Sharlene is one of my Wednesdayday afternoon ladies. She is a model student, practicing diligently every week and trying her hand at many different genres.
Another adult student who is a real pleasure to teach. This year Shirley has been studying Nat King Cole, and more recently, The Beatles. Shirley’s choice of repertoire always puts me in a good mood. You just can’t be miserable and play smooth, beautiful pop standards like Mona Lisa, L-O-V-E, and Michelle every week.
This is Mo’s most recent duet and solo. I love the small, satisfied smile at the end of My Heart Will Go On. Adult students are the bomb!
Here’s Emiko! She recently passed into Level 2, which means playing hands together, using a metronome, and playing duets with me every week. She is a funny little jokester who loves borrowing my highlghters and highlighting everything in sight on all her songs.
Maya is the youngest student I teach right now at just 5 years old. She has a 15 minute lesson after her big sister and learns one little song every week. She loves putting putting stickers on the songs she has mastered!
Here’s Rebecca! Currently she is working on a transcription of ‘Mercy’ by Shawn Mendes. She is also a hockey and soccer kid, and I’m always impressed she finds the time to practice. 45 minutes with Rebecca always flies by and we work and learn hard from the time we sit down at the piano until I must dash away to my next lesson.
Here is Ella, progressing beautifully, playing hands together with a steady beat and a ton of confidence and determination. She devours a lot of material every week and often does more, goes beyond, and adds more complexity than I ask for if she masters her assignment with time to spare before her next lesson.
Evan is a very interesting, funny, and smart person to spend 45 minutes every Wednesday evening with. He likes to memorize his songs, a wonderful skill that is hard to come by for many. As we go along and the material gets more complex, there are more elements to memorize (dynamics, tempo changes, form) and he is always up for the challenge. He is currently working on Raider’s March by John Williams, the theme from Raiders of The Lost Ark, a piece of music that is considerably more complex than all of his other assigned material. I love it when a student chooses to take on something more difficult than what I would have chosen for them. It shows real confidence and a high level of engagement with the material. Once you discover John Williams, it’s hard to step away! That man has composed an enormous catalog of thrilling, fantastic, very famous music. Accordingly, Evan’s next piece of chosen repertoire is likely to be a transcription of Imperial Death March from Star Wars and I for one am looking forward to humming it every week as I drive home after his lesson. Dum dum dum, dum de DUM, dum de DUM…
Here’s Leo! Currently we are working on a transcription of “Can’t Slow Down” by Hedley. He’s got the right hand melody down very well, and he can sing all the words. I have him to thank for adding a Hedley song to my Guilty Pleasures playlist, and hell didn’t even have to freeze over. Live and learn, people. Live and learn.
Aidan is such a pleasure to teach. Every week it seems like he listens more carefully, exerts a bigger effort, and fearlessly tries new things without complaint.
Here is Sarah, playing two of her pieces that she prepared for her Royal Conservatory Grade 1 exam. The first one is called Mist, and the next is called Andante In G Minor. Sarah’s piano skills grew and improved a tremendous amount during her exam preparations. She has set her sights high and is currently studying for her Grade 3 exam.
Ella started piano lessons about 5 months ago, at the tender age of only 5 years old. It’s been a few years since I taught a 5 year old and my policy of 7 years old minimum for new students came about for good reasons. Many good reasons, which involved yelling or fleeing the piano (them) and intense frustration masked as polite detachment (me). Not much can make me pound my steering wheel and yell curse words with the windows up as I drive to my next lesson, but a batch of lessons with a young child who was neither interested or ready or even capable of piano study did the trick every time.
The only exception I make to this rule is if someone under the age of 7 actively begs their parents for piano lessons and spends a lot of time messing around on the piano independently, with no pressure or prompting. Enter Miss Ella. Every lesson she vibrates with enthusiasm as she proudly shows me every item in her assignment, practiced meticulously – with the help and support of her parents, who I love, because they follow my practice instructions and help Ella work through her piano assignments. She has an enviable combination of natural talent, intelligence, good listening skills, and a willingness to try new things. And she really seems to love the piano. Our lessons fly by – I never have to cajole or insist – and that is a first for me in 12 years of teaching. I have never before taught a 5 year old a 45 minute lesson that seems to go by fast. This kid is going to be a beautiful pianist by the time she is 9 or 10 if she wants to be.
Rosie plays a great version of ‘Haunted House’ for her solo and we had lots of fun perfecting this difficult duet, Pink Panther.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Beatles made some serious music. But generally we don’t think of them in those terms because they were ‘pop’ and ‘rock n roll’ and had number one hits, all sterotypical indicators of ‘not serious’. That was part of their immense genius though. Disguising thoroughly challenging music (melodically, harmonically, structurally, lyrically) with irresistable catchiness and boyish sexiness. Here is Mo and her take on one of their most elegant pieces. A piece that seemed impenetrable a few weeks before I might add, but her usual unstoppable determination to study it and understand it paid off handsomely, as it always does.
Here is a practice version of Old Man River still in progress, having studied it for only one week.
I wish I had 10 Sharlenes to teach every week. She is an adult beginner, retired, always busy with piano practice, travelling, and spending time with her family and friends. Sharlene is a calm, gentle presence whose intelligence is greater than mine in many areas. When I asked her for a reference letter for my application package to the British Columbia Registered Music Teachers Association, I found out she has a Master’s degree in Adult Education and had an illustrous career in education, politics and government. In addition to raising two children and being married for 40 years. She had never mentioned any of this to me (except her children). It’s a wonderful thing to meet a person who is secure enough to not feel the need to remind you about their achievements all the time. This humility made me like her even more. I always look forward to teaching Sharlene, and I’m inspired every time I leave her house. She has said plenty of things in a casual offhanded manner that explode in my brain and reverberate for days.
Sharlene is the only adult student I teach who performs at my twice yearly piano recitals. There’s nothing wrong with not performing, which is what all of my other adult students choose. I understand the fear and anxiety that comes with performing and if you would rather not feel that and play the piano strictly for your own pleasure, I am with you. Sharlene dresses to the nines and often plays first. Her husband and her grown children and their spouses come to watch her. Their love for her is palpable. When she finshes her songs – she always plays perfectly – and sits down with them I think, that is a beautiful and complete group. A happy family who loves to support each other. I hope I have many more years of being with Sharlene every Tuesday afternoon, teaching and learning in equal measure
This is a very tricky duet to play perfectly. You really can’t mess around with The Beatles. Their music demands full awareness and concentration. How nice that it is also melodic, catchy, and emotional.
Here she is playing Paper Moon hands together, progressing beautifully.
and a nice duet of Sleeping Beauty Waltz
I had a small group of dedicated students turn out yesterday for a nice little piano concert. Everyone played two pieces, and there were lots of good solos and duets. I played solo jazz piano in public for the first time in about 5 years and although mildly terrifying – and I did not perfectly execute the solo break I had been working so hard on – in the words of my four year old and Daniel Tiger “You gotta try a new thing ’cause it might be good”.
Aidan started lessons this past September and every week I am impressed with his progress, his enthusiasm for learning new songs, and his excellent questions. He is the only 7 year old I know who is fascinated with comparing and contrasting composers within the socio-economic-political context of their life and times. He looks ahead in his lesson books, which I encourage all my students to do, and his guesses at how to proceed with new material are easily 75% right and this margin is growing from week to week. One of the things I love most about being a teacher is giving truthful, positive feedback and compliments that are well deserved. Every week I have opportunities to tell Aidan that he is a good listener, a great learner, very intelligent (especially about music), that his pieces are sounding better and better, and that it is a pleasure to teach him. He loves to hear all this stuff – I can tell by the way he listens carefully, head down looking at the keys with a little smile on his face – and I never get tired of saying it. It emboldens him to try harder and set higher expectations for himself. And so we attain a virtuous circle of learning, reinforcement, confidence, and the desire to do more and make it better. Sounds easy and fantastic but it doesn’t happen with everyone and it’s often very hard to achieve this virtuous circle. Aidan helps me appreciate the virtuous circle and renews my efforts to bring that to all my students.
For our most recent recital Sarah put together two short solo pieces to make a larger one. Today the kids call that a mashup. Older people will know it as a medley. Either way it’s fun and fascinating to watch a student create something new by combining old ideas.
Quite often when I post current student performance videos I end up comparing them to older ones of the same student and it sure is gratifying to see unmistakable fantastic progress during the elapsed time between videos. Mo always falls into that category.
This lady just turned 80. Yes she did. Still going strong with her diligent practice routine, careful adherence to instructions, and great ideas for repertoire to study.
It’s always fun to make some new videos with Rosie. This year we have played many challenging duets in genres from musical theatre to classical to folk to jazz. In her solo work she is gaining tons of proficiency with counting in compound time signatures.
Colleen started lessons this past September with me as an adult beginner. When I met her I had an immediate sense of “this is my kind of lady!” and 6 months later I look forward to every Thursday afternoon I spend with her very much. That’s a really cool thing about adult students. When you click with somebody a rapport grows, and it’s almost like making a new friend. In fact I have been very fortunate with my adult students. Almost all of them I wish I could be friends with in real life outside of my professional relationship with them. Colleen falls into that category. It has brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction to witness her breakthroughs with the piano one by one. Memorizing notes, learning how to read rhythms, playing hands together, there are so many milestones (if the student and teacher understand each other) early on in studying an instrument. Colleen has also made me think deeply about the challenges adult beginner students have and how to effectively help people through these as a teacher. Listening is a big part of it I think. Reassurance, encouragement, and reminders that perfection is not what we’re striving for here. All of my adult students are highly accomplished professionals. In my observation the challenges they face in learning how to play the piano stem from struggling to reconcile being a beginner in this one area with their expertise in their professional (and home, and volunteer) lives. When you are accustomed to the feeling of competence and success and the tangible rewards associated with that it can be very disorienting to experience the struggles of being a beginner. Some adults find this intolerable and they quit early on. But not Colleen. I hope I can have the pleasure of teaching her and learning from her for years to come.
In my current crop of students, Max is the only one who composes his own repertoire and improvises solos over a 12 bar blues. Here he is performing his first original blues tune, Purple Radishes. Not bad for a 13 year old who was introduced to the concept of the blues only a couple of weeks before this.
And here is our latest duet.
Leo started piano lessons this past September. It’s a real pleasure to start from the very beginning with a sweet, smart little human. Recently we have completed a big project, learning the melody for Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams and playing it on the piano while singing the words. Leo’s dad wrote out the lyrics some manuscript paper and I helped Leo figure out every single note and write its name below the lyrics. At first it was mostly me transcribing the notes, but Leo caught on quickly and instinctively absorbed the key and tonal centre and was soon dictating 4 bars at a time of melody notes that we worked feverishly to set down in the heat of battle. This is all pretty impressive for a six year old person.
One day during this project we had a great conversation. Leo had been studying the lyrics and listening to the song between lessons. I sat down beside him one Wednesday afternoon and unpacked my bag of tricks while he fired off questions.
” What is a summer of 69?”
” It means the songwriter is telling a story about the summer of 1969, which was a long time ago, like 46 years ago”
” What’s a real six string?”
” He’s talking about a guitar. The very first guitar he ever bought.”
” Why do his fingers bleed?”
” He loved his new guitar and played it so much his fingers started to bleed because they were not used to the sharp feeling of the strings”.
“Wow. And then he played in a band?”
“Yeah, with some guys from school. They tried really hard”.
“What happened with his band?”
“Well, Jimmy quit and Jody got married.”
“Oh. That’s sad. No band for him.”
“Yes it is, but it was the best time of his life.”
“That’s good. What is he doing now?”
What is the guy from Summer of 69 doing these days? He would be in his 60’s now. Is he happily retired with an armful of kids and grandkids? Or is he drinking himself to death slowly in front of a flickering tv of late night infomercials? Does he still pull out the old six string once in a while? I’d like to think he does.
I wish I had taken a picture of Leo’s manuscript paper, which says SUMMER OF 69 at the top and right underneath that “By Bryan Adams and LEO”. Here is he playing the songs he learned for our recent piano recital, at which I played and sang Summer of 69, which introduced him this song in the first place. You just never know what is going to stick in a kid’s brain.
Sarah has been studying piano with me for about the past 5 years. She has an enthusiasm and joy for music that is energizing to be around. When I am teaching Sarah and she is singing along with her right hand part because it’s so beautiful to her, I often wish I could teleport home to my piano and play for hours, to have lots of fun at the piano just like she does.
Sarah doesn’t discriminate with music. She falls in love with classical pieces, pop songs, jazz standards, and lullabies. Many times I have played a new piece for her and her eyes widen in surprised delight. ” Ooh, I LIKE that one!” she says breathlessly as the notes strike her ear for the first time.
This year Sarah is discovering her own practice strategies, which of course fills me with teacherly pride. I have long believed that practicing is much akin to puzzle solving. How do I put this song together? What steps are needed, in what order, to facilitate the magical transformation from disjointed segments to a unified whole? This process is different for every student of music.
As a teacher I can suggest strategies that work for me, others that my teachers have shown me, and create new ones that address the puzzle at hand for the student on the bench beside me. But there comes a time when the student, if they are to continue with their studies, has to devise their own puzzle solving practice devices. Things that work for that individual person. Nobody knows your brain better than you, I say to my students. You have to figure out how to put this information into your individual brain, in a way that makes sense and in a way that you can remember and draw upon. I can guide, suggest and critique, but I can’t put the information in there for you.
If I could, I’m pretty sure I would be the greatest piano teacher the world has ever seen.
But in the meantime I will look to Sarah for inspiration as she tries, struggles, and succeeds on her journey with music.
I started teaching Rebecca when she was about 6 years old. For the last 5 years she (with her mom’s help) has been wonderfully consistent with her attendance to piano lessons. She continues her lessons throughout the summer and very rarely cancels during the school year. I know if Rebecca has another event that conflicts with piano lessons she and her mom will schedule a make-up lesson rather than miss a week of piano. This is pretty remarkable because Rebecca is a hockey kid. She gets up at an ungodly early hour at least twice a week for practices and games. She is the only girl on a boy’s team. She travels for games and tournaments. She does summer hockey camps. I have had very few hockey kids as piano students in my 12 year teaching career. It’s one of those activities that tends to crowd out everything else if you’re serious about it. Rebecca is a rare bird who is gifted athletically, academically, and creatively. She is also polite, friendly, and easy to teach. I often try and say something funny to her because I enjoy her snort and giggle combination, and I marvel that in addition to all her talents she has a sense of humor.
Rebecca is the only student I have ever taught that continued piano lessons with a broken arm. She was quite little, maybe 6 or 7 when it happened. Despite a large cast that extended past her elbow she managed to keep playing. She figured out how to position herself at the piano so that she could still play with both hands. I decided then, even though I hadn’t known her for very long that I would take her seriously and that this was a child to watch out for in 20 years. (Maybe less if she makes Team Canada for Women’s Olympic Hockey) I have a lot of respect for Rebecca because she knows how to combine hard work with her talents to take her where she wants to go, and because doing a really good job is important to her. She practices piano with dedication and her playing is expressive with good time and accuracy. She is also the only student I have taught who has performed a memorized 12 page long Coldplay song at a recital with no mistakes. Her fearlessness amazed me that day.
Every Wednesday Rebecca greets me at the door while holding on to her enormous dog Baden as he attempts to shake her off so he can knock me over while he kisses me to death. I always laugh to see this medium sized girl gamely attempt to subdue a much stronger more powerful creature than herself. She never gets cross with him and she never gives up. I love that about her. She reminds me that determination and a good attitude are an unbeatable combination in this life.
Shirley has been taking piano lessons with me for about the last 9 years or so. She was not a complete beginner. She had taken piano lessons on and off with several teachers as an adult. I love this about her. She was a very busy person with a full time nursing career and a single mother to two daughters but she still never gave up on learning how to play the piano. I met her when she was retired and I was teaching her grandson, another very wonderful individual who deserves a separate blog post. For several years I taught Shirley, her grandson and her grandaughter. I got to know her daughter and son in law, her grandchildren, and Shirley herself through my weekly visits. I am still grateful for the time I shared with this family.
Shirley is my idea of a model student. She is retired, so she has time to practice. She diligently applies a strong effort to all of my assignments. She keeps an open mind and is willing to try new things. She persists when the material is complicated and unfamiliar, and we are both so pleased when once again she comes out the other side of it and can play something that seemed impossible a few weeks ago. She is kind, and wise. A few times I have stayed an extra half hour (when I don’t have another lesson right away, I am not a complete unprofessional moron) talking her ear off about my life and its problems at her back door with my shoes and jacket on while she listens and advises. When I was young I never thought about anyone over 40. Now in the last gasps of my fading youth I have a deepening appreciation for everyone over 70. I never expected as a piano teacher I would teach older adults in their retirement years, and I certainly never expected to love it. Many times I have said to my older adult students that I am learning as much from them as they are from me, and I definitely feel this way about Shirley. I tease her that she is the busiest retired person I know, with her travelling and going to the gym, helping out with her grandchildren, home renovations projects and busy social life. I’m glad she makes time for piano practice and lessons. My week would be far less bright without her.
Max is one of those students who the thought of makes me smile. And shake my head a little, and then smile again. I first met Max when he was 7 years old. During our first lesson he jumped up and rolled under his piano bench, where apparently he intended to stay for the rest of the lesson. That was a first for me. I convinced him to come out and try playing a song. He was suspicious but agreed. I could see that Max was a very active child who needed to move a little while he learned. That’s ok with me. A lot of kids learn better while they’re moving. I could also see that he was very, very smart. His brain absorbed new information quickly and if he was interested, he was hungry to learn more more more. I made it my mission to make piano interesting for him, because it was so rewarding for both of us (I hoped) to devour new concepts and new material.
Now Max is 13. He has developed into one of the nicest teenagers I have ever spent time with. He’s still smart, and very funny, and one of those gems who spontaneously display polite good manners and respect when his parents are nowhere in sight. His enthusiasm at discovering new elements of music inspires me to fall in love with music and great artists and pieces all over again. I felt the way that Max does when I was his age. The thing I loved WAS THE BEST THING THAT HAD EVER OR WILL EVER EXIST. Sometimes I forget I used to feel that way. Max reminds me. I run with it and feed him whatever I can think of to kindle the fire of his sharp intelligence.
This year Max discovered the 12 bar blues and the basics of improvising. In this video he is playing a 12 bar blues chords in his left hand while improvising with his right hand using the blues scale, with a metronome. He feels the pulse in his body while he plays. He fairly vibrates with excitement. The combined elements of memorization, staying in time and spontaneously crafting a melody that uses only the notes of a specific scale pattern make for a challenging brain workout for a person of any age. He is the youngest person I have taught who can do this and I am looking forward to seeing what he will accomplish in the coming school year.
I started teaching Rosie when she was 5 years old. Back then she had a 15 minute lesson before her older brother Evan’s lesson. Normally I don’t teach 5 year olds unless they are very keen to learn piano. Rosie was one of those rare 5 year olds. She asked me every week for what seemed like months whenever I came to teach her brother, when could she start piano lessons. She showed me how she could play parts of her brother’s songs, just by listening to him practice. Rosie was so happy to start her own lessons with me. She practiced diligently and parked herself in her living room window, waiting for me to walk up her driveway every week. She would wave so hard when she spotted me I thought her arm might fall off. An enormous grin would light up her face without fail and she would run to the door and throw it open for me. She still does this every week, 4 years later. When I am an old lady in the nursing home I will remember Rosie’s loving joyful enthusiasm with great fondness. Her solid beat, attention to dynamics, and accurate note reading skills solidify her place in my heart.
Love this lady. Desiree is a full time lawyer, wife, mother of two and piano student. She has a strong natural musical talent that I love to see unfold and deepen every week. You just never know what you might be good at until you give it a try.
She’s a keeper, this one. Certified accountant, engineer, athlete, piano player, wife, mother of two teens. Makes me tired to think about doing all the stuff but Mo carries it off with strength, razor sharp intelligence, and humor. She is a highlight of my Tuesday evenings.