Turning the Page

After almost 20 years, I’m turning the page and retiring from piano teaching. It feels good to know that I have always tried to prioritize making music joyful, and practicing student-centered teaching. Of course the best part of teaching is what the students have taught me. I am a far better person for asking every student once a week, “What does the music require of you?”

While I will not necessarily be retiring from gainful employment, I’m closing the teaching studio. I will continue to play of course — and enjoy spending time with my sweetie, our pup, and our families and friends!

THANK YOU to all the students, families, friends, and loved ones that have helped me do this! We will see you on the bike trails, the cross country ski trails, and at Butter Bakery Cafe!!!!

Does it have to be fun?

Most of my students take music lessons because they want to have fun. We teachers are, stereotypically, the guardians of NOT fun. I have a ruler in my desk drawer, I have never used it on someone else’s knuckles, but when I was first starting out as a teacher I will admit there were times when the studio became an arena for a tug-of-war. I’d like to think I don’t do that any more… but at the very least, I feel like I’m motivated by an idea that’s new to me in the last few years, and still a third rail in some parts: student-centered learning.

Does it have to be fun to be student-centered? Let’s turn that around for a sec. Does it have to be a tug-of-war for it to be teacher-centered? Of course not. More than before, though, I’m aware that making music on someone else’s terms can produce trauma. My teacher Liz Wolff used to joke with me when it was clear I had no idea how i wanted to take on a phrase. She would say something like “Left hand finger 3 is experiencing trauma, it seems.”

Sometime in the last few years I started telling myself “it should be fun” — and now I believe it has to be fun, in other words, if it doesn’t produce joy, then it’s not worth doing.

To zoom out, and to steal a metaphor from I can’t remember where, it’s more like planting a garden than changing a tire. There’s a lot of joy in anticipation, but there’s also genuine joy in the process; and it’s worth noting that the more you design your garden according to your personal resources and abilities, the better chance you’ll have of experiencing joy.

To zoom way in, if you’re a piano student practicing a particularly challenging 2-measure phrase, how do you find the fun in it? Here we can take a page from the gaming world. I have been using an iOS app called Tenuto, which is not free but not expensive. It has a free web version, musictheory.net. Getting a correct answer is often accompanied by the app playing the thing you just played. Cue the dopamine hit.

So, what is success when you are tackling a bunch of dots and lines you can’t hear yet? Answer: it’s whatever you define success to be. If you decide success is playing just the left hand part correctly, with no discernable tempo, but with all the correct fingerings and notes in the correct order, 3 times out of 5, then you might be more likely to experience a feeling of joy than if you try to sight read the entire piece five times in 10 days. You’re also a lot more likely to get those two measures in your muscle memory.

So let the game(ification of your practice) begin!

Let go of the quality. Take charge of the quantity.

I used to work in the corporate world, and there was nothing I hated more than being dragged into a mandatory training session conducted by the Human Resources department.  To anyone who works in Human Resources, sorry about that.  It’s not you, it’s me.  It’s just my personality; I hate being told what to do, which is kind of ironic when you think about it, since I am a teacher.  On the other hand, I may be in denial, but I don’t think my teaching style is authoritarian.  

But back to Human Resources.  There was actually this one guy that got my attention, and it was psychologist Steven Covey, whose seminal work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, resonated with me.  Two of his ideas in particular have always stuck with me:

1. Vision:  begin with the end in mind.  In the context of piano lessons, to me this means orienting your practice around what you want the lesson experience to look like.  A cynical person could say, “Yeah, you just mean be ready for your lesson or else you’ll be mad at me.”  But what if we got more specific:

Above all, make your home practice a goal-oriented activity.  Rather than saying to yourself, “I’ll sit down for ten minutes and see what happens,” say, “I’ll practice until I can play the 8-bar B-section of this piece with correct rhythms, notes, and fingerings, at half tempo.”  If that doesn’t work, set a goal that does work. But make it a daily goal.

Your lesson time shouldn’t be a prison sentence, but if you don’t get real and figure out the rhythms, notes, and fingerings for yourself, my studio is nothing more than a “House of Corrections”.  (I stole that joke.) 

Ideally  our time together at lessons is spent on technique and artistry, NOT figuring out notes and rhythms.  There will always be a few gotchas, but this shouldn’t be the “main course”.

Back to Dr. Covey:

2. It takes six weeks to develop a habit.  Practice should be a habit.  Not an obligation.  Covey said it takes six weeks to develop a habit.  Think of that!  That’s a long time.  He fine-tuned this claim:  it takes three weeks to develop  the habit, and three more weeks to make it stick.

In the face of everything we’re dealing with right now, how do we make this happen??? To me, the “sweet spot” is “a little bit every day.”  

Another of my favorite authors in the self-improvement arena is Julia Cameron.  She was a TV writer but her claim to fame was a book called The Artist’s Way.  It was a recovery-based approach to making art, which was attractive to me when I read it because at that time in my life, I needed an antidote to constantly feeling overwhelmed by obligations and judgements.

My big takeaway from her was “Let go of the quality — take charge of the quantity.”  Or, more famously, “Just do it.”  But I like Ms. Cameron’s version so much better because it’s more specific and frankly a lot kinder.  “A little bit every day” is kind.  “Just do it” has a what’s-wrong-with-you, are-you-lazy vibe to it.  “Just do it” just doesn’t work for me.  “A little bit every day” works better.  Another nice version of this is “If you love something, do a little bit of it every day.” I got that one from my friend Bruce Bell-Myers. Maybe he got it from a coffee mug. I don’t care. I like it because it just exudes mental health. You can love something and enjoy it without being attached to it (in either a positive or negative way).

Not everyone is going to be a concert pianist or rock star.  I do hope, though, that everyone who takes piano lessons with me can be a lifelong musician.  Ironically, the musicians I respect the most are the ones who don’t try so hard, and aren’t in such a big hurry, and a lot of these folks are juggling a lot in their lives — they are parents, students, co-workers, activists…

Not trying so hard, not being in a hurry. These qualities translate very directly into music: they draw you in. They listen. They are generous. They are laid back. They doesn’t get ahead of the beat. They let go and above all, they ask: what does the music require of me?

The Frankenstein Piano Project

What can you do instead of a piano recital when you can’t get together?

Normally (P.C., pre-covid), once or twice a year, my piano students play a recital with a band. This is more fun than is probably legal, especially for the parents. So much laughter, so little nervousness. The band literally has their backs the whole time.

Last spring (C.E., covid era), my piano students recorded videos of themselves playing songs, with a fake band in their earbuds, i.e. backing tracks created by me. We held a watch party where I queued up all the videos in a playlist and shared them via Zoom video. Again, much laughter, but I guess I was a little nervous. We all were back then.

This fall I didn’t want to do another round of videos with backing tracks but didn’t know what we were going to do instead. Then one Friday night my partner and I were laying on the living room floor listening to music, as we often do on Friday nights, especially of late, and we started down the rabbit hole of well-known rock instrumentals. “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group came to mind, and I thought it would be fun to have ALL the kids play on the SAME song. After all, even the original version was so named because it was a bunch of disparate licks cobbled or “frankensteined” together.

So I gave each student four measures, and they sent me videos. (Next time I’m NOT going to let them use their OWN metronomes… who knew 96 beats per minute was different on different metronomes and metronome apps???)

Anyway, here’s the result. One of my older students — with a power assist from his dad — whose encouraging words, “We’re always up for a challenge,” made my whole year — provided the drum track. I did synth bass in the studio. Enjoy!

Bike Between the Raindrops

With apologies to Donald Fagen for the blog title, Melissa and I biked between the raindrops Saturday night and made stops at two of our favorite hangouts in “the Park”: Dampfwerk and Mexico City Cafe. Also (finally) located the St Louis Park public library. It’s on Library Avenue, duh.

A “Summer Air” (gin, pineapple, lime, lemongrass) and a Sazerac (rye, simple syrup, Absinthe bitters) at Dampfwerk, St Louis Park MN)
Chips and salsa (pre-tacos) at Mexico City Cafe, St Louis Park MN)

Performative Allyship Will Not Suffice

June 18 update: While looking online today for a photo of the mural that was the inspiration for this post.came across an article about the lynching of a Black co-op owner and two employees in Memphis in 1889. I was going to put it at the end as an addendum but decided to put it at the beginning. Read it first and THEN (maybe) read my post.

Original post: Last Tuesday morning, June 9, was the second day of the 121st annual convention of the Minnesota Music Teachers Association. It took place live and online. I was running one of the Zoom sessions. The first presenter of the day, during the sound check, before anyone else was in the “room”, asked me regarding the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis cops, “What’s your take?” (He was from out of town). My initial — internal — reaction was, “Interesting question… not what I expected to hear.”

What I said out loud was, “Well, if you know Minneapolis, I-35W runs through the south side, and runs north-south. My studio is on 38th Street, a half mile west of the freeway. Half mile east is 38th and Chicago, the scene of the crime.”

38th and Chicago features, of course, Cup Foods, in front of which George Floyd was murdered. They are the ones who called 9-1-1. That is what it is, not assigning blame… but it’s potentially a jumping-off point for a discussion about who we call when only $20 is on the line. The south side of the store now features a world famous mural, painted by a white person, who is now going on social media and admitting if they had to do it over again, they as a white person would not do that without consulting anyone from the community, especially people of color.

Another grocery, the Seward Friendship Store, which is actually a co-op, sits at the former location of the Greater Friendship Church. The “Seward Co-op” as I call it, is a bit closer to my studio, just east of the highway. I go there all the time. It opened in 2015, not without controversy, being that co-ops tend to be patronized mostly by white folks. Right now the co-op’s walls and boarded-up windows are covered with murals. Front and center is a mural with the message, “Performative allyship will not suffice. Demand justice.”

That thought has been on my mind for a few weeks now. I can educate myself on the issues, I can listen more and speak less, I can donate money, I can focus on the intersectionality between climate justice and racial justice. But as a performing and teaching artist, I can also ask myself if my participation in music is relevant and respectful. Don’t know exactly what that looks like yet. For starters, maybe always acknowledge the spiritual source of anything I create? Ask myself, why am I playing this piece? Why am I teaching this piece? I can start there and grow from there.

Early Spring Rain in D-flat

After a week of teaching lessons online, because “flatten the curve”, I was tired but inspired. This came out of it. Improvisation recorded with a gaming webcam – I think I got the last one in the store before everything like this was sold out.

“Early Spring Rain in D-flat”

My first studio class

Fifteen years in, I have a “first” this week:  studio classes.  Rather than get all/most of my piano students together at once for a traditional recital, I broke it up into four groups, rearranged the furniture in my studio, and invited everyone and their family and friends for a slightly cozier and less formal hour of music-making.



I have a talent for taking pictures of things instead of people.  This is what it looked like right before the first one.  I moved the “nice” lamp so it was right over the piano and turned off the fluorescent light.  I think I might leave it this way!

First class was a success.  Three out of the four students involved both arranging and transposing in their pieces.  This is a keeper!

I feel better than James Brown

To steal a phrase from Was (Not Was), I feel better than James Brown.  Several reasons.

  1. Having a lazy summer.  Practicing, riding the two-wheeler, getting some sun, reading, teaching a very light lesson schedule.
  2. Getting in some travel later this month, notably a visit to Colorado to see my friend and former bandmate Scott Yoho and his family.
  3. Planning on attending Music @ 10,000 Lakes again in August.  This is a retreat for piano teachers who don’t get enough time to explore their own music.  It’s the second year of the retreat, and once again will feature a teacher of mine, the wonderful Liz Wolff.  It’s at St. John’s University in Collegeville, August 12-14.
  4. I voted.  Turns out the Minnesota primaries are taking place during the piano retreat, so I sent for an absentee ballot.  I highly recommend this for everyone!
  5. Had a musically pleasing spring:

Music directed, arranged, and played piano for Dance ‘Til You Drop with Collide Theatrical Dance Company at  MN History Theatre in March-April 2018.  Well-attended and well-reviewed (especially Collide artistic director Regina Peluso’s “innovative” choreography).

Music directed and arranged “Monday Music Madness II” at the annual convention of the Minnesota Music Teachers Association (MMTA).  This was a student-led cabaret, backed by a professional rhythm section, that began with state-wide auditions submitted by students of MMTA teachers.  Above:  Emmett Mathson sings “Great Balls of Fire” and tears up the keyboard, and Grace Cline sings and scats on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.  Here are a couple video links:

Jonas Rasmusson – Good Vibrations
Sam Eaton – Waving Through a Window