Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Spooky Halloween Classical Sampler - Level 2 Elementary

Classical music is full of spooky themes that children love!  A few weeks before Halloween, I throw out my lasso and rope in the practice slackers with some festive surprises.  If my students have a keyboard in their home, I point them to all their scary organ sounds.  I treasure the smiles on their faces when I crank up Bach's Toccata and Fugue with an organ sound!   

I arranged this medley as a classical sampler for the level 2 student.  Even a level 1 student may be taught these short themes by rote (I spell out the letter names and finger numbers on the back of their practice sheets as a back-up for memory failure). I included "spooky" themes by Bach, Chopin, and Grieg.  I put them all in A minor to minimize accidentals and utilize a familiar level 2 hand position.  If they decide they like what they hear, we can procure a more lengthy version later (often, they decide they want to play the whole song).  Add as many repeats as you like, and experiment with sounds on your keyboard!  SO FUN!!!

Halloween Piano Music, Level 2 - Jennifer Warren-Baker,

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Clocks (Level 2): Motivate with this Popular Piece by Colplay!

The older student in a practice slump.  We all know the type.  This is the kid who can be re-ignited when the sensitive piano teacher dishes up Coldplay.  This is a very keyboard-centric pop song.  The keyboard part is recognizable to -- I'd say, 95% of Americans, regardless of age.

I like to keep my arrangements at this level short and sweet (note:  I left out the bridge).  All kids need to get going again is a recognizable tune that they can relate to (the kind they would be willing to blast in their earbuds).    

Also....have the students write in the names of the chords.  It's a good theory exercise.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Importance of Empathy in Teaching

It's not about me.  It's about the student.  I have to constantly remind myself to feel the student's emotional burden:
  • THE FINE MOTOR STRUGGLE.  Remember the struggle of fine motor coordination:  it's hard enough to get those tiny appendages to do what your brain tells them to.
  • PRESSURE TO IMPRESS.  Remember the pressure they're feeling to please and impress their teacher, and how bad they can feel when they're unprepared.
  • IT'S JUST HARD.  Imagine how hard the task is for them, even though it may be incredibly easy for you.  Break it down as much as possible and present it many different ways when the student doesn't get it.
I also have to fight my urges to correct prematurely, interrupt a student's playing, and allow distracting thoughts to enter my consciousness.  I keep these two things in mind:
  • HEAR THEM OUT WITHOUT INTERRUPTING.  Students feel like they're failing if you interrupt them a lot when they're playing.  Hear them out first, or until they get stuck.  Or -- just wait out the piece and do a stop-and-correct run the next time through.  
  • BE QUIET AND FOCUS.  If the teacher is writing while the student is playing, or she's looking at her text messages, the student gets the idea that what they're doing isn't important.  S/he gets the idea that the teacher is not focused on him/her.
To make a task more attainable, remember that a verbal explanation that works for some students will not work for others.  You'll have to empathize with their learning style and adapt your approach:
  • SOME KIDS NEED TO SEE IT.  Is the child a visual learner?  Draw something!  Show them!  Demonstrate!  Use highlighters and post-it flags to mark up their music.  I often teach scales with picture scales (pictures of the keyboard with fingerings).
  • SOME KIDS NEED TO HEAR IT.  Is the child an auditory learner?  If a child plays by ear, listening to you play it or hearing a recording will work wonders.  Just make sure they're still learning to read music, so they don't become overly dependent on their ear.    
  • DO THEY NEED TO PHYSICALLY FEEL IT?  Is the child a tactile learner?  Some students do better if I tap the rhythm on the back of their hand. Sometimes I have them place their hands on their thighs and tap out the right/left rhythm as it occurs in the treble/bass clef.  
Finally, I have to empathize with their life.  I have found it good to cut them some slack now and then for the stresses of life:  final exams, AP tests, holidays when their family was out of town, vacations, and school plays.  If I'm just a ruthless tyrannical teacher every week of the year, I'm not allowing my students to be human.  Furthermore, musicians often work in energy spurts just before performances.  As long as there is not an ongoing history of poor practice or regression, it's best to be understanding for a short period and do some fun diversions or review until their routine has normalized.  I try to keep in mind...
  • What are their outside stressors?  
  • How many activities is this child involved in?  
  • How much pressure do they put on themselves? 
  • Is there family stress?  School stress?  What's going on in this child's life that may be hindering their performance today?
Keeping all these pointers in mind builds trust between teacher and student.  The student knows you're on their side, respecting their idiosyncracies, struggles, and learning style.  


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Canon in D: Piano Chords

Folks have been requesting this so I decided to assist my students by getting a tutorial video up.

This is just the chord progression, which lays the groundwork for the entire song, however you

interpret it.  Just play this over and over and have someone else take the melody on a different instrument!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

I'm bored with music

Can I just say this?  

I'm bored with new music these days.  

I listen to what's new for piano on Pandora, on Youtube, and elsewhere, and I'm just -- not impressed. Over-patterned, monotonous spa music that lacks melody. Yanni and Enya copycats. New age crap that is just -- too pretty. Harmonies that are maintained for half a minute before changing. Where is the grit; the risk-taking? Where is the struggle and loss you hear in Beethoven and Chopin? Is the well-sculpted phrase a relic of a bygone era? Is it too risky to penetrate a listener's soul; to have an angry alter-ego in the C section? I find so-called artists hunkered under the label of minimalism, which -- let's be honest, is often an excuse for shoddy creative skills.  And can we please have some composers take on the challenge of blending classical and jazz a little better? (Hiromi and video game composers like Koji Kondo are onto this, I think). I'm all for an "inter-racial" marriage of styles. My take on the situation?  

We need an artistic revival; a sharpening of the craft of high art, specifically, music.  

I don't know exactly what that means, but Japanese female pianist-composer Hiromi inspires me much more than say, Phillip Glass or George Winston. Don't think this is a feminazi manifesto, either. I also love what Jarrod Radnich is doing to bring back virtuosity to piano arranging, and he's clearly a GUY; a guy who's talent is off-the-charts (though sometimes heavy on the trills). Kyle Landry is another guy with excellent arranging skills. His very nuanced and emotional arrangements require some skill to play, though I don't see him on yet (look him up on Youtube...he's quite prolific and covers all the popular stuff kids love).

But back to the origin of this boredom. Today I took a little joy ride through classics (the masters are the best example of superior craft, after all, and I make all my students study them). I was sight-reading through this classical book, mainly piano transcriptions of symphonies (Brahms, Beethoven, etc) and...

I got SO bored.  

Not bored with the core musical intentions of the composer, but bored with the arranger's interpretation. Now. This is a popular "Classics" book that I see on the shelves of every music store. (Sigh...) While my little journey reminded me of the yearning build in the first movement of Brahm's fourth symphony, I felt cheated with these stripped-down versions. They were unimaginative and unchallenging. I wanted to add a thousand notes and details that weren't written. I guess that's why I've gone almost exclusively to playing from lead sheets over the years, with the exception of solo piano works. There's no limit to how I interpret the piece. I can add more color to the chords, dress up the melody, shake up the rhythm, and add drama and suspense. I can make it as difficult or as simple as I want. My right brain is on fire the entire time I'm playing spontaneous arrangements. Arrangements or accompaniments that are scripted and spelled out have become -- a prison for me. Forcing myself into that classical mold is like planting a moisture-hungry fern in a desert. I discovered that lead sheets and composing were my sweet spots in the past five years, and I've tried to be more truthful to my authentic musical self.

So, obviously, this evolution of self influenced my teaching. I have been teaching creative lead sheet interpretation for about eight years. Frankly, that rigid classical approach just doesn't work for everyone. And I have found that -- some kids THRIVE on this. These kids would otherwise fall through the cracks in a more traditional, classical curriculum. That's not to disqualify classics as critical to piano study; I make these same students apply classical techniques to their artistic interpretations. Beethoven, Bach, and Copland...they were both creatives and piano teachers. I'm sure they would approve of my approach. And hopefully I am planting a seed that will germinate and blossom into future composers and arrangers.