It’s been a year since my last blog post, and as we near the start of the school year again in a few weeks (eek!), I would like to begin to post on a more regular basis. I have been busy attending workshops, masterclasses, conferences, reading other blog posts, tuning pianos, and connecting with other music teachers in the past year. And of course…Teaching!
Once a month, I will be posting a spotlight on living composers. Some may be familiar, while others you may not have heard of. August’s composer is….Catherine Rollin!
Catherine Rollin is an American pianist, composer, teacher and clinician. Her compositions are often pedagogical, meaning that they teach the pianist how to do something. It could be to learn a particular style of music or practice a challenging technical skill. Her pieces can be found in the 2015 RCM piano syllabus.
Rollin writes in a tuneful, contemporary style that is easily accessible. Here are some examples:
Prep A: Rainbow Fish
In this piece, the beginner learns the whole tone scale, repetition, moving across the keyboard (using a wide range on the keys), pedaling, imagery, expressive playing and dynamics, and form (how the piece is structured).
Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending Summer Sizzle, a piano pedagogy symposium, hosted by the Canadian National Conservatory of Music, in the rural, beautiful community of Mount Forest, ON. If you’ve never heard of the conservatory, or the town, don’t worry. This was all new to me too.
The Canadian National Conservatory of Music (CNCM) was founded in 2002, with the goal of promoting Canadian content and music to rural communities. One of the fantastic things it does is connect Canadian composers with teachers and students. I am frequently asked by parents and students to make piano lessons “fun and exciting” and I believe that having a personal connection with the music, and feeling like you can express yourself through music can help students and teachers achieve that goal.
Summer Sizzle is not only for teachers. Running concurrently with the symposium is a “Keyboard Kamp” for students and parents. The workshops are all led by composers and teachers, with programs running for the teachers and students at the same time. The students get to learn improvisation and composition with real live Canadian composers (we get to meet the composers!). And on the last day, the students perform their new compositions! Meanwhile, teachers were treated to music by the many composers at the symposium, and attended workshops with topics ranging from rhythm to preteaching to polyrhythms to improvising.
The main focus for this year’s Summer Sizzle was Impressionism. Impressionism was a style or movement in art (painting) originating in France in the 19th century. Painters associated with the style included Monet, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Pissaro, and Renoir. Below are some typical Impressionistic paintings.
Characteristics of the style include short, thick, visible strokes of paint with not much blending, scenes of nature, bright colors, and capturing a general sense or feeling or experience instead of an accurate depiction. This artistic style was later adopted by composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Impressionistic music is also similarly mysterious. Here is a typical impressionist piece called “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”. While listening to the piece, imagine a girl sitting in a sunny field in Scotland, the sun gleaming in her hair. Debussy uses musical devices such as the pentatonic scale and unexpected chords and harmonies.
Other characteristics of Impressionist music include the use of whole tone and pentatonic scales, modes, chord extensions (7ths, 9ths, etc,), open chords, polychords, variations in time signatures, and layers of harmonies. Composers began to treat harmonies differently, instead of resolving them in the traditional sense. The sense of a tonic, or home key is less evident. The trend toward exploring wider sounds and harmonies can already by found in the music of “Romantic-style” composers such as Frederic Chopin:
Below is Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) by Maurice Ravel, played by 16 year-old George Li (he is nearly 20 yrs old now). George Li won 2nd place on July 1, 2015 at the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia.
This year at the North York Music Festival, I was able to attend a workshop by Moshe Hammer, acclaimed Canadian violinist. He also founded The Hammer Band, a charitable organization dedicated to preventing violence in children through “music education that promotes self-esteem, empathy and tolerance. Children who learn to play an instrument and perform together learn important life skills such as self-discipline, teamwork and resilience.”
This is my favourite video of Hammer. I love how the music tells a story:
He performs regularly and gave a presentation on how to manage nerves and why we don’t perform as well on stage compared to at home.
Here are some of his thoughts:
Can you take a breath? Now, can you take the same breath again? No! Because it’s gone. Can you take the next breath? No, because there will always be a “next” breath to take. The only breath you can take, is the one you are taking right NOW. Life is one continuous concert. You can’t undo what has already been done. Life is like playing the violin as you’re learning to play.
This is similar to playing sports: it doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you have been in the past. What matters is what happens in this moment. An audience doesn’t care how you FEEL. They don’t care how many times you’ve practiced, or how long, or if you’re tired, or your mood. What matters is how you play, and they just want a great performance.
Do we play as well on stage as we practice at home? Why or why not?
Hammer suggested several ideas to help performers to succeed on stage:
1. Practice! Practice! Practice! Once you’ve worked on the challenging parts, don’t forget to play the entire piece at home non-stop, just like at a performance, even if there are some mistakes. You must practice the piece so well you can play it correct 11 times out of 10!
2. Practice effectively. Practice new pieces slowly, carefully, use a metronome, fix your mistakes early on (don’t keep practicing mistakes!), listen to yourself as if you’re listening to someone else, pay attention to your body and how it feels as it’s making different sounds so you can adjust it to make the sound you want.
3. Mental preparation. Wear the clothes you’ll wear at the concert. Ask yourself what you want to tell the audience. Is being on stage and communicating with the audience the same or different as communicating with a friend? If you can tell a story well, people will be interested. Instead of fearing the stage, imagine yourself on stage, feeling WONDERFUL! Next time you feel nerves before going on stage, instead of telling yourself this is fear, tell yourself this is excitement, and that you feel amazing!
Different performers manage their feelings differently. I once read a book where a performer had to come to grips with her anxiety. She would face debilitating anxiety before a performance, including feeling sick, shaky, nervous, etc. She decided that she loved music and wanted to perform, and she was going to perform either way. So she was going to feel extremely anxious EVERY time, or she could tell herself to ignore these feelings and just perform.
Another teacher I had said she loved performing because this was her opportunity to share her music with others, not to worry about what they thought about it.
For Hammer, his “lightbulb moment” was when he realized that if he played the piece 100% perfectly at home, but only 75% as well on stage, it was as if the fear was robbing himself of 25% of the performance! So he might as well have spent 25% less time practising at home because that was how much the fear affected him.
How do you manage your anxiety or nervousness? What do you think about before going on stage?
This year, I’ve come across two different books for beginners that are innovative and target different kinds of beginner piano students. Both are relatively new, and I’ve been implementing them into my lessons with success!
1. Cougar’s Great Adventure
This book is by Marianne Marusic, piano teacher, RCM Examiner, and founder of the Metropolitan School of the Arts at Rosedale United Church. She has taught piano for over 30 years and is involved in many musical endeavors including singing and playing the piano and organ in church settings, and choir conductor at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Toronto.
Use this book for:
Very young beginners (as young as 3 years old). This book is cleverly written in a story format, with the letters of the musical alphabet and their location on the keyboard disguised into a story about a cougar looking for the source of the aurora borealis. Children love to hear stories again and again, so this is the perfect way to introduce them to the piano. I’ve even used the book for kids who have already taken lessons for a year, just to read to them the story, and have them play the musical examples on the piano! They just love it! Here is Marianne explaining how her books work.
Companion activity book called Cougar’s Activity Book. Plenty of duet playing examples as well as coloring in the piano keys (identifying where the notes are located).
Where to buy her books:
You can visit her website here or buy from http://www.amazon.com
You can also find them at the following music stores:
Snider’ Music Center
Long and McQuade
2. Piano Pronto
This series of books is by American pianist, teacher and composer, Jennifer Eklund. She received her Bachelors degree and Masters of Musicology from California State University Long Beach. She has a real gift for arranging and composing. Her duets are the best sounding I’ve ever heard for beginner method books, and students and teachers love them.
Use this book for:
The things I love about her method books are that they have large font, featuring clear, concise explanations. Everything is black and white so it limits visual distractions. the pacing and layout of the books help students to grasp concepts and skills quickly so that they feel a sense of achievement. There are many familiar tunes, which students are delighted to discover. The Keyboard Kickoff is her newest method book, and is perfect for beginners aged 5-7, or those who need a bit slower progressing beginner method. The Prelude book is great for any faster learner or older beginner, including adults. And yes, you will learn the piano, pronto!
Duet book. You must buy this separately, but the advantage is that the student’s book is not filled with duets they cannot play yet. Below is an example from Keyboard Kickoff (for the student) with the duet part (for the teacher). .
Jennifer also has a Facebook page for parents and students to interact directly with her!
Where to buy her books:
Unfortunately, her books are not stocked in Canadian books stores yet (she is relatively new, and local retailers need to hear from their customers before they stock her books, hint hint!). However, you can buy the books directly from her at her website. You can purchase the hard copy of her books (and she will autograph them for you!) or if you don’t want to pay for shipping, you can also download the digital version and print it off at home.
Students studying music have the opportunity to participate in many extra activities outside of their regular private lesson. I will be focusing on WHY piano students should participate, and HOW to succeed specifically at music festivals.
Since 2010, I have been actively volunteering for music festivals (first in British Columbia, now in Ontario). As a young piano student, I participated in recitals, but did not have the opportunity to play in festivals or competitions. I had heard about such things from friends who also took piano lessons, but it was not until I became a teacher, that I became more aware of these. Since I didn’t have any first-hand experience, I thought they were unnecessary activities, and never gave consideration to encouraging my students to participate. However, once I became involved in these, I discovered many important reasons to participate, as well as how to do well in them.
What is a music festival?
Music: “vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.”
Festival : “a day or period of celebration.
A music festival is a celebration of beautiful, expressive sounds. A music festival is different from a competition in that although some classes are competitive, the main purpose is to gather music students of various ages and abilities to play and receive feedback from the adjudicators.
A music competition will be more focused toward “winning”, and there will often be a large monetary award for the winner.
WHY participate in music festivals?
1. Encourages students to practice more.
Runners often join marathons or races to motivate themselves or to compare themselves with other runners. Often they will participate in the same race annually to see how much they have improved. Similarly, there’s nothing like an impending festival to encourage students to practice daily and for longer.
2. Motivates them to polish their pieces.
Music is more than just the notes on the page. Once they have learned the written notes, the next step is to play with the articulation and expressiveness marked on the music. Finally, they memorize and internalize the music in a way that allows them to add their personal touch.
3. Connects students with others.
It can be lonely to practice and play on your own, so attending festivals connects students with other students. The students are grouped in sections where they play music from the same time period or genre. Many times, the same piece performed by another student. Participating in festivals gives a feeling of being a part of something bigger.
4. Receive feedback from top musicians in their field.
It is beneficial for the student to hear from someone with a wealth of experience different from their teacher. Sometimes they can offer a new perspective or ideas. Or they may suggest something their teacher has already been saying, but it seems to stick when it comes from someone else!
HOW to succeed in music festivals. Before
1. Play on as many pianos as you can. You will not get a chance to “try out” the piano before the performance. As soon as you begin playing, you must be able to adjust to how easily the keys and pedals move.
2. Play in as many environments as possible. You never know what the acoustics of the room will be. I was in a room that was quite large and echoey. Suddenly, forte dynamics sounded fortissimo , and the entire feel of the pieces changed.
3. Completely secure the beginning and end of the piece. Memory slips are common in this environment. Most students come 110% prepared to play but those who cannot manage their anxieties tend to play worse. Absolute memory can help immensely to calm nerves.
4. Prepare your materials and yourself. Tag/tab your starting page. There is no need to present a completely virgin score (sometimes the judge will even write in the score). Come dressed professionally. This helps with your overall presentation and can affect the way you are perceived. The student’s musical artistry is somewhat subjective depending on the judge, and you want to leave the best impression possible. Sloppy dress indicates an attitude of carelessness.
5. This is common sense, but remember to go to the bathroom before! There is no leaving during the session, and they can last 30-60 min.
1. Open the score to the appropriate page and have it ready to present to the adjudicator.
2. Be ready to be seated in a row with the other students.
3. Bow before and after your performance. Don’t forget to smile!
4. Listen attentively to the other students performing. See if you can notice what they did well or could have done better. This is excellent training to learn how to evaluate others and yourself.
1. When everyone has performed, the adjudicator will often make some general remarks to all the students, then address each student. The adjudicator may make verbal remarks or ask the student to try out some things at the piano.
2. Thank your adjudicator. They are often there for the entire day listening to students, and appreciate it when students respect their advice.
Over the past few years of teaching piano, I’ve noticed more and more the ADVANTAGES of spending LESS time at the piano during the piano lesson. Sounds counterintuitive, right?
Here’s why students benefit from spending LESS time at the piano during the lesson:
Most students start piano lessons because they want to ENJOY learning how to create music. This is the key – they are taking MUSIC lessons. And music can be created and learned in many different ways, not just at the instrument.
Students focus intensely on the piece at hand when they play for me. If there is something that needs to be corrected (notes, technique, etc.), we spend time repeating and learning how to play properly. Young students have a short attention span, and older beginners can get frustrated and tired if they cannot grasp the technique or playing easily. You need to take a break!
Learning how to play an instrument alone does not create a well-rounded musician. Therefore, music institutions such as the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), or the Associate Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM), or Conservatory Canada, etc. make it a requirement for students to take exams to develop musical ability and knowledge through learning technique, aural and sight reading ability, memory, theory, and history. However, many teachers focus on one exam type at a time to prepare the student for the specified exam. This focused teaching is great for exam preparation, but doesn’t demonstrate how these different elements are interlinked and related. Unfortunately, many students who do well on all these exams are unable to connect these subjects together, forming a more global view of music.
Below are some things/ideas I use to motivate and teach the student during the lesson that don’t require them to sit at the piano:
1. Use supplemental materials
I’ve used this book countless times with my younger students. They are delighted to learn about different composers and musical instruments, especially because the book comes with a CD and questions about the selected pieces. Thus, they are encouraged to listen carefully to the musical excerpt, so they can find the answer to the question.
A common reaction to hearing the music are the giant smiles on the students’ faces, and many dance and move rhythmically to the music on their own! They frequently have questions about the music, which gives you a way to talk about classical music in a way that isn’t boring and dry. I use this book to springboard for discussion.
2. Relationship development
As a music teacher, I find out many things about my students’ lives. They willingly share details about school, family life, friends, and vacations. I greet each student asking about their week/day, and this gives me insight about their personality, interests, schedules, and current mood. This can take from 2-10 minutes of the lesson time. But this time is not wasted. I can use this information to my advantage to teach or encourage or motivate my students.
For example, students are more willing to learn pieces that have some relation to their lives. If they take dance lessons, I might introduce them to a waltz and show them the basic steps so they can attain a physical sense of rhythm in their body. This gets them excited about playing well, in order that someone might dance to their music! If they love reading, I print out composer biographies and send it home for them to read at home. If they are from another country or nationality, I try to find some music that relates to their background. If they love sports, I can use sport analogies to explain the purpose of technical drills.
Once students become comfortable with me, they can be honest with me.
They let me know if they are tired (I once had a student who just came back from a weekend of camping, where she only had about 2 hours of sleep! There was no way she could focus at the lesson! I ended up playing the pieces she was supposed to be working on while she drew pictures from the camp, inspired by the music. I told her that her task for the week was to learn the pieces in such a way that SHE inspires others the way that I inspired her to draw).
They let me know why practice didn’t happen during the week. This allows me to tweak my approach to find ways to help them practice.
They let me know, what they want out of music. Despite their best intentions, teachers tend to impose their ideas on students. But music lessons are not a necessity, and students can quit anytime they want. The humble teacher will understand his/her limitations as a teacher and may be able to recommend another teacher for the student depending on the student’s reason for taking lessons. Furthermore, student’s reasons for taking lessons may change over time, and it is the teacher’s prerogative to find that out.
3. Watch videos together
My iPad has become a necessary studio tool when I teach. I frequently show students YouTube videos to:
Show them they are not the only ones learning the pieces
Motivate them to achieve a higher standard of playing
Analyze performances together, so they can also learn how to critique their own performances
Listen to their favourite music as a teachable moment. There are endless things you can do with this. For example, I use wooden sticks (from Dollarama) to teach a sense of rhythm and note values. We also analyze harmonies, song structure, melodies, tonal balance, and on top of that, they have FUN doing these activities.
Finding ways to incorporate music into my students’ lives can be a great motivator for them to continue learning the piano. If they come away with a sense of appreciation and love for music, and a thirst for learning (be it with me, or elsewhere), then I’ve done my job as a piano teacher 🙂
Recently there has been an article circling around on the Internet, posted by a disgruntled mother, who complained about the high costs of enrolling a child in music lessons.
She states that the current going rate for a piano teacher is about $1 per minute, or $60/hr.
Loggers make on average $16.83/hr, Physicists in university settings $40.15, performing musicians and singers $31.13/hr.
She assumes that piano teachers are “out-of-work” musicians, who make more than professional performing musicians.
According to her calculations, if a piano teacher worked 40 hr per week, they would earn $120,000.00 yearly!
Furthermore, since most kids are not interested in lessons after a few months, why pay a teacher so much money to “identify a few notes and bang a few chords”?
Here’s why piano (and other qualified music) teachers deserve every penny.
1. The cultivation for a love of music is priceless.
Learning music is not, and should not be about grooming the student to be the next Glenn Gould, or Vladimir Horowitz, or Lang Lang. A tiny percentage of students go on to becoming great, professional musicians. Most students stop by the time they reach grade 8 piano, if not before due to increased homework and pressure to do well in school.
Were those piano lessons a waste of time and money?
Music appreciation is a result of understanding the culture and history of the arts. It is about humans experiencing and expressing their lives and we are immeasurably changed through learning about music. Music comforts and speaks what we cannot in words. It rejoices with us and wallows in misery with us. It is a spiritual experience. Music making and music enjoyment is part of our humanity, and no value can be placed on this.
This leads to my next point:
2. Music is a part of life
Exposure to music is unavoidable. The creation of music is a direct consequence of life events both personal and localized, and universal. As in life, we repeat many of the same actions daily (ex. Brushing teeth or cooking dinner), yet we need challenges and the unexpected to keep from feeling boredom. Music is also full of repetition and patterns, yet can surprise us with creativity. Music and life imitate each other. Furthermore, music is in such a deep place in our memories that simply hearing a particular song can trigger an elderly person with dementia and Alzheimer’s to remember and become temporarily lucid (thus the employment of music therapists at many senior care facilities). Music teachers expose students to different styles and genres of music, and teach the students to access their feelings, thoughts, and experiences to produce the desired musical effect. Learning how to creatively and constructively express ones emotions is a life skill that many adults are never taught.
3. Music teaching can only happen within a small timeframe of the day.
The author stated that if a piano teacher were able to teach 8 hrs a day, at $60/hr, they would make approximately $120,000.00/yr. Unfortunately, unless the music teacher can find enough adults or homeschooled kids, the average music teacher only teaches about 3-4 hours per weekday. Music lessons can only begin once the kids are finished school, and before bedtime (around 4-8pm).
More hours are available on the weekend, but this also means they do not get to easily go away for the weekend because they will lose the pay from their most full workday.
Most music teachers simply cannot acquire sufficient number of students, so they must rely on working for other music studios/businesses. As a result, they can teach more students, but only receive 35-50% of the lesson fees.
I currently teach 45 students, 3-8 hours per day. This is a full teaching schedule. But this averages to $15.93/hr if I were to work 8 hours per day, 5 days a week. And unless I acquire more adult students during the day, I simply don’t have time in my schedule to add more students. Many of us are advised, therefore, to take up other jobs on the side. But what company will hire you only to let you off before 3pm so you can get ready to teach for a few hours?
4. Music teachers don’t have job security
We don’t get paid for not working. That is to say, we don’t get vacation pay, maternity leave, or sick days. If a student doesn’t show up, we don’t get paid. Some studio policies state that they will charge students for not notifying the teacher within a certain timeframe (say 24hrs), or for going over more than 3 missed lessons. But most parents do not like to pay even if they know about the policy.
If we work during holidays (ex. Remembrance Day, Thanksgiving) we don’t get paid any different. We try our best not to get sick because although we can try to ask around for find a substitute teacher for the students, we don’t get any pay. We try not to take many breaks (for washroom, snacks etc.), even though most teaching happens over dinner time because we don’t get paid for breaks, and when the parent pays for the time, they expect the teacher to always be completely present.
5. Music lessons are rarely 1 hr.
It may seem like having 45 students is a lot. But nearly all my students have 30 min lessons. A few of the older students or those studying for theory exams have 45 min lessons. This means I teach on average 23-24 hours a week. But adding in driving time (I also teach in-home lessons), and that’s an extra 9-10 hours on the road per week.
So I get paid for 23-24 hours by working 32-34 hours. And this is not even taking into account all the extra prep work teachers do before the lesson. We research pieces, analyze and listen to them, practice them so we become proficient at them, mark theory homework, make up games and buy/create our own materials for those games, plan the students’ goals and skills we want them to learn for the lesson, organize recitals and musical events, look up and acquire popular pieces that students are interested in learning, and make sure out studios are stocked with art supplies. We attend workshops and seminars and conferences to learn about the newest teaching materials and to network with other music teachers. We consult other teachers when we come across a piece we have not taught before, or teach a challenging student and need some other ideas on how to teach him/her. And on top of that, when we have students who are about to write or play at an exam or competition, we must be able juggle our scheduled to offer extra lessons in case they need it. I have even opened my house up to a student so that he could practice on an acoustic piano (he only had a small digital piano at home that was unreliable).
So yes, we teachers do work approximately 40 hours a week. But we only get paid for about half of that time.
And there you have it! Teaching music is a complex and long process, that requires strong cooperation among the teacher, student and parent. But learning music develops the student into a more learned, cultured, human. Teachers try their best to encourage student progress and learning but must take it upon themselves to acquire the knowledge and creativity and materials to achieve that. We teach music because we are passionate about it and the reward for us is seeing a student light up when they finally “get” something or when they get excited about music. In the end, it’s all worth it.
Hello everyone! I realize its been a while since the last post. I’ve moved to Toronto and applied to as many piano teaching jobs as I could. Before I arrived in Toronto, I had one reply – they would put my resume on file 😦
Anyway, it did take much patience but finally my week is getting filled with teaching piano again! In the meantime, I’ve attended an opera, a harpsichord performance, volunteered at auditions held by the Ontario Music Teachers Association, played the harp at a recital, attended a Masterclass with Peter Longworth, and a seminar with Darlene Irwin, creator of the Student Music Organizer.
On top of that, my roommate is a fellow piano and theory teacher who has recently began dabbling in the world of gigs. She’s picking up the guitar and ukulele, which means I have lots of invitations to open mics!
Here’s a brief comparison of the similarities / differences in Vancouver and Toronto in the “music world” on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least and 10 the most (yes this my a rough estimate except for the number of students in the music faculty – info I obtained from the UBC and U of T websites)
Number of open mics throughout the city on any given night
Vancouver : 3
Toronto : 8 (many pubs/cafes will have open mic opportunities)
Number of concerts occurring on a daily basis
Vancouver : 4 (as far as I know there isn’t a magazine devoted solely for concert listings)
Toronto : 9 (there is a free monthly magazine devoted solely to listing all the classical concerts and another magazine for all other concerts)
Number of music studios/companies
Vancouver : 3
Toronto : 7 (in my neighborhood alone I’ve passed by 3 or 4)
Number of students in the music faculty at the university’s main campus (2012/13)
Vancouver : 267
Toronto : 847
Amount paid for music lessons
Vancouver : 5 (the studio I worked for charged $25 per half hour but my personal rate was $18-20/ half hour)
Toronto : 7 (the places I work at range from $21-31per half an hour)
Number of in-home lesson companies :
Vancouver : 1 ( I know of only one company that offers this service in Vancouver, not counting private teachers who travel to their students home )
Toronto : 5 ( I currently work for three different in-home music lesson companies)
Number of music festivals
Vancouver : 2
Toronto : 8 (there is at least a music festival every week in Toronto and the greater Toronto area during the summer…there’s pretty much music everywhere)
Number of buskers on the street
Vancouver : 5
Toronto : 5
Yup, pretty much similar in this regard.
As you can see, Toronto seems to have more going on in the music world. It’s also a bit of an unfair comparison because Toronto is a much larger city, and they place much value and resources into developing musicians and the music culture. Music is very much appreciated and celebrated. In fact, one of the music studios I work at does not open on Fridays so that the gigging teachers who are also performers can prepare and perform. I’m excited to learn more and hopefully attend more performances and maybe even perform more? 🙂