Lessons Learned from a Duet Christmas

December was a doozey. Isn't it for all musicians? I had one week were everything happened: recitals, concerts, rehearsals. The following week it was juries. Then I got sick. Then I was on break. And now it is 2015 and I have a lot to catch up on!

I was really excited about my plans for my students all learning duets for their December recital (you can read about that here). Here's what I learned about the need for collaborative work, assigning duets, rehearsing duets, and planning ahead:

My students needed to play with others. 

Some of them had never played with other people, either in a band/ orchestra context, or an accompaniment context. For those that had it wasn't often. The student who did best with the duets was actually the one who plays in an orchestra AND a band. She was great at following the other pianist and jumping back in when she got lost. For my youngest students it was starting to turn into a race. When they got lost or felt like they weren't playing together, they would just play faster! My takeaway was- they need to do this again. When I accompany them, I follow them, and help them out. As a trained pianist and accompanist it is hard not to! But when they play with others, that doesn't happen. It is the blind leading the blind. And it gets pretty scary. 

I should have picked other music.

My students toughed it out and learned their music. Sort of. But these arrangements were not written intuitively. Not at all. I played through them with a friend while trying to figure out which pieces to assign to which student and I noticed that our hands were really close, but I ignored what should have been a red flag. It wasn't a big deal for two trained pianists, but for students they were constantly running into each other and  having to learn how to get their hand out of the way in time. It wasn't a huge problem, but not ideal for a first duet situation. 

I needed more time. 

I was right about the difficulty of the music. It was hard for some and easy for others. We worked on the pieces a lot during lessons, but I didn't start early enough because I didn't take into account the inevitable cancellations of lessons. Losing even one or two lessons put one of my duet pairs significantly behind. I also didn't insist on enough rehearsal time with both partners together. I was trying to respect their time (and let's face it, their parents' time). I had grouped students based on ability and lesson times to maximize rehearsal times. But I still ran into scheduling problems and we wound up doing too much last minute rehearsing. I also had a solo piece picked for each student, but some of that music didn't come soon enough, and some students didn't start practicing it right away. We could have used much more time on the solo pieces, but we didn't have it. 

But we pulled it off! 

When all looks dreary, sometimes all you need to do is cut out parts. One student is struggling with a tricky part and the other student plays it well? Make that section a "solo" section. The piece will sound better and they will both feel better about it as a whole. In the final hour I did some serious reevaluating and worked with my students to re-think the parts that were messing them up the most. While I wanted them to try to learn it as written, I also didn't want them performing something messy just because I was holding onto an *arrangement* too strongly. As a result the final performance was ok. It wasn't wonderful, but it wasn't bad. And I'll take that. I also had to cut some of the solo pieces. I wanted them all to have something of their own to play as well as the duet, but we should have started on that earlier as well. The students who were prepared played their pieces, and those who weren't just played their duet. In the end it all worked. 

Next time, I will choose Christmas music during the summer and start it right away in September. 

Next time, I require that they practice together at least twice outside of dress rehearsals. 

And next  time, I will do a better job of selecting well-written duets. 

PianoOpoly and Teaching Incentives

As I prepared for fall lessons, I read a lot about using teaching incentives with piano students. Some people are completely against them, others think they should only be used for a short period of time, while still other teachers always have some sort of game or incentive going in their studio. While I'd love for my students to just practice for the pure joy of learning piano and making music, the truth is no matter how good of a teacher I am, there will still be times they don't want to practice.

I still remember being 8 and having a timer set while I was practicing piano to make sure I stayed on that bench long enough to satisfy my parents and my teacher. I also still remember the rocket ship posted on my first piano teacher's wall. We were split into two teams and were competing to see who could make the rocket ships get to their goal the fastest. Suffice to say, I think for a certain age student, teaching incentives work wonders to get through those slumps of learning how to practice and why practicing is important.

Since most of my students fall in this age range, I decided to make a game for them this fall. My goal was to have a game that was: 

  •  portable (since I am essentially a traveling teacher and need to carry everything with me)
  •  applied to as wide a range of students as possible
  •  would cover a variety of subjects and skills
  •  and could be played for multiple weeks

Allow me to introduce: PianoOpoly! 

I based my board game around the idea of Monopoly (hence, PianoOpoly... creative, I know) basically only in the sense that students could go around the board multiple times, getting a prize every time they passed GO! The corners of the board all have bonus squares (kind of like the specialty corners in Monopoly), allowing the students to move extra spaces if applicable. 

Then I came up with questions applying to various things I thought my students should know. Some were purposefully difficult (What is the Tempo of Your Piece?), while others were really easy. In my planning, I actually rated them by difficulty to make sure I had a good balance. I also tested the board, doing practice rolls, to see how many "weeks" it would take to get around the board.  One time I made it around the whole board in one "week"! Good thing I knew this was possible, because one of my students made it almost all the way around on week! 

 After all this, I put the game into action with my students. I printed the game board and had it laminated so I could simply write their names into the appropriate squares with a dry-erase marker.  

Here were the results from this fall


  • All my students made it around at least once! (That was the goal). 
  • The questions were just the right difficulty. Not too easy and not too hard. They got stuck enough times to make them think without feeling like they would never make it around the board.  
  • It was portable! 
  • My students liked it so much, they would remind me when I forgot to have them roll their turn for their lesson. 

Feel free to use this with your students! I used it with students who were at least in Piano Safari book 2 (this can work with beginners who at least know their lines and spaces and some other important concepts). 

Business Cards

It was time to buy new business cards. One of my assignments for my tuning course is to take my business card to a music store. While this feels pretty presumptuous as beginning tuner, scared to advertise myself for the fear that I'll make a mistake and they won't be gracious, it's something I need to do to finish. And in order to do so, I need(ed) business cards that actually say "technician" on them, along with the "Pianist: lessons and accompaniment" that I'm already advertising with my current cards.

I designed the cards a little while ago, but couldn't decided whether or not to spend the money on them. After all, I still have plenty of my last business cards (I'm still really bad at the "hand your business card to everyone" thing). And, as you may have noticed from my lack of blogging for two months and the deadline of July 1 coming and going, I've begun to have second thoughts about tuning for a living. Life also brought funky twists which made me fall behind. But I finally decided to take the leap, get the cards, finish my tuning course, and then see where I go from there. The beauty of correspondence courses, like mine, is that when life happens, you don't have to stay up till 1 am finishing your work. But you do have to finish it sometime. So now I have pretty motivation to carry around with me. 

I designed and bought my cards through Moo (moo.com). They have beautiful products and cool features, like allowing you to have different images on each card. I used pictures from my previous photo shoot with Kristina Hurd, rather than my logo, because I am still working on the logo and because I am trying to promote myself, not a name.  I also bought a funky case from Moo because my cards are always getting beat up in my wallet. What is the use of buying 50 cards, only to constantly throw out the few you carry with you at any one time just because they got beat up in your purse and don't look presentable anymore?  This cool case fans open to show off my designs, although, if I am in a hurry, I can just pull one out of the top. We'll see how long it holds up. 

So, here they are. What do you think?