April 26, 2013

Awesome Advertising

For your pleasure

From International Piano, Nov/Dec 2012

April 25, 2013

I've been laaaazy

No actually, I haven't been lazy. I've been very much the opposite (except when I'm watching Game of Thrones). I'll be back up here with more posts soon. Things have just gotten pretty busy lately between a choir concert, playing a musical, a studio recital coming up, getting summer plans in order, recording for my studio, recording for the musical, AND working on a new album in between all of that. So yeah, my mornings have been pretty busy. Oh, and I started taking drum lessons! SWEET!

I'll be back here soon though with some stuff (like tomorrow probably) including bad piano advertising, recordings of me drowsily singing, and more stickers.

April 16, 2013

Sticker Haul: Woodland Musicians

Probably my favorite set of stickers that I've bought are these "Woodland Music Stickers" by Victoria Madsen. Go buy them. THEY ARE AWESOME. It's just a bunch of animals and the instruments they would play if they had any capability of doing so. If you thought a skunk played trumpet, WRONG, it plays bagpipes. Also, I like the stereotypes associated with each instrument. Banjo players are hicks (and...is that a vole?), triangle players are dumb (not true) and pianists are stodgy (true).


Find these Dover-published stickers HERE

April 15, 2013

App Review: Blob Chorus

Music training apps come in a few varieties. There are the note recognition apps which test you visually. There are the ear-training apps that test you audially. There are also apps that do both of these things. Blob Chorus is of the ear-training sort, although I wouldn't exactly recommend it unless you're desperate to entertain a very young budding musician with a lot of patience.

Blob Chorus, an app made by British company eChalk, is a simple extremely intuitive game in which you match the notes of singing blob characters. Gameplay consists of:

1) You hear each Green Blob sing a single note
2) The Purple "King" Blob sings a note
3) Pick the Green Blob that matches the King's note.

On the surface it's actually a pretty decent idea for a game. Basic note memory is a low-level skill but an important one. The ability to hold a specific pitch in the memory and either sing it back or recognize it on an instrument comes easily to some kids and more slowly to others (including this teacher as a young musician) so an app that works out this skill makes sense. 

Unfortunately the execution of this app holds it back from being very useful. The artwork is bland at best, with the most interesting item on the screen being the blobs themselves, which are all completely identical, save the purple coloring on the King Blob.

I can get over the bland artwork. What drove me crazy about this game was the audio file used for the singing. You can hear it (and play it) here. Each Blob sings the word "blob" in a baritone male voice with so much vibrato it obscures the actual pitch being sung. In sets of blobs where two are only a half step apart, the pitches sound almost identical. Some of the notes are sung longer than others, either from inaccurate recording or from shifting the pitch on a single recording thereby dilating the time of the audio file. The tone of the voice itself also obscures the notes being sung. Additionally, There is no key established so the notes are extremely hard to keep track of, even for a professional.

If you answer a question incorrectly, the wrong blob you just clicked on explodes. You get points for how many blobs are left on the screen by the time you get a correct answer, which is signified with a halo and flashing lights on the little presentation board (music stand?) in the lower right hand corner. The only option available is to increase the number of blobs on screen between 2 (easy) and 8 (hard). If you want to check out the frustration with the voices go to the link above or below and crank it up to 8 blobs. 

I did try this app out with a student to see if I'm just a curmudgeon who over-thinks these kinds of things. I sort of am. She seemed to like it, smiling a lot while she played and telling me at the end that it was good. She got a lot wrong though, mostly by choosing blobs with very close notes because it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Also, she didn't like the animation of the blobs exploding nearly as much as I did.

The Short and Sweet:
What: Blob Chorus
Where: Play it here or download it for your mobile device on Android or Apple
Cost: FREE!
Positives: Good concept, good skill to work on, intuitive
Negatives: Male voice, poor recordings used, poor artwork, 
Should You Download It?
If you want a tiny bit of frustrating fun then by all means. Maybe my standards for educational apps are too high, but this product could be much better with only a few tweaks. 

April 14, 2013

Sticker Haul: Old-Time Bunnys and Grandma

I'm pretty sure my interest in stickers has turned into a legitimate infatuation. Yes, I'm now basically collecting them. Most of them end up on the books and folders of my students, but some of them...they never leave my apartment.

After discovering the trove of online sticker deposits a couple of weeks ago I ordered a bunch. Also, my Grandmother has been sending me large amounts of her own sticker collection (some of which have been very popular among the kids). 

I scanned a few to share with the world. Most of the ones that Grandma sent me were "classic" meaning pictures of flowers, ballerinas, puppies etc. Some of them are even the classic "lick and stick" style which my girlfriend assures me the kids will love but make me a bit nervous (child-saliva everywhere). 

Some of the ones I especially like are these gold-framed oval stickers. There's one sheet with ballerinas, puppies in baskets, fat birds, and a house that the kids have been devouring so far. This sheet I kept because they look like miniature Thomas Kinkade knockoffs. 

The second Painter of Light would be so proud

One of the sticker sets that I found on Amazon was "Old-Time Bunny Rabbit Stickers" edited by Maggie Kate. Dover books prints tons of these little tiny books with stickers in them and they are intensely precious. INTENSELY. 

As you can tell from the cover, it's basically just pictures of rabbits doing the following:
  1. Being normal rabbits
  2. Emerging from eggs (these are the annual reptilian rabbits)
  3. Rabbits being humans
  4. Some disturbing combination of the above
My favorite are obviously the rabbits being humans. Sure the ones with kids holding enormous bunnies are good, but the ones with a bunny dressed as a dapper gentleman and walking with a cane are the best. I included the scan below so you can see another of my favorites, grumpy apron-wearing mom rabbit.

I also got "Glitter Old-Time Cats and Kittens Stickers" (similarly by Maggie Kate) but these were more disappointing. Sometime I'll write about how glitter was made by God to punish humans for their waste and excess but for now I'll just say that I hate glitter. If you want to get an idea of what they look like, just imagine the above rabbits as cats and then coat them almost entirely in green glitter. I stuck the book in a plastic bag and may never speak of them again.

You may be asking yourself, did I buy those Lisa Frank stickers I was so excited for? Just wait.

April 11, 2013

Choosing a Metronome

So you want to buy a metronome. Great idea! Here are some tips on picking one out.

Metronomes come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, functions, and prices. For my recommendations, I'm thinking mainly of pianists, because I know that drummers like fancy metronomes as do some of the violinists and wind players I've worked with.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, what do you think you'll need this metronome for?

Do you need it to keep a steady beat?
Do you want general tempos or exact beats-per-minute?
Do you want it to mark the downbeat?
Does it matter how many sounds should makes?
Does it need to keep track of complex time signatures?
Do you want it to perform cross rhythms?

If you answered either "no" or "I don't know what that means" to the last two questions breathe easy, because you're about to save a bunch of money. Really high end expensive metronomes perform a bunch of functions that most amateur (and professional) musicians have no need for. In my experience, I prefer to handle these kinds of things on my own anyway, rather than leave it to a metronome.

I prefer to keep things as simple as possible. Two things matter to me overall:

Is it easy to operate?
Can I stand the tone?

I'll tackle the second question first. You're going to be hearing that click or beep a lot as you practice. Think about the average piece: four beats in a measure, anywhere between 16 and 200 measures in a piece and you may practice the piece for an hour. In one practice session you have the opportunity to hear the metronome sound thousands of times. It better be a sound you like. Take time in the store listening to the different sounds. I've bought expensive and expensive machine before only to never use it because I hated how it sounded. I really like the classic sound the most. A super digital beep can get on my nerves but I find the analog, old-school click is satisfying and not too distracting. My favorite metronome (which I'll profile later) has a great sound despite being closer to a "digital" style.

I value simplicity in my metronomes. If I have to choose between multiple settings every time I turn it on it's no good for me. I want to be able to turn the thing on, set it, and start practicing without any extra steps.

If you want the classic feeling and have some space for it, get an old fashioned metronome. I think they have the best sound for practicing with piano. The power comes from twisting a small crank on the side, similar to winding an old wrist watch, so you don't have to worry about batteries. The downside to this is that it adds an extra step before you can practice and the "power" can die before the end of your session. Also, it won't turn off immediately, it will just slow down, so you can find that you're slowing down as you practicing. The tempo is determined by moving a slider up and down a rod. It's inaccurate but I actually really like that aspect of it, but for sort of philosophical and musically spiritual reasons.

If you're looking for a digital (technically a "quartz") metronome I strongly recommend the kind that I use:

The Matrix MR-500

I like the tone of it, plus the dial interface has the slight inaccuracy of the analog metronome but still with the precision of a digital machine. You can only choose settings by multiples of two and (in the higher tempos) four from 40 to 208. There's also a 440Hz A for you to tune to. When I was a kid I was terrified of that tuning noise for some reason.

This metronome is great for a number of reasons. It's really simple to operate. It's pretty light but extremely durable. I like the sound of it, it has a headphone jack (which I've never actually used) and there aren't any menus or screens to flip through. Plus I think I've only replaced the battery (a single 9-volt) two or three times in the 15+ years I've used it.

There are similar models in a "credit-card" design which is flat and uses buttons instead of a knob which I like too. The style I try to avoid are the ones that will mark the time signature for you. If you choose a 4/4 time signature it will give a different, louder noise on beat one of each measure and softer tones for the other three beats. They're difficult to use because you're constantly waiting for the downbeat to come around again, and if you have complex or changing time signatures they become almost useless.

So if you're going out to get a metronome, get something simple, inexpensive, and somewhat pleasing to the ear. If you want to hear what different metronomes sound like, visit the website Metronomes.net

April 5, 2013

Born THIS Way

I really like Lady Gaga, but I just reminded myself about this cover art.


I really like the idea and message behind Born This Way, but no one is born THAT way. And by THAT way I mean a cross between a motorcycle and the Wheelies from Return to Oz.

Does this movie take place in the same universe as The Warriors?*

*Answer: No. But they were both directed by guys named Walter...

April 4, 2013

Composers A-Z: Finney

Last time I wrote an installation of this overly-ambitious series I cheated hard-core and went with Emma Lou Diemer. NO MORE I SAY!

Ross Lee Finney is another composer who I found through his didactic works. His pieces for beginning pianists are imaginative and work on techniques that are normally ignored by other educational composers. In that way he's similar to Emma Lou Diemer, Diane Goolkasian Rahbee, and Stephen Chatman, some of my absolute favorite didactic composers. Of course, as is the case with all of these other composers I've mentioned, his work goes far beyond teaching pieces.

Hailing from the small town of Wells, Minnesota, and a graduate of Carlton College, Ross Lee Finney was an American composer, whose lifespan overlapped Aaron Copland's very closely (1906-1997) but who never made it very far into the forefront of American composition fame. You are much more likely to find a composition by Crumb (a student of Finney's), Cage, or Copland than Finney but I think it's unfair. Finney's compositional technique, which underwent change through his lifespan, is accessible and intriguing. There's a strong sense of melody in his pieces but mixed in with a Ginastera-like sense of rhythmic momentum. He's a a great example of the melting-pot composer, who takes characteristics from all across the globe, and across time and mixes them to his own purpose.

Unfortunately there are few recordings available on YouTube for me to post here so you'll just have to trust me in these descriptions.

In the beginning of his Piano Sonata no. 3 you can hear that great rhythmic propulsion which smacks so strongly of Ginastera, but is quickly subdued by a thick atonal counterpoint. The second theme is a quietly burbling but menacing antagonist that rises of out the remnants of what came before it.

Other advanced pieces by Finney that I recommend are his Sonata quasi una Fantasia, and his Fantasy (1939).

His educational pieces are an absolute treat, especially his collection Games from 1969. Games is a a series of graded pieces in which he wanted to expose young pianists to the entire range of the piano (in terms of notes and otherwise). The pieces use a lot of improvisation, something I love to include in my own teaching. The pieces also use a lot of unconventional notation, a characteristic that may have rubbed off onto his student, George Crumb.

Since I'm not sharing any videos on this one I'll keep it short. Ross Lee Finney is great, and under appreciated. Seek his works out if you're planning your next recital, or looking for something exciting to teach.

April 2, 2013

Teaching? Stay Organized!

It didn't dawn on me until I really got into teaching privately that I'm a small business owner. It was a classification I had heard tossed around (mostly by politicians) and not something I had thought about too hard. Then I had to do my taxes. And I lost $100 in unpaid books. And I lost track of rescheduling students. And I couldn't keep track of who had lessons on what days. The list goes on and on of various things I either couldn't keep track of, or was losing money on.

As far as the business part of teaching is concerned, the biggest help is to stay organized. I mean REALLY organized. Think of any situation in which you might have to keep track of something. Then multiply that "something-to-keep-track-of" by 40. And those 40 bits of related information will trickle in over the course of 2 to 5 weeks. And at any given time you've got three or four different genres of "keeping-track-of" information.

The things that I needed help keeping track of were:
  • Who has paid, and which term have they paid for?
  • Who missed a lesson? Was this an excused lesson that gets to be made up? What was/will be the date and time of the missed lesson?
  • What date will that lesson be made up on and at what time?
  • Who purchased a book from me? Did that person pay for it yet? Cash or check?
  • Which recital would everyone like to be on?
  • What pieces will the student play on the recital?
That's a portion of it but you get the idea. And that doesn't even start to talk about scheduling of lessons at the beginning of the year. Oh god, the scheduling. You know how it can be hard to plan a lunch with your friends? Imagine coordinating 40 or more schedules. 

And there's TAXES. Actually, taxes feels sort of easy in relation to all of this stuff. I'll talk about taxes some other time.

So how do I keep from going crazy? Spreadsheets. Delicious spreadsheets. For every problem listed above, there is a special sheet (some sheets solve multiple problems) that have boxes for me to fill in, check off, and refer to when asked questions by inquisitive parents.

Here's an example, with a link to the downloadable file if you have need for such a form. On this form I can write in a student name, what book I sold them and when (or if) they've paid for it. Seems lame? Well it's not! If you, like me, have lost a lot of money and then had no idea if you could write it off on your taxes at the end of the year because, well, you lost the money back in February and have no clue if you got paid back because half was in cash and half was in checks...then something like this is pretty exciting.

I keep a folder full of sheets like that (both in real life and on the computer) and they make life so much better. I'll try to find a way to host them on this blog at some point. Oh, and a tip for anyone who wants to use a sheet like that one, don't throw it away once it's no longer in use. You need it for taxes. That's a free Pro-Tip right there.

The other way I stay organized, and I realize this will sound like a promotional right now but here goes, is Google. Google's calendar, email, drive, blog. I can easily look up open slots to put a rescheduled lesson into, or send emails from my phone (which runs Android) and access my beloved spreadsheets from anywhere. It will also link up the phone numbers of your parents with their email addresses, which you can organize into one contact folder. And if you have a smart phone, it's all there for you to call people even if you don't have their number written down anywhere. Yes Google, the company that can do no evil, has made running a piano studio so much easier. 

So if you're an aspiring studio teacher, or running some other small business, get organized. It will save you big hassles, and probably save you money. And possibly save you from being audited.

*To give credit where it's due, I basically stole the above spreadsheet (or at least the inspiration, I made it myself) from Martha Baker-Jordan's book Practical Piano Pedagogy which is a great book for new piano studio teachers.

Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys.......

Why am I not already buying stickers online?