Flash Forward: These are Your Students

Sruti playing at my adult student class at the home of my student, Dave. 

They'd all brought dessert. Every last one of them. I'd forgotten to suggest some of them bring appetizers so we had a plethora of sweets. That was the only thing that went wrong, though. Otherwise, the afternoon was wonderful.

I write often about the kids I teach. I don't write as much about the adults. I teach about a dozen adult students, and they are equally rewarding in quite different ways.

Too many wonderful desserts.

Last Sunday I realized that I'd had the pleasure of teaching only one of these performers as a high school student. And even she had been a transfer from my dear friend, Keith Snell. (We should all be that lucky!)  All the rest of them came to me as adults. They'd been taught by teachers I'd never met. Teachers who'd taught them about sharps and flats, about making a melody sing and how to play in time. Far more important, though, these teachers fostered a love of music. These adult students, these doctors and engineers, want to make music. They know that they will never find anything else that will give them the same satisfaction. The same way to express themselves.

To the teachers out there doing their best every day, remember that what you do is important. It matters.

As you watch this video, imagine each of these students is one of the little boys or girls in your studio - all grown up. Maybe it's the girl who makes you want to pull your hair out sometimes. Or the boy who brings a tear to your eye with a beautiful phrase. Because somewhere, five years ago, or fifteen years ago, or sixty years ago (yes, Dave is 84 now and still taking piano lessons!) a teacher taught these musicians that I teach today. And somewhere five years, or twenty years in the future, someone may feel about you just the way I feel about these former teachers.

To those teachers I will never have the pleasure of meeting, I say "Thank you for making music a joyous, meaningful part of these lives. Thank you for teaching."

Did you know that almost every piece of standard piano literature has been recorded and is available for instant digital download? Ever wished you had a recording of a piece from the Burgmüller Opus 100, or a single piece from the Anna Magdalena Bach Book? You can have one right now! These recordings are also available on iTunes.

Swimming with Dolphins

Clementine's assignment book with the  Owl Incentive Chart  and stickers for her to use at home.

Clementine's assignment book with the Owl Incentive Chart and stickers for her to use at home.

I wrote about creating an incentive program for my student, Clementine. This was the sheet that I made for her to use at home. Four successfully checked boxes meant she could put an owl sticker on her Owl Incentive Chart.

A week ago she literally could not play this piece.

Yesterday it sounded like this: 

Clementine exhibits several common student traits:

Swimming with Dolphins  is a Primer Level piece in Middle C position with an easy teacher accompaniment. Excellent first recital piece.

Swimming with Dolphins is a Primer Level piece in Middle C position with an easy teacher accompaniment. Excellent first recital piece.

  • Clementine plays very slowly - but it doesn't feel slow to her. She is busy and working hard all the time. The notes of the accompaniment help fill in the length of long notes. If a student is playing this slowly, a three-beat note can feel like it's an hour long.
  • Singing the words to the song helps her with the rhythm and continuity, as well as motivating her by engaging her imagination. (What would it be like to swim with a dolphin?)
  • Playing an accompaniment along with her aids her rhythm development more than any other single thing I can do. Music is just like any other sport. If you play with someone better than you, it rubs off.

I find I do much better as a teacher if I assume nothing. I take the time to show each student how to make a practice plan. At first, it's simple and basic because all I'm trying to do is develop awareness of what practicing is. If I only reward things done perfectly, my student will not try to find their own errors and fix them. In fact, the opposite will be true. My student will learn to ignore errors.

If I reward finding errors, and teach my student how to deal with them, the stage will be set for successful learning.


Octaves - One Simple Tip

Octaves One Simple Tip.jpg

The Board Dudes Magnetic 2-in-1 Dry Eraser Medium Point Marker is a magnificent pedagogical tool.

That is one sentence I never imagined writing.

I think it's particularly hilarious since it includes the word "dudes." (Though I do live near the beach in a town full of hipsters that work at places like Google and Twitter.)

My student Rohini is a scientist. She's finishing up her Phd. at UC Berkeley after doing her undergraduate work at Stanford. She loves playing the piano and takes public transportation from Berkeley all the way out to my studio on the west side of San Francisco each week for her lesson.

As with most of my adult students, we spend a great deal of time on basic technical issues. When adults return to lessons after a hiatus, the problems they had as young people haven't improved with age. 

She was working on the Khachaturian Toccata. She fell in love with a recording of it and was bound and determined to play it. (To be honest, it isn't my favorite piece but it's a piece that students love to play. It's another one of those "Sounds SO much harder than it is" pieces we all need up our sleeves.) 

She was struggling to play the left hand octaves with a stable hand. Desperate, I grabbed a two-ended dry erase marker I had sitting near me.

"Try holding this," I suggested.

We talked about ways she might experiment with it. She took it home with her and I wondered what would happen.

A week later, she came back and made this video to share her experiences with the Cool Dudes Marker

Part of the reason this worked so well was because of the size and shape of the pads on the ends of the marker. They're designed to be white board erasers. They had just the right amount of traction and cushion to force Rohini to make a firm shape with a flexible arm. If you don't have an arch in your hand, you can't hold onto the marker. 

I loved the connections she made about where the weight came from, how her hand had to be a firm shape and yet everything else was relaxed. The Cool Dudes had it right. They just didn't know they'd accidentally made a great pedagogical invention!

Now to find something just the right size for the interval of a 5th....