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Are You Taking Care of Yourself?

As we enter the season of crazy for piano teachers and musicians, I wonder how many of you are taking time to take care of yourselves?  This is SO important to avoid burnout and resentment.  During my first few years of teaching, I gave lessons year-round and only took major holidays off.  I discovered that students who were made to take lessons before and after these holidays had a poor attitude and did not want to be at lesson.  I was also very tired and lacked the energy to be my best self.  Once it dawned on me that I wasn’t doing anyone a favor by keeping this schedule, I adjusted.  I took a few weeks off, including Spring Break, Memorial Day (week) and two weeks at Christmas.  I noticed a trend in my students.  They were more excited to come to lesson after the short break and ready to get back to work AND so was I!  As the years have gone by, I take more weeks off, including the first week of school, exam weeks, 4th of July week and Labor Day week.  It works for me, that may be too much for you.  As you know, we don’t get paid for taking time off, so how are you going to accommodate for lost income?  I will go into that in a future post.  But for now, if you are not taking well deserved time off, please reconsider.  Everyone will be happier.

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Christmas Music-How soon is too soon?

‘Tis the season, as they say.  This is an age old question for all piano teachers.  The dilemma is not how early you start, but how many pieces are you are going to teach?  My students play several venues over the holidays including a studio recital, so they have to have a variety of pieces ready to go by early December.  They begin in August, as some (the more advanced students) need to have as much as 20-30 minutes of repertoire ready to go.  If we waited until November to begin, then that would be all they were playing for weeks (and other events in the Spring would be compromised).  I prefer to start with a single piece in August and just add it to their other repertoire.  This way, it is not overwhelming to get the volume of pieces ready on time.  If you are not having any programs, then there is probably no reason to start before December and just enjoy a few weeks of saturated Christmas music.  Either way, you will have happy students and parents.  Oh, and just in case you haven’t thought of this, even my students who do not celebrate Christmas get into the swing of things.  They love the pieces and different arrangements and beg to play more.  So, how soon is too soon?  Judgement call on your part.

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Let’s Talk Chords!

What is the significance of playing and identifying chords?  From the very first year of study, students learn how to play a triad and probably know how to identify several in root position.  HOWEVER, when the chord is in an inversion or spread out over the treble and bass clef, it becomes much more difficult for a student to recognize.  I think the best way to prepare students from the beginning is to learn chords and their inversions along with scales.  Once the student realizes how the chords works within the scale (key), reading and playing passages start to make sense and are much easier to master.

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More About Scales

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a phenomenal pianist and composer ahead of her time. She was also the wife of Robert Schumann and the mother of 8 children. She was one of the most sought after pianists and was constantly touring after her husband died. She also held teaching positions at the Leipzig and Hoch Conservatories. Clara was a demanding teacher and spent a great deal of time on technique (as her father-Friedich Weick, had taught her). She began every lesson with scales.
I begin each lesson with scales. Even as a first year student, my students play 5 finger major scales. I feel so strongly about students knowing and understanding the composition of scales that I incorporated them into the PCS Piano Proficiency Examinations.
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Why Scales?

As I was growing up, I had many piano teachers (we moved quite often).  None of my teachers insisted scales be a part of my curriculum, and I was perfectly fine with that!  Scales were boring, you had to use specific fingering and quite frankly, I didn’t understand the importance.  As I went off to college and was accepted into the school of music, I learned that my previous teachers had done me a great disservice.  I was going to have to play catch-up and this was not going to be fun.

Learning scales is an intricate part of music education.  The process allows a student to understand the composition of a key and how best to finger passages.  Although students can learn to play the piano without this knowledge, it is an uphill battle as they become more advanced.

Because of my background, all of my students begin learning scales within the first 3 months of lessons.  We begin with 5-finger major scales.  They learn the proper name of each pattern, along with the respective sharps and flats.  I have found that as they progress, expanding their knowledge, they can easily decipher scale patterns in their pieces, playing them with ease.

So “why scales”?  If you put it into the context of the English language (because music is a language), scales are similar to learning how to spell (words).  Once you learn how to read the words, you can understand what the story is all about.

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What do you what your students to know?

I love this question!  It is so wide open, yet every day, piano teachers grapple with the enormity of what they want to offer their students.  There are so many ways to go with this, but I want to share my philosophy.

I have always said that if I have three to five years with a student (any additional years is like gravy), it is my job to teach them how to read music, how to count and express emotions, understand terminology,  and hopefully impart the love of not only the piano, but music.  Now, you may think that is quite a long time to spend on these basic concepts, but in reality, it is not.  Oh sure, an average aged beginning student (6-7 years old) can grasp reading on the staff and counting simple rhythms, but that is not enough.  I generally takes about three years, before a student is confident and able to internalize reading and counting skills.  Regardless of what the end result is, as a teacher, I want my students to leave my studio and be able to pick up a piece of sheet music, hymnal, lead line and be able to play until their heart is content.  So, what do YOU want your students to know?