An easy way to learn to have fun learning to improvise
It sometimes seems everyone I talk with is learning to teach online. Our local university has restarted after spring break with online classes. Professors have been busy setting up their teaching and work spaces at home. Studio teachers are also setting up virtual studios and figuring out ways to connect with their students and keep them progressing.
As I write this preparing for an afternoon and evening of lessons, I am reminded of things that I enjoy about virtual lessons. Don't get me wrong, I miss meeting with my students in my studio, but there are several things that I really feel benefit both me and the student as I teach them in this new way, even if it is only temporary.
Seeing the student in their space tops the list for me. I get to see the instrument they are practicing on. It is fun to see its capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. I see how it is set up. I might have suggestions for the student they never even thought of. I can help a student who thought he had a keyboard without a damper pedal discover that it really is capable of having this pedal and purchasing a usable pedal would be a very small investment. I see what my students use for a bench and how it fits them. We talk about position a lot as we learn technique. Habits are formed at home. Sometimes it is the littlest discovery and suggestion that can make the biggest impact.
Another student has an electric keyboard with a lot of fun sounds. They explain how their child can only practice with the piano sound and use the fun sounds after practice. While I respect this discipline, I incorporate the fun sounds within the lesson and encourage their use in purposeful ways. There's no reason learning can't be fun, and if it will motivate the student to play their pieces with a fun sound as they practice, I'm all for it!
Another benefit is the fact that physical walls have been removed as we create a virtual space. I used to have contact with my students only at their lessons and in that physical studio space. With virtual lessons, I'm sending emails between lessons and they send messages to me. I have an advanced student who has texted me twice in the past week with great questions regarding her music. My students are learning more when it doesn't always have to happen in the scheduled slot.
I'm trying to be more creative as I want to keep students engaged. I'm creating videos and online theory practice. I'll utilize these tools long after the quarantine is lifted and I'm motivated to make more and keep growing in creativity.
Sometimes it takes something that really shakes up our routine to make us better teachers and to think about the things we do. Virtual lessons seem to have done that for me and I think I'll come out at the end of this a better teacher.
Piano lessons during a pandemic present a unique challenge that most of us as piano teachers would never dream we would face. But, here we are in March of 2020 and this is a very real and serious situation and we are all practicing our social distancing. It might be easy to think we’d just put lessons on hold for awhile and get back to regular lessons as soon as we get this all behind us. We’d assign music and hope our students practice, perhaps checking in with them once or twice while we’re off.
I don’t like that idea. I have chosen to do everything I can to keep lessons going. Of course, there is a personal financial reason to keep lessons going and the income coming, but much more important is the impact this makes on my students. I’ve seen the loss of progress and discouragement that can come from a student who has taken the summer off from lessons. In addition, this is a great way to keep something that is a normal part of the student’s life going in a time where everything else is shaken up. It is healthy—therapeutic—and good for both the student and the teacher.
I’ve taught virtual lessons before but only for extreme situations such as a major snowstorm or illness. I’ve never taught lessons this way for an extended time, so this is new territory for me.
There are many platforms to choose from and the three most notable choices are Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom. Each of these platforms are very good and have their own pros and cons. I chose to give my students and their parents the choice as to which platform. Zoom has features that make it very easy for me, but I want it to be very easy for the student so we don’t get lost in the technology and the lessons go smoothly. In my studio, most of the students and families chose FaceTime. In fact, almost all chose FaceTime because it was already on their phone and they were somewhat familiar with it. Only a couple chose Zoom and no one chose Skype.
Teaching a virtual lesson takes a little more preparation up front as you get your own resources and plans together. Remember, you may need to carry a bigger part of this “conversation.” Ideally, you have a copy of the their music already, but in some cases, I’ve needed to ask the student to send me a photo or scan of the piece they are playing. I try to prepare ahead with my lesson plan to make sure the lesson feels very engaging as if we are together in my studio.
Anything you can teach in your studio, you can teach through FaceTime. I demonstrate on my piano and I’ve found I’m watching things like technique and proper position and setup even more carefully. These things tend to jump out at me more through video than sitting in the lesson.
The sound through these platforms is quite good. I’ll ask the student if they can hear the dynamics and articulations I’m showing them. They’ve said they hear it and as I hear them attempt the same thing, I can easily tell they are hearing and understanding what I’m asking of them.
As with any lesson, I try to keep things fast-paced and not dwell on one thing too long. While I work harder at keeping the student engaged, I have not had any trouble with that in the virtual lessons I’ve taught so far.
In face-to-face lessons, I really depend on the lesson notebook I ask each student to have. Since we no longer have that luxury, I am relying on email instructions. I pay close attention to the words I use to be very clear about the assignment, and I am sending the instructions to the student or parent and in some cases both. I use mymusicstaff.com for studio management and their attendance notes function makes this very easy and the message I sent to the students is right where I need it for the following week.
One of the challenges to address right away with the student is where to put the phone or tablet to record. I’ve told each of them that as much as I like looking at their faces, it is more important for me to see their hands and the keyboard. Some use chairs or a table to use as a stand for the phone. Others used music stands. One simply propped the phone at the end of the keyboard. All were able to creatively find a way that I can see well. Most of them have found a way that I can see both their hands and face!
I personally use an iPad held on an iPad clip that connects to a microphone stand. I am careful that they can see both my face and my hands. I want them to feel as if we are together for good conversation, but I also need to demonstrate even more than I might in the studio.
Another observation I have from my first week of “pandemic lessons” is to allow time to talk and relate just as we would in the studio. Every lesson, I ask my students to share a little of their week. It helps me to get to know them and we can relate together well. Often times, I’ll share something from my own week. Especially in these times that can be alarming and scary for a student, I need to allow them to talk. It is encouraging to know we are going through these times together.
What about the exceptions? I do have a student who simply cannot make this work. I’ve encouraged them to keep practicing and we will communicate through email. While I’d prefer to meet, this will simply be an exception. I have another student who is very sure their WIFI connection will not support this. For a situation like this, we are using email and sending videos and audio files to keep working together.
A colleague of mine had a great suggestion to ask students to record a practice session so I can see how they are practicing. In turn, I will record a practice session of my own to give them. Perhaps the most important thing I can teach my students is how to practice!
What if the technology stops working? I had that happen in a lesson last night. The student’s WIFI connection was weak. We tried to keep things going, but it was too distracting to have the video continually locking up. I simply ended the live virtual lesson and sent them instructions through email and we will correspond just as I would if a student did not have WIFI to do live streaming.
My primary goal is to keep something consistent in the lives of the students in this time of unknowns and changes. It will benefit them as musicians and build our teacher-student relationship as we navigate these times together.
Piano Teachers: You may have never planned to teach virtual lessons from your living room, but this is a great time to give it a try if you’ve never done so!
In my teaching, I am regularly talking about the music we are studying and performing as a language that communicates to us as the performer and then through us to our audience that hears us. In my own playing and performing, I am studying how different mediums of art interact together as they are created together.
We can easily observe this idea as we pay attention to the score of a movie without music. If you haven't seen this video of the Throne Room Scene of Star Wars - A New Hope, you should check it out. Clearly, the musical interaction with the scene is of tremendous importance.
We can easily observe in examples like this how the music impacts the presentation to the audience, but does the interaction of music and art actually affect the choices of the artist in creating the work? In other words, when an artist creates a work of art while listening or otherwise being impacted by another artist's work, does that change the work in progress?
Painter, David Hummer of the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art and I are experimenting with that concept and observing how music and painting interact in creating a work of art. We have tried it in the studio and have experienced the impact and on January 26th, 2020, we are going to add a third dimension to that mix: a live audience. Our plan is to create a work of art on stage. He will be painting a portrait of musician and composer, Philip Glass. I will be improvising and in a sense creating a musical score to his painting all the while we are both restrained to the time confines of a recital performance.
The performance is January 26th, 2020 at 2pm and will be held at the Caroline Mark Concert Hall at the Wausau Conservatory. Admission is free.
Every year, I set aside at least one lesson to explain to students how a piano works. We take apart the piano! Okay, we really don’t take apart the piano, but we open them up and see the inner workings.
The piano is one of the few instruments in which the musician is often not taught how it works and is actually discouraged from most types of maintenance. Don't get me wrong, it is always best to hire an experienced technician to work on your piano for tuning and repairs, but it is also good for us to know a little about the inner-workings of the piano.
For beginning or younger students, I focus this discussion on the concept of the hammer striking the strings, the differences in notes and number of strings per note, as well as the una corda and damper pedals. Seeing how the hammer strikes the strings helps a student understand why we focus on specific hand position and technique for striking the keys. Seeing what the pedals do on a grand piano helps them understand pedals and I’ll rarely have a student continue to call the left pedal the “soft pedal” as they gain a great understanding of why it is called the “una corda.” Even seeing the number of strings is a good jumping point for discussion as to how multiple strings complement each other and create tone. My math or science-loving students usually enjoy a little physics discussion and the harmonic series which can be easily demonstrated with the the sostenuto pedal.
For more advanced students, it is still good to talk about how the hammers and dampers work. I use a working model of the piano action to discuss this. For an advanced student, understanding the action can make a big difference in our technical command of the piano.
For an advanced student, it is helpful to actually see pedal techniques such as half-damper or flutter-pedal. We talk about the una-corda sound being much more than a tool to make the sound softer, but might be compared to a violinist playing with a mute.
In my studio, I have a Yamaha Grand Piano and a Yamaha U1 Studio Upright. Students can compare how the action varies from the two pianos and seeing the actions at work enhances this understanding. As pianists, we typically perform on the piano offered us. We usually don’t get a choice. It may be a hard or light action. It may be bright or dull. Repeated notes may speak easily or sluggish. Understanding the piano, helps us be better pianists. The old adage is that "a great pianist makes even a horrible piano sound wonderful."
A final benefit for students is understanding types of pianos to purchase and ones to avoid. We might discuss why the full-size or console-sized upright better than the spinet. We may discuss why a high-quality upright could be a better purchase than even some brand new grand pianos.
Piano teachers: Teach your students to perform, but also help them to know their instrument. If you are uncomfortable with this, invite a piano technician to lead a class of your students on this topic. Or, do what I do. Take some time to get to know the piano. Read some books on piano tuning and repair. Watch some videos. Talk with piano technicians. Perhaps, you might even develop some skills in tuning and repair. Share that knowledge to help develop musicians that really know the instrument.
You will definitely raise up student pianists that understand their instrument better as they play. Perhaps you’ll even inspire some of your students to train to be skilled piano technicians and we all know there is a need for that in many of our communities.
Why do you take piano lessons? As a teacher, why do you give piano lessons? What is the goal? Better yet, what is the purpose?
Some of the students that impress me the most are not the award-winning musical stars, but those who decide to study later in their lives and simply want to make music. I think of an anesthesiologist who studies with a colleague of mine and despite his busy schedule, sets time aside to study and practice piano. In my studio, I have several students from a wide variety of careers taking classes and private lessons and diligently studying and enriching their lives with music.
I want to help my students find their purpose in studying music. Many of them are too young to think about things like this, but for them, I can help guide their parents. It is too easy to turn to a purpose focused on achievement. Sometimes, that is based on festivals and competitions. Some parents come with the "keeping up with the Jones" purpose--their children are taking lessons as this is something their friends do. Others have scholarships in mind--either actual scholarships for musical study, or boosting up a student's resume for college applications.
I'm saddened when a student reiterates what a parent has told them: "You're taking lessons as it will help you with math and sciences and to do better in a career you want to pursue." While it is wonderful and proven through many studies that studying music--particularly piano--has a significant impact on a student's scholastic achievement, I feel sorry if that is the purpose.
Students and their families pay a large amount of money for music lessons, music books, and all of the associated fees. As a teacher, I want both the parent and student to find the real investment they are making: Enrichment in their life.
They are developing a skill that can stay with them for a lifetime. It can impact all parts of their life. They can find simple joy through making music. This is therapeutic and is an investment in our well-being.
Music impacts us. Studying music changes our lives once we discover the true purpose of seeking enrichment. Not awards and achievements, not scholarships...
And really, that is what being an artist is about no matter where or what our career goals are, or where we are on life's journey.
Be an artist. Be enriched. Enrich the lives of others. Repeat...
There are many choices for a teacher to use when introducing a child to the piano. Some have been used and proven for decades. Some concepts just continue to work from year to year. The most respected methods have continued to adjust and develop their method to reach each generation of children.
Piano Fun for Kids is yet another way to introduce children to the piano. While some children have a piano at home waiting for them to learn, other families are concerned about purchasing a costly instrument only to find their child has lost interested in a half of a year. Often times, they settle for a second-rate digital instrument or worse yet, an untunable cheap instrument they found online.
Piano Fun for Kids is about introducing the piano in a fun and enjoyable way even if the child does not have an instrument to practice. The end-goal is to help a child discover a love for music-making and a love for the piano and giving the parent confidence and even assistance in their musical instrument investment.
Piano Fun for Kids is designed to be a group experience. Classes are high-energy and the songs the children play are accompanied with fun accompaniment tracks. Six-week mini-semesters are purposefully designed to be to allow the child and family to make small achievable commitments. Each semester only has one book to work through so instead of purchasing four books as most piano methods require upfront, the family only invests in one book at a time. Each book comes with the same accompaniment tracks we use in class so the student can practice with them developing their rhythmic understanding and simply making piano playing fun.
After four mini-semesters of Piano Fun for Kids, the student is well-prepared to continue in piano privately or they may choose to move on to another instrument and the strong musical foundation they have developed in Piano Fun for Kids will help them achieve.
Piano Fun for Kids classes are offered at the Wausau Conservatory of Music in Wausau, Wisconsin and the curriculum is available to any teacher who wants to utilize it for their own group piano classes.
For more information visit http://www.fischermusic.com/store.html or contact us at: http://www.fischermusic.com/contact-us.html
Over the years I've taught piano, the lesson I've personally learned over and over is that "one size doesn't fit all." Students are different. Interests change. Students of today have a different learning style from the students I taught when I first left college. While the piano method I taught from at that time is still a good option for teachers, I no longer teach that method. In fact, I don't even teach from the method I used after that!
I'm particular as I choose resources for my students. I have learned that the resources I choose play a very significant role in the success of my teaching.
When I started to teach Recreational Music Making group piano classes, I quickly identified a set of resources that work wonderfully for adults. The adults love them and I will continue to use them. But, I was disappointed in the options for children. There were some standouts. I tried one which did not work for the classes I taught. I reviewed several other options including adapting private-lesson curriculum and even adapting adult curriculum, but I did not find a resource that would engage children at their level, keep their interest, be fun, and allow a student to learn and progress, yet creating a learning environment that was built on the purposes of Recreational Music Making.
I wanted a resource that provided a strong foundation for reading music notation, yet would take a young student to that point in an enjoyable way. I wanted a resource that would challenge the student to improvise and create. I wanted a resource that would challenge the student to listen to the music around them. I wanted a resource that would build a strong rhythmic foundation and challenge the student to read and play from chord notation. I wanted a resource that would give a student a vision for all the possibilities playing music on the piano gives them including musical opportunities in school, building a strong foundation to transfer to other instruments, and creating a music lover. On top of all that, I wanted a resource that would allow a student to have a productive mini-semester or two of piano lessons even if they didn't have an instrument at home. One that acknowledged that as a possibility and provided assignment options that could be done without an instrument in addition to assignment options that required a piano or keyboard. Think of the mistakes that could be avoided by parents who rush purchase an inferior instrument so their child can simply start lessons rather than being able to advise them in making a great instrument choice as their child is already learning and developing a love for making music.
Piano Fun for Kids is specifically designed for group lessons. As a distinction from private lessons where most of the student's progress takes place through regular practice at home, in Piano Fun for Kids, most of the student's progress and development takes place within the class. Lessons are short and engaging. Songs are performed together as a class with great accompaniment tracks and these tracks are available for the student to use at home if they wish. The curriculum can be used in private lessons, but it is designed for Recreational Music Making group lessons. There are a total of 8 mini-levels, each takes six-weeks to complete. In most cases, this would be a two-year progression of study. At any time, a student would be able to easily transition into private lessons and after completing the two-year progression, the student would be at a level of expertise where private lessons would be more beneficial than further class study.
The pilot program for Piano Fun for Kids will be offered beginning in the fall semester of 2019 at Wausau Conservatory of Music. A 3-week introductory program called Piano Fun for Kids-Explorers is being offered multiple times during the summer of 2019 as a way to test portions of the curriculum in a class setting and to allow students to try a piano class at no obligation. Families in the Wausau area can sign up for the free classes by clicking here. To sign up for the first level beginning this September, contact the Wausau Conservatory of Music.
A fun story about J.S. Bach's Goldberg variations is that they were written to be performed by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to help encourage sleep for an insomniac count named Kaiserling. Although not true, it makes a great anecdote. Bach was most likely influenced by the an aria published by Handel with 64 variations. Bach's creation seems to try to out-do Handel and is a deep collection of sophistication and musicianship. Peter Serkin is a on of the celebrated pianist, Rudolph Serkin. Peter brings mature and sensitive interpretation of this great work.
We spent six lessons on classical improvisation taking us from a simple one-note improvisation to a beautiful classical improvisation over the chords of Satie’s Gymnopedie 1.
Often, a student has told me that their problem with jazz improvisation is that they don’t know all the scales yet.
It is as if they are looking for a shortcut. “If I only can memorize the major and minor scales and a few modal scales, I’m set to go!” Then, they get discouraged because that is a big task.
You can improvise even if you don’t know all the scales! The more scales you learn, the more material you have for improvisation, but, the reality is that for every scale you learn and explore, you will soon discover there are many more yet to learn and explore. You will never know all the scales, but that is okay. Use what you have.
If you are feeling comfortable with the more classical sounding major and minor scales, start with some modes.
I love ii-V-I progression improvisation and it is so useful in jazz and a great place to start using three scales: Dorian, Mixolydian, and Major (Ionian). It is a great place to begin to expand your improvisational vocabulary.
Of course, other places to explore would be the major and minor blues scales.
Our ability to communicate verbally is a lifelong process and the same can be said about our musical communication through improvisation. Just keep exploring and learning. In the meantime, improvise using what you know even if it is only one-note!