Monday, March 3, 2014

Appreciation vs. Advice

Building endurance in anything brings a mixture of emotions:  pride, boredom, exhilaration, disappointment, joy and fatigue to name a few.  Whether it’s piano, hockey, painting, running, writing or surfing, we will go through periods of great fun and great upset if we truly want to improve our performance in any activity. 

Who is standing in your corner?  Is there a coach who both encourages you and challenges your limits?  Is there a teacher or a parent who insists that if you just stick with it, it’ll get easier or better or more enjoyable? 

The role of the parent… It is so powerful and incredibly intimidating.  What a responsibility we have to help our children be great. 

I recently had a conversation with a teacher friend about a woman whose daughter is taking swim lessons.  Each practice, the mom would watch and listen and after the session she would offer her praise laced with bits of advice, “Your speed is really improving, but maybe next time you could work on getting your arm to extend further with each stroke.”  This is the most seductive form of “parenting”, isn’t it?   I praise my child, but then I can teach her something as well.   She mentioned this story to me because we both have children who are piano students.  And we are also both piano teachers who have particular expectations of at home practice.  

In her experience with her boys and their at home practice, she can easily slip into the “teacher” mode of offering praise laced with advice, “That was nice, but how about playing slower?  More feeling?  A little less pedal?”  There are a number of seemingly super helpful suggestions.  I have the same challenge with my little Ava.  Though she plays beautifully and loves her class time, we struggle with her practice time.  It’s not fun most days.  I find myself vacillating between being the parent and being the teacher.  My expectations as a teacher supersede my enjoyment as the parent. 

Back to the swim lesson story…  What this mom realized was that her daughter didn’t need praise or advice.  She could get that from her coach.  What she needed from her mom was appreciation.  Those words that hold the space for her daughter to be inspired to greatness.  Words like, “I just love watching you swim.  You’re like a graceful sea creature.”  She decided to simply be in the moment with her child and observe her daughter’s swimming from a place of appreciation and awe. 

When my friend told me this part of the story, I thought back to my childhood and the number of years I gave to piano lessons and practice.  I don’t ever remember wanting to quit.  Ever.  No, I didn’t always enjoy the daily practice and truthfully, as I got into my teens, I didn’t have a lot of time to practice.   But did I love to play the piano?  Yes.  I loved to play for people.  I especially loved to play for my dad.  The only instrument he played was the harmonica (he was self-taught) so for him, watching and listening to me play the piano was incredible. 

He showered me with his appreciation and awe.  When he would record me playing so he could later listen to the cassette tape in his car on the way to work, I felt appreciated.  When we had friends over for dinner and he would request that I play something for everyone, I felt appreciated.   I felt like I had something to offer someone else.  It made him happy.  So it made me happy.  And it inspired me to want to get better at playing.  He never offered advice or criticism, just pure appreciation.

This is what I will be encouraging my parents to do more of.  And I’ll be taking my own advice on this as well!  It doesn’t matter what the activity is just show your appreciation and awe.  Leave the instruction and advice to the teachers and coaches.  They have the ability to develop the skills your child needs to improve, but you have the power to inspire your child to want to improve. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


One of the parents in my studio, who is also a fellow Simply Music Teacher and a good friend of mine, shared this letter with the parents in her studio.   It's something she wrote to address the issues that come up with piano lessons and practice.  And I love it!  Enjoy:)

Dear Life Coaches (AKA:  Moms and Dads),

Did the title of this email catch your attention?  I'm hoping you haven't heard that statement in your own houses, but I'll confess I've heard it in mine from time to time.  I also confess I said something like that to my own parents when I was in elementary school.  

By now you have all seen the "Long Term Relationship" graph that we use in class from time to time, and you are familiar with the idea that, if we are in something (almost anything, really) for the long haul our emotions will experience that familiar ebb and flow... I like it, I love it, I hate it, I can take it or leave it, I love it, I hate it, I'm bored with it, I like it again etc.   I look at piano lessons as a way to teach my kids how to get familiar, even comfortable with, that cycle and learn the value of sticking with something through the good, bad and ugly times.  

It has been on my mind to write this email as a means of encouraging you for at least two weeks now.  Why?  Because this tends to be that time of year where we are all getting a little weary.  We see June approaching and we are ready for a break from all those  winter commitments; our kids sense spring in the air (even in Socal, land of perpetual summer!).  Also, I have 8 students currently in Foundation 4, and that tends to be a milestone for many students.  Pieces are a little more challenging, new tools are being mastered, and we are balancing longer playlists with numerous projects.  Helping our kids adjust to these changes needs a little extra tender loving care.  

So, what helps me as I coach my kids through the tough patches? Here are a few things, that may help some of you as well:

1.  I remember the Big Picture.  
 Before we ever started the boys in music lessons Bart and I had decided that, along with solid academics, our kids were also going to learn to A) swim    B) play piano  C) be reasonably comfortable speaking in public.   Other activities they chose to explore were up to them, but these were non-negotiable.    When complaints arise, since quitting isn't an option, we search for other creative solutions.

2.  I remember I am giving my kids the gift of music.   
Some gifts are easy to give.  When we gave the boys certain Star Wars lego sets  at Christmas it was very easy.  They knew exactly what they wanted and the boxes were even easy to wrap!  In contrast, the gift of music is much more complicated.  There is a time commitment for all of us.   There are also times when I have to confront, insist, plan rewards, and give consequences.  But, unlike the lego kit,  this is a gift that will last their lifetime.  I do not know what form it will take, but I am convinced it will be lifelong.

3.  I try to be a problem solver.
Sometimes I just have to be the strong one, put my foot down and say "I know you don't like it but you are doing it anyway,"  until the boys are mature enough to do this for themselves.   But other times I have needed to listen, find out where things were breaking down and help them come up with a plan. This may involve talking to their teacher, too.

My next email on this theme, will cover a few specific ideas that can help at home. 

For now, I want to say a huge thank-you to all of you, who are doing a fantastic job giving your kids the "gift of music".  If you related to this email in any way, I encourage you to hang in there!   You just never know where that gift will be used in your child's future.  Check out these possibilities:

Neil Moore:  required by his parents to take lessons and practice 20 minutes a day for several years.  Ended up creating a whole new approach for learning piano, accordion, and soon guitar as well!

Stephen Harper (prime minister of Canada):  after a stressful day at the "office"  comes home and unwinds at the piano

Jordan McConnell: wanted to quit guitar in elementary school, currently on tour, playing a guitar he built himself, in Japan

Shirley Brewer:  at age 88, with vision and hearing impairments, can still enjoy sitting down at the piano to play her songs

Me:  If you had told me in 7th grade I would one day be a piano teacher, I would have rolled my eyes and said "Never!"

Have a great weekend, everyone!   Hope your pianos are singing today!

Julia Brewer 

Thanks, Julia! 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Like Mommy, Like Daughter

It's been awhile since I last posted anything here.  Since February, I've taken our girls on an eight day adventure to my parent's farm in Michigan, I've trained for and completed my second Half Marathon, and we've given our home a face lift (new floors, new paint, new furniture!!  YAY!!).  

The kids (Ava and Dakota) are morphing into little adults before our eyes.  Dakota is now attending a weekly Toddler Class - she's the oldest one in the group and towers over all the little non-walkers.  Ava has been attending a weekly (if we can get her there) ballet class.  She has a fantastic teacher and is learning how to follow instructions and participate in a group...  she's also been taking piano lessons with a teacher who I hope she thinks is fantastic... me.  

For almost a year, I've had a hidden fear about starting her into piano lessons.  It seems obvious that she should take piano lessons, but I wasn't sure if I was going to be up for the challenge.  I know my child.  I know how shy she is in groups.  How she wants to hide when people ask her questions.  How she clings to me when she's nervous, upset, embarrassed, unsure...  

I felt it necessary to safeguard the situation with a buffer so I enrolled my husband as her "coach" during the lesson.  Because of his lack of musical knowledge, I wasn't sure if he'd agree to it.  It's also a weekly commitment and he has lots of other commitments.  I'm happy to say that he agreed to be there.

First lesson, the other two students and parents arrive 15 min early.  My husband and child are 3 minutes late.  Ava enters wearing a flowery dress that is usually reserved for dress up time, occasionally she wears it to preschool, but on most days it's just hanging in her closet.  The first lesson consists of a variety of "getting to know you" activities.  Parents and students get to know me, my expectations, how to use their materials, how to spend their "playtime" at home... and I get to know them and how they interact with their child, how well their child follows instructions... how well the parent follows instructions.  And of course, we get to play.  Hands on the piano, moving along the keys like a butterfly...

During Ava's first week of practice, a fight broke out... on the first day.  "No!  I don't want to play the piano!  I don't want lessons!"  Wow.  Already?  I stayed firm in my requirement and dragged her to the piano.  Once there, we had the best time.  We played together.  We drew pictures to the musical recording.  We played our pictures onto the piano and told stories.  The rest of the week was amazingly fun for both of us.

Second lesson, the other students and parents arrive 10 min early.  My husband and child are 2 minutes late. Ava enters wearing the same flowery dress.  It occurs to me that she must have changed because she wasn't wearing it a half hour before.  It then occurs to me that she must have designated this as her "piano lesson" dress which makes sense.  She has a ballet class outfit.  Why not a piano lesson outfit?  

At our second lesson, we explore the Pentatonic - fun to say and fun to play.  We practice playing loudly and softly and "closing our curtain" to end our song.  The class went so fast that we had time left over.  The kids gave their parents a drum/shaker and took one for themselves.  Each family had a turn at playing a blues duet with me at the piano while the others banged their drums.  It was loud, groovy and magical.  These little 4 1/2 year olds are magical.  I was impressed by their (and their parents) uninhibited musicality.

Since beginning this new musical journey with Ava, I feel very lucky to be the one to introduce music to her and also to follow her as she explores and creates.  Music is a powerful connector of people.  And I'm so thankful that my husband and I both get to connect with Ava through music.  I'm looking forward to our next lesson! 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Dreaded Valley

As 2012 was finishing up, I found myself in a valley.  For those of you who don't know the significance of a valley, let me explain.  As a Simply Music Teacher, I talk to my students at the beginning of their musical journey about the ups and downs of learning the piano.  Truly, the ups and downs are happening all the time, with everything we decide is important enough to do or have for a long period of time, i.e. any relationship, project, routine, job, goal, etc.

These ups and downs are likened to being on a mountain top (I love piano), trudging along a plateau (piano is okay) and being lost in a valley (I don't like piano anymore - make it stop).  And as I speak to the parent and student about this, I usually sense a general feeling of discomfort when I ask the question, "How will you support your child during those times when he/she is in the valley and doesn't want to practice anymore?"   

There are a lot of feelings that come up around this dreaded valley.  NOT loving something ALL the time seems like failure...  a reason to quit... give up... move on... try something else...  and it's also a reason to conclude certain things about oneself:  piano is not for me... I'm not musical...  if I was any good at it, shouldn't I enjoy it all the time...

Our world presents a distorted picture of success.  It's a happy face.  Success shouldn't come so easily that we forget what it takes to continually improve and get better at what we're successful at.  It's not a happy face.  At least not forever.  And it's not a sad face.  At least not forever.  It's all of it and more.  

I have never confessed to a parent or student when I'm in a valley.  And I'm sure the reason is because of what I have believed about that dreaded valley.  What would the student think?  What would the parent say?    Would this information, in some way, chip away the trust they've placed in me?  

Well, I'm confessing it now.  Perhaps there's safety in knowing the valley is now behind me.  What's most significant for me is the moment I decided to turn the switch.  I had been feeling disconnected from my teacher community, had felt the overwhelm of being behind in my office work and training and I was hoping for a miracle to happen at our four day Simply Music Symposium.  Fortunately, I didn't wait until then.  

After walking in circles in that deep dark valley, I decided that I was going to have to climb out.  I couldn't wait for my fellow teachers to pull me out.  That Monday, I just needed to make one small change.  This set me up for the week.  Creativity sparks creativity.  Then the Symposium came and the connections made with the Simply Music community helped me continue to climb.  And once I was back in my studio... I could breathe again.  Fresh air, new ideas, joy, love for music, gratitude for my fabulous students and their fabulous parents put my feet on the mountain top again.  

Wouldn't it be great if I could stay there?  Not really.  At such a high altitude I might get light-headed...  Seriously, it is wonderful to be there, but I realize more than ever that the elation from being on top again, wouldn't be quite so wonderful had I not been in that dreadful valley.  And this is the point...  take it all.  Go with it.  Allow it to shape character and purpose...  There's nothing like that feeling of knowing, "I made it through!"

Monday, January 7, 2013

Aching with Elation

When I rang in the new year in 2012, I set out to start running.  My goal was to be able to run more than 3 miles.  For some reason, at three miles I'd start to feel nauseous and my body would just started breaking down.  So I'd stop. 

On Jan 4th, 2012 I attached my Ipod Nano to my hip, started my "Couch to 5k" podcast and settled in for a 9 week program.  I had my doubts about it from the beginning, but I can say that it actually worked.  Once I was running just over three miles, I wondered if I could run four.  So I ran four.  Then a couple weeks would pass and I wondered if I could run five miles.  So I ran five.  Then one day I logged 8.5 miles and thought I could just keep going.  My neighbor encouraged me to train for a half marathon since I was running long distances already.  So I did.  I had 12 weeks to train.  And on January 6th, 2013 (almost exactly a year after I started the Couch to 5k program) I ran my first half marathon.  13.1 miles.  There were parts that were easy and parts that were so hard I just wanted to quit...  But I didn't.

My body is still feeling the strain as I type this.  And my mind is seeing a correlation between the ups and downs of life.  At about mile 8, it occurred to me how similar long distance running is to being in labor.   During the first 7 miles I thought, "Wow, this is easy and kind of fun!" (early labor).  During the last half my body was screaming, "Make it stop!" (active labor).

Running long distances is very much like navigating long term relationships, specifically the LTR of learning an musical instrument (you knew I had to bring it back to music, right?).  When a student begins piano lessons, I love to see their excitement each week.  It's easy and fun and feels like that first 7 miles.  Then something happens... A thought occurs... "I think I'll skip practicing today because I'm so busy" or "I think I want to try trapeze classes".  It doesn't matter what the thought is, it just matters that it occurs.  It's the same as saying, "I need to NOT do this thing right now because it's causing me discomfort.  And because of this discomfort, I believe I need to do something else."  The unfortunate thing is that if you follow that thought through, it leads to a different path entirely and you end up never getting to mile 13.1 and never crossing the finish line.  

In music, it's hard to say where that finish line is.  Learning music is a life long endeavor.  However, reaching your goal, i.e. learning to read notes easily, playing a challenging classical piece, transposing easily into different keys, feeling comfortable improvising alone or with others, etc. could be the 13.1 mile marker.  And reaching that goal will feel amazing.  Crossing that finish line, gave me a true sense of accomplishment because I didn't give up.  Tears filled my eyes and I was elated and speechless. I had done it.  And now, as the aches and pains subside, I'm thinking about doing it again.  But my goal is to be in even better shape so that miles 8 thru 13 feel a little more enjoyable.  It can only get easier, right?  The same goes with learning the piano.  Once a goal is reached, a new goal emerges and the process continues.  It's not always fun, not always easy, however, so much is gained by just putting one foot in front of the other and not giving up.  

Whatever your goal is, get to it.  January 2013 is a perfect time to start something new or return to something that is important to you.  You can do it.  One step at a time... 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Go with the flow...

Opportunities to just go with the flow surround me.  Daily.  When I play out a future event in my head and notice how precise my need is for things to happen smoothly and neatly, there is usually a little voice that says, "Hmm... that's interesting that YOU see it playing out THAT way." Chuckle.

It doesn't really matter how big or small the event is.  It just matters that it turns out "right".  (That little voice is chuckling again.)

On October 27th, I gathered my musicians together for a performance opportunity at The Gardens in Santa Monica - an assisted living home for the elderly.  It seemed so simple to organize.  I had made a phone call a few weeks prior, set up the hour long time slot, informed and invited my musicians and their families and arrived on the 27th ready to entertain.

"Who are you visiting today?" The lady behind the information counter asked.  As I told her that we were scheduled to play for everyone, she scrambled through her papers to find something that would indicate this to be true.  She didn't find anything.  She did, however, inform me that we were competing with BINGO and that if we really wanted to have an audience we should have been put on the calendar.  Go with the flow.

Though there were only a handful of residents in the lobby, they seemed curious about our visit.  One child started to play and our mini audience came closer and settled in for the entire hour.  One after another the students played 2, 3, 4 songs from their repertoire and once finished they asked if they could go again. We heard blues, classical, contemporary, and lots of sing-a-long songs.  Towards the end, the kids just started lining up to play.  They knew they had a limited amount of time and they wanted to get in as much as possible!  

I had imagined something entirely different for this event, however, I got more than I had expected.  I got to see my students light up at the opportunity to just play and the opportunity to listen to others play.  Will I plan out our next event and expect it to happen as it "should"?  Absolutely.  But I will also go with the flow if it doesn't?  Oh, yes.

Here are some photos from our playing opportunity:

A big THANK YOU to the students and their families who also went with the flow!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Time Travel

Time travel must exist because I feel like I'm being pushed faster and faster into the future...  As I stand at my whiteboard preparing to write notes for the class that just finished, I'm writing 10/22/12.  What?  Wasn't I just writing 9/22/12?  Even 6/22/12 seems like yesterday.

I think I assumed that having kids would make things slow down a bit.  It's the repetitive everyday tasks like washing breakfast off their faces, getting them dressed, teeth brushed, shoes on...  the long and sometimes drawn out bed time routine... the baths that cause raisin-ization.   Even these everyday things don't do anything to slow it all down.  Monday quickly turns to Friday which quickly turns back into Monday again...  We all know that time flies when you're having fun so taking more time off, going on trips, having adventures will not stretch each minute a little more than last.  

I think I just need to get better at appreciating each moment as it's happening.  Often I feel rushed to get to the next moment.  And there are so many things that have to happen in any given moment (household tasks, children's needs, preparing for a lesson, teaching a lesson, emails, etc.) that the day just flies by.  Appreciating the moments...  whatever they are... when and wherever they are...  be present...  now.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Swallowed by a lion...

I'm not a group person.  I think I work well in groups, but I typically like doing things by myself.  The piano, often thought of as an instrument for one,  fits with my personality well.  Fortunately, I'm also a person who likes to challenge myself in new ways, look outside the box and test things out.  What if piano could be explored in a group setting?  This is the question I asked myself almost six years ago.  And the answer that came to me was through a Google search:  Simply Music.  Since beginning my Simply Music journey, I've explored this area of group learning and what it's done is made me more curious about group creating.  What would the experience of creating piano music in a group be like?

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of introducing eight of my students to composing in a group.  This is how it went:  We started with deciding on a who, what and where for our story.  A free flow of ideas emerged as the kids came up with the name for our character, what he does, what he wants and where he is.  From there we established a beginning, middle and an end.  Each student contributed an idea and within five minutes we had our simple story on the board.  

One of the students got to be the storyteller and he told the story completely giving us all a clear picture of who "Ike" was and what he was doing.  We took it to the piano and each student "told" his/her part of the story by finding notes to express the mood or the action.  For our group performance, two students sat at the piano, one stood as the storyteller and the others played a drum or a shaker.  Plenty of drama, silliness and lots of laughter:)

With the framework in place, I chose two leaders who then picked their groups.  With pen and paper they drafted their own stories.  There were students who had an endless supply of ideas.  "And then Bob got swallowed by a lion...  but... but...  the lion couldn't digest him!  And then..."  Others listened to the one with all the ideas and would offer "Yeah!  A lion!  And he got a stomach ache!"  And others sat in their group, listening but were noticeably nervous about sharing an idea.  

When it came time to put the music and the drums with the story, they all got involved.  Lots of decisions to be made:  which part of the story needs a loud drum beat or a tinkling of the keys, does the storyteller speak while the music is happening or does he wait?  As the group, they took their roles and contributions and put them together to make it work.  

At the end of the hour, each group performed for each other.  Their stories were so completely different!  There were lions eating people in one and diamond thieves in the other.  I looked around and saw bright eyes and smiling faces.  It was clear they had enjoyed being the audience just as much as they enjoyed being the performers.  And it was also clear that collaborating with others in a creative space encourages listening... which encourages new ideas... which encourages action... which makes for a really fun time!

Monday, September 10, 2012

What's Your Story?

Butterflies... trees... wind... ladybugs and frogs...  The combination of these can make a pretty terrific story.  Today was my first opportunity to introduce parents to the Play A Story program designed for 4 to 6 year olds.  What a treat it was!  

To give the parents a taste of what their children would experience, we explored our musicality through improvisation and play.  My favorite part of this introductory session was having a parent at the piano expressing herself through the piano while I read a story about the zephyr wind and its movement through the forest.  This parent had never had piano lessons before.  She placed her hands on the keys and let the story move her all over the notes.  And it sounded so lovely!  When the story ended, she gently took her hands off the keys and with a big smile on her face said, "That was amazing!"  

Music and story allow our focus to rest on a single moment in time.  Now.  And the feeling that comes from creating in the moment is like none other.  Bravo parents!  

The Play A Story classes will begin the first week of October!

Are there any 4 to 6 year olds in your world who would love to learn how to express themselves through music?  

Check out: to find a teacher in your area!  and to learn more about my studio!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Lovely Surprises Along the Way...

As a human, I make assumptions about people.  As a teacher, I make assumptions about students and parents.  And I'm thankful for those moments when my assumptions (good or bad) are proved wrong because it's a reminder that I don't know everything.  There's something liberating in knowing that. 

When I get calls from excited parents about piano lessons for their 2, 3, 4 or 5 yr old, I take a deep breath and listen to everything they want to tell me about their little virtuoso.  But in the end, I make other recommendations.  Though Mozart was a gifted composer at the age of 4, I believed that HE was the exception to the rule.  And my "rule" had always been to begin teaching students somewhere around 6 1/2 years old or 7.  

Well, wouldn't you know it, someone had to prove me wrong.  Nancy Leung came to lessons for a Workshop I offered through Living Social.  She took her materials home and her little guy, Connor, started learning the songs on his own.  He was 5 years old at the time.  Connor is one of those little "Mozarts" who seems to eat music.  

Here's what Connor's up to now...

Since Connor began taking lessons, more little tikes have come into my studio and surprised me with their capabilities.  More to share on that soon...