I came home from our recent trip to Texas with three takeaways:

  1. OMG! The humidity.
  2. OMG! The traffic.
  3. OMG! The unchecked, unbridled, uniform, materialistic, rampant, overwhelming, mind-blowing, cheap, conspicuous consumerism.

The first two hardly need unpacking other than to say stepping out of the airport in Dallas was like walking into a sponge. A really wet sponge. And then there was the traffic, which caused me to wonder why everyone in Houston isn’t dead of a stressed-induced heart attack by 40.

The third might be a result of living too long in the desert, where the severe emptiness of the landscape has a way of cleansing one’s mind and values, but it was after we passed the 25th Home Depot in about 15 minutes that started me thinking. Texas cities, or so it seems, are just a repeating pattern of Home Depot, World Market, Lowes, Pier One and Chili’s. “We can’t possibly need this much stuff,” I grumbled to Matt.

But apparently somebody thinks we do. The logic of Texas city planners aside, these days much of our culture is built on the value of “more.” More stuff, more activities, more busyness, more achievements. I can fall blindly into this kind of skewed belief system just as easily as the next person, which is yet another reason it is a good idea to intentionally infuse a bit of austerity in one’s practices every once in a while. In other words, time to revisit my best friend Lora’s theory about 15 Outfits.

15 Outfits, if you remember, is Lora’s assertion that no one needs more than 15 Outfits in one’s wardrobe. This is tough love for sure, but over and over again I have found that the more I have, the more I think I need. The less I have, the less I want, and the less I find myself grasping for that thing, item, achievement, goal, just out of reach.

Right now I am reading Fasting and Feasting by Adam Federman. It is a biography about the English artist and food writer Patricia Gray, who died in 2005. Gray was an early proponent of the self-sufficient, simple life. Although she lived decades before any talk of climate change, she believed that the conspicuous consumption of modern life would be our undoing. In 1972 she wrote, “I feel we must have fewer and fewer things.”

Reading this last week over my morning coffee, I paused. It was so direct, and so simple.

And so, reeling from the sheer more-ness of Texas, I decided to put Lora’s 15 Outfits and Gray’s austere worldview to the test in the studio once again. In the past, we have considered 15 Outfits in regards to Practice Techniques and Scale Practices, but what about applying 15 Outfits to the tools, resources and pure pedagogical stuff I depend upon every day? Can I, indeed, teach well with fewer and fewer things?

Yes. Turns out that this is not only possible, it is rather liberating. Limiting my studio tools and materials to 15 Outfits takes discipline, but it forces me to be more resourceful. It also focuses our work in the lesson, narrowing down our attention to the practices of becoming musicians rather than getting distracted by the novel, however entertaining that toy, game or gimmick might be.

Here are my 15 Essential Studio Outfits. (Yes, I cheated a bit. Sometimes there are two items of the same category under one number. Kind of like how two shoes make one pair.)

 

  1. Name That Tune List

This would include not only the digital Spotify playlist, but also the postcards on which I have written the names of the composers and pieces from our tune list for matching and identification games.

 

  1. Note Flashcards and Interval Flashcards

Beginner students in my studio always practice with Note Flashcards until they can accurately play 30 cards in under a minute. Yep. That’s fast. That’s the point. I especially like Bastien note flashcards.

Interval Flashcards are my invention. The concept is very basic: on each card I have one half of the grand staff—five lines, four spaces—on which I have drawn two notes. The student must identify—and then play—the interval on the card. Easy peasy, as the kids say.

The brilliance is that none of the cards include a treble or a bass clef, just two random notes. The absence of the clefs serves two functions: it freaks the students out—fun!—and I can use every card four different ways. Each card can be used to identify both treble and bass clef notes and then turned upside down, can be used again. It’s brilliant really, and so, so resourceful. Kind of like a reversible item of clothing.

 

  1. Get Ready for Major and Minor Scale Duets!

These two books by Wynn-Anne Rossi and Victoria McArthur make scale playing inspired. There’s a particular pattern for the primo scale part—one octave of quarter notes followed by two octaves of eighth notes—but once the student knows the pattern, there’s a fantastic duet that can be played with every major and harmonic minor scale. I use these books almost every day.

 

  1. E-Z Note Blocks

These wooden blocks are designed by Lucy Chu. In much the same way the Montessori educational system uses blocks and counting beads to teach math, with these seven blocks students can spell Five-Finger Positions, Scales, Chords and so on. So much more engaging and literally hands-on than a theory workbook.

 

  1. Composition Title Bowl

We use this bowl every week to draw out new titles for composition assignments. Recently, we emptied the bowl completely and started over with each student contributing five original titles. These new titles provoke a lot of conversation and speculation about who might have come up with that one. (Some examples: A Few Grapes. A Very Rusty Water Bottle. Mount Everest. Full Moon. Spinning in a Chair.) I love this kind of student chatter because it is yet one more form of connection and community building among the kids.

 

  1. Chip Bowl

This is a bowl of poker chips with note names written on each one: i.e. C-sharp, F, G-flat, etc. We reach into this bowl repeatedly in every lesson to draw keys for transposing ear tunes, or scales, or chord progressions, or whatever. The Chip Bowl takes the blame off me. If the student draws B-flat for their harmonic minor scale it isn’t my fault.

 

  1. Dictionary of Musical Terms and The Oxford Dictionary of Music

I know, I know, we could just use our phones to look things up. But when I read this suggestion recently in a pedagogical journal as a way to engage teenagers in music lessons, I cringed. None of us need more screen time. And looking up a musical term on a phone isn’t going to suddenly make a student more excited about piano. However, the sudden distraction of seeing five new texts and three missed calls when we pick up our phones is reason enough to reach instead for an old-school book.

 

  1. Balls and Beanbags for Rhythmic Work

I have a bowl of small balls and beanbags that we use to pass beats and rhythms à la Eurhythmics in both lessons and performance classes. My youngest students like nothing better than when I say, “Ok, go pick a ball…”

 

  1. Rhythm Flashcards

Like the Interval Flashcards, these are handmade cards with various rhythm patterns written on each one. We use Rhythm Flashcards for improvisation games on the piano. We use them for rhythm drills. They are perhaps not as brilliant as the Interval Flashcards in design, but super important nevertheless.

 

  1. Grand Staff Magnetic Board

Lots of companies make these sorts of magnetic boards. Over the years I have acquired versions of various size, but inspired by Grey, recently I have given all but one away. I couldn’t imagine teaching beginner piano lessons without this handy board, however. Like the E-Z Blocks, it is yet another very physical way to work with lines and spaces, notes, intervals, and so on.

 

  1. My Trusty Notebook of Rote Pieces

I have three new “little ones” this summer, “little ones” being what the older kids call all small children in the studio. Little ones require a lot of rote pieces. This spring I sorted through my rote notebook and tossed almost half the pieces, keeping only the most tried and true ones. Now there are fewer options for sure, but this means that all little ones get to know the same repertoire of pieces. “Wait! Is this the piece so and so played?” a kid often asks. It might be a bit repetitive from a pedagogical point of view, but it’s another great way for the students to take an interest in one another and the work they have in common.

 

  1. Postcards: Musical Questions and Shapes

These are two different categories really. The Questions cards include things like: How many keys on the piano? What are the four musical periods in order? What is a 2ndbelow X? Spell a V chord in X . . . We use these cards a lot in performance classes.

The Shape cards are inspired by Jean Stackhouse. Years ago, I audited her piano pedagogy class at New England Conservatory and in a session on teaching beginners she offered this suggestion for improvisation: draw a random shape or series of shapes. Ask the student to “play” the shapes on the piano. Let me tell you: Kids love this. They love it so much that I now have a set of shape cards that we use regularly for this very purpose. There are lots of variations to work with here. In a group class, you can ask one student to play a (very!) short musical gesture, riff, or lick on the piano while the other students draw the musical shape. Or you can spread out a number of shape cards and ask a student to pick one to play. The other students then try to guess which card was played. All this good, creative fun can be sort of a gateway to more focused compositional or improvisational work later.

 

  1. The Sight-Reading Library

I have some 500 books in the SR library. This, I realize, is more than 15.

 

  1. Star Stickers

Using rewards of any kind is tricky business. But experts agree that rewards are most effective if they are random and unexpected. To that end, I have tiny star stickers that were probably invented in 1950 (You can probably imagine them from your days in first grade: They are shiny and come in red, green, blue, silver and gold.). 500 stickers cost about two cents. Seriously.

I hardly ever bring out the star stickers for young students, because there are no students more enthusiastic about piano than the little ones. Furthermore, evidence shows that introducing rewards into activities early on diminishes long-term intrinsic motivation, which is something we want to cultivate, not discourage. However, when a high school kid plays a beautiful Chopin Nocturne or when a twelve-year-old needs a little bribe, I’m all about the star stickers.

 

  1. Finally, My Teaching-Notes Book

This is my notebook of 15 Outfits in every possible musical and pedagogical variation. I make notes about new ideas for performance classes, new strategies for scale practice, concepts for beginners, lists of ear tunes. I would grab this notebook first if there were ever a fire in the studio.

 

“I feel we must have fewer and fewer things,” Gray wrote nearly fifty years ago. There are probably at least 15 compelling environmental, cultural, ethical and philosophical reasons why we should consider this as a life practice today. But in the studio here’s a simple one: Having fewer distractions makes me a more creative and attentive teacher.

That’s enough take-away for me.