It's December and preparations for Christmas are in full swing.
Last Friday evening, I held my annual Christmas Piano Recital/Musical Party. My students look forward to this event all year long. They started picking their pieces months ago. I have a rule that once you pick a piece it's yours...no one else can play it. One student has already picked her piece for next year.....The Bell Carol is certainly one of the most popular selections! They don't have to choose a Christmas song, but most of them did. One student decided to play Sonatina in G+ by Clementi. We both felt that this was a great opportunity for him to test his memory for an upcoming Grade 8 exam. (I did think of calling it The Christmas Sonatina…..maybe not!)
The recital was a huge success. All students were in attendance and everyone had a great time. Some used their music, some took the music up and didn’t even look at it and some felt brave enough to play from memory. The most important thing is that they were excited to share their music with each other.
This was certainly the case with my youngest student. She could hardly wait to play Jingle Bells with me. She has only had 11 lessons, but she already plays with confidence and she loved having the bells on her arm.
I'd like to share my six secrets for planning the best Christmas recital ever:
I use an Excel sheet called 'Christmas Recital Planning Charts' to organize and prepare for my recital. The file contains several worksheets including the Initial Planning Chart, a Program Planning Chart, the Final Program Planning Chart and a Refreshment Sign-up Chart. I use the Initial Planning Chart to time the pieces before I put the program together.
I find it works well to have the students sitting together at the front of the hall. It helps to have numbers on the students' seats. That way, the students know where to sit and what order they play in. This facilitates the flow of the program.
Shorter is Better
Time the recital pieces! Parents and students will get restless if the program is too long. I find that 60-75 minutes works best…I call this a 'Father Friendly' recital. If you have lots of students, you could hold two separate events (Junior and Senior). My Christmas recital last Friday started at 7:00 and was over by 8:00.
Make sure the students have 6-8 weeks to work on their pieces. Some students are able to get their songs up quickly...that's great. We can put those pieces on a shelf and work on something else in the meantime. However, most students require more time to feel comfortable performing in front of an audience. It's important that they also prepare mentally for their performance. They are not allowed to say the word nervous….instead I tell them that they are 'excited'…it’s a whole different feeling.
The Three Levels of Memory
This leads to my next point....pieces should be memorized. I don't require them to play from memory at the recital unless they feel at ease doing so. However, they will play so much better if their piece is memorized.
I have a theory about memory and performing. (My students know that I always have a theory about something!)
My theory is that there are three levels of memory.
Level 1: The first level is if you can play it at home, but not for me.
Level 2: You can play it for me but it is still not really ready for a performance.
Level 3: You can play it for anyone. Your piece is memorized in sections and you have many safety nets all the way through. I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this - "Don’t practice until you can play it right. Practice until you can’t play it wrong!"
One of my students played Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Tchaikovsky. We discussed the fact that it was written for the celesta. That led to the idea of performing it on her keyboard, which has a cool celesta setting.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Make sure that you have lots of variety. I love finding new and different arrangements of familiar songs. I place special numbers throughout the program and I list them in darker print on the program. This helps to keep the program interesting. Some of my students play other instruments as well. Last Friday, we had additional special performances with harp and voice, accordion, several duets and a fun keyboard piece. Here is an excerpt of What Child is This. The singer is a piano student who has never had formal training. She has a naturally beautiful voice that blended so well with the harp.
Make it Fun
Above all, the recital/musical party should be FUN. My students wouldn't miss it.....it is one of the highlights of our musical year. It is so important that this be a positive, enriching experience for them. Each Christmas, I make the traditional Piano Cake which is reserved just for them. After the recital, we had an informal social time with the parents supplying the rest of the refreshments. This also gave me a change to mingle, visit with their families and take pictures.
At their lesson this week I will ask my students what they liked the best about the recital….something other than the food! I know that they will be excited to share their favourite moments. We might even pick their piece for next year.
This Christmas season, my wish for all my students is that they develop a deep love of music in all its beauty and variety, that they learn to play this instrument we call the piano, that they learn to sight read well, that they gain self-confidence as they perform and that they continue to play, enjoy and share this wonderful gift of music throughout their life.
One of the biggest challenges for a teacher can be finding appropriate pieces that students love to play! I’m always looking for interesting, well written music that captures their imagination but also contains sound pedagogical ideas. Finding such a piece is like finding a hidden treasure.
These past few weeks my students have been busy preparing for their first master class and for the Christmas recital. I teach many different levels, ranging from beginners to advanced. Several students are working towards specific goals such as recitals, exams or evaluations.
We currently live in a rural area and all of my students celebrate Christmas. Because of that, most of them have picked a Christmas song for the recital. However, this was not always the case. When I lived in a large city, I had a more multi-cultural program, reflecting the various ethnic backgrounds of my students.
Master classes and recitals are great because students have an opportunity to share their musical gems with others while building confidence at the same time. It’s important to broaden their musical horizons by having them experience all different styles and types of music, from the Classics to Modern to Pop and Jazz. It's also important that we, as teachers, avoid getting stuck in a ‘musical rut’ by always teaching the same material.
Every year I try to find something new and fresh to share with my students. It makes them feel special because they are playing something unique. They especially enjoy descriptive pieces that paint vivid musical picture.
Here are some of the wonderful musical gems that my students have worked on this fall. A few are regular graded pieces, others are Christmas songs, some are pieces that I have taught before and some I am teaching for the first time.
Our first master class of this year was a HUGE success. Everyone loved sharing their special songs and hearing new and interesting pieces. After each performance, I asked them what they liked about the piece. Here are some of their varied and insightful comments....I loved the dreaminess of that piece, I closed my eyes and imagined that I was flying over the mountains, I loved the sounds of the different chords, I could clearly hear 2 voices in the right hand, it sounded very dramatic, the balance was GREAT, I LOVED the story!
Don’t be afraid to try something different. My students love playing imaginative and descriptive pieces. They also enjoy playing creative arrangements of old favourites. Have fun exploring some of these musical gems with your students.
**Feel free to share your Musical Gems in the comments below.**
The musical year is almost over.....time to look back and see what has been accomplished. My students really look forward to receiving their Musical Report Cards. This has been a tradition in my studio for many years.
A musical report card is a great way to give students a summary of what they have accomplished over the past year. It's also good for the parents to see the progress that their child has made.
Here are some ideas for using Musical Report Cards in your studio:
Try to make the report card as positive as possible. Encourage, encourage, encourage!! Every student can usually receive an excellent grade in at least one area i.e. attendance, cooperation etc.
I find it best to grade as excellent, above average etc. rather than give actual marks or A's, B's etc.
I have a place on the report card to check if the student is what I call a "Perfect Practicer". (I will talk more about this program in a future blog post).
I always write a few comments at the bottom of the report card. I usually include one or two areas that the student could improve on next year.
I list all recitals, exams, master classes, auditions etc that the student has been part of throughout the year. That way, the report card becomes a summary of their musical accomplishments for the entire year. Parents especially appreciate this.
The report card also gives the teacher an opportunity to summarize and review the entire year with the student at their last lesson. You could review their goals for the past year to see if they have met them. It's also a great time to start planning goals for next year.
I have included the original file for the Musical Report Card. You can use my design or personalize it for your own studio. You can easily add your studio logo or header at the top of the report card.
A Fond Farewell
June is also the time when we say goodbye to some of our students. I would like to recognize the accomplishments of two of my students.
The first student has been with me since 2007. She was a transfer student at the Grade 5 level. She completed her RCM Grade 9 piano with me last year with First Class Honours. This year, she has also completed her Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Harmony and her Basic History with Joe Ringhofer (Phoenix Conservatory). I'm very pleased that she has been accepted into the music program as a piano major at a well-known University in Ontario. I wish her all the best in her future.
The other student that I would like to recognize started with me as a beginner when he was 10 years old. He also completed his Grade 9 piano last year (First Class Honours with Distinction). He is pursuing a career in Music Ministry and has been accepted into the music program at a well-known Bible College in the US.
I have included a video of him performing his amazing recital song—Prelude in c#- by Rachmaninoff.
Both of these students are amazing musicians and I will miss them.
Maintaining a piece for performance is a lot like mountain climbing.....I tell my students this all the time.
It's also very much like trying to tame a wild horse!!
This is the time of year when students are busy preparing for exams or recitals. They work very hard to learn and memorize a piece and get it up to tempo. However, sometimes students struggle with keeping that piece at performance level. The faster the speed of the piece, the harder this is. And so we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses.....
Having the piece ready to go is like finally making it to the top of the mountain. But what happens then? If you are not very careful, that piece will start to slide down the other side of the mountain! Jelly Fingers will set in!! You need to get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain.
What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course!
So what does all of this have to do with wild horses? If a student practices a piece over and over again at a fast pace, that piece can turn into what I call a 'wild horse'. We talk about that horse galloping across the field, totally out of control! What we need are reins so that we can get that horse under control.
And what do the reins represent? You guessed it.....the metronome!
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
The metronome should be your best friend. I encourage my students to name their metronome.....I call mine George V!! I've gone through a few metronomes in my time!
George V is a much more sophisticated model than his predecessors. I LOVE this version (Korg KDM-2). I especially love the middle button on top. I can tap along with a student and know exactly what speed they are playing. I can also tap the exact speed that I would like for a piece and it will tell me instantly what that speed is. And unlike a traditional metronome, it goes up to 256 (which I actually used this week with a student!)
This past January, I had 3 students do Royal Conservatory of Music exams.....two Grade 7's and one Grade 8. All of them did quite well.....one received First Class Honours and the other two First Class Honours with Distinction. I also had two Grade 10 students audition for University and College programs. This June, I have students doing exams for Grade 1, two Grade 4's and Grade 5. For each student, the challenge is the same....how to maintain the faster pieces.
Here are some effective ideas that I have used with my students:
Preparing to maintain a piece starts on the very first day the piece is introduced. I work with the student to divide the piece into logical sections, according to phrases and form. (I will talk more about this in a future blog post). I label these sections with capital letters and circle the letters. If there are more than 26 sections, we use double letters. I also have the students figure out the basic key signature of each section, making special note of sections that modulate to a different key. If the piece is in a certain form, then we label these sections as well. i.e. Exposition, Development & Recapitulation.
Draw a box around any tricky areas that needs extra practice and label these as Box #1, Box #2 etc. These should be practiced separately until they are fluent.
Learn the piece in small sections, using the metronome as soon as possible. Consistent metronome practice helps to keep the piece in control. Learn it correctly the first time....it's so much easier than having to fix things later. Of course the rhythm and notes are important. However, also pay special attention to all the details such as fingering, articulation, phrases, rests and dynamics. Learn one section at a time. You can add more sections once you have mastered the first one.
Once the piece has been learned correctly, then you can memorize it in small sections, preferably hands separately. Be able to start playing at any section. This gives you safety nets all the way through the piece. You can also compare sections to see which ones are the same and which ones are different.
My students love to play the musical card game. I have a set of file cards with letters which correspond to the sections in their piece. I shuffle the cards and hold them up, one at a time. They love playing the mixed up version of their piece!! For an extra challenge, ask for the left hand only!!
Always have a maintenance speed and work at the slow speed several times before attempting allowing yourself to it up to speed. Four times slow and once fast works well! Exaggerate the arm motions at the slow speed.Be very careful not to over practice at the fast speed.
Remember....Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
Putting a song on a shelf is a good strategy for maintaining a song. I actually draw a little shelf on the student's lesson page in The Student Music Organizer. I put it right underneath the lesson practice chart. Putting a piece on a shelf means that we leave the piece and don't play it for a while. This can also be called plateau learning. Then, when we revisit the piece, we can take it to the next level!
Table practice is a good way to maintain finger strength and articulation. Play the piece away from the piano on a flat surface. It helps to play with a little 'bite' in the ends of the fingers, using correct arm motion.
Another valuable technique is to "mind play" your piece. Find a quiet place away from the piano. Read the score as you would a book, while you 'listen' to the music and imagine yourself playing the notes. Observe and make note of all articulation and dynamics. This can also be done in sections. It is also a great way to reinforce memory.
One of my students is working on a piece called Intrada by Graupner. It is her Baroque piece (List A) and she is doing it for a Grade 5 exam later on this month. Click to see how I divided it into sections and prepared it for her to learn. It is now memorized hands separately in sections. She played it for me at her lesson last week and it was quite good...just about ready to go. But she doesn't play her exam for a few weeks. So we go into maintenance mode and we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses!!
Here are a few of the pieces that my students have maintained or are continuing to maintain for exams, auditions and recitals this year.
Prelude & Fugue in E+ (Bach) Grade 10
Prelude in c#- (Rachmaninoff)
Sonata in C+ K330 1st movement (Mozart) Grade 9
Etude in c- Op.29 #7 (Bertini) Grade 7
Suite #8 in G+ HWV 441 IV: Aria (Handel) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 55 #31st Movement (Kuhlau) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 36 #3 1st Movement (Clementi) Grade 7
Suite #1 in D+ VIII: Gigue (Krebs) Grade 7
Wound Up (Norton) Grade 7
Intrada in C+ (Graupner) Grade 5
March of the Terrible Trolls (Niamath) Grade 1
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
Last spring, I had an interesting experience with one of my students....I'll call him Lee. He came to his lesson one afternoon and he seemed very upset. He said "My teacher at school wants me to play The Cup Song for our class". I didn't think much of it. "Ask your teacher for the music. You can bring it next week and I'll help you learn it", I said and went on with his regular lesson.
The next week, Lee came for his lesson as usual. However, when he walked in the door, I knew something was wrong. "My teacher wants me to play The Cup Song", he said again. This time, he looked visibly upset. "OK" I said, "Did she give you the music?" I asked. He looked horrified!!! "That's the problem" he said, almost in tears. "She doesn't have any music. She told me to just figure it out!". More tears!
ABOUT FACE!! I quickly abandoned what I had planned to do for that lesson.
"OK" I said. "Where can we find this Cup Song?". I had never heard of it before! "It's from a movie." he said. "It's on Youtube. We sing it at school. My teacher said to say Pepsi instead of whiskey!". I had no idea what he was talking about but I was very interested to find out!!
"Well, let's look on YouTube and we'll see what we can do!"
I searched YouTube on the iPad and quickly found the song. I played it over several times and we listened to it together. Thankfully, it was in C+!! (Yes, I thought. I don't have to transpose it!!)
I explained to him that you don't always have to have music to play a piece. What a revelation!! He looked shocked and surprised at the same time! "Wow, that's cool", he exclaimed!
We turned to the manuscript paper at the back of The Student Music Organizer and I started teaching him how to figure out a melody by ear. Then we had an impromptu lesson on how to transcribe it! I showed him how to figure out the time signature. The melody was simple enough but the rhythm was quite tricky. By the end of the lesson, we had written out the melody for the song and he had something to practice for his teacher! It had been a great lesson and Lee went home smiling!
I called his mother in the middle of the week to see how he was doing with the song! "It's all we've heard", said his Mom!! "He plays it over and over and over!".
At his next lesson, I said to him, "We figured out the melody last week and you can play that. Now let's see if we can add some chords". Again, he was intrigued. I proceeded to teach him the basic chords in C+ (I, IV, V and vi). Then I showed him how these chords can be added to the melody. I told him to listen carefully so that he could figure out which chord would work for which notes. We worked through the song and added the chord symbols over the appropriate notes. It was another great lesson and Lee went home, ready to try the next step.
When he returned the following week, he could play the whole song. He was thrilled. Best of all, his school teacher was thrilled!! He ended up playing "The Cup Song" while his whole class sang and did the rhythm with cups. Then the class performed it at the Spring Concert for the entire school! The most important thing was that Lee felt great about what he had done. He had fun playing music with his friends. He was the hero of the class. Mission accomplished!
Here are some fun ideas on teaching basic ear training in a lesson:
Start with a familiar tune. Have the student figure out this tune by ear. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well.
The student could transcribe the melody on manuscript or just learn it by ear.
Then teach some basic chords (I, IV, V and VI).
Have the student figure out which chords go with the melody and where they change.
After that has been mastered, you could have them try some variations with the accompaniment.
Try some other 2 and 3-chord melodies i.e. Amazing Grace, Happy Birthday or Silent Night.
Have fun exploring with your students.
"The Cup Song"is also a great song for teaching rhythm. I found out that quite a few of my students knew this song AND they knew how to do the cup rhythm. I had another bright idea!!! Let's do this song for our final recital in June. The students worked well together and they came up with their own arrangement. The biggest challenge was keeping it in sync. They really had to learn to listen to each other and adjust. The above video was our final rehearsal before the recital .They did it perfectly for the concert AND Lee played it from memory! It was the highlight of the recital!!
The moral of this story: Always be ready to change a lesson plan to meet the needs of your students!
My next post will be: Can You Find the Music Hiding in the Notes?
I have just discovered a cool book which helps to teach rhythms while taking advantage of the cup "craze". It is called "Rhythm Cup Explorations" and it is published by Wendy Stevens. Her Website is called Composecreate.com. It's a reproducible resource, so you only have to buy it once for your studio!