Another year, another list

The school year is over and my summer teaching doesn’t start till next week (um, by the time I’m finishing this, that would be tomorrow…), so I guess this week is/was vacation?
Vacation might be a strong word since we  spent the week completely upending our living room (i.e. my teaching space) in preparation for some new arrivals (a post on that coming soon!). But having a week off from teaching has given me some moments (in between Ikea trips and sorting piles and piles of music) to reflect on the year. So, in no particular order here are some highlights and insights:

Studio class!

Offering a regular studio class to my SFCM Pre-College students was one of the highlights of the year for me. We had five Sunday afternoon classes over the course of the academic year. Each class was structured somewhat differently but all involved the students playing for one another, giving feedback and support, some ear-training, some music history, and lots of time to be musicians together. Here’s a recap of one such class.

In our final class of the year, the kids worked together to organize the recital program, making decisions about how to group the various repertoire people had prepared. This collaborative effort definitely made a difference in the final performance. Through my work in musical theater I’ve witnessed the power of “putting on a show”– the way that collaborative performance strengthens individual performers, energizes them, and provides the enthusiasm that can transform “nerves” into the rush of being in front of an audience. My hope was to tap into some of that energy in the context of a piano recital, where performers are all alone on a big empty stage. In the past, the students have all sat in the audience, but this year I offered them the option of being all together back stage. Sitting out in the recital hall,  I hoped that their time together over the year would allow them to support each other, and hopefully experience some of the thrill of “putting on a show”. Here they are at their collective curtain call:

Mixed recital programs!

This isn’t the first year I’ve tried this, but it once again proved a success. Rather than having recital programs organized youngest to oldest or beginner to advanced, repertoire was grouped thematically or by historical period. In my private studio recital we still started with the youngest students (to avoid creating sleepy, cranky five-year-old pianists!) but the rest of the program was mixed. I like giving students a chance to take the stage more than once (if they are playing multiple works) rather than being up in front of the audience for an entire set of pieces. I figure each walk up to the instrument is an opportunity to practice managing nerves! Plus, I’ve found that the students listen more to each other that way. Plus, it’s more interesting!

Embedded google calendars!

Sometimes it is the little things… Last August I mustered all my technological know-how and figured out a nice plug-in to use for calendars on this site.  I know there are simple ways to just embed a google calendar, but I wanted something that looked a bit nicer, and found this. It was probably 4 hours or so of tweaking and searching and cut and pasting code that I didn’t quite understand, but the results have made my life so much easier this year.
I am a google calendar junkie and have separate calendars for all my various activities (studio teaching, teaching at SFCM, my church job, bills, and many many more). So, in a stroke of brilliance, I created a make-up lessons calendar. Whenever I was notified of a lesson cancellation, I would switch that time slot to the make-up calendar. And through the magical powers of the internet, that time slot would pop up on this lovely calendar here where parents could check periodically and simply email me a request to come at one of the available times. This was a tremendous time saver! Writing one email response to “what available times do you have?” only takes a moment, but writing those emails day after day sure adds up. I also kept a calendar of relevant dates (scheduled vacations, exams, competitions, deadlines, recitals). Only having to enter the info in my own calendar and having it automatically update to that cute little widget in the upper right hand corner– the best!

Those were some of the thoughts buzzing in my head this week…but there are many more! And speaking of lists, I started one of blog posts I intend to write but never actually get around to posting. Who knows…maybe I might just write something again soon!

In Praise of Studio Class

I love seeing my students interact with each other as peers and musicians, hearing them develop the skills of critical listening, and marveling at the connections that they are able to draw. And this is why studio class with my SFCM Pre-College students has been such a joy for me this year.

We were a small group last Sunday—only four students were able to make it on account of pre-Thanksgiving travels and such, but everyone had pieces ready to play. I try to put together at least a loose structure for the 2-hour block of time, based on the music being presented that day. With a somewhat random assortment of repertoire, it is fascinating to see where the discussion will lead and what threads will bind the whole experience together. We started by hearing a performance of the Grieg waltz from the Opus 12 Lyric Pieces followed by Tchaikovsky’s Song of the Lark from the Album for the Young. With both pieces, I asked my kiddos to listen for form. The “A B A Coda” was very clear in the Grieg, but took a little longer to notice in the Tchaikovsky. Realizing that the similarity of thematic material obscured the contrast between the A and B sections, my helpful students gave suggestions to the performer on ways to emphasize the structure using timing and tonal color. A performance of Christopher Norton’s “Play It Again” led us into a discussion on what makes a piece sound “jazzy”. Cue the clapping of syncopated rhythms and writing out of blues scales. Another student played the Bartok Rumanian Dances and Robert Starer’s “Pink” from Sketches in Color. I had found some of Bartok’s field recordings from the Hungarian countryside (thanks YouTube!) so we listened to those and tried to pinpoint the stylistic qualities that give this music its special flavor.

Oh, and how could we talk about Bartok without hearing some of the Concerto for Orchestra (2nd movement)? With its “presentation of pairs” it is a perfect piece for identifying orchestral instruments!

Having started with a discussion of form, we came back to it with a performance of the first movement of Diabelli’s Sonatina in F, Op. 168 No. 1.  All of the students in attendance already had some experience with sonata form, but class was a great chance to get a better understanding of this ubiquitous structure and connect it with the simpler ternary forms we heard earlier. After the Diabelli, I let Leonard Bernstein do the talking. We watched excerpts from one of the marvelous Young People’s Concerts, in which he effortlessly explains sonata form using Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the Beatles and finally Mozart’s K. 545 (Video 2 of 4 is below–this is the one with the priceless rendition of “And I Love Her”). We then heard the Diabelli again—with totally different ears!

Ultimately, studio class is about conversation and community, a space in which my students can learn to trust their musical instincts and develop curiosity and independence. And it is really fun (especially for me.)

Can’t wait for our next class in January!