Yiyi Ku

Did You Have a Good Summer?

August 10th, 2014 by

Inland Valley Symphony outdoor concert in Temecula

Inland Valley Symphony outdoor concert in Temecula

Today was the last day of my “summer vacation.” Starting from tomorrow, I will be back to my regular teaching schedule. I took a three week studio break from June to July, some students had lessons after that, some have been away, and I will see almost all of them back for lessons this coming week. I spent most of today organizing my teaching supplies and sorting new books for students, and wondering where did the summer go! Well, I have had a productive summer, and a recent blog by Leila Viss – Why Don’t We Collaborate? made me reflect on the various collaborative projects I have been involved with this summer.


With Dan Callaway at Temecula Pop Under the Stars



First, some of you may remember the name Dan Callaway. Dan was a blog author on Music Teachers Helper, I read many of his wonderful posts before I joined the blog team. Well, as it turned out, I met him in person this summer in an outdoor “Pop Under the Stars” concert in my town! He was one of the featured solo vocalists and I played the keyboard in the symphony orchestra. The concert was a huge success, drawing more than 2000 people. Dan was awesome and the audience loved him! As a pianist, we don’t get a lot of collaborative opportunities to perform with a large number of musicians. Unlike band instruments, we are not used to producing a “collective sound.” The experience is invaluable, and I can not recommend it highly enough!

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Posted in Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Using Music Teacher's Helper

Running a piano studio tends to be a lonely job.


Setting up an independent piano studio, I worked alone to make it a vibrant learning environment for budding musicians of all ages. Although I cherish my students and their families and never feel isolated while teaching, they do not provide a sounding board for the administrative side of the business.

My church position requires me to work alongside the choir director, the choir members, a few colleagues when we play duets, professional musicians for seasonal cantatas and the like but, I’m not required to attend staff meetings. I choose my own music and practice a number of times each week by myself.

Writing a blog post or article requires time and space alone with my thoughts AND my computer. Sadly, I look at my computer screen more frequently than anyone or anything else and it offers no human interaction beyond its service as an electronic communication conduit.

As timing would have it, over the past year, I’ve worked with more colleagues than ever before.

Co-publishing a book, planning a conference, and running a camp completely and dramatically changed my connectivity with fellow colleagues. Now, there’s not a day that goes by without a text, a call or email about an upcoming deadline or project that requires team work.

This led me to wonder why it is that so many of us set up our OWN studio, independent of others, in our OWN homes or rented space. We seem to dwell in our OWN silo with only limited social pipelines to the outside world like Facebook, blogs, etc. Why were most of us never encouraged to seek a mentor or partner who could offer advice, tips, an exchange of ideas, and even share a studio or business together upon earning a music degree? Or maybe I just speak for myself? Read more…

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Posted in Financial Business, Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

How musical is ‘unmusical’ Man?

Can ‘unmusical’ people become musical? What, if anything, can we as educators do to teach the apparently ‘tone deaf’ person to sing in tune and successfully with others?

blindfold peopleIn Part I of the series, I talked a bit about the paradox of ‘unmusicality’. If, as many people believe, music-making is somehow intrinsic to humans as a species, how can some people be apparently ‘unmusical’? For some singers, out-of-tune singing can usually be fixed with improved technique, but for others, the lack of development in their musical awareness and understanding can seem to be much more profound, even potentially neurological in origin. These people do encourage us to think again – and think deeply – about the anthropologist John Blacking’s famous question: ‘How musical is man?’

In Part II, I looked at a few of the types of ‘unmusicality’ demonstrated by community choral singers that I have come across in my work as a choral clinician and singing teacher. The idea there was to tease apart the types of ‘less musical’ singers I have worked with to see how they differ, and where their strengths and weaknesses typically lie.

I grouped my singers into three categories based on their musical responses: Generalists (those whose singing lacks pitch reference); Skiers (those who sing across the correct pitch areas, or in the right direction, but who do not usually sing discrete notes); and Talkers (those who sing well in their speaking range, but become Generalists or Skiers in other parts of their voice.) In my work with these singers over time, I have found that they also typically demonstrate one or all of the following three qualities:

1. They report not hearing the details in music

2. They are not comfortable with the sound of their voice

3. Their lack of melodic awareness occurs only in ‘musical’ settings, i.e. their speech (which includes many ‘musical’ elements, such as tone and melody) is normal.

The first two qualities in this list suggest that there is a disjunction between perception (whether neurological or psychological) and response. The second item in this list is explained by the other two.


Teaching unmusicality
uuclinic-4In this post, which is the final post in my series, I’m going to talk a bit about how I have worked with these students in my own workshops and teaching studio.

As I’ve said before, I’m not at all an expert in this field – I’m just speaking as a musician and music teacher who is very interested in what music is, and how working with people who aspire to make music can be hugely revealing about the origins of music, both as cultural phenomenon and as a psycho-physical human response.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll separate my discussion by my three (imperfect, but I hope, useful) categories of ‘unmusical’ singer. In actual fact there are many ways in which the musical responses of these types of singer overlap, but for now I’ll separate them.

I’ll look forward to any other categories any of you may like to add in the comments section, below!


The Generalists

In my work with Generalists, I’ve noticed that their responses to musical stimuli tend to be predominantly bodily, by which I mean they tend to flex major muscle groups, rather than their actual vocal instrument, when reacting to a musical sound. All singers do this to a certain extent, of course; they sway, frown, flex their arms, and stand on their toes as part of their visualization of their musical material, and learning to control these responses is of course an important part of professional training. But the Generalists go further than this, and in what to me are interesting ways.

Singing with the body Read more…

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Posted in Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Oh my God!

© Olga Vasilkova | Dreamstime Stock Photos

As you glance over at Kyle, you are surprised to see tears brimming over. Where did those come from? He is just so sensitive! Some students seem to take corrective comments in stride, but others melt with the slightest suggestion for improvement. Kyle melts…

There can be multiple reasons for a student to not respond well to correction. Each of these reasons would suggest a different approach for resolution.

  • fear of failure
  • low self-esteem
  • perfectionist attitude
  • frustration with themselves
  • not meeting their own expectations
  • lack of understanding of the problem
  • have a hard time trying new things
  • feel they are not able to please you
  • bad day at school
  • hit their emotional limit for the day
  • low stress tolerance
  • fight with parent or sibling in the car on the way to the lesson
  • feel out of control
  • not doing music lessons for themselves, but out of coercion
  • not used to being corrected
  • not used to working hard for something
  • do not respect you as a teacher
  • loyalty to a previous teacher

Questions you might ask yourself as the teacher:

  • Have I properly prepared the student to play this piece?
  • Is this piece too challenging for this student’s emotional reserves?
  • Does the student know what I am asking for and how to achieve it?
  • Does the student have the technical skills to do what I am asking?
  • Was I clear in my instructions?
  • Have I broken the skill down into small enough pieces?
  • Is the tempo too fast?
  • Is the fingering wrong?
  • Have I already pushed too hard for this session and it’s time to back off?
  • Have I given enough positive feedback to balance the negative?
  • Is it time for a break or time for a new piece?
  • What is my best guess as to what is behind this melt-down? (see list above)

Many times we can slip into a pattern of ‘the student plays and then the teacher makes corrections.’ This can be an uninspired approach if it is not a process of joint discovery and stretching for the next level. There are many creative ways to involve the student mentally and emotionally to get past a road block. One approach is to praise what you honestly can, and then, instead of immediate correction, try one or more of the following: Read more…

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

"Circuit Training" Music LessonsThey’re not all the same but every now and again you meet a teenager determined to fit the stereotype. With so much hair over their face you’re not actually sure what they look like, their shoulders are dropped so low their hands are practically touching the floor and all questions are met with an obligatory “dunno” response (if you’re lucky)!

Were we ever like that? I’m sure many of today’s finest musicians had their moments as teenagers and I would like to just say that many of the teenagers I’ve taught have been highly “switched on” and motivated. But how can we inspire even the most apathetic student?

Enter something I’ve been trying out I call “Music Lesson Circuit Training!”

Now I need at this point to warn you that Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Anna at CSU Outdoor PianoHere are some ideas to move your studio forward this summer:

Hold a sight-reading challenge. Set out good sight-reading books from your library for students to choose from each week. Give out prizes at the end of summer for reading a certain number of pages.

Host a summer camp. You could hold your camp one day a week for a month, or four to five days in one week. It could be to attract new students, or a fun intensive for current students. I like “Way Cool Keyboarding” books by Musical Moments for great ensemble playing with beginners.

Attend a concert and invite your students. Give your students “points” in the fall for each concert they attend over the summer. Email notices of upcoming events in your area, especially free events for kids. There will be a free “Peter and the Wolf” performance in my local park in a few weeks, so I sent a flier out to all my families.

Get out all the fun music. Take a break from your regular repertoire and find something different and exciting to learn this summer.

Prepare for fall competitions. This is the time to polish up pieces that need to be ready to go in October or November. For ideas, see my blog on “Preparing for an Event or Competition.”

Organize your music and files. Check for overdue borrowed books. Label and file new music. Enter new music into your Music Teacher’s Helper library. I use cardboard magazine boxes on my bookshelves to organize my music into labeled categories, so that I can find books quickly.

Order a new computer or iPad game.  Learn to use it yourself this summer so you can use it in your media lab this fall. Check out “The iPad Piano Studio” by Leila Viss.

Attend a workshop or seminar. Local colleges or music stores often host guest artists or speakers. Consider traveling a little to immerse yourself in a blues workshop, or an improvisation seminar.

Recruit new students. This is the time of year parents are looking for a music teacher to begin lessons in the fall. Make sure you are on top of your marketing strategies. For marketing ideas check out my blog on “How Do You Attract New Students?”

Try out Music Teacher’s Helper. If you don’t already use this fabulous tool, summer would be a great time to learn all it can do for your studio and your sanity!

Plan your studio budget. I swear I only make $.03 per hour after you take into consideration all the time I spend outside of lessons, and the number of “toys” it takes to keep me having fun teaching. But seriously, summer is a great time to plan for the money aspect of the next school year. List your projected expenses, and then calculate how many students you need, and what you need to charge for lessons this coming year.

Think through individual student needs. Summer is a great time to ponder each student, make a list of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and how you can best move them forward.

Decide on your “theme” for the coming year. My students are on a mission to find out what our theme will be for next year! Read my blog on “Themes Add Focus to Your Teaching” for more about how this can enhance your school year.

Look into Michelle Sisler’s games and motivational tools. Michelle is so creative! Every year she comes out with more and better ideas. Check them out at http://keystoimagination.com.

Get your instrument tuned and repaired. If you have been putting off this task, now is the time to get everything in tip top condition.

Learn new music. You could read through new music for ideas for your students, or brush up on some higher level pieces you will be assigning. You could also spend more time on your own musical repertoire.

Read a book. I am enjoying the book “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown, recommended on this blog site. If you can’t attend a seminar, a book is an inexpensive way to update and expand your thinking on a particular subject.

Get healthy. I’m serious. It is the only way you are going to live through next winter and withstand all the germs that are going to be traveling through your studio. Summer is a great time to make changes in your health habits.

Rest and refresh your spirit. Summer is a great time to take time for you! Do something you love but never get time for. Get outdoors, take a mini vacation, enjoy your kids and family, or just sit and enjoy the beautiful sunshine and be grateful for all you have been given.

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Posted in Music & Technology, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Using Music Teacher's Helper

‘How unmusical is Man?’*

If music is intrinsic to humans as a species, hounmusical blindw can some people be so apparently ‘unmusical’? And what (if anything) can we do to help ‘unmusical’ students when they present themselves in your choir or in the teaching studio?

In last month’s post, I talked about some of the differences between so-called ‘musical’ people and people who appear to be ‘unmusical’, and I described two (imperfect, but I hope still useful) categories of apparently ‘unmusical’ singers:

I. Students who sing out of tune; and

II. Students who cannot sing in tune.

In the first category, I put singers who usually sing in tune but sometimes sing out of tune, and I discussed a few of the many technical reasons why these tuning problems sometimes arise in an otherwise well-functioning voice in a generally musical person. Please see my May 2014 blog “Teaching ‘Unmusicality’ – Part I” for more discussion.


II. Students who cannot sing in tune

tune micThis month, I’m going to talk about the type of singers I would put in the second category – singers who are unable to sing in tune, and appear not to be able to ‘match pitches’ accurately or reliably when they turn up for lessons.

I should say here that, although there is a lot of science behind our understanding of so-called ‘tone deafness’ and ‘pitch matching’ (type those words into Google Scholar and be amazed), my comments here derive primarily from my own experience of addressing these issues with singers I meet in community choirs and through my teaching studio.

For a good introduction to the science behind tone-deafness, or ‘amusia’ / dysmusia’ as it is sometimes called, I would recommend this article by Julie Ayotte, Isabelle Peretz and Krista Hyde in the journal Brain.)  (Ref: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/125/2/238.full)


Tone-deafness: part of what it means to be human?

Students who appear to have no sense of pitch – those whom we might call ‘tone deaf’ – profoundly challenge our assumptions that human beings are ‘naturally’ musical. If music is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, how do unmusical people come about, and what, if anything, can we teachers do with them?

Despite our belief that we are a naturally musical species, there are in fact many people who cannot sing in tune, and who demonstrate this perceptual difference in a number of typical ways. I’ll talk about three of the ones I have come across in my work in this post. Please add your own in the comments below!


1. The Generalist

generalist fallacThe most common type in the students I have worked with in community choir settings are those who sing entirely outside the desired key area.

When asked to repeat a melody or to sing along with me or with a group, these singers will have the words and usually the rhythms in the right place, but their pitch response will be unspecific, may be predominantly monotone, and may only demonstrate slight fluctuations in pitch when the true melody goes up or down.

I’ll call these singers ‘The Generalists’ since the sounds they produce seem to me to be part of an impulse to sing along, but to do so generally as part of a shared musical experience, rather than with the details of the melody in mind.

These singers are sometimes unaware that they are in the wrong place, and sometimes unsure if they are correct. There may be some residual awareness that something is wrong in their response in relation to the group, but they won’t be able to say exactly what, and they may not notice the discrepancy all of the time.

To my ear, it appears that The Generalists are probably doing either or both of one or two things: they are either (1) hearing melodies through a kind of mental filter that seems to condense the musical material as it comes in, or (2) if they are hearing discrete pitches, they are filtering and condensing as part of their vocal response as they reproduce these sounds through singing.

The Generalists also sometimes respond to ascending pitch patterns by singing more loudly, which to me is especially interesting; it suggests that they recognize that something is changing when a melody goes up, and they register this changes as a shift in intensity, but not in discrete pitches. They may also be hearing the increase in pitch but responding with an increase in physical intensity expressed through their breath (they ‘push harder’) which will make their singing louder.


2. The Skiers

lone skierA second type of singer, related to the Generalist but different in key ways, is the singer who can sing across a range of pitches, and whose voice correctly modulates up and down, but who nevertheless struggles to produce clearly differentiated notes with a scale area or melody.

When asked to repeat a scale played on the piano, for example, these singers will often respond with an undulating, sometimes siren-like, sound that may roughly correspond to the real range of the scale, but that will nevertheless lack the melodic ‘steps on the ladder’ – of the scale.

At other times, they start on a discrete single pitch, but when they move away it will not be by melodic step, but by sliding away from the first note, with equal volume both on and between the pitches.

I will call these singers ‘Skiers’, since they are crossing the right general pitch territory, but they habitually slide over, rather than pause on, the discrete notes in the scale or melody.


3. The Talkers

talking bubbleMy third category of singers who cannot sing in tune is those singers who sing quite well in certain parts of their range, but ‘ski’ or ‘generalize’ in the outer areas of their range. I will call these singers ‘The Talkers’, since the part of their range in which their singing is in tune is their speaking range. Their singing is like enhanced talking, and when they move out of this familiar part of their range, they lose the ability to match pitch.

If these singers sing only repertoire with a limited pitch range, and especially if they sing in styles that favour a speech-like sound (such as blue grass, blues, folk, rap, or some pop music), their inability to sing in tune in their upper register may go undetected.

These singers are interesting to me because it suggests that their ability to be precise with their voice functions very well when they are speaking. Singing out of this range requires a different laryngeal movement, however, and this change seems to be enough to make them feel disoriented and detached from their voice.


To tune in or to tune out? – That is the question

question markSo what, if anything, can music teachers do to help these singers?

Is the inability to sing in tune simply an inherited trait that cannot be changed, or is there something that can be done to help people who are considered to be tone-deaf, but who would like to improve as singers?

Preliminary diagnosis

I am certainly no expert in this area, and I would recommend that those interested read the literature on various forms of ‘amusia’ /’dysmusia’ and related conditions, to get a fuller picture of how professionals might deal with these conditions outside of the context of a music lesson.

But in my own work, I have seen some definite similarities between the Generalists, Skiers, and Talkers. I’ve also noticed a couple of key differences between the ‘unmusical’ and the ‘musical’ singers (see my May 2014 post for more of this different). In all cases, in my work, these singers seem to exhibit the following characteristics: 

1. the singers do not hear the details in music

2. the singers are not comfortable with the instrument of their voice.

3. the singers show a lack of coordination between their ear and their voice. Curiously, their speech is normal and they modulate correctly in the ‘tune’ of a normal sentence. But there is a separation between the two when it comes to their singing.

Have you met students like this in your teaching studio? Next month I will be offering some suggestions of techniques I have used to help people to learn to sing in tune. In the mean time, I’ll look forward to reading about your experiences with musically challenged students in the comments below!

* with apologies to John Blacking (‘How musical is Man?’ 1973)

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Posted in Professional Development, Teaching Tips

How often to do you evaluate the value of something verse the cost of something?

A Quick Story

Back in 2006, I paid $100 for a pair of Johnston & Murphy black leather dress shoes. Johnston & Murphy has a reputation for excellent craftsmanship and durability. This was one of the most expensive pairs for sale at Macy’s that day. Being in college at the time, I normally would grab the least expensive pair priced at $60 (I forget what brand). But I took a step back and thought about all the upcoming times I would be needing nice dress shoes – my brother’s wedding, my graduation, and future work. I wondered if that $60 pair was going to be the right shoe to wear for years to come. The Johnston & Murphy’s were more comfortable and felt higher-quality.

I asked an employee in the shoe department how many years each pair would last if worn consistently. He said the less expensive pair would last three years max and the Johnston & Murphy’s are known to be worn 10+ years by their owners.  That made my decision easy. Why would I choose to spend almost twice the amount of money, plus two additional shopping trips for a less comfortable shoe over a 10 year period?

Fast forward to 2014. I wear that same pair of shoes several times a week. They are starting to show their age after eight years but I consider them to still be in good condition. That fostered a new mindset for me about always considering the value of something on top of the cost.
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Posted in Professional Development, Studio Management, Using Music Teacher's Helper

For many private lesson music teachers, summer is a slower time of year. That’s why it’s a perfect time to be productive about managing your studio for the upcoming busy season. If you aren’t a current user of Music Teacher’s Helper (or haven’t heard of us!), let’s examine why right now is a perfect time to take advantage of our free trial.shutterstock_92215372

Gradual adoption

It’s easy to add a student, schedule a lesson, then automatically invoice using our software. But that’s just the “tip of the iceberg” with what you can do. You may want to learn about the lending library, repriotore tracker, mileage input, and any number of other features that enhance the studio experience for you and your students. And there’s lots of great training support to do just that. With written articles, video tutorials, live webinars, and even personal setup support, you can go at your own pace to familiarize yourself with the features that you will be using for your studio. If summer is indeed a slower time, now is your chance to set up your studio administration for a smooth busy season.

Add content to your free studio website

Music Teacher’s Helper provides professional website themes for you to choose from that you customize with a logo and content. Build exposure and credibility with a website just for your studio.

Doing this over the summer will give you time to focus on what content you’ll want to include.  You can add links, videos, and pictures easily. No website experience needed.

Every studio website also has a blog feature. Have you created a Facebook or Twitter account to promote your studio but struggle with what to post? Blogging helps market your studio because they show up in search engines like Google and can be spread across multiple social media networks. Good content gets shared and drives visitors to your studio website, where they’ll learn more about your services.

No long-term commitments

Our monthly pricing plans allow you to move up or down based on how many students you currently have in your studio. There is even a forever free plan available for up to five students. And waiting list or former students do not count towards that total.

Do you know which students are coming back at the end of the summer? Add them into the software now as a former student and convert them to active with a click of a button. Since you already added their information, lesson rate, etc., just schedule them on the calendar. They can then receive email lesson reminders (we have different profiles for child and adult students), a custom invoice with option to pay with a credit card, and after the lesson, you can type notes about how they did for yourself, or allow the student/parent to see the notes as well.

Summer vacation is a time for you to recharge and refocus as you prepare for another group of students. If you set up Music Teacher’s Helper now, you will be able to concentrate more on teaching your students in the fall.

Click Here For Main Website & Signup.


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Posted in Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Using Music Teacher's Helper

Hopefully you will never have to ponder this heartbreaking question. Thankfully, most issues can be resolved with better communication and clear boundaries. It usually takes a lot of misbehavior to even consider dismissing a student, but even small things can add up to a big headache and energy drain over time. The following situations are always a challenge:

  • Student does not show up for lessons or is consistently late.
  • Frequent cancellations, especially at the last minute.
  • Unworkable sports schedule conflicts.
  • Parents pay late or not at all.
  • Student has a disrespectful attitude.
  • Student does not practice. Ever.
  • Student is not willing to try. Doesn’t want to be there.
  • Student frequently forgets to bring her books.
  • Parents do not offer encouragement and support at home.
  • Parents do not provide an adequate instrument on which to practice.
  • Student never participates in studio activities.
  • Student does not care for or return borrowed materials.
  • Student does not listen to direction, and refuses to attempt new ways of doing things.
  • You cannot seem to find the right pathway into a student’s brain to get him to learn and remember certain skills from week to week.
  • The parents’ expectations are miles apart from your reality.
  • Parent offers continual criticism.

When does the time come to say goodbye? Ultimately only you can answer that question within in the context of the particular situation, but here are some things you might want to ask yourself before “firing” a student. Read more…

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Posted in Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips