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Monday, July 27, 2015

Life Strategies For Piano Teachers

Photo by Andrew Leddy
A piano teacher's life is challenging! School starts in about a week here, and I'm doing my yearly planning for life management. This includes scheduling students, scheduling my daughter's activities, figuring out when and how I'll prepare meals, when and how I'll clean my house, how I'll stay healthy, and which organizational commitments I'll accept. You know how this works. I usually take a sheet of graph paper and map off my days in 45-minute segments. I usually fill up every one, ending up with a schedule that demands that I follow it with military precision, or there won't be enough time to get to everything.

An article I read somewhere about a year ago made the point that productivity depends on energy, not time. This was a revelation for me, but it seems so obvious now. If something drains the life out of me, it won't matter that it was a fairly small time commitment because it will require additional time for recovery (or complaining). On the other hand, a heavy time commitment that I enjoy will boost my well-being and make me more productive. So, this year, while the graph paper schedule is inevitable, I'm giving myself permission to think in terms of energy management, as well as time, when I plan how to live.

Here are some strategies.

1.  Hire a driver.
Now that my daughter is in 7th grade, the needs have shifted from child care to transportation to and from after-school activities. This past week, I hired a retired neighbor to take over this job. Now, my daughter can continue playing on the tennis team, and she has the opportunity to audition for the school musical without me hoping she doesn't make it! I can relax and teach. In fact, it makes it possible for me to teach 6 more students for the year, making it a very cost-effective decision.

2. Batch Planning.
Batch panning is my term for reducing multiple decisions to one decision. Put another way, make stock choices about mundane things to free up time and energy for creativity about the things that matter. Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein both wore a uniform - the same outfit every day. (Let's hope they had multiples or did daily laundry!) The point was to avoid wasting brain energy on something so mundane. I'm always looking for areas where I can batch plan, but here are two where it's most effective:

Meals:  My husband has what I call an "extreme job," so it's rare that he can take over this arena, although he does when he can. I make a menu plan for the week and only one trip to the store. It saves additional shopping trips, additional decision making, and happily, some money. The second part of the strategy is "cook once - eat twice." This halves my menu decisions. I cook enough for two full days, and it's in the refrigerator ready to be thrown on a plate and microwaved whenever anybody wants it (or in the crockpot). A new strategy for me this year will be adopting a meal rotation to reduce the decisions even more.

Lesson planning: I like to do lots of supplemental activities in lessons, but it's easy to get scattered. I pick a topic for a multi-week unit, such as intervals, so my brain can focus on teaching that one thing. Week One may be recognizing intervals, Week Two more practice, Week Three ear-training with intervals, Week Four improvising using a required interval. I get out all of my related games/resources and use whatever is appropriate for each student's level. For another unit, we may concentrate on rhythm, and everybody will do Wendy Steven's Rhythm Cup Explorations. Of course, sometimes, I discover in a lesson that one needs a little reinforcement to help him remember a scale, so I whip out a game that is "out of theme," but having an overall focus helps me know what I've covered and that I've covered everything I wanted to and reduces my decisions.
3.  Get enough exercise.
Last year, I joined a tennis league. At the time, I thought it was a crazy decision - piano teachers don't have time for tennis! I thought the challenge of scheduling my home schoolers and adults around clinics and matches would create more stress, and I was prepared to have to back out. It turned out to be exactly the opposite. Playing tennis boosts my well-being, gives me physical and mental energy, and makes me more productive. I also haven't lost any teaching time to sickness since I started exercising more. This is a great example of making energy management a bigger priority than time management, and having it benefit my time as well.

4.  Limit Commitments 
I used to agree to do things based on whether I had a time slot open for it on my schedule. Bad idea. Now, I limit my community service commitments to my local MTA and a couple of faith-related things. Throughout the year, I do a few one-off jobs at my daughter's school, but no committees. There's enough on my plate for just one person, and it's good to remind myself of a saying stolen from one of my friends:  "You don't have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm." Recently, I composed some questions to consider when I am asked to take on another responsibility. I call them "Burnout Avoidance Criteria," and I think they are a better alternative than asking "Do I have time?"
 A) Does serving in this capacity align with my personality, my life-purpose, and my values? Does serving in this capacity prevent me from doing something else that aligns better?

 B)  Would serving in this capacity sabotage my mental, physical, and emotional energy for those things that only I can do? (such as parenting or maintaining my own mental and physical health)

 C) Will the time and energy I invest in this still matter in 10 years, or is it mostly busywork?
 D)  Is there any chance that I might be agreeing to this office or position just because it makes me feel important? (The right answer is "no." See A above.)
 E) Does agreeing to this job give me an excuse to have no time for something else that is difficult or scary? (If you fill up your time with obligations, you can avoid having to deal with that family problem. Or, if you fill up your time, you'll never have to face any criticism of your creative work because you'll never have time to do any. See below.)

5. Refuse to feel guilty about leisure.
Creativity is hard to cultivate when you are rushing from one thing to the next. When I can't find creative time for myself, then my soul starts to suffer - along with my parenting, my teaching, my friendships, and my productivity. I need leisure time in order to reflect, write, and play something on the piano other than the accompaniments I'm responsible for, and not just once in a blue moon but as a regular part of my routine. That means sticking to my guns about not over-committing, even when people don't understand.

The strategy I still need help with is preventing my leisure time from being sucked up by the computer! There are so many good blogs, so many pinterest boards, so many good friends on facebook! I justify it because I do find lots of good teaching resources and ideas, and it's great to stay in touch with friends, but I need to reclaim some of that time. If you're reading here, I know you spend time on the computer, too. How do you establish limits around computer time? Share your tips about that or any other strategies you use to establish a good work-life balance!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Improvisation Inspiration - See How Lame I Am!

While looking for something else today, I discovered a fantastic set of videos by Dr. Peter Schubert of McGill University. Using an exercise first conceived of by Mozart to help a piano student who played well but "had no ideas" for creating her own music, Dr. Schubert coaches a student through the creation of his own piece. Supposedly, Mozart presented the student with an opening phrase and said, "See what an ass I am! I've started this piece, but I can't think of anything to come next! Can you add something to this to finish it?" While you might want to change the name of the exercise to something more kid-appropriate, it should be something funny! Off the top of my head, I can imagine calling it "See how lame I am!" Maybe you can think of something better. Incidentally, the existence of the story is evidence that even amateur students were expected to compose and improvise in those days.

In no particular order, here are some factors that I think make Dr. Schubert's exercise successful:

1. No wrong answers. Dr. Schubert makes a big point of this in one of the videos.
2. It's playful. They're laughing and having fun.
3. They're singing rather than laboriously picking out the notes on the piano. That can come later. Singing is instant.
4. Dr. Schubert is liberal with compliments and encouragement.
5. Rather than trying to manage full chords as accompaniment, they use only one note. This student is clearly already thinking of the harmony and playing a chord root, but with a younger piano student, the accompaniment could be delayed until the melody was worked out.
6. They work on one short phrase at a time.

What other aspects do you see that make this work so well? How could you adapt it to piano students at a variety of levels?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation?

The 88 Creative Keys Educator's conference only lasted 3 days, but my head is still there. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store. I just needed a couple of items, but I also came home with a beach ball, dry erase crayons, some cute little rubbery animals, and a magnetic fishing pole. This is what happens when you spend 3 days with a creative teacher like Leila Viss. Suddenly, everything looks like something you could use while teaching piano! Stay tuned in the days to come as I figure out how I'm going to use these things!

Since the conference, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the philosophy behind 88 Creative Keys. If your conception of Bradley and Leila's message is that it's all about jazz or ipad apps, you're missing the point. Bradley Sowash is one of the best at communicating how to play jazz, but his ultimate message isn't "teach your students jazz," or pop, or any other specific style. It's teach your students to make their own music, whatever style that might be, and the skills to make your own music are primary musicianship skills, not secondary. 

Leila wrote the book (literally) on using ipad apps in your studio, but she shared much more than ipad apps. We spent equal time exploring physical manipulatives and other ideas for creative teaching. In fact, most of the apps we used were more for utility than novelty - this is something I want to write more about as I have resisted some technology for the wrong reasons, and I think many other teachers do as well. Leila's message is keep your teaching fresh and creative, take advantage of helpful technology, and engage your students with elements from their own world, which is a vastly different world than the one most of us grew up in. (That link goes to Wendy Stevens' blog where she interviews Pete Jutras, editor of Clavier Companion, about how piano teaching is changing. It's worth reading if you haven't.)

So, I'm convinced that creativity and improvisation in particular should be an essential part of piano instruction. Now, how am I going to put that to work in my studio? Before I make concrete plans, I'm considering some questions I think will help me develop my teaching philosophy where improvisation is concerned. I'm not offering answers...yet. One of my favorite high school teachers taught me that you can't solve a problem until you define the problem. So, for now, I just have questions. While I'm not giving answers yet, I'm really interested in yours. Please comment!

1.  What caused pianists to abandon the craft of improvisation even though organists did not? We know that improvisation was common among keyboard players up until the late 19th century. So what factors contributed to its decline among pianists?

2. Should current piano pedagogy be governed by those factors?

3. What kind of improvisation did classical pianists do back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? What kind of improvisation do classical pianists currently do? What sort of improvisation could they do, and who would listen?

4. If I believe that improvisation skills are desirable, how do I make them an essential part of my piano pedagogy, not just a filler activity at the end of a lesson? As an extension of that, how should we structure our piano festivals and evaluations and method books to reflect our values?

5.  What kinds of demands for creative musical skills do my students encounter in their musical lives apart from me, at church or school for instance? How can I help them with these needs? What print or online resources are available?

6.  How important is off-the-page creative music making for my students' personal well-being, and is this something my teaching should address?

7. Can I and should I embrace improvising in all sorts of styles? How can I influence my students' development of good taste while not stifling their creativity when that creativity emerges in a style that I don't know much about (jazz) or might not like (current pop)? What defines "good taste," and is it dependent on genre? Can pop be useful? Whose opinion influences my answers to these questions?

8. Can I be comfortable giving and listening to assignments that are more about a messy process than a nice, clean product?

9.  How can I teach improv in such as way as to give students some immediate gratification while also encouraging the discipline of drills and exercises that will help them learn to think harmonically on the fly?

10. How much lesson time am I willing to devote to creative music making as opposed to performance and interpretation?

I could probably think of more, but these questions are enough to drive my blog for a year! I hope they've gotten you thinking, and I hope you'll share those thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

88 Creative Keys Conference: Day 2

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Quick - can you spell a Dm7(-5) chord? How about a C7sus4? If you can spell it, can you think really fast of 2 different activities to help your students learn to spell it? If you have students who want to try out for their school's jazz band, they'll need to know. And that means YOU need to know.

Today, at the 88 Creative Keys Conference in Denver, I practiced spelling those chords and a bunch more in a variety of fun ways. I also collaborated with 5 colleagues to produce a 5-person arrangement of Rock Around The Clock in about 10 minutes time. And, more importantly, I realized that my students could do that, too. And, if I had a blast doing it, they would, too.

One of the big take-aways from this conference is the realization that this improvisation business really is attainable. By pulling us right out into the pool and making us swim by DOING the improvisation and THINKING of creative ways to teach it, Bradley and Leila are showing us that we can be creative enough ourselves to teach it to our students.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

88 Creative Keys Educator's Conference: Day One

"We don't look at printed music and think 'what are the possibilities?'"

Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss are on a mission to get students and their teachers to think about the possibilities. Teaching students to balance their eye and ear skills and to create their own music is the goal of everyone attending the 2015 session of the 88 Creative Keys Educators' Conference in Denver Colorado.

I took a long trip from Georgia yesterday,  arriving just in time to maneuver my rental car through rush hour traffic in Denver in a rainstorm and collapse at what was about 11 pm Georgia time, but really only 9 pm Denver time. It was all worth it today, though! Bradley and Leila are engaging and warm, and they bombarded us all day with practical tools to put to use in our teaching studios.  I've met new friends from Florida, Texas, California, and Colorado - and probably more states that I can't remember!

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Bradley Sowash leads the group through improvisation exercises in Creative Chords, Book 1.
This was the first time I've ever participated in a workshop where it was possible for everyone to play together on keyboards. It was really helpful to be able to actually do the activities rather than just be told how to do them. Bradley makes it fun to experiment with improvisation, showing us how to give students strong parameters to work with (a short leash), then leading them to fewer parameters (a long leash), and finally turning them loose to do their own thing (no leash.) These hands-on experiences are one of the features that make this conference unique. We had fun off the bench, too. Leila is challenging us below to come up with interesting ways to use a variety of manipulatives in an "iron chef" style activity.

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After today's session, I found myself brainstorming with another conference attendee about the various ipad apps Leila showed us today and even a few more. That's part of the fun of attending a program like this one - you learn from each other as well as the clinicians.  
I'm eager to see what tomorrow holds!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Getting Excited For 88 Creative Keys!

This time tomorrow, we'll be kicking off the 88 Creative Keys "Teaching Creativity" Conference! I'm excited about learning new ideas and teaching strategies from Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss. The first camp session, "Beyond The Page," is already underway. Stay tuned for conference reports!

Bradley Sowash explains his motivation for teaching improvisation:

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.