The Adult Beginner’s Piano Journey

I feel as if I have stumbled onto a great secret of satisfying and rewarding teaching. That secret is, adult students, especially beginners. There is something wonderful about these people. It’s fun to teach music to a child, because children are fantastically curious, full of energy and innocence. The adults though, I really feel like I’m helping in a tangible way. Sure they get better at playing the piano – if they commit to regular practice and following their assignments they can become surprisingly solid and expressive players at any stage of life. But they also get better at knowing themselves, facing challenges, and handling victories. You would be shocked to know how many accomplished, professional adult people have a total blind spot about their own intelligence and ability to grow. They cannot and do not see their own progress, all the ways in which they are improving, the skills they have mastered, the increase in fluency, the steady buildup of knowledge. Helping my adult students handle their victories and acknowledge them is probably the biggest part of my work with adult beginners. I’m not sure why this is so and why I see it so often. There’s probably a great paper or study waiting to be written about it.
I have found that another great secret of good teaching is love and encouragement. People of any age learn more effectively when they are loved and encouraged; when they feel safe enough to take their world-mask off and allow the new information to be absorbed and they do not fear looking stupid or making a mistake. That’s “flow state”, the relaxed concentration that allows endless repetitions and true practicing/improvement from a place of fascination and curiosity (not from a place of boredom/being forced to – that is NOT flow state).
I help my adult students get into that flow state through the most effective tools in my teaching bag of tricks: love and encouragement. Simple. But complicated and delicate too. It’s engrossing work that I will practice and research and try to get better at for the rest of my life. It requires sensitivity and subtlety. Love and encouragement from a teacher has to be gentle and unobtrusive, something you can only see out of the corner of your eye. The small, vulnerable flame of learning has to be nurtured, not blown out with overzealous trampling of false praise.
I would love to meet some new adult piano students this year, especially beginners. If you or someone you know has always wanted to unlock the secrets of the piano and dive deep into the endless world of music; push themselves to achieve (and accept) new victories, and work on an amazing new skill, feel free to get in touch. I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.

Rosie

It’s Rosie! Here she is with a lovely solo piece, Theme From Swan Lake. A wonderfully interesting kid who chooses both pop music and classical repertoire to play.

Nikita

Here is Nikita with her recent solo and duet:)

Ella

And here is Ella with her most recent concert solo and duet. When she loves a song, look out. No matter how difficult it is, she will not stop practicing it until it’s beautiful, complete, and correct.

Sarah

Something I really like about Sarah is her happy dance that happens at the piano bench when she discovers a song that moves her. I always know which ones resonate because she practices them like crazy and has them ready for me the following week:)


Beginning Of Term Newsletter 2018

Hello Lovely Parents and Students,

Happy New School Year! Welcome back to all of us. Here is some important information I wanted to share with you regarding piano lessons.

No lessons during the first week of school. Regular lessons commence the week of Sept. 10.
Cancellations: each student receives two free cancellations per school year. Please let me know when you would like to use them and I will apply a cancellation credit to your invoice. Any subsequent cancellations will not be refunded or credited, but you can arrange a make-up lesson with me if you wish. I have availability for make-up lessons on Saturday afternoons.

Things to do this week to prepare for a wonderful year of music study:

Establish a practice routine, input into family calendar. Set aside time for 5 piano practice sessions every week. Write or print out a copy of your practice routine and put it into your piano assignments binder.

Get a timer to measure practice sessions. A basic kitchen timer or stopwatch is fine. This timer stays on top of your piano or in your piano box.

Get a container for your piano materials. Something big enough to put metronome, piano books, piano binder, timer, pencil, eraser, current sheet music. Ideally each kid taking lessons in the family would have their own box. Keep this container on top of the piano or on the floor right next to piano bench, somewhere very close by and highly visible.

Start a “Songs I Like” list. Put a copy on your devices and a paper copy in your piano materials box. This list will be helpful when considering what repertoire to study next.

Arrange for piano or keyboard maintenance if it has been longer than a year since last tuning or there are ongoing issues needing repair.

Practice Guidelines: 5 sessions every week between lessons

Ages 5-6, 15 minute sessions

Ages 7-9, 20-25 minutes

Ages 10+, at least 30 minutes every session

Adults – at least 45 minutes

Practice Instructions: At every practice session, open the piano lessons binder. Go to the assignment sheet from your last lesson. Do everything on the list as many times it says (more is better) or for the number of minutes indicated. Set a timer for every session. If you reach the bottom of the list and time has not run out, start again at the top of the list or practice the item that was the most difficult again.

Students ages 5-8 need supervision during their practice sessions. Someone to help them go through the instructions and work through each item, to keep them focused, to know when to take a short break and re-engage.

Students ages 9-11 need someone to check their piano assignment at least once a week. Go through the assignment sheet with your child, and ask them to show you every item. Give lots of encouragement for improving and making their best effort.

Students ages 12+ benefit from a check of their assignment every couple of weeks and some sincere encouragement and specific praise when you hear them practicing well on their own.

Adult students: don’t be shy about showing a trusted friend what you’re working on in piano lessons. Supportive friends and family can provide encouraging feedback, which is so valuable when learning to play an instrument.

Playing For Fun:

Music is an amazing human creation of infinite depth and beauty. Usually your child’s piano assignment will not touch on the great emotional journey that music can be. It will be about sustained effort, delayed gratification, intellectual challenge, discipline, and if everything goes well, slow and steady progress. Sometimes practicing will feel like kind of a drag. It is important to round out your or your child’s musical education by giving them the easy side of music as well. Go see live concerts, have a dance party, sing together as a family, and encourage your children to mess around at the piano with no pressure. All of this goes for adult students as well.

Thank you for reading! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Looking forward to seeing all of your shining faces next week,

Alison

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Alison Maira
B. Mus, Jazz Studies & Music Education
BCRMTA – BC Registered Music Teachers Assn.
BCMEA – BC Music Educators Assn.

End Of Term Newsletter 2016

Dear Lovely Parents and Students,
Another year of music study is winding down. I’ve learned a lot from you and your kids. One of my goals this year was to unashamedly teach with love and find the method of encouragement that worked the best for each individual. I don’t know everything about teaching and learning, but I have observed over the years that students learn better when the lesson is delivered with love, humor, a rock solid foundation of support and a side of don’t mess with me. My standards and expectations are high, and I know students respond positively to that as well. Finding that sweet spot of expectation that is higher than they are used to yet not too high that it seems impossible is a dance I am constantly learning, practicing, and perfecting. Thank you for being part of this fascinating journey with me.
Now is the time of year when I must ask you all to declare your piano lesson intentions. There are three options: continue with lessons during the summer, stop for the summer but resume in September, or give notice that you are terminating your lessons at the end of June.
For summer lessons: scheduling is a somewhat casual affair. Simply ask for the times and dates you would like (my hours are Tu-We-Th 3:30-7:30pm, Sat. 3:30-6:30pm). You can keep your regular time slot if you like. I will invoice you for all the lessons you have booked for July and August. Summer lessons are pre-paid up front for the whole summer. We proceed as normal, except there are no make-up lessons for summer cancellations. Please let me know if you wish to continue with your current time slot when regular weekly lessons resume in September.
For taking a summer break from lessons: I require a non-refundable deposit to reserve your current time slot. This is in the form of a postdated cheque for the amount of September lessons. If you continue in September, the deposit is applied to September lessons. If you change your mind about continuing, the deposit is not refunded.
I hope to see all of you at least a little bit over the summer. Like most teachers, I am in favor of year round learning. Summer lessons are an excellent way to prevent forgetting and losing the skills students have worked so hard to attain during the school year and avoids completely the frustration of weeks and months of review in September, knowing that you used to be able to do this but can’t anymore and there is hours and hours of re-learning ahead of you. On the other hand, I take a certain satisfaction in whipping students back into shape after a long break…so it’s kind of a win either way:)
I will be posting the most recent performance videos soon on my website and social media. Please share with family and friends. They are a reassuring yardstick of your or your child’s growth and progress in their study of music, something to be celebrated in this world where minimum effort and mediocrity is the norm.
Thank you for reading. Looking forward to seeing everyone this week.
Cheerio,
Alison

What I Do & Why I Do It: Application for BC Registered Music Teachers Assoc.

Warming up for my first recital after my little one was born.

Warming up for my first recital after my little one was born.

Recently I thought, I will join some professional associations this year. It was a decision based on several factors. I wanted to see if my brain had recovered at all from pregnancy, childbirth, baby/toddler care and housewifery. I wanted to expand my teaching practice and get better at proactively promoting my business. And quite frankly, I wanted to see if I could meet the challenge of bureaucracy and hoop jumping. I want to go back to school you see, and this seemed like a good way to test my tolerance for forms, tracking down pieces of paper from various institutions and assembling an application package.
Along the way I had to do some writing. Specifically, for the BCRMTA (BC Registered Music Teachers Association) a maximum 2 page statement describing my teaching practice and activities. This turned out to be a difficult yet satisfying task. For the first time in 10+ years of teaching I set down officially what I do, why I do it, and why I believe in my approach.

BCRMTA Application Written Statement Of Teaching Activities and Methods
Alison Maira, B. Mus.

Teaching Practice 2002-present
I am a piano teacher who does in-home lessons in North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Vancouver, and North Burnaby. My music training is in jazz piano and music education. I graduated from Capilano University in 2002 with a B.Mus, Jazz Studies, Education Major. From 2002-2011 I performed and recorded in local bands (pop, indie rock, jazz, classic rock, original music, covers) playing piano, keyboard, organ, and singing while teaching piano full time to a roster of 38-41 students year round.
In 2012 I became a mother and cut back from full time to part time teaching hours. Since 2012 I have taught 12-14 students year round. Lessons are weekly, 45 minutes.
Here is what I consider most important for you to know about me and my teaching practice.

First Things First
Proper technique, note reading skills, ear training, flashcard drills, music theory, understanding music terminology and my personal favorite, playing in time with and without a metronome. These are the essentials for anyone studying an instrument. I design my lesson plans to address all of these elements.

It’s A Beautiful World Of Music Out There
And not just beautiful, of course. Fascinating, disturbing, confusing, exciting, inspiring, comforting, all the adjectives we have are not enough to describe music. For each person it’s a different key that unlocks the door to musical wonder. That is why I expose my students to many genres through their method books, the music I choose for them, and the music they choose for themselves. My goal is to help them discover their taste(s) in music and find sounds that move them. I have seen this happen many times and it is wonderful, to share in someone’s joy of discovering a new song they love and must play over and over again.

The Best Motivation Is Love
I ask my students to choose some of their own repertoire, from any genre. When my students study pieces they have chosen for themselves, their motivation to learn it is much stronger than for pieces I assign to them to address various musical elements. They learn more effectively and are more engaged if they have a say in what’s happening. Often the songs they choose have a higher difficulty level than material selected by me. Yet they eagerly push through the new concepts, master them determinedly, and improve in great leaps and bounds simply because they are playing something they care about.

The Big Picture
I teach beginner, intermediate and advanced piano to children, teenagers, and middle aged adults. I teach piano because it is the conduit through which I can express, explore (and hopefully instill in my students) my fascination with music. I believe in music and its power: to inspire, heal, comfort, inform, and challenge all of us.
Through a great deal of hard work I have made a small career of playing and teaching music. I trained in a very competitive environment and am well aware of what it takes to get to the highest level and then keep improving. My work is not with the small number of elite students who will become professional players. It is with the vast majority of humanity, whose brains are hardwired to respond to music. It is our birthright as a species to be rhythmic and melodic. As more research is published every year detailing the incredible benefits of music making for our physical, mental, and social health as well as music’s ability to heal and alleviate so many painful conditions, teaching everyday people how to play the piano as well as they possibly can is important work I am proud to do. My work not only has a positive impact now on my students, but will continue to throughout their lives as long as they continue to play piano and/or listen to music.

Winter 2016 Concert Details

Hello Lovely Parents and Students,

Here are the details for our upcoming Piano Recital Winter 2016

Saturday January 9, 1:00-1:45pm
Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, 1700 Mountain Hwy North Vancouver
Church appropriate attire please.

This is a performance opportunity, not a performance obligation. If you or your child change their mind about performing after arriving at the concert it’s not a problem. Please let me know and I will adjust the program accordingly. I encourage all of my students whether they are performing or not to attend the concert.

Family and friends are invited too. All are welcome.

Please practice your recital pieces over the holidays:)

I will email a program a couple of days before the concert. And hopefully remember how to spell everyone’s last names.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Looking forward to seeing you all there.

Cheerio,
Alison

Alison Maira

The Mobile Piano Geek
http://www.alisonmaira.com

Featured Student, Rebecca

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.

Beginning Of Term Piano Lessons Newsletter Sept. 2015

The Mobile Piano Geek

Piano Lessons Newsletter
Beginning Of Term
September 2015

Hello Lovely Parents and Students,
Here we are, at the beginning of another year of music study. For some of you, the first year of piano lessons. (How exciting!) I for one am refreshed and full of energy, ready to teach and learn with you all year long. Well, at least until December and winter break. Here is some information from the wonderful world of piano lessons I would like to share with you.

Practicing:
Piano lessons without consistent, effective practice results in a painful experience for student, teacher, and parents. A painful lesson experience leads to associating music study with frustration, boredom and resentment. This is the opposite of our intentions as teacher and parents, as music provides so many amazing benefits to a person’s physical, mental, and social health. I recommend building piano practice time into your family or personal calendar. This will address the problems of procrastination, ‘not enough time’ and negotiating every practice session with your child. Try building in at least 4 practice sessions every week. Some general guidelines I use are:
6 – 7 year olds 15 minute sessions
8 – 9 year olds 20 minute sessions
10 – 12 year olds 30 minute sessions
Teens and adults – 45 minute sessions with at least one longer session of 60 min + every week.
It’s also important to consider your practice set-up at home. A room at a reasonable temperature, a footstool for young children whose feet don’t yet reach the floor, a chair or bench at the right height, and a quiet environment free of distractions all go a long way in making a practice session feel comfortable and not something to be endured.
For more information, please see “Practice Tips For Beginners” at http://www.alisonmaira.com

Piano Maintenance:
Acoustic pianos should be tuned and inspected once a year. If it’s been longer than one year since your piano has been serviced, now is a good time to get it done. Electric keyboards do not need yearly maintenance but sometimes need to be cleaned by a technician when dust and dirt builds up inside them.

Cancellations:
Each student receives two free cancellations per school year. Subsequent cancellations will not be credited or refunded. All cancellations can be rescheduled for a make-up lesson if the student desires. Contact me for availability.

New:
This year I am adding ear training exercises and flashcard drills on a rotating basis throughout the month. Ear training is the skill of identifying specific pitches aurally, and flashcards reinforce music vocabulary.

Accepting New Students:
I have a time slot available for one new student. If you know of anyone who is interested in piano lessons please feel free to pass along my contact info.

Music Enrichment Activities:
Practicing a piano assignment for a weekly lesson is one part of a musical education. Here are some suggestions for additional activities:
– play for fun, just mess around at the piano.
– try to figure out familiar songs
– buy some sheet music and learn songs you like.
– go to concerts. Seeing music performed live can be so inspiring.
– listen to recordings
– watch videos of live performances on you tube
– research composers or songs you are studying. Youtube is a good option here as well.

Website:
I have posted more student performance videos on my website. You can find them by going to Current Students, and searching by student name. I started a Featured Student series this summer and will be posting another Duet Series soon.

Follow Me
Please join me on facebook, twitter, and Instagram.
https://www.facebook.com/alisonmaira
https://www.facebook.com/themobilepianogeek
https://twitter.com/alisonmaira1
https://instagram.com/okmaira/

You can follow my blog too at http://www.alisonmaira.com

Thanks for reading!
Cheerio,
Alison

Here We Go Again

It’s the first day of school. After a lovely, relatively lazy summer of teaching some casual lessons here and there it’s time to get back in the saddle. I’ll see all my students this week and many of them will not have touched their piano since June. Which I am okay with, by the way. If it works for your kid to have summers off and go outside and generally go crazy I support you 100%. I will have those little whippersnappers set up with a new practice routine and review assignments before they can say “Why you gotta be so strict and yet hilarious at the same time?!” I had a busy day yesterday – a busy week, actually, getting ready.

work table

My work space. All the essentials, netflix controller included.

stickers

New stickers. Got some new littles starting this year and I want them to enjoy collecting shiny things for a job well done.

new student binders

New student introductory packages. Everything you need to get started in the wonderful world of piano lessons, provided by your guide The Mobile Piano Geek.

new binders

Oh I am not messing around this year. The dollar store sells binders now and I have a deep need to organize. Technique worksheets, Duets, and Ear Training exercises are in the house. BAM. We’re gonna work on this stuff on a rotating basis every week and you’re gonna love it.

And there you have it. Happy New Year. I have two more duets binders and a transcription binder to make, I’m out. *drops mic*

Featured Student, Sylvie

Oh Sylvie. She is such a special person. I love the name Sylvie now – hadn’t heard it before I met her – only because this particular Sylvie is such a gem.
We’ve had hundreds of piano lessons together over the past 7 years or so. She was a sweet, smart, funny little girl and now she is a funny, smart young woman with a dry wit and a very well placed eye roll (never at me). Sylvie is one of the few students I have who listen fully to me without interruption and then tries exactly what I have asked her to do. Consequently, she has made real and impressive progress as a piano player over the years.
She always greets me with a smile and is ready to learn. She never complains about any of the repertoire I choose for her and I have always enjoyed teaching her the repertoire that she chooses for herself. She went through a year long Beatles phase when she was 9 or 10. Of all the students I have taught over the past 12 years, no one has learned more Beatles songs than Sylvie. And she is the youngest person to have done so in my teaching practice. In many ways, all you need are The Beatles to learn about music. What a fantastic world their body of work is. Sylvie reminded me of this and it was amazing to teach those songs to someone who was discovering them for the first time.
Now we have moved on to Taylor Swift and Ed Sheerhan. I knew their names of course, but sneeringly dismissed them as idiot music for idiots. (Why yes, I do have a teeny judgmental streak about music) I have Sylvie to thank for opening my ears to Taylor Swift. At first I hid my blossoming love for her like an illicit lover. But when Shake It Off came out and I got to teach it I was like, I love her. I do. I will eat my words about her being lame. I will go home and transcribe her songs and sing & play them with the zeal of the newly converted. Sylvie helped me realize that sharing a love for a certain artist is one of the most positive things that can happen between a teacher and student. It’s a rare opportunity to create a special bond that helps the teacher teach more passionately and the student learn more passionately. And that is a thin slice of heaven my friends, to teach and learn with passion. I am grateful I got to share those moments with Sylvie.

The Sweet Relief of Discovering Decent Children’s Music

As you may be aware, I’m the Mobile Piano Geek, your friendly neighborhood piano teacher bringing the joy of music and a cheerful sparkle to your very door once a week. That is a bit misleading my friends, as in reality I mostly stay home, parenting like crazy since my daughter was born 3 years ago. In this strange land of parenthood there is a lot of bad music. Very bad music. Bad music written ostensibly for children but with the unpreventable side effect of producing a curious mix of rage and boredom in parents who are incidentally exposed to it. Oh it just makes me so so mad! Probably because of my music training and love (and RESPECT) for music. These…people who just put out the shittiest crap imaginable. Horrible dumb lyrics and the worst ‘accompaniment’ made by casio synthesisers found at garage sales. They think kids are stupid and they think adults are stupid and won’t notice the shocking lack of musicality, effort, attention to detail. I can’t even name names because I snap off the music player with outraged disgust whenever we accidentally come across this dreck. Any parent of a pre-school child can think of a couple of examples right off the top of their heads. And when you think of those examples, they start playing over and over in your head. God damn those tortuous ear worms.
There’s a couple of ways to address this. Some parents who are music fans forgo kids music altogether and just listen to the stuff they like with their kids. I know some parents like this and it is really cute to see a toddler bob and weave to their favorite Bob Marley album or ask their Grammy “Do you have any Daft Punk?” when riding in the car. (No. No she did not.) Another option is to seek out music that is appealing to children (i.e. lyrical stories that kids can relate to, that help them understand their lives and the overwhelming world they struggle to find their place in) while also appealing to adults. Maybe ‘appeal’ is too strong a word. Perhaps not wanting to escape the rage/boredom through copious amounts of drugs and alcohol would suffice. Elmo’s World is bad but Elmo’s World on repeat while drunk would be worse than…I can’t even think of what would be worse than that. Maybe Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap when he goes off on the genius of The Guess Who and plays Takin Care Of Business AGAIN because he can… oh wait, that’s every episode of Vinyl Tap. MAYBE that would be worse.
Music is very important in the lives of young children. It helps them in so many ways. Language development, math comprehension, social development, cultivation of joy, fostering connection with caregivers, encouraging their bodies to be active through dancing – this will have to be a separate blog post, all the wonderful ways that music can enhance the lives infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers.
I have shamelessly used songs, dancing and listening to music as a mood changer for my little girl since she was born. She is far more likely to listen and follow instructions if the message is delivered in a silly song. Throw in a little improvised soft shoe and she’s up for anything. I get sick of the sound of my own voice sometimes though, no really I actually do. Recently I started checking CD’s out of the library to expand our musical horizons. And to my great relief, I have stumbled across some very fine music for kids. Right now we are enjoying The Might Be Giants, Here Come The 123’s. It came out in 2008 so I was completely unaware of it because in 2008 kids were pretty much the last thing on my mind and my imminent rock and roll success was the first.
There are a lot of good things about this record. It’s clever, catchy, the playing is top-notch and the songs are deliberately constructed with an ear to quality. It’s a good mix of textures, tempos, and styles. I also learned the mathematical definition of zero and infinity from it. I love how the songs can be taken on two different levels, one for kids and one for adults. One Everything for example, is delightfully catchy and easy to sing along with. It also describes the nature of the universe

There’s only one everything/ Remember these words/ There’s only one everything/ And if you go out and count up everything/ It all adds up to one

and asks some tough questions

What if you drew a giant circle/ What if it went around all there is/ Then would there still be such a thing as an outside/ And does that question even make any sense?

The bass playing on this song is fantastic too. Great, memorable lines and killer fills throughout.

Another element I appreciate about this record is the palpable warmth and good humor that all the lead vocals contain. Too many kids songs are sung by adults who are not infusing their vocals with love, with care and enthusiasm. I know that sounds silly, but love is a key ingredient in good music and it is a key ingredient when dealing with kids. The Number Two, a song sung from the perspective of a number two who used to be unhappy he was not number 1, contains silly, beautiful lines sung with such warm happiness that tears occasionally spring to my eyes when we listen.

Two hips for shakin’, two lips for kissin’/Too long I’ve been blue, because it’s you that I’m missin’/Two knees for kneelin’, two shoulders for shruggin’/Two cheeks to make a little grin while we’re huggin’

Our favorite song as a family on this album is without a doubt, High Five. My husband and I blasted this one with windows open, driving around doing errands with Elisabeth in the back in her carseat giving herself high fives. We have been known to listen to this one a few times in a row for living room family dance parties too. It’s disco, it’s got good horn lines, more tasty bass playing. It explains how to do a high five, the various kinds of high fives and, my favorite part, a comprehensive list of contexts in which a high five is warranted.

Sing this song! (High five!)/ Learn to swim! (Low five!)/ A superhero! (Slap me five!)/ Home run! (High five!)/ Finger paint! (Low five!)/ Count to ten! (Slap me five!) /Do it again! (Slap me five!)/ Now do it again! (Slap me five!)

The kids who sing the backgrounds on High Five sound SO HAPPY. I fancy that I can hear the ear splitting grins that were plastered on their faces while they were recording. Which brings me to the last element of this record that I enjoy, and that is the children who sing with TMBG. Many kids albums have kids singing on them, like a background chorus. I love the kids singing on Here Come The 123’s. These children often sound like they are on the verge of laughing from the sheer delight of singing such ridiculously funny songs. “Seven” contains a lot of this. When they sing the chorus “We want cake! Where’s our cake?” I burst out laughing almost every time. Delivered with such happy commitment, and something all kids would love to say but are not usually allowed to.
We’ve been listening to this record for a few weeks and it has not gotten old. It is absolutely educational and will teach a young child a lot about numbers, math concepts (adding, even & odd numbers) and grand ideas (the oneness of the universe, infinity).But it won’t make you want to bury your head in a pillow and howl in despair when your little one asks to listen to it for the second, third, fourth time that day. It will make you feel happy and bouncy, and like life is worth living. Highly recommended. Life is too short to listen to terrible children’s music. Seek out the good stuff, your sanity is worth preserving. You can find this record here, at the They Might Be Giants website, iTunes, or Amazon. Or at the library.

Featured Student, Emma

Emma is a person I have taught once a week for 10 years. That adds up to a lot of time alone together, just her and me doggedly solving one musical puzzle after another. I didn’t realize until our time was over that I watched her grow up, sitting beside me on her piano bench. Our routine never varied. I always sat on her right, the piano was always in the same place at the same angle. My chair was always the same. I never saw the rest of her house, only the living room where the piano was. I never saw her outside of piano lessons and recitals, although I hope to now that our teacher-student relationship has ended. I have friends who are 20 years older and I guess I’m old enough now to have friends 20 years younger.
Emma started piano lessons with me as a beginner when she was 6 years old. I gently pressed her teeny fingers one at a time into the keys until she learned how to control her fingers individually. Now she is a delightfully cool, sardonic, cynical, smart, kind, and funny young woman who controls all 10 of her fingers just fine without me, thank you very much. We have a common geek love of science fiction, particularly Star Trek.
“Kirk!” she foolishly insists.
“No way. Picard!” Obviously. Patrick oh swoon, although I’d rather not know he’s 73 now. But still, swoon.
“Kirk!” and so it would go. We agreed that the new Star Trek reboots are the best thing ever though.
This year she discovered Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. I was as pleased about this as if I had introduced them to her myself. I taught Emma classical music, pop, blues, folk, video game music, and most recently some choice 70’s rock. I taught her how to read music, how to transcribe music by ear, harmonic and melodic analysis, chords, arpeggios and scales, how to play good time with and without a metronome, how to play outside of time with tempo changes, rubato and fermata. How to subdivide rhythms evenly, how to play dynamics, and how to improvise her own musical expression. I told her many times that it’s always worth it to try unfamiliar music, that this is how you discover what you like and just as importantly, what you don’t like.
There’s a lot to like about Emma’s playing. A naturally healthy technique and posture, her willingness to follow suggestions and combine these with her own ideas, her calmness and subtlety, her accurate note reading skills and dedication to practicing. Some weeks were better than others, as it goes with all humans, but over the course of our time together she was on a pretty straight upward trajectory. However many hours I put in teaching her, she put in far more than that practicing my assignments.
Emma’s last lesson and last recital performance was a few weeks ago, this past June. Her mom cried when we said goodbye after our last Thursday 5:30-6:15pm session. I did too. How good her family was been to me over the years. How I appreciate their trust in me to guide their lovely daughter. Good luck and godspeed, Emma in whatever glorious things your future holds for you. And yes, I am serious about going to a Star Trek convention with you in costume.

Thinking About Practicing.

Sometimes I wonder what I have spent more hours on, thinking about practicing or actually practicing. As a seasoned list-maker I have made plenty of mental and written lists organizing all the elements a musician needs to address. There’s a lot to consider. There are broad categories such as fully notated music, reading lead sheets, improvisation, scales chords and arpeggios, and transcription. There are temporary, specific projects like pieces to be learned for other people i.e. as an accompanist.  A conscientious musician will also be aware of the specific weaknesses in their playing and practice remedies to smooth out these rough spots. There’s also different feels and genres to master, playing uptempo, transposition, and the weird little bugaboos about your particular instrument that need your attention. Jeez, it’s so hard to not go off on all these things separately. Stay tuned for like a hundred future blog posts on practicing.

I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the past 20 years of studying music and each one has offered something different about how to approach practicing.  Now I am into my second decade of teaching and I spend year after year trying to guide my students into good practice habits. The advice I offer my students is a combination of what my teachers told me to do, things I accidentally discovered, research, careful observation of successes, and experiments that worked. I should add, teaching beginners how to practice is a critical, sometimes maddening task and how a beginner practices is completely different than how a self-directed musician practices.  But if I do my job right, the solid foundation of good practice habits can take a student from beginner to advanced and then to professional musician if they so desire (and may the lord have mercy on them if that is the case). Here are some of the tips I offer my beginners and their parents:

1. Make sure you have a quiet place to practice where no one will interrupt you.

2. Gather your materials ( practice assignment binder, songbooks, lesson books, metronome, pencil) and have them ready at the piano.

3. Open your piano binder and turn to this week’s assignment sheet that I have written for you.

4. Follow your practice instructions carefully. Ask your parents or teacher for help if you need it.

5. Practice slowly. Go slow enough to keep a steady beat, play the correct notes, and use the correct fingers. If you make mistakes, you are playing too fast. Slow down and try again. The speed of your playing will gradually increase as your fingers become more confident.

6. Be kind to yourself. Learning how to play music takes a lot of effort and there will be many mistakes along the way. Don’t give up! You can do it. You will feel so proud of yourself every time you master a new song. Share the songs you have learned with your family and friends. Sharing music with others can help spread happiness.

7. Build practice time into your family or personal calendar.   Set aside at least four 30 minute sessions every week, and make it part of your weekly routine. This eliminates the problem of ‘not enough time’ and procrastination.

8.  It is not a waste of time to practice for ‘only’ 5 minutes. Small frequent sessions work very well for many people, especially young children. Do not fall into the trap of avoiding practice because you don’t have 3 uninterrupted hours to devote to that piece that really needs work.

9. Take breaks if necessary.  If you are becoming filled with rage or frustration, STEP AWAY FROM THE PIANO.  Come back later with a clear head and renewed optimism. It’s just piano.  No one is going to die.  It’s supposed to be fun and fascinating.

10.  Patience, young padawan, patience. There is no way to know how many times it will take before you master it. 99% of the time it will be more than you think it should be. Every repetition takes you closer to your goal. You will get there. And it will be worth it.

 

 

 

Why Adult Students Are The Bomb

I teach little kids, teens and adults. I like it all. But today I want to talk about why adult students are special and inspiring. There is something very brave about a grownup who is willing to be a beginner at something. Adults invest so much of their identity and self worth in being competent or an expert in their chosen field, whatever that is. As adults we get used to being pretty good at most things in life and managing careers, friends and family with casual proficiency. This is completely different than how most children function. They are used to struggling for mastery in all aspects of daily life. Adults leave that struggle far behind at the earliest opportunity and most of us stick to the things we are best at so we don’t have to feel that icky uncertainty of trying and failing, IN FRONT OF PEOPLE.
Beginner adult piano students have my unqualified respect and admiration. They take action to realize a dream that is usually decades in the making. They have wanted to learn piano for years and years and finally they decide, today is the day. I’m going to find a teacher and get started. Enter, me. I bring them a stack of beginner lesson and repertoire books, a metronome, and a binder full of blank assignment sheets which I proceed to fill up every week with detailed instructions. For the first time in many years they have regular homework and a teacher’s expectations to fulfill, in a subject that is basically a foreign language to them. It’s humbling. Add to that the fact that I am younger and less experienced in life than they are. It’s kind of amazing they get past the first lesson really.
I want them to succeed very much. They deserve that exquisite feeling of pride mingled with delight that comes from gaining understanding and competency at something once impenetrable. Nothing is more life affirming than knowing you are becoming more intelligent and continuing to grow, no matter what your age number is.
My adult students have taught me that opening oneself to trying (and failing sometimes) at something new, struggling, and investing hours of practice to get better has benefits that spin off into all areas of life. It makes you more patient, less arrogant, and more compassionate towards yourself which in turn helps you become more compassionate to others. From them I have learned that it is very healthy to always have at least one new thing in my life to be a beginner at.
The picture above is me with one of my students. Agnes started lessons as a beginner at 81. She took lessons for 10 years, and I still go to see her every week to visit. Her relationship with my 3 year old daughter is a priceless thing to behold, another spin off benefit of our professional relationship that deserves its own blog post. It is never too late to start doing something your heart has longed for. The best time to begin is always, now. Find a good teacher who you can understand and makes you feel good about striving to become a more intelligent human being. Block out the haters – they’re always there, jealous that you have taken action to fulfill yourself while they are too scared to. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t look stupid while making mistakes. There is no other way to learn. You just look human.

Featured Student, Mo

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.