Piano Safari: The Journey Begins…

I remember sitting at a restaurant in Austin, TX with a group of fellow MTNA conference attendees in 2006. Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher were among the group, and I sat with rapt attention as they flipped through pages of hand-drawn illustrations and notes while explaining the concept behind the new piano method they were creating. Little did I know that my own journey over the next six years would so perfectly prepare me for the official launch of Piano Safari!

I nearly leaped for joy when I read these two sentences in the Teacher’s Guide for Piano Safari: “In my use of various piano method series, I have come to believe that the main goal of most piano method series is not necessarily to teach children to play the piano. Instead, the goal of many method books is to teach children to read music notation at the piano.”

Ever since my epiphany at the conclusion of the Pattern Play Intensive and my subsequent experience at the Creative Life conference, I’ve been striving to teach in a way that reflects my desire to move away from a strictly literature-based approach to teaching, and adopt more of an experiential playing-based model of learning. In a sense, for the first 15 years of my teaching, I taught as though learning was the path to playing. But after experiencing a paradigm shift, I would now posit that the reverse is true: playing is the path to learning.

Piano Safari is the only method I know of that is based on this experiential and playing-based philosophy. Instead of reading music notation being the core, students are taught to develop beautiful technique, a sense of musicality, freedom to explore, discover, and create, an internal rhythmic pulse, and proficient sight-reading through a rich musical selection of rote pieces, improvisation experiences, guided compositions, and excellently sequenced reading skills.

The books are beautifully designed, with creative piece titles, memorable lyrics, and engaging music that is fun to play. I love that my students are learning eighth note rhythms right off the bat and getting to play music that sounds really cool. Learning by rote gives them freedom to focus on technique and explore lots of creative variations. They also learn to memorize quickly, and by the time they get to the end of the book, they have dozens of songs they can play by memory.

Piano Safari has revolutionized the way I teach and given me a framework to work within to provide a comprehensive and musically rich learning experience for beginning piano students. I am so grateful to Julie and Katie for creating this amazing method and providing myriad articles, videos, and other resources to help teachers successfully guide students onto a lifelong path as musicians. My students and I are loving the journey!

A Piano Teacher’s First Lesson Plan

Even though I’ve switched over to primarily using Piano Safari as my beginning method for new piano students, it’s still really helpful to gather other ideas and perspectives for introducing new students to piano lessons. The Fabers have put together a step-by-step First Lesson Plan for their My First Piano Adventures series. I really appreciate their emphasis on making piano lessons a multi-sensory, interactive, and enriching musical experience. It reminds me of this quote I recently came across from the renowned educator, Zoltan Kodaly:

“Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime.”

What an incredible thought to keep in mind as we introduce young children to the exciting world of music!

How Students Can Get the Most Out of Piano Lessons

The last e-newsletter from The Musician’s Way directing me back to this wonderful post by Gerald Klickstein on “Making the Most of Music Lessons.” Gerald asks, “What’s the central issue in lessons?” He then goes on to state, “Learning. What, then, is the primary role of students? To be adept learners. (Teachers facilitate learning.) So let’s look at what it means to be good at learning.”

Many of you know that I take off the month of August to travel and spend time planning and brainstorming our practice incentive theme for the next year. This article is very helpful as I consider my role as a teacher and how I can effectively equip my students to be good learners. I am starting a lot of new students this year, so I am excited about the prospect of training them to learn well and progress into excellent young pianists!

Are You a Diametrically Opposed Teacher?

A couple nights ago I presented my workshop, Creativity on the Cutting Edge, to a music teachers association. In so doing, I was reminded of this wonderful statement about the teaching method of Theodor Leschetizky in an article about him in the September/October 2012 issue of American Music Teacher:

“The great quality of Leschetizky was his vitality…there is no Leschetizky method. It is a mere legend – an absolute fallacy. He never spoke, at least I never heard him to speak, of technique. Several of his assistants and some of his pupils have published books on his method which are all diametrically opposed. Don’t be misled by them. There was no method. His teaching was much more than a method. It was a current which sought to release all latent vitality in the student. It was addressed to imagination, taste, and personal responsibility.”

~Artur Schnabel, as cited in Defining the Undefinable: The Leschetizky Method In Vienna and Chicago by Christina L. Reitz

It’s so easy to feel pressure to adopt a system or a method that can be used with every student, but the reality is that every student is different, has different interests, different aptitudes, different ways of learning. What a tremendous privilege we have as independent music teachers to customize our approach to help each student realize their potential and achieve success. As overwhelming as it can seem, it’s also exciting to consider each student as an individual and tailor our teaching approach to their needs – identifying and working through their struggles, and capitalizing on their strengths!

Off to the Slopes!

It will be another quiet week here on Music Matters Blog because the studio is closed while I’m in Colorado enjoying the snowy slopes! In the meantime you might be interested in checking out a series of posts I wrote last year on Teaching Tips from Snowboard School:


Part 1 – Be a Pro

Part 2 – Give Students a Vision of Success

Part 3 – Plan a Systematic Approach

Part 4 – Build Confidence By Teaching Mastery of Fundamental Skills

Part 5 – Provide Ample Time for Individual Practice

A Picture and a Video and a Quote (or Two)

After our fabulous weekend in Kansas City, my students and I thoroughly enjoyed our first experience participating in the Multi-Piano Concert! We got back late Sunday evening, so I’ve been scrambling to get everything done this week and thus the blog has been a bit quiet. However, I thought I would share with you a picture from the weekend and a couple of quotes I came across in a TED video I watched last night.

Aren’t they a great-looking bunch of students?!

One of the organizations that I follow is Character First.They send out a monthly e-newsletter that always has great articles and insights into how to address character in your own life and in your work with others. One of their leaders, Dr. Nathan Mellor, recently spoke at TEDxOU in a presentation called, Listen Up, Corporate America: Less Rules, More Character.

One of my aims as a piano teacher is to provide an environment where good character is promoted and praised. I’ve mentioned this before, particularly in the post, “Teaching Students to Play Beautifully,” but it’s a constant challenge to determine the best way to teach students with this in mind. Videos like the following one provide lots of thought-provoking insights and illustrations:

Here are a couple of the quotes that I really like:

“Your job should not define you, but the way you do your job reveals who you are.”

“Actions reveal beliefs. If you desire to change actions, you must challenge beliefs.”

In particular, a realization of the first quote was the impetus behind the character evaluation that students are required to complete at the beginning of each lesson as part of our Project 28 studio practice incentive theme this year. This has been a very helpful tool, but I still want to do a better job of encouraging students to view their piano practicing and lessons as an opportunity to develop good character that will transfer into every area of their lives!

Learning from Great Teachers of the Past

Reading about the great pedagogues of years gone by is one of my favorite aspects of the music education magazines I receive. In the February/March 2013 issue of the American Music Teacher magazine, there is an interesting article by Arjola Miruku about Tobias Matthay. Here are just a few of the insights that inspired me about his teaching:

“His teaching approach can be described as one of analysis with the idea that playing the piano does not have to be a struggle.”

“According to Matthay, good teaching makes students think, not just imitate the musical interpretation of the instructor.”

“Many accounts by his students have agreed to state that he never let the student work it out on his own in practice. He was an immediate problem solver, and with endless patience, made sure the student could demonstrate a passage the correct way in the lesson and show an understanding of the problem, so that he could then correctly practice.”

“Good teaching will help all students attain musical goals that they thought they never could reach.”

Free Music, Film, and Audio Engineering Courses On-line

Thanks to Music Matters Blog reader Victoria Shaw for alerting me to this collection of free on-line courses from Coursera on the topics of music, film, and audio engineering! In addition to music and education, I am also fascinated by the world of film and drama and writing. There are so many parallels in the arts, and insights gained from one discipline can often be relevant in other disciplines as well. Earlier this year I listened to a series of podcasts by Act One on Storytelling in the 21st Century. It was incredibly thought-provoking on many counts, and I love pondering how we in the arts community can have a greater impact on our society.

The more we can learn and develop creative approaches in our studios, the better equipped our students will be to make a lasting difference in our culture. In addition to acquiring musical skills, it’s also critically important for them to understand the underlying philosophies that drive the arts, and establish a right and true philosophy that will govern their own musical pursuits. This was largely the goal behind the Pursuit of Music camp that I held for some of my high school students this summer, and it’s something that I am always looking for opportunities to incorporate more into weekly lessons and group classes with students as well. It’s always great to find out about quality resources that can be used to supplement and enhance a well-rounded music education!

Monday Mailbag – What’s the Point of Teaching Pieces by Rote?

You suggest teaching by rote, and your website lists “24 Piano Pieces Perfect for Rote Teaching”.   I certainly appreciate that you took the time to develop this list.  But I don’t get it.  Why teach by rote?  How does learning a piece by rote develop skills necessary to aid in learning the next piece of music?  Where is the spill-over” impact of learning by rote?  Why are some music teachers so concerned with “The  product” that they have to “teach” by rote?  Why not focus on the process; since a good process will lead to a good product!  Please enlighten me…

This is a great question, and not that many years ago I had similar feelings about teaching by rote. This was due in part to the experiences I’ve had working with numerous transfer students who can play intermediate level pieces, but lack basic music reading skills. So, to borrow the cliche, I threw the baby out with the bath water. I didn’t want to be one of those teachers who just showed a student what to play so that they could sound like an amazing pianist on the surface with no foundation supporting them.

Thankfully, I have had numerous opportunities and influences that have enlightened me in this matter, so now I will do my best to pass on that enlightenment to all who may be struggling with similar misgivings.

Define “the product” – In my studio, the final product/goal we are aiming for is clearly stated in my studio policy. It’s “that each student will become a skilled musician who will use his/her talents and abilities to serve the Lord. It is important that each student receive a balanced music education that will prepare them for whatever their future in music may be. Every aspect of music works together and contributes to the overall ability of any musician. For this reason I include performance, ear training, technique, theory, composition, improvisation, and sight-reading in the music education of each student.”

The realization that hit me this summer as I participated in the Pattern Play Improvisation Teaching Intensive is that the core of my teaching model was reading and learning repertoire, and other areas of musicianship were included if we had time. This led to a complete revamp of how I organize my teaching and what is assigned every week. (And thus Project 28 was born!) If your ultimate end product is for students to be strong sight-readers, then by all means don’t teach them anything by rote; but if in addition to sight-reading you want them to develop a strong ear, cultivate creativity, build excellent keyboard facility, and have fun playing familiar or cool-sounding tunes that are beyond their reading level, then definitely consider including rote teaching (and also playing by ear and composing and improvising!).

Define “the process” – Chances are if you have more than one student, you have more than one process for learning in your studio. :-) Even if your ultimate goal is to develop strong sightreaders, there are probably a hundred different ways you could help them develop that skill. For example, I’m going to assume that many teachers introduce pentascales or full-octave scales by rote. You probably explain the concept to the student and then show them the keys, point out the correct fingering, encourage them to phrase the scales musically, etc. Same with primary triads, chord progressions, and other theory concepts. Then when a student is working on a piece you can point out the use of a particular chord or scale and help them tap into the experience they have already had playing it to generate a more fluent and musical rendering of it.

In the same way, teaching a piece by rote (or learning a song by ear, or improvising on a particular chord progression, etc.) can be every bit as much part of the process of becoming an excellent musician as reading printed notes off of a page. In fact, I can say without reserve from my own musical experience that I wasn’t nearly as good a musician when all I could do was read music (and I’m a strong sightreader!) as since I’ve learned to play by ear, rote, and improvise freely at the piano.

Define “the next piece” – Perhaps tomorrow a student will be asked to play a Christmas song (with no printed music on hand) at a friend’s party; or maybe they will be recruited as the keyboard player for a church service; or they’ll find out it’s the last day to sign up for the school talent show; or a friend will request a song for her wedding, but all she has is a recording of it; and so on. I think sometimes we teachers get so sequestered in our own little studio worlds that we forget the real world of possibilities our students are facing. Having a broad range of skills is essential if we want our students to succeed and impact the culture around them. They should be able to pick out a tune by ear and add a musical accompaniment to it. They should be able to play chords from a lead sheet. They should be able to listen to or watch a piece of music being played and figure out how to replicate it. And yes, they should be able to sightread a piece of printed music with good accuracy and musicality.

Obviously this is a tall order for us teachers to fill! There are so many things we can teach our students to equip them to be successful pianists. And we’re never going to be able to do it perfectly with any student. But what a privilege it is to work with each of them as individuals, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and incorporating the best teaching approaches to help them reach their potential.

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Monday Mailbag – What Curriculum Do You Use?

Do you have any set “curriculum” you follow as far as what you expect students to learn/cover over the course of a year? I know there is the Carnegie Hall Achievement Program that provides “expectations” for each year of study. Is your incentives program for setting goals for students each year?

Yikes! These are the kinds of questions that I’m also afraid to answer because it will expose how scattered my teaching really is. But I decided to be brave and just put it out there in hopes that I’m not the only one and that maybe some teachers who have it all together will offer words of wisdom for the rest of us. :-)

There are a number of states that have a syllabus or curriculum or achievement tests of some sort (along with the nationally-oriented Carnegie Hall program) that are a wonderful resource for teachers! Our state curriculum, Music Progressions, has been invaluable in helping me develop more of a systematic understanding of and approach to teaching theory concepts, in particular. It also provides a framework to determine where a student’s sight-reading, rhythm, ear-training, and keyboard facility skills should be at as they work through each of the ten levels.

I would highly recommend picking up and studying some of these program curricula and even enrolling some students who are interested in studying and preparing for those achievement-oriented exams. However,  I do not make this a requirement for my whole studio, and actually prefer not having very many students participate each year. Perhaps it’s because of my own non-traditional educational background, but I think that using programs like this across the board can stifle both the teacher and the student and put them in a box that may not fit their natural bent or personal goals.

I firmly believe that the teacher is actually the core curriculum. In fact, an article in the latest issue of American Music Teacher about renowned pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky, underscored this truth. Here’s a quote that I love from one of his pupils:

“The great quality of Leschetizky was his vitality…there is no Leschetizky method. It is a mere legend – an absolute fallacy. He never spoke, at least I never heard him to speak, of technique. Several of his assistants and some of his pupils have published books on his method which are all diametrically opposed. Don’t be misled by them. There was no method. His teaching was much more than a method. It was a current which sought to release all latent vitality in the student. It was addressed to imagination, taste, and personal responsibility.”

The best thing you can do to provide your students with a comprehensive music education is to keep learning! Go to workshops, conferences, concerts; read books and magazines and blogs; talk with colleagues; observe other teachers; pursue new skills; etc. The more knowledge, understanding, and skill you acquire, the more you will be able to customize your teaching to the needs and goals of every [unique] student in your studio. This is part of the reason why I develop yearly studio practice incentive themes – they provide a wide-open framework that allows for maximum flexibility in working with each student to become a skilled musician.

I always feel like I need to be more streamlined in my teaching, but I think I just gave myself philosophical justification for continuing this scattered life as a teacher… What do you think? Is it better to have a set curriculum or to develop a spontaneous curriculum of sorts for each student as you go? Does it have to be an either/or proposition?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!