I’m home. We’re home.

My husband and I were welcomed as New Members at the Anglican Cathedral Church of the Redeemer this morning. I feel settled now. It’s been such a long round-about journey and finally, finally, I’m settled.

My family and faith background is Mennonite – where it can be tricky to separate the culture and the faith. But that’s my grounding. Those are my beliefs. Fundamentally, theologically, they haven’t changed a whole lot.

My uneasiness with the worship services in my home church increased with my first exposure to the liturgical service.

I was a music student at University, originally a pipe organ major (a long story), when I became friends with some Lutherans. My ethnocentrism started unraveling.

Then they invited me to fill in on the organ when their organist was unavailable. And I was introduced to the liturgical service.

The ritual, the beauty, the contemplative and reflective spirit. The holiness.

I changed universities and switched majors – back to the piano I had always done. I was unable at that point to conceive of a commitment to the kind of church where I could get a job as an organist. But the craving for the soul-nourishment of a liturgical service never left.

Then I married a Catholic. He very patiently attended my home church those first few years. We left the Mennonite church to attend a (very) large Evangelical church. We thought – and no regrets here – that it would be a good place to raise our kids.

Now they’re almost adults. Making their own decisions. And it was the right time to do something for the two of us.

It didn’t even take any “church-shopping” to decide on the Anglican Cathedral Church of the Redeemer (Calgary, AB). We’d been there a few times over the years – for those special Christmas and Easter services. It’s a good meeting-place for a Protestant and a Catholic. We can both participate fully.

The music is arguably the best church music in the city. Bach or Mendelssohn on the organ many mornings. A choir that sings Renaissance motets, Brahms, Stanford, Holst. The sermons are far from fluff – there’s an intellectual approach that sits so well with me.

I can relax there and yet, be completely engaged in my worship. It feels like a homecoming.

Did I mention the good music? The Cathedral choir singing Hassler’s Cantate Domino:


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Don’t motivate. Inspire.

“I need you to motivate my daughter.”

Red flag. Big Red flag.

“She won’t practice. And she keeps telling me she won’t.”

I accepted the student. I needed the money. 

“She’s 13 and more interested in sports than music.”

I’m thinking, surely I can do better than her previous teachers have. I’ll connect with her. I’ll motivate her.

It didn’t happen. We had a miserable year together.

Don’t even try to motivate. Inspire.

It’s not my job as a teacher to motivate the student. That’s the student’s responsibility. It IS my job to inspire. To focus on the MUSIC. Get excited about it and show it.

Dr. Dale Wheeler, in his talk at the current Alberta Piano Teachers’ Association Conference (happening as I write), encouraged us to put the focus on the music, above the teacher and the student. He challenged us to be proactive, rather than reactive teachers. 

Reactive teachers bounce with their students from crisis to crisis, allowing the students to dictate the parameters of the lesson, ending in frustration on all fronts.

Proactive teachers control what they can – their own attitudes and actions.

They don’t just give information; they equip students to make intelligent choices.

They know that piano lessons are about learning music, enjoying music, discovering what it is to be human; the piano is the vehicle.

They know it’s not about the grade in the festival or exam or jury, but it’s about the journey. They recognize that the student’s success depends on a myriad of factors, many out of control of the teacher.

Focus on the music. Seek to inspire. Then the health and vitality and, ultimately, motivation, of student and teacher often fall into place.


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Top Ten Technical Tools

… for first-year piano students.

One more list to make me feel completely inadequate.*

This is from a workshop by the indomitable Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield that I attended almost 20 years ago. I get depressed when I realize how many of my students don’t have all these skills after three years – including those that I’ve started myself. Can’t blame someone else’s “bad teaching.”

My score: F.  I’m usually happy if I can get them reading and counting and developing some semblance of a practice routine. 

Still, it remains something to aspire to.

  1. Single note singing tone (wrist rolls up)
  2. 2-note slur
  3. 3-note slur
  4. Repeated notes – down/up/up with the wrist to a long note
  5. Lateral wrist motion
  6. Circular wrist motion
  7. 5-finger clarity – with different fingerings for 5-note patterns
  8. Finger staccato and wrist staccato
  9. Sinking double notes
  10. Snapping chords

*See also Not sure if I should laugh or cry


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When to apply for a piano exam

Apply for an exam when the student is ready.  Of course.

But is this how we really operate? I know I usually do things backwards.

We – teacher/student/parent – decide at the beginning of the year that we’ll plan on doing a particular exam in June, or April, or January. We are careful to observe the application deadline – and then work our tails off in the last few weeks to be ready. Panic, even.

This is, of course, how the school systems operate. But we have the luxury of doing things better.

Maybe we could have students learn the material and then apply for whichever exam session comes next. Learn – then apply. Not apply – then learn. Maybe this way, we wouldn’t have to fly on a wing and a prayer.

And what defines ready? In my view:

  • the technique 3 notches above minimum speed
  • secure aural and sight-reading skills (and others, depending on the exam system)
  • a bare minimum of 3 pieces from each list having been learned close to perfection
  • most studies having been learned to a playable level
  • memorization of list pieces.

Courage may be required to stand up to parents who have an unrealistic time frame. And I’m not suggesting we ditch tangible goals.

But maybe the goal for ready should be the application deadline, rather than the exam dates.

This would relieve much stress and panic on the part of the student, the teacher, the families. It would result in a more polished, and therefore satisfying and enriching, exam experience.

Music, after all, should enrich us, rather than stress us.


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The only calibration that counts

Alma Mahler“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

~Ted Hughes

“Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.”

~Jascha Heifetz


Photo: Alma Mahler, listening to a New York Philharmonic performance of a Mahler symphony. Life Magazine, ca. 1960. Via Sing It Like It Is.

Hughes quote via Letters of Note. Heifetz quote via The Piano Blog

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Quick. What comes before A?

alphabet drillNo beginners this year, but still enough students who cannot tell me instantly what comes before C. Or after G.

Time to haul out the alphabet drill again. Taken from one of Mary Gae George’s  videos, the drill consists simply of saying the piano alphabet twice through, then ending on another A.

Forwards and backwards.

Say it rhythmically – clapping on every second letter. I circle the letters to make it clear and easy. The added advantage of this is an emphasis on the skips, as well as the steps.

Forwards and backwards a few times each. And speed it up. Some things just need to be so automatic.

The colours coincide with those used in the PianoTekneek Notebox.   I print this on cardstock and place it in the front pocket of the students’ binders.

A copy of this drill is available in Printables under “Others.”

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The Back Room

It was a small war-time house with white wood siding and red trim. A few metres away sat a garage. The door was nearly falling off the hinges, barely protecting the navy blue VW bug inside. In June mature lilac trees sent me heaven-ward with their scent.

The #2 bus stopped a block from this house. I took that bus every week from the age of 12 to and from my piano lessons.

The house was small. The living room and the dining room were each dominated by a grand piano. Weekly lessons took place on the old inherited Steinway, while the shiny black Yamaha was only opened and played during test classes, or for 2-piano works.

(I never figured this out.  Was the Yamaha was too special to be played on all the time? Or were we always treated to the better Steinway instead?)

A galley kitchen and 2 bedrooms completed the house. The Back Room was the second bedroom. A listening room. One large, shabby arm chair, one hard wood kitchen chair, the stereo system, and a zillion or so records. Depending on whether the cleaning lady had been around recently, there may or may not have been space to walk.

Martha the cat left her long hair everywhere. It stuck to my clothes. (I can’t help wondering – I never did know – if Martha wasn’t named for Martha Argerich, the darling of the piano world in those days.)

Students were hauled into The Back Room to listen to recordings of the repertoire we were learning. This is where I met so many of the piano greats. Martha Argerich, Alicia de Larrocha, Vladimir Ahkenazy, Horowitz, Rubenstein, and new (then; this was the 70s) competition winners like Gary Steigerwalt and Youri Egorov.

My teacher clearly got more out of listening to those recordings than I did at the time. But over the years, some things have stuck. Like the importance for me as a teacher to listen to different interpretations of the same piece. Short of resuming lessons with a master teacher, how else am I to know? I can dig deep inside myself, but that only goes so far. I benefit from the collective wisdom and interpretation amassed over the years. When I benefit, my students benefit.

Youtube makes this so easy today.

Martha Argerich playing the Schumann concerto – a piece I worked on back then. I’m sure Martha the cat heard it many times.


Image credit: Madame Scherzo


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Chopin on Scarlatti: “He sometimes reaches even Mozart.”

“My colleagues, the piano teachers, are dissatisfied that I am teaching Scarlatti to my pupils. But I am surprised that they are so blind. In his music there are exercises in plenty for the fingers and a good deal of lofty spiritual food. He sometimes reaches even Mozart. If I were not afraid of incurring disfavor of many fools, I would play Scarlatti in my concerts. I maintain that there will come a time when Scarlatti will often be played in concerts, and people will appreciate and enjoy him.”

~Frederic Chopin

Ivo Pogorelich playing Scarlatti’s Sonata No. 15 in D Minor:


As quoted in Stephen Mizwa’s Frederic Chopin.

Related articles

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Back to where I started. Kind of.

IMG_0878I didn’t mean to take things this far.

It started when a friend sent me a list of top apps – some of which were for teaching music. I wrote about my take on apps and the direction I seem to be going technologically in the studio.

But I never meant to go back to writing the weekly assignments by hand.

Then my printer ran out of ink at the end of the first lesson of the year. I grabbed a blank piece of paper and quickly (legibly, I hope) wrote out the assignment. Of course it continued the rest of the day.

And on into the next week.

Now I’m wondering – should I go back to an open laptop on the desk? Will it make any difference whether it actually gets read or not? Why not just save the cost of that darn printer ink?

Still debating this one …

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“You think about the music … how lucky you are to be performing it”

There was an amusing interview with pianist Mitsuko Uchida in The Guardian last month. I happily discovered I share a couple of non-piano passions with her – the Tour de France and sudoku (“It keeps your mind alert but with zero emotion.”)

Here are a few more choice comments.

On performing in Vienna’s Musikverein (or what not to wear as an audience member): “Ninety-five per cent of the time there is always a woman in a red dress jangling jewellery in the front row. I’ve tried keeping one eye shut so I don’t see it but that’s quite awkward. That colour is very disturbing for a performer. It’s what matadors wave to attract a bull.”

On what to wear as a performer: “Rule number 1 is not to distract the public. It has to be safe. No one must think: will her strap fall down, is her underwear showing?”

On Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto: “Apart from the originality, it has a spirituality that is difficult to describe. I remember [the conductor] Kurt Sanderling saying the slow movement sounds as if God has sent a curse down on the earth in the orchestra, with the piano solo replying like a prayer for help – that is how beautiful it is.”

On her four pianos: “They’re like human beings – all men.”

Read the whole interview here. And be inspired.

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“One note follows another with complete inevitability”

Leonard Bernstein plays through – on piano and with an orchestra – some fragments and sketches that Beethoven rejected when composing his Fifth Symphony. It’s a fascinating look at what might have been. Or might not have been. And it gives us a clue to what was going on in Beethoven’s head as he composed.

Bernstein: “Imagine a lifetime of this struggle – movement after movement, symphony after symphony, quartet after concerto after sonata – always probing and rejecting in this constant dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability. Somehow this is the key – the only key we can have to the mystery of a great artist. That for reasons unknown to him or to anybody else, for that matter, he will give away his life and his energies just to make sure that one note follows another with complete inevitability… something is right in the world … something we can trust that will never let us down.”


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Wednesday Question: Why Don’t Parents Support Piano Lessons?

LaDona's Music Studio:

A breath of fresh air – and a reminder to breathe deeply and chill.

Originally posted on Susan Paradis' Piano Teacher Resources:

Dear Susan. I am so frustrated. Why do parents put students in piano lessons but do not support me as a teacher? They don’t practice, miss lessons, and even come to lessons without their books.

To answer that question, you have to realize the various reasons parents put their children in piano lessons.

  1. They want their child to learn a little bit about music. If they also learn to play a pretty piece, that’s a happy bonus.
  2. They inherit or buy a piano, and need to justify the space it takes in the room.
  3. They have read it will help their child get better grades in school.
  4. They think it will help them get a head start on another instrument the child wants to play.
  5. They were not able to take piano as a child, so they want to give their child that opportunity.
  6. They want their child to show…

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