Monday, May 16, 2022

The Cost of Caring



I don’t teach piano, I teach students. I teach people, mostly small in size and age, but people nonetheless.

 

I educate families.  I help them understand the value of piano lessons, how to navigate the challenges, and how to offer support to their students.

 

This means I care. Sometimes I care about a student for 10 years or more. I care about them when the unpredictable events of life come crashing in: divorce, illness, loss of family income, death of a beloved relative or pet. I care about them when predictable events pop up: adolescent woes, friendship failures, loss of opportunities, and not-so-hot performances. This caring takes energy.

 

I am not alone in this. It’s the way most independent piano teachers function. We build up connections with students and their families because the tutorial system depends on connections. We realize that is a central part of our job.

 

Until…

 

caring becomes an opening to be a little too understanding. Those of us who have been teaching one-on-one for decades have stories of people who take our kindness as a way to push established boundaries, especially if they are “nice” people.

 

For example:

 

1.  Chronically paying late or not at all, as though we don’t have expenses that have deadlines.

2.  Disregarding policies without reasonable justification, as though we set them up to have loopholes.

3.  Using teachers as babysitters because it’s hard to run errands with kids. Believe me, I know that. I did that.

4.  Expecting services beyond teaching, just because they are nice and the teacher is nice and being nice conquers all.

5.  Telling the teacher how and what to teach. There’s asking, and there’s telling. Most teachers welcome input on the best ways to work with specific children, but the boundary between healthy exchange and taking over is firm.

 

The relationship between teachers, students, and families is both valuable and unusual. We are hired, but we are not employees. We are business owners with clients. We aim to please our clients by doing our best to be knowledgeable, respectful, and encouraging. We relish long-term relationships with students and families, relationships that often last beyond formal lessons.

 

Do we make mistakes? Sure. We are human. We also have boundaries. 

Respect them.

 

 


 

 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Beginner's Luck or Low Expectations?



 An adult student told me about his experience with beginner's luck on the golf course. After some work with the golf pro, he did his best to establish the stance and swing required to send the ball across the fairway. And send it he did! Even the golf pro was impressed. Beginner's luck?

We chatted about this experience, and he revealed that he had low expectations. Low expectations. He had never hit a golf ball on an 18-hole course before, so he did not predict success. And his lack of expectations opened him up to any likelihood.

I once read a book called The Art of One-upmanship, by Stephen Potter. In this book, he describes how to defeat an opponent on the golf course, a game, I've been told, that relies on a lot of psychology. After said opponent has a particularly successful drive or putt, praise that opponent to the hilt. Just heap it on. Then come in for the kill: "How did you do that?"

The premise is that the opponent will go into a mental spiral trying to define exactly what it was that created the perfect stroke and how to do the same thing later on in the game. The expectations have been raised by the praise, and the poor opponent wants to repeat the action. High expectations.

It's not a bad thing to have high expectations, nor is it bad to understand how particular movements lead to success. After all, that is the purpose of Body Mapping. But what happens when other options get eliminated in an effort to reach those expectations? Mental and physical tension, perhaps? Those two go hand-in-hand.

Plus any attempt to recreate what we just did is not likely to be successful. The mind goes out of the moment, and no two moments are identical. We practice to learn movements and focus that we can trust in performance, not to play exactly like we did yesterday or the day before or even 10 minutes ago.

The challenge is to find the sweet spot for expectations, the one built on practice that builds trust without cramping awareness of the moment. A "Goldilocks" serving of expectations. Maybe that will feel like luck, but it's based on practicing that brings you into the moment. And being skillful at accepting praise.







Sunday, February 13, 2022

We are not magicians

What do you do with a pen that doesn't write? Do you scribble in long spirals to encourage the ink to flow? Do you shake it and tap it? Do you look for another piece of paper that isn't as ink-resistant? After all of those failed attempts, do you throw it away?

Seriously, do you throw it away? Or, like me, do you put it back in the pencil holder with the hope that somehow it will be rejuvenated amidst its cohort of non-writing implements?

Seriously.

I don't know why I do this. It makes no sense. 

After all, I have no magic powers. I'm a humble piano teacher. I scribble in my students' assignment books daily and make notes to myself on what we accomplished. My pens are nothing special, usually black ink sold in packs for the best price. They write for a reasonably long time until they don't. I need to let them go when they go dry.

At some point I must have confused being a teacher with being a magician. The more I learned about aspects of piano playing and student learning styles, the more assumptions I made about what I could change. Presto, change-o! This student can now sight-read like a whiz, thanks to me! That student can now find the practice time to learn a major piano sonata, thanks to me! All families will provide the best learning environments for their children, thanks to me! Students with learning challenges will overcome them, thanks to me!

Ridiculous, right? Yet, as I share challenges with other teachers, I find that we tend to consider ourselves able to overcome so many things that are out of our control. The sheer wanting to do so must be enough, right? And we struggle with the letting go part.

At this point in the timeline of pandemic teaching, we are still struggling with this form of self-care. Yes, I said self-care. When things aren't working well with a student, we keep hanging on. We put even more of ourselves into the project of saving a student from whatever obstacles are present. Sometimes it works. Sometimes we bleed out our own ink to no avail.

Reframing this part of our teaching relationships as self-care is worth considering. Sit right down and write yourself letter about it. Make sure you have a working pen.


 


Sunday, January 2, 2022

The New Year's Dilemma

The 8 days between December 25 and January 1 are a paradox of adding and subtracting. They start with a festival of giving and getting, prodded by endless promotions for things we may not need but surely must want. They end with tips for getting rid of clutter, especially things we may have wanted but never needed. It's the pushmi-pullyu of holiday seasons.

Out with the old and in with the new, as though the old is always inferior and the new always a major improvement. No doubt, there are new and improved items and ideas that come into our lives, and we embrace them. They are advantageous, unmarred, efficient, and just plain fun. But what about the tried and true aspects of our teaching lives? Do they need to be whisked away with the old year?

When I read what other teachers are considering for their studios as the old year passes, I sense the familiar judgments creeping in. There are the "I shoulds" and "I need tos" in the conversation. Maybe these are key motivators for enduring the dark months of the teaching year, and that is fine. What I encourage teachers to do is to list what works
as a healthy foundation for building in new ideas.

Let's face it - it's been a hard two years for teachers at all levels. For those unacquainted with technology beyond the basics, the learning curve has been steep. And those who did their very best to maintain all aspects of their teaching, regardless of how difficult that was, adding even more can be daunting. What goes? What stays? What gets added in?

Perhaps a better question is: what gets reconfigured? During the height of online teaching, I made the decision to drop paper and pencil theory because it was too difficult for both teacher and students. Instead, I used every opportunity to examine current assignments for theoretical concepts. I also went to simple tools like flash cards that could pop up on students' screens without problems. Theory didn't go away. It got reconfigured.

I also worked with Piano Moves: A Student Companion (www.allsensepress.com) as a way to approach technique online. While I rarely put my hands on my piano students to teach movement, even those few opportunities to do so were lost in the ethernet. This was a replacement that worked very well. No hands-on required. I didn't lose the value of teaching movement. I reconfigured it.


If you are feeling the cultural pressure to do something brand new at this time of the year, I recommend that you start by assessing what already works. Give yourself a pat on the back for implementing useful approaches in your teaching. Then look at whether you need to eliminate clutter from your teaching, add new ideas, or simply reconfigure what is already good.


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Trees/forest, forest/trees




After a two year self-imposed hiatus from city adventures, I went to Philadelphia to hear the orchestra and have a happy family visit. When I'm in any city, I pay attention to the buildings right in front of me, the streets signs, and the traffic, particularly the taxis. I window shop and people watch, with little regard to the city as a whole. This is a nice way of saying I have a rather poor sense of direction, and I root myself to the spot I'm in.


On this trip we had lodgings far above the city with glass walls in the living room. The view of the city was spectacular, with rows of buildings stretching out to the horizon. It was a panoramic view. I loved it.

These two views represent one of the main ways I categorize students: tree learners and forest learners. The tree learners are the ones who fuss over every single detail in the piece. They don't miss articulations, dynamics, or chromatic signs. If they do, they become flustered and apologize profusely. It's great to notice the regard they have for the composer's markings. On the other hand, sometimes the larger picture gets missed, and the music is accurate but not placed into a larger dramatic arc.

The forest learners go straight to the heart. They "get" the meaning of the piece right away, and they dive right into it. The arc is foremost in their attention. It's just not always accurate in terms of what is on the page.

Truth be told, I've been both of these learners. There have been times when I decided that pleasing the teacher meant playing every jot and tittle on the page. Because isn't pleasing the teacher the goal? Most of the time, I'm the lover of the panorama. Friends say I'm a big picture kind of gal, and most of the time, that is true. Maybe that comes from being a decent sight-reader and letting mistakes fly by without concern.

I've also been both of these teachers, some days pointing out every tiny detail in a student's performance. Other days, it's all about the expressive quality of the playing. On my best days, it is some of both.

A student who gets rattled over a tiny mistake doesn't benefit from more needling over details. It just makes things worse. A student who is, shall we say, sloppy, needs more clean-up work in a lesson. It's always a balancing act.

The expression for seeing the details and the arc is inclusive awareness. While looking at the vast skyline of Philadelphia, I was able to pick out buildings I knew by their size and shape without losing the vastness of the city. Probably easier than picking out a specific tree in a forest of trees, but it's the principle that counts. It's the same principle we can apply in performance and in teaching.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Ode to Edna Mae Burnam


In my studio, she is known as "good old Edna Mae." It's a rare day that her contributions are not part of my teaching agenda. I've looked for other options, but her technique series called "A Dozen A Day" (ADAD) has yet to be surpassed.

The first time I came in contact with ADAD was as a student member of my college's Sigma Alpha Iota chapter. We were participating in a larger effort to aid visually impaired students in obtaining access to her system. We did it by hand - yes, I'm dating myself - with pencil erasers that were crimped to form the oval shape of note heads. We traced them on large staff paper and filled in the note heads as required. It was tedious work, and it got sent on to the Library of Congress for copying. Any teacher requesting these materials for a student could get them.

By now, this is an antiquated method by anyone's measure. We have machines to enlarge printed works and reproduce them proportionately. We have access to scores through digital devices. However, thanks to Edna Mae's creativity, the contents of ADAD remain timeless.

When Edna Mae Burnam wrote Book One in 1950, she had reached the 43rd year of her 100 years on Earth. She was teaching young students who needed technique at relatively easy levels that would appeal to them, their parents, and their teachers. She gave the short patterns names related to exercises, like jumping, hopping, swinging, rolling, and kicking. Her publisher, Willis Music, didn't understand these names, so she drew stick figures to illustrate the connections. She didn't expect them to show up in the book, but Willis really liked them. To this day, every exercise has a non-gender specific character accompanying each element.

As an Alexander Technique teacher and a Licensed Body Mapping Educator, I have come to appreciate these characters on a larger scale. Not only do they tag the patterns with joyful illustrations, they also show the whole body. The whole body! Every illustration is a reminder that we play with the whole body, not just our fingers and hands.

Fortunately for Edna Mae, her Book One was a success. It had one problem: teachers wanted easier levels that could be started almost from the first lessons. Thus was the Preparatory Book born, and then the Mini Book. From there she built three more advancing levels to match her lesson series, Step by Step. Over time, Step by Step proved less popular, but ADAD is still going strong.

How did she make it so good? First, she built the technical exercises in well-designed steps. They build the basic movements required in advancing piano literature, no matter the method. Second, she made them short. It's almost as though she knew that 70 years later our attention spans would shrink. Third, she made them easy to transpose. First year students can transpose these exercises to multiple patterns with ease. And, fourth, they have a spirit of fun to them. Some of my students add faces and hair to the stick figures, and some of them color them. Again, the non-gender specific drawings were ahead of their time, and they can be adapted by any willing student artist.

Good old Edna Mae confirms my belief that making something easy and effective is an act of brilliance. Few notes but lots of practical movements. Imaginative titles and characters. Efficient use of practice time. Hail to you, Edna Mae Burnam!



To see a video interview of her, go to this URL: https://www.namm.org/library/oral-history/edna-mae-burnam


 






Thursday, September 23, 2021

The "P" word - Posture

A powerful moment on stage is when an actor is standing, not necessarily speaking, and not gesturing nor traveling in space. I was reminded of this while watching a young actor whose blocking had him stand still while the rest of the ensemble moved around him. He was connected to the stage, beautifully upright, looking ahead with intention but without the slightest bit of tension. While others may say he has beautiful posture, I say he has balance, awareness, and clarity in the moment. 

When actors of olden days applied posturing to a character, it was a way of expressing movement that fit the character's character, so to speak. That still happens today, and you can see it in well-trained actors. They don't call it posturing nowadays. They learn movement options, often in an Alexander Technique class. One of those options is being fully embodied, even if standing on one's mark.

Because I am an Alexander Technique Teacher, clients often come to me seeking a way to improve their posture. When I ask them what that means to them, they usually demonstrate something very stiff. One of my students demonstrated posture by backing up into the wall and then stepping forward, using effort to maintain a sense of perfect uprightness.

Being up in space is a natural way of being. Most of the muscles and connective tissues that have this primary job are very close to the spine. Unfortunately, when people think of posture, they disregard this natural structure and apply considerable effort to superficial muscles. Superficial muscles are designed to move bones through various ranges of motion, dependent upon joint structures and the variety of forces applied in movement. When they are used consciously for uprightness, movement becomes limited and sometimes painful.

A musician who has a goal of perfect posture may do the same thing - restrict movement for the sake of an ideal position. However, a musician who understands that being upright is an internal mechanism that doesn't need that level of work will find both freedom and balance. That musician will trust being up in space to allow for the expressive and technical requirements of the instrument and the music.


Here is a photo of outstanding pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. He had a long career of playing from a place of beautiful balance. Notice how easily he moves his head while posing for this picture. If he had a concept of posture that was stiff and inflexible, he wouldn't be able to do this. I was fortunate to see him play live, and his balance and control of sound were magnificent.



 

 Here is a photo of singer Tony Bennett, known for his smooth, expressive delivery of the American Song Book, including duets with Lady Gaga. He just retired from public performance at the age of 95. His standing balance contributes to the ease in his singing style.