March 21st, 2010 :: Student Days
Ok. Now I am begging.
Groveling, actually. On my knees.
Because I am now a scholar (they tell us all the time in graduate school that we are "scholars". I laugh out loud every time anyone says this.), I need data for my research on gender and the piano student. I can't tell you more than that because I understand that then I would be "leading" my inquiries, and that is a no-no. Totally forbidden in the academic and unbiased (this is also a joke) world.
I am hoping that these posts will get me data for a minimum of 500 students. Right now, I have, well, hmmmm....not that many. As soon as I get my quota I will return to writing witty and amusing anecdotes about my fairly mundane life. (This threat is not coming out as I intended it....)
Just so you know exactly what you might be getting into by helping my research, here are the super scholarly research questions. You can email me your answers (click on the "contact" link in the upper right hand corner of this post). Although I won't be using this information for anything besides a class project, (thereby sidestepping any ethical issues), I am happy to send out my findings to anyone who might want the results.
Thank you. And thank you.
******************************Super Scholarly Research Questions**************************
Total number of students:
Breakdown of boys/girls:
Have you seen any change in the gender make-up of your studio in the last 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? If so how? (If you are like me and don't actually keep good records of past rosters, one teacher reminded me that this information could be collected from old studio programs. Brilliant!)
Any other thoughts about gender issues among your piano students?
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
March 14th, 2010 :: Student Days
Last week, apropos of nothing---and I mean nothing--
Joshua turned to me during his lesson and announced, "You know, Miss Amy, someday, I'll make you some eggs."
This rendered me speechless. As well it should. It's not every day that an 8-year-old offers to cook for me. What I fear this proves is that everyone is sensing my stress these days. If they can't make it go away, maybe they can at least feed me.
Things are not that bad, although spring break can't come fast enough. In the meantime, what I could really use is not eggs, but data, as in hard quantifiable facts. (See how well I am learning my quantitative research vocabulary?) I am in need of statistics regarding the gender make-ups of piano studios around the country. (Sorry to the string or wind teachers out there, but my study is focusing on piano teachers.) If you would be willing to supply me with some numbers from your studio, please contact me. (You can easily do this by clicking on the email address on the upper right corner of this page.) You can remain completely anonymous---I simply need first names, email addresses, the state you live in, and some gender numbers regarding your students. And I need it by April 2nd, which is, quite unbelievably, right around the corner.
Besides getting to be a part of a cutting-edge study about piano students, in exchange I will happily send around my findings to anyone who asks. In the process of digging up background research for my literature review, I have discovered that there is almost NO real statistics out there about piano students, piano lesson retention, piano anything. This is terrible, and does nothing to advance the cause or understanding of our profession.
To sidestep any ethical issues here, let me make it clear that I will not publish the results and this research is for a class project only.
I'm off to the kitchen to scramble some eggs. Please contact me, and I'll be in touch with exactly what information I need.
March 7th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
What with an upcoming recital or competition always around the corner, some days I feel like I do nothing but teach to the next test. After all, recitals and competitions, while providing huge opportunities for growth and potential development, inevitably halt progress in some crucial ways. It takes up large amounts of lesson time to get ready for such events, because the demands on performance and readiness are different and higher. Appropriately so, to be sure, but sometimes I wonder: what would it be like to teach for even one year without the forced structure recitals and competitions? What would it be like to not teach to the test?
Public school teachers all over my city are asking themselves this question these days as students are deep in standardized testing. My mother teaches fourth grade in St. Louis and bemoans these annual tests and the pressures they put on her teaching agendas. As an independent teacher whose job is not on the line, I still find myself succumbing to the testing pressures, assuming that it is worth the work and struggle to put students in yearly competitions and recitals every semester. Of course, the potential benefits are huge: students gain confidence and poise from performing and learn how to handle nerves and pressure. The process of preparing more carefully and attentively and being subject to higher demands on their abilities and musicality potentially makes students better musicians. Many of the requirements that go with competitions in terms of technical work--scales, chord progressions, and the like--are good ones, and a positive reminder for all of us to not let those things slide. But still. What about all the things we give up in the process?
There is no question that in the throes of competition season, I let things go. I don't do nearly enough creative work, don't have time to encourage composition or improvisation, let ear-training assignments fall by the wayside. Performance classes are focused on performance only--we stop doing important rhythm and movement activities, listening games, theory drills. I forget to ask maintenance questions about composers we have studied or pieces we have learned. I let sight-reading slip through the cracks.
There are music teachers who take this teaching to the test seriously and are remarkably good at it, their students winning competition after competition. Judging these events, I find myself wondering if these kids parading in front of me, performing their Rachmaninoff and Chopin, have any idea how to play anything but these single pieces. Are they learning to play the piano or learning to play just this music? Are we nurturing future lifelong musicians or simply training monkeys here? I am bothered by the evidence that indicates that many of these same teachers who produce competitions winners year after year, do not have the assumed high numbers of students who go on to become music majors or even continue music lessons in college. Producing professional musicians isn't my goal either, but I'd like evidence that there was some desire to make music in the future. I don't see these kids accompanying their high school choirs or their fellow students in solo and ensemble contests, the assumption being that they don't need the distraction from the more important business of their solo playing. I admire these teachers for the musicianship they get out of their students, but at the same time am not impressed by the lack of musicians they seem to be nurturing. Playing two or three show pieces a year is not the same thing as being a whole, integrated musician.
My favorite kind of teaching--and learning, for that matter--is spiral learning: where we encounter the same concepts again and again, just at higher and different altitudes. I am convinced this is how life works, but unfortunately, very little of our educational system is modeled on such a concept. We take World History as sophomores, US history as Juniors, heaven forbid that the two should ever cross. "Battle of Hastings: 1066," my husband and I reminded each other when we were visiting England several summers ago. "Now what in the world was the Battle of Hastings anyway?" Neither one of us, multiple degrees in hand, had any idea as we had only encountered this world event in one single class, in one isolated year, which now was decades ago.
Lately in my studio, we have been circling over old concepts and pieces, reviewing past literature, thinking about familiar ear tunes in new ways, with fresh harmonies or accompaniment figures, revisiting chord progressions with new assignments, figuring out what the perspective might be from a higher altitude and a deeper understanding. I love this kind of teaching, but I have to remind myself to do it--the push to the new, more challenging, more impressive is always strong. If we are to learn the piano well, and possess a thorough knowledge of how music is put together and shaped, then it must always be two steps forward, one step back. Circling and spiraling around our work.
Truth is, I need this kind of circling and spiraling around my life at large, picking up old good habits and behaviors, reminding myself of things that somehow got pushed into the back of my mind and routines. It is good for me to revisit old teaching pieces, or old literature I once played regularly, and to see it through a more current lens, just as it is good for me to clean out my bookcases and teaching files and to refresh my memory of that beloved book I want to reread, or an article that inspired me. Because I write nearly daily, I have dozens of old journals and forgotten essays, tangible evidence of the tracks of my thinking and my path. Returning to them I am reminded that this prickly issue in my life that I might be currently wrestling with is not a new one, but rather one that sneaks into my life every spring. We may gain perspective and altitude over time, but good and bad, lessons that life wants to teach us return again and again.
Or at least they should in an ideal learning situation. Which brings us back to the upcoming competition season. In their own way, these events are important to us--potentially for the student, and also for my professional reputation as well. In the best of worlds, I wouldn't have to give up the good solid progress that happens during the periods between contests and recitals. Instead, we could just benefit from the challenges these opportunities provide us, and still have time for all the important little things: creative thinking, theoretical understanding of what we are doing, strong technical work for the sake of technique alone, ear-training, listening. It's a hard sell though--for each of these things takes up time. And time is always in short supply. Instead, it becomes a balancing game, a careful trade of this for that, at least temporarily. None of this is bad, and indeed necessary, but should be approached with our eyes open and with a full grasp of what we are giving up, and what will need our attention once the recital is done and the competition winners are announced.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org