Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Gift of Healthy Self-Talk

Coal in my brother's Christmas stocking meant one thing - he had been bad that year, or at least in my parents' recent memory.  While the rest of us were unwrapping chocolate coins and peppermint canes, my brother stood in horror, looking at the black lumps in his stocking.  It hadn't been much work to fill his stocking - a quick trip to the coal bin in the cellar.  Maybe that was the insult added to the injury.  It took more time and effort to put brightly-wrapped yummies in the other four stockings than to toss dirty black coal into his.

My parents loved Christmas.  They hid gifts for five children in the neighbor's basement to insure the element of surprise.  My rather introverted dad supervised decorating the front door and the tree, making sure there was Christmas music playing in the background, and Mom's abundant goodies were available during the festivities. Dad's grumpy side came out only when we woke him up before dawn to see what Santa had left for us. With this as a backdrop, the threat of coal instead of candy being realized was, on a kid's level, powerful.

After the effect had been achieved, my parents pulled out goodies for my brother as well. I don't know how, or even if, he remembers this day, but I never forgot it.  It didn't seem like a small thing to me, to be labeled as bad for a WHOLE YEAR, and then somehow to be treated as though the slight had never happened.

There are so many ways we communicate to ourselves and to our students that connect to this story.  How easy it is to say the first words that come out of our mouths, without realizing that the words may be heard as verbal lumps of coal.  We are human, of course, and we get frustrated and tired and impatient and goal-oriented.  And we do it to ourselves as well as to our students.  In fact, we are often more cruel and unforgiving and irrational when we evaluate our own progress.  We match our success against impossible standards, by-passing the signs that our practice is, indeed, paying off.

Maybe we learned this from teachers who were human and frustrated and tired and impatient and goal-oriented.  Maybe we learned this from teachers who believed they had our best interests at heart by mercilessly reminding us of our short-comings, then sending us out to perform in public as though none of the lumps of the lesson would emerge on stage.  All is forgiven - play well!

Reflecting on a new calendar year of teaching, I think of the potential to improve my self-talk as a way to teach my students healthy self-talk.  Not unrealistic self-talk - my brother had been quite impish that year - because that is a false measure of achievement.  Healthy self-talk is about realizing where one is in the process and setting goals for the next level that are attainable.  Healthy self-talk does not self-elevate or self-deprecate irrationally.  It's not coal or candy but a realistic mix of these, coupled with the occasional element of surprise.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What Your Pedagogy Teacher May Not Tell You

Selena's bright blue eyes were rimmed with tears as she made her way into the studio.  I had always looked forward to her lessons. She was bright, industrious and upbeat, but not that night. She dropped onto the bench and said, "My parents just told me they are getting a divorce."

I wavered between compassion and anger.  I wanted to run back into the street and yell to her parents, "What were you thinking, sending this child to me ten minutes after you told her that her world is falling apart?  What did you think I could do for her that you couldn't?  This is not fair!"  That anger is a large part of the memory of this night, even these many, many years later.  Compassion won out, and I let her cry, and I listened.

I have since had many students who have needed to be listened to, and not just during the performance part of their lessons.  They are not all children.  Adults will come in and tell me their families are breaking up or they are suffering from illness and that lessons will stop, at least for a while.  Students will come in with tales of loss of pets and grandparents and best friends.  No one is immune from loss.

When it is the loss of the family unit of origin, many complications arise for the piano student.  Unlike smaller, portable instruments, the piano cannot be tossed in the back seat of the car.  The likelihood of having a piano at both parents' homes is slim.  Some have keyboards, and some don't.  Sometimes Grandma or Grandpa is the proprietor of the piano, meaning that practice has to be worked into an already jumbled living arrangement.

The simplest solution is to cut out students who can't practice at all of their residences.  When I get into that mode of thinking, I consider the students who would get the axe.  I genuinely like my students, and my compassion for their complex lives usually wins out.  Some of these students are genuinely glad to see me every week, even when they haven't practiced.  They need a supportive adult who listens for at least five minutes of the lesson.

Some teachers believe that a lesson should never be about the student's feelings.  I'm not OK with that.  Call it my downfall, if you will, but I never could understand how teaching an expressive art could exclude the recognition of the daily flow of emotions.  The first five minutes of how-do-you-dos help the student transition from the rest of life to the musical part of life.

I tend to agree with a former teacher, an old-world style professor who was the very model of reserve in the classroom.  He said, "Every lesson is a psychology session."  He knew that he needed to click with each student in a way that allowed that student to hear his instruction and connect to it.  That may involve allowing a moment or two of frustration to be experienced, or the telling of a sad tale, either to get it out of the way of the music making or to help the teacher understand what is blocking progress in the lesson.

This acknowledgement doesn't meant that teachers hand out therapeutic advice or that the student stops working on music.  It also doesn't mean that we keep secrets from the student's family members. None of these actions is in the job description of piano teacher.  It simply means that we recognize the humanity of our students as much or more than we enforce the ideal syllabus we studied in pedagogy class.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Take the Bait, and Get the Hook

My fall studio recital will include versions of these pieces:
Ode to Joy - Beethoven
Für Elise - Beethoven
Canon in D - Pachelbel
Solfeggietto - C.P.E.  Bach
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
When I'm 64 - Lennon and McCartney

Most teachers can count on students falling in like, if not love, with the pieces listed above.  They are known as hook pieces, the pieces that hook students so strongly that they work against odds to master them.  They are even more enticing if the teacher says, "I don't think you are ready to tackle this piece." This declaration guarantees months of dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-deeee  filling the studio.

But, wait a minute - Lennon, McCartney? Have they been around long enough to be on the list of time-tested composers? Is "When I'm 64" now an old chestnut in the piano repertoire?

I can't give you a factual response to this hypothetical question, but John and Paul's music is vibrant and interesting to today's young students.  The same is true of the early music of Billy Joel - "Piano Man" and "Just the Way You Are" -  which will also be on the program. I'm glad to continue their legacies in some small way.

There will also be a waltz by Oscar Peterson ("I never played anything like this before", says student), Blue Rondo by Dave Brubeck, and an old 18th century American piano duet that caught the imagination of another young student.  I also spent two years listening to every possible version of the score of "The Phantom of the Opera" played by an obsessed student who later became quite accomplished at classical repertoire. We are so lucky as piano teachers to have a vast repertoire of potential hook pieces for our students.

We can also learn about our students through the pieces that grab their attention.  First, that there are pieces that have something innately addictive or entertaining or communicative.  Für Elise is definitely one of them.  Beginning students can be happy playing the opening phrase over and over and over again, never getting to the drum-like bass part or the fleeting arpeggios that happen later in the piece.  They are hooked from the start.  They will play this piece in all kinds of versions before tackling the "real" Für Elise, which they will probably never stop playing.

Second, never assume that you know what students will like.  The student playing Blue Rondo also chose the Chopin Prelude in c minor, whose giant chords couldn't be more different from Brubeck's rapid-fire, off-meter patterns.

Third, sometimes we may need to step out of the traditional step-by-step process and throw the student a real challenge.  I have fought against this in the past, only to be thwarted by the eager student determined to prove me wrong.  Every now and then a student jumps levels for no apparent reason and succeeds. Some of my most accomplished pianists have done this, despite the little pedagogy teacher in my brain saying, "Keep your students on a steady track of learning."  Some just jump the rails.

Suzanne Guy, inspirational teacher and author, reminds us that our students can learn anything with the right guidance. Pay attention to what your students are asking for, even if it seems out of sequence or somehow wrong.  You can probably find a way to make it work, even if the student learns only the melody or one section of a piece.  They offer you the bait, and you find the hook.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Gee, thanks!

I was once quoted in the New York Times, and I am not kidding. The words and the credit for them were mine. The twist is that I would not have been able to write those words without the person about whom they were written.

Jean Stellfox was the best grammar and English teacher I ever studied with, bar none. It is thanks to her, and my newspaper-editor father, that I can put together cogent sentences with decent punctuation.

She didn't have fancy tricks up her sleeve either. I well remember sitting in rows, declining verbs student by student, trying to figure out whether I would get "you" or "he, she, it" by the time my turn came around.

She kept order by her demeanor. No threats were necessary, just unflappable glares. Learning was the only option in her class.

After I began to publish my writing, I sent her a heartfelt thank-you letter.  After she was killed by a hit-and-run driver, someone going through her effects found my letter and many others, choosing some lines from several to publish in the Times. She had collected all of these notes and letters and put them in scrapbooks. That alone was a surprise.

The bigger surprise - the one that resulted in her obituary being in the Times - was that she had accrued a very large sum of money over the years to go to Dickinson College upon her death. It was appropriate for a single woman to trust her investments to the school that shaped her career. Major gratitude.

I confess that I have a much smaller collection of thank you notes from past students.  I felt less self-conscious about that collection after learning that Miss Stellfox also had one. She didn't seem to need thanks. She was always self-composed and secure that what she was doing was her job, and that she was doing it in the best way she knew.

As a new school year starts, my mind goes to ways I could improve my teaching.  I can't say I always feel as secure as Miss Stellfox appeared to be. Maybe that was just appearance.  Maybe that was why she kept all those thank-yous, to remind herself that good things were coming from her efforts.

If you are - or were -  a student, take the opportunity to express your gratitude for what you have learned, whether it is from a piano teacher, an English teacher, your parents or a coach. You may not ever find out that you encouraged a person who encouraged you, but it feels good to say, "Gee, thanks!".

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Your face WILL freeze like that!

There are a lot of sayings that our moms repeated when we were growing up, and some of them were right. With my four siblings, an array of pets, and half the neighborhood in my house, my mother had to be quick to discharge the right command at the right time. She knew that making taunting faces was just one step before physical retaliation, hence the speedy warning, "Your face will freeze like that!".

Turns out, she was right. The body can and does change, depending on what we do with it on a daily basis. Exercise is thought to be the way to alter muscle shape, size and strength, but everything we do is thanks to muscle movement, making all daily movement decisions forms of exercise.

Even if you have a daily dose of formal exercise, you probably still spend more time doing everything else you do. This is particularly true for musicians who have practice regimens of several hours per day. Our bodies adapt to the positions and movements we choose for playing our instruments. If those movements are balanced and structurally sound, our bodies will be comfortable. If those movements are out of balance and not well-coordinated, we will teach our bodies to push through the discomfort and to muscle our way through t
he the lack of ease. This forcing also changes muscle shape and effort for the task.

The worst outcome of these decisions is a form of muscle freezing known as dystonia. Dystonia produces uncontrollable muscle spasms and/or the inability to access movement in certain muscles while other muscles work far too hard. For musicians, this is the kiss of death, not just a "funny face".

It is surmised that Robert Schumann was a dystonia sufferer, and Leon Fleisher's struggle with uncontrollable muscle spasms is well documented by Fleisher himself. Dystonia is now thought to be a brain problem with muscular symptoms rather than a muscular problem alone. Dystonic musicians need evaluation by experts to rule out neuro-muscular diseases that can mimic dystonia.

One of the common treatments for dystonia is botox, injected to quiet the spasms, another form of freezing movement, if you will. Musicians with dystonia may choose this in order to stop the pain and disorienting jumping of muscles. Again, professional evaluation is required.

Another very helpful strategy is body mapping. Body mapping is a process of evaluating one's understanding of physical structure, thereby correcting any errors that may be limiting free movement.

As teachers, we can help our students by teaching structure along with technique. Avoiding mythical representations of structure and movement is a high priority. Our students are more likely to make healthy movement choices if they know how they are constructed, as are we.

Tools for body mapping can be found at Teachers trained in this approach can also be located at this site.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Who Says?

"I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach sonatas for cello and keyboard. It was the first time I’d ever heard him live, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Well he’s a superstar, so it will be note-perfect, I’ll be dazzled by his technique and he’ll look great, but I won’t expect any revelations.' But just the opposite happened. My reaction to his Bach was 'Man, that was weird!' He didn’t play Bach at all like I’d come to think I’d known it. He was not afraid to be coarse and edgy at times, nor was he afraid to go beyond the accepted norms of polite expressiveness we’d been admonished to consider proper. He’d obviously asked questions before he started to consider the piece." John Adams in his 2011 Juilliard commencement address.

Thank you, John Adams. I like your operas, but I love this statement.

Recently I sat with a student as we poured over her jury sheets. I really like this student. She works hard. She asks questions. She is a risk-taker. I get that. I rather identify with it.

She played Mozart, and she played it beautifully. It was expressive and expansive, and she took just the right risks for her.

But as I read the comments, I was thinking, "Who says?" Who says the music is too loud, too slow, too dramatic, too full of rubato, too much like Beethoven? Really, I mean, really?

I know who signed the reports, but I don't know who told them how Mozart sounds. Or who told the people who told them. And on and on like a house of identical cards.

One of my colleagues tells her students that they must play according to custom until they become great. Then they can do whatever they want. HMMM. In other words, train all students to mediocrity, and then hope that a few will ferret out the right questions whose answers will lead to greatness.

I know that students are not born with historical perspectives on style, and that we need to teach that. I know that learning is a combination of discipline and freedom. But at some point we need to say, "Go, and do thou unlikewise."

This is where the art of teaching is most exciting and most perilous. We have to weigh the gain or loss in a situation against the dreaded "norms" that John Adams references. It's a tough call.

But the great ones make the call. Steven Blier, artistic director of the New York Festival of Song, is possibly the most exhuberant pianist I have ever heard. He knows songs from all over the world, and he plays every one as though he had grown up in its culture. When I told him how much I admired the joyfulness of his playing, he said that he never went to graduate school because he knew "they" would take that joy away.

The dreaded "they". Who says "they" are always right?

One juror who heard my student play apparently heard the same performance I heard. The comments were "lovely, expressive, emotional". In other words, the listener was touched by the performance. Who says there is anything wrong with that?

Monday, May 16, 2011

How Hard Can It Be?

"My dad taught me early in my coaching career that football is an easy game, made complicated by coaches," Rex Ryan told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

I stopped mid-sip in my morning coffee to listen to the interview on the May 13th issue of Morning Edition. I mentally rewrote the sentence to something like this: "Piano playing is an easy skill, made complicated by teachers."

OK, not really easy, not very easy at all once we get to high level literature. However, it is quite possible that we teachers make it even more complicated.

Ryan, successful coach of the NY Jets, says that he approaches coaching by requiring the whole team to be in on sessions that involve defense, for example. While he does split the team for specific coaching, he always makes sure that every player understands every part of the strategy and the contribution of each part to the whole. Holistic coaching, you might say.

I like this idea. I like it a lot. While we know as teachers of young students that they don't always see the value of things we want them to learn, it is not a bad idea to consider when and why they need to learn them in the larger scheme of skill-building.

Let's take scales, for example. Yes, scales. Many years ago one of my friends asked me if I taught my young students scales. I said, no, I use other simple technical exercises first. "Oh," she said, "my teacher made me play scales right from the beginning." (Enter my default insecurity.) She followed it up with, "I hated that."

Right, because hands-together parallel motion scales are hard to play for most young children, and they don't know why they need to learn them when very little, if any, of their repertoire uses them. For that matter, hands-together parallel motion scales don't appear all that often in more mature literature. So right out of the gate, this child-now-adult hated piano lessons. It was too hard to do something that didn't make sense.

There are certainly easier ways to teach scales - hands alone, tetrachords, etc., etc. - but many students learn scales more quickly and easily at a later stage. Up until then, they can be working on musical skills like good legato, hand balancing and moving the thumb. These technical elements are central to good scale playing. When students mature a bit, they can add these elements to the other challenges of scale playing, thereby putting the parts into the whole.

I was reminded of how important it is to make skill-building simple while watching a clip of James Levine, noted Metropolitan Opera conductor and vocal coach, working with Placido Domingo, life-long tenor cum baritone of international renown. Domingo expressed a technical challenge for his voice, and Levine said every so kindly, "I'll show you how to make it easier."

Now that's good coaching.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Autism and the Search for the Self

Two traits of autism that are in the popular vernacular: 1) autism presents across a spectrum and 2) autistic people will not look you in the eye.

As for Number One, it is the norm for all kinds of human traits. Stating it reminds us that a label like autism is not a UPC (uniform personal code?) that guarantees the contents of the human inside. It is Number Two that is the foundation for this post, and also the foundation for the continuing research into the neurological basis for autism.

V.S. Ramachandran is a highly-regarded researcher into the mysteries of the brain and the nervous system. He writes for those of us who are fascinated on a practical level, and he has a wonderful sense of humor. His latest book is "The Tell-Tale Brain", published by W.W.Norton and Company. I recommend it highly to teachers, especially the chapters on mirror neurons and autism.

V.S., as those of us who would like to be his friend call him, has been involved in significant research that proves the link between non-functioning mirror neurons and autism. Mirror neurons are the elements of the brain that allow us to imitate what we see, sometimes called the "monkey see, monkey do" neurons. Autistic people do not have the same mirror neuron response to human actions as non-autistic people, making it difficult for them to adapt a standard of social interaction that we classify as normal.

However, what is even more fascinating - or frustrating, if you are a parent of an autistic child - is that mirror neurons function ideally in connection to an understanding of the concept of self. Without a concept of self, the ability to imitate appropriate behaviors is limited.

The word "autism" suggests a quality of self-absorption, exhibited through a failure to display interactions with others that fall somewhere in the spectrum of normal. I have thought for a long time that this meant an autistic person was overly interested in the self. This is true, but the framework for that interest comes from the inability to feel secure as a separate self. This explains why some autistic people subject themselves to head banging or other extreme sensory self-stimulation. They want to know that they are there, somewhere in there, functioning on at least a sensory level that gives some feedback for their separateness.

It is this link between sense of self and sense of others, according to current theories by V.S. and others in the field, that is missing for people with autism. Without a secure sense of self, a person can not allow that self to imitate other people.

It may be that forthcoming research will demonstrate that high-functioning autistic people, such as those classified with Asberger's syndrome, actually have a more functional mirror neuron network than those who are low-functioning. It still may be more limited than "normal", but it may prove to be the source of the different levels of functioning.

For those of us who depend so heavily on the principles of imitation in our profession, learning more about mirror neurons and the sense of self can be extremely helpful. If you are currently working with students with autistic traits, it is necessary.

April is Autism Awareness Month, the ideal time to explore and learn more about autism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There are no "undecideds" at Juilliard.

Or at Curtis. These are the two most competitive schools in the country, and not just among music schools. They are the most competitive schools in the country, period, and they are populated with specialists.

A conservatory admissions staff doesn't care whether prospective students were on the debate team, prom committee or jai alai squad. The faculty doesn't have much interest in the number of AP science courses applicants took or the box tops they recycled for charity. They want performers - very, very dedicated performers.

It may be that the performing arts schools are the last bastions of specialization for undergraduates. Just watch your students run from practice to event to committee meeting to social gathering.

There is nothing wrong with being "well-rounded", as the expression goes, nothing at all. There are lots of well-rounded undecideds occupying seats in freshman writing classes across the country. They keep universities in business.

They don't keep conservatories in business.

The current economic situation is, once again, kicking us all in the "arts". Public schools are facing increasingly difficult monetary decisions, and we are certainly feeling the pain here in Pennsylvania. Non-profit musical organizations are struggling to keep their budgets in the black, or in a respectable amount of red.

Supporting the specialists who are taking the path less traveled is going to be up to us, the independent teachers, more than ever. We may be forming the line that connects the dots between a dream and reality. Let's do our best to be up to the challenge, to identify those who are willing to go the extra mile and help them along the way.

Let's also be gently honest with those who are undecided as to how narrow the road to musical success actually is.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Pro-pain culture?

A few weeks ago I read a two-sided article regarding the validity of competitive cheerleading as a sport. The pro-sport author contended that cheerleading was a sport because the participants suffered injury and still had to perform, just like other athletes.

I kid you not.

In essence, sport was defined by its propensity toward harm. Hmm. I used to think that sports were touted as healthy activity. Humility strikes again.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there are musicians with the same mindset. I do know that the technical demands of music have increased considerably in the last 50 years. Eckart Altenmüller, musician, physician and highly regarded specialist in the medical problems of musicians, lists this as one of the major reasons for the increase in focal dystonias among musicians. (Music, Motor Control and the Brain, published byOxford University Press) Our challenges are simply harder than they were in the past, and we work harder to meet them.

Does that mean we should expect - even glorify – potential pain and suffering that comes from music making?

Unlike professional athletes, musicians rarely get sophisticated physical training as part of our development. We also don’t get paid if we’re placed on the injured list. Lots of us may not have any kind of health insurance at all. Others are, to quote the old song, “playin’ real good for free”.

Fortunately, there are groups like the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA),
“an organization comprised of dedicated medical professionals, artists, educators, and administrators with the common goal of improving the health care of the performing artist.”

And Andover Educators ™, “a not for profit membership organization of music educators committed to saving, securing, and enhancing musical careers by providing accurate information about the body in movement.”

There is also a stronger movement toward integrating what sports medicine specialists have learned with the requirements of the performing arts. The new president of PAMA is Dr. George Shybut, whose history includes work with professional athletes and musicians. Another example of training cross-pollination can be found at the website

However, none of this developing interplay does a service if the participants are cheering for pain.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Parental Pedagogy

If you haven't heard of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, I'd be surprised. In her family memoir, as she calls it, Chua describes a no-excuses style of parenting that demands nothing but excellence in all endeavors, and moms are reacting. Have we really gotten too soft on our kids? Are we wrong to accept that they won't excel at everything they do? Or are some of us as equally unaccepting of lower standards as Chua, denying our children anything that won't put them academically at the forefront?

Let's face it, moms, we are to blame no matter which route we take. We keep family therapists in business, just another gift to the economy.

Seriously, as both a mom and an experienced teacher, I have to admit that it is tougher and tougher to take a tiger's stance these days than when I started teaching 40 years ago. At that time and in that place, parents watched their pennies and wanted value for every one of them. The value in piano lessons was directly related to the amount of practicing each student completed. In a lot of ways, it was easier to be the tiger mother and the tiger teacher.

The expectations and circumstances have changed dramatically. There are more families with multiple income strains and therefore, even in the current economy, with greater ability to budget music tuition regardless of the progress of the student. There are certainly more activities that pull students away from the piano and more technologically magnetic forms of entertainment at home and on the go.

There are also more students who live in two or three different residences in the course of a week. A flute student can readily transport his or her instrument from home to home, but the piano student cannot. Not having an instrument to practice on is actually a valid excuse.

Quite possibly the biggest change is a greater awareness of learning challenges and the impact of interaction styles on students. More and more students are presenting with visual learning challenges, aural difficulties, and forms of autism. We want to help them - we really do! We don't always know the best route, but we do know that standing over them and growling will probably not alter their biology and neurology.

How can moms and dads help the piano student and teacher? First, please let your teacher know if your child has been identified with a certain type of learning challenge. We will probably guess sooner or later, but sooner is always better than later. That gives us time to lay a foundation for the way that particular child will learn and to investigate resources. Most of us are not trained in special education techniques. We have to do some homework.

Second, let us know if your child works best with a tiger or a kitten. We are human, and we sometimes choose the wrong mode. We are sorry when we do.

Third, give some thought to the kind of structure your child requires. Most students do benefit from a scheduled practice time. Most families benefit from a scheduled practice time as well. I know, I know - it is not always easy. However, it is generally easier to start with something more structured and tweak it as needs arise. Be aware that youngsters do not develop scheduling skills for many years. They need help.

Fourth, give some thought to the structure you require. If you need quiet time first thing in the morning, you may not want to awaken your budding pianist for early morning practice. If you are tired at the end of the work day and not patient enough to supervise practicing, set the alarm back 20 minutes.

Piano students spend far more time teaching themselves than teachers spend teaching them. This is how skills advance, by conscious repetition, which is sometimes fun and sometimes very challenging. Progress always requires discipline, which is an orderly way of learning, by definition. The style of that discipline may vary widely from family to family and even child to child. But without it, progress is unlikely if not impossible.