How Brilliant Kids Can Go Wrong

img src = .theodysseyonline.com/the-dangers-of-being-the-smart-kid

img src = .theodysseyonline.com/the-dangers-of-being-the-smart-kid

A young student I teach is wildly talented. He was drawn to piano on his own, burned through several basic music books his teachers at school had given him, and by the time we started lessons together last month, he was already fiddling with concepts that I only started as a teenager.

Imagine a competent teenage pianist, ready to take his skills at reading music and knowledge of theory to the next level - that’s where this young boy, at seven years old, is starting. 

It’s now the fifth lesson and I’ve had to completely rethink my pedagogical approach to work with this boy.

The issue is, he’s still seven. He can inhale and breathe back new information like it’s nothing, but it’s still a sensitive age. One problem comes to mind: at some point through our lessons, he’ll stumble on a concept that’s just too hard to grasp right away.

img src = a2ua.com

img src = a2ua.com

It’s possible he’ll do what many smart kids do: start to assume they’re idiots for not understanding it immediately.

It’s tough. On the one hand, almost everything we’ve worked on is too easy for him. On the other hand, if I overcompensate by mistake and give him something that is just too hard, I risk alienating him. He’s not a teenager, nor an adult - he might not have the verbal skills to distinguish a challenge from (what he perceives as) an impossible demand, so he might act out emotionally instead of talking to me. He might be ashamed to just tell me “hey this is too hard.”

For now, I NEVER ASSUME prior knowledge, even though his knowledge is already vast.

Brett Crudgington teaches piano lessons in Brooklyn, NY. Get in touch at info@brownstonemusiclessons.com

The #1 Way Yoga Will Help You Play Piano

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“I should have started doing this years ago.” I shook my head leaving my neighborhood yoga studio, sweaty, sore, and with open, relaxed hips. I recall several years of lessons with master classical pianist John Kamitsuka and always hearing “be balanced! the point is to be balanced!” on repeat. I can be a stubborn, slow-learner, so It wasn’t until recently that his message hit home. Can’t stand, sit, walk, or run properly unless I’m balanced. Of course, one can’t play piano properly either, and this arguably demands far more subtle, sensitive focus.

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The sitting bones on the piano seat are where everything happens. Every nervous impulse comes from here, every rhythmic idea, and every hesitation too. I’m shocked at how often I get lost in what my hands are doing, and I totally forget about how unbalanced I am. That’s when I “mysteriously” find that I cannot play something technical anymore.

Oh right, I’m not balanced at all. Once I feel into where my sitting bones are, my pelvis is not tucked under my trunk, and the back of my neck straight, I feel open, expansive. Like in yoga, a goal is a very deep breath that passes through the whole body. Applied to piano, if I feel like my breathe and body is open and receptive, I can do what feels like insane acrobatics with my hands. This is because my hands become actively blended with the movement of my elbows, forearms, upper arms, and torso (which is grounded and balanced on my sitting bones). Bach Sinfonias become child’s play, but ONLY if I’m balanced the entire time!

Brett Crudgington teaches piano lessons in Brooklyn, NY. He can be reached at info@brownstonemusiclessons.com

How and When to Give Someone Space

Four Year Olds Don't Care About You

One thing I always forget about when teaching a 4 year old is this: a 4 year old does what she wants, when she wants to do it. Your opinion or plan doesn’t matter.

I came in one day to a very cold reception - she clung to her father and refused to work on any piano with me. I like to defer to the parents, there isn’t a whole lot I can say to coax a 4 year old into feeling comfortable working with a stranger.

image src - brainspotential.com

image src - brainspotential.com

With her father a few steps away, she reluctantly began to listen to me, slowly, cautiously, and angrily. Still, I could tell she wanted to do this music, she liked it. The hurdle is emotional.

I’m writing now after reflection, but at the time, I got annoyed. I’m human, moody, and sometimes my patience is tapped out after a frustrating morning. In fact, after several attempts to work on music games with Monica, several “No!” refusals later I was enraged. Nothing like the feeling of being powerless against a small child.

Add to that, the parents were in the room watching, and I have the subtle self-imposed expectation that I’m the one who needs to fix this. That’s a lot of feelings to wrestle with, and yet I have to keep a clear head and help the student.

What's Really Going On? There is always an underlying answer

The only problem with being enraged is not knowing it. So yeah, I was enraged, but settling in to this helped me see something else - she was scared. Of course, she liked what we were doing, but maybe the way we were working was too…close? Private piano lessons can be an intimate sort of thing, so maybe she needs some space.

image src - musicmindgames.com

image src - musicmindgames.com

I rearranged a card game we were playing so that she’d have “her game” and I’d have “my game” two feet away from her. The original game continued, but it wasn’t full-on collaborative anymore, no give and take. I simply narrated what I was doing, like a distant, objective voice commenting. Immediately she relaxed, set up her game, and started copying “my game” with “her game” two feet away. Occasionally I’d ask her what comes next, and she’d cautiously answer by placing cards in her game. It was smooth for the rest of the lesson, as long as I gave her an extra structural barrier between her and I.

Brett Crudgington teaches piano lessons in Brooklyn. Get in touch at info@brownstonemusiclessons.com

Evolve or Stagnate - Bringing New Approaches to Music Lessons

Summer months are slow for piano lessons here in Brooklyn, but it gave me time to rethink the many ways to approach each student, in every lesson. As we head into fall, I’m trying new ideas.

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Habits are hard to break. While I’ve used a ton of tried-and-try, fun approaches to music theory, sight-reading, and playing, I’d be kidding myself if I thought the search for thoroughness and effectiveness was complete. Is any of this helping as much as I felt it truly was during the lesson? What better other approaches are out there that I don’t even know about?

It’s a big task.

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However, a music lesson can resemble more of a therapy session at times.

It’s not enough to know the instrument, it’s better to meaningfully connect as people. That connection will guide them through the difficult parts. That’s a totally different skill set than simply teaching music theory, sight-reading, or even playing. It requires playfulness, openness, and sometimes endless patience.

I’ve brought in two new key approaches to sight-reading that can help many people - one approach uses color and one uses the topography of the keyboard. In fact, one HAS worked, wildly, through my own experience with over twenty students per week. The second is new, and looks to be equally as powerful.

Both use Direct Labeling as the key strategy of choice. While they are worth exploring deeper in the coming weeks, I do have to remember that while the games and technique are all important, they aren’t nearly as important as behaving openly, receptively, and treating the lesson like a journey. That way is more fun.

Brett Crudgington teaches piano in Brooklyn, NY. Get in touch at info@brownstonemusiclessons.com. 

Keep Music Students Engaged with Pictures

I recently taught a piano pedagogy masterclass in Indonesia. I got to sit down with new and seasoned teachers in Jakarta for 2-hours, chatting about topics like rhythms, how to use the body effectively when playing piano, and how to use design effectively to teach kids to sight-read.

I also made the point that using imagery during the lessons is powerful. This could be something physical like a picture, or even a concept that the student can imagine.

It often helps the student absorb a concept better than explaining things. Here's an example:

Everyone knows the piece Fur Elise, by Beethoven. A student and I pressed on with an adapted version, but she ran into a wall when she had to bring her left hand in. She had to open and close her hand to play one chord after another. It was hard.

fur-elise-piano-arrows.jpg

I saw an opportunity though - why not make this more fun and memorable? I did recall learning "greater than" and "less than" symbols in math class by thinking about a crocodile eating the bigger number. Brilliant, why not twist it and use it here?

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"Okay Patty, for that first chord, let's pretend it's a closed crocodile mouth. Then...go along to the next measure and the crocodile has to widen his mouth to eat the chord."

She thought it was hysterical. As she practiced it, she visualized the crocodile, as it brought the finger movements to life.

Everyone’s approach is different, though this has helped me focus more clearly on how to use story to excite kids, to use imagery to help things stick in their minds.

Brett Crudgington teachers piano lessons in Brooklyn, NY. Get in touch at info@brownstonemusiclessons.com

Teach Music and Run a Business with Less Stress (with Trees and Fractals)

Since I started teaching in 2008, my growing roster has made scheduling complex. How do I teach all the students that need lessons (plus travel!) and also have the time to bring more resources, insights, tools, games, songs, and overall value into each lesson? Not to mention plan recitals, keep parents up to date, blog, update my website, and on and on.

I’m bad at administrative work. I don’t have an assistant, so I’ve tried to streamline things for myself. Here’s how:

Decision-making is stressful

It takes up precious energy, and can potentially burn you out. So, I set up a decision tree for myself, a “fast and frugal” (a paper by Gerd Gigerenzer, the psychologist who wrote Gut Feelings and from whom I initially got the idea from) way to hand over the decisions I need to make to something else. In this case, I structure my day to mindlessly follow a route that helps me maintain my relationships with students + parents from the micro level outward to the macro.

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How I Remove the Stress of Decision-making

Every day I send lesson notes to each parent to talk about what we covered, why we covered it, any issues, and where we’re going overall. I also like to blog weekly. I send out monthly newsletters to keep everyone in the loop about recitals, admin updates etc. I also set up recitals bi-annually. And finally, I do need to plan out my summers a year ahead of time.

Notice that each element progresses from the smallest (daily) to largest (yearly) level. So, it’s all about keeping the relationship thriving, similarly, at many levels. I love fractals, which are simple concepts that recur at progressively smaller scales, so I see the basic schedule below as some kind of fractal:

  • have I completed lesson notes for yesterday?
    • NO~do this now.
    • YES~move down
  • have I prepped for lessons today (including binder full of materials that i’ll need)?
    • NO~do this, and take a trip to buy more materials you’ll anticipate needing.
    • YES~move down
  • have I answered all pending emails for billing + personal + scheduling?
    • NO~do this
    • YES~move down
  • have I completed the blog post for the week?
    • NO~write 250 words or edit what I have for an hour.
    • YES~move down
  • have I completed my monthly newsletter?
    • NO~is it due within the week?
      • NO~don’t worry about it.
      • YES~do it now, no longer than an hour.
    • YES~move down
  • have I started prepping for recital?
    • NO~it is coming up within the next 2 months?
      • NO~don’t worry about it.
      • YES~move down
    • YES~what on the list involves dependencies? Do that. If nothing, do the thing that will take the least time.
Image Source A fractal structure

Image Source A fractal structure

This is a start. I can at least wake up each day with some level of clarity, simply consult the tree above. Importantly, I’m not the one making decisions, the tree is, leaving me free to focus on other things.

Brett Crudgington teaches piano lessons in Brooklyn, NY. Get in touch at info@brownstonemusiclessons.com

Ear Music vs. Eye Music

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They are geniuses, outliers, but pick any talented, unknown jazz musician and you’ll find that they often learned to play by ear. Often they reluctantly learned to read, but the core of who they are as musicians is rooted in what they hear. Their bodies adapted to what they heard, so tutored, classical, formal technique rooted in what they saw on the page wasn’t as important.

I’ve seen a lot of kids that are brilliant and well trained to read music and have their body respond to what they see. But ask them to improvise, or play from memory, and they’re often lost, confused, or don’t even quite understand what you’re asking them. 

Music is an ear, not an eye phenomenon.

One of the problems I have with sight-reading is that it short-circuits the path towards what music actually is, which is really about what we hear. But think about this: when you read a piece of music and try to play off what’s on the page, you’re really training your body to respond to what you see. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what you hear. See Stevie Wonder and Art Tatum below (blind in one eye, partially blind in the other).

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