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.

June Inspirations

I just returned from the  Ohio University (Athens) Pedagogy Workshop.  It was inspirational, transforming and FUN!   Better than a vacation in every way, but now my To Do list is twice as long as it was before I left.

There were many, many workshops from which to choose in other places (Chicago, Toronto, Norway).  This one called to me because:

  1. One of the workshop presenters was Christopher Norton, whose pieces students repeatedly select from the Royal Conservatory program as part of their assessment repertoire,
  2. The other workshop presenter was Kristin Yost, who wrote an edgy book for private studio teachers about business practices, and
  3. There was an intriguing workshop on a new, holistic way of teaching beginners called Piano Safari.

The sessions were all practical  (I love practical).  Every speaker was tuned into teaching in the real world (which includes soccer games, too many other activities, and the “most kids don’t like Bach” syndrome).   It’s my hope that if we keep students engaged in piano, someday maybe they’ll actually like Bach.  And if not, at least maybe they’ll still be playing the piano and listening to great music!

Although most of the audience consisted of classical music teachers, the workshops and seminars were about thinking outside the box, using pop and jazz pieces and breathing new life into lessons.   People came from as far as New York and Nebraska to delve into these new ideas.

  • In Piano Safari, Julie and Katie have developed an original system of teaching children to play and feel music while still (sneakily) learning basic gestures and skills needed to master the piano and “own” their pieces.
  • Christopher Norton has brilliantly developed materials that introduce beginning pianists to jazz and popular styles so that they are accessible, emphasizing  rhythm first, then notes, technique and skills needed for basic jazz improvisation.
  • Kristin Yost reminds teachers that they are the CEO of their studios and should run them accordingly, and suggests that having a live rhythm band in recitals will add considerable panache to the most basic pieces, and get students inspired to practice and perform.

One of the highlights of the weekend was a masterclass with Christopher Norton and a Pop Showcase Recital with 10 students accompanied by a live rhythm band.  Three of my students performed (the 4th was in France)  and had a wonderful time!  All of the student performances were vibrant, and everyone left with new ideas for practicing, making music and teaching.



Piano study for students of all ages