Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Staycation. What to do with my free time?

I'm on vacation this week.  Stay-cation, not going anywhere.  I plan to use my time reading through Halloween-themed music, in preparation for the new piano school year which begins next Tuesday.  The Frederick County Music Teachers Association has traditionally hosted a Halloween Recital in late October.  Due to Coronavirus and social distancing requirements, the recital will probably be canceled.  Nevertheless, my students will be creating eerie sounds over the next 2 months, and we will do something to celebrate Halloween, even if it's online.  

This is one of my favorite events of the school year.  Typically, everyone comes in costume, even the teachers!  Last year, Sponge Bob was the emcee.  We had 2 witches the year before.  This year, Zoom will probably serve in that role.  Or Facebook.  I developed a private Facebook page for my students to share their Spring Recital performances, as well as other Facebook-worthy posts: Hallelujah Chorus on handbells; Fur Elise on glass harp; and artwork inspired by student repertoire.  (Due to privacy concerns, I cannot share the link here.)  I just posted Joachim Horsley playing a piano transcription of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, on the keys and on the frame!  Wow!   Look it up when you have the chance.

Actually, quite inspiring.  All of my students are learning to play Happy Birthday by ear, melody and some sort of left hand accompaniment.  Perhaps my more advanced students will glean some percussive inspiration from this Horsley post.  Thinking out loud here, since fall performances will most likely be held online, therefore pre-recorded, yes, this might work!  Oh, I wish I were teaching this week!  

I do love teaching,  And I miss my students when I take time off.  But I also need this time to brainstorm, to peruse new music, sightread through old music, and listen to funky Facebook posts to find inspiration for the coming year.  Yeah, I think I've hit gold with this Horsley idea.  All of my students are also working on music by Beethoven.  We are going to celebrate his 250th birthday in December.  Hence the Happy Birthday idea.  We've got Straussian oom-pa-pah accompaniment, some Chopinesque left hand as well.  I can't wait to introduce this percussive element!  It's going to be quite the concert.  

But Halloween comes first.  Gotta play through all my Halloween repertoire.  Such fun!  Boo!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Pandemic Practicing

Summertime, and the living is lonely.  But I have a whole lot of time to play the piano!  One of my students is working on Gershwin's Summertime.  No, it's not easy, but I too am learning it and loving it!

Yes, this is the year to enjoy lots of piano time.  No days spent at the pool, no trip to the Jersey Shore, no cruise through Alaska.  I am safer-at-home, and taking advantage of this time to expand my repertoire.  All of my students are working on something Beethoven, (2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth), so I too am learning a lot of Beethoven.  And Gershwin, and Chopin, and scales and chords. 

Yep, the boring stuff too.  I rediscovered a book I hadn't opened in years, Alfred's Group Piano for Adults, and I'm doing all the lessons, playing every sample.  I hope to incorporate some of the theory into my lessons, specifically chords and chord progressions.  As part of the Beethoven Birthday Bash that I will host for my students later in the year, I am hoping everyone will arrange their own variation on the Happy Birthday song, implementing melody and harmony.  It's a project I approach with some trepidation -- it's been years since I actually studied any of this stuff myself!  But I think we will all enjoy the challenge. 

As noted previously, I continue to teach virtually via Zoom.  It provides even more time for me at the piano.  I use the time between lessons to read through students' music, to sightread through lesson books, and to practice Summertime among others.  Yeah, pandemic practicing is lonely, but productive!  My students, as well, have ample time to practice this summer, and it shows!  I can't wait to get everyone together for our Beethoven Birthday Bash.  It's gonna be great!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Lessons in the Cloud

It has been an interesting ride.  Online piano lessons.  I scoffed at the very thought!  And here I am, having become somewhat competent after 3 full  months.  I have learned a lot in these past 13 weeks.  I believe my students have learned even more!

They have all accepted the challenge of distance-learning with grace.  They didn't have a choice, of course.  School went online, church went online, even sports practice went online.  Go figure!  So piano lessons too.  The first week covered placing the laptop or phone properly so I could see the keyboard; to the right and slightly behind, at about shoulder height seems to work best.  Then getting comfortable performing in front of a screen.

We moved on from there, week by week.  Since I can no longer point to problem areas in the the music, I have to verbally direct the students' eyes to the page, the line, the measure.  This helps the students to focus on the printed page.  They need to mark their own scores now; my red pencil sits idly on the music stand.  Zoom has been a godsend, but the syncing of audio and video still has delays.  I cannot clap along while the students play.  I can demonstrate, but they need to do the work to get the rhythm.  They need to count the beats as they play, and subdivide, on their own.

Four of my students had previously registered for the Sonatina Festival, to be held in late March.  Needless to say, the Festival was cancelled.  Not so the preparation, the practice, and the polish on the sonatinas!  I created a Facebook page for my studio so these 4 kids could perform for all my other students.  Those other students who also learned sonatinas but were not ready for the Festival had extra time to practice and had the opportunity to record and post to Facebook.  I was happy for them!

In April, I presented to all of my students, young and old alike, a mixed media assignment.  I asked them to find on YouTube whatever piece they were currently practicing, to listen to it away from the printed page, and to draw what they hear.  The results were quite imaginative.  An 8-year-old playing Fur Elise saw great swaths of colors, representing love and rejection, anger and despair.  A middle-schooler playing Spindler's Tarantella drew intricate spider webs.  On Chopin Prelude in A Major, another middle schooler described it as  "the chance meetings of a single moment, and the simple pleasures of life."  Reinecke's Sonatina evoked visions of flowers.

May brought with it hopes of a Spring Recital, but with stay-at-home still in place, we had to find other avenues to performance.  Again, Serini Music Studio on Facebook  provided the stage.  Other teachers have collected recordings of their students recital pieces, pieced them together over Zoom and into formal YouTube worthy events.  I did not choose that route, not having confidence in the sound quality of Zoom to convey my students' artistry and not having the wherewithal to post to YouTube.  Facebook works for me.  In any event, the students have the option of playing over and over, posting only their best performance.  They don't have the anxiety that playing for a live audience can generate.  They don't receive the gratification of applause either.  The good, the bad, none of the ugly.

I'm still working out the kinks in my Zoom sessions.  I am fortunate to own 2 pianos; I moved my studio space to the piano nearer the modem.  I've figured out how to use the white board during a lesson.  I have downloaded theory games that I can share.  It has been a whirlwind, and I wish it never had to be, but I've learned a lot, my kids (and adults) have learned a lot.  We didn't need to isolate, just get computer friendly.  We all thought it would be 2 weeks of inconvenience.  More like 13 weeks and counting!  Although locally restaurants and businesses are beginning to reopen, I think I will stay in cyber-mode for a few more weeks at least.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Zoom lessons, oh boy!

Yeah, Coronavirus has changed everything!  I swore I'd never teach online, how impersonal, how high-tech, how un-arty.  How wrong I was!

I've been teaching online going on 4 weeks now.  It's been an experience, to say the least.  The audio delays, the distortion, the internet freezes.  But every week, I'm there at the appointed hour, and my students appear on my screen, and we proceed as usual.  Scales, chords, music, it's all there.

Online lessons provide an added focus to lessons.  I can direct my students to measure 4, but they have to find measure 4.  I can direct them to look for the pattern in measures 4,6, and 10, but they have to find the pattern in measures 4, 6 and 10.  I think it gives music appreciation a whole new meaning!

For my younger students especially, online lessons provide a sense of empowerment, of ownership to their studies. Students need to write their own assignments in their books, they need to mark the trouble spots, add the accidentals, correct fingering markings.  Those details have always been part of my job description, but now I have to share that duty with my students.

Many of my students had been preparing for the Sonatina Festival at the end of March  Unfortunately, the festival was canceled due to the Coronavirus and the need for social distancing.  I invited those students who felt ready to record their sonatinas and other music and share via our Facebook page.  That has been a delight.  I have shared other Facebook posts that I've found along the way, including this one from Sharon Ann Hurst:

     I will teach you in a room.
     I will teach you now on Zoom.
     I will teach you in your house.
     I will teach you with a mouse.
     I will teach you here and there.
     I will teach you because I care.
     So just do your very best.
     And do not worry about the rest.

Funny, I began my college studies as a computer science major.  When I transferred to music, I thought I had left all the high-tech behind.  Never in my wildest dreams...

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Poker Face

(Don't know why this didn't post in March.  Wrote it March 1!.  So, a bit delayed, and the Sonatina Festival was canceled, but the rest of the post holds true.)

My kids are preparing for the Sonatina Festival at the end of the month.  They need to play, from memory, one movement of a sonatina, as well as one other contrasting piece, also from memory.  We've been working on this music since January, and most of my students are ready and eager to perform.

In addition to notes, rhythm, rests, dynamics, the how-to-play-the-music details of performance, I need to teach and reinforce the how-to-play-through-mistakes details of performance.  That is the hardest part!  I think it's human nature to want to fix our mistakes before moving on.  In music, we can't take the time to do that.  The music continues, and we have to keep up!

So how do we go about playing through mistakes, picking up and moving on?  Of course, knowing the music, inside and out, backward and forward, goes a long way in covering mistakes.  I suggest playing from memory, occasionally, but also consulting the printed page during practice sessions.  Visual reminders during practice will aid the recall during performance.

Slow practice is also helpful.  We often want to speed through the difficult passages, but that allows for holes in our learning, for sloppy execution of phrases, and for memory slips.  Yes, you need to play at tempo occasionally during practice, but it pays to slow it down, use a metronome, play every note, and of course, review those tricky sections over and over.

Another trick is not always starting at the beginning.  When practicing, jump around, play the last line first, play up the page instead of down the page.  I had a teacher once add practice numbers, and during the recital he would call out a number and I had to skip to that section.  Needless to say, I knew that piece very well.

On that rare occasion when you just don't remember the next note, skip it, jump to the next section.  No one else has the score, no one else knows the music like you do.  Fudge it, fake it 'til you make it, but don't let on.  Maintain your poker face.  Shrug it off on the inside, but don't actually shrug!  And whatever happens, take time to bow, to show your appreciation to your audience for hearing you out, and walk off the stage with dignity.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Snow Day?

Funny how the weather forecast shapes your day.  Slightest hint of snow and plans get cancelled right and left.  Just because schools close early does not necessarily mean the streets are icy.  A heavy snowfall in Emmittsburg does not always translate to snow in downtown Frederick.

Think about it.  School buses move lots of kids.  In Frederick County alone, there are upwards of 42,000 registered students in public schools, and close to 5800 public school employees.  The powers-that-be need to consider the safe transportation of all these folks when they make the call to close schools.  Sometimes they overreact, miscalculate.  In such instances, I'm still open for business.

I once had to call a "snow day" in September!  Hurricane Irene blew through, took down trees and power lines.  Yes, school were closed then too. 

So,no, I don't have a snow policy.   Since I teach at home, it's no problem for me to get to work!  My students might have a legitimate excuse, but not always.  Mostly, rain or snow, I remain open.