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Piano Lessons and dropout rates: How the initial interview is better than a crystal ball

I’ve been eyeing the forums lately at Piano World, and a hot topic is why students drop out of lessons, some after only a few months. A related thread had jabber about a circulating statistic that level 2 method books took a significant marketplace nose dive. What could it mean?

I looked into my crystal ball, examined the second issue, and posted an unanticipated reply. Perhaps teachers were fed up with the Method Book track after plodding through Primer Lesson, Performance, Technique/Artistry and Theory Books, and might be considering other options. They could be driven to hunt down repertoire with harmonic variety in unorthodox sources. (Why not find some Venezuelan folkloric melodies in 5/8, or a hauntingly engaging Gregorian Chant as replacement for perpetual, middle C obsessive musical clichés)

Others on the forums insisted that the doom and gloom sales of Method Book 2, had, again, to do with increased rates of students quitting piano in the early stages of learning. Most agreed that teenagers were, in any case, the most vulnerable demographic with blooming academic pressures, homework demands, placements tests, you name it.

So having processed feedback on the Discussion Boards, I stepped back, ex post facto, and delivered a more straightforward answer to the riveting question swirling around the Internet. I started by posting a NEW THREAD titled: The Early Warning Signs: Why the Initial Interview will reveal everything you need to know about the future of piano lessons–(without gazing into a crystal ball, or shuffling through Tarot Cards)

First and foremost, I recommend that the initial lesson consultation be FREE of charge, so there are no obligations for parents to sign up for classes, or for the teacher to agree to undertake a teaching relationship with the child or young adult. (Let’s focus here on the younger set of potential students who bring their parents, HOPEFULLY to the interview)

RED FLAG observation: If the student is dropped off for this first meeting, you can be sure things will be heading downhill fast. Parental involvement is a must from the very start of any teacher/student relationship.

Or, if the parent thought she was at the Day Care Center interview, and drove off, leaving Junior behind with an allergy list, then lessons in the near future are ipso facto on the skids.

Even worse, if mom brings a younger sib to the first consult who whizzes around the studio with his toy fire engine, screaming bloody murder at the top of his lungs, then lessons will be snuffed out before they have a chance to materialize.

All things being equal, if a parent and child are present without imminent blockbusting interruptions, ascertain the following:

1) Will the student have a piano to practice on? If the answer is, “yes” but mom describes a 61-key bell and whistle job, you can be sure that after two lessons, if not less, Junior will not find all the notes needed to prepare his assignment and he may want to bail out before anxiety levels engulf him.

So be certain that an acoustic piano is available, or at least an 88-key weighted digital keyboard. The former, if in good maintenance is preferred and shows an investment in piano lessons that is sincere and serious.

2) Were piano lessons taken in the past and with how many teachers?

On the Beginner level, a preponderance of instructors might mean that the “right chemistry” was never attained. Phrases like “my six-year-old didn’t click with the teacher” or it just wasn’t “fun for him” may mean that the grass-is-greener music studio will always be lurking around the corner. It may also boil down to the equivalent of Greek Goddess, Terpsichore, having to wisp out of the forest to make lessons an ethereal experience. (So it will never happen, and Junior will not be “stimulated” or “inspired” enough to stay with piano)

3) Next, ask, Why does Junior want to take piano?

If Mom replies that he needs a “well-rounded education” and music programs are being slashed in the School District, that may be a promising start to an enduring student/teacher relationship because realizing the importance of music lessons and giving them value are essential in creating a positive learning environment.

RED FLAG: if Junior is at odds with mom, wanting to break out his Game Boy and make the nearest exit, you can be sure his enthusiasm about being in the hot seat at the piano bench will spiral out of control and hit the treads. He could care less about what pie-in-the-sky reasons mom gives for signing him up.

Such a budding struggle may mean that lesson termination is waiting in the wings.

Or, if Junior’s best friends are NOT taking piano, then he will not think it “cool” to enroll.

Worse yet, if Junior or his feminine equivalent know that friends are taking piano with another teacher down the block, the riveting question will be, why is mom schlepping us a mile or so from home?

(P.S. The neighborhood teacher always has the advantage of keeping students from going AWOL, because she can indulge everyone on the block with stickers, cupcakes, and other extra musical treats) It’s the social framework that keeps them coming.

4) Next, ask, how many after school activities junior is enrolled in during the week? (applies to young children, and preadolescents)

If a parent enumerates a host of sports obligations including soccer, flag football, lacrosse, gymnastics, as well as self-defense and religious classes, Japanese, Latin and French tutoring, BEWARE of adding one more obligation to the overcrowded roster. An overbooked child may not have energy reserves to wiggle his fingers and make eye contact with music propped on the rack. Before long, he’ll just be another statistic. (drop in, drop out)

5) Finally, ask about family vacation periods, out-of-country trips, early afternoon or evening barbecues, cake sales, open houses, and the rest.

If a teacher calculates less than 30 weeks of lessons per year, Junior will be taking more furloughs from piano than attending classes. In no time he will be another registered dropout.

So in the last analysis, who needs to know why Method Book 2 is a hard sell. Just having a pad and pencil during the getting-to-know-you interview phase will be all the teacher needs to calculate dropout potential.

Hopefully, more students will stay with piano long enough to achieve a satisfying depth of involvement, making music an enduring part of their lives.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/taking-piano-lessons-skimming-the-surface-or-getting-deeply-involved/

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Practicing “Flight of the Bumblebee” in slow tempo (Rachmaninoff Arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov)-Video

“Flight of the Bumblebee” was originally composed for orchestra. It was the Interlude of the opera, Legend of the Tsar Sultan (1900) by Rimsky-Korsakov. According to the plot, a prince becomes a bee and stings his villainous relatives.

The piece has been arranged many times over for various instruments including the piano. The edition that fell into my hands through an adult student was an arrangement by Rachmaninoff that had absolutely no fingerings.

My first approach to learning this chromatically woven composition was to establish a good, workable fingering which took time, thought, and effort: (When the score is blank, experimentation and modification along the way are part of the process)



2) I then marked out the basic harmonic progressions in the bass through which the chromatic style passages above are woven.

3) Finally, I had planned to shape phrases in slow tempo being attentive to swells (crescendo) and dips (diminuendo) that reflected the bee buzzing around.

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Piano Instruction: Working on the flexible wrist with a hair band (Videos)

I videotaped Nayelli, age 10, practicing the use of a flexible wrist. I also integrated the hair band (demonstrated by Irina Gorin) into the lesson for the purpose of teaching the dead weight drop into notes with a dipping wrist. All advance the singing tone:


Nayelli plays Faber’s “Scarf Dance”
(Lesson Book 1, Piano Adventures)

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Piano Instruction: Learning from our colleagues (Videos)

Since we are very isolated as piano teachers, nurturing one-to-one relationships with our students for months and years at a time, we sometimes forget that there are other teaching universes beyond our own with repositories of ideas that may enrich the learning environment. One example, is the cosmos of Irina Gorin’s studio in Indiana. I’ve been following her You Tube videos and was specifically drawn to these teaching examples that resonated with appeal:

Hand Position:

My comment: While this basic hand position is an essential for the beginning student, I tend to teach more flexibility, particularly when an advancing student is playing a combination of black and white keys with large leaps that require hand/finger adjustments, for example broader, longer feeling fingers, not restricted by the ball paradigm. I teach finding a center of gravity, and patterning groups of notes. Nonetheless, when you have a true beginner, the ball, or ripe plum analogy works well.

***

The dead weight arm, supple wrist drop:

I love Irina’s use of the hair band as a perfect way to teach the total, relaxed arm drop with flexible wrist. I had to wait 6 years into my own piano study to acquire a teacher who worked with me in this way, minus the hair accessory, though her points were well taken. In the area of tone production, alone, this dead weight arm drop with supple wrist goes a long way to imbue the singing tone approach to the piano. Bravo, Irina! And much gratitude goes to the late Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich, my beloved New York City teacher. If this is the Russian school of piano playing/teaching, may it continue to thrive and produce more generations of music loving pianists.

****

Swinging arm from side to side:

Irina aced it here, teaching the relaxed arm swing from side to side, and not hugging the body. This going with the flow motion nurses beautiful phrasing, and in concert with the arm drop and supple wrist produces a gorgeous singing tone, molto cantabile.

***

Teaching Staccato to a Beginner:

This is a riveting approach that imbues the follow through wrist motion that is so pivotal to beautiful phrasing. I love how Irina’s uses the “frog” as a picturesque example for motivating the spirit of short, crisp, detached notes.

Later today, I will use the hair band and arm swing teaching tools with Nayelli, age 10, and put up on you tube.

In a few weeks, if not before, I will start teaching Rina, only 4, who has had considerable Music Together classes. We will use Irina’s materials, (Tales of a Musical Journey) and I will videotape parts of each lesson as we move along. (Teaching students under 6 or 7 is not my usual preference, though I’ve been impressed watching Irina work sensitively and effectively with this younger age group)

Thanks again to Irina for sharing her dynamic and creative teaching strategies with students, parents, and teachers throughout the world!

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Digitals, Acoustics, the economy, and piano lessons

After I showered myself in digitals these past two days, I pleasantly dried out and came home to my dearly beloved acoustic pianos. (Two Steinways and a Haddorff)

Now nothing is perfect in the world of electronics or acoustics. There are a repository of pitfalls associated with each, and it can be maddening to deal with fine pianos that have regulation and voicing problems which are not easily addressed due to a dearth of qualified piano technicians. The latter is worth a few blogs that may ruffle a few feathers. I’ve kept my folder with related material as Top Secret but soon to be released. Would these be Wiki leak sensitive?

Back to digital/acoustic comparisons, and their respective merits.

I used to be a purist, lecturing parents that they must have an acoustic before starting lessons for children, and then as the years ticked by and I watched the economy crash, people losing homes, moving into tight-fitting spaces, I let my guard down. As long as the digital was not a 61-key bell and whistle job and had the hammer weighted option, I went along for the ride for a reasonable period of time. Sooner or later the family should graduate to the real deal.

On the other side of the coin, it could be argued that so many acoustic pianos on Craig’s List, Oodle and elsewhere were ready for the scrap heap, with notes twanging, sticking, and otherwise going blank. What an awful maiden musical voyage for a beginner guaranteed to send him overboard without a second wind. It would be doomsday before lessons started.

Why not celebrate the spiffy digital with those tantalizing extras, brightening up homes in dire economic times. Didn’t the little spinet piano, a space saver, come into prominence after the Great Depression? The big uprights couldn’t easily fit into the parlor, and who could afford a grand. Times were changin’ and piano manufacturers adjusted to the needs of buyers.

Are there parallels today? Piano stores are closing. Not too many families are gathering in the parlor to sing Home Sweet Home around the tall, stately upright. Their abodes are foreclosing and they can barely squeeze any size musical instrument into the corner.

Piano lessons aren’t a top priority these days, being the first to go with budget trims.

As solace, why not come home to your portable digital, tap a few buttons, and ease into the easy playing mode with a strings split “Harvest Moon.” No hassle or brain drain.

For those parents still determined to take Baby Einstein a step further in his journey, or who believe in the Mozart Effect, I hope they would preserve the acoustic piano culture and save it from imminent extinction.

After all, there are still piano finding expeditions that result in quality acquisitions at reasonable prices: Acrosonics, Knights, a Haddorff, Aeolian Table Style piano, a resonant Yamaha P-22, and more.

These living, BREATHING instruments, not transformer connected, provide years of joyful playing, as long as they’re minimally maintained. No bordering fireplaces, vents, heaters, or humidity showers, please, and tunings are recommended once per year to keep strings toned and conditioned. (Engage an ear tuner, if possible, or one who will not spend 15 minutes programming a machine to perfect octaves and walk out the door leaving the piano in worse shape than it was before. Ask for an intervals check at some point in the visit)

Maybe when the economy is on an even keel, an acoustic piano and a digital might grace every home to round out the musical experience. It won’t be an either or situation, just an expansion of consciousness in more than one tonal universe.

In any case, (pun intended) let piano lessons resume!

RELATED: Is the Acoustic Piano Culture at Risk?
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

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Digital Piano Review continued: On Location at Best Buy in Fresno CA (6 videos)

This was such a smooth experience. Matthew Wheeler was found playing drums and keyboard in Best Buy’s atrium, for want of a better name, and he stopped what he was doing to film me sampling digitals. These were console models: Roland F110, Casio 830, and Yamaha Arius YDP 141.

There are six videos, including a side-by-side comparison of my playing the Roland and Arius. (“Fur Elise”)

You’ll know in an instant which one I favored.

Thank you’s are extended to Matthew and Best Buy for being so welcoming.

Matt is musical director at CMT and Fresno Unified School District. If you’re needing assistance at Best Buy, head over to Matt and he’ll be happy to serve you.

My Reviews:

Roland F110 console model digital piano:


Casio 830 console model digital piano:

Yamaha Arius YDP 141 console model digital piano:

Yamaha Arius YDP 141 fast passage clip (Mozart K. 545)

Side-by-side Comparison playing Roland F110 and Yamaha Arius YDP 141:


Revisit Roland F-110 without reverb

Over-all consensus after having reviewed 12 hammer-weighted digital pianos, I would put Yamaha p155 and Yamaha Arius YDP141 at the top of my list.

RELATED: Scoping out Digital Pianos at Guitar Center in Fresno (9 digital pianos are reviewed)

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/scoping-out-hammer-weighted-digital-pianos-on-location-at-guitar-center-fresno-ca-videos/

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Scoping out Hammer-Weighted Digital Pianos: On Location at Guitar Center, Fresno, CA (Videos)

I managed to get to Guitar Center right as it opened this morning, and had the good fortune to avoid the crowds along with obtrusive pop style background music.

Unfortunately, I bumped my head a few times on the same shelved keyboard that hadn’t qualified as a hammer weighted digital. Maybe it was retribution for my having bypassed it.

Just the same I marched down two narrow aisles of keyboards and did my best to be fair and objective about my assessments.

Since there is a good deal of footage, I will post in parts.

I should have mentioned that one of my criteria for evaluating these keyboards related to the registrations and the consistency through all ranges. I also considered the “feel” from note to note; resonance/decay rate; mechanics of the key depression; ease of playing; possible clicks etc.

From my perspective, playing Classical repertoire, I might fuss more over aspects of keyboards that others might not. Touch sensitivity and tone are my big issues, where for many players those concerns might not be as intense.

This first digital made quite an impression.

Here is Part 1: Yamaha P 155

Part 2: Yamaha CP 33

Part 3: Yamaha P95B (This one had a conspicuous registration change in the high treble–more metallic tone)

Part 4: Williams Allegro Digital (Abrupt timbre changes from register register, extremely light touch, hard to control dynamics, brittle metallic tone)


Part 5:
Casio Privia 330

Part 6: Casio Privia 130


Part 7: Williams Overture 88-Key Digital Piano Console


Part 8: Casio Celviano console-style Digital

This one surprised me. While it’s generic note to note progression had some irregularities at Forte level, it smoothed at soft volume, and provided expressive possibilities when I played through a few phrases from “Fur Elise.”

Part 9: Korg SP250 plus footage on the piano style pedal


Casio CDP 100 (I have sampled many times over)

While I did not get to film this digital, I would say from my playing perspective, that it’s a muted PX130.(Casio Privia)