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‘He loves their lessons with you, but I just can’t get them to practice,

and don’t want to nag!’

I’ve heard this refrain oodles of times in my years of teaching and my answer to parents is …..frustrated-parent1

NAG BABY!!

OK; let me refine that a bit …. PERSUADE BABY!!

Let’s take a closer look at that statement.He loves their lessons with you, but I just can’t get them to practice, and don’t want to nag!’

Your child loves his teacher.  That’s a huge positive. The comment implies that you want your child to succeed in piano.  That’s also a huge positive.  This is NOT the time to give up when so much is going on in the plus column in the ongoing family drama of piano lessons.  Like I said, I’ve heard this refrain from scores of parents over the years.

When a piano teacher hears a statement like this they have many options available to them, especially when the student “likes them”.  Many teachers will analyze the many different aspects of the piano lessons to find a solution to this commonly heard difficulty.  There are many things a piano teacher will consider using his professional perspective drawing on his education and experience.

I may have a professional perspective, but parents, you have a more powerful and more important perspective; you have a parental perspective. I say this as a teacher; with your perspective you can provide a support that I just cannot provide.

You’re the yin to our yang

The idea of yin and yang is that, taken together, they form a complete unit, a whole. Yet, at the same time they are different.  Yin and yang do not overlap or intersect.  Teachers cannot effectively work alone. Our Yang cannot do the job alone; at least cannot do it near as effectively.

NOTE: As in all analogies, this one, too, is not perfect in all aspects.  But, here are a couple ideas that parents can do to yin yangcompliment our yang with your yin.   Here are some strategies that you can do to persuade your child not only to love their piano lessons and piano teacher but to love the whole learning experience itself, even practicing.

I want to give you two simple points that will help all parents in The Art of Subtle Persuasion and I promise ….. no nagging required.

Yin Number One – LET YOUR CHILD KNOW YOUR DESIRES

I think often what happens is the homes across America, and the world for that matter, is that a child will do something to demonstrate and interest in music.  The parent is delighted about the child’s interest in music. I also think most parents have a secret hope that their child is musical.  They have a little conversation together. The parent then asks the child if they would like music lessons.  The child enthusiastically says, “SURE!!”.  And then, I get a phone call.

In all of this little conversation the parent never expresses their personal desire to their child The child doesn’t know that their parent is as enthusiastic as they are.  Teparent and child at pianoll your child how pleased you are about his love for music and how excited you are about getting him lessons.  This is a great bonding moment!!  Take the opportunity to unify with your child on your common desire you have together.  If you’re a hugging kind of parent maybe a big hug is in order here.  If you do, that unity of desire will inform your child that he isn’t taking piano lessons totally on his own.  He knows his parent is totally on board and is invested in the endeavor.  Young children thrive on knowing they are doing something that please their parents.

I also think it’s important that when you communicate this to your child you communicate it directly into the child’s mind/soul/heart.  You want to make sure this communication takes root in your child’s person.  I think eye to eye contact is called for in this situation.  This is not something frivolous you may shout from the kitchen before meal time, like, “Wash your hands before coming to dinner.”

This shouldn’t be a one time thing, either.  In a moment like when a parent must explain to the teacher, “I just can’t get them to practice and I don’t want to nag!!” may be such a moment to reiterate you commitment of your desire for your child’s success.  Speaking of your desire for your child’s success repeats the communication that this is an activity that you both want.  It is a much stronger statement than saying, “You told me that you wanted piano lessons.”  “You told me that you wanted piano lessons.” can easily turn into a “nag” because the whole communication is focused on the child. Speaking of your desire for your child’s success repeats the “we” unity.  You are part of this team effort.

I know there’s a lot of discussion that parent’s should not live their desires through their children.  I agree with that.  That is something to be avoided.  I think, though, in reaction to that concept one can go too far in the other direction. That other direction is that the child must make Parent-child-talkevery decision totally on his own accord or it must be looked upon as a parental manipulation and therefore no good. What I’m encouraging is a middle ground where the parent guides, encourages and persuades their child to follow through on a decision that was made together, not through any coercion whatsoever, but through mutual agreement.  Since it’s a mutual agreed upon commitment, you, as parent, have input in what your little team does when that initial resolve and enthusiasm wanes.

Notice, our first point is something totally out of the realm of the teacher.  This is your yin.  My yang comes from a totally different realm where there is no intersection.

Yin Number Two – KNOW YOUR CHILD.  Often, with younger students, parents will think a lesson time right after school may be convenient.  But, it ends out that the student is tired after being at school all day and really need some time to “recharge” or needs a snack to sharpen their mind up for piano lessons.  This is knowledge that cannot be known by the teacher because some children do very well with a piano lesson immediately after school.

Other important things that a teacher doesn’t know.

Is the piano is a area of the home where practice may be accomplished where other family members will feel put upon to “endure”?  But (and a very important but) the piano should also be in a place in the home where people can easily gather and music can be readily shared.

When I was a young student my family put our instrument (an electronic organ) in our living room.  The organ had headphones and when I practiced other family members could use the living room without me distracting them or they distracting me.  This was back in the day when the living room was the center of family activity when we were not all eating.  BUT, when the family members wanted me to play having the organ in the living room was the perfect place because it was the most social room of the house.  My grandfather lived with us and he would have me playchristmas at piano the hymns he loved.  When the insurance man would come to explain a new policy, my parents would ask me to play something, especially if I was practicing.  When my friends would come over and want me to play baseball they would come through to the living room and I’d play something I was learning.  When relatives would come and visit everyone would sit in the living room and invariably someone would ask me to play.

The point here is all social occasions are enhanced through music and it’s great incentive to have young student use their developing skills to share with others.  Don’t allow piano to become a lonely activity. Music is to be shared.  Nothing can persuade a student to practice than to know he can have all the attention of everyone in the room for those moments he can share music with others.

Again, this is the yin you add to my yang.  I cannot provide opportunities at this gratifying a level.  I can provide a recital or two per year or an academic setting of a performance class.  My opportunities are bronze or, at best, silver.  Yours are pure gold.

These two point will add powerful yin to my yang and should go a long way in The Art of Subtle Persuasion  …. no nagging required!!

 

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Freebie Friday LOGOAbout six months ago I began FREEBIE FRIDAY over at PianoTeacherPress.com  Every Friday I offer a free excerpt from one of my Piano Teacher Press products.  I was recently looking over the wide variety of products that I’ve given away and I thought it should be something more widely known to my loyal readers and your piano teaching friends.

Not only do I give away a FREE excerpt each week but I provide a short commentary on the selection explaining how it can benefit a student in your studio.  To find out what we’re offering this week please click [here] on our FREEBIE FRIDAY LINK.

Here’s a smattering of what you have been missing by not being part of our FREEBIE FRIDAY GIVEAWAY!!

BK1A_00A OUTCOVER (COLOR)If you have difficulty getting the very young preschool student to read music KEYBOARD KIDS reading method may be your answer.  Our reading method introduces one music symbol at a time in a leisurely paced manner where young students are never overwhelmed.  Suzuki teachers have found KEYBOARD KIDS as a great supplement to introduce their young students into reading music notation.  I have used it for a over quarter century and it has been a great success.  One week I offered The Cool Ghoul as a FREEBIE FRIDAY GIVEAWAY.

SAMPLE - The Cool GhoulEach symbol on this page was introduced individually before The Cool Ghoul appears in their book.  … the quarter note (walk note), the rest, the bar line, the staff line, the treble and bass clef, the time signature (only the top number is given at this stage of learning), the double bar; even the fingering and the stem direction of the notes were introduced as in individual concept.

Reading is introduced to students as STEPS and SKIPS and students are given assignment pages to cement this critical reading concept into the students thinking.  This is introduced from the very beginning.  Students are taught to underC000-COLORIZED My Very First Theory Book (Cover)stand notation where reading becomes a natural process.

To help students understand STEPS and SKIPS we have My Very First Theory Book.  This book gives students exercises to help students think in steps and skips.  One FREEBIE FRIDAY I offered a page that helps student think in steps; not through notation, but through the alphabet.FF - SAMPLE The Next Letter

NOTICE:  This page gives the student the musical alphabet where “A” follows “G”.  After students gain mental facility in learning to think ahead one (musical) alphabet letter; students are given pages to help them think one step backwards.  The same exercises are repeated for skips.

These little exercise is a very good one to help students in doing simple thought exercises in basic reasoning and is one of the ways where understanding music is very beneficial for mental development.

This book provides a very good supplemental book to the KEYBOARD KIDS series of reading books.

Another week I also used The Cool Ghoul as my Freebie Friday Giveaway but this time as part of an exercise designed to build a students rhythmic skills.  This exercise is found in our Discovery Piano System – THEORY Book 1.00-FC THEORY_Middle C - COLOR Book 1  I will speak in more detail about The Discovery Piano System in a subsequent blog about our Freebie Friday program.  In THEORY Book 1 there is a section of nearly a dozen pieces that have student and teacher play in ensemble.  One player is the pianist and the other provides a rhythmic background played on a common rhythm instrument.FF - SAMPLE The COOL Ghoul

In this example the rhythm player must play on those beats where the piano player rests, almost always on beat 2.  On the first exercises of this rhythm section of THEORY Book 1 the rhythm part emphasizes the easier skill of playing on the downbeat (beat 1).  This exercises begins to develop the skill of having the student learn to feel an offbeat.  Even though the exercises are designed around simple concepts they are designed in a progressive manner where success is most easily achieved.  Students discover musical concepts in an almost seamless stream of little steps.

As I hope you can see our FREEBIE FRIDAY Giveaways not only give you free music but they give you pedagogical information where you can use the free excerpts and maybe even give you some ideas you can use in your own studio teaching.  To join our growing list of FREEBIE FRIDAY teachers go [HERE]– find the RED BUTTON that looks like the link below (which will be red and not purple) and in your correspondence write – SUBSCRIBE FREEBIE FRIDAY. FREEBIE FRIDAY BUTTONBe on the lookout for future blogs that go over all that we’ve been giving away each FREEBIE FRIDAY!!

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Of all the blogs I’ve written the one that has generated the most controversy has been “Piano Lessons Are FUN? THINK AGAIN!!”  I would like to revisit that topic with a slightly different angle.

The angle I’d like to explore in this blog is that of “excess“.  From this angle I think you can keep Keyboard Kidsyour own definition of fun in tact.  Whenever this topic comes up it seems several people will make the point of the necessity of defining the word “fun”.  This blog will allow you to define the word “fun” however you wish.  My point will be, with whatever your definition of “fun” you use, if it is done to excess you will undermine your effectiveness as a teacher.

FIRST POINT —  As a piano teacher your primary job is to teach, to educate, NOT HAVE FUN.  When you are not giving your primary attention to your primary job your priorities are in need of adjustment.  If your FIRST QUESTION is how can I make this teaching task “more fun” I think you’re asking the wrong question.  The FIRST QUESTION should always be how can I make this teaching task make sense to the student.  Your first question reveals your first concern.  Is it to teach or to have fun?

If your first question is about teaching, about educating, the element of making the task enjoyable, or fun, will just be one element of several.  There may be other elements that need attention.  Other elements may include, “How can I make this more clear?”  “How much detail is necessary at this time for this student to understand?” “How does this student best learn information?” “Can I make this more point more effectively through a story?”  “Would an activity that would involve more student interaction be more effective?”  “Could this task be accomplished through a demonstration of some sort?”  “Would my student benefit from more repertoire helping to reinforce the point the student needs to understand?”  “Would any sort of written assignment be beneficial?”

BUT, if the first question is about fun then every task listed above is evaluated according to its fun value and not its educational value.  You may think, “Going into detail may bore him.  I can’t to that.”  “Written assignments are a drag.  No one likes doing them.”  “This student doesn’t like this kind of piece.  He may lose interest if I assign it.”

YET, if the first question is about teaching, about educating, you will answer the questions above like this, “How can I make detail work interesting to this student?”  “How can I convince this student that this piece would benefit him?”  “What would aid this student in helping him see the value of this written assignment?”

Yes, these are more difficult questions to answer, but answering these questions can lead to a more intellectually engaged student and that, in turn, will result in much higher teacher satisfaction.

If a teacher’s primary concern is education, it will lead them to better questions and therefore better answers.  However, if your primary concern is making lessons “fun” you will be preventing yourself from asking proper questions and the answers to bad questions will result in answers that will lead to unsatisfactory results.

Now lets examine the concept of how excessive emphasis on wrong values can lead to very unhealthy consequences.

salt shakerLet’s compare “fun” in teaching to additives  like “salt” or “sugar” to the foods we eat.  Looking at these additives positively, we can all agree that salt can make something palatable, edible.  How many times have we been served something that needed salt to make it palatable?  Without the salt we wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, have eaten the item served to us.  In like manner, some teaching tasks need to be salted to make them palatable to the student.

HOWEVER, I think we have all found that salt isn’t the only way to make something palatable.  Broiling cod in orange juice is terrific and requires no salt at all.  Often, herbs provide a great substitute for salt.  Sprinkling some Parmesan cheese on vegetables can cut down the salt content and eliminate the need for the salt shaker.  The point, through analogy, is that “fun” isn’t the only way of making piano “palatable”.  spice rackThere are many ways of making lessons palatable and even “delicious”.  Stories. Analogies. Demonstrations. Goals.

In fact, too much salt is not good for you.  Too much salt over a period of time is a cause of many health problems including high blood pressure and poor kidney function.  In like manner, always choosing “fun” will just as assuredly cause problems in piano study, including the “addiction” to “fun” as being a necessary additive to all education.  Would we become “addicted” to potato chips if they were unsalted?  Students need a judicious variety of additives to make their piano study healthy where they do not become sick.  Too much “fun” is as problematic as too much “salt” in the long term is, in both general health and piano lessons.

Let’s look at sugar.  “Sugar” is another culprit that’s used to excess and can be analogous to thoseSugar Bowl that feel the need to “sugar” every piano lesson, every activity, with “fun”.  But, we also know that too much sugar (excess) leads to diabetes; and diabetes can lead to other maladies, including blindness and even kidney failure.  Again, I see a direct line from a preoccupation with fun to meager results (poor piano health) after years of piano lessons.  When I end a lesson by telling the student, “We had a good lessons today!”, I’m always thinking the student learned a lot in his 30 or 60 minutes; not, that the student left the lesson in good spirits because we had fun in all the activities.

Also, don’t confuse palatability with addiction (excess).  A little sweetener is completely acceptable.  The problem is confusing taste with nutrition.  Sugar doesn’t give food more nutritional value it just make it more palatable, but the excess used day after day is what causes health problems.   In like manner, an undue concern to making our lessons sweet enough so they will always be enthusiastically consumed, is wrongheaded.  Our main concern should be the “nutritional value” of our lessons with only a secondary concern given to their “palatability”, and excesses need to be curtailed, if not dropped.

But let’s realize that food outlets know our addiction to salt and sugar.  People enjoy food that is salty or sweet.  It’s easy to eat a large bag of chips because we like the salt.  We can easily eat a dozen cookies because we love the sweetness.  We have become accustomed to unhealthy levels of salt and sugar because we are not sated by a few chips or a couple cookies.  We have been told by health care workers of all stripes to avoid excesses in salt and sugar.  I think the exact same thing could be said about education with the constant emphasis on making everything fun.

How many educational products are sold because of its “fun value” where its “educational value” is just given a passing incidental mention.  That’s because “fun” sells.  In fact, publishers will print and advertise products simply for their “fun value”.  Teachers can become addicted too and think that “fun” is the way to go and think through the pedagogical products they purchase.  Products that do not convince you of their “fun value” are viewed as not totally desirable.  Fun has become, not an additive, but an addiction given to us at excessive rates, and it’s harming our long term educational effectiveness.

I do need to make one important point before closing.  I am NOT saying that we don’t advertise ourselves as making music lessons “fun”.  We all have to dutifully mention that we make piano lessons “fun”; but, I’m sure we do that as a matter of feeling the societal pressure that it’s necessary to demonstrate we are not that stereotypical curmudgeon of past generations that rapped students on the knuckles for poor technical form or for scolding students for not practicing.   I get that.  I understand.

But I do see the need for us to see the serious drawbacks that can occur if we get caught up on the “fun trap”.  A trap that gives excessive attention to the feeling that making lessons “fun” is given a mouse_trappriority that it simply does not deserve.  “Fun” must only be considered an additive to make lessons palatable and needs to be administered judiciously, because in excess, it will lead to poor lesson health.  Remember “fun” isn’t the only additive in our teaching pallet; there’s stories, analogies, demonstrations, goals, and plain friendliness and genuine interest in our students as wonderful people.  But our priority, our first concern, must be on making our lessons educationally rich where music can work its magic in our student’s lives.

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As a piano teacher and as a parent I can say without equivocation that being a parent is tremendously more difficult.  This is true in spite of 6 years of music lessons through my grade school years that prepared me for 6 more years to attain 2 college degrees that prepared me just to enter my profession as a music teacher.  So, the advice I give here is given humbly because I think both of us want your child to be a resounding success in their music study.  I want to succeed because of my calling as a music teacher and I’m sure you want to succeed because of your vastly more difficult challenge of being a good parent.

Musical Family
I’m not going to give you 12 points on how to be a good “piano parent”.  I’m not going to give you 7 points, or even 3 points.  I’m just going to give you 1 simple point. That point is …….

PREPARE YOUR CHILD TO BE A GOOD STUDENT

student

When I became a parent in the late 1970’s there was a move away from the view that “a child should be seen but not heard”.  Children were encouraged to interact with adults.  Children were taught to be assertive. Children were taught to express themselves confidently.  As parents we listened to our children and did our best to respect their thoughts and wishes.  All these things are proper and good.  However ……..

……. these good traits do not always work for the best in a teacher-student relationship.

teacher student

The most common issue teachers face is the student that looks on the teacher as their buddy or their friend.  Sometimes teachers affectionately refer to these students as a “Chatty Kathy”.  Of course I consider all my students my little friends but in a teacher-student sense.  Some students will take each lesson as an opportunity to tell me everything that’s going on in their life.  I must say that sometimes this is all very interesting but it’s really not critical that I know that their little brother hid the beans he didn’t want to eat for supper behind the trash can.  And I certainly don’t want to know that mommy made daddy sleep on the couch last night! It’s important for a young child to know that even though their teacher is friendly and interested in them, that the main reason they come to the piano lesson is to learn about playing the piano and not sharing their life experiences, interesting though they are.  Their relationship with their teachers is a special one; and one that is unlike other relationships they will encounter in their lives.  It is a relationship that’s different than the one with their parents, or, their relationship with their peers.

Teachers love it when students feel free to communicate and interact with them during their lesson.  This free flow of communication helps the teacher in many ways.  It helps the teacher in making good educational decisions.  If a student expresses his like for a certain kind of music and his dislike for another kind of music that is important information for a teacher to know. A good teacher will consider this when choosing appropriate music; music the student will enjoy practicing.  However, this free communication does not mean that the teacher is duty bound to direct the student to music that is limited only to their area of interest.  A teacher-student relationship is one where the teacher helps expand the view of his student.  A good teacher will never discount the views of his student but he will want to expand the views to take in more territory.  So, it is important for any child to know that in a teacher-student relationship the teacher is going to be expanding horizons and moving the students out of their “comfort zones” in order to expand those horizons.  This is part of the teacher-student relationship.

Again, it is very helpful when a student is assertive.  If a student is assertive and says I DON’T LIKE FINGER EXERCISES that is very useful information for a teacher to know.  With information given that bluntly, the teacher can immediately respond.  When I’m confronted with this type of assertiveness I do not take offense.  I do not take it personally as an attack on my teaching.  I want to know “why” the student asserted this.  I will ask the student many questions to determine the “why”.  Were the exercises too difficult.  Were they uninteresting.  Were they intimidating because of the speed I may have demonstrated the exercise.  Were the exercises awkward for their hands.  With the student’s assertiveness I can immediately go about solving a difficulty.  However, this assertiveness does not mean I abandon the idea of finger exercises.  A student needs to know that in a teacher-student relationship assertiveness does not translate into a capitulation on the teachers part.

We live in an age when bullying is an issue we must confront.  We teach our children, quite correctly, not to be intimidated by bullies.  We teach them to be confident in their convictions, to stand up for themselves as to not be influenced by the tactics of a bully.  However, taking this attitude into the teacher-student relationship can be problematic.  This attitude often comes up in a piano lesson when the teacher will make a correction in a student’s performance, on a piece they’ve prepared for their lesson.  The student will resist the teacher’s instruction, confidently thinking the teacher is wrong in their evaluation.  Often when this happens I will try to come from a different angle to make the same point.  Again, in the teacher-student relationship the teacher is there to educate the student in their musical and pianistic understanding and this will often challenge the student, especially as the student gets into the junior high and high school years.  Again, a major part of the teacher-student relationship is to correct and refine.  All quality teachers do this with the student’s best interest in mind.  It is never done to tear a student down; though, at times, especially if the student is having a bad day, it may feel like it.  It is done to build them up and make the student better.  To have a good teacher-student relationship this must be understood.

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parent student teacher

I certainly understand the difficult demands of raising children in the 21st century and if I were a parent I would certainly teach my children to interact easily with adults,  to be assertive, to express themselves confidently.  I would teach them in how to deal with strong personalities and bullies. I would do my best to always respect their thoughts and wishes.  I would even give them a certain suspicion of adult authority figures. But, I would also temper these thoughts where there would be limits in their interaction with adults where adults would still be given due deference.  I would temper their assertiveness with the ability to listen to the wishes of others.  I would temper confidence with humility and teach them the best way to gain the respect of others is give due respect in return.  I think these points will all go towards preparing young children to be good students where music lessons will be the resounding success we desire for student, parent and teacher.  And, I think it will develop outstanding teacher-student relationships.

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Piano Teacher Press is adding an exciting new line of teaching products called IMITATION SOLOS.  IMITATION SOLOS are FOLIOS of musical selections, theory briefs, written work, performance exercises and certificates of achievement.

The basic concept of IMITATION SOLOS is to take a selection from the Classical student repertoire and arrange a well known Folk Song in the manner of the Classical selection.  If the Classical piece contains alberti bass patterns the Folk Song is arranged with alberti bass patterns.  If the Classical piece contains a particular syncopated motif the Folk Song is arranged with the same syncopated motif.

The reason I originally did this was to take the “mystique” out of Classical music.  I remember as a grade school student in the 1960’s my friends talking about the Beatles.  They were in awe of them because they did some of the same thing in their songs as Beethoven.  WOW!!  My friends thought if the Beatles did the same things as Beethoven they must be on a higher plane of musical composition than even Elvis.

As young music students discover the musical world they are mentally trying to figure it out.  In the process they can come to some opinions that are formed without quite enough information.  IMITATION SOLOS were written to help students on that journey of mental discovery.  If the unknown “mystical” world of Classical music can be demystified by comparing it to something in the more familiar world of folk music then we will have facilitated that mental journey of discovery.

AN EXAMPLE

Most IMITATION SOLOS are going to begin with a page called Technically SpeakingTechnically Speaking lays out the technically common feature(s) between the Classical Composition and the Folk Song.

Let’s take the idea of Melodic Imitation.  In my private studio I’ve always used Kabalevsky’s elementary composition Chit Chat but since Kabalevsky’s compositions are still under copyright protection I composed an equivalent in a piece called HelloHello.

Hello – Hello is another piece of direct melodic imitation.  Each measure is directly imitated in the next.

Hello Hello Sample

Hello – Hello is followed by treating the Folk Song – Are You Sleeping? in the same exact manner of direct melodic imitation.

Are You Sleeping SAMPLE

But IMITATION SOLOS do not stop here.  There are two more important sections designed to help the student assimilate the concept of Melodic Imitation; WRITE ON! and PLAY ON!

In WRITE ON!  the student is given a little composing/copying assignment that reinforces the idea of melodic imitation through writing.  The student is given another popular folk song, Three Blind Mice, and asked to complete each of the short phrases in direct imitation; just like the Classical Composition and the Folk Song.

Three Blind Mice SAMPLE

After students do their written work they must play that work, their own creative effort, to see the result and to solidify the concept of Melodic Imitation.

When students experience Melodic Imitation in Hello – Hello and then see the same concept expressed in an arrangement of Are You Sleeping?; the “mystique” of Classical music becomes part of the common language of all music. Students begin to feel like they are an intellectual part of the long tradition of Classical music expressed through its actual creation.  This is a very different feel and experience than just learning to physically “play pieces”.

After the completion of understanding the concept of Melodic Imitation through Technically Speaking, learning the Classical Composition, learning the Folk Song arrangement (with the option to memorize these pieces), doing the WRITE ON! assignment to understand the concept through the act of writing, and finally playing the PLAY ON! assignment to gain fluency in the concept the student can feel a degree of ownership in understand an important aspect of musical understanding.  They can and should be justly awarded a certificate for his efforts.  There are two certificates that is included in your FOLIO; one for black and white printers and one for color printers.  Each certificate has “boxes” to check off the individual assignments to earn the certificate in Melodic Imitation”.

B&W Cert SAMPLE

COLOR Cert SAMPLE

I have about 20 IMITATION SOLO FOLIOS in various stages of development.  They fall in the mid elementary to the mid intermediate level of advancement.  Stay tuned for future installments of IMITATION SOLOS.

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Watch a YouTube Video narrated by Professor I.M. Pedantic.  Click HERE or on the graphic below.  (The video includes a performance of the Classical Composition and the Folk Song arrangement).PTP VIDEO LOGO -Professor Pedantic Speaks

To purchase IMITATION SOLO – Melodic Imitation go to Piano Teacher Press and click HERE or on the graphic below.  (The Web Site also includes a performance of the Classical Composition and the Folk Song arrangement).

PTP - Piano LOGO

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It is almost a mantra among piano teachers that they should teach artistry from the very first lesson.  This sounds very lofty.  It just sounds correct.  How could anyone disagree with something so sensible?

As a young teacher I was convinced that this would be my approach.  I was convicted to become the very best teacher I could be and that my students were going to become artistic performers.  I always was patient but I kept my standards very high.  I did my best to make sure there were no breaks in legato phrasing.  Every dynamic change needed to be clearly discerned.  We would work for perfectly timed ritardandos at the end of their compositions.  Staccatos passages needed to be perfectly even in their duration.  I would not allow a student to graduate from a piece until it was thoroughly mastered.  When my students were judged in their Guild Auditions the judges were very pleased with my attention to detail.  One judge told me that I brought each student to the potential of their ability.  I was pleased.

I was teaching artistry from the very first lesson and getting good results.  One year at Guild Auditions our judge was from the piano faculty of Carnegie Mellon University.  Her name was Helen Gossard.  She was quiet, well spoken and very intelligent.  I had the opportunity to speak with her several times during her stay judging my center, since I was the chairman of the center. I give her credit for helping me look at artistry from a different perspective.

I remember her telling me that she would give a student credit for simply making a good effort at playing a staccato passage.  I thought differently.  A good effort isn’t enough.  It must be done properly.  I mentioned previous judges comments that they appreciated my attention to detail.  She mentioned the work of another teacher in my center, a teacher in her 60’s when I was in my 30’s, who had much more experience than I.  She mentioned the high quality of her work.  I had to admit to the high quality of her work, though I thought I did a better job in teaching musical detail.  Ms. Gossard told me that the detail she taught was very good.

This experience got me to start thinking about my teaching and to consider if I was missing things because of being so strictly focused on performance artistry.  I questioned this not because I didn’t have a full class of students or that students were quitting, in fact, I would even inherit a few of this other teacher’s students through transfers.

I began to consider that there were other ways to consider artistry.  One important way is to consider the artistry of teaching itself, not only the artistry in performing music.  Everything I was teaching was driven by artistry whether it was scales, arpeggios, chords, transposing, ear training, ….. everything.  But giving thought to the artistry of teaching was a brand new avenue for thought that I had given very little attention.

I think one can learn a lot from observing artists in non musical fields and how they approach their art.  One TV show I loved watching as a young child was a show where I could observe John Gnagy, an artist, drawing landscapes and other drawings.

Observing an artist drawing a portrait of a person is very much like a piano teacher forming (drawing) a young musician.

I think this analogy will help give you  a different vision of how to develop a young musician.  Yes, it’s full of detail, but it’s not a detail where one notices a perfection on individual parts but a detail of general shapes and patterns that eventually emerge into a beautiful picture.  The artist will develop the portrait moving from place to place in the drawing adding more and more detail and the drawing emerges from the canvas.  This is NOT at all analogous to the image of my teaching, where every element of their composition had to be perfectly mastered before I was satisfied to move the student to new repertoire.

SNIP 1 – THE BEGINNING

Snip 1Here is the drawing at the very beginning of the process.  There is no detail at this juncture, just a framework to get started.  We cannot discern,with any certainty, the image from these elemental markings.  I remember in my initial interview with a student as a young teacher I would ask the student very non musical questions.  Can you say the alphabet to G?  Can you say the alphabet backwards from G to A?  I would play little games with the student to determine if they were right handed or left handed.  I would ask the parent questions about their piano (no one had keyboards in the 60’s).  I would ask the parent where the piano was in their home.  I was just laying a framework of questions to see if we had the elemental markings necessary for a successful piano student.  At least I was doing this right.

SNIP 2 – THE FIRST IMAGE

Snip 2On the second image we can discern the outlines of a man.  We have the shape of a head containing an ear, an eye, a nose, the beginnings of a neck and a mouth.  We have a shape but we do not have detail.  I can now see the concept of giving a student credit for attempting staccato even though it may not be executed with great precision and detail.  In the first months of study it’s perfectly OK to be concerned with teaching the general “shape of staccato” but, this may not be the time to be concerned with great precision in the detail in its execution.  That detail can wait for another time.

But, the obvious question is “What do we then teach?”  “What do we do with the lesson time?” At this stage, you teach general musical shapes not being concerned with the detail that can wait for a future time.  You learn to teach these basic concepts and be satisfied by the efforts of the student that they can achieve at that moment in their development.  If eighth notes are not perfectly even that’s OK.  As they develop, under you watchful eye, this will develop.  There are certainly going to be many repertoire pieces that are going to feature eighth notes. But, to become fixated on the artistry of performance waiting for perfection from the student is like our artist working on the nose of his painting until it’s perfect in every detail before moving to the eye.  We must learn to be much more holistic in moving the complete performance ability of the student in all its individual parts (shapes) forward.

SNIP 3 –  BEGIN DETAIL, BUT ONLY AT A MODERATE LEVEL

Sniip 3At the next level we begin adding some detail, but only at a moderate level.  After the basic shapes are gently sketched out we are ready to begin filling out the detail.  Also, the painting begins adding some issues of depth perception.  Also, notice at this juncture, the back of the head and the ear is still only sketched.

Applying this analogously to music performance we can make our students aware of some moderate level of detail in dynamics.  We could make students aware of some basic details on music forms.  Teaching, for example, about binary form is fine.  But, going into the detail of key changes and modulation through the A and B sections is an example of adding more detail than is necessary at this stage.  Some introductory comments about music’s style periods may be fine but the necessity of going into more detail isn’t necessary at this point.  Again, think holistically.  The goal is to keep in mind the whole image. We can make students aware of phrases in a general way but at this stage there’s no need to become specific or elaborate.  The goal is to move all the individual parts slowly forward at generally the same pace.  Why teach sotto voce when basic dynamic contrasts are not easily executable?  Maybe our student, at this level, is having difficulty in keeping his accompaniments sufficiently soft.  It would be a much better use of time to begin to work on this detail at a moderate level than the subtlety of sotto voce.

SNIP 4 –  BE PATIENT! EVEN AT MODERATE DETAIL THERE’S A LOT OF WORK TO DO

Snip 4At the intermediate level of this drawing there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to patiently be completed.  One thing I discovered when I was on artistry from the very first lesson approach was that my students could play well.  They scored very well at auditions and festivals, but they couldn’t read well.  This was a direct result of not building the whole student and being overly focused on performance detail.  It was actually a disservice to my students.

Many young students get to the intermediate level in late grade school and middle school years.  At this age their identity with popular music becomes very strong.  It’s the music of their peers.  Using popular music as a means to develop sight reading skills makes great sense.  Give them popular music, a lot of it.  It doesn’t even have to be at their performance level.  Giving students music below their performance level is perfect for sight reading material.

I find popular music provides very good material for teaching students about phrasing and the singing musical line.  It also provides good rhythmic challenges; different rhythmic challenges than classical music, but it is still good material for teaching students moderate level detail work for most students in their teen years.

But, there are many things that can be included in this intermediate level to be taught at a moderate level of detail.  The four major stylistic eras can be explored with some introductory music history.  An introduction to Baroque dances, an outline of the history of the piano, the association with composers to their style period would each make for a framework of study of music history to be fleshed out if lessons continue at a high school or collegiate level.

While students are learning their popular music, continue to work on developing the whole musician and work on music from every performance angle but still at a moderate level.  We’re not teaching students at a graduate school level.

SNIP 5 – MORE PATIENCE! Ending Moderate Detail/Filling in the Gaps

Snip 5Take time to think what are the basic shapes that need thought at the elementary level.  Think of every possible musical shape.  Often, we will think of rather sophisticated things, like unusual meters as 5/4 or 7/8.  Ask yourself, “How can I best prepare my students for these meters in the elementary level as “basic shapes?”  “How can I move my student from the elementary level to the intermediate level in teaching these meters?”  What would these meters look like at a moderate level of detail?  The goal is to lay the proper framework at the elementary level to move the student to the level of moderate detail and difficulty.  To do this without proper preparation is going to take considerably more time than with proper preparation.  Every part of our drawing begins with basic shapes before detail is added and piano teachers need to be thinking in the same manner.

The artistry of teaching is a very rich and rewarding enterprise but it only is achieved with a lot of active purpose and mental effort.  It is also a very different enterprise that the artistry of performance even though it may use much of the same information.

STEP 6 – LET’S BECOME TRULY DETAILED

Snip 6At this stage the drawing is really beginning to look like a work of art.  An image is beginning to emerge.

I look at this extended process as NOT going from Point A to Point B but rather going from Point A to Point Z.   Going from Point A to Point B just requires simple easily discernible logic.  Going from no dynamics to learning forte vs piano is a rather easy step from the point of teaching; though it takes some patience and insistence on the teacher’s part for the student to master this basic rudimentary means of expression.  The same could be said for developing a staccato and a legato touch.

But, from going to Point A to Point Z is like the long process of learning to express the musical line. This is something that is well beyond the simple logic from going from Point A to Point B.  Phrasing beautifully is a long journey that requires a sophisticated touch.  It requires nuance.  It required the development of an artistic sense to intuit the rise and fall of the melodic line.  It requires a sense of a beginning leading to an end.  It includes a sense of breathing.  It includes an apprehension of the continuity of one phrase to the next.  It requires “sound poetry”.  I think if you would write your own list you could add many other very valid points.  All this leads to the fact that for something as sophisticated as artistically expressive music lines, we have so many elements that it cannot possibly be taught as a Point A going to Point B.  To burden an elementary student with this like asking a first grader to understand geometry.

It may be a good idea for a teacher to develop a repertoire of compositions that include your major points of phrasing you feel are musical necessities to great phrasing; in fact maybe have several pieces for each point.  It may also be a good idea to make a list of several Point A to Point Z issues that need a long look for mastery.  Understand meter, simple and compound through all the basic time signatures may be one.  Understand piano technique would be another; moving the student from simple ideas to moderately sophisticated ideas to advanced ideas.  It may be easier to just allow this to happen as the repertoire advances but isolating these issues would be advantageous to both teacher and student and really add the concept of the artistry of teaching.

STEP 7 – LET’S GET REAL!

Snip 8Here’s the final picture in all its detail.  What began as simple framework shapes is now a  real piece of art.  Developing a student as a “work of art” in itself requires thought of someone that approaches teaching itself as an art form and then superimposes his educational art upon his artistic craft of musical performance.

We notice an aged man, mature, detailed down to the lines and wrinkles of his old worn face and beard.  The artist created this drawing not by drawing each feature perfectly and independently of the other.  He drew it by first outlining his basic facial structure and slowly adding general details of each feature and finally by adding the final details which distinguishes this man as a unique individual.

I think by approaching music teaching from this perspective will provide us with an approach that will keep us from an ill advised fastidiousness to detail, that I fell into in my early teaching career, to a panoramic view with an eye to the end that still begins with the very first lesson.

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Many students take music lessons for several years.  Very good piano teachers have taught many students from preschool until they get involved in other activities in their early teen years.  At the end of that time many students can play individual pieces very convincingly.  The musicianship is strong.  The technique is solid.  The understanding of their piece is stylistically accurate.  You know from the performance that the student was “well taught”.  The student is “accomplished”.

But, put a new piece of music in front of this same  hard working student and it’s like having a young grade school student read a page of Chauser’s Cantebury Tales in original 14th century Middle English.  The student can make out an occasional word or two, maybe a short phrase here and there, but without any fluency that can make thought out of the text.  The delivery is very halting.  Words are pronounced very slowly and deliberately, often incorrectly.

This sounds like an entirely different student than the one just played so convincingly.  Unfortunately, this is far too often the norm and not the exception.  Why is this?  Why is sight reading music so difficult.

I definitely do not place the fault on the piano student.  If they can play well it is because they can respond to music as music.  Music is a language they can speak.  I do not fault the teacher because they have demonstrated obvious skill to get the student to the point of accurate performance.

I think the fault is one of priority.  We want piano students to first and foremost demonstrate musicianship.  We want to hear beautifully shaped phrases.  We want to inform students as to the meaning of all those notes on the page.  We get caught up so much on the “meaning of those notes” that we lose focus of the notes themselves.  They almost become an unimportant means to the end.  The priority we need to give to the notes gets shunted to the side because of our focus on the “meaning”.  We want to see a forest without appreciating the trees that create that forest.  Translating this to music, we want to hear the song without giving due attention to the arrangement of the notes.  If we want students to become good sight readers, we must make sight reading a priority.  A very high priority.

Sight reading needs its own “method” books.  Our best method books are not well designed for teaching sight reading.  They have been designed for performance purposes; for teaching musicianship.  I think most methods today do a good job in this department.  Most teachers, myself included, want to teach musicianship from the very beginning, even the first lesson.  We are trained to think this way.  Our method books are centered on the Lesson Book.  All other books are ancillary to that Lesson Book.  The Performance Book. The Theory Book.  The Technique Book.  The Reading Book.

Because we are trained to think this way we give such a priority to musicianship that we neglect giving students the skills read music fluently.   We see staccato in a little composition and we give a great deal of attention to producing a good staccato sound.  We give attention to how to do this technically.  We notice unevenness in the fingers, as fingers 4 and 5 cannot play staccato with the same precision as fingers 2 and 3 …… and then there’s the thumb.  The focus becomes so easily totally wrapped up in musicianship issues that before we know it the lesson is over.

This all involves very professionally training.  It involves real teaching skill.  It is all very satisfying work.  But, this pattern of giving so much attention to these musical matters is having the unintended consequences of having students that play well but can’t sight read worth beans.  Students rightly deserve their superior ratings in auditions and festivals but they were neglected the training to become the independent musicians we all desire.  I know many teachers, like myself, set before themselves the lofty goal of “making themselves obsolete”.  Certainly, one of the best ways to make oneself obsolete is to teach our student to become good sight readers.

This idea really deserves a full length book but I’m going to give some basic ideas to get us to thinking about this topic.

THE CONCEPT OF VERTICAL SPACE

To read text, the eye must take in only a small amount of “vertical space”; a space no higher than the size of the font.  I remember in grade school, there were machines that would focus our eyes on this vertical space and the text would fly by at various speeds to help us become quicker readers.  This machine worked very well because in the sixth grade I was reading and comprehending at almost a 10th grade level.

Reading music is much more involved than reading text.  The amount of vertical space required is much larger.  No longer must the eye take in a single line of text, but the eye must take in the grand staff; a treble clef and a bass clef, and some sometimes multiple lines of music.

To read music one must develop the ability to not only move their eyes from left to right but also up and down.  If the right hand is a simple one note, treble clef melody and the left hand is a series of bass clef chords, the eye must move in a complex pattern of left to right to take in the melody, and, simultaneously with a down up motion to focus in on the changing chordal patterns.  This is “simple” monophonic music.  A piece with polyphonic elements is much more challenging.

Certainly a considerably amount of time needs to be dedicated to the development of the student’s ability to take in this high increase of vertical space.  So, to accomplish this task, a dedicated time commitment by both the teacher and the student is required.  Remember we don’t want to lose track of that lofty goal of “becoming obsolete”.

STEP ONE – The Music Reader

Remember the reading machines I mentioned that helped me read text more quickly? A very low tech equivalent is to make a “music reader” from dark colored construction paper.

Sight Reading Aid

Cut out a “see through” area (white). This “see through” area should be large enough to take in a single grand staff system.  The length should be long enough to help the student to be a few notes ahead of what they are actually playing.  This little invention will help focus the student’s eye directly to the music needing read.  Move the “music reader”, always keeping it ahead of the student’s performance.  This will also keep the student from moving their eyes back what they already played; a habit to be avoided when learning sight reading techniques.

For very undisciplined eyes the black area of the reader could be larger vertically.

Using this device should be part of every lesson.  We are slowly training the focus of the eye to take in greater vertical space in a methodical and systematic way.

STEP TWO – Choosing Materials for Sight Reading

Another idea that is helpful is to have students learn music that centers on the notes close to Middle C.  Remember this is a Reading Method, not a Performing Method.  The reason is that music that centers on notes close to Middle C is that it shrinks the amount of vertical space the student needs to take in.  Method Books, in their desire to get the student to understand the complete Grand Staff System, will include repertoire that take in a lot of vertical space.  Compositions in G position is a good example.  These teach the notes of the staff but they are poor sight reading material.  I find the old piano primers that grew symmetrically from Middle C to provide very good sight reading material; especially from the perspective of vertical space.

STEP THREE – PreScore Analysis

The following composition is an excerpt from Middle C Repertoire – Book 1 My Little Flat published by Piano Teacher Press.   (Click on the icon below for details)

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excerpt - Middle C Repertoire - Book 1

Before actually playing the score I help the student analyze the composition.  I will ask the student of the sections in blue, “What do you notice about the sections highlighted in blue”?  I’ll ask questions until I get the recognition that each section highlighted in blue contain the same two notes.  Then I’ll ask, “What are the two notes?”   Then I’ll ask the student to play F and D.

I will then ask the student to find any pattern in the notes highlighted in orange.  I’ll ask questions to try to lead the student to recognize the orange notes follow a chromatic pattern.  We will play the chromatic pattern from B flat down to G.

We will finally analyze the two yellow passages and discuss that these notes are passages in steps (with some repeated notes).

If the student understands the B flat scale we may play that before playing the piece, but I probably wouldn’t teach the B flat scale before learning a sight reading piece; a repertoire piece, yes, a sight reading piece, no.

The next step is to have the student mentally play the piece in his mind and to the best of his ability hear the notes in his mind.  The last step in to actually play the piece with the “music reader”.  If the student is ready, certainly count to see if this can be done at a steady tempo.

This, I feel, is a good process to follow to teach a student to sight read music.  It needs to be a regular devoted routine so the student can accumulate a little bit of information each week, each lesson.

It needs to be systematic and the materials need to be structured where the steps accomplished are almost not discerned to the student.  No one is perfect, and sometimes it may be in the best interest of the student to give the student something more challenging, but overall the goal is read more and more difficult music fluently.  It’s also a goal to give the student confidence that they can sight read music successfully.

A good sight reading program needs to be constructed in a manner that trains the eye to be able to focus on more and more vertical space, so don’t neglect using the “music reader”.  This focus on sight reading will be a big step in helping us all reach that lofty goal of making ourselves “obsolete”; a little Everest for us and for our students.

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