Teaching Joy

I have a fairly new student (started last fall) who is a perfectionist. He plays with precision. Every rhythm is metronomically correct. Every dynamic is planned – even the crescendos and diminuendos are planned out. If a crescendo goes from piano to forte, he writes in his music p, mp, mf, f so he knows exactly which note will be louder. The ritardandos are planned out in a similar fashion.

All of this he does in his practice sessions at home. When he comes back to the lesson, of course the piece is solid. He definitely knows how to play the piece and what he wants to do with these gray areas.

However, the piece is lacking in musicality and joy. There is no room for spontaneity and emotion.

When I started realizing his preparedness was diminishing his joy, it was time for a talk. We talked about how great musicians play great pieces differently each time. Even composers would play their own pieces differently each time. Sometimes the hall or the piano dictates that we interpret the pieces in a different way. Sometimes our own emotions tell us to play differently. Sometimes it’s just fun to try a phrase a different way.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, that’s where the fun starts and the music-making happens. It’s great to use the road map that is the score. But the road map has limitations. How can a composer really put onto paper what we hear? We have to use symbols and agreed-upon words to try to meagerly describe how this sound happens. But it always comes up short. Every time. For music you need feeling, you need your own interpretation, you need to understand the sound journey of this piece in your own being.

And, most importantly, you need joy in the process.The joy of using your ability at the piano to say something at the piano. The joy of listening to the music you are making. The joy of the gift of music – both to yourself, the performer and to others, your audience.

I feel we only begin to understand this joy as we get older. A lot of younger students, while they enjoy lessons, might not really choose to play the piano if given that choice. It is essential in our teaching to teach joy.

Do you know that saying that we don’t really remember exactly what people say to us, but we remember how it made us feel? I would like each student to walk out of my studio door with a feeling of joy. Joy of accomplishment. Joy of discovery. Joy of having had fun.

And I hope the joy ties itself to the music and the joyful music lasts a lifetime.


Storytelling and the Music Lesson

Everybody loves a good story, especially when it’s being told in a skillful way.  Ever heard of Garrison Keillor?  He’s the host of the popular radio show The Prairie Home Companion, in which he weaves stories of the residents of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I’ve listened to countless radio broadcasts of The Prairie Home Companion, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience twice for a live show.  You can hear a pin drop as audiences sit spellbound listening to Mr. Keillor tell tales of the daily events ofLakeWobegon.

On the website “Australian Storytelling”, Louise Phillips articulates the reasons that storytelling is an effective form of communication.  She says storytelling develops the following in young children:

  • An understanding of human nature.
  • An understanding of feelings.
  • An awareness of the role characteristics people assume.
  • An understanding of sequence.
  • Language skills (vocabulary, grammar, syntax and pronunciation).
  • Their attention span and their ability to listen.
  • Their ability to follow instructions.
  • Their ability to co-operate with others; and
  • An understanding of concepts.

I would like to focus in on the last point – that storytelling develops an understanding of concepts in young children.  I have noticed that storytelling goes a long way in engaging my students in a new piece to be learned.

When introducing “Ode to Joy”, I like to paint the picture of the genius composer Beethoven, having lost his hearing, composing one of the most magnificent symphonies of all time, and not knowing whether the audience had liked or approved of his latest effort.  The story is told that one of his friends walked Beethoven out on stage to see the audience going wild with praise and applause because of their love for the new symphony.

After the story is told, I ask the student to pretend in their daily practice that they are the entire orchestra, playing its heart out for Beethoven.  “Make your performance of “Ode to Joy” the best performance that Beethoven has ever heard.”

In his article titled “Effective Storytelling”, Barry McWilliams gives some suggestions for storytelling:

  • Keep it brief and simple- especially for younger children – pare down to the heart of the story.
  • Stimulate their senses so they feel, smell, touch and listen and see vivid pictures.
  • Describe the characters and settings, and help them sympathize with the character’s feelings.

Doesn’t every beginning student love the story behind Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony”?  “Haydn was sick and tired of all the wealthy royalty falling asleep during his orchestral masterpieces, so he worked in a way to wake them up!”  I then start to play the piece, and act as if I am falling asleep.  When I come to the accent, I jump off the bench in an exaggerated show of being shocked out of sleep.

Application for the student’s home practice – “maybe you will put your mom or dad to sleep at the beginning of the piece, then wake them up at the accent – just like Haydn did!”

Not all my stories are historical in nature – sometimes it’s just fun when I’m about to play a duet with the student to tell how my mother’s piano teacher sat on the bench with her at one lesson and broke the bench!

The point is, students should be engaged in their pieces.  Give them something to imagine.  Something for their minds to grasp onto while they are sitting on that piano bench at home.  Maybe they will come back to their next lesson and have a wonderful story to tell you!

Recital Remembrance


Another great recital season has come and gone.  The annual Christmas recitals were a hit – out of thirty students, my colleague and I heard six renditions of “Jingle Bells”, three renditions of “Away in a Manger”, and a solid representation of Christmas tunes, old and new.


One thing that always comes back to me – recitals are joyful celebrations.  Despite the usual nerves that come with performance, recitals should never become a breeding place for fear or unattainable expectation.  Whatever performance is given , it should be celebrated and congratulated.  “You did it!  You conquered your fear, got up on stage and played for us!”  Every offering is encouraged and greatly appreciated.


I love it when families proudly invite extended family and friends to hear their children play.  I love it when the stage is packed at the end of the recital with proud parents taking pictures of their children at the piano.  I love the reception time when relieved students talk in excited tones about their performances.


These times are precious. They should be held up as remembrances of great achievements.  They should be revisited in conversation as a point of pride.


“You did it!”

Use What Talents You Possess!


I found this poster on my new addiction, Pinterest, and immediately knew I had to give a copy to each of my students.  So I printed off a copy for each student and inserted it into the clear plastic on the front of their three-ring binders.  

I thought it would be a good idea to give a little speech to each student on talents and developing their own talents, regardless of what other people are doing.  So I asked a little kindergarten student, “Do you know what talents are?”

“Oh yes, I do!  My best talent is that I can touch my tongue to the back of my throat!”

Ah, the simple joys in life. 


Mistakes are Gifts

Last weekend, I hosted my studio recital in my living room.  I only have a handful of students since moving across country.  But I still wanted to hold a recital and make it special for the families involved.  Actually, my main purpose was a practice run for Guild, which will be held this coming Saturday.  All of my students will be performing a ten-phase program, so I had each student perform four of their pieces for the recital.

Each student struggled with some aspect of their performance during the recital.  One student forgot the endings to two of her pieces.  Two students just simply forgot notes and had to start pieces over again.  One student needed her book to continue playing the piece.  One student (which was actually my son!) let out an audible grrrrr as he struggled to find his place in his piece.

All of these students have played these pieces perfectly in the past.  We have all heard that excuse – right?  But, actually, in this case, it is true.  I can attest to this because I actually have heard their immaculate performances in lessons.

So, what I had before me was a wonderful teaching opportunity.

In lessons today, I gave my much-used View Your Mistakes As Gifts speech.  It goes something like this:

Be grateful for the mistakes you make when surrounded by those who love you. (I get the student’s attention.)

Be grateful you made these mistakes a week before Guild [insert competition/festival name here], when you have time to learn from them.  (The student’s eyes widen, in disbelief that mistakes can be good!)

You now know where your weaknesses lie, and you can fix them! (A little smile plays about the student’s face, a light of comprehension dawns in the student’s eyes.)

We continue on in the lesson, addressing these little gifts – a.k.a. “mistakes”.

An encouraging word has been sown, a connection has been made.  Hopefully, another life lesson has taken root.