I Love That Piece!

Five minutes before the end of one of my piano student’s lessons, his mom knocks on the door to come in. She finds us throwing a ball and trying to bare hand the catch. Her 8 year-old son is energized and really into this ball throwing. Sometimes we miss, and the ball bounces off the wall, but we’re both really trying. Even I get better at my throws and catches.

I explained to his mom that he just spent the last 10 minutes memorizing an entire piece that he thought he‘d never be able to memorize. I had him memorize one line, repeat it a few times, and then get up and play catch for about 10 throws. Then he would return to the piano, and see if he could remember the line of music he just memorized. He just now finished memorizing the entire piece so we were doing the final throws.

Then I suggested to the student, “Hey, why don’t you do a test, and see if you can play the piece from memory for your mom?”

Excited to show his mom, he sat down and played from memory. Sure enough, he could do it. He was thrilled; his mom was thrilled. I told him that when he went home to do the same process again, and maybe get his dad to throw a ball with him to solidify what he learned today.

The next week he came back to his lesson and announced, “I love that piece!”

Having fun learning, and being able to do things you didn’t think you could. It doesn’t get any better than that. If you or your child would like to experience the fun of learning to play the piano, give us a call at 360-527-9626 or email us.



Owning Practice

Every year I encourage students to participate in the WA State Music Teachers Adjudications and the National Guild of Piano Teachers Auditions. Both are events where students prepare pieces to perform and receive feedback from a guest teacher. It’s a wonderful way to help students set and reach goals and learn from another musician.

One student participated every year, but always dreaded it. She realized she dreaded it because she didn’t prepare well. In the few weeks before the event, when I would see that she wasn’t prepared, I would find new pieces that were simple enough for her to learn quickly and perform so that she could still participate.

One such time, I told her, “When you come back next week you’ll be giving a mini-concert for the student who has a lesson just before you. So start preparing today when you get home. Do not wait.”

The next week came, and I knew her pattern of not adequately preparing and then having a miserable time. However, when she walked in the door, I was happy to see her, and said, motioning toward the piano, “Here you go. Go ahead and give us a concert.”

I didn’t give her an opportunity to say anything, or do anything except sit down at the piano and start playing. To my surprise, she did. Instead of playing the easy piece I gave her the week before, she played her difficult piece from start to finish, by memory. I had never heard her play the whole piece, let alone from memory, until that day. I was shocked.

What was her secret? After a short time practicing by playing straight through the piece at home, she realized she wasn’t getting anywhere. Adjudications were just around the corner, and the hard parts were still hard. She decided that she needed to practice a different way, the way I had been telling her for the past four years. She went back to her assignment notebook and looked at all the ways I had been telling her to practice. She made herself a plan on what she was going to master each day so that at the end of the week she would know the entire piece.

She practiced every day, about an hour each time, seven days in a row. She went slow. She practiced hands alone. She practiced transitions from one beat to the next beat over and over. She worked out hard parts, rather than just play through the piece. Her parents weren’t even sure she was practicing because it sounded different from anything she had ever done over the past four years.

At the end of the week she could play the entire piece. She got the results she wanted. She realized she could do it. She was happy. For the first time in her life, she now was looking forward to playing at the adjudications. She couldn’t wait to see what new ideas she would learn.

To see the transformation in her from dread to joy is one of the reasons I keep teaching. I am an eternal optimist, and believe that our abilities sometimes lie dormant. We may not even be aware of what we are capable of. A good teacher of any discipline sees the potential in the student and is willing to stick it out through thick and thin until one day it come to the surface. Once a student experiences it for themselves, they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Do you need a teacher to believe in you or your child? Give us a call today to get started with lessons and discover your own natural abilities.



Falling in Love with Learning

“Fall in love with the process and the results will come.”

I recently saw this quote advertising a gym, and it reminded me of how true it is when learning to play the piano. In our culture of technology where information is instant, the experience of a process to achieve something can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Children learning to play the piano are also used to learning all sorts of things at school, in sports and in other activities. Kids can have stumbling blocks, but they typically haven’t refined their competence to the level an adult has, and therefore, it’s not uncommon for adults to have difficulty “falling in love” with the process of learning.

This can be especially difficult for adults learning to play the piano for the first time. After spending years as an adult, becoming competent in work and life, who wants to feel incompetent trying to learn a new skill? Setting aside the judgment of incompetence and instead falling in love with the process of learning, is the key to success.

How do you do that? First, give yourself a break. You’re not suppose to already know how to play the piano well. That’s the purpose of lessons. Second, find a teacher you trust, where you feel empowered to take chances.

If you would like to explore the idea of lessons, give us a call at (360) 527-9626. You can even call and schedule your own introductory 40-minute lesson for only $50. It’s a great way to experience the piano first-hand.

A whole new world awaits you. You just have to take the first step.



Playing By Ear and Counting Aloud

When students first begin piano lessons, one of the skills they learn is how to count basic rhythm. Meanwhile, they also learn how to read music. On occasion there will be a piece in their beginning book that is a familiar tune to them. It’s not uncommon for students to toss their rhythm skills out the window, and even their note reading skills, and instead play the whole piece by ear, (which happens to be another important skill). When playing by yourself, this seems to work o.k. However, if you try to play a duet, it falls apart.

One such student came to his lesson one day playing Alouette, the familiar nursery rhyme out of his book. He knew the notes and sort of the correct rhythm. We started to count off together to play the duet when he had a rude awakening. We were not together, at all. He was shocked. This had never happened to him before.

I told him he has such a wonderful ear that it wants to direct the whole piece, since it knows how it is suppose to sound. However, the ear doesn’t know how the duet is suppose to go, so I suggested that at home he count very meticulously and don’t let his ear direct his fingers. Instead, let his counts direct the notes.

The next week when he came back he played the duet perfectly. His counts directed his fingers rather than his ear. I was pleasantly surprised because it was unusual that such a young child could over-ride his ear with methodical counting.

A few weeks later this same student announced at his lesson, “Counting is VERY important.”

I asked him, “How did you learn that?”

“Well,” he replied, “It was Alouette. If I didn’t count aloud the duet wouldn’t work at all!”



Pound Cake and Piano?

What does a good pound cake and learning to play the piano have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing, until I had a piano student that reminded me a lot of myself growing up.

Just tell me how to do it right, and I will do it. Before I actually do do it, let me tell you all the ways I’m already aware of where I know I won’t execute it perfectly. Then, as I actually do it and make mistakes, I will show my displeasure so that you know that I know that I made a mistake.

As I listened to this student play each week, I found a button of hers. She did not like to play forte (loud). She said it was too harsh on her ears, and just didn’t feel good. When I listened to her play, she had a very nice soft sound. It was all so nice, so soft, and so uneventful.

For some music, like George Winston in a dentist office, that is exactly the atmosphere you want. You want people to relax and fall asleep. You want to ease their anxiety. She had this sound down pat, plus another layer on top of being very careful and timid, trying so hard not to make a mistake. In the meantime the full life of the music was gasping for breath.

I thought if I could just encourage her to throw off this box of not liking to play loud perhaps she could breath some vitality into this piece.

After she played I said, “Play the whole piece forte.”

I wanted her to throw caution to the wind, take a chance and not try so hard to do it perfectly. If anything, play some wrong notes boldly.

She cringed at that thought, but dutifully complied. The resulting sound was harsh, unmusical, and unpleasant to listen to. At times she added the appropriate arm gestures, but they were an after-thought of “Oh, I should do this too.”

After she played I thought a moment and then said, “Play the whole piece with a gentle forte.”

She looked at me in disbelief and replied, “I have no idea how to do that.”

In her mind, gentle and forte did not belong together. I told her, “That’s perfect. Just make it up.”

She gave it a try and came up with something. The harshness and awkward gestures were gone, and the tone was more pleasant and full.

I knew she liked to bake, so after she played I attempted to explain what I was looking for.

“The majority of your playing is like angel food cake. It’s light and fluffy. I’m looking for pound cake with more density. That is what I mean by forte. In music you want the contrast co-existing between the angel food light and fluffy sound and the pound cake dense sound. It’s the contrast that makes music interesting.”

There was no way she could argue with a good pound cake. After all, she was the expert baker.



Having Fun Learning

There’s a lot of skill that goes into playing the piano. So many details that are learned one by one. It’s easy to get bogged down. However, finding a way to make those details a fun game can make all the difference in the world.

One student I had was completely fascinated by the natural world, and little creatures in particular, like bugs and butterflies. I started looking for pieces that spoke to his interest. Soon any issue that came up in a piece was addressed through the metaphor of an animal. It was no longer just a note that needed to be held two beats, but a kangaroo that needed an additional moment of rest before hopping off. If he missed the second beat, we laughed because the kangaroo didn’t get his two beats. It became fun to see how many beats his kangaroos were getting. His accuracy improved, and he was having fun learning. He smiled a lot and was full of energy.

This is learning at its best: freedom to explore, try, evaluate, and try again in an atmosphere of fun. It is life-giving for the student and for the teacher.

The key to each student may be a little different, however, the result will be the same: a student who has fun learning and wants more. It doesn’t get any better than that.



Determination

An acquaintance of mine recently found a piano for her home and is so excited to be playing the piano. She took lessons as a child, and now as an adult enjoys learning how to play again.

She commented on her struggles and joys of learning piano as an adult. She said when she’s trying to work something out, she just keeps trying, and approaches learning with a sense of humor and allowing herself to make mistakes. Her advice to others is to just keep trying because you will come out on the other side, and it will be worth it.

When learning anything new, how often do you give up after the first try, or after the second or third? I remind my students that the American author, Ernest Hemingway was turned down either 50 or 100 times by publishers before he finally found someone to publish his now famous book, The Old Man and the Sea.

Where do you have that kind of determination? Whatever you are learning, approach it with the mindset that it will happen. When and how you may not know, but it will happen. Ask for help, and keep trying. You will see the way unfold before you.

If you or your child would like help getting started in piano, call us today about lessons.



Even Ballet Dancers Count Aloud

2015 has been the year of counting aloud. As I see my students develop musical independence from counting aloud, I increase my insistence with new students. Sure enough, they too begin developing their independence sooner than I ever thought possible.

In the midst of my ongoing mission to teach my students to be excellent counters, my enthusiasm rubbed off on my sister who happens to be a classical ballet teacher. She saw that in her class of 10 year-olds there were some dancers ahead of the music, others were behind and a few were right on it. In a moment of inspiration she had them all count aloud as they danced to the music.

What she noticed was that when they counted aloud, every single dancer was with the music. The dancers also became aware of when they were not with the music. When the counting aloud subsided, so did their ability to stay with the music. Because they were aware, they could correct themselves.

Counting aloud has a wonderful way of sharpening the focus and bringing awareness to dancers, as well as musicians. It is then that they can fully participate and become one with the music. Try it, whether you are learning to dance or learning to play a musical instrument. You might just be surprised at what you can do.



Transcending Right and Wrong

Do you recall being a student and always looking for the right answer to please the teacher? All of your effort was put towards finding the right answer. If you had the right answer, everything was good. If you had the wrong answer, you failed. Sound familiar?

In music lessons, there are only a few places where something is simply right or wrong. They are:

1. Notes
2. Rhythm

Music, however, is not found in notes and rhythm alone. It is found in the interpretation of those notes and rhythm, and that is where there is no one right answer.

As a student, it’s easy to get caught up in the notes and rhythm, and once you master them you think you’re done. Great musicians, however, take it a step further. Now that they can play the notes and rhythm with ease, they ask themselves, “What is the composer trying to say?” The articulation and dynamics come into play. Exactly how short is that staccato? Exactly how loud is that loud? When is it too much or not enough?

This is where it helps to be a human being with life experience. A rich life experience will give you more options on how to bring the music to life. Anyone can learn to play notes and rhythm, but it takes careful attention to detail, as well as experience in the full range of human emotion to bring a piece of music to life.

As a teacher, yes, I will correct students on notes and rhythm. However, when it comes to interpretation, I will show you how to go about deciding how to interpret a piece. There is no right or wrong answer, and oftentimes there are more questions than answers. This is the beauty of music. It is so much more than right and wrong. It is the audible expression of the full human experience, and what it means to be alive.



Inspiration

Inspiration. You never know when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. But when inspiration hits, internal motivation comes forth.

As a child, I remember hearing two different concerts that so inspired me, I immediately went to the piano when I got home. Here they are:

1. Age 12, I hear concert pianist, Byron Janis perform Piano Concerto #2 by Rachmaninoff . It was the first time I had ever heard the piano like that. From that moment forward it has became one of my all-time favorite pieces. When I was in my twenties I bought the music to save for some future time. Since then, I have practiced various parts of it.

2. Age 13, I hear concert pianist, Andre Watts perform Schubert and Beethoven solo piano pieces. I still remember the crescendo at the end of the Beethoven piece. It was so subtle, and it went on for quite some time. It was so gradual I couldn’t figure out how he had gotten to forte at the end. I couldn’t wait to get home and play the music myself.

I’ve heard many concerts over the years. Some have been fine. Some have been good. Some have been great, and some have been spectacular. You never know when a performer will reach out and touch you with the music. You just have to go to concerts and be open to the possibility. But I can tell you this, when you experience the magic, it will be well worth it.

Do you ever find yourself nagging your child to practice? Before you get too worn out doing that, take them to concerts. They just might get inspired, and you won’t be able to keep them away from the piano.