Friday, November 1, 2019

The Ideal Piano Footrest: Giveaway!

Last year, I wrote about the importance of using adjustable piano benches with students. I also mentioned that I use a foot stool for students whose feet don't reach the floor. Until now, I haven't found an affordable option for a stool that is adjustable, but that has changed! Recently, I discovered a giveaway for a new footrest that looks truly ideal. In fact, it's called The Ideal Piano Footrest! They'll be giving away 10 models in exchange for honest feedback. You can enter here. If you're not lucky enough to win, they'll be selling them for around $50. If you have questions, please direct them to Scott Matthew through the email link on the giveaway page. I am not affiliated with them, just happy to see this product!

If I don't win one, I'll definitely buy one. My students are much more comfortable resting their feet on something rather than having them dangle, and the adjustable feature is just what I need! Here are more photos showing the various heights. It looks like you just slide the shelf in and out of the grooves on the sides to place it at the appropriate height.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Just A Beginner...

We piano teachers hold some negative feelings about things people say about piano lessons. One is when parents refer to lessons as "practice," like soccer practice. At soccer practice, tennis practice, basketball practice, a lot of the time is spent in drills to reinforce movements and techniques. With piano lessons, since we meet only once a week, those drills need to be done at home (practice), so we can move forward learning new things in the lesson. Another is "I can't do that because I'm not very talented." We hope parents and students realize that talent is no more than a kernel of potential. Skill comes from practice, and almost everybody can develop basic skill with effort. But, the phrase I hate most is any phrase that includes these three words:  just a beginner.

"Well, she's just a beginner, so grandma's old piano with 6 sticking keys, a cracked soundboard, and no more capacity to hold tune (because it hasn't been tuned in 2 decades) will be good enough for her to start on."

Yikes! Please, no! She will never feel competent on that instrument and may not even be able to play all of her pieces.

"Well, she's just a beginner, so we bought a $100 keyboard from Walm*rt that has only 76 keys and we let her sit cross-legged on her bed with it to practice."

Eek! Please, no! If she studies with me, she'll need to have all 88 keys at her disposal, touch sensitivity that allows her to play both loudly and quietly without using the volume knob, and a damper pedal (sustain pedal), all within the first year of study. At home, she needs an acoustic or digital piano at the proper height with a bench, preferably adjustable, and a pedal. She can't learn technique if she's sitting all hunched over on the bed!

And this is the worst. "Well, she's just a beginner, so she's taking lessons from the nice lady down the road who plays a little. She's the cheapest teacher in town, and since she's JUST a beginner..."

Oh, boy. I've been teaching piano since 1987. I have a masters in performance, and 2 more years of graduate study. I LOVE teaching beginners, but I can tell you, beginners are the most challenging students I have.

Prior to my official start of piano teaching, I taught a cousin of mine and a couple of neighbor's children when I was in high school. I was a pretty good pianist at that point, but a terrible teacher. I was what I now call a "turn-the-page" teacher. I got the students a method book, we learned the first 2 pieces, they came back and played them, and then we turned the page and did the next 2 pieces. I depended entirely on the method book to tell me what to cover next and what issues to address. When the students had problems with posture, hand position and technique, reading, rhythm, or expression, I had no tools in my toolbox to know how to help them beyond what was written in the method book. When that wasn't enough, they grew frustrated, I grew frustrated with them because my explanations weren't getting through, and nobody had any fun. It wasn't their fault. They were just normal kids. It was mine. None of those kids grew up to continue playing.

Every beginner I teach is different. Some are a perfect fit for the method books I tend to use the most. Most are not a perfect fit. This means, I need to be familiar with the teaching materials on the market so that I know how to supplement the method or choose a better one if necessary.

Some automatically use great hand position and posture and have natural technique. Most do not. That means that I need manipulatives and props to help students feel what to do, and an eagle eye to watch and head off at the pass any physical approach to the piano that has the possibility of sabotaging their future growth,

Some students have a natural affinity for rhythm and latch onto meter and note values with ease. Some don't. That means I need to have tricks and games up my sleeve beyond the method book to help them develop those skills.

Some students learn to read the notes on the staff with ease. Some do not. I need as many different approaches to explaining note reading as I can possibly have. (And sometimes, the patience of Job!)

Some students simply can't sit on the bench and concentrate for 45 minutes. Actually, most of them can't! I need games and off-the-bench learning activities to keep a student's attention.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take piano pedagogy courses from a fabulous professor in college. This included surveys of the teaching materials available on the market, tons of ideas and activities for teaching specific concepts and techniques, practice teaching, and mentorship from an expert as I taught in front of our class. I have been to teacher workshops and continuing education. I don't consider that I will ever be finished in learning how to be a good teacher.

Parents tell me that they want their child to be able to enjoy music for a lifetime. That's, of course, what I want, too. It's most likely to happen if you don't settle for what you think is "good enough" for a beginner, but give him/her equipment and tools in good working condition and a teacher who has invested a lot of time and effort in learning to be a good one.

No student is just a mere beginner. This may be the most important stage of growth for a pianist! A house built on a shaky foundation will not last a lifetime. Beginners are the best, most fun, most demanding, and most rewarding students to teach! Pick a teacher who can establish the best start to ensure future growth!

Monday, October 29, 2018

You Can Afford An Adjustable Piano Bench!

Here's a photo of one of my 3rd grade students. In the right side photo, she's sitting at standard bench height with no foot stool, and in the left photo, she's at the proper height with a stool for her feet. She looks pretty uncomfortable on the right, doesn't she? It's impossible for her to use a good hand position when she's sitting at the wrong height. How long do you think she'll persevere in practicing without growing frustrated if she's not comfortably aligned? Not as long or with as much focus as she would if were sitting at the appropriate height with her feet supported!

Some folks make do with pillows, cushions, carpet squares, or those foam floor puzzle pieces, but I find it hard to get students high enough on those and still be stable and comfortable. Most teachers know the value of using an adjustable bench, but, many don't use them because, well, they're expensive! A fancy artist's bench can cost several hundred dollars. Not only are they expensive, they're heavy as lead. I take my adjustable bench to my recital venues, and I'm very grateful that it isn't too heavy to move around. The good news is, you can invest in one for less than you might think, and you can find good options for your students to purchase for their home practice for less than $50. It's definitely worth it. Next to the piano, I consider my adjustable bench the most important piece of equipment in my studio, and I always make it a point to suggest to parents of young students that they consider getting one themselves.

A piano teacher needs a bench that can be adjusted quickly. Back around 2001, I bought one from a Canadian company called Concert Master. They're now out of business, and good thing, because it took over a year and a threatening letter from my cousin the attorney before I ever received the bench I had paid for. That company was bought out by Exemplar Furniture, another Canadian company, and they still sell the bench. (That is, unless it's just a rename of the same company. I don't know which is true.)

At today's exchange rate to US dollars, my bench would cost $321.38 including shipping to Georgia. I have no experience with Exemplar, but I will say that despite the frustration in receiving it, I do love my bench. It adjusts quickly and easily with a scissor-like mechanism to 7 different positions, and the highest one (23.5") has been a good height for my shortest students. I put it all the way up for my first and second graders. It's one of the tallest benches on the market. I've been using it since 2002, and it's very sturdy. I really like this particular type of adjustment mechanism. I'm not a fan of the scrolling knobs on a typical artist bench, even just for myself. They take too many turns of the knob to adjust, some are hard to turn, and all but the most expensive benches seem to get wobbly after a while. It would be especially annoying to deal with if you needed to change it for several students a day. If you've got the budget for it, I do recommend this bench from Exemplar Furniture. If they ever make a doubly-adjustable duet bench, I'd probably buy it, but I think I'd get some kind of binding contract with them about when I could expect to receive it or I'd be refunded.

There's another company that makes a very similar-looking bench - Made of Wood Piano Benches. They're in California, and the price looks similar ($320). Frustratingly, they don't show their shipping prices on the web page.

If you don't have a $320 budget, here are some more budget-friendly options for your studio. Be aware that I have no personal experience with these benches, but I'm choosing models I'd be willing to take a risk on based on the features and reviews. A teacher will want to look for the following features:

  • the ability to adjust to 23" high to accommodate young children (this knocks out a whole bunch of them)
  • as many height positions as possible
  • a quick and easy adjustment mechanism in case you have a first grader followed by a college student followed by a middle schooler...
  • sturdiness - you don't want something that's going to become wobbly in a year or two of piano teaching
  • a total weight under 30 pounds if you plan to take it to recitals

This bench by OnStage adjusts hydraulically. I like it because it adjusts up to 23", close to the same height as mine and the hydraulic mechanism is quick and allows for an infinite number of positions. A small student may not be heavy enough to lower the bench with their body weight (requires around 75-80 pounds), but you could easily slip over and sit on it yourself to lower it. It weighs 29 pounds, which is a little heavier than I'd like, but it's not as heavy as some artist's benches. It's $199 on Amazon Prime.

You can save a few more dollars with this bench by Stagg. ($144.40 with free Prime shipping)  It gets pretty good reviews, appears to be sturdy, adjusts up to 23", and according to one review by a piano teacher, is relatively easy to scroll up and down. It does adjust by turning knobs, which I don't prefer, but if it's easy enough, you can let the students do it and save the wear and tear on your own wrists. It weighs 25 lbs.

Finally, this is the cheapest adjustable bench I'd be willing to recommend for studio use, and a very good one to recommend for students' home use. This bench by OnStage adjusts up to 24.5". This is the tallest I've seen. It's only $47.95 with free Prime shipping. There's a video on the listing, but I can't quite tell how the adjustment works. Several reviews indicate that it is fairly easy. Do read the reviews about this - it seems that there are 4 holes for pins to create the height options, but it may be possible to get up to 8 different height settings. Some reviews seem to indicate that adjusting it requires turning it upside down, but other reviews indicated that it could be adjusted in 30 seconds and wasn't that hard. For a student, this bench would be ideal since, even if it takes a little more effort to adjust, he/she would only need to readjust once they grew a bit taller.

You'll notice in my photo that I use a stool under students' feet for support. It makes a huge difference in how comfortable they are. My students really like using it, and they readily set it up for themselves when they sit at the piano. It's 5 1/2" tall and that's just about right as a one-size-fits-all solution. When they start to grow out of it, we have about a month or two when their toes just reach the floor, but their knees are uncomfortably high with the stool. A couple of textbooks on the floor takes care of that. I also have a pedal extender that provides a higher platform for shorter students, but I seldom need to use it for that purpose. That perfect purple stool is what's left of a regrettable purchase years ago of The Firm exercise program. (As Seen On TV!) There were two exercise steps that could stack together, one taller and one shorter. They were dubbed "the fanny lifter." If you saw me today, you'd know that there's been no fanny lifting going on around here! These are not sold anymore, and it's terribly hard to find a step stool that is not too tall and has a cut-out to accommodate the pedals. If I didn't have this one, I'd probably build something. You might be able to make do with an exercise step like this one or this one.

If you've had success with a particular model of adjustable bench that isn't more expensive than these, or a great solution for foot stability, please share with us in the comments!

If you share my frustration with scrolling piano benches, you'll enjoy this video by an inventor who found a solution!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

#TempoVirtuoso Activity For Learning Tempo Words

I'm willing to bet that your students are a lot like mine. At some point after trying to remember the difference between Allegro, Allegretto, Allargando, Adagio, Andante, and Accelerando, their eyes start to cross. Here's a fun way to teach all of those tempo words using something that they do already - hashtagging!

Our students are all social media experts. You probably won't have to explain to them what hashtagging is, but in case you need a refresher yourself, think of them as keyword links that help to organize posts that have something in common. You can create a hashtag by putting the pound sign (#) in front of a word or short phrase with no spaces. #ThisIsAHashtag. (Capital letters are optional.)

Sometimes hashtags are merely keywords, but sometimes they are humorous comments or further insights. For instance, a friend of mine who has a camper trailer always hashtags her instagram posts about camping with #Chasing68Degrees. Even younger students who are not yet using social media grasp hashtagging pretty quickly.

I've created a new teaching resource to help your students learn 18 tempo words and it's on sale in my etsy shop, #TempoVirtuoso! You'll get an instructions page for the teacher, a reference page with 18 words and definitions that you can print for each student, and a set of index cards for every word that can be printed for each student. You'll have studio rights to print them for all students forever within your own studio, just please don't sell it or share it with another studio.

This is a great opportunity for creativity! Some of the hashtags my students have suggested for Allegro include #cheetah, #myskink (because his pet skink runs quickly), #racecar, #lunch (because she has to eat lunch fast at school), #needmoresugar, #bunny, #policecar, and more. The more personal or wild the association is, the more the student will remember it. This activity always sparks a lot of laughter!

So, #hurry to my Etsy Shop and check it out #presto! While you're there, be sure to check out the vintage items I have for sale. It's an eclectic shop!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Little Eyes and Finger Numbers

Stock photo

If you teach with any of the popular method books, you've had the following experiences.

  • Student sits down at the piano and asks, "What position am I supposed to use?" before even looking at the notes on the page.
  • Student comes back after a week of supposed work on a piece and says, "I couldn't figure out where to put my fingers" even though you've been drilling with flashcards for weeks.
  • Student encounters a note that isn't under his hand, but plays the finger number above the note on the wrong key, even though it is wildly higher or lower than the written note.
  • Student, when asked to identify D above middle C, calls it a 2.

I'm willing to bet you're nodding your head.

I once had a student say, "I feel like I've been hypnotized by the finger numbers."

She was absolutely right. But, while I understood that she had been conditioned by "position playing" - you know, the directions in most popular method books to use C position, middle C position, G position, etc., I still didn't understand the root of the problem until recently. The problem lies with the eyes.

In my college pedagogy classes, while considering how to teach a piece of intermediate literature, my professor made an interesting comment. "Sometimes, you have to teach a student to choreograph his eyes." She was referring to situations like the need to look at the keys for a big leap and then to return the eyes to the page, or in the case of both hands simultaneously leaping, which hand to look at first. The idea of choreographing the eyes stuck with me, and I've used that concept with many students at various levels over the years, not to mention in my own practicing. We have to be intentional about where we look first and where we look second.

In the case of almost every student who starts learning to read music with pre-reading notation, the student looks at the finger number before they look at the position of the note on the page or staff.

I understand the benefits of starting with pre-reading notation, particularly for students younger than about age 7. The Fabers have a good page that defends the value of it. I heartily agree that there are benefits in not introducing staff reading right away. Pre-reading gives the student a chance to internalize simple note values, steady beat, reading left to right, etc. But, there are some cons to pre-reading, too, especially when it comes to directional reading. On paper, it seems that pre-reading would help with directional reading because the contour of the notes on the page is so obvious. But, practically, I'm not finding it to work well. My students tend not to feel a huge need to play in the right direction; their overriding internal need is to play the right note. The thing that insures they're playing the right note is the finger number. So, the eyes look at the finger number first, the direction of the notes on the page second. So, when they move to the staff, if there is a number above the note, they have been conditioned by weeks or even months of pre-reading notation to look at the number BEFORE they look at the note's position on the staff.

These kids are still sounding out words - looking at the individual words rather than conceptualizing the entire sentence. The same is true with reading notes. They can't hold the contour of the melody in their mind while trying to figure out what the next note is. They only see the next note.

So, how do we get children to see the note's position on the staff BEFORE the finger number? One good way is to use modified staff reading early. I've begun using modified staff reading with Jennifer Fink's sight-reading cards. These are great - and free! The students enjoy using them, and there are no finger numbers above the notes. These require the student to see up/down direction and steps/skips and condition them to use the lines and spaces to determine the next note. You can also choose to use a different starting finger, emphasizing that there's more than one way to play those notes.

Another is to introduce notes on the staff one or two at a time. I like Susan Paradis' Animal Alphabet songs which introduce the notes from A below Mid C to G above Mid C. The old John Thompson easiest piano course (which has been updated from gnomes to monsters) also introduces staff notes one at a time rather than introducing a whole position. Just 3 or 4 weeks of this approach before beginning the C position, middle-C position, G position tonal approach found in the Faber and Alfred methods can make a huge difference.

Once students are beginning to play pieces in the method book, I try to help them choreograph their eyes and to understand that there's an order of where to look first, like the order of operations in math. Did you learn to say "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to remember that in an algebraic equation, we do the operations in this order:  parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction? We look at the note on the staff first, then we look to see what finger we should use for that note. If I find that they are dependent on the finger numbers - and you can often discover this is true by hearing them name a D as a 2, for instance - then, I just cover up the finger number with white out. And we do some more of Jennifer Fink's cards!

I am interested to hear what other readers do to combat finger number note reading. Have you found an approach that works for you?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Teaching Music Literacy Vs. Teaching Pieces

An 8-year-old student cried at her lesson with me last week, and it broke my heart. It hurt that she was sad enough to cry, but I was hurt and annoyed by the problem that precipitated the tears. Here follows a small rant that is probably a little rambling because I'm frustrated and strapped for time to write. Please indulge me and read it anyway.

The child came to me as a transfer student about a month ago. She is playing in the Faber Piano Adventures, Book 1. She played a decent rendition of Lightly Row, using both hands. Her rhythm was perfect. Her hand position decent. Her sense of line was good - she is very capable of making music. However, when I began to point to notes on the page, I discovered that she could not name a single note in the piece. Not one. At least not within a good 10 seconds per note, which means not knowing it, as far as I'm concerned. As the first lesson continued, I also discovered that she wasn't even very confident about naming the white keys on the piano. Now this kid is plenty bright. She has no learning problems.

At her lesson last week, she was reading through a piece for me and, reaching a point where the hand needed to change position, she played the note under the given finger number, not the actual note on the staff.

"Aha!" I said. "I just learned something about you. Your eyes look at the finger number first instead of looking at the note on the staff first."

She acknowledged a bit sheepishly that this was true.

"You know what, hon? The difficulty you're having with reading music is not your fault."

And the tears came.

Have you ever had someone offer you a bit of sympathy when you weren't expecting it, and you just totally fell apart? I have. Those moments usually involve something we feel extremely sensitive or insecure about. This child has been conditioned from her pre-reading notation days to look first at the finger number to tell her what to play. And the teacher who started her as a beginner did not work hard enough, or maybe at all, to counteract that conditioning once she began staff reading. Also, even though the books teach intervallic reading, this child needed much more reinforcement in that area in the lesson and didn't get it. She may have used flashcards for a while for note names, but whether the method of flashcard practice didn't work or there just wasn't enough of it, or it was simply the wrong learning approach for this child, she did not master her note names. And the teacher did not insist on either note naming or intervallic mastery before moving on through the method. Now, we have a child who is asked to play both hands together on most of the staff but can't read music and thinks that the problems she is having are her fault. She isn't good enough. She's a slow learner. These are the messages she is internalizing. And when a teacher who understands offers her some sympathy, she cries out of relief.

Lack of practicing may have been a factor. But, that means you have a conference with the parent and say, "We simply can't move on to new material without mastery of these concepts. That would be like trying to teach multiplication when she hasn't learned addition facts. I can't get the knowledge to stick in only 45 minutes a week. She'll have to reinforce it regularly at home and show me that she can do it before we move on to something new." If you don't have the stomach to do this, you are just taking somebody's money and leading the child down a deadend road to a place where, even if she tries to practice, she feels incompetent and incapable and will eventually quit.

This child is a victim of two things:  the visual conditioning to look at finger numbers that I've already mentioned, and what I call "turn the page" teaching. In turn the page teaching, the only educational objective is that the child can play a passable rendition of the song on the page, and when she can, the teacher turns the page and starts a new piece. A bright kid with a good ear can use trial and error to eventually figure out at home what to play and fake their way through it. This works about through Level 1, maybe part of Level 2, and then it doesn't work any more. That's when they quit piano.

Teaching piano is not just about turning out pieces like products.  At the early stages of instrumental instruction, pieces of music are tools that we use to teach music literacy. And of course, there are even more aspects of being a musician that we teach, such as improvisation, harmony and theory, technique, etc. But, if we are not teaching basic music literacy in the first two years of piano instruction, we are failing.

If I had to identify the biggest problem in elementary piano teaching today, and the number one reason that students quit (at least in the towns I've lived in), it's that they reach level 2 and still can't read music. 

We must teach note recognition in time (not just with flashcards), intervallic reading in time (aka sight-reading). We teachers must establish educational objectives for our own studios that support music literacy, not just piece-learning. Being able to play the piece may just mean that the student has memorized it temporarily and won't be able to read it again later. We must have some kind of criteria by which we measure whether our objectives have been met. We need to have a backup plan for how we will teach mastery of that objective when the method book wasn't sufficient. We need to own our role as teachers and come up with creative solutions, not just serve as tour guides through the method book. And the method books themselves need to do a much better job. How about a small check list on the page that says, "You are ready to move on when you can...?" (Options: when you can name every note in the piece in rhythm, or when you can name every melodic interval) I have a degree in education. I understand objectives and mastery criteria, but most piano teachers don't have that degree. They look at the page and see a piece of music to play, and if the student can produce a performance of it, they move on. The method books need to more clearly spell out objectives for both the student and the teacher.

Rant over. Thank you for reading.

Image credit:  public domain

Monday, January 2, 2017

Pachelbel Was NOT A One-Hit Wonder - Check Out His Other Works!

Sharing this post today from my other blog, Connections and Conundrums, which now features a Music on Monday category.

My family knows that every Christmas, they're going to hear me rant about Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. They steel themselves for it the same way I steel myself against hearing or playing this infernal piece one. more. time. The only thing worse than being locked in a room with it playing on a loop would be if the loop were "Mary Did You Know." She knows, okay? She knows! Every singer in the world has told her a million times.

What really gets my goat is that the whole world now thinks the Canon in D is a Christmas piece, thanks to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Whenever it comes on Holly in the car, my daughter lunges for the station dial to avoid hearing me screech "NOT CHRISTMAS MUSIC!"

The only redeeming thing is that when my piano students ask to play it (at Christmas, of course), I get to teach them the musical term "canon," which is not to be confused with artillery. A canon is a piece that follows a rule. In this case, the rule is that the bass line, played by the cello, repeats the same 8 notes (the ones in the cartoon below) for the entire piece while the violins play variations. Thank God I'm not a cellist.

Every cellist in the world hopes this was Pachelbel's purgatory experience.

The thing that bothers me the most is that so few people know Pachelbel's other works. He only became a one-hit wonder sometime in the last 40 years. Considering that he composed over 500 pieces of music, it's not fair that we reduce him to one now.

Pachelbel lived way back in the late 17th / early 18th century and was a friend of the Bach family and a teacher to Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother, Johann Christoph. He was influenced by Italian and South German styles, and he helped develop both chorale prelude literature and the pairing of preludes with fugues. One of his sons, Charles Theodore Pachelbel, emigrated to the New World, living in Boston and Charleston, and was a significant influence on music in the colonies. (One of Charles Theodore's few extant compositions is an aria called "God of sleep for whom I languish." I NEED a copy of this!)

Johann composed music for the organ and harpsichord, vocal music, and a few chamber pieces which include the infamous Canon. His works are staples of an organist's repertoire, and since we organists know that he is worth so much more than his one contemporary hit, we'd love for the rest of the world to get to know him better!

Some of Pachelbel's famous pieces for organ or harpsichord are the Fugues on the Magnificat, or as I like to call them, Fugues Related Loosely To The Magnificat since their only connection to the chant is found in the title. The thematic material in the fugues is free-composed and not based on any of the Magnificat tones. He wrote 95 of these short pieces using all of the 8 church modes. Many of them do not include a pedal part, so these are useful as piano literature, too. We believe these would have been played immediately prior to the cantor's singing of the Magnificat chant, and would serve to establish the key. Ultimately, we don't know exactly how many ways Pachelbel might have used these pieces. Improvisation and flexibility were the order of the day, and music used in one context on one day might be used in another the next.

Since we are still in the 12 Days of Christmas, this is a good time to listen or play these Magnificat-related fugues, but keep in mind that the Magnificat is used year-round in choral evensong and vespers. You can play these pieces any time.

I like this group of 8 fugues based on the fourth mode.

Just for fun...