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Name That Tune

I have an embarrassing inability to recognize music that I hear on the radio or playing in the other room. It is not an exaggeration to say that I might walk into the house to find Matt listening to, say, Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto, a concerto I played last year with orchestra, and for me to have no idea what I am hearing. It is not uncommon for me to hum a tune to Matt and have him tell me it was a piece I played on program the previous month. This is all true. And rather sad. I am, after all, a professional musician.

Perhaps related is my inability to recognize faces. It is completely possible for me to meet someone three or four or five times and still have no idea who they are. I often joke that Matt could walk into a room and I might, depending on the day, have to be prompted into remembering that this is the man I married 21 years ago.

In case you might be starting to think I am suffering from some sort of dementia, you should know that these are not new problems. In a nutshell, I have little to no visual or aural memory. I cannot close my eyes and picture my house, husband or cats. I never have a song stuck in my head. Inside my head, it is very, very quiet. Inside my head, I am like Helen Keller, both blind and deaf.

Part of the issue, I have come to believe, is context. I was pretty good at drop-the-needle tests in college. In those settings, I knew ahead of time the list of pieces I would be tested on. All I had to do was correctly match what I was hearing (This is either Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.). Not hard. I need no clues to name what Claire or Jonah might be playing when they start banging on my piano. I can accurately place faces in the situations in which they belong: church people, yoga folks, studio parents. But ask me to identify a member of a choir I played for several years ago when I run into that person at the grocery store and you are asking for trouble. Context is everything.

Context-based knowledge, cognitive psychologists will say, is an inferior level of knowledge in the same way multiple-choice tests demand less grasp of the material than short-answer tests. But context-based knowledge is a beginning, a good place to start. And so to that end, students and I play a lot of “Name that Tune” in performance classes. I consider it to be a part of their general musical education that they shouldn’t leave my studio after 10 years of piano lessons without being able to recognize somebody’s cell phone ring as Für Elise. Or without knowing that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and that Ode to Joy is the 9th. Or that one of their favorite Looney Tunes themes is really the William Tell Overture by Rossini. I mean basic stuff. Really basic stuff.

In every performance class we take ten minutes for “Name that Tune.” We spread across the floor an ever-growing stack of postcards on which I have written titles, composers, and other random facts that students have to correctly match: Joplin. Ragtime. The Entertainer. Or: Haydn. 104 Symphonies. Surprise Symphony. Classical Period. And so on.

We have been doing this for years now. These days our “Name that Tune” repertoire list is pretty long and keeps growing. Heaven help the new kid in the studio, because the learning curve is steep for sure. “I know this. I know this,” a kid will squeal and then tell me that what I just played was In the Hall of the Mountain King by Brahms. (It wasn’t. It was Can-Can by Offenbach and, besides, Grieg wrote In the Hall of the Mountain King.).

We all have our bad days, I, more than anyone, know this. And certainly even working on music identification in this way is context driven for sure. In fact, the game of matching postcards facts and names is really nothing more than a multiple-choice test on steroids. It doesn’t guarantee that students will recognize these tunes outside the abbreviated versions I give them in performance classes. But still it’s better than nothing. “The more you know, the more you love, and by loving more, the more you enjoy,” said St. Catherine of Siena.

Several years ago I was at a student recital sponsored by our local music teacher’s association. A student from another studio got up to play. Upon hearing the first few measures, one of my students got very excited. Turning to me, she whispered loudly, “Miss Amy! This is Turkish Rondo! I LOVE this!”

The Ten Thousand Stars Studio “Name That Tune” list as of August 2016:

Spring by Vivaldi
Prelude in C Major by Bach
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach
Surprise Symphony by Haydn
Turkish Rondo by Mozart
Symphony No. 40 by Mozart
Für Elise by Beethoven
5th Symphony by Beethoven
9th Symphony by Beethoven
Unfinished Symphony by Schubert
Lullaby by Brahms
Funeral March (3rd Movement of Piano Sonata in Bb Minor) by Chopin
New World Symphony by Dvorak
Can-Can by Offenbach
Toreador Song from Carmen by Bizet
William Tell Overture by Rossini
Theme from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky
In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg
The Swan from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens
The Entertainer by Joplin
Clair de Lune by Debussy
Simple Gifts from Appalachian Spring by Copland

The more we know, the more we love.

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The Cats

To find such glory in a dehydrated pea
on the tile between the stove and fridge.

To toss the needs of others aside
when you simply aren’t in the mood for affection.

To find yourselves so irresistible.

And always in a small spot of sun,
you sprawl and spread out the pleasure of yourselves
never fretting, never wanting to go back
to erase your few decisions.

To find yourself so remarkable
all the day long.

-Ann Iverson

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School Supplies

School started last week. Yep. Read it and weep. The summer is over. Over.

But as much as I never like the idea of summer ending, the truth is that the beginning of a new school year has a certain appeal. I love the notion of a fresh start, no matter when it might occur in the calendar. The beginning of the school year allows me to look ahead to autumn, however relentless the heat might be at the moment. And fall means yellow cottonwood leaves, the smell of roasted green chile, pumpkins, boots, sweaters. I can’t wait.

The beginning of school also means school supplies. Sharp pencils, blank notebooks, pink erasers that have yet to wipe out a mistake. But these days I find myself less enamored with the notion of acquiring new materials, as I am of shedding my life and work of things that no longer earn their rent on my shelves. Maybe watching my friends move away and witnessing their process of organizing and sorting and sifting through their stuff has inspired my thinking. After all, there is something very basic and simple about the question, “Do I still need this?”

And so, I’ve spent the summer clearing out my workspace, files and shelves. I’ve read through dozens and dozens and dozens of pedagogical pieces and thrown away more than I kept (I can hear the gasps now. Yes, I threw away music.) I organized and ordered my pedagogical materials so that I can access them more quickly. I even went through my precious rote notebook and pulled out music I had collected but I have never taught. It’s not that I am opposed to the new or the novel. It’s just that to wiggle its way into my teaching repertoire the piece, the technique, the practice strategy, the whatever has to be good. Really, really good.

It was in the middle of my tossing music and materials right and left that two new collections came my way. Paula Dreyer, a piano teacher and composer from the San Francisco area, wrote and asked if I would take a look at her two collections of rote pieces. While there are more and more teachers and pedagogical composers beginning to join the rote-teaching parade, we have a long way to go to make rote teaching as ordinary and commonplace as teaching theory or scales. There may be a saturation of pedagogical music in the piano teaching world, but we need more composers writing highly patterned, creative, interesting music that can be easily taught by rote. “Sure,” I wrote back to Paula. “Send them my way.”

Little Gems for Piano are two collections, each containing 27 pieces intended to be taught by rote. Each collection includes a CD for instruction and reinforcement (I cannot begin to count the number of times I have had to reteach a rote piece because a kid left my studio and immediately forgot it. A CD is a great resource.). The pieces themselves are creative and evocative with poetic titles like “Portuguese Pigs,” “Falling Stars,” and “Nights of Spain.” More than that, each one is everything a rote piece should be: very patterned and very appealing, easy to teach and fun to play. While it’s true that many of the pieces are quite similar, owning these two collections would give a teacher a depth of resources for incorporating rote teaching into the lessons of beginning piano students for months and months. In other words, Paula has given the rote-teaching repertoire a huge boost in terms of both quality and quantity.

So while I may be sorting and sifting, tossing and fussing with my teaching materials and asking myself over and over again, “Do I still need this? Does this stay or go?” Little Gems stay.

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Rewriting the Story

“This was the summer that never got off the ground,” a friend said to me recently. At that very moment, it was a sweltering 104 degrees in Albuquerque and had been for weeks. If this wasn’t summer, then I didn’t know what it was.

But I understood what he meant. In spite of the fact that summer never looks like I imagine, every year I entertain a fantasy that the season will be full of lemonade, hammocks and whole afternoons spent reading mysteries. This hasn’t actually since the summer I was nine and read an entire Nancy Drew book every day for three months.

The spring semester screeched to a halt in mid-May. I finished up lessons, held my studio recital, did final choir concerts of the season with Matt. After months of working at 90 mph, for two weeks time didn’t simply move slowly, it stood still. I gardened; I had drinks with friends; I first hauled and then spread an entire ton of rocks (literally! A ton of rocks!) into the courtyard. My website broke and I spent hours (OK, weeks really) in a technological tailspin. In an impulsive moment, I got on-line and reserved 11 books from the library, all of which arrived the very same day. Seeing me stagger through the door with my pile, Matt said, “You trying to win a prize in the library summer reading program?” This is exactly the sort of thing I would have done as a child with my many Nancy Drew books. Matt is nothing if not supportive of my efforts.

For a few days in late May, Matt and I rented a house on the edge of the desert wilderness in Dixon, outside of Taos, and spent entire days reading and staring off into the distance. The house had a sleeping loft, accessible by ladder (very “Little House on the Prairie” I told Matt as he eyed the setup suspiciously) where I insisted we sleep. And sleep we did. After months of not sleeping well, I didn’t simply fall into an immediate sleep after climbing into the loft, I tumbled headfirst into the sort of deep dreamless sleep that is usually induced by drugs or a head injury. I began calling it the Magical Sleeping Loft and starting plotting ways we could build a Magical Sleeping Loft in our 12×12 foot bedroom back at home. This, I became convinced, would solve all our problems.

When not sleeping or staring aimlessly out at the northern New Mexico mountains, I spent hours in the charming little adobe house with a stack of blank paper and a pen plotting my perfect summer. After all, we were still perched on the edge of the season. Anything was possible. I would go on lots of hikes. I would sit outside with a glass of wine in the evenings and listen to Beethoven string quartets. I would eat watermelon every day. I would swim a mile, not just once a week, but several times every week. I would read, and read, and read (page-turning mysteries and books of Zen teachings and biographies about hermits and musicians and….Lions and tigers and bears, Oh My!). I would go to the farmer’s market every Saturday and buy produce that I would then cook. I would grow herbs, make pesto, eat cucumber salads…I would….I would…I would…

June was a blur of piano lessons. I watched the final two seasons of Downton Abbey (did ever a season end with more joy for everyone?) My best friend Lora, who in December moved to Massachusetts, came to visit for a long weekend. Matt and I said goodbye to our dear friends Anne and Dan who moved to Denver (Who has both of their best friends move away within 6 months of each other? Me. Cue the sad violin music, please). The morning after we our tearful goodbye, I went on a hike, thinking that there was solace in nature. Coming down the mountain, I broke my toe. Yep. I could not make these things up. After a delightfully cool spring, the temperature began rising. And rising. Forget a summer of sitting in cocktail corner in the backyard sipping white wine and watching the hummingbirds, I stopped going outside. Instead, I entered a three-week migraine cluster. My productivity and good intentions bottomed out completely. Between the heat and the migraines, I was functioning at about 57%.

July should have brought the welcomed monsoon season. Nope. We did, however, begin a season of constant, non-stop watering thanks to the heat. I watered in the mornings. I watered in the evenings. Every day I moved pots to try to keep them out of the worst of the heat. In spite my efforts, the garden withered and wilted under the relentlessly scorching sun. There were more piano lessons and rehearsals for a couple of concerts in southern New Mexico with my friend and cellist, Joel. My sister Beth and five-year-old nephew Asher came for ten days. Asher is learning to play chess. I last played chess twenty-five years ago. I quickly discovered that playing chess with Asher meant making a move and then having Asher tell me what I did wrong. Chess games with Asher take a long time and are quite humbling. One night, however, I made some now-forgotten play on the board and I heard Asher say under his breath, “Good move.” This happened only once. Once, I tell you.

A few days after Beth and Asher arrived, Joel and I left for a week in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. We were there to be a part of an informal amateur chamber music festival and to play two concerts: one in Cloudcroft and one in nearby Ruidoso. Located at 9000 feet, Cloudcroft—I was told more than once—is the town with the highest elevation in New Mexico. While temperatures in Albuquerque stubbornly remained above 100 degrees every day, the temperature in Cloudcroft never got above 70 degrees. Between music-reading sessions and rehearsals, we went hiking. Every morning, we sat on the porch swing outside our cabin located on the edge of the Lincoln National Forest and drank coffee while looking out at White Sands off in the horizon. Every afternoon, we returned to the porch to linger over a glass of wine before dinner and the evening’s music sessions playing Beethoven and Schubert. It was kind of perfect.

It was during one of those many hours on the porch that the subject of summer came up and Joel made the comment about summer never quite getting off the ground. As he spoke, reciting his own grievances about the season, I thought wistfully about that list of intentions I had created at the beginning of the summer. Until Cloudcroft, I hadn’t hiked (thanks broken toe!). I hadn’t sat outside and listened to music (heat, migraine). I hadn’t read a single memorable book (plenty of unmemorable ones though). I hadn’t changed my swimming habits (laziness, migraines). I hadn’t gone to the famer’s market even once. I felt like I had not had a good night of sleep since the Magical Sleeping Loft two months before. Concerns about loved ones had kept me awake at night, worrying over a future that probably wouldn’t come true and that I had no control over even if it did. As I sat on that porch in Cloudcroft overlooking the pine forest below, I remembered that I had three shriveled cucumbers sitting in my refrigerator back home.

When Lora moved in December I inherited all her geraniums and jade plants. The geraniums have spent the summer in the courtyard, oblivious to the heat, blooming like mad. Two weeks ago yet another good friend (how is this even possible?) moved to Houston. Chiao-li asked if I would take several of her husband’s prized succulents, including one cactus that stood some 5-feet tall (Sure, why not?). As I shoved another plant into a crowded corner in the sunroom, I thought, I have no room in my heart or my home for another friend to leave town. Perhaps it is too obvious a metaphor that as I watched my village move away, my consolation was a plant with thorns?

Here’s the narrative I have been telling myself about this summer: the last few months have been sad, stressful and hot as the hinges of hell (or so my friend Marge would say). Poor me. I work so hard. It’s so hot. I didn’t get to enjoy my summer at all. No mysteries, hammocks, or lemonade. (More violins please….) All my friends are moving away. Poor, poor me.

These are the facts, or at least some of them, sure enough. But perhaps the truth of the story is always more complicated and rich then we first admit. This was the season that gave me both a house full of plants and an empty space in my world where those dear friendships used to fill. I had awful migraines, yes, but also some free hours to watch Downton Abbey. There were hot afternoons where the only good option was chess games with a five-year-old. Last night clouds gathered overhead but brought no rain; however, I sat outside with a Campari and soda and a book while Matt grilled dinner.

We tell ourselves these stories about our lives and then act in ways that make them come true. In these last scorching days of July, I’m rewriting my narrative. I find myself in my final days of teaching lessons before the two-week break that officially marks the end of the summer session. The. End. Of. The. Summer. Fall lessons start August 14th. Yes. August. 14. There is no time to waste.

I’m not just looking for the silver lining, I’m trying to see if there might not be a whole cloud made of silver. While it is true that in many respects this summer has been tough, stressful, and hot as the hinges of hell that is hardly the whole story. Nor is that the story I want to live inside. There may be only two real weeks of summer left around here, but that’s two weeks. Fourteen days. So much is possible.

The last night in Cloudcroft I had a dream. I dreamt that when I arrived back to my crowded house and life in Albuquerque all my succulents were covered in huge flowers. They were, I am convinced, welcoming me home.

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The Teaching Steps

The following was first posted on August 16, 2015.

***

During the months (years!) that Dennis Alexander and I were working on Repertoire by Rote, we frequently asked colleagues to try out pieces and give us feedback. The most common response we received was: “I have never taught by rote. Tell me how to teach these pieces.” For better or for worse, this book does just that. There is not a single step skipped or glossed over. All I can say is: Friends, you asked for it, you got it.

It was an interesting task, writing teaching steps for rote pieces. I have been teaching by rote as a part of my pedagogical approach for so long it took some time to figure out this process I do almost every day without much thought at all.

In the end, I decided rote teaching came down to three basic steps:

1. Play, ask questions, sing.

2. Break the music down into small teachable units.

3. Repeat with variations.

It seems quite simple, but perhaps therein lies the problem. It’s all about the variations, really, and how gracefully one dances between steps one and two and three and back to one and then again to three and so on. The truth is while those steps are pedagogically solid, they are only the faintest blueprint of what good teaching really looks like. Committing any teaching method to paper robs it of creativity and breath. Immediately, it is at the risk of becoming stale and rigid. And above all, pedantic, which is, honestly, my greatest fear.

Because while the teaching steps in Repertoire by Rote are intended to answer the request, Tell us how to teach these pieces, one should not lose sight of the bigger, more important principle at hand: This book is just an introduction to the idea of rote teaching. The steps are only a guideline from which to work and explore. Rote teaching, by its very nature, should be improvisational and creative and the steps should evolve not only with the piece of music at hand, but also with an eye to the student on the piano bench.

Nothing would make me happier than to have copycats galore, hundreds of teachers and composers getting on the rote bandwagon and making their own mark on the concept, writing their own rote pieces, and composing their own teaching steps. The seven pieces (with their oh-so-thorough steps) in Repertoire by Rote are just a beginning.

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You know, rote pieces

This week I have been thinking a lot about the place of rote teaching in my pedagogical life. These are not new thoughts. A year ago last May, Repertoire by Rote, the book that Dennis Alexander and I had been working on forever (or so it seemed!), was published by Alfred Publishing Company. I teach rote pieces almost every day to my beginning, or near beginning, students. Last month a composer and pianist out in San Francisco sent me copies of the two collections of rote pieces she had self-published. Indeed, teaching by rote is always in the air around here.

But it has been one of those weeks, heavy on rote thinking (if there is “rote teaching” surely there is rote “thinking.”). I have a new five-year-old student who told me “Yellow Truck” was his favorite song ever. (“Yellow Truck” only being a clever reworking of “Purple Sage” found in Repertoire by Rote. Yep, super clever.)

A review of Repertoire by Rote was in the latest issue of Clavier Companion (a good review! Woo-hoo!).

And then two days ago I got an email from a colleague asking for advice about teaching group piano. “Uh. Rote pieces,” I answered.

The following was first posted on May 17, 2015.

***

A few years ago (or maybe five or six? Who knows now?) Dennis Alexander and I were having lunch. Dennis Alexander is a big deal in my piano world. He is a well-respected pedagogical composer, known the world over in piano circles. I have been teaching his music, almost daily, for twenty years now.

About eight years ago, Dennis moved to Albuquerque. I remember the exact moment I learned this information. A friend and colleague was standing in my kitchen. “Guess who just moved to Albuquerque,” Anne said. “Who?” “Dennis Alexander.” “Well, it can’t be that Dennis Alexander,” I replied.

Well. Happily, it was. In the years since, Dennis has become a valuable and generous mentor, giving me loads of music, attending my studio recitals, teaching master classes and lessons for my students. More than that, he has become a dear friend.

Having lunch together is something Dennis and I intend to do once a month, but the reality is that it only happens about every three or four months. Lunch is our chance to get together and solve all the problems in the piano teaching profession over burgers and sweet potato fries. I look forward to every one of these conversations.

This particular day I offered one of my many infamous suggestions to Dennis. “You know what you should do,” I said. “You should write a book of music that is intended to be taught to students by rote.”

He looked at me like I was crazy. Which, in retrospect, maybe I was.

“You know,” I continued, “those kinds of pieces that are so helpful for beginner students. Pieces that sound a lot more difficult than they are to play. Pieces that are really patterned and easy to remember. Flashy pieces that kids want to practice ad nauseam. You know, rote pieces.”

I was (and am) passionate about rote pieces. We have all witnessed children, who otherwise cannot play the piano at all, patiently teach one another the different parts to “Chopsticks,” a classic example of rote teaching. But in spite of the clear evidence of its appeal for students (who doesn’t love playing “Chopsticks?”), teaching by rote has a rather dirty reputation in our profession. At competitions, teachers whisper suspiciously about winners whom we suspect were taught their show pieces by rote and may not be able to read music much at all. This is bad. No question about it.

Unwilling to face the scorn of my colleagues, for years I stayed in the closet about my rote teaching, until one day I was sitting in a graduate pedagogy course taught by Jean Stackhouse at New England Conservatory. “You should teach beginners rote pieces,” she told us. “Students like to play pieces they can’t read.” Well hell, I thought, if someone as esteemed as Jean Stackhouse is willing to go public with this, so can I.

For twenty-some years, I have been collecting rote pieces that I have swiped from various sources: method books, Suzuki Piano school volumes, solo collections, and so on. I have been forced to build my own collection of rote pieces because such resources don’t exist. One cannot go to the local music store and find anything labeled under “Rote Materials.” This represents a huge hole in our profession on many levels, the most obvious problem being it keeps good rote teaching in the closet. It does nothing to train thoughtful teachers in how to take an intentional and pedagogically sound approach to rote teaching. Any teacher interested in rote music would have had to create their own collection of materials, much like I have, my rote notebook being the most valuable teaching tool I possess. Indeed, in a fire, I would first grab my trusty notebook of rote pieces, then get the cats, and then wake up Matt.

I teach rote pieces to students at their very first piano lessons. I teach them during interview lessons as a way of assessing potential students’ musical and cognitive skills, not to mention their attention span. I teach rote pieces when a kid might be struggling in some way—motivationally, musically, technically, whatever—and in need of some kind of feel-good piece that gets them away from the written score. I use them to help students with pattern recognition and to assist with memorizing. I turn to rote pieces to give students interesting, colorful recital pieces when their rhythm and note reading skills don’t allow for very “fancy” (their word, not mine) pieces in their method books. In a nutshell, I use rote pieces every single day.

All this rote teaching, however, does not substitute for the task of learning to read music traditionally. My students drill note flashcards. My kids work through method books and solo collections like any other piano student around the country. And after the first year or so of piano lessons, students have the weekly assignment of checking out sight-reading books from my music library and working through them during their daily practices at home. (A kid once counted and there are some 500 books in my sight-reading library! He was quite dismayed to calculate that there was little chance he would ever complete all of them.) Starting in middle school, students have the regular assignments cleverly called “One-week Pieces,” which is simply a piece they must learn to their version of “performance level” with only a single week of practicing. In other words, no worries, my students both read music and learn music independently just fine.
But nevertheless, we all LOVE rote pieces. Just last week a 7th grader came in to her lesson and announced, “Miss Amy, I want a rote piece.” This child has been taking lessons with me since she was four years old. Playing music like “Solfeggieto” and “Für Elise,” she is WAY past needing me to teach her any music by rote. But I knew what she meant: she wanted a fast, super showy piece that she could learn and memorize quickly. It needed to be very patterned. It needed to use a LOT of notes and zip up and down the keyboard. You know, a rote piece.

Back to that now memorable and significant lunch. Upon hearing that he should write a book of music specifically intended to be taught by rote, Dennis just grunted. We returned to the conversation about how we would fix the absurdity in our profession if only we were in charge. I forgot all about my suggestion.

Some time passed (six months? A year? Two years? Dunno). Then one day at a lunch, apropos of nothing, Dennis said, “Amy, Alfred [Publishing] has agreed to publish your book of rote pieces, but you have to write it with me.”

This was not the answer I was looking for. I do not pretend to be a composer. I have enough outlets already for my somewhat questionable creativity: gardening, writing, performing, teaching, painting the walls of my home. There are limits, after all.

But did I mention I was passionate about rote teaching?

So in spite of myself, I went home that day and starting improvising rote pieces. Luckily, I had plenty of students to try them out on. And it goes without saying, they had plenty of opinions.

“Miss Amy, I think this one should be called “Roadrunner” because it is fast.”

“Miss Amy, I think you should play this song with pedal.” (For whatever reason, many students insist on calling “rote pieces” “songs.”)

“Miss Amy, I don’t like this song. It’s stupid. And it doesn’t sound like “Seahorses” at all. Seahorses don’t make any sound.”

That’s what I get for encouraging free thought in the studio.

For the last few years lunch with Dennis has been all about rote pieces. I’d write a piece that earned the approval of my students and Dennis would add a duet part for the teacher. Dennis would write a piece, and my kids and I would tweak the ending. Students would help design “memory maps” that could be used as learning devices. I’d pass rote pieces off to my colleagues who would add their own feedback. In the true spirit of rote teaching, this has been a community project for sure.

The first proof arrived from Alfred Publishing Co. during a freak New Mexico Blizzard. I spent March and April editing the last two rounds of the “rote book.” (Forever now, we have simply been referring to this as our “rote book.” Matt asks if this is our ship. Yeah, if our ship is a small plastic boat like our four-year-old nephew Felix plays with in the bathtub.)

Last week our book went “live.” Search our names on the Alfred’s website and lo and behold! There it is! One can order our collection of rote pieces from your favorite on-line music retailer. One can buy Repertoire by Rote at your local music store. One can even find it on Amazon.

Wow.

Somewhere along this long, long process someone asked me what my aspirations were for this book. They are simple, really. I want to introduce rote teaching to piano teachers who may have never considered the musical and motivational benefits thereof. In a world where we are blessed (or drowning, depending upon how you look at it) with resources, I want to offer something new, something that until now has been mostly non-existent. I want rote teaching to someday be as commonplace as teaching scales or theory. Basically, I want to start a conversation within my profession.

At lunch, and over burgers and sweet potato fries whenever possible.

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Perfectionist on the Beach

Eight-six degrees, high tide.
We were arguing about suicide.
Me, safe from the sun under the umbrella;
you, propped on your elbows in the sand,
your arms, recently iron-pumped, bronzing smoothly,
your short gold curls and strong nose almost
Roman coinworthy as you scanned
the water with restless air and announced
you’d kill yourself, you really would,
if you weren’t a coward.
While I maintained the wish to die
itself was cowardly.
And I didn’t believe you:
you didn’t really want to die.
What about speed and wind–
your long bike rides, tracing the harbor
on unknown roads? What about your pencil
setting a line on a clean sheet of drafting
paper? Women with small breasts
and certain customs you were said
to love in bed? At the very least,
the kind of happiness that’s purely physical.

The person who wants to die,
you snapped, doesn’t care about
any of that. He’d give it all up
for a moment’s peace. Peace from
striving, from endless dissatisfaction
with a self that’s less than idea.
I’d do it, you insisted, if I weren’t
shit-scared of pain.

If it’s pain you don’t like
you’d take pills, I said.
But I hadn’t won, and added lamely;
Aren’t you curious how your life
is going to Turn Out? That’s not
a question of being brave–
just mildly vain, which you are,
or so you claim.

You didn’t answer for a while,
and half-enraged (or was it half in love)
I watched your critic’s eye alight
on a black haired figure clad in white
bikini as she ran lightly down
the hard-packed sand and dove
into a creamy wave.

-Deborah Garrison
A Working Girl Can’t Win

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Repetition, Again

When I first posted the anecdote below, I was both acknowledging and bemoaning students’ favorite practice strategy: Repetition.

Lately (as in June 2016), however, I have been feeling more sympathetic towards this approach to practicing and indeed wondering if sometimes we don’t take into consideration just how important the act of repetition might be in solidifying our work. As I find myself saying to students a lot these days, some musical passages take ten reps to learn, some take ten thousand.

But repetition without attention is problematic for sure. The following first appeared on April 3rd, 2011.

***

It is not hard to present a list of practicing techniques, what’s difficult is to figure out where to begin the list. Thinking this over, I decided to start where our students begin if we do not intervene: they simply repeat mindlessly.

I know this, because when I ask, they tell me. Sometimes they tell me this sheepishly, knowing that they should have done better. Sometimes they reveal this practice strategy quite proudly.

Take this encounter, for example:

Yesterday, Jake played his assigned little Mozart minuet, which had more mistakes in it than not. My first question is a predictable one.

“So, how did you practice this?”

“Well, now I am thinking that this wasn’t such a good idea, but I just played it a lot of times.”

Jake at least has enough wherewithal to know that I’m not going to like this answer. I’m somewhat gratified to hear this recognition, but still, given the poor performance I have just heard, it would have been nice if this self-reflection could have come earlier in the week.

This practice approach is hardly unusual, and if you think your students aren’t just “playing it a lot of times” then you are probably deceiving yourself. In fact, several studies have shown that researchers examining student practice strategies have found that overwhelmingly the most popular strategy among student musicians was repetition.

It’s time to change that.

But change is hard, because if I am honest with myself, I resort to the good old “play it a lot of times” strategy myself from time to time instead of breaking down the music more intentionally and creatively. Repetition has its place, certainly. The key is noticing when repetition isn’t markedly improving the situation.

So. We begin our list with a nod to the power and temptation that repetition has in our practice routines and the challenge to notice whether or not it is working.

Sometimes repetition works wonders for sure. But often, as Jake would say, “it wasn’t such a good idea.”

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The List

In both my life and teaching, practicing is where it all begins. And so, it seems logical in rebuilding this blog to start here once again.

The following was originally posted on February 20th, 2011.

***

Ah, practicing.

As we know, this is where the rubber meets the road, where the lofty dreams of being able to play an instrument meet the reality of learning to do so. Teaching students to practice well is everything.

Now, I have to confess, teaching students to practice is the thing that most excites me about teaching. I love the process. I love the process more than the performance. I would rather practice or think about practicing than about anything else. My favorite, most frequent teaching question is, “How did you practice this?” I ask this question to everyone—regardless of age or level. I ask this even regardless of whether or not the student actually has any autonomy in the issue. In other words, I ask the question even when I fully expect the answer should be, “Just like you told me.” But I keep asking the question because I want students to think about the process of practicing from the very beginning. I want students to fall in love with the process, because I am convinced this is the answer to nurturing the life-long musician: If they are engaged in the work, then they will get hooked forever.

It turns out that this is just one of the many problems with our public educational system and our policies of No Child Left Behind: the emphasis is no longer on the process of learning, but rather on the product or performance, otherwise known as “the test results.” Until we as a society stop demanding performance results, we don’t give teachers much choice but to teach to the test. As music teachers our freedom lies in being able to be all about the process, which is why all my Ed Psych friends think I have the best job on the planet. When we, as a profession, start taking the emphasis off of “how did you practice?” and start focusing only on the product, the performance, we are undermining our potential to change the way kids think and learn. I have often said that if our value and reputation as teachers was earned by our retention rates and not our competition winners, we might each very differently.

Some time ago I was teaching an adult student. After hearing her play one of her pieces, I asked the infamous question: So, how did you practice this? She began reciting a list of practice techniques that seemed to me to be woefully inadequate in the face of the music at hand. When I then asked if she had done x, y, or z she admitted that she had not, and, in fact, those strategies had never even occurred to her. This was disheartening to be sure, because these were not new or unfamiliar practicing ideas. Indeed, they were strategies we had used many, many times in the past.

And so, I was inspired to create what we are now calling The List. The List is a list (hence the brilliant name) of practice strategies that we all should use when working. As I explained to my adult student, while not every strategy would apply to every piece, many do, and if we aren’t working through every strategy that we could, there will certainly be holes in our playing. I know this first hand. If, in my impatience and hurry, I skip some step in my preparation, my performance will suffer. Having a list of possible ways to practice helps keep me honest.

The List.

It is so concrete, simple and obvious, I’m embarrassed I never thought of it before now.

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Broken

“Broken,” said the so-called genius in tech support after I had spent 47 minutes waiting on hold (“Your call is important to us. The next technician will be available in 47 minutes.”). “Your website is broken.”

I understand broken. Right now it seems like the world is broken, and so is everyone around me (“All my favorite people are broken. Believe me, my heart should know,” goes the Over the Rhine lyric.). Our swamp cooler started the summer season broken. Last week the check engine light went on in the car. In a single day, I managed to break Matt’s favorite martini glass and my favorite coffee mug. Broken.

And although I didn’t want to hear it, the news that my website was broken was not a surprise. Truth be told, I’ve been living on borrowed time for awhile, crossing my fingers and praying nothing would go wrong, or even better, that the mysterious technology world would not update and leave me behind. Basically, that’s what happened. The cyber-world now speaks Mandarin, and I am limping along with pidgin English. No wonder we don’t understand each other.

But nor did I understand anything the twenty-year old tech genius was trying to tell me. “Blah, blah, blah….broken…blah, blah, blah….broken….” he kept muttering on the phone. To which I kept repeating: “Yeah, I have no idea what you are saying.” This went on for about an hour and a half. It was a little like being a part of a “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” kind of conversation. Very circular. Going nowhere.

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I determined that I had three obvious choices:

I could take my broken website and run, disappearing forever. May 2016 marked ten years of blogging. Ten years is a nice long run, for sure. Maybe a long enough run?

I could try to find a more genius tech genius to fix and restore the site. This sounded both expensive and time-consuming. And maybe impossible. Ugh.

I could clear the mess and start again. Fresh.

All three options had their appeal, honestly. But in the end it came down to this: did I want to lose my forum for thinking out loud, for making sense of my life and my world? Maybe not.

Because ultimately that is what writing does. It allows one to make sense of their world, to ponder on the page (or on the screen) what it might mean to make this choice and not that one. It gives one a space to figure out what is important and how to discern that truth amidst all the competing voices around us. We are all—
every one of us—broken, trying to glue ourselves together. For me, much of the time, writing is the glue.

So here we are. The decks have been cleared, the future yawns before me, waiting to be scribbled upon. I have decided to give this summer over to re-runs, reposting a series of previous blog entries, as a way of re-establishing the pedagogical foundation I had built on the previous site. Back in the day, a summer of television re-runs gave that season a certain rhythm. A summer of re-runs in the blogging world may do the same, who knows? At any rate, it is a place to begin again, circling back over where we’ve been as a way of taking stock and moving forward. Life’s journey is really a spiral, after all; we revisit ourselves over and over again, gaining altitude and perspective each time around.

Here’s to the next ten years.