Professional Development, Technique

Why I Take Lessons in the Alexander Technique as a Piano Teacher

In Spring of 2015, a fellow piano teacher and I were having a conversation during which she told me how much she has benefited from taking Alexander Technique lessons in the past. She spoke so highly of the experience, stating that everyone — not just musicians — should consider taking at least three months of Alexander lessons. In fact, she told me I was lucky in that there is an Alexander Technique teacher in my area, because there isn’t one in the major city where she currently lives.

Her enthusiasm intrigued me, as did her bold statement regarding the benefits of the Alexander Technique. So, I decided to follow her suggestion to take lessons for three months, just to satisfy my curiosity.

As of this writing, I’ve been taking Alexander Technique lessons for over a year-and-a-half. I’m completely hooked, and I have no intentions of stopping lessons anytime soon.

The Alexander Technique’s way of looking at all movement in life — not just “posture”, and not just one’s physical approach to the piano — has been revolutionary for me. It changes the way I move and the way I think about moving as I go about each day. I see things differently in other people, too — I recognize unique tendencies and movement patterns in others, including my piano students.

In this blog post, I’m going to share with you:

  • What the Alexander Technique is.
  • What a typical lesson in the Alexander Technique is like.
  • How users of the Alexander Technique think differently about movement.
  • The potential the Alexander Technique has to help pianists and piano teachers.
  • Takeaways for piano teachers reading this article.

What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is sometimes referred to as “the AT” or “the Technique”.

alexander-headshot“The Alexander Technique is a subtle method of integrating mind and body in such a way that each functions with maximum efficiency and ease and minimum stress and tension. The Technique is an educational process, which provides an individual with the means to identify and change habits and attitudes interfering with ‘the proper use of oneself.’

“The Technique was developed in the late 19th century by F.M. Alexander [1869-1955], a Shakespearean orator. Having lost his voice, Alexander undertook an intensive program of self-observation that lasted for nearly a decade in order to discover the source of his problem. In the process, he not only regained his voice but also laid the foundation for the Alexander Technique” (source).

The Alexander Technique is useful not only for musicians. Nor is it useful only for individuals experiencing carpal tunnel, back pain, or other difficulties. It is sought out by speakers, athletes, actors, dancers, public speakers, and — in short — anyone interested in personal development and improving performance ability.

alexander-vignette

Individuals who use the AT pay increased attention to their bodies as they move in their everyday lives. They learn to recognize less-than-optimal habitual patterns and strive to “not do” them. This activity of “not doing” is referred to as “inhibition.”

alexander-quote-not-doing

Perhaps most importantly:

Practitioners of the AT recognize that there is no existence of a “correct position”; there is only the possibility of “good use” in activity. The goal is ease, freedom, and efficiency.

AT teachers are highly trained and skilled. An AT teacher observes the whole body, looking to determine what unnecessary muscle tension is present as an individual carries themselves — whether in movement or sitting in a chair. Through verbal directives paired with skilled physical contact for feedback, an AT teacher coaches the individual towards increased kinesthetic awareness and ability to “think in activity”. The “basic directions” practitioners of the AT remind themselves of are: “Let the neck be free, allow the head to go forward and up, and allow the back to lengthen and widen.” An AT teacher helps the individual recognize his/her habitual patterns and learn to inhibit them.

Over time, as experience with inhibiting is built, the student can increasingly reproduce the same “not doing” experience into daily life activities.

Meet my Alexander teacher, Nancy Crego. Nancy has a great interest in helping piano teachers explore the useful applications of the Alexander Technique to piano playing.

20161031_14-03-21-alexander-w Continue reading “Why I Take Lessons in the Alexander Technique as a Piano Teacher”

Technique

My Explorations of Yoga as a Pianist & Teacher

Each year during the cold and snowy winters of the Midwest U.S., I miss being active outdoors. The last couple of years, to scratch that itch, I’ve started getting into yoga.

I chose yoga because it has so many health benefits — both physically and mentally — some of which are particularly useful to musicians. I have already noticed a degree of improvement in mindfulness and bodily awareness — both crucial skills for any musician.

In this post, I’d like to share a bit about my explorations of yoga over the past couple of years and about a few resources that have helped me learn.

20160217_173837 wm1

Photo: Me, inspired to invent a new yoga pose during a trip earlier this year to the Joshua Tree National Park in California. 

Let’s start with the practical: How do I fit yoga into my routine?

yoga studio appI like doing yoga in the evening, as a way to wind down before going to bed. Sometimes, I’ll also do a few stretches in the morning or at various points in the day when I feel I need it.

I’ve been using a wonderful app that I highly recommend: Yoga Studio (currently $3.99, and worth every penny!).

The app contains quite a variety of workouts to choose from: beginner, intermediate, advanced; 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes.

ipadMini_white_3 Continue reading “My Explorations of Yoga as a Pianist & Teacher”

Printables, Technique

Freebie: Technical Requirements Charts for RCM’s 2015 Piano Syllabus

I recently finished creating a new set of technique charts for the RCM’s new 2015 Piano Syllabus.

RCM 2015 Technical Requirements image web

RCM_08_logoHere is the backstory.

Over the past few years, I have entered a handful of piano students to take assessments through the Royal Conservatory of Music, an excellent program originating in Canada and becoming more popular in the United States. I appreciate the thoroughness of the assessments, which require students to perform a set of pieces ranging in musical styles and to demonstrate musicianship skills (sight-reading, ear training, rhythm exercises, etc.). The levels outlined in the syllabus (find the free PDF here) are soundly structured and have been refined over time by dedicated pedagogues in our field. RCM is also known for the quality and consistency of the adjudicating across the continent. RCM is not a competition; it is a standard that allows students and parents to better understand and track progress during music study.

Every seven years, the RCM piano syllabus is revised to incorporate new repertoire, eliminate repertoire that is no longer readily available, and refine the musicianship and technical requirements. 2015 marks a revision year, which means RCM teachers are seeking to learn about the updates and changes compared to the previous 2008 syllabus.

RCM technical requirements level 8RCM’s non-profit publishing company, Frederick Harris, publishes a variety of wonderful books to aid students in preparing for assessments (most notably, the piano literature books known as the Celebration Series).

Books are also available containing the notated technical requirements for each level; however, I personally prefer to teach scales/arpeggios/chords by rote rather than through having students read the notation. But it can be cumbersome to write out the RCM technical requirements on students’ assignment sheets each week–especially if you expect students to review all previous material.

So, a few years ago I released a free printable containing charts of the technical requirements for each level according to the 2008 piano syllabus. These charts have proved to be incredibly helpful to ensure that my students are learning and reviewing all of the required technical work. I’m happy to announce today that new charts are available below for the new 2015 piano syllabus. Even if you have no intention of sending students to RCM assessments, you might find these charts useful.

I keep this PDF uploaded on my iPad (use iBooks, GoodNotes, or any similar app of your choice) so I can print the appropriate charts wirelessly during lessons. Students take their chart to and from their lessons. As each item is mastered, we fill in each box with a checkmark or a sticker. The chart makes it easy to visually track progress.

RCM 2015 Level 5 preview - with checkmarks web

Special thanks goes to fellow piano teachers Donna Gross Javel and Nancy DeHaven Hall for helping to proofread the charts against the 2015 syllabus.

Download:

  2015 RCM Technical Requirements Charts for Piano (557.9 KiB, 11,414 hits)

Enjoy!

Motivation, Technique

Music Keys Incentive Idea for Scales, Arpeggios, Cadences

DSC_20130701_165441Piano teacher Patti Bennett from Georgia came up with an awesome way to use the music keys printable I created back in 2013 (see this post).  She kindly agreed to let me post her photos and details about her incentive idea today!

Patti has her students participate in Piano Guild Auditions in May, so she always has a big scale push beginning in January. This year, she was inspired to use the keys printable to create an entire incentive program to get her students enthused about learning their scales, cadences and arpeggios following the Guild requirements.

Major key challenge sign

bulletin board

Patti started by preparing packets of the keys for each student, cutting them out and placing them in Ziploc snack bags with their names.  There are five little bins for the major keys: one for one octave (white paper), one for two octave (beige paper), one for three octave (blue), one for four octave (red).  She also printed out sets for the minor keys.

keys on colored paper

She also created her own additional key cards for 10 hours of practice and for 5 pieces memorized.

key cards

As students master their scales and more by memory, they go to the bins, grab out their packet, locate the key and put it on their key ring on this bulletin board.  Patti says that the parents have been coming over as well, excited to watch this part.

bulletin board angle

Patti says that everyone is all smiles and eager to work on scales, as opposed to saying “do I have to work on scales”, or “I forgot to practice my scales” (sure you did) or whatever other excuse.

What a great way to inspire everyone to work hard on those scales and more!  ;)  Great job and thanks for sharing, Patti!

Announcements, repertoire / methods, Technique

The Technique Exercises of the Piano Safari method

On Friday, my local MTNA chapter held a workshop given by Katherine Fisher and Dr. Julie Knerr, co-authors of the Piano Safari method.  Piano Safari has been on my radar for quite some time, although I have not yet used the method books with a student.  I have, however, been experimenting with the technique exercises they have developed.

20131101 Piano Safari 2 Continue reading “The Technique Exercises of the Piano Safari method”

Technique

Freebie: Technical Requirements Charts for RCM/MDP Practical Exams

Today, I’m sharing a project that I have been working on extensively for the past three weeks.  I am very excited to have this project complete and be able to share it with you!

MDP-Technical-Requirements-image

For the last two years, I have entered a couple of students in the Royal Conservatory’s Music Development Program (previously known as The Achievement Program and the National Music Certificate Program in the U.S.).  It is an excellent program that I hope to continue to use with my students.  Preparing for the practical exams has been a positive experience for my students.

As a newcomer to the MDP, I found it challenging to keep track of the technical requirements with my students.  I found myself pulling out the MDP Piano Syllabus at every single lesson in order to clarify something or check if we were doing things right.  And writing out the technical requirements on my students’ assignment sheets each week was time consuming, especially since I expected my students to review each previous weeks’ material.   Continue reading “Freebie: Technical Requirements Charts for RCM/MDP Practical Exams”

Technique

Teaching Tip: Leaping Across on the Keyboard

blog Teaching Tip - Leaping Across the KeyboardEven from the beginning, the pieces in most modern piano method books require the student to move around the keyboard quite a bit.  Older piano methods (at least, the ones that utilize the Middle C reading approach) require the student to stay around the middle of the piano during the entire first level, or even further in some cases.  I’m glad modern methods require the student to move around the keyboard, because this because it helps student become familiar and comfortable with the whole keyboard from day one instead of inadvertently teaching the student that anything away from the middle of the piano is “hard.”

I’ve had parents notice and comment on this difference between older and newer methods.  They are surprised when their student needs to use the whole keyboard at their first lesson, because when they took lessons as a child, they remember playing around Middle C and never venturing to the extreme ends of the keyboard.

As an example:  The first four pieces in the Primer Level of the Faber Lesson Book require the student to play a simple pattern on the black key group of 2 or 3, and then to repeat the pattern twice, moving up an octave each time.  Other pieces throughout the series require students to play notes up or down an octave, especially at the end of the piece.  Other method books take a similar approach.

Often, to the student, making those leaps across the piano is the most challenging aspect of a piece.  They sometimes need to stop to think about where their hand needs to go.  Even if they know where their hand needs to go, they still might take some extra time searching the keyboard with their fingers to put the correct finger on the correct key.  This, of course, disrupts the rhythm of the piece.

How can we help students solve this problem? Continue reading “Teaching Tip: Leaping Across on the Keyboard”

Technique

Teaching 5-Finger Patterns (with a Free Worksheet)

5FP imageEvery teacher approaches technique exercises a little bit differently.  I usually start teaching students 5-finger patterns (aka pentascales) during the first month or two of study.  I start by assigning the C Major 5-finger pattern (5FP) and sometimes G Major along with it.  Every week or every-other-week, I add a new 5FP to their list, following the Circle of 5ths.

Personally, I don’t teach the theory behind the major 5FP’s until a little bit later (i.e., the pattern of whole and half steps: WWHW).  To introduce each 5FP, I let the student figure out what black keys are needed — using their ear.  I say: “Today we are going to add the D 5-finger pattern.  There is a black key in this 5FP.  Do you think you can figure out where the black key needs to be?”  The student first plays the 5FP with all white keys, and we discuss that it doesn’t sound right — it doesn’t match the sound of the C and G 5FPs.  The student then uses his/her ear and trial-and-error to discover that the 3rd note should be a black key.  Now it matches!  Leading the student through this kind of discovery makes the learning moment memorable.

The beauty of this approach also is that the student inherently learns the concept of transposition through this moment!  The concept of being “in a key” and the concept of transposition between keys is such an integral part of the way music works, but is so often it is neglected until students begin playing scales and learning key signatures.  However, after learning just two or three 5FPs, the teacher can easily ask the student to play a few familiar folk tunes by ear in different keys.  (See my printable from a couple years back, “Melodies to Play by Ear and Harmonize.”)  The student will understand that depending on what note the tune begins, they will need certain black keys in order for the tune to sound “right.”   Continue reading “Teaching 5-Finger Patterns (with a Free Worksheet)”

Conferences, Technique

OhioMTA 2012 Conference (5): A Strong & Versatile Technique Within Your Student’s Grasp, by Carol Leone

The next session I attended was Dr. Pete Jutras’ presentation, “The Future of Pedagogy.”  I heard him give this presentation about a year ago at the NCKP – click here to read my notes.

After that, Dr. Carol Leone talked about “A Strong and Versatile Technique Within Your Student’s Grasp.”  I loved the way she broke down different aspects of technique into such simple, understandable terms!

She began her presentation by reminding us that technique should always be approached in the context of discussing sound and expression.  Rather than asking, “Given the movements I make, which sounds would result?” instead we should ask, “Given a desired sound concept, how should I move?”  The sound is our goal, and the ear is our guide.  The opposite (over-analyzation of our movements) often results in discomfort and non-musical playing.

Next, Dr. Leone discussed the various movements made by each part of the body, and in some cases gave us some simple exercises we could use with our students. Here are just a few of the things she talked about:

Fingers

  • Building the bridge – This is a coordination thing, not a strenghth thing.  Have students make a bird beak with their hand.
  • Avoiding finger “dents” — have students look for the “three bumps” of their knuckles.

Continue reading “OhioMTA 2012 Conference (5): A Strong & Versatile Technique Within Your Student’s Grasp, by Carol Leone”

Conferences, Technique

OhioMTA 2012 Conference (4): Reduced Sized Keyboards, by Carol Leone & David Steinbuhler

The next session of the OhioMTA conference that I attended was an absolutely fascinating session given by Dr. Carol Leone and David Steinbuhler, entitled: “Increasing Performance Potential: The Reduced Sized Piano Keyboard.”  I had heard of reduced sized keyboards before, but never really understood the reasoning behind it or the advantages.  I was so intrigued by what I learned!  Read on.

Dr. Leone began by discussed hand sizes.  When you think about it, the piano is an instrument designed for those with large hands.  100% of children across the globe are playing pianos that don’t fit their hands.  (For violin, there are 1/2 and 3/4-sized instruments for children.  For piano, we are one-size-fits-all.)

The piano did not always have the same key size that is standard today.  The harpsichord has much smaller keys, as do many fortepianos.  They also had a much lighter action.

Injuries at the piano are at an all-time high, largely because of the demands of Romantic/Modern/Contemporary repertoire (large chords, octaves, etc.).  Pianists with small hands are limited in the repertoire they can play, and are injured much more frequently than those with medium or large hands.  Most of the pianists with small hands are probably women — their hand size is on average 15% smaller then male hands.  It is not an exaggeration to say that only about 10% of hands actually fit to the conventional keyboard.   Continue reading “OhioMTA 2012 Conference (4): Reduced Sized Keyboards, by Carol Leone & David Steinbuhler”

Conferences, Technique, Technology

OhioMTA 2012 Conference (2): Music Performance and Biofeedback, by Kathleen Riley

The next session was called: Understanding the Physiology of Music Performance Through Biofeedback, by Kathleen Riley.

Kathleen Riley is a pioneer in using technology she refers to as “biofeedback” to monitor movement and muscles in order to help musicians eliminate pain, tension, or discomfort in their shoulders, arms, backs, etc.  She began her session with a quote:

“Technique is the knowledge o the most economical way to produce adequately what the mind conceives artistically.”  – E. Robert Schmitz, from the 1935 book The Capture of Inspiration.

Dr. Riley discussed relaxation and the music — and the fact that although no muscle is ever completely relaxed, there is a resting point.  She discussed that we need to examine how much tension we really need when we play.  How can we release unneeded tension and follow-through on our movements?   Continue reading “OhioMTA 2012 Conference (2): Music Performance and Biofeedback, by Kathleen Riley”

Conferences, Technique

OhioMTA 2012 Conference (1): Experiential Anatomy by Lynn Singleton

Over the weekend, I attended the 2012 OhioMTA Conference in Columbus, Ohio.  It was a great conference, far exceeding my (already high) expectations!  We heard some top-notch presenters and performers and I learned so much.  I plan to briefly summarize some of the sessions for you over the next few days!

The theme of the conference was “The Healthy Musician: Teaching, Performing, Living.”  Here is some info about the first session I attended.

Experiential Anatomy: Using Mind-Body Methods To Increase Awareness for Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Overall Wellness in Musicians, by Lynn Singleton, NCTM.

Lynn began by sharing her own experience with feeling discomfort at the piano, and how she was able to solve her problems away from the piano.  Injury prevention and overall wellness requires a willingness to take self-responsibility.  Our body at the instrument can only be as good as our body away from our instrument!

Lynn discussed the advantages of “experiential anatomy,” which is basically about increasing body awareness so that we can more correctly use our bodies.  Tension arises from many sources: emotional/mental (like stress, fear, lack of self-esteem), physical (habitual movements, injury, compensation for pain), and social/environmental sources (posture in the work environment while using things like computers, cell phones, etc.).  Mind-Body Methods can help us get past obstacles and improve kinesthetic sense.  Continue reading “OhioMTA 2012 Conference (1): Experiential Anatomy by Lynn Singleton”