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Archive for August, 2008

What is talent? Do people have a talent gene? My response is no; people can acquire talent without inheriting it.

As you well know from my blogs, I am a music teacher and the only person in my family tree who plays an instrument. My dad likes to sing and might have shown promise if he’d been trained, but, for now, karaoke is about his only option.

I married into a family of musicians. My husband and his brothers are all trained musicians, his mother has a degree in music education and his father is a doctor of music and a composer. Which leads up to ….. our children and the point of this blog!

During the time we were raising our children, I taught piano lessons. It was a way to stay home with a modest income while my husband was teaching music at school and gigging on the side. Our piano is, unfortunately, situated in the middle of our home so although my family avoided traffic in that direction when I was teaching, the sound permeated and often the kids would sit on the steps to listen. Little did I realize how much of that teaching was seeping into my children’s brains. Not only were they listening to the music, but they were absorbing the instruction as well. They noticed the praise I gave to each student, they felt the excitement generated during the lesson, they observed the corrections made to each phrase of music. They felt the pride within each student.

With both my husband and me being involved in music, concerts were a frequent family outing. I would take them to school to watch their daddy conduct, they would attend group lessons and recitals of my students, we would go to the symphony, musical theatre, and opera productions.

By the time my oldest was 3 years old, she begged to be a piano student. At that point, I had absolutely NO intention of having my kids be music students. We did so much music between my husband and myself that I was ready to get the kids in sports instead for variety. So I put my daughter’s wishes off for a year, but she remained persistent. When she turned four, I caved and found her a Suzuki piano teacher. Low and behold, she finished book one Suzuki in one year. I then realized what I had to do. I became a devoted Suzuki mom and piano practice became part of our daily routine. During the next four years I began to notice her love of music and the external benefits from the lessons. At that point, we started our son on Suzuki violin.

Fourteen years later……….

Our daughter is a music minor at university (languages as a major) and our son won a music scholarship upon high school graduation (however, he’s going to major in languages too) And yes, they both played varsity sports.

My point…………….

Many times when people heard our children perform they would say, “of course they play well; it’s in the genes”. This made me sooooo annoyed! My children were talented because: 1. they practiced daily 2. Dedication to music was modeled 3. They were immersed in a musical environment 4. We found the best teachers in our geographic area 5. We, as parents, supported their efforts.

It was their effort and our consistency that proved to be the winning equation. As a teacher, I truly believe in talent education. ANY person can learn and become talented given the opportunity. Believing, nurturing, and respecting the child is all it takes.

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Although I have been writing about piano this month, when I am away from the computer, my brain is preparing for school. There is something about mid-August that draws me to my classroom. It doesn’t happen at all in July. Maybe it’s the August weather, a bit of crispness in the air. So, I have spent the last 3 days in my classroom getting ready for the new year (Can you tell, I am an elementary teacher?). I don’t think other teachers get this corny!

I really do love getting ready for the big first day. Everything is clean, neat, not broken yet. The pencils are sharpened and I have a fresh calendar on my desk. Sitting on the shelf are the new supplies I’ve ordered. I am like a little kid at Christmas when these come in. I read through the new material while my brain explodes with new ideas, ways to incorporate the new story or song.

I stand and look around the room periodically just imagining the children entering, at play, needing a tissue, getting more familiar with their classmates and me as the year goes on. I imagine how the students I’ve taught before have grown and oh, those new little kindergarten babies! So timid or extroverted their first time, hardly any in between. How naive! Their shoes are shiny since they were purchased for this special day. Their clothes are spotless and often a little too big so that the child can grow into them. And the back packs, mostly empty and bigger than the little back that carries them.

Although I have been teaching forever, I always feel a wave of excitement this time of year. I still feel the apprehension. Will the kids like me? Will I be effective? Will I make a difference in their lives? Will I be able to make them smile or be able to make them laugh? Wow! What a tall order!

So, for now, I go to my classroom and imagine.

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Oh, the pain of practicing! I am always surprised when I hear of people who enjoy it. Ok- I’ll admit it; I do enjoy practicing once I get to the piano. But getting there is somewhat a challenge. I can always find a million other things to do instead.

I was one of these kids who asked my mother weekly if I could quit piano lessons. I also took dancing lessons and truly loved it. I loved to sing too. So I didn’t feel I was giving up music- I just wanted to give up on the piano. ( If you’ve read my earlier blogs, you already know why) But her answer was always the same, “No. I quit when I was young and I regretted it. So you keep working and someday you will be able to just sit and play for fun.” She was right; I have never heard an adult say that they were glad they quit music lessons.

So, I kept playing and kept asking to quit. Needless to say, everyone was shocked when I went to college for music education. (Remember, I said I did like music; I just hated to practice) Even in college I would come home on breaks and cry to my mother that I wanted to quit. At that point though, the choice was up to me and she just listened. At graduation from college I vividly remember walking up to the stage to receive my “bachelor’s of music education” diploma and thinking, “I never have to practice again!”.

There you have it! I am now a public school music teacher and a piano teacher. And, with a smile, I am asking my students to practice every day. I tell my students my story and they laugh just thinking that I know how they feel sometimes.

When should a student quit lessons? The answer is never. I truly believe kids need music lessons (once again, read my other blogs to find out why). But I also truly believe that it is the teacher and parent’s job to make the lessons and practices positive, creative, and fun. It is the teacher and parents job to encourage without forcing, celebrate their efforts, and share the learning process so that the child does not feel the burden on his shoulders. Children learn best in a loving environment.

As our children were growing up we told them they had 3 daily responsibilities: brush your teeth, make your bed, practice. When should children be allowed to quit? Now that I am an adult the answer has become “never”.

p.s. Do I practice? The answer is ‘yes’…….. sometimes!

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As I wrote earlier, group lessons are a great way to have kids interact, to teach theory, history, and more.

Parents stay during the group and I include them in activities at times. But the most memorable group lesson of all was the year I had “Fathers Night”. It was the first lesson of the season. So instead of putting the pressure on the kids to perform, I put the pressure on the dads. When I sent out the paperwork about piano that year I added a note saying that at the first group lesson the children would not have to perform, but the father’s would have to perform. It could be any kind of performance since many did not have a music background.

Luckily, the fathers took it in good stride and came prepared. To all of our surprise, not one father declined the invitation. In fact, they all rose to the occasion and got thunderous applause. One father practiced “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” so that it was memorized. He wanted to impress his family. However, when he got to the piano, he completely blanked out and couldn’t even begin the piece. One of the little ones passed along her music to him and he played through it just fine.

Another father proudly stood up and announced, “I will be playing Honey Bee H.T.” (H.T. stands for hands together as stated in a previous blog.) Honey Bee is one of the most simplistic pieces in the Suzuki book one where the hands play the same thing an octave apart. But he was sweating through it and was very proud when he finished.

Another dad recited ” The Jaberwalkies” from Alice in Wonderland. Another dad who cannot read a note of music but plays by ear, performed a piece he had written. And so went the night. After the performance the dads and kids had a great discussion about how it felt to perform. The dads had a great realization for what their kids go through when they perform. It gave them hands on insight and they admired their children for doing it. In the end, the dads were complimenting their kids for learning piano.

Everyone had so much fun (especially the wives who were almost brought to tears by their laughter). So….

the following year our first group lesson was “Mother’s Night”!

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I think piano people are the only ones who would know the abbreviation H.S. My piano teacher wrote it in my lesson book every week. For those non-piano players, H.S. means hands separate.

Playing hands separate is a valuable exercise that should be emphasized in practicing. I went to a music conference and the clinician asked the teacher audience, “When is it time to stop practicing hands separate?” His answer was, “never”. Although it may seem redundant and boring to practice this way, it has great value.

Mostly, it keeps the brain engaged. It helps to memorize each hand and really know the part, which makes playing H.T. (hands together) so much easier. It is easier to see patterns that the left hand may have, gives each hand a chance to incorporate dynamics and to become competent in tricky passages. Because the left hand is often the accompaniment, it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. By plying H.S. one can begin to hear voicing and it makes the harmony more melodic. I like to tell my students that they should be able to sing the left hand as they are laying in bed. I also ask the student to practice the left hand with the pedaling. Layering the tasks proves to be successful.

Playing Bach or Baroque music in general, H.S. playing is very important. I have my students memorize each hand before attempting to play the piece H.T. By doing so, the learning curve is streamlined. I encourage playing hands separately in trouble spots and at all stages of learning a piece.

On the day of a performance, I recommend playing H.S. If each hand knows what it’s doing independently, when the hands play together, the performance will be more secure.

In conclusion, practicing a piece H.S. is important to learning and maintaining the quality of a piece. In doing so, a student will have the world of music at their fingertips!

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With computer technology, anything is possible. I am a piano teacher in NY and with the help of skype and webcams I am able to teach a lesson to anyone in the world. I have a masters in music education/piano pedagogy. I teach public school music and also at the Kingston Suzuki Institute in Canada. I have been a guest clinician in studios and schools in New Zealand. Click on “Virtual Piano Lessons” (on my side tool bar under ‘pages’) to find out how to get a lesson. It’s as easy as buying something from e-bay only with a real live certified teacher. Fun for all ages and abilities anywhere in the world.

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One of the disadvantages of taking piano lessons is that the student has little, if any, interaction with other kids. In band or orchestra the student has private lessons and may prepare solo repertoire, but then he shares his talent with others in a band or orchestra rehearsal and performance. To make music more fun for the piano student, group lessons are a great idea.

There are many options when getting the kids together for a group lesson. In Suzuki training, group lessons are encouraged once each month. During the lesson, theory, history, ear training and more are taught through games. It is such a wonderful way to get the kids away from sitting at the piano and interacting with other kids. It is also a way of reinforcing skills taught during lessons in a playful setting.

Generally, I chose a topic and create a game to teach the concept. Games such as rhythmic bingo, melodic relays, brief composer lessons, or games in keeping a steady beat are used in a 45 minute lesson. Each lesson also includes performance. Each student plays a piece that is, for the most part, polished. In doing so, kids get used to performing which takes the fear to a minimum. The student also gets to hear other pieces that may inspire him to play. It is a great way to become familiar with different types of music. The young children aspire to play as well as the advanced and the advanced student appreciates from whence he came when hearing the little ones perform.

Parents attend the groups as well. I sometimes ask the parents to join in as helpers, or as participants. They love being included and it gives the kids the message that music is a family supported activity. How wonderful it is to see the kids laughing, playing, and enjoying music. Nothing stuffy about it!

Group lessons build comradery. Friendships grow between students and parents through group lessons. Not only do kids get the message that music is a family activity but they find others that share their interest in a safe, loving environment.

Games are a great way to learn. So….. play games with kids. The kids will learn and the adults will get the chance to feel young again.

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