A Better Way To Teach Chamber Music
I'm a firm believer that anyone can learn to play music, even in chamber music/ensemble settings, given the right motivation and a creative approach to teaching.
This is a "reprint" from the "how to learn a skill" article I wrote for ITHP, but I thought it was worth highlighting, given the novel approach and the fun results. Nothing is more satisfying than helping folks achieve things they never thought possible!
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One summer I was teaching piano at a unique music camp that let anyone attend, regardless of skill level. During one of my lessons, I got a call from a colleague who was frustrated with an ensemble he was trying to coach involving one of the piano students I was working with. I told him I would be happy to take over and walked over to the room where they were supposed to be rehearsing. The three students – a violinist, a cellist, and my piano student – were sitting dejectedly in their chairs, either plucking random notes or just sitting in absolute boredom. “What piece are you supposed to be working on?” I asked them. “Something by Mozart”, one of them responded forelornly. I took a look at the music, then dumped it in the trash. That got their attention. “Forget Mozart,” I announced. “If you could play any piece in the world, what would you want to work on?” Their eyes widened in disbelief. They didn’t have to play an assigned piece? They could actually choose what they wanted to work on? The violinist and cellist seemed completely befuddled. But the pianist quickly came up with a great suggestion. He wanted to work on “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles. I didn’t know that song, so I looked it up on YouTube and downloaded the sheet music from Musicnotes.com. This was a really complicated song – two completely different songs, actually, with a bizarre set of orchestral transitions linking them together into an epic masterpiece of pop. At our next rehearsal, I came armed with a stack of sheet music and my laptop. “This is what we’re going to do,” I announced, as I played them a YouTube video of jazz violinist Paul Dateh doing a take on the top 40 pop hits of the time as a multi-panel video playing all the parts himself
The kids were awed and inspired and couldn’t wait to get started. The stack of sheet music was a set of parts I had written out, breaking the piece down into 16 separate tracks, with each student playing 3 or 4 parts tailored to his or her playing level. Some parts were as basic as a single note played once every measure. The only requirement was to be able to stay in time with a click track and a rudimentary level of music reading ability. I set up my cameras, headphones and microphones, and we started practicing and recording each track until late into the night every night over a 2 week period. Soon, word of this “amazing project” spread throughout the camp and one of the top students of the camp begged me to be a part of it. So I had to come up with a custom track to give him enough of a challenge. In the end, we produced a video that turned the kids who thought they were the runts of the camp into the stars, and they had become so good at playing their parts that they wanted to play live in performance while airing the video at the same time during the final gala student recital, which resulted in a standing ovation.
Here's the resulting video they made:
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