Performance for Students

Here’s another excerpt from the notes of Janna’s excellent overview of teaching for new teachers. This one seemed especially fitting since I just returned from a Clavinova Festival where 13 of my students are performing this weekend.

I confess…though I love to play, I do not enjoy performing and I’m not good at it. I’ve had plenty more bad experiences performing than good ones and I’m often at a loss as to how to help my students become good performers. I appreciate Janna’s advice below and would love to know what some of you other teachers do to help your students become good performers, or even any ways you have found to improve your own performing skills (feel free to leave a comment below!). And another question…how do you help a student pick up the pieces, so to speak, from a bad performance and convince them that they should still keep working on developing this skill? (I think I may have to do some of that with a student next week…) Any advice would be most appreciated!

By Janna Williamson, NCTM
Wheaton Yamaha Music School

Annual or Biannual Formal Studio Recital
Reasons you should do this:
-parents, grandparents, friends get to come for the big event to hear their star perform
-one big pinnacle of the year that can be very exciting
Difficulties to overcome:
-scheduling is a nightmare, especially if you want to do it in December or June (prime times)
-it takes a lot of work on the teacher’s part with organizing, planning repertoire, providing a
punch and cookie reception, making sure all students are adequately prepared
-some students deal with performance anxiety at this level of performance

Formal Examinations through Teacher Organizations
Reasons you should do this:
-different groups have different syllabi which are very useful to inexperienced teachers
-having your students evaluated by an unbiased judge is invaluable to you and them
-good organizations include: state MTA’s [Natalie’s note: see right sidebar for links to each state] (MTNA), National Federation of Music Clubs , National Guild of Piano Teachers, other local organizations
Difficulties to overcome:
-following the various syllabi can often be confusing and take a lot of work, especially during
the first years that you enter students in each event
-the quality of judging can vary based on type of event and location
-students should only be entered in these events at an appropriate level and when they are
well-prepared by the teacher

Studio Performance Classes or Group Classes

Reasons you should do this:
-it’s a lot of fun! Students love getting to know one another and connect with peers
-kids learn a lot from each other and can teach each other things they might not learn from a teacher figure
-these informal (no parents allowed) times are great for preparing for bigger performances
-if you decide to include non-performance things such as theory or music history, you make more use of your time by teaching the same material to many at one time
Difficulties to overcome:
-scheduling is difficult, especially if you decide to organize several groups according to level

Thoughts on Preparing Students for Performance
-It takes a long time to be prepared, and the bigger or more important the event, the more time.
-Students must have regular performance to feel comfortable with it. Once or twice per year is not enough. Requiring students to perform a lot is really in their best interest.
-Learn strategies for dealing with performance anxiety in students. These must be different for students of different ages. Keep in mind that the best strategy for avoiding anxiety is simply to be extremely well-prepared!
-Piano students must learn to deal with strange pianos.
-It will always sound better at home. I’ve heard that line so many times, I’m making T-shirts!
-Encourage regular “home” performance for your students. Parents, grandparents, people at family holiday get-togethers, and friends from school all make great impromptu audiences.

Top Ten Tips for New Piano Teachers

The following is part of a presentation shared recently by Janna Williamson, a music teacher in Illinois, with a group of pedagogy students. I was able to read her notes from the meeting and thought what she had to share was excellent. She has given me permission to post from her notes here, so I hope to include several posts, chock-full of great tips for new and experienced teachers alike! Enjoy!

Top Ten Tips for New Piano Teachers
By Janna Williamson, NCTM
Wheaton Yamaha Music School

10. Read good teaching magazines (Keyboard Companion, Clavier, etc.)

9. Encourage your students to perform regularly, and provide them with developmentally appropriate performance venues.

8. Research all the teaching material out there – and use the best.

7. Join a piano teachers’ email list. It’s an unbelievable wealth of practical and pedagogical information. (I love the one I’m on – visit it here.)

6. Join the local piano teachers’ organizations in your area to stay connected with and learn from other teachers near you and take advantage of the performance opportunities for your students. [Natalie’s note: visit this page on MTNA’s website to find a local association in your area.]

5. Interview students and their parents before teaching them. Only take the ones that actually want to learn how to play the piano, and whose parents will abide by your studio policies and are doing this for the right reasons. It is better to have fewer students who genuinely enjoy lessons than more students who you will have to “cut” later on.

4. Know your strengths and limitations. Teach the ages, levels, and materials that you’re comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to tell a student that you’re not the right teacher for him or her.

3. Don’t just be a good teacher – be a good administrator of your studio. Have a good studio policy, and stick to it. Stay in regular communication with your students and parents about payments due, upcoming events, and progress being made.

2. Teach your students to be well-rounded, independent musicians, not just people who can play pieces on the piano. Include sight-playing, music theory, ear-training, and music history in every lesson. Encourage independent learning by giving your students these skills.

1. Demand excellence from your students. Insist on regular attendance, good technique, regular practice, completed assignments, and overall good musicianship from all of them.

[Natalie’s note: For several other great Top Ten lists, check out this page on the Piano Education Page website!]

CD Recording Made Easy

If you have a Yamaha Clavinova in your studio, you can practically set up your own recording studio! (If you don’t have a Clavinova, check out this post for instructions on how to set up recording with your acoustic instrument.) I just recently found out how to connect the Clavinova into my computer so that I can record directly from the Clavinova into my computer as an audio file – not just a midi file! I’ve been recording in my studio for the past couple of weeks this way and it works incredibly well! The sound quality is wonderful, since it’s recording directly through a cable and there is no interference. And it’s so much easier than recording a midi file and then converting it to a wav file.

Here’s what you need:
1. Clavinova (I’m sure this would work with other brands as well, but the only one I currently have in my studio is a Clavinova – a CVP-301 – thanks to our wonderful music store, who is loaning me one so that my students can prepare for the upcoming Clavinova Festival!)

2. Audio Cables (this is the one I purchased from Radio Shack and it works great!)

3. Computer (within 6 feet of the Clavinova because of the cable length…a laptop is ideal, because it can be placed right on the Clavinova.)

4. Free Audacity Recording Software

That’s it! It may seem like a lot, but don’t be overwhelmed, because it’s incredibly easy to use once you get everything set up. And it is well worth it!

Follow these easy steps:
1. Plug the phono end of the cable (one white, one red plug) into the corresponding color input jacks on the underside of the Clavinova.
2. Plug the 1/8″ stereo plug into the mic input jack on your computer.
3. Open the Audacity recording software.
4. Click the record button and begin playing. (You can also pre-record onto the Clavinova, especially if you want to do some sequencing first, and then start the recording in Audacity and hit the playback button on the Clavinova.)

It will record directly through the cable (no feedback!) as an audio file. Once it’s in Audacity, you can export it as either a wav file or an mp3. The files can then either be burned to a CD or downloaded to an mp3 player – or shared on-line for that matter! In fact, if you want to hear a sample of a recording, click here to hear an mp3 of a piano accompaniment part I just recorded a couple days ago. It will give you a pretty good idea of the sound quality you can get when recording this way.

Have fun recording professional-sounding CDs right in your own studio!

MTNA Session – The Performance Tradition and Pedagogical Relevancy of Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young

Following are my notes from the session: The Performance Tradition and Pedagogical Relevancy of Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young by Lora Deahl

A path-breaking collection of character pieces written by Schumann in 1848. 2006 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Schumann. His Album for the Young was borne out of his deep affection for his children.

“I always tell my wife that it is not possible to have too many children. It is the greatest blessing on earth.” Most 19th century fathers tended to ignore their children or treat them as miniature adults. Schumann subscribed to enlightenment theories that likened children to delicate young plants. He took walks with them and spent time with them. He incorporated these feelings and ideals in his music.

“We shouldn’t make the mistake of dismissing this music as naïve.”

Clara Schumann considered the music sophisticated enough to program in concerts. They are appropriate repertoire for pianists of all ages.

Schumann was a man of duality.
• Florestan vs. Eusebius
• Incurable romantic vs. astute businessman
• Inward reflection vs. outer reality
• Esoteric music vs. accessible music
• Writer vs. composer
• French brilliance vs. Germanic solidity
• Catholic pageantry vs. protestant inwardness
• Glitzy salon music vs. the heartfelt simplicity of hausmusik
• Public music vs. private music
• Theatricality vs. inwardness
• Aristocratic privileges serious middle class values
• Virtuosic music vs. romantic music
• Melody vs. harmony
• Music as entertainment vs. music as education

Creating your own Cycles

Use smooth key relationships between adjacent pieces
You may begin and end in the same key
You may begin and end in different, but related keys
Have an overall tonal plan that will provide the structure for the entire cycle
Arrange pieces so that the end of one and the beginning of the next connect smoothly
Use recall to connect the beginning and endings of cycles
Half of the pieces should be by Florestan, half by Eusebius
Try ending your cycles quietly as if the subject of the story were falling asleep

Cast of Characters

Master Raro
Marie, Eugenie, Laura

In one of the most creative sessions I attended, Lora Deahl shared a story she wrote (from her wealth of knowledge on this subject!) that included the above characters and excerpts [which she performed for us] from many of Schumann’s pieces in Album for the Young. She incorporated the history behind what led to the composition of certain pieces in her story dialogue. It was a very captivating and memorable presentation! If you are considering ordering recordings of any of the sessions, this would be a great one to listen to and would even be interesting listening for older students who are playing pieces from Schumann’s Album for the Young.

MTNA Session – A Musician Acts

Following are my notes from the session: A Musician Acts – How Acting Techniques Can Improve Music Performances and Pedagogy by Jaren S. Hinckley

The Magic If
Play/sing a few lines of the piece.
Play/sing the same piece as if…
Think of how it would come across if that situation applied – still correctly and with all technique and skill – just use the question to elevate or change the piece. Picture yourself in that situation. Don’t alter the sound intentionally, just picture the different scenario. (What’s your favorite movie? Favorite character?)
…you were drunk.
…you were at a circus.
…you were at a funeral.
…you were assigned to play background music.

The Unbroken Line
Know what your character was doing before you came onto the stage and what your character will do after you leave. Think of playing a movie in your head and you’re playing the soundtrack to the movie. From the moment you stand up, create an unbroken line until you arrive at the piano and play your piece. Imagine you are the greatest pianist in the world and are performing at Carnegie Hall.

What to do if you get sick of the piece? Practicing deteriorates because you don’t want to deal with the piece anymore.
You can change “The Unbroken Line” or “Magic If” at any point if you get bored or tired of it. Picture something radically different when you play.
This can also be applied in chamber groups to help create interest and utilize the phrasing of others.


There are “invisible rays” of light on stage that help create a connection between the actors; a sense of togetherness when performing with others.
[Mr. Hinckley had trumpet duet play just notes and not focus on anything else. Then, had them turn and look at each other as often as possible while still playing the duet. The cohesiveness this simple step added to their performance was incredible!]

Emotion Memory
First acting experiences – a British Farce. Two comic characters. Mostly physical comedy. Would start to laugh and couldn’t control self when everyone else was laughing. Asked another actress, “how do you keep from laughing?” Actress said, “I’m a social worker. When I feel like laughing, I think of all the abused children I work with.” Didn’t work. Real solution: emotion memory. Don’t dredge up horrible thoughts, just draw upon a memory of a time when you felt that same emotion. Seek out experiences so that you have a vast reservoir of experiences upon which to draw in the future. Then, when playing a piece, recall the memory that you associate with an experience. Don’t relive the experience, just recall the emotion.

Physical Actions

Too many people took the Emotion Memory technique too far. This was the culmination of the other five techniques. On stage, perform a physical motion that would bring up the emotion without damaging your mind/soul by dredging up the experiences themselves. Can also be applied to stage entry.
Use for someone who suffers from stage fright. Conscious of everyone looking at you? Have you ever been on a stage with a spotlight focused just on you and you’re blinded momentarily? That momentary blindness gives you the feeling that you’re all by yourself – almost a sense of safety in your little circle of light. Imagine that spotlight encircling you, then play. “Public Solitude”
“You either have it or you’ve had it.”

Strike a pose, then freeze. Deliberately release tension in all muscles that are not necessary for maintaining the pose. Mr. Hinckley acknowledged that there are personality types amongst our students that will resist our efforts. The goal is to help them develop “stage charm.”

Mr. Hinckley shared an illustration of a teacher who told students he would be playing for them at their next masterclass. He arrived late, shuffled in, carrying armload of junk, plopped it all down, messed around with reed, then played piece, didn’t acknowledge applause, shuffled out. He then re-entered and repeated his performance the same way, but with a completely different approach and presence. He helped students see a real life model of how their presentation can completely affect the overall performance of a piece. He also suggested filming students so that they can see what they really look like. Encourage students to talk to the audience before they play their piece. Give them something to say. This helps break the ice with the audience.

List Your Studio For Free!

Through another teacher I just became aware that Yahoo! offers free business listings! Their basic listing even includes a free 5-page website that looks like it would work great for a teacher who just wants to make basic information about their studio available on-line. Their web-based wizard makes creation of the site easy for even those who don’t know anything about web design.

Even if you don’t need additional students, listing your studio on business sites such as these increase the visibility of the music teaching profession. I encourage you to go list your studio today!

We Interrupt This Post Series…

Just wanted to interject a little sidenote. With some information I received at the MTNA Conference, I came across several other music-related blogs and have listed them on my right sidebar. I’ve perused them briefly, but not extensively. However, I wanted to make you aware of their presence. If you know of any other music blogs, let me know. If you’re interested in starting such a blog of your own, you may be interested in reading this post on how to Start Your Own Blog. It would be great to see a strong network of music-related blogs develop!

MTNA National Conference – Saturday

The renowned Van Cliburn gave the opening Keynote speech of the Conference. Though I didn’t transcribe the speech verbatim, I have attempted to capture the essence of it in the following notes.

Van as a young boy

Van Cliburn began his speech by expressing his gratefulness to his parents, particularly his mother, Rildia Bee, who had been his piano teacher from the age of 3 until he was 17, giving him a lesson every day. Rildia Bee was being honored posthumously by MTNA with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Rildia Bee was an accomplished pianist, dedicated teacher and devoted wife and mother. Although she could have become a concert pianist in her own right, she chose instead to stay home and live her life as a homemaker.

Rildia Bee

In a short video clip, Rildia Bee shared about their family; about her fervent prayers to God to bless her with a child. Shortly thereafter, her request was granted and she gave birth to a son – Van. She described him as being “truly God-given.” At a young age, it became apparent that Van had unusual musical ability. Rildia Bee discovered this when, after having finished a lesson and dismissing the student, she went into the kitchen only to hear the student back in her living room playing his piece. When she came to the piano, she found 3 year old Van playing and exclaimed, “You?! Do you want to learn to play the piano?” Van enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” So, like any good teacher would, she replied, “Well, you’re not going to play by ear. You’re going to know what you’re doing.” His father constructed a keyboard with a staff on the reverse side for her to use with new students and for theory and by 4 years of age, Van was reading music. Rildia Bee expressed that playing the piano is not a digital exercise, but a sonic endeavor. At 5 years of age, Van informed his parents that he would be a concert pianist and he has never looked back since.

At the age of 8, Van discovered that he had a nice voice and he sang as a boy soprano. Van shared that by the end of his 11th year it became harder for him to reach the high notes and that his parents never explained to him why this was so. 🙂 His mother helped him with correct breath control and always wondered if she should send him to another teacher. He said if she sent him away, he would stop.

At the age of 12, his mother was contacted by the Superintendent of Kilgore public schools – would Van be interested in competing in the state competition for young people 12-17? He would be required to play a Concerto and he was determined to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto in B-flat minor. He only had two months, but persevered and played in the competition in Austin, Texas, with his mother accompanying him.

On April 12, 1947 Van made his debut with the Houston Symphony. Following his mother’s advice, he went on to study at Julliard with Rosina Lhevinne. Rildia Bee described a great teacher as someone who is a guide so that a student can discover for himself or herself the secrets of great music.

In 1958 Dr. Irl Allison had the idea to start a competition to be named after Van Cliburn, in honor of Rildia Bee. Rildia Bee told Van, “Don’t worry, nothing will come of it. Dr. Allison was just trying to be nice to me.” Four years later, the first competition took place – September, 1962. Even still, Rildia Bee remarked, “Don’t worry, it will only happen once. No one will ever remember it.”

Van described his mother’s personality from birth as magnetic, warm and captivating. She was the baby of the family and her older brothers and sisters were intensely protective. Music was a definite part of her family. Her mother played organ, piano, violin and soon began teaching Rildia Bee. At the age of eight, she had the opportunity to play for and receive lessons from a renowned European musician.

Rildia Bee was Valedictorian of her graduating class. Although she was offered a scholarship to Baylor, she chose instead to attend Cincinnati University. While there, she heard Rachmaninov play. Knowing that she couldn’t study with him, she pursued her studies instead with Arthur Friedheim, who had studied with Liszt. She later moved to New York and filled her life with opera, museums, etc. After moving back to Texas, Rildia Bee met a man she greatly admired, but who, unfortunately, was already engaged. She, too, was already dating and “spoken for.” They were nevertheless drawn to each other and eventually were married on June 6, 1923. For the next 11 years, they lived in ElDorado, Arkansas, and then Shreveport, Louisiana, which is where she gave birth to Van.

Rildia Bee teaching piano

Rildia Bee had a few pupils at that time, but her first priority was to be a dedicated mother. She continued to practice and her practicing was mesmerizing to Van as he saw her tackle and conquer technical challenges at the piano. As he watched his mother play the Chopin Etudes and Liszt Transcendental Studies, he exclaimed, “Oh, mother, your hands are so perfect and you have much better technique than I will ever have.” To which she replied, “There are no perfect hands. Each individual must ferret out and eradicate the difficulty that is theirs alone. What you may think is difficult for you may be easier for me and what is difficult for me may be easier for you.”

Rildia Bee passed away just before her 98th birthday. With his thoughts revolving around music, Van wrote the following acrostic:
Understanding [while]

Van further emphasized this by saying that small children know whether music will ultimately be their profession. The real push, however, is not for them to make music their profession, but for them to be mentally stimulated. Music is a language that exists in the invisible, while notation is visible. Unseen mental exercises are important for every child. Music should be taught in all public schools. When a child is shown the miracle of making music, it stimulates parts of the brain that would otherwise lie dormant forever. Music is not entertainment – it is an exact science. It is open to interpretation and expression, but is not open to self-indulgence. Music study will provide students with strength of purpose, a carriage of will-power and determination for the rest of their lives. The pursuit of music is all-encompassing and so extraordinary. Van shared a quote from Rachmaninov, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

As he wrapped up his speech,Van Cliburn expressed, “Every day of my life, I thank God for the privilege of knowing Rildia Bee, but I am equally grateful for my father who loved her so that I can say today that Rildia Bee Cliburn is my mother.” He went on to end his speech with a quote from his beloved mother.

“Musical inspiration is the gift of God. Use it with the purest motives. Aim high and consider yourself capable of great things. Lend your talents to the world to make it better.”

Following the speech by Van Cliburn was an entertaining performance given by Michael Hawley, winner of the 2002 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.

2006 MTNA National Conference


Although I was unable to post throughout the conference like I had originally hoped, I took quite a few notes and pictures so that you can join me on a virtual trip to the 2006 MTNA National Conference in Austin, Texas. The following posts will be devoted to each day of the conference. Perhaps it will serve to pass on the tremendous inspiration I received from every aspect of the conference. Enjoy!