Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Reflecting on Nearly 3 Decades of Teaching: What Has Worked

As I approach another one of those birthdays that starts with the number 5, I'm shocked to realize just how long I've been teaching piano. I opened my piano studio in 1987, almost 3 decades ago. I took about 3 years off during graduate school and when my daughter was a baby, but still, it's been a long run! I'm happy that I can still say that I love it, and I don't plan to quit any time soon.

Fall always feels like a new beginning to me. School starts fresh, a new crop of students usually appears, and Advent begins the church year. It's a good time to reflect about what has worked and what hasn't. In another post, I'll consider what I might have done differently in all of these years of teaching, but today, I'll start with the positives. Here are some things (in no particular order) that I consider to have been successes. 

1.  Not using only one method book. Students come in all shapes, sizes, and learning styles. I've considered it an essential part of my job to stay abreast of new method series and carefully match one to a student. Sometimes, I choose not to use a method at all. In all of these years, I think I'd have gone bat-crazy if I had taught from the same books with every student!

2.  Attending conferences and symposia. Whether it was a state or national MTNA conference, a symposia at a nearby college, or workshops at a local store, attending these gatherings sparks my creativity and helps me stay current on literature and teaching ideas. 


3.  Writing and enforcing a solid studio policy that protects my time and income. It's not overly strict, but I do enforce it. It took several years of teaching before I became comfortable asserting myself in a friendly way, but the journey to that point is well worth it. I'm grateful for a good piano pedagogy teacher in college who taught me to present and think of myself as a professional and to establish professional policies. 

4.  Being willing to dismiss students from the studio. I've done it rarely, but I've done it. Families who don't pay, constantly bounce checks, are frequently absent without notice, and of course, students who never practice are all subject to dismissal. I write a short letter, hold a parent conference, and institute a probation period during which I expect things to change for the better. If they don't, I politely show them the door. Again, it took a long time to work up the courage to do this, but the relief is huge once you've done it a few times and you know you can do it again if needed. Friends, don't suffer through bad situations. 

5.  Always having an interview with prospective students and their parents. I don't make a big deal out of the fact that I'm deciding whether or not to accept them, but I am. During the interview, if I sense that we aren't going to be a good fit, I don't hesitate to broach my concerns candidly and to lay down some boundaries. For instance, if I'm interviewing a student heavily involved in sports, I make it a point to say, "I won't be willing (or able, due to my busy teaching schedule) to make up lessons missed for sports practices or games. You'll need to decide if you can really make a commitment to lessons." 

6. Giving myself raises from time to time. I keep the increase per lesson small, but I do this pretty regularly. Again, the first couple of times, I worried about the response, but it's never been an issue.

7. Having a dedicated room in my house that is my home office/studio or else teaching outside of the house. For about 4 years of my teaching career so far, I've had to teach in our family's living room, but I've been fortunate to be able to have dedicated space most of the time. It's definitely the way to go.

8. Putting the interests and well-being of individual students above the temptation to chase after achievements. Competitions, exams, and festivals have their purposes, but just as test scores are not the measure of school teachers and students, those musical events are not the measure of piano teachers or students. The older I get, the more I believe it. I'm not a Suzuki teacher, but I love these words of Shinichi Suzuki: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”


Monday, October 31, 2016

New Christmas Sheet Music - He Is Born

Why, yes, I do realize that today is Halloween! I also know that musicians everywhere are already working on Christmas music. If you need an intermediate level Christmas arrangement for solo piano, I hope you'll check out my latest upload to Sheet Music Plus Press - "He Is Born." I did some product testing last week by playing it for all of my students and my worst critic of all, my 14-year-old daughter. It's got a 100% approval rating! I'm a no frills kind of girl, so there's no cover art or illustrations. Just an appealing, pedagogically rich arrangement. Teaching opportunities in this piece include:
     Alberti bass
     octave changes
     grace notes
     descending scales over primary chords
     mordent
     trill
     variations on a melody
     melody embedded in figuration
     light thumb
     frequent dynamic changes
     terraced dynamics



I needed to make an mp3 recording to upload to SMP, and this sound file is not just low budget but no budget! It will give you a chance to hear it before purchase, though. Maybe if I write a bunch more of these and sell them, I can improve my no budget recording situation! 



Thanks for checking out "He Is Born." I also have a late intermediate arrangement of "Jesus Loves Me" and a LH alone arrangement of "The First Noel" in case you have a student with a RH injury at Christmas. Bookmark my publisher page for more titles coming soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Smart Sharing: Posting Student Media for Motivation and Marketing

In my very small hometown, our local newspaper celebrated student achievements, even small ones, by publishing lots and lots of photos. Nice older folks in my community would clip those photos and articles and mail them to the students with congratulatory notes. These days, we do the same thing with social media and "likes." This year, I've created an Instagram account for my studio. Parents can easily share links to a post with grandparents and friends, and this makes it convenient for them to support the student.

I plan to use Instagram 1) as a way to celebrate small student successes by posting photos and short videos, 2) as an instructional tool, and 3) as a way to shape my "brand" as a teacher. Instagram is my tool of choice this year because it seems to be the best option of the social media formats popular with my students. Also, the 60-second limit on videos means that I won't be tempted to spend too much time creating masterpieces. In fact, I can snap a picture or short clip with my phone and upload it within seconds, so it's super easy. I'll continue to use a private YouTube channel for things that need to stay private or longer videos.

The use of social media as a motivational and instructional tool is obvious, but you might not have considered how it can help advertise your studio. First, it gives you a means to demonstrate that you aren't teaching your grandmother's piano lessons. Pictures that include students playing off-the-bench activities or using an ipad show that you are innovative. Video clips that feature both classical and pop styles show that you are versatile. Clips of your cat and dog play-fighting next to the piano show that you are human. Secondly, a social media outlet such as Instagram allows you to make contact with others who might either enroll in lessons or refer you to others.

If you decide to use Instagram for your studio, I strongly suggest that you keep your studio account dedicated to studio stuff. Have a separate account for your personal posts.

Before you jump on the social media bandwagon, it's wise to take some precautions to protect both your students and yourself.

1.  Obtain the parents' permission on a media release form before posting your students photos or videos.

Schools now require parents to sign a media release form indicating that they do or do not consent to their a child's photo or video being used in online media. This is required by the Family Educational Rights And Privacy Act (FERPA). Some states also have additional laws. As a small business, your best practice is to comply with any federal and state laws that the schools must obey. If parents don't wish to grant permission, then don't pressure them, and don't post! Your media release form can also serve to protect you and should mention that no compensation will be given for the use of student photos or videos and that you are not liable for others' illegal use of your photos or videos. Your best option for creating this form is to consult an attorney. If you don't want to go that route, at least do some research online by searching for "sample media release form for minors."

2.  Obtain the child's permission before posting and promise to delete any posted material if the child changes his/her mind.

The digital rights of children is another evolving topic, and it touches on their rights to use digital media as well as their rights to consent and privacy. Never before has it been so easy for parents and piano teachers to upload photos and videos without the child even knowing, much less consenting. If I sense any hesitation from a student about sharing their picture or video, I won't do it. Don't post anything that you and the student are not willing for the whole universe to see. I hope it goes without saying that you should only post media that reflects positively on the student.

3.  Don't include any identifying information.

Don't use a child's full name, and don't link your posts to any of their social media accounts. I use pseudonyms only. Don't provide any geographical information or tagging. Turn off the geotagging feature on your smart phone's camera. Don't allow background images to give away your location. I take more precautions about this than my daughter's school does, and I point that out to my studio parents.

Adult Students

If you teach adults, it's a good idea to create a media release form for them as well. Again, this is the right thing to do for the student, but it also protects you and your studio from potential liability.

If my precautions haven't scared you off, I hope you'll consider embracing social media in your studio this year. If you're using it already, I'd love to hear how you're incorporating it and how it's working! Please feel free to comment!



Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Boost Your Teaching Skills With Bradley And Leila


Two of the most creative people I know are offering a webinar soon! Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss have great ideas for helping your students succeed with rhythm. I know from my experience in Denver at the 88 Creative Keys Conference that Bradley and Leila are super at creating hands-on lessons for students. Their inventive activities will help your students move from mere mental knowledge to experiential mastery. The webinar takes place on Monday, September 26, but you can access a recording of the session later if you can't make that date. The price is reasonable at $49. Click on this link to learn more or sign up!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Embracing Technology in Piano Study

Apple iPad Mini Piano by iadwords

Technology has been slow in coming to the traditional piano studio. Most teachers over 40, like myself, didn't use anything more techy than a digital metronome and a cassette tape recorder in our own study. However, if we want to stay relevant in the decades to come, that means embracing technology such as apps, digital recording and composing tools, and digital collaboration via social media or other means. This is not just true for those who want to teach popular styles. Respected music schools and conservatories around the world are increasingly using technology in their courses, and young, tech-savvy music majors will soon transform the landscape. I want to continue to be a tree in that landscape for at least a couple more decades, so I'm working to evolve my teaching practices one baby step at a time!

A few years ago, I resisted technology in piano teaching because my impression was that the technology had become the primary goal rather than learning. While this is still sometimes true, better educational applications and practices have come along to improve on that situation.

I think, as piano teachers, we must consider two truths:

1. Students feel limited within traditional piano study when they know from their other learning experiences that so much more is possible with the judicious use of technology. Piano teachers who have not been inside a grade school classroom since they graduated from one may not realize that technology has created a new standard of service that is expected in 2016.

2. Students are going to access the internet, social media, and other forms of technology for piano study whether we are involved or not. We lose the opportunity to guide that discovery when we reject technological tools.

Even classically-oriented piano students live in the 21st century. They expect to use resources online and to have collaborative experiences that are facilitated by social media, even while also benefiting from the expertise of a highly-respected private teacher. Read this article to see how classically-rooted pedagogy is incorporating technology at schools and conservatories around the country: Conservatory Tech Makes Sweet Music. I still hear traditional piano teachers reject the idea of having students watch YouTube videos because there are so many poor ones out there. That's laughable when it also offers pages like this one from New England Conservatory. Instead of dismissing it, we need to give students a road map to navigate it, as we need to do for all of the online resources available for pianists. There are some really good examples of online instruction out there and some really, really bad ones. Our students are going to visit those sites with or without us.

Beware The Technology Generation Gap

While I assert that we should embrace technology, I'll also assert that we need to use it judiciously. One of the things I learned as a long-term sub in a middle school English classroom is that using technology for learning is no longer novel and exciting for the kids, but is as normal as a dictionary was for me at that age. While we piano teachers are dipping our toes cautiously into YouTube, my 7th and 8th grade students are using 3D printers and making "smart" clothing in their computer class. So, when a piano teacher uses a digital tool as a sort of bait to make learning more "fun," students are going to roll their eyes. They are highly perceptive (and frustrated) when teachers use tech tools merely for technology's sake. In fact, that may be the new definition of "generation gap." I asked my 13-year-old daughter what she saw as the pros and cons of using technology in her classes. Her number one con: "Sometimes, teachers will get too attached to it and rely on it way more than they should. It can become an extra that is just more busy work." Adam Schoenbart writes about potential pitfalls of tech tools in the classroom in his online article 5 Mistakes I Made With Educational Technology, and my daughter's frustration is one of his points. However, he also asserts that technology is the new normal. The lesson is always to consider the learning outcome you hope to create by using that particular technology.

Embrace The Opportunity For Student Discovery
 
If some obscure subject like circumzenithal arcs piques my daughter's interest, she can look it up online and, in the space of a few days, practically become an expert on the subject. She has the opportunity to communicate via email or within online forums with bona fide experts, perhaps college professors or working scientists. If I wanted to do the same at her age, my parents had to drive me to the library. It isn't at all likely that I could have had a conversation with the author of the book I read. My school teacher and my textbook were my narrow world, but kids today don't have to depend on anyone else to explore their interests. As the internet becomes a more prominent feature of human life, teachers and schools naturally lose the role of being the gatekeepers of knowledge. While I have resisted the death of the "sage on the stage" model of teaching, the truth is that no single teacher can compete with the internet. We must be the navigators in a vast, wild sea. We need to see the internet as an advantage in piano instruction, not a threat, and find ways to encourage students to use technological tools to discover things that go far beyond what we teachers know ourselves.

Embrace The Opportunity For Collaboration

My daughter told me that one of the best benefits of using technology at school was that it "allows you to connect to what other teachers and students are doing." As my very old-fashioned dad frequently reminds me (he still uses a typewriter), "two heads are always better than one." Collaboration is not a newfangled idea, but we are still married to the idea of the teacher as the ultimate source of knowledge for a studio full of disciples. If you read blogs and watch webinars on the internet to improve your own teaching, you are using technology to learn from many teachers. We need to facilitate the same kind of learning opportunities for our students rather than corralling them into one stable with one trainer.

So, as a 51-year-old, classically-trained teacher, what should I do? I can start by considering how technology might enhance my student's learning experience. We should always start with the desired learning outcome, not the technology itself. But, the technology available right now is absolutely mind-blowing, and failing to embrace it is like a doctor failing to consider the newest medical technology. There are more fantastic apps and programs out there than I can stay current on. When I can't figure out how to use them, I can enlist my students or students' parents for help.

Second, I can look for opportunities to allow students to collaborate in any way possible using technology. This might involve using MuseScore to share student compositions, or allow them to work collaboratively on compositions. It might mean creating a mini masterclass using Instagram. They want this community.

Third, I can use technology as a means to bring in experts besides myself to broaden the knowledge base my students have access to. This might include creating a webquest for students to complete at home, or collaborating with another studio, or watching really fine teachers teach students online.

Explore what music schools around the country are doing in their degree programs. Make friends with your local school music teachers. They've been using technology for a long time. Follow some mus. ed. blogs and resist the urge to click away out of intimidation/fear when the article gets techy. Ask questions. And keep reading here because I'll be elaborating on those ideas above!


Monday, May 16, 2016

Lodging for 88 Creative Keys Conference

If you're looking for a fresh dose of enthusiasm for your teaching, consider attending the 88 Creative Keys Conference in Denver, CO this summer. I attended last year and found it very worthwhile. If you're traveling alone, I have a great money-saving tip. Use airbnb for lodging. That's what I did. I stayed here. Since I can't attend this summer, I hope someone else will enjoy staying in Victoria's beautiful home!


Victoria was a great hostess, and is now a friend. Her home is in a nice, safe neighborhood, and she even has a grand piano! The pictures you see at airbnb are not exaggerated - that's exactly what her place looks like. The drive to this year's conference location is 21 minutes, according to Google maps. Last year's conference was in a different place, and I could drive there in 15, but I'd consider it worth the extra few minutes to know that I had a safe, beautiful place to stay - with a piano! She's currently available, so book now. Tell her I sent you!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

I'm Back...Plus Shakespeare!

Photo by Priscila Guimaraes is licensed by Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dear readers, I am happy to report that my English teacher hat is back on the shelf and my piano teacher hat is back on my head. For those of you just checking in, I've been AWOL while I stepped in to teach 7th and 8th grade English at my daughter's school for a solid 5 months as a long-term sub. Wow, has education ever changed since I last taught school 1990! I was challenged to adapt to a digital learning environment. I used a Smartboard, posted handouts and homework assignments and even YouTube videos to a class webpage, and I graded things like film documentaries. Aside from the technology, I was also challenged to adapt to a more collaborative learning experience. In all of these things, I found both benefits and drawbacks, but suffice it to say that some of the decorations on that English teacher hat are now decorating my piano teacher hat. Expect some changes to the blog and some new posts soon.

As both a musician and a lover of literature, I can't resist posting this fun little song today on the anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Enjoy!