Teaching My Students How to Fish

I often get asked from prospective students what I teach, and how I teach.

It’s quite simple:  I teach skills.  I teach students how to fish.

A couple of months ago, I was hired as a substitute organist at a very big church in town.  You know, the ones with the massive organs front and center of the church, so that everyone can see me fumble with an instrument that I am not used to playing day in and out.  It’s quite intimidating, to play in front of so many people in that type of situation.  They are used to their organist–who is there daily to practice, to work with their choirs, and who knows the ins and outs of the instruments in the church.  This was an emergency situation too–there was a death in the family, so I was called in to play the evening before, meaning I had no practice time on the instrument.

I walked in, 6 am on Sunday morning, music in hand, ready to practice before the 7:30 choir rehearsal for the first 8:30 service.  I walked out at 1 pm, after playing 3 services with 2 different soloists an 2 choirs, exhausted from the work, but with a warm feeling of what I had accomplished that day.  So as a pianist and a piano teacher, what did I have to do that morning?  How has my career prepared me for this type of work?  In the scope of 7 hours, I had to:

  1. Prepare service music that fit the instrument–I chose 2 Baroque organ pieces, meaning that I had to register the organ, an instrument that I wasn’t familiar with, to fit the pieces, and practice pedal lines (with my organ shoes half eaten up by my golden retriever puppy!) These are tasks that I usually don’t encounter on a day to day basis as a piano teacher.
  2. Prepare traditional hymns for the services–again, figuring out how to register the organ for congregational hymn singing.
  3. During the choir rehearsal, I was handed 2 pieces to sight read.  Both pieces were upbeat, fast pieces with changing meter and key signatures.  I had never seen these pieces before–I had to jump in and play them with a 50 person choir who had been rehearsing them for 2 months (this was a festival Sunday).
  4. Accompany an Irish fiddler on his solo piece.  Again, I had never seen this music, nor am I very familiar with Irish fiddle playing.  This gentlemen that played with me was an impressive violinist, who also plays in the Austin Symphony and worked abroad in chamber music groups over the past 10 years.  I wasn’t playing with a slouch–he knew if I was making a mistake!
  5. During the middle service, the music was “contemporary church music.”  I had to step out of my organ shoes, away from my Bach prelude, and into contemporary Christian music.  What does this mean from a musician standpoint?  I had to read chord charts.  There was no printed music in front of me, only chord symbols.
  6. For the solo during the contemporary service, the soloist was feeling a little under the weather and wanted to sing at a lower pitch.  I had to transpose her solo on the spot for her.
  7. During the last service, a entire rhythm section of drums and bass accompanied us throughout the service (remember, this was a festival service!)  The rhythm section was behind me, the conductor and the choir in front of me.  I had to work with unfamiliar music, with musicians spread out over the room, and the acrostics of the room making the sounds go everywhere.  I followed that conductor’s beat like crazy.

Did I walk out of those services with an adrenaline rush?  Absolutely.  Do I feel like I walked out successfully doing my job, earning my paycheck?  Absolutely.  Would traditional piano lessons have prepared me for such an encounter?  I’m not quite sure.

And that’s why I teach the way I do.  Not only is every single one of my students different, with different personalities and different interests and talents, but every situation as a “real life musician” is different.  Sometimes you get called 20 hours before a performance like I did.  Sometimes you have to compose, sometimes you have to teach, sometimes you have to transpose for a sick singer, and sometimes, just sometimes,  you might have to play a  Beethoven Sonata.

Speaking of Beethoven Sonatas, I want to tell you about one of my 7th grade students.  She’s playing a Beethoven sonata, 1st movement, for the spring recital.  She’s playing it well.  She’s at the point in her lessons where she gobbles up music as fast as I can give it to her.  But last fall, I had her step back from the musical notation, and I had her work on chord charts.  I showed her (and she figured out a lot on her own!) how to play a chord based on a symbol on the page–how to fit that chord into the melody line.  In her case, she took it a step further and learned how to sing the melody line while she was playing the chords.  Bravo.  You are learning how to fish.