Apple tree iPad stand

I’ve recently become the proud, selfish, and somewhat geeky, owner of an iPad. Not, I hasten to add, the iPad 2, which is apparently already hard to come by, just over two weeks since its release by Apple. I decided that the additional cost (c£100) was not worth all the extra bells and whistles: I don’t need a camera and I don’t need all that memory/power, since my primary motivation for purchasing an iPad (apart from the need to add yet another Apple gadget to my toybox) is to use it as a teaching aid.

I have blogged before about the piano teacher’s need to keep abreast of new technology. If we can’t offer it in our studio, we are going to lose students, especially younger students who are turned on by gadgets and gizmos. It is already clear that such gadgetry can be put to good use during teaching: I have a gallery of composer photos in my iPad, a selection of pictures of old pianos, including Beethoven’s and Chopin’s, diagrams of the guts and action of the piano (grand and upright), and a pot-pourri of “oddments”, including an old photograph of Rachmaninov’s huge hands, and a picture of Glenn Gould hunched at the keyboard in his characteristic crouching posture. The iPad, when produced during lessons last week, was met with oohs and aahs of delight: the kids loved it, and I could feel my street-cred rocketing as we scrolled through the pictures together. “Look how small the keyboard is!” Eli exclaimed on seeing a picture of a Clavichord. “Is that really Beethoven’s piano?” Ben asked, with awe.

Add in a powerful iPod capacity, loaded with exam music, ‘Fran’s Easy Guide to Classical Music’, and a selection of other music of interest, plus a score-reading app which plays the music as you read it, or can print it, wirelessly, straight from the iPad, and you’ve got a neat and versatile all-in-one teaching tool.

Today, IMSLP (International Music Score Libary Project/Petrucci Music Library) announced plans to develop an IMSLP app for use on the iPad, selling the idea to users with the catchy, green tag “make music with free public domain scores without chopping down trees”.

A number of score reading apps already exist. I use ForScore, which allows you to upload your own scores in PDF format, or download from IMSLP or Pianostreet.com or other sites which offer PDF downloads. The programme allows editing and annotating so that you can add your own notes and comments to your scores. It also has a link with your iPod so that you can listen to the music as you read it. It’s neat and fairly easy to use, though it can be a little quirky. I am just getting to grips with it. I like the portability of it: I was actually annotating Debussy’s Sarabande while commuting to my ‘other’ job yesterday.

IMSLP’s announcement suggests that traditional scores may eventually become obsolete as musicians opt to load their scores onto their iPads, or similar e-reading devices, and prop them on their music stands, instead of carting around a hefty Henle or Wiener Urtext edition. James Rhodes proved this point during his encore in Cambridge last year, playing a Chopin Prelude from his iPad. I still hold that this is just showboating, crowd-pleasing gimmickry (the fact that he had to pause in his playing to swipe the iPad to turn the page shows that the app is not perfect: if he’d been using a proper score, the music would have filled a two-page spread, thus removing the need for a showy page turn), but it more than demonstrates that it is possible to play from such a device, and I do not think it will be too long before we see string quartets or choral ensembles using iPads during concerts.

(A fermata here while the luddites throw up their hands in horror.)

The huge capacity of the iPad, and its neat, handbag dimensions, means that soon you won’t have to pack your briefcase with heavy Urtext scores. Just load them onto your iPad and off you go. But something’s not quite right: trying to sight-read through Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61 on the score reading app on my iPad the other day made my eyes strain and my head hurt: the smaller-than-A4 format is just not big enough for my cross eyes. It’s fine away from the piano: I can read it comfortably, but I can’t work from it at the keyboard. And I want to be able to scribble notes directly onto the score from the pencil I keep behind my ear. And, if I’m completely honest, I really love that smooth heavy cream paper and dusky blue covers of a Henle edition.

We all got very heated a few years ago when the first e-reader appeared and people lamented the death of the traditional book. But, amid all the hand-wringing and eye-pulling, book sales remain strong and while e-readers are becoming increasingly popular, it is unlikely they will ever replace a book, for various reasons (for example, a book containing many notes, index, bibliography etc is not suited to the e-reader format). I don’t think I will be giving up my Urtext scores just yet – I love all my annotations, my personal markings, hints and reminders, interspersed with notes from my teacher, and I particularly enjoy coming back to a well-marked score after a break from that piece – but I can definitely see the benefits of having scores uploaded to an iPad, and I welcome IMSLP’s initiative to develop an app, thus making their vast and fascinating resource more readily available. How we will react to an entire symphony orchestra all playing from their iPads remains to be seen……

IMSLP’s announcement

ForScore score reading app

iStand for iPad app

iPadPunk – articles on apps for musicians and music production

While updating my LinkedIn profile earlier today, during which I forced myself to reduce my curriculum vitae to five catchy points to succinctly sum up who I am and what I do, and it occurred to me that those of us who are freelance music teachers or musicians, or both, have to wear many hats in the course of our working life. Added to that, if one has a family, one must factor in a whole ‘nother skills base, and demands upon one’s time. Since it’s nearly the end of term, this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek post, though the underlying sentiments are more serious. I expect those who do a similar job to me will recognise many of these roles!

CEO – I run my own company!

ENTREPRENEUR – I took the risk to set up my studio (company), purchase the equipment, and seek out clients

DIPLOMAT – a child arrives, upset by something that has happened at school, and needs gentle coaxing and encouragement to participate in his/her piano lesson

TEACHER – obviously!

COMPOSER/ARRANGER – adapting music from the charts or a tv show that a student has requested to learn (I’m currently engaged in writing out the theme from The A-Team for one of my students).

CHILD WHISPERER – several parents have complimented me on my “child-wrangling” skills and my ability to get a group of kids on the stage and performing

I.T. CONSULTANT – making sure my computer/iPad/iPhone work to serve me, my studio and my students; managing my website and blog, ensuring content remains fresh and up to date

PR/ADVERTISING EXECUTIVE – marketing my skills and my studio, networking to make new connections, keeping up with friends and colleagues for mutual benefit, keeping abreast of what is new in teaching/pianism

IMPRESARIO/CONCERT PROMOTER/ARTISTS’ MANAGER – I organise twice-yearly concerts for my students, for which I do all the publicity, write the programme notes, provide the post-concert refreshments (including homemade cakes!), and get everyone sufficiently motivated and excited to get up and perform.

THERAPIST – a couple of my adult students regard their lessons as “time out” from their busy lives, and sometimes a lesson becomes a chance just to talk to de-stress

JUGGLER – organising my weekly schedule to accommodate teaching, my own practising/study, running the home and looking after my family

STUDENT – teaching, for me, has become a wonderful, endless circle of attainment and study, especially since I started having lessons myself again two years ago.

Since I also run a home and care for my family, I could add some other “jobs” to my profile: cook, taxi driver, nurse, cleaner, laundress, cat sitter.

Which hats do you wear? Please feel free to leave comments. For a longer, serious article on this subject, go to ComposeCreate.com

A post by Geraldine in A Bottle inspired this one. There’s a wrong way and a right way to offer corrections to a student. I hope I am doing it the right way….

Continually picking up a student over small slips and errors will dent their confidence and erode their ability to trust their musical self. Teaching a student how to identify errors, by ear and by feel, and how to learn from them is crucial. If a student stumbles over a passage but cannot point out where the error happened, they need to be shown where and why the mistake occurred. “Listen to yourself playing” I tell my students, and they look at me askance. Of course you must use your ears when you play, just as you use your brain, your fingers and your eyes.

A good teacher knows each student individually, can remember where they are in their study, and adapts his or her teaching style to suit each student. A bad teacher cannot remember names, or the student’s progress, and teaches every student in exactly the same, formulaic way.

A good teacher allows the student to play through the entire piece first, without interruption. A good teacher listens critically and supportively. When the student has finished, a good teacher first points out the places where the student played well and praises the student for his or her playing. Then the serious work begins.

A bad teacher halts the student mid-way to highlight errors or correct mistakes. This is a very bad habit, as it encourages ‘stop-start’ practising and a message is sent to the student’s brain that this is an acceptable way of playing, even if the student (and the teacher!) knows it is not. In a performance or examination situation, stopping and starting is not acceptable, but if a student becomes accustomed to doing it in practice (reinforced by teacher’s behaviour during lessons), he or she does not learn a coping mechanism for quick recovery when a mistake occurs. Mistakes need to be seen in context, and understood, but students should also be encouraged to “play through” errors.

One of my students, in fact, a student who has been with me the longest, a competent 11 year old called Lucy, still often asks me when she is playing “is this right?”. Most of the time she is right, and me keeping quiet, or simply saying “keep going, we’ll talk about it in a moment”, is enabling her to trust her musical instincts and work out problems for herself.

A good teacher encourages students to think for themselves, work out their own fingering schemes, and helps them to see solutions to problems. A bad teacher just tells them how to do it without allowing any forum for discussion or feedback, thus ridding the student of any sense of control over the music, and making the student entirely reliant on the teacher (who may not always be right!).

A good teacher encourages students to see how a particular technique learnt in one piece (see my earlier post on technical exercises) can be applied to another. A bad teacher says “You will do it this way. Or else….”

Sometimes even the youngest student has something fresh and insightful to say to me about the music they are learning. And when I pass on such an anecdote to my teacher, I realise that we are all connected in an infinite circle of learning and mentoring.

Further reading:

The Perfect Wrong NoteWilliam Westney

The Inner Game of MusicBarry Green

The Art of PractisingMadeline Bruser

As a freelance music teacher, you have to be endlessly cheerful, good-natured, adaptable, patient, resourceful and tolerant. You should be able to tailor your teaching style to suit each individual student, and be flexible and imaginative to make lessons fun, stimulating AND educational. You should never:

  • forget students’ names, or where they are in their learning
  • assign music that is too hard, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • assign music that is too easy, thus causing frustration and lack of motivation and self-confidence
  • make a student cry (one of my pupils told me her previous teacher was “horrible” and regularly reduced her to tears)
  • drop the fall (lid) on a student’s hand. A friend of mine had a teacher who did this (in the 1970s). Unsurprisingly, she switched from piano to flute, at which she excelled, with a brilliant teacher.

A teacher who does at least two of these things on a regular basis is probably a teacher to be avoided. Eccentricity is permitted – indeed, actively encouraged in music teachers – but not inefficiency, ineptitude, or cruelty.

Of course, pupils and their parents fall into categories too, and you get to know their quirks and exigencies in the course of your teaching. For example, one of my students, Laurie, just loves scales and other technical work. Rather than play a piece of his choosing to open his lesson, he will always opt for scales, and will rattle through them with fluency, speed and accuracy. He’s recently got to grips with hands together scales (for Grade 2) and loves to show off how brilliant he is. Then there is Harrison (taking Grade 1 in a week’s time), who always has a packet of Polos. It has become a running joke between him and I, and when he arrives for his lesson, I always ask “Have you brought the Polos?”. We will pause mid-lesson so that he can offer me a Polo, a pleasant break for both of us! Or Ben, who has a fantastic ear and who can play almost anything, by ear, from the opening of the Moonlight Sonata, transposed into D minor (with all the correct harmonies) to a riff from ‘I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Has Gone’. The range of pupils, their individual personalities, abilities, habits and quirks while at the piano, makes the teacher’s working week varied and full of entertainments (and, less frequently, luckily, frustrations).

Parents are also an integral part of your teaching, and need a degree of kid-glove treatment. They are, after all, the people who pay your bills, and you owe it to them to involve them in what is going on, keeping them informed of their child’s progress, and co-opting them to encourage regular, productive practising between lessons. Parents who feel included in the activities of your studio are more than happy to turn out for end of term concerts (even bringing contributions to the post-concert tea party!). Being pleasant, courteous and friendly with parents costs nothing, and reaps huge rewards.

There appear to be several distinct types of parent:

  • Late to drop off/pick up: possibly the most irritating, especially when one is trying to run an efficient studio to a tight schedule. Parents who are late to pick up interrupt other students’ lessons, and seem to regard teacher as some kind of childminding service. Late to drop off parents often expect the lesson to still last for the full 30 minutes, and are consequently also late to pick up.
  • Late to pay: you get to know which parents are prompt in settling termly bills, and those who are not. Excuses tend to be the usual, clichéd ones such as “I’ve run out of cheques” or “I forgot my chequebook”. I live in a very affluent area of SW London, where the demographic is largely upper middle class, professional people. They have no excuse for not paying on time – especially when my bank details are included on my invoices, for ease of paying by direct bank transfer. I have on occasion been moved to consider a “no payment, no lesson” rule, though have yet to implement it.
  • Pushy parent: again the product of living in an affluent, high-achieving area, where the competition for school places is tough, and parents with an “agenda” abound. Pushy parents are endlessly demanding and persistent: they hang on to your every word (though do not always take in what you have said!), muscle in on lessons, make excuses for little or no practice, overrule teacher’s directions, “re-teach” the child in the week between lessons, pester about exams, and generally double your workload.
  • Disorganised parent: the child arrives without music or practice notebook, or both. Or the wrong music. Children of such parents often arrive late for lessons as well, forget to do homework, or, on occasion, forget to turn up for the lesson!
  • “I wish I’d had the opportunity” parent: these parents are the best. Enthusiastic without being pushy, supportive, encouraging and interested. They ensure the student does the practice/homework, though without standing over the child, and are well-organised. They are endlessly positive, and grateful, making both child and teacher feel valued and rewarded. They must be nurtured.

In an ideal world, teacher, student and parent form a perfect circle: instruction-practice-encouragement-progress. The student feels supported and valued, and goes on (and on) to produce consistently good work, pass exams with flying colours, and. we hope, develop a love and fascination for the instrument and its repertoire. This last point is my ultimate goal, and my main motivation for teaching. I am passionate about the piano and its literature, and by teaching, I have the opportunity, every week, to share my passion with others. If even a tiny bit of my boundless enthusiasm rubs off onto my students, then I can consider my job well done.

“The most dangerous thing is ‘finger memory’; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn’t matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly.” Peter Feuchtwanger, quoted in The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

From our earliest time at the piano, we are taught a 5-finger position, and learn that consistent and carefully-thought out fingering schemes help us to get about the music comfortably and economically. It enables us to play legato, or vivace – and everything in between. Fingering schemes are not set in stone, but once learnt, a scheme tends to stay in the fingers forever. A good fingering scheme informs the muscular memory, ensuring accuracy and fluency of playing. A good fingering scheme should be both logical and comfortable.

One of my latest activities with my students is to get them to work out their own fingering schemes (with me sitting beside them to offer guidance). Not only does this help them see how a logical scheme can be easily worked out, with the hands on the keyboard, it also encourages them to examine the music in more detail before they have had an initial play-through. It is also more sensible to allow a student to suggest his or her own preferred fingerings than for me to add what I think they should be doing. Many editions, especially study books and music for children, come with quite involved, suggested fingering – but it should be remembered that these schemes are just that: suggestions, and if a scheme does not work for a particular student, it can be overruled!

When I approach a new piece of music myself, I will sight read it, just to get the “gist” of it, looking out for any pitfalls or particularly finger-twisting passages. Then I go back to the beginning and, with pencil behind my ear, embark on the detailed work of marking up the score. In the Bach Toccata (from the Partita BWV 83), a consistent fingering scheme is essential to maintain the flow of the music, especially in the semi-quaver passages (of which there are plenty!), and in one or two places, it is necessary for the right hand to play notes normally assigned to left hand, which can be awkward if one is not forewarned. There are also a few places where I simply do not like the scheme I have worked out with the help of my teacher (a fifth finger or a thumb on a black note, for example). Here, we have added articulation, usually staccato, as if to highlight the more awkward passages; interestingly, this adds more colour and texture to the music – and I can play it comfortably too!

Sometimes a specific fingering scheme can alter the mood or colour of the music. For example, at the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor beginning with a third finger in both hands, and then switching silently to a fifth in the left hand, and a third to a thumb in the right gives a greater sense of forward motion in that figure as it rises so grandly up the register. Almost a metaphoric rather than physical change. As we become more skilled at the piano, we begin to recognise a particular finger’s strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, a change of finger on a particular note can transform the sound of that note.

I agree in part with what Peter Feuchtwanger says in the quote at the top of this post: knowing the piece harmonically is essential, but I feel that harmonic knowledge goes hand in hand with good finger memory. If you combine the two successfully, there’s a good chance you’re going to play a piece fluently and accurately, and with the requisite attention to details such as dynamics, articulation, mood, colour, texture and contrast.

One of my teacher’s great skills is in working out a fingering scheme that is both natural and musical, thus avoiding unnecessary strain on the hands (something I am all to aware of with my chronic tenosynovitis in the right hand). She has written widely on this subject (she contributes a regular column on technique to Piano Professional magazine) and has published a book The Art of Piano Fingering, which offers unique and enlightening explanations of how to finger scales and arpeggios, and discussion of how to apply these principles to specific pieces of music. It contains some surprising innovations, and is a must for all advanced pianists.