Posts Tagged ‘music lessons’

“Breaking up is hard to do”.  There are many ways we “break up” with people: a romantic relation gone awry, close friends moving mile apart, saying “see you later” to parents when leaving to go to college, and saying goodbye to friends when leaving college after a degree has been achieved.

As a piano teacher I might say goodbye to a student when he decides to quit lessons, or  fire a student for not meeting expectations.  But I am approaching that  bitter/sweet situation where it might be time for a student to move on to another teacher to further his music potential.  When exactly is it time to say goodbye to a student?

Students come and go.  Most are of average ability, interest, and dedication.  But once in a while a teacher is blessed with someone who is extraordinary.  That is the gift  in which I have been blessed with my student “O” (o for outstanding).  O came to me because he decided he wanted to go into music to be a band teacher and thought having a piano background was a good idea.  In the very short time we have been together he has soared.  Now a sophomore in high school, his ability could competitively get him into university as a piano major.  He is completely delightful!  He incorporates new ideas easily, takes instruction seriously and practices so much that his mother has to tell him to stop and do other things.  He has a great sense of humor and a loving manner.  Basically, he is any teacher’s dream.

O has 3 more years of high school and will definitely go to college for music.  As much as I would like to be selfish and teach him until college,  there is part of me that knows he should now study with a preparatory teacher such as a university professor or professional performer.  So when is it a good time to “fire” a good student?

We have so much fun together during lessons.  Even so, I know as a teacher I have to do what is best for the student.  I have talked with O and his family about moving on.  When I first bought up the idea of O finding another teacher he and his family were adamant; they did not want to leave my studio.  A year later, I brought up the topic again. They are now understanding and listening. After doing some master classes with other teachers, O’s parents are beginning to see my point . But O does not want to go to another teacher quite yet. As a compromise, we have decided to take small steps in that direction.  For this year we are going to try a cooperative method.  O will still come for lessons weekly with me but will also take a lesson or two per month with a university teacher.  The other teacher and I have conversed and worked out a few details.  Everyone is on board to make this experience the best we are able for O.  We enter the year with respect for each other, keeping O’s best interest in the foreground.  O has agreed to the the idea but firmly states that he will stay in my studio until graduation from high school (In fact, he also said he would rather quit piano than change teachers.  haha)

It’s hard to say goodbye to a good student.  I guess it’s hard for a student to say good bye to a teacher as well.  I know that at some point O will be saying goodbye to me because he will see that the new teacher has much to offer .  To be honest,  I will be sad when this happens.  But I will also be gratified in knowing I gave it my all and sent a student soaring to reach higher goals. Once again my thesis holds true.  Piano lessons are much more than music.


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With great sadness I write that the Suzuki institute in Kingston, Ontario Canada has come to a close.  For over 30 years it has provided children and their families a loving, caring haven where students, teachers and parents shared music and much, much more.

I received a letter and phone call with the news about 3 months ago.  Although I saw it coming, I did not want to believe.  I called one of my colleagues to commiserate but other than that, I could not talk or write about it.  Within the week letters from the other teachers started pouring in.  I even got 2 calls from families I had taught asking if it was really true.  Still, I was in denial .  I really expected a phone call saying that a savior had been found and the institute would continue.  But as hard as it was, I knew it was time.

Thanks to two extraordinary faculty members and many other volunteers, the institute pulled off a successful program last summer following the retirement of Carole Bigler and Valery Lloyd Watts.  Carole and Valery, the founders all those years back created a unique experience for families who attended.  Each teacher, hand picked from all over the U.S. and Canada,  created a diverse, cohesive curriculum bringing each child the best of the best.  We shared a common philosophy of education.  In all the places I have taught  I have never experienced the level of respect nor mastery as I had with this faculty.  I often joked that it was the Brigadoon of education.

In many ways  the institute formed who I am as a teacher and continues to remind me of who I want to be as a human being.  Obviously, our goal was to share music.  But what made the experience unique was that an even larger goal was to share love.  The success was that simple.  Each teacher demonstrated unbridled enthusiasm in and out of class.  Hugs to parents and children were constant.  Each lesson was steeped with creativity and laughter.  And as a faculty, we viewed each other’s talents in awe.  We worked together and played together and loved every minute.  The aura was contagious.  The children and families showed respect to each other, worked hard and applauded each other’s accomplishments.

Many educators and students never have such an opportunity.  I consider myself blessed.  To those who have attended the Kingston institute, I am sure you share my sentiments.  I will cherish the memories all my life.  I will also aim to be the best teacher I can possibly be.  Even more than that, I hope to aim to be the best person I can be in life.  So often when situations arise I think of what my colleagues would do.

All good things must come to and end.  This is a very sad ending.  But the faculty, families and memories will always have a special place in my heart.

What next?  I sincerely hope that the children who attended the institute will find other venues and continue in their musical journey.  As for me, I will continue to work hard for the children in my elementary school and my private piano studio.  I hope that I will be invited as a clinician for other institutes ( I will be in Virginia in March).  As for my colleagues, please know how much I value you.  May our paths cross again…

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When it rains it pours!  Lately I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed with teaching:  my daily school job, my  piano teaching, my high school jazz choir, concerts, group piano nights, report cards.  Luckily, April break was the light at the end of the tunnel.

So on this one day, I decided to leave earlier than usual for school (since I’d been awake since 3:00 A.M. anyway) to get some serious work done.  I was in the groove and the phone rings.  It was from a mom who’s child I had taught last summer at the Kingston Suzuki Institute.  After helping to jog my memory as to who she was, she explained that she and her children would be in the area and could they come visit.  Without missing a beat, I invited them to come and participate during my fourth grade class.  As I hung up, I thought, “I have to be crazy!  I am so swamped right now and I just added to the list!”.

My lesson ended up being great.  Right on time the mom entered with her 3 children.  I invited the middle child to play piano for the class.  No one in this particular class took piano lessons and they were in awe.  They asked him questions afterward to find out how he could play so well.  I then invited his older sister to play who was into improvisation.  She was mostly improvising on a pentatonic scale, so I popped in my students to join her.  Everyone thought it was very cool.  My students learned the meaning of improvisation and had these real musicians to look up to.  After that, I did a recorder lesson and we invited our visitors to join us.  It was all great fun!

My spontaneity proved to be a great lesson much beyond music.  The lesson it taught me was to always make time for others.  In real life it is easy to get caught up with the daily stuff and avoid going out of the way for others.  It would have been very easy to just explain that I was teaching and unable to meet with this lovely family.  But being a teacher at the Kingston institute has taught me to go out of my way for others.  The faculty at the institute is not only talented  but so absolutely giving of themselves that it’s easy to step into that mode.  I always think of it like being in Brigadoon.  We work together, respect each other, love each other and that’s it.  So when this mom called me, I automatically stepped into my Kingston personality.  (I try hard to have the “Kingston personality” all year, but in the real world it’s not always easy.)

This week I received a wonderful thank you note from the family; they had had as much fun as I during their visit.  I placed that card on the refrigerator to remind me of the lesson.  Not the piano performance, or the recorder lesson, or the improvisation.  I put the card there to remind me of a more important lesson: that of be a giving human being, the greatest lesson of all.

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cimg4437This may not seem like a innovative idea, but I think it’s very clever. I just bought these little arrow Post-it notes. It was a great deal; hundreds of them in rainbow colors. So I thought they might be useful to show a student what to practice at a glance. These little slips of paper ended up being more useful than I had imagined!

My student was playing Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite and was ready for me to check one movement from memory. As I was listening, I started putting the arrows in sections that I wanted to discuss with her. I suddenly realized that this was a brilliant idea. (So often when a student plays a long piece I forget little things I want to talk about.) When she had finished I had her music “decorated” and we began to look at the spots together. That’s when I realized that the arrows were wide enough for me to write reminder comments on them! I was even more excited. Together, we decided how to practice certain sections, added dynamics, corrected wrong notes, etc. Not only will the arrows remind her to go directly to problem spots, but they will also remind her of my suggestions. When she opens the piece she won’t have to think about where to begin to practice or how. These little arrows act as an immediate visual cue. They will also help her in setting goals for her practice. By the end of the practice my student and I were both giddy over these little slips of paper and the music looked soooo pretty.

If she is successful in practice this week, I will be able to remove the arrows. If a section still needs work, the arrow will remain. Another perk is that when the arrows are removed, her score will be clean. I always hated when my teacher wrote in my music, especially in RED! The marks, to me, symbolized failure. Plus it felt like defacing the book. (As a kid, I was a really neat, not so much anymore .)

My suggestion this week is to stimulate the economy and buy Post it arrows. Think of it as a Valentine gesture. Pretend you are cupid and shoot some arrows into someone’s music.

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As I have mentioned in previous blogs, one of the reasons I didn’t like practicing piano when I was growing up was because of the isolation. I would go in what my parents called “the piano room”, or a a practice room when I was in college, and practice for hours without sharing my ideas, excitement or accomplishments with anyone except in a recital. I looked forward to my lessons for those very reasons. But unlike members of an orchestra, band or choir, pianists are on an island a major part of the time.

Having students play duets can alleviate that isolated feeling and heighten a student’s musicality. I don’t have students do duets enough, but whenever I do I am reminded of the benefits. At our last group night I had two girls perform ” Chopsticks Theme and Variations” Opus 6 by Randall Compton. If you are not familiar with it, check it out. There are two fun parts in the piece: one is where the secondo performer’s right hand crosses the primo performer’s left hand. The other showy bit is where the primo performer gets up in the middle of the piece, walks around the piano and then becomes the secondo player. At the same time, the secondo player is doing ascending chromatic octaves and thus becoming the primo player . (got all that??) It’s truly a novelty piece and a crowd pleaser. Although there may not be a lot of musical qualities about the piece, it is pure fun for all.

But there is real value in preparing a duet. Duets are beneficial for numerous reasons:

1. Duets offer a social aspect to a pianist.

2. They are motivational. A student does not want to let down their duet partner and therefore practices and prepares carefully.

3. The students get a feeling of ensemble. As a soloist, a pianist is his own boss, but in a duet the student has to share the lime light.

4. The students have to discuss musical interpretation, collaborate on practice strategies and coordinate a practice schedule.

5. Most important: students have fun sharing music and make new friends.

For the Chopsticks duet I paired an eighth grade student with a ninth grade student. They met during my group lessons, went to the Kingston Institute during the summer and became music friends. They had so much fun collaborating on the the duet. I have never heard the two of them laugh so much! Another of my Suzuki parents reported seeing them skipping arm in arm up my drive way on the way to their lesson.

So what’s next? Nutcracker duets at Christmas! Do you have any must do duets? I would love to hear about them.

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I was very surprised the other day while giving a piano lesson. A student asked if she could please play with the metronome. I was shocked and proud of her. Of course I have been promoting the metronome for years. As a piano student and then a teacher I have experienced both sides of the debate: I know the benefits and also know practicing with it can feel like drudgery.

However, hang in there budding musicians! As painful as it sometimes feels, practicing with the metronome is worth it in the end. Practicing with the metronome is like wearing a retainer. For those who have never worn a retainer, at first it’s painful. You become self conscience and tend not to smile. Talking is even frustrating because certain vowels are challenging. And eating often results in a real mess. However, with time, the retainer just becomes part of your mouth and you don’t realize it’s there. Enunciation is clearer and eating again a joy.

With the metronome, at first it’s uncomfortable. It seems impossible to live with. Starting at a slow tempo is the only hope in gaining accuracy. Once you are comfortable using it, all will fall into place and you can’t imagine being without it. It almost feels like a security blanket.

A bit of advice I give to students is to begin using the metronome in small doses. Gain success first in just a couple measures and then turn it off. The next time, extend it to a couple phrases. Then extend again as accuracy, confidence, and tolerance grow.

The metronome is an indispensable practice tool. So….keep on ticking!

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Right after I wrote some of my blogs on how music affected my relationship with my children I got a letter from my daughter from college. She sent a copy of an essay she wrote. The essay was basically about the influence I had on her growth in music. It talked about how she absorbed the music lessons and the teaching style that she heard constantly while I was teaching. She mentioned how my expertise became part of who she is and how she emulated what she heard and observed. The entire essay was a surprising compliment to me. How blessed I am to have received this letter at this point of my life.

As parents we hope we influence our children in a positive way. I am always so happy when my children call or thank me for what I have done for them. To receive this letter was a gift I will never forget. Some parents never get this opportunity. I am truly blessed. Once again, all through music.

Music and education have a unique effect. Also this weekend my cousin came to visit with his two boys. The oldest one proudly brought his violin. He had just started lessons and wanted to share what he had learned. What a bond we felt with this little guy! Not only was he part of our family, but it made it feel like he got the music genes from us! It was wonderful to see his excitement through his eyes.

Music touches the heart and soul. Sharing music with children only enhances the relationship.

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