All posts by Karen Berger

The Creative Commons Debate

This post is a response to a comment made on my last post, in which I requested that readers respect my Copyright. The commenter responded with a discussion about Creative Commons, and how it is the wave of the future for writers and creatives to share their work freely. I want to be clear that I fully support Creative Commons as an idea that may be appropriate and useful for some people. However, the commenter called those of us who protect our traditional, copyright-based intellectual property old-fashioned, locked down, on the losing side of history, and implied  that we were somehow selfish for not making our decades of work and training available for free to the entire world. The commenter thinks royalty-free shared content is the wave of the future. I’m thinking — not so fast, buckaroo.

Dear Commenter: Yes, the writing and publishing worlds are changing drastically, but I’ll wait a while yet before I start to worry about my writing income drying up. The death of publishing has been announced every year since I started in this biz more than three decades ago. The old nag still has some miles in her.

Of course, things are changing. I’m seeing huge new opportunities for creatives to take control of their work. I’m definitely seeing a more challenging financial environment, especially for newcomers. I’m seeing lots of free (and royalty-free) content. What I am NOT seeing is a high volume (exceptions exist) of marketable, high-quality, royalty-free content. And of course, some of what looks free isn’t: Just because a writer isn’t being paid by someone to write doesn’t mean there is no economic value to the endeavor.

For example, writers might be supported by grants, advertising, commercial interests, affiliate product sales, etc., or might be looking to build a public relations platform, develop a loss leader to drum up business, or build an academic reputation. It’s easy for those folks to give their stuff away. Indeed, professors have always “given” their writing away (to academic journals and the like). Their money comes from elsewhere; “giving away” their academic journal articles helps them get that money.

And MUCH of what is truly free is free because there isn’t much value in it, commercial or otherwise. (Of course, there are exceptions; there always are.) No one seems to want to pay for your newest creation, but you want to get it out there? Put it up for free. Throw it at the wall. See what sticks.

Lots of people sit on the sidelines and boo and hiss at those who “sell out” but I have this nagging little feeling that those boos and hisses are as much about jealousy and frustration as they are the result of some high minded idealism. Here’s a little test: Try waving a nice book publishing or recording contract check in front those folks and see how quickly how many of them jump ship! All that rhetoric about being on the right side of history and the moral benefits of Creative Commons, and sharing and creative community — it all goes out the window with a big enough check.

It’s a lot like what we see with self-publishing and the writers — usually those who haven’t yet found a traditional publisher — who extol its virtues. They put an e-book out, maybe distribute it for a low cost or for free; maybe one in a hundred has some modest success. Now let’s say a traditional publisher takes notice: I mean, really, how many creative types would say, “Well, no thank you, Random House, I really don’t want that six-figure advance; I’ll just stay with the self-publishing thing/Creative Commons deal and give my work away for the good of humanity if you don’t mind.”? Yes, there may be some outliers — idealists, rebels, free-thinkers, visionaries — who would turn up their noses at a nice sized publishing deal but as a rule? I’m thinking they’re signing those contracts as fast as they can find a traditional, moribund, lost-in-the-tides-of-history, low-tech pen.

I’m as excited about self-publishing and independent music production as the next guy, because it will work for my projects that DON’T work for traditional publishers. But am I giving up on traditional publishers? Hell, no!

I still BUY books and music because much of the good stuff I want isn’t free. Also, I believe in supporting the artists who create good work. So I put my money where my mouth is, so to speak: I buy CDs (yes, CDs — I’m THAT old fashioned) by local musicians (sometimes I buy even if I am not that wild about those musicians), and I buy books by local writers and art by local photographers.

Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s a lot of value in Creative Commons. I don’t doubt that a few people who are giving away work for free are giving away work of real value. Many fine younger artists are taking this path to get the word out, and the cross pollination and energy of an exchange of ideas creates an incredible synergy. But let’s be realistic: Do we really think that these people don’t want to be paid for their work? Giving it away is often simply a matter of creating a long-term marketing and career development plan.

It is, however, getting more difficult to break into the arena of the creative fields where people pay you upfront for your work. The barriers to entry are as high as I’ve ever seen them. In a sense, that’s where the free stuff comes in: People put their stuff out on creative commons or on free sites or for low prices and just try to get noticed. Then they move up to monetizing. OR they become hobbyists. OR find another way to support themselves. OR marry rich. Those are the choices.

The financial models, technology, and distribution channels are changing, yes. The financial situation, in particular, is challenging: Monetizing the Internet is a difficult endeavor, and traditional outlets are hemorrhaging money, advertisers, and readers. But traditional copyright-protected, royalty based work isn’t going anywhere: The last music book contract I looked at (that was last week) had a clause about “all rights in all technologies now or yet to be invented in the universe or any universes yet to be discovered” — or something pretty close to that, and I am not exaggerating. They are grabbing those rights because intellectual property still has VALUE. 

The good stuff floats to the top, which is where the money is. There is still demand for good creative work that people will pay for — just like they pay for TV, even though there is “free TV.” (I think — I don’t actually have TV reception in my house, so I don’t know — there still IS free TV, right?)

People — at least SOME people — still want quality. And there lies the hope for those who want to monetize creative careers. I take issue with the contention that crowd-sourced material is as good as anything out there that people have to pay for. I won’t argue about the perception of the value of anyone’s work in particular — as I have said, there are always exceptions. I WILL say that much crowd-sourced royalty-free material is crap, and even when there are golden nuggets in it, it is difficult to wade through because of the noise to signal ratio. I can tell a self-published book at sight. I barely even have to open it to know it hasn’t been properly developed, designed, edited, and proofread. Same with many self-produced, self-recorded, self-mastered, self-engineered CDs. (Of course, a lot of stuff you pay for is crap, too; worse, a lot of people today can’t tell and don’t care.)

So intellectual gatekeeping is also in a process of change: How that shakes out in the future will also determine what is available for free — and who pays for what.

I don’t object to the Creative Commons concept at all: I can see where it can make sense and where it can produce some good stuff. It addresses some HUGE flaws in our current Copyright system. It can give beginners some experience getting their work out and talked about; it can share ideas from thought leaders who are monetized in other ways (universities, think tanks, etc.) It may indeed be (and I hope it is) a wave of the future — but I do not think it will be the only wave.

What it is is a CHOICE. Both Creative Commons licenses and traditional copyrights have a role to play in the new digital intellectual marketplace. One is not ethically superior. One is not moribund and dying. One is not lame-brained and naive. One is not hard-hearted and selfish. It is the creator’s choice to use one or the other, or both. And that is the most important thing of all.

Please Respect This Blog’s Copyright!

Dear Piano Teachers:

I’m overwhelmed at the global response to my post, “The Truth About Piano Lessons.”

It seems that we are ALL going through the same thing: From Egypt to Estonia, Sri Lanka to Sweden, Cuba to China, the story has been read and passed around the world.

Unfortunately, it has also been reprinted (sometimes with alterations that I never even saw!) without my permission.

This puts me in a difficult predicament:

I WANT the article to be read and to help as many teachers and student families as possible.

But I make my living as a writer and a musician. I am the copyright owner of this blog, and I have not given permission for people to reprint the post on their blogs. This is not a matter of plagiarizing: Almost everyone has given me credit. But even if you give me credit, you do not have permission to reprint the article on line.

Reprinting MY post on YOUR blog hurts my business, because readers doing a search about piano lessons may find my post on your blog instead of on mine. Google pays me based on page views and advertising revenues on my blog, and it can and does penalize writers whose works are found in multiple places on the Internet. I also want people who view that post to be able to read the other articles on my site.

As much as I appreciate your valuing my work, I therefore have to ask that you respect my copyright.

There is an easy solution: You are welcome to reprint the first 50 words, and send readers to my blog via a link, to read the rest of the article. You may also print hard copies for your personal students, as long as my name and the address of the blog are clearly visible.

Thank you for your understanding,


News Flash: Musical Achievement is Not About Talent

Musical Talent, Nature Versus Nurture, and the 10,000 Hours Rule

Meet my sister. She started piano lessons at age 7, and practiced a half an hour a day pretty much for the next 11 years, sometimes doing a little more, rarely less.  

She didn’t especially love practicing, and indeed, it was hard for her because she doesn’t have a good ear: She can’t sing on key, could never learn to tune a guitar by ear, can’t pick out a tune by matching pitches. Most of the time, she had to be told that she was playing a wrong note, which my father vociferously did, shouting out from the back of the apartment whenever she hit a clunker.

My sister was smart in school, but she wasn’t what most music teachers would identify as “talented” in music: She never sat down and tried to pluck out a favorite song; she didn’t fish out chords and harmonies; she has trouble identifying the difference between major and minor. But she practiced that half an hour a day. 11 years: Do the math: That’s a total of nearly 2000 hours. And she became skilled.

Here’s a partial list of some of the (original) repertoire she played in junior high school: Chopin’s Military Polonaise. Debussy’s  Clare de Lune. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (actually, we performed those together when she was still in elementary school). Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path.” Some Haydn sonatas. A few Chopin waltzes, polonaises, and preludes. She didn’t ever get to the big concert repertoire: Chopin ballades and etudes, the big Beethoven sonatas, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff. But she got farther than 95 percent of the piano students I’ve encountered.  

I think about my sister a lot as my students come in and out the door, with their practice logs marked “10 minutes,” “7 minutes,”  “3 minutes,” and a lot of “zeros.” I think about her when I’ve had a kid for four or five years who isn’t yet fluent in note reading, who has to be coached to figure out where a method book piece even starts. Four years of lessons, and “Fur Elise” is still an impossible dream for most of my students…. I admit, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around that.

Comparing students is fruitless of course, but people do it all the time. And one of the ways they do it is by bringing in a destructive little word: “Talent.” Joey has talent. Suzie doesn’t. THAT’S why Suzie can’t find Middle C after 100 piano lessons. THAT’S why Joey is playing the Fantasie Impromptu at the age of 12.  

Talent, Shmalent

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson did a study at West Berlin’s prestigious Music Academy. He interviewed teachers, asking them to put their conservatory-aged young adult violin and piano students into categories:  Those who had the potential to become professional performing artists. Those who had the ability to play in working professional orchestras. And those who were destined to teach in elementary schools.

An interjection here: I don’t like that last designation. Many fine musicians teach in elementary (and other) schools. But to argue about the classification is to miss the point: The teachers were ranking the students based on their professional potential as performing artists.

And then, in a blind study, the researchers interviewed all those students about how much practice time they had put into their music from the very beginnings of their introduction to music. 

The results were consistent across the board, with so little variation that it challenges our very notions about “talent.” As it turned out, the “talent” it took to become what the professors considered a potential concert artist had nothing to do with anything except how many hours the student had practiced. 

  • 10,000 hours: Master of the instrument; concert artist potential.
  • 8,000 hours: Professional orchestral musicians.
  • 4,000 hours: Teachers 
  • 2,000 hours: Amateurs

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomena of people who live and work outside the bell curve: the geniuses, the achievers, the exceptions. He looks at questions like “Why do Asian children seem to do so well at music?” and asks “What is going on here?” He looks at the 10,000 hour study and then he looks at the Beatles and Mozart — and he concludes that just as important as any “talent” was the fact that they had those 10,000 hours. The Beatles played day in and day out in Hamburg, racking up hundreds, then thousands of hours of performance and rehearsal time before their “overnight success.” Mozart played music all day everyday, carefully supervised, starting as a toddler; he probably had his 10,000 hours in well before he was a teenager. 

No one is saying the Beatles or Mozart didn’t have talent: But would they have achieved what they did without those hours? Ericsson’s study says “no.” 

Talent and Practice: The Chicken and the Egg

To conclude that talent has nothing to do with anything may be a little facile, and it contradicts the evidence every music teacher has of students coming in and “getting” it” or not. Some people are better at certain musical tasks than others. And indeed, talent may have been one of the factors that made people practice more to begin with. Would Leopold have sat with little Wolfgang day in and day out if Wolfie had been a distracted little kid who couldn’t remember “Middle C”?  Maybe not. But talent without practice can be nothing more than an empty, unfulfilled promise.

Where talent may factor in is that people like doing the things they are good at. There is a virtuous cycle: They practice, they get results, they enjoy the results, they practice more. A child who simply can’t wrap her mind around how to figure out that “D” is one step up from “C” may not be having as much fun as the kid who sits down, grabs some notes, and starts playings something that sounds good. Kid number 1 practices less, Kid number 2 practices more. 

The Role of Will, Drive, and Character in Musical Achievement

The type of practice also matters: Good practice is a whole lot more than butt-on-bench time.  It can be active, engaged, critical, creative, and problem-solving. It can also be frustrating and boring. It’s not just the time; it’s also about intent and energy and efficiency.

Finally, there is the issue of personal will. Some kids simply have minds that like to wrestle.  

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: If I put a Beethoven Sonata full of 16th notes and 32nd notes on the piano music stand, most of my students will treat it as adult garbage that has nothing to do with them (and, they seem to hope, never will). Their initial reaction to it is that it looks “HARD” and “CONFUSING” and that is all they want to know about it.

But I have a couple of 9 and 10 year-olds who would IMMEDIATELY pick up that music and start trying to work it out. They would look at the threes against fours and ask how to play them, or ask how you play a chord with six notes with only five fingers, and what is that “x”  doing in front of a note where a sharp or a flat usually would go? They are curious — and they see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to try it. That’s not musical TALENT, folks: That’s character. Personality. Drive. Will. Curiosity. Interest. And I’m pretty sure it shows up on the soccer field and in school and in art projects, too.

And that, I think, is the bottom line here: Music is a great equalizer. In a world filled with technology designed to make everything we encounter as effortless as possible, music still requires, and rewards, work.

The Myth of Musical Genius

We have a myth about talent: We like to believe it exists, maybe in part because it lets us off the hook. We think of Paganini, or Robert Johnson, both supposedly possessed by the devil to play as they did. We hear about Uncle George who just sat down at the piano one day and started playing, and we shake our heads in wonder at George’s talent, and say that we wish we had it, conveniently ignoring that when George was a kid he banged away at the old clunker piano in the school lunchroom and tried to learn songs by sneaking into the local music store and looking at chord sheets to see if what he figured out by himself was right, and he listened to the radio when he was supposed to be sleeping.

I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out all the mysteries of talent and genius: The kids who can read music upside down, the prodigies who, at age six, start playing Mozart sonatas, the children with perfect pitch or an intuitive understanding of harmony. Such things certainly exist out at the far edges of the bell curve.

But professional musicians don’t all live out there in the land of freak outliers. Indeed, as the Berlin study showed, even prodigies need to practice to make good on their gifts, and the vast majority of professional musicians inhabit the more prosaic world of “practice makes perfect” and good old slogging.

The conclusion we can draw is an encouraging one: If we practice like they practice, we too may achieve remarkable things.

Just like my sister.

How Classical Pianists Can Benefit From Digital Keyboards

We’ve talked about this before: For a classical pianist, a digital piano is in no way a substitute for a traditional acoustic piano.

But despite the tendency of piano teachers to faint at the thought of using a digital piano to play Beethoven, the fact is that lots of kids are learning on digital keyboards. So let’s look at the bright side today: Classical pianists who have electronic keyboards can actually find many ways to benefit from their features when practicing.

Benefits of Digital Pianos for Classical Pianists and Students

So yes, we know: A good quality grand piano or baby grand piano is essential for a serious  classical pianist. However, a digital piano has some surprising uses in a classical music studio, including experimenting with voices and evaluating technique.

  • Even Action: The action of a digital keyboard is so even that it reveals any irregularities in the pianist’s technique, especially in fast even passages. This is evident when the pianist records a selection, using the recording function available in most digital keyboards. Very few acoustic pianos have such even action, especially at the lower prices.
  • Precision: It doesn’t take as much pressure for a key to go down on a digital piano, activating the electronics that make a noise. Practicing on such a sensitive keyboard makes pianists more careful and more accurate, because it forces them to avoid sloppily hooking onto and grabbing a second note when making moves, playing chords, or handling fast technical passages. 
  • Playing and Practicing Duet Parts: Using the keyboard’s metronome and recording capability, the pianist can play and record one voice at a time, then play another part over it. .
  • Experimenting with Sound. Try using the keyboard’s many voices. Melodic lines played by different instrument voices will suggest different ways to conceive, shape, and phrase: the phrase. A piece of music sounds very different when played by a trumpet, flute, or harpsichord.
  • Voicings: Play a Bach piece using the organ voicing, the harpsichord voicing, and other piano voicings. Play a Two-part Invention using the digital piano’s split voice function, i.e.: play the piece using one instrument voice in the bass and another instrument voice in the treble.
  • Composing: Keyboards can be used in tandem with computers for composing. Compositions can be played into the keyboard and notated by the computer.
  • Head-phones: For young musicians, city dwellers, and those sharing living quarters with room-mates, a digital keyboard can be used for late-night practice in an apartment.
  • Price and Value: A digital piano suitable for use as a classical instrument runs $1000 – $3000; sometimes more. The cheapest new acoustic uprights start at about $3000; at this price, many pianists feel that the digital keyboard plays better and gives more value.

Limitations of Digital Keyboards for Classical Pianists

The main problems with a digital keyboard are the touch and tone, including the lack of overtones.

  • Action: Digital pianos lack the feel of a “real” piano. The closest most get (even with so called “weighted grand piano hammer action”) is mimicking the feel of an inexpensive upright. This makes them a poor substitute when it comes to dynamic control and voicing.
  • Tone: Closely related is the problem of tones and overtones: Digital piano sounds are recorded. The recordings mimic and copy the overtones of a piano, but the overtones themselves don’t exist. In an acoustic piano, overtones sound in relation to other notes. The sounds a pianist gets on an acoustic instrument, especially when pedaling, are completely different than what is available from a digital keyboard.
  • Pedaling Issues: Subtleties are lost on a digital piano. On a digital, the pedals go on or off. On an acoustic piano, there are several gradations in between.
  • Heft and Weight: It’s a different experience to sit down at an acoustic piano and put true arm weight into a big concert piece. It’s difficult to put the same physicality into a lightweight instrument that moves around when it is played too hard.

The bottom line: A digital piano is not a substitute for an acoustic piano. But while digital pianos are not used in classical performances, they can be a useful addition to the classical pianist’s music room.

For more information: Acoustic Pianos versus Digital Pianos.

Songs for A Hurricane

What do a bunch of musicians do during a hurricane? Put playlists up on Facebook: Here’s a compilation of songs suitable for a storm.
A Mighty Wind (from the eponymous Christopher Guest movie)
Against the Wind
Blowin’ in the Wind
Blown’ (BTO),
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Coloured Rain
Come On Irene
Conversations of the Wind and Sea (from Debussy’s La Mer).
Dust in the Wind.
Everyone Knows it’s Windy
Feels like Rain
Fire and Rain
Fool in the Rain
Four String Winds
Get Off of My Cloud
Goodnight Irene
Have You Ever Seen the Rain
How High’s The Water, Mama
I Can See Clearly Now
I Can’t Stand the Rain.
I Wish it Would Rain
I’m Only Happy When it Rains
It Never Rains in California (It Pours)
Kentucky Rain
Let the Thunder Roar
Lightning in the Sky
Like a Hurricane
Listen to the Patter of the Falling Rain
November Rain
Purple Rain
Rain – Beatles
Rain – Peter Gabriel
Rain King
Rain Song – Zeppelin
Raindrop Prelude (Chopin)
Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head
Rainy Day Women 12 & 35.
Rainy days and Monday’s
Riders on the Storm
Rock you like a Hurricane
Shelter from the Storm.
Singing in the Rain
So. Central Rain
Stormy Monday
The Wind Cries Mary
They call the Wind Mariah
‎Who’ll Stop the Rain
Wicked Rain

What Instrument Should Your Child Play?

School is starting up, and depending on your school and district, your child may be given the choice of playing an instrument, usually in third, fourth, or fifth grade.

I well remember when the band director at my elementary school came in to our classrooms with a demonstration of all the marvelous instruments that would be available for us to play. I remember the boys’ eyes lighting up at the drum sets (and the attendant let-down a few days later when they were all given little book-sized woodblocks to beat on). I remember the shiny wind instruments and the gleaming strings. I even remember Mr. Richmond’s name, even though this was $%^# years ago and I never took a single class with him.

Because, very unfortunately, my parents said no (one of the few academic mistakes I think they made): They thought piano was enough, and I already had other extracurricular activities on my schedule. But of course, hindsight is 20-20.

The fact is that in the early years, participation in band and orchestra is a pretty low-impact involvement on family schedules and finances. In the very early stages, school music directors giving group lessons don’t expect a whole lot of practice from students. Of course, the virtuous cycle of practice and reward kicks in immediately — students get out of it what they put in — but it’s still a low impact introduction.The students get their rental instruments, and squeak and squawk their way through a few ear-splitting recitals. Those who take to it eventually move on to private lessons, start practicing for real, and audition for all-district and all-state ensembles. Some switch to another instrument, or join a rock band. Some major in music. 

And those who don’t continue turn their rental instruments, sit back in the audience, and watch their friends continue. So there’s no downside to having your child try an instrument: The instrument cost is minimal (rentals), the teaching is done at school, and the time commitment, at first, is negligible. If you are at all conflicted about taking on another activity or trying out music, school group lessons are a great way to go. 

The upsides are numerous. I won’t belabor that point here (because I’m pulling together an article with links to formal studies about the benefits of music education: participation in a team creative activity, commitment, developing practice and learning habits, and side benefits like, oh, less drug abuse, greater math scores, and better overall academic achievement). 

So for now, suffice it to say: no downsides, lots of upsides. So the question: Which instrument?

Instruments are so wonderfully different from each other. My partner is writing a book on ukulele right now, and while I don’t mind listening to the uke, the thing feels like an alien monstrosity in my hands (even a so called baritone uke). I have to squeeze my big self into its little frets, and it feels all cramped over and high pitched. Give me a cello, a bass: Something that sends an expanding sound outwards and speaks from the gut. I have the same response to piccolos versus tenor saxes.

Other people are exactly the opposite: My just-post-college room-mate, for example, has become a leading piccolo recording artist. Lucky her, because it’s a heck of a lot easier (and cheaper) to travel with a piccolo (or a uke) than a tuba (or a double bass)! Not to mention a piano.

Instruments speak to people: They use the  body differently, and they speak in different voices, they speak from the gut or the heartstrings or the voice box. I can imagine myself playing a cello or viola but not the violin, and the idea of having to hold my breath and control it to put the voice in a wind instrument feels uncomfortable to me. Yet I can understand the appeal of that: What a blessing to use the breath that fueled your body to fuel the voice of an instrument!

And how about drums: The endless, amazing  varied sounds of the world’s thousands of percussion instruments: hand-drums, claves, marimbas, thumb pianos, cymbals, tambourines (and yes, we’re talking about little kids here, so the appeal of BANG BANG BANG).

We ALL respond to instruments differently.

I’d try to stay away from gender stereotypes (Some of my five year old piano students are quite convinced that no boy ever plays the violin). It is, however, important to note that kids have different talents, skills, and physical abilities. The smallest kid in the class may not be able to reach the end note on a trombone, and a little boy who desperately wants to fit in with  bigger tougher peers may find more success and satisfaction with a trumpet or sax than with a violin or a piccolo. Some kids have trouble holding down strings on instruments or the fine motor motion of moving their fingers on small instruments.

Musical taste is another issue: When kids are small, this is a difficult factor to weigh, but the fact is that there are more jazz saxophone players than jazz violists, that it’s easier to score a position playing in an orchestra as a violist than as a flutist, and a clarinetist can not only play both sides of the jazz classical divide; she can play saxophone, too. A violist doesn’t have that many chances to solo because of the limitations of the repertoire; a violinist may or may not — depending on the competition. A string bass player doesn’t get to play in the football marching band (which keeps a lot of kids in music through their high school years) and a bassoonist and an oboist are going to have trouble finding a place in a rock and roll group.

At the same time, the decision you make today isn’t written in stone: Many musical children try several instruments. If your child is simply assigned one (because the school needs a bassoon player), they can always change later. In fact, the exposure to multiple instruments is a good thing, and can be a real asset down the road if you child becomes serious about music, either as a session musician or a music teacher.

And this point is also worth making: if your child hates music lesson, try to find out if it’s because of the instrument. Some kids just aren’t meant to play some instruments. It’s like choosing friends: The fact that your child and the neighbor’s kid don’t get along doesn’t mean that your kid doesn’t like to make friends; it simply might mean he doesn’t like that kid. Same may be true for the bassoon. 

So talk with the school music teacher about demands — physical, coordination, practice-related — of each instrument. Let your kid experiment. PLAY some music for them: If they think they want to play violin, play them a violin sonata or a bluegrass tune; if they are leaning toward clarinet, play a clarinet quintet or a great jazz player. And then let your child be your guide.  

Coming up next:  Should your kid play more than one instrument? (With a focus on piano. Well, I admit it, I do have a bit of a bias on this blog.)   

What Makes a Good Piano Parent?

Okay, so my not-so-short rant on parenting and piano lessons has now reached thousands of people from dozens of countries…. literally, all around the world. Clearly, it hit a nerve — in Russia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Jamaica, South Korea, Mexico, China, Portugal, Italy, South Africa, Israel, Japan, Bolivia, Estonia…

But there’s a “glass-half-full” aspect to all of this, and I wanted to share that, as well.

Last night, David and I hosted a music party to celebrate — well everything: The 9th year of our studio here in the Berkshires, the publication of seven music books in the Idiot’s Guides series, and a community that has given us amazing support in our mission to bring music into people’s lives.

And the performances of our students and the joy of David’s song-circle of guitarists playing old favorites together reminded us, once again, why we do this: it’s so much more than a job. Watching our students turn into musicians before our eyes is a one of the greatest gifts I can imagine.

So I wanted to share with you some of what I see that my really wonderful piano families (and David’s equally wonderful guitar families) are doing right:

1) They are making music a priority. For some, this means that lessons and practice are a non-negotiable part of life. Kind of like brushing your teeth.

2) They don’t overcommit. Our most successful students (and this includes those who are successful  academically AND athletically as well as musically) do two maybe or three activities at a time — not four or five.

3) They supervise their kids. For very young students, this means that they make sure the kids have put in their required practice, completed any assignments, have their books for their lessons. For older students, it means maintaining a presence: asking about a piece, showing interest, making sure their kid plays in recitals and other musical events. 

4) They support lessons by playing music at home and attending live music events — ANY live music events.

5) They listen in at lessons and then remind students of what the teacher told them to do. (Yes, we allow parents to sit in… I know some teachers don’t, and there are good arguments both ways.)

6) If they CAN help with practice (counting, correcting wrong notes, etc.) they do.

7) Even if they can’t help with correcting musical problems, they ask their kids to play for them and show them what they are working on.

8) They are JOYFUL about music: They see it not as just another chore, but as something special in life.

9) They listen to us when we talk about lesson length or practice times or overscheduling or summer lessons or the need for a quiet practice place uninterrupted by toddlers trying to bang along on the high notes or a blaring TV.

10) They communicate with us: Let us know about scheduling issues, school problems, and other issues that might affect how a child is doing. Sometimes we can help by changing the requirements, taking a break from the “serious” stuff to have more fun, or simply knowing that a kid is feeling overwhelmed.

If you’re a parent reading this: What have you done to support your child’s music education?

If you are a music teacher: What makes a great music parent in YOUR eyes?

Please comment.

Conversations With my Students

A few choice  words from my students…. Feel free to add some of your own!

Me: “So did you learn any goofy songs at summer camp?”
Student: “No, mostly they had sailboats in them. My mom knows the words.”

Me: “So, what’s new and interesting this week?”
Student:  “Grandma has spiders on her legs and crinkly elbows.”

Me: “So what’s new this week?”
Student: “Mom got a new pooper scooper.”

Me: “That was interesting…. You had some creative rhythms in there that I don’t think the composer ever considered.”
Student: “You mean it was a train wreck.”

Me: “That was pretty stinky.” (said to a student with whom I have a long-standing relationship that can handle this!)
Student: “I thought it sounded pretty good…. until it didn’t.”

Me: “So, how do you think that went?”
Student: “Pretty good.”
Me: “Yeah? It’s written in 3/4 time, but you played it in 4/4. And you forgot all the sharps in the key of A major. And you skipped these three lines entirely.”
Student: “But it was still pretty good, right?”

Me: “So, what’s new?”
Student: “After piano, I’m going over to my uncle’s house to play with my band.”
Me: “Really? Who’s in your band?”
Student: “Me and my uncle.”

Me: “That was great. Your finger position was so good that even if I were standing all the way over there in the kitchen, I would be able to tell how good your hand position was just by listening to you.”
Student: “I think piano teachers are a different kind of human.”

Buying a Used Piano: Problems, Issues, Prices, Advantages

It happens every year: Little Bobby is playing on a cheap keyboard, and mom and dad (and piano teacher, too!) think he’s ready for an upgrade to a real acoustic piano. (Here are some thoughts on acoustic versus digital pianos). Luckily, or so they think, they see an ad in the local advertising newspaper. All they have to do is pick it up and it’s theirs.

Two weeks, a failed tuning, and a world of disappointment later, guess who is placing an add in the paper begging someone to take the instrument off their hands?

Buying a used piano can work, but there are some considerations to take into account before you write the check.

Used Versus New Pianos

Obviously, new pianos come with big advantages: There no secret history of bad maintenance and mechanical problems. The piano comes with a guarantee. It probably even comes with a free tuning when you first get it delivered.

And all that comes with a gigantic price tag; Indeed, a fine new grand piano can cost as much as a fine car.

Used pianos can be a good solution. While top brand pianos such as Steinway, Bechstein, and Bosendorfer retain their value (and thus their price) over time (if they are well maintained), most pianos depreciate. The problem is that you may be buying someone else’s problems. And, just as with buying a used car, the fact that this is an expensive purchase means that there is someone awfully eager to sell it to you. The advice you get may be not entirely forthright, or even honest.

The biggest issue with buying a used piano is its condition. Pianos are incredibly complex mechanical machines with hundreds of hidden moving parts. A crack in a piece of wood no bigger than a safety pin can render an entire key unusable. And as a non-technician, you will never even know where to look.

But all that said, if you can find a good piano technician (ask the local piano teachers for references) to look at the piano for you, you might find that a used piano is a good deal.

How to Buy a Used Piano

Prices of used pianos can vary tremendously depending on make, manufacturer, the age of the piano, how it has been maintained, and how desperate the owner is to get rid of it.

When doing your research, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Go to a local piano store to get a benchmark, and expect to pay less from a private seller. (But also realize that maintenance issues may be more of a problem).
  • When visiting stores, play lots of instruments to get a feel for different sonorities and touches.
  • Ask a piano teacher for advice. Piano students quit, or upgrade their instruments, and sometimes a former student’s instrument may be for sale.
  • Be sure you know what you are looking at and considering buying. A spinet is different from a console, even if the two are only a few inches different in size. A large upright may be better than a grand. Educate yourself about types and brands of pianos before you shop.
  • Never buy sight unseen: If it’s a Craigslist piano or a piano advertised in your local ad newspaper, go to see it.

When checking out the piano, consider the following:

  • Ask about tunings and maintenance. Pianos should be tuned twice a year, although in practicality, once is a year is probably the most you can expect most people to spring for. A piano that has not been tuned in many years is more than likely no longer going to be able to hold its tune.
  • Ask about any restoration or mechanical work that has been done to the piano (new action, soundboard repairs, new strings, etc.)
  • Ask where the piano has been stored or kept: If it has been near a heater or a window, it may have been damaged by heat and light.
  • Don’t commit to a piano before you have had a chance to play it in tune with any annoying clicks and dings in the action repaired. Don’t trust promises that it will be “as good as new” when they tune it after you buy it. See for yourself.
  • Cracks in the soundboard are not (contrary to common myth) a deal breaker, but cracks in the pinblock are.
  • If you’re serious about an instrument, ask a technician to see the piano with you. (You’ll have to pay for this service, of course.)
  • If buying from a store, ask what parts of the piano will be guaranteed. Most stores include a tuning with the purchase price. 

Buying a used piano is not for the faint of heart. But used pianos, even those that need considerable work and repairs, can be very good deals if you find the right instrument, and if you have it checked out by a competent and honest technician before you buy it. For more information, check prices and brands with the Blue Book of Pianos and read The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano, by Larry Fine.

Group Piano Lessons: How to Make Them Work

Traditionally, piano lessons have been taught one-one-one in private lessons. But with the advent of portable, inexpensive digital pianos equipped with headphones, programs have sprung up to teach piano to groups of beginners. For parents, these programs are less inexpensive than private lessons. At the same time, they can be more lucrative for teachers. Win-win. but what about the students?

While there are pros and cons to teaching groups lessons versus private piano lessons, group lessons for beginners can be successful if certain elements are in place. Here’s what to look for if you are parent… and what to be sure you are doing if you are a teacher.

Elements of Success in Group Piano Lessons

The success of group lessons depends on the skill of the teacher, the class curriculum, the number of students, and how well matched the students are in age and learning ability.

  • Teacher Skill: Typical group lessons may be an hour in length, which is a long time for a small child. Therefore, the teacher must have a bag of tricks to keep students interested and keep the class varied and moving. The teacher must also have class management strategies in order to deal with working with one child privately while keeping the others busy with independent learning tasks, regaining control when the class turns chaotic, and coping with different learning styles and abilities.
  • Class Curriculum: The curriculum should be developed or modified so it is workable for groups. For example, the teacher should have plenty of supplemental activities to reinforce concepts, and to give to students who finish assignments before everyone else. Materials should also be age appropriate, as young children who can’t yet read have difficulty using instructional materials developed for older children who are reading fluently. The curriculum should include plenty of variety in order to revive interest when students get tired or lose focus.
  • Number of Students: While some classes have experimented with teaching a dozen or more children, most teachers of group piano classes prefer a group size of about four children. This gives everyone plenty of time for individual attention, but allows for camaraderie to develop. Group dynamics add to the “fun” elements of the class.
  • Student Compatibility: Children should be grouped by age, and, when possible, learning ability. Children who are five should not be in classes with seven or eight year olds: The cognitive differences between different age groups make classroom management and evenly paced instruction virtually impossible. Even children of the same age can be vastly different in learning ability. The most successful groups combine children of similar ages and abilities together. Indeed, group lessons may not be appropriate for children who are very talented, or those who need constant extra attention.

Materials Required for Successful Group Piano Lessons

A professional group piano studio will have most of the following elements:

  • Digital pianos, one per student: Digital pianos must have headphones. Touch control (dynamic control when keys are pressed with different amounts of force) is required. It is preferable that keyboards have pedals and 88 weighted keys, so they feel as much like an acoustic piano as possible.
  • A photocopier: For writing group assignments and homework, for photocopying parts and music when needed.
  • A whiteboard or blackboard (and appropriate writing implements): Used for writing games such as drawing and naming notes.
  • Inexpensive percussion instruments: For rhythm exercises.
  • Computers (optional): Computers with mini-piano keyboards can be used for music theory and music-reading exercises. Teachers should be sure that the learning programs being used penalize students for mistakes, otherwise, students simply click randomly as fast as they can to try to score points.
  • An acoustic piano (optional): Having an acoustic piano enables the teacher to demonstrate, and allows the children to move among instruments and feel and hear the differences for themselves.
  • CD player (optional): for listening exercises and games.

With an enthusiastic teacher, a well-designed classroom, an age-appropriate and varied curriculum, and a class of compatible students, group piano lessons can work well for the first year or two as an introduction to more advanced, private study.

For more information on group music lessons, see Group Music Lessons for Young Children.

For more information on piano lessons, see: How to Know a Child is Ready for Piano Lessons.