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This month we're congratulating Piano Instructor Kristen Todd on having received HAA's Teacher of the Month Award! Kristen has been with us for several years and proven to be a great Piano Lesson Teacher. In the excellent interview we had with her (see below), Kristen talks about her love of the piano and her passion for music and teaching, among other topics. Enjoy!
When did you start playing piano and what made you fall in love with it? I started playing piano at the ripe old age of 9 (relative to many children who now start at the age of 4 or 5). Believe it or not, I really disliked practicing and my piano teacher was extremely patient with me for the first few years of lessons. Then, in about 7th and 8th grade, I played a few pieces by Johann Burgmuller, and I absolutely LOVED playing them. I became much more willing to practice after having played “real” literature and learning that I could challenge myself to longer and more difficult repertoire. My wonderful and patient teacher nurtured me and gave me as many opportunities to perform for others as she could (this included playing at nursing homes, church services, as well as local competitions and recitals). I am so grateful to her for nurturing me as a piano student, but more importantly, nurturing me as a growing human-being and being aware of all my other interests such as marching band, 4-H, working on the farm, and my school’s Academic Challenge team.
You have a Master's Degree in piano pedagogy, so you have many years of studies under your belt. What would be the one (most important) thing you learned from your students, though, and not from your professors? Ah, excellent question, and I’m so glad you asked it, because I think that this is one of the most important ideas in my teaching philosophy. I continue to learn things from my piano lesson students every single day, whether small or big, music-related or non-music related). And each thing that they teach me is so enriching. They might teach me about a rule in the game of baseball, or who has the best record in the NFL, or about geography, or science, or about some new band/artist that they love. Every single one of these is just as important as the other because they teach me about being a multifaceted human being and the power and potential that we as humans have with our interests and love for other subjects and aspects of life. I learn things about learning on a daily basis (how does each student learn, and how can I foster and challenge them in a way that is well-balanced?) And through the students’ learning, I also learn about my own learning!
Who is your favorite composer and why? For this one, I couldn’t possibly choose a single favorite. Instead, I’d like to say that my favorite thing to do is learn about many composers all throughout music history and form a more all-encompassing understanding of the evolution of music. It seems daunting, but I think that’s one of the exciting things about being a musician. Learning about composers of the medieval and Renaissance periods are just as important as the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc., because this allows one to recognize similarities and differences between eras. For example, I love J.S. Bach: in short, he is a genius and his music touches me on an intellectual, spiritual, and musical level. But I also love bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and one of my recent favorites are Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers. Chris Thile is a true genius, playing the mandolin, which is well-suited to the bluegrass genre; but he composes extremely interesting, forward-looking music while always having an understanding of the past. Aside from composing new music, a current project of his is learning Partitas and Sonatas for the violin, by J.S. Bach (on the mandolin, of course). His attitude toward music is the epitome of what I wish upon myself, and my students, so I’d highly encourage listening to his music or any video in which he speaks about music. Always be willing to immerse yourself in a composer/artist that deeply interests you (or even one that doesn’t interest you, because I promise that you will still learn something from him/her and appreciate music in a different light). BUT also, always be willing to explore and find new composers/artists. Learning about someone new guarantees you to broaden your knowledge of music and styles.
Who is your favorite concert pianist? Again, similarly to my attitude toward my “favorite composer,” I couldn’t possibly choose only one. There are many greats such as Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould, Mitsuko Uchida, Krystian Zimerman, Daniel Barenboim, and I could go on and on as to why I love each of these pianists. But I also love performers such as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones (from Led Zeppelin), Brad Mehldau (jazz pianist), Ray Manzarek (the Doors), Keith Emerson (Emerson Lake and Palmer), and so many others! Each of these artists has something valuable to offer the realm of keyboard playing, and I think that each must have listened to a ton of music him/herself, and also continually practice and hone their skills to become the creative artist that they were or are.
You are a classically trained pianist, but you also accompanied one of our teacher bands in the past. What was that like? Awesome! Actually, I was in a band in high school, and we played a lot of cover songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Oasis, Led Zeppelin, Green Day, My Chemical Romance…and the list goes on. So playing in the band at HAA with other teachers was a great chance for me to play like that again! I love playing rock music and it keeps my ears sharp (listening carefully to the others, and also learning songs by ear versus notation), but most importantly because it is so much FUN!
What do you wish for your students in terms of their future in music? I hope that music will always have a part in each student’s life, no matter how big or small. No matter what career path you choose, I hope that your appreciation of music will help you to find beauty in all that you do. Perhaps you will choose to be a scientist or a mathematician, but I hope that you will continue to play or listen as it pleases you and enriches your life.
What is the most exciting thing about being a music teacher? Growth: musical growth, intellectual growth, and growth as a well-rounded human being. I love witnessing students of all ages and abilities grow and begin to realize their potential. Along those lines, it’s an exciting time when a student has an ambition to learn about something they choose: perhaps he would like to dabble in composing, or perhaps she wants to learn how to read chord symbols and analyze a piece. When a student has these moments of realization, I see them flourish as a result of their own motivation.
What do you enjoy about being part of the Hunterdon Academy of the Arts community? Learning and connecting! Just as I learn from my students, I also learn from others at HAA. Speaking with other teachers, parents, students, and staff about their lives and experiences helps me to feel more connected to others instead of being isolated in some piano room for many hours a day. I also love forming relationships with other teachers and staff who are passionate about music and the arts, and serving the students of the community ☺
Other than music, what are your interests and hobbies? One of the most important things to me, outside of music and learning, is physical fitness. Ever since college, I’ve loved running and this fall I’m running my first half-marathon! I’ve also recently become an avid cyclist and love to ride my bike. This summer, I rode my first century (100-mile ride), and also rode throughout Italy for a few weeks, exploring both mountainous and flat territory. Being physically active is something that I enjoy, but also a necessity in life. I find that it helps me to be in a better mood and feel good (which is a positive for me AND my students). I also minored in history in college, and I love always reading and learning about history!
In December, we're congratulating Thomas Flynn on receiving the Student of the Month Award. Tom has been with us for a couple of years and during that time made some amazing progress. We asked Tom a few questions, and here's what he had to say:
How old are you? I am 16 years old.
What do you study at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts, and who have been your teachers here? I have studied piano with Walter Aparicio for a little less than two years.
What do you like about playing the piano? I enjoy learning piano because it allows me to create some of my favorite music. I never get bored of it because it is a great combination of mental, physical, and emotional tasks.
What do you like about being a student at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts? I like being a student here because my teacher is amazing and helps me to get past things in the music that are difficult.
We heard that you recently won a major competition! Please tell us more about this incredible accomplishment! Recently, I auditioned in an annual Russian music competition held by New Jersey Talented Young Musician Association and came in First Place for my section. I will be playing in Carnegie Hall later this year. It is nice for hard work to pay off!
What kind of music do you like to listen to in your free time? In my free time, I listen to many types of music but primarily classical. My favorite composer is probably Frederic Chopin.
What would you like to do after graduating high school? Any plans to pursue a music career?
After graduating high school I would like to study physics or math. I would be interested in working at a university or a place of research. I don’t think I’ll choose music as a career, but I know I will appreciate it all my life.
Other than your music studies, what are your favorite activities? I like hanging out with friends, going biking and reading.
What else would you like to tell us about yourself? My goal is to go to a good college, get a good job, and continue my music education. I think music is one of the most important parts of my life right now, and I am very thankful for my teacher and parents for supporting my learning.
Excitement commenced as I clicked on a link to a concert page. A Philip Glass premiere, a composer who is one of my favorites. But as I further delved into the details of the concert I realized that this was going to be a concert unlike any other. I had no idea what a unique and exhilarating experience it would turn out to be.
The concert was entitled “Portals: A Multi-Media Exploration of Longing in the Digital Age”, and combined music, film, dance, and poetry. The program opened with the words of Leonard Cohen, but on a screen, as though signing onto a video call. The video placed the audience in an intimate setting with the actor, who appeared to be in the privacy of his home. As the concert unfolded, the violinist, Tim Fain, walked on stage. Behind him the film crackled to life presenting Nicholas Britell, the pianist for the concert. And this was how all of the pieces of the evening would be performed; a collaboration of a live soloist with filmed accompaniment. While at times the film presented the audience with the daily grind of preparing for a performance or showing the performers relaxing in their homes, it also paired music with visual movement.
It was fascinating to realize how much emotion was emerging out of the screen. Although the film was seemingly in a different world, it connected the audience to the performers on a personal level. The Partita for Solo Violin by Philip Glass combined beautiful poetry and dance with the sounds of a live violin. The movements of the dancers mimicked the emotions that Fain created through Glass’ music.
As I looked back onto the concert I found it remarkable that we usually view music and film in the opposite way. When viewing a film, the scenes and the actions that are in front of us take precedence and although we are aware there is music playing, it is not at the forefront of our minds. But if we take a minute to listen, we would realize the emotions that we are feeling wouldn’t be the same without the music that is playing in the background.
Amanda Prakopcy teaches piano at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts.
Undoubtedly, music serves as a means of expression. The real question though, is how does a seemingly arbitrary set of dots on a page express anything? This of course has been a certain topic of debate for hundreds of years. As a classically trained musician, I was always taught to play the music as I see it. This includes, other than the pitches and rhythm themselves of course, articulations, dynamics, tempos, phrasing, style, balance, and so on. But why? After all, I am the one playing the music and the one doing the expressing. This seems perfectly valid and in some instances or styles of music, it is required to improvise. Since pursuing the path of becoming of a conductor, I have learned that my duty goes well beyond having the ensemble play what they see on the page. In fact, countless hours go into preparing a score so that I can learn not only what all of the instruments are doing at any given moment, but why they are doing them and how the relate to the other musicians playing a different part. This is an enormous challenge. It is essential to understand what the composer intended for each note in order to have the music realized. This means knowing the history of the composer, what he or she was experiencing at the time, the other pieces they were writing, what was happening in history, among other things. These are just parts of what a composer considers when writing a piece.
The amazing thing that I find about music and studying to this detail is learning how descriptive it can be of my own life. All I am doing is trying to best reproduce what I see on the page. For now, many students must start with method books, and perhaps the only “meaning” or purpose of these books is to teach a certain technique or the fundamentals of music making. But if pursued long enough, with passion, the notes on the page will give you an experience much more incredible than what meets the eye.
Brandon Eldredge, Piano Instructor at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts
One of my earliest memories as a piano student includes my first piano recital. I was five years old at the time. My parents had brought me to my piano teacher's studio on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I sat down amongst the other students. My teacher, Mrs. Pughe introduced herself and gave a lovely welcome to the audience. Just afterwards, she turned to me and sweetly said, "Rose, would you like to play now?" I said, “No.”
To this day I chuckle at my honesty as a five-year-old. I remember genuinely not wanting to perform in a room full of people (bigger than me) whom I barely knew. Mrs. Pughe politely invited another student to begin the recital and somehow successfully came back around to me later.
I enjoyed my lessons but sitting down to practice at home was a struggle. I remember the arguments I would have with my mother about how I did not want to practice daily. One day they reached quite an angry level. “I want to quit!” I screamed. My mother said, “Ok Rose. You can quit, but you have to call your piano teacher and tell her. You also have to tell your grandfather.” His name was Vito Mason and he was an amazing and celebrated choral conductor. I never had the temerity to do either, so I stuck with it. Though Mom must have slipped my struggles to Grandpa because one night I got a very good pep talk about how I would one day thank my mother for her incredible determination and encouragement in fostering my musical talents. My mother is a smart lady. She never forced me to continue but rather knew that if I really wanted to quit I would have told Mrs. Pughe and Grandpa myself.
To make a long and rich story short, over the years I absorbed wonderful knowledge of music and became more and more inspired and motivated to practice and meet goals. My lessons became more enjoyable, I benefitted from the process and notion of progress, and I gained more performance experience, which helps immensely in combating performance anxiety. I never again said “No” when asked to perform. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life dedicated to music the moment when I accompanied my middle school choir and was congratulated at the end with a roaring applause. I had worked so diligently for months on this piece of music and during the applause this incredible sense of happiness and accomplishment overcame me. I glowed all evening and from then on I knew this was what I wanted to do.
I am happy to be on the piano faculty at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts, working with my students and cultivating their motivation, love, talent for music. My grandfather (a life-long mentor) was right; I am thankful to my mother and also my father for being so supportive when I was young.
Rose McCathran, Piano Instructor at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts
I’ll begin with the disclaimer that I’m no psychologist (well, at least not one by trade; I think every teacher is a psychologist to a certain degree). I haven’t spent years studying the theories of cognition, or the parts of the brain, or what it is that makes us able to function as we do. Or have I…?
What do we do when we learn a new instrument? We hone physical coordination. We attune our ears in new and different ways. We exercise our sense of rhythm. We train our eyes to focus on tiny little black lines and dots, and our brains to make sense of those otherwise meaningless symbols. But if I may be abstract for a moment, I’d like to argue that through this journey, we also learn how we ourselves learn. It’s the difference between “teaching to the test” for a specific desired result and mastering a concept that can be applied to any variety of questions that arise. If you just memorize the answers to last year’s exam, you’re not going to be able to ace the question that asks you to apply the theory or concept to a new problem. Similarly, if you just memorize the notes as they’re written in above the music for that one piece, when you’re presented with a new piece of music, it’s going to look like hieroglyphics all over again. Back to the drawing board. Or, to be a bit more mundane, it would be like a handyman showing up to do some repairs with only a Phillips-head screwdriver in his toolbox. Hex-wrench? Sorry, you’re going to have to call someone else for that job.
As musicians, we need to have a personal arsenal of tactics for addressing our various and sundry issues, and know when and how best to apply those tactics. I’m a big proponent of breaking stuff down and making it easier for my brain. I often ask my students if they’d shove an entire piece of pizza in their mouth at once. The answer I hope for is “no”; I usually get that answer, but it, ahem, depends on the age and gender of the student… Regardless, the pizza analogy stands: take little bites. Chew slowly and thoroughly. You can digest it better, and my goodness does it make for a more pleasant experience in the end. Speaking from a pianistic standpoint: lots of arpeggiated chords? Play them as blocked chords until your hand understands the feeling of those chords. Tricky leaps? Isolate and practice the leaps faster than they need to happen in real-time. You wouldn’t run a marathon to train for a 5K race, so why tackle an entire piece at once when you can work in smaller chunks and build up to a successful end result?
Analysis is also critical in the “learning how to learn” process, I believe. Look for patterns. Reduce a piece of music as much as possible – do those four measures return three times? Well, great! When you’ve learned four measures you’ve actually learned twelve. What? The piece is only 24 measures long? You’re halfway there! These are the conversations I have both with myself when practicing and with my students as we start looking at a new piece. The most glorious moment comes, though, when you draw from what you mastered in a previous piece and apply it to a new one. “Hey, that fingering we talked about in the B major scale just made sense in context in this one section of the piece!” (See? Even the oh-so-torturous scales serve a purpose, students!) In that recognition, the student has shown their internalized mastery of the concept and a way to personalize it so it fits within their own realm of musicianship. I’ve often wanted to throw confetti in the air when a student has a moment like this; not because it’s a time to be self-congratulatory, but rather because that’s a BIG STEP in working toward the ultimate goal of every teacher, whether we realize it or not: obsolescence. We love you all very much, students, but someday, you’ll be able to take off the training wheels and do a lot of this on your own. And we’ll watch you ride off into the sunset, knowing that you’ve learned what it takes to…learn. Good for you.
This is all responsible, sure. But I believe that the perspective can be a bit skewed. Only the most self-disciplined of us could maintain such nutritional and financial order in our lives by viewing (and wording) the above philosophies as such. Wouldn’t we rather choose tasteful yet healthy food selections, embark on physical activities that coordinate well with our busy daily routines (such as parking a bit further from work in order to incorporate an extra 10 minutes of walking a day), and spend money in such a way that supports our needs while truly making us happy?
Dr. James Goldsworthy, one of the professors from my graduate music program, imparted an extremely influential philosophy regarding practicing. As an alternative to practice rooms, he gave us the notion of “play rooms.” In “practice rooms,” students repeat a tricky scale passage 20 times with a metronome. In “play rooms,” however, students explore various ways to play a section according to their musical desires and curiosities.
Personally, I would rather enter the “play room.”
This may all sound appealing so far, but we need to be realistic. How can a student incorporate playing their instrument at home on a consistent basis if they have cross-country after school every day, band on Mondays and Thursdays, yearbook on Tuesdays, and gymnastics on Wednesdays?
I myself have had this kind of schedule all throughout my middle school and high school years. I remember finding it extremely difficult to find a block of 30-45 minutes to sit with my instrument on any day other than Fridays and Saturdays. But I found that after dinner and before watching a half-hour of TV (my only relaxation activity for the day), I could sit with my instrument for 15-20 minutes. I learned to focus on the two measures of my music where the fingering is tricky. Or I used these 15 minutes to play my favorite song, but experimented with different interpretations—more lyrically the first time, and a bit more rhythmic and upbeat the second. These short sessions became relaxing for me—a refreshing break from the stresses of school work. I was quite surprised at how much easier a piece seemed when I focused on these small goals throughout the week before Friday came along, when I finally had time to sit down for a full block of time. This was easier than waiting until Friday to figure everything out from scratch.
Additionally, I was able to make music on a consistent basis throughout the week on my own terms rather than dreading the weekly lesson where I had to admit to my teacher yet again that I could not find a 30-minute block of time to practice every day. Even after high school when I went off to college and stopped taking music lessons, I had perceived making music as a form of relaxation, where I could sit down with my instrument even for just a few minutes a day whenever I choose. Because this is what I had done throughout my childhood.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Rather than “practicing” everyday to prepare for a weekly lesson, play music throughout the week to indulge your musical desires and curiosities. Your journey with music can then last you a lifetime.
To learn more from Richard Woo, take a complimentary trial piano lesson with him!
Richard Woo, Piano Teacher
I am definitely not the first person to write about practicing and I am certainly not going to be the last. I feel, however, that this is such an important topic and every music teacher should share his or her opinions and thoughts.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines practicing as “to perform or work repeatedly so as to become proficient.” That doesn’t sound very fun, does it? I’m sure it doesn’t help when music teachers like myself are constantly reminding you that practicing is important and needs to be done. After all, with everything else we have to do in our lives, who has the time to practice? Unfortunately, I am going to repeat that practicing is important and needs to be done. Yet, I am going to say something that you may not have heard before--practicing can be fun!
Most of the students I teach are either young beginners or within the first five years of their piano training. At this age, many students do not willingly sit down on the piano bench on a daily basis without having to be reminded of the need to practice. Most of my student’s parents also tell me that they themselves have no musical ability and are unable to instruct their children at home. As a result, practicing often becomes an activity with negative associations since it is often precipitated by a fight, or it is not done at all and excuses are made (hence the title of the blog).
It doesn’t matter how much experience a parent has with music, they can and should be a part of their child’s learning process. One way to accomplish this is through role reversal, by allowing your child to become the instructor teaching YOU. Now that your child is forced to think about the material from a different perspective—that of a teacher—practicing, as teacher preparation, becomes an integral part of communicating the information to you. Moreover, going through this exercise, your child will more easily retain the material she has learned.
Even if you never had piano lessons before, there are certain elements and technical issues in your child’s piano practice you can keep an eye on. You can remind him to keep his shoulders down, wrists straight, legs straight and feet flat on the floor (unless they can’t reach!), even though you may not be able to help with complex note reading. These issues are incredibly important for you to watch out for at home because they are usually the hardest habits to break with only 30 minutes of lesson time!
Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher about more ways to become involved. Practicing should be a stress-free and simply fun time for child and parent to spend together. After all, if we can make it enjoyable for children now, you will see the hard work and commitment develop down the road…and then maybe you will not have to apologize for a lack of practicing due to [insert excuse].
Brian Michalowski, Piano Instructor
We are pleased to have added two new music teachers--Nina Yenik (Piano) and David Cifelli (Drums)--to our faculty roster, providing you with expanded scheduling options for your music lessons!
Nina Yenik (see photo) completed her high school degree at the renowned Interlochen Arts Academy. Upon graduating, she pursued a Bachelor of Music degree, majoring in piano, at the Cleveland Institute of Music and later at Manhattan School of Music. Nina received her Master's degree from Manhattan School, where she studied with acclaimed pianist Andre-Michel Schub. A versatile performer of repertoire ranging from Bach to Boulez, Nina has performed solo and chamber music recitals at festivals in France, Italy, Japan, China and the US. She has been an active pianist and teacher in the New York area for several years and has taught piano at all levels. Schedule a Trial Piano Lesson with Nina at no cost to you!
David Cifelli, an experienced young percussionist with a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz and Contemporary Music Performance from the University of the Arts, has studied with some of the greatest drummers in the industry, including Tony DeNicola, Jim Paxson, Erik Johnson, and Cheech Iero. David's talents were recognized early in life; while in high school, he was selected to join the Jazz for Teens program of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and was twice the first runner up in Modern Drummer Magazine’s Undiscovered Drummer Contest. A private studio teacher for the past several years, David also served as Teaching Assistant and Tutor at University of the Arts. Schedule a Trial Drum Lesson with David at no cost to you!
I am so blessed to have met my husband at college while studying music. We both came to Westminster Choir College to study piano performance and pedagogy with Ingrid Clarfield. Every semester, Mrs. Clarfield would pair students in her studio to serve as “practice buddies.” Once a week, these practice buddies would meet and play for each other to prepare for weekly piano lessons and studio class performances. My first piano buddy was Ryan. Over the course of my first semester at Westminster, Ryan and I met every week and critiqued each other, providing each other with insight on how to improve the technique and artistry of our piano performance. It was during this experience that Ryan and I became close friends. Over the course of the next two years, Ryan and I maintained a strong friendship and supported each other through our enriching college experience. We grew closer together through the power and the beauty of music.
Out of our great friendship grew a beautiful romance! Our dates included local performances, musical lectures, and even Elton John concerts. One May evening, Ryan asked if I would like to sight-read through a piano duet that he had just composed. We sat down at the piano together and looked at the piece. The title was “Habanera d’Amore” and I noticed it was written in my favorite key: f minor. We began playing from his beautifully hand-written score. It was so lively and fun to play. Around measure 53, I noticed there were some words written in the score. I leaned in to get a closer look. The words were: “Will you marry me?” I’ve gotten surprises sight-reading music before, but not quite like that one! Ryan got down on one knee and gave me the most beautiful ring. We were engaged!
We are now happily married and Ryan continues to compose heart-felt music. We continue to create and enjoy beautiful music and we look forward to all of the wonderful musical experiences that we will share in our lifetime together!Rose McCathran, Piano Teacher