Pianos like this are not "good enough for a beginner".

5.  The designation "cabinet grand" generally means "really big, heavy upright that was made about 100 years ago and likely needs new action parts, a new pinblock, and a new soundboard".  Don't get me wrong; some of these "cabinet grand" pianos were very well made and may even be worth rebuilding. However, a new piano would likely be cheaper in the long run.  Also, while it might seem neat that the piano has real ivory keytops, this doesn't really add to the value of the piano.

(Grand pianos have three legs with strings that run parallel to the floor.)

6.  If you are going to buy a used piano from a private owner or even a dealer (especially if the dealer warranty is less than a year), it is worth it to pay a reputable piano technician to inspect the piano and evaluate the instrument before handing over your money.

7.  NEVER accept a free piano without having a technician look it over first.  Free pianos can be quite expensive.

8.  Don't buy a spinet.  They are more difficult and costly to repair. They usually don't sound very good because the strings are too short, and the actions on these pianos generally don't function as well as console or upright actions.

9.  "Grand" does not always equal "good", even when the piano is really a "Grand" and not a "Cabinet Grand".  Like upright pianos, grands age and are built with a wide range of quality of parts and workmanship.  There are some good looking but TERRIBLE grand pianos on the market.

10.  Take your time and look and don't be afraid to haggle for a lower price.  There are a lot of pianos out there, and the more time you allow yourself to shop around, the better informed you will be and the better deals you will find.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Five Vital Skills for Piano Students

  1. Time management + the ability to say NO! Everyone's time is valuable.  You cannot get good at piano and everything else at the same time.  We recommend that our students limit their extra-curricular activities to a total of 2  (if you have piano lessons and church youth group, you've reached your quota).  
  2. Consistency.  Practicing for 2 hours twice a week, every other week is far less effective than practicing a little each day.  Also, taking the summer off is a bad idea.  In two months of missed lessons, all of the skills that we work so hard on during the year atrophy.  Even worse, students can develop bad habits of technique and practice that are difficult to fix when they return to lessons.
  3. Focus.  Work on one thing at a time and be clear about what it is you are working on.  Know the limits of your attention span, and shift your focus to extend your productive time at the piano.  Awareness of one's mistakes arises from this kind of deliberate focus, and you can't fix your mistakes without knowing they exist.
  4. Critical listening (and thinking). Piano students need to learn to listen in a thoughtful way.  Listening for specific elements, like dynamics or articulation, is a good way to start.  Before critical listening is developed, students will play a piece, and not hear their mistakes.  After a student performance riddled with wrong notes and rhythms, and stops every other measure, I'll often ask the student how they felt about it.  If they say something like "I thought it went pretty well, but I think I missed a note somewhere in the middle", they weren't listening critically.  The best students are sensitive to every blemish, and are often pessimistic about their performance, while the worst students are ignorant of their mistakes and frequently have inflated ideas about their musical ability.
  5. Delayed gratification.  The understanding that practice yields results over time comes from experience, but students benefit when parents model delayed gratification through saving for things they want, planting a garden, or learning a skill.  When kids are also encouraged to engage in activities like this, the idea of practice will seem natural and logical.  When kids never have to wait for, or work for, anything at home, the idea of practice will be foreign.  The idea of talent is best abandoned as well; nothing will undermine a teacher's efforts faster than a student who believes he is talented.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A month of no excuses.

I have just completed the most amazing month of my entire teaching career.  In the month of January, I had exactly zero students come to their lessons unprepared.  That means no one came into lessons last month with an excuse ready for why they didn't practice as much as they should have.  How remarkable is this?  Well, I have been teaching private students since 1993, and it has never happened before now.  I have had good weeks, sure.  But never an entire month.

So, it is time to reflect.  How did this happen, and more importantly, can it happen again?

Hypothesis #1: My student's parents don't make excuses.

In the past, I have always had a few parents who tend to make excuses for their kids.  I don't have that problem this semester.  Kids who have parents that make excuses, have kids that make excuses.

Corollary to Hypothesis #1:  Our studio kids have awesome parents.

Hypothesis #2:  Self evaluation.

All of my students complete a quick, self-evaluation at the beginning of each lesson, and give themselves a rating based on the following criteria:

10 points are possible.  A score of 10 indicates perfect preparation.
Subtract 1 for every day that no practice occurred.
Subtract 2 for any item not practiced that was written in your notebook.
Subtract 3 for not doing assigned theory.
Subtract 1 for any item that you forgot to bring to your lesson.
Subtract 1 for Long Fingernails .
Subtract 1 for each excuse you make for not coming prepared.
Subtract 1 if you use our bathroom.
Subtract 1 for arriving 10 minutes late, 2 for 20 minutes and so on.

Students results are plotted on a graph, that over time, might look like this:

 There are two lines because they get a score from me as well, which is based on my perception of whether they have made sufficient progress over the course of the week.  Gaps in the chart show either vacations or missed lessons.  The student above is fairly consistent about getting to the piano during the week, but has dropped the ball a couple of times.  When students hold themselves accountable for their work during the week, they take more responsibility for making sure that they practice.  I have noticed marked improvement in my students' performance since I implemented this chart last summer.

So, can this happen again?  I'm not betting on it.  But, at least now I know it is possible.