February 24th, 2008 :: Teaching Days
Just today a student I have taught for over two years discovered the large stack of Harry Potter books in my sun- room, where she waits every week for her dad to pick her up after her lesson. I say "just discovered" because Tuesday was her ninth birthday, and she received the entire set of Harry Potter books, which has made her hyper-aware of anything having to do with the magical boy. "I just started this week, and look how far I am!" she exclaimed to me as she picked up my copy of the first volume, found her place and began reading. I smile thinking about it, remembering a favorite student of years ago who first introduced me to the series.
We teachers take out memories of old students, like favorite books on a shelf, and browse our recollections fondly. I taught Kathryn and her sister Elizabeth for a couple of years while I was living in Texas. Then I moved to Boston, after which I got long rambling letters from Kathryn for several years. I haven't heard from her in a long time, and she must be, by my shoddy arithmetic, either a senior in high school or maybe even in college. Back when I knew her, Kathryn was a great reader, and we often talked about favorite books. One summer her family traveled to England and she brought home the first three Harry Potter books--the English versions, as they had yet to hit the states. "You have to read them, Miss Amy," she told me, her eyes wide and shining. "They are so good!" I did read them, at first just to appease her, but then because she was right, they were so good. The summer I left for Boston, the fourth book came out. She stood in line late at night to get her copy and then brought it to me the next day. "You read it first," she told me earnestly. "You are moving." Now that's love.
I have read all the subsequent Harry Potter adventures as they came out, but somewhere along the way lost the thread of the story. Or maybe it just wasn't the same without Kathryn. Last summer, however, I joined millions others and reread the whole series to the final chapter, reliving the tale and recapturing the excitement I had back when Kathryn and I first read the English versions. As a kid, I was an avid reader, and I bond easily with students who love to read. This month I have a review published in American Music Teacher of a pre-teen book. I asked a current student of mine to read it as well, and help me review. Grace's opinion and ideas were helpful, softening my perhaps otherwise harsh judgement of the story.
My sun-room is overflowing with books -- both for students and for their parents to read as they wait. And read they do, students reading and reading again the Olivia stories and all the Harry Potter books, Stellaluna and favorite Dr. Seuss tales. Parents read and frequently borrow volumes of poetry and travel books, and laugh over The Gashlycrumb Tinies. A mother of one of my students is a poet; I have several other studio parents whom I talk books on an almost weekly basis, as others might talk about the weather. Students routinely ask parents to wait for them as they finish some book. Most do, good-naturedly.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be interested in watching my newest Harry Potter fan as she dives into volumes of the story while waiting to be picked up from piano lessons. And somewhere out there, I hope Kathryn is well and happy, playing the piano certainly, but more importantly, still reading.
Throughout the years I have carefully built up my studio library of books. Longtime favorites include:
*All the Olivia books by Ian Falconer. If you don't know the Olivia books, you should. These are hands down the favorite books for early elementary. My husband is convinced based on my stubborn, feisty attitude that I could have been Olivia in another life.
*You Can't Take a Balloon Into...Three picture books about taking a balloon into the National Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum created by two sisters: Jacquerline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser. These are wonderful picture books, simultaneously telling the adventure of the balloon outside and the museum visitors inside through clever reproductions of how art mirrors life.
*365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental and Joelle Jolivet. Matt got me this book last year for Christmas. My students gravitate towards it first because it is physically larger than the rest, but then they go back to it because it tells the charming story of a family trying to save penguins in danger due to global warming.
*Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. A classic.
*Oh, the Places You'll Go! and The Butter Battle Book both by Dr. Seuss. The first has become a standard gift in life tranistions; the second, written during the cold war, is a thought-provoking tale of an escalating fight between two disparate groups, warring for nonsensical reasons. Hmmm... Sound familiar?
*The Big Box by Toni Morrison. This is really a children's book for adults. Every teacher should read it.
*The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. A picture book for adults in which riduculously horrible things happen to children. ("N is for Neville who died of ennui....") I shouldn't like it, but I do. Some days more than others.
*Blue 2 and 600 Black Spots by David A. Carter. Fabulous pop-up books. Like tiny little sculptures. Last week one of my high schoolers was looking at these books and I could hardly drag her to the piano bench. "Amy," she said, "these books rock my world." Mine too.
Do you have favorite books in your studio? I'd love to hear about them.
February 17th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
My husband, who is a choral conductor, often comments, “Your
students could warm up a choir!” as he overhears them
practice their five-finger positions, moving effortlessly from key to
key. I first became aware of how valuable five-finger positions
were when I was a graduate teaching assistant teaching piano
proficiency classes. In these classes we worked
extensively in major and minor pentascales. These positions
quickly built tactile familiarity of the keyboard and enhanced the
ability of the student to transfer exercises and music to multiple
keys—important concepts for students who need some basic piano
skills. But I began to wonder, if we wanted these skills for
music majors, why we didn’t teach the same skills to all
quickly I adopted the habit of teaching all the major and minor
five-finger positions to all my students, regardless of age.
Today I use them with the younger beginning students; the older
beginning students; the students who have been taking piano lessons
but have weak fingers; and the students for whom piano is a second
instrument. I begin teaching five-finger positions
the very first lessons and use them to teach musical ideas of
dynamics, articulations, and tone, as well as adapting them to
challenge the students’ coordination and control. With
beginning students, we learn the positions as we are learning to name
the notes on the piano, starting first with C and G major positions
hands alone. We then move onto D and A patterns, discovering
that when playing D and A positions on all white notes they sound
“different.” Even if this is only the second
week of lessons, I use this opportunity to introduce the difference
between major and minor positions, by allowing students to identify
by ear whether I am playing a major or minor position. We throw
around words to describe the different sounds, deciding that major
sounds happy and bright, sunny and cheerful, while minor sounds
dark and sad, scary and grey. Young children hold up signs in
response to the sounds: “Major!” They will
shout. “It sounds happy.” “Minor,”
they will respond, “ it sounds dark.” After
all this ear work, the students then experiment by changing notes
from the all-white key D and A patterns until they can find the major
positions. “Hey! D has a black key mountain in the
middle!” one student announced to me, “and A is a
Especially in the beginning,
when note-reading is still a skill to be developed, practicing
technique without the added difficulty of reading music
to focus on the single task of making their fingers work at command.
Because I start five-finger positions before students are reading
music, I write the assignments in their notebooks in solfege, using
movable “do.” No student has ever come to me with a
background in solfege, but that's the magic behind that language--it
is intuitive and the less I give it a long-winded explanation, the
better. Using movable “do” makes the process of
transposing the exercise to other keys a non-issue; they simply reset
their hands and then play the pattern. With very young
children, I have also experimented with different kinds of non-staved
primitive notation, often allowing students to help write out their
patterns in their assignment notebooks in their own symbol
Many of you are nodding your heads
in agreement that it seems like a good idea to teach five-finger
positions to all students, following my logic after seeing the light
while teaching piano proficiency students. You might be even
thinking to yourself that, of course, you use five-finger positions
all the time, after all, most beginning music is written in
pentascales. However, this default usage is different than
systematically and purposefully teaching them to students almost as
an end unto themselves. You'll see what I mean in no time at
Once taught, the variations are endless. Now
I can hear the murmuring begin. (Yep, I can sense that you are
balking already. "You mean I have to then do something with them
besides just teach the notes?" That's the point.)
Not only are the options endless, but rather fun to play around with,
experimenting from week to week. Even as students are learning
them, you can make the assignments different and entertaining every
lesson. I'm afraid too often this is where we show how
uncomfortable we might be with anything not taken straight from a
published source. The point of technique is that it ought to be
generated out of a student's need, and should be developed both
independently from and organic to their other skills. Hence the
reason it is so downright lovely to teach technique not from a book,
but from your imagination and creativity and common sense.
the beginning, I coach students to listen carefully to their sound
and to form good hand positions by watching for space under their
hands ("hot-air balloons" my pedagogy teacher and mentor
Jean Stackhouse would say), firm joints in their fingers, avoiding
tension in their arms and shoulders, and making sure they are sitting
as tall as possible on the bench. The following are my earliest
five-finger positions assignments. Use them with whatever keys
students have learned, either hands together or hands alone.
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do Do Do...
2. Do Do Re Re Mi
Mi Fa Fa Sol Sol Fa Fa Mi Mi Re Re Do Do...
Do Re Do Re
Mi Fa Mi Fa
Sol Fa Sol Fa
Re Mi Re
4. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do...
5. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re
Because we should be learning more than just
patterns of notes of the 5-finger positions, whether it be major or
minor, all of these can be given further musical instructions:
play forte, play piano, play staccato, play
legato. However, and this is a big "however,"
I am a proponent of students really getting the physicality of
playing in their bodies before we layer musical complications.
This means I encourage students to play with big, strong fingers,
long before I talk about subtleties of soft playing. I hear too
many students with weak fingers and pathetic sounds when I judge
competitions, which makes me think more athletic playing would be
good for all of us. There is a difference, of course, between
playing strongly and fully and playing stridently and harshly, and that is a line worth
drawing in the sand from the very first lesson.
So layer away
as it might be appropriate, adding different dynamics and
articulations. Beware though, that it might be worth
encouraging big sounds at the beginning as students are learning to
navigate the patterns and discovering what their fingers can do.
February 9th, 2008 :: Ordinary Days
It's been an odd winter. First, it didn't get cold, warmer fall temperatures lingering into most of December. Then when winter arrived it came with a vengence. It's been cold, cold, cold and dry as only the desert can be. The cats spend the days with their bodies draped on the baseboard heaters, warming their paws, wishing someone with a warmer house had adopted them. My skin may yet fall off. My fingers crack and bleed, getting me back, perhaps, for the hours of abuse they take daily on the keyboard. I slather them with lotions and liquid band-aid, but to no avail. One finger has been cracked open for six weeks. This is not an exaggeration.
This has been not only the winter for cold temperatures, but for colds, as in the flu-like symptoms of congestion, coughing, aching, and sore throat. Right after Thanksgiving I came down with strep throat--something I only had once before, way back in childhood. I was as sick as I have ever been, spending a week in bed contemplating death. Then, right after the holidays, Matt caught the respiratory bug that has hit Albuquerque, coughing and hacking his way through two weeks before going to the doctor with a sinus infection, blocked ear drums, and a cough that wouldn't quit. Armed with cough syrup laced with codeine, we thought we were on the other side of this madness and that we would both be blessed with a good night's sleep, when I came down with the same crud. I lost my voice for four days and so far have spent a week coughing and nursing a sore throat. This is no way to really enjoy the season.
But in spite of it all, we are branching out this winter in small ways. Because we are now subject to a box of produce from the co-op
every Monday, we are eating differently, learning how to deal with things like collard greens and kale, and making regular meals out of salads with avocados and beets. This has turned out to change our eating habits more profoundly than I had imagined, because organic produce spoils so quickly. Inspired not to let good food go bad, I wrack my brain on a daily basis trying to figure out what must be eaten NOW. Tangerines appear in our box almost weekly, so I have started taken mid-morning breaks to slice open a couple of tangerines and gnaw at them right off the rinds. I have always considered tangerines (and oranges, and all fruit that must be peeled) more trouble than they are worth. But now they are here, sitting and staring at me accusingly from the bowl on the dining room table, so I eat them. Surprisingly I have fallen in love with tangerines this winter, savoring their very tangerine-ness, like a burst of sunshine in my mouth -- pow! I come alive just thinking about it. Today I roasted a pan of beets, tossing them in olive oil and sea salt. Now there is a sentence I have never written before. I also roasted a pan of purple onions, small potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes (what are those exactly anyway?) and two whole heads of garlic, just because we had them. I'll eat these roasted vegetables for breakfast and lunches over the next few days, surely shaking me out of any food ruts I might have gotten myself in during the last 35 years.
It's also been the winter of fantastic reading
. Over the holidays, I read Run
by Ann Patchett and Bridge of Sighs
by Richard Russo, both memorable books, something I don't often find. A friend sent me The Used World
by Haven Kimmel, a book I found quite wonderful. I am in a book group of local music teachers who this month read Piano Lessons
by Noah Adams, another book I enjoyed very much, if for no other reason it gave me new insights into the minds of adult students dabbling in music lessons. Last fall our group read The Sparrow
and Children of God
by Maria Doria Russell, two books that stunned me and kept me thinking for weeks. When my dad was here for a recent visit, I loaned him The Sparrow
and he read it in 24 hours. It's really that good.
And although I write a blog, I must admit that I don't much read them. (My husband told me for years that I should write one, to which I would repeated ask, "Now what is a blog, anyway?") However, last year Matt discovered a blog which now I read regularly and savor, although (or maybe because) it isn't about music. Indeed, orangette
is about food, and written by someone you'd like to have cook for you. Regularly. I sigh often when I read it, however, because it appears this woman, who must be several years younger than I am, manages to cook real meals and play in the kitchen on a regular basis. Last night, dining alone, I ate: two slices of brie; a handful of peanuts, cracking the shells over the sink; two tangerines; three cookies. I can cook, and I am even halfway decent, but too often don't bother. Ms. Orangette makes me want to don an apron and start baking biscuits, something that isn't likely to happen anytime soon.
This winter I have also been able to play some fabulous music, working on a recital with a flutist, Jerome Jim
. For the last month, we have been rehearsing the Fauré violin sonata, (transcribed for flute) and the "Histoire du Tango" by Piazzola, both fabulous pieces with wonderful piano parts that have demanded and absorbed my attention for weeks. Following this recital I have an empty window of time in terms of performances, something that hasn't occurred in the recent past. I am determined to claim it and learn some solo music that has been on my wish list for some time. I've been working on Chopin's Nocturne in D-Flat, but after this recital, I'm going to tackle his G Minor Ballade, Barber's Excursions, and Haydn's F Minor Variations. I don't have performances in mind for any of these works, but if I don't learn them I can't ever perform them, so I'm going with the "build it and they will come" theory. Last year my resolution was to go on more hikes
, seeing as we live in great hiking country. My interest in hiking took a 25-year detour after having been dragged up every mountain in Colorado as a kid, lugging baloney sandwiches, which I detested. But after living here several years, I found myself interested in seeing more of this spectacular, unusual landscape and saw hiking as a good, cheap recreational activity for my otherwise rather indoor-centered life. After making this resolution, my husband and I went on two hikes last year, which was two more hikes than any other year, but still nothing to write home about. Already this year I have lured my husband, brother-in-law, and nephew up into the foothills, and then also my father when he came to visit, telling him it was revenge for all those childhood hikes. "But you were young and I am old," he told me, which is true but didn't affect my plans. During our hike on a snowy and icy path, I fell five (Five!
) times, which once again is an actual number and not an exaggeration, leaving me bruised and sore for days. "That'll teach you," he said.
Even my teaching is forging new tracks, as I am making more of a concerted effort to teach new music, and to organize my materials better. The impulses to organize
come and go in my life. Over the years, I have learned to heed them when they arrive, as they are usually a sign that a new burst of creative energy is bubbling to the surface. "I spend a lot of time getting organized to be creative," I read somewhere. That's it exactly, for I spend a great deal of time getting organized to be creative, even recognizing the urge to be organized as something that might have a creative root. Several weeks ago, after almost a year of being nagged at, I held a rhythm and movement class based on Dalcroze ideas for music teachers. I sent out the e-mail announcement about the class secretly suspecting no one would come. Instead, my living room was full of eager movers and shakers, so much so that I have scheduled classes monthly through May. It's been good for me to get out of not only my eating ruts, but my teaching ruts.
So, in little microscopic ways, we are shedding old skin around here, making us healthier and opening up our minds a bit to a new perspective. Of course, this health angle hasn't contributed to a real improvement in the state of our health (see "colds" above), but big changes often start small, spiraling the contents of our lives in a whole new direction. Cutivating a new-found love of warm roasted beets isn't a bad place to start.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org