Premiere Performance

Each year our state association commissions a composer to write a piece of music. This year’s composition, Impressions, is a piece for Quartet – piano, violin, viola and cello – by Miriam Overholt.

When asked by our Commission Composer Chairperson what he could share with us about her, she responded: “A Mom can write music.”


Miriam Overholt introduced the performers and shared a little about the work:
The form is A-B-C-A. It is Intro by cello, joined by piano, straightforward and simple melody
B Section – move into the impressionistic feeling with richer harmonies.
C Section – major key, faster tempo, repetitive rhythmic motif.
Return to the A section, larger, louder and played by the piano, with a cadenza and then the ending.

The performance of this gorgeous piece will be followed by a brief time for questions and answers from the audience. If you ever get a chance to hear this work, I highly recommend it!

Musical ESP: Expressively Synthesized Performance

Dr. Carolyn E. True is currently giving this session. She is our guest artist/clinician for the weekend and her performance last night was delightful. Her sessions today promise to be equally so:


Dr. True began with a performance of China Gates by John Adams and encouraged us to think back to a day when we just played the piano without an agenda, when we were just carefree and stopped to touch the piano keys every time we walked past the piano.

The Five Musical Senses
I. Do You See What I See?
Using Inner and Outer Visual Cues to Ignite Musical Imagination
A. The Outer Visual: The Score
1. Specific Expressive Markings
2. Non-Specific Expressive Markings
Dr. True relates a story of giving a geometric drawing to a group of students, along with three colored writing implements and gave them ten minutes to color the design. She was able to determine that the way they approached the task was similar to the way they approached the musical score. Some started at the center of the design and worked systematically toward the edge with all three colors, others started with one color and randomly colored various segments of the design.

She goes on to discuss how different articulations are articulated and how she uses word games and other resources to help students learn to create the mood of the piece. She shared several ideas and then asked for suggestions of things other teachers do to help students in this area.

B. The Outer Visual: Manipulations of the Score
1. Non-Additive Techniques
2. Additive Techniques
One of the attendees shared that with Etudes, which are primarily numbered, she has students come up with a title for it after working on it for a week or so. Another has students identify a color that the piece sounds like. Another has students come up with a story to go along with the piece.

C. The Inner Visual: Connections between Art and Music
Ask, “What inspired this composition?”
Find photographs that relate to musical pieces.

Dr. True shares a story of how she took them to a gallery and sat them in front of pieces of artwork and tell her what they heard. This helped them develop better interpretive skills in their playing.

Color – what does it mean? Some students see specific notes in certain colors. Other times it is helpful to just ask, “What does the color green sound like?” or “What would it be like if I played this in orange?”

She references the Sabuda Pop-Up Books as an excellent resource for teachers.

II. What Big Ears You Have
It’s helpful to get students off the bench and have them walk and feel the pulse of their music. Students need to experience rhythm at a young age. Use a lot of call-and-response activities with students. There is a difference between playing a song and singing a song. Explore the songs of the composers to help understand how to phrase music.

Can the students go through the music and play all of their cadences? Do they really understand forward motion (not just as if they’re running out of breath and trying to get to the next breath)? Do students really listen to the music and the intervals in the music?

Embracing the style – improvising and playing by ear. Dr. True has all of her students learn to play Happy Birthday in the style of various composers.

There is a balance between playing by ear and using the score. We all have students that play well by ear and struggle with music reading. And then we have students who are stuck to the score and won’t play by ear. Let the students help each other and build on their strengths.

Dr. True has her students do word play with Hanon exercises. She proceeded to demonstrate by having observers call out adjectives and then she played the exercise incorporating that feeling into the music. She used the same technique with a student playing a Bach French Suite, but gave her names of different students in the studio. One of her favorite techniques is to light candles and turn off all the lights and then have the students play something. This helps remove the fear of hitting wrong notes and lets the student connect with the music itself.

Dr. True encourages singing, lots of singing, singing all the time with students in their lessons. She highly recommends the series, Great Conversations in Music.

Bottom line: We are trying to foster the creativity of our students. We have the tools we need. We are privileged to help access the emotions of our students and give them their own space and haven for music-making. Embrace Drama! Have students write out an opera to their first Mozart Sonata. Have them move to the music. We, as music teachers, are the ones who are helping decide what is going to stand the test of time.

Dr. True concludes by sharing her list of artist rules (adopted from Julia Cameron):
1. Creativity flourishes in a place of safety and acceptance.
2. Creativity grows among friends and withers among enemies.
3. All creative ideas are children who deserve our protection.
4. All creative success requires creative failure.
5. Fulfilling our creativity is a sacred trust.
6. Violating someone’s creativity destroys sacred trust.
7. Creative feedback must support the creative child, not shame it.
8. Creative feedback must build on strengths, not focus on weakness.
9. Success occurs in clusters and is borne in generosity.
10. The good of another can never block our own.

Improvising is Easy!

Well, I didn’t plan to live blog at all from the conference, but since I have free wi-fi here and I”m sitting in an interesting workshop, I figured, why not? 🙂


Nancy Blockcolsky, our KMTA President-Elect, is giving this workshop – Improvising is Easy! – and is giving us a systematic approach to teaching improvisation to students. Trilla demonstrates at the piano as Nancy instructs.

Prerequisites for this type of improvising:
1. A melody
2. Some knowledge of chords
3. A basic knowledge of scales

She started with Mary Had A Little Lamb and had Trilla play the melody as written while adding blocked chords in the left hand. Then she had her improvise an alternate accompaniment pattern.

Melodic Improvisation
1. Change the intervals. As you experiment with changing the melody, keep in mind what makes a good melody. A good melody is singable and memorable. What makes a melody singable?
* Use of step-wise motion.
* Movement by skips involves the use of chord tones or notes adjacent to chord tones.
* The melody has line and direction (meaning).

A singable melody also often uses motives. A singable melody will be slightly predictable as well.
A memorable melody will have the same properties as a singable melody, but it will also involve some repetition, possibly through the use of parallel phrases.

2. Change the Rhythm

Harmonic Improvisation – simply changing the chords that are using. This takes a little bit of forethought (unless you’re really experienced). Look at the note or notes you want to put the chords with. For example, in the first measure, the first note of the melody is E. E can function as the root of a chord, the third, the fifth, the seventh, etc. Chords that use E – Diatonic to C Major:
* C Major
* E minor
* A minor
* F Major7
* D minor9

Chromatic (borrowed) chords that use E:
* C# minor
* A Major
* E Major
* F#7
* F# minor7
* C7

Nancy put some alternate harmonization to Mary Had A Little Lamb to demonstrate some of the possibilities (some more musical than others!). Very interesting!

Nancy gave some suggestions for those who want to go farther:
1. Learn more chords, scales, etc.
2. Listen to different types of music.

This Week in Photos

I’m thinking of starting a new weekly post idea…throughout the week I’ll take pictures of various activities and lessons in my studio and then on Friday I’ll put up a post with a couple of favorite pictures. What do you think?

Since I’m leaving tonight for our annual state music teachers conference, I’ll post this week’s pictures today:
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Naomi has been working on learning the different kinds of 7th chords (half diminished, fully diminished, minor, major, and dominant) and is still a little fuzzy on some of them. We thought that doing a fun chord-building activity with scale blocks might be fun!

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I just called out the name of the chord and then she had to build it. Easy, but fun.

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For one of his Mastery Challenges this week, Graham chose to work on identifying the treble clef ledger line notes. I started by having him line up all the ledger line flashcards in order on the music rack.

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After he got them all lined up, we played a game where I used my conductor’s baton to point to one of the cards and then he had to play it. After we did several practice run-throughs, I timed him to see if he could get it in under 1 minute. He blasted through them and pulled it off in 52 seconds! He was a bit slower when I put them all back in a stack and had him run through them without being able to associate them with their placement in the line-up, but he’s much better than he was when he walked into his lesson!

New Music Blog Joins the Blogosphere

New music-related blogs are joining the blogosphere all the time and it’s thrilling to see what was once just a tiny network now expanding to offer all sorts of resources for music teachers. The latest one I’ve come across is the Michigan State University Piano Pedagogy Blog. Teacher Derek Polischuk offers short video clips and written commentary from the teaching sessions in his piano pedagogy class. I can already tell that this is going to be a fabulous resource and you will definitely want to stop by and subscribe to the blog feed!

HT: The Collaborative Piano Blog

September Surprise!

Several years ago I started the tradition of holding a September Surprise! event as the kick-off for the new school year. I hold it sometime the week of Labor Day and then officially resume lessons the following week. The point is for students to practice and prepare a piece and then surprise me with it. They are allowed to review and polish something from the previous year, learn something new, work up a duet or ensemble…basically anything they want. It’s always fun to see what they come up with!

The event also serves as a great time for me to announce the theme for the upcoming year, explain the details and hand out the assignment books. This year’s theme is “Mastering the Mystery of Music.” Each of the students has been enlisted as a Private Eye and is working to collect clues, crack codes, uncover mystery words and solve the mystery of music by the end of the year. It should be exciting!

I failed to snap as many pictures as I would have liked from our kick-off, but here is one from our introductory game – The Description Game:

Here are the instructions for the game:
1. Give each student a slip of paper and have them write down one sentence to describe themselves.
2. Split the students into equal groups and give each group a sheet of paper.
3. Have them number it on the left hand side according to the number of descriptions that will be read.
4. Read through all the descriptions and have the groups work together to identify which student fits each description. At the end, the team with the most correct matches, wins!

This was a fun get-to-know-you game and I was impressed at how well the students did. One group got all of them right and the other two groups only missed a couple. It was a good way to start putting our detective skills to work… 🙂

How to Plan a Group Class

I’ve been holding group classes in my studio for years and have tried tons of different ideas. Some have worked really well. Others have bombed. 🙂 The group classes I offer are in addition to the regular weekly lessons and students can opt to participate or not. I might have anywhere from 5-25 students taking part in any given group class, so I’m never quite sure what to expect when I’m planning! Here is a basic overview of how I go about planning each class:

1. Select a Topic
– Typically this will have something to do with our theme for the year or with a specific area in which I think my students need some extra instruction or reinforcement. For example, right now I’m working on a group class for “The Symphony Orchestra.”

2. Vigorous Self-Education
– This is a term I came across in one of the self-publishing books I read this summer, but the principle is one I’ve been applying for a long time. I start by researching the topic as extensively as I can – checking out books from the library, looking up sites on-line, perusing lesson plans and activity ideas from other teachers, etc. I love learning new things and have found this to be a great way to increase my knowledge and understanding of different areas and then pass it on to my students in a fun and creative way!

3. Brainstorm – I grab my trusty spiral notebook and just start writing down every idea that comes to mind. My notes are extremely random and would probably be incoherent to anyone else who attempted to read them, but eventually my thought process becomes more organized and I’m able to pull together some workable plans.

4. List Class Objectives – Some of the objectives are general (e.g. learn about the instruments of the orchestra); others are more specific in nature (e.g. be able to identify each instrument by sight and assign it to the correct family). I always start with “Have Fun!” because I don’t want to lose sight of that emphasis as I get into all the other planning. Every class also includes time for student performances since one of my primary goals is to give students a chance to play their pieces for and listen to each other.

5. Create an Outline – Break down the time frame into smaller time segments and determine what activities will take place during each time segment. I usually begin with an ice-breaker/intro game of some sort to introduce the topic and/or help the students feel at-ease. It’s also good to avoid large chunks of time devoted to a single activity. I usually separate the performances into two or three different time segments with an activity or game in between each one. Here is the outline I worked up for the upcoming Symphony Orchestra group class:

6:00-6:05 Welcome
6:05-6:15 Introduction to Instruments and their Families
6:15-6:25 Case of the Missing Instruments #1
6:25-6:35 Performances #1
6:35-6:45 Case of the Missing Instruments #2
6:45-6:55 Performances #2
6:55-7:05 Case of the Missing Instruments #3
7:05-7:15 Performances #3
7:15-7:25 Case of the Missing Instruments #4
7:25-7:30 Identify false clue and figure out mystery word, eat snack, hand out worksheets


6. Make Lists
– I keep several running lists so that I can hopefully avoid overlooking any important details. “Things To-Do”, “Things To Take”, “Resources Used”, etc. All of these are bullet point lists that are a part of the whole lesson plan document so that everything is easy to find!

7. Communicate
– Talk about the class a lot leading up to the event, discuss with each student what they want to perform, send e-mail reminders to the parents, post a sign-up sheet in the studio and have students sign up if they plan to attend. Early on I made the mistake of assuming that because the event was listed on my studio calendar, that was sufficient. But now I use lots of different means of communication to hype up the events and encourage students and parents to attend.

Regardless of how many students do or don’t attend, refuse to be discouraged and instead put all your energy into making it a great time for those who are there. They will love it and you’ll have students looking forward to the next group class all year long!