January 27th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Recently my 13-year old nephew came to visit. Sam doesn't play a
musical instrument; he plays football. He must have been told not to
touch "Amy's piano" before he arrived, because he although he eyed it
from across the room, he maintained a wide berth of space around it.
Noticing this, I assured him that nothing he could do would break it,
and that he was welcome to play the piano as long as he didn't bring
food or drink near it. In fact, I told him, I'll teach you to play
So later, after Sam had fiddled around on the keys
for awhile on his own, I showed him a simple black-key rote piece that
I teach during many first and second lessons. I played it once, then
broke it down in small enough segments that he could emulate. Hovering
nearby were my husband and my brother-in-law, eager to witness this
exchange. Not only were they curious, but quick to jump in
with a correction when Sam made a mistake. It was cute really,
although not a great pedagogical example, for I am a firm believer in
allowing kids to make mistakes as they learn something new. I
worry about the attitude that maintains that students who make
mistakes will needlessly cement these mistakes into the learning
process. Sure, maybe they'd learn faster without the detours, but the
discovery process is important too. They aren't playing with bombs
after all, nothing they do on the piano will hurt them. It's not only
OK, but a good thing, to let students struggle a little without
constant feedback from me. It gives me a break from constant
monitoring, and them some freedom to explore a safely. As I said, we
aren't talking bombs here.
Sam, in spite
of being under the microscopic lens of his uncles, soon mastered the
short piece and proceeded to play it over and over again, without
pause. As someone without children, I don't often get an inside view of
how a student might behave outside of lessons after having learned
something new. Listening to Sam play the same ditty 500 hundred times,
I had new respect for parents at the mercy of listening to the same
music played ad nauseam.
I thought Sam's interest might be
short lived. He played it over and over again before dinner and then
after eating got up from the table and announced, "I'm gonna go rock on
the piano for you," and proceeded to play it another 500 times. He
played it not only the way I taught him, but began to change it
up--playing it down instead of up, playing the patterns backwards, upside down and inside out. I confess I have little tolerance for background sound,
so it tested me to see if I could endure this constant fiddling on
the piano and not go nuts. But aside from that, as a teacher, I was
thrilled to get a glimpse of what just might be happening in my
students' houses behind my back.
The next day I taught him a different rote piece, and the following day yet one more. When Sam left that
week he had three short pieces he could sit down and play. I had new
insights to what kids do with the music I routinely teach, and deeper
sympathy for the parents who live with it.
I teach rote songs to
beginner students on a regular basis, using them to supplement and
stimulate their assignments until the student is comfortably reading
for himself. They also are lovely first recital songs. They often
sound harder than they are and beat the dinky two-note kinds of pieces
beginning students are otherwise subject to. There are thousands of
possible rote pieces out there. You can find good rote pieces in many
method books or use books of solos with music that is heavily
patterned. Some of my favorite pieces and sources are:
from Francis Clark's Keyboard Musician
: Night Visions; Bridle Path; Rainforest
from Lynn Freeman Olson's Music Pathways Piano Solos Book A
from Francis Clark's Music Tree Lesson Book 1
: Grand Entrance
from Linda Niamath's Marching Mice
: Picnic Time; Squirrels; Snowflakes; Robots; Funny Bunnies
from Lynn Freeman Olson's Music Pathways Piano Discoveries Book B
: Drifting in Outer Space
other good folk tunes to teach by rote in the first few lessons: Mary Had a Little Lamb; Old McDonald; Engine, Engine No. 9
(all on black notes only)
evidenced by Sam's behavior, students of all ages love rote pieces that
move around the piano. They sound big and expansive and are physically
fun to play. I have even successfully taught these to adults (Francis
Clark's Keyboard Musician
is a book for adult
beginners, so those rote pieces were intended for adult students.) And
if Sam's playing is any proof, these pieces lend themselves well to
students improvising and changing them up at will--another plus.
Photo by Jerome Jim
January 19th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
My husband and I cook very differently. He likes to plan a meal, shop for the ingredients, and follow recipes precisely from beginning to end. I, on the other hand, want to have basic cooking techniques, grocery shop once a week, and improvise on a daily basis, reading cookbooks for general ideas, not specific recipes. While my husband’s favorite cookbook might well be Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, my favorite cookbook is Pam Anderson’s How to Cook Without a Book. Anderson’s philosophy is that dinnertime is no time to reinvent the wheel. Furthermore, no one should have to scream in desperation, “We are going out for dinner!” on a random Tuesday night. Instead, with a few simple techniques, the dinner possibilities should be endless. According to Anderson, we all should be programmed with basic skills about how to stock our pantries and refrigerators and then, on any given night, we ought to be able to whip up dinner from their contents.
At least as much as in the kitchen, I need a variety of techniques as a pianist and teacher. If I grocery shop well and fill my pantry and refrigerator with basic ingredients, I can prepare meals all week long. I maintain the same in piano lingo: with the most fundamental ingredients--five-finger positions, chords, scales, and arpeggios--the variations I can create to expand my students’ minds and improve their skills are limitless. Just like in the best cooking, creativity and good technique can and should be intertwined.
Admittedly, I am somewhat of a minimalist. If I could figure out how to get by in the kitchen with one great knife and an iron skillet, I would. In spite of the shelves of piano technique and method books at the music store, I am always searching for ways to construct a thorough musical and technical vocabulary for students without having them buy the equivalent of their weight in music books. I am forever on the lookout for basic exercises that challenge our minds and focus our listening skills without having to redesign my teaching at every lesson. I want strategies that improve physical technique, coordination, accuracy at the keyboard, and also strengthen musical skills, widen our range of dynamics and articulations, and enrich our playing. On top of all that, I want to do this with as little fuss as possible. Maybe I am just too rebellious to adhere to a program that would teach piano technique in a prescribed number of steps. Or perhaps it’s simply that I haven’t seen two students whose hands responded or developed in exactly the same way. But over the years, I have been most successful teaching technique by working from a repertoire of major and minor five-finger positions, chord progressions, scales, and arpeggios, and adapting the exercises to suit each student's needs in any given week. Besides, ultimately I think these are things that every good pianist should be able to do easily and at command. We shouldn't wait for arpeggios to show up in a sonata before learning to do them fluently. It seems like a waste if beginners playing pieces in 5-finger positions don't recognize what they are doing, or can't transpose the music easily to another key. Familiarity with chords in all keys serves us well when we encounter them in our music, whether it be the first time or the fiftieth. These are basics of piano technique for a reason--they are the foundation of everything we do.
And so, somewhere along the way, my studio and my life became littered with scraps of paper as I began keeping track of what worked and what didn’t. While teaching, I made lists of skills every student needed and of all the variations that I discovered: Use broken chord patterns to practice hand crossings. Use five-finger positions to teach dynamics and phrasing. How can I use scales to teach balance between the hands? While attending workshops and classes, I took notes of ideas, strategies, and new techniques: Teach finger independence exercises by using major positions. What about “Heart and Soul” to learn the vi chord? Teach students to listen to chord voicings while playing chord progression exercises. Over the years, enough other teachers have begun asking me for concrete suggestions to approaching technique in this holistic manner that I began being more systematic about both my methods and my note-keeping.
While I am not likely any time soon to stop writing about my cats or my garden or the funny things my students said to me yesterday, I will from time to time use this forum to give you ideas about how to approach technique creatively with piano students of all stages and ages. You will be able to find a file of these kinds of posts by clicking on Recipes for Technique in the category list. While these ideas are far from comprehensive, they are a jumping off point. Hopefully, you will read an idea and say to yourself, “Oh, yeah, I like that, but I think it would suit Olivia or Mattie or Peter better if we did it this way.” Thereby making it not my invention, but yours, just as you might add walnuts to your pumpkin bread or dried cranberries to your granola recipe.
If I had my way, all of education, musical or otherwise, would be modeled after the “How to Cook” method, giving us fundamental skills and tools and then the freedom and encouragement to add mushrooms and roasted red peppers to our marinara sauce or crescendos in the right hand and decrescendos in the left hand of major scales in contrary motion.
Now that’s cooking!
To whet your appetite, here’s one to get you started:
This is a good technique exercise for students who know even a few major or minor 5-finger positions, as it works on coordination between the hands and develops sensitivity to articulations.
Play hands together in major or minor 5-finger positions: Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
1. Both hands legato
2. Both hands staccato
3. RH staccato; LH legato
4. RH legato; LH staccato
(As I will explain later in detail, I teach beginning technique by using rote patterns and solfege instead of written manuscript, in order to make the transposing simpler. I do not teach these patterns based on time signatures or measures, so if you are counting beats, you may be frustrated to discover that these patterns do not always fit into an easy 4/4 or 3/4 measure. Although some variations will be specifically about rhythm, many are not and do not need to be played metronomically to be effective. Instead, you can stop and pause as necessary on awkward places in the patterns, making cranky spots in various keys more friendly, and hopefully over time making them both more comfortable and more organic.)
January 12th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
"I'm going out to visit the worms," my husband announced to me. That this sentence would come out of his mouth shocks me, but provides tangible evidence of how we have changed over the years. Matt certainly has never had a hippy phase, never had a passion for outdoor activities: camping, hiking, canoeing were not part of his childhood. In the past, certainly, he was of the mindset that having the air-conditioning turned down low in the summer and the heat turned up high in the winter was a good thing, as it kept one comfortable. He was known to drive to the grocery store that was one half-block from our Texas apartment.
We have both learned over the years that we are not the same people we were fifteen years ago when we started this courtship. "Where is the girl I married?" Matt says, when he witnesses behaviors that ten years ago I would never have considered. Thankfully, in spite of these changes, maybe even in part because of these changes, we still like each other. Even more importantly, we still love each other.
This fall, we began a compost pile. As the greener member of this relationship, I had been wanting one for a while, but hadn't figured out the details of how it would work in our small backyard. One day Matt read in the newspaper about an outfit that sold worms for composting and even gave easy directions as to how anybody could start their own compost systems. Anytime "anyone" can do something we figure we can handle it. He got intrigued, sent away for the worms, and set up compost bins in the garage. Surprising both of us, he has taken over the composting chores completely. Maybe this is because when left to my own devices I throw actual whole pumpkins into the compost pile, stressing the worms out completely.
This was also the year we bought two rain barrels to catch the precious rainwater that falls from the roof. We hung a clothesline in the backyard. We ride our bicycles most places--even to the grocery store and to pick up the weekly produce we buy from the local farmers’ co-op. Every week we look forward to the e-mail from the farmer
telling us what this week's produce will be. The co-op program has changed the way we eat, forcing us to figure out what to do with things like a pound of spinach or a bundle of Swiss chard, but we love the culinary adventure. I love riding the mile to the storefront on my bicycle with the three baskets, and filling my tote bags with apples and lettuces and tangerines. Three apples. One pound of potatoes. Two onions
, read the signs above the baskets and coolers of food. We pay for the food on-line, and check off our name at the door--walking around the room and picking out the fruit and vegetables is on the honor system--no one inspects our bags at the door. I love this dignified ritual, even while recognizing its rarity in our suspicious and overly accountable world.
The truth is that my world is very small--consisting mostly of places I can get to on my bicycle or on the bus. We have a car, and we use it, but don't choose to drive places if there is a reasonable option in the neighborhood. I wonder sometimes if my world hasn't gotten too small in the past several years, as I work more and more from home. Last week I had a luncheon I had to attend. The restaurant was across town -- one of those anonymous loud chain places with long waits, big crowds and a busy parking lot. This one even had the added crime of being located on an access road off the interstate: a triple whammy of strikes against it. It was right at noontime, the highway was at a standstill, the exit I needed to take was backed up for several miles. My stress level was through the roof by the time I got there, late of course. Afterwards, trying to get to an appointment, I waited through four lights before I could turn left, drove through horrendous traffic, and was ten minutes late. Maybe my miniscule world isn't so bad after all.
In the great sense my world isn't really that small: after all, we travel a great deal and read voraciously--both activities that expand one's world exponentially. But locally I live thoroughly in my neighborhood, resenting things that make me get in the car and face traffic and crowded parking lots. I know that I am lucky in that I can make these choices, that much of the world doesn't have these options, that for many people commutes and traffic jams are a daily and unavoidable part of their lives. I cannot claim any superiority for building my tiny green world -- there are still too many areas of my life where I produce a larger carbon footprint than I should.
Lately we have been having computer woes. We both have laptops that are several years old and that we are perfectly happy with. However, it seems that in the last few months the technological world has left us behind. Repeatedly, we are running into problems with programs that just a few months ago worked just fine. Suddenly we don't have a compatible system with the rest of the world, or not enough memory, or for some reason don't speak the right languages. This frustrates me, this idea that overnight we might become obsolete and be forced to start over with new more powerful machines, when, really, we were perfectly happy before. In spite of my good intentions, I find myself getting swept up into thinking maybe I "need" a new machine with its fancier updates. I grow nervous when I travel without my cell phone, although we only broke down and bought cell phones a year ago, living contentedly without one until then. I check e-mail too often, allowing the distraction to break up my day and my rhythm. Unfortunately, I am susceptible as the next person to the pull and the force of the modern world.
I'm thinking about all this as we begin a new year, wondering how to find peace with my frustrations with technology, trying to discern what is actually important and necessary to function in today's world, and what might be a lovely but unnecessary upgrade. In the meantime, I am going out to visit the worms and to pile another load of last season's leaves over them. Perhaps this will remind me that the answer is not in how noble and righteous my composting, bicycling, organic eating habits might make me, but in how peacefully--traffic jams, computer woes, outdated technology in general--I balance it all.
January 5th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
George is a teenage piano student in my studio. He and his sisters came to me a year ago, transfers from a teacher who was moving out of state. He is a good kid, although he doesn’t practice much, dabbling a bit at his assignments a couple times a week at home. I like him, though. We have a fun, easy rapport.
One day in his lesson, George was playing a theme from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, which led to a long tangent on what movies I had or had not seen. It quickly became apparent that in his opinion I had not seen anything. So the next week he made me a list of movies that he thought were important: lots of Superman and Spiderman and various other teenage-boy testosterone kinds of flicks. For several weeks afterwards he asked, “Amy, have you seen any of the movies?” When I admitted that I had not, whining about how busy I was, he would sternly scold me, “Amy, I am busy too. But I still managed to see three movies this week.” (I think there is something inherently wrong with that sentence, and if I look closely it may reveal something about his attitude and progress about piano practice.)
“Amy, are you going to try to see a movie this week?” George began asking me at the end of every lesson. “Are you going to try really hard?” I would promise to try really hard and wondered if there wasn’t something in this exchange that I couldn’t use to make him try really hard to practice more.
One week I had some movie watching progress to report. I hadn’t actually watched any of the movies, but at least I had one of them one the Netflix queue. “This is a step forward don’t you think?” I asked him eagerly. “Not just a step, Amy, but a gigantic Olympic LEAP forward!” He enthusiastically told me.
Don’t call me this weekend. I’ll be busy watching movies.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com