Thursday, February 24, 2011

Louie Bluie

Louie Bluie (The Criterion Collection)

Some music fans adore 1930's jazz, country, and blues music above any other era. It may seem strange to imagine this, but there is a cult following for this music and the men and women who made it. Director Terry Zwigoff (who later helmed the outstanding documentary profiling  cartoonist Robert Crumb - "Crumb") managed to find a few living legends from 1930's music. He coaxes them to tell some tales and perform some of their classic tunes for the camera. Chief among these elderly musicians is the irrepressible Howard Armstrong, nickname "Louie Bluie". He is an awesome mandolinist and fiddler. His skills are evident throughout this hour-long feature. This is one best movies I've ever seen about musicians and music-making. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these musicians. They are characters, every one of them.

Be warned though: these guys are blues musicians, and as such their dialogue does get "blue". At times the subject matter veers into adult territory.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Nature of Our Business

This is an outstanding article focused on the art of teaching music and the many unique aspects of this work. It was written by teacher Yiyi Ku, published on the Music Teachers Blog, 2/1/11:
Independent music teachers are ‘supermen’ and ‘superwomen’. Yes, I am talking about you and me! We do so much more than just teaching, and understanding the nature of our business is important if we are to remain successful and sane. Our job description is but a unique one. Here are some thoughts I would like to share as a private music instructor:
1. Ours is not a 9-5 job.
We are always working even when we are not working. We are always thinking about our students. When we decide to take on a new student, they now share a piece of our heart and occupy a place in our thoughts. As Kristin pointed out, we spend just as much time (if not more) preparing lessons, answering parent questions, dealing with students’ emotional well being, filling out audition entry forms, writing student reports, giving advise on what pianos to get, even shopping for student incentive awards, as we do in actual teaching during lessons. All of it is time and energy consuming. We need to know to set boundaries, so that we still leave personal time for ourselves and our family. If not, we risk burning out.
2. We are our own boss and employee.
While we do not need to report to anyone but ourselves, no one will recognize our good efforts and reward us accordingly. We do not get quarterly bonuses just because our students pass their auditions or win a competition; there are no sick days and annual leave with pay. That is, unless we build it into our studio policy. This is a hard one to implement; I am still working on this myself. My goal is to one day have a studio policy where I am allowed sick days and annual leave, without worrying about reduced income.
3. Students come and go.
We form a bond with our students, and it is hard when parting happens. But parting WILL happen, it is just a matter of time and under what circumstance. Under good circumstances, we part with our students because of relocation (either party), graduation (students going to college), or upon your recommendation that they should move onto a different teacher. But more often than not, we have to deal with students leaving our studio for reasons that are not very pleasant. These can include non-payment, unacceptable behaviors, and especially issues relating to difficult parents.
I am sure all of us have encountered difficult parents at some point. It is unfortunate that we are for the most part powerless if a parent decides to withdraw their child from our studio for whatever reason. Sometimes the parents are mis-guided or ignorant, they really do not know what they are talking about or doing, sometimes there is misunderstanding, and sometimes, it is just the nature of our business. Learning to be emotionally “ok” when students leave for whatever reason is very important for our well being.
4. There is always a better teacher somewhere.
We must never be satisfied with our skills. We must continue our training through private lessons, masterclasses, attending concerts, conventions, workshops. We must acknowledge our own limitations and know when it is time for our students to move onto another teacher and learn from someone else. This is not easy; we must learn to deal with our ego.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

We Jam Econo - The Story of the Minutemen

There's no pretentiousness with these three... the Minutemen were straight from the heart. Mike Watt (bassist) is like the uncle we all wish we had. He is a king of storytelling, always taking his time. George Hurley (drummer) is humble beyond belief. And D Boon (guitarist) unfortunately is no longer around to speak for himself. You may not find melodies here that get stuck in your head for days, but you will be witness to an unforgettable portrait of true brotherhood. Highly recommended for fans of independent music.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Playing from Memory

A commentary on the common practice of performing music from memory, written by teacher Yiyi Ku:
The issue of memory playing has haunted musicians for centuries. For some, it comes naturally; for others, it is an eternal struggle. Is it necessary to play from memory in order to give a professional, musical and convincing performance? Absolutely not. In fact, it was not the norm to perform from memory in Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven's times. It was Franz Liszt, the 19th century composer and virtuoso pianist, who was the first performer to present an entire recital by memory. (In recent years other musicians have been credited with that title, too, but Liszt was the most influential.) Yes let's all blame him!
I has become standard practice for pianists and vocalists to perform from memory in solo recitals, although the British pianist Dame Myra Hess almost always performed from score, and all musicians have suffered from memory slips of varying degrees in their lifetime. It is every musician's nightmare to forget halfway through a performance. But should this fear stop us from making music and trying to perform our best? Absolutely not. Playing from memory has many advantages, but certainly is not required in order to make beautiful music. The ultimate goal for any musician should be to make and share beautiful music, and if that can be done through playing from memory, it is just a bonus! Today, most recordings are done with the score, to ensure the utmost attention is paid to every detail indicated by the composer, while in recital, playing from memory often helps the performer to concentrate on the music and not be distracted.
Read the full article here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Piano Buying Tips

Some helpful tips on buying a piano. The article is written by teacher Yiyi Ku:
Buying a piano is like buying a car; they can all take you from point A to B, but some cost a lot more than others. As to brands, there are many to suit every budget. Personally, I do not recommand anything that needs to be plugged into the wall in order to produce sound, so we are talking only about acoustic pianos here. Here are some tips:
Piano Buying Tip #1: Don't buy for looks! Don't buy a piano because 'it looks good'. Baby grands may be more pleasing to the eye, but a good upright can cost more, sound better, and play better than a cheap baby grand. If you are buying a piano for musical reasons, because your child is taking piano lessons, than looks is not the most important criteria.
Piano Buying Tip #2: Do your own research. Don't trust everything you hear or read in the shops. Some shops only carry certain brands. Some brands are heavily promoted because they provide the biggest profit margins.
Piano Buying Tip #3: Play before you buy! This sounds logical enough, but it is amazing how many people don't do this. Never buy from a catalogue! A student once told me she just bought a new piano, I was so happy for her, then she told me she was getting her living room renovated first, so I asked her where the piano was in the mean time, she said still in the shop, so I said I hope the shop put it away so people would not play on it and mess with it, she said she was not getting the one on the floor, but a brand new one still 'in its box'. In other words, she bought a piano she had not actually played on! Every piano is different and unique; unless it is physically impossible, always play the actual piano you are buying before you pay for it!
Piano Buying Tip #4: New is not always better. It is possible to find well maintained, used pianos that are of reputable brands. Personally I believe buying a used piano of a good brand is a better investment than buying a new piano of a cheap brand.
Piano Buying Tip #5: Choose a reputable brand. How do you know if a brand is reputable? Read Tip #2 above! Do your own research. Just because the salesperson says it is, does not mean every piano is worth the price tag. I do not trust companies that repackage themselves every so many years and sell under a different name. There are exceptions, but I would be careful about companies that rebrand and sell only in certain countries.
Piano Buying Tip #6: Seek advice. If you know nothing about pianos or music in general, seek advice from your child's piano teacher, ask a friend who is a musician, or invest in a piano technician to check out the piano. This is especially important if you are spending a significant amount, or buying a used piano.
Piano Buying Tip #7: Budget for tuning and accessories. Remember to factor in regular tuning costs, moving costs, and other items you may need - bench (preferably adjustable), reading light, cleaning accessories, lesson costs, sheet music etc. Some shops throw in freebies, if not, negotiate!
Piano Buying Tip #8: After service. If you are buying from a shop, ask about warranty, trade up options, and any other benefits that may be available, including referral fees should you happen to have many friends who are also looking to buy.
Piano Buying Tip #9: Buy the best piano you can afford! Do not buy a piano more than you can afford, as you will end up losing it. Do not buy a cheap piano if you can afford better, as you will end up loosing money trading in the cheap piano later.
Piano Buying Tip #10: Enjoy your purchase. Make music! Don't let your piano collect dust!
Here is a great reference book for when you are doing research about buying a piano, brands to choose from, and things to look for:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Luna: Tell Me Do You Miss Me

Luna - Tell Me Do You Miss Me

I appreciate the simplicity of this documentary. I hadn't heard any Luna music prior to viewing this, and I can't say that I'll be purchasing any soon. But the film-making here is excellent, as is the editing. The members of Luna seem like they could be your neighbors or friends. Luna never had tremendous commercial success. We see the band in the van, at second-rate hotels, and packing up their own gear after their gigs. "Tell Me Do You Miss Me" gives viewers an honest view into the daily lives of touring musicians.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is Piano Practicing Ever Fun?

A humorous and thought-provoking article written by Dr. Joseph Line:
"As I scan Internet articles and blogs about piano practicing, I am always amazed at how many people write about and are searching for ways to make practicing fun. Speaking as a professional pianist and piano teacher, I've found practicing interesting, challenging, frustrating, thought-provoking, at times boring, often exhilarating, and enjoyable... but I've never thought of it as being fun.
What have I missed here? I've studied with several world-class (I mean truly world-class) teachers, and I can't remember them ever suggesting that practicing should or could be fun. They've definitely taught me about the joy of playing the piano... but fun? I don't remember that lesson. So why it is that so many people... teachers, students and parents... are putting out so much effort striving to make practicing fun?
To me, an activity is "fun" when there is instant gratification. It's fun to go to the beach and swim in the ocean. It's fun to play games. It's fun to talk with my friends. But practicing? It doesn't feel the same to me. With practicing, the gratification is usually delayed because I am striving for a goal that most often I will not reach immediately. I have learned through long experience that the reward... the gratification from piano practicing... will eventually come, but most often it will come tomorrow or the next week or month."
Read the full article here.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Miserable day teaching

It seems I have a few of these per year - a miserable teaching day. 6 of the students I worked with today are preparing for the upcoming Certificate of Merit evaluations. 4 of the 6 have been slacking terribly. And it makes me sick. I started each of them on the necessary material for their level(s) back in October. There has been plenty of time in the build-up. I designed it that way. Yet here we are in February - their performances set for less than 2 weeks from now - and these 4 are floundering.
It is hard not to take this personally. These 4 students of mine will go and perform their technique, sight reading, and selected repertoire for another teacher. It's embarrassing. They will present themselves as representatives of my work. I hold my work to a high standard. It is immensely frustrating when your supposed collaborators are pulling minimum weight. Most taxing of all is trying to impose my will upon unwilling parties. A difficulty in teaching is that no matter how on point I am during the lesson time, it's up to the students and parents to implement things at home. Home practicing with these 4 has been shoddy at best.
Why am I so sensitive about all this? Ultimately they take the fall because they haven't done their part, right? If only it were that easy to let things go and have my mind feel free. I'm so disappointed right now. Going through my yearly "Why do I even go to all this effort to offer the CM program if a percentage of students are going to slack off and stress me out?". It's not worth it.
I suppose I should be more strict and just drop students who aren't exhibiting satisfactory effort. I'm too forgiving oftentimes, too concerned about ruining a student's relationship with music... for life! But where does my job end and "tough love" begin? I'm still trying to figure things out. I may never.
I hate delivering the same pep talk to the same student every week. I suppose I haven't entreated the parents early enough, but really... why haven't they entreated me?
Enough. Enough. I'll feel better in the morning.

Top Ten Tips for Teachers

My vocation as a music teacher involves continual challenges. Each challenge is an opportunity to learn. I'm learning how to better accomplish my job every day and every week. Here is a helpful list of "Top Ten Lists for Teachers" written by Nancy Ostromencki and Dr. John Zeigler that I find to be filled with helpful suggestions. Believe me when I tell you: I'm not standing still.
Top Ten Tips for Teachers
1. Be organized! - Be as organized in ALL facets of your teaching as possible, ranging from billing to repertoire lists to teaching materials for your students. Although it appears to take time away from the lessons, the time you spend getting organized now will make it much easier to give lessons, as well as make a better impression on your students.
2. Consider yourself a professional, worthy of as much respect as would be given to any professional, and act that way at all times.  Make sure that your students and parents realize that teaching is your profession. You'll be treated better and your students will progress faster if they understand that you're a dedicated professional.
3. Always be willing and able to learn, learn, learn and then relearn. There is no perfect method that will work for every single student that comes across your path. Take the initiative YOURSELF to do research constantly on different methods.   Restudy pieces of music that you learned yourself as a child and see if you have some different ideas about interpretation, etc than you did before. Always be willing to explore music written by 20th and 21st century composers. Your willingness to expand your musical knowledge will benefit your students by showing them that new are not something to be feared, but, rather, something to explore.
4. Keep yourself as active as a performer. Whether it involves playing for a church choir, performing in informal soirees at your home/studio or doing formal concerts, regular performance will help keep you in focus with what your students are experiencing, AND also let your students know that you know what it feels like to get up there and perform.
5. Be willing to speak openly, positively and honestly with fellow teachers who ask for advice, help or input. Much of the negativity that teachers experience from students, parents and the general public is reflected in how we treat each other. If we treat each other professionally, teaching will be improved for both students and teachers. Send referrals to newer teachers in your area, and if you know of a teacher who needs the students, do not hesitate to give their names and numbers as a referral.
6. Get to know other teachers in your area and participate in the activities of local teachers organizations. There is no better way to improve your teaching and re-energize yourself than by talking with other teachers about their teaching.
7. Never, never, never openly criticize another teacher or their method of teaching. This applies to not only your own students and parents, but to anyone else's. We all make mistakes and errors in judgment, but this is something that should NEVER be broadcast to the general public, as it usually ends up reflecting as badly on the teacher offering the criticism as the one criticized.
8. Never accept second best from your students or from yourself as their teacher. You and your student know best what your student is capable of doing musically. Encourage your student to reach for those heights. Let them know that there will be potholes along the way, but that you know that you and your student can reach great heights.
9. Never accept second best treatment from your students or their parents. You give these students your all. You deserve to be treated respectfully, honorably, and well by your students and their parents.
10. Stress continually the importance of your students attending live musical events. So much can be learned by just listening to live music. Professional performance can also be inspiring for the student struggling with learning to play. As a teacher, you can help students by organizing "studio outings" to concerts.

Friday, February 4, 2011

How to get your child to practice

Here's another article on the ever-vital topic of how to get your child to practice their instrument. This piece is written by J. Dean, published at the Piano Teachers Federation website, 12/7/10:
"When I was a child, there was not as much competition for my time as there is for kids now. I realize that, but I believe that practicing the piano should be a habit. A habit like brushing your teeth everyday, exercising, doing homework.
In the beginning having a child practice Monday through Friday at least 15 minutes a day not only shows consistent advancement but also decreases anxiety over practicing.
For example, every parent expects their child to do their homework every night and every child accepts that and it is worked in as part of their daily routine. When piano lessons are started your child should add piano practicing as part of their daily routine.
If you plan exactly when and what time the piano practice will take place, then anxiety and fighting over practicing is eliminated. In return, the child knows what is expected of them and their reward is the confidence and fluidity of playing that comes from practicing.
Here are a some tips:
1. Sit with your child in the beginning and watch them practice. Then be in the room and listen to your child practice. It is very important to children that parents praise and listen to them when they practice.
2. Help make practicing a habit by doing it every day and - if you can - at the same time every day. For some the morning is better, for others the afternoon, and others right after dinner. By doing this at the beginning, you will save having to remind your child to practice when they are older. Personally, I tell my child to practice before allowing any t.v. or video games.
3. It takes about 3 years of practicing before a child begins to appreciate how s/he can play the piano. After this point it's likely they will not want to stop. The first year is fun. The second is more challenging, and is typically the year that requires constant patience and encouragement. In the third year, your child becomes confident in their ability and will begin to be considered a "musician."
4. Your child may want to quit from time to time. This is normal. Music lessons can go through difficult stages. At these times, discontinuing lessons may seem to be the obvious solution. Children who are allowed to quit rarely return to lessons. I have never heard an adult say, "I'm glad my parents let me quit."
Children complain about homework but parents turn a deaf ear. Sometimes with the piano, the same thing has to be done to get a child through difficult phases in their music studies.
Parents wouldn’t think of letting their child show up for school without their schoolwork done, and that same attitude should be carried over to music lessons."

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club

In the 1990's, American musician Ry Cooder travelled to Cuba and rendezvoused with some of that isolated country's top musicians. The music presented in this resulting documentary film is wonderful. The performances are spirited and everyone genuinely thrilled to be playing music together and finally have another chance at reaching a wider audience. It's worth noting that after watching this Ibrahim Ferrer will be your new favorite person for at least a week - he is a joy to behold.