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A Terror

Matt sometimes tells people that he lives with the person who thinks more about practicing than anyone he knows. I fear this might make me the biggest nerd on the planet.

But lately I have been thinking about practicing more than usual. In two weeks, I am doing three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which means these days I eat, sleep and breath the Goldberg Variations. Apropos of nothing, I find myself saying things like, “Did you know that in the third variation…”

It goes without saying that the Goldbergs involve a lot of practicing. A. Lot. If ever there was a time to be thinking about practicing in all its many forms, this is it.

My students and I talk about practicing all the time. There is no set system of practice accountability that I require and impose; instead over time we create a method together, tweaking and fussing with it as we go. Some kids fill out practice charts with days and minutes. Other kids record sight-reading pages as evidence of their 5 days of practice. Still others do none of this, having proven to me long ago that they could be trusted to work faithfully without keeping a strict daily record.

Practice records are a good thing. I, too, make practice notes, reminding me of what I intend to do the next day with the metronome on variation eight or what variation needs to be practiced with hands separate (Hmmm….all of them, actually.) Some students have developed elaborate systems of record keeping, involving stars and stickers and rewards. Even I have trouble remembering how some of these plans work. Micah’s accountability system involves a daily assessment of up and down arrows to show me how things are going. Generally, I suspect that these little charts are filled out mostly on autopilot and don’t represent a real thoughtful evaluation of his work, but that’s OK for now. The little charts help him to remember to do everything, and he likes the act of recording his repetitions and assessment arrows. For now, it works.

But last week, Micah came into his lesson, set down his practice notebook on my desk and announced, “You will see that the first three days of scales were a terror.” (I can totally relate to this. I have some variations that I think of as “a terror” as well.)

True enough, in each of the first three practice boxes for scales was an emphatically drawn down arrow.

I loved this. This might have been one of my favorite teaching moments ever. I loved this, not for what it represented about his struggle, but for what it revealed about his attention and evaluation of his practicing. This was, my Ed Psych colleagues would say, proof of meta-cognition.

It was also evidence of something else I was even more proud of: It was proof that this young boy understood that practicing was hard and that sometimes things didn’t go particularly well, but that with trust in the work and the will to try again tomorrow, things would get better.

This has been pretty much what the last 35 years of practicing has taught me too.

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Who he is

There is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is.

-Wallace Stegner

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What’s New?

It has recently come to my attention that I start every piano lesson with the question, “What’s new?”

This is not intended to be a probing question, nor is it, as some kids think, a version of I Spy. “I think you moved that basket!”

Nope. It is simply my way of saying, “Hey there! Come on in. Let’s have some fun.”

But last week, little Audrey came prepared for my question. She must have practiced her answer in the car on the way to her lesson. Before I could utter a word, she said, “I have some new things.”

“Well, do tell. What new things?”

“First of all, I have gymnastics on Saturdays now, but I only go to karate once a week. I used to go twice a week, but my mom said that was too much, and now I only go once a week. But I do gymnastics every Saturday morning. So that means I have gymnastics and karate and piano every week. Only now piano is on Mondays. Last year it was on Tuesdays, but now it is on Mondays.”

This kid has always spoken in a sort of stream-of-consciousness kind of way. But honestly, I like this full-paragraph thinking. I’ll take an excess of information over the teenager who simply grunts in response to the question: “What’s new?”

There are the kids who can’t be bothered to answer the question, and then there are the ones that are just confused. Eight-year-old Anthony, a transplant from a colleague’s studio, does not hide the fact that he is puzzled by this line of questioning. When I ask, “What’s new?” he says, “I don’t understand the question. What do you mean, what’s new?” You can hear the irritation in his voice. I think I’m frustrating this kid before his lesson has even begun, and yet I keep doing it. Every week. I am consistent, if nothing else. In this case, consistently annoying.

Matt says that he sympathizes with Anthony’s frustration completely, and that this question reminds him of when his father used to fill every silence of his childhood by asking, “Well, what do you think?” There was never any subject at hand. leaving Matt to wonder “What do I think about what?”

This makes me think of the calls and responses woven in worship services. “The Lord be with you,” says the presider. “And also with you,” replies the congregation without pause. These calls and responses are part of fabric, the language, of a spiritual community. This is who we are. These are the things we say and the songs we sing.

“What’s new?” is only a small fragment of the language and identifying characteristics of this studio. This fall we are welcoming in a number of new faces, more new fingers and hands than this studio has seen in a while. We are generally a pretty stable and consistent village, but now and again change can be good for us, and new pianists bring new energy and enthusiasm into our tired ways.

But, given these changes, I’ve been thinking about this piano community a lot lately, and trying to figure out what makes this musical village unique. We have our practice notebooks filled with my colorful scribbles. We have practice charts completed with students’ sight-reading pages and practice days and minutes (or, at least that’s the idea). We have performance classes where we work on not just performance etiquette, but also on all the little bits and pieces that make us pianists. We have our songs, those several dozen Name That Tune melodies that the new students (poor Anthony!) are trying to learn in order to keep up with their peers in performance classes. We have Rhythm & Movement classes, places where we step and clap, chant and sing. All of these classes and practices are really just a kind of team-building musical ropes course, a way to build a bonded and supportive piano family: This is who we are. These are our games. These are our songs.

Musing over this, I am reminded of my favorite moment from last spring’s studio recital. It was actually a moment I missed completely, although a quick parent caught it on camera. It is a photo of one of my older kids high-fiving one of the little ones as she came back to her seat. Forget the music performed that night. That was the best moment of the evening for me. Proof that we are a family. We have each other’s backs. This is who we are.

What’s new? in the end, is just the beginning.

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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