Bach Puzzle

(this post comes to you courtesy of the Internet teaching community…I don’t know where I first found this idea, but whoever came up with this…my students and I thank you!)

Let us take a poll…Who has had a traumatic performance experience involving memory and Bach? All hands raised? Yes indeed. Mine was my junior year of high school, playing the d minor Prelude and Fugue from Book I at the Junior Bach Festival. I can feel my heart rate start to climb as I type…Those triplets in the right hand, churning, churning and grinding to a halt against some misplaced note. And restarting. At the beginning. Again. And Again. I honestly couldn’t tell you what took place in the blinding panic that ensued. Clearly, I somehow arrived at the final cadence of the fugue, though it feels like I spent a lifetime on that stage wrestling and losing. There are many other blog posts to be written about musical memory…And many wonderful ones already written here! I am here simply to say: How I wish I could go back in time, make a photocopy of that score…and cut it up into pieces!

Not just out of bitterness and angst! I promise! But all in the name of wrapping my brain around Bach’s genius.

Lately, all my students who are working on Bach Inventions and the like, have received a little gift from me. An innocent looking envelope, with the title of their piece written on the front…

an innocent looking envelope

And oh how amused they are when they open it!


“Oh look!” I say, “I made you a puzzle!”

And oh how many useful things can be done with the contents of this envelope!

  • The obvious: put the puzzle together, laying out all the measures in order
  • Away from the piano, pull out a random measure and imagine how it sounds, recall where in the piece it belongs
  • Pull out a random measure, play it, and see if you can continue on through the piece
  • Pull out a random measure, and try to begin playing from the measure before
  • Pull out a measure and admire how finely wrought it is, how beautifully it fits into the rest of piece, how cleverly it has spun out from the original motive humming in Bach’s head…

Will this solve everyone’s memory challenges? Probably not. But the students who have taken these envelopes home are playing their pieces differently somehow. I listen, and I can hear that the piece has entered their hearing in a new way. I listen, and deep in the recesses of my mind, the ominous triplets of the d minor Prelude quiet their ominous churning…

Marvels of the internet: Spotify

In the last few weeks of August, it always seems that my piano teacherly duties keep me largely in front of a computer keyboard rather than the one with 88 keys, over there on the other side of the room…(Writing that sentence just prompted me to count the keys on my computer. There are 78. I think I just understood the amusement that my young students seem to derive from counting the keys on the piano! ) It is the season of getting organized: there are spreadsheets upon spreadsheets, browser tabs open to my Google Calendar, my to-do list (a major saver of sanity!) and the Inbox which seems to fill with unread messages every time I look away.

One other program constantly running on my computer these days is Spotify. Has anyone else jumped on this bandwagon yet? Spotify has been available in the US since July. Currently, it is not available in Canada. (Sorry, Canadian friends! Though I hear you have something similar? Rdio?) This article gives a good overview of all the specifics and details. Basically, Spotify it is an online music-streaming program, with an Itunes-like interface. Unlike Pandora radio (which I also love), it allows you to search for a specific album (or song, or artist) and listen to all the tracks. The basic service is free! (though you will hear an ad a few times an hour).

The fabulous thing is that many of the big classical labels are on board with Spotify: EMI, Naxos, Deutsche Grammophon! It is all right there! Instantly!  I have a decent collection of classical CDs at home, and I certainly intend to keep adding to it. The permanence of having all those disks lined up nicely on the shelves is always going to be deeply compelling. Still, the ability to pull up a great recording of any piece anytime is incredibly exciting!

I think the potential to use this in teaching is huge! I encourage my students to listen to classical music in general, and recordings of their pieces in particular. However, this often means sending them off to search on You-Tube. And while there are certainly great treasures to be found there…well, it isn’t Deutsche Grammophon! So, I will be actively encouraging students’ families to get Spotify accounts. Also, it is possible to create and share playlists. So, rather than just sending a student off to search around for a recording of his Chopin waltz, I could create a playlist for him with several renditions of the piece as well as perhaps other selections which could inform his understanding of the music. Plus, if I am teaching and my laptop is nearby, any piece of music is just a quick search away. Oh the marvels of the internet!

Now, I do have to admit that hearing an ad between movements of say, the Dvořák cello concerto, can be rather jarring. Also, the free version does not support listening to music on a mobile device, or saving music for off-line listening. Depending on how much I find myself turning to Spotify in the coming months, I may consider going for one of the paid options. ($4.99 a month for no time limits and no ads, $9.99 a month for no ads and mobile device/off-line listening).

Do you use Spotify? For fun? In your teaching? How do you encourage students to listen to music?

Fine Work, Farmer Fred!

When I started this blog a few months back, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly I was looking to do. At first I intended to write solely for an audience of my own students and parents. Keep the studio folks in the loop, let them know about events and give some practice tips here and there… But when I started sitting down to write, I couldn’t quite find the words or pin down the tone. With more thinking, I realized that what I really needed was a place to share my thoughts and ideas about teaching, and to find a community of colleagues. And so I began to look around a bit, followed a few links, and discovered an absolutely treasure trove! I am sure that my blogroll in the sidebar is just skimming the surface of the amazing music educators who are sharing their ideas, stories and inspirations and the web. Geeky as it sounds, I am excited every morning to check my Google Reader for new posts!

Today was no exception, and here’s what I found! The amazing “Piano Anne” of Pianoantics is hosting a giveaway. It was such a thrill to discover Anne’s blog the other day. She is incredibly creative, tech-savvy, inspirational and of course, the composer of such wonderful pieces as Freddy the Frog, To Fly Like an Eagle and Starfish at Night. I have been teaching her pieces for years and it is just so neat get a glimpse into her world as a teacher and musician.

And that’s how excited I was before I even watched the video!

I love the animations! (and the voices!) What a great way to introduce kids to staff notation and landmark notes! Turns out, Barnyard Friends videos and teaching aids are available for free download. I can’t wait to use the videos with my kids and, giveaway or not, I will definitely be downloading and laminating the Barnyard Board and flashcards. Thank you so much Anne!