Playing the Blues“Can I hear your progress on that song we were working on last week please?”

He just shrugged his shoulders and looked at me sheepishly!

“Oh okay then. How about those exercises we were doing? Can I hear how you got on with them?”

He just looked at his feet!

“Oh dear! What HAVE you been practicing?”

Suddenly a mischievous grin appeared on his face.

“I’ve been playing the blues ALL week!!! It’s been driving my mum crazy. I play it before and after school. I can’t stop!”

It never ceases to amaze me how much fun students have at learning to improvise the blues. And not forgetting the kudos it earns them when they can use it to entertain friends and family. Best of all, it’s just so easy to learn!

So this month, here are some free resources to get you started or to add to the ones you use already. I’ve tried to make the sheet music universal to whatever instrument you play or teach (treble & bass clef/guitar & bass tab). I’ve also recorded a slow blues backing track (in G) that you and your students can “jam” with.

Introducing the coolest scale on the planet! Whatever instrument your student plays, they will love learning the Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

The Blank Stare.

blank stareWe dread it, but we’ve all seen it: the face that tells you unequivocally that your students are lost and haven’t got a clue what is going on. This can happen suddenly, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Picture this scenario:

My lesson or class has been rolling along smoothly, and I’ve felt encouraged by the odd head nodding, or some gentle smiles tentatively creasing passive faces. I’ve smiled myself, warming to my subject, and then I’ve taken the fatal step.
                ‘And that’s how we know that the composer is modulating!’, I swoon. ‘She’s been hinting for the last two systems with those occasional B-flats and now we know from this arpeggio followed by the cadence: we are in F-major!’. 
                My revelation is met with silence, which is not what I expected. A hand shoots up, breaking the still pool of now immobile faces. ‘Why is it F-major and not F-flat major?’.  
                What?!’ I think, and try not to frown.  ‘Can you explain what you mean?’, I say.
                ‘I thought you said those were the “flat keys”, so why isn’t it F-flat major?’.
                ‘Because F isn’t flat,’ I reply. 
                Faces go blank and a thick pause of unknowing oozes across the classroom. Heads drop and a faint voice cries into its sleeve, ‘I don’t get it!’ and (since this is the film version) all the desks start shrinking backwards away from the teacher and disappear into a black abyss at the back of the room….

“Unknown unknowns”

ha ha i don't get it tshirtIt would be my guess that every music teacher reading this will have experienced at least some version of this same scenario. It can happen with children, teenager, or adult students, and, although it looks like the moment of catastrophe was caused by what I’ve called ‘one fatal step’ instructionally speaking, of course, these scenarios represent a series of moments of unknowing coming to a head. The student who asked this question (and it is a real question asked me in a class just last year) must have experienced many moments in previous classes when he hadn’t understood what was going on but hadn’t said anything. At the same time, I will have been happily piling concept after concept on top of this student without realizing that he hadn’t understood what was going on.

How can it happen that we sometimes unwittingly leave our students behind? And is there anything we can do to help those students who find the theoretical side of music difficult, or are some people simply ‘more musical’ than the others, who will always at some point get left behind? Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Final 5 Teaching Tips Inspired by Physical Therapy

By Robin Steinweg     teacher and piano student

Following an accident, I discovered similarities between physical therapy  and teaching music. Fifteen of them.

You can read the first five tips here 5 Tips and five more here 5 More Tips.

physical therapist and patient

Below are my final 5 teaching tips inspired by physical therapy.

11. Hydrate: my therapist Katie offered me water after a strenuous exercise. Dehydration causes fatigue. Our bodies contain up to 60% water. Our brains, 73%. By the time we feel thirsty, we’re already dehydrated.

I’ve sometimes offered water to my voice students. Katie’s act reminds me to make water available to all my students. Have some water!       refreshing!

12. Repeat. Repeat again: Katie reminded me that it takes much repetition to become expert at anything.

Whether you aim to strengthen your body or to learn a musical pattern, repetition is the key to developing muscle memory or motor skills. (It’s called practice! Find a structured plan of practice in this short article: Practice Plan)

Question mark, redLetter xHow many times? Until you’ve got it.

13. Slower Takes More Muscle (or Technique) Than Speed: Okay, I’ve got this exercise down cold. See how quickly I can do it? I must be really good at it if I can go this fast! Katie smiles at me. “Slow it down now and see how it goes.” I do so.

“Ouch.” I get the point.

My student proudly tells me she’s got the song down cold. She takes off and her fingers fall over each other, blurring the scale notes. I smile at her. “Slow it down now and see how it goes.” She does so. “Oops.” Some fingers play, others lag behind. She gets the point. We decide she should practice slowly and carefully, building dexterity in the fingers individually instead of relying on impetus.

Turtle crossing signSlow down for better technique.

14. Fewer Repetitions More Often: “Too many reps isn’t going to do you much good. In fact, it could cause strain,” explains my therapist. “Do fewer reps more often.”

I think about my students who go all week without practice, and then try to learn their lesson in one sitting. “Practice shorter amounts of time, but more often,” I say. Even playing the song once a day for six days generally yields a better result than a panicked six times through on one day. Build gradually. Leave the instrument out where you’ll play it more often.

Develop skill progressively, in small doses.

15. The Tools We Use: the therapy clinic has a treadmill and bike, some monkey-bar equipment, weights, exercise balls, etc. But instead of suggesting I spend money, Katie says I can heft soup cans or climb stairs. The primary tool in therapy is my own body.

pricey

 

 

Stairs, walking up

Students might need a costly instrument. But they wonder if in addition they need an electric tuner or a finger strengthener. Not necessarily. You improve with practice. If you play your instrument, your fingers will get stronger and more nimble.

Bells and whistles may be fun, but simple tools can be sufficient.     Fingers on guitar

Bonus 1: It is possible to practice in the busiest of times. Two minutes here, five there…

Bonus 2: There is satisfaction in the sheer physical act of exercise–or of playing or singing. With improved strength and agility, even walking brings greater pleasure. In music, each level of ability offers new freedom and joy. 1104195249

I hope you’ve enjoyed my final 5 teaching tips inspired by physical therapy. I’m a more aware and better teacher as a result of my therapist’s help. Thanks, Katie!

The previous sets of teaching tips are here 5 Tips  and here 5 More Tips   .

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

“Have you worked this Up and Down?” 2909_wpm_lowres

My students hear this at many of their lessons. Up and Down is one of my favorite practice games. It is not always my students’ favorite method of practicing (let’s be honest. They prefer playing a piece from beginning to end two times and calling it good), but it works beautifully.

Here’s how it works:

1. Isolate a tricky passage in your music and mark it with brackets or by using sticky notes on either side of the problem measures. (These passages are often marked in their practice charts as “Dailies.”) Read more…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

blue river6 fun pieces for intermediate to advanced pianists

When I was a teenager, I innocently asked my piano teacher one day if I could possibly learn some pop songs in my lessons. I will never forget his reaction!

Well, the colour drained from his ancient, wrinkly face and I could tell it was all he could do to withhold the rage clearly brewing deep within him!

“Why would you want to learn such rubbish?!?” he finally exploded.

“But it’s fun! And nobody has heard of the pieces I play” I grumbled, for he kept me on a strict diet of scales and Bach! I was tired of the same old routine and desperately wanted some excitement.

“Could I then just learn some jazz and blues?…What about some Scott Joplin even?” His cheeks were starting to puff uncontrollably and he gripped his chair for support. I could tell this was going nowhere!

I dropped my shoulders is resignation. The situation was hopeless. In fact I resorted to learning to play the “Maple Leaf Rag” in “secret,” dreaming of one day playing some cool popular music. The local music shop was just as disappointing carrying an antiquated stock in their so-called “popular music” section.

Now fast forward twenty or more years on and what a different world we live in! Exciting music is easily available from all over the world with the click of a mouse (or a poke of an iPad)!

Take one such book that I recently stumbled upon…

“Blue River” by Elena Cobb. A collection of six original pieces for the immediate to advanced pianist (grade 6+). Now had such a book been available for me as a teenager, I would have loved it! And to have shown it to my old teacher…now that would have been cruel but funny!!!

Full of bluesy, jazzy pieces and even some latin thrown in for good measure, this is an exciting collection which some of my advanced piano students are really enjoying at the moment. It’s challenging them but they are having lots of fun.

Cloud Seven, Latin. This was the first piece that caught my attention. It has a classic Cuban style groove, so perfect for Read more…

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Posted in Music News, Performing, Practicing, Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

Boy with Ears & Music

Using Various Technologies to Provide Play-Along Recordings to Students

One of the things I feel very strongly about as a music teacher is developing the  student’s ear – early, and often. I’m not just referring to the ear training exercises that most of us probably employ, but also using recorded examples at every possible opportunity.

I could write an entire post on why I believe this is so critical to the student’s success, and why I think audio examples and play-along recordings should be used constantly from the very beginning. For now, I’ll assume that most of you are already on board with this idea, and perhaps just need some ideas for HOW to provide recordings to students.   Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Product Reviews, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Uncategorized, Using Music Teacher's Helper

IMG_2720

A beach theme was used for the last studio recital. Can you tell?

Apparently I’m not the only one scarred by a horrendous memory black out during a recital. Riding home with fellow adjudicators from a nearby Federation of Music Clubs Festival, I discovered that others have endured unforgettable and traumatic experiences where the memory bank crashed during an important performance. As I’m preparing my students to participate in a local Federation festival that requires memorization, it’s critical for me to equip performers for NOTHING but a successful experience. I do not wish to pass along my personal past performance scars to anyone.

Playing for an audience is already risky but playing from memory for others including adjudicators could be equated to walking a tightrope.  If performers are going to tip toe on that high wire, it’s important that a safety net is below ready to catch them when, not if mistakes occur and bounce them right back up on the rope.

Designing a plan that will empower students to play through an error, find an exit, manage a detour, reroute and get back on track all within a feeling of control and not panic is essential–but not easy. I figured if I came up with as many options as possible, students would be equipped to rely on a number of fallback plans to ensure a positive performance experience. Below is my piano-teacher-not-very-scientific list for building a strong memory bank. Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Number 5, red

To help me recover from a car accident, my doctor sent me to Katie, a physical therapist. I was surprised to discover parallels between physical therapy and teaching music. I shared five of them a month ago. Find the first five teaching tips here: 5 Teaching Tips

Below are 5 More Teaching Tips Inspired by Physical Therapy.

6. Warm Up First: Cold muscles are less pliable and more prone to injury. It’s best to get the circulation going, blood and oxygen to body parts that will soon work hard. Spend a few minutes on a treadmill or bike; walk; even climb stairs.     Treadmill

Fingers, wrists and vocal cords can also be strained without warming up. Voice students can begin low-to-mid-range and gradually move higher or lower. Piano (or other instrument) students stretch fingers, play scales and arpeggios, and loosen tight shoulders. Correct posture helps.

Make it a habit. Warm up. Read more…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

How do you prepare a student to have a good experience in a competition or other event? Below are a some specific ways that I try to make sure the student is ready. Event prep is an ongoing process of growth and learning for both teacher and student. This long list is in a somewhat random order and by no means complete, but I hope it will generate a few ideas for you.Competition Blog

Start early. Nothing spoils the process more than running out of time. Creating a reverse timeline is an excellent idea. Starting from the date of the event, work backward setting intermediate goals and deadlines. For example, if an event takes place on April 5, you might set a deadline for secure memorization of the material by March 1, articulation, phrasing, and dynamics integrated by January 15, and notes, fingering and rhythm secure by December 2.

Start the piece correctly from the beginning. Do not allow any bad habits to develop. It is easier to start with a new piece from the ground up than to choose a piece with ingrained problems to rehabilitate. Allow the student one play-through to get the overall feel of the piece, but then slow way down and work section by section, phrase by phrase. On the other hand, sometimes the second or third time you learn a piece, it really comes together. Don’t be afraid to pull out a piece learned last year and relearn it at a deeper level, if it does not have big issues.

Choose material that is level-appropriate. Too hard and tears and frustration will be the result. Too easy and boredom and carelessness will set in. Take into account the amount of time you have to prepare. If the competition requires a certain minimum level of difficulty, use Jane McGrath’s book “The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature” to determine the level of your piece.

Start with the rhythm, separated from the notes. The rhythm drives Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

duetMusic shapes us, but it is also shaped by our culture and practice of music-making. This is true whether we are students, performers, concert goers, consumers, or music teachers.

But how can we find space for experiment and innovation in our teaching without compromising standards or impeding the progress of our students?

In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about some of the ways we can make time to take risks and develop new approaches in our teaching.

I’ll also be talking about why this is important for our students, our job satisfaction, and our broader culture and practice of music teaching.

The medium is the message

IMG_1137The first thing I’d like you to consider is how your personal teaching method may reflect the space and/or institution you teach in, and the expectations that come with it.

You may be a solitary teacher working on the piano bench next to a stream of neighbourhood children, an instructor at a music school, a performer giving masterclasses or lessons on request, or you may be one of the increasing number of teachers who addresses students through internet portals such as YouTube.

However you connect with your pupils, your medium of interaction – your studio, institution, schedule, or online platform – will dictate how you teach to an important extent. A school typically requires teachers to follow a fixed curriculum, for example, while home studios usually prioritize one-on-one teaching over group classes.

Your school may encourage you to teach from a series of books they already have in the library, while in your home studio you may find that students and their parents appreciate following a system based on graded instructions books that are approved by some well-known institution. However you choose to teach, these work patterns will help to make your teaching effective, and they will help your students to progress at a regular rate alongside their peers.

But these same, what I am going to call ‘institutional systems’ can also have drawbacks, both for pupils and for teachers. What may seem like a time-saving book series or course curriculum that ensures standards in your studio may in fact be limiting your ability to express yourself as a teacher, and in turn, may be holding back your students from achieving their best as musicians.

DorianPerhaps the recommended studies and technical exercises take up so much lesson time that you can never really get to talk to your students about the special musical alchemy that is at work in the pieces they play? Or perhaps, in wishing your students to do well in exams, you may be encouraging them to conform too much to the received wisdom of previous generations of musicians, and in turn limiting the space in which they can experiment and innovate for their own and future generations?

Whatever system we employ will always bring with it both advantages and disadvantages. Our job is to try to identify the positive in both these things, and to put them in service of a greater ends: satisfying music-making, undertaken by both students and their teachers.

Rebelliousness in the teaching studio – making space for freedom

freedomLuckily for both teachers and students, there can be few conditions more inspiring to experiment and innovation than imposed limitations!

What starts out as a restriction, may end up inspiring some of our most innovative ideas – we simply have to think about them differently and make time and space to turn them to our advantage.

Many of you will be doing this already. Teachers in a home studio, for example, may work hard to create a clear curriculum of the sort typically found in music schools, while college teachers may take pains to carve out space for personal attention for their students of the sort made easy by the home studio format.

But we can go further, especially in the freedom we can give our students to experiment with music as part of their overall progress. We can take the time to let the students work their way more slowly through pieces, for example, perhaps taking time to help them identify underlying key structures, or colouristic effects, or aspects of text setting, and then giving them the space to improvise and innovate on these interesting and important musical features and ideas.

If your students don’t know how to improvise, remember that this is a very important part of music making – all the classical composers learned to do this at an early age using simple patterns. Teaching your students (and perhaps yourself) how to do this will hugely enhance their enjoyment of music, and will make your teaching – and your own playing – much more fruitful and enjoyable.

Another simple tip to consider is how you may be pacing your students. Many students want to progress quickly and can race through grade books because of their nimble fingers or strong memories. But these same students will almost without exception falter later on in their life as musicians. This typically happens either because the pieces they play at advanced level will eventually get very demanding of mental and emotional interpretive skills that they will not possess as players, or because they never learn to see the importance of musical life beyond their achievement in exams, and will give music up once their parents are no longer ferrying them to lessons.

If you gave your students more time to sit their exams – two years instead of one, for example – they may be annoyed at first, but in the end, they are more likely to enjoy playing, to become better musicians, and to develop the ability to have their own musical ideas. At the same time, they will make your work much more enjoyable! They will probably also score higher in exams and will do even more for the reputation of your studio. Who knows, you may even end up turning out more professional musicians than you were when you were simply ‘following the book’.

Music is play

dixielandHowever you organize your studio, university or college classes, or your online teaching content and interface, keep in mind that both student and teacher can learn as well as teach. Giving yourself – and your students – time to do this as part of their ‘regular curriculum’ will enhance your studio culture, your students’ progress, and your own work satisfaction.

But it’s important to remember that, without a doubt, your teaching makes an important contribution to something much bigger than yourself – broader musical and music pedagogical culture.

Like Mozart, and Beethoven, and Bach, and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom played with music and broke away from the restrictions and patterns of the past, you too must take the time and make the space to break away from imposed work and playing patterns and come up with something new that is unique to you and to your students.

This, more than anything we can do as teachers to ‘maintain standards’, is what will keep music alive, both for now, and for future generations.

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Uncategorized