Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A Parent's Guide to Piano Repertoire

Every fall I make a curriculum plan for every student in my studio which details where they are now in their piano study and where I would like them to be by the end of the year. This takes many hours, but the results give me a pretty cohesive roadmap for each student's next steps, the logical progression of concepts we need to learn, and activities I want to complete to get there in nine months.

I LOVE getting feedback on these plans from parents, and that feedback can come in a variety of forms throughout the school year. From "This was Emily's favorite piece EVER!" to "We are really struggling with the rhythm in this piece," to "Johnny is really into video games right now," this kind of guidance can add an extra spark to each student's repertoire plan.

Where things can get a little hairy is when Johnny's mom or dad come to lessons and say, "We would love to hear Johnny play Un Sospiro by Liszt for the spring recital." Let's say Johnny is a level 5 - a student roughly at the point of studying moderately complex sonatinas. Trying to explain to parents why this is neither possible nor good for Johnny's development can be tricky. Sometimes parents have heard these pieces played badly (or maybe well!) by a younger student and assume their student must be able to master them too. Sometimes well-meaning parents assume that any student can play any piece given enough time at the instrument.

I'm sad to say that these kinds of requests can be disastrous for students if teachers concede to them against their best judgment. While it is likely possible to find a scaled back version of a lot of repertoire, pushing ahead with a piece that a student is not physically or emotionally mature enough to handle leads to frustration at best and physical injury or quitting lessons at worst.

While piano repertoire does tend to lack a completely cohesive system for leveling, some basic guidelines for leveling can be used to help parents understand what repertoire their student is ready to tackle.

Elementary or Levels 1-3:

Students at this level fall on the spectrum between reading no music and reading notes on the staff in several changing positions. Early elementary students may not read notes on the staff or may just be beginning to read in one fixed position with quarter, half, and whole notes. Late elementary students are typically able to move between several related positions on the keyboard while reading quarter, half, and whole notes and simpler eighth note subdivisions.


If your student can't read all the notes on the staff and find their locations easily, has not studied all the major and minor five-finger scales, and cannot change positions quickly while maintaining a steady beat, DO NOT MOVE ON. Don't worry - they will get there!

Intermediate or Levels 4-7:

Students typically spend a number of years in the intermediate level, and it is both the easiest phase to rush and the most essential for a students' development. Early intermediate students are able to play in more quickly changing hand positions with basic rhythmic syncopations, while late intermediate students can handle large, rapid changes of position, larger hand spreads, and complex rhythmic subdivisions. This stage of growth is VITAL to building the relaxed technical foundation for advanced repertoire, as well as recurring patterns of chords, arpeggios, and fingerings that students can build on in advanced study. Most students need time to physically grow into late intermediate repertoire as these pieces require larger hand spans than early and mid-intermediate pieces, as well as attention to detail and the expressiveness that emotional maturity bring. A study of major and minor scales, arpeggios, and chord inversions are deal breakers for moving past the intermediate level and into advanced repertoire.

If your student has not played all major and minor scales, arpeggios, and chord inversions, or plays with excessive tension in the shoulders, arms, and wrists, DO NOT MOVE ON.

Advanced or Levels 8-10+:

Students in early advanced repertoire can execute very large position changes quickly, have the hand span to reach large and complex chords, and can accurately count very complex rhythmic figures. Most pieces at this level require complicated voicings (playing one finger louder than the other nine), fluent note reading, and the relaxed hand position formed in the groundwork of intermediate repertoire. Career musicians spend the rest of their lives mastering pieces of advancing complexity at the this level, and the sky is truly the limit!

As parents, we all dream of a day when our students can play at the advanced level - as a parent of two high school musicians, I share that dream! Part of our role as parent cheerleaders is to encourage our students to enjoy the journey, mastering each sequential skill without being in too big a hurry to rush on to the next bigger and faster piece. Taking on pieces that are too technically challenging can cause injury and stall progress in reading by limiting the number of pieces kids are exposed to regularly. This has the opposite effect of what parents intend, halting progress altogether since reading ability will continually fall below technical ability.

SO, take your time. Enjoy the process, and remember to make music at whatever level you are today. The big stuff will come as long as you stay dedicated to the process and don't give up.

Friday, September 7, 2018

10 Things You Can Do Right Now to be a Phenomenal Piano Parent

Fall is in the air, the kids are back in school, and it's time for piano lessons to begin! In addition to offering fabulous brain benefits for kids, playing the piano is fun and rewarding. Creating something beautiful, learning to express themselves, and mastering a challenging skill over time gives developing musicians the fuel to keep learning.

Getting back into the routine of practice after a chilled out summer can come with its own challenges! Read on to learn 10 things you can do beginning with your very first lesson to help your student stay in the groove this year.

1. Remember what you love about music and the piano.

When we're overwhelmed by our busy schedules and worn out from the back to school routine, it can be a great motivational tool to remember why we're becoming musicians to begin with. Explore some music you love live or online with your child, review or reminisce about really fun pieces they've played, or make some low key music as a family. 

2. Set a practice routine early in the year and stick with it.

Consistency breeds achievement and achievement breeds enjoyment. There is no way to escape the link between regular practice and sticking with lessons. When we're good at something, we find it fun - and when we find it fun, we keep doing it.

3. Resist the urge to overschedule.

Our lives are chronically busy, and if you're like me, you may feel like this busyness is a sign of forward movement and progress. Skills like piano take free time to develop. When kids are forced to squeeze piano in between two hours of sports practice, dinner, and homework, they naturally resist. (I do too!) The inspiration to make music often requires some unscheduled time.

4. Don't mistake dislike of practice for dislike of playing the piano.

After 20 years of teaching piano lessons, I know that there is one thing EVERY student has in common. No one - I repeat - NO ONE likes to practice, at least not all the time. Most kids do love to play when they have mastered a piece.

Does your child ever sit and play a piece they've mastered over and over without reminders? Probably. We all love to play things we're good at, so don't mistake practice resistance for dislike of playing the piano. Motivation ebbs and flows, so help your student ride these peaks and valleys with encouragement and examples of your own perseverance.

5. A little cheerleading goes a long way!

Even if you aren't musical yourself, acknowledging a job well done can go miles in motivating your student to make it through the hard stuff and on to the fun stuff! Word your encouragement in ways that foster a growth mindset. "You have worked so hard on that piece, and it sounds so polished!" makes it clear that hard work brings success, while "You're so talented!" subtly creates the impression that we have no control over our progress.

6. Check in on weekly assignments.

This may go without saying, but basic support like checking in on the week's assignments can be the deciding factor in real success at music lessons. Making sure young students understand the teacher's directions and can find online assignments can be particularly helpful. Very young children almost always need a parent sitting next to them during practice, and until age 10-12, most students need some guidance on how to structure their practice time.

7. Encourage "noodling" and free play.

Not every day's practice has to involve playing method books, scales, and repertoire pieces. While we have to do this frequently to build our skills, free play, improvising, composing, and review are essential elements in musical development. When I was in high school, impromptu arranging sessions of my favorite pieces on the radio saved my progress sometimes! These side projects encouraged me to make my music my own, and I never showed them to my teacher.

8. Communicate regularly with your teacher.

If something is not going well at home, I promise that your teacher wants to know. If something is going great, we also want to know that! If your student has a passion or interest that can be used to motivate them in music lessons, please share it. Parents know their children better than anyone else, and this feedback is vital.

9. Remember that your child is essentially learning a second language.

For all intents and purposes, learning to read and express music makes your child multi-lingual. While the understanding of music by the listener is somewhat universal, the ability to read and "speak" the language of music bears remarkable similarity to learning to read and speak a second language.

Like language acquisition, musical acquisition takes time, repetition, and exposure. Through encouraging regular music reading, review of learned pieces, and listening to quality performances, you can become your student's musical language coach.

10. Don't give up.

As a parent of a high school student enrolled in private music lessons myself, I know that all of this support and encouragement can be seriously HARD sometimes. Life truly is busy, practice fights truly aren't fun, and getting really good at music takes years. It's expensive, it means a lot of driving, and it takes up weekends and family time. It's HARD. 

What you are giving to your child is an irreplaceable gift. I have immense gratitude for each and every parent in my studio who drops off their student week after week with materials in hand, supports home practice the best they can, and prioritizes music. The brain benefits of piano are immense, and so are the emotional ones.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Piano Survivor: The Winner Is ...

I can't believe the school year is already winding down! Summer is right around the corner, which means it's time to announce our studio's favorite concert pianist and Piano Survivor for this year!

And the winner is:


Maestro Barenboim took on Martha Argerich at our final group class of the year playing Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1. The vote was close, but the students decided that the intensity of Mr. Barenboim's performance made him the studio favorite.

Here are the performances we watched if you'd like to check them out!

Thank you so much for playing along this year! We'll be back in the fall for more listening challenges and fun activities. Have a wonderful summer!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Piano Survivor Final Showdown!

The winner of our January Piano Survivor was the one and only:


Maestro Barenboim has his own wonderful YouTube channel full of fun interviews, performance tips, and of course, amazing music! I encourage you to explore some of what his channel has to offer.

Our final Piano Survivor installment will be held at our group class on April 8, 2017. Daniel Barenboim will take on our last mystery performer during class, and we will vote on our final Piano Survivor!

If you just can't get enough of Daniel Barenboim, here is a video clip of a concert he conducted in Buenos Aires, which also featured the amazing musical icon, Martha Argerich.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Piano Survivor: January Edition

Welcome to a new year and our next piano survivor listening challenge! Narrowly edging out our long-standing victor this month was our red corner contender:


Both of our December musicians were amazing, and the comments you gave me about these two performances were thoughtful and showed very good listening. Great work!

For our January challenge, our red corner challenger will remain and take on one of the best loved concert pianists of all time, Vladimir Horowitz. We will listen to the piece of music that made me decide at the age of 8 that I wanted to play piano forever! I listened to my parents' recording of Horowitz in Moscow enough times to memorize this piece before I ever played it.

Vladamir Horowitz was born in 1903 in Kiev, Ukraine. He first took piano lessons from his mother, who was also a gifted pianist. He attended the Kiev Conservatory and began touring Europe in 1920. He made his debut performance in the United States in 1928, and his ability to connect with his audiences combined with his amazing technical skill made him a crowd favorite. In addition to his concert performances, Horowitz made a number of popular recordings which are still well regarded today. Horowitz suffered from crippling performance anxiety despite his amazing skill, and several times he had to be pushed onto the stage to perform.

Our performers will be playing Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in E Major. This piece was originally written for the harpsichord. Although the audio quality of these pieces is different due to the date of their recording, which interpretation do you like the best?

Here is Daniel Barenboim's recording:

And here is Vladimir Horowitz's performance taken from a concert he gave in 1968.

This might be our toughest challenge yet, so listen with ears wide open!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Piano Survivor: December Edition

This month our performers were once again separated by only one vote, and again our winner is:

In your comments to me, you made it clear that you love her power and energy combined with her emotional performances. For December's listening challenge, she will take on another of my favorite concert pianists playing one of my all time favorite pieces by Beethoven!

In the red corner this month is Daniel Barenboim. Mr. Barenboim is widely hailed as one of the great musicians of the 20th century. He was born in Argentina in 1942 and made his international piano debut at the young age of 10. In addition to conducting orchestras in major cities all over the world and receiving multiple honors and awards, Mr. Barenboim speaks six languages fluently and is a citizen of four countries!

He and our blue corner contender, Ms. Litsitsa, will be playing the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata Opus 13, No. 8, usually called the "Pathetique" due to its tragic character. This sonata was composed in 1798 when Beethoven was only 27 years old, and it is still one of his best loved and most played compositions.

This piece is longer than those I usually post, so listening to a small portion of each video is acceptable for this assignment.

Here is Daniel Barenboim's performance:

And here is Valentina Litsitsa's:

Remember to listen to each performance carefully. You might even try listening with your eyes closed. What did you like about each one? What do you think this piece is about? 

The voting is open until December 31!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Piano Survivor: November Edition

Hi, everyone! Thanks so much for playing along with our Piano Survivor Listening Challenge so far. Our October Piano Survivor is:


It was a close call this time, with Valentina winning by just one vote! We are all sad to say goodbye to Lang Lang for now, but I encourage you to follow his videos on YouTube. He is an exciting and dynamic performer!

This month, our new red corner challenger will be the incredible Nikolai Lugansky. Nikolai is a Russian pianist and currently teaches at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. When he was only five years old and couldn't read music yet, Nikolai taught himself a Beethoven Sonata entirely by ear! He has gone on to have an extensive recording career and has worked with other famous musicians and conductors all over the world.

For this challenge, Nikolai and Valentina will be playing Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G-sharp minor. This piece was composed in 1910 during a period when Rachmaninoff was being forced to flee his homeland for fear of persecution. Can you hear the sleigh bells on the carriage mixed with the sad melody Rachmaninoff composed to express his feelings?

Here is Nikolai Lugansky's version:

And here is Valentina Litsitsa's:

Which is your favorite? Why?