February 26th, 2012 :: Teaching Days
Ford is composing a multiple movement piece about dinosaurs ("A suite," I explain to him. "Is this like a really big hotel room?" he asks me.). For a seven year-old boy there is nothing more exciting than dinosaurs. He checks out a book from the library and writes down the names of five possible dinosaurs from which we are going to choose three ideas for the different movements. Fine so far.
His first composition involves a narrative that goes something like this:
A T-Rex is walking through the forest and stumbles across a baby brontosaurus who has gotten away from his mother. So the T-Rex eats the baby. Then the mother brontosaurus comes looking for the baby and the still hungry T-Rex eats the mother as well.
This movement is made up of a lot of banging on the lower half of the piano (the T-Rex) and some banging on the upper part of the piano (the baby) and some banging on the middle of the piano (the mother).
The next week Ford decides to write a composition about a dinosaur fight. More banging.
Tonight I suggest we try a contrasting mood like dinosaurs sleeping or playing. "OK," he says, "I have an idea."
"Great." I am encouraging and hopeful.
"How about a dinosaur that sneaks up on a sleeping dinosaur and eats it?"
At this point I am beginning to see a consistent theme in the Dinosaur Suite. Envisioning yet another composition that is mainly banging, I ask him if he thought if this idea would be different from the other movements.
"Oh yeah," he assures me.
In the studio there is a lot of composing happening these days. Some kids love it; some don’t. I never push the issue, offering the option if I sense a kid’s interest, but not requiring this assignment. The kids who live or die by their composition assignments never let me forget their weekly composition. Indeed, there are a few who would be forever happy if their entire practice assignment was made up of their own compositions.
In performance classes we often work with improvisation cards, which are postcards on which I have drawn random shapes or squiggles, an idea I adapted from Jean Stackhouse’s pedagogy class I took years ago. The task is to try to “play” the card on the piano. Sometimes I play a card and invite students to guess which card it might be from the selection displayed on the floor in front of them. Other times a student will play a “secret” card that they show no one and the others have to try to draw what they’ve heard. Still other times when I am feeling less ambitious and creative, the kids will simply take turns, drawing a card off the stack and one after another improving gestures and sounds to match the scribbling. It doesn’t much matter which approach we choose, across the board kids LOVE the improv cards and beg to do them in class every month.
For weekly composition assignments, I have a composition bowl, filled to the brim with little pieces of paper on which are written various composition titles. Kids draw from the bowl and, Poof! like magic, there is their composition assignment for the week. I love this, because I don’t have to search my brain and be creative on command; students love it because they never get tired of the suspense involved in taking down the bowl from the shelf, ruffling through the scraps of paper (and inevitably spilling half on the floor, which they also find amusing) and drawing a composition subject every week.
Lately however, students have been complaining that they have done “all” the compositions in the bowl. I think they are lying, because it looks like there are hundreds and no one has done that many, but the kids insist. “Miss Amy,” they whine, “I have already done this one.” I’d like to point out that like the sight-reading books, it wouldn’t kill them to do one twice, but the lure of the novel is irresistible. One day recently, tired of the whining, I came up with a brilliant solution to the problem: I would empty out the entire bowl (That’ll show them! I thought to myself.) and they would be charged with the task of refilling it with their own composition titles, each student responsible for five new ideas.
Of course, like all pedagogical ideas that involve less teacher and more student, this was the perfect solution. I didn’t have to do a damn thing, and the kids are thrilled to have this responsibility, loving the notion that other students will soon be playing their ideas. Win-win.
Now if they could just write their own sight-reading books…..
February 19th, 2012 :: Practicing Days
We should get back to practicing.
I’m not sure where the time has gone, but it has been months---months!!—since I have mentioned practicing. Of course, that is a gross misstatement, as most of every day is spent wrestling with the practicing question, and my students would be quick to tell you that I talk about practicing ALL THE TIME. But still, if one would look at my life merely through this blog, one might be lulled into thinking no one around here is practicing. No worries, we are practicing.
Lately I have been thinking more and more about what it means to be a holistic musician and what work is needed to achieve that goal. A couple weeks ago I talked about chords and ear tunes, which is one piece of my teaching puzzle. As it turns out, it is also a part of my own work at the piano.
So much of traditional piano teaching has been focused primarily on mastering repertoire, at the exclusion of much else. My own musical education certainly mirrored this pattern, and I see evidence in the music students around me that not much has changed in the last several decades. Working with college students majoring in music reveals that they aren’t learning many pragmatic skills: they can’t play by ear; they can’t transpose even simple melodies; they can’t create simple accompaniments on command. If truth be told, I couldn’t do these things either as a piano performance major, nor were my teachers interested in these skills much at all. What they were interested in was my Beethoven sonata or my Mozart concerto. Sadly, there hasn’t been a lot of demand for my ability to play full-length sonatas or concertos. However, over and over again I have needed to create my own accompaniments. I have been asked to transpose something down a step dozens of times. I have been called upon to knock out a tune by ear more times than I care to recall.
And so, thinking holistically, I have come to accept that if I am to be honest about my own musicianship, these things have to become a regular part of my own practicing, and not left only in my teaching studio. These days, my practice hours find me transposing music, picking out songs by ears and harmonizing them, improvising both original tunes and arrangements. Admittedly, there are many days this feels like one more thing to add to an already daunting to-do list. But the truth is my students are quite frequently much more comfortable with these skills, having done these things their entire piano life, than I am. I owe it to them to try to keep up.
So, how do we practice? Let me count the ways….
Here are three more ideas to add to that growing list:
- Transpose: transpose your repertoire, your teaching pieces, hymns, Bach chorales
- Pick out tunes by ear: pluck out folk tunes, teaching pieces, popular songs
- Improvise: improvise accompaniments to simple melodies, improvise on the Bach or Haydn you might be practicing, improvise on your students’ literature
You might just be surprised how much these skills end up helping your Beethoven as well.
February 12th, 2012 :: Reading Days
becoming a photograph
-George Swede from The Haiku Anthology
February 5th, 2012 :: Recipes for Technique
Enough about cookies and chocolate, world travels and parties, holidays and feasts. It’s time to talk once again about chords.
It takes time to establish good chord fundamentals. First, there are the months and months of playing 5 Finger Positions. Then we add bridges and set-ups that extend to “La” and “Ti”. Finally, we build the basic I-IV-I-V-V7-I progression, first in blocked chords then later in accompaniment patterns such as Alberti Bass, broken chord, waltz, tango, and so on.
This takes not just weeks, but sometimes years.
I have found there is more motivation for this work if there is evidence of direct application as soon as possible. We all need proof that the practicing we are doing is useful and based in reality, not in some la-la land made up by the more esoteric among us. At least, this seemed to be true for me.
In the beginning, my students make practical use of these chords when working with their Suzuki songs. They play these tunes with both blocked chords and other patterns as applicable, transposing merrily into fun keys like G-flat and B major. It works, as my friend Marge would say, “like a charm.”
But then the day arrives when the kids have completed all the tunes in the first Suzuki book.
Which brings me to the idea of ear tunes. In my studio, “ear tunes” are simple folk tunes that can be harmonized with primary (I,IV or V) chords. Kids pick out the melody by ear in the key of C and then we add harmony: first with blocked chords and then later with more interesting accompaniment patterns. To simplify the process (and to avoid me having to rack my rather empty brain during a student’s lesson for an accessible ear tune), I have recorded several CDs of folk tunes that we frequently refer to. Students can listen to these ditties at home, thereby silencing the argument that they have “no idea” what Old Joe Clark might sound like. This process familiarizes the kids not only these basic American folk tunes, which is a good thing, but also prevents the discussion about what version of On Top of Old Smokey we might be using that day. We are using my version. Period. (I don’t care if they have another equally legitimate version. That’s not the point. The point is that they learn to copy something exactly. Once they prove that they can do that, they are welcome to play any version they want. I can be strangely rigid about these things.)
If you need a romping rendition of Sweet Betsy from Pike, you now know who to call.
Speaking of Sweet Betsy and that ornery Old Joe Clark...
Tunes that can be harmonized with just I and V chords:
Did You Ever See a Lassie?Down in the Valley
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
A Tistket, A Tasket
Hush Little Baby
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Ode to Joy
Skip to My Lou
Sweetly Sings the Donkey
Wheels on the Bus
The Farmer in the Dell
Old Joe Clark
Tunes that can be harmonized with I, IV and V chords:
Home on the Range
On Top of Old Smokey
It’s a Small World
Pop! Goes the Weasel
She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain