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Studio Teaching

Teaching piano has always been a major focus of my work.  After completing the Bachelor of Arts in Music degree at Humboldt State University under the eminent pianist Dr. Frank Marks, I went to Dominican College of San Rafael (now Dominican University) to earn the Master of Music degree in Piano Performance, with an emphasis in Piano Pedagogy.

When parents phone me to ask about piano lessons for their children, my responses are based on knowledge of hundreds of years of the best keyboard teaching, as well as the latest research on how our brains learn and perform music.  (See my Parent’s Guide to Music Study.)

A primary challenge for keyboard students is to build strong music reading skills.  Pianists have to play many more notes simultaneously than, for instance, singers or violinists.  Pianists have to read both treble and bass clef, and organists often read three staves - while playing bass notes with their feet!  Then consider the role of accompanist.  Keyboard players are often called upon to perform with little preparation a complex accompaniment for a soloist who has practiced the single line melody for weeks.

To be fair, the issues for that soloist are entirely different.  Primary challenges for violinists, for example, include producing a beautiful tone with perfect intonation.  Courses of study that emphasize listening more than reading are exactly what is required.  The Suzuki method for violin is popular because it is effective at developing the string player’s ear, and it is designed to be successful with little children who are not ready to learn to read.

Pianists have limited control over the tone and intonation of their instruments, beyond engaging a piano tuner as required. Piano instruction that focuses on listening and disregards reading does a disservice.  Children who begin piano lessons playing only by rote can have great difficulty transitioning to music reading.  They become frustrated when it takes more time to interpret the symbols on the page than to imitate the teacher.

I encourage parents of little children to consider programs like Kindermusik.  Small groups of preschoolers and their grown-ups meet weekly for fun with singing and movement, story telling and playing rhythm instruments.  This provides a wonderful foundation for later music study as well as other forms of literacy.  The activities are appropriate for the age group and the classes provide a space for joyful interaction for all participants.

In my central San Rafael studio I welcome as piano students children who can read; the minimum age is usually 6 or 7 years.  I am pleased to accept beginners of any age, including adults; many of the students I teach at  Dominican University and College of Marin fall into this category.  I am happy to accept transfer students at the elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.  The course of study will always be well balanced, including music theory and harmony, music history and performance practice, and a broad sampling of keyboard repertoire, respecting the student’s preferences.  The syllabus of the Music Teachers’ Association of California is one good example of such a well rounded approach.

Ultimately, strong reading skills coupled with good listening will make piano students into independent learners able to explore any style of music they choose, whether Classical, Romantic, jazz or anything else. The body of music written for solo piano and for keyboard with other instruments is so vast we can explore it for a lifetime.  The life enhanced by music education offers artistic experiences, self-expression and pleasure.

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