Monday, December 8, 2014

The making of a pianist IV - Ms. Elena

If you read my last post you would know that Ms. Elena is our current piano teacher since this fall.  Yesterday, one semester was over and we had our very first recital with her studio and finally got to meet all of her other students!

The recital started with possibly Ms Elena's most senior student's dress rehearsal for her performance at a Precollege Scholarship recital.  Following that was the youngest student of the class who is barely 4.  The little fella came on the stage holding the teacher with one of his little hands and a big cardboard with the other.  Slowly they both moved to the center of the stage, he then put the cardboard on the floor, stood on it, smiled, and bended his body forward!  A bow, all he did was taking a bow to his audience!  The cutest and shortest performance ever!  After that, it came to the turns of the rest of the students - they went on the stage according to their grades - so Niuniu was the 4th and Zhuzhu was the 6th to perform.  They both did exceptionally well and click here to enjoy it yourselves.

What I did not know until now is that our switching piano teacher has automatically changed our piano learning experience from recreational to an enrollment of the music precollege program offered by our University!  Thanks to Ms. Alice's recommendation our kids had skipped the process of public audition and replacement and been directly admitted into this prestigious program to study together with bunch of talented pre musicians.

Needless to say that Zhuzhu and Niuniu are one of those youngest and weakest piano players among this group.  But that does not bother me because this means that they have the best potential to grow among their peer.  What makes it so great, you ask?  Well, for one, our piano teacher Ms. Elena is truly inspirational.

It's hard to believe our luck sometimes.

What she has accomplished so far in short is to make the kids fight to getting on the piano!

I guess some of you who randomly land on this site are the ones that are interested in education, let's get inspired by her teaching style here, shall we?

As part of the faculty body, Ms. Elena was given a spacious studio that has 3 pianos in it for his teaching duty.  After greeted her at the door, we were told that we did not have to wait outside when it would be our lesson time.  We only need to gently open the door, enter, take shoes off, sanitize our hands, and then quietly sit on the sofas - 2 of those are set close to the 2 grand pianos on the back of the room.  There is one upright piano at the right side of the room, which connected to a big wool floor rug that we later found out is for students' group lessons.  Her desk with a desktop computer is close to the entry door and above it were few of certificates of her credentials, awards, and diplomas.  There are few armchairs scattered around the room as well.

The artist is tall and was elegantly dressed that day.  Her voice is silvery and soft, a perfect profile fitting Zhuzhu's taste.

Niuniu was the first to get his audition/lesson started.

The first thing for him to learn was to take a bow, during which students and teacher are supposed to stand still, make eye contact, smile, and then bend towards each others.  Pretty much like we saw in those KongFu movies, in which apprentices bow to their masters each time they fight against each other.

The 5 year old boy could not appreciate the seriousness of this important procedure so he pretended to lose balance to all 4 directions!  What the teacher did, you asked?  Well, she kept quiet at first, then asked him to repeat, but failed to straighten him, so she zipped away, the sudden move of her drew Niuniu's attention.  The teacher then said from another side of the room, "Look what I found!"  She exclaimed.  We all looked at her direction and followed her eyes to "discover" a letter-sized cardboard laying on the floor.  Pretending to be surprised, she said, "Ah ha, just what we need."  She picked the cardboard, returned to her original position, handed it to Niuniu and said, "Hey Remy, would you do me a favor?  Could you put this under your feet and trace around your both foot prints with this sharpie for me?"

Her sweet and soft voice was like singing to our ears, even the "smarty pants" Niuniu could not help but obediently accepted the challenge.  Carefully and slooooowly he drew 2 circles around his feet, and then left the cardboard to return the pen to the teacher.

"Thank you and now, look at that, you did a great job tracing your feet!"  She praised then said, "Now, could you put your feet back inside those circles."  He did.  Then she said, "Could you look at me."  He did, and then she said, "Could you do me a favor.  Now I am going to ask you to bend your up body forward and then down again.  But this time, could you promise me to keep your feet inside those circles?"

Barely kept his feet from moving out of the circles, he took a semi-perfect bow.

First victory! 

The teacher responded to Niuniu's naughtiness with additional demands - effortlessly and unnoticeably.  She also broke a small task into smaller tasks!

"Thank you for trying so hard to keep your feet inside and for standing still.  You have done such a good job and I think you should get 2 stickers for that.  What do you think?"  The teacher complemented, purposely overlooked his imperfections!

Then she patiently waited for him to choose stickers - that took forever!  

Watching the minutes ticking away, I began to be losing my calm, but could only wait with her.

After sticking 2 green frogs slooooowly onto his standing board, Niuniu was directed to take a seat in front of the grand Steinway.  The teacher adjusted the height of foot stool and chair, while telling him and me that would be his Mom's job on the next lesson.  Then she said, "Now I want you to sit back on the chair imagining that you were a dinosaur with a long tail all the way up to that door."  Niuniu listened attentively, bended his up body carefully forward a little, pointed his rear up in the air, and then slowly sat back down.  It amazed me how seriously and accurately this little boy could follow instructions from the authority, after having been with the teacher for a few minutes!  Then Ms. Elena gently put her hand on his back and said, "Keep your body straight and tall."

She quickly awarded him another sticker for putting on a professional pianist posture.

Following that was the attention span test.  She asked Niuniu to stare at toy for as long as he could, but for only about 10 second she moved the object away from him - she could tell the little guy obviously did not have any attention deficit.

Finally it came to the time to meet the grand piano.

"This big thing is going to be your best friend for hopefully a long long time."  She pointed to the grant piano, carefully put the lid up, and played a short song from Suzuki Book I.  Then she turned to Niuniu and asked, "Do you know the name of the song I just played?"  He answered correctly, which surprised me, as I certainly did not know when and how he learned the name of the song.

"You just earned another sticker!"  The teacher announced.

At that point, Niuniu must have pleased Ms. Elena so she said to Zhuzhu, "Would you like to play your favorite song for me?"

"We just got back from a long vacation and she has not touched piano for a while."

Seeing Zhuzhu was lost in her owe watching the whole process and did not know what to answer, I answered for her.  The understanding teacher agreed, "Yea, vacations always throw things off a little bit." - now I know that I should have kept my mouth shut, tightly, while lessons are in progress, as our talks challenge the teachers' authority and become interferences rather than helps - the experienced teacher quickly dealt with me with this obviously polite/unwilling agreement, then turned to Zhuzhu, "Why don't you pick 2 of your favorite songs from Suzuki Book I to practice at home and then show me at your next lesson then."

Next lesson, yes, she did say that, my ears were functional, she did offer us precious spots, not just one, two!

I was all over the moon.

So I completely ignored the worries of Fabrice's worrying about our finance situation (I just resigned at the end of June to stay at home, but that's a story for another day), I ran to the registration office first thing next morning to secure our spots by paying their full tuition.

A bonus to marrying Fabrice is that I can rely on his total understanding of that that arguing with a true tiger is a waste of time.

And... turns out that the tiger's instinct is absolutely right.

I simply believed that Ms. Alice had given careful considerations to all her students when she was trying to place them to different teachers at the time.  I practically begged for this audition based on my trust in Ms. Alice.

(Indeed, I later found out that we almost could not get her lesson slots, as Willie's older brother, a super talented piano player, had been told to find another teacher and he landed elsewhere.  Either because Ms. Elena values Ms. Alice's recommendations more or she just likes younger students more.)

Great teachers don't come around very often and I do know we are very lucky to have her.  

The past 4 months the kids have been in love with their teacher.  Her personal charisma and her creative teaching style have turned piano learning process into fun.  To say that the kids now are regularly fighting to get on to the piano and anxiously looking forward to their next lessons is not an exaggeration.

She is magical!

Here are few examples how this talented teacher elicits the kids' inner motivation to make her demands meet:

- Constantly moving feet on the step stool - standing up and leaving her chair to go fishing treasures in her purse, "Ah ha, perfect, I've found them."  Then she showed the kid 2 pennies and asked him to put one under each foot.  "Please cover the pennies up tightly and not let me see them.  If you can keep them covered during our entire lesson time, they are yours to keep, deal?"  This technique had been used 2-3 times to accomplish the goal.

- Tense up at play.  "Could you hold this squeeze puffball up above the piano?" She gives students the toy, and asks, "Open your hands and let it drop."  The puffball lands softly on the keys.  Then she directs, "Could imagine now your whole arm is this puffball?  Could you let your arm drop down onto the piano?  Please listen to the sound that you are making."  Few repeats later, the kids understand what "relax your arm while playing" means.  This dropping arm technique also allows one to make solid and strong sound.  

- Wrong fingering.  "Have we played 'freeze and go" yet?  "Here is how this game goes, now you need to stop at the notes that you are playing when I say, "Freeze!" and then we both check the fingers and you continue to play when I say "go!", okay?"  This game is still being used whenever needed.

- Soft sounds at Forte notes.  Different from Ms. Alice who had always asked Zhuzhu to lift fingers high and then "play to the bottom of the key" to make strong and solid sound, Ms. Elena asks Zhuzhu to raise her whole arm up to the sky and let go down by the gravity.  Then she explains to Zhuzhu, "Your fingers are still tiny.  To play Forte you would have to use the whole arm's force."  Zhuzhu still constantly needs to be reminded at Forte notes, which reflects her timid personality, but I was pleased to hear her comments one day about her new teacher, "I like Ms. Elena more (than Ms. Alice) because I can understand her.  I never could understand Ms. Alice.  She just kept asking me to play the same notes over and over, but I did not know what she meant."   

- Balanced hand shape.  "Turn hands upwards, flip back down, and play."  She demonstrates as she requests and keeps repeating them, if necessary.  I have not experienced any of her pointing out or correcting kids' mistakes.  

- Play difficult sections.  Using the number counting device, toys like colorful animals, Red Easy Button, "Seriously?" sticky note repeat as many times as the student can stand.   

- Fundamental techniques.  Niuniu hates to repeat simply tasks.  Asking him to play twinkle variations A-C at home is nearly impossible for me.  I had to borrow Ms. Elena's techniques by rolling a dice to decide which variation to start with.  This rolling dice has been one of the most frequently used game at home for us.  This gives the students a sense of being in control.

- Strong fingers.  Ms. Elena also uses rolling a dice technique to choose which finger to use to play every note in an entire twinkle theme song.

- Accompany students to play.  For Zhuzhu, it's straightforward, the teacher usually plays one hand while trains students to play another.  For Niuniu, however, she is super creative.  Sometimes she goes behind him, kneeling down and puts both of her hands on the piano, other times she asks him to rest his hands on the top of hers as if the beautiful melody was coming out of his hand - she only teaches him to play the right hand at the moment, but plays often the left hand to train his ears for those tones.

- Help little kids to focus and memorize.  Taking turns to play random parts of the song: one person plays and stops at any notes of the song, the other follows to play the next few more nots, and then the first plays and stops...until they finish the whole song...they are having so much fun to try to trick each others.

- Dynamics.  Copy cat game, as she calls it.  She plays few measures, then student repeats what he/she just heard.  She shouts out loud "Forte!" then whispers "Piano" to her students' ears.  Or she flashes Forte or Piano cards in front of students while they are playing, to remind them gently.


A smart teacher always works with parents as well, right.  What did she teach me, you ask?

- Take lesson notes at each lesson.

- Don't correct mistakes with words.  "Don't tell them that they are wrong.  Don't explain why they are wrong.  Just keep showing them the correct ways and ask them to do what you are doing until they get it or are tired.  Give them time and no rush into things."


On the car ride home after the recital yesterday, I congratulated the kids and reminded them how lucky they were to have such great piano teachers.  Zhuzhu then remembered Ms. Alice and said, "I really miss Ms. Alice."

I wanted her to stay on the topic a bit more, as I myself also miss her and thought of her often, so I asked Zhuzhu why she missed Ms. Alice yet cried frequently prior to piano lessons.  To my surprise, Zhuzhu had her own answer, "I sometimes was just too nervous to go to her lessons, but I really like that she is strict, which is good in a way."  I immediately praised her for being understanding.

Thought that we ended our conversations there, but then few minutes later, I heard Zhuzhu squeezing out an important clarification, "But I like Ms. Elena much more because she is as strict and demanding as Ms. Alice, except she does not show it!"

I agree, kiddo.

A good teacher is strict and demanding, but a great teacher is strict and demanding without letting his/her students know!!!  It takes a lot of skills and preparations!!!

But still, I do know that if it were not because Ms. Alice's love for us, we would not have been blessed with Ms. Elena!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The making of a pianist III - change of piano teacher

Having learnt piano from Ms. Alice for 2 years, Zhuzhu and I have adapted to her teaching style and language (music jargons) pretty well, which had encouraged me to enroll Niuniu to her class early this summer.  Although Niuniu told me that he really wanted to play guitar and his amateur guitar player father had also gone all over town to buy him one of those fancy instrument, I tactfully convinced him to give piano a try before he moved on to his beloved guitar.  "You can always learn to play guitar later when you get older." I said and left it at that.

No no, I did that not because I was a tiger Mom who makes decision based on my own convenience, but more importantly because I noted that Niuniu had shown stronger inclination for piano than his sister as evidenced by the fact that it was he, instead of she, that sat at the piano bench at HER lessons in those earlier days.  He was only 1 year and 2 months old then.  He repeated that again 2 years later at her first audition!!!

Either he developed some fears of piano because of those struggles between his sister and me over the years, or he likes guitar more because he assumed that his daddy would take him to his I said before, my kids love their daddy much more than they love me!

Regardless, I am the driver so I trusted the mother's instinct.

I had chosen this summer to start his piano lessons as I knew that Ms. Alice likes to start new students during the summer semester as it usually has fewer students take summer classes.

On the way to his first lesson, I used our driving time to get Niuniu a head start.

"Niuniu, are you excited or nervous to start your new lesson today?"

"I don't even like piano.  I like guitar."

"But daddy could not find a guitar teacher for you.  Why do you start with piano first and see whether you like it or not."


He fell in silence and I left him alone to get himself prepared.

Few minutes later, we arrived Ms. Alice's new studio.  There we were, the 3 of us, Zhuzhu, Niuniu, and I, sitting in front of Ms. Alice's grand steinway.  His first lesson started in more or less the same as the one that Zhuzhu had experienced 2 years ago, except that he was clearly more knowledgeable about the instrument.

His first lesson lasted about 25 minutes and the teacher was quite happy about his willingness to follow directions and commented at end of it, "He was very corporative."

The next few lessons he continued to show his willingness to follow the teacher's instructions.  He was focused and progressed so well that he kept receiving complements.  Such positive feedback reminded me of the happy times when Zhuzhu started her piano learning 2 years ago.

Just like everything else in life, good things can rarely last for long.

Right before Niuniu completed his first 2 variations of Twinkle and Zhuzhu finished her first song in Suziki Book II, we had to stop their summer lessons.

We are heading back to China for a 3 week vacation.

What's worse was that those summer lessons are the last ones that we have had with Ms. Alice:

"I have decided to leave (the city) next month.  It came very sudden.  I wouldn't have moved the studio location at all if had I known even a month earlier."

That reminded me the day when her precious grand steinway was moved out of the old studio into a big U-Hall truck, we happened passing by.  Strangely seeing the move triggered a bit of sadness, but that was nothing compared to what I am about to tell you.

"Some of you may have already known that I've been considering returning to college piano and music teaching in the last 2 years." She continued.  

No, I had not seen this coming at all!  

Alright, if I think about it for a second, I should NOT have found the news totally unexpected:

- Teaching college musicians was her previous job;
- She is a great soloist who has to go around the world to perform;
- She holds a Ph.D. and published a book about Music;
- Her solo recital video has still not been taken out of the University website after years of her resignation;
- She is one of the Steinway artists.

I sort of knew that we were too lucky to have a piano teacher of her caliber, but never prepared to lose her anytime soon.  It's embarrassing to admit that I am still guided by the Pleasure Principle at age of 52!

Her email was long and apologetic.  But I was so sad that I had not left where I was.  Instead of reading the email from my real computer, I was sitting on the stairs with my little smart phone, typing, erasing, typing more, erasing more, and repeating the whole process until I finally came up with the following:

"This is sad and happy news all in the same time.  It's great to teach in college but on the other hand, working with kids can be quite rewarding.  I can see your dilemma.  We are so lucky to have you for the last 2 years and I am also very glad that we at least had some summer lessons - got the most out of you, so to speak.  As a teacher myself, I know good teachers don't come around very often and we sure will miss you.  Please don't hesitate to recommend a good teacher to Zhuzhu and Niuniu as they are in need to be in good hands like yours."

Clearly I was trying desperately to minimize the negative impact on the kids.  I was trying to move on and wishing for her changing her minds, all in the same time.

Our soon to be ex-piano teacher immediately followed up by asking the type of teacher I would like to have for the kids.

"... I believe a bit tough teacher who has clear demands and goals like you should be a good fit for them."  I replied instantly.  

"Tough" would not be the words that I use to describe her.  Her strictness, which reflected only by the facts that she articulates clearly her demands and that she does not praise her students when they had not met her demands, led most of her students and parents to call her that.  She actually is not nearly as tough as any of the teachers with whom I grew up in China 40 years ago!  She is much gentler, sweeter, and more patient than those true tigers in my life!

The next 4 weeks after our email exchanges, I immersed myself to the new full time job - a "Travel Guide" and a mother of 2 super energetic kids, during which I almost completely forgot about piano.  When we finally got back to the state, the Fall semester started already.  Poor Niuniu did not even get the chance to his kindergartens' orientation!

On the ride to school, I customarily popped the Suzuki Piano book II CD to the car player, Zhuzhu sighed:  "I am so sad that Ms. Alice is not my teacher anymore.  I'd only just started to understand her."  Niuniu then followed, "Yea, I liked Ms. Alice too.  She is very patient."

Their conversations made me realized that I had not found them a Ms. Alice's replacement yet!

Now what was the teacher that Ms. Alice recommended to us again?
Why has not she sent me the teacher's contact info?
Did she forget about us?
Of course, she could not remember us - she was heavily pregnant before we left her early this summer; she needed to arrange moving company in the hot summer; she also needed to teach few summer students...

But she can't be forgetting us.

She is the most caring and responsible teacher in the whole wide world that I've known;
She loves Zhuzhu and Niuniu as much as she loves her own child;
and She would not have sent them to any other teachers that she does not personally trust...

Few cycles of these thoughts later, I concluded that she must have done something for us but somehow we messed it up.  In this case, I was too shameful to contact Ms. Alice directly.  So as soon as I had arrived the office, I frantically looked for Ms. Alice's email.  I found her emails but they have NO NEW TEACHER'S INFORMATION!

Then I called few mothers whose children were also Ms. Alice's students, they told me that their kids had already started their fall lessons with their "matched" new piano teachers and yes, from what they told me, Ms. Alice has already "dispatched" all her students to different new teachers in town.  She did so very carefully, because she matched the age, level of their skills, and even personalities.

But why couldn't I find our new teacher?

Out of desperation, I called a mother who had left Ms. Alice for another teacher one semester ago expecting that teacher to accept Zhuzhu and Niuniu - one should always have a backup plan, right?!

"Wait a minute, haven't you enrolled your kids with Ms. Elena yet?"  She asked.

"What, who is Ms. Elena?"  Her question lost me.

"Isn't she the teacher that Ms. Alice recommended to your kids?"  She questioned again.

"How come you knew our kids teacher yet I don't?"  I had a hope!

"Oh, Willie's Mom told me that Ms. Alice recommended the same teacher to Willie and your kids." She explained.  "Because she saw you as one of the three recipients in the same email that Ms. Alice sent to her."  She added.

Wait, who the hell was Willie?  Has he been in the same planet as Zhuzhu during the last few semesters?

She must have read my mind, because what she told me next was, "Oh, I guess you don't know Willie.  He is our neighbor.  He is like your son only had few lessons with Ms. Alice this summer, but his older son has studied piano with Ms. Alice for years."

What she said finally made some sense to me, except I still did not know Willie, nor his Mom, even though the Mom and I might have had attended several recitals, studio classes together.

"When that email was sent out, do you know?"  I tried to get as much information as possible from her.

In my defense, I was in China with only a cell phone most of the times in the last month.

"Quite a while ago" was as close as what she could offer and then she commented, "I thought you must have contacted Ms. Elena long ago because I was told that her lessons were very difficult to get in."

That, my friends, almost sent me into a heart attack!

I eventually reread all the emails from Ms. Alice from the computer in my office.  With the help of a huge screen, I finally discovered the new teacher's contact information at the END of one email that our beloved Ms. Alice sent to me and 2 other mothers on July 13, exactly the same day at which we were flying from Shanghai to Nanning!

And the same email was cc'ed to Ms. Elena!  So I did have her contact info!  Boy oh boy!

What's killed me was the email immediately following this one.

Because this second email was from Ms. Alice to me, specially and alone, in which she generously praised Zhuzhu, Niuniu, even me and urged us to get in contact Ms. Elena ASAP.  She ends the email by, "Honestly I was really afraid that she would not have any opening(s), because if she didn't, I wouldn't know where else to refer Mia and Remy to!  Not many teachers are trained in Suzuki, you know, and to find a Suzuki/traditional combined teacher is even harder."

How in the world that I have missed such important message, am I really qualified to be a tiger mother?!

Needless to say, I did not waste another second to come up with the most sincere begging letter to Ms. Elena.  Exactly 27 minutes later, I received her response and she offered us an audition next afternoon!

The rest is just happily ever after for all of us.

Now you must have noticed that I am posting this on the Thanksgiving Day.  Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to Ms. Alice for her enlightening our kids about music and for her finding us Ms. Elena