April 25th, 2010 :: Teaching Days
It is a sad commentary on my career that "Happy Birthday" is the most requested song I am ever asked to play. This fact only supports my theory that practical piano skills are a lot more useful in the real world than beautifully crafted performances of any Beethoven sonata. Or Chopin waltz. Or Bach prelude. Not that I am about to abandon that music, but it does give me perspective. I want my students to be able to play the glorious traditional repertoire of our instrument, but they better be able to play "Happy Birthday" on demand as well.
To this end, once students are comfortably playing two-hand accompaniment patterns in any key (chords in the RH; roots in the LH---usually just the standard I-IV-I-V-V7-I chord progression that makes up our lives), I start in on the Happy Birthday sequence. First the student picks out the melody beginning on C. Happy Birthday isn't the easiest song to pick out by ear, as many students discover. It has a range of an octave, with lots of skips and jumps. And then there is that tricky B-flat, which often throws a kid who might otherwise assume they are in the key of C. (Just because the piece began on C, doesn't mean it is in the key of C. This is a hard lesson to learn.) Once the student has found the tune, we write out the words and sketch in bar lines. What meter is this song? I ask them. Most students get it immediately, but again, because of the pickup notes, the words don't line up to the measures so kids who think about this too much sometimes mistakenly guess 4/4. I pencil in boxes on the first beats of each measure and ask them to find chords that fit. Only once, in all my years of teaching this, has a kid come back with this done correctly on the first try. The kids think they are being smart to match the melody note with the harmony, but Happy Birthday is harmonized against a lot of suspensions, which makes it tricky. Then there are the students that have already forgotten that they are in the key of F, and try to harmonize the song with chords in the key of C, which doesn't work too long. Happy Birthday, we painfully learn, is not so easy after all.
But in the end, with a big arpeggiated introduction, and a full 2-hand waltz pattern (no one needs the melody played, I tell students, it will sound bigger and "fancier"--they love anything "fancy"---if you play only harmony), the Happy Birthday assignment is always a hit. It stays on their practice assignments forever, and periodically I will ask for it, just to make sure it still is working. Students are happy to tell me anytime they are able to make use of this ability: Guess what? I got to play Happy Birthday at my friend's party on Saturday! and we often sing it together with someone playing it in our monthly performance classes, honoring whoever might have a birthday that month.
It was just such a moment that inspired our recent Chopin birthday party in my mid-high/high school class in February. In that class students have to come prepared with at least "5 Fun Facts" to share with the group about the composer or the piece they are performing, and in January several kids played and talked about Chopin. His 200th birthday, they realized, was in February. "Let's have a party!" suggested one enthusiastic high schooler. "We'll make cupcakes!"
I'm always up for cupcakes, not to mention anything that gets them looking forward to performance class with anticipation. To add to the fun, I invited the kids to bring their ipods and to be ready to play a song of their choice for the class. "It could be anything," I told them. "Bring your favorite song." "And 5 Fun Facts," another kid suggested, "Let's do 5 Fun Facts on our song for once."
So that month, after doing our customary scale spelling drills and performances of their prepared pieces, out came the cupcakes, the sparkling lemonade in wine glasses ("Wow. This is really fancy, Amy," one kid remarked.), and the ipods. For nearly an hour we sat around and ate and talked about popular music. "This was the BEST CLASS EVER," several kids told me the next week. They were right, I must confess, for not only were the cupcakes fantastic, but listening to the kids share music they love was something worth repeating. I want to cultivate this enthusiasm for music of all kinds, and this idea that a great evening can be had out of listening to music with friends. The original inspiration for the evening, Chopin's birthday, was a bit neglected I'm afraid, although surely he was there in spirit. I suspect a tradition has begun with that group, and that they will go to any ends to find composers' birthdays to celebrate every month, cupcakes and all.
April 18th, 2010 :: Recipes for Technique
I have long maintained that technique work does not merely foster physical coordination; it also encourages mental gymnastics. The more challenging the exercise, the more it seems to stretch brain muscles into new places and shapes. This mental engagement and challenge will certainly improve our playing, for it builds new connections among different parts of our brains. I tell my students over and over again that our job when practicing is to take the things we think we know so well—those 5-Finger Positions, chord progressions, and scales—and turn them upside down, inside out, shake them vigorously and rattle their cages. Only then can we claim to really know them.
All following variations require students to split their focus and do something different with each hand, a skill that is absolutely crucial to layering sounds, articulations, and voices, not to mention just playing the piano in general. I have found that the first pair of brainteasers comes together more quickly if we make lists of words and phrases to describe each hand. One hand is heavy like an elephant, the other light as a feather. One hand stomps loudly, the other tip-toes softly, and so on. Here is a place where language informs technique. These exercises do not just scramble the brain; we can employ them to think artistically as well.
I often have to assign the next examples repeatedly over a period of time before students can voice their hands differently. I have learned the hard way that these examples can't be assigned in the same week. It helps to start with "ghosting": asking one hand to mime silently on the keys, while the other hand plays forte, but even so, most students need to concentrate on ghosting a single hand before trying to switch to the other. And typically, if your students are anything like mine, they will whine about this one, "Miss Amy! This is soooooo hard!" Assume that these exercises are going inspire great drama and wailing and gnashing of teeth. But after they have mastered the ghosting with one hand while playing forte with the other, then try assigning piano against the forte. But beware: this is also rarely mastered the first time around and will inspire more whining. This skill of controlling a different dynamic in each hand has to be circled back to again and again as students progress.
59. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play LH forte, RH ghost
60. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play RH forte, LH ghost
61. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play RH piano, LH forte
62. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
play LH piano, RH forte
The next two variations really test how well students know the patterns in each position. I find it helps to identify “markers.” For example, in the first exercise, which sets up the positions a fifth apart, the thumbs both play the same note, regardless of how far apart the hands are spaced. As students move up by half-step through the keys, I urge them to move first the left hand and then match the right hand thumb to the left hand thumb. Likewise, in the second example, the fifth fingers match and can be used as a marker through the progression of the keys. If students need more challenge, you can assign various articulations and dynamics to each hand. Of course, all of these can be done in either major or minor positions.
63. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
RH begins in G major; LH begins in C major
64. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
RH begins in F major; LH begins in C major
April 11th, 2010 :: Extraordinary Days
We have been suspicious this winter that we might have mice. I shudder to even write that sentence, and lately with the weather beginning to warm up, I had been hopeful that our days of rodent cohabitation are over. In recent weeks the cats have not been spending long hours guarding the baseboards; there has been no tell-tell rodent evidence left behind for a while now. Things have been looking up.
Then, several weeks ago, Matt was out of town for a few days judging choirs in Las Cruces. When Matt is gone, the cats sleep with me, something Matt doesn't usually tolerate since sleeping with the cats means a fair amount of not sleeping at all, due to their antics. In the middle of the night, I wake up to hear a loud crash in the study. Godiva went flying off the bed in search of the party, which immediately told me this was not a break-in, but rather feline-initiated chaos. "Uh-oh," I thought to myself, "they are chasing something." And I promptly fall back asleep. The next morning I was stumbling around the house with my first cup of coffee (barefoot!), when I stepped on something squishy. It was a chewed up-mouse, just waiting for me on the rug under my desk. I screamed. Loudly. I screamed again. The cats looked alarmed, and Yun-Sun ran away guiltily. After I screamed some more, I scooped up the dead critter, (all the while thinking how very much it looked like the grey toy mice around here, only with blood and entrails hanging out), and resumed my morning routines. About an hour later, I went to the piano to begin my practicing for the day. Under my piano bench was another---another!!!--half-consumed mouse. This was unbelievable. The cats have lived quiet, sheltered (boring, they would tell you) lives for the last 5 years under our roof. Other than the annual trips to the vet, they have never even been outside. I would not have thought they would even know what to do with a mouse, let alone successfully murder two in one night. I will never be able to look at them the same way.
("Those blog entries just write themselves, don't they?" Matt said, when I called to tell him about our night of mayhem and carnage.)
Of course no one needs to remind me that this aggressive behavior is exactly what I had instructed them to do earlier this year when the mice first appeared. I just never dreamed they would take me so literally, or more to the point, leave their carcasses exactly where I would trip over them. "Yep, that's what cats do," a friend tells me later when I share my horror. "They leave them as trophies where they know you'll find them." "Could they have possibly picked better spots?" Matt remarks. "Your desk and your piano. They've got your number, Amy."
But I am still traumatized by the whole thing. I can't sit by and do nothing and hope that this is a one-time only killing spree. "What do I do now?" I ask another friend. "Nothing," she replies. "Your cats are doing just fine. They are taking care of business for you."
Now every morning, I put on slippers as I get out of bed and cautiously search the house for any dead rodents. My cats have never looked so well fed.
April 4th, 2010 :: Reading Days
That's a Take
"Amy," my true love used to say, "I am marrying you because Ella is unavailable."
She's just finished mourning for us all
the fact that spring is here
above the buzz and clatter of this crowded cafe
where I have stopped reading the paper
because it's impolite to do anything
while Ella Fitzgerald is singing.
And in the pause that follows, I imagine her
turning away from the bright, entranced
face of the microphone,
kidding with the sound technicians
while putting on her hat and a pale green sweater
before she steps out of the studio
and into a spring day as it played out
in 1951, the year I was born,
stopping on the way home at a little deli
to pick up something for supper,
turning words like macaroni
and potato salad
into tiny American songs
for the pimply kid behind the counter
who thinks nothing of it,
who has his own problems,
who bears his own secret beauty through the world.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org