Friday, April 29, 2011

Teaching Genius

This is the title of a book I am reading. It is subtitled "Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician." The author is Barbara Lourie Sand.  My first question was: is the title referring to the teacher or the student?  I guess in this case, the answer is both.  DeLay is one of the legendary violin teachers of the Juilliard School of Music.  Her students include Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Sarah Chang and the list goes on and on.  The book is about an American woman who became one of history's greatest pedagogues.

I want to share a quote from the book.  There are many more to come, but this one is enough to chew on for awhile.

Delay is basically in the business of teaching her pupils how to think, and to trust their ability to do so effectively.  This is a much more difficult undertaking than telling them to copy what she does, or to repeat a passage over and over until it--at least in theory--gets better.  To Delay, learning and thinking are inextricable connected, and the core of her philosophy lies in continually challenging her students to look for their own answers. (pages 65-66)
Isn't this our most important and primary goal as teachers and parents?  This is what Doris Harrel is after in every single teacher trainer class she teaches, maybe it is a Juilliard thing. . . but Doris teaches how and why to trust our musical instinct.  She was the first teacher to teach me that.  She teaches how to find musical clues, through harmony and texture and countless other hints from the composer.  I'll never go to Juilliard, and I'll never perform in Carnegie Hall, but I know how to trust the musical instincts I do have.  I know how to teach that to a child.  I'm not saying I have mastered this.  I'm just getting started.  But, after all, knowing what the goal is, is half of getting there.

If we do our jobs as parents, we nurture our kids today for a healthy independent adulthood tomorrow. We all want the next generation to be smarter, happier, more self actualized, more spiritual, wealthier. . insert your own family goal.

If I do my job as a piano teacher, the students will graduate from the studio with the confidence, insight, and intuition to interpret any piece of classical piano music.  Best case scenario, if I do my very best job, the student goes on in life to be a better musician than me and maybe even comes back as guest teacher.  Nothing would make me happier.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Musical Cottages

Sarah Susanka is an architect who has made a name for herself with the idea of the "Not So Big House."  She has authored umpteen books about how smaller spaces tend to feed our souls more than the suburban mansions people have built in recent years.  She is interested in the materials and details of a home and how they effect the people who live there.  I like these ideas.

Edvard Grieg had the same idea about piano pieces.  He writes:
 It is not for me to build lofty places and mighty cathedrals of music, but rather cottages, in which men may dwell and rest their hearts.
I like that too.  I have a student, Lena, studying a few of his Lyric Pieces.  These are short pieces with a Norwegian character and many have programatic titles like "Butterflies" or "March of the Trolls" that truly paint a picture in our minds.  Maybe I like them because growing up I thought I was Norwegian.    It's just that my grandma and grandpa lived so close to Decorah, Iowa and we went to the Nordic Fest every year and ate all the foods and bought all the little Christmas ornaments of the little painted wood and yarn people.  I just assumed.  I still have a little Nordic Christmas Tree.

Uff Da. Turns out I'm Czech.  I should be giving students Dvorak and Janacek.  I'm still going to rest my heart in a few little Grieg pieces.  Good luck with Puck, Lena.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Assignment of the Heart Week 2

Upon Mary's request. . . the assignment of the heart this week is to pick up after yourself.
How ironic.  Her ability to instantly trash a room by tipping over everything in sight has affectionately been called the "schmoo dump" since she was about 9 months old.

I'm not holding my breath on this one.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

Happy Easter!

We had a lovely Easter weekend.  This is a photo of Mary releasing one of the 35 butterflies we raised as a favor to Pastor Kris for her children's sermon today.   On the way into church Kris asked if I could help with communion.  The Easter service requires many volunteers.  For whatever reason, in all my years as a Lutheran I have never done this.

Saying the words, "the Body of Christ Given for You" several hundred times to several hundred people, most of whom I didn't know turned out to be a very moving experience for me.  Here I was, at one of six communions stations at one church, in one city, in one state, in one country.  The thought of Christ dying for all these people throughout all the world and all of history was moving.  For God so loved the world. One by one by one.  Each of us.  "The Body of Christ Given for You."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Puppets and Perfect Peppew-pippews

The piano kids are preparing for the spring recital, May 15, 12:30 in Eagan.  Each student is playing one classical piece.  My preliminary estimate is 85 minutes. . . still much shorter than the four hour dance recital I sat through last May.  My mom and Bill's sister got MAJOR brownie points for their attendance although there was some pretty heavy texting going on between us all by the last dance.  Mary was only in two dances.  ($120 worth of costumes. . . cough and gag)  Calvin started to cry when he turned the program page and saw that there was a whole second half. . . Bless his sweet heart, I almost cried too. We opted out of dance this year.

For the record--texting is not allowed during piano recitals.  And yes folks, I will have a talk with Maggie about holding conversation throughout the studio recitals.  Sorry.  There is no costume to buy, by the way.  You can wear sequins if you really want/need to.

The kids are preparing for the recital.  One thing we do to prepare is to tally perfect repetitions.  The goal is to achieve 50 perfect repetitions by the recital.  These perfects can be slow, right and left hands alone, section by section, however they want--they can be.  A tally has to be worth the equivalent of the whole piece played note perfect. The first tally is always the hardest.

I am careful to express that the reason we do this is not to require the student to be perfect.  Musicality always trumps technical perfection.  We tally perfects to build awareness, concentration and confidence.  Until we listen for a note perfect repetition the kid can play a hundred wrong notes and barely notice.  After logging 50 perfects, we also have a much better statistical chance of getting it right as well.  How can you expect to be comfortable at the recital if it isn't easy to play your piece accurately.  Of course in 2002 Kyle Serafin proved me wrong by nailing the Beethoven Sonata Op. 49, No. 2 at the recital after never having gotten through without crashing at the lesson.  Hope springs eternal.  Most of us will need the perfect repetitions.  Kyle is now a composition major at the University of Wisconsin for those of you who remember him.  He friended me on facebook, but I'm not so sure he wants his childhood piano teacher looking in on his college conversations.  Another blog topic. . .

Calvin and Mary have a stuffed puppy puppet who helps out at the piano.  Puppy talks in a funny voice and calls the perfect repetitions "perfect peppew-pippews."   As in, "May-we, awr you ready to doo yew pewfect peppew-pippews?"  Who can say no to puppy?   The perfect rep is rewarded with puppy cuddle time.  Works for me.  Every parent has to find their own calling. . . mine is great puppy voices. . .

After the recital the students get to collect from me: m&ms or Skittles equal to the number of perfect reps they tallied, with a limit of 100 pieces of candy.  (I have mercy on the parent of the over ambitious child who plays Mary Had a Little Lamb 500 times perfectly).

It's not about the candy, it's not about being perfect.  It's about preparing wisely to share your music with a caring audience.  It's about being comfortable so you can have a positive experience playing the piano. Good luck students and get busy!

Monday, April 18, 2011

An Assignment of the Heart

When I start a new family in the studio, we go through a parent orientation class.  This is always a valuable time to get to know the new family and share ideas about the Suzuki Philosophy.  Each time I review the material something new pops out at me.

I was reading how Dr. Suzuki would give his students a non-musical assignment.  The example given was that Suzuki asked the children to straighten the shoes at home several times a day, without being told.  They were to do this in secret as well, thus teaching the lesson of doing something for others without expecting recognition.  Dr. Suzuki didn't live in Minnesota, in my house, where the pile of coats, mitten, hats, shoes, boots and wet socks can reach epic daily proportions--and I only have two children.  Dr. Suzuki didn't know what he was asking for.

In Texas I had one coat and about five total pairs of shoes.  When I visited my husband's Eagan apartment when we were dating, I seriously couldn't believe he had a whole closet full of coats.  One for rainy weather with temps between 30-50 degrees, one for dressing up between 15-30 degrees, one for skiing, one for bitter cold work outside. There were shoes for shoveling show, for exercise, for work, for yard work. .  . you get the point.  This was NOT the simple life.

I digress.

So I thought about this character training idea.  I'm not going to try this on my students yet, but I'm trying it on my own family.  The assignment this week.  No yelling.  Our family doesn't yell in anger.  We just yell. MMMMAAARRRYYYY.  CCCAAALLLVVVINNNN.  MMMMAAAMAAAA.  DADDDDDDY.  Yep.  We yell.  Across the house, down the stairs, up the stairs.  Whenever we need someone's attention.  So this week:  no yelling.  Go find the person.  Especially if it is me.

One small step for character training.  One giant leap for household peace.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Look at these brave little daffodils. . .most of the snow was melted by the time I took this picture.  
Yes, the kids did the church egg hunt in the snow this morning.  Only in Minnesota.

I don't remember very much about last Easter.  I think my sister and brother-in-law made a nice dinner and put on a very sweet treasure hunt for Calvin and Mary.  Pastor Kris had real chicks in church.

I remember every nuance of every moment from Easter two years ago.  It started with Palm Sunday.  We drove down to Iowa to watch my dad conduct the Seven Last Words of Christ cantata.  It was put on by the community choir in Tipton, Iowa, composed of the church choirs of several local denominations.  (Yes, there are other denominations than Lutheran in Iowa. . . )  He wasn't feeling good, but managed to inspire the large choir to a very moving performance.  He rented a tux.  I never saw my dad in a tux before.  He sang the bass solo of "God, My Father, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me."
After the performance he slept through the whole after-glow party at the house.

He went in Monday for tests.  We didn't hear the "C" word until Maundy Thursday.  Good Friday confirmed his tragic diagnosis.  Saturday I fumbled my way through coloring Easter eggs with the kids while listening to some music that seemed to speak to me that these moments, these lifetimes, are all just specks on eternity.  It would be okay.  Easter Sunday I fought my way through the fight or flight panic that there was no where to run to, no place to hide, nothing to do except to just go through this with my family.

Nobody ever spoke aloud the rancid irony of Daddy singing that solo, but I think many of us went there inside our hearts.  He never did.  He retained a simple faith throughout the whole remaining five and a half months of his life.

The previous Christmas I got a key chain from the James Avery company. It has three bronze circles intertwined that say "Wisdom, Serenity, and Courage."  Somehow I never put it together as the same words from the "Serenity Prayer."   I do recall thinking that wisdom and serenity were somehow greater virtues than courage.  Courage is for soldiers.  Police and fireman.  Heroes.  Maybe even Olympic athletes. Who needs courage really?  

I didn't know that my dad would be the most courageous person I would ever know.  Facing a terminal diagnosis takes a kind of courage I could never have imagined.  Courage is for all of us.  Everyone who ever holds the hand of someone who is dying.

Holy week will always remind me of my Dad singing the Seven Last Words.  There isn't too much I can do about that.  But it's okay.  It's okay because Holy Week ends with Easter.

Easter makes everything okay.  It makes holding that hand a little easier.   Easter makes courage a little easier.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Big and Little Goals

Most of us have some goals at some point in our lives.  They might be fitness, financial, educational, spiritual, or other unique goals.

My students leave the lesson every week with a goal.  The goal might be to learn the right hand of Cuckoo, or memorize the exposition of their Sonata.  It might be to make sure they get to the piano everyday.   It might be to check on their posture during their review pieces.  Setting the goal is a very flexible procedure, it is sometimes suggested by the student or parent, and sometimes I suggest the goal.  When the student returns the following week for his lesson, I ask if he achieved the goal, and if so he can mark a tally on the chart toward a larger reward later in the semester.  This sets the tone that we really expect something to get done during the week.  Something specific and tangible.  This help us realize that progress is cumulative--growth is built on many many small steps.   Dr. Suzuki said never hurry, never rest.  Slow and steady wins the race every time.  Fast and furious can often lead to trouble.  Likewise, folks can meander along for a long time and never realize that they are floundering.

I also like to plan with a student what her goal is for the year.  Are we moving toward a graduation recital or just enjoying some repertoire for a few months.  Planning an individual recital is extremely motivating for the student.  We have to plan out several months in advance what she will play and what will have to be memorized and accomplished at each landmark along the way.  These are truly periods of growth and polish.

What is the goal for the lifetime of the student?  Again, Dr. Suzuki says--we are not trying to raise professional musicians.  That is not our goal.  We are teaching first for the love of the child and second for the love of music.  As it happens--students often leave the Suzuki studio well prepared for a career in music.  My very first Suzuki student--Kristen Sowell--is doing teacher training with Doris Harrel in Texas.  When I left  Texas she went on to work with my friend Janie, and then on to college.  I'm sure by now Kristen is playing circles around me.  At least I hope she is.  That is what every teacher loves to see.  Other students have majored in music and won very nice scholarships in music.  But that it not our goal, and woe to the student who actually does choose a career in music.  Many a musician has lost their love for their instrument in a competitive and ruthless environment.  I do not wish that upon anyone.

Time spent thinking about goals is never wasted.  I encourage parents and students to reflect on their goals for the summer and the upcoming year.

My goal?  Facilitate each student to reach his great musical potential, which may or may not include further college study, but which will definitely result in a beautiful heart and a lifetime love of music.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Piano Priority What?

In the policy letter that I give students each Fall, it states that my studio is a piano priority studio.  In other words, this experience is geared toward families with a high level of commitment to piano.  This is fine to say on paper, but what does it really mean?  It is intended to mean that my students are supposed to prioritize piano above their other activities.  Hmmff. 

Obviously, I have very little leverage to support this.  It has never been my style to "fire" an uncommitted student.  I truly believe that every child can succeed at the piano, but our success is contingent upon a few key elements--the Suzuki triangle--an excellent teacher, a caring parent committed to the process, and a kid.  The kid gets to just be the kid.  

So what leverage does the teacher have to promote excellence in the studio?
Lesson time.  

I have always thought that in a perfect world the student could just show up for the lesson and it would take as long as it takes.  When we were done with everything the lesson would be over.  Could be 30 minutes, could be a couple hours.  Heaven knows we could fill the time.  We might even stop for tea. But, I'm not Mozart and this isn't 1776 and we don't have wealthy royal patrons to support us all. 

Instead, starting this summer I am changing my studio requirements for lesson length.  Students in Book 1 can take a weekly 30 minute lesson, but students in Books 2-5 will need to take at least a 45 minute lesson.  Students in Book 6 and beyond will be required to take an hour lesson.  No exceptions.  

How can we promote excellence if we don't ever have enough time to get through the lesson material? 
If this policy becomes a financial hardship on any family I will work out a plan with them.  It isn't about the money, it is about the quality of the lesson.  

Next Fall I am taking over Beth Turko's position as president of The Twin Cities Suzuki Piano Teacher's Guild.  We have been having some great discussions at our meeting about increasing the quality of our teaching.  I am going to encourage our group to make sure students are getting appropriate lesson lengths.  

I think this is a really important step for some of my students.  Most of them are already taking long enough lessons.  The few who aren't will be pleasantly surprised at the amount of progress they will make when given enough quality lesson time. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who Am I?

Periodically I find myself requiring some confirmation of just exactly who I am and what I am trying to accomplish in this relatively short time I am given here on earth.  Am I the only woman who ever feels this way?

I think some women have it easier than others in this regard.  'Tis a gift to be simple.  Those of us with myriad interests and ambitions can find it harder.  I find myself wishing I had several different lives to live.

In one, I would be like one of my college piano professors, whose living room was empty but for the wall to wall CD shelves.  He went to the church of Tower Records every Sunday morning.  The furniture in his home was scant but for a Hamburg Steinway and a few chairs for visitors.  Any empty hours easily filled with practice and study.

In another I might be like Martha Stewart minus the jail term and the hair cut.  I would wander around my garden and home tweaking things until they were all set for the photo shoot.  Weekends would be spent at flee markets and small town Iowa antique shows.  I could have hundreds of cats.

The next life might find me a stay at home mom making cookies timed to come out of the oven when the bus pulled up.  Family dinners "Leave it to Beaver" style.

Another life would be late night gigs, sleeping late and drinking coffee in bed all morning. No children . . .

I probably could have been happy doing a lot of different things in my life.  I even enjoyed working at the bank with my Dad during summer vacations.

Pastor Bohlman made it sound so clear back in eighth grade confirmation.  If we keep our priorities as God intended we would always be happy--and to him that order was clear:
  • God
  • Spouse  (if you have one)
  • Children (if you have them)
  • Other family and friends
  • Job
  • Hobbies
At least that is how I remember it.  I could pull out my notes scratched into Luther's Small Catechism in 1980 to confirm. .. 

But here we are in 2011 and it doesn't always seem that clear.  Things are different now.  Women juggle more things.  Because we have more choices, life can seem more difficult.  More fragmented. 

Upon further reflection I circle back to the list. I believe in the list.  I think of the energy that I put into my family and my home, my studio and my music study.  My faith.  All the choices we make, all along the way, large and small define who we are.  If I hadn't had three really flaky serious boyfriends break my heart I might not have seen the gem I found in my husband.  When my Dad got sick I started writing on Caring Bridge, I learned that writing is very therapeutic to me.  If my college French Horn teacher hadn't yelled at me and made me cry I might not remember how fragile we all can be.

Sometimes the sad things that come along make us stronger and more sure of what is important to us.  We are all on a journey and there are no limits to how far we will go.   If I had a wall of CD's and a Hamburg Steinway I might not have my husband.  I wouldn't have Calvin and Mary.  I wouldn't have a studio of children with beautiful hearts who happen to play the piano extremely well. I wouldn't be playing piano for a church choir that makes me feel like part of a community. I wouldn't have time for family and friends. I wouldn't have a garden and home that heals and frustrates me all at once. 

I wouldn't be me. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


There are all sorts of people who research how our brains learn.  Daniel Coyle talks about brain research in his book, The Talent Code.   If I had a smarter brain I would probably understand how the brain works a little better.  That was my very tired attempt at a joke.  

I do know this much beyond a doubt: we don't improve a piece of piano music by playing through it once at tempo.  Yet, if left to their own devices most students I know, even the really good ones, when asked to practice a piece, would probably just play through it once at tempo and move on.  

We do improve and learn when we take a small portion of music, a snippet, and repeat it several times with intention. The snippet could be just a few notes, or a phrase, it could be one hand alone, or even one note.   It can also be called a practice spot. It is my non-rocket scientist understanding that every time we repeat a task, we build a synapse.  I tell my students, if they repeat a snippet once, they have built a weak synapse.  I visualize this by pointing my pointer fingers together.   If we play it twice it makes a stronger connection, like two fingers together.  If we play the snippet four or five times, the connection becomes very strong.  In other words, we might have some hope of actually remembering the task we were doing today, when we come back tomorrow.  

Every experienced music teacher will tell you that true progress can only be gained when a student learns how to do quality repetitions of the same task.  How to get those repetitions is the trickier part.  I use a lot of counting toys, dice, playing cards and m&m's.  A little chocolate goes a long way.  

Doris Harrel calls this "doing sets."  She recommends the student do only four repetitions in a set, but then requests the student do many sets throughout the day.  You will probably notice at some point in the repetitions the quality actually gets worse.  Then you know you have gone too far and the kid is tired.  Doing only four repetitions ensures that each rep will be high quality.  

I make charts for my kids.  At some point I realized that the chart was encouraging the "play through it once" mentality.  So I added snippets to the chart.  Now each song gets a play through, and then I get to pick a snippet to work on.  One of the cornerstones of the Suzuki Method is review, but the review is only worthwhile if something is actually getting done.  Picking a snippet gets something done.  

I noticed at choir practice tonight that Kris Henry, the music director also uses snippets, but she doesn't know that is what they are called.  The choir only has so much time to rehearse and so many pieces.  So she picks a snippet from each piece, that she has planned ahead of time.  Same.  

When the kids are little we have to pick their snippets.  As they mature they should start to be able to pick their own snippets.  
Snippets. Enjoy your snippets.  Fun to say.  Fun to play. Fun to type. . . 
That is all I have to say about snippets.  Off to bed. . . 

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Sara's Snowdrops
One of my friends is a pastor who is going through a particularly long call process for a new position at our church.  I imagine she feels that her whole future, her vision for the church, all the work she has done and all the relationships she has developed are in the tender hands of the call committee.

My Uncle Jim, my Dad's younger brother had a fluke fall down the stairs this weekend and broke his back in four places, fractured his skull, broke ribs and messed up his arm.  It looks like he will be okay but he has a long road in front of him.  His plan for healing is in the hands of the capable crew at the University of Iowa hospitals.

Back in November my husband was promised a promotion with his company.  He has been doing the work and shouldering the responsibility of the position since then, without the title or compensation.  His boss should sign those papers any day.

Our neighbor is a totally nice guy with a million unfinished projects going on his house and yard.  As we gaze out the window at the accumulated havoc, we wish he would either realize his dream of fixing things up, or pass on the property to someone who could.

When my Grandpa was alive I, used to ask him about my worries.  He would always say, in a gruff but loving voice, "I wouldn't worry too much about that, there isn't too much you can do about that." He was a farmer, whose whole livelihood depended upon something completely out of his control:  the weather.

We all have these situations all the time.  Sometimes serious, sometimes not so serious.  We all have facets of our lives that we are fully emotionally invested in, but yet SOMEONE ELSE is in control. We have very little or no control over the way things are going to turn out and we can't see what the future holds.

I have learned at these times to try to relinquish that control that I wish I had, those times when I want to pout and stomp my foot, those frustrations and hurts--to try to relinquish that control to God.  We do our best, but at the end of the day we have to let go. Someone else is in control, and ultimately that someone is God, who loves us very much.  "We know that all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord." Romans 8:28.  Sometimes it seems impossible to understand what good could come.  I guess that is where the serenity part comes in.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference