Tuesday, July 31, 2018



As teachers, we've all seen it in our students.  As performers, we've all experienced it as players.  There are multitudes of musicians on this earth who have seen and experienced THE LOOK.

It's the most daunting moment in a lesson, one of the most terrifying moments while playing.  It represents failure.  I don't know about you, but I would rather face down a herd of elephants than admit I have failed either as a teacher or a performer.

Okay, maybe not a herd of elephants.  But when I experience THE LOOK my first thought is disbelief.

I admit, my second thought is flight.

THE LOOK.  That moment in the lesson when the student turns to you with a blank expression, telling you in cacaphonic silence that he/she does not comprehend the teaching point you have been trying to convey despite countless attempts and approaches on your part.  Whether it's a rhythmic issue, an interpretational issue, a technical issue, a note recognition issue, or a combination of the aforementioned, THE LOOK represents that moment when you realize none of what you've been working on has actually worked.

I don't think I need to explain the equivalent feeling as a player when we experience THE LOOK ourselves.  Maybe the herd of elephants wasn't an over-exaggeration after all.

It is at this point in my teaching and my playing that I must come to terms with my limitations as an instructor and a performer.  It is not a comfortable feeling, to say the least.  It is also the point when I must consider compromises in both venues.  Do I keep searching for another approach to the concept the student is not understanding?  Do I continue to pursue the repertoire I have chosen to perform despite my inadequacy?

And then comes the decision whether to be conservative (i.e., drop the concept and give the student an easier piece), or to stare down the sheer cliff and jump headlong (no, the student is not getting the concept, but he/she has shown improvement in other areas.  I will perform anyway and strive for excellence rather than perfection).

The next time a student gives you THE LOOK, consider putting a concept (or a repertoire piece) on a shelf strategic re-direction.  Through my experience as a teacher and a performer I've learned that while some concepts may appear currently illusive, brains are amazing puzzle solvers.

Sometimes those gray cells just need a little more time.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Untitled, Undirected

I went through all kinds of ideas for a title for this blog, when my main motivation for writing it is simply because it's been three months since I wrote the last one.

Left versus Right on the piano.  All of us refer to the travel of the sound.  I.E., we say "up" when speaking about going to the right, and "down" when referring to going left.  It seems to me this is an excellent example that our brains prefer the input of our ears versus the input of our eyeballs. It's always easier for me to read something I have already heard.  Non-keyboard instruments don't have this dicotomy of direction except for larger stringed instruments.  Cello and bass players's fingers travel up and down the finger board in opposition to the direction of the sound they achieve.  Brass and wind players tighten muscles if they need higher pitches, which makes total sense.

So keyboard players must go left or right to achieve down or up, while cello and bass fingers must go up in order to go down.

Music greatly benefits brain development, coordination, and self-discipline.  It also creates a unique oxymoronic environment; that is, while music is soothing and relaxing to the listener, the performer will tell you the exact opposite.

Pianists who read well envy those who memorize well.  Pianists who memorize easily envy those who read well.  Rarely the two talents coalesce, creating icons such as a Rubenstein or a Horowitz.

So why play?  Why practice?  Why perform?  The cliched answer is for the love of the music.  The educated answer is to share knowledge.  The entertaining answer is to share joy.

In my case, the reason I continue to pursue such an erratic, paradoxical, paramountingly difficult career is because God gave me the gift and refuses to let me duck out of it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Proficiency vs Professionalism

Okay, confession time.  I have a humongous hole where my ego is supposed to be.  Maybe its because I'm a perfectionist, maybe it's human nature, maybe it's my personality quirk.

Maybe it's a side effect of being dyslexic.

Whatever it is, it constantly whispers snide remarks in my ear when I'm teaching, practicing, and performing.

This student will never meet proficiency standards set by professional pedagogs!
"In the dyslexic world, proficiency standards need to be re-invented", I argue back.  No, I do not teach according to what music professionals recommend in magazines, at conferences, in classrooms.  I teach according to how I think I can best allow a student to see and feel they are genuinely progressing without dumbing down the learning rate to the speed of a snail.  I do not harp endlessly on a pedagogy concept the student is not currently grasping.  I continue to review over new material assigned.  In most cases, the concept improves.  In some cases, it does not.

This student would never be successful in competition!
"Good," I aruge back, "because I'm not teaching my students in order to stick them into festivals and competitions."  My goal in teaching is to develop in each student a love of music.  And a love of piano.  Okay, at least a "like" of piano.  And especially for dyslexic students, I teach to develop needed coordination and brain pathways that will help them in their general learning and education.

You can't read like a professional!  You shouldn't be in the profession!
That's the kicker.  I have no answer for that one.  And that's when I start falling into the all-too-familiar hole.

Maybe you're not actually dyslexic.  Maybe you're just stupid.
After all, I've never been diagnosed.  I read words okay, although my comprehension sucks so I re-read everything I read.  I'm getting older, so of course my brain is getting slower, like every other body part.  I've given presentations on dyslexia at national conferences, but haven't kept the ball rolling because honestly I really hate admitting to a bunch of music professionals that I can't read worth a damn.

Which is also why I haven't written a book on it yet.   I also have ideas for a radically different teaching approach, one that doesn't wait until book six to introduce eighth-notes.  Admittedly, I might be exaggerating on the delay of introducing frickin' eighth-notes.  But anymore method books seem to whig out on everything that's supposed to be natual when playing piano.  Like shifting registers, learning new rhythm patterns, improving hand coordination.  And these same method book pedagogy professionals have yet to get it right when explaining ternary form and how to count measures!

I have all the notes and blogs to write a book.  There's all kinds of active research on dyslexia and learning issues, and it's a hot topic.  So I should jump on the bandwagon and get going.

Except for the humongous hole where my ego should be.  It boils down to proficiency versus professionalism and all the ensuing unspoken ages-old expectations.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

When Left Is Right

It's been well over six months since I've blogged anything.  The ensuing months brought life-changing news concerning loved ones, broken bones, broken wallets, loss of much-loved pets and loss of dear, close friends.

During all the upheaval I continued to teach.  I have several students who've been officially diagnosed with dyslexia.  Kids who've been told what they can't do, why they "can't learn normally".  They've been told they trend towards being hyper, have the focus ability of a gnat, demonstrate abnormal coordination issues.  In truth their de-coding abilities are slower because their brains must re-rout to comprehend the input.

Why must students possess rapid de-coding abilites in order to be considered "normal" learners?

Dyslexic kids are brilliant.  Their minds never stop, and every week their keen, unusual observations amaze me.  Their enthusiasm, their progress despite their struggles have brought a smile to my face and happiness to my heart when I really wanted to just spend the day in bed.  Watching their weekly lessons have also brought back memories of my own struggles as a child and my continued struggles as an adult who plays piano just fine but will never conquer reading issues.

These kids work harder than any "normal" thinking kid.  They want the success.  Badly.  Too often they're working so hard their efforts become frantic because they're impatient with their brains.  So I encourage them that it's okay to slow down and take their time, and I watch them think through which hand they need to use, which finger on which hand they need to play, which lateral direction to go on the keyboard when notes on the page are going vertically up and down.  One student had issues seeing the pattern of two and three black keys on the keyboard, so I turned the three black keys into a "house" with a front door for "F", a back door for "B", and a roof in the middle.  It created a visual image and solved the problem.  Another student flips right and left all the time, so when this student starts playing a right-hand part with the left hand, I chuckle and say, "One more time with your other right hand."  The resulting grin turns into a laugh, and my day is brighter.  Rhythm issues are solved not by counting until I'm blue in the face but by chanting "half-note-DOT"; or "h-o-l-d" (for longer note values like whole notes); or "short-long" (for quarter/half-note rhythms); "quarter-dot-short" (for dotted quarter-eight rhythms). Rests are reinvented as "play-wait-play-wait" because they seem to process better the idea that "wait"  means silence.  I supposed "rest" also means silence, but in daily life resting isn't always quiet.  Neither is waiting, but waiting includes (at least briefly) a command to pause, and so far that term works really well.   Come to think about it, "rest" is actually a longer sounding word than "wait".  There's four letter sounds, and for kids who already have decoding issues, cutting out excess sounds seems like a great idea.

None of this is in textbooks, classrooms, or online.  It's things my old brain thinks up because it's easier for me to understand, and it seems to help the student.  All of them are reading, all of them are playing hands together.  And all of them are grinning when they leave their lesson.

And you know what?  I'm grinning, too.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Giddy about Gershwin

After years and YEARS of trying to wade my way through Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, I have finally GOT IT.  It's amazing, once things click and I understand all those frickin' accidentals, never-ending 7th chords, and (seemingly) sporadic key changes, just how much FUN  it is to play this piece.  My husband and I have been giving "out-of-the-practice-room" performances of the 2-piano arrangement Gershwin penned, and with each run-through I see new connections, new cool compositional techniques, while feeling the notes becoming more and more comfortable in my brain and therefore in my fingers.

We played it for some friends over Easter weekend.  The wife is a church pianist, a fabulous sight-reader, and an accomplished musician.  When she expressed how impressed she was that I played the piece by memory, I felt my usual reaction of gratitude mixed with frustration.  Everyone assumes that if you can memorize well, you can do everything else well.

I really wish that were true.

I could tell she didn't really believe me when I told her I can't read at the speed I can play, and that I can't do what she does every Sunday.  The disbelief in her expression said it all.

But this week I'm not letting it get me down.  I've got the Gershwin in my fingers, in the keyboard, and finally in my brain.  And I will start scheduling public performances soon, and maybe even get a performance with the wind ensemble arrangement.  It is a tremendously awesome work, cheerfully and whimsically scampering from one end of the keyboard to the other and back again.

And I fly on its whimsical journey when I sit down and play it.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Keyboard notes; Desk Notes; Floor Notes

Okay, it's been a while since I've blogged anything.  Or written anything.  Or practiced anything.  I sort of got tired of fighting the whole reading part.  I've been feeling increasingly depressed about my own limitations even as I work with students whose reading steadily improves, most often well beyond my own reading.

I've been wasting a lot of time wishing that I could get my reading to improve, too.

Regular musicians, professional musicians, amateur musicians, they all feel confident in their ability to learn new stuff.  And they're always talking about learning new stuff.  And they're excited about learning new stuff.

I hate learning new stuff.  It takes so frickin' long to unravel on the page what I should already know.  I really SHOULD know.  And the same problem creeps into my horn playing, which I can tell you is unbelievably annoying.  One staff, one note at a time, one frickin' line.  Brain doesn't compute.  Or maybe Brain WON'T compute.  At least no where near as fast as I need it to.

But I like playing new stuff.  And I love the feel of the phrases and the composer's musical genius under my fingers as they dance over the keyboard when I've finally internalized the frickin' notes.  Then the music takes me away.  I love hearing my horn part merge with the ensemble to re-create yet another composer's genius.  Ahhh, what an awesome feeling, music, when those sound-waves penetrate beyond the heart, beyond the soul, beyond the limitations of the world as we know it.

But until that happens, there are notes all over the keyboard, notes all over the desk.
And notes all over the frickin' floor.

There are notes EVERYWHERE.  Except in my Brain.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Hands Full of Notes

I have a studio recital soon, on which I'll be playing three Liszt concert etudes by memory.  And reading Secondo on several beginner student duets. Guess which of these I'm freaking out about?

Hint: It's not the Liszt.

I was playing the Secondo of a simple Schubert Marche with a student.  My thoughts went something like this:

"Bass clef both hands, bass clef both hands ... hands are unison, okay, got it ... which line am I on, I just lost the measure ... ears don't fail me now .... okay, back online, things sound good ... uh-oh, she's taking this a lot faster than last time, natural adrenaline and she practiced.  So now my eyeballs need to move faster, and my brain needs to think faster, and ...hey, wait, these notes on the page don't look right at all ... oh, dang it it that's the Primo part and I was supposed to turn the page.  Lost the right hand ... again ... hands are unison, remember?  Oh, dang it, hands just went backwards and I can't figure out which hand is supposed to be playing which rhythm ... hands are unison, REMEMBER!!! Go by the sound ... ears, take over for my eyes and feckless brain cells ... forget trying to keep up with the notes... I chord pattern ... V chord pattern ... uh-oh, a whole slew of notes and rhythms because we're approaching a cadence ... come on, dang it, I've only been reading through this thing every week since the beginning of the semester ...."

Sounds like a joke, right?  Unfortunately, I'm not kidding.  And this is a very simple C-Major Schubert duet Marche.  Basic I, IV, V, with an occasional minor thrown in.  ARGH.

I'm not sure knowing about my dyslexia is a good thing.  I used to work my butt off trying to improve my reading skills because I thought my deficiency was due to lack of practice.  Now that I've realized why I can't read at speed well enough to even fake it, I've had issues with wondering whether it's worth pursuing anymore.  Whether true or not, in my experience a pianist is only as good as his/her sight-reading ability.  Poor reading impacts everything from learning new pieces to expansion of repertoire to accompanying opportunities.  Any opportunties, for that matter.  While I might have the potential of playing with an ensemble, do I really want to expose my lack of reading skill, even when I've got the piece in my hands and off the page?  Referring to the page presents problems because the notated patterns look quite a bit different than the keyboard patterns, the latter which I see and understand just fine.

So while my hands are full of notes and my ears and my heart are full of music, my eyeballs and my brain are somewhere around Pluto and of no help whatsoever.