December 18, 2013

Album Review: Pitbull - Global Warming

I don't remember the first time I did the Macarena. I don't even remember the last the time I did the Macarena but I'm sure it wasn't that long ago. Maybe it was a wedding I attended in October. I know I heard a Macarena Christmas song a couple of days ago that people were singing along to and possibly dancing to. I was too focused on decorating cookies to pay much attention.

I was a middle schooler when the Macarena took the world (or at least the white-suburban world) by storm. It was a dance that people liked so much that we would do it at sporting events, in the privacy of our own bedrooms, anywhere that people felt the need to take part in large-scale social events.

I have a distinct memory of a 5th grade middle school dance, held in the gymnasium with all of the lights on. They were those big hanging dome-lights that look small from the gym floor but you know could easily crush a kid if they ever fell down. Whenever a student hit one with a kickball everyone would scatter and giggle, but not giggle too much because this is gym class and your pre-pubescent masculinity is being tested now and it fucking matters. They're the lights that take forever to turn on, you flip the switch and worry that maybe this time nothing will happen, but you notice a tiny inferno in each light bulb, like an old man slowly rising from his already fitful sleep.

The dance was held on the last day of school, from noon until the buses mercifully appeared to take us away. Attendance was mandatory. There were no alternatives, no movie to watch, no soccer game to play, just forced socializing, hopefully with the opposite gender. Despite spending the entire year eyeing each other we were not going to mingle. Hell no.

We did the the Chicken Dance, maybe some sort of slide or shuffle, definitely the YMCA, all from our respective sides of the gym. There were a few brave souls who would traverse the no-mans land in the middle of the dance floor (no black-soled shoes please) to talk to the girls or even dance. There was the occasional slow dance, when everyone would turn to look at the wall and talk to their friends. Everyone knew that there would be one final slow dance at the end of the day. This was the important one, this was the one to finally dance with that boy or girl you'd been thinking about the entire year.

My girl had a French name which I didn't know was a French name. She was also a year older than me and all of her friends were older than me, and taller than me, and more girl than I was boy. We had been in a group presentation earlier in the year during which I'm pretty sure I was a useless mess, even more shy than I normally was. I decided at that point, several months earlier, that I would tell this French-named girl that I was in love with her. Now, this year-end middle-school dance was my last chance. The next year she would be in a different class and be surrounded by other 7th grade and 8th grade boys, with little use for a scrawny 6th grade boy with glasses and a hair-cut that resembled a vivisected mushroom.

The entire social was just a preamble to the end. The final song represented a chance to dance with your special someone and then separate and hide your embarrassment, or to at least ask and live with the rejection on your own rather than face it daily in school. If she said yes, I could get close, for the first time in my life, for three-point-five minutes, sway arrhythmical, and then avoid the resulting awkward emotional limbo by heading home for the summer. No matter the result, there would be an unfortunate fallout, one that necessitated a summer's-worth of recuperation and emotional re-building. Nothing would be the same.

The minutes counted down to that fateful moment and I steeled myself to go ask her for the final dance. How would I navigate her friends? How would my friends act afterward? I hadn't told them that I liked the French-named girl. I didn't really care about them at this point. I was fixated on this one thing, this one thing that I felt an irreversible compulsion to do.

I worked my way across the barren wasteland, with the penultimate song blaring in my ears, threatening to mix up the galaxy of narratives running through my skull. I was through the circle of friends and asking for moment to the side. All of the rehearsal came in handy, when muscle memory took over and the words escaped without any actual brain activity. She agreed to partake in this exercise, to enter the contract of inarticulate adolescent social experimentation. As the final strains of an age-appropriate pop song ended we found a space on the floor, finally alone save the panoply of our middle school peers. We placed our arms around each other, me around her waist, her around my neck. My hands were clasped behind her back, so as to minimize the amount of intentional touching while maximizing the amount of inadvertent, excusable contact. It was nearly time to start swaying.

The fucking Macarena.

December 16, 2013

Why are all of the people staring at me?

"All of these people are looking at me. These people, these frogs, this goat...

Even this woman is looking at me"

Make-Up Lessons: Why You'll Never Win

Sisyphus, according to Greek mythology, was a king sentenced by the gods to roll a giant stone up a hill, only to have the stone roll back down. He was doomed to repeat this task for eternity. His struggle represents the futile quest for power, the meaningless of life and, for me, the absurdity of make-up lessons.

Sisyphus, the piano teacher, carrying his boulder of make-up lesson obligation.

If you talk to any piano teacher about their make-up policy you are likely to get either a groan, a bitter decree of teacher's rights, or a vacant stare that chills you to your very soul. Make-up lessons are the game that never pays dividends. In pedagogy classes one of the first things students will do is create a make-up policy. In the real world, this make-up policy is the first domino of bright-eyed idealism to come crashing to the ground.

First, let me tell you about my own make-up policies. I have two.

If the cancelled lesson is my own fault, say for a concert I'm playing in or if (God forbid) I get sick, then the make-up lessons are on me. I will come in on days I normally have off, or stick around for a couple of extra hours to do any make-ups. If I can't make it up over the course of the school year, students get a summer lesson credit.

If a student cancels a lesson here are the terms: If I'm notified at least 24 hours in advance I will try to find a make-up time for them. If I'm notified a month in advance I almost always make a time. If I find out less than 24 hours in advance the lesson is forfeit. I will only schedule around previously scheduled lessons, meaning I won't come in another day that I don't already teach, and I only offer times that are adjacent to existing lessons. If there's bad weather, as long as the building is open and I can make it to work we will still have lessons.

My makeup policy was created in response to an extremely influential (among teachers at least) article written in 2001 by Vicky Barham on the website Ottawa Suzuki Strings called "Make-up Lessons from An Economist's Point of View". In it Barham argues that lessons should be viewed as a non-returnable, non-durable good. Once a spot has been reserved for a student, a teacher should not be expected to have to make obligations for a student beyond that particular spot. The only way to make-up a lesson is to take some other time during the week, for which the student has not paid for, essentially asking the teacher to give the student two products for the price of one.

My policy is not as hardline as Barham lays out for a few reasons. If a student is the first or last of the day and I am notified well in advance I will usually reschedule because the time that they open up becomes free time for me. I head home early and trade that time off on some other day when I stay late. I will also gladly reschedule students into spots that are open. Sometimes two students can swap lessons in a week, or I can fit a student into a spot that is open in the middle of the schedule every day. Between these two things I can get out of the majority of bad rescheduling.

Overall though, the concept of make-ups is a losing bargain. Make-up policies are a social contract between the teacher and the parent. Both parties have to accept it. And even though at the outset of piano studies we sign an actual physical contract, parents don't always accept it. Many parents understand our arrangement. Some parents don't, and they are a constant source of concern for teachers.

The most obvious thing a parent can hold over teachers is the threat of un-enrolling their children from a teacher for inflexibility of scheduling. I've only ever had a couple of parents who became confrontational about this and pull their children from my studio, I believe in large part because of scheduling. In the case of one student, I had explained my studio policy (which gets presented at the beginning of the year in writing and verbally and which is posted on our studio blog all the time) and the student had cancelled or not shown up to at least two lessons in a term. At the end of the term a parent tried to schedule make-ups to which I told him that I wouldn't be able to and explained why, like I've done with many parents. He became very angry and we finished the term but he did not enroll the student in the following term. A similar situation happened with a parent who brought his children to a 45-minute lesson 30-minutes late and caught me in the middle of packing up to go home. We had a stand-off in the hallway to which I finally relented when I felt physically intimidated. This parent also did not enroll the following term.

The threat of lost income is the biggest thing shaping make-up policies. For a student to quit a studio, for the majority of teachers, is an assured loss of income in the near term, and a potential greater loss of income as long as the spot remains open. For me, a suddenly dropped student represents anywhere between $160-$1000 for the year. Often the spot can be filled quickly, but at certain times of year when enrollment is low this loss is hard to make-up.

Doing the make-ups themselves can also represent a loss. If you're doing a makeup for a student who is in the middle of your schedule, and you can't find a middle-of-the-day time to reschedule them into and no other student takes their spot, you are left with a blank spot in the time they paid for as well as a newly created time for which you are not getting paid. Essentially you are losing $25-$50 of potential income. This added up over the course of the year with dozens or hundreds of make-ups can equal a large loss of money. I have at least one of these rescheduling scenarios every week.

Barham recommends having a zero-makeup lesson policy. Because I also do free-lance musician work I don't feel that it's fair to have to impose rescheduling 2-3 lessons every year on my own account but offer no flexibility to students. My only zero-tolerance policy is for missed lessons that I haven't been notified for. If I get no warning (and an email 15 minutes before really doesn't count) then I never make up the lessons and parents (with the one exception above) understand this and don't expect me to make it up.

The school I work at is mostly patronized by middle-class urban dwellers who I think understand the predicament that music teachers are in. We don't earn very much and have limited hours in which to work. On the other hand lessons are expensive for families and people want to get their money's worth.

My advice to new private music teachers would be this: be tough for your own mental health, but expect to make concessions. It's not an easy business to be in, especially if this is the primary source of income in your household. Be extremely organized so that you don't waste a lot of time chasing make-ups around. Try to understand where parents are coming from, but also try to gently remind them of your own situation.

Good luck.

December 5, 2013

Staying Healthy in the Studio

Music can be a disgusting trade to get into. Percussionists have it easy, since (for the most part) they make contact with their instruments through mallets and sticks. String players usually don't play anyone's instruments but their own. Wind and brass players however are in a field where everyone is constantly buzzing their lips and exhaling gallons of their filthy microbe-laden air. Singers are constantly sick for the same reason. Pianists have the unique experience of sharing instruments. Because pianos are too big to carry we get to put our fingers on the same keys that hundreds of other pianists, or piano students, have also been putting their fingers on. Fingers that have been on door-knobs, toilet seats, eyes, ears, get the idea.

Kids are notoriously bad at basic personal hygiene and controlling their bodies around other people. It is because of this that piano studios can be the gateway to an illness-ridden lifestyle. Every day I see kids wipe their noses with their hands, cough into their hands, pick their ears with their hands. Sometimes kids will even sneeze or cough directly onto the piano keys, aerosoling their invisible illness into my previously pristine air. Of course, I try to get hand sanitizer onto them before the digits hit the ivories but most of the time it's too late. When flu season kicks into high gear I'll often send an email out to parents reminding them to talk to their kids about proper coughing and sneezing techniques, but there are always students who come in and spend a third of the lesson coughing with open mouths, eyes bugged out, directly onto the keys and music stand and my hand if I haven't gotten out of the way. Coughing into my face at a close proximity? Yes, it's happened.

So what do I do to keep healthy? Well, the first year I just wasn't healthy. I got sick constantly throughout the year with the apex being a nasty hit of norovirus at my family's Christmas celebration (sorry I blamed the meatballs, mom). But this is an experience many teachers can relate to. The first year is the sick year, then your immune system gets stronger, you sleep better because you know what you're doing, and the workload eases down (sort of). So first step to staying healthy? Get sick because you have no choice.

Make sure you stock plenty of hand-sanitizer in your studio. If your school is really nice they might do it for you, but a big bottle of sanitizer is worth the cost. When I was teaching group piano classes, I actually bought one of those two-liter mondo-bottles for the piano lab. Students were very appreciative. Like I said before, you won't be able to catch those dirty paws every time, but sometimes is better than never. Also, make sure you have a box of facial tissues. It sounds obvious but my school doesn't supply them, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Plus they're handy when kids cry.

Reminders are always good, but kids (hell, grown-ups too) have a hard time remembering not to touch their faces during lessons. We touch our faces constantly. I've gotten better about not touching my own face during lessons, but most of the time I forget and then immediately use some hand sanitizer (I go through a lot of hand sanitizer and I would gladly accept a sponsorship from any leading brands). Adult students can often remember decently well when I warn them, but we have a compulsive need to wipe our runny noses and the hand is nature's tissue.

One of the hardest things about sick kids is that you can't do make-up lessons for them. I mean, you can but you shouldn't, because you would constantly be chasing make-ups. Parents feel obligated to bring their sniffly child into the lesson because lessons are expensive and they want to get their money's worth. I absolutely understand this, but I still encourage them to leave their infectious precious ones home.

I've tried to mandate hand-washing before and after lessons but it didn't work. It takes time, is hard to implement, and realistically, it's often the chronically sick kids who aren't very good at washing hands in the first place. Also, it just takes one nose wipe for those clean aromatic hands to become sinful petri dishes again.

I keep my distance from sick kids. Often I will share the bench with younger children because the proximity makes it easier to see what they need help with and it creates an environment less like a scary doctor's office and more like a game. When kids are sick however I will sit across the room and see how long I can hold my breath for. I then sanitize my hands every time I touch the keys. I also have a chair that I sit in which I can move closer or farther away depending on the severity of the sick student.

Flu-shots are excellent. When I started teaching I decided to get annual flu vaccinations. This year however my insurance provider (HEALTHPARTNERS, I will name you because you did me wrong on this one despite being generally great) pulled my coverage for pharmacy flu shots, and required me to go to a clinic for one. I have been bad, a public menace, an irresponsible teacher, by not getting one. Because instead of going next door (I literally live next door to a pharmacy) I now have to make an appointment, drive to a waiting room, sit around, and waste clinic time to something that used to take 15 minutes (and zero precious provider minutes). I'll probably end up just paying the $30 at the drug store for the convenience.

I feel intensely guilty about this (apparently not quite guilty enough to schlep over to the clinic though) because although I don't want to get sick, I really don't want to make the children in my studio sick. Getting sick as a privately-employed piano teacher is rough. You only have three options:

1) Teach while sick and be miserable

2) Re-schedule the lessons, which is a different kind of miserable

3) Cancel the lessons and pay the parents back, which is expensive and thus, miserable

Teaching while sick is also bad because you have a greater chance to make your children sick, and they get their friends and family sick and soon you've contributed to a public health crisis. Great job. It's for this reason that health is super important in our field. Children are more susceptible to the severe aspects of illness and teachers should take all the precautions they can. That means get over your unfounded paranoia of vaccines, use real cold medication, get sleep, and do all of the things that you are probably able to do and afford.


I'm going to go get my flu shot now.

December 3, 2013

It's Time To Leave: When to Kick Parents Out

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons in two different locations. One was at my piano teacher's house and the other was in the recital hall of the music school she worked at. Both were spacious, with areas for parents to sit and listen to the lesson, while still remaining fairly invisible to both my teacher and me.

Such is not the case for my current studio, nor the majority of teaching studios. My studio is only just big enough for the piano itself, plus a student and myself. I have also have a small desk, and three extremely uncomfortable chairs. Realistically though, it's big enough to have three people in the room.

I will usually invite parents in to the first lessons with a new student, especially if the student is under the age of 9. For beginners, having the parent in the lesson is extremely beneficial. Parents can learn alongside their children and emulate my teaching at home to help their kids through practice sessions. Some of my absolute best students are where they are because their parent (usually it's just one) helped them along through the first months of learning piano. There comes a point though, when it's time for one-on-one lessons.

Some parents, as good as their intentions are, are unable to simply sit back and observe. I've had parents interject comments between mine to the student. I've had parents interrupt what I'm saying. I've even had parents feed their children answers to the questions I'm asking. All of these things are examples of what hurts your student's learning process. In the piano studio, there should only be one source of authority, the piano teacher. Because piano teaching is a one-on-one dynamic, to have the child's attention divided between two sources is very confusing. Additionally, because the parent is already the primary authority in the student's life, to have that parent undercut the jurisdiction of the teacher can be a heavy blow, sometimes delivered early in the lesson. This applies to matters of actual piano playing, as well as discipline.

As far as feeding children answers, there's no real excuse. It just doesn't make sense. I use the Socratic method with my students, meaning I will wait as long as it takes (within reason) to get an answer from them. I often don't care if the answer is wrong, I just care that the student thinks about it. To take that process away from the child undercuts the entire process and in a way, wastes more time than if the child stumbled to the conclusion herself. A student (who no longer studies with me) one time had a parent reach across and play the correct note for her as I was trying to lead her to find it. I assumed that the same thing was happening at home, since the child's progress was extremely slow even after a number of months of lessons.

Disciplinary problems can often be solved by having the parents leave lessons as well. This is a really counter-intuitive solution, and one that I never would have come to without observing it myself. I've had students be little monsters with their parents in the room and then fine the next week once the parent is settled in the waiting room. My hypothesis is that children know their own parent's limits and exactly how far they can push it without the parent going off. Children also know that their parent isn't as powerful in public as they are at home. There is no way to chastise a child as severely in the piano teacher's studio as they can in private. I think that students respect the teacher more when the parent isn't there.

Sometimes there are no negative reasons for why the parent should step out. Either the skill level required to understand what's happening is beyond the parent, the parent is not really paying attention (lessons are a great time for parents to catch up on email) or the child would just feel more comfortable on their own. Music lessons are a great way for kids to grow up. They learn responsibility, and take charge of the consequences of their action (or lack of action). Those things are learned best on their own, with the teacher doling out any praise or condemnation on their own. Parents have to do enough of this as it is, and it can mean something very different coming from a person of authority who is not related.

The hard part for the piano teacher is figuring out how to tell the parent when to leave. Luckily, for most of the parents I've had to do this with, it was because the student was advancing and parental supervision was no longer necessary. It was a simple "I think we're ready for one-on-one lessons next week." I often offer an every-other-week model if parents are unwilling to sit out entirely, or invite parents to come in for the last five minutes of every lesson. This allows me to debrief them on anything new, or give instructions on how to practice with them at home.

For kids who are having disciplinary problems, I'll often tell the exasperated parents that one-on-one lessons tend to have a positive effect in this regard. That's usually enough. Some parents are often relieved to sit in the waiting room, because it lets them off the hook a bit. I think there's a bit of guilt in this but there really needn't be.

I've made a little guide below on what to do and what not to do in your student's piano (or other music) lessons. This guide could probably apply to any situation in which a child is receiving personal training.

Dos and Don'ts for your Child's Piano Lessons

DO sit in on your beginning student's first term of lessons. This will help your child feel more comfortable and you will learn how to help them.

DO take notes. I had a father bring a pad of paper with him and he took meticulous notes on the assignments and strategies for helping his child learn. That student is one of my best now and I credit the father heavily. He is also still able to help even though he no longer sits in on the lessons.

DO take this as a chance to observe how your child tackles problems. Think of it as a case study of their entire personality. You are the scientist observing your own child.

DO think of it as your own private pedagogy lesson. Most teachers at a music school now have had many years of experience as well as advanced degrees in their fields. 

DO ask questions at the end of the lesson, though try to save them for the end instead of interrupting.

DO give your child benefit of the doubt. They often know the answers that you might not. 

DON'T interrupt the lesson, or really interact at all unless prompted by the teacher. 

DON'T feed your child answers to questions.

DON'T feel bad about removing yourself if you feel that you're not needed in the lesson. If you're doing emails or checking Facebook in the lesson, go ahead and sit in the waiting room. I recognize that parents are super busy, and if these 30 minutes are your only time to do some personal stuff, by all means go do it. 

December 2, 2013

Project Overload!

I'm back. I'm so back.

It's been three months since my last post of any real significance. Just when traffic was starting to pick up and I was settling into a nice steady rhythm of posts BAM I got hit with a huge project at the same time the new school year started.

I've discovered since leaving school that
1) I'm really only capable of focusing on two projects at any given time


2) I live my musical life project-to-project

Since the middle of the summer, after I finished the latest Dead Kings of Norway album I've been working on setting Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle to music, using a new translation by Alistair Beaton.

It's over now. I finished all 30+ musical numbers, had two awesome performances and it's over. It was at once the most exhausting, yet gratifying thing I've worked on. I've wanted to write a large-scale musical-theater work for a long time and I finally got my opportunity.

I'll write on that subject some other time, but my point is that I was working on this all-encompassing project for the past four months and I'm finally DONE. This was one of those projects where you divide your life up between "before the performance" and "after the performance". I worked on very little beside Chalk Circle (well, and my piano studio) and now I'm excited to move onto new things. I've got some good posts brewing about real-life piano teaching advice as well as other musical items.

New projects? A new Crystals in the Deep album and in a few months, some live performances of both Crystals and Dead Kings songs.