March 29th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I go through
cycles in my 5-Finger Position assignments. Recently its been
all about rhythms,
but lately I have flirting with minor-key positions. My students
are introduced to minor positions early on, when we first explore D
position on all white notes. "Does this sound different
than C position?" I ask. Inevitably they describe
minor positions by calling them "scary" or "sad" which, while being of rather limited imagination, does reinforce why we so often associate suspenseful or tearjerker
movies with music in a minor key. While beginning students are
first learning the notes of positions, I let them play both the major
and minor forms of D and A, and this usually firmly establishes their
life-long fascination with all things minor. After several weeks of playing both versions of D and A, I begin
writing in their assignments, "Only happy positions,"
accompanied by the requisite smiley face. This often
provokes groans, especially from my younger male students, who would
happily play minor positions all day if I let them. "OK."
I bargain, "You can play the minor positions for extra credit,"
thereby assuring we all win: I get them firmly secure in
their grasp of major positions AND usually get extra practice of the
minor positions as a bonus. They get to happily explore minor
positions, feeling like they have gotten away with something illicit.
And by taking minor positions away from their regular
assignments for awhile, I can usually guarantee their enthusiasm when
we return to focusing on minor keys some time later.
I think it is
important not to confuse the issue by switching suddenly from major
to minor keys too early in the process. Most kids need a lot
---and I mean A LOT--of time playing all the black and white
major keys before they have developed the technical security and
confidence to swing easily back and forth between major and minor.
Because of that introduction to D and A minor way back
in the beginning , students greet
these two like old friends, but often the next step gets dicey unless
I am careful. "What did you do to make it minor?" I
ask. "Finger three moves down to a white note," they respond. The
problem is that while that answer is correct for D and A minor, it
won't get them very far, and shifting to C position quickly
illustrates that misunderstanding. Students have to discover
that finger three moves down a half-step, or one note. This
starts to work better, but F always throws them for a loop, because F
requires that we really understand that finger 3 and ONLY finger 3
moves. (If I had a dollar for every impatient student who tried
to make natural the B-flat of F position thinking they were playing
the minor, I could stop teaching and could retire to Hawaii.) D-flat
position also throws up some challenges to the concept of the
half-step moving down, because students don't naturally see that one
quickly. G-flat is another one that is visually puzzling at
first---all those black notes confuse students. All this is to
say that, while teaching minor positions is an important part of working
with 5-Finger Positions, they aren't as obvious to kids as they might
seem to be, which is why it is important to wait until major keys can be
done forward, backward, upside, in the dark, and with one's eyes
closed before we even try to go there.
Years of trial and error have made me
particular not only about how I introduce minors, but also about how I
sequence the patterns for practicing. (Good teaching is 99%
sequencing, I am convinced.) The following patterns are ordered
as I assign them. Notice how many patterns swing back and forth
between major and minor positions before I assign patterns using only
minor positions. This is to ensure that students really do know
how they got from major to minor and haven't just learned minor keys
as a whole new set of positions. I want to make sure they see
the connection between the two, and not that minors are an unrelated
new world. To this end, I also have students spell, spell, and spell again individual positions, starting first with the major ones and
asking EVERY time: "And how do we change it to minor?"
"OK then, spell the minor position." If I have
been lazy about the spelling work up until this point, I make up for
31. Do Re Mi
Do Re Mi (Minor)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi
Re Do (Major)
32. Do Re Mi Re
Do Re Mi Re (Minor)
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi
Re Do (Major)
as one long pattern with no breaks in the legato or
33. Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Do Re Mi Fa Sol
Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi
Re Do (Major)
point I go back to old solfege patterns and familiar rhythmic
patterns and concentrate solely on playing minors. See
for Technique for ideas.
Of course, creativity with articulations and
dynamics is always encouraged.
March 22nd, 2009 :: Teaching Days
I am a huge fan of big blank
sketchbooks. At any given time, I have a half-dozen blank
notebooks in use: one contains teaching notes, another serves as my
practice journal, another holds recipes, and I carry still another everywhere to
capture miscellaneous thoughts and ideas. My husband, on the
other hand, likes the small moleskin notebooks to record all of his random
information, and he teases me about the size of my sketchbooks. "Why
do they have to be so big?" he asks, eyeing my pile of black
spiral-bound sketchbooks. "My ideas are too grand to be
contained on your tiny little pages," I retort, as he slips his admirably compact volume into his jacket pocket.
Not only do I swear by these big
sketchbooks in my personal life, but I require that my students own
and use theme for their practice assignments.
This is, admittedly, because I have a lot to say when writing down
assignments for students. I am fanatical about assigning specific
practice steps. For example, a beginner
working on a new piece might have the following assignment: play
RH 3x, LH 3x, BH line 3 5x, then whole song BH 3x.
Or something that looks like: tap
BH 1x, play RH 1x, LH 1x, BH 3x, repeat from beginning each step 1x.
An advanced student might have an
assignment such as: Practice each section of the piece a
different way every day: using metronome, hands separately, different rhythms, in phrases, etc.
This comes straight from my own
practice journal, full of ideas about what is working and what needs
to be done next. Keeping a journal reminds me of what I've already done, and
what I might have neglected. It is a place to catch those
brilliant, if infrequent, moments of insight while practicing, when
suddenly it is perfectly clear what might fix a particular problem;
it is a map of my learning process for every piece of music.
For years, I was convinced I remembered these moments of
enlightenment and the intentions I might have for the next day's
work, but after years of keeping a practice journal, I know I was
only fooling myself. It is amazing what I forget when I get up
from the piano bench. It is quite startling to realize how
painfully blank the slate might be every practice session if I don't
have a means to catch my progress.
So, I have become compulsive about
writing down Every-Specific-Practice-Step for students, and this
teaching habit borders on both the obsessive and the dogmatic. I know
this, of course, and find it a bit ironic given how laid-back I
generally am. Compulsive behavior isn't really a problem with
me; establishing and maintaining habits are more of a challenge. But because of this, perhaps, I am more conscious of how important it is for
students to have a plan when they sit down at the piano to practice.
Students with a set plan are more likely to feel a sense of
accomplishment when they work, and practice plans make the whole
ordeal more objective. Have you practiced all your
assignments carefully? Yes or No? Sometimes I
scribble this in the margins of student's assignment notebooks just to
see if they are reading their practice plans. Certainly in my
own life and work, I welcome anything that will make this nebulous
art form more black and white. If I have a practice plan and
complete it, I can, in good conscience, feel like my work is finished
for the day. I find the same to be true for my students.
But to counter this controlling tendency, I encourage students of all levels to think
about their own practice plans. "How should we practice
this?" I routinely ask students. "We don't have
time today for 'Waltz'. What should the practice plan be next
week?" This is good for all of us: it gives the
student more authority and ownership and requires them to think about
what constitutes a reasonable practice plan for a given piece.
Equally important is the fact that it starts to write my role
and absolute authority out of the equation. As a teacher, I
want this for my students: I want them to become independent
musicians, not dependent upon my holding their hands through the
learning process. But even on a more personal level I want
this: if I can give them ownership over their own music-making
the work gets easier for me as a teacher. It takes an enormous
amount of energy to push and prod students along; it is no small
thing to step back and just provide the healthy atmosphere for
music-making without all of the energy coming from me. If I can
allow them to make more of the decisions and make more of their own
learning discoveries, I am a far better teacher at the end of the
day. I'm also far less exhausted.
I was reminded of
this just this week. For three years, I have been pushing and prodding Jake
along. This has been necessary, or so I tell myself, in order to get this now 4th grader to the point where assignments are
being learned accurately and thoroughly. Suddenly, he is taking
off at a breathtaking speed, sailing through his pieces, where once
it took him weeks to master even the simplest skill. This is thrilling for me, as you can imagine, and as I watch this unfold in
front of me, I am deliberately trying to hand him the reins whenever
possible. "So how I am supposed to practice that?"
Jake asked me as I was writing down a new assignment this week.
"Hmmm....how about you use your own brain and figure it
out?" I suggested, "You write the practice plan and
follow it." "Oh, good." Jake responded. "I
like to use my brain. It makes me feel less like a robot."
If we accept for a moment that our
real job is teaching life skills, not just music skills, then using
one's own brain ought to be on the top of the list. Daily,
hourly, I have to remind myself of this and relinquish control: stop
jumping in to correct every small or large mistake, but allow
students to stumble through and discover their own process in my
presence. This doesn't mean I stop making my assignments
specific, but it does remind me that there is a line to between healthy, appropriate guidance, and putting
students more in charge of their work. These are contradictory
ideas, to be sure, but there's a balance to be found in the tension
between these practices, if we can only learn to embrace that grey area.
Occasionally, when I am faced with another big empty page to fill for a student, I feel a lot
like a robot filling in the blanks. But when I am doing my
best work, and being attentive to all the complex nuances built into
the art of teaching, its a far cry from anything mechanical.
March 15th, 2009 :: Reading Days
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.
He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.
He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.
I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladders of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.
I am learning to play
"It Might As Well Be Spring"
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.
Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.
March 8th, 2009 :: Ordinary Days
Quite unbelievably, spring has arrived
to New Mexico.
I say this with some trepidation, because last year we had a frost on May 6. Or so the woman
working in my neighborhood nursery told me. I went there last
weekend to buy seeds, trying to satisfy my hungry inner gardener with
a cheap fix. "Don't even think about pruning back roses
now. If it gets cold again, you could kill them. And wait
before planting these seeds; it's just too early." This
isn't what I wanted to hear, my fingers itching to get outside and
dirty. However, I can start cutting back all the summer
flowering bushes, I understand, which is enough to keep me out of
trouble and away from the rose bushes and seed packages for a few
I don't know if
spring is the cure I need these days for, truth be told, it hasn't
been a tough winter. In fact, its been the mildest winter for
years. We have had so little moisture of any kind---rain, snow,
ice---that I have had to water faithfully. Although we finally
roof above our bedroom, late last
fall another problem appeared in the canale (that's a drain spout in New Mexico) outside the sun-room,
and we've been lazy about getting to it. So far this
procrastination is paying off quite nicely, because we haven't needed
it repaired. But this dry, dry weather makes me think my skin
just might flake off completely, leaving me a raw pile of muscles and
blood. I am convinced every March that this is the year I
just might shed my skin, crawling out of it and leaving it in a
corner to decompose. Especially these days, when my old tired
patterns seem especially exhausting, the idea of a fresh start is a
So even though spring feels a bit like a too-early,
undeserved gift at this point, I'm taking it. I need the boost,
the shot of pure new energy in my veins. Oh, there's been
plenty of energy expenditure lately, activities piling rapidly on top
of one other: I played a recital with a UNM faculty member last
week and am deep in rehearsals for an upcoming recording session, as
well as practicing for the next recital and competition. I am
off to do a workshop in El Paso next week, and am in the preliminary
stages of organizing the PEP student contest next month for our local
MTNA group . Last month Matt
organized a workshop with composer and teacher Alice
Parker , which involved a weekend
of events: a dinner party at our house Friday evening, a
day-long workshop, dinner out with Alice Saturday night, Alice's
community "Sing" Sunday afternoon, another dinner party in
her honor Monday night, and on and on. "I'll feed you
lunch if you come over and help me for a half-hour," I begged my
friend Lora Friday morning, fearing that I couldn't get my house dug
out and my party hat on by the start of the weekend.
"Another dinner party?" Lora asked on
our Tuesday pre-dawn walk. "You were at another dinner
party last night? How important is this woman anyway?" Pretty
important, I'd say. Alice is inarguably one of the most
recognizable names in the choral world, and one of the most
important---perhaps the most important-- composer and
teacher of her generation. Matt has studied with
her several times, and has always told me "You and Alice are
kindred spirits." I've always taken that with a grain of salt, for I know Alice to be a fiercely determined teacher who, for all of her gentle demeanor, does not suffer fools gladly. (Matt says she has "dimples of iron.") But I've
always suspected that he might be right; that we think about music and
teaching in much the same way, and that we share an intolerance for Mickey Mouse. Having Alice here for the
weekend--in our house!--was one of those rare opportunities to rub elbows with a professional,
musical, and personal hero, well
worth all the dinner hoopla that went with it.
classes last weekend, we held
"Scale Olympics," which is my sorry attempt to get some
dedicated scale practice out of my students. Students play
scales---majors or minors; one to four octaves depending on the
level---with the metronome, higher speeds getting more points for
their teams. This is always educational for me, finding out
which kids buckle under pressure. Ian, who had been nailing four-octave major scales in sixteenth-notes for weeks now, completely
crashed on the first scale. Later that week I asked him, "So
what happened?" "Too much pressure," he
responded, "I can't do it when everyone is looking at me."
"Being able to do things under pressure is a life skill,"
I reminded him. "Think about that pilot who landed the plane in
the Hudson; thank goodness he didn't crack." Without
missing a beat, Ian replied, "Playing scales is harder."
But the idea that our practice should
teach us about life seems to be the theme of the week, for just this
morning in yoga, our teacher said the same thing, reminding us to
breathe as we struggled through our various poses. "We get
stressed in life and we hold our breath. What we are doing here
isn't really about perfecting poses on this mat. It's supposed
to be teaching us how to live our lives."
Lately it seems all my good ideas
come from yoga class, this practice teaching me at least as well as
any piano pedagogy course ever did. During lessons, I find myself
asking over and over again, "Am I teaching a life skill here?
Is there any value in any of this away from the piano bench?"
Most of the time, I think that most of what we do does teach
something relevant outside the walls of my studio, but sometimes that
question clarifies things quickly, making me get right to the essence
of what we might be doing, or should be doing. It's amazing how
much Mickey Mouse exists, even for those of us with a high degree of
sensitivity towards it.
In the middle of
this burst of spring and insight, I woke up last Tuesday and realized
it was Mardi Gras. "Where are our pancakes?" I
asked Matt as I poured myself a cup of coffee. "I'm
eating pancakes twice today," he replied. "I'm going
out for pancakes for lunch and tonight we are having pancakes at church before my meeting." This seemed rather overdoing it, but it did inspire me to wander down to the neighborhood
Star for my own pancakes at
lunchtime. "Do you want a dinner roll with that?"
the girl behind the counter asked me. "No, I
think I'll be OK for carbs, thanks." I repled.
Reeling from all
of the last few months , I'm
embracing the idea that I, too, could turn over a new leaf and shed
some skin, holding out hope that something of beauty might emerge
from all this unsettledness. In the meantime, yesterday,
the first yellow and red-striped tulip peeked her head out, and with
it--garden wisdom be damned--spring has just tiptoed into my yard.
March 1st, 2009 :: Reading Days
...All children are artists, and it is an indictment of our culture that so many of them lose their creativity, their unfettered imaginations, as they grow older. But they start off without self-consciousness as they paint their purple flowers, their anatomically impossible people, their thunderous, sulphurous skies. They don't worry that they may not be as good as Di Chirico or Bracque; they know intuitively that it is folly to make comparisons, and they go ahead and say what they want to say. What looks like a hat to a grownup may, to the child artist, be an elephant inside a boa constrictor. (p. 57)
...The artist, if he is not to forget how to listen, must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked Children Only. (p.21)
...In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars. (p. 61)
-from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com