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Forty-third year of teaching winding down – Have I Seen IT ALL?

 
Forty-three years…... WOW! Millions of Twinkles, billions of wrong fingers, counting out loud countless times, dealing with tears, overcoming fears, getting inspired, never tiring of working with fantastic students.
Over the years, there is one thing I have learned. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new happens. It never fails. This year was no exception.
 
I recently received a phone call from the irate father of an ex-student. This fellow and his wife had enrolled their five-year-old daughter for lessons for the 2015/2016 term.
When they first contacted me, I sent them my customary booking information, consisting of my latest newsletter, my 2015/2016 brochure and a letter detailing my teaching philosophy. Subsequently, there was a lengthy telephone conversation in which I answered questions and attempted to clearly explain how I work with young children. The family registered and lessons began in a very positive group environment in September.
 
At the first lesson, I once again detailed my philosophy, the importance of parental involvement, etc. and handed out my Parental Primer to Book One. This contains an in-depth explanation of my teaching methods and a detailed guide on teaching the Book One pieces at the in-home practices. In the weeks that followed, the mother attended lessons with her daughter and appeared to be very interested and supportive. The girl was progressing very well, having completed the Twinkles, and starting the right hand repertoire. On several occasions, she expressed her delight at what she was learning and stated how much she loved her lessons.
 
Then, the beginning of the end – It all started with me attempting to move ahead the start of the group lesson time by half an hour. When my wife, Velda contacted the family about this, the parents became livid, stating that the lesson (on Saturday mornings), too early (10:30 am), they were unhappy with it, and as a result, they would be quitting.
I felt absolutely horrible about this and offered a number of other lesson options. They did not reply.
 
When the father called, he demanded a refund. It was his position I had cheated him. This did not bother me, but what did bother me was this. During our conversation, he then said something like, “We quit because you don’t know how to teach”.
 
His reasons?
  • Because I prefer to teach beginners in a group setting.
  • Because I require that at least one parent attend each lesson.
  • Because parents are required to play an active role in motivation and oversee the daily practice.
  • Because the emphasis is on ear development first and not the eye.
  • Because the amount of time I spent with his daughter was based on what we needed to accomplish and her ability to concentrate as opposed to a “per half-hour” basis.
  • Because I didn’t set an arbitrary amount of time for the in-home practice.
 
When this conversation was done, I was very upset – not at this man and his wife, but with myself. After all the information I had given them and a lengthy phone conversation, somehow, I had not been able to reach them. They plainly didn’t understand my teaching philosophy and my methods. I have vowed to do my best to see that this will never happen again.
 

A Little Background

 
I grew up in Noranda, Quebec, where I began studying piano through the Royal Conservatory, as well as Jeunesses Musicales. I moved to Saskatoon in 1968 and continued my studies through the Royal Conservatory, while also beginning preparations for advanced studies through Trinity College of Music, London, England.
 
At the age of sixteen, I left Saskatoon to join a rock band based in Thunderbay, Ontario. I spent the next four years touring across Canada with various bands.
 
After marrying my high school sweetheart, I left "the road", returning to Saskatoon, where I resumed formal music studies through Trinity College. I also began my teaching career, implementing the same "Traditional Teaching Techniques" instilled in me by my former teachers.
 
Many years of formal Traditional Music study had left me with advanced technique, excellent note reading, and the ability to expressively interpret scores. These were all great skills to possess, but as I would soon discover, I still had much to learn.
 
In my early twenties, I developed a keen interest in Jazz and I began to "jam" with "unschooled" musicians who could barely read music, but grew up playing by ear. I soon came to a realization which would have a profound effect on my musical ideologies.
 
I played some Beethoven for these guys and they were impressed. Then, we started jamming. They were amazing! I was lost. I just could not keep up with them. I left, frustrated and extremely humbled.
I soon identified why I struggled to have "a spontaneous musical conversation" with these musicians. They had grown up "learning by listening" - I had grown up "learning by looking". This was not unique to me. My "Traditional Music" peers lacked the same abilities, as did the majority of other people who were products of this method of learning.
 
I began the painstaking process of developing my ear by learning jazz songs from a tape recorder. As a result, I re-examined my teaching philosophy, experimenting with ways to develop the ears of my students. Then, I was introduced to the Suzuki Method by the lady who started the Suzuki String Program through the Saskatoon Symphony. At the time, in North America, it was regarded as a revolutionary and somewhat controversial method of teaching, especially in "Traditional Music" circles.
 
I continued my own personal "ear" development, as well as making the transformation away from Traditional Teaching. Each summer, travelled across North America to study with various Suzuki Piano Master Teachers. Some highlights were:
 
  • Saskatoon and Saskatchewan's first Suzuki Piano Teacher
  • Founding member of the Saskatoon Suzuki Piano Parents Association
  • Founding member of the Saskatchewan Suzuki Piano Teachers Association
  • Was able to meet and closely observe Dr.Shinichi Suzuki as he worked with children and parents on three occasions
  • Studied with Haruko Kataoka, founder of the Suzuki Piano Method
  • Studied extensively with Elaine Worley, renowned North American Suzuki Piano Master Teacher
  • Performed in various jazz ensembles in a number of Saskatoon nightclubs on a regular basis.
  • Did studio session work and jingles
  • Founding member of the Saskatoon Jazz Society
  • Performed with my band "Collage" at the Saskatoon Jazz Society's inaugural event at Club Yip's 
 
I continue to subscribe to the educational philosophies of Dr.Shinichi Suzuki, but I do not consider myself to be a "Traditional Suzuki Piano Teacher", nor am I a "mainstream Traditional Piano Teacher". The two are based solely on the study of the standard Classical Repertoire, which is not a bad thing in itself, but in my eyes not comprehensive enough to build "Versatile, well-rounded Practical Pianists."
Today, my teaching is based on the following:
 
  • Ideally, start children's piano education at a young age
  • Involve the parent in the learning process, and maintain a strong Student - Parent - Teacher relationship.
  • Introduce young children to the piano using the "Mother Tongue" educational philosophies of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki
  • ABOVE ALL - respect each student and nurture their abilities with patience, positive reinforcement and gentleness
  • Use the standard Classical Repertoire to develop technique, musical sensitivity, and interpretation
  • Study the reading of notation as an essential and vital element of becoming a Practical Musician
  • Introduce the elements of Blues, Jazz, Rock and Pop at an early age
  • Include developmental Pop, Contemporary, New Age, Rock, and Jazz pieces as part of the standard repertoire
  • Encourage all students to explore improvisation as part of their musical education
  • Look at musical education as a long-term process. Therefore, don't get caught up in looking for short-term results. Like learning their language, children progress at different rates, but they all eventually learn to speak.
 

OBSERVATIONS

“THE “MOTHER NATURE” METHOD – HOW A CHILD LEARNS A LANGUAGE

 
  • Learn Like a ChildPRE-BIRTH - Conclusive tests by scientists in Washington, Stockholm and Helsinki proved that babies start to develop their hearing ability thirty weeks into the pregnancy.
  •  
  • NEWBORNS - At zero to six months, babies are intense listeners. They learn to recognize voices and begin trying to communicate through crying. They soon engage in “vocal play”, (babbling, gurgling). They learn to recognize their names, start responding to salutations, begin to recognize words they have repeatedly heard and babble even more, as they try to imitate the sounds of the voices around them.
  •  
  • THE ONE-YEAR-OLD - They can now start to point to different parts of the body when asked, and respond to queries such as “Where’s Daddy?”, and requests like “clap hands” and “dance”. Comprehension level is far beyond their ability to speak, but words are starting to happen.
  •  
  • AGES TWO TO FOUR - Vocabulary increases dramatically, language structure gradually becomes more and more intricate and sentences become longer and longer. By the age of four, most children have learned the language and have become fluent speakers. They can convert abstract thoughts into complete sentences, respond to questions and have meaningful conversations. They are becoming more and more comfortable with the highest of linguistic skills – the ability to improvise. They love repetition. Things like singing the same songs over and over again, or reciting nursery rhymes repeatedly.
  •  
  • AGE FIVE AND BEYOND - Until now, children have learned whatever complicated language they have been surrounded with by hearing it. They even have the ability to learn multiple languages at this young age simply by listening. As time goes on, there is a gradual transition from their reliance on aural skills to the visual for learning. This continues until adulthood. Thus, the reason it is so difficult for adults to learn a new language, while it is easy and natural for a young child.
  •  

WHAT THIS CAN TEACH US

 
ListenThink about it…... Learning any language is a monumental achievement! Any adult attempting to do this can attest to the level of difficulty. So, how can tiny children, in a matter of three or four years, learn to put thousands of complicated sounds together into cohesive sentences?
 
  • Listening is central to learning any language. It is virtually impossible to become comfortable and fluid in a language by simply learning to read and write it. Although listening is a seemingly passive activity, with its benefits apparently intangible, but it is important to understand it is invaluable.
  • When learning a language, there is much to be learned from making mistakes. This is key in learning to be comfortable with any vocabulary. We don’t worry when a young child mispronounces a word or makes a grammatical error when learning to speak. We accept this as being part of the learning process. The child just continues growing and learning by listening.
  • Repetition is a vital element of learning. Young children will listen to the same things, watch the same things, and say the same things over and over again, seemingly never becoming sick of it.
  • Immersion – this includes being exposed to what you want to learn every day, hearing it, experiencing it, trying it and repeating it.
  • Natural learning – We are confident that all, normal, healthy children will learn to speak fluently at their own pace. We accept this process as being a part of growing up, thus allowing it to occur naturally.
  • Leave the abstracts for later. We don’t begin teaching children to read and write until they are relatively fluent in their language. It has always puzzled me that the “Traditional Music’s” underlying philosophy involves the teaching of abstracts first, thus ignoring the child’s natural “aural” abilities.
 

THE OLDER BEGINNER

 
The Older BeginnerThe “What This Can Teach Us” section above details lessons we can learn through observing how young children learn. Because, as children grow older, the way they learn becomes more “visual” than “aural”, can they still learn to play the piano in this way?...... The answer is yes.
 
I would classify students ages nine and up as “older beginners”. Although they rely more and more on their eyes for learning, the development of the ear is still possible. There are some significant differences between these students and younger beginners which must be taken into consideration.
 
First, is their desire for independence. Young children value the participation of the parent in at home practice sessions. Older beginners often resist it.
 
Then, there is the matter of the repertoire. In my decades of teaching experience, the best book I have seen to build strong technique, dexterity, independence of the hands and advanced hands together skills is Suzuki Piano Volume One. It teaches elements of performance that are not introduced until around the Grade Four level in traditional methods. This book has proven itself to be an invaluable tool, however, it is often difficult to motivate the older beginner to study these pieces, as they were chosen by Dr. Suzuki specifically for the young child.
 
When these students are amenable to studying this repertoire, great strides are made, however, if they resist, we often lose them. This has bothered me for some time. To me, the only answer is to find more relatable materials, teaching similar skills. This is on my “To Do” list for this summer.
Following are some of my goals for the older beginner.
 
  • Get them reading right away. Accept that, as they grow older, they are relying on visual learning more and more. Start a reading method immediately, separate from the developmental repertoire.
  • Get them playing hands together as quickly as possible. It is important to build strong independence of the hands quickly and efficiently, so hands together playing becomes a reality. A sense of success generates interest and builds motivation.
  • Don’t ignore the ear. Encourage listening. Use the study of developmental repertoire to build the ear. Introduce supplemental materials such as the 12-Bar Exercises to further aid in building a strong ear when the student is ready.
  • Keyboard Theory is an invaluable tool in technical and aural development.
 

THE POST-SECONDARY STUDENT

I am very fortunate. Often, I have the pleasure of meeting students as toddlers and watching them grow up through elementary school and high school. In addition, many continue their musical studies as they continue their education in post-secondary institutions. With these students, it is important for me to adjust to the demands and added pressure their classes are placing on them.

When it comes to their piano practice, they are going to have good weeks and bad weeks depending upon their academic workloads. If they are just studying the “standard repertoire” with me, this means that on weeks where they have been extremely taxed at school, very little can be accomplished at the lesson. The study of improvisation, however, allows us to still have productive lessons. Yet another reason why I encourage students to pursue this discipline.  

THE ADULT STUDENT

PatienceChildren have the ability to learn languages relatively easily and effortlessly because their minds are readily open to aural stimulation. Adults no longer posses this trait, however they still have the potential to attain proficiency in a new language. They just have to work a little harder at it.

Following are some observations.

  • Patience …... adults tend to overthink, overdo, and attempt to overachieve. They must recognize playing the piano requires aural, mental and physical skills, each needing time to develop.
  • Listen …... Learn the way children learn. In order to develop the ear and build the ability to internalize music, adults must resist the tendency to rely on the visual. They should listen to recordings of the music they are learning and use their ears as much as possible. To this end, I supply and assign supplementary listening exercises involving playing along with recorded music.
  • Repeat …... learning in young children revolves around repetition – doing the same thing over and over again, until it becomes internalized. Adults have the tendency want instant results and often become impatient when much repetition is necessary. The key to learning any new skill?
  • Take tiny steps…... Recognize that playing the piano involves the development of visual, aural and physical skills. The mastery of one tiny skill at a time leads to larger skills and success. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.
  • Keyboard Theory…... These materials provide valuable resources about chord structures, scales and other improvisational elements.
 
IMPROVISATION & KEYBOARD THEORY

 

“Improvisation -  the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation”

Musical improvisation involves imagination and creativity.”

 

By the time they are four or five, children are well-versed in the art of linguistic improvisation. They are able to organize abstract thoughts into sentences to have spontaneous conversations. At a very early age, they can use their imagination and creativity to write stories, draw pictures and express their dreams. Because this is a natural part of growing up, we take it for granted.
 
In music, this is not the case. In fact, improvisational elements are not included in traditional methods at all. These disciplines produce excellent technique, and good readers and interpreters of scored music, but fail miserably in producing musicians with practical skills.
 

There are many aspects to art of improvisation, ranging from the ability to just “sit down and compose spontaneous pieces”, to being able to easily add chords and accompaniments to a melodic line, to building elaborate improvisations over existing chord progressions.

 

Most of the great classical composers, like Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, (the list goes on and on), were great improvisers. Why? Because it was part of their musical education process. Today, so-called “untrained” pop, rock, and contemporary musicians use harmonic shorthand very similar to what was used by the above-mentioned composers. Many also learned their craft through a “Mother Tongue” approach.
Today, a student completing all grade levels in most traditional methods will have attained theoretical knowledge equivalent to that utilized by composers in early nineteenth century music. It is safe to say traditional Theory courses have remained virtually unchanged for the last hundred years or so. When they do attempt to include more contemporary concepts, it is "lip service" at best. This leaves the vocabulary of improvisation to be either self-taught, or attained through post-secondary education. It is interesting that the theory I was taught in the 1970’s is virtually identical to what is taught today.

 

“My goal as a teacher is to produce well-rounded, well-versed musicians with practical musical skills. This includes technique, tone, and development of the ear, expanding the mind, knowledge of various genres, the ability to improvise, and a deep knowledge of the elements of music. Keyboard Theory plays a large role in this.”

 
ImprovisationOver the years, I have been experimenting with creating materials relating to contemporary theory to be studied at the keyboard. New concepts were tried, some refined, and some discarded based on how students responded. At first, I used these materials with his my this as they perform their Keyboard Theory assignments for me each week, but what they are learning are the essentials of improvisation. Once they have established these, I gently begin to encourage them to improvise. Like anything else that is new, it seems a little unfamiliar at first, but soon it is second nature.
This year has seen the best results. Now, many students, as young as ten are improvising with me each week. In the past, focus was primarily on the 12-Bar Blues, but this term, Major Scale pedal note and Dorian Mode improvisations were successfully introduced. (their names may sound eclectic, but these elements are common in contemporary music today).
 
Present Keyboard Theory levels are: Rudiments, Intermediate Level One, Intermediate Level Two, Advanced Level One and Advanced Level Two and Blues Scale Improvisation Primer. This summer, I will be continuing the process of tweaking and refining these materials.
 
I am passionate about Keyboard Theory. If I had my way, I would have all my students studying it. In a perfect world, it would just be included as part of the everyday lesson. The reason I can’t is because I have to spend many hours writing and modifying it, as well as printing hundreds of pages a month.
 

DIGITAL RECORDING

 
Digital RecordingI introduced Digital Recording lessons as an option in my studio a couple of years ago. Back then, I didn’t really have a curriculum. I started when some of my students began asking me for lessons upon discovering that I do have a digital recording studio. I consented to teaching them, and off we went! There was much experimentation and learning was done by much trail and error.
 
Now, things are much more organized. I provide students with one of three options:
  1. Live Recording/Digital Recording/Mixing/Engineering/Producing – for aspiring recording artists, singers, composers. We record students performing their own compositions, including vocals and instrumental parts. This provides a basic knowledge of live recording techniques. We also have the option to work with a wide variety of digital instrumentation, ranging from drums, to strings, to orchestra, to synthesizers and much more. Once instrument tracks are completed, mixing techniques are introduced. These include equalization, compression, reverb, delays, and exposure to literally hundreds of other plugins designed to produce studio-quality mixes.
  2. Mixing/Engineering/Producing – This is for students who do not wish to record their own compositions, but who are interested in the Mixing/Engineering/Producing aspects of recorded music production. We use pre-recorded vocal and instrumental tracks as a starting point to build a unique mix. Students learn mixing techniques, including panning, automation, equalization, compression, reverb, and digital effects. They may also choose to add digital instrumentation as well as experiment with other production techniques.
  3. Electronic Music – Students work with a multitude of state-of-the-art in-house electronic instruments, synthesizers and samplers top build their own electronic sounds. They learn about electronic sound creation and manipulation, as well as mixing, engineering and production basics.
Some observations.
 
  • In order to provide an adequate amount of time to each student enrolled in Digital Recording, I limit the amount of Digital Recording students each year to five.
  • In the past, I have worked with students as pre-preparation for media school, others intending to enroll in post-secondary sound production programs, and still others looking to release Demo Cd’s and EP’s.
 
 

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