I remember sitting in a piano pedagogy class during graduate school, and listening to my professor tell us that studies show us that most piano students quit somewhere around the middle of the second piano method book.  If my memory serves me correctly, most students quit somewhere around page 26 in the 2nd book.  This definitely caught my attention in class.  Here I was, trying to get a graduate degree in piano, expecting to make a living teaching piano, and I was being told that the majority of students didn’t want to learn past the elementary level.  I could have walked away from my career right then – I certainly was young enough to switch degree plans in graduate school.  But I didn’t – I went on to finish this degree and complete a second graduate degree in pedagogy.  I wasn’t about to give up.  I knew there were students out there that needed music.  Challenge accepted.

We all know that research points to the incredible benefits of music education, how even our own brain pathways develop differently from music exposure and music study.  It’s definitely good for us, and as parents we know it’s good for our children.  As a parent myself, I can say that the most beneficial growth I’ve seen in my own children as a direct result from taking music lessons is their ability to focus and problem solve.  In my students, I see growth in dexterity, confidence, musicality, problem solving, and countless other benefits.  As private teachers and studio owners, we are fortunate to be able to spend years with our students, seeing the steady growth from childhood to young adulthood (and beyond).  That’s something that is very unique to our profession.

So how do we, as teachers, as studio owners, ensure that music education continues past Pg. 26 of the second method book?  How do we show the parents in our studio the possibilities that their children can achieve at their instrument?  And most importantly,

how do we keep the students interested in music past the beginning stages?

Quite simply, if you are teaching or structuring a program like you have always taught – from a method book and a corresponding theory book, you are walking on thin ice.  You might as well just hold your breath and wait for that termination email to come somewhere around the middle of book 2.  Now, I’m not bashing method books – quite the contrary  – they are wonderful building blocks of teaching.  However, I am cautioning you about the limitations of building a program that does not venture into supplementary activities and focus on learning before and after the elementary years.

So how can we as teachers, as studio owners, create programs that encompass learning at all stages?  How can we utilize our studio space for programs outside of the normal teaching hours?  How can we create a culture of students excited about advancing past the elementary level?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Offer infant/toddler music classes.  We know how important music exposure is at the youngest age.  Consider it part of your obligation as an educator to show your families the benefits of music at this age.  Some programs to consider are Music Together and Kindermusik (and others.)  These classes can be offered in the morning and early afternoon, thereby utilizing studio space.  Most of the programs offer teacher training for your employees (because, let’s face it – even with a college degree in music, you may not be experienced or knowledgable about teaching these classes!)
  • Offer preschool piano programs.  At my studio, we have a preschool class with curriculum that we have developed ourselves.  However, there are also several wonderful programs with curriculum that you can buy specifically for this purpose, including Kiddy Keys, WunderKeys, Music for Little Mozarts, My First Piano Adventures, and more.  The preschool age is an important age to develop steadiness in rhythm and an ear for phrasing melody lines
  • Supplement the method books.  Don’t shy away from method books!  They are wonderful building blocks of our industry.  However, make sure you venture outside of the covers of the books.
    • Supplement with the standard classical literature: (The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature by Jane Magrath is a wonderful jumping off place for exploring leveled repertoire.)
    • Supplement with pop music – musicnotes.com is my favorite resource for finding appropriately leveled pop music for my students.
    • Supplement with pedagogical pieces by current composers.  So called ‘pedagogical’ pieces are the gems of our literature.  Don’t know where to start?  Browse your local music store, or browse such festival collections such as the National Federation of Music Club’s repertoire list.
  • Lay the groundwork for proper technique.  Nothing is as frustrating to a student as to wanting to explore repertoire past the beginning stages, but not having the proper technique to do so.  Frustration leads to disappointment and quitting.  Make sure that even at the beginning levels, you are supplementing technical building blocks.  For pianists, this often means studying the scales, arpeggios, chords, etc. as well as technical studies (etudes) by many composers.
  • Offer online courses for those not able to come to your studio on a weekly basis.  I offer a Beginning Piano Course, a Music Theory Course, and a monthly Piano Library course on my website PianoProgram.com.    I still teach, students learn at home.  Win – win!
  • Show students what they are capable of becoming.  This is an important one.  Often students and parents just have no experience on what lies beyond the beginning stages.  Mix it up!  In your recitals, integrate your advanced students with your beginners.  Do the same in your performance classes.  Let the little ones and parents see what is possible.  Let your older students be role models.
  • Create an atmosphere of community through group classes.  Peer learning is effective and exciting way to teach both children and adults.  My favorite books to use in a group setting are those by my friend and college, Debra Perez.  Her books can be found here.  
  • Give students a chance to reach out and share with the community.  For many students, pride in learning is best shown in a public performance.  Have students reach out to the elderly in the community at nursing homes, or through church performances.  Organize a fun recital at a local coffee shop or other venue in your city.  Think outside of the box!
  • Give pop music the stage.  Of course we all love the classics – we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we didn’t!  But have you ever seen a 4th grade student’s eyes light up when you put her on stage playing her favorite pop piece with a drummer and a guitarist backing her up?  It’s worth the effort, really.  And think of all of the pedagogical benefits of playing in an ensemble with a steady beat!
  • Encourage community within your studio with activities designated for certain ages – teen night, performance class for kids only, adult wine/cheese/piano night…..

I’ve only touched on a few of the ideas that we implement in our studio.  I’ll follow up on some of these ideas though a second blog post.  Until then, avoid walking on thin ice – give your studio a well rounded boost of learning through all of the stages of music education.  Your students will thank you.

 

 

Middle School…..whew, what a change for the children!  Many students and parents feel a sense of overwhelm in middle school, and often piano (or guitar, or violin, etc.) lessons are the first thing that gets cut when the academic year starts.

But I want you to reflect on one thing:  I’ve played many performances in my life, including several important recitals such as those required for my doctorate and masters degrees in piano.  Sure, I can always sit down at the piano and review those pieces and get them up to performance level again. That usually takes me a couple of months.  But I can always (and I mean always!) sit down and play a few Bach inventions, Joplin’s The Entertainer, and a few children’s pieces by Debussy.  Do you know when I learned and memorized those pieces?  I learned them when I was about 11 or 12 years old.  I’ve always wondered why those pieces always stick with me, while other pieces I’ve sweated and practiced over through hundreds of hours take some work to bring back.

Well, research has shown that what we learn in middle school does stay with us the rest of our lives.  Here’s a quote from Linda Peristein:

 “But your brain, your gray matter– during the middle school years, what happens in your early stages of puberty is this vast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty.

This growth in your frontal cortex, it peaks at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. And then what happens is the cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.”

Super intersting, right?  So that’s why I can still play the Bach piece I learned when I was 11, but not the one I learned when I was 28.  I pushed through lessons during my middle school years (with the nudging of my parents) and I came out on the other end knowing that music would always be a part of my life.

I know middle school is rough.  Believe me – I’m living it this year with a 6th grader myself!  But I also know that the middle school students I teach experience such a tremendous amount of musical growth during those years.  The elementary years of music study lays the foundation of learning.  The middle school years is a time of expanding on that knowledge and blossoming into young musicians.  We want music to always be a part of everyone’s life – whether it be professionally, or as an audience member  in the concert hall, or a means to relax and unwind at the end of a long day.

I have to bite my tongue sometime when I hear about talented students dropping music lessons to start band or choir.  Band, choir, and orchestra are wonderful things!  But they complement, not replace private lessons.  You’ve laid the foundation during the elementary years, now see how students can grow during the middle school years.

If you are on the fence about your middle school student continuing lessons, just remember that this is the time in their lives to nourish what you want to stick with them the rest of their lives.  I’ve got an early riser in my middle schooler, so we spend the first 30 minutes of every day practicing together at the piano.

What you water will grow.  

I’ll leave you with one other story.  A dear friend of mine, who is also a pianist, lost his father to cancer this past month.  He wrote a moving tribute to his father, speaking kindly of his upbringing and his father’s patience.  But what mattered most to him, he said, was that during his middle school years, when he wanted to give up on music, his father never gave up on him.  He told about how his father was his determination when he was doubting; how his father believed in his musical growth when he saw no potential.  The decision to keep going in lessons gave him a career path, an option to continue with music.  I can’t imagine this particular person not in music, so hearing this story from him really reinforced the idea that we all struggle with practicing and wanting to discontinue lessons at times!

So as we start this new academic year, we (the teachers) at Velocity just want to say that we are here for you – we are on your side, and will continue to nurture and teach your children in music in the best way that we know how.  Here’s to a wonderful year of music learning!

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.

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