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The Transfer Piano Student

I would hate to pigeon hole all “transfer” students in one way or another. It would be unfair, and unfortunately many piano teachers shy away from prospects who were immersed in learning environments where little progress was made over a period of years.

Some reluctant piano instructors might say, “there’s just too much work involved in reversing bad habits, so I’m not up to the task.”

In my own experience, where a student is at least on a common page, dedicated to receiving a new set of ideas that will help him improve his technique and musical expression, wedded together, of course, then I’m up for the collective journey. (even with its built-in challenges)

Just the other day, I was delighted to meet a “new” adult pupil who had studied for five years with another teacher. The shift, springing from a schedule issue, brought more than a blessing in disguise. I was pleased to discover that the young woman had been exploring the great piano literature with method books being a things of the past. (Thank Goddess!)

In fact she played a gorgeous Haydn Minuet and a Mendelssohn Children’s piece which both offered opportunities to probe the singing tone, and ways of phrasing in two contrasting musical periods. (Classical and Romantic)

Of interest was the motif of the Mendelssohn composition that could have sounded like Schumann’s famous G Major March (Album for the Young) but for the difference in notated slurs. The former had the march spirit, while the other had to be executed as if sung expressively. This second piece required yielding to the upper voice of two, and letting the common thumb go a tad early. In this way a legato melodic line was preserved. (smooth and connected notes)

What a nice entree to style and interpretation.

In the realm of technique, I noticed that the pupil needed to play with supple wrists and more freedom in her arms which we worked on from the very start of her lesson. Scales that were a bit locked by tension, gradually gave way to a curvaceous spill of 16ths to four octaves.

Had I harbored a prejudice toward meeting with a “transfer” student, I would have lost a treasured opportunity to grow as a musician along with a willing student.

Another situation, but less appealing:

I’ve had moms bring Middle school children, in the main, who’ve bounced from teacher to teacher. This can be a RED FLAG, but not always, depending on the individual circumstance. (Family relocations can require a teacher change given the high rate of job transfers and home foreclosures)

However, where the grass is greener mantra infiltrates each and every teacher consult, I tend to shy away from being the next trial and error instructor.

In the Bay area, there are an abundance of gifted teachers, and each offers a well of musical wisdom. But an instructor and a student need TIME to develop a relationship, and not be subject to espresso evaluations.

However, in the Fresno environs, the musical landscape is a bit different, and often the “transfers” are neighborhood driven, or a student has devoted little if any time to practicing, and blames it on the piano teacher. Mom keeps talking about the “right or wrong chemistry” ad nauseum, and while this could be a valid reason for a shift in instructors, it’s often just the opposite. She will insist that the turnover of pieces is too slow, and that junior has spent too much time learning one selection.

Example, an 11-year old was brought to me who had studied for 9 months with one teacher, and barely a year with another. Mom said her child was not playing enough “popular” music and needed someone to make lessons “fun.”

Upon examination of the child’s musical skills, I observed that she was barely note-reading at a satisfactory level and she couldn’t play a one-octave scale up and down. In fact, she’d never been exposed to a scale or anything resembling, including five-finger Major/minor positions.

Was I braced to be the next mentor in line, accused of NOT making lessons a bowl of cherries?

I passed up the chance.

Obviously there are all kinds of circumstances in which we meet up with transfer students, and each should be separately evaluated. One, for example, may circumscribe an emotionally abusive situation, a cosmos I explored in the following blog:

A student may be fleeing an unwholesome learning environment that has stifled his progress and reduced him to feelings of overwhelming inadequacy.

Seymour Bernstein, author of MONSTERS AND ANGELS describes this very abuse that drove him to request another piano teacher at the distinguished Mannes College of Music. The story is well capsulized in this blog posted by Harriet:

Bernstein’s experience among others must be carefully assessed, or with our cultural blinders on, we could overlook a blessed musical relationship with a transfer student that will grow and ripen with time.

If my beloved teacher, Lillian Freundlich, had viewed me as just one of those garden variety “transfers” who came through her door so ill-prepared to play what I had been assigned by a previous mentor (the Chopin Scherzo in Bb Minor, for example) then I would have given up the piano in sheer frustration.

What I heard in my inner ear, I couldn’t express as a player due to inadequate technique and phrasing. These hallmark musicianship skills had to be learned from the ground up and I needed a willing teacher to guide me. (starting with an awareness of the singing tone)

Teachers make such a big difference in our lives if we let them do the work needed. Support and respect for the instructor and learning environment must come from the pupil, and in the case of youngsters, also from their parents.

Whether students are “transfers” or not, these basic ingredients of a positive teacher/pupil relationship underlie musical growth and development.


Please share your experience as a transfer student, or if in a role as teacher, how did you proceed with students from other learning environments?


The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On

How Long Should a Piano Student Stay with a Piece?

Pulls and Tugs between students/teachers/and parents in the piano learning cosmos

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Piano Lesson: Rina, 4, climbs the staircase, and then learns about happy and sad in music

The first video below showcases the partial content of today’s lesson. Because I am a staunch believer in introducing black keys early on in the course of piano study, I explored mood affect in music and lowered the E of “Frere Jacques” to E FLAT. Rina was basically exposed to the “minor” mode without a affixing a label to it, and she discovered the “flatted” note without an associated letter name.

Last week’s lesson: (Second session, working on “Frere Jacques” following staircase activity)

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The nitty gritty reasons why piano students drop out: Two staunchly different opinions

The current rage on the Internet surrounds a Facebook posting that claims a 95% dropout rate among piano students. The nitty gritty reasons cited by the poster are contained in what I view as a tirade against what he terms “standard lessons.” He insists that the “music teaching industry” uses a “status quo method that chains students to sight-reading instead of teaching independence.” His alternative is a “playing by ear” approach.

To begin with, the 95% dropout statistic is unsubstantiated and the reasons cited for this figure are far from proven.

In addition, what “music teaching industry” exists in the US or anywhere else? Most teachers are independently employed–many barely struggling along and they have no lobbyists to wheel and deal for them on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps the writer was referring to the method book industry that churns out $$$ driven materials that may not suit many creatively driven piano teachers. Those who do not embrace a pure method book path to learning might choose to modify content and supplement with composing and ear-training activities.

Music teacher conventions and symposiums also abound where new ideas are bounced about. An informed teacher can attend these and benefit from a cross-fertilization of ideas from his or her colleagues. Podcasts, you tube presentations and tutorials enrich the teaching landscape.

So with or without the method book industry as the target of blame or punching bag, how does any of this discussion relate to piano dropout rates?

I maintain that students give up piano lessons for a variety of reasons:

Time conflicts

Competing extracurricular activities are a big problem. Piano lessons are often squeezed out by ballet, tap, hip hop, and other dance lessons that may occur more than twice a week. Baseball, football, T-ball, soccer practices are additional time eaters.

Practicing is negligible when sports and other preoccupations, including burdensome loads of homework demand maximum attention. Teens in high school have additional pressures related to SAT test preparation and college admission. Their week is cluttered with exams and study deadlines.

Piano teachers can barely do their best with an over-scheduled, academically pressured child during the year. When lessons drop off in the summer, progress is further set back. Once school resumes, the whole cycle of holiday and other interruptions is renewed.

Short cuts

Above and beyond the scheduling snafus, piano teachers have to deal with many parents who demand the quick and easy route to piano learning which naturally filters down to the child. Self imposed deadlines to reach learning landmarks causes frustration among students that often leads to a premature lesson exit.

The pressure to acquire piano playing skills in a flash is pervasive. The quick fix is in. The long term relationship to the art of piano playing is OUT. There’s even a commercial package titled “Playing Piano in a Flash” whose creator made a few guest appearances on PBS in a fund-raising capacity. His assistant, an attractively dressed woman, fed him a script that standard private piano lessons were a big “waste of money.” Whoopie!

Both these advocates of FLASH learning were selling the idea that piano related skills could be mastered as easily as making instant coffee, and it was so tempting to BUY it!


But back TO THE FACEBOOK poster who continued his rant:

Under his topic heading: Piano Lesson Reform – Tyranny Of The Juggernaut, he said, “there is nothing I am more passionate about than piano-lesson reform. I have great love for what standard lessons are but hate them for what they are not.”

“Too many beginning students get lost and quit before they really learn anything significant. They’re excited in the beginning and commit themselves, their time, money and effort to learn the skill. However, over the course of about 2 years, all the excitement is sucked out them and the only thing left to do is quit to become a dropout statistic and faker.”

My comment: FAKER? I didn’t understand the term. Did he mean that what the student had not learned turned him into a faker?

From my nearly 40 years teaching, I never had a faker flow out of piano lessons. Most students who had the time and opportunity tried their best. Their repertoire was a mixture of classical, pop, theater and movie selections, but they knew they had to build a solid foundation to play any of these works well and with satisfaction. This required technical mastery (playing scales, arpeggios in all keys around the Circle of 5ths), learning how to physically produce a singing tone, and how to frame their music with a steady, buoyant beat. Reading music fluently was at the heart of lessons. Quitting piano amidst this kind of study had nothing to do with the content of each session. It had all to do with a DEARTH of TIME set aside by a pupil to study conscientiously, and/or an attitude by parents that failed to embrace baby-step layered learning.

More from the distraught and disappointed commentator who bemoaned his “wasted” years studying piano:

“The ‘standard’ piano teaching method, (??????) “dictates its own agenda of ‘progress’ based on eye-to-finger coordination and in so doing, steers most beginning students off course to their ultimate failure. It is specific to only one style of music (classical) and relegates the ‘skills’ of the player to that of a totally dependent, note-reading follower that will never lead.”

My comment: What standard piano method fits neatly into this narrow classification and who necessarily uses one approach without modification. Plenty of teachers prefer repertoire-based learning, and employ a variety of materials. They will often integrate composing into their curriculum, as previously mentioned.

The poster retread the same theme:

“I’ve been a staunch critic of the standard approach. Yes, it works fine for the relative few who devote themselves to classical music but for everyone else, it’s frustrating and misleading.”

My comment: What a big umbrella to encompass a horde of frustrated piano students who dislike classical music. Same for the “piano teaching industry” label that lumps the whole country’s instructors into a powerful pressure group that promotes the “status quo.”

In truth, where individual piano teachers may not mix and match well with individual students, or have the “right chemistry,” let alone possess adequate teaching skills, there’s always the option of finding a better fit.

Some pupils may want a jazz repertoire emphasis, others, classical etc. Vive La difference. Personal choices can be made with a solid understanding of what’s desired. But if quickie approaches eliminate note reading as part of the instructional program, then the long-term consequences should be explored.

In conclusion, I feel sympathy for piano students who had a painful instructional beginning. After all, it took me at least 3 tries before I found a wonderful piano teacher who ignited my life-long love of the piano and its repertoire.

I can only hope that piano drop-outs will not be discouraged by their early disappointments and will muster the courage to take lessons again.

To read more from the Facebook poster, go to PianoWorldwide, E-music maestro.!/groups/pianoworldwide/ Your feedback is always appreciated.


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Rina, age 4, has her second piano lesson using “Tales of a Musical Journey” (videos in 6 parts)

I’m videotaping all of Rina’s lessons as I travel with her through the “Magical Kingdom of Sounds” from Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical Journey.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:


Rina’s first piano lesson

Rina’s THIRD Piano Lesson:

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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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How long should a piano student stay with a piece?

As a teacher, I’ve often pondered this question, concluding that there are varying answers which depend on the advancement and motivation of individual students. Certainly no fixed formula addresses the length of time a pupil needs to fully realize his potential when practicing a given composition.

By way of example, I have an adult student, who pursued piano as a child into her teenage years, and had a long hiatus from lessons until mid-life when she resumed studies. I had observed that she was very motivated to learn the Classical repertoire because she had grown up with a strong cultural exposure to music of this genre, and she was willing to develop a strong foundation based on a regimen of scales, arpeggios, and ground up learning of minuets, to sonatinas, to fully developed sonatas. The commitment was strong, and the time allotted for practicing was substantial and consistent.

But these particular circumstances would not be common to every pupil taking lessons.

In this woman’s situation, within three years she had the potential to play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and the Chopin Waltz in A minor, though she realized that she would probably be practicing these pieces in layers from the ground up for a significant time if she desired to reach a level of proficiency that she desired.

That meant being attentive to fingering, phrasing, separate hand practice, dynamics, harmonic analysis, etc. without feeling that she would have to reach certain milestones at a fixed deadline. There were no value judgments attached to learning curves.

Where a student commits to this paradigm of study, the journey is the reward instead of a formulated end game. Whether a student needs six to eight months to develop the skills to play an advanced work, is not the issue, unless he makes it so.

In most cases, a teacher and student can come to a consensus about what variation in repertoire is best recommended to hold the pupil’s interest and keep him enthusiastic about learning.

The Chopin Waltz had been the centerpiece of the adult student’s practicing until it reached a plateau, and was then joined by Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” which benefited from the time, and depth of study applied to the Chopin. The second piece also added a variety of musical styles that enriched and advanced the student’s knowledge of the piano on technical and musical levels. Each piece had its own learning landscape and complemented the other.

In a collaborative student/teacher environment, the “feel” for the right time to move from one piece to another presents naturally without stress or strain. Sometimes adding a composition (popular or otherwise) invigorates the student and gives him an enlarged perspective about his whole learning experience.

Where younger students, with less time to practice, grow tired of even short pieces far too early during their exposure to them, a discussion of goals with parents and pupils is probably needed.

Due to the impatience of youth, many youngsters would like a more espresso passage through many pieces, skimming the surface, and moving on to the next. Sadly, this type of learning can breed discouragement quicker than it takes to discard one piece and replace it with another. Before long, the student has lost interest in taking lessons entirely.

Even if a pupil insists that a particular piece will energize him, at least at the outset, if practicing habits and commitment to working out a piece in a step-wise way are unappealing, then whatever flavor of the week composition is assigned, it will not stand the test of time to develop to a level of proficiency where the student feels happy about the outcome.

Back to the same question about staying with one piece or another, and for how long?

For me as a teacher, I believe that when the student has done his best within his potential and skill level to take the necessary steps that will allow a piece to ripen–to be played smoothly, with an attached level of confidence that gives him satisfaction –then it can be rested, and revisited at a later time.

And this brings up decisions that are made by teachers where it concerns choice of repertoire, and whether a particular piece can be so far from technical reach that it will be a guaranteed journey of frustration.

For many students a combination of pieces that are challenging enough to be practicing motivators, alongside those that can be mastered more readily and used perhaps as sight-reading adventures to develop those particular skills, might offer a balanced musical diet.

Striking this desired balance, presenting the student with compositions that stimulate growth and require a consistent, long-term relationship, beside diversified repertoire that may be more readily assimilated, should keep the student moving along while simultaneously exploring musical depths.

In short, there are no easy answers associated with the amount of time a student spends with a particular piece. The best approach, in my opinion, is mixing things up, and having an open dialog with the student and parents about progress, goals and what’s realistic given the pupil’s schedule. Collaboration, above all, heads off any authoritarian time lines that stratify learning and send students out the door before they have stayed around long enough to appreciate the joy of music-making.