What Good Practicing Means

 
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One of the first questions I get asked by prospective students is: “How long should I practice?” but my answer often surprises them.

When a family joins my studio, I often hear statements like “Should we set a timer for 30 minutes?” or “How much per week should my child practice?”

My answer however is not based on how much time we dedicate to practicing, but rather how we dedicate ourselves to practicing in the first place.

When it comes to young kids and practicing, my goal with them is to help them feel what it’s like to self structure their time. To enjoy the process. To feel like they are accomplishing goals. To feel rewarded by their progress.

This can look like: reviewing pieces, reading pieces, composing a piece, improvising off of a piece, figuring out a song by ear, or anything that speaks to them and their journey. The reality is at their age as long as there is a sense of forward motion and help with that structuring from the teacher, there will be progress.

I tell parents, good practicing for a young child is simply spending time during the week enjoying their own process.

With adults, I take the same approach, however with adults I give an even stronger sense of ownership, and goal setting tends to be very self devised by the students themselves.

The progress is based off of accomplishing goals rather than the time itself.

We can set a timer for an hour and practice to our hearts content, but if we don’t practice with intention and with some sort of goal with forward motion, the time will be negated by the lack of structure.

How we practice is what helps us put one foot in front of the other as students, performers, or educators. When we practice to achieve our goals, not just to see seconds pass by on the clock, is when we accomplish a sense of ownership and forward motion in our practicing, and see ourselves grow and flourish as students of the craft.



Piano Safari: Creativity on a Card

 
 
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When I got my first pack of reading cards from the creators at Piano Safari, the first thought through my head was “How can I create with this.” As my studio grew with these cards and each kid spent more time with them, activities, explorations, and games have arisen which presented the cards in a new light for me. Not only can the cards teach intervallic reading, but they can teach technique, feeling a pulse and rhythmic subdivision, sight singing, composition / notation skills, and improv.

Technique

The Piano Safari cards start with fingers 2 3 and 4 in both hands and likewise coincide with the “Tall Giraffe” technique of the method which is non legato on fingers 2 3 and 4. This is a progression from the beginning of the method which starts on finger 2. I’ve loved using the first level (Pink) of cards to work on helping kids find a supported bridge, work on natural hand shape, balance on the keys, and find a nice bounce with their arm (see a good resource on this here).

The cards eventually progress to using all 5 fingers and students can seamlessly transition to reading with all 5 fingers, while they transition to techniques like “Zecharia Zebra” which involve the whole hand.

Feeling A Pulse and Rhythms

With young kids, often times I like to take the cards off the bench and incorporate movement, singing, tapping, and other tools so not only can they see the beat, they can feel it. One exercise we will do is take a single measure from the card, and stand and tap a steady beat on our legs or shoulder together, and then sing the measure back and forth while maintaining that steady pulse. The bottom line of the card, which is simply a rhythm line, is wonderful for rhythm activities that get kids moving, singing, and getting involved with the beat.

 
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When kids read the bottom line, often we will tap a steady pulse on our legs together, and we will sing the rhythms with a neutral syllable “bah.” Later, kids begin to associate rhythms with syllabic systems like Kodaly, Gordon, Takadimi, or similar. For a resource on why one would start with a neutral syllable and not immediately with syllabic system, click here.

 
A game I like to play is lining up all the cards on the piano or on a table, and singing or playing lines in a row. We call it the “Caterpillar Game.” Kids love making long caterpillars!

A game I like to play is lining up all the cards on the piano or on a table, and singing or playing lines in a row. We call it the “Caterpillar Game.” Kids love making long caterpillars!

 

Sight Singing

When a student is playing the cards, often I will make a large effort to incorporate their voice. I give them the starting pitch of the tonal pattern (in right or left hand) and then work on singing the whole pattern with a neutral syllable like “bum” without the piano. In addition, when students read the cards, they will sing the card while they play it in either hand, which helps connect the ear to the instrument. We sing the card back and forth with each other as an exercise, and help solidify the connection between eye, ear, and hand.

Composition and Notation

Part of the process of the cards for my youngest kids is learning how to internalize rhythms and see how they are represented on the page. When they begin to have their reading abilities unlocked, creative opportunities begin to unfold both in their lessons and in their practicing. Many of my young students compose their own pieces, and when they try and represent these pieces with notation they do so with their current understanding. This manifests as shapes, symbols, or notes as in relation to the cards and where they are currently in the method. Below a student wrote her own piece based on her exploration with the cards, and then improvised the notes based on the white keys.

 
6 year old beginners original creation

6 year old beginners original creation



 

Improvisation

As students build their sense of rhythm and their technique, their improv abilities grow and the cards are a prime opportunity for improvised exploration. The bottom rhythmic line can be filled in with improvised inventions of the student. Many students I’ve worked with take the bottom line and improvise compositions on the black keys, or on the white keys. In addition kids can sing a melody with the bottom line, or drum the bottom line, or we trade ideas back and forth. This concept of improvising off a score is paramount in more advanced stages of study.

When I began to tap into the cards as a means for exploration and understanding, and went beyond just intervalic reading, the cards began to take on a new roll in my studio. Whenever I took out the cards my student knew it was time for an activity, a game, or time to create. Cards began to be a tool for working on not only reading, but skills that make up good musicianship. Certainly a welcomed addition and supplement to and studio and any method.

Teaching Tips: Sometimes we just have to ask.

 
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We’ve heard the story over and over again. A Student starts to lose interest in the instrument, stops practicing, starts giving attitude to the teacher, starts fighting back at instruction, and all progress seems to come to a halt.

Immediately as teachers it’s easy to enter into problem solving mode. Can I give different pieces, can I structure lessons differently, what can *I* do different.

But what if often the answer is sitting in front of us the whole time?

There was a young 6 year old student I was working with, who all of a sudden started to put up resistance to a couple pieces we were doing. I took a pause, and I asked “Hey *Students name*, is there a reason you don’t want to do these pieces? What’s upsetting you?”

Student answered: “I want to write music.”

Of course, I thought to myself. We had done some composition before. But we had taken a break. So immediately I shifted the lesson and we started composing together using graphic notation. All of a sudden she was gung-ho about composing as much as possible. All I had to do was listen.

A highschooler, was struggling with practicing, and so mid lesson I asked him “I noticed we’ve hit sort of a road block. Any idea whats preventing you from practicing these tunes?”

He then opened up to me about how he was having trouble motivating himself. How he was struggling with balance with his other activities. We had a long dialogue and I told him how I can relate with my own balance.

The following week, he had the tunes down.

The younger a student is, the more they need assistance with feedback and being present to where they are. As they grow older and their awareness develops, we can spread out and have more of a mutual back and forth. But no matter where a student is in their own development, what can be so crucial to a positive experience is a tone of mutual respect, understanding, and us trying to understand *where they are right now.* Sometimes, all we have to do is ask. Often times, the student has the answer all along.

The Truth about the Blues!

 
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When people think "Blues" they immediately think "Blues scale" but if we look at the chords of the blues they tell a very different story.

The chords of the blues progression are all dominant seventh chords, which if we then play the blues scale over the dominant pattern theres a "problem." The scale tones and chord tones clash with one another. For example playing the blues in F, the Ab conflicts with A, the 3rd of the F7 chord, and so forth.

So when we think blues, the question becomes what is the actual parent scale? If we are to stay within the constraints of the chord tones of the dominant pattern?

If we look at chord scale relationships as they are in relation to the basic 1 4 5 blues progression, not to our preconceived notion that blues = blues scale, then the main scale over the blues is actually Mixolydian. As then all chord tones fit squarely within the constructs of the scale. (We dont have to get into other related concepts like the Bebop scales or major blues scale both which highlight the major tonality but with passing tones)

This is relevant because what this means is that the blues scale itself is actually a substitution which creates a certain sound over the blues progression. Tension. Based on the extensions of the chord. An important sound that has a lot of history, and also important pedagogically because if we start a student on black keys the blues scale can be easily accessible with simply black keys with the note A and can lend itself to immediate creation.

Going beyond the blues scale however, to the chord scale relationships of mixolydian, is when we start to get into concepts like: Arpeggiating chord tones, connecting chord tones, bebop enclosure ideas, using scales to create vocabulary, and swapping back and forth between outlining the chords and using scales like the blues scale as vocabulary.

So the blues scale can act as an entry point, but beyond that we can think of the chord tones and scale relationships, in order to go from playing one scale (the blues scale), to playing the changes themselves 😄

Why Youtube Can Be Perfect For Piano Lessons

 
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I used to REALLY hate youtube tutorials for students.

I thought they were not learning music, a waste of time, not learning something correctly.

Until I realized I could look at them a different way.

Recently, I had a highschooler come to me with Bohemian Rhapsody learned from a youtube tutorial, playing beautifully, and then suddenly it clicked.

What if youtube laid the foundation for student and teacher. What if it was simply transcription.

Me and this highschooler first took a pencil and paper and mapped out the entire chord sequence of the tune he had just "transcribed."

Then we analyzed the patterns, structures, and harmonic relationships.

Then he wrote out the entire tune in proper lead sheet form with chords.

And all of a sudden the tune went beyond simply playing from youtube, to actual understanding.

The following week we did 2 more tunes. Both learned from youtube. With full harmonic analysis. All of a sudden his chordal understanding started to sky rocket. His theory improved in leaps and bounds.

When youtube was approached as transcription, we could use our lessons as connecting harmony, context, and understanding.

Online tools when used as a means for understanding can empower and inspire. It's amazing when we help a student to feel that sense of ownership and inspiration.

The Answer To the Practicing Question

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“What are we going to do today?” I asked my young 7-year-old student. “Why don’t we make a plan together. Go grab your notebook and let’s brainstorm together.”

“What was your favorite piece you played this week?”

“Swans on a Lake!” he replied. “Great! Let’s review it. Write that down as an activity.” and we wrote it down in his notebook.

“What else should we do?” “Cards!” He replied emphatically. And so we wrote down piano safari reading cards together on the to-do list.

One by one we set up a plan for that lesson. Review pieces, cards, recital pieces, improv, games, and learn a new piece. A lot of this was preplanned by me but I guided him to have ownership in the process.

“Which should we do first? Let’s pick between these activities.” “Learn a new piece!” and we launched into learning a blues piece from the Little Gems series. As soon as we started the piece, we added the piece to his “Rep List.” His rep list was a special list handwritten by the both of us that consisted of all the pieces he had ever worked on. Often we go back and pick a piece at random to review or add new pieces to the list. He had been taking lessons for a few months and had a long list of accomplished pieces at this point. Some of which was being played at the recital.

I talk with colleagues about the “illusion of choice” as it pertains to lessons and ownership with kids. Often with kids, I will say “We have one of two options, X, or X, which would you like?” Or I’ll brainstorm activities for the lesson together with heavy suggestions from myself. Or we will play a “game” where we switch off calling pieces from their rep list to review. Often at the beginning of the lesson, I’ll say “Play me your favorite piece you played this week” to reinforce practicing from week to week. Regardless, I insist on heavy involvement of the kid so they feel a sense of independence and ownership in the process.

The more invested kids are with activities like managing a rep list, being involved in decision making, and feeling like they have a very adult-like relationship with the piano, the more I’ve found kids feel committed to the instrument and practice. With ownership and independence, they feel like they are very much learning, not simply being lectured. They feel a part of something, and that feeling of *being a part of* encourages ownership, exploration, and practicing.



Changing the Approach: How I changed my life as a teacher

 
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My approach to teaching used to be very different.

I used to be very high energy and “on” all the time, constantly in go mode every lesson. Every lesson I plunged myself 100 percent and I drove myself to the max until I had nothing left.

At this point (not so long ago) energetically, I was in trouble. My lessons were going smashingly well, but I was hitting a wall physically and mentally. I would get home and would be catatonic after. It was taking everything out of me, and my body was rebelling, and something had to change.

The shift in my approach began with the simple concept of “don’t correct mistakes” and this snowballed into a total change of how I approach teaching in every way.

What this shift looked like for me, is that instead of correcting mistakes, my role shifted into more of a guide that helped students become aware of their own process. That helped them learn how to correct their own mistakes. To be aware of their own journey (for all ages)

When my role shifted from “lecturing” to “guiding” all of a sudden I noticed a change in both my own awareness, but also the dynamic between myself and my students. Suddenly the lesson dynamic became one of team mindset. “Let’s figure this out together.” Or “Let’s explore this together” or “What a great idea, what can we do with it”

When the lessons became much more exploratory, all of a sudden I didn’t have to burn myself out every day, but my energy level began to shift into a much more manageable place. I learned how capable students of all ages are. How not everything has to fall on my shoulders all the time. How I can breathe and let them experience their own process, with me as a guide.

All of a sudden, that catatonic end of the day feeling did a 180 shift into “Wow, what a great day, so many students grew and I grew with them.”

When I was much younger...

When I was much younger, I lived in an apartment with a few roommates, and I remember at that point in my life I had no idea how to get students, how to get gigs, I had no car, and I was just sort of like "Ok, how do I pay my bills?" So I job searched all over the city. All the music academies and music stores weren't hiring. Finally I got a job at a place that I thought would be good for someone whos good with kids, a play center for kids. I used to take the bus there at 8 AM every morning. My job was this: Pick up kids toys, make them chicken nuggets, and sometimes I even had to dress up in a character costume and dance for them. There was no tips, and I made exactly minimum wage. I would take my entire paycheck, and hand over most of it for rent. When I got the job, they told me one day I may be able to teach music classes to the kids. I wrote up an entire curriculum. With songs / interactive games. But they just swept it under the rug and I kept picking up kids toys and making them chicken nuggets. There was a little toy piano in the Toy Room, that I would play on breaks. A tiny thing with just a few octaves. One time a mom stopped in the room while I was playing and said "Wow, you are really good" I remember my soul lighting up for a quick second and I said "Thanks" And then I had to go back from break. I remember standing there, behind the cash register, with Disney songs blasting in the shop, with my boss yelling at me "Joey, Elmo costume in 5" asking myself "Joey, how the hell did you get here" And I remember I literally just shut my eyes and prayed. I remember playing that little toy piano and thinking "One day Im going to be able to teach this for a living" And it turned out all I needed was a little time. And I needed to grow up a little bit. And find my way. And ask questions. And learn from my failures. And get up and just keep trying again. Things come with time and take time. Sometimes we just have to say "Life, come at me, I'm ready"

How Teaching At The Homeless Shelter Changed My Life

This past year, I did a bunch of volunteer piano teaching at a homeless shelter. I would show up for the day, walk into the rec room with a small keyboard, and who ever came through that door I had to teach. The residents varied with who needed a place to sleep that night, and there was almost no consistency.

Immediately I had to shift my approach. Because a few things became immediately apparent:

1. There was almost zero chance these students were going to practice.

2. The goals of these lessons would be slightly different from what I was used to.

I realized the lessons I was teaching were NOT about progress how we typically measure progress. Not about technical skill. But lessons were being measured in joy and emotional impact.

How can I make the most impact right here, right now. How can I help make a memory. How can I make a difference.

I remember there were two 5 year old twin girls that would come and go from the shelter. And I used to play lots and lots of games with them. We used to draw pictures on pieces of paper and improvise soundscapes with them on the piano. We would jump around the room and act out stories and incorporate the piano as sound effects. We would write songs together, and the mom would sing along.

Another teenage boy, said he loved salsa music. So I played a salsa accompaniment for him in the bass, in a way that he could improvise ANY RHYTHMS HE WANTED in the right hand on black keys. Pure creativity. Exploration. Being in the moment.

When I got home from teaching my first day there, it then hit me.

That all lessons can be this way.

Of course, students can practice. Students can have forward motion. Students can have structure.

But what the shelter taught me is at its core, music in it's most basic form is emotion.

How can we make a difference for a student, right here right now.

How can we help make and be a part of a memory.