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New Semester!!

Welcome back, teachers! It’s the start of a new semester! Are you ready? Are you revising syllabi? Organizing your office?  Rethinking the way you teach everything?  This last one is my nemesis: I’m always trying to rewrite my classes.  Every year I have these grand ideas about how totally restructuring my classes will resolve all my teaching challenges.  Thankfully, I received some good advice a while back from a colleague who said that I should try teaching a class with the same format for a few semesters in a row, just to get used to the process, and to get more comfortable with the way the class works.  This really worked for me; I’ve gotten into the habit now of making small changes when necessary, rather than rewriting each class and starting from scratch every semester. Now, I keep notes in my phone whenever I find something in a class that needs to be adjusted; these are usually minor things like updating instructions for an assignment, or even bigger projects like adding a new lecture or class activity.  I was checking out my notes and found that a lot of my notes are more like general aphorisms for teachers, so I thought I would share a few.  These are just things I probably wrote down in the middle of a semester that I thought I might want to remember about teaching. They’re not consistent, and they even contradict each other, but maybe some of these will strike a chord.  Here are a few:

 

Learn to teach without ego.

What are the goals of the course?  Is it really to disseminate information?

What is class time for?

How is participation assessed?

If you’re not likeable, your students will have no reason to listen to what you have to say.  You have to be the kind of person that they would want to be like.  Don’t be nervous, or anxious, or snarky, or angry.  Work on yourself first.  Be genuine, or at least have a personality that you bring to class that seems genuine.

Teaching has to come from a place of honesty, not fear of student failure, personal failure, losing the job, or meeting someone else’s goals.

You have to be incredibly engaging as a lecturer in order to keep people’s focus, or even to keep things from slipping into chaos.

Do you believe in your students?  Do you have a vision for them that includes success?

Why do teachers require obedience?

Treat your students like the things they’re saying are important.

 

I hope you have a great semester!  I’m off to revise some syllabi, which is what I was supposed to be doing this morning.  But first, coffee.

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Appreciating Music Appreciation

Change for the better doesn’t always, or often, arise when things are going well.

I want to share an experience I had in the classroom a few semesters ago in the hopes that it might resonate with some of the other teachers out there. As usual, this is a story of my own failings as a teacher. I don’t mean for this to sound overly self-deprecating: thankfully, this is a story of how I was able to discover the joy of teaching after making some major changes to the way I view my role in the classroom.

In short, it was my worst class ever. It was a spring semester, freshman level Music Appreciation class—one of those general education arts classes that every college student has to take. There were 30 students, and 15 of them had the same major. Of course, the students all knew each other, so they had created a classroom dynamic all on their own. By about a month into the class, I knew I had completely lost control of the classroom environment. I was unable to talk without someone else talking, unable to bring the attention of the class to the front of the room. It soon became clear to me that it was no longer my class.

One day, I finally decided that I was going to fix everything. It was time for me to take charge, and “show those kids who’s boss.” I went in ready to “tell them what’s what.” You can probably imagine how that went. I let them know how disappointed I was, how angry I was at their immaturity, and how unfortunate it was that their behavior was making this class difficult for the “good” students.

They fought back.

I was expecting there to be some amazing turnaround and for this unruly class to magically morph into a quiet, well-behaved group of good listeners. Instead, they argued (out loud!) with my assessment of their behavior and attitudes. I let the class go early. They left angry. It was the worst teaching day of my 15-year college teaching career. I spent the remaining 20 minutes of the class sitting in the back in one of the student’s seats, alone in the room, staring at the wall, trying to figure out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.

When I was finally able to get up, I left campus and went to my favorite place in town—the local Barnes and Noble—where I walked to the Education section, found several titles on teaching strategies, and proceeded to spill coffee all over a book called “How to Teach Like a Pirate” by Dave Burgess. I broke it, I bought it, I went home and read the whole thing…and it was great! It was filled with ingenious ideas for classroom management and for making a class interesting for students—the latter concept which I had somehow completely disregarded in my career. I discovered that there were all sorts of ways to create a classroom environment that is simultaneously engaging for students and, because of that, can help college educators (no education degree required!?) to avoid all sorts of pitfalls that arise in the classroom setting.

That weekend, I completely rewrote my class. Instead of lecturing the material and expecting all of the students to memorize and regurgitate the same arbitrary facts, I developed in-class activities that would help the students explore important topics in music. I discovered ways to build rapport with my students so that they would feel comfortable being in the class and accepting of what was being offered. I looked at my teaching philosophy and course goals (you know, those things the university requires you to put on your syllabus) and realized that these could actually help me to shape my class and decide what is necessary and what could be left out. I discovered that my philosophy for this class was this: I wanted the students to like music as much or more when they would leave the class as when they came in. Anything else, any other content, became of secondary importance.

I was able to turn things around. At the end of the first day back after that weekend, after engaging the class in a fun (but educationally relevant) activity, I told the students that I was fully committed for the rest of the semester to making sure that their class was going to be the kind of class they would want to come to every day. After a brief silence, something happened that has never happened to me before in a class, and probably never will happen again. They clapped.

While the rest of the semester wasn’t perfect—I mean, I was trying out what was for me a completely new approach to teaching—I was able to build a friendly classroom environment in which both the students and I felt comfortable, and in which learning could truly take place. And now, a few semesters later, when I see those students on campus, they say “hello.” As a bonus, perhaps related and perhaps not, I was soon after honored with my university’s Distinguished Professor of the Year award; during the awards ceremony, I couldn’t help but think about how, not long before, I was sitting in the back of that classroom, trying to figure out how to turn my class around.

 

*note: Over the next few months, I plan to share on this blog some of the activities that I now use in my Music Appreciation class. Feel free to try these out! I hope they work for you as well as they have for me! Please tell me what you think, and let me know you if have any suggestions for trying these in other ways, or suggestions for other types of in-class work that are both engaging and educational. Also, if you have had a situation in the classroom that led you to rethink the way you teach, please let me know!

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Bach from the office

A small preview of my upcoming recital.

 

 

 

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Why Memorize?

My music history students would be surprised to learn that I am not a big fan of tradition. My class piano students would be shocked to discover that I am not a big fan of rules. My private piano students would be very surprised by my aversion to one tradition in particular—memorization—that has plagued pianists ever since Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt began performing large works in public without the score.

Memorizing is by far my least favorite part of the music-learning process. It has always been a struggle for me. I have never been an automatic memorizer. I am in no way one of those pianists who, at some point in the learning process, can simply play their music from memory.   Memorization has always been a process that I’ve had to force. Now, thanks to my teachers, back in school I learned some great techniques for memorizing, and they have certainly served me well. However, the time it takes to memorize a work is exponentially greater for me than the time it takes to learn to play it well. I’m willing to put in the time, but I’m not always sure of the point, particularly with the risks involved even after putting in all the time and effort.

As pianists, we have nearly all experienced the horrors of the memory slip. In recital, memory issues can crop up at any time unannounced, often in the spots where we feel most secure. Tomorrow, I go on stage for my first performance of the wondrous 9th concerto by Mozart. This extraordinary work is one of the highlights of the Classic Era—truly one of the great works in any genre. I would much prefer to use the music than to risk an entire performance (for myself, the orchestra members, the conductor, the audience) simply because of vanity and tradition. I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to let go of my own ego, and devote myself only to the task of presenting the beauty of this work to the audience. Furthermore, I like the idea of taking the spotlight off the performer, and putting it on the music itself. Rather than leaving an audience impressed my ability to remember (is that even the right word?) oodles of notes, it is my hope that they will experience a beautiful piece of music. Perhaps our audiences are focused on the wrong thing. Perhaps it is my job to turn their attention to the music, rather than the process.[1]

It is discouraging to have worked toward a performance and know that there will be those in the audience and in the orchestra who will have doubts as to my readiness. I feel guilty in some way that I’ve let people down. There’s such a strong expectation of experiencing the awe of watching this musical magic trick of memory that people are disappointed when they see a performer walk out to the stage, score in hand. The stigma for pianists (but no other instrumentalist, somehow) is that failure to memorize must indicate a lack of preparation on the part of the performer. Well, what if I play better with the music? What if, instead of fearing the possibilities that a memorized performance entails, I, as the performer, get to enjoy the performance just as much as anyone else in the concert hall simply by bringing along a book?

Somehow, historically, memorizing became a necessary element of what was considered a quality piano performance. However, in actuality, it is merely one of many tools that can be useful in achieving a successful performance. Memorizing does help in certain instances: performing arpeggiated Etudes by Chopin that span the entire keyboard, for example, are nearly impossible with the score, as are works with large leaps throughout; these are the kinds of pieces that are practically unplayable without looking at your hands. However, the jump from ‘useful tool’ to ‘necessary element’ has left countless pianists with an expectation that does not always match their performance abilities or the music itself.

I’d like to think that this is the case with my upcoming performance. So, tomorrow night, I will walk out on stage proudly, score in hand, and hopefully share a beautiful rendition of a sublime piece of music with an appreciative audience. I hope it doesn’t bother too many people that I’m looking at the notes. Maybe someone in the concert hall will have the same point of view as a gentleman in the audience at a children’s piano recital I once attended who exclaimed, after he listened to a performance by the only student on the program who did not memorize her piece, “Ooh! This one can read music!”

 

[1] See a similar sentiment in Anthony Tommasini’s Dec. 21, 2012 NY Times article “Memorization’s Loosening Hold on Concert Tradition: Playing By Heart, With or Without a Score.”

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Fayetteville Symphony Piano Trio

Hello!  This week and next, I’ll be performing piano trios with some amazing musicians.  The Fayetteville Symphony Piano Trio will perform trios by Brahms and Debussy at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC on Wednesday, September 28, and at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC on Friday, October 7. Here are some links will all the info.  I hope you can make it!

Fayetteville Symphony Piano Trio Concert, Cape Fear Community College, Wilmington, NC

Fayetteville Symphony Piano Trio, Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC

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On the Back Burner

Many years ago, I remember sitting in the concert hall watching and listening to the greatest performance of anything I had ever heard, or have heard since.  The performer had just won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious piano competition, and just happened to be a fellow student at the university I was attending.  I had never seen such playing in which all of the elements of the performance were completely in the artist’s control.  Every moment was choreographed; every gesture was masterfully executed to create the desired effect.  The result was perfection.  The piece was Stravinsky’s Three Movements From Petrushka.

This spring, after a successful recital, and with concerts lined up for the next season, I decided to spend my summer working on an entirely new program.  The Stravinsky pieces had always been in the back of my mind as something that I might like to tackle.  Now, for the non-piano nerds out there, Stravinsky’s Petrushka transcription is one of those famously difficult works; like Balakirev’s Islamei, or Messaien’s Vingt Regards, there is a reverence among pianists regarding the sheer difficulty of pulling off a performance of this piece.  And so went my summer.

I’m at a point in my career where, for better or worse, I’m not too afraid of much when it comes to learning piano music.  I also pride myself, as a teacher, with my attention to assigning level-appropriate repertoire to my students; often, to their dismay, they receive my recommendations for pieces that are “way too easy”, but, of course, prove otherwise.  However, for some reason, when it comes to myself, I am far less discriminating–“Bring it on!” might be the motto for some of the repertoire choices I’ve made.

So, this summer, the Beethoven Sonata (Op. 26!  What a great piece!  Go listen now!) and Chopin Ballade (No. 4–how have I waited this long!) have been moving right along.  And so had the Stravinsky, or so I thought.  Then suddenly I realized that it is now August, and that I’m not even through the initial phase of my learning process, a process that I’ve been telling myself to trust all summer.  Now, with the prospect of two additional programs (some chamber music, a concerto) that need heavy practicing, and having given myself a deadline of August 1st to have the solo program done so that I could start devoting serious time to the other programs, even the idea of practicing has become stressful.  The task of learning this music seems overwhelming.  I’ve been losing sleep.  (Ask my wife–I never lose sleep.)  I’ve had thoughts of quitting the piano entirely, cancelling every performance, or just getting through them and never taking on another performance again.  Until now, I had never considered the obvious–drop the Stravinsky.  I mean, this is the piece that I’m truly excited about practicing!  It’s been the real focus of my work for the past few months.  As an artist, the idea of letting go, unfinished, something that occupied my time for months is horrifying.  As musicians, we give up so much of our time–family time, social time, personal time to just think–for the art of a performance that doesn’t last that long.  As a university professor, the situation is even more unbalanced; while a performing artist that makes their living playing a program over and over can justify the amount of work that goes into it, for most teaching musicians, the likelihood is that you might get a few performances out of a piece in a year.  Yes, I could set up concerts all over the place, but I’m just not that interested in playing all the time and being away from my family.  On the flip side, the thought of not learning new music is something that I can’t seriously consider; I’m not sure I could face my students and try to encourage them to practice if I’m not doing it myself.

Learning a new program is a process that is truly unknowable until you do it.  Practicing is the one thing in my life that I approach with total organization–I believe in my process, and I know that, most of the time, it works for me.  However, I can never truly tell how quickly a piece is going to “take” until I get in there and start doing the work.  Some days, the learning happens so quickly–pages memorized effortlessly.  Other times, I’ll spend days and days on a measure and get nowhere.  My realization with the Stravinsky is that I rarely have the good days with this piece.  It is a constant struggle.  Now, I can learn this piece, but judging by how it’s been going, it might take a year or more.  And it’s important for me to ask–without resignation, but with pragmatism–“is this worth it?”  Overall (by which I mean playing the piano in general, giving concerts, traveling to perform in new cities and seeing old friends who’ve invited me to play), yes, I think it’s worth it.  However, the hard choice to give up (set aside?) a piece that I’ve worked on for months does force me to question the value of this work.  I’m glad I’ve come to this decision.  I’m going to give some concerts this year that I can be proud of.  I know I’m making the right choice.  I only wish I would have discovered it sooner.

 

 

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Concerto Performance

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat with the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra this season!  The concert is on November 19 at Fayetteville State University!  I hope to see you there!

Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra 2016-17 Season

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