August 30th, 2008 :: Recipes for Technique
For many students, learning an
instrument requires skills, behaviors, and thought processes like no other
activity. It requires intense listening, something not usually required
in our noise-polluted world. It requires great concentration, a skill not
often tested in a society of 22-second commercials and 30-minute sitcoms.
It requires a great amount of discipline and engagement from the very first
lesson, which can be very challenging in a world where we prize convenience,
speed, and the technology that makes our lives easier. In an
internet-fueled society, where everything is available at the touch of a
button, we do not value highly skills that take months to acquire, or music
that may take us a lifetime to learn.
Because of this, it is crucial that we
teachers work to engage our students’ minds and concentrations as deeply as
possible. We must demonstrate through our own actions and behaviors, that
the skill of playing the piano demands not only the students’ complete
attention, but ours as well. We must show that, even though we may
be teaching the 45th lesson of the week, we aren’t phoning it in. For two
years, young Auden wailed at me every Friday night at 5:30 when he arrived at
his piano lesson, “But Miss Amy, I am sooooo tired.” At that point I had
already taught 40 lessons that week. “What number lesson are you?”
I would ask him. “Number 41,” he would reply, “just like the Mozart
symphonies.” “Exactly, kid. I am tired, too. We can do this
I tell parents that the most important skill
needed to be a pianist is not talent, but the ability to practice
constructively and faithfully day after day. It is this skill that we
must teach and teach and teach again. After a lifetime of practicing, I
know that practicing can be tedious and boring, or it can be engaging and
fun. If we can teach engaged practicing even with the very youngest
child, from the very first lesson, then we can set students on a lifetime of
active practicing and music making.
There are a million ways this can be done.
But technique work, which has often been considered to be brainless exercises
and necessary but boring drudgery, can be a perfect place to teach active
learning and thinking. Instead of assigning or practicing the same old thing
week after week, we constantly should be changing things in some small or great
fashion. Students may be working with five-finger positions for six
months, but they should never play them the same way two weeks in a
row. Even in the beginning stages, when students are struggling to
learn the positions, the assignments can be altered. They can be
played piano one week, forte the next.
Still better, students can alternate playing every other position forte then piano to
really shake things up and get their minds and ears working.
My challenge to myself in my own practicing and
my teaching is never to do the same thing two days or two lessons in a
row. I try to practice differently every day, and no matter how badly the
student may be playing, I never assign the same thing to be practiced the same
mindless way. “Do this again,” isn’t in my repertoire of teaching
phrases. Instead, I might assign five-finger patterns to be hands alone
with left hand legato and forte and right hand piano and staccato,
even if they have been playing them successfully hands together. Or I
might rewrite the solfege pattern, but leave the musical concept of crescendos
and decrescendos in place. My hope is that giving such deliberate
technique assignments from week to week might produce deliberate and equally
thought-provoking practicing of repertoire.
All of the previous variations I have offered in Recipes for Technique were written to be
played in parallel motion. The next ones introduce contrary motion in two
ways. Contrary direction is often easier and more natural for students to
play physically; however, negotiating the note patterns of all twelve positions
makes contrary direction more challenging for the brain. Because of this, I always assign students to start by playing Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do in parallel motion to "set-up" their hands. Add different
dynamics and articulations as you desire.
22. Play starting on thumbs in BH: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1
23. Play starting on finger 5 in BH: 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5
August 22nd, 2008 :: Extraordinary Days
Recently I was standing in my
kitchen studying a recipe for pizza dough when lightning struck the
70-foot elm tree outside our front courtyard.
I had been meaning to tackle pizzas
for months--going so far as to even write on my summer wish list "learn to make tarts and pizzas". But it has been an
unusual summer. I'm sure this is a character flaw of some
kind, but I tend to develop one great friend from each area or era of my
life going all the way back to high school:
There's Lisa, my
"twiend," separated-at-birth, best friend from high
school. When we were sixteen, we looked so much alike that people could
confuse us. I look back on blurry photos taken from those
years and can't tell who is who. Even now, 20 years later, we
look more alike than not, passing easily as sisters if not twins.
Julianne remains my closest friend from my three semesters at
Trinity University. She lives outside Dallas and still manages
to call several times a month, even while working full-time and
raising three kids.
Missy is my best friend from Mizzou. We
studied with the same teacher, and both practiced too much. We
should have been having more fun; we know that now. She
teaches piano and raises three kids in Springfield, Mo. For my
30th birthday, Matt surprised me by flying Missy to Boston to visit.
She arrived the day we moved into the smallest apartment
imaginable on Beacon Hill. I will always owe her for the days
she spent scrubbing and cleaning and unpacking with me in a horrible
Julia is a soul-mate that I discovered within weeks
of moving to Albuquerque. She had grown up here and was back
for a year of intensive study in flamenco dancing. We became
fast friends and met weekly for coffee. She left the next
summer, but I was in her wedding two years later. This summer
she has been living in Santa Fe, while her husband coaches at SF
Lora is my best friend from Boston, now living around the corner, much to my constant surprise and amazement. She is now my weekly hiking partner, and my permanent cat and plant sitter. She is always up for a drink, an emergency shopping trip, or a day in Santa Fe.
Anne is my
newest dear friend. She's a terrific pianist and a favorite
musical partner. She teaches piano, and raises three brilliant
boys--the oldest, Simon, is in my studio. She and I suffer from the same trait of always juggling ten things at once. Just yesterday, we had an hour to do a rehearsal of a four-hand piece we are performing in a couple of weeks, and it took 50 of those minutes to simply get up to date on one another's life. That left 10 minutes for practicing, which is not setting a good example for our students.
Never have the stars aligned so that
I had multiple best friends in the same place at the same time. But
this summer, it happened. Lora had moved here; Julia was living
nearby; Anne was five minutes away. Thinking tarts sounded
easier than pizza, I started there and in June hosted a dinner.
"Come to Girls' Night with Tarts" (I mean that EXACTLY like it sounds. Tarts, as in the pastry thing.) I invited Julia,
Lora, and Anne. "You making tarts. Now THAT is
something I can get behind," Anne responded enthusiastically.
The tarts were pretty decent. I
made a savory mushroom tart with a corn meal crust. A tomato,
mozzarella, basil tart and a fruit tart for dessert. We drank Campari with soda in the garden, opened a bottle of wine with
dinner, sauteed green beans in butter, nibbled on cheese and olives.
It was a good night.
If only life wasn't so busy. I
thought the summer would be full of such evenings. But alas!
My regular life of teaching and performing got in the way.
Lora, Julia and I went to see "Sex and the City" one
afternoon. There was the "ladies hike" with Anne and
Lora, and a day puttering around Santa Fe with Julia. Various
spontaneous drinks, dinners and walks in the neighborhood with Lora.
I have hardly seen Anne, except for quick drop-offs for
Simon's piano lessons.
But back to the "learn to make
tarts AND pizzas" goal, which I was determined to see through.
Tarts weren't exactly easy, I discovered. Would pizzas be
harder? After all, there was yeast involved in pizza crusts,
something I generally try to avoid. But here I was standing in
the kitchen trying to figure out the pizza crust recipe when the
loudest thunder I have ever heard exploded around me.
wasn't immediately aware of what just happened. I glanced out
the window to see dozens of birds taking flight. The air
looked, well, struck, for lack of a better word. The
cats streaked by me in panic. At that moment, I realized with alarm,
my beloved husband was sitting in a bathtub full of water, perhaps
having just been electrocuted. I called out, "Matt.
MATT!" "Yeah," he answered casually, "that
On closer inspection, it wasn't just
loud. The lightning had struck our huge old tree down the
middle. It had also (pierced? burned? what would be the correct verb here?) a hole right through the strawbale wall in our front courtyard. Smoke was pouring out of the hole in the wall; limbs, leaves and bits of wood were
everywhere. Neighbors whom I had never met began spilling out of
their houses to examine the damage. Cars slowed down, one man
claiming he had seen it from down the street. A guy living
across the street came to gawk. I have seen him around, said hello to him when we passed on the sidewalk. But as we were standing there
staring at the wreckage, I realized that I had either been struck by
lightning myself and was seeing double, or this young man has an identical
twin standing next to him. I have been greeting one or the
other of them for years now, not realizing there were two of them.
It was a surreal moment.
They say that lightning only strikes
once, and probably never again will I have so many good friends
living nearby. But given this fact, I wasn't about to let this
year's birthday celebration go ignored. After the last
performance of the summer, we invited a group of friends over for
ice cream cake and champagne, new friends and old rubbing shoulders
for a few hours. At the last minute, our dear friends from
Texas, Mary and Glenn, came, which was more icing on the cake
than any birthday girl deserves. Anne and
Dan, the die-hards who are always ready to finish the last bottle of champagne after every party, stayed late enough to eat eggs with us at 1am, . The evening was one of those strange slices of life,
friends gathered from different periods. It happens at
weddings, when most of us can't appreciate it (In our case, Matt and I were too young to have collected the treasures of friends we have
now). Lora said later that she could only imagine such a
gathering of her friends at her funeral. What a gift to be
around to enjoy it.
Lightning only strikes once. And
that pizza? Amazing.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com