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!
In past posts, we've been working with a list of what makes up music:
We’ve spent the last few times improvising mostly with the first four elements and gradually adding more note tones. Now, let’s expand on that and using what we already know from studying the piano. Understanding and being able to play scales is a great thing to learn and you will make tremendous strides in improvisation. Skips and jumps add interesting elements.
Be sure to remember where home is. This is our tonality. Just because we have a lot of notes to use now, we must remember where our tonality is.
Also, there are eight things on the list of what makes up music. Don’t allow yourself to focus only on the bottom four, be sure you are using all eight always.
Communicate! Improvisation is expressing ourselves musically and communicating whether for our own enjoyment or for an audience, always communicate.
Last time, we were improvising with three notes: our home note, a lower neighbor and an upper neighbor. This time, we’ll explore our neighborhood going up the hill and use our lower neighbor, our home note, and four upper neighbors. This gives us a little 5-fingered scale with one extra note.
The 5-fingered scale has the home note, a passing note, the third of our tonality, another passing note, and the fifth of our tonality. We also have that extra lower neighbor.
We won’t spend a lot of time talking about the music theory of these notes here, but in summary, we have a tonic (our home or tone pitch), the super tonic (upper neighbor), the mediant which determines the mode of the scale (in this case major), the sub-dominant, and the dominant, an important scale note that leads back to the tonic and helps define it as the home and defines the tonality of our piece. We also have the lower neighbor which is our leading tone and “leads” us to our tonic also helping us define and communicate our tonality.
Things get a little trickier now, particularly with fingering, but we’re not caring about proper scale fingerings or anything at this point. Use what you know, but mostly, enjoy improvising with the notes.
Improvise in the same way we have been doing so, but now with six notes. Be sure that the first four elements: Dynamics, Duration, Silence, and Repetition are prioritized as these are just as important as the note tone.
Most students are surprised at this point how good the improvisations begin to sound.
As the school year comes to a close, I really love to look back on all of the opportunities I had to collaborate with students, professors, and others professionals over the past weeks and months. In each case, there are the great memories of performing a piece and of course the journey to get there. Sometimes that journey is easier than others, but it always results in a learning experience and I believe in every case, a great feeling of accomplishment for both the soloist and myself as the collaborator. This list is not exhaustive, and I'm sure I forgot about a few wonderful pieces we performed along the way. I also did not include performances with choirs, vocal jazz ensembles, instrumental jazz ensembles, Southern Gospel groups, or music from church services. In addition, I didn't include the repertoire from a CD I recorded and released this year. Yes, it has been a busy and productive two semesters!
Imagine with me a neighborhood. My home is in the center of the block and we live on a slight hill with the street going up to the right of our house and down to the left.
I have a neighbor on the right of my home and one of the left. We’ll call the neighbor to the right of my home going up the hill my upper neighbor and the neighbor to the left going down the hill my lower neighbor.
I really like my neighbors. They are great friends and I love to hang out with them, but I am always most comfortable at home. I could spend an entire afternoon at one of my neighbors, but I always have the desire to go home. I want to start out at home and end the day at home. I like to sleep in my own bed!
If we think of that C we used last time in one-note improvisation as home, we could say D is our upper neighbor and B is our lower neighbor. C is our Home, but I’m going to give it another name--it is our tonality.
One of the most important parts of a good improvisation is understanding tonality. No matter what the chords do, whether we’re improvising in classical or jazz, or the complexity of the chords, we have a tonality and that is our home.
We are now going to improvise in the exact same way as we did in one-note improvisation, using those first four elements: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, and Repetition
Pay attention to the tonality--are we helping the listener know where our home is? How can we creatively use our upper and lower neighbors yet allow as much creativity or even more with regards to dynamics, note duration, silence, and repetition?
Next time, we’ll add even more notes to our improvisation