Ballet and Basics

When I was growing up, I wanted to take ballet lessons AND learn piano, but in those days kids generally were only able to pick one thing as an “outside activity.”  In college, I worked as a dance accompanist in several local studios and the university. This was before the days of having “collections” of music for ballet classes, so I had to learn what all of the steps were and figure out the best music to play for each exercise.  I enrolled in adult ballet classes to help me learn the steps so that I could figure out the best music to play when accompanying class.

What does any of this have to do with piano teaching?  Well, a number of things. First, it brought into focus how much of the music that we learn and play on the piano is dance music, beginning with Baroque minuets, gavottes, gigues, allemandes, courantes, bourees, sarabandes and moving on to the lovely waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises of Chopin and the contemporary dances from around the world in the 20th century.  Dance and music provides a wonderful framework for understanding the history, sociology and culture of the times. On a more practical level, in order to help dancers dance, the pianist has to have a clear and strong rhythmic vitality to keep everyone moving and imparting that feeling of lift that makes dancing so much fun. In working with dancers, I came to believe that rhythm is more important than notes (if you have to pick one).  In teaching piano, I’ve found that most students learn notes better if they learn the rhythm of a piece first, and when they can’t play the notes it’s usually because they don’t quite have the rhythm.

As part of a fitness resolution last year I decided to take ballet again.  It’s weight-bearing, strength-building, cardiovascular as well as a mental workout (e.g., try to remember a 20 move combination you’ve never seen before) and is accompanied by beautiful music.  While I can think of any number of excuses to skip going to the gym, I never want to skip dance class. However, an unexpected benefit of going to class has been the insight into teaching that it’s provided.  

Piano teachers don’t always approach learning our instrument first as a physical activity, and then as a musical/artistic endeavor (although Russian teachers seem to be more inclined in this regard).  That’s a problem, because how we move determines how we sound and also how easily we navigate around the keyboard. Of course we must help students learn to read music and count. But from the start we must help them learn to move correctly – just like the dance teachers and sports coaches do with their young charges.  

Every time something new is introduced in ballet (which is almost every class), I get a dose of what it must be like to be a piano student again, wanting to master a passage, but struggling with some part that just isn’t working.  Dance instructors give a consistent stream of feedback to keep everyone at every level focused on moving well, and they go over many of the same corrections every week in different variations and iterations. It seems that the most accomplished people are the ones who keep working on the basics.  I’m inspired to keep going by all of the students who keep working on their own difficulties until they finally get it. I think of this now every time a student gets “stuck”.

There seems to be an unwritten expectation that we “accomplish” something at each lesson – master this passage, perfect the E flat melodic minor scale, finish a piece.  Maybe that’s from the business world, where “deliverables” are big. However, in the arts world, sometimes we just have to exist with our music (or dance, or painting, or acting) until whatever we’re grappling with sinks in, which it will do in its own time and way.  If we let things happen rather than try to make them happen, we get where we’re going in a happier way. Resuming ballet has reminded me that with music and the arts, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts and that (as Dorothy Delay put it in Teaching Genius) our job as teachers is to teach the student, not the subject.   

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Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment (John Gerdy)

I wish I had written this book.  But it’s probably best that John Gerdy wrote it because he’s an athlete, an athletics administrator (NCAA and SEC), a former physics teacher and current performing musician.  He’s the perfect author for the subject.

I suppose I should mention that I don’t get the football craze (which is somewhat of a faux pas around here).  And I really don’t get why football and sports seem to be more important than academics in high schools and universities.  It’s not that I’m against spectator sports and athletics (although personally,  I prefer watching things like tennis, fencing, equestrian events,  etc. to team sports).   Of course, I LOVE going to concerts (and we have a LOT of great concerts in Ann Arbor and Detroit), but even I don’t get to as many concerts as there are football games.  And it’s only in my dreams that students practice enough to do as many performances as they do sporting events.    The team sport trend starts in first grade, when soccer is de rigueur, with several weekly practices and games at variable times (which impact lesson scheduling and piano practice time).

The reason I love Ball or Bands is because Gerdy identified an important paradigm shift that every music teacher and parent deciding on extracurricular activities needs to understand.  In the 20th century, participation in sports was seen as a way to prepare students for the industrial workforce, where management was hierarchical and workers followed orders (just as team players follow a coach’s orders).  However, the 21st century economy is based on technology, where work is more often done in autonomous teams that work independently and creatively (like jazz combos or duet teams).  Gerdy makes a research-based case that music study and performance runs circles around team sports in terms of preparing students for future employment and that schools and communities should consider this when making funding decisions.  He’s not saying that we should cut out sports, as we need both athletics and music in our lives.  He’s simply pointing out that the funding balance and general emphasis for activities should be appropriately distributed where it will provide the most benefits, which means a more equal distribution between sports and music and arts.

That being said, I really should be practicing.  However, I think I’ll hop on my bike and head into town and see what’s up at the Art Fair.

Posture and Piano

I spend a fair portion of lesson time with young students reminding them to sit tall.   We actually go through a set of specific checks to make sure they’re in good “musician position.”   About 30 seconds later they’ve usually lost it;  the signal to get them realigned  is me saying “ding.”

They used to make us practice posture in school.  In 3rd grade, if we finished assignments, we could get up and walk at the back of the room with a book on our head.  We had competitions to see who could walk the longest without using our hands to keep the book from falling.  Recently, I resurrected that exercise for students struggling with slumpy posture, and then had them play exercises on the piano while still balancing the book.  I couldn’t believe the smiles – and the results!Posture

Technology seems to be converting us all into hunchbacks.  People in offices are slumped over computers, kids are slumped over iPads, when I walk through campus kids are slumped over their smartphones.   Good posture is as important for good health and good first impressions as it is for piano technique.   It strengthens core muscles, protects our backs, necks, hips and knees from problems and allows us to breathe deeply and get energized.   In short, it feels better!

Even if students don’t end up at Carnegie Hall, if (in the years to come) they develop good posture and avoid health difficulties caused by poor posture, it will make all of those Dings worthwhile!

September Musings

The Summer PracticeFest was a good step toward getting students and families to really think about practice, and also whether it absolutely had to be done at the piano (since many took time to travel during the ‘Fest).

  • “Brain Practice” can be done anywhere with the music and is very important – so many young students rush into playing a piece without settling down and thinking first.  Dr.  Noa Kageyama from Julliard suggests that each practice start with a few deep breaths to get focused.
  • Rhythm or Theory Practice can be done anywhere with the exercise sheets and reinforces basic skills needed for learning pieces, 
  • Listening Practice can be done anywhere with a CD or iPod (extra credit for tapping or dancing to the CD).
  • Fun Practice:   At the end of the summer I learned about a book called “Ssshhh!  Your Piano Teacher Thinks This is Practice” which has 88 pages of “fun” activities for elementary musicians to do that can constitute part of their daily practice requirement.   The activities not only make the student accountable for different types practice requirements (e.g., not always starting at the beginning of the piece!), but engage the family and others into what is otherwise a solitary (and therefore potentially unpleasant) pursuit.  If we can find ways to build the social aspects of music into lessons in the early years, perhaps we can keep more students involved for a longer time so that they can develop their musical and artistic sensibilities fully and give their friends, family and community the gift of performing.

Piano study for students of all ages