Presentations for Piano Teachers
Here is a list of 23 presentations that I have given for piano teachers at various state music teacher conferences and chapter meetings over the past twelve years. Most can squeeze into a 60-minute time slot, though more time is preferable in most cases.
The following presentations fit into six groups. The first group explores the Four Arts of Music model and the principles of a creativity-based music education. The next four groups explore each of the Four Arts in more depth. The final group explores how to integrate the Four Arts into a weekly music lesson with music theory and technique.
Equipment needed: A good acoustic piano, preferably a grand. If the room is large, a wireless microphone.
GROUP ONE — The Four Arts of Music and Creativity-Based Education
• The Four Arts of Music: A New Paradigm for Music Education
Someone with command of a language can talk, tell stories, read, and write. Likewise, a whole musician can improvise (speak spontaneously), arrange (restate traditional themes in a personal way), read and interpret the compositions of others, and compose (write musical essays).
Modern music pedagogy is focused on the art of interpreting, usually to the exclusion of the other three arts. To become fully expressive in music, we need all four arts.
In this presentation, I give an overview of the Four Arts of Music and how to teach them. I also suggest ways to include all the arts in the weekly piano lesson and encourage piano teachers to become music educators capable of producing musicians who can practice all these arts.
• Concert: The Four Arts of Music
With the help of a grand piano, I demonstrate the Four Arts of Music and how they intermingle to enrich one another. This performance may involve improvising pieces based on notes given by audience members (as was commonly done in the 18th and 19th centuries), improvising duets with audience members, playing original arrangements of popular tunes, improvising on these arrangements, interpreting classical scores in various ways, and performing original compositions, some based on improvisations and others on arrangements.
I also give Four Arts concerts with my duet partner, Andrea Rackl, and also my vocalist friend Kevin Helppie.
This is a look at music (and “a listen at music”) from the inside.
• Teaching Artistry, Musicality, and Creativity from the First Lesson
• Where’s the Creativity?—44 Principles of a Creativity-Based Pedagogy
GROUP TWO — The Art of Improvising
• Musical Conversations: Teaching Improvisation Through Duets
All of us improvise freely each day—with words. We learned to do this because others talked with us each and every day, drawing out our latent ability to speak. In the same way, any student can eventually learn to improvise by having “musical conversations” with their teacher each week.
In this presentation, I demonstrate how a teacher can create a safe, supportive environment for the student, and then improvise duets with the student using the Pattern Play approach. I then show how the teacher can gently and successfully move the student from the duet experience into a solo experience.
• Group Improvisation
Many students quit piano lessons because practicing is a lonely endeavor. They want to make music with other human beings so they join a band or orchestra. How can piano teachers give their students an immediate social and creative experience? Group improvisations is one excellent way. The presenter will demonstrate various ways to set up group improvisations using students and volunteers from the audience.
• From Random to Rhythm: Helping All Students Improvise
Many students play “randomly” when first improvising. They don’t really listen to what they are playing, they don’t play in rhythm with the teacher’s accompaniment, and they don’t feel a connection to the tones. Yet, these three abilities are the very foundation of musicianship! What can teachers do to help these students move from random responses to rhythmic and creative responses? I will explore a number of proven and effective techniques.
• Improvisation Master Class
Working with six piano students of various ages and stages of musical development, I demonstrate how nearly anyone can learn to improvise music and develop into a musician with a sense of rhythm, style, and creative responsiveness. I will work with students who either wish to begin improvising or take their abilities in new directions. The topics explored will depend upon each student. Some students may learn to step outside popular idioms and improvise in classical or world-music styles, or play with more rhythmic integrity, or play with greater sensitivity to tone color or the play of consonance and dissonance. With all students, an emphasis will be placed on playing less from the brain and more from intuition and feeling.
• Pattern Play Day (for Students)
I sometimes visit the studios of other piano teachers and give classes for their students. We have “Pattern Play Parties.” I work with groups of three or four students of about the same age. We improvise duets and trios together, and I usually conclude each session by improvising a piece for each of the participants based on notes they supply me. This is social, fun, and an excellent way for students to be introduced to the joys of improvisation.
A variation on the above idea: One of my colleagues recently invited me to improvise a duet with each of her 20 students in the fall recital. I also improvised with some parents at the same event. A memorable experience for us all!
GROUP THREE — The Art of Arranging
• An Overview of the Art of Arranging—The Three Basic Techniques
This presentation demonstrates the process of arranging “from the inside.” I will begin by playing a simple, familiar, unadorned tune such as Happy Birthday or Amazing Grace, and then demonstrate how an arranger transforms this simple tune into an artful piano arrangement.
There are three main techniques that arrangers use in endless variations and combinations: styling, coloring, and substituting. I will demonstrate what these techniques are, and show how they function at both beginning and advanced levels.
• Teaching Arranging from the First Lesson Onward
How can a student begin the art of arranging in the first lesson? After all, they don’t know how to read, they can’t play anything yet, and they don’t know anything about scales or chords.
In this presentation, I show how I teach a first-day student how to play tunes by ear rather than by rote or by reading. This approach cultivates the ear in a healthy, natural way. Once a student can play some tunes, I help them to add left-hand bass notes (by ear), then fifths, and then three-note chords. At this point, a student is ready to begin to learn how to “style” chords in various ways and eventually add “color tones.”
After a few months, the beginning student has developed a small repertoire of pieces they can play by memory, and they understand basic chords. As they play, they move with the grace of someone who has been allowed to focus on the act of playing rather than on reading notes. This provides an excellent foundation for the process of learning to read. The student then learns to read relatively quickly because the musical symbols refer to something that the student has already done.
• Demonstration Lesson or Master Class: Teaching Arranging
In this presentation, I work with three or four students who have prepared arrangements of their own. Together, we explore other expressive possibilities. Observers will get a sense of the wide variety of expressive possibilities of the art form, and how a teacher might help their students tap into them.
GROUP FOUR — The Art of Interpreting
• Creative Practicing of Literature
An English proverb states what every serious pianist comes to accept: “Repetition is the mother of skill.” To be able to play our pieces with any degree of fluency and artistry, we must repeat passages over and over and over…and over again! Yet, too often, the music and the performer both become stale in the process. How can we keep our pieces and our enjoyment fresh? In this talk, I demonstrates a collection of “creative practicing techniques” that can accomplish this essential task.
• Beyond Correct: Cultivating the Art of Interpretation
How does one develop the ability to make artistic interpretations of musical scores? One approach is to view a piece as the end result of a long process of exploration by the composer, and then to playfully re-enter the composer’s creative process by exploring various musical options implied by the score. This develops one’s sensitivity to the piece as well as deepens one’s understanding of it. The presenter will demonstrate this approach and many others that cultivate the art of interpretation.
• Beyond Anxiety: Moving Past the Fear of Performing
According to a recent report, as many as 90% of the members of a prominent orchestra take beta-blocking drugs before a performance to ease their anxiety. Why is this condition so common among performers? How can it be overcome?
The presenter, once a nervous wreck on any stage, discusses and demonstrates over forty ways that performers can begin to move beyond anxiety to share the power of the music.
• Stories of the Masters: The Shift from Improvisation to Interpretation
At the beginning of the 19th Century, pianists made their living by playing their own improvisations, arrangements, and compositions. By the end of that same century, pianists and other musicians had collectively abandoned these practices and were, for the first time ever, making their living by playing music composed by others. The art of interpretation had replaced the art of improvisation as the primary means of musical expression.
What caused this radical shift? By telling lively stories of masters such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Clara Schumann, I try to explain the significance of this shift, and invite the audience to consider a future in which all four arts of music are practiced by performing musicians.
• My Song: How to Teach Songwriting
Many students lack the skills to compose and notate piano compositions, but they can still create songs (lyrics, melodies, and accompaniments). Many students (and piano teachers!) would like to be able to do this, but don’t believe they can bring all these elements together.
In this presentation (usually done in collaboration with vocalist extraordinaire Kevin Helppie), I detail a step-by-step approach I have successfully used with many of my teenage and adult students. In the process, I will probably also demonstrate that the teacher does not have to be able to sing in tune (that’s me!) to make this approach work.
Some students are amazingly gifted in this area, and only need encouragement and guidance to set their gifts free.
• The Composing Process: What’s Next?
Someone once said that a composer’s genius is revealed in the fifth bar. So true! Many can come up with an interesting four-bar idea, but the fifth bar is usually where the trouble begins!
The eternal question for a composer is: what’s next? In this presentation, we explore the options available to a composer whenever he or she comes to a “what next?” moment. We explore the importance of being able to generate many more options than will be used, for this clarifies the “meaning” of the piece. This is a look at the process of composing from the inside.
GROUP SIX — Integrating the Four Arts with Theory and Technique
• Demonstration Lesson: The Four Arts of Music
I teach a 45-minute lesson to a student before an audience. In this lesson, I introduce and explore the arts of improvising, arranging, and interpreting literature. If time allows, we will touch upon songwriting or composing. The teaching of music theory and technique will be integrated into the teaching of the four arts.
• The Arranger’s Palette: An Artistic Sense of Chords
Should I harmonize this melody note with a major or minor chord? Well, often that simple choice will not suffice. We may want something more majory than a normal major chord—sweeter, brighter, lighter. What chord might we play? And sometimes a minor triad is not minory enough—we want something more dissonant, troubled, sour, and dark.
In this presentation, I present the commonly-used chords as being various colors along an arranger’s palette. Audience members will come to understand how the chords relate to one another, and how each one has a place to fill along a continuum of musical possibilities. In the end, we come to an understanding of chords that is artistic and musical rather than merely theoretical.
• Melody is the Essence of Music: An Introduction to the Distinct Characters of the Modes and Scales
Do you play in the Dorian mode often? I do. It’s a lovely mode, a cousin of the natural minor scale, but lighter and brighter. And how about the Lydian mode? It’s my favorite scale—different from the major scale, more spring-like, and also more ethereal. Whenever I create with either of these two modes, I want to tell everyone about them!
In this presentation, I introduce the modes and other scales in a musical rather than a theoretical way. I introduce them by sharing music made from them, so that listeners can feel and hear their differences rather than merely understand them.
• Flowology: The Principles of a Tension-Free Piano Technique
When we are playing freely at the piano, we can play as long as we like, as fast (or as slow) as we like, and as cleanly as we like. This all depends on our ability to release muscular tension so it doesn’t build up and diminish our ability to move.
“Flowology” is my approach to teaching free movement at the piano. The art is to have a dynamic balance of effort and release, without a build-up of tension. The basic principles of this approach can be demonstrated in a single presentation, though they may take years to embody.
I conclude this presentation by demonstrating how the principles of Flowology can best be learned and experienced through creative activity rather than mechanical practice.
• Where Everything is Music: Teaching the Fundamentals with Creativity
Many students—especially the most creative ones—resist practicing scales, chords, inversions, cadence chords, and technical exercises. The resistance often ends as soon as the scales and chords become the raw materials for creative activity rather than mechanical exercises. And when music theory is used as a vehicle for driving us into remote creative possibilities rather than merely as a traffic code to enforce common practice, it becomes a creator’s ally.
In short, musical students resist doing mechanical exercises because there is no music in them. When “we come to the place where everything is music” (Rumi), we find there are musical and creative ways to teach all the fundamentals of music.