Making the Ordinary Extraordinary!

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Being a Music Parent: Tales from the Battle Front (Intro).

As a parent of four teenagers, all of my children study and play music instruments. I am happy – not because they win competitions, or because they are able to perform advanced repertoire beautifully (although they can do that too) – but because each of them is able to take ownership of this phenomena we call “music” and make it their own. Each of them, in their own unique way, is musically literate and is able to make music and enjoy the process.

One may ask – how did you do this in this day and age? I have to be honest: it has not come easy and it has not been convenient. We have had our share of tears and thunderstorms, but my husband and I have stubbornly persisted for fifteen years. Why? Certainly not because we want our children to be professional musicians – there are definitely easier professions that we would wish upon them.

Chris and I persist because we desire for our children…

To learn how to think

To learn how to discern

To learn how to evaluate… that which is truly excellent;

To learn how to fail

To learn how to succeed

To learn how to truly learn… and to teach themselves;

To learn how to prioritize

To learn how to pace

To learn how identify… a problem and break it down into smaller accessible tasks;

And then, to put the pieces back together… the process of advanced learning;

To learn to be patient

To learn to be persistent

To learn to delay gratification… to develop the muscle of mental discipline;

To learn to have hope

To learn to have confidence… that strategic practice produces wonderful results;

To learn to emote

To learn to take risks

To learn to enjoy… the adventure of music making;

To learn to create

To learn to appreciate… the complexity that is in the beauty of Art.

In my next few blogs, I hope to continue with this topic and to share ideas from the “battle front” of being a parent with children in music study for the past fifteen years. It is my hope that this will be a help and encouragement to both parents and teachers. If you have any input, I would love to hear from you!

The Art of Checking both side view mirrors (Part 2)…

My demolished side view mirror has finally been replaced – thanks to my sweet husband who kindly agreed to drive the vehicle while it was vision impaired and who did not verbalize a single complaining word! Interestingly enough, we now see so much clearer through the new mirror than the original one. Although I guess that would NOT make a good case for doing the same to the other side…

In my piano life, I’ve been mentally observing myself in my teaching and noticing the many important issues that can so often slip our notice because of this very same need to “check the other mirror”. I thought I would share some of these observations with those of you who teach as well.

Before that – speaking about mirrors – one of my essential teaching tools is to actually have a free-standing mirror by my piano. If your instrument is positioned by a wall, it doesn’t cost much for an inexpensive dorm mirror from Walmart. Since my studio set-up does not allow for that, one year I procured an easel mirror from Target for less than $50. That way, I move it around wherever I need it. Remember the saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Which is more effective — for our students to visually check their full body posture and hand balance before they start playing, or, for us to remind them verbally what to fix each time? I also encourage my pedagogy students to whip out their smart devices and snap a quick “postural picture” of their students in lieu of a mirror. It adds a little variety and it puts the responsibility on the student to evaluate what is needed. Honestly, every child in my household has a mirror (of the cheap variety) in their practice areas.

Here is a spring checklist of a few other things to look for in our lessons:

Do you tend to sit or stand on the same side of the student when teaching? Be sure to walk over and change your viewing side while they are playing. It makes a tremendous difference to our ability to notice imbalance of technique or unhealthy posture. This can prevent injuries and give us solutions to many technical issues. I routinely watch my students play from the right, left, and even the back. It is amazing what you will notice. So, don’t stay fixed on one side!

Do you have your student do a quick “performance posture check” each time before they play for you? Part of what we do as teachers and parents is to help them establish routines of healthy habits. Instead of just telling them, or, sending it home as an assignment, try partnering with them to start the habit throughout the lesson. I usually have them evaluate and adjust their entire body posture which includes the following: height of the bench, distance of the bench from the keyboard, placement of arms, shoulders, hands and feet and balance of the weight between the feet.

Can they shift their weight from hip to hip and foot to foot for lateral moves at the keyboard? Or are they “scooting” their bottoms? We talk about it as “athletic posture.” It helps to get off the bench and simulate catching and throwing a basketball. Like I say, it doesn’t work real well to shift into that posture in the middle of the game. Legs too short? It’s worth it to invest in a foot or pedal box.

Are their wrists and hand position balanced as they prepare to play? So often, we notice these things in the midst of their performance. Let’s start with the end in mind.

Where are their feet when they are playing? Do they know where they should be placed? Do they know, but have they developed a lazy habit? Think of growing teenagers!

Talking about teenagers… It is good to remind yourself to revisit and reintroduce the important issue of playing posture as the foundation of healthy technique. Especially when they seem to have it down, but then start growing in all directions. We need help when our fingers, hands, arms, torso, legs and feet keep changing sizes on us – a new body size requires a new prescription for position. I hate to tell you this, but you may need to be alert about this every week for at least two years during this amazing period of adolescent growth!

The list could of course keep going on and on, but I would like to close with an honest look in the side mirror at our teacher-student interactions.

Are we “telling” them or “leading” them?

Do we ever leave any room for them to “lead” us? You might end up somewhere that you never would have thought possible – in a wonderful way!

Are we doing things that make them “dependent” on us, or, do we do things that encourage them to be “independent” of us?

It is the best gift you can give as a teacher and parent – the gift of being an independent learner.






Ten things I would LOVE to be true on April Fool’s Day!

  1. Family vehicles that come with sound proof, sliding glass windows to separate the driver from the rest of the vehicle’s occupants.
  2. While we are on the topic of family vehicles, you know how you can have home intercom systems? How about an intercom system so that third row occupants can hear you without yelling and vice-versa… Can you tell I drive something much larger than a VW beetle and have a car full of children?
  3. Piano students that come to their lesson and say, “All I could think of was keeping a balanced hand position all week!”
  4. Children that wake up and say, “I can’t wait to start my school work and instrument practice today!”
  5. An instrument that starts laughing when its user doesn’t count aloud.
  6. A kitchen that cleans itself up after dinner.
  7. Self-cleaning sheets and towels.
  8. Self-folding laundry
  9. Self-cleaning car interiors, or, even better – cars that screech “Stop that!” and eject the occupant when they leave trash.
  10. A heart that is grateful from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed.  😉

Check in mid month for some helpful teaching tips. Happy April and may your spring be fresh with new adventures!

Checking both side mirrors…

I demolished my side view mirror backing out of the garage last Sunday… Yes, this was while someone wanted the volume of the classical station blasted and others were arguing about their seating. For those of you with kids and who want some quiet in the car, try this stunt and I guarantee that you will get the silence you crave – after the crunch of the car mirror against the garage and the final crash as it shatters to the ground, of course. It’s a wonder I didn’t take out the garage doorframe too!

After about 5 minutes of stunned silence, I did tell my children that they were not to blame and that it was my responsibility to stop and not drive in all that chaos. A good lesson for my two teen drivers who were just thankful that it was mom and not they who managed that feat! However, as I view my mangled mirror-less shell that resembles an eye-less robot from a sci-fi movie, I have been thinking about the importance of checking our figurative “side mirrors” as we go about our lives as parents.

As a parent, this often means switching my focus from my children’s many “wants” (which tend to be right in our line of vision) to things they truly “need” – focused parental discernment and accountability. Have you looked in the ‘other mirror’ lately to check for potential upcoming collisions with where you want to go as a family? Here are some questions I ask myself as I scan both “side mirrors.”

What percentage of time is my child on social media?

What are they looking at and how are they using social media?

What’s their emotional and mental barometer after being on social media?

How crucial is it that they have access to social media? Really??

Who are their friends and what is the emotional climate of these friendships?

Who are they texting and what kind of texts are they receiving?

Do they know when the communication is unhealthy?

Do they know why it is unhealthy and what to do about it?

Do they even care if it is unhealthy?

Does our family have a mission statement that gives us identity?

How much time are we spending as a family face to face each day?

How much one-on-one time have I had with my child this week?

                                    Do I really know my child?

Do we prioritize the health of our “inside” lives as much as we do how things look on the outside?

Am I living out what I say I believe?

Is it my responsibility to make my child happy? (I hope you know that the answer is “No!”)

Is it my responsibility to expect my child to contribute to the family and greater community? (Yes!)

Let me say that this is not “helicopter parenting.” This is being a parent. Period. The hardest and most important job on earth.

Let’s not look just one way and miss what’s coming at us the other side. The costs are too high with our precious children.


Teaching with the end in mind

Imagine that our sum total of time with our piano students is like a mason jar and that the most essential things we teach are like river rocks which we place in that jar. What would those “big rocks” be for you and me? Do we get sidetracked by the “pebbles” and fill our jars with that instead? What will they take away in their jars when they leave our studios?

I hope that a healthy teacher-student relationship will be a treasured rock in their jars – that my value for each student goes far beyond their performance abilities and that we laugh together as we explore the intricacies of learning to play and to make music.

Here are some other big rocks that I want to be sure that I fit into their jars before the other pebbles take all the space…

The ability to listen for beauty and to replicate it

The ability to appreciate the different flavors and styles of music

The ability to read, to create and to improvise

The ability to effectively self-teach

The ability to evaluate without devaluing

The ability to make music joyfully

            The ability to share that joy

For the rest of their lives.

Let us teach our students with the end in mind!


Let’s start at the very “end” – a very good place to start!

As I start 2017 – a fresh new year before me – I am making my goals backwards, with the “end” in mind. I want to live strategically, instead of accidentally — to live my marriage intentionally, to parent intentionally, to invest in relationship intentionally, and finally, I want to teach and mentor intentionally with the finish line in view. I want to live “full.” How about you?

Check out this short video clip from my good friends, Matt and Chantal McGee, on the topic of living a full life.  Are you Full?  You may find it to be a thought provoking, life-giving five minutes that impact your 2017 for the better!

Master teachers craft their goals for the learning journey based on the end in mind. Those who visit my blog for teaching inspiration may wonder why I digress to issues of life; it is because I believe that the art of teaching is totally intertwined with life and living. The authenticity and richness of my own life (or lack of) affects my teaching and my music making. We want to teach our students and our children how to live well and to equip them with the skills to do that, whether it is through the development of their talents or the nurturing of their hearts. So much of what I give my children and students is an overflow from what I do to get “filled up” myself. When I am drained, I lack joy.  The “little rocks” have edged out the “non-negotiables” required for me to fully thrive.

So, what does living with the end in mind look like?

In my home, this means that my husband and I persevere through carving out 15-20 minutes of daily “reconnect” time on the couch after the long day. Hey, this is a lot harder to achieve than you think! My nemesis?  The call of the after dinner cleanup, the list of “yet-to-do’s”, the “urgent” interruptions of the children’s needs, computer deadlines… But what am I saying when I succeed? Perhaps I am saying that our relationship is a priority and that it is the foundation for my children’s emotional security, rather than the many activities they desire to do.  Or, perhaps I am modeling for them skills for their future marriage relationships, and the truth that you cannot ignore your spouse and expect your relationship to thrive.

With my children, this may mean that I will try to avoid multi-tasking but instead give them my undivided focus for just a few moments. Perhaps I will close my laptop, skip cooking dinner (ha!), put my cell phone in another room, or avoid saying “just a minute” for once. I will ignore the messes (ouch!) and the smells in their rooms. I will take time to laugh with them and cry with them. I will notice their little “gains,” sit, listen and just “be” with them. I will not sweat the small stuff.

In my friendships, I want to invest in authentic, life-giving interactions and shy away from the superficial. Life is too short; if I were to be fortunate enough to live to be seventy-five, I have already spent over two-thirds of it. Time is too precious for facades.  I want to be intentional with whom I spend my time and how I spend it. I want to be comfortable with the fact that I cannot please everyone and that it is OK.  I want to see others as infinitely precious and unique, made in the image of an amazing Creator.

Finally, in my teaching, I will keep in mind what I once heard Marilyn Neeley, former Dean of the Catholic University of America, say: “Teach your students with the knowledge that they will eventually quit.” This means that I choose repertoire and activities that are meaningful to the student. This may entail adjusting my pace and plan to a teenage student’s life and needs. I will still challenge them to reach for the heights, but I will not sacrifice functional skills in the process. Above all, it means that I continually ask myself: “What can I give them now that they will still use twenty years from today?”

So, these are my “big rocks”(those that don’t know what I mean, click on the video link above)… What are yours?







Being Satisfied with Simple

shed-481151_1920As we approach the Christmas and New Year season, I have been asking myself this question: What is the best gift we can give our children and ourselves?

Can I be honest? This is the time of the year when the “must-do’s” raise their heads to attack me. We must decorate, must make fall cookies (OK – so we missed that one already!), must make our gingerbread house village, must get Christmas PJ’s, and we must get “perfect” gifts for teachers, family and friends, and attend all events. To top it all, I must make special memories for my children and students, and help others in need as well. Does this feel familiar? How’s your heart rate doing as you read this? Would you like to go on vacation right about now?

After about eight years with children, we were so exhausted with the season from after Thanksgiving to Christmas that we decided that we just had to simplify. We were determined to truly enjoy the journey. What does this look like for a family of six? First we set a limit to the number of gifts each child receives from us (if you have “giving grandparents,” adjust for that factor!). Just start somewhere and reduce it each year! Next, we established the “Secret Sibling” gifting tradition. Each child draws a sibling’s name and they are responsible for secretly encouraging, praying and, finally, gifting that sibling. This may not work for others, but it really helped us to reduce the 12 gifts that we had to “assist” our four children to purchase or make.

You know, it is actually quite challenging to NOT give your child everything they want – in reality, not just in theory. It takes effort to learn to be satisfied with simple. Can I be frank about what I discovered? We are the ones that have set the standards for the expectations, or, we have inadvertently allowed it to be set for us. Then we worry about attitudes of entitlement. It is so hard to say NO to myself for “good” things for others. A wise friend likes to say that “good is often the enemy of best.” How poignantly true… In our concern to do all the “good” things, we miss out on the “best” things.

So what is “best”?

Perhaps “best” is being able to have the time to sit and snuggle with loved ones. Perhaps “best” is letting the children decide which favorite holiday tradition to do as a family, and omitting the others. Perhaps “best” could be forgoing gifts in exchange for adopting a needy family’s wish list. For my piano teacher friends, perhaps “best” is taking a break from contest deadlines and teaching our students holiday lead sheet assignments. Perhaps “best” is taking the time to be fully “present” in the moment.

When I survey the hustle and bustle of the season (and some of it IS fun!), I am reminded that the original setting for the season was a simple one. Think about it… What can get much simpler than a stable? The “reason for the season” was born in simplicity. And where there’s simplicity, there’s a good chance there’s contentment. Simplicity and contentment – such rare and precious gifts.

Letting Go…

Have you ever noticed how so much of our life involves the act of letting go?  It always thrills my heart to watch a gust of wind swirl the falling autumn leaves in a crazy dance across the parking lot and sidewalks.  Yet, the trees have to release their beautiful colored leaves in exchange for bare branches – all for the promise of future growth.

As a parent, I have had to learn to let go of my eldest child – an emerging young adult with great capacity – whose opinion I respect, whose friendship I treasure, and whose heart and convictions I admire.  Will she be all right making decisions on her own in far off Spain without us?  I guess the only way to know is to let her go.  Will she take ownership of all that we have poured into her?  My mother’s heart trembles, but my educator’s heart is filled with excitement. At some point I have to choose to let go to allow the growth process to happen. This is the release that allows the bud to blossom – it is not to be confused with abandonment. I’m still here for her, but I release control over my desire to control everything that happens.

Is it that different with the students that we teach and mentor? It is important to structure, plan, nurture, pace, motivate, and teach our students how to do things correctly and well. But at some point, we have to allow them the space to take what we give them and make it their own – to take ownership of a project, a piece, a principle. This might take some floundering and (horror of horrors!) mistakes on their part. It might even take a diversion from the “plan.” Do we have the vision and courage to allow that to happen while partnering with them through the process?

From the viewpoint of music study, teachers are often under pressure to focus primarily on technique and repertoire. After all, we have limited lesson time. We fear that if we take time to focus on aural skills and analysis, improvisation, composition or ensemble activities that our students will be short-changed pianistically. Yet, I would argue that these are the very skills that allow us to connect to making music at the instrument. For adolescent students that are having trouble with motivation and practice, a detour to one or two of these areas of study can be very fulfilling for both teacher and student. We still get to our destination and are richer from the experience. I encourage you to experiment and give this a try. Or perhaps, delve into an area that you have never had time to explore with your students.

All this does involve the act of letting go. We have to let go of our plans and expectations enough to allow ourselves space to step back to see the forest from the trees. Then we can take a deep breath and choose to enjoy the view and the journey.











Practice makes…?

Autumn is my absolute favorite season in Colorado — the crisping of the air, the twirl of falling leaves, the changing colors of the aspens, the smell of warm apple cider… A time of transition that lends well for reflection.

Many years ago, a first-grade teacher friend laughingly told me about the time she was teaching the axiom “Practice makes perfect” to her class. A child raised their hand and announced: “My piano teacher says that only ‘Perfect Practice makes perfect!’”

I have been lately reflecting on the importance of persisting to pursue healthy practice habits with our students (notice the use of the word “persist”!). Institutional research* was recently done to study the ability of first year music majors to “self-regulate” their practice. The study results showed three types of students: those that had no clue how to practice, those that knew how to practice but did not self-regulate, and those who knew how to practice and were able to self-regulate. Sadly, the third group of students was the minority in this particular study.

So here are some “chewable” questions for you: What is correct practice? How does this impact outcome and motivation? How can we help our students maximize their practice experience so that their learning is fruitful, efficient, effective and meaningful?

To me, the act of practice is synonymous with the act of learning. Correct practice produces successful learning, and successful learning allows us to enjoy making music. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines practice as the following:

  1. to do something again and again in order to become better at it.
  2. to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life
  3. to live according to the customs and teachings of (a religion)

Let’s skip definition No. 1 for now. I love how definition No. 2 talks about integrating practice as “an ordinary part of your life.” Can we encourage correct practice habits so that they become an “ordinary” part of our student’s lives? Imagine that? This is the “self-regulating” part of the institutional study I mentioned above. By the way, what is self-regulation anyway?

Do we self-regulate brushing teeth, eating chocolates just anytime (hmm…), washing hands, checking before crossing the road, etc. Obviously, this can be done in other areas of life with a fair amount of success, so that should give us hope…

I repeatedly emphasize to my students that “you get what you practice – whether it is correct or incorrect practice. That’s how our amazing brain functions!” The latest brain research backs this up in the development of behavior, thought and skill pathways. This is the reason that music study is so great for the brain. First and foremost, it develops coherent learning pathways – or at least, that is the product IF we are intentional about the correct learning process as teachers.

The 3rd definition is thought provoking. Allow me the liberty of rewording it thus: “to live your musical life according to the customs and teachings of successful learning principles.”

So when does this begin – the establishment of customs that reflect successful principles of learning? I would suggest that it begins from the first lesson, with simple beginner concepts and pieces. That’s when you learn and teach the art of self-reflection, focus, goal setting and time management – with the little things.

So back to the first dictionary definition of practice. My guess is that most people think of practice as the doing of something “again and again.” That is the part that most students have down. But, what are they cementing again and again? Is it information and skill that they truly want cemented into their brain pathways? Are they aware of their goal for repeating a section five times? What is more important? Knowing why you are doing it, or, just doing it?

If I have raised more questions than I have answered, I apologize. While there is not a “one-size-fits-all” rule for everybody, I do believe that stepping back to see the big picture and our end goal is so important for achieving the smaller daily/weekly ones. It’s what I call a “compass check” – we all need to do that intermittently, in our teaching, practice and personal lives.  So, is our goal for our students to do what we tell them, or, is our goal for them to take ownership of the learning process?

Just so that I don’t leave you with just questions to ponder, here’s a practical tool for your “practice tool box” this week, if you have not tried this yet. Have your student record a specific section of their assignment – especially if they have an i-pod, i-pad, or i-phone. Notice the “i” in all of these devices? They are great for developing self-awareness in practice. Then assign them to listen to their recording with the score and “be the teacher” by marking what changes they need in the score. I’m going to remember to do that this week with my teenage students. Teenagers need specific goals. Let me know how it goes and send me your thoughts and questions!  🙂

* Pike, Pamela D.  “Autonomous Practice: A Comparison of Self-Regulation Among First-Year Music Majors and Implications for Music Instructors.” MTNA e-journal, Sept. 2016, 1 October 2016.


Ten things I learned from being a musician parent…

Welcome to my blog on music making and life!  I hope that this will be a means to communicate with those of you who have used my collections and reached out to me over the years.  Thank you for the encouragement to keep making music through the long season of having four babies in less than six years.  Those “babies” are now 12, 14, 16 and 18, and are fine musicians in their own right.  I am now finally coming up for air!

I have had the rare privilege of being the first piano teacher for each of my own children, the discipline of being the practice parent for piano, violin and cello, and the challenge of finding out if I truly believed what I preached as a musician and teacher, after years of teaching other students. Here are some of the discoveries I have made about being a musician parent…

  1. Yes, it is embarrassing to be reminded by the violin teacher that your child’s fingernails are too long when you yourself have lectured countless parents about the same thing over the years.
  2. It is even more embarrassing to have to clip your own child’s fingernails in the middle of the piano lesson that you are attempting to teach them.
  3. It is downright humbling to have neglected to supervise your child’s practice (due to the craziness of the week of course!) and to have to face the teacher.
  4. Bless the teachers who have had grace for me in my failings, and bless the teachers that have held me to a standard for my child’s sake. It sure is a balancing act.
  5. When teaching a lesson to your own child, pretend that you don’t know them. Actually, this also works for having to practice with your child.
  6. When teaching a lesson to your own child, have them come in through the garage and knock on the studio door – that way you can both pretend that you are not related.
  7. When teaching your own child, remember that the relationship is more important than the music. This actually holds true even when it’s not your own child!
  8. Don’t correct your child through the heating vent when you get out of the shower and hear wrong rhythms coming through those same vents.
  9. Make time to work on your own music and keep learning. Your example is the best teacher.
  10. The most beautiful words to my ears: “Mommy, can you please listen to this?” 🙂

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