All posts by Karen Berger

Piano Lessons: What to Expect

You’ve probably heard of the Mozart effect: Music lessons correlate with confidence and success in a variety of areas, from social skills to teamwork to math performance — even to acceptance rates in medical school! Who knew that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was the first step in a road to success in a variety of endeavors.

And of course, there is the personal satisfaction: Of people able to express oneself through music. Accompany a friend singing. Play in a rock band. Or just noodle around.

So you’re thinking of piano lessons for your child, and wondering what to expect. This is a brief summary of what you’ll encounter in my studio. Each teacher has her (or his) own way of doing things, but I think it’s safe to say that we all share the goal of providing a supportive environment for learning an art that can sustain our students for the rest of their lives.

A Practice Instrument

A practice instrument. Students in my studio are expected to have a practice instrument at home. While I prefer that it be an acoustic piano in good shape (not to mention in tune), a keyboard is acceptable for the first year or two of study (depending on how quickly the student progresses.) The better the instrument, the better: You wouldn’t send your kid to learn tennis carrying a badminton racket, and you wouldn’t give them a bicycle helmet to play football. It’s the same with piano. For digital pianos, I prefer that you have 88 keys with weighted hammer action (I’ll give you more info when we meet), but a basic 61 key keyboard is okay for the start — as long as you understand that you’ll have to upgrade if your child sticks with piano. The damage to technique and finger development from practice on a substandard instrument cannot be overstated.

Regular Practice

I do expect regular practice. In my fantasy world (and in the world I grew up in), a beginner would practice 1/2 hour a day 6 days a week. That’s what I did, but I know, I know, things were different back then. Kids didn’t have as many choices, moms didn’t work outside the home, there wasn’t as much homework, and people’s schedules weren’t as busy. Nonetheless, if you can make practice a regular part of your family’s schedule, the progress you see will be remarkable. And it’s a virtuous cycle. As one nine-year old student told me “The more I practice, the better I get, and the funner the songs are.”

If you can manage to get a young beginner to practice 15 – 20 minutes 5 times a week, I promise you’ll see progress. For older students, I like to see 1/2 hour to 45 minutes a day 5 or 6 times a week…. although I rarely get that. I do have some dedicated students who want to be music majors who are practicing 2 – 3 hours a day in high school, but they have made that decision for themselves in order to meet their personal goals.

I work with what I get… but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you what I think optimal practice times are for various levels.

Parental Encouragement

Parental encouragement during daily practice is helpful if you and your child have a relationship where that works. Not everyone does: Sometimes children assert their independence at the piano, and refuse the help. You are welcome to sit in during lessons so you know what I am assigning students to do. Even if you don’t know a thing about music, there are ways you can help… if it works for you.

All kids need to be reminded to practice. I needed to be reminded until I was in high school. Some parents say “as long as she wants to do it, it’s fine, but I don’t want to be the bad guy.” We need to stop framing practice in terms of “being the bad guy”! Practice should be fun. It is solving problems. Even so — you have to remind kids to brush their teeth and you probably get pushback from that once in a while! So expect pushback regarding the piano. Like any good habit, practice takes a while to set in.

I only accept children younger than 6 if parents agree to assist with supervising practice at home. Children that young simply cannot (in my experience) be expected to manage their own practice.

Studio Policy

Like many professional piano teachers, I have a studio policy that tells you how many lessons you are getting in a school year, what that will cost, when payments are due, and how and under what circumstances I handle make-ups. Piano teachers can only teach during a limited number of after school hours,. In order for your child to make progress, regular attendance is required. Please try to pick a time you won’t have to constantly change. I try to be as accommodating as possible, but unlike Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, I don’t have a time turner.

Communicating

Please talk to me! I have taught hundreds of students. Some have gone on to be music majors. Many have stayed with me for many years. Parents recommend me to other parents … and perhaps even more important, students recommend me to their friends. I can help you work through problems your child may be having. Most of all, I want my students to both enjoy their lessons (which is the easy part) AND enjoy their practice time (which can be more of a challenge). I personalize lessons and repertoire taught to adjust to different student personalities and preferences. Open conversations help me understand your child better — and they help you understand why I teach certain skills and pieces of music to your child at different times.

Learning piano is a long-term, deep-end-of-the-ocean type of activity. That it is worth it seems obvious to me (of course it does — I’m a piano teacher!) — but also to my students, who often stay with me for 6, 8, 10, or even more years. Perhaps the greatest evidence I can offer is that frequently, my graduating high-school seniors ask if they can come back for more lessons during their vacations! For me, this is the greatest honor I can imagine — that piano lessons and their playing now mean so much to them that they independently want to continue — with me — whenever possible. (And what a kick it is to see a kid I knew as a 6-year old driving up my driveway in their own car for lessons!)

I look forward to seeings you in lessons — or hearing your child at a recital one day!

Studio Basics: Equipment for the Beginning Piano Teacher

So you’ve hung out your shingle (or your ad in the local paper) and while you’re waiting for the calls to come in and the studio to start filling up, you’re wondering if you’ve got everything in place.

Today’s professional piano teaching studios are a far cry from the little old lady’s living room you may have taken lessons in in your childhood. Yes, today’s teachers are digitized, many of them with electronic keyboards, Skyping capabilities, tablets and Ipads (and a million aps), iPods, and computer composing software. We’ll get to the electronics in another post. But just for right now, let’s start with the basics.

Your Piano

I’m assuming you have an acoustic piano. I do know some teachers who teach on a digital — usually because they live in an apartment where volume and space are issues. But by and large, the gold standard is still an acoustic piano. You won’t be able to attract serious advanced students without one.

You’ll also need a good relationship with a local piano tuner. First of all, you’ll need his help not only for tuning, but for the inevitable mechanical problems that affect any well-used instrument. Your tuner will also be a source of referrals — and you will refer students to him or her, as well.

Ask about getting a Dampp-Chaser system, or at the very least discuss climate control. Humidity, air conditioning, proximity to fireplaces, hearing vents, windows, and direct sunlight will all affect your piano.

Accessories

An adjustable bench is a must.  A standard artist bench with a knob that raises and lowers the seat is a traditional choice. I have a Discacciati bench with a hydraulic lift. It’s an easier mechanism to operate.

A good chair for you to sit in.

A Pedal Extender. Children younger than 9 or 10 usually can’t reach the pedals. A pedal extender makes it possible for them to sit in a good positi

Foot rest. Even if you don’t spring for the pedal extender, you’ll need a footrest for young children so their feet aren’t hanging down, but rather, are solidly placed on a stable block.  You won’t believe the difference this makes.

Piano Lights. You’ll need good task lighting right over the sheet music. Room lighting and standing lamps can help , but it’s essential that their be light right over the sheet music. A gooseneck clip on light works for grand pianos; a standing lamp with a gooseneck works for uprights. Clip on battery powered lights can also be used, especially as supplements.

Hard-backed notebook and plastic non-shiny sheet protectors. I have mys students store all assignment sheets, theory worksheets, and digital downloads in non-glare (matte) sheet protectors stored in hard backed three ring-binders. (Softer covers sag on music stands).

Photocopier/printer: For worksheet, assignments, digital downloads, etc. remember to obey copyright laws and honor the terms of digital downloads.

Metronome: Sure you can download an ap on your phone. But I have an old-fashioned wooden one. My students are fascinated by it.

Juggling balls (bean bags) for hand position. I have kids squeeze these to get a grip on the correct hand position. I’ve found it really helps. Plus, since I can juggle, I also use them to juggle in rhythm with a young child’s playing just for a bit of fun.

Stickers: Say what you will, little kids love stickers. So, even, do some adults. Stickers as rewards for good work are an easy and appreciated gesture.

Lots of pencils and a way to sharpen them: I can’t bring myself to writ in pen in a music book. I go through pencils — WITH erasers — at an alarming rate. Oh, and a sharpener.

Colored highlighters: To note problem areas in music or to highlight practice suggestions.

Music paper: For composing and doing note reading and writing exercises.

Library of sheet music: You’ll need to invest in a library of beginner and intermediate piano books. Play through them as you buy them and note which pieces have what characters and teach which skills.

Percussion instruments: for rhythm exercises and rhythm reading.

 

Piano Lessons, Life Lessons

I spend a few hours a day fairly predictably: Reminding children with reluctant fingers that finger number 1 is their thumb, and that Middle is C is in the middle of the piano. Like many home-studio teachers in rural areas, my studio is mostly made up of beginning and intermediate players. I rarely have the need to talk abut how  Mozart intended a appoggiatura to be played, or whether a trill should begin on the main note or the upper auxiliary.

What I DO find myself talking about — day after day, week after week — is the learning process. And the more I do, the more it becomes clear to me that learning piano is only partly about learning piano. It is also about learning, period.  And while we all learn in our own unique way, some patterns DO apply to all of us. Not only that, but we can all, always, learn to learn… better.

So, in no particular order, some thoughts on learning.

1) Showing up is important. A study done by psychologist Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music concluded that practice time, not talent, determines success as a musician.  All those myths about Cousin Bob the musical genius with perfect pitch? Perfect pitch, maybe. Talent certainly affects achievement. But in order for it to all come together takes time spent working, pure and simple. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that Mozart’s prodigial years were spent practicing for hours a day under the watchful eye of Papa Leopold. He also points out that with their non-stop Hamburg performances, the Beatles easily logged 10,000 hours before becoming an “overnight success.” Whether you believe the 10,000 figure or not is up to you…. It could be more, or less, and it undoubtedly depends on talent, the pursuit, and the quality of practice. But the bottom lie is this: Deliberate, consistent practice is a hallmark of achievement in anything, from computers to chess to piano.

2) If a job looks too big, make it smaller. Don’t try to learn 20 pages of a sonata: Learn one page. Or one line. One measure. I’ll often pull out the scariest looking piece of music by a major composer and show beginners that they can identify a note in it, and then another one. As Annie Lamott writes:”Bird by Bird.”   Or how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

3) If at first you don’t succeed…. try something different. Doing the same thing wrong over and over is a really powerful way to learn to do the same thing….. wrong. Having trouble with two hands? Slow down. Or do one hand at a time. Play one hand as fast as you can, really loud. Now play is as beautifully and musically as you can. Fell where your fingers are and how they have to move. Don’t just mindlessly repeat it and “try again.” Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If it’s not working — change it up!

4) Have patience. You need to do YOUR job, which is showing up and trying to create an artistic vision of a piece by learning the notes, the rhythm, the technique.  You do your part, and in between practice sessions, the back of your brain will do the rest: Putting things together, processing information, synthesizing it all. Trust the process. It works. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

5) Be honest. Don’t look at your teacher when you made a mistake to see if she noticed. OF COURSE she noticed. But more important than that — YOU noticed. It should matter to YOU.  Care about what you’re doing. Care about your art.

And then bring that caring to the rest of your life.

It is the most important lesson of all.

Best Holiday Gifts for Musicians


Having a musician in the family is a double bonus around the holidays.
If it’s a pianist or guitarist, you have someone to accompany Christmas carols. Singers and instrumentalists can help hold the melody notes when the crowd of revelers forgets if the tune goes up on high with the angles or sinks lo with the rose e’er blooming. 
And no matter who they are, they are easy to shop for.
The best place to look for music themed gifts is at a music store, especially a mom-and-pop local store. Other choices: big box music stores, book and CD stores, fine arts catagloues like the ones sent out by public TV, and museum gift shops.
The tchotchkes of the music world are replicating like the brooms in the Mickey Mouse Segment of Fantasia.
  • Christmas ornaments: let’s start with the obvious: ornaments in the shape of notes or instruments are an easy gift.
  • Music bumper stickers (mine says “Go home and practice!” but I’m also partial to one that says “Tune it or Die!”)
  • Clothes: T-shirts, night shirts, socks, ties: From dopey puns declaring that the wearer is lots of “treble” to snippets of unreadable gobbly-de-gook music notation, there’s a music-themed garment  in your favorite musician’s size.
  • Jewelry: Charms, key, chains, pins, earrings, pendants in the shape of notes or clefs.  
  • Mugs, plates, glasses, serving pieces: If you can eat off of it, you can probably find it with a music theme on it.
  • House accessories: I’ve seen lamps in a fine furniture store made out of old violins and flutes (retailing for $500, though), mirrors whose frames are in the pattern of piano keys, lamps shades with music scores printed on the (Fur Elise seems popular).
  • Novelties: Refrigerator magnets, can openers, keyrings in the shape of instruments: All are good as stocking stuffers.
  • Music boxes. These can be quite beautiful and ornate.
  • A metronome. Yes, I know: you can download a metronome app for free on your iThing. But by a margin of something like 10 to 1, my students prefer the sound of an old fashioned analog metronome — and I do, too. The German company, Wittner, is the classic, with a range of wooden and plastic pendulum metronomes. Prices  prices ranging from around $40 to $200.  For more makes, models, and prices, try www.metronomes.net
  • Percussion “toys” — inexpensive percussion instruments like shakers and hand drums come in handy for people who play with groups. For a really nice gift, look for handmade instruments with good feel and sound.
  • Sheet music: A book of holiday songs is always appreciated: One of my favorites for  is Hal Leonard’s  “Best Christmas Songs Ever.” The “easy” version is appropriate for intermediate students and above.
  • Gift certificates for music books. If you don’t know what to buy, go the gift certificate route: If you’re lucky enough to have a local music store in your town, help keep it in business by buying your gift certificates there. You’ll be supporting not only your favorite musician, but the local stores that keep sheet music conveniently in stock.
  • Strings, tuners and capos are always appreciated by guitarists, although you’ll need to know their preferences (especially for strings). If you don’t, a selection of picks is a fail-safe options. There’s even a gadget you can buy that can turn expired credit cards into guitar picks.

What are your favorite music gifts? If you’re a musician, what’s on your wish-list? Add your idea below.

Paying the Price

“Do you know how much a Rolex costs? Or a Maserati?” I asked my 16-year old student. He looked at me blankly, wondering why I was talking about luxury goods in the middle of a piano lesson.

“A lot?” he ventured.

“A lot.” I said. “And if you wanted one, you would have to work for it — and at your age, you can’t really make that much an hour, so you would have to work for many many many hours to buy one. You’d have to decide if you really really wanted it, and if it was going to be worth it to you to do all that work, and then mid-way, you might realize just how much work it was and decide you wanted something else.”

“But I don’t want a Rolex,” he said.

“No, but you came in here saying that you wanted to play the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which is a concert pianist piece. It’s a Rolex. It’s expensive, only it doesn’t cost money. It costs PRACTICE. Just like a Rolex, if you want this expensive piece of music that not everyone can have, you have to pay the price.”

Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is the holy grail of the adult piano student. Just like kids clamor to play Beethoven’s “Fuer Elise,” adults want to create those mysterious, soul-touching sounds. And teenagers want to take on the drama and fury of the last movement with its thundering chords and unsettled emotions.

In all three cases, generally what you’ve got is a pianist with champagne tastes on a beer budget. The pieces they want to play are the champagne. The price they are willing to pay — the practice time — that’s the beer budget. And just as with champagne, watches, automobiles, or pretty much anything  else in life — you get what you pay for, and what you’re willing to pay determines what you’re going to get.

I can’t tell you the number of adult students who come to their first lesson with the Moonlight on their mind. Some drag in the first four measures.Some bring simplified versions. Some bring the sheet music. One  brought the sheet music and his own version of it written out in note names, one at a time. He can figure out notes, but can’t read fluently yet, so he figured this would shorten the process. They come looking for a magic bullet, and want to know why it sounds different when I play it. After a few lessons, they start sounding annoyed and impatient.

“It takes years,” I tell them. They don’t want to hear it — at this point in their lives, they’ve graduated from college, had careers, raised children, paid mortgages — why can’t they do THIS simple, one thing. On average — for a rank beginner with average musical ability and dexterity, I’d say it would take two to four years before they could play the first movement of the Moonlight, and that’s with diligent practice. I should probably also mention that some students will never get there: Musical ability is an ephemeral, wispy flirt, and the Moonlight Sonata, even the “easy” first movement — is over the line where you need some musical talent to put the pieces together.

And that’s not even beginning to think about the mercurial, tumultuous last movement: with its technical demands ranging from giant keyboard-spanning arpeggios to dynamic control to touches ranging from mysterious legatos to controlled staccatos, all applied with flying fingers to fistfuls of notes.

A Rolex. Lots of people want one, but not everyone can pay the price, and of those who can, even fewer want to.

“I’m going to practice six hours a day and come in here next week and play that first page better than you can,” my student told me, and I said — with all sincerity — “That is something I’d really like to see.”

Maybe one day I will.

 

The Little Things: Big Lessons from Little Students

I have to admit that I’m not always the world’s best teacher for the four- and five-year-old set, but having had a few great little students, I’m always willing to meet with them (and their parents) to see if they really want to learn and can sit still for long enough to do so.
As it turns out, some of these little ones have gone on to be excellent and committed teenage musicians. 
And I fall for cuteness every time.
I’ve got an adorable little guy right now — one who announces “I’m ready to learn a new song!” and “I can’t WAIT to turn the page!” and “I’m so excited I’m going to learn to read music I can’t even wait!”  
How could even the grumpiest piano teacher resist? 
Today, he told me, “Miss Karen! Did you know that if you play these notes, everything sounds good?” (Plays CDFGA) “And you can make up a song about anything you like.” 
“Really?” I said. “Show me.” 
So he played up and down and sang at top of his lungs, “Oh! I love my mommy so much!”
Cute little anecdote, but there’s more to it than meets the eye (or ear.)
First of all, this little guy discovered the notes of the pentatonic scale*: the five notes that are used to make folk songs around the world; the notes that are used in the melodies of virtually every black spiritual– “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” and a hundred others. 
And he’s right: These notes DO sound good, and you can use them to write a song about just about anything —  Watch this audience participation demonstration by Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival and you’ll learn that we instinctively respond to the scale my five-year old “discovered,” so much so that we seem to know it in our bones. And so do musicians from places as diverse as and musically different as China, Nigeria, Ireland, and South America.
Finally, my student is also right about what it is that music does: What the point of this whole thing is. We can use it to express our feelings about anything at all. And share them.
We can even write a love song.   
 * Nerd alert: The notes CDFGA are the notes of the F pentatonic scale, not the C pentatonic scale. I know it’s confusing, but the actual scale is FGACD. My student simply elected to rearrange the notes, starting on C.   
 

How to Practice Piano Effectively

When we teach piano, most of us stress practice time. But time is only part of the practice equation: What, precisely, we do with that time is the other part. And contrary to how most people (kids and adults alike) practice, it shouldn’t be a matter of mindless repetition. Good practice is actually a rewarding, creative — and effective — process.

And here’s a note for piano parents who aren’t necessarily musicians themselves: One sure-fire way to tell if your kid is practicing correctly is to notice whether he or she keeps playing the piece over and over from beginning to end. That’s the WRONG way to practice. I tell my kids they can start with one play-through, during which they should note the problem areas. Then they need to get to work on those by practicing small sections over and over. They  can finish with another run-through. But to just keep repeating a piece, complete with all the same mistakes, is ineffective and pointless.

Every pianist (and every other musician, as well) develops his or her own practice routine, learning a series of possible practice strategies to deal with different types of mistakes and to learn difficult passages so they can be brought up to speed and played fluently. Part of practice is trial and error — seeing what works, and what doesn’t.

Whether just beginning to learn to play the piano or an accomplished virtuoso, pianists should look at these strategies as part of their “toolbox.” If one doesn’t work, try another. Experience tells pianists which strategies are best for which problems, but quite frequently, a pianist will try a number of practice techniques to master a particularly stubborn passage.

Practice Strategies for Mastering Piano Technique

Mechanical strategies are those that teach the players’ hands where to go. They deal with issues such as finding the right notes, using the right fingers, and coordinating the hands. These strategies help develop piano technique.

  • Play with hands apart. Practice one hand at a time if it makes musical sense to do so. Then play with hands together.
  • Play in small sections: Practice the piece in small bits, one phrase at a time. Phrases are the equivalent of sentences in the grammar of music. They are sometimes less than a line of music long, and sometimes more, just like a sentence on this page is sometimes shorter than a line, and sometimes longer. Practicing in phrases makes more musical sense than practicing by the line.
  • Combine all the elements in small phrases: Practice each phrase by playing one hand, then the other, then both together.
  • Study the fingering. Fingering choices should always be deliberate and intentional. Pianists must remember that good fingering involves not only getting to the note in question, but getting to the next note, and the next after that. Issues of how to tackle a series of similar motifs that start on different notes also come into play, as well as issues of musicality, which can justify fingerings that at first may look awkward. Students who have not yet mastered fingering techniques should run any changes past a teacher.
  • Break the music into even smaller chunks: Music can always be broken down into its component parts. If the phrase is too long, break it into two. Or practice a single measure. Identify the weak spots where mistakes are habitual, and practically those spots until the mistakes are eradicated.

Remember, piano mistakes don’t go away by starting at the beginning and trying again!

Rhythmic Strategies for Piano Practice

Rhythmic practice techniques force the player to do all the tasks in strict time, which raises the difficulty, and also makes it very obvious which parts of the piece need more work.

  • Use the metronome: At its most basic, the metronome helps pianists keep a steady tempo. But I use a metronome as a technical aid: It helps a student work out technical elements by forcing the pianist to play in time and gradually raising the tempo. Playing with a metronome reveals any weak spots in the piece. Metronome practice is especially valuable for ensemble players.
  • Vary the rhythm: An effective way to smooth out bumps in long technical runs of very fast notes is change the rhythm. For example, a stream of 16th notes cold be played as alternating dotted 16th and 32nd notes, and then the player can try the reverse and play the section as 32nd notes followed by dotted-16th notes.
  • Add beats. A difficult series of chords can be practiced by by inserting one or more beats of rests in between them, then gradually, getting rid of the extra beats.
  • Change the tempo: Playing very slowly and very fast are also good practice techniques. Playing one hand much faster than the target tempo secures the muscle memory of the passages, which makes the piece easier to play with two hands. Playing slowly helps pianists make fingering and articulation choices that are conscious and deliberate.

Finally, if mistakes persist, change the practice strategy! The worst thing is to keep doing the same thing and making the same mistake. Try to go about the problem in a different way.

Further Resources for Piano Practice

Beginning and intermediate students will find Practicespot.com a source of practice suggestions.

The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein [Oxford, 2009], is a resource for advanced students. It describes how to practice mindfully and artfully.

Classical Music for Halloween Playlist

Halloween and classical music are a natural fit. Shrieking violins, demonic trills, spooky organs: the range of sounds available to the classical composer can conjure up visions of demons and ghosts, witches and warlocks.

Halloween is particularly well-represented by Romantic music — that is, music composed after about 1825 to the beginning of the twentieth century. This is Romantic with a big “R” — big feeling, big fears, big mysteries, big stories. Before the Romantic period, composers didn’t reserve a whole lot of creativity for titles, and we got stuck with something like “Sonata in A minor.” And one million “Minuets.”

But the Romantics, now that’s different. Thematic music told whole stories, without words. In Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” we can listen to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; we hear the prayers before battle, the horns and drums of marching cavalries, snippets from the French national anthem, folk dances around the soldier’s campfires, and the flaming retreat from Moscow.

Not to say that other composers didn’t have their share of spooks. From Bach to the moderns, Halloween and related myths — full of ghostly stories, mysteries, and the grand feelings of passion and death — are well-represented.

Commerce with the Underworld: The Sale of Souls and Dancing with the Devil

One of music’s most enduring myths is that of the musician who sells his soul to the devil. The Faustian bargain, described in poetry by Goethe, found a receptive audience among concert-goers, who were more than willing, for example, to believe that the great violinist Niccolo Paganini sold his soul to the devil. (So, according to legend, did the twentieth-century blues master, Robert Johnson; indeed, one can visit the highway crossroads where the transaction is said to have taken place.) 

  • Carl Maria von Weber, Der Freischutz. This piece describes the forester who meets the devil in a forest, and agrees to sell his soul. Cheap? Expensive? The price was seven magic bullets.
  • Camille Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre. It’s based on a poem where Death appears on Halloween to call the skeletons from their graves. How much spookier do you need? 
  • Franz Liszt’s Totentanz. This piece recalls the work of 14th Century artists, who depicted the Dance of Death. This one is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis.
  • Franz Liszt: Mephisto Waltz. Liszt wrote this to depict Mephistopheles, who plays his violin at a local pub and seduces the villagers into following him.

Myths and Fairytales

The ghosts and goblins, the legends and myths, of medieval Europe have found a home in the music of the 19th and 20th centuries. As composers experimented with changing keys, new tonalities, dissonance, and sound effects, they found plenty of ways to depict the macabre, the thrilling, and the mysterious.

  • Modest Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain. This depiction of a witch’s sabbath was included in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
  • Modest Mussorgsky, Baba Yaga  from Pictures at an Exhibition. Another witch’s sabbath, this one atop Mt. Triglav. in this version, the old hag witch flies through the air and lives in a hut make of chicken bones.
  • Charles Gounod, Funeral March of a Marionette. You’ve heard this: It’s the famed Alfred Hitchcock theme.
  • Franz Schubert, Erl King. The dark and spooky nighttime forest of the 19th century European Romantic makes another appearance in Schubert’s famous lieder. This one is based on a poem by Goethe, which describes the frantic nighttime ride of a father trying to save his son. He fails.
  • Cesar Franck, The Accursed Huntsman. Another nobleman, another forest: In this morality tale, a huntsman skips mass to go hunting, and is cursed by the devil.
  • Paul Dukas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Who can forget this Halloween favorite, also based on Goethe (Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?) Mickey Mouse portrayed the hapless apprentice in the Walt Disney classic, Fantasia.
  • Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite. Scandinavian myths, with trolls and dwarf-like beings come alive in this Norwegian composer’s classic work. In The Hall Of The Mountain King builds from a slow, portending start to a frantic ending. Whoever is in that hall sounds like they in a massive panic to get out.
  • Maurice Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit. This piano suite depicts a seductive water fairy, a hanged corpse, and mischievous goblin. The last movement, Scarbo (that would be the goblin) is considered one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written.
  • Claude Debussy, La Cathedrale Engloutie (“The Engulfed Cathedral”). This piece recalls  a story where the devil floors a city by opening the gates to a dike. The bells of the underwater cathedral still ring on occasion.
  • Adolphe Adam, Giselle. A nobleman, a peasant girl, love, betrayal, and death by grief. In the second act, he meets here spirit in the forest, and she and her friends start to dance him to death. But she spares him in the ballet’s final moments. 

Just Plain Scary Music 

Does a piece of music have to have a story or a myth? Does it have to be about the devil, or can it just — evoke mystery, evil, weirdness, fear? Listen to these, and you tell me:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor.  Can you think of scary piece of organ music? Yup, that’s the one. A stalwart of old movies, its first notes virtually guarantee midnight other-worldly trouble. One of the keystones of the organ repertoire — but musicologists debate its authorship.
  • Léon Boëllmann, Toccata (fourth movement of Suite Gothique.) This menacing pieces is probably the best known work of this nineteenth-century French composer. The Gothic title tells you all you need to know.
  • Olivier Messiaen, “Quartet for the End of Time”.  A piece of music written while the composer was a WWII prisoner of war; the subject is the end of the world. What more to say?
  • Giuseppe Tartini, Violin Sonata in g minor. “The Devil’s Trill” takes place in the double-trills of the the final movement — scary to musician and audience alike. Music legend tells us that the devil himself played the music to Tartini in a dream. 
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique. The Musical autobiography of a demented artist soul, suffering from all the usual things — despair,  unrequited love, and let’s not forget an opium trip that shows him his own death (“March to the Gallows”) and the subsequent orgy with witches (“Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath).
  • Carol Orff, ”  O Fortuna”   You have your basic church choir; then you have… THIS. Based on 11th and 12 century poems written in part to satirize the Catholic church, this 20th century adaptation sounds intense? Evil? Epic? And really…  it’s used to introduce Simon Cowell and his fellow judges in the X Factor: How much spookier do you need? 


Dealing with Failure and Frustration

The New York Times magazine’s educational supplement recently published this article called “What if the Secret to Success is Failure.”  It’s about character education and how learning to deal with frustration and failure can help create success later in a child’s life.

The article didn’t mention music once, but it should have.

Throughout the nine-page article, the author interviewed principals of schools ranging from a tony private school in Riverdale, N.Y. to a stellar public school in the Bronx, along with educational consultants and experts. They talked about character components that were important for success in later life — grit, perseverance, curiosity, self-control, optimism — and about ways they had developed to measure and nurture these traits.

But I’ve got an easier way to see what kind of character a kid has: Just watch how he or she approaches music lessons. Does she slump down in fatigue every time a teacher asks her to play something again? Does he look for praise even after a lackluster performance he knows is full of flaws? Does she avoid practicing the hard stuff at home because it’s too “confusing”?

The more I teach, the more I see that success in learning music — and I believe, by extension, in learning anything — has to do with character. Not character as in following the golden rule and standing up to bullies, but character as in an attitude of approaching and dealing with the world and its challenges. Character as in taking responsibility for your learning. Character as is showing up for your life — prepared, eager, willing, interested, alert, energetic, engaged.

Interestingly, this is most evident with smart students — the ones for whom everything in school comes easily. According to the article, these students can be among the most resistant to tackling projects that actually require real work. In so many cases, bright students are underchallenged in school and never really have to deal with the mammoth difficulties that, say, a math-challenged student faces every day when looking at an algebra problem. Even in gifted program where bright kid are challenged, the steps for figuring out the problem come easily enough; the problem is usually solved without the head-banging frustration of just not “getting it.”

Music is a more even-handed task-master: It challenges the brilliant student just as easily as it challenges everyone else. Becoming a musician is an infinite process, and none of us ever stop learning, ever stop making mistakes. So the bright student’s typical modus operendi — figure it out, do a bit of work, succeed, be done with it — doesn’t apply. There is no “being done with it.” There is always someone better; there is always a harder piece; there is always something you can’t do. There is no such thing as 100 percent; an A+ is not the goal. There is no top to this mountain; there is only the climb.

The “problem” is never entirely solved, because as soon as we learn to play one Beethoven Sonata, we discover another, harder one, we want to play. As soon as we figure out what scales Art Tatum was using in his improvisations, we are faced with the problem of playing them as fast and as lightly as he did, with all the melody notes woven in just so. And even when (or if) we can do that, there are other pieces to learn, other styles to master.

We take forever to “master” a piece, then we perform it and make a mistake. The band director doesn’t pick us as first chair. We fail an orchestra audition and the job goes to a younger player. The audience likes a flashy showpiece by a  technically sloppy performer better than our note-perfect but less appealing offering. We perform our tour de force technical masterpiece at a community talent show, but the talk of the town is the six-year-old who improvised on the harmonica.

Do we fold up and go home? Or do we practice our piece some more, try again for first chair, re-audition for the orchestra, and kick our improvisations up a notch? (As for the six year old — well, best to learn to never share the stage with a talented little kid. Some battles you just can’t win!)

The choices we make are not talent questions; they are character questions.

We are used to hearing about the benefits of music education: Serious music students score better on standardized tests, do better in college, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol. MRIs have shown that musician’s brains function differently in terms of neural pathways than non-musician’s brains.

But we don’t have to look inside a music student’s brain to find the answer: It may be as simple as the issue of  character — of getting up when you’re down, being honest about your mistakes, dealing with frustration, trying one more time, breaking a problem down and patiently putting the pieces together one at a time.

As we teach our students rhythms and notes and pedaling and dynamics, it’s worth remembering that the “character education” we are giving our students is equally, or even more, important. It is at the heart of what we, as music teachers, give to our students. And these are lessons that go far beyond the “Entertainer” and “Fur Elise” — to college, and life beyond.

Piano Practice Quantity and Quality

The old saying that “practice makes perfect” is not entirely true as far as learning to play piano, or any other musical instrument, is concerned. What practice actually does is “make permanent.” Only perfect practice makes perfect. How to practice piano well, it turns out, is an art in itself.

Piano Practice Quality Versus Practice Quantity

Practice reinforces the activity being practiced. A music student who repeats the same mistake over and over learns to play a piece with that mistake firmly learned. A student with good practice habits learns to correct mistakes before they become ingrained, which makes practice more effective and less frustrating. And those practice habits, once learned, can be effectively applied to learning other academic subjects, as well as other activities such as sports, drama, or dance.

Therefore, while the amount of time spent practicing is important, it is equally important that the quality of mindful practice be at the highest possible level. Students need to learn to identify mistakes, isolate them, and practice small sections of music until those sections are learned and the mistakes eradicated. Then they can stitch together the pieces and play the work as a whole.

At the early levels, parents can help their children practice by supervising them to make sure they are focusing on goals and following the teacher’s practice instructions. Intermediate and advanced students must learn to practice on their own, and, with their teacher’s guidance, develop ways to identify and correct mistakes before they become habits.

Learning Good Piano Practice Habits

As students become more advanced, they learn to take an active role in structuring their piano practice, and then restructuring it to meet the challenges that come up in each practice session.

Practice sessions should begin with a clear goal: Many students begin with warm-up exercises, scales, and technique drills, followed by repertoire. It’s a good idea to work on pieces in various stages of the learning process, for example: one new piece in which the student is learning notes, one mid-level piece that is being brought up to speed, and an advanced piece that is being polished for possible performance. This means that the student is thinking differently with each piece, which makes practice more interesting, less rote, and more effective.

With each piece, the student needs to note what the problems are and then develop a strategy for working on them. Generally, this involves applying one or more standard practice techniques such as working in small chunks, learning one hand at a time, playing with a metronome, or varying the tempo.

Perhaps the most important admonishment is that the student should not simply repeat a piece, or a large section of a piece, hoping that the next time, the mistakes will magically disappear. Unfortunately, mistakes are more stubborn than that.

Repeating mistakes means learning mistakes. Most musicians are at least occasionally tempted to ignore mistakes and play through them (and indeed, this is what they should do when practicing performing). But when practicing to learn a piece, barging through mistakes simply reinforces errors and delays the inevitable corrections that must take place. It truly is possible for an advanced player to play a short intermediate-level piece badly 50 times in a row, and still not be able to play it. Whereas 15 minutes of targeted practice could yield a well-learned solid performance of the same piece of music.

In the end, quality of practice is as important as quantity, and perhaps more so: No amount of poor practice will teach a pianist to play well, whereas a small amount of high quality practice will yield big improvements.