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My family and friends will tell you that I love everything about nighttime. I love to sit outside at dusk, watch the light change, contemplate the heavens and let night’s unique sounds envelop me. A nice fire in the chiminea doesn’t hurt either. This love has found its way into my repertoire and in this post I’d like to share some of my favorite night pieces with you. So, here is my list of 15 cherished night pieces; in alphabetical order since I cannot choose a most favorite piece or child among them. I have left out the more obvious Chopin (and The Moonlight Sonata) from the group on the grounds that they are already iconic and hardly in need of any reinforcement from me.

I have played and taught these beauties many times over- truly Velveteen Rabbit material! Some are inspired by poetry and story, others atmospheric. Some are complex and dissonant, others wonderful miniatures.  A few are incurably sentimental and I make no apologies there.  I have left out the more obvious Chopin (and The Moonlight Sonata) from the group on the grounds that they are already iconic. 

I have paired Messiaen, Bartok, and Louie as a set. I have put Suisse’s Midnight in Gramercy Square with pieces by Rameau & Couperin and selections from Ravel’s Mother Goose and Le Tombeau de Couperin. It’s fun to improvise on the Suisse as well. One of my students even created a set of traditional variations on it with different locations for each one. The Suisse is also is great with Poulenc’s Nocturne or Debussy’s Evening in Granada. Debussy’s Sounds and Scents goes wonderfully with the Persichetti. I even threw Poulenc into that mix once (no apologies remember?). 

Students enjoy choosing images to project as they play. OK. So do I and so do the listeners. We have done sets of night pieces where each student plays one piece in the set. One year we did any entire recital of night themed pieces including some composed by the students. It always warms my soul to watch them collaborate on each set down to choosing a final performance order to make the pieces work as a whole. The discussions are fascinating. Should we go for stark contrast or a gradual progression? Hey, I think my piece is like yours because… When I hear this it reminds me of… 

I’ll leave you with this little gem.

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Piano Addict by Gail Fischler - 2M ago

Antimatter: Any substance that, when combined with an equal amount of matter, results in the complete and direct conversion of all substance to energy. (WhatIs.com)

Anti-Masterclass: Any masterclass that, when combined with an equal part of input from all participants, results in the complete and direct conversion of all playing to energy and artistry. (AKA the Not-Masterclass)

Through the years, I have been lead many Anti-Masterclasses and I have had a ball. To me, masterclassses are win-win situations for everybody. Participating pianists learn, the audience learns, teachers learn, I learn. But, there came a time when I didn’t want to just do the same old, same old. (Yes, every student is unique and each class is subtly different but I think you know what I mean.)

So, I decided that I wanted a format that would be more interactive and place the focus of the session on music and artistry rather than on the icky-picky details. I use feedback sheets of various kinds to focus my student’s listening quite often and I have created quite a variety of them over the years. I thought, why not use them in the classes? It would open the participants ears and, at the same time, give the teachers present some new ideas for their own studio classes.

And, that’s what we did and still do. It has worked spectacularly. The performers are much more relaxed. Colleagues and peers are supportive and helpful. After each person plays we go around our semi-circle giving input. I change up the format for each performer, to keep it lively. We use Prediction/Reality Check, draw pictures, say one word that describes a performance, or listen for specific details of various musical elements.

Feedback was spot on back then and now. After fellow students each give their comments to a performer, I give a mini lesson to tie it all together. It is amazing how close the students’ feedback is to the points I have chosen to work on in the lesson segment. Sometimes they have difficulty putting their observations into words but they hear in great detail. They are also very kind to each other. As each student plays during the mini-lesson they nod and say things like, “Much better” or  “Closer but not quite there.” They chatter encouragements to each other and smile broadly.

During one Anti-MC I had older students act as mentors to the younger ones. They were able to help them with the forms and answer questions so that the class flowed smoothly and the participants didn’t get so distracted by the forms that they lost the purpose and the music.

All in all, Anti-Masterclasses have resulted in the complete and direct conversion of all playing to energy and artistry. I can’t wait to do another one!

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The first time I ever worked on a Bach dance movement I felt like I had encountered an alien landscape. I had grown up on Bach chorales but somehow those sober, staid, and reverent tunes just did not help me with the dances. Of course, I am the person who was laughed out of the tryouts for the dance numbers in our high school musicals.

Over the years, I have grown to love the forward motion and feeling of “ups” in baroque dance music. My students, upon meeting them for the first time, seem to feel an awful lot like I did about them. They get that deer in the headlights look a few weeks into their practice and put the score at the bottom of their stack under even the etudes and scales. Maybe I’ll forget… They tell me their dog ate it.

Some time ago, I gave a workshop and anti-masterclass. The focus was on making music speak. Since a personal connection to Baroque dance suites can be tricky, I included a separate segment on it during the workshop. We watched selections from Maurice Hinson’s classic video on Baroque music. In the Baroque dance segment, he describes the history and footwork (with examples) and then plays well known keyboard dance movements along with the dancers.

After we watched, I had some volunteers who had been working on Bach dances, play a short section of their pieces and we talked about how to translate what we had seen into sound. There was an amazing transformation. At the not-masterclass, comments to performers from their peers included references to the video without any prodding or leading on my part. They all made significant changes toward a feeling of up and motion.

What’s an anti-masterclass you ask? That is the subject of another vintage blog post which, if we are very lucky, the dog has not eaten.

There are lots of great videos of dance interpretations of baroque music. Just search dance baroque music on YouTube. Try adding terms like modern, hip-hop and tap-dance to delve in a bit deeper. Enjoy!

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Do you have a piece that has crossed your path repeatedly over the years? I’m thinking of a piece that you unexpectedly wind up playing multiple times rather than one you play for yourself, standards or encores. I recently realized that I have such a piece and it’s been reappearing in my life at interesting junctures ever since I was in college.

The first time I played Schumann’s Three Romances I was accompanying a flutist for her senior recital. I had done my own senior recital a few weeks earlier and so performing the Romances was part of a larger rite of passage. We played them for several organizations over the following summer and then each went on to graduate schools on opposite ends of the country.

A few summers later, I got my first actual music job working at a summer music camp as an accompanist and counselor. Of course I had taught privately for a few years but now an organization was paying me for my hard earned knowledge and skills! One day, one of the violin teachers asked me to read some pieces with her and I was delighted to again find myself looking at the Romances. We played them together on one of the weekly programs and later at another community event.

I had quite an eclectic career when my children were young. I taught school music, private piano, and did a bit of performing. I also volunteered at my older daughter’s school as an accompanist for all the music events. One day the music teacher shyly handed me a folio of music and asked if I would play it with him. Imagine my surprise as I found myself staring at the Romances – transposed for trombone! We played them on the elementary school holiday program the same night my flutist friend from college debuted at Carnegie Hall. Oh boy…

Once my children were old enough, I went back to University for my doctorate and got a job teaching piano at a community college in an outlying area 140 miles away. Quite the weekly commute. The violin teacher and I sometimes read music together and one Wednesday afternoon there were those Romances again. We never actually performed together but we sure had a good time reading through music.

As is the way of things, eventually programs were restructured at the college and I found myself teaching privately part time, as well as blogging, giving workshops and adjudicating. I also spend time playing with my musical neighbors for fun and at our regular community events. One of our neighbors is a member of the local flute club and you guessed it… We played the Romances together at a community potluck a few years ago.

Looking back, it seems the Romances have appeared at turning points in my musical life. But why? Perhaps they allowed me to measure my newest musical self against the younger me? Maybe someone else in the room needed those pieces right then and I was part of the vehicle? I can accept either or both. I’m still not sure about the meaning of the elementary school vs. Carnegie Hall thing though.

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Piano Addict by Gail Fischler - 5M ago

You all know I’m all about reverse thinking and using what something isn’t to shine a light on what it actually is. I learned something new about this last week in a post on Edutopia, Asking Students to Plan Bad Behavior, wherein Esther Parks shared her unique and highly creative solution for reinforcing rules before a field trip. She asked, “How can we make sure we get kicked out of the museum today?” Her students came up with rules for every possible situation (including shutting off power to the entire place) and were engaged in the process. Also, hilarity happened. 

Immediately, I started thinking of ways to use this in my teaching.

  • How could you practice to get the rhythm totally wrong in this piece?
  • What things could you do to notate the most unreadable composition ever?
  • How could you perform the worst _________ ever? 
  • How could you practice to have the worst lesson ever next week? 

There are really endless possibilities. It also struck me that we teachers could benefit from asking ourselves similar questions.

  • How can I make sure that John never understands triad inversions?
  • What can I do to make certain Suzi hates scales?
  • How can I be sure Max practices the wrong things this week?
  • What steps can I take to foster the worst tone ever in Molly?

Food for thought isn’t it? Thanks Esther.


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In my last post, I talked about how time is a frustration point for me. Thanks to all of you who reassured me that I am not alone in this. I decided to reach back in time and bring you a story of time and some kitty image troubles.

“Time is time. You understand it? We have to be first to the_______” A tour guide said this multiple times each day while we were in his charge and it has become quite the family joke. The time thing raised it’s head as I was working on completing one of my teaching activities last weekend. There were lots of fiddly details to complete and things were not going as smoothly as I would have liked.

I had used a pre-made template that turned out to have been done by someone who had evidently failed geometry. (Yes, I should have known better.) Fortunately my husband did not fail geometry and made it all right. Then, I needed to color in my white cat images to match the geography of my patterns. I thought this would be a quick manipulation but no. All of the computer photo tricks I had up my sleeve bombed horribly.

That was when it hit me. It didn’t matter if I finished it today, tomorrow, or even next week. I had time—as much as I needed. I didn’t have to be first to anywhere. The only deadline I perceived was merely a reflection of my own desires. What a luxury to be in that position! I spend my professional life (and probably you do too) being on time for lessons, meeting college mandated deadlines for student performance, testing, and grading, as well as accompanying, class and workshop preparation, and more. But, I don’t need to let that mentality creep into everything I do.

Back to my project and my kitty image problems. I took the afternoon and evening off. We enjoyed a great meal and watched a movie. The next morning out of the blue came the answer to my image trouble. Save the things as PDFs and use an iPad app to color them instead of trying to fill them with a computer program. It worked like a charm and I am tickled with the results.

My teaching begins again in the middle of August. The deadlines will again be ever present. It will be easy to get into a deadline mentality and see deadlines where there are none. But, time is time. I’m going to do my best to truly understand it.

You can see more on my cats and how they turned out here.

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Piano Addict by Gail Fischler - 6M ago

A pianist is a person for whom playing piano is more difficult than for other people. (Apologies to Thomas Mann)

Everyone has their own responses to frustration. Personally, I need to vent and get rid of it before I can move forward in a productive manner. Some can take a walk around the block, do 50 push-ups or meditate to release the energy. I’m a person who lets it all out.

If the computer is doing stuff without telling me, I talk back to it. When my arthritis is preventing me from playing what and how I want, I tell it what I think of being held back. That time the bag of flour fell through the bottom of the bag and broke all over the floor and the cabinets, I was not silent. I’ve read that people who let out their frustrations on the actual source have a lower chance of high blood pressure and stroke than those who bottle it up or, heaven forbid, take it out on some innocent person. Fingers crossed.

My husband sometimes thinks that this venting means I am unhappy doing a task and should stop or even get another life. But that isn’t true. I need to battle through it. Whatever I’m doing is more difficult than for other people or at least it sure feels like it. I have a mild form of dyslexia which doesn’t help things at all. 

Parents sometimes want their children to stop lessons because they vent expressively or even occasionally bang on the keys. Like my husband, they feel this is evidence that their child is deeply unhappy in lessons. I try to help them and their child see how to work a little differently so they don’t get frustrated to the boiling point as often. I also try to make sure they are venting at the right things and never exploding at or blaming other people. This __________ is a pain in the neck and I’m really ticked about it, is a healthy statement. I’m never going to be able to play this stupid piece. I’m dumb and I hate piano, are not.

Using a Tomato Timer (Pomodoro technique) can help mitigate frustration. Working in intervals separated by short rest periods, you devote yourself to a task for a specific amount of time only. Then, you move on to something different rather than becoming fixated on one single element and therefore less and less productive. There are apps that can be programed to personalized intervals and assignments can include the number of minutes to work on each item as well as the time to rest between. I had actually written assignments that way for years before I knew it was a bonafide technique with a name and everything. 

I know my frustration level increases when I only have so long to get something done during a busy day. Time is definitely one of my major triggers. I always think I can just sit down and fill out a form, edit a document, add a few measures to a score or clean up the A section of my piece. Then, I get pressured and frustrated when it takes longer than I imagined. I tend to forget to breathe. Also, what happened today when I went to publish this post and found that the entire template and ways of formatting a post had completely changed and I somehow got the post in twice. I definitely forgot to breathe.

Homework, family life, chores, sports, technology and music all create demands that can lead to frustrating time pressure for students and families too. We can help most by being the faithful hands from one of my favorite quotes ever …and by reminding everyone to breathe.

Oh, the comfort—
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words—but pouring them
All right out—just as they are—
Chaff and grain together—
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them—
Keep what is worth keeping—
and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away. (Dinah Maria Mulock Craik)  

            (Dinah Maria Mulock Craik)  

           

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It started with a performance of a method book piece with the word Yodel in the title. “It sounds weird,” said my young student, “and I don’t understand why that B is there.” “Do you know what yodeling is?”, I asked. She shook her head sideways, “uhuh.” I certainly can’t yodel, so demonstration was out but we finally found common ground in the song Lonely Goatherd from the movie Sound of Music.

My student’s parents are from China. Perhaps there is a Chinese equivalent which would have made more sense to her but I certainly didn’t have the time to Google it in the middle of a lesson. Later, I found a video on YouTube and emailed it to her Mom. I also asked her if there was a Chinese form of Yodeling that would help her daughter understand.

I have run into this issue before and not always with students of foreign descent. While working on my doctorate, I taught 3rd year class piano for choral education majors. We worked on harmonizing ear tunes as part of the curriculum. Even though I picked very recognizable tunes, there were still a significant number of students who had no idea how they sounded.

These were very American students. I was using a well known functional piano text. My mentor told me it was the student’s responsibility to go listen to the song if they didn’t know it and not to get bogged down. I began giving them 3-4 pieces to choose from for each ear tune assignment but even that didn’t completely solve the problem.

When our students play the music of Bach, Beethoven, and the boys we expect to teach their compositions from the ground up. We expect that they will listen to performances of their pieces on CDs or through the internet. Increasingly, we are teaching what I will call American Standards, for want of a better term, also from the ground up. I have had students who were unable to sing Happy Birthday, not to mention, I Gave My Love a Cherry, or Puff The Magic Dragon.

Perhaps this is due to cuts of music programs in the schools or to the easy availability of commercial hits in audio and video formats. Whatever… I remember reading an article blaming the increase of praise music over hymns for the fact that incoming college music students couldn’t play Bach or understand four part harmony. We have to give up the idea that certain pieces are already within our students’ experience.

When we plan lessons, we must include time to make sure students understand the rumba, riding in a submarine, being on a busy big city street, or yodeling. We can’t assume they know Happy Birthday, Alouette, or even Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We must take the time to teach them—from the ground up if necessary.

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“But what does it mean?,” I asked. I used to ask that a lot when I was little. I remember this time clearly though. My Dad and I were in the car and he was teaching me a silly song. We used to sing songs like Mairzy Doats, A Canner Exceedingly Canny, Old Dan Tucker, John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith, The Little Man Who Wasn’t There at the top of our voices on our drives—with the windows rolled down of course.

Back to that day… We had just finished a song. I don’t remember what it was but I remember asking what it meant and my Dad giving me an explanation which clearly didn’t satisfy me. I must have asked 6 or 7 times. He finally looked at me, sighed, and shook his head. I remember feeling bad because I knew at some level I had spoiled his joy in the silliness and the song itself.

I think that day was the beginning of my awareness that I walked through the world and viewed things differently. Later, I learned that feeling of otherness was because I was an artist. It was my nature to search for meaning in everything.  I remember the absolute joy of unity between myself and my music for the first time. It was a Tuesday and I was learning Schumann’s Arabesque. (Really it was)

Gradually, I learned it was OK to be myself but I sure wasn’t always going to fit in. I also learned to be wary and shield that part of myself around certain people and a lot of teachers. I was a disruptor before it was cool and they gave awards for it. My Mom used to say something like, when you put your head above the crowd, you become a target. I’m female and an artist with a huge sense of the ridiculous. It’s not a choice. It’s not pride. It’s who I am. I used to get very upset about the unfairness of that. It’s not like I set out to distance myself from my peers.

As humans, we are all vulnerable. Part of being an artist is to allow others to share that vulnerability. Our students also walk through and view the world uniquely. How much harder is it for a teen or young adult who is a little person, from poverty, a person of color, or LGBT and an artist to stand straight and allow their head to be above the crowd?

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As two grinning young people blasted through my door and ricocheted off the walls, I thought that, like Tigger, they were “feeling bouncy today.” So, what do you do when your students need to blow off some steam before they can begin to settle down enough to work or need a break during a lesson?

Here are some activities that don’t take a lot of time and can be incorporated at any point in a lesson no matter what the level. Best of all, you can extend and reinforce lesson plans rather than move away from them. Just keep groups of cards together in your teaching closet so you can grab what you need quickly and you are good to go.

Spot Your Place

Have your student find a position on the keyboard. Then, have them run (or walk quickly), touch something, and come back and place their hands in the same place. I use my door because it is a straight shot from the piano bench and there is nothing to trip over or knock down. You can spot correct posture, the correct position to begin a piece or passage, patterns, chords, etc. It’s actually giggly fun to ask them do horrible posture or incorrect hand position one or two times during the game.

Teacher May I?

This one works individually or for small groups and is similar to, you guessed it, Mother May I. To start, move the student back some distance from the piano.  Again, be sure that the path is clear. Students ask, Teacher may I; Play G?  Play a D five finger pattern? Play a C minor chord? Play a song?

You can choose to say Yes you may or No you may not. If you say yes and the student does the element correctly, they can move forward 2 steps. If you say no, the student stays in one place as tradition demands. If they move, then they must take a giant step back. Sometimes, I say no and then give them an alternate thing to do, especially if I need to up the level of their questions. It’s fun to say things like place your hands in Not E major five finger pattern or Not all the Ds on the keyboard.

With all this moving back and forth from the piano, it’s easy to lose track of where a student was standing last. To eliminate confusion (and extra discussion), I mark where they are on the floor with a beanbag during each turn. The game is over when they reach the piano.

Monster Rhythm Composition

Make or purchase large size flash cards with various rhythms. I keep mine separated by approximate level so I can grab them quickly. I usually begin by placing a few in a line on the floor and the rest upside down in a pile nearby. The student walks along and claps the “composition”. On the next turn they add a card anyplace they wish, and clap that. Students get a kick out of making their composition so long that it has to bend around a corner.

If you need to add more movement, you can place single cards at stations around the room rather than in a line. This activity can be extended to an improvisation by having students move cards to the music rack and create a melody for them. In fact, this is a great way to bring them back to the bench, focused and ready to move on.

Roll the Dice

Download templates or purchase dice with letter names, rhythms, or numbers on them. I like to use extra-large dice. The student rolls one die on the floor and then must return to the piano and do whatever came up. We find all the Ebs, play a D scale, play chords and progressions, improvise in specific rhythms, improvise in specific scales, and more.

I have free extra-large dice templates available here and yes, spinners will work just as well as dice. Try making a giant floor spinner. You can use index cards for the labels so you can switch them out quickly. There are tablet spinner apps with labels that can be customized as well. I use Decide Now. Just be sure to place the tablet some distance away from the keyboard. Want to use a musical board game to get the wiggles out? Just place the spinner or dice on the floor so students have to get up and down.

Zillion Card Pick-up

Throw a bunch of flash cards on the floor. Students then need to find all of something as quickly as possible. You can use nearly any concept for this; 5 finger patterns, chords, scales, pitches with sharps, etc. You can also have them put note values in order from longest to shortest, dynamics from loudest to softest, and tempos from slowest to fastest. I usually have them go to the piano and demonstrate the element when they are done.

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