Sometimes, a listen is worth a thousand words.

Chase, age 12, was playing The Christmas Song. You know the one: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . . ” 

The notes and rhythms were correct, but it was too fast, and it sounded mechanical and boring. There was no voicing of the melody, no breathing with the phrases, no rubato. It was dreadful.

“Listen to this,” I said, and pulled up Ella Fitzgerald’s recording on YouTube.

“Now make it sound like that,” I requested when we finished listening. 

That was all he needed. He got it. 

On Being Flexible

“I hate that piece!” Patrick responded after hearing Simple Gifts, the next piece in his method book. “It’s all sweet and cheerful. Yuck!”
 
He had just finished learning two pieces from Diane Hidy’s set titled Mean Little Monsters, and he loved those. I wasn’t surprised that Simple Gifts didn’t appeal to him.
 
“What if we make it minor?” I asked, demonstrating the first line of the piece in the parallel minor key.
 
“Yeah!” he exclaimed. “We’ll call it Needful Things. It’ll be dark and depressing!”
 
Problem solved. Happy 7th grader. 

Halloween Lessons

Do you teach on Halloween, or do you take the day off, knowing your younger students will want to spend the evening trick-or-treating? I’ve always kept Halloween as a normal teaching day, but I encourage students to wear their costumes to piano lessons.

“What’s your costume gonna be?” a student asked me this year. I have to confess, I just wore my piano teacher costume. 

If a young student’s piano lesson falls during prime trick-or-treating hours, I encourage them to trade times with an older student who comes on another day. Most of the older students don’t participate in trick-or-treating anyway, so that often works to avoid lesson cancellations on Halloween.

This year only one student cancelled her Halloween lesson. Many years, we manage to work out lesson trading so that no one has to cancel. And the fun of having students come to their lesson in costume is a treat I always look forward to. 

A Large Part of Life . . .

A large part of life is paying attention.

It’s a gentle reminder that might pop up when a piano student didn’t read his assignment and forgot to practice something, or when she arrived for a lesson without her piano books, or when he ignored the F-sharp for the entire piece. You get the picture.

Sunday, karma came home to roost when I showed up for a choral rehearsal and no one else was there. Clearly, when the entire group, except the pianist, knows there’s no rehearsal, the breakdown in communication was not on the sending end; it was on the receiving end. The message had doubtlessly been delivered verbally during previous rehearsals, via multiple emails, and also on the web. But this guy, the pianist, didn’t absorb it.

A large part of life is paying attention.

But the best part–and the reason I’m making fun of myself publicly–is that when I went to my car to drive to the rehearsal, I had a flat tire with a big chunk of glass sticking out of it. No time to deal with that, I called a Lyft. So, yes, I paid two drivers to get to and from a non-existent rehearsal.

I felt so stupid, I stayed and practiced piano for an hour anyway.

A large part of life is paying attention.

The Scheduling Puzzle

Setting up your teaching schedule can feel like trying to solve a complicated puzzle.

Are you stressing over setting up your fall teaching schedule? It’s that dreaded time of year, and I’ve witnessed many teachers expressing frustration with this process lately.

We’re grateful for all our students, of course; and having enough of them to make scheduling a challenge is not a bad problem to have. Still, the process can be exasperating.

I’m happy to say I’ve eliminated most of the scheduling stress in my studio. Here’s how I do it.

At the final lesson of the spring semester, we have a parent conference. At least one parent comes to the lesson so we can discuss progress, future goals, and fall term scheduling.

I always tell families they get first dibs on their current lesson time. That’s a big win for folks. They’ve grown accustomed to that time. They’ve managed to schedule everything else around it, making it work for the past nine months (or longer). Everyone appreciates having the option to keep their current time; and most families take advantage of it.

I should add that in order to secure their chosen fall lesson time, students must take a minimum of four summer lessons or pay the equivalent fee. Not taking any summer lessons means they get no choice for their fall lesson time and simply have to take whatever opening is left. I can’t remember any students ever having made that choice.

Of course, there are always a few students who, for one reason or another, really must ask for a new school-year lesson time. During the parent conference, I show those folks the times I already know will be available, and promise to email them with any other openings at the end of the week, when all parent conferences have been completed.

Often, families will select a new lesson time from the options I have available right during the parent conference. I ask the others to work out a new time from the pool of available slots before June 1.

If there are folks who just can’t find a suitable time from the available openings, I jump in to help.

This summer, I had to help only two families. When they told me that none of the available openings would work, I emailed a group of already-scheduled students whose lesson times were in the range of possibility for these families. I explained that the students I was trying to help would be getting out of school at a later time this year, so they required a later lesson time. Would anyone be willing to take an earlier time to help these two families? Thankfully, two students quickly volunteered, and we had a working fall lesson schedule within a few hours of my initial email.

One of the benefits of this system is that it prods folks to make their piano lesson time a priority. When families know there will be only a very small pool of lesson times to choose from, they often simply hang on to the time slot they already have. And committing to a fall lesson time at the end of May, or soon thereafter, necessitates that they schedule other after-school activities around that piano lesson time. I’m quite sure student families actually appreciate getting their fall lesson time nailed down early in the summer. I suspect it helps them as much as it helps the teacher.

Has setting up your school-year teaching schedule been driving you nuts? If so, I encourage you to give this system, or something like it, a try.

However you choose to create your schedule, I urge you not to do it in a way that makes people think you’ll be happy to jump through hoops at the last minute to accommodate all their other after-school activities. That’s too stressful.

There are kind ways to encourage students to commit to a piano lesson time before scheduling everything else they’d like to do.

How do you work out your school-year teaching schedule? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.

Google Photos for Piano Teachers

Teaching piano, I use my smartphone camera in lessons every day.

  • I photograph assignment sheets at the end of each lesson.
  • I photograph any new books or sheet music I’m assigning or loaning.
  • I often take videos of students when they’re playing something especially well.
  • I take photos to document special achievements, such as completing a 30 or 40-Piece Challenge.

If I kept all of those photos and videos on my phone, the storage would fill up very quickly.

But I don’t.

While I’m teaching each day, the Google Photos app works in the background automatically to upload every photo and video I take to Google cloud storage. The uploaded photos are stored securely at https://photos.google.com. Google gives users free, unlimited storage when you allow your photos and videos to be slightly compressed. (Compressed images and videos certainly wouldn’t work for a professional photography business, but for how I use images and videos as a piano teacher, it’s perfectly fine.)

Before I leave the studio each evening, I do two things:

  • I delete the day’s photos from my phone, knowing that I can now view them in the Google Photos app or with any web browser.
  • Then I head to https://photos.google.com on my computer where I tag each photo I’ve taken with the name of the appropriate student. It takes about 3 minutes, but then I have a searchable photo record for each student I teach.

By now I’ve accumulated photos and videos from several years, so when students finish their study with me, I like to assemble some sort of collection to give them. Sometimes I just share a big folder of fun images that show the student participating in a variety of piano events through their years of study. Sometimes, I’ll create a video. But always, I have a nice collection of images to share with students  when they graduate or otherwise end their years of study with me.

Here’s a short clip from a senior video I made this spring. Liam had studied with me since his elementary school years, so I just overlaid some pictures of his really young years on top of a video he made as a senior. I’ve gone through a couple of phones and computers since Liam started piano lessons, but all my photos of him were easily retrievable since they were stored at Google Photos.

Google Photos is a fantastic free service. If you haven’t used it, I encourage you to download the smartphone app and give it a try.

“Mashed Potato Clouds” by Diane Hidy

 

“My dream has

finally come true!

I get to play Mashed Potato Clouds.”

–Logan, 2nd grader

 

Logan had heard her older brother play Mashed Potato Clouds, and she loved it! More than a year later, I suggested that she might like to learn it, too.

“Will I be able to play it for recital?” she asked excitedly.

“That was my exact plan,” I responded.

Students love Mashed Potato Clouds! It has a catchy tune with a pop kind of vibe. It sounds harder than it is, and the repeated melodic and rhythmic patterns make it easy to learn.

Every time I have a student play it on a recital, another student asks to learn it.

Find it in Diane Hidy’s Attention Grabbers, Book 2, published by Kjos. All four of the books in this set are fantastic, but the biggest hit from them in my studio (so far) has been Mashed Potato Clouds.

Caring

“Hey, Mr. Light!” I heard a voice yelling in the distance.

I was waiting for a traffic light at a busy intersection. My car window was down. It was a gorgeous day.

The voice came from somewhere off to my left. I scanned the streetscape for several seconds before I saw him.

It was Jake! He was standing in front of a pizza joint, wearing a uniform, about to jump in his car to make a delivery.

I waved and yelled back.

Jake had been in my group piano class at University of Louisville a few years before. I don’t think I’d seen him since that semester ended. A guitarist, he was one of the large group of students who had to pass piano proficiency by the end of sophomore year. (Mine was not a class students took by choice.)

Jake was always a good sport about my relentless posture reminders. His default posture at the piano was so bad, I once took pictures of him and posted them on a class “wall of shame.”

It was always good-natured teasing though, and students understood that. I think my students typically know that I like them and enjoy working with them.

But Jake wasn’t someone I got to interact with outside of class. Unlike the students I collaborated with for juries and other performances, I really had minimal contact with him; so his boisterous greeting surprised me and brightened my day. It also reminded me that we never really know how our behavior and demeanor are impacting others. Even when our contact with students is minimal, they sense if we care about them. Surely, a big part of our job is caring.

As we often hear, students might not remember what we try to teach them, but they will remember how we made them feel.

It’s always worthwhile to be patient.
It’s always worthwhile to be kind.
It’s always worthwhile to be encouraging.

And, perhaps, a little good-natured teasing doesn’t hurt.

P.S. I’m happy to report that Jake has graduated from the world of pizza delivery to a full-time music industry job.

It Takes a Village

“I’m struggling to inspire your son to practice,” I confided in the father at our end-of-year parent conference.

I was putting a lot of time and effort into finding music the student would like, but practice was minimal and progress was limited.

“Do we plow ahead, or is it time to make a change?” I asked.

“He likes you, and he likes playing the piano,” the dad said. “Lets keep working at it.”

Tonight, nearly two years later, that student’s fantastic playing gave me goose bumps and made me a little teary-eyed. And it wasn’t even a piece I had assigned. His school choir conductor asked him to accompany Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night, and the glory of that gorgeous music seemed to light a fire in his soul. He’s put in the work to make the piano accompaniment stunningly beautiful.

Thank you, Mr. Cook, for inviting Dylan to play. I suspect he’ll remember this opportunity as a milestone in his life.

“Incognito” by Jason Sifford

Incognito, a jazz nocturne, is a piece I’ve discovered only recently, but I loved it from the first time I played it. With its haunting G minor melody and flashy 16th note riffs, it’s just fun to play. It’s been an easy sell for several of my early advanced students, and has quickly  become a studio recital favorite.

Find it in the FJH Music Company’s In Recital for the Advancing Pianist: Original Solos, Book 2.