I thought I’d surprise myself with a Moonbeams reunion.
I thought I’d surprise myself with a Moonbeams reunion.
Over decades of teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that each student needs a custom designed long-term lesson plan. Method books only go so far.
Often they stratify the learning process, keeping students in an interminably drawn out, regressive C Major universe. For the most part, flats and sharps with Letter Name identifications are regarded as aliens, not welcomed into the musical cosmos until a student is so addicted to white notes that he can’t be easily detoxed. I was a such a victim, being fed John Thompson’s Primer series with pixies and parades. As a consequence, my fears of black notes linger. Do I need music therapy?
One of my African American students poked fun at the preponderance of white notes on a keyboard as evidence of hard core discrimination. We both chuckled, but at that the same time he didn’t realize that his observation had relevance to Method Books and their built in color line:
“Black notes are not welcomed here, right now.”
I don’t mean to knock Bastien, Faber, and any other Lesson, Performance, Theory, Technique and Artistry package, but the only way I can co-exist with these materials is to modify them as I go along. And the adjustments I choose will be different for each pupil, because mass produced, standardized education doesn’t work for me.
In a previous blog, Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery, I inserted p. 24 of Faber’s Piano Adventures that contained the “C-D-E-F-G March” as a perfect opportunity to introduce the Parallel Major/minor tonality by lowering the E to Eb. (Did I commit a sin advancing the clock on the FLAT?) If so, let the black notes go to hell.
For the vast majority of pupils who’ve entered the sanctuary of piano learning as beginners, they jump at any chance to create a different mood by a simple alteration. Knowing Left from Right is the only requirement. Flats descend to the LEFT by a HALF STEP. If a pupil doesn’t understand the quantity of a “half,” just rely on the tiniest distance on the piano and there you go. Kids love analogies, imaginary references to things. They can make up their own name for the smallest distance from one note to another. Could be “elf-like.” If Grieg liked elves, why not borrow the metaphor.
Some students might follow up, creating a rote piece in a new tonal center–like playing the “C-D-E-F-G March” in C minor and then in G minor. Wait a minute, TRANSPOSING for beginners isn’t part of the program when we get to p. 24 of the Lesson Book? Or if a creative activity is suggested, BLACK NOTES are once again barred, jailed, imprisoned, waiting to be paroled.
Who cares what method books do or don’t do? For lots of kids, improvising in the company of sharps and flats, makes piano study more interesting. And as a fringe benefit, students who are tonal adventurers, will find that their explorations become second nature.
Composing is a joyful activity. Ask the student to shuffle around the five notes that have been drilled into him as “C POSITION” in the METHOD BOOK and relocate the tonal center to G or D, (oops, another alien SHARP is introduced on the planet) Hang loose, and let the student name it. He won’t decompensate in the process.
The pupil can even vary the order of the notes, up and down, which means he might choose to skip, and NOT step. (Wait a minute, the METHOD book doesn’t introduce SKIPS at this point) Just a second. It’s the student’s piece–his creation and copyright. Such creative expression is not owned or controlled by the Method Book publishers.
Uh, oh, Should I dare to show up at this summer’s MTAC Convention without my Groucho Marx disguise? I think I’ll be otherwise, persona non grata.
All I’m saying is that short of designing individual materials for each student that we take what we are given and MODIFY, EXPAND to meet individual needs.
And while this discussion applies in the main to beginning pupils, it equally pertains to those who are at Intermediate and Advanced levels.
First off, I beat it out of the Method Book track as soon as I can see the forest from the trees. By and large, after Book One of Faber Piano Adventures (with my modifications) I’m off to Classical Repertoire. If a student would like popular pieces, those are added into the mix as long as the musical diet is balanced and enriched with scales, arpeggios, minuets, sonatinas and the rest.
I like Faber’s the “Developing Artist Series,” Book 2. Favorite selections: Johann Christian Bach’s Prelude in A minor and Andante; Rameau’s Menuet en Rondeau.
and the Sonatina series starting with Book one:
Even at the Faber Lesson Book One level, I supplement with Gillock, a composer with amazing gifts. I love “Little Flower Girl of Paris,” “Argentina,” “Splashing in the Brook,” and most pieces contained in Accent on Solos, Level TWO.
Some pieces in this collection work for students in Level One, Faber. And perhaps more apply to students who’ve had modifications in their method books as they’ve moved along.
With such adjustments, NO child will be LEFT BEHIND.
Gillock’s “Flamenco” highlighted in a previous blog, is another fabulous piece that has a built in sequential pattern in its harmonic progression, so while the selection is flooded with alien black notes, the student can see and “feel” note grouping relationships that ease his anxiety during the learning process.
Side journeys to Kabalevsky’s “24 Pieces for Children Op. 39” (Palmer/Alfred) Schumann’s “Album for the Young” and Bartok’s Children’s Pieces, offer repertoire enrichment at early levels of study, easing the burden of a standardized teaching curriculum.
In conclusion, we need to give our students more leeway– Let them break out of the method book mold, and spread their creative wings.
At least it will be a start in the right direction, reaping rewards at every stage of learning.
PS As a footnote to this writing I have experienced the joy of using Irina Gorin’s Tales of Musical Journey that utilizes a creative approach to teaching children in the 4-7 year-old range. It is a book I highly recommend because of its early focus on tone production, and fluency of motion. It mobilizes the young imagination, and takes baby steps in its progression.
Why not give composing a try? I did. For the most part, you don’t need a degree in composition, but a Theory background helps things along with voice leading in the bass part and understanding the rules of notation. Above all, intuition and inspiration are the main ingredients in any creative undertaking.
In 1985 I tried my hand at composing as my six children were falling off to sleep in their bedrooms. This exploration synchronized with my students having inspired Piano Duets By and For Children with my Introduction, “How to Help Children Compose.”
The Making of Moonbeams and other Musical Sketches
Seated at the piano with manuscript paper set on the music rack alongside a pencil with eraser, I let my imagination run free. Improvising and dancing across the keys, I created “Moonbeams,” a bi-chordal wash, using two basic sonorities submerged in one sustain pedal.
Animated creations followed: “March of the Elves,” “Fingers on the Run,” “Merry-Go-Round,” “Mosquito Dance,” and “Catch Me!”
Interspersed among these fast paced selections were more lyrical pieces: “Hebrew Melody and Variations,” “Ballerina,” and “Gliding on Ice.”
Perhaps it was an accident of fate that each of these character pieces had a teaching dimension.
The icing on the cake, of course, was my uncle David’s accompanying art work. I had sent him an audio cassette of the titled pieces, making the whole process a cross-country exchange. (from California to New York and back)
Here are a few samples from the album that can be used as Intermediate Level repertoire. I hope these pieces will encourage piano teachers to experiment with composing, and pass this creative activity down to their students.
*The pieces were not composed in this particular order. Considerations related to key and mood were paramount in organizing the collection.
Moonbeams was reviewed favorably in Clavier Magazine and found its way to the Music Teachers Association of California Convention held in Los Angeles. A student from the area performed “Hebrew Melody and Variations” at the New Materials session.
More swept under the rug issues related to piano teaching… hush hush.. Don’t tread on sacred ground. Would I dare to blog about a Piano World post that bemoaned the plight of private piano teachers as hobbyists– not hard-working, dedicated professionals. I might agree with some but not all of what I read on the Forum, but could I straddle both sides, and sit in a gray middle area? I didn’t think so.
Dozing off on Amtrak 712, journeying from the Bay area to Fresno, I was already thinking about my next blog. Perhaps it was too soon to get controversial–to stray from the information highway. “A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!” had been a Word Press shocker but it hit home like a ton of bricks. Secret, middle of the night thank you’s from piano teachers around the country found their way to the Comments section with a promise not to publish. Many of these teachers felt ragged out, unappreciated, and in some cases abused. Some drafted their own Codes of Behavior that copied my own.
By the same token, I had also heard from colleagues who regaled the profession and never felt more applauded for their efforts. They were Ego Syntonic–at peace with their students and the musical environment they had nurtured over years, if not decades.
So there. Two sides of the same coin–one just as valid as the other.
But back to the “hobby” vs. “profession” issue.
For many of us, our activity was home based, which could breed informality. Might it be better to teach in a community college or university that set aside cubicles named for us, with fancy bulletin boards attached, validating our professional status?
Swishing down the hallways of the Fresno State Music Building at MTAC Celebration Festival time, I couldn’t help but feel envious of music instructors who were on contract, had paid vacation, sick leave, and decent pensions. Such perks spelled RESPECT–and you could kick in the reality of prepaid registrations and tuition that made student absences a moot point.
We private teachers wouldn’t enjoy anything approaching. We sometimes lived on the edge.
I thought about situations in my studio and those of others, that had more than a sniff of taking our services for granted, but being exceptions to the rule, we weren’t ready to raise up the white flag of surrender. It was mostly a joyful, unencumbered journey.
In my case, a few adult students had become my “friends” over a period of years, making it harder for me to abide by my professional studio policies. And ultimately, it came out in the wash, when one or two wanted to vanish for a few months, and come back fresh and easy. Not like the supermarket with all the good stuff. These pupils wanted to disappear mid-year without a trace of themselves for far too long to make any real musical “progress.” And they would return on their own clock not having thought about payment for their stretches of absence. More informality about attendance, an issue that I should have addressed more decisively when I formulated my Policy statement at the very start. (Please, everyone, sign on the dotted line)
I was beginning to agree with the Piano World Poster when he suggested that some teachers were acting in such a permissive way as to undermine the “profession.” He kicked in the fee issue as well, saying that those of us who under-charged fueled his “hobby” assertion.
How could I respond without implicating myself. Well, for one thing, not all hobbies were to be taken with a grain of salt. If a hobby was pursued with passion and intensity, why invalidate it?
Now what would most psychologists say about my response? It definitely skirted the issue—I was using plain old denial.
If a “hobby” was an unpaid activity, Mr. Piano World poster was probably right ON THE MONEY, saying that we “professionals” were being short changed. (pun intended) And it was due to our ENABLING nature.
But the fee issue was something many of us could argue about. The economy dictated more than a grain of flexibility in these hard times. Not every piano teacher could charge what they felt they were worth given inflation, gas prices and rest. If we did, we might be without a profession or hobby to boot.
So where would we go from here to resolve the Great Debate?
I had learned my lesson the hard way–making mistakes I had to amend, but I objected to any Internet Forum poster blaming his colleagues for perceptions that were not easy to change in the universe of students and parents. None of us could be Atlas shouldering the world’s burdens.
Maybe, in the last analysis, we needed some kind of arbitration machinery, or better yet, a union with collective bargaining rights. But that could never happen because we were independent contractors.
So for now, I would be comfortable with my “professional” identity, knowing that a few individuals might test limits and boundaries. In that event, I would take it one situation at a time and not generalize about a whole population of students.
Most psychologists would validate my mantra, saying that what counted most was how we felt about ourselves. No one could in reality take away our professional identity unless we allowed it.
A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!
Pulls and Tugs: Two sides of the student/teacher piano lesson relationship
This morning, as I foraged through piles of folders, I stumbled upon one of my articles that was published in the California Music Teacher (MTAC Magazine) in 1985. At the time, I had just released my music book, “Piano Duets and Solos by and for Children,” which included a lengthy introduction titled, “How to Help Children Compose.” My uncle, the late David Smiton, a gifted fine artist, provided the cover art work and added graphics/pics, but the piano student composers illustrated their own pieces.
In the interests of sharing ideas about creativity and composing in the piano studio, I have reprinted the Preface and some student produced musical selections alongside their artistic creations. My added accompaniments, indicated as “teacher” parts are included. You can see details of the composing process by the prompts inserted at the top (side) of various pages. I hope, above all, that you will enjoy the music and its creative development.
Please feel free to impart your own experiences with composing.
About David Smiton (book cover artist)
A graduate of the Parsons School of Design, David Smiton worked simultaneously as a commercial and fine artist. The highlights of his career reflected the refinement of his talents in both areas. As testimony to his artistic ability, he won the prestigious Grumbacher Award, and he published articles with his illustrations in the American Artist and the Artist’s Market.
While working in New York City as an advertising art director, he was commissioned to sketch events for the nationally televised trial of Lt. Calley. Other trial work followed including the highly publicized Clifford Irving and Jean Harris cases.
An example of David Smiton’s impeccable art work:
Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery
If I turn the clock back to my early days as a piano student, I can say without a doubt that I absolutely HATED “Music Theory” or anything remotely related to it. And I can clearly thank my very pedantic teacher, Mrs. Schwed for this aversion. She made the hefty German army look like a bunch of weaklings when she hammered out the names of chords and keys. I didn’t know what hit me!
A complex vocabulary of “triads,” “inversions,” and “modulations” was like pig Latin, and such dizzying labels seemed completely removed from my pieces.
That’s not the way it should be.
The elements of music theory should be woven into the music we assign our students from day one.
For example, a Primer like Faber’s Piano Adventures, offers the opportunity to teach the PARALLEL minor by replacing E with an Eb in Lesson Book, p.24. Why wait for Red colored Book, Level 1 to expose young pupils to the “sad sounding” minor, as compared to the bright and “happy” Major. The word PARALLEL doesn’t have to attach to this discovery until a later time, but an awareness of bi-tonality can be imbued a lot sooner than most teachers would plan.
And how about having beginning students transpose the “C-D-E-F-G March” into different keys, exploring C Major/minor, through E Major/minor as a start.
What’s wrong with introducing a flat in the early phase of study. It works with “Hot Cross Buns,” for example, p. 6, Primer Performance Book.
Faber begins Primer Piano Adventures with unlabeled black notes but abandons them by page 19, deferring to a sea of favored white notes. Why postpone an early sharp or flat among the whites? Insert it when opportunity knocks!
Theory is Wedded to Music-making
Middle C fixation has already been regarded in many progressive quarters as stultifying, so why not similarly reject theory isolation from the nuts and bolts of PLAYING.
Let’s open our eyes to a wider universe that INTEGRATES theory into the pieces we assign our pupils, making the DOING, BEING, FEELING, of music-making allied to a deeper understanding of its form and content.
Fast forward the clock to the Intermediate stage of learning. By this time, the student should have had decent exposure to scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths. A Fundamentals of Theory series, such as the one produced by Keith Snell and Martha Ashleigh is a valuable companion if tied to repertoire-based study.
Kabalevsky’s “Clowns,” for example, sets up a perfect illumination of the Major/minor bi-tonality, and has a crisp and catchy staccato frame that engages students. Why not run with it and make annotations directly into in the music.
In one or two pages, (depending on the edition) a teacher can map out A Major and A minor in a close temporal relationship (two bars at a time) and compare a middle section that has the theme INVERTED or notated “upside down.” It’s not a stretch to perceive a change in tonality. The ostinato or repeated bass line fleshes out a transition to F, with its Major/minor duality reflected in the treble.
This engaging composition, tightly packed with harmonic duality, is a wonderful vehicle to teach an aspect of theory that would otherwise be spoon fed in an unappetizing way. (In worksheet form)
In this vein, I can say with perfect honesty, that the assignment most ignored or forgotten, relates to THEORY. Examples of student responses: “Ugh, Did I have to do it?” OR “I was too busy to remember.” More often: “I forgot that I had a theory assignment.” Sometimes a pet is used as an excuse in an insalubrious way. By then the student has used up the usual time-worn pretexts for forgetfulness.
Composing can be a motivator:
Finally, a word about composing as a vehicle for learning THEORY, especially in the formative stages of piano study. Right now I have a 7-year old student with 6 months of study under his belt who has been nursed along on Piano Adventures, and transposes most of his MAJOR sounding pieces to the Parallel minor by lowering the third. He thinks nothing of it and enjoys the tonal/emotional contrast. As a follow-up to bi-tonality exploration, he’s composed a phrase in C Major (five-finger position) followed by the same in the parallel minor.
Why not enrich his treble melody with a bass line? (That’s where the teacher’s assistance comes in) Inserting a bass part is a great springboard to understanding how a melodic outline fuels the choice of bass. Filling in voices as the process continues, creates an awareness of chords and later amplifies their function in a particular key or keys.
For certain, “Piano Students as Composers” is worth another blog, but I will defer that discussion to a later time. For now, I think of composing as an additional creative activity embedded into lessons.
For the Advancing Student
For an advanced player, theory should be interwoven into the fabric of learning so that it becomes second nature. (Add in a hands-on knowledge of scales, arpeggios and chords in every key and the joy of music is deepened)
Unfortunately, too many students who are technically proficient, lack an adequate understanding of how their pieces are composed. It’s like residing in a house with a shaky foundation.
For teachers who acquire transfer students with little if any theory knowledge, they’re faced with a huge ground-up endeavor to make up for lost time. But it’s worth the effort.
In summary, music theory shouldn’t be considered as archaic as Latin. It’s a living, breathing part of piano study that widens a student’s musical horizons and makes practicing more meaningful.
I sent an adult SKYPE student in Anchorage Alaska, a tutorial on “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished” chords that fed directly into her study of the J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor, p.2. Such an infusion of theory advanced and solidified her learning.
Beethoven didn’t attach “Moonlight” to this first movement of his very popular C# minor Sonata. (Music critics often invented these tags that stuck over centuries) The composer, himself, said his opening was like a fantasy, “quasi una fantasia,” and he took particular care to compose his Adagio Sustenuto movement in alla breve, which meant that each measure should be played in two, not four. (Think of two groups of triplets, as taking up the space of one beat, and then another pair of triplets comprising the second beat)
How I approach the composition when learning it from the ground up:
Start by playing every chord in the key of C# minor using the Harmonic Form (raise B to B#)
Listen for the quality of each chord: Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished
Identify the Neapolitan chord in this Key:
Lower the second degree by a half step to D, and build a Major Chord on it. (D Major, D F# A)
Practice playing the Neapolitan (D F# A) to the Dominant (G# B# D#) to tonic, (C# E G#)
Invert these chords for smoother, easier voice leading between them. A characteristic of Beethoven’s first movement, is the smooth passage of broken chords from one to another though chord inversions.
Layered Learning: (There are more practice steps indicated here than in the video)
1)Isolate and block out chords for each triplet from the beginning to the end of piece. You can use pedal. (GOOD FINGERING IS A MUST!) Use a supple wrist, and play with a nice flow from chord to chord. Think in big groups of TWO right from the start.
Try to name the chords and their function, whether Major, minor, or diminished, etc. and if, tonic, Sub Dominant, Dominant etc.
Look for SECONDARY DOMINANTS where there are MODULATIONS to other keys besides C# minor. Identify the KEY CHANGES and how they occurred. (Notice the voice leading between chords–what notes remain the same–which ones move away–and then come back or not, etc)
2) Isolate the Bass line, and think again of underlying groups of TWO beats to each measure.
3) Play the bass line (Left Hand) and the block chords above (Right Hand)
4) Isolate the Melody (This can be tricky since fingering has to synchronize well with the alto voice below with the broken chords)
USE A GOOD FINGERING FOR THE TOP OR SOPRANO LINE.
6) Play the soprano line with the bass line.
7) Play the soprano line with block chords in the alto voice (Create a nice balance–with melody resonating over chords)
8) Play the bass, alto chords, soprano line all together (Be aware of voice balance–ring out the melody)
8) Finally Play All Parts as written. Think again in groups of TWO for each measure. (Balance awareness, once again, between soprano, alto and bass)
BACK TEMPO is always a good idea. Gradually bring the movement into tempo when ready. A piece ripens with time.
PEDALING: BE GUIDED BY THE HARMONIC RHYTHM, or changes in Harmony.
Various esteemed pianists, perform this movement at different tempi.
Check Murray Perahia, Wilhelm Kempff, Vladimir Horowitz, Daniel Barenboim as reference on You Tube.