Every Sunday morning, I drag myself to the 8:30 service at my church, where I serve as the pianist and choir director. I really love this job, but I am just not much of a morning person. Something transformative must happen each week, because by Sunday, noon, I experience joy. During the long winter months, at first, I was puzzled at this emotion. “Wait, what am I feeling? I think it’s happiness.” (I am also not a winter person, and happy emotions are fleeting during these dark months for me).
What caused these feelings of happiness? Making music with others. The feeling that I get does not remind me of undergraduate or graduate school, but rather, of summers in Connecticut, playing Christmas carols in July while my crazy neighbors sang along. It was a yearly tradition. Other favorites included the Readers’ Digest collection of hits from the 20’s through 70’s and “Stairway to Heaven.” Sometimes I would also write songs for my youth group to sing at church. I also spent a lot of time in my family’s basement, “fooling around,” improvising things that probably wouldn’t please anyone else but myself. At this point, I don’t think I had yet switched to a very serious teacher, and I probably wouldn’t have done very well on any music exams. What I did learn how to do was to get familiar with the piano and to develop a strong ear.
Later, when I switched to an excellent teacher with a Yale degree, I learned all of the scales and Bach Inventions. This familiarity with all of the keys was a good basis for transposition. I also was assigned a hymn every week, to bolster some pretty woeful sight-reading skills. Sight-reading, transposing, and improvising were “put on the shelf” a bit in graduate school, but years later, these skills prove to be useful.
Lately, for example, I find myself running into a wonderful singer I know at the 7-11. We might chat about what piece might be great for a church service. We rehearse a bit later in the week. Of course, the key is entirely wrong. I transpose and she sings with this interesting rubato that really works. I fool around with the accompaniment, changing it for each verse. It is so much fun. I am certainly no Art Tatum, and there are many who improvise way better, but it is fun nonetheless. It is fun to be able to play the piano. There are other occasions where I am a “piano player.” The annual girl scout carol sing for a local nursing home comes to mind.
There are also times when I am a “pianist.” I work at polishing the offertory selections at church, play in faculty recitals. There is a different kind of joy here that is just as profound. I am certain the pianist readers can relate to this kind of “high,” of making music through the piano. There is probably nothing better.
As I reflected upon the fun I have at church making music with others, I began to wonder how these experiences might be applied to my piano students. Of course, I hope they remain involved with the piano forever, as I am, and not simply point to a high score on an assessment and state: “I used to be really good at the piano.” Some thoughts:
- Provide opportunities for students to make music with others.
Be certain to assign “play by ear” assignments.
Encourage composing and improvisation.
Be open to students learning music of their time (popular music)
Make certain that they can play “happy birthday” well!
Assign melodies that are to be accompanied by left hand chords.
My colleagues at the New School inspire me on this journey. Todd Van Kekerix teaches a summer camp called “Earworm: A Pop Music Summer Camp.” The description: “Students will be immersed in working with lead sheets, doing mock studio recordings, playing in ensembles, and jamming to their favorite pop tunes.” Emily Lau is leading an ensemble camp, which will provide a great opportunity for students to make music together. Marvin Blickenstaff makes certain that all of his private and group students are able to play “Happy Birthday” with a variety of accompaniments, in a variety of keys. Tracy Grandy shows students how to “comp,” using standards such as “Let It Be.”
It is so easy for me to forget the “piano player” in pursuit of the “pianist.” Perhaps the first step is consciously, deliberately including activities from the list above each week. I wonder if my colleagues have any additional ideas? Please include these in the “comments” section.