Colorado State MTA Conference

This past weekend I attended the annual conference of the Colorado State Music Teachers Association on the campus of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. I haven’t been able to attend a state conference in seven years, so I really enjoyed this opportunity.

The featured artists were Timothy Fallon, tenor and Ammiel Bushakevitz, piano. They gave a collaborative concert and both taught masterclasses. I really enjoyed the piano masterclass with Mr. Bushakevitz. I was struck with the way he talked about the composers (in this case, Chopin, Debussy and Haydn), their personalities and influences and how you can see that in the music they wrote. The student performers were able to assimilate this information into their pieces immediately (e.g. Chopin’s timidity and moodiness, Debussy’s love of symbolism, Haydn’s jocularity).

One of my favorite workshops from the weekend was given by Dr. Jessica Johnson, professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison titled “All Hands on Keys: Strategies for Teaching Students with Small Hands”. Her video demonstrations of small-handed pianists straining and forcing their hands to reach large intervals was enlightening. She presented excellent resources and tips for negotiating pieces with large hand spans. As a small-handed pianist, I was very interested in these tips and also more than a little jealous of her ergonomically-sized piano keyboard (7/8 size).

The CSMTA board and general meetings were very interesting to see how the organization is run. The luncheon was terrific, as it honored the outgoing board, the incoming board and several members who had earned distinctions. One member from our local association was honored for having been a CSMTA member for fifty years. What an accomplishment!

It was great chatting with old friends and making new friends from around the state. As a private piano teacher, I seldom get to work alongside colleagues in the field, so the opportunity to “talk shop” was wonderful and inspiring.

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“The Talent Code” Book Review

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Published in April 2009, Coyle “examines research into myelin, a neural insulator produced when we repeatedly ‘fire a particular circuit’ “; explores ways in which people are motivated to develop their skills, and identifies the winning strategies of master coaches who produce world-class performers and athletes.

Coyle was one of the first researchers to support the benchmark that to produce world-class skill in any area, a person must invest 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their particular field – music, sports, etc. This research is fascinating and definitely worth examining in regards to helping our students develop their own talent. However, I was extremely interested in the last section dedicated to master coaches.

How do the master coaches pull out the best in their students?

Of the many excellent examples contained in the book, I boiled them down to a few take-aways I want to improve upon in my own teaching.

Concerning famed football coach John Wooden (emphasis, mine):

“He didn’t only tell them what to do: he became what they should do, communicating the goal with gesture, tone, rhythm, and gaze. The signals were targeted, concise, unmissable, and accurate.”

[Researchers of John Wooden] “Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way.”

“He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part method”—he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition.Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts,’ he wrote in The Wisdom of Wooden. “The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated,” he said in You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned, authored by Gallimore and former Wooden player Swen Nater. ‘Repetition is the key to learning.'”

Concerning research of other master teachers:

“[They teach in a] series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts. They never began sentences with “Please, would you” or “Do you think” or “What about;” instead they spoke in short imperatives. “Now do X” was the most common construction; the “you will” was implied.”

“Of the many phrases I heard echoing around the talent hotbeds, one stood out as common to all of them. It was: ‘Good. Okay, now do_____.’ A coach would employ it when a student got the hang of some new move or technique. As soon as the student could accomplish the feat (play that chord, hit that volley), the coach would quickly layer in an added difficulty. Good. Okay, now do it faster. Now do it with the harmony. Small successes were not stopping points but stepping-stones.”

“‘Sixty percent of what you teach applies to everybody,” [Tom Martinez] continued. “The trick is how you get that sixty percent to the person. If I teach you, I’m concerned about what you think and how you think. I want to teach you how to learn in a way that’s right for you. My greatest challenge is not teaching Tom Brady but some guy who can’t do it at all, and getting them to a point where they can. Now that is coaching.'”

Already I have found myself analyzing my teaching in a new light, and I’ve already started incorporating more short coaching-type speech into each lesson. It will be interesting to evaluate the long-term effect this has in the weeks, months and years to come.

The Practice of Practice (Book Review)

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The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum is a must-read for teachers who are passionate about helping students improve. Even though we may wish otherwise, there is really only one way to improve our skills, and that is to practice. Mr. Harnum’s insightful and comprehensive look at practice was both enlightening to me as a teacher, and highly motivational to me as a musician. In short, it made me want to practice!

As a teacher, here are a few things I learned and hope to pass along to my students:

…a few activities highly accomplished professional musicians consider to be practice:
Listening
Performing
Watching others perform
Playing informally
Improvising
Teaching
Composing
Group rehearsal

…thinking about practice in terms of the amount of hours you have to put in is misleading. Put in as many hours as you’re driven to put in. It’s the passion and the interest that are most important, not the numerical value of accumulated practice hours. Forget the amount of hours you practice and focus instead on the quality of the practice in the hours.

I found this extremely helpful:

Here are a few things a good teacher will do:
Gain and maintain your interest in the task.
Simplify the task.
Emphasize certain aspects of the task that will help you “get it”.
Help you control your level of frustration.
Demonstrate the task.
Play along with you when necessary.

Notes on practicing creatively (my favorites are in bold):

-Practicing creatively engages you with your material like nothing else can.
-Scales – start in different places, play with different rhythms
-Playfully irreverent
-Maintain a sense of play
-Look at the problem from opposing viewpoints – backwards, inverted
Psychological distance – imagine that a problem you’re facing is something everyone encounters, and that it’s your job to find a solution to help others work through the same problem. Or imagine your techniques will be put in a method book or in a helpful YouTube video. Imagine yourself a year from now – how would that future self approach a problem in practice, or practice in general?
Imagine how someone else tackles a problem – What would {insert name of your favorite musician} do? What would a technician do?

Planning your practice session:

-Keep it simple
-Before you start, take a moment to go over what you want to accomplish. Identify the most challenging parts of the music and focus only on those, not the whole song.
-Warming up the brain/body 5-10%
-Intense focus on reaching the immediate goal you’ve set for the session 60-75%
-Play like you’re performing 20-30%
-Do double duty by warming up with tricky fingerings, articulations, etc.
-Assessment

Mental practice strategies:
Isolating problem sections to practice mentally
Self-talk
Chanting or clapping or tapping out rhythms
Singing parts
Counting
Fingering silently while hearing the music in your mind
Imagining someone you admire greatly is in the practice room listening to you closely
Visualizing a performance in great detail

How to practice with the metronome:
-Find the tempo at which you can play a short passage perfectly. Pay attention to how relaxed you are. All the tempo increases should be played with the same relaxed feeling.
-Increase the tempo just enough so you creep into the zone where you’re not comfortable any more, but are still able to play the passage. Keep repeating it until you’re relaxed and comfortable again.
-Increase the metronome speed by one or two clicks.
-Repeat
Those who used the technique of alternating between half speed and performance tempo produced the best results.
Hearing a passage played correctly at the correct tempo is a huge benefit.

The best practicers are assessing their practice all the time. They do this to:
-See progress and improvement
-Identify weakness
-Plan improvement strategy
-Realign your goals, especially short-term goals

 

The book contains many inspiring and helpful quotes. Here are a few:

The reason for lessons is to learn how to practice. And that’s it. – Bob Duke

“The first time I played a bass, I was successful. Success is not a goal. Success is in the doing. Always.”-Ian MacKaye

“Stare with your ears.”

“Talent is earned through diligence, effort, and practice.”

“If you want to keep getting better, you have to reach beyond the horizon of what you know, beyond your current ability, whatever it is.”

“Don’t label something you can’t play as “difficult”. Instead, think of challenging music not as difficult, but simply as unfamiliar. Good practice is all about embracing the challenge of making the unfamiliar, familiar.”

I highly recommend adding this to your library!

 

 

Strategically Planning Practice Habits

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I recently ran across this article about a Stanford researcher who studied ways to help B+ students raise their grades to As. The overall goal was to teach students to think strategically about how they would study:

“Our key insight in this research is the importance of being goal-directed and thoughtful about how one chooses and uses resources for learning—or to achieve any other goal for that matter,” Chen said.

Not surprisingly, the students who set goals and made a plan to achieve those goals were able to raise their test scores. Those students, when questioned, also said they had less stress taking the exam after they had strategically planned how they would study for the exam.

The article also stresses the importance of self-evaluation:

“In one experiment, 12- and 13-year-olds significantly improved their writing skills by learning to better evaluate the quality of their own work…Kids were taught what makes a good piece of writing and how to critique their own work. ‘Instead of relying on the teacher, they are taught strategies to improve their own writing—that’s the self-regulation,’ said Emily Yeomans, senior program manager at the EEF.”

Self-evaluation is a skill piano teachers have historically stressed. I remember in a college piano pedagogy class being told that my job was to work myself out of a job. That is, if I’m teaching well, my students should learn how to evaluate their own playing and make corrections as needed.

The article suggested the teacher use questions such as these to direct self-evaluation:

“What you are doing doesn’t seem to be working very well. Is there something else you can use that would help you do it better?” or “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?”

As piano teachers we have an important job and opportunity to help our students learn how to approach piano practice.

  1. We do this first by presenting a quality representation of what the end result of the practice will be – either by playing the piece well yourself or by providing quality recordings on CD or YouTube. (What will the piece sound like when I have played it correctly?)
  2. Then we teach the student the technical and musical components he needs to think about while practicing (What do I need to work on?),
  3. how to practice to accomplish the goal using repetitive, mindful, goal-oriented practice (How will I work on these things?),
  4. and how to evaluate the quality of the practice. (How will I know when I have played this piece correctly?)

All of these aspects need to be discussed at each lesson so that the student has a concrete plan of how to achieve their goals for the week.

Sometimes we make a working list on the musical score of items the student will be working on/listening for during practice. As pictured below, often I will layer concepts to be practiced: here the student worked first on the components listed above the line, then later practiced the components listed below the line.

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Personally, I think this job is both thrilling and humbling. The way we help shape our student’s practice habits may potentially shape the student’s study and work skills and help them succeed throughout life in many different paths.

 

Already in Progress

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For the past month I have been working on the Three Novelettes by Francis Poulenc, which I love for its simple beauty. It is not a difficult piece – Jane Magrath categorizes the piece as Level 10 in The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching. 

One of the most striking points my teacher made about the first novelette was that the performer should begin the piece as if it is already in progress, as if the melody already exists somewhere in time and space. He has made this point before with other pieces, and I think the thought is lovely. In my practicing I’ve noticed that if I can achieve this, it results in a more nuanced, gentle beginning.

Here is a recording of the piece played in concert by Yilin Sung:

Personal Lessons – Bach’s French Suite Number 5

Oh goodness, where do I begin with lessons on a French Suite?

First of all, I must say that I love Bach. His music just makes sense. It is so clean and precise, yet full of nuance and subtleties. In Bach you always have that moment of, after having worked and worked at it, crystal clear insight. The “ah-ha” moment of clarity.

The fifth French Suite is divided into the following dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, bourree, loure and gigue. One thing I needed to work through was how to make the individual dances a cohesive whole. Questions like tempos, energy levels, how much time to allow between movements, which repeats to take, etc. are all necessary and must be addressed.

When I first started studying this piece, I was very didactic. I remembered back to college days (and even high school) and the teaching of articulation within Bach. I had been taught that the longest note value in each dance should be legato, the shortest note value legato, and the mid-range note values should be detached. So I was religiously following these requirements. Of course you know where that leads – I was completely frustrated and was not making music at all, just becoming a robot.

When I discussed the articulation with my teacher, his thoughts were so liberating I could feel the burden rolling off my shoulders (and fingers!). His perspective is that there is so much freedom in Bach because of the lack of dynamic and articulation markings. Your overall goal and end result should be to make music – of course this needs to be within the bounds of good taste and in accordance with the style of the music. But matters of dynamics and articulation are fluid – you do not need to follow strict rules because Bach did not impose them. Even Bach’s son CPE Bach simply admonishes performers of his father’s music to use good taste.

This is wonderful news. My practice was instantly more joyful and creative. I was listening to the music more intently and with more discretion. I was making musical decisions.

Other ideas my teacher brought out in this piece were:

  1. With regard to voices – what is the spatial quality, what is the timbre
  2. The whole idea of unity and variety is fascinating and could be studied at length
  3. The issue of repeats within the individual dances – sometimes the repeated material should have variety, but it doesn’t necessarily need to change. Bach is complex and audiences welcome a second chance to hear the intricate music again.

Bach is simply a treasure-trove of musical ideas. I could play through Bach for years and years and never grow tired of it.

Personal Lessons -Soiree dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie

 I have been struck while learning Estampes with the brilliance of Debussy. When you consider the form, harmonic and melodic structures, pianism and sheer range of his compositional style, you get a small glimpse of the reason Debussy’s music will endure through the ages.

Debussy book Schmitz

The book, The Piano Works of Claude Debussy by E. Robert Schmitz has been a good resource for learning Debussy’s Estampes. I like the way Schmitz walks through each piece describing harmonies and presenting vivid, imaginative pictures of everyday life.

A few things I’ve learned about Soiree dans Grenade (Evening in Granada) from my lessons:

  1. The Habanera rhythm is delightful to play
  2. Quite often we think about projecting to an audience – playing to the back row, etc. However, the opening of Soiree is so distant that it works best to draw the audience in. To invite the audience to join in the journey.
  3. Huge chords! As I am learning this piece, I am teaching Debussy’s Claire de Lune to a student. I love the timing of this. I am embracing the struggle of learning these huge chords and can provide practical insight to him (“because I was just working on it before you arrived!”)
  4. It is fascinating to evoke the sounds of other instruments on the piano. I am a little proud that the piano is capable of such feats. 🙂

A few things I’ve learned about Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain) from my lessons:

  1. Levels of pianissimo – the energy level really dictates the mood and intensity
  2. Again, Debussy’s masterful use of harmonies. Utterly beautiful.
  3. Multiple levels of melodic activity within one measure or phrase. See measures 37-42 as an example.
  4. Juxtapositions of themes upon themselves in different tonalities and tempos. Genius.

My piano lessons have continued to stretch me to think more deeply about the pieces I’m playing, the technique involved, and the overall enjoyment of music. I’m so grateful to be able to take lessons again.