Monday, September 22, 2014

Impressionism Unit Kick-off Listening Assignment!

Hi, students and parents!

Most of the studio will be starting our year-long unit on impressionist music with a listening activity this week. Impressionism in art and music is one of my favorite styles, and I hope you will all love discovering the music and musicians we'll be covering this year!

Student Reading Assignment:

Impressionism is a style of art that got its start in the 1860's and 1870's in Paris, France. Before this time, artists usually painted indoors and most did not create outdoor scenes or pictures of people doing things they might do every day. Artists like Claude Monet shook up the art world by painting unusual subjects outside. His art used thick brush strokes and he mixed his colors right on the canvas. Many people thought his art looked "unfinished," and this style of art was banned from galleries in Paris.

When you look at an impressionist painting, you might notice the bold strokes of paint. You will probably also notice that these pictures aren't realistic like photographs. They leave with an "impression" of the subject without revealing the whole story. You as the viewer are free to fill in the extra details in your mind.

Famous impressionist painters include Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Mary Cassatt, Degas, Pissaro, and Renoir.

Take a moment to peek at some of their art here.

Impressionism in music embodies many of the same qualities as impressionist art. Impressionist composers paint with tone colors and leave the listener with an idea about their subject. You as a listener are free to fill in the rest of the picture in your own imagination. Some of the composers we will be studying this year include Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Albeniz, Granados, Satie, and Scriabin.

Our first listening assignment will be "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" by Claude Debussy, written in 1910. Listen to this piece several times and draw your "impression." What do you think the blonde-haired girl in the piece is doing? Be ready to share one thing about the music you observed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Practical Solutions for Effective Home Music Making

One of my greatest joys and biggest challenges during lessons (aside from squeezing 3-5 pieces of music, music theory, duet playing, and personal connection into 30 or 45 minutes), is teaching my students effective ways to learn their music when I'm not there.

This task changes over time, since the brains of my students are constantly learning and evolving. Maturity levels change, thus the ability to self assess changes. Effective practice at home is essential and elusive, particularly for parents who haven't taken music lessons themselves. What is a child supposed to do when they sit at the piano anyway?

When I talk about practice in lessons, I always talk about specific goals and rarely about repetition. Rote repetition (playing each piece x number of times) is only minimally effective. What I'm really trying to teach students to do when I ask them to achieve specific goals is accurate looking and listening. I want them to hear their playing the way I hear it. I want them to see their technique the way I see it. I want them to compare the way they perform a section of music to my playing and to other musical exposure. This is a process which takes time, mental focus, and emerging maturity.

Elementary Students

Effective home practice is a tough but achievable task for this age group and for their parents for several reasons. Elementary children have the lowest ability to self assess (ie. hear what their teacher is hearing), the least ability to multi-task (ie. play steady quarter notes while playing loud while playing with tall knuckles), and the lowest level of inhibition. For this reason, supervision is essential to optimal progress, and FUN is equally essential!

The Challenge: Students in this age group tend to learn the notes and call it good enough, not because they aren't hard working, but because they sometimes lack self assessment skills and multi-tasking skills. More than once, a student has told me how "easy" a piece is, only to play it with incorrect rhythm, no variation in volume, and poor technique.


1) Practice step by step. For short method book pieces use day one to learn the notes, day two to work on rhythm, day three to work on technique and details, day four to work on expressiveness, and day five to put all the steps together. Longer pieces may require as much as a week for each step. This will reduce the amount of multi-tasking by allowing them to build skills on top of one another.

2) Use games to get through tough passages. Try using a Mr. Potato Head doll and adding a piece every time a student plays a passage correctly. Try moving a quarter from one side of the piano to the other each time a passage is played perfectly. If a student does the passage perfectly three times in a row, they get to keep the quarters!

Let them practice their rhythm on pots and pans. Download a metronome app that uses duck quacks instead of ticks to keep time. Ask them to count out loud in their best pirate voice or granny voice. Then try not to die laughing.

3) Let them record themselves often. They will notice wrong notes right away, but encourage them to listen for their other goals as well.

4) Help them remember to work on the goals I've set for the week. If it's written in their notebook or on their practice sheet, it's important!

Advancing Students

Finding time for music is a huge factor in the lives of most middle and high school students. There are so many enriching activities to take part in that many students arrive at lessons looking a little "deer in the headlights." While the level of time each student can commit to lessons is changed by a number of factors (and not every student has the time or desire to play at an advanced level), parents must realize that the amount of skill and level of enjoyment a student will achieve at any task is directly affected by the amount of time they have to dedicate to it. The less time a student can dedicate to a task, the less proficient they feel, and the less proficient they feel the more discouraged they become and the more likely they are to give up.

The Challenge: Students in this age group have advancing abilities to self-assess and can often make stunningly beautiful music. More than once, I've had tears in my eyes listening to pieces played by these students! As emotional maturity grows and exposure to the world increases, students have emerging resources for expression. As a result, they are often in a big hurry to hear that end result and may rush technical detail work to get to the fun stuff ... ie. playing the piece up to tempo!


1) Help students prioritize and discuss their goals. If their goal is to be a proficient hobbyist, what kind of work is needed? If they want to study music in college, how does the picture change? Can they play volleyball, soccer, and basketball, take dance classes, study the violin, and study the piano and be really effective at all of these things? Becoming proficient hobby pianists is well within the ability of most students with a reasonable amount of effort while leaving time for other activities. Help them carve out scheduled time to work toward these goals on practical levels.

2) Remind them take their time. If you hear them playing a piece up to tempo in the first two weeks, they are generally missing the details. Slow practice is a mantra they will hear over and over, and you can help me drive them crazy at home too.

3) Offer frustration busters! Remind them to "practice around the problem." (They hear it all the time from me!) Break a piece into sections and have them name each one (football teams are a popular choice) and remind them to practice just the "Sea Hawks" or the "sock drawer" for maximum effectiveness. Slowing down always helps. I've often given specific strategies in my notes they may need to be reminded to try.

4) Technique to the forefront. Most students with a few years of experience will read music well, intuitively understand rhythm, and move into a new era of practice where body technique is essential to progress and to prevent later injury. Many of my practice goals will include technical components, including scales, arpeggios, hand and arm position, etc. While your student may not welcome daily reminders, the occasional check-in in the form of expressing interest in what my notes mean may be called for.

4) Encourage them to record their playing.  Recording and assessing continues to be a great tool for this age group. It eases self-consciousness and aids in self assessment. Some find posting videos of their playing very exciting and rewarding.

I hope these few tips help you have a better idea what your student is called on to do at the piano on a daily basis. I'm always happy to discuss ways to help!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Dreaded P Word Revisited

With the beginning of a new school year, many of us will be delving back in to the universal parent-child struggle commonly known as daily instrumental practice. Of course, some days our kids behave like little Mozarts who can't wait to play their pieces and fill the house with cherubic harmonies. Other days, not so much. There can be resistance, frustration, and even tears at practice time, even for students who are dedicated to their instruments.

I am often asked for ideas about how to empower kids to practice effectively at home, so what follows are some ideas I've gleaned over the years, including tips from my own years as a pianist.

1) Don't get discouraged. I once ripped a page out of my music book, wadded it up, and threw it in the trash out of sheer frustration. (A story I've shared with lots of kids over the years, including the aftermath. Ouch.) I hated practicing quite a number of times over the years and continue to make and enjoy music, and so will a lot of kids. Don't take the resistance personally, and don't put too much importance on one really bad practice day.

2) Communicate with your teacher. I can guarantee that all teachers want to know if your child is consistently not interested in or not enjoying making music at home. Frustration can be an indicator that some important element was not clearly communicated during the lesson. Lack of motivation can be related to dislike for the literature being studied. Sometimes students don't have a clear idea what to do at home, which is something teachers always want to address in lessons. Teachers are asked to find music that motivates dozens of individual students, so guidance and honest feedback are always appreciated.

3) Don't make music making feel like doing penance. How would you feel if you were sequestered in the living room by yourself (or insert other solitary place here) while your brothers were outside tossing the football around or your sisters were giggling in the next room? Practice works best when all members of the family are engaged in similarly intellectual activities. Family members should be present and interested but not distracting, and noticing progress is always motivating to students.

4) Make great music and great performers part of your daily vocabulary. I grew up in a family that made music every day. We sang together, we listened to great performances, we played instruments, and we had access to recordings of renowned performers. I learned to appreciate how music made me feel, its larger cultural value, and the skill of really accomplished performers. I wanted to be one of them, and I wanted to make music as well as they did. In short, I knew what I was working toward. Your child's goals and musical tastes may not be the same as mine, but having a present standard of greatness in any musical genre makes all the difference.

5) Schedule the beginner, but eventually let inspiration take over. Most young or beginning students will need to schedule practice daily to really grasp basic concepts, build coordination, and acquire basic skill at the instrument. Find a time when the child is in a good mood, alert, and ready for intense concentration and then put music making on par with school work. I assure you, it is equally important to every child's healthy development!

Children younger than nine almost always need some kind of adult supervision. BUT, once a child really gets the "bug," really begins to feel and enjoy music, let them! I have to admit that from about middle school onward, my music making became much more fluid. I didn't necessarily practice daily; I practiced in intense bursts. Sometimes I spent 10 minutes at the piano 4 or 5 separate times, sometimes I didn't play for days and then made music for two or three hours on Saturday afternoon.

6) Don't call it practice. What is practice anyway? It's music making, so why can't we just call it that? Music making time sounds much more interesting and full of possibilities than "practicing." Of course, this music making must be somewhat structured in order to develop good habits, build fluency, and prevent injury, but playing should always be musical ... every single time. Follow the book most days, but set aside a day to do something unorthodox. Let your child teach you a song. Play tricky rhythms on pots and pans. Set aside a day for getting motivated with great performance on YouTube. Introduce your kids to your favorite artists. Help them find theirs.

I hope these few, scattered ideas are helpful as you navigate the tricky world of daily music making with children. Learning the piano is complicated ... much more difficult than almost everything students are asked to do in their daily lives. However, I assure you that there is nothing more spiritual, more culturally informative, and more life-changing than great music. These seeds of musicianship take years to grow, but the end result is an astonishing thing of real value.

Thank you for continuing this journey with me. I am humbled and honored by the opportunity.