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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Good Reads

1.  Elissa Milne asks some provocative questions about creativity in Repertoire:  A Well-Defined Or Ill-Defined Problem?

2.  Tim Topham must have read my post a couple of weeks ago where I lamented that I often don't know the music my students listen to and ask to play. He answered some of my questions in How Do I Find Out What Pop Music To Teach?

3.  Dr. Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician explains why we should start lessons and practice sessions with more challenging material and end with easier things in The Peak-End Rule:  A Simple Way To Make Practicing Feel Less Like A Chore

4. This one isn't overtly about piano teaching, but still applicable for all creative people and small business owners.  Four Reasons We Don't Ask For What We Want

5.  Many of us revise our studio policies over the summer. Writing the policy is the easy part. Enforcing it is not always easy. Here's a good read to help you establish and maintain your boundaries. Establish Boundaries That Honor You.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Alphabet Acrobatics For Easier Music Reading

Do you remember when your children were little and they learned to "skip count?" Or maybe you remember doing it when YOU were little! Good kindergarten teachers know that counting forwards, backwards, and by skips promotes number fluency which will help students with their math skills.

Piano students need to be just as fluent with the musical alphabet! Music doesn't just move up, but it moves down and jumps all around. I find that if I teach my beginners to say the musical alphabet backwards and by skips, both forward skips and backward skips, it improves their music reading. We call it alphabet acrobatics! They love to challenge their parents and siblings to keep up!

Once they have progressed to the point that their music includes larger leaps, we also learn to say the musical alphabet by 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths. Being very fluent with the 7 letters of the musical alphabet is so helpful once we start doing theory involving triads, chord inversions, the circle of fifths, key signatures, etc.

I've just uploaded a bundle of worksheets to my etsy store that you can use to teach alphabet acrobatics to your students. Jump on over and check it out!

Monday, June 15, 2015

88 Creative Keys Conference: New Tricks For This Old Dog

Photo source

They say old dogs can't learn new tricks. I hope they're wrong! As I prepare for the 88 Creative Keys conference this summer (have you signed up yet?), I’ll confess that I’m feeling a little nervous. We’ll be learning from Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss all about incorporating more creativity into lessons using improvisation, lead sheets, and cool ipad apps. I am excited about what I'll learn, but I’m also feeling a little jittery! I suspect that my concerns might be similar to many of yours. Maybe you’ll see yourself in the list below, or maybe you have some advice for me. I’ll be blogging about my experiences as I attend the conference, and hopefully, I’ll be addressing all of these topics (and probably more) during this summer and in the teaching year to come.

Improvisation is scary – for me. 

True confession time.  I took improvisation courses in college as part of my organ degree programs.  I wrote out my assignments at home and memorized them. While we were supposed to plan the piece out, we weren’t supposed to write it out. Why did I do that? Because learning to improvise in a contrapuntal style with proper voice leading felt like trying to make boeuf bourguignon when I wasn’t yet very good at hamburgers. Prior to those courses, the only improvising I had ever done was some simple embellishment of hymns at church. My earlier piano teachers never ever asked me to invent my own music in any way, shape, or form, and I was a “color inside the lines” kind of kid. Even now, give me a lead sheet and ask me to change up the accompaniment style, and I’ll probably resort to a simple arpeggio or an oom-pah-pah. These feel like Mickey Mouse choices and I think I’m supposed to already be much better than that. 

My students are digital natives and know more about the ipad and computers than I do. 

It's always a little demoralizing to pull out the ipad in a lesson, have trouble with an app, and have my student (who has never used that app) tap a few buttons and fix the problem. I've already learned how to do several things on the ipad just in the process of downloading the materials for the conference. I'm so far behind this game that I only just recently learned how to create an iTunes playlist.Yeah, seriously. My 12-year-old daughter showed me how. And, I can’t bring her with me to the conference, so I’m gonna be on my own. Scary.

Sometimes my students are better at playing by ear than I am. 

This is because they’ve actually done it more. They’ve spent hours sitting at the piano trying to find the chords for that song they just love and want to play. I haven’t, and I don't know a lot of the music they want to play. Sometimes, I feel like I’m not the expert any more. I don’t like that feeling. I hope I'll have that feeling less often after the conference.

Stay tuned for more reports as I prepare for 88 Creative Keys!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Creative Chords, Bk 1 by Bradley Sowash

A couple of weeks ago, I shared that I'm very excited to be going to the 88 Creative Keys educators conference with Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss in July. What neither of them knows is that my decision to go was strongly influenced by my recent purchase of Bradley's book, Creative Chords, Bk. 1. I've felt for a while now that I wanted to do more with improvisation in my studio, but my efforts were haphazard and catch-as-catch-can. The students weren't progressing toward a goal, and I wasn't really teaching a skill so much as throwing out a fun activity to take up the last few minutes of a lesson. I don't want to downplay the value of that fun activity, (in fact, I wrote about how valuable I think it is a couple of posts ago) but I found in Creative Chords a method that is exactly what I needed - a well-planned pathway to concrete skills that is appealing and paced just right.

Skills Taught in Creative Chords
  • Recognition of triads, triad inversions, primary chords, and the function of those chords in a musical composition - i.e., where does the V chord want to go?
  • How to embellish melodies and create your own personal variations.
  • How to read and improvise with chord symbols on a lead sheet.
  • How to play your own improvised accompaniments in a variety of styles.
  • How to use music theory knowledge as a way to be a more creative musician.
How Does It Work?

Creative Chords is perfect for a mid to late elementary student. Using familiar folk tune melodies (this isn't a jazz method), Sowash sets the stage for students to approach existing music with a creative attitude. He applies the acronym P.L.A.Y.  (Prepare, Learn, Add, Your Way) to each piece and gives specific instructions for each step. Students create their own accompaniments and learn to embellish the melodies. This gives the student permission to treat the existing music as a malleable work of art - not as something to be preserved intact in every detail. I think this is a great approach to musicianship in general, not just a method for improvising, and it's an approach that has been neglected in traditional teaching. I've heard myself say to students, "Sure, you can create your own ending to this method book piece, but I wouldn't let you do that to Mozart." Now, I'm rethinking that. We wouldn't have Beethoven's Diabelli Variations or Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Paginini if Beethoven and Brahms had considered the works of the masters to be inviolable. We would have very little Baroque music, for that matter, since the composers of the Baroque period so frequently borrowed and adapted from others. When we limit ourselves to teaching students how to "recite" music without also giving them license to use those pieces as springboards for their own creative ideas, we might also be burdening them with the unattainable ideal of always being 100% original if they dare to compose or improvise. We would have a very small canon of great music literature if the great composers never fiddled around with other composers' material. (Just for fun:  Theft or inspiration?  What Robin Thicke Has In Common With Bach And Mahler.)

By the end of the book, students play a simple folk tune in 3 different keys, applying an improvised accompaniment using chord symbols, and embellishing the melody to make it their own. But, that is the simplest possible way to describe what the student has accomplished. Over the course of completing Book 1, students will gain an experiential (rather than merely academic) understanding of the importance of chord inversions. They'll learn the pattern of whole and half steps in a scale and why this produces the key signature. They'll gain an aural understanding of tonality by playing a tune in 3 keys. Unit 3 includes a great exercise that is now my go-to method for introducing 2-octave scales and helps students connect the learning of scales with literature. Students improvise scale passages over primary chords, learning from experience which scale tones sound good or resolve to something good and simultaneously improving their ear and their muscle memory for playing pleasing sounds. They will also begin to intuit which of the primary chords will sound best under a melody note.  In short, this method is a very comprehensive approach to musicianship. Considering that it also includes technical "workouts" and a bunch of theory information about chords and scales, dynamics, symbols such as ritardando, a tempo, fermata, articulations, and phrasing, it could be used as a primary method for the student who mainly wants to pursue a creative track.

Elements I Love

-The optional duets for the teacher are written as a bass line with chord symbols.

-Chord indications include both Roman numerals and jazz style chord symbols.

-Great verbal and graphic explanations that anticipate common student problems.  For instance, rhythms are mapped out in "rhythm boxes" that show exactly how the rhythm is distributed throughout the measure - super helpful for students who struggle with dotted quarters.

-A review at the end of each unit that includes a checklist of topics covered and review questions to assess the students mastery of concepts.

-An amazing amount of additional material in the form of videos, documents, worksheets, and backing tracks are provided free for a year after purchase at the Kjos website Interactive Practice Studio. You can even create recordings of yourself improvising along with the backing tracks, and then email the recording to others.

-Well-designed page layouts that are not overly cluttered.

-Adorable illustrations! I laughed out loud at this one while reading through the book in my dentist's waiting room!

I am very excited about using Creative Chords with my students, and I'm eagerly looking forward to Book 2.  Even more than that, I'm looking forward to learning more about all of these things at the 88 Creative Keys conference in Denver this summer. If you haven't added this conference to your summer plans, I hope you'll consider it!

*I received no compensation for this review.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rests Are Essential

Photo by wiccked.

School is out, and my studio is closed until June! I'm sleeping in, taking it easy, and making no apologies for it! I wrote this post about five years ago, and I believe it even more today, so I'm sharing it again.

Rests are good - quarter rests, half rests, whole rests, even eighth rests if that's the best you can do.

Several years ago, what I most wanted was to find a commercial space to rent so that I could set up a little piano academy, offering early childhood music classes in the morning and piano lessons in the afternoon. Thank goodness I realized that in order to afford my expenses, I would have to enroll many more students than I really wanted to have. I would have to teach into the evenings, maybe before school, and certainly on Saturdays. All of that work would have meant more child care expenses. I wouldn't have been able to ease up on teaching during the summer since leases and utility bills don't take holidays. Ultimately, I might have become burned out on work that I truly love.

I think we all, students and teachers alike, need to honor our natural rhythms. This year, I encouraged my students to schedule 4-6 lessons during our 10 weeks of summer. Most are doing just that, and it's working well for us. It's enough that they don't forget everything, but allows for some relaxation. Sometimes they haven't practiced much, but we use the lesson time to practice together. We are all more creative. I can hear myself being a better teacher when I'm not teaching non-stop. Yes, my income took a dive. But, for me at least, it's worth it to budget ahead for summer and scrimp a little in order to slow down and recharge.

Life has a rhythm. There is day, and there is night. There are seasons for growing, and seasons for (gasp) not growing but gathering energy to support future growth. Living things are cyclic - plants die back in the winter and shoot up in the spring. Bears hibernate. Why do we humans believe that we are not subject to the same forces of nature? It's too bad that our culture expects us to behave as though we are machines.

A musical composition needs rests. It needs slow movements to offset the fast ones. An effective performance needs changes in tempo and mood. To craft our lives well, we need to allow some balance between fast and slow, sound and silence. Musicians ought to be the first to understand that, but (and I'm speaking for myself) sometimes I think we may be the most driven ones of all.

Food for thought:

Wayne Muller's book has strongly affected my goals for crafting a life (and schedule) that makes sense.

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives

Here's an article that I think makes a good case for taking breaks while practicing your instrument, or scheduling a few minutes of a break into your teaching day:

Relax! You'll Be More Productivev

I hope you're having a restful summer!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Improvisation: Nurturing The Ear That Sees And The Eye That Hears

When I was a young piano student, my teachers never asked me to improvise. There were no gold stars awarded for “doodling” – no certificates, recital trophies, or pins.  So, I never did it. 

And that’s a shame.

Bach “doodled” until he became so good at it that he could test out new organs by improvising fugues on them. Beethoven “doodled” until he became so adept at audiation that he could compose the 9th Symphony after losing his hearing. 

Improvising is not mere doodling, and the ability to become good at it is not limited to the great masters or some sub-group of musicians who were “born that way.” It’s a learned skill. Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss are championing this belief with their Eye Ear Revolution. 

In the last couple of weeks of my piano term, with my students in the "just maintaining" stages of their recital pieces, we took some time to improvise. After some experimentation in the lesson, I assigned them a few ideas to play around with and waited to see what they’d bring back. When the sweet girl in the video played for me the next week, I was really surprised. She is, as her mother likes to say, a child who loves protocol. She wants to work through her assignments starting with item 1, then item 2, and so on, and finds it difficult to deviate from a plan.  When I expressed my surprise at how comfortable she was with improvising (this video was filmed in one take), I was surprised again to hear that for the last several years, she has regularly spent time with her older sister just sitting and improvising together.

So, I’ve been her piano teacher all that time, and didn’t know…

You may recognize the LH from Forrest Kinney's Pattern Play, Book One.  

What is my student accomplishing when she improvises?  Dr. Robert Pace, who was one of the 20th century's most esteemed piano pedagogues and a strong advocate of comprehensive musicianship, calls it “thinking in motion” and “creative problem solving.”  In an essay that you can read online here, he refutes the idea that improvisation is just a recreational activity, but instead defines it as “an interplay of the cognitive, affective and psycho-motor domains.”

When my student sits at home just “doodling” with her sister, she’s learning to anticipate what key will sound best before she ever reaches a finger toward it. As a result, not only will she be able to create her own music, but when she’s reading notation, she can do more than merely take dictation from the composer – she can enter into the creative space with him by recognizing where the music is headed before she even sees it written down.  Pace calls this “the ear that sees and the eye that hears.”  She’s discovering that repetition of motives and phrases give structure and balance to her music. She’s learning the value of a well-placed silence. She’s getting caught up in the flow of the moment and learning when it's time to drive ahead and when it's time to control the pace and slow down. She's learning to trust her instincts. She’s developing a sense of confidence in the validity of her own creative expression.

I find it very interesting to realize that, had I given my student a notated version of what she improvised and asked her to learn it, it would have taken her weeks. Improvisation helps develop motor coordination that doesn’t have to depend on translating the score first.

Pace, like Sowash and Viss, believes that “everyone--from the slowest learner to the most gifted--can create some music at the keyboard. Two things are required of the teacher--continuous opportunities and proper encouragement.”  Because I need to learn better how to improvise myself (as much as I believe in it, I’m really a beginner at doing it!), and because I want to provide the opportunities and encouragement my students need to become well-rounded musicians, I’m very excited to share that I’m going this summer to the 88 Creative Keys Teaching Creativity Conference on July 9-11! In fact, Bradley and Leila have given me a great vote of confidence by awarding me the first deputy scholarship for the conference. I'm very honored! I hope 88 Creative Keys is on your list of considerations for your own summer enrichment. I'd love to meet you there!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Improvisation Master Class: Letting Judgment Go

Photo source
Laura's Note:  Today, I'm pleased to welcome Doug Hanvey to The Piano Studio as a guest blogger. Doug is a pianist, piano teacher, improvisor, composer, and author who blogs about piano teaching at Portland Piano Lab. I've already  had the opportunity to put some of these suggestions to use in my studio, with successful results! Thanks for sharing these tips with us, Doug!

If you're a classically-trained piano teacher who is new to teaching improvisation, you may benefit by becoming aware of and letting go of the fears and judgments you have around playing music that sounds unpolished or "mistake-filled." If the previous sentence resonates with you, it's probably because you've been programmed for musical perfection. Are you ready to let go of some of that programming?

Improvising demands that we let go into the musical moment. This is actually no different than when we are performing a composed piece. The best performances of composed music, after all, happen when we are so caught up in the musical moment that we are in the state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "flow."

All classical pianists have experienced flow as well as a lack of it when self-consciousness or self-judgment pop in for a visit.

Before considering how to better teach improv, perhaps we should first become aware of anything that disrupts the flow of our own musical creativity. If we are burdened by fears and judgments that keep us from falling into the creative musical moment, it will be harder for our students to trust their own sense of flow. Try the following:


Explore Your Judgments About Improvising

Ask yourself:  How do I negatively judge my own improvising skills? Do these judgments interfere with the process of improvising? (If you find a stressful judgment like "I'm no good at improv – why do I think I can teach it to my students?" ask yourself if you can absolutely know that this thought is true. I like to use Byron Katie's four questions for dissolving stressful or limiting judgments.)


Explore Your Emotional Reactions to Improvising

Feel into your raw emotional experience as you improvise. (A good way to check in with your emotions is by bringing awareness to the body.) Is there anxiety? Outright fear? Whatever emotion you find, open a space for it and allow it to be. This is more powerful and liberating than judging an emotion or repressing it.

The more we bring awareness to our judgments and fears, the less power they have over us. Our personal experience of spontaneous musical creativity will be enriched and our confidence and willingness to be musically imperfect – essential for true musical flow – will increase.


Practical Tips for Teaching Improvisation

When you begin to teach improvisation in piano lessons, you may notice yourself critiquing your students in unconstructive ways. After all, while a given improvisation may be musically better or worse, it can't be changed or corrected like a composed piece. There are no mistakes in improv!

To help new student improvisers avoid self-consciousness it is better to err on the side of too much praise. While you don't want to offer empty platitudes, giving specific positive feedback about what you liked can empower students and give them a deeper understanding of the magic of improvisation.

To help students develop as improvisers without a verbally corrective approach, demonstrate instead. (The greatest jazz improvisers learn by listening to and mimicking the previous greats.) Tell your student that you will improvise for a minute or two while they listen intently. Then they will continue, and so on, back and forth. To make this even more effective, learn at least a few principles of improvisation that even beginners can use to sound "better" and develop more musical confidence. Here are three principles that are an essential element of effective improvising (and for that matter, composed music too):

Repetition: The use of repetition can be as simple as repeating single notes, or a two or three note melodic or rhythmic pattern.

Phrasing: Just as singers sing a phrase and then breathe, improvising pianists can learn to play a phrase and then "breathe."

Singing: A player's improvising skills can take a quantum leap when they tune in to the "inner improviser" and begin singing while playing – just as many of the great jazz improvisers do (some under the breath, a few quite perceptibly!). The ear and voice guide what the fingers play. Then the music truly begins to come from within.

By challenging yourself to go beyond your own fears and judgments, and by applying a few essential principles of improvisation, you can take your teaching of improvisation to the next level, while enjoying it more!

Doug Hanvey's Piano Lab Blog, hosted on his Portland Piano Lab website, provides tips for teachers on improvisation and other aspects of piano pedagogy.