Category Archives: Thoughts & Reflections

The New Barenboim-Maene Piano

barenboim-pianoCharles Dickens called the piano America’s “household God”. But it’s been a long time since those heady days in the last part of the 19th century when piano sales grew faster than the rate of population growth.

One factor in the relative decline of the piano, in my view, is the fact that our beloved instrument is more or less the same (with the exception of the sostenuto pedal) as it was in the 1870s, when 88-note keyboards started to become the norm.

So I’m always excited to hear about new technological innovations. The Barenboim-Maene piano, developed with support from Steinway and Sons, has straight, parallel strings, instead of the cross-stringing prevalent on modern instruments. This is a traditional design that the world-famous conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim was inspired to revive after playing on a straight-stringed piano in Siena once owned by Liszt. Barenboim feels his new piano offers a range of colors and registers not available on cross-stringed instruments. He premiered the Barenboim-Maene piano at the Royal Festival Hall in London last month; he is playing a series of recitals there devoted to Schubert on the instrument.

Liszt was not the only composer-pianist to work on a straight-stringed piano. The article above mentions my respected colleague Gwendolyn Mok. You can visit her website to read a couple of interesting interviews in which she talks about (among other things) her recordings of Ravel played on a straight-stringed Erard, the same type of piano Ravel had at his home in Monfort l’Amaury.

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Mindfulness, Part II

Here are my own ‘Five Steps’ to piano mindfulness, adapted from those found on the Mindfulness in Schools Project website.

mindfulness1. Taming the animal mind

That’s what the Mindfulness people call this step, and they’re right. Most students’ brains (and sometimes even those of piano teachers…cough) are ranging all over the place, everywhere except where they need to be: on the sound. I assign calming exercises, focusing on the breath and on the feeling of being anchored and settled. Directed visualization helps, too.

2. Pay attention

This is the key. Many students aren’t really listening to themselves and when they try, they don’t know what to listen to. My task is to gently but persistently direct students’ attention to the task at hand, and to provide benchmarks to measure themselves against. These may include verbal directions or asking them to model on my singing or a recording. Or both! Even more useful is asking the students to give their own verbal directions to themselves or to sing the phrase without me, modeling the sound each wants to achieve.

3. Respond, rather than react

Reacting is what students are doing when they repeatedly stop and start, talk while they are playing, begin again and again or continue to make the same mistake even after correction. They hear something that bothers them, panic and act out. This doesn’t work. What we want them to do is: respond. Responding is thoughtful. The act of responding dispassionately recognizes and acknowledges a problem. It has nothing to do with playing on autopilot.

4. Make a plan—and work the plan

mindfulnessI ask students to assess what they heard during their “response” and to come up with an improvement plan. I asked Mary (from my last blog post) how many times she “stuttered” on the first page. She had no idea, which in itself is part of the problem, and had to play it once more to come up with an answer.

She agreed that her task would be to practice one phrase at a time, at a slow tempo, without stopping, no matter what happened. I asked her how many repetitions she though necessary for each phrase. Her answer was “seven”, which surprised me. I was going to suggest five.

The overall objective: at the end of the seven repetitions, the number of “stutters” should be reduced.

5. Assess and repeat

Proper assessment involves three parts:

  1. Did I follow my plan? If Mary didn’t play at a slow tempo, if she let herself stutter or if she didn’t repeat seven times, then she didn’t accomplish her tasks. The practice plan needs to be repeated until she reaches her objective.
  2. Did accomplishing my tasks improve my performance? If not, or not enough, the practice step needs to be repeated or adjusted.
  3. What’s the next step?

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Mindfulness, Part I

MindfulnessinSchools“I practice as long as it needs, every day,” my teenage student Mary 1 told me, with an air of purposeful self-satisfaction. I almost believed her, sort of, until her more skeptical (perhaps ‘realistic’ is the better word) Mom interrupted, “if only that were more than seven minutes per piece”.

Believe it or not, I am firmly convinced that Mary sincerely thinks she is doing a good job. Despite lengthy lessons, detailed practice plans and frequent preparation checks from me, all indicating that more work on her part is needed, she really believes that she is completing her assignment…in seven minutes.

What’s the problem? Lack of aural skills is a big part of it (I’m working on a future blog post on this). She doesn’t hear what her performance actually sounds like to an outside listener, only how she perceives it as it sounds to her, or as she wishes it sounded. This type of thinking is part of a bigger problem: an absence of mindfulness.

A good definition of mindfulness can be found on the Mindfulness in Schools Project website:

“Mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to our experience as it unfolds, moment by moment, with open-minded curiosity and acceptance. Rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen, it trains us to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.”

The benefits of mindfulness in adults have been well recognized by research. Recent studies have documented even more dramatic improvement in performance by school children who practice mindfulness. A Time magazine article earlier this year claimed startling improvement in behavior and test scores by Canadian fourth and fifth-grade students who participated in the MindUP program, which promotes thoughtful social and emotional learning. These include 15% higher math scores and 24% improved social behaviors.

The Mindfulness in Schools Project has several components, one of which is what they call “The Ten Lessons”. These explain the concept of mindfulness to young students, teach them to handle stress and worry, detail how to make mindful choices instead of simply reacting to each thought with a possibly negative behavior and cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I think each has a lot of worth.

I’ve adapted “The Ten Lessons” from the Mindfulness website to use with my own students. I’ll share my ideas with you in my next blog post.

Notes:

  1. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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Outreach Projects from Around the U.S.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), The Lorax (1971)

outreach

Thank-you, everyone, for all your stories of outreach. I love reading about everything teachers all over the U.S. are doing to make a better world for families. Together we are creating performance opportunities, reaching out to underserved populations and building communities. I’m grateful to each of you. You’re an inspiration!


The Mundi Project

The Mundi Project provides youth access to pianos and innovative performance opportunities that incorporate all the arts. They create these opportunities through their Piano BankPiano Ambassador, and the upcoming Harmony Hub.

Founded in 2006 by piano educator, Hana Janatova, NCTM, The Mundi Project has placed over 127 piano donations through the Piano Bank program. The Piano Bank Program places donated pianos in private homes to dedicated students that cannot afford them, as well as in public spaces all across Utah.

The Piano Ambassador Program enrolls youth pianists to perform in concerts and community outreach events. It uses the piano as the cornerstone instrument and incorporates other fine art disciplines in collaboration with local schools and arts organizations. Since 2007, the organization has presented 14 multi-disciplinary concerts, 16 education/ community outreach performances, a three-week intensive multi-disciplinary art workshop, 33 workshop series, and 3 piano monster concerts for Salt Lake School District students and the general public.

Salt Lake City’s first ever Harmony Hub is in the works and is scheduled to open this fall. The Hub will be a piano lab, music/arts exploration center, and community-based recording studio. The program will offer consistent after-school piano/music lessons on an annual basis for low-income students and the Utah residents.

Hana Janatova, NCTM, Utah

Paramount Chamber Players

I set up a non-profit ensemble, The Paramount Chamber Players, in my hometown of Bristol, TN and come back from my home in London, England to perform there three times a year. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary!

We’ve established three chamber music series with a fourth in development in the small communities of the Tri-Cities area of Northeast Tennessee. I discovered that people would not drive 30 minutes between the cities to attend a concert. So, we decided to take the concert to them!

We’ve grown from an audience of about 30 to a combined audience of 400+ and have developed a dedicated donor base of 100 individuals and a few select businesses in the area. We have commissioned several new works from composers who live in the area.

It’s been wonderful to serve these communities and on a personal note I’ve learned 175+ major works in the last 12 years and performed them – a second doctorate of sorts!

Hutchinson Area Piano Teachers Association (KS)

We, the two members of Hutchinson Area Piano Teachers’ Association have wanted to share our success story for a long time! As outrageous as this may sound we feel we are on a path to be the poster child of independent piano teaching in a community of 50,000 or less and we have the pictures to prove it.

If you truly want to see what happens when you follow the mission statement of the Kansas Music Teachers Association plus a mountain of articles from the MTNA magazine, you get us. Please go to www.hutchinsonpianoteachers.com and look for yourself. The plethora of pictures are not always flattering, some a little fuzzy but they all tell the story. Scroll through to see what happens when an organization partners with the Downtown Development Center for “Third Thursday Performing Opportunities”.

We partner with the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center, Dillon Nature Center, Hutchinson Art Center, Pianos Unlimited and the Hutchinson Parks Dept. We can bring as many as 65 students to any given event and they come with an entourage of supporters.  Win Win! We are partners with the local American Guild of Organists for a “Pipe Organ Encounter” and sponsor the Anderson Concerto Auditions for both pianists and instrumentalists, for which we received two grants and a gift of a Yamaha piano.

Wow, thanks A LOT!

Judy Blauer, HAPTA President

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Technology: MTNA Into the Future

This is the final post in a four-part series on how technology is changing music education. Find the previous posts below, or subscribe to new posts by email!
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future

“Millennials” is the accepted name for the group of young Americans born between 1980 and the mid-2000s. It’s the largest generation in the U.S. today, representing one-third of the total population in 2013. They are diverse and educated, family-oriented and eager to contribute to their community. 1 They grew up with and are comfortable using technology. All of this makes them ideal MTNA members.

But there are some problems, too. Many of them pay for their higher education through loans. Outstanding student loan debt was a staggering $1 trillion in 2014, making it the second largest category of household debt in the U.S.

Millennials have faced tough challenges entering the workforce during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Unemployment for this demographic group was over 13% in 2010. While this figure has gradually improved since then, mirroring the growth in the U.S. economy, Millennials still face significant pressure on long-term earnings. One study showed that workers who begin their career during a recession earn 2.5%-9% less per year for at least 15 years.

So our younger colleagues are not being selfish when they ask: what’s in it for me? What does MTNA have to offer that will make my life—and my family’s life and my community’s—better?

I’m encouraged by some of the ideas on technology I see coming out of MTNA. I like the idea of the “Members Only” section. The legal documents and member discounts already there (among other things) are great; I understand there are plans for webinars on all sorts of practical strategies to help MTNA members, of any generation, build skills and increase their income.

This initiative needs to build and expand. We need to make music lessons available to all the children in the U.S. Technology will help us do so. Mike Bates told me “anything that doesn’t allow students to experience music is a mistake”. I’d go even further. Anything that expands opportunities for music study should be a part of the MTNA mission.

This is the final post in a four-part series on how technology is changing music education. Find the previous posts below, or subscribe to new posts by email!
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future

Notes:

  1. My statistics are drawn from a 2014 report by the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, http://templatelab.com/millennials-report/

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“Money Talks” — The MTNA Foundation

MTNA Foundation“Money talks,” as my grandmother used to say. How we as an organization of music teachers spend our money tells us what our priorities are and what programs we find worthy of support. There are so many legitimate needs, so many great ideas—and never enough money to fully sustain all of them.

Donations to the MTNA Foundation go a long way to filling the void. Many of us have devoted our lives to our great mission of music teaching, depending on the programs and services that MTNA offers. Giving back through a donation to the MTNA Foundation makes many of these programs possible.

It is with great pleasure that I formally congratulate you on your designation as an MTNA Foundation Fellow. This honor is bestowed upon outstanding individuals who have made a significant difference in the music world.

Scott, you are very loved and respected by your colleagues and friends. This is evident from the generous donations we have received on your behalf. Your contributions to the music profession have inspired and will continue to inspire teachers and students everywhere.

Gary L. Ingle, MTNA Executive Director & CEO

So it was a source of great pride to me when the president of the California Association of Professional Music Teachers, Jennifer Snow, contacted me and let me know that CAPMT was nominating me as an MTNA Fellow.

MTNA Fellows are nominated by colleagues and friends who wish to honor a teacher, colleague and friend with a donation to the MTNA Foundation.

“Your contributions to California as a leading teacher and pedagogy specialist combined with your many years of service to CAPMT, MTNA, and the broader teaching profession make you an obvious choice for all of us,” Jennifer wrote.

The MTNA Foundation chair for California, Sharon Townsend said, “Scott and I have worked together on many projects, from summer music programs to major conferences. He is a dynamic leader, and a wonderful colleague and friend. We are delighted to honor him as a 2015 MTNA Fellow.”

Thank-you, Jennifer and Sharon, for your generous words. I hope CAPMT teachers’ substantial gift will inspire others to donate to the MTNA Foundation.

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MTNA Competitions & The Big Umbrella Theory

Kiowa Results
Ensemble Kiowa in Fargo, ND

I thought (feared might be a better word) that this might be my final blog about MTNA Competitions, at least for now. But there will be a few more miles for me to travel, in every sense, since the University of Kansas string chamber group of which I am co-coach, Ensemble Kiowa, received First Place in the West Central Division Competition in Fargo, ND and will go on to compete in the National Finals in Las Vegas on March 21.

Below you will find a short video of the students in the group when they heard the announcement that they won. The cinematography (by me) leaves a lot to be desired, but I want you to see how excited they are and how much the MTNA Competitions means to them.

I sometimes hear criticism that our MTNA Competitions take too much from our organization: too many resources and too much volunteer time. Of course there is always a reason to offer legitimate criticism and practical solutions. But not sponsoring MTNA competitions is, to me, a “no go”.

It goes back to my “big umbrella” theory of MTNA. Just as MTNA should sponsor programs in popular music and improvisation, we should also offer events for the highest level of traditional music making. The MTNA Competitions are unique in the world in their range and scope, involving students from all 50 states. I’m very proud that my students and I can be part of them.

Problems? Or course there are a few. As I remind pupils, we are on earth, not in heaven, so perfection is not to be expected. The expense for students performing can be considerable. I estimate that taking Ensemble Kiowa to Fargo cost in total about $1800—and this is just one round of the competition. The cost is definitely a bar to participation for some.

But I can testify about the benefits from my own experience. Another KU chamber group that I coached, the Wakarusa Trio, was the MTNA Chamber Music–Strings winner in 2013. The group has now disbanded as individual members pursue their own dreams.

But before they moved on, they won the Coleman-Barstow Prize for Strings as the Best String Group at the 2014 Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition, the world’s oldest chamber music competition. This, and their win at MTNA, led to a wealth of personal and group opportunities that we could never have imagined.

More important, though, is the personal growth that each member (including me) earned by setting a goal, working hard to achieve it and coping with all the problems and disappointments along the way. And, finally, the real confidence that emerges when success is achieved. All of this, to me, is the real reason we have MTNA Competitions.

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Notes from Taiwan

Taiwan-mapShould pre-college piano students play “big” pieces?

Taiwan was the first Asian country I visited, about 25 years ago. It’s changed a lot. Based on what I can see, the daily life of the people is in many ways better.

Some senior piano teachers of my acquaintance there complain. They say there aren’t as many students as before (demographic statistics support this, Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world) and the students that do study are practicing less, for a variety of reasons just like those in the States: too much homework, too many distractions and, well, I have to say it, I heard the word…laziness.

So it was a pleasant surprise to work with some very talented and hard-working students during my time there, in all cases, no matter what their age, playing advanced-level works.

Is this wise? I remember asking the distinguished American pianist Abbey Simon (still performing today at the age of 92) this very question, about a 14-year-old girl with big hands who wanted to learn the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.1. “It won’t be good now,” he said. “But when she’s 34 she will have played it for 20 years.”

Good point. But does learning “big” pieces too young cause student burnout? Does it increase the likelihood of hand and arm problems later? Is it, simply, too much too soon?

What do you think?

P.S. I had a great time teaching in Taiwan. Thanks to my former students Daniel Chia-Te Liu and Wan-Ju Ho for arranging things for me. Based on what I heard, the art of piano playing in Taiwan is healthy and going strong.

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MTNA Competitions

Our MTNA-sponsored competitions are one of the crown jewels of the Music Teachers National Association. Their long history of excellence, starting at the state level and concluding in gala events at the National Conference, is unique in the world. I’m proud to have my students be part of the excitement.

Is music a competitive art? The answer is complicated. In my opinion, the overall answer is, no, it’s expressive. Despite that, I enter students in MTNA competitions every year. I believe that having a goal focuses attention and motivates improvement. Most important, competing in MTNA events gives these wonderful young people a chance to earn recognition for their talent and hard work. They deserve it.

Ensemble KiowaWe’re off again today! My chamber group Ensemble Kiowa (Chamber Music–Strings) and I are on our way to Fargo, ND. Ensemble Kiowa is the Kansas state winner and will be competing in the West Central Division competitions against the other state champs from our region. We’ve been working hard and our hopes are high.

Wish us luck!


 

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