As the school year comes to an end, I have started to look for summer teaching ideas and new teaching resources for my piano studio. Summer is a great time to introduce supplementary materials; often during the school year we are so busy working on repertoire in preparation for various music recitals/auditions/festivals/competitions, that there is little time left in the lessons to explore other possibilities. I have come across the following three outstanding series and am excited to try them over the summer months:
This is hands-down THE BEST step-by-step guide for teaching and learning to compose!
I first came across Wynn-Anne Rossi’s music via her outstanding Surprising Solos series, and have always been impressed by her ability to capture the attention and imagination of young students. This new series is no exception. It contains 6 books, suitable for early beginners to late intermediate students. Each book contains 10 composition tools/ideas, and each tool is presented in a concise, two-page format.
On page 1, the tool/idea is introduced and explained in easy-to-follow language. This is followed by a sample composition that demonstrates the tool; the student learns the composition, thereby understanding how the specific tool/idea is used in a piece of music. On page 2, the student is asked to compose their own music – they are given two measures as a starting point, clear instructions as to what to include in the composition, a “Toolbox Tip” to remind them of previously learned tools/ideas that they may wish to incorporate, and a “Composer Connection” where they learn interesting facts about composers. I am especially impressed by the many different composers and musicians represented here – not just the famous Classical ones like Mozart and Beethoven, but also the less well known ones such as Perotin (c. 1200) and Charles Seeger (1886-1979), contemporary composers such as Philip Glass and John Williams, Jazz legends such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and even household names like The Beatles and Captain Picard from Star Trek: Next Generation are mentioned!
The way Rossi explains the materials is engaging; it is as if though she is in the room talking to you and giving you a private lesson. The concepts are explained without fancy encyclopedic terms, but in simple words that students can easily understand and follow. For this reason, this series is also highly suitable for the self-motivated student who is perhaps at intermediate level and wishes to start embarking on the wonderful journey of composition – the student could work through the series in their own pace, and bring the completed assignments to lessons for the teacher to critique. On the other hand, the series is also suitable for beginners, as Book 1 starts “off staff”, and students can start composing after learning only two notes (C and D)!
The more I look through this series, the more possibilities I see. I can see it used in a group class setting where everyone is given the same composition tool per lesson, students work individually on the assignments, and play their finished compositions for one another. To sum up, the series can offer the following benefits for students:
- reinforcing theory knowledge
- enhancing sight reading skills (as students learn the sample pieces demonstrating various composition tools)
- introducing music history facts, including composers’ lives and important works
- exploring creative expression through the art of original composition
Ever had a student come to lesson and say they injured one of their fingers/hands and can not play? Fear not! There is a growing trend of new compositions written for one hand, and they sound fantastic! At the MTNA Conference 2012 in New York, I was deeply moved by the Ingrid Clarfield story and her performance of one hand music specially written for her by Dennis Alexander and Ryan Brechmacher.
While the Grand One-Hand Solos are much easier and designed for early elementary to late elementary students, the principles of empowering one hand and writing artistic music for one hand is the same. The collection currently has 3 volumes, each containing music in a variety of keys, styles, meters and tempos. Students learn to “reverse read” – right hand reading bass clef and left hand reading treble clef, alternate quickly and frequently between treble and bass clefs, and focus on performance elements such as rhythm, dynamics, phrasing and articulation. Most of the elementary pieces contain teacher duet parts, which provide a unique harmonic perspective and make the experience of playing with one hand fun and interactive. The later elementary pieces explore the full range of the piano, and encourage fluidity of arm movement over the keyboard.
This collection is perfect for isolating and curing reading and technical weaknesses associated with a particular hand, as well as developing awareness that one hand is capable of voicing and artistic performance. I am hoping there will be 3 more volumes in the near future, to cover early intermediate to late intermediate levels.
If you do not believe in Hanon, think again! There are so many different versions and editions of The Virtuoso Pianist on the sheetmusic market, and there is a reason it is still around after first being published in 1873. I do agree that mindless, dry, machine-like Hanon practicing hurts the student’s ears as much as musicianship. This new series differs from others in that it encourages thoughtful and musical practicing.
Proper practicing of these time-tested finger exercises is “built-in” – students are required to do each exercise five times! Yes, five times, before they move on to the next exercise! That has been my biggest challenge in the past, to make students repeat an exercise – often students are in such a hurry to go on to the next page, and feel “defeated” when asked to repeat an exercise in different rhythm/articulation. Now with this new series, it is built-in that they repeat the exercise, as each exercise appears five times: 1. the original. 2. with varied articulation. 3. with varied dynamics. 4. with varied rhythm. 5. transposed. So, the student still gets the sense that they have advanced to the next page, their ego is not hurt, and the teacher can celebrate that the exercise rightfully deserves another week! This is particularly relevant in the more difficult exercises where the pattern of finger stretching or contracting can be tricky.
The editors have rewritten the exercises in eighth notes for one octave, so that the page does not look cluttered by thick black beams, and students may focus on really getting each pattern right. The editors have even gone so far as marking where the finger contracts and stretches, where the fingering changes right before the pattern goes descending, and where the ending pattern is so students may pay attention at the end and not get carried away - these are all common areas of mistakes and by having them marked in the music really saves the teachers a lot of time and headaches!
Bonus: Book 2 has a glossary of all major scales and Book 3 harmonic minor scales, all with fingering written in, necessary sharp or flat right next to each note (as opposed to having them in the key signature and students inevitably forgetting), and words to remind students where to pass thumb under or cross over.