Donating My Body to Science

The University of Ottawa Piano Pedagogy Lab is as busy as ever researching and challenging pedagogical theory and practice. I recently participated as a test subject in a study researching the effects of Feldenkrais sessions on piano playing.

Many musicians believe that disciplines such as yoga, Tai Chi, Alexander Technique, and Feldenkrais Method are beneficial to us. Since we spend hours practising while in one position, we face issues ranging from muscle tension to repetitive strain injuries. Pianists are on a perpetual quest to have the freedom of movement that will yield smooth technique and artistic sound.

The Feldenkrais Method is a form of somatic education [pertaining to the body, experienced and regulated from within] that uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement. You can increase your ease and range of motion, improve your flexibility and coordination, and rediscover your innate capacity for graceful, efficient movement. It is named after its originator, Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc. (1904-1984). Feldenkrais was a Russian born physicist, judo expert, mechanical engineer and educator.

The University of Ottawa hosted the Alan Fraser Piano Institute July 14-20, 2014. Alan Fraser is a Canadian pianist, teacher, and author. He has made extensive inquiries into Feldenkrais and has written a book and created a DVD series titled The Craft of Piano Playing that presents an original approach to piano technique.

I have watched the DVD series in the past, so I was curious and enthusiastic to participate in the study and meet Professor Fraser. Before the study began, I had several stickers placed at various locations on my spine, shoulders, elbow, and wrist. Here’s what I was asked to do:

  • play two prescribed pieces, scales, triads, and perform a sight reading selection
  • receive a Feldenkrais session with Alan Fraser
  • play the prescribed pieces, scales, triads, and perform another sight reading selection
  • rest for 30 minutes
  • play the prescribed pieces, scales, triads, and perform a third sight reading selection

The results are still being tabulated and should be published later this year. I’m not going to say how I felt after the Feldenkrais session until I get a chance to read the study conclusions.

The timing of this couldn’t be better though – my teaching theme for this season is developing technique in my students. One of the books on my reading list is The Craft of Piano Playing, 2nd edition.

We’ve Got Rhythm

Takadimi is a rhythm solfege that I have been using in my studio for a few years, and it’s time for an update. It works. Like magic.

I use it with all my students. Some of Takadimi’s benefits:

  • it explains beat subdivisions in a way that is easy to understand, from my youngest to oldest students
  • it transfers to any time signature – simple, compound, or hybrid
  • it handles irregular rhythm groups like quintuplets
  • it provides a way to work out two against three rhythms when playing hands together
  • it is easy to chant rhythms when we count aloud (and it doesn’t get confused with finger numbers)

The foundation of good music is good rhythm. I’m delighted to say every single one of my students is playing rhythm in a more natural and musical way.


Season Stats

I have been teaching piano for 20 years, and this past season was my biggest ever. Some highlights:

  • the season launched with 37 students studying piano (beginner to grade 10), rudiments, keyboard harmony, and history
  • my Intermediate Keyboard Harmony student won an ORMTA-Ottawa Scholarship for highest mark
  • our secret partner duet project for group class was reblogged by the Collaborative Piano Blog, and teachers around the world read about us
  • I demonstrated a Basic Keyboard Harmony exam with Joe Ringhofer for an RCM teacher’s workshop
  • a contingent of students entered the Kiwanis Music Festival, and every student placed in the top three of their class
  • one student scored 100% on their Intermediate Rudiments exam
  • several students took RCM piano exams, and earned marks as high as 93%
  • when the season concluded, I had taught over 1200 lessons

After such a busy year, my plans for the summer are to tackle my reading list and catch up on some of my own practising.


Memory flashcards for musical form

Musical Memory

I was working with a student as they prepared for our upcoming studio recital. Their memory was coming together, but the piece had several sections that repeated, and the student was trying to solidify the complete structure of the piece in their memory. It was tricky to keep the order of the sections straight. And not every repeat was an identical copy of an earlier occurrence. So I used some of my best tools for aiding memory: scissors and tape.

I made a photocopy of the music so I could alter it without damaging the original. Next I cut up the music according to its phrases and sections (but not according to the page layout as it appeared in the book). Making sure to remove any identifying features such as measure numbers, I cut things mid-line and taped them back together to serve our purpose. Then I shuffled all the pieces and laid them on the table.

2014-05-28b 19.26.16I asked the student to sort them into the correct order. This took some concentration because the lines of music were broken up from their usual pattern on the page.

It didn’t take too long and the student had the piece laid out on the table in the correct order. Now it was easy to see the overall structure that had been partially hidden before. When we compared repeating sections, it was clear where the variations occurred.

Then I asked the student to perform the piece from memory. The student gave a secure performance on the first attempt. And that was it. From then on, the large form was settled in the student’s memory, and they went on to give a great performance at the recital.

Hey, what’s that sound?

One of the subjects I teach is harmony. It is a big step up from rudiments. In rudiments students learn the building blocks of music as well as how to draw the elements correctly. “…stems go this way…key signature first, then time signature.”

Harmony is all about learning how the sounds in music behave. There are predictable patterns. Certain melody notes have a tendency to move to other melody notes. Chords fit together in certain patterns to make a progression. We learn how to write a good melody. We learn from the master J.S. Bach how to connect all those moving notes with good voice leading.

I am often asked by prospective students to explain the difference between written and keyboard harmony. In written harmony students use a pencil and an eraser to write out their ideas on paper. They have to be able to imagine the sounds inside their head. I ask my students to proofread their weekly assignments by playing them on the piano at home. In fact, that is how I mark their homework each week – I sit down at the piano with my red pen at the ready!

In keyboard harmony students play all the exercises on the piano. They can hear exactly what they are creating. Students can often instinctively tell a good melody from a poor melody when they hear it. The errors are so obvious when we can hear them. And keyboard harmony has many transferable benefits: improved ear skills, stronger memorization, better analysis, as well as the ability to transpose, improvise, and play by ear. Personally, keyboard harmony was the most useful course I studied.

Recently, Joe Ringhofer was in Ottawa presenting a workshop on the Royal Conservatory of Music’s exam system. He is a member of the College of Examiners for the RCM, and founding director of the Phoenix Conservatory of Music. I have enjoyed Mr. Ringhofer’s workshops at CFMTA conventions and ORMTA-Ottawa workshops. This past summer break I studied online with him, brushing up on my Advanced Harmony teaching skills.

At the RCM workshop one of the exams being showcased was Basic Keyboard Harmony. Since these exams are conducted during the practical exam session in June of each year, a live demonstration was in order. I was invited to play the part of a typical Basic Keyboard Harmony exam candidate, and Mr. Ringhofer played himself as the RCM examiner. While I played through an exam, the audience watched the examiner’s comments appear on the screen. After tallying up my score [whew, I passed!], we answered questions from the audience.

Take a listen to what keyboard harmony has to offer.


I was able to attend the First Class Honours Recital last evening, hosted by ORMTA-Ottawa. Many talented young musicians performed, and scholarships were awarded for the 2013 season.

Congratulations to my student Katerina who won an ORMTA-Ottawa scholarship for her excellent mark in Intermediate Keyboard Harmony!

One is the Loneliest Number

Learning how to play the piano can be a solitary endeavour. We usually practise alone. When we perform, we are front and centre – and all alone – on the stage. My students are becoming quite competent solo performers. But, some of my best times making music have been with other musicians.

At our most recent group class I introduced my students to the fun of four-hands/one-piano duet repertoire. About a month ahead of the group class date I partnered all my students together and chose repertoire for each duo. Except, I didn’t tell them who their partner would be! I gave out one part of each duet to every student, and asked them to learn the music with the correct rhythm and the ability to play while counting aloud. I rehearsed with each student at their private lessons.

At the group class all the students performed their solo repertoire as usual. [This is how we gain performing experience and build our nerves of steel.] Then we relaxed and watched some YouTube videos of other musicians having fun together: The Piano Guys, Victor Borge, and the stunning Anderson & Roe.

Next I revealed the partners for each duo. We talked about the process of preparing a duet: solo practice, first rehearsal with your partner, continued solo and duo rehearsals, duo rehearsals with the teacher, and finally performance. Each duo had a chance to come to the piano and try out the first run-through with their secret partner. We discussed tempo, page turns, and pedalling choices, and adapted to reading duet score. [The page layout is slightly different than solo piano score, and it's easy to get lost after a page turn.] Everyone learned how to sync up to a steady beat with another musician. Most importantly, we had a fun afternoon of making music together.


The Leading Note

One of my favourite music stores for purchasing classical music is The Leading Note on Elgin Street, in downtown Ottawa. They just celebrated 14 years in business in December. They have knowledgeable staff who deliver great customer service every time I am there. I don’t always have time to get downtown, but now The Leading Note has an online shopping cart. I can order whatever I need and have it shipped right to my door.

The Leading Note Foundation is also doing some really neat things with their OrKidstra music program, which provides music lessons for children in under-served areas of the city.

Happy Birthday to The Leading Note!


How many more sleeps?!

I love Christmas. It’s a time of year that even has its own special musical accompaniment! Since my children were very small, my family has had an advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas. This year Naxos has released a fun app for your own countdown on your iPad or iPhone.


Remember Everything

Currently, every week I have 37 unique lesson plans to oversee. Each and every student has their own individual repertoire, theory homework, technical development, sight and ear training skills, and performance goals. Plus a choice of four different exam sessions each calendar year. Add group classes, recitals, and festivals. Oh, and did I mention that I’m getting older every day?

Sometimes I forget.

For years I have written weekly homework assignments in students’ notebooks. I have also had a big planning binder on my desk that organized this information by student. It was working. Until the student forgot their notebook at home. Or I missed jotting down some notes at a lesson because we were engaged in some great music making.

Remember everything.

That’s the slogan of Evernote software. I started using Evernote this year for my weekly and yearly lesson plans. A big benefit for me has been that I now have an exact copy of each student’s weekly homework. I can look back as I plan ahead. I can organize these notes into different notebooks grouped by student or subject. I can tag and search notes, and add reminders so I never miss a deadline. I can email a note home or share it online with a student. It’s easy to attach pdf documents and videos into a weekly assignment. There’s a version for my laptop and my phone so I can work on things any time or place that suits me.

In the middle of all this technology, a surprising byproduct occurred. A new line of communication opened up between students, parents, and teacher. Many of the weekly emails go via a parent’s email. They’re writing back to let me know when family schedules are out of the ordinary or if my instructions are unclear. My teenage students are reading their homework straight off their phones and emailing me if they need an extra copy of a handout.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some planning to do.