Incentives, Studio, Video of the Month

Video of the Month Club

In my last post, I mentioned how inspirational it can be for our budding little students to get out and see some performances. It can really make the music come alive and be a giant motivation to keep practicing those skills! It works that way with most everything, not just music! In fact, one of the biggest inspirations and motivations for my own little aspiring lacrosse player was getting to see the Edmonton Rush play at Rexall last spring. However, not everyone has the time or money to get out and experience these wonderful opportunities. And so, inspired by a mention made by a teacher in my Pedagogy Etude group and a mention in a blog post by Anne Crosby Gaudet, I’ve decided to start a Video of the Month Club for my studio. Each month I will be Facebook-ing, blogging and emailing a video of the month.

I hope these videos will inspire, teach and entertain and that through them my students will be able to experience many different and wonderful styles of music as well as meet some new instruments!

My debut video for the month of October, 2013 is The Piano Guys One Direction – What Makes You Beautiful. I am introducing this video this week at our master classes and giving out an active listening journal sheet for them to read and fill out at home. I chose this video because the lid and music desk on the grand piano have been removed and a camera placed above and it gives an awesome view into the inner workings (I called them “piano guts” during the lesson to much uproarious laughter or..all out groans!) of a grand piano. I also love it because it shows the individuality of all these parts and the amazing sounds they can make when a little creativity is added….and frankly, I just think it’s the COOLEST!

I played this video for both master classes yesterday and I was astounded at the reaction. I knew they would enjoy it, but I worried that maybe most had seen it and would think it passé. In fact, only 2 of yesterdays 20 students had seen it before (but were excited to see it again) while for the rest it was a new and exciting experience. They all watched with rapt attention. I have never seen 10-12 children so focused and quiet for that length of time….they were glued to the performance….and at the end they had so much to share. Their reactions were so exciting, I wished I could’ve captured them all on video!

And so, I will share this YouTube video here with you and hope that you find it as enjoyable as they did!

Incentives, Piano Lesson Success, Private Lessons, Studio, Uncategorized

Sports, Group Fitness and Piano Lessons


Seven years ago, I suffered from migraines. Horrible, debilitating migraines. They would strike at any time–in the grocery store, teaching lessons–and leave me feeling nauseated, drained and utterly useless as a parent and teacher. My doctor tried different prescriptions and some would work for a while and then stop. When the migraines increased to 3 or 4 or more a month, she sent me to a neurologist. He ran many tests and asked lots questions. Finally he asked me how much I exercised. Now I’ve always been proud to say that I come from a very active family. My parents strapped a pair of figure skates on me when I was 5 and I never looked back. My parents also loved hiking and biking and camping. Laying around at our house wasn’t an option. All through university, I skated and ran and biked and hiked and skied. So, I proudly told him that and that I also currently walked my son to preschool almost every day–a twenty minute walk there and another twenty back. He looked unimpressed and said, “Well, that would be great….if you were a senior citizen.” What?! He went on to tell me that I needed real exercise at least 3-5 times a week. Exercise like running, kickboxing or bootcamp. He told me he wanted me to try it for 3 months and if it didn’t help, then we would try Botox. I left feeling annoyed, but what other choice did I have but to try (although, I was secretly hoping for the botox). I tried running and,after a just a couple weeks, I could see improvement but I was bored and it was lonely and so easy to just skip it. My friend and I decided to try bootcamp classes at a local rec complex. It was an agonizing hour of torture and if I hadn’t committed to doing it with her there is no way I would have gone on my own. After a while another friend joined us and we’d have a quick coffee and visit after class. Now there are 5 or 6 of us and sometimes we do bootcamp, sometimes it’s spin and sometimes it’s just on our own doing a crossfit or workout of the week. We go pretty regularly and faithfully because we get to see each other. It’s social and there are things we can do together (partner exercises, spotting each other on weights) that we couldn’t do alone. Oh, and those migraines? Can’t remember the last time I had one!
So, how does this relate to piano lessons? The piano can be a solitary instrument. As you advance you take private lessons, you practice on your own….by yourself. I do enjoy running on my own–occasionally–but it can start feeling lonely and piano is the same way. This is why I do group lessons several times a year in my studio. It provides the students a chance to get to know each other outside of recitals, to build camaraderie, to know that they aren’t alone…..that there are others struggling with the same challenges and working towards the same goals. It also allows me to do activities or teach skills that I either don’t have time for in a private lesson or just can’t in a one on one situation….like improvising or “jamming” or ensemble playing or games. Since starting group teaching six years ago, I have noticed that my junior high students are no longer quitting in junior high! In fact, I just can’t seem to get rid of them! LOL! One of my students is heading off to university this year and still wants to take lessons with me! Why? Because they are involved and engaged, they feel like they are part of a family. They have friends and know that they are not alone, they feel safe and supported….and they are learning skills that will allow them to enjoy playing the piano for life either on their own or in a social situation. Being surrounded with friends with like-minded goals can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your success!
And just take a looks at sports programs. My son is in lacrosse. He loves it and wouldn’t want to miss a practice. Why? Because his team feels like a family to him.
Group fitness wasn’t what inspired me to start group teaching–a piano teacher named Melody Bober did–but being involved in a group activity myself has truly helped me experience the value of it. This week, I was able to listen to a podcast interview from another piano teacher who teaches studio group lessons for her private students exactly the same way that I do and with the same frequency….and in hearing that, I felt that instant camaraderie and support!

Newsletters, Private Lessons, Registration, Schedule, Studio

Wacky Wednesdays and a little March News

What a terrific showcase of compositions and contemporary pieces we heard during our Contemporary Showcase this month! Congratulations to all the students and their hard work. I was both humbled by and proud of their creativity and accomplishments in both writing their compositions and performing pieces. And the titles!!! Some of my favorite titles were: Teddy Bear Comes Alive!, Prancing Poodles, Crocodile Creek, Rush Hour, Wave of Emotions….the list goes on!

This week were back to our regular routine…..well sort of! We had a power outage here on Wednesday! It lasted almost 90 minutes and so we had to “evacuate” to my upstairs living room where we could see our books. I scrambled quickly to hide a few messes and close a few doors and then we were back to work again in minutes. The Sunbeams 3 group enjoyed sitting on sofas instead of circle mats and doing theory pages and rhythm stories on a coffee table instead of the floor. “Couldn’t we do this every week?” they asked. It was fun and took me back to 10 years ago when I was teaching out of my living room all the time….but as soon as the power came back on my family was looking at me as if to say, “Um, what are you still doing up here?”

Well, March is here and with it the downhill slope to the end of the year…it’s true! This month comes with some very important dates to take note of. Please mark your calendars where appropriate to you:

For those of you in Moonbeams 3 or private lessons who have spoken to me about doing a national exam this is just a reminder that the deadlines to register for the June exam are ALMOST here! To take a Royal Conservatory exam in June you must register by MARCH 4th. To take a Conservatory Canada Contemporary Idioms exam in June you must register by MARCH 7th. Please contact me if you intend to do so. If your students does not feel ready yet that is just fine, there is another opportunity in August or even next January. It is still possible to register after these deadlines but there will be an extra charge for a “late fee”.

SPRING BREAK–March 23rd to April 1st
We will continue with our regular schedule over the next few weeks until March 23rd when we will break along with school for Spring Break. There will be NO LESSONS during that week. This is for ALL STUDENTS from Sunrise to Private Lessons. Enjoy your well-deserved break…..but don’t forget to keep practicing!

Sunrise 2 will wrap up on March 18th with a Teddy Bear Pajama Party. Sunrise 3, our final block of the program, will begin on April 8th and run until June 3rd.

Incentives, Newsletters, Private Lessons, Recital, Schedule, Seasonl/Holiday, Studio, Technology, Uncategorized

Noteworthy Items and Reminders

As we finish up October and prepare to dive into November, I have a few important reminders and requests for you.

First of all, let me just say what a fantastic couple of weeks we have had.  The students have been working so hard over the last almost 8 weeks and the Practice Tree is just full of stickers and that Treasure box has been opened many times over the last two weeks–it’s already half-empty!!  Time to go shopping! 😉

The treasure box is one great way to celebrate all their hard work, but I was reminded this week of another terrific way to do celebrate at home.  I have often encouraged my students to call grandparents on the phone and play for them or take advantage of when they are over for a visit and put on a little concert, but this week one of my little students proudly showed me a video of herself playing the piano that her mom had shared on facebook.  We have so much technology at our fingertips now and so many of us have iPhones–take advantage of it!  Making a “Music Video” of your child and posting it on facebook or youtube is a wonderful way of sharing with family and friends as well a great way to show your child how important you think their music is and build their self-esteem and confidence!  Thanks, Ayla and Amanda for that great reminder!

I have had a chance to talk quickly at some of our classes this week about what to do when you are at the studio waiting for your class to begin, but there are few classes and students that I missed getting this message/reminder out to.  When you come into the studio for your lesson, please wait on/near the brown chairs around the corner, quietly and out of sight of the piano if at all possible.  When some of our classes were arriving this week, I noticed some students and parents standing about near the sofa and keyboards while a private lesson or class was still in session.  It’s easy to forget how intimidating or nerve-wracking (not to mention distracting) it can be to a student to see half a dozen adults and the same number of children watching them out of the corner of their eye.  Some of my private students feel a little nervous playing just for me, imagine how they must feel when a whole group shows up at the end of their lesson….especially if they weren’t feeling as prepared as they usually are to begin with.  This is especially important to remember if there is a private lesson going on before your class/lesson begins.  Many of the private students only get a 30 minute lesson.  If you are in a 60 minute class and think the time flies by, imagine what a race we have to get through everything we need to in 30 minutes and how vital it is that we can spend those 30 minutes un-distracted.  If you show up for your class 10-15 minutes early and you are talking, whispering or moving around in that student’s line of sight, they can be feeling nervous or distracted for up 30-50% of their lesson–that is a huge chunk of their time.  And, to be honest, they are not the only ones distracted.  I will often see little ones waving at me and I can’t help but wave back but my student needs 100% of my attention for their lesson.  So, please, if you can remember, try to come into class only 5-7 minutes early and wait quietly on the brown chairs, the sofa area is intended for parents and siblings of private students who need a comfortable place to study/work for 30-60 minutes while they wait for their child or sibling to finish their private lesson.  I know it can be exciting and inspiring to hear what those older students or other classes are working on, but make sure you listen in as quietly and as invisibly as possible! Emoji

“Oh, my did she really just say that”, you ask, “we haven’t even gotten through Halloween?!”  Yes I did, and yes I have even bought a couple of Christmas presents already!  Christmas is only 2 months away and our Christmas recital is only approximately 7 weeks away.  If that thought has given you indigestion, I apologize, but swallow it down because we are going to be ramping up for our annual Christmas recital VERY soon.  My family has already heard me playing through several Christmas pieces as I choose and prepare to accompany some of the class ensemble numbers our classes will do and trust me, they have groaned loudly but I ignore them and play on!  If you have only been skim-reading my newsletters (shame on you!), then you may have missed the announcement about the when and where of our recital so here it is again–just in case:

Annual Christmas Recital:  Friday evening, December 14th, in the First Church of the Nazarene  Main Auditorium located at 14320 94 street.  I believe our time will be 6:30-7:30pm, but I will need to confirm that with you a little later–as soon as I hear the date and time of my husband’s work Christmas party. I may have to run the recital from 6-7pm.  I do apologize for the late date, I was hoping for December 7th, but, alas, it was unavailable.

With the recital just weeks away, we will begin working on special ensemble pieces in our music classes as well as some piano duet or solo opportunities.  All the MYC classes will find that seasonal music is actually included there in our books, but private students need extra supplementary books of their own.  So, all of you in private lessons: please take this weekend to go through your piano bench or magazine file beside your piano and dig out ALL your Christmas books–then bring them to piano lessons NEXT WEEK, we need to make sure the level of the book is still appropriate or if you have “out-grown” it and are in need of a new book/level.  We want to begin our preparations no later than the first week of November so we are confident, prepared and not cramming last minute practice into an already busy season!

Incentives, Piano Lesson Success, Private Lessons, Recital, Studio, Uncategorized

The Mid-Winter Blahs–and other Motivational Confessions

Blech!  We are smack dab in the middle of the “mid-winter blahs” in our house.  Maybe you’re experiencing it, too:  the utter lack of motivation to do absolutely anything.  Normally we are a pretty productive and active family…but not so right now.

Between the snow and the gray-colored days and the getting up in the morning while it’s still dark (oh, and the sun setting well before the supper hour!), my get up and go….well, it’s gone somewhere I can’t find it and I am left wondering if it will ever return.  I am so tired in the mornings, I need my carafe…er..mug of coffee just to get going.  And popping vitamin D like it’s candy doesn’t seem to be helping me even a tiny bit!

These mid-winter blahs hit us all eventually it seems–kids too!  My 7-year-old son, Dexter, loves swimming, taekwondo and I think he even loves piano, too, (most days) but right now he doesn’t want to do any of it!  When I say, “It’s time for taekwondo”, he says, “I’m not going.” When I say, “It’s time for swimming”, he says, “I’m not going.”  When I say, “It’s time to practice piano”, he says, “I’m not doing it”.  He tells me he wants to quit it all…all the time.  Sometimes, between my own tiredness and lack of motivation and his stubbornness, I think I will lose my mind!  And then I realize, it’s just that time of year.  Did you know that January and February have the highest drop-out rates for piano lessons?  Many start the year off with so much zeal, but then the busy days of Christmas arrive and tire us out and the gloomy days of January arrive and tire us out and that does it!  The students quit and the piano is put up for sale!  (Incidentally, if you are in the market for a piano, now is the time to buy! Seriously!)

So, how do we stay motivated?  Well, I find for myself that this is a great time of year to introduce some incentives (especially for my music students).  As an adult, I enjoy a little incentive every now and then–the promise of a London Fog from Second Cup can get me through almost anything and even my dear friends will entice me to workout with them with the promise of coffee and good conversation after the physical torture–so it stands to reason that our children just might like that, too!

We are definitely the house of experimental incentives.  Some work brilliantly, some not so well.  For this month, we have told our children to put a sticker on the calendar for each day they practice.  If they each have 25 stickers on the calendar by the end of the month, we will do a special activity as a family.  What will that activity be?  I have no idea!!  But considering it’s almost the end of January, we should probably figure that out!  Most likely we will go together as a family and see Gulliver’s Travels at the “cheap theater”….but we could also do a skating outing or swimming….as long as it’s a family activity we all enjoy, it will be a hit!  (Actually, not revealing the reward ahead of time has made it much more exciting for them.) We try as much as possible to make the rewards time spent together…rather than monetary.  But I have to confess, we have done a monetary reward (we are human after all).

During the summer we spend a good part of July camping in the Okanagen.  It’s safe to say that no practicing gets done during this time.  So, when we got back in August this year we thought a little incentive might be in order to get back into the swing of things. My hubby taped a twenty-dollar bill to the bathroom mirror and told our kids that if they did double piano practice every day for the month of August with no nagging from us and no whining from them, they would each get 20 bucks at the end of the month.  If they forgot and missed a day or two, they had the option to restart from that day for another 30 days.  Did it work?  It sure did…well…kind of.  After a couple of days, Dexter thought the best way to do double piano practice, would be to practice double the speed…not exactly a quality practice.  When I reminded him he needed to slow down and do a careful practice he said, “But, Mum, then it will take me twice as long!”  Um, yes, that’s kind of the idea.  Well, they stuck it out and at the end of the month they each earned their 20 bucks, but when we offered them the same deal for September they simultaneously said, “No thanks!”  So, I guess we learned that paying kids to practice is maybe not the ideal way to go.  Yes, it accomplished what we needed it to: to get back into the routine of practice and keep up those valuable skills over the summer, so I wouldn’t call it a failure.  But, it didn’t teach them to practice just for the enjoyment of playing the piano.  Although, I guess when it really comes down to it, that’s kind of the nature of incentives they are a temporary fix.  That’s not to say they don’t have value, but it’s good to be creative with them and use them only occasionally.

And be prepared that there are some times when they won’t work at all.  There have been occasions when I have offered incentives to my youngest to no avail.  So then, I must confess, I have resorted to trickery.  A couple of months ago, no mount of cajoling (um,I mean encouragement) or bribery would get Dexter up to the piano to do his practice, so I sat down and started playing the right hand of one of his pieces.  I tried to make it sound like so much fun and asked to come play a duet with me.  He suspiciously came over and slid onto the bench, then finally he tried the left hand.  We giggled a bit over our duet and tried it again, then we traded places, dancing around the piano bench as we switched places.  It was fun….we tried it with his other pieces and even his scales and before we knew it we’d played everything a few times each.  Suddenly he looked at me and said, “You tricked me!!  We just did my piano practice!”  With wide-eyed innocence I replied, “What? How did that happen?”  Yes, he’s onto me but I’ll never admit it!

Through it all, I think the best thing we can do to motivate is just to be there and cheer them on.  Let them know how important it is to you and how proud you are of them.  My husband is always telling the kids how he wishes he could play the piano and is always asking for impromptu recitals at home.  If you are a single parent, recruit a favorite aunt or grandparents to do this for you.  Take them to the Kids’ Symphony or other musical performances to inspire them.  My daughter and I just recently had tea at Rutherford House and she was allowed to play on Mrs. Rutherford’s piano from 1880….in fact she was asked to by one of the staff members as it helps to keep the piano in tune.  Then after she played for a while, the staff peeked in the door and said they could hardly believe that was her playing and that they should hire her.  What a great boost to her self-esteem and inspiration to keep plugging (or plunking) away, and it made me think: maybe this would be a good reward incentive….reward a great month of practicing with a special family tea at Rutherford House and a little mini performance in the parlor!  The possibilities are endless….

So I do confess I use it all to try to keep this household inspired: incentives, trickery, encouragement. It’s all trial and error at times after all I am only human and I certainly don’t claim to be a motivational expert.  Although, I guess, if you are a friend, parent, sibling or teacher then maybe that title just goes with the job description.

Studio, Uncategorized

You should be a teacher!

“You should be a teacher.”  I first heard these words almost 20 years ago as a grade 12 high school student.  They came from my piano teacher, Monte Anderson, well actually they came from THE best piano teacher in the world!  Because I admired him so much and because he was so enthusiastic about it, I patiently sat through the little extra sessions he would tag onto my lesson teaching me about piano pedagogy.  It may have helped that I also knew teaching piano, as a side-job, might bring in a little more cash per hour than working fast food.  But, other than that, I had no intention of ever being a teacher.  I was going to be a concert pianist and travel the world!

Graduation came and went and it was time to figure out what I should study at university.  My parents drove me out to the West Coast for a tour of the university I was interested in and we met with an admissions counselor.  After the tour and an interview with her, she said, “You should be a teacher!” and went on to explain how it would be the perfect career for me, that I could still make music my major but that an education degree would open more doors for me. I nodded and listened politely–and then enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in Music because I was NOT going to be a teacher–I was going to be a concert pianist and travel the world!

I fell into a blur of classes (taking an arts degree at a liberal arts university sure involved a lot of classes that weren’t related to becoming a concert pianist!): science, math, english, philosophy, psychology, music education, pedagogy, music history, choir, voice lessons, piano lessons, more piano lessons, and hours a day in the practice rooms.  During these piano lessons, I finished up my grade 10 Royal Conservatory and was working on my ARCT (of course I was going to do the performance option!) when my university piano teacher, Sandra Friesen, said, “You really should be a teacher. You would be amazing at it.”  And she asked me to consider doing the Teacher’s ARCT rather than the Performer’s.  I barely managed to refrain from rolling my eyes in exasperation and, instead, politely told her that I just was not interested in being a teacher, I was going to be a concert pianist and travel the world!

And, for a summer, I kind of was and I kind of did.  I auditioned for the Continental Orchestra and spent an “adventurous” three months in 1996 traveling all across the USA from California to New York and back again, even flying over to Israel for several performances.  It wasn’t quite as glamorous as I thought. When I wasn’t rehearsing or performing, I was traveling by airplane or (more often) a stuffy bus at all hours of the day and night trying to grab sleep here and there, hauling equipment around and watching each city go by in a blur, sometimes forgetting where I even was! But I was still okay with that. I could do it!

Then April 1997 arrived, I finished my 4th year of university, got that little piece of paper that said I was now Michelle Walker, BA, married the most amazing, supportive guy and moved to…Edmonton???…and life just happened.  I found out there aren’t many openings for concert pianists and practicing for hours a day doesn’t pay bills, so I took a job working as a bank teller.  It wasn’t very glamorous, it wasn’t all that exciting…..and it took up a lot of time, so my hours of practicing each day decreased…significantly!  I wasn’t very content with my lot as a bank teller, it was at times stressful and emotionally exhausting, so after almost a year I started looking for other work.  At an interview I met another pianist with an arts degree and we spent a great hour chatting about music and life.  At the end of our chat, she said, “You would make a great teacher!” and she went on to tell me that Alberta College offered a music in early childhood program and they were looking for more teachers to teach the program.  She generously gave me the name of the director of the program, told me where to submit my resume and even what to put on the cover letter!

It was then that I realized, if my choices were bank teller or teacher, surely teacher would be the lesser of the two evils.  So, I submitted my resume and cover letter and before August was half over I found myself hired–as a teacher!  I spent the last of my summer of 1998 in a whirlwind of lesson planning and visual aide making….and studying and writing my ARCT Teacher’s Written Piano exam! (Sandra Friesen, you told me so!)

September arrived and so did the first day of classes.  Butterflies and second thoughts swirled at dizzying speeds, how had I ever thought I could do this?  What have I done? But I pulled myself together and left for work.  Turns out…that first day was incredible! The children and I took to each other immediately, it was SO fun!!  I came home on a high, I felt like I could go out and go dancing all night…never in the last year or so had my work left me feeling so energized and alive.  This was exactly what I was supposed to do.  I realized: I really should be a teacher!

And so I am! I taught that program at Alberta College until 2005 and then left to focus on the growing number of private piano students that I was teaching in the lovely home studio that my amazing, supportive hubby had helped me set up. 

One warm, spring day in 2007, a very dear friend called me in excitement. She had just registered her children in a Music for Young Children class, and said, “You have to check this program out because YOU should be an MYC teacher!”  This time, I listened.