Monday, September 22, 2014

Guest Post: The Long View by Dr. Steve Betts

It is my honor to introduce our next guest, Dr. Steve Betts, professor, mentor, and friend. 

The new school year brings new chapters in our students’ learning. Many students have probably had some kind of break over the summer and are ready for a fresh start in their piano lessons. As I have been thinking about my own students and this new year, I am contemplating the long view. What lifetime goals do I envision for my students’ involvement with music. The following ideas come to my mind; I’m sure you will have your own goals to guide your teaching this year.
An emotional connection with music
Throughout the world music provides joy, meaning, and enrichment to humans’ emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Music has the power to soothe, to celebrate, or to help us reflect. Does this emotional connection happen each week in our students’ lessons with us? Are there pieces, improvisations, or other activities that allow music to speak to our students’ lives? To facilitate this emotional connection several factors may need to be present:
Am I progressively discovering with each student what music speaks to them?
Are some of the pieces I assign at an appropriate level of difficulty (or non-difficulty) to allow artistic music making to occur?
Do my students and their parents know this is an important part of music study? Have I articulated this belief, or do I just expect them to “catch it”?
Proficient sight-reading ability
I believe strongly that proficient music reading ability promotes lifelong participation in music. While at a dinner with some faculty colleagues a few years ago, one of the spouses was commenting on how she had been a “successful” piano student—practiced diligently, participated and succeeded in auditions and recitals, and enjoyed her lessons. I asked if she played much as an adult and she said she did not play much now. When I asked why, she said it was because she did not read well enough. If our students are going to use the music making skills as they become busy adults, they need the ability to play through music without having to surmount reading challenges. It is so easy for the urgent pressures of auditions and recitals to squeeze out the important sight reading work. Is it easy to find time to sight read? No. Is it crucial? In my opinion, yes.
Character development and self-esteem
While the beauty of music study provides sufficient reason to study the piano, there are other positive aspects to music study. These are proclaimed often by educators, school officials, arts advocates, and media, and a list is probably not needed here. Because we often interact with students in a one-to-one relationship, I believe we have the ability to help music study develop true self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from giving your best effort and realizing the results of that effort. In his book Setting the Table, Danny Meyer discusses the concept of “constant, gentle pressure” in developing the employees in his New York City restaurants.1 Results come from work, and our students often need this constant, gentle pressure to keep moving forward. Of course, as students mature, the goal is for them to provide their own motivation to their lives. Music study can be an avenue to show students the possibilities their lives hold. What an honor and privilege to help guide them in this process.
The three concepts above are important to my philosophy of teaching. Your may have additional or different goals, but the start of this new teaching year offers an opportunity to reflect on how our students will engage with music the rest of their lives. Teach well.
1Meyer, Danny. (2006.) Setting the Table. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 189. 

About the Author: Dr. Steve Betts is Professor of Music and Associate Dean of the Shelby and Ferne Collinsworth School of Music at California Baptist University in Riverside, CA, where he teaches Applied Piano, Class Piano, Piano Pedagogy, and Piano Literature, and directs one of the university's women's choirs. He serves as a managing editor for Clavier Companion and is a contributing author to the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of Desirée Scarambone's "Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters"

Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters is a delightful book by Desirée Scarambone, cleverly illustrated by her husband Dr. Bernardo Scarambone. If you've heard of Memory Palaces, you'll be familiar with how this book is put together and how it helps students remember facts about composers, where they were from, their names, what era they lived in, and more. For students like me, who always had a little difficulty recalling facts such as names and places, this book will be a gold mine of information! By following the suggestions of the author, students will quickly learn about the master composers in a fun and engaging way, and they'll be thirsty for more. 

I won't give too much away in this review because the book is full of many wonderful memory aids, featuring composers in surprising and delightfully quirky situations! 

The way the author presents the years of each era is brilliant, the memory aids are perfect, and I absolutely could not put this book down once I started reading it. The illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the stories, the mental images the author creates are lively and vivid, and they are perfect for visual learners as well as kids who love listening to stories; they'll be loved and appreciated by all students who are learning about the master composers. Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters is required reading in my studio from now on! 

Who can use this book? Everyone! It would be an amazing tool in the studio as well as the classroom, perfect for a music history or composer unit, reviewing for a festival, used in a group music class or music camp, it could correspond with a bulletin board in your classroom or studio, serve as a substitute teacher activity, as a cross-curricular activity in which students could illustrate as they listen to the story, and so much more. 

Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters is imaginative, creative, pedagogically sound, and a valuable and amazing resource. Your students will thank you for helping them remember these important and musical facts in a way they never knew was possible. I recommend this book 100%. 

Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters is available for Kindle. 

About the author of Classical Composers: A Home in Your Head for the Musical Masters: Desirée Bradford Scarambone is a classically trained pianist with a profound love of teaching.  She is a professional piano teacher with over 15 years of experience teaching students of all levels. 
She earned a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from the University of Houston, Texas, where she studied with Ruth Tomfohrde, Timothy Hester and Horacio Gutiérrez, and pursued graduate studies in Piano Pedagogy with Dr. Melody Hanberry Payne at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi.  In the imminent future Desirée plans to begin the pursuit of a Doctorate of Philosophy in Musicology at the University of Kentucky. 
She is a member of The National Federation of Music Clubs, The American College of Musicians, The National Music Teachers Association and The College Music Society.  Desirée has served as an adjudicator for competitions and festivals, and her students have won prizes and honors for their performances. 
Her previous literary projects include the scripts and music for two children’s musicals commissioned and staged by the Blue Barn Theatre in Port Gibson, Mississippi.
Desirée currently lives in the beautiful Blue Grass area of Kentucky with her husband, professional pianist and professor, Dr. Bernardo Scarambone, where they homeschool their three children and teach full time.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Guest Post: The Birth of a Classical Music Festival by Alex Underwood

I'm so happy to welcome our next guest in the Collaborative Journey Series: my friend Alex Underwood, a passionate and visionary choral conductor. 

This summer, I put together a concert series in my small hometown in Western Kansas. I envisioned a program that would serve a variety of purposes:

  1. Create high-quality live classical music for the people of Western Kansas
  2. Create an opportunity for high school students and community members to sing.
  3. Create an opportunity for undergraduate voice majors to have professional experience.
  4. Utilize many community performance spaces.
Russell Arts Council Summer Concert Series

Our first performance was with an 18-voice Chamber Choir made of singers who could read music. There were four undergraduate voice majors to serve as section leaders, while the rest of the choir was made up of music teachers, some of my former students, and a few trained community members. We had eight rehearsals to put together the 45-minute program, which included Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, and contemporary a capella music including a new work (a setting of the Gloria mass text) commissioned by a local composer, Michael Davidson, for the opening of the concert series. The performance was at St. Mary Queen of Angels Catholic Church, a church with beautiful architecture and reverberant acoustics that suited the ensemble and the repertoire perfectly. 

Our second concert, one week later, was a recital by the high school’s new vocal music teacher, Michael Davidson who happens to be a tenor with a Masters Degree in Voice Performance from the University of Kansas and the composer of the commissioned work. His entertaining program told the story of a vagabond travelling through life sharing the lessons he learned along the way. This concert was a positive introduction for him as a fully developed musician from whom the young people will be learning.

The third concert was at Trinity United Methodist Church, a hall with clear and clean acoustics. This concert program featured Carissimi’s Jephte and Bach’s Cantata 12. The chorus for both works was made up of only nine high school students, who worked tirelessly and truly captured the essence of the music. The undergraduate voice majors sang the arias in these Baroque works, giving them exposure to repertoire they don’t often sing; I offered them individual coachings to help them polish their work as well as help them understand performance practice. Though we used piano for this performance (instead of the strings and continuo both works are scored for), we did hire an oboist to play the integral parts of the Bach. 

The fourth performance, this time less than a week after the previous concert, featured the four undergraduates singing ten Brahms quartets and three pieces of solo repertoire: an Italian aria, a French art-song, and something lighter in English. The First Congregational Church, whose intimate space suited the repertoire, hosted this performance. Only one of these young people was from Russell, so it was exciting to watch the community show up and support these other singers.

The final performance, one week following the Brahms concert was our big finale. We hired an orchestra and professional soloists to do one rehearsal and two performances of Mozart’s Requiem with a Community Choir formed specifically for this performance. The four undergraduates served as sectional leaders for the choir while the soloists were all professional singers.  One of these performances was in a neighboring, larger community (Hays, KS) at the First Presbyterian Church with the final performance being in Russell at a Lutheran Church with space to house a large choir and orchestra.

The series was by all accounts a success. Each concert had about a hundred people in attendance, and the feedback from the audience was overwhelmingly positive. I had one couple comment how nice it was to hear classical music of this caliber locally instead of having to drive two hours or more to see an opera, hear a symphony orchestra, or watch a ballet. The undergraduates shared how much they learned by working at a professional pace and how it built their confidence to continue pursuing singing as a career. The community singers expressed how nice it was to sing with an orchestra, to learn classical music and to have something positive to do with their time in the summer. The churches were so happy to host something of this nature in their space. Financially, we broke even, being able to pay our undergraduates, the soloists, the pianists, the orchestra, the conductors, the managerial staff, for all of the scores, and for the publicity. 

Next year, I hope to expand the program by hiring a few more artists to serve in leadership roles and produce an additional series to run along side the classical series, which will include a jazz concert, a bluegrass concert, and a musical theatre cabaret. I am hoping to make this festival a major venue for talented young people to get experience, network with other young musicians and move ahead in their careers. I am also hoping to get statewide attention for the festival in order to attract a larger audience base. 

Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, says that everyone loves classical music; they just don’t know it yet. I advocate this philosophy and find it overwhelmingly truthful. This past summer is evidence, that when passionate people come together to make music, we can guide each other towards the deep joy that music can provide.

About the Author: Alex Underwood is a choral conductor and music educator originally from Russell, KS. Alex earned an undergraduate degree from Sterling College (KS) in music education and voice performance before serving as the director of choral activities at Ruppenthal Middle School and Russell High School from 2008-2012. Under his direction, the Russell choirs and soloists earned top ratings at festivals and were selected yearly for all-state choirs. He earned the 2011 Young Director Award from the Kansas Choral Directors Association and the 2010 Horizon Award for first year teachers from the Kansas Department of Education. His work in the theatre includes direction of 30 productions and membership on the board of directors of the Russell Arts Council and the Russell Community Theatre. Russell High School’s 2011 production of How to Succeed in Business… earned 8 nominations and 4 wins at Music Theatre of Wichita’s Jester Awards. Alex completed a Masters of Music in Choral Conducting degree at Westminster Choir College, where he performed with the Westminster Symphonic Choir at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center under conductors Alan Gilbert, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Vladimir Jurowski. This summer, Alex returned to Kansas to serve as the artistic director of a classical music concert series in Russell. He is in his first year of study towards a Doctor of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting degree at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Guest Post: Good Questions Outrank Easy Answers by Dr. Amanda Montgomery

I'm so pleased to welcome our next guest, my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Amanda Montgomery.

Good questions outrank easy answers. – Paul Samuelson
When is the last time someone asked you a really good question about music? I’m talking about a question that made you stop in your tracks and really think. The type of question that takes more than researching the correct execution of the mordent in the Sarabande of Bach’s Partita No. 1. A question that forces you to examine the what, why, or how of music making, and has several plausible answers. 
Let me pose another question. When is the last time you gave a student a thought-provoking question? Even better, when is the last time a student asked you an inspiring question? I believe one way to evaluate the excellence of our teaching is by examining the quality of the questions we ask.
Questions are powerful and compelling tools. Underused and underrated in the teacher’s arsenal. Questions can be so memorable that you will never forget them. “Surely, you can’t be serious? – I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!” Questions can be so quirky and off-the-wall that finding an answer requires one to delve deep into both hemispheres of the brain. “Why do we play in recitals and recite in plays?” But most importantly, questions encourage thinking. And I mean real thinking. Not merely regurgitating facts, but divergent and creative thinking. Asking great questions is a fantastic way to encourage our students to actively engage their minds in every lesson.
So, what makes a great question? The crux of it lies in whether you are asking questions that encourage convergent or divergent thinking. Convergent thinking does not rely on creativity, but rather than ability to answer a standard question correctly. An example would be, “Who was the first president of the United States?” Divergent thinking is the ability to use one’s creativity to find multiple answers to a question. A great example of this type of question is, “How many ways can you use a paperclip?” If you allow your imagination to run wild, you could come up with a multitude of uses for a paper clip.
A great question will encourage divergent thinking. Of course, convergent thinking is necessary. Students need to master the basic concepts and we must ask questions such as, “What does forte mean?” “How do you count this rhythm?” “What is the name of this note?” This type of questioning should only be the means of getting you on the road. The journey should largely consist of asking great questions that encourage thinking, discovery, and creativity.
What are the characteristics of great questions that encourage divergent thinking?
  1. Concise. Questions should be short with the interrogative pronoun (i.e. what, where, how) at the beginning. “Where is the climactic moment in this piece?”
  2. Build from simple to complex. Jumping in head first with a question that requires creative thinking can be intimidating. We must throw our students a few softballs to help their brains warm up. Simple questions such as, “Which articulations do you hear in the passage?” and “Which dynamics do you see?” can lead to more complex questions like, “Why does this piece sound like a ‘Rhythm Machine’?”
  3. Open-Ended. Establishing an open-ended line of questioning leads to more engaging conversations and puts less pressure on the student to produce the “right” answer. “Can you make-up a story to go with this music?”
  4. Thought-Provoking.  Great questions require the student to collect and categorize information in order to formulate a variety of possible answers. “How many different ways can you count this rhythm?” Hopefully the student will answer by counting in numbers, words, motions, sound effects or any variation of the above.
  5. Empowering. Students will feel surer of their abilities because they have discovered how to improve, rather than simply being told what to do. “How can you practice to be note accurate when the left hand crosses over the right hand?”

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of questioning any student is the act of waiting for a response. Once the question is posed, wait for the answer. If your student doesn’t answer immediately, it is probably a good thing. Pat yourself on the back while you patiently pass the time, because you just made your student think.

About the Author: Dr. Amanda Montgomery currently teaches a group of talented piano students in her Orangeburg, SC studio. She holds the DMA in Piano Performance from Louisiana State University with a minor in Piano Pedagogy. Dr. Montgomery is an active member of the South Carolina Music Teachers Association, where she currently assists as the state’s Junior Competition Coordinator. She previously served as Staff Accompanist at Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC. Amanda is the proud mother of Kendall and Owen, both of whom study piano with their mom. New adventures lie ahead as the Montgomery clan will be relocating to the upstate of South Carolina next year!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Guest Post: Relationships 101 by Tiffiney Harms

I am so pleased to introduce our next guest, Tiffiney Harms, professor, pianist, and dear friend. 

Hello Plucky Pianista Community! My name is Tiffiney Harms and I am so excited to be a part of the Collaborative Journey. Before I begin, I wanted to say just a little bit about how I know the Plucky Pianista herself, Dr. Melody Payne. Melody was my piano professor in college, and saw potential in me that drove me to go further than I ever thought possible. Her push for excellence, musicality, and overall growth is a big part of my story today. Not only is she an incredible teacher, she is a wonderful friend. Thank you, Melody, for all you do!

When I was asked to consider writing this post, it took me quite some time to decide on my subject material. After much thought, I decided to write about what I feel is a foundation for all that I do as an educator: the relationships we form with our students. 

We all have our own story for why we became a teacher. Maybe it is to pass on a love and passion for music, or to raise up the next generation of educators. In addition, maybe it is in response to a special teacher in your life. That teacher taught you something that you carry with you into every lesson and every performance. And maybe you have seen it reflected in a flicker in your student’s eye at the end of that one special lesson. 

Can you see that teacher now? Maybe there is a smile forming on your face as you re-live some of those sweet moments in his or her studio. Beyond the way that teacher pushed you toward excellence and drew out something amazing in you, was the way they cared about you as both a musician and a person. Think about it. Had that person not cared about your growth, your overall development, would you have listened so carefully? Would you have gone home and played those warm-ups with such gusto to work on a given technique? I believe the answer is no. 

So, how do we become that teacher – the one that cares about our students’ every day lives, as well as their musical development? I believe it begins from the start, from the time they first walk into your studio. It is important that our students feel safe within the confines of our teaching space. Our profession is one in which we spend a lot of time with each student, digging much deeper than just the printed page. We will have students that have good days and bad days, and those emotions will affect their ability to take correction, to emote, and to process our comments. I always try to ask my students about their day at school or work, inquiring about their favorite part of the day. Sometimes, especially if it has been a rough day, it allows the student to get things out on the table before we get into the music. It gives me a window into their state of mind for the lesson, as well. It also shows them that I am interested in them as a person. 

As musicians, we have the privilege of expressing emotion. We tap into our hearts, and it becomes a crescendo, the height of a phrase, the rounding of a descending chromatic passage. And, as a teacher, we get the privilege of teaching our students to use their hearts (and ears!) to assist in beautiful interpretations. Expressing and learning music is very personal. By tapping into their own emotions and experiences, students can create something unique to them through that connection. Because we ask our students to connect to an emotion, a picture, or an idea, there may be times when they open up and speak to us about something sensitive. And if we have created safe spaces for our students to come, learn, and express through music, I believe those times can be cherished moments. 

Not only do those times allow your relationship to deepen with your student, but it also opens a new door to trust and respect. They can give students a new view of your listening ear, as well as your professional knowledge. Those are the times that allow a student to see us as “that” teacher – the one that made more than just a musical impact, but also a personal impact. Isn’t that what we all hope our students will say about us one day? “My teacher didn’t just teach me about music, they taught me so much more!” 

As we watch each student create a musical soundscape, we catch their smiles and watch them lift their chests with pride. Music opens up new worlds for so many, and we get to witness it first hand! We have the best job in the world, teachers!! So, let us commit to not only growing and challenging our students in their musical development, but also to showing them that we desire their growth because we care. Create a safe space for your students to make music. Open your heart to them to show them that you are a real person, too, and they can count on you to listen with more than just your ears. 

About the Author, Tiffiney Harms: Ms. Tiffiney Harms is in her second year as Professor of Vocal and Choral Activities at Central Christian College in McPherson, Kansas. She is also entering her fourth year as Choral Accompanist for McPherson Middle School and High School.  She received her MME in Piano Pedagogy from the University of Oklahoma, where she studied with Dr. Jane Magrath, and her BA in Piano Performance from Sterling College. Miss Harms also holds her National Certification in the Kodály Concept from the University of Oklahoma. Tiffiney is actively involved in her church, musical theatre, and performing in and around the community.