Posts Tagged ‘piano education’

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 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 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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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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Plato famously said, “The beginning is the most important part of any work.”  He said this because in the young we have a person that is unformed.  The ability to be formed by good information and good habits is at its highest.

Relating this to piano we can ask what is the most important habit we can develop in an unformed young piano student, in a student that does not, as yet, have any bad habits?

Before we answer that I think it’s important to highlight that when we begin a new student there are not bad habits to unlearn.  We get a blank slate.  We get to form the first habits in our student.  We get the first and best chance to help this young person develop a love for music.  We get the first and best chance to develop a healthy attitude toward education, especially if we are dealing with a preschool student.  We get the first and best chance to impress on the child a positive concept of “teacher”.  These are all huge responsibilities but also great opportunities to think through and make some deliberate steps to move this life in a positive direction.

Certainly one of the most important parts of our work as a piano teacher is to instill in our beginning student the habit of DAILY PRACTICE.  We would do well to think about a planned systematic approach to develop this crucial habit.  If we do, the many challenges we find in piano study will have a means to be successfully dealt.  If we do not, accomplishing these challenges will be made immensely more difficult.

I believe that DAILY PRACTICE is so fundamental a habit that it must be established even before a daily duration of practice time is discussed.   Here’s a plan I’ve devised to develop the habit of DAILY PRACTICE that works, even, especially, for the youngest of piano students.


I created a little folio for my students.  Here’s the cover.

6 Hour Incentive

On the cover the student writes their name to give them pride of ownership of their efforts.  Make this incentive like a contract between you and the student.  Of course, your job is to guide the student to develop the habit of daily practice one step at a time, always moving the student forward to the goal of daily practice.

The next page of the little folio contain several Daily Practice Charts.   Each chart can record five weeks of piano practice.  Below each chart is a place for the parent to sign (verify) that the record is accurate.

First, you and the student set a goal; how many days am I going to practice this week.  The student is to fill in the number of minutes they practice each day they practice.  At this point it’s not too important to set a duration for each practice session.  The important issue is the number of days.  As quickly as the student is ready, move this up to 6 days per week.  The important thing is not how quickly the student gets to 6 days a week but that you are always moving/encouraging the student to reach higher.  I like the maxim – HURRY SLOWLY.

Practice Chart



This incentive is called THE 6 HOUR PRACTICE INCENTIVE because as we are working toward the goal of daily practice, we accomplish this goal in 6 hour increments.   Our 6 HOUR PRACTICE INCENTIVE begins at 12:00.  Let’s say our student, after the first week, practiced for 40 minutes.  If this is the case, set the clock at 12:40.  If, on the second week, our student practiced for 65 minutes, then, set the second clock at 1:45.  Do this for as many weeks as it takes to reach the goal of 6 hours of practice.  But, to repeat, the goal is to move the student to DAILY PRACTICE.

If the student practices for more minutes in fewer days, encourage the student that it’s better to practice 60 minutes in three days than doing it all in one day.  We all know that music learning doesn’t “cram” well.  In other words, “guide/mentor” the student into daily practice.



After accomplishing the 6 hours of practice the student is awarded a handsome certificate for the good effort.  There is a place on the certificate for awarding the certificate”With Honors” (practicing 4 days a week) or “With High Honors” (practicing 5 days a week) or “With Highest Honors” (practicing 6 days a week).

After the certificate is awarded you can begin working toward a 2nd certificate.  For the second certificate see if you can move the student to a higher goal, practicing more days per week.  On the 3rd certificate again see if you can move the student to an even higher goal.

When this becomes easy move the goal posts to a 12 hour or a 24 hour goal.

This product may be purchased at Piano Teacher Press.  It is sold in a Licensed Edition for $3.95.  This means you can use the materials given here IN YOUR STUDIO on each and every student in your studio for as long as you teach.   It is priced low because DAILY PRACTICE is so important.  (ALSO – for those with black and white printers this product also comes with a Black and White Cover page and a Black and White Certificate included).  Click on the Piano Teacher Press LOGO to get your copy of THE SIX HOUR PRACTICE INCENTIVE.

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Monkeys, Lions and Turtles (and even Butterflies) …….. OH MY!!

Four very different creatures.  Four very different characters!!  Let’s talk about each one.

What is the character of a MONKEY?  Think of a word that describes a MONKEY?  What’s your word?

My word is PLAYFUL.


What is the character of a LION?  What is your word that describes a LION?

My word is MAJESTIC.  This is why LIONS are known as the KING OF THE JUNGLE.


What is the first thing that pops in your mind when thinking of a TURTLE?  What is your word?

My word is S—L—O—W.  My mom would often tell me I was as slow as a turtle.


Finally, what one word best describes the character of a BUTTERFLY?

That one is pretty tough.  My word is FLIGHTY.  Butterflies quickly bounce from place to place.


Music can express these same characteristics.  Music can be MAJESTIC.  Music can be SLOW.  Music can be PLAYFUL.  Music can be FLIGHTY.

You are going to hear four excerpts of music.  Listen closely to see if you can hear its characteristics.  Is it MAJESTIC?  Is it SLOW?  Is it PLAYFUL?  Is it FLIGHTY?  Which animal is best pictured by each musical example.  Are we listening to LION MUSIC or TURTLE MUSIC or MONKEY MUSIC or BUTTERFLY MUSIC?


Which of the four examples was MAJESTIC ….. which one was SLOW ….. which one was PLAYFUL ….. which one was FLIGHTY?

In no particular order you just heard …..

1) March from the Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint Saens.

2) Concerto for Recorder, Oboe and Bassoon by Antonio Vivaldi.

3) Etude in G flat major by Frederic Chopin.

4) Offenbach melody from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint Saens.

Let’s try again with another set of musical examples!!


Listen to each example and ask yourself; which one of the four examples was MAJESTIC ….. which one was SLOW ….. which one was PLAYFUL ….. which one was FLIGHTY?  Are we listening to LION MUSIC or TURTLE MUSIC or MONKEY MUSIC or BUTTERFLY MUSIC?

The MAGIC of music is that it can express almost anything even without using words.  In fact, some people say music is one of the most powerful languages that humans can experience.

In no particular order you just heard …..

1) Birds from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint Saens.

2) Fragments for Woodwind Trio by Robert Muczynski.

3) Jupiter from the Planets by Gustav Holst.

4) Cello Sonata in D major (excerpt) by Johannes Brahms.

Thanks for listening to MR SEVERINO PRESENTS —Character in Music   and until next time — KEEP PRACTICING!!


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An Old Man In Front of A WindowLook at this picture.  What do you see?  Most people would say I see an old man.  If that was your answer you are absolutely correct.

But is that ALL that we see?  What else do we see?  Do you also see the window in back of the old man?  YES!  This picture also contains a window behind the old man.

This picture teaches us about FRONT and BACK.  The old man is in the front of the picture.  The window is in the back of the picture.

Music also has a front and a back.

What we see first in the picture we can call the FOREGROUND.

What we see next in the picture we can call the BACKGROUND.

Music also has a FOREGROUND and a BACKGROUND.

The FOREGROUND is what our ears hear most easily.

But if we listen closely we will notice other musical sounds.  These other sounds make up the BACKGROUND.

Let’s now listen to a piece of music to find the FOREGROUND and the BACKGROUND.  Let’s listen to a song by the famous composer Franz Schubert.  Franz Schubert lived 200 years ago when the United States was a very young nation.  George Washington could have seen Franz Schubert as a little baby had they lived in the same nation.  Franz Schubert was born in Austria, one of the nations of Europe.

Franz Schubert composed beautiful songs with beautiful melodies.  The song we are going to listen to is called Hedge-Roses.  Let’s listen!

What did you hear FIRST?  What was in the FRONT or in the FOREGROUND?  Did you hear the singer?

But, upon listening a little closer did you hear a different musical instrument?  Did you hear an instrument that was in the BACK, or BACKGROUND?  Did you hear the piano?

This song by Franz Schubert has a FRONT and a BACK just like the picture of — An Old Man in Front of A Window.

The next time you listen to music listen for FRONT and BACK.  Listen for the FOREGROUND part and the BACKGROUND part.  This will help you to listen to music better and you will enjoy it more.  Learn to be a GOOD LISTENER!!

Thanks for listening to MR SEVERINO PRESENTS — An Old Man in Front of a Window   and until next time — KEEP PRACTICING!!


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I began teaching while in high school.  I had taken about 5 years of lessons on the organ and made good progress.  I thought I could teach beginners.  So I put an ad in our local newspaper. The ad produced several inquiries which turned into my first students.  I thought I did quite well teaching my first students.  My students respected me, accepted me as their teacher and complimented me on my ability to teach.

One mom complimented me saying that I was the only person, other than her son’s father, that could communicate with her son so readily.  The little boy was shy, socially awkward and today would be classified as a slow learner.  All these positive experiences gave me confidence to study music in college and become a teacher.

In college I majored in piano and kept my organ studies. Today I own a teaching studio, Piano Lessons PLUS, and am the organist for my Church.  But after getting my college degrees and starting my teaching career I found there were some things that my natural teaching ability didn’t provide.  There were some things that only experience could provide and those experiences were critical in making me the teacher I am today.


Most music teachers choose to be teachers because music comes easily and naturally to them.  That’s not to say we didn’t have to work hard but it was “fun”work.

So, I naturally thought that all my students would love music as much as I did.  I mistakenly thought they would learn pretty much at the same pace I did.  Unfortunately this wasn’t the case so one of the first major lessons I learned after my college education, a lesson that could only be learned through experience, was my experience as a student was going to be different than that of my students.

In the first years of my teaching I tended to go much too fast through the initial books.  I could get away with this for a short while but then the student would come to a plateau and crash.  We would try to fight our way through that plateau but it brought about a frustration to the student that wasn’t necessary.

The initial steps in learning to read musical manuscript must be thoroughly understood.  Depth of learning is critical to teaching the beginning piano student, regardless of their age of beginning lessons.  It doesn’t matter if the student is 4 or 12.  To learn to read music well a student must read music, a lot of it.  Here’s one place where we are not talking quality; we’re talking quantity.

Once I learned this very important lesson my students began learning at a much steadier rate.  I found they were no longer the running into “brick walls”.  There was much less frustration and piano lessons became a natural progression.  The trajectory of my students learning was much steadier.  Experience became my friend.


It wasn’t until I was in college that technique was approached as a scientific study of how to utilize the human mechanism to produce facility and a beautiful tone.  My teachers before college gave me finger exercises.  Play these exercises and with sufficient repetition you could play any piece you desired.  While in college it was a huge mental adjustment to approach the piano from this new paradigm.

When I began teaching professionally I had to take these rather complex ideas I learned in my 20’a and apply them to young grade school students.  It was among the most difficult of the tasks I had, to bring these sophisticated principles down to a grade school level.  But with each student I taught I learned better and better ways to convey these principles to my students.

My class of students had students with so many different mechanical abilities that it just added to my personal learning curve.  Some students had very delicate hands.  Some where honestly frail.  Others students had very strong hands but each with varying degrees of flexibility.  Even other students had finger joints that easily collapsed that made producing a good sound on the piano difficult.

But after years of close observation eventually I got to the place where I had enough experiences that the problems I saw began to repeat.  Eventually I knew what I needed to do and the tasks I needed to give the students so they could maximize their personal technical potential.  It was only through experience that I as a teacher learned how to master the teaching of technique to my young students.


My first lessons were on the organ.  I was 11 years old.  My progress was far different than the progress of those who started on the piano at age 7, which was the typical starting age in the early 1960’s.  The rate a student progresses is very different depending on the age the student begins.

When I began teaching I had to guess which books to purchase.  I had to hope the books I choose would match the rate of progress of each student.  Of course, each student had a different level of natural ability and that further complicated this issue too.  Every student brought me a different set of issues that demanded my attention.

But again, the only example I had was my own personal experience.  And starting music rather late at age 11 didn’t give me a very good template when I began my own studio of students.  Again there was a lengthy learning curve in understanding all the possibilities of judging the right level of music that would maximize my individual student’s progress.

This is especially true in the intermediate level of piano study where one chooses more repertoire from a body of musical compositions that really wasn’t written with any thought to step by step progress as is typical of method books written for the elementary piano student.  Bach wrote many superb pieces for children.  So did Schumann and Bartok.  But these pieces were written with no thought to sequencing; which piece to teach first and which piece to teach next.

So, choosing the “right” next piece is dependent upon the teacher’s judgment.  This requires a lot of thought and study for any piano teacher.  It comes from seeking out and knowing a vast amount of literature for the developing piano student and then categorizing them it in a logical progression of study.  Then from this body of music choosing selections wisely that will maximize the students learning.   Of course, this is different for each student.

Choosing selections that are not too hard or too easy, choosing selections that are progressing the student musically and technically, choosing selections that are properly varied from the major historical epochs of music history, choosing selections that would be appealing to the personality of the student all go into finding the next “right” composition.  I didn’t learn this without a lot of study and experience.


Most piano teachers I know feel they are passing on to their students a great musical tradition.   A tradition that is centuries old and a tradition that was centuries in the making.  It is a tradition that teachers feel a responsibility to pass on to their student because it represents the very best of all human endeavor.

Passing on that tradition to my students was another item in my teaching that required a lengthy learning curve.  At college all our classes; history, theory and performance classes combined to give us an overview of that tradition.  There was no class in MUSIC TRADITION 101.

Our musical tradition is something that is slowly absorbed in the consciousness of the student through diligent study.  As a teacher one of my goals and functions was to take this information, this tradition, and distill it to my students in a level they could understand.

When I taught my students about simple music notation, the treble and bass clef or grand staff,  I would relate the story of a time when there was no musical notation.  Music was passed on aurally.  In time, as music became more complex the need arose that music could no longer be passed on from generation to generation aurally.  So, musical notation was born.  Through the next generations a system of musical notation was devised that eventually became what we have today.

Then I can present to my students the concept that music notation is something that is still in the process of changing and most probably what we have in a couple hundred years will be something different from today BUT something that will be built from what we have today.  Students can then see and understand that they are a member of the great sweep of history and they come into the long ongoing story of history at this special moment in time.  Taking this approach we can help students see that when Bach was born he came on the scene at a time when music was doing things that caused him to write music the way he did.  We can understand why Bach wrote minuets but Bartok didn’t.

The reason I use Bach and Bartok as my examples is because Bach and Bartok wrote music at the level of young piano students.  They are going to come in contact with these composers and through these composers I can pass on this great musical tradition to the next generation.  But again, it took a lot of thought and study to take my musical education, absorb it, and bring it to the level of my students.  This only came through experience.


I started teaching in my teen years and found I had a good aptitude for teaching.  This teaching led me to consider studying music in college.  After college I had a good education and could begin my own studio.  But there was a major thing I lacked and that was experience.

It was only through applying myself to the day to day task of teaching my class of students that a comprehensive picture began to emerge of how to go about my teaching tasks in a way that was best for my students.  It was only through drawing constantly from my education and thoughtfully taking that knowledge and making it connect with my students at their level that I became the teacher I am today.

It was only through a careful study of how students learn and progress that I became confident that the materials I was giving them was the right materials for them.  All teachers that take their work seriously go through this same process.  Their journey and their emphasis may be somewhat different but the process is the same.

So parents, if you are considering a piano teacher, consider a teacher that teaches because they love teaching.  And certainly consider a teacher that has had the time to have his education simmer and has had the experience to learn those things that only experience can give.

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Tablets PC’s in the Piano Studio

I have always been fascinated with J.S. Bach’s — Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  This simple baroque folio gives us a glimpse into the methods of one of the first great pedagogues of the keyboard.  Of course, at this time there were no keyboard methods written.  J.S. Bach could’t go down to the local music store and get a copy of the latest Piano Adventures.

To me , I found a couple intriguing observations.  One was that sometimes there was only a part of a composition written.  I gather from this that Bach, and perhaps other teachers of the Baroque, was very interested in teaching not only the mechanics of technique but also the theory of  composition as well.  Another interesting point was that The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach also had a couple sheets of blank manuscript paper.  A teacher with the gift of improvisation as J.S. Bach would carry on that gift to his teaching.  He was ready at a moments inspiration to write out something he found necessary for his student’s continuing musical education.

This whole idea of Notebooks got me to thinking of possible advantages that we could bring our students in our age when so much is prepackaged for our student’s consumption.  The individuality of each student can easily get lost.  But individuality was NOT lost in the day of Bach.  It seems it was a natural part of the way students were taught music 300 years ago.  The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach was written for a specific individual — Anna Magdalena Bach.  That in itself is an important point to ponder.


During my research of finding a suitable tablet device and I came across the HP Slate 500 I began to see how I could design an electronic version of  The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach for each of my students.  Once I saw this was a real possibility, it became the main focus of my research.

With the great portability of a tablet PC; the HP Slate 500 also included a digitizer pen. I could take notes on each of my students without the need of a bulky keyboard or the limited functionality of the screen keyboards found on many tablet computers.

Many times I would end a lesson and the thought would come to me that I needed to go over some musical material at the next lesson.  Maybe I taught the student about scales but I didn’t have enough time to show the relationship between scales and chords.  If I had a file for each student I could write down a note so I have the reminder I needed to teach this at the next lesson I saw with this student.  I found this would be a very doable way of using a tablet PC.

On most lessons I don’t have enough time to cover every book in which I have a student working.  This would be another very doable application because of the portability of a tablet PC.  On the student’s file I just needed to jot down a quick note of any uncovered material that needed to be covered first in the next lesson.

I’ve also found that many students would purposely avoid playing a piece or a book.  Sometimes the student would postpone playing a piece for several weeks.  Writing down all uncovered material in a special file on my tablet PC solves this issue.  Now my lessons would have much better continuity than previously.

Microsoft OneNote and the HP Slate 500

About this time in my research I found that Microsoft has a fantastically flexible piece of software that could be a piano teacher’s dream for creating Student Notebooks patterned after Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  The software is OneNote.  It’s part of the suite of applications found on most versions of Microsoft Office.

The HP Slate 500 comes equipped with a digitizer pen and excellent handwriting recognition software.  It works beautifully in conjunction with OneNote.

First, I made a Notebook for each student.  I saved all my Student Notebooks on Microsoft’s SkyDrive.  I can give each student (and parent) a web address where they can always view my most updated version of their Notebook.  For my parents that are not so computer savvy I can eMail them the contents of their child’s notebook.  OneNote has the built in feature where I can eMail the parents directly from within OneNote.  (As you continue reading this blog you will see how useful this ability can be).

For my students that do not take their lessons at my studio where I may not have access to the internet, I’ve also a copy of each Student’s Notebook on a 32 GB SD card.  (If I chose, I could also store the Notebooks on the 64 GB hard drive that comes standard on the Slate 500.)  Windows 7 also has a feature where I can synchronize all my student Notebooks on my Slate 500 with the Notebooks on the SkyDrive.

The Student Notebooks and using them with the Slate 500

The first thing I should mention is that the Student Notebooks are NOT assignment books.  Assignment books are for the STUDENTS BENEFIT.  The OneNote Notebook is for the TEACHERS BENEFIT, but also has great usefulness to the student.  It’s a tool for the teacher to keep track of what’s going on educationally and digitally with each student.

I organize each Student Notebook into MONTHS.  I create a new page at the first lesson of each month.  I update the REPERTOIRE LIST I create for each student.  The REPERTOIRE LIST contains all the major compositions a student is working on.  I carry over my studio color code system directly into my OneNote Notebooks.  Regular pieces are listed in BLACK.  Memory pieces are marked in RED.  (I use red paper clips in my student’s books to indicate a piece that is to be memorized.) Performance pieces are marked in BLUE.  ((I use blue paper clips in my student’s books to indicate a piece being prepared for a performance.)  As pieces are completed for study I ask the student if they would consider the piece for their yearly Guild Auditions.  If they say YES – I highlight that piece in GREEN.  If they want to be completed with a piece I highlight the title of the piece in GREY.

A REPERTOIRE list may look like this …..


  • Alpine Sonatina – MVT III
  • Funeral March of the Marionette
  • Highland Jig
  • Alpine Sonatina MVT I
  • March of the Migrant Mouse
  • Chit-Chat:Kabalevsky

Having this list gives me, at a quick glance, a quick review of the exact work load of each student.  This is very beneficial to me where I can instantly organize the student’s lesson.

Another very helpful organizational note I can make in a Student’s Notebook is to make a notation as to something I need to cover the next lesson.  For example – If I notice a student is having difficult memorizing a composition I make a notation in the Student’s Notebook.  Like this …..

NEXT WEEK: Give memory techniques for Highland Jig

I often don’t get everything book covered in a lesson.  OneNote is the perfect memory jogger.  A simple notation is all I need.



One of the coolest features of the Slate 500 is that you can add hyperlinks to a Student’s Notebook.  If I’m working with a student on the old English folk song Greensleeves  I can, not only, play it for the student using the Slate 500 by going to YouTube but I can also add the link and make it a part of the Student’s Notebook.  I simply copy the link from my WebBrowser and paste in into the Student’s Notebook.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVWhxoIkHtY  Baltimore Consort:Greensleeves

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0GQceYJPdE&feature=related Greensleeves  (arr. Vaughan Williams)

Another way I can record using the Slate 500 is by recording a mp3 file.  If I record myself within OneNote it will automatically put the link into the Student’s Notebook.  What I can do is simply sent the student’s notebook to the student’s eMail address and the file automatically becomes an attachment.  Click on the attachment and the student can hear the recording.

Many times a student wants me to play a new composition for them so they can hear it.  It takes no extra time to prepare the Slate 500 to make an mp3 recording of their new piece.  Again, OneNote’s recording capabilities are all part of the OneNote package.  There’s no need to exit OneNote to a piece of recording software and then import the mp3 file into OneNote.  This can all be done within OneNote itself!

The eMail client I use is Mozilla’s Thunderbird.  Within OneNote itself I can directly export a Student’s Notebook to their eMail address.  ALL mp3 and videos are sent to my students through attachments.  In our example above the student would not only get my personal mp3 recording BUT ALSO the two versions of Greensleeves!!  All attachments are included in the eMail automatically!

Of course, just like the iPad, the Slate 500 contains two cameras; one for Skyping and another for “stills” and “videos”.

One time I was teaching a student about legato pedaling for the first time.  It is always a bit confusing.  So, I recorded the whole little lecture.  After I recorded the lecture it automatically created a mp3 link in hypertext as part of the student’s OneNote notebook.  The student had this mini lecture for her future reference just by finding the file and playing it again.  I recommend all my students make a special folder in their eMail program called Piano Lessons PLUS for all their correspondence I may send them.

For anyone seriously interested in the Slate 500 I should mention that it comes with a Docking Station.  The Docking Station comes equipped with a port for external speakers.  I purchased a pair of Bose Speakers and the sound quality is excellent.  My students get exceptional sound quality for everything I play for them from YouTube.  One of the greatest features of the Slate 500 is its expandability.

Using HDMI with the Slate 500

HDMI gives the Slate 500 the ability to connect to large screen computer monitors; even large screen TV’s if so equipped with HDMI.  I have my Slate Docking Station connected via HDMI to a 24 inch computer monitor.  When I place the Slate 500 on the Docking Station the screen on the Slate 500 is projected on to the large monitor.  This is a very nice feature when I’m playing a symphonic composition on YouTube.  When I set YouTube to play in full screen mode the 24 inch monitor adjusts to full screen mode too.  Students get an excellent view of the full symphony orchestra.

A really great educational feature of having the HDMI monitor is that I can to “chalk talks” using Windows Paint (a program included with Windows 7.  The Slate 500 comes automatically loaded with Windows 7 Professional).  After I’ve completed the “chalk talk” I can save the “chalk talk” as a .jpeg file and import this directly into the Student’s Notebook.  Where I used to do “chalk talks” on a dry erase board all I could do is  erase them and hope the student remembered the material.  NOW I can import the chalk talk into the Student’s Notebook and when I send this via eMail it can be printed out and reviewed.  Students know that when they go home there’s an eMail waiting for them with valuable information in what they just covered in their private lesson.

The nice thing about Microsoft Paint is that my “chalk talks” are in full color.  This is very handy.  If I am teaching a student about chord inversions, I can always color the ROOT in red and this helps the student easily identify their chords as they are first working through the material. And don’t forget, this is very easily imported into the Student’s OneNote Notebook.

I’ve made several .jpeg files of music staff paper.  If my “chalk talk” requires the music staff, which it often does, I’m ready to go in no time.  When I’m done with the little lecture I simply give the file a new name using “SAVE AS” and the file is ready to import into OneNote.  Actually, OneNote has drawing capabilities, but I find Windows Paint is more powerful for my “chalk talk” needs.

Another thing I have done it to convert all my Method Books into .jpeg files.  I can then import any composition of my method books into Microsoft Paint and make a theory lesson from their Method Book.  This saves a lot of superfluous writing in the students method books.  I think this simulates what J.S. Bach did by only writing out a single part of a composition.  The student could more easily learn their composition “brick by brick“.

Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse

Through one of the three USB ports one can connect a keyboard and mouse if one wants to use the Slate 500 for cleaning up a student’s notebook or for writing a studio wide eMail to all the parents of your student.  If you use Microsoft Office you can do work on any Microsoft Program; Excel, Powerpoint, Word and, of course, OneNote.

This blog only covers how I’m using the Slate 500 in the creation of Student Notebooks using OneNote.  But just this one application alone has brought my teaching fully into the 21st century.  I’m am fully satisfied with my purchase and I hope it has stimulated you into opening up your mind to new possibilities into using tablet computers.

The Slate 500 was specifically designed for professionals in both business AND education.  I think you can see through this blog how the capabilities of the Slate 500 has tremendous hardware capabilities that can enhance the educational possibilities of any music teacher.

I think ol’  J.S. Bach himself would be pleased.

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