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Creating Exciting Sound

by Cathy Smetana Smetana.Cathy@MacPhail.org


More than anyone else, my college piano professor Marvin Blickenstaff has shaped who I am as a teacher.  His influence has extended far beyond my undergraduate years as we have stayed close and I take advantage of every chance I have to hear him speak.  When he sees me at a conference, he greets me with a huge bear hug and then usually apologizes to me for the lecture, saying, "You've heard it all before."  I tell him I need the review. The truth is, there is always something new for me in one of Marvin's lectures, no matter how many times I've heard him speak on the topic, because Marvin is always looking for ways to improve, to grow, to help students play more musically with greater technical fluency, and help teachers ignite passion for music in their students.


This past August, Marvin spoke at St. Thomas' Pedagogy Workshop.  His lecture "When the Magic Stops: The Potential Piano Drop-Out" was a timely wake-up call that inspired me to reexamine everything I do as a teacher.  Master teacher that he is, Marvin modeled perfect teaching in his lecture.  He did not tell, he asked.  His questions go right to the heart of what we do and are essentially an entire piano pedagogy course in and of themselves.
  • Are lessons really musical experiences?  Are we really teaching music? Richard Chronister said, "Students enroll in piano lessons for one reason only: to make exciting sound.  Every lesson we teach that does not capitalize on this desire is cultivating a potential piano drop-out." This statement really captured my imagination this year.  I used Wordle.net  to make a huge poster describing "exciting sound" and have it prominently displayed in my studio.                                                                                                                                          It is partly for my students, but mostly for me.  When Suzi can't seem to remember middle C, or when Johnny doesn't want to count, I look at the poster and breathe for a moment, reminding myself why we are all there.At the beginning of the year, I picked one "special piece" for each student, a piece outside of their method books that I felt played to their strengths and personality.  Students were thrilled that I chose a piece "just for them" and enjoyed the break from their usual books.  I had most of my students buy Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style by William Gillock. This book is a series of pieces in all 24 keys that capture the style of Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Brahms at an intermediate level.  The pieces are creative and deeply satisfying.  Younger students bought A Splash of Color Book 1 by Dennis Alexander or Picture This! Book 1 by Valerie Roth Roubos.  Initially I chose these books because they encourage "painting with sound" - but an unplanned bonus has been that these patterned pieces are perfect for memory work!
  • Are my lessons student oriented, or are they teacher oriented?  Statements like "I want" - "show me" - "by next week you must" - test your students and put them on edge.  Questions like "Why do you suppose . . . " - "what do you expect to hear . . . " - "when you play this piece, what kind of feelings do you have" - "what fingering fits your hand best" - engage students in the creative process.  Involve student mind, heart, insight, emotion in your lessons.
  • Are you teaching proactively?  What do you do to help your student avoid mistakes?  Proactive piano teaching takes effort and forethought.  We cannot teach our most effective lesson without planning that lesson.  What is the best way to introduce each piece?  What one key will unlock the secret of the piece?  Marvin says, "You may never tell a student to 'go home and learn the notes' unless it is an 'on your own' piece that has no new concepts.  Provide your students with accurate first experiences.  Be an advocate for the student - preserve their dignity and self-esteem by ensuring they play accurately."  
  • How do I articulate and celebrate success and accomplishment?  Do you take time to notice and celebrate when true music-making happens?  What would help your student feel "celebrated?"  Know the personality of your student.  Maybe they need a chance to shine and perform - accumulate repertoire, polish pieces, memorize them, have a mini-recital in each lesson, etc.
  • Is my musical or descriptive vocabulary large enough?  Jeremy Hanson wrote a fantastic article about this in the Spring 2011 issue of the APPI Newsletter (available at appimn.org).  I encourage you to read it!  I used his "150 Words of Compliment" to make my Wordle.  In addition to expanding our vocabulary, Marvin encourages us to tell kids why we love a piece - even if it seems esoteric!  You cannot make someone feel something, but you can influence feeling by talking about they way YOU feel.
  • How do I keep my lessons creative, alive, fresh - something new in every lesson?  There is a place for routine.  Example: start every lesson with warm-ups because then MAYBE they will do that at home.  BUT the element of surprise is very valuable!  "Throw down your books and come over here - I just got this new CD and I'm so excited, you have to hear it!" - "What's your favorite piece this week?" - "How can I help you the most?  Where is your biggest problem this week?" - While Marvin will never say "It's OK you didn't practice" - he does say, "Alright, we'll make this a practice session.  Get creative with games, activities, duets, improvisation, and other studio projects!
  • Are my assignments too hard?  Am I assigning too many pieces?  Are they too far above their sight-reading level?  Marvin insists we are not doing students any favors when we focus on one or two "big" pieces.  Beloved MacPhail teacher Gary Sipes used to say that late intermediate and advanced students should have at least three pieces at any given time; a short term (1-2 week) piece, a "normal" piece (1-2 months) and a "challenge" piece (6 months or more).
  • How do I involve the parents?  Do you talk about curriculum, parent responsibilities, bench height, what to say to students, home practice environment and guidelines, etc.?  Consider having a "Parent Visitation week" during which you practice with the child at their private lesson so they see how the child should be practicing at home.  If you do a repertoire class, you can "show off" a little - kids play by memory, etc.
  • How do I summarize (and celebrate!) each lesson?  Reserve three minutes at the end of each lesson for summarizing.  Express your enjoyment, ask them what their favorite moment was.  Then touch briefly on each element, helping the student articulate how they are going to practice.  
True to form, Marvin modeled this as well.  He ended the lecture by thanking us for our thoughtful questions and expressed confidence in our abilities to assess and adjust our teaching, and left us feeling empowered and inspired - a true master at work.

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