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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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Another Review of Piano Boot Camp: Special Ops

Heidi Neal of Heidi's Piano Studio blog has posted a wonderfully detailed review of Piano Boot Camp:  Special Ops! Please check it out, and thanks so much, Heidi!

You can read all of my posts related to Piano Boot Camp by clicking this link, and you can purchase the curriculum at my Etsy store.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Playing For Joy

I wrote a post last Tuesday that was a manifesto against spending any more lesson time teaching students to perform from memory. (Mind you, I'm not totally against memorizing music - just against the idea that a memorized performance is the only legitimately good performance, and against inflicting what I believe is unnecessary stress on students who find memorization stressful.) I'm sure plenty of people totally disagree with me, but the only feedback I've received has been positive. In that post, I listed what I thought were the most important skills I needed to teach my students. After a week of ruminating and after taking several of them to play for Guild auditions just yesterday, I realize that my post didn't focus enough on an important point. Why should we learn all of those skills? The answer is so simple, but we discredit it:

We learn to play music so that we can have the joy of playing beautiful music.

While I may say that this is true, my teaching priorities say something else.

On the weekend before our last lesson prior to Guild auditions, my student "John" played his hardest piece as the offertory at his church. He showed me the video his mom took with her smart phone. I was astounded to see what looked like a completely different child than the one I usually met in lessons. He was totally relaxed and played his sonatina with complete freedom. A minor stumble was no concern, and he quickly recovered with no ill effect on the performance. His dynamics and phrasing were both beautiful. In contrast, at lessons, John is very hard on himself, groans at mistakes, becomes tense, and often has a harsh, strident tone.  Who in the world was that kid at church?

"Were you nervous at all?" I asked.  "You sure don't look it!"

"Oh, no. They weren't listening to judge me. They're all my friends."


At Guild auditions, John played his music well, but not with the freedom and obvious joy at making music that he had at church. He stumbled significantly over one of his scales. Afterwards, he was in tears (over a scale!), even though the examiner had not penalized him for the stumble and had given him very encouraging comments.

I tell myself that I participate in Guild to help my students learn to do things like play well in church. Do you get the irony? I'm getting it. Loud and clear. John can already play well at church, maybe with a more mature attitude about it than I have myself, but the minute the listener becomes a judge or even a teacher rather than a friend enjoying the moment along with him, or worshiping along with him, then he is no longer playing with joy and freedom, and his performance suffers for it.  Forrest Kinney writes in "A Radical Shift in Pedagogy:"

If these students are to continue to make music beyond their lessons and throughout their lives, they will not be doing so to please a teacher, a parent, or “a listener.” Those who have a lifelong love affair with a musical instrument are making music to please their own soul. When that is not the primary motive, even the loudest applause and the greatest accomplishments feel rather empty in the end.

Occasionally when there are a few rare minutes at the end of a lesson, I'll open up Book 1 of Forrest Kinney's Pattern Play series, and we'll play one of the improvisations. The kids love it. They get lost in it. They look at me with bright eyes the next week and say, "Can we do that improv stuff again?" I enjoy it too, but I have this awkward feeling when we finish one. I'm thinking to myself, "What do we do with that?" I'll say something to the student like,  "Um...okay! That was fun! Now, remember to practice your pieces for Festival. They've got to be memorized by next time!"

I'm starting to recognize that I've been harboring the idea that the joy of making music is not enough on its own - that lesson time is not valuable if we're not turning the page in the method book and achieving something. I've been operating all this time with the belief that music making needs to be for something else to be a legitimate activity. It helps you perform better at school, learn grace under pressure, set and achieve a goal, develop a good work ethic, etc. These are all true, but they're fringe benefits - not the primary benefit. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, and I don't want to suggest that music lessons are supposed to be nothing but mindless play time with no goals in mind. But, I also think that I need to be willing to state outright that one of our goals is sheer pleasure. I already tell students (and parents) that it's hard to enjoy something when you know you're playing poorly, so the best way to enjoy yourself is to do your practicing. I still need to do more to nurture playfulness and creativity. I'm in danger of reducing the study of music to an achievement program.

Where I live near Augusta, GA, we get excited about golf. There's this small tournament called The Masters that happens here every year. I'm not really a golf fan, but you can't live in this neck of the woods and not at least keep up with the big names. This year, a young guy named Justin Spieth won. He has a shocking perspective about the importance of golf. He says it's for recreation. The audacity! He gets this attitude from his parents. His dad Shawn's final advice before the tournament went like this:  "I wanted him to know what I thought was important.  I told him, ‘You know, you’re going to face some adversity out here ... and this is the Masters ... but it’s still just a game.’”

What is contained in that parental advice? The permission to lose, because in the scheme of things, it's just a game. The permission to win because winning doesn't carry the burden of having to maintain your king-of-the-hill status since it's just a game. The permission to take a risky shot because if you miss it, it's just a game. The parental assurance that your worth is not tied up in this. This is not your life; this is not your identity; this isn't about your teachers' or parents' worth or status - it's a game. What's contained in that parental advice? The freedom to try for your biggest dream and actually enjoy the journey to reach it.

So what happens when a kid plays for the love of the game, remembering that at the end of the day his parents (and presumably coaches) think of it as just a game? He works his tail off toward his own self-directed goal, feels he has nothing to lose by trying his hardest, and wins The Masters, easily, at age 21.

My student John worked hard on his music, then stood up in front of over 100 people and played a soaring, free, natural performance because in that moment, it was just for mutual joy and worship with his friends. A week later, he played the same piece for only one person and played an anxious, stiff performance because I told him that this one performance really mattered. I legitimized the second performance by giving him a certificate and a pin. I called the first performance "a dress rehearsal."  Yet, which one was the real thing?

We're missing the point.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review of Piano Boot Camp: Special Ops

Be sure to check out a review of Piano Boot Camp:  Special Ops by Jennifer Foxx of FPSResources! Jennifer graciously agreed to review the program on her blog, and did a super job of summing up the curriculum.

Piano Boot Camp:  Special Ops is a summer camp curriculum for 2-3 students at a time available in my Etsy store. You can read more about it by clicking this link:  Posts About Piano Boot Camp

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Performing from Memory...or Not

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The events of my last several days have been staggering. In the space of about a week, I've learned of the deaths of several friends and friends of friends. These events plus the news of terrorism and the devastating Nepal earthquake have me doing some ruminating. I've been evaluating whether or not I'm really attending to the things that matter the most, or devoting time and energy to things that I do mostly out of conformity to tradition or a fear of being different. In short, I'm asking "where are my aspirational values not coinciding with my practiced values?"

Where my studio is concerned, I'm thinking about how much mental energy and lesson time I am devoting to helping my students memorize music for performances, particularly evaluations that require a lot of memory work. As a piano student in college, I memorized music for juries and recitals, but I have not been expected to play from memory even once since then.  After graduating in 1987, I have been active as a church musician, played for community theatre, played with a small amateur chamber group, and I've performed a couple of times with a local orchestra - not one performance from memory. Later, I went back to school for a masters in organ - and of the dozen or so organ recitals I've played, not one has been from memory. If the musicality of any of those performances suffered, I do not believe it was for lack of being memorized.

What skills have I most needed since graduation?
  • Ability to read and respond to all of the details of notation -  at sight, during practice time, and in performance after practicing
  • Ability to interpret and express the music's essence, not merely the notes
  • Ability to quickly recognize harmonic structure and form
  • Ability to improvise, whether embellishing existing music, covering mistakes, or inventing original music
  • Ability to collaborate with other musicians
  • Ability to read the score in my head - ear-training
I've still got a lot to learn myself, but these are the things I most want to teach my students. With all of these skills vying for our time in a 45-minute lesson which is embedded in the life of a very busy kid, I'm find it very hard to justify spending their time or mine on learning to perform from memory.

Joy Morin wrote a good blog post about the pros and cons of memorization where she distinguishes between using it as a tool for learning as opposed to memorization for the purpose of performing without the score. Memory work can certainly be a great tool for learning a piece to full mastery, but I can't convince myself anymore that performing from memory deserves the sacred cow status it has acquired.  The requirement always to perform without the score is actually a fairly recent development in the history of Western music. Prior to Franz Liszt, audiences would have been shocked  by it. Stephen Hough writes in "Liszt:  The Man Who Invented Stage Fright:"
Chopin would not have approved; he chastised a pupil once for playing a piece from memory, accusing him of arrogance. In the days when every pianist was also a composer, to play without a score would usually have meant that you were improvising. To play a Chopin ballade from memory might have seemed as if you were trying to pass off that masterpiece as your own.
Consider this:  there was no expectation to perform from memory placed on Bach, any of Bach's sons, Scarlatti, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, or Mendelssohn, or any performer at all prior to Liszt's first audacious, memorized performance in 1841. If any of them could be a fly on the wall in my studio, I suspect they would all be very puzzled by how much time we devote to checking on the accuracy of memorized pieces as opposed to the time we spend learning functional keyboard harmony and improvisation. I'd like to teach my students to do so much more than just "recite" music - to be able to form ideas and speak in the musical language on their own! But, that takes a lot of lesson time, and I still have a lot to learn about it myself. This means teaching "outside of the box" - at least according to today's box -  and learning some new teaching skills.

If memory is a tool for playing more beautifully, and the stress doesn't sabotage the performance, then I'm all for it. Some of my students memorize easily and prefer to play that way. But, I believe memorization should only be a tool to create beautiful music and a good performing experience - not the goal in and of itself. If if the stress of performing from memory sabotages the quality of the performance or your enjoyment of performing, why do it? I've heard a lot of people say that playing from memory is freeing, but that's only true for some people. I've performed recitals at the piano from memory and at the organ from the score, and I know that I can reach that sensation of feeling free either way - it's really just a matter of being fully prepared. More importantly, being able to reach that state with the score has been a far more useful skill in my everyday life as a working musician than has memorization.

Every student learns music differently, and some never make their peace with memorization but still play beautifully with the score.  It seems that our culture is saying to them, "Well, if you don't feel happy to be liberated from the score, YOU SHOULD, and your excellent, yet non-memorized performance is substandard."  I disagree. It all comes down to the final question - why do we make music in the first place?  The answer is simple - because we enjoy it and it enriches our lives. The pursuit of excellence is, in my opinion, another good reason to study music. But, to suggest that a performance can only be good when it has extra requirements pressed on it beyond actual musical excellence is troublesome to me.

I like doing evaluations, especially when they are flexible enough to meet the variety of needs of my individual students and let students progress at their own pace rather than a predetermined one. Our local MTA festival requires only two memorized pieces, which is usually easy enough for my students, although a few do struggle with the requirement. We also do Guild exams, and it's a great motivator at the end of our school year when sports, spring musicals, and school projects threaten to overtake piano. Some of my students choose to do the 10-piece program, while some choose with my wholehearted blessing to do only 4. Some don't  participate at all. Ironically, sometimes those students who choose to do the smaller program could excel at the useful skills of sight reading, scales, ear training, transposition, or improvisation categories, but Guild limits them to testing in only one of those categories unless they play more memorized repertoire. (Sigh.)

I no longer require memorization for recitals, and I see many teachers admitting on message boards that they don't either. This trend is not limited to those of us who teach school-aged children, but is catching on in the performance world as well.  Anthony Tommasini in The Guardian, quotes Peter Serkin:
''Memory is a strange thing,'' he added. ''It can happen by itself; it does not have to be the result of an arduous process of study. But many people do it to make a big point, or out of some kind of vanity. It's become orthodoxy, which is unhealthy and restrictive.'' 
If a student finds performing from memory stressful, I am ready to go on record as saying that I find the stress completely unnecessary. I doubt that many (if any) of my students will pursue careers as solo performers. They will play for their churches, play for community events, and maybe play with a band or ensemble for pleasure. They may even pick up some side income in the process. They can learn classical literature, jazz improvisation, sacred solo pieces, accompaniments for choirs and soloists, and even learn to create their own music without being required to memorize. In light of that, I just don't think that working on memorization is best use of our lesson time, their practice time, or of myself as a resource for my students.

So, this is a case where my aspirational values are not aligning with my practiced values.  There will be some changes in my studio next year. I'm still trying to decide exactly what those changes will look like, and I'm interested to know what you do in your studios. We may choose to do more duets at Festival because they don't require memory. I may send fewer students to Guild. I will definitely devote more time to sight reading and improvisation next year. Please join the conversation and comment, and feel free to disagree with me if you can phrase it with grace and good will. I'm really interested to hear what other teachers think.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to SEOKHIAN who left the 2nd comment on my post Giveaway! Piano Boot Camp:  Special Ops!  You are the winner of a free copy!

Seokhian, I do not have contact information for you, so please use the email link in the left sidebar to contact me with your email address so that I can send you the files.  You'll find it in the box labelled "connections." If I do not hear from you by 9 pm (ET) on Sunday, 4/19,  I'll draw another winner.

I hope you enjoy using the program!