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I'm a great teacher... but my piano skills STINK!

I am just getting out of college, and while I've recieved great marks on all my teaching evaluations and compliments from several fellow choral conductors, I am greatly lacking in the piano playing area. I practice every day, but I just can't get my head and my hands to communicate. Obviously I will hire an accompanist for performances, but what about rehearsals? I recently directed a musical where I used Finale to teach parts and create a rehearsal track without voices. Is this acceptable? If not, what else can I do? 
Replies (28): Threaded | Chronological
on December 17, 2013 4:54am
I totally agree with the above: practice, and practice smart. I will add this: when I was doing my student teaching I had the opportunity to observe a wonderful teach. He has fabulous piano skills, but in rehearsal, uses the piano as little as possible. He often does make his students sight read, but he *can* play anything he needs to. He used some techniques that I adoped both because I thought they were good practice, and because I am a farily miserable pianist (though better than I was when I started teaching a few years ago). When I started, I could certainly play an vocal part individually, but get more than 2 together, and it got rough (more than one sometimes used to be a challenge). Here are a few techniques I use (I teach middle school, so I am often dealing w/ 2 part singing): I sing one part and play the other (it seems easier for the students to choose one instrument to follow, rather than distinguish notes on the piano). I often have the more confident section(s) hum/zzz/vvv their parts while struggling parts sing out until they gain the requisite confidence. One thing I was taught in school is the art of selective note playing. We mostly rehearse unaccompanied, but I can pick out important elements from the accompaniment to play so that they are not lamblasted when the accompanist arrives. My skills are SIGNIFICANTLY better than they were just 4 years ago. So much so that I find I can actually play the accompaniment sometimes, and 3 parts at once (this is a huge victory for me with dislexyia and tiny hands). You can do it!
Applauded by an audience of 4
on December 17, 2013 10:06am
Piano skills are extremely important. Now this is easy for me to say because I was a piano major in college so playing the piano in rehearsals is second nature to me. However, I just gave a clinic to other choir teachers, most of whom do not have decent piano skills. Again, like everyone else has said, practice, practice, practice, but... don't over do it practicing because you are just going to stress yourself out. Spend 10-30 minutes a day just playing through the music. (Doesn't have to be fast or up to tempo, just at a speed where you can read it accurately) Soon enough, you'll see your skills will start to improve. Start working on playing major scales. You'll be amazed at how well scales improve your overall playing ability. As far as using a rehearsal track, I think that is ok as long as your are not using that to teach parts to your kids. For instance, I teach all of the parts myself on the piano. Now, since I am a pianist, I mostly play the accompaniments however, when concert time gets closer, I record myself playing the accompaniment so that the students can get used to having me in front of them directing. Believe it or not, I also hire out an accompanist for most of my concerts as well because I like to be in front of my kiddos.
Hope this helps.
Chris :)  
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 28, 2014 12:07pm
I was/am in the same situation.  I am a saxophone player.  MY keyboard skills from college sat dormant for many years until I left the high school drama classroom for the general music classroom.  I have comped my way through everything, but learning to PLAY has been important.  Not Beethoven and Bach, but to clump through the chords and run melodies and harmonies has been vital.  I use performance tracks for performance, which allows me to be in front of my students.
As a high school student, I joined a 40+ member men's barbershop chorus in our community.  We sang EVERYTHING acapella.  One pitchpipe.  EVERYTHING was TAUGHT acapella.  Our relative pitch was outstanding.  I teach my students like that for the majority.  I need to know EVERY part so I can sing it to them.  THEN I accompany and clean up parts.  But I still use tracks on some songs -- just like karaoke.  They give the kids an opportunity to sing with a professional band or orchestra.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 29, 2014 5:18am
I certainly empathize with your plight, but I encourage you to consider all your options. In 27 days I will retire at age 70 after many years of teaching choral music, and I can still play only simple warmup exercises and, with fair accuracy, single lines of notes. So I extablished and have maintained my focus on a cappella music. There are several reasons that I would urge you to consider this route. First, unaccompanied music is still on the upswing in our country and there is an abundance of literature out there that young people can sing and that they love. Second, when my choir goes out into the community to perform, we walk in with a pitch pipe and sing. People like that. No instruments, no risers, no drums, etc. Third, the human voice is the most interesting and versatile of all instruments and young people love the opportunity to experiment with different sounds and techniques. Just look at and listen to the several outstanding a cappella groups and let your imagination run wild. Fourth, check out the new world of A Cappella Pop as explained in the book by that title written by my long-time friend, Brody McDonald. Here is another off-shoot of a cappella singing that is growing quickly and captivating so many young folks. Finally, nothing is more demanding (or rewarding) on singers than being obliged to sing their part with no instrumental assistance. My choirs regularly work in quartets, and when I say "OK, quartets", they jump up enthusiastically, knowing that if they miss their part, it will be treated as a learning moment, and that the choir will be stronger when everyone can carry their weight in the ensemble. Without patting myself on the back, I will say that my choirs have become well known in our community and in our district for their excellent singing. This reputation is supported by Distinguished ratings in assessment festival in nine of the last ten years, including just last week when all four judges awarded them a Distinguished rating with 22 kids on stage singing in the Difficult category. It is a very viable and rewarding option and I again urge you to consider it.
Carl Taylor, Boyd County High School, Ashland, KY
Applauded by an audience of 6
on April 29, 2014 6:04am
A good way to develop piano skills: Get a hymn book of traditional hymns in 4-part harmony, not gospel songs or praise songs. A standard Anglican hymn book would be perfect. Just start working your way through the hymns, slowly at first, but your speed will pick up as you practise. Make yourself read and play all 4 notes of each chord. It will develop your ability to read bass and treble clef at the same time, play in 4-note chords and keep a tempo going. It will be painful at first, but the rewards are great :)
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 30, 2014 3:38am
I'm finishing my third year as a middle school choir teacher. My choirs consistantly sing in four-part harmony. My piano skills are nothing to write home about.

My technique? A combination of two things: Solid vocal technique for melodic teaching and Kodaly literacy training for harmonic technique. I had a music education professor who was an amazing piano player but never used the piano for her classes. Everything was done with Kodaly. First we would sight-read the rhythm, speak solfa syllables, then break doown each line before lining up the chords. All you need to do is take the first two weeks of class and develop the aural culture. I spent 8 90 minute classes on 5 things: aural warm-ups with major and minor scales/arpeggi, melodic vocal technique so the students were comfortable singing any part melodically (whole group/men and women/sections) and then I built up harmony, starting with unison spirituals, partsongs, ostinati, canons, then finally two-part choral music bt READING it. By October they are reading confidently in parts with the help of section leaders.

I also have a great voice teacher. We spend 90% of the time on technique and philosophy and 10% of the time on "feeding the music". He breaks down the line into bite-sized sections and we slowly build the melody by echoing, then add words. We learn music totally a capella this way. He is also a choral director and uses the same techniques for his choirs. "Every vocal line is its own melody." So after each section gets the blueprint for their part, I take 20 minutes with each of the 4 sections and "feed the music" through echoing and internalizing the melody of their part. Then I try every single 2-part combination I can think of before slowly building a 4-part piece. I almost never touch the piano.

One last thing. I spend about 45 minutes of my planning period every day with the music. It's not like I score study constantly. But I sing every line, solfa it, play it on the piano, practice playing 2 parts at one, piddle with accompaniment, and figure out harmonic chords I can play (I-IV-V is normally all you need) just to internalize the music and have fun with it. I know these pieces so well that I COULD play if I needed to, even though I can't sight-read keyboard worth anything. So..even though I build my entire teaching technique around as little piano as possible, I've never tried to drop it.

Hope this gives you ideas!

Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 30, 2014 8:40am
Great description of your method, Andrew! Thanks.
on April 30, 2014 2:00pm
Hi, Kimberly
I know the pressure you must be feeling. I'm now in the middle of my DMA and I'm struggling daily to become a better pianist.
I believe you have a number of great advice in the previous comments. I only want to add that I worked with some books on sight reading at the keyboard that definitely made a huge difference on my skills.
The ones I loved the most were Ellen Burmeister's and Leonhard Deutsch's ones. But you can find much more good stuff with a simple research.
Ideas that came to me from those books were on how to connect my hands with my eyes, where to look for, what to look for, how to feel the keyboard and the space between my fingers, how to make my eyes buoyant and flexible through the score, and so on.
Those may be great resources.
Good luck.
Carlos Eduardo Vieira
GTA at The Univeristy of Alabama
on May 1, 2014 3:37am
I have had this same struggle and because of this I choose a lot of unaccompanied pieces. But recently I bought a Korg keyboard that allows me to record the vocal parts and accompaniment part and store it. This has been a useful tool during the beginning staged of learning a song. Once the students are more confident in there parts, I use it less and less to allow more freedom in the tempo and line of each phrase. 
Keep up the practice though. You will get better. The piano skills of a choral teacher are very different than a piano major. I find it much easier to read a classical piano piece than a choir score. As you practice more, you will begin to adjust to reading and playing several lines in a score. 
on July 19, 2014 12:21am
It could be your practice technique.  Play new stuff at turtle tempo so you can process.  Split hands up only as a last resort, but otherwise, turtle tempo so both hands can process.  If that doesn't work, super turtle tempo, and if that doesn't work, turtle snail sloth super slug slo-mo tempo. 
When you make a mistake while practicing, stop playing.  Isolate exactly where it was you biffed, think about it as a teacher for a second (is it the interval, the fingering, the confusing E#, the rhythm against the other hand.. what is the freakin' problem here Joseph?!)
Once you've isolated and identified the problem, repeat several times until it's like tying your shoes. 
Then back up a measure or so and lead into it to see if you can do it in context to the stuff just before.  If you crash, try it again at super turtle slo-mo and look ahead so you're thinking about shifting the tracks before the train comes. 
Then start from the beginning (slothman-style) and see if it's fixed. 
Once you've succeeded in playing through at ooze-drip speed, bump it up to a chocolate drizzle, then a little faster, to fo shizzle my nizzle.  That last part didn't mean anything, I just like rhyming and snoop dogg, but you get the idea.
Unless you have some sort of physical disability, which it sounds like you do not - YOU SOUND VERY SMART AND CAPABLE AND AWESOME - it's probably just your practice technique and how much time you spend practicing. 
Best of skill (vs. luck).
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