Cedric had his hands perched on the keyboard. He was about to rehearse his recital piece. He had it memorized. The recital was just days away.
In that quiet moment of preparation, the battery-operated clock on the wall seemed to be ticking very loudly, and its 60-beats-per-minute tick was not even close to the tempo of Cedric’s piece.
“You just have shut it out,” I told him. “There will be noises at the recital you have to shut out, too.”
He rolled his eyes.
Soon after that, I noticed that I was hearing the ticking clock on all the recordings I made in the studio too. It was time to make a change. One Amazon search later, and I discovered that silent, battery-operated clocks are actually a thing. You might be thinking, “How could you not have known that?” Fair question. I had the same thought.
Here’s the one I got, and it is absolutely silent. I love it. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy it until after Cedric graduated. Sorry, Cedric.
So I post this little story to encourage you to get rid of annoying tick tocks if they’re happening in your studio too. It was such an easy fix.
We take a three-week break for the holidays in my piano studio. That’s a pretty long time not to engage with my students, but the long break allows me to fit in holiday concerts that I enjoy playing for. There were five this year.
The day after Christmas, I was thinking about what I might do to connect with students before they return to lessons on January 3. Since I use the Tonara app to give assignments, I decided to add a new assignment to every student’s task list, inviting them to record one of their Christmas pieces and send me the recording.
So far, four students have uploaded recordings. (Hopefully, more will come.) I noticed that each student played significantly better on the recording than they had at their last lesson. They’ve obviously continued to practice over the break! Is there anything that makes a teacher happier?
Eighth-grader Logan played so musically, I thought I would share her recording. You can hear lots of background noise while she’s playing: the dog saunters by, and there’s meal prep and lots of chatter happening. But that’s the reality of how we all have to fit in our piano practice, isn’t it? We do it amidst the life happening around us. (I faded out the recording near the end where the background noise got really loud.)
Piano lessons during this year of COVID have been challenging. I miss the warmth of in-person lessons. I miss being able to correct a hand position with just a touch. I miss being able to encourage a crescendo with just a gesture. I miss the spontaneous levity that happens more easily when we meet in person.
Given the challenges of online lessons, I have–this year more than ever–worked hard to find lots of pieces that will be quick wins for my students. For a piece to be a quick win, I look for these characteristics:
The student has to like the piece.
It must not have any huge challenges, but it can’t be so easy it’s effortless.
It needs to be fairly short.
It must be pedagogically sound.
It’s a big plus if it sounds harder than it is.
Recently, I’ve composed two new pieces that have been quick wins for many of my students over the past few months. I hope you’ll give them a try.
In my studio, summer is a great time to let students work on collaborative projects. Schedules tend to be lighter, and we don’t have the pressure of recitals or adjudications lurking just around the corner.
When I know one of my piano students also plays another instrument or takes voice lessons, I like to ask them to do a piece with another piano student. When that’s not an option, I might ask if they have a friend who could collaborate with them.
Parker and Drew know each other from church where they both sing in a choir that I accompany. I proposed the idea of having them play the Finzi Carol together a few months ago. They liked the idea, so they both got the music and started practicing. Today, they got together for the first time to rehearse. Their excellent preparation made the piece go together easily. Proud of them!
Parker, at the piano, has just completed 6th grade. Drew, on clarinet, just finished 7th grade. Drew is a student of Walter Yee. The piece is Carol, from Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 by Gerald Finzi.
I’m curious to know how other teachers set up collaborative playing experiences for their students. Have any stories or tips to share?
“I want to work on song writing in my piano lessons this summer,” Dylan said.
“Okay, get some lyrics written for your first summer lesson and we’ll get started,” I responded.
I love the opening lyric of the piece she worked on this week: “I play piano for a crowd, and everyone goes wild, and that’s who I am.”
Sounds to me like music might be kind of important in Dylan’s life.
She began by writing the lyrics. Then she figured out the chord structure she wanted to use. I showed her a long list of pop songs based primarily on the I vi IV V chord structure, so she liked the idea of starting with that, but she made quite a few variations, as well. Next, she recorded herself playing the piano part. Then she added a percussion track; and finally, she recorded her vocal part. She did all of this with the GarageBand app on her phone. That way she could go home and continue working on the piece after the time spent with me in her lessons.
Fun, creative project!
I could have insisted that Dylan continue working on repertoire and technique in her summer lessons, rather than taking on this project; but I’m guessing this affirmation of her innate creativity will have a bigger impact than learning another sonatina might have had.