Posts Tagged ‘practicing piano’

Although I continue to be obsessed with Scrabble, it’s time to take a break and write a post about a very special event- my daughter’s college graduation. I realize that graduating from college is quite mainstream these days, but the weekend held some touching moments. As often with my family, music was the reason.

Festivities began on Friday for my family. The college held a recital for non-music majors of which my daughter accompanied many. It was fun to see her in the role of accompanist after watching her as a soloist for years. Accompanying is a different, interactive skill of which she was quite successful. Following the recitals was a champagne reception.

We  then went to a reception for music majors. My daughter graduated with a major in Spanish and a music minor, but because she only lacked one class in becoming a major (she wasn’t able to take the course because she did a year abroad) she was invited to the event. Being a small college, there were only 6 music majors so the event was intimate. Attending was the dean of music, private teachers, the graduates and their families. Since a student stays with their private teacher for 4 years, a close bond forms. Each teacher gave a little speech about their student and presented them each a gift. My daughter’s teacher made us laugh and cry. She began, “Often when a student goes abroad for a year she comes back opinionated and argumentative. This is the way my student came to me as a freshman.” It was apparent that professor and student truly loved each other!

The next day was the baccalaureate service. The graduating class was about 600 students. We did not have to look over the sea of students to find our daughter; she had a seat on the stage because she performed for the service. Once again, a tearful moment during the performance and a program with her name in it made us proud.

The following day was the graduation ceremony. Music brought my little girl once again to the stage. This time to sing the alma mater with others (about 15) in a small chorus. Of course, tears again.

I have written extensively that the non-musical goals associated with piano lessons are the driving force behind my teaching and the main factor in investing in lessons for my own children.  But this weekend proved to me that taking music lessons can bring pleasure and pride to others.  Music for music’s sake. I thank my little girl for bringing pride to her family and enjoyment to the world through her music.

Although this may be the end of a long journey of formal piano lessons, she will take her knowledge to new heights.  Most likely she will not pursue a career in music.  But employment options will be many:  she will be qualified to teach lessons, be a church organist, be an accompanist, and, maybe even more importantly, enjoy the fruits of her labor by making music in her own home for friends, relatives, and most importantly, for herself.


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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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It’s that time of year. Living in New York, winter has set in. Daylight hours are minimal and hours of sunlight are at a premium. January is typically, for me, the month I choose to hibernate. Really, the only things I am remotely interested in are eating, sleeping, staying warm, and then eating again.

It is no wonder that it is the month which seems to be the one in which my students practice the least. I have mentioned in other posts that I support bribery which is why January is ‘Practice Contest’ month in my studio.

Starting at the first lesson of the month, I have my students log their practice minutes weekly. At their lessons we chart their minutes for 6 weeks (ok.. a bit longer than January). Here the student can see their progress and that of the others in the studio. I want them to compete with others, but more importantly, I want them to compete against themselves to log more minutes than the week before.

I am not a big supporter of competition, but to me this seems harmless.
They are not competing to play better than others, just to give more effort. When we look at the minutes I do not point out that student X played more than student Y. What I comment on is the particular student’s weekly progress. For some, it’s eye opening. When I break down the fact that 210 minutes breaks down to only 30 minutes a day some are really surprised.

The contest lasts 6 weeks for a couple of reasons:

1. It starts with a new year, so maybe for some a fresh start. It ends just before a school holiday.

2. It shows a realistic view of the amount of time a child devotes to piano and sometimes unveils a pattern in their habits .

3. In a span of 6 weeks, there will be at least one week when a child is too busy with other things to devote time to piano or a period where a child is ill and is not able to practice. That brings another realistic element to the chart.

Students are grouped in two divisions according to age, not ability. What is the prize? Nothing big. In the past it has been a coupon for an ice cream cone or for pizza at our local stores. But as we all know, that’s not the point. Some students really get into it and are really excited for me to hear their work. Others, who practice all the time anyway, just keep doing their best. And for some, it is a real slap of reality; they are shocked at how much others practice and how little they do. I find it all interesting.

If you want to know the results, I will report mid-February. So as always, please keep dropping in.

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I love and respect art, and have found that painting a story during piano lessons is a very useful tool.

Varlery Lloyd Watts, concert pianist and teacher from Canada (she’s the performer of the Suzuki piano literature) is exceptional in her field for creating stories around the pieces she plays. Often in concert she will begin by telling the audience a story she created about a piece. She will tell the story and insert snippets of the piece so her audience is able to correlate the visual idea to the aural. It’s a great way for audience members of all musical backgrounds to get more involved with the music by providing a heightened opportunity of listening.

Valery does this also with her piano students. In master classes one will often hear her say, “When I hear that music it makes me think of…”. Then she proceeds to further her picture with the student and collaborate ideas. She is a master at this technique.

Although my stories are a bit less entertaining than hers, I love using this technique with students.
Here’s why:
1. It uses the right brain instead of the left. So often teachers say, “play forte here, add a ritard there….” Wouldn’t it be more fun to say, “play like a happy giant here who is slowing down to capture an annoying bird”?
2. When thinking a story the child’s brain focuses on the story instead of technical points, over all, creating a performance that includes more passion.
3. It helps the child get the big picture which brings unity to the entire piece. I especially love creating stories to sonatinas because of their structure. They lend themselves easily to a beginning, middle and end.
4. It gives incentive to practice. I would much rather think about practicing a piece about a princess who gets rescued by a handsome prince than think about watching my hand position, the exposition, or the diminuendo, etc.
5. It brings creativity and fun to the lesson.
6. It gives the child another tool to use when practicing. I have had students come to me with stories they created. My daughter has told me she uses the story technique when she goes to concerts and creates stories in her head while listening.

What I also like to do is start a piece with a story and then have the student finish it themselves for the next lesson.  It almost always results in a more passionate performance.

So grab your paint brush and give it a go!

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Although you may not be old enough to remember the dancing raisin commercial, you are probably wise enough to know the benefits of raisins. These little gems are “nature’s candy”; an antioxidant, they help to keep the blood clean and flowing, help ward off osteoporosis, and help with eye sight and oral hygiene. They are obviously a must in one’s diet. In our family, they were a must at the piano too.

In raising our first child, I was a purist in far too many ways. I would glare at the person in the grocery store who bought paper diapers or canned baby food. I would only buy educational toys. I refused to use a baby swing because my daughter might have dosed off and lost precious learning time. AND…. I had my daughter believing that raisins were candy. Needless to say, I was far more relaxed with my second child. But, that’s how raisins found their way to our piano.

I was looking for a repetition reward system. Raisins being my daughter’s favorite food, I decided to see if a bit of a bribe would work. I placed five raisins on the side of the piano and told her that she could eat one after each repetition. No problem! Lots of fun! Until…. she tired of that. On another day, five raisins again. But this time she had to transfer the raisins to the other side and then eat them all at the same time after all repetitions were complete. Then…… instead of her removing her hands to move a raisin, after each repetition I would pop one in her mouth. Of course each repetition got faster and faster, which made the game funny and streamlined the practice.

The whole idea was fun and established delayed gratification. As my daughter grew older I would see her at times with food at the piano on reserve as her personal reward. I taught this idea to piano students and found out this year that a graduated piano student took chocolate to work with her to reward herself at different intervals. I felt like she had taken some of my teaching with her as an adult.

I never used raisins to practice with my son; we used chocolate!

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imagesChildren generally don’t know how to practice the music their teacher expects them to accomplish. Even the most enthusiastic child usually practices by starting at the beginning of the piece and playing through until it sounds decent. Playing a game called “Scramble” can be a lot of fun and help kids know how to practice.  This is one I learned from my dear friends Carole Bigler and Valery Lloyd Watts at the Kingston Suzuki Institute.

When beginning a new piece, divide the piece into what we call “scramble numbers”. (I circle these numbers to differentiate them from fingering numbers). The scrambles can be of any length, but they should make musical sense; in an early piece, they could be divided by phrases, in an advanced piece, such as a sonata, by the theme, development, coda for example.

Children then use those small bits to practice. One day the child might start practice with scramble #4, then jump to #3 then to #8. They might choose to do the left hand of scramble #1 and the right hand of #5. It really doesn’t matter!

Once scramble sections are provided, here are some ways to use them:

1. At the beginning of a practice, play the entire piece through. Find the scramble number that needs the most work. Go directly to that number and work it until it is acceptable. Then go to the next section that needs the most work. At the end of the practice session, play the piece through again to decide which scramble number to start on the following day.

2. Using a deck of cards, take out of the deck the number of scrambles that are in the piece. Take out a red and black of each number. (for example, if there are 10 scrambles in the piece take out cards 1-10- a red and black of each number) Shuffle the cards. Turn the cards upside down and choose one. Black cards are left hand, red cards are right. So, let’s say a red 5 is drawn. The child would practice the right hand of scramble 5.

3. Same game as above, only take one card of each number. When the number is drawn, the child plays that scramble hands together.

4. Same game as #2 and #3. Add a face card to the deck. When that is drawn, the student has to play the entire piece. Add another face card and the student can play any scramble # they want. Add the joker and the parent has to play the piece. haha

5. Play the same game as above, without using the music! Yes, I mean from memory!

6. At the lesson, I keep a deck of cards at the piano to play these games. Then I ask the kids if they want to gamble. The answer is always “yes”. I have the students choose a card. Whatever number they choose is how many times they have to practice a certain scramble # each day. The beauty of this is that I assign the sections. Let’s say that scramble #1 is easy for the child. When the child draws a low card, that’s the scramble I assign. Let’s say the child draws a face card (all face cards = 10) I then assign the most challenging scramble to that card. It’s brilliant! The kid thinks they are choosing their destiny! haha Parents love this game because at home, if the child complains, the parents just say that it was their luck!

What are the benefits of scramble?

1. It’s a game and children love games. It makes practice fun.

2. It takes time and adds to the bulk of practicing making the practice more thorough.

3. It aids in memorization. The child can also memorize in small chucks and not be overwhelmed when asked to memorize.

4. It helps in performance. Because the child has worked in small units, they can visualize the small units during the performance.

5. It can rescue a child if a memory lapse occurs in performance. Let’s say that the child is performing and has a memory lapse in scramble #3. Instead of panicking, the child can make a quick, calm choice. He can try the scramble again, go to scramble #2 and hope he can play through, or ditch the scramble and go to scramble #4 to avoid the situation all together. (we all know how painful it is when a child has a memory lapse during performance and starts over at the beginning!)

6. It aids in learning how to analyze the piece, which also aids in learning the piece faster.

I think that about sums it up. Practice should be fun not only for the child but for the teacher and parent too. It’s our job as educators to show kids how to practice and have fun at the same time.

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In my last blog I wrote about the lively group night I had with my Suzuki piano students.  Well….

It has been an interesting week of lessons to say the least!  The kids gained a lot more than I would have imagined.  One of my students would only agree to play classical piano repertoire.  I have asked him on occasion to play jazz but each time he declined.  Tonight as his lesson he asked if he could play jazz.  He was very impressed with some of the other students and was ready to try it.  I chose a variety of pieces for him to sight read and I couldn’t get him off of the bench!  He just kept wanting to try more!  I am sure his lesson will be amazing next week.

Another boy came to me new this summer.  He is a cellist and thought he should learn piano.  He readily became frustrated because his lack of piano technique hindered his advanced reading ability.  He  felt defeated and wouldn’t practice much.  Each lesson we’d plod along and I’d try to encourage him to practice.  He did well in his performance during group. So tonight at his lesson I congratulated him and asked him if he had fun.  He said it was ok, but he wanted to get better and said he’d start practicing.  He had a great lesson and his repertoire was really  prepared well.

The parents as well loved hearing all the children play and complimented different performers.  The word ‘fun’ was mentioned often.  In most of the lessons future performance pieces were decided with enthusiasm. There are so many advantages to sharing music with kids in a group.  My students this week affirmed this for me.

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