The year was 1978, and a young 20 something professional musician entered a new chapter of her life. Although I had given piano lessons a few years earlier while teaching music in public schools, this was the first time that I embraced professional piano teaching as what was to become my primary profession. Within a week of starting, I was hooked. It was an “aha” moment for me, because my love of teaching correlated with my commitment to one-on-one relationships.
As is often the case with beginning piano teachers (although some teachers continue to do this for many years), going to students’ homes was the best way to get started. Within two years, I was up to teaching 30 students every week. But something was wrong.
Even though I loved teaching piano, the stress of driving more than hundred miles each week in traffic back and forth across the towns of MetroWest was quickly leading to burnt out. Since I was also performing with my commercial group 3-5 nights per week as well as raising a family, it was inevitable that something had to change.
When I told my close friend and former bandmate John Dougherty that I was ready to quit music, he recommended that I do some musical studies to energize my creative life and increase my musical skills rather than giving up so quickly. He recommended Dr. Avram David a protégé of the legendary Madame Chaloff who had taught many jazz musicians. Although I only studied with Dr. David for one summer, he made two recommendations that transformed the direction of my professional career:
Become a solo pianist
Have your piano students come to you
In my last post For Everything There Is a Season Part 2, I wrote about the transformational period that began right after that historic summer.
Fast forward to 2020 and ask me if I made the right decision to stay in music. My answer is unequivocally “Yes”. The combination of playing solo jazz piano and teaching piano in my own studio (along with being a church pianist/organist) have worked so synergistically and successfully for more than four decades that I cannot have imagined having any other line of work.
Up until about 6 weeks ago, I had planned to continue as I was, teaching piano and directing Mascari Piano Studios for another 15 or 20 years. After all, I spend 3 days per week teaching at our Natick Studio location, doing the administration for our excellent piano and voice teachers and then teaching on Saturdays at our Hudson Studio location. However, beginning on March 16th things everything changed, as they have for so many people.
Even though I had occasionally considered teaching piano online, I had never explored the idea. Now, suddenly, like so many teachers, I was faced with a challenge: to teach online immediately or to wait it out. I opted for the former and after some testing settled on Zoom as my primary online vehicle for teaching.
Two things happened:
I discovered that I loved giving piano lessons online
I realized that if I was to be effective as a piano teacher in this new venue, there were many things to learn
Reflecting on my first point, I thought back to my early days of going to students’ homes to give lessons, and WHY Dr. David emphatically insisted that students should come to my studio for their lessons. How could I rectify this educational and emotional conflict dilemma?
When students come to my piano studio, they enter a “sacred” space. Each student receives my undivided attention in this safe place. She is free to share anything from her musical struggles to a joyful event that happened in her life since our previous lesson. Whether I am teaching a teenager, an elementary school student or an adult piano student, the student gets to play the music he practiced on an excellent quality acoustic piano that has been professionally tuned.
When there is a need for supportive material or new musical selections, my studio library has the resources at hand to expand on his regular lesson books. Since it is often important for her to hear a performance of a song she is learning, I can locate and play a recording for her in a matter of seconds.
When I went to students’ homes, I heard TVs in the background, siblings playing noisily nearby, dogs barking and parents preparing dinner in the kitchen. Privacy was out of the question, quiet was rarely the status quo and most pianos (if they had one rather than a digital keyboard) were out of tune.
What was worse was that the piano lesson was an interruption to the afternoon’s activities. I can still remember giving a piano lesson to a 12-year-old who had just come in from the swimming pool and sat on the piano in her wet bathing suit.
Okay, I admit it, these were the extremes, but I think you get my point. Learning to play the piano is serious stuff in one way but anyone who has watched me perform, knows that playing the piano is tremendously exciting, enjoyable and I dare say lots of fun as well.
When I began teaching piano online, my first goal was to capture the benefits of having students learn to play the piano by coming to my studio for lessons. As the weeks have continued, all of my adult piano students and most of my younger students have been able to enter the virtual sacred space, receive my undivided attention, feel like they are in a safe place and have quite an array of supportive musical material available when they need it. Although they are playing their own acoustic and digital pianos, the online lesson environment serves to encourage, guide, help and motivate each student to grow and develop musically in the same way as in-person lessons have been.
At this point, I am both grateful and excited to be helping students learn to play the music they love in this new online teaching environment. But I am by no means finished making improvements so that my online piano lessons will be even more effective. This week I added a program called Chordie, which enables me to show notes and chords on a piano keyboard as well as on a staff as soon as I play them. Stay tuned for the launching of more tools, technology, and transformational changes to our online piano lessons.