Monday, March 14, 2011

How to Buy a Piano

The "Living Pianos" blog contains a wealth of outstanding articles on piano technique, piano brands & models, how to care for an acoustic piano, and how to select the right piano for you. The "How to Buy a Piano" article is extremely informative. Highly recommended reading for anyone in the market for a new or used piano.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

CM Theory Room Monitoring @ Chabot College

Every MTAC teacher who registers their students for the yearly Certificate of Merit program must submit to a minimum 1 day of work yearly. The work day is dedicated to helping run the C.M. program. 
In 2008, I unknowingly signed up for one of the more drab jobs on offer: working the registration desk for the theory exams. The job was hectic and mindless; one I hope to never repeat.
In 2009 & 2010 I signed up to be a theory test corrector. This job is at least stimulating in that it provides a music theory refresher (though I rarely need one at this time of year, having labored diligently in the weeks previous to prep my CM students for their theory tests). At the end of a day correcting some dozens of theory exams, most test correctors - well, at least the ones who work hard; not the lazy ones -- are seeing double and wishing to never again hear about how many sharps are in the key signature of g# minor. Having worked hard at test correcting each of the last two years, it was time for a change.
So today I fulfilled my labor agreement by working as a theory test corrector. I was stationed in the exam room for students leveled Preparatory through Level 5. Paired with me was a teacher named Lu, who I met for the first time today. She was great work with - a helpful ally throughout the day.
(An aside: Lu's son studies piano with her and is enrolled in CM. At one point in the day, a young student came forward to turn in his test and Lu grilled him in a way unlike she had anyone else. She asked him "Did you check your answers? How many times? Are you sure you're done? How many times did you go back through the test?". I was confused until she revealed that the boy was her son and she had been working hard to help him improve his test-taking. He was a cute little dude. And he passed.)
Our work was multi-faceted but still mundane. We were to prohibit cheating (of course), answer any questions, guide students to the ear training rooms, and check tests for completion before allowing students to depart. I was surprised at how many students had skipped over questions in the exam and then absentmindedly forgotten to turn back and supply an answer. I was happy to help those students not lose points. There was no cheating, thankfully. That would have been awkward. Especially when considering that (in my view) these tests get easier every year. Why the need to cheat? The test layout has become so simple, dominated as it is now by a multiple choice format. With students only needing a 70% score to pass, you really can do a minimum of preparation and still skate by.
Upon entering the test room each student receives a slip of paper which has on it a diagram of a keyboard and two staffs for notation. This is for reference and for scratch paper. One student comically wrote on her slip "Why am I here?", followed below by "Arrrgghhh... I can't remember what articulation means". She was in an existential crisis, no doubt, but she should have asked me what articulation means; I would have been glad to help.
I'll close with a story about a boy named Barron. He was a Preparatory level student who tested today. He was young. His teacher was taking a brave chance sending him into this test situation at such a young age. Today I operated as his Music Theory Guardian Angel. He happened to sit in the front row, and that's good for him because he hadn't a clue how to answer a dozen or so questions on his test.
Every 2 minutes I'd look up and see Barron with his hand raised, talking to himself. I always asked him leading questions. He did not struggle because of a lack of knowledge. He struggled because he's not mature enough for this process yet. He will be next year, I'm sure of that.
After guiding him through some thorny terrain (he was particularly befuddled by key signatures and whether to write flats/sharps on the right side or the left side of notes), Barron finally came forward to turn in his test. As I did a final scan through his test he clinched his personalized page in my Book of Notoriety by glancing at my name tag and saying scornfully, "Jesse? That's a girl's name!" I replied, "Barron... it was a boy's name before it was ever a girl's name." And what more could I say? Was I really about to debate the merits of the name my parents chose for me some 30 years ago with this little dude? I helped Barron to music theory glory and his way of thanks was to emasculate me. Thank you, Barron. It will be a while before I forget you.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Had my piano tuned today...

During the winter months I always keep a space heater plugged in and turned to "Low" in my teaching studio. I was happy to learn from Linda, my regular piano technician that my piano held pitch well since it's last tuning. This is likely due to my diligent attention to regulating the temperature in the room the instrument is housed in.
A number of my students have noticed in recent months a sporadic buzzing when playing an "A" in the higher range of my piano. I noticed it, too. This "sonic wart" became a regular menace to my enjoying playing the instrument. I brought this issue to Linda's attention, she worked on it, and the problem sounds fixed for now. I hope the solution sticks.
Here's the regular PSA ("Piano Service Appeal") that I'll always include at the end of my piano tuning blog posts: 
If you are an active pianist, student, or teacher it is essential that you tune your piano at least once yearly. This may strike some readers as excessive, but it is not! Regular piano tunings will increase the longevity of your instrument. Also, annual service on your piano will keep maintenance costs lower. The longer a piano waits between tunings, the greater the work required to restore the instrument to its best functioning. More work = more cost. Make the sensible decision.
The piano tuner I call upon here in the CA bay area is Linda Kay. She provides excellent service and reasonable rates. You can click on her name for her contact information.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 2011 Teaching Schedule

-- My teaching schedule during the month of March will be uninterrupted. Let's do this!

-- Certificate of Merit students have one final hurdle to overcome in 2010-11 cycle: music theory exams. The CM Theory testing will be conducted at Chabot College in Hayward on the weekend of March 12-13. Students can complete their theory test any time on either day, between the hours of 9am - 5pm.
Have a happy month,

Why Music Exams?

I ask myself the same question in the subject line every year: Why music exams? I am a member of the Music Teachers Association of CA (MTAC). As a member of the MTAC, I am able to offer a yearly music evaluation program to my students called Certificate of Merit (CM). CM aims to be a comprehensive, leveled music study encompassing the essential musical elements: performance, technique, sight reading, music theory, and ear training. I have been a member of MTAC since Fall 2007. CM evaluations happen each spring, so 2011 marks my 4th year preparing students for these exams.
It seems that there are always 1 or 2 of my participating students who falter come evaluation time. It's down to me to break the heavy news: "You didn't pass". While it's not my intention to break anyone's spirit or cause them to resent music study for life, these both are possible (though admittedly unlikely) outcomes. But failure is a part of life. I have failed or been rejected too many times to count. The music student need not endure a life of torture, amidst feelings of inadequacy. No! But, he/she must commit to the work required to hone their skills at their chosen instrument. There is no shortcut. Despite admitted drawbacks, yearly music exams provide a surefire means by which steady progress can be achieved by students.
The impulse to post these thoughts came after reading a 2/28/11 post by Valerie Kampmeier on the Music Teachers Blog. She candidly discusses the pros and cons of participation in music evaluations both from her perspective as a former participating student and now, as a teacher.
Here are some excerpts of her thoughts:
"So why bother? What are the advantages of putting your students through such a rigorous experience?
I have often pondered this question myself. It is certainly not necessary for all students to follow this path, and some certainly do not thrive when under such pressure. However, here are some of the benefits I’ve observed during my many years teaching piano.
Firstly, it is a way for teachers to ensure that their students get a good, methodical education, learning pieces of different styles and periods, memorizing all the scales and arpeggios they will ever need in a structured fashion, improving their sight reading, and their aural skills. It can be easy, without this kind of structure in place, to omit to teach a student a certain scale, or to work on their sight-reading regularly. It also obliges teachers to work on theory with their students as well as practical musicianship.
Secondly, it gives students an opportunity to perform a mini recital in exam conditions - an achievement for any student (although admittedly a bit of an endurance test!). Not all students thrive in these conditions, and so it is up to the teacher and student to decide whether they wish to proceed. I did not oblige all students to take exams, and always organized student recitals in addition to examinations, so that performance was not inevitably linked in their minds with examination.
I do not regret the exams I took, or the exams my students have taken. I see it as having been a great educational opportunity."
Teacher, parent, and student should have a yearly, candid discussion regarding music exams. It is truly not for every student. This is fine. But for those who commit the effort, these programs can provide vital springboards to musical maturity.