February 27th, 2011 :: Reading Days
Once or twice and maybe again, who knows,
the timid nuthatch will come to me
if I stand still, with something good to eat in my hand.
The first time he did it
he landed smack on his belly, as though
the legs wouldn’t cooperate. The next time
he was bolder. Then he became absolutely
wild about those walnuts.
But there was a morning I came late and, guess what,
the nuthatch was flying into a stranger’s hand.
To speak plainly, I felt betrayed.
I wanted to say: Mister,
that nuthatch and I have a relationship.
It took hours of standing in the snow
before he would drop from the tree and trust my fingers.
But I didn’t say anything.
Nobody owns the sky or the trees.
Nobody owns the hearts of birds.
Still, being human and partial therefore to my own successes--
though not resentful of others fashioning theirs--
I’ll come tomorrow, I believe, quite early.
from Red Bird
February 20th, 2011 :: Practicing Days
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.
Hence a new category of posts for this blog has been born. “Practicing Days” or as my students will certainly call it, The List. These will be ideas and strategies about how to practice and work, and over time, will form a checklist we can use and refer to.
It is so concrete, simple and obvious, I’m embarrassed I never thought of it before now.
February 13th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves. It’s far too tempting to jump joyfully into the new and forget what we already know. What with all these novel pre-scale exercises and chord progressions, it’s altogether too easy to ignore those old familiar 5-Finger Positions completely. About the time students think they have escaped the pentachord world entirely, I start circling back, spiraling over old territory.
Of course, it’s good to have a new twist.
Think of these as 5-Finger Positions with a twist of lime. Or lemon. And just to hide the fact that these really are just those same old positions, now we call them “Set-ups.” It’s amazing how easily students fall for this whole re-naming scheme.
But it isn’t all old stuff with new names, for we are moving into a more thorough knowledge and understanding of major positions and keys, which, coupled with our flat and sharp codes and good solid pre-scale and chord exercises, is all part of the grand plan. The new “Set-ups” do indeed set us up nicely for adding to our original basic I-V-I chord progressions, which gives us a whole new palette of interesting colors and harmonies to play with. At the same time, I can make darn sure students haven’t forgotten their positions, which was my aim in the first place.
Set-ups work like this:
I usually start with the LH, as my students begin their chord work here. The LH plays a simple--Do Re-Mi-Fa-Sol pattern, and then the thumb moves up a whole step to play the La. Then we circle around to catch the half-step underneath Do with the 5th finger and play the Ti. The 5th finger then jumps back to end on Do. And so we get the full 7 notes of the major scale, albeit not exactly in scale-like formation. Nevertheless there is a rather satisfying completion to the whole exercise. Students get introduced to La and Ti, something that the more curious ones have been wondering about for awhile. They still have to play those 5-Finger Positions, which makes me happy, and now we have notes and labels to use when expanding our chord progression. It’s all good.
And so, suddenly our options for chords explode. My early chord assignments usually look something like this:
2. Blocked chords: I-V-I
3. Play chords in.....( Alberti Bass, Broken, Waltz)
Students draw a key from my bowl of poker chips, which are each labeled with a different note. (Some of the kids are convinced I am out to get them, and have removed the “C” chip and added five B-flats, but that is simply not true. There is one C, and one B-flat. Of course, there is also an A-sharp, which does double the chances of getting the “devil position” as they like to call it. I didn’t say the chips were key signatures, just note names.)
The chips they draw are the keys for the week. After a week or two of getting familiar with the whole Set-up thing, I add the V7 chord, making the progression: I-V-V7-I, and then after a few weeks add in the IV chord so we end up with: I-IV-I-V-V7-I--starting with the I-chord in root position and the others in the obvious inversions familiar to every pianist alive and breathing. (Starting this chord progression on the first or second inversion of the I-chord is subject for another day. A day WAY in the future.)
And then the fun begins. The third step to the exercise is to play the chords in patterns---Alberti Bass, Broken, or Waltz. Much, MUCH later we explore tangos, bossa novas and other catchy dance rhythms. (Last fall, one of my little students competing in a piano competition chose to spend his allotted warm-up minutes playing a 2-hand chord progression in various keys--roots in the LH, chords in the RH--using a Bossa Nova rhythm. You should have seen the judges’ heads jerk up in response to hearing this unconventional chord sequence. It was worth the price of admission right there. That the kid then won his level was icing on the cake.) Students often have the same accompaniment pattern for weeks, even months, until it becomes second nature to them. I want these accompaniment patterns to be learned so thoroughly that they never have to think about them again, making our lives much easier when we find them in our sonatinas and early classical ditties.
February 6th, 2011 :: Reading Days
comes out of the sky
like bleached flies.
The ground is no longer naked.
The ground has on its clothes.
The trees poke out of sheets
and each branch wears the sock of God.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Don't bite till you know
if it's bread or stone.
What I bite is all bread,
rising, yeasty as a cloud.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
Today God gives milk
and I have the pail.
- Anne Sexton
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org