Terrific book

My online friend Catherine Shefski has written a terrific — and important — book. It’s an ebook, not very long, called Go Play, and it’s about piano teaching. I’m going to be very direct about this: everyone should read it.

First, consider Cathy’s subtitle for the book: “Motivating a New Generation of Pianists and Other Young Musicians.”

And now read her introduction:

“Go practice.”

These words no longer mean anything to our piano students.

They are growing up in a world where instant feedback is the norm and random access to information has replaced sequential learning. Our students prefer learning that is relevant, useful and fun. For some, the idea of sitting alone at a piano for an hour a day is sheer torture.

“Go play.”

Now these are words that resonate with today’s generation of young musicians.
Between social media, unlimited downloads, video games and all the rest of digital technology they have an abundance of “toys” to encourage musical creativity and a world of “friends” with whom to play.

Music has always been at the forefront of the technological revolution. Our students know this, but unfortunately, for many of them, attending the weekly piano lesson is like stepping back in time.

My goal with this e-book is to present a few ideas to parents and piano teachers on how they can make music lessons more relevant to the digital generation and keep them playing!

And now I’m sure some people will start muttering about the end of civilization, as if we were going to abandon the great classical tradition and replace it with cheap entertainment. And certainly it’s true that no one can learn the classical tradition without doing a lot of work.

But what’s going to make students do that work? Or, for that matter, do any work on any kind of music. Catherine’s problem was simple. She teaches classical piano, and some of her students just didn’t seem interested. There could be many reasons for that, but that’s a story for another time. Here’s how she described it all in an email to me (quoted with her permission):

[Some students] were just going through the motions, barely getting by with minimum effort, playing for their lessons with one eye on the clock and even squirming on the bench. They had no desire to perform and I could tell they never sat down at the piano for their own enjoyment.

So, she thought, why not change her approach, and — instead of teaching a pre-established curriculum — instead engage the students’ creativity? Which meant meeting them on their own musical territory, teaching them to play the music they already liked.

It worked:

Since I put away the method books and started teaching them the theory and compositional skills they need to play the pieces they’re interested in or, in some cases, write their own music, I’ve seen a dramatic change. I’ve even had parents come up to me in the grocery store and ask what happened because they finally hear their kids playing the piano at home. One boy in particular who had been taking lessons for nine years (he’d come to me from another teacher) asked me, for the first time ever, if he could perform a couple of his own arrangements in one of our informal coffeehouse recitals. I was thrilled! I’d rather see him playing his own version of Proud Mary for a small gathering of students than sitting home struggling with a Beethoven Sonatina.

A Beethoven Sonatina, I should add (as I’m sure Cathy would), that he may never enjoy.

Hence the book, which among much else is a quick and sharp introduction to some of the best things about current culture: “Our students crave interactivity. Above all, they are creators.” And much more in that vein. Music teaching that doesn’t engage a student’s creativity will lose the student, no matter how lofty the musical goals.

A student may be introduced to the music of the alternative rock band Muse, for example, and be inspired to try her hand at her own rock-influenced version of a Chopin Nocturne. Another might bring in an original composition hot of the press from Finale Notepad. Another may be teaching himself Debussy’s Clair de Lune from an online video.

And then come many suggestions about how to teach this way. It’s invaluable reading, and not just for piano teachers! I think anyone in classical music could be inspired by what Cathy writes. Just take her seriously, imagine that the people you and your music and your institution (if you have one) want to reach are like the students Cathy describes (even if they’re older). What does that tell you? How can you reach them? How can you engage them, not as passive consumers, but as creators?

The benefits of this can be tremendous. Cathy now is “interviewing teenage piano students (and some teachers) about how they are using social media and technology in conjunction with their piano studies.”

I’ve been in touch with some amazing students. For example one student from Canada video-streams her practice sessions on uStream because she feels she’s held accountable by the unseen audience. Another student uses software to record orchestral versions of Baroque music. He says that for him it’s “the musical equivalent of computer animation.” Another finds inspiration through meeting composers on Twitter.

Do read Cathy’s book. It’s free, it’s short and to the point — and I think it’s crucially important.

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  1. Greg Sandow says

    Two comments were accidentally deleted. I’m restoring them this way.


    I liked — and think teachers out to consider the fact that popular (and niche) music has particular challenges that are worthwhile.

    However, it has always been accepted that kids don’t know how to practice. I think it is part of our job description to teach them to do this. Why we can’t use Star Wars to teach triplets is beyond me — at least it’s orchestral!


    That said, I think creating more variety in experiences and giving kids more freedom is a wonderful thing. I have had students perform personal compositions at concerts, work on chamber music together, do holiday music at retirement homes and such. I still have all sorts of other ideas that I would love to try — but sometimes balancing the logistics of more varied programs and ideas makes it really difficult.


    — from anonymous


    Good points, but problematic outside the studio. For band and orchestra directors/teachers our students are all over the musical map. Rarely will you get a consensus on what music they want to play.


    — from Richard

    I replied that I’ve seen orchestra students at the University of Maryland come to a consensus about innovations they want to try.

  2. Eric Booth says

    Catherine’s book looks terrific; I look forward to reading it. It reminded me of a similar excellent book that I have recommended widely, and gotten great feedback on from everyone I have given it to or told about it. Note by Note, but Tricia Tunstall (Simon and Schuster). Like Catherine’s book it captures the exploratory spirit of play in musical learning. It is also a delightful book to read.

  3. Rob G says

    Another example from the University of Maryland: The marching band’s show themes and music are decided by a halftime committee. That committee is made up of every student with an interest in the process.

    Certainly, they don’t always reach a consensus, but just the fact that they’re all part of the dialogue is pretty nifty.