On my first day of pedagogy, our professor handed out sheets of paper and asked us to list five of our
favorite living pianists. Despite having spent the last fourteen years of my life at the keyboard, learning to play the piano, I realized at that moment that I had very little experience with listening to other performers. I think I listed Glenn Gould and Van Cliburn. And that might have been it. I was embarrassed and determined to know more about my chosen craft and those who practice it at the highest levels from that moment on.
When I started teaching, I wanted to make sure my students had more exposure than I had had. I encouraged parents to attend concerts with their children, to buy recordings or check them out at the library and play them often for their families, but it wasn’t until I added a lab time to my private lessons that I really felt like I could help my students increase their listening. I began with videos and CDs of great artists, but with a limited budget, I couldn’t achieve any sort of enormous breadth.
Enter the internet and YouTube…hooray for YouTube! Yes, there are hundreds of terrible performances for every great performance, but the enormity of the offerings available to anyone with an internet connection and computer or iPad is thrilling. Youtube has definitely made listening lab time in my studio so much more successful.
Almost every week, my students begin their lab time with a listening assignment, either on the laptop or the iPad. While listening, they fill out a Listening Log kept in their piano binders. This log asks them to list the composer, the piece, the performer, a 1-5 star rating, and provides them with a space to list at least three words describing the performance. To make it easier for the younger students to figure out the information, I list the first three of these on a white board with the rest of their lab assignment.
Some months have a theme: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary, concertos, chamber music, Christmas. Sometimes they will listen to two or three short pieces in a category during one week, or sometimes I will have them listen to the same piece performed by two or three different performers and ask them to try to note differences on their logs. At least once a month their listening assignment is something fun and more modern. Sometimes the performers are amateurs, sometimes they are internet sensations, and sometimes they are piano greats.
Not all of my students like all of the pieces they hear. I used to feel like I had to assign listening assignments that would appeal to every student, and then I decided that each of them could manage listening to pieces that didn’t draw them in immediately as long as I mixed it up with more exciting repertoire.
Just a note: I prefer using the iPad for listening because it’s easier to make sure they are just looking at the performance and not seeing the comments or the sidebar of suggested videos (some of these are completely inappropriate…a frustrating downside to using YouTube.)
I’ve found that in general, the most successful classical piano listening assignments at keeping younger and less experienced students’ attention are brief (not usually longer than 6 minutes) and showy (of course.) I love live performances because they are often fantastic, but usually not note-perfect.
Some of my favorite classical performers for student listening are:
Evgeny Kissin (we love his hair): Here is his live La Campanella.
Yuja Wang: Flight of the Bumblebee is often a favorite.
Krystian Zimerman: Gershwin Preludes (I love his Mozart and Chopin)
Martha Argerich: Chopin 6th Polonaise and always her Bach
Vladimir Ashkenazy: Chopin 24th Prelude
And of course there are so many clips available from Yundi Li, Lang Lang, and the YouTube-made phenomenon, Valentina Lisitsa. Our Utah local boy, Josh Wright, also has a fun YouTube channel.
On the other end of the piano spectrum are the prodigy-ish young pianists. Sometimes I’ll throw in one of these for fun:
Emily Bear: Here she is at six years old on Ellen.
A darling five-year old playing Bach.
Students love out of the ordinary performances and/or modern transcriptions. Here are a few:
Josh Wright: La Campanella on two pianos
Jarrod Radnich: Pirates of the Caribbean
Sinclair Eoin: Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger
And last but not least, The Piano Guys. My students love love love The Piano Guys. When a Piano Guys song is the listening assignment, I have a bunch of happy kids. Here is one of their favorites: What Makes You Beautiful.
Depending on the month, I’ll sometimes include performances by other instruments or jazz performances (and I could use help and links from those of you who teach other instruments. What do your students love?)
Maybe the very most valuable YouTube channel for those of us who teach piano is this one: The University of Iowa Piano Pedagogy Project. Their goal? To put teaching repertoire on the internet. How much? All of it. Yes. All of it. They are adding videos at a rate of about 100 per week. This is a fantastic resource if you want students to hear their beginning or intermediate repertoire played well.
Another great listening lab resource is Anne Crosby Gaudet’s Look Listen Learn section of her Pianoanne blog. She has monthly themes and suggested listening links as well as a printable listening log.
What suggestions do you have for me? Any fantastic not-to-miss brilliant performances? Or any with just plain awesomeness that will magically make all my students want to practice three hours a day? Please share!