Yiyi Ku

Yiyi Ku

Yiyi Ku is a pianist and teacher. Born in Taiwan, she grew up in New Zealand and obtained her Master of Music degree with Distinction in Composition and Piano Performance from the University of Canterbury. Yiyi also holds a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano from Music Teachers National Association and American College of Musicians/National Guild of Piano Teachers. She has also been certified as Advanced Specialist in both Theory and Piano from RCM. Yiyi has maintained a busy private studio for many years, and enjoys teaching students of all ages and levels.

In one of my previous posts, I talked about preparing students for the Certificate of Merit program by the Music Teachers Association of California. In this blog I would like to share my experience preparing students for another very established program available for students in Southern California – the Southern California Junior Bach Festival.

This is a wonderful program. Essentially a competition, this event celebrates the music by J.S. Bach. There are three stages: students perform in the Branch Festival, a selected group of winners proceed to the Regional Festival, and then another selected group of winners proceed to the final round called “Complete Auditions.” You can read extensive guidelines and rules of the festival on the official website.

What is unique about this festival is that each round has three judges! So, if a student eventually proceeds to the final round, they will have been evaluated by 9 different judges on the same piece! I find this extraordinary! Often, we hear teachers and students complain about the subjectivity of piano competitions – a very common problem indeed! But if 9 judges have heard the same piece and the student is recognized for their effor – that says something!

I have been preparing students for this festival for years, and it is one of my favorite events. Apart from the fact that students are evaluated by 3 judges in each round, I love the “rotating repertoire” – every three years the festival focuses on a different list of the extensive repertoire by J.S. Bach and the list “rotates” – this allows me as a teacher to also explore music that is less familiar to myself, and at the festival itself, it is very interesting to hear different repertoire performed by students of other teachers.

I have read hundreds of student reports throughout the year. The reports from the Bach Festival are the ones I look forward to reading the most every year! It is always interesting to see what the judges have to say, as we all know even in Bach, there can be very different interpretations, or actually I should say – especially in Bach!

There are a few key areas that the judges love to comment on, which I will share below:

1. Tempo choice – Bach can work well in many different tempos. The specific tempo choice has to suit the piece and the student’s ability.
2. Steadiness – Bach needs to be steady! Whatever tempo the student/teacher chooses, steadiness is key.
3. Baroque articulation – It is common to detach notes that have longer values.
4. Terraced dynamics – Layered changes of dynamics are preferred.
5. Awareness of compositional techniques – Bach is all about repetition, sequence and imitation. Understanding where these occur in the piece will help with interpretation.
6. Ornaments – these must be appropriate to the Baroque style. There can be more or less than the printed score.
7. Phrasing – often this is what makes a particular performance unique. How is the subject phrased; how many notes are slurred together. Bach can be phrased so many different ways! Consistency is key here.
8. Voicing – bringing out each voice, particularly in the contrapuntal pieces.
9. Pedal – generally very little pedaling, if at all. Definitely no blurring.
10. Structural awareness – especially for the larger works.

What are your favorite tips in teaching Bach? I would love to hear them!

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Our job as a private instructor gives us unique perspectives and insights regarding a student’s abilities, potential, and character. Recently I have been asked to write various recommendation letters for my students for high school/college applications, summer camps, special recognition awards, as well as supporting documentation for competitions and scholarships.

Here are some of the tips I have to share:

1. State the facts – I always start by stating how long the student has studied with me. This is very important. Piano study requires time and perseverance. Being able to state that someone has stuck to the same activity for a decent number of years and not give up says a lot about that student’s character.

2. Make a list – What has the student accomplished during their time with you? List all the assessment exams/tests they have taken, what level, any high scores/honors they received. Also list any competitions they have participated in, including any prizes they won. If a student has not done any exams or competitions, then list approximately what repertoire they have studied, what level you think they have accomplished, whether they have progressed into an intermediate level or advanced level.

3. Personal observation – This is probably the most interesting part of the letter. What have you noticed about this student? What makes this student stand out from others? What are their special qualities? Does the student show enthusiasm and love? Is the student a consistent hard worker? Is the student conscientious and responsible? Does the student have a high standard for themselves? Does the student learn quickly? Is the student a joy to teach? Focus on the positives.

4. Other involvements – This is where I mention any other facts that I know about the student that may not be music related, such as academic or sports achievements. I also emphasize all the wonderful skills a piano student learns that can apply to other areas – goal setting, time management, accepting constructive criticism, etc.

5. Special mentions – Sometimes an organization requesting the letter asks for specific comments regarding the student – ability for independent study, leadership skills, community service involvements, etc. In this case, it may be necessary for the student to create special opportunities for themselves before you write the letter so that you can comment on their involvements. For example, ask the student to make arrangements to perform for retirement homes/charity concerts, so that there is something you can say about.

6. Wrap up – I also end with another personal note about my relationship with the student. How they have inspired me as a teacher, where I see their strengths lie, and where I see them grow.

7. Contact details – don’t forget to include all your contact information, so you may be contacted for further comment if necessary.

Do you write recommendation letters for your students? What do you include? Do share with us!


Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

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I live in California, and the biggest, most well-known music examination program here is called the Certificate of Merit. It is run by the Music Teachers Association of California, and approximately 30,000 students from all instrumental disciplines participate annually. For my town, the exam is held in early March, so the month of February is final count-down time for my students.

I am writing this post, because as I help my students with their exam preparations, I notice a common thread: what is obvious to us is not always so obvious for the students! Here are some common areas of concern:

1. Memorization. Most exams require students to memorize their music. To do this, we all know that we need to practice with the score in order to consolidate our memory. Very obvious right?! Students do not always know this! Once they think they have more or less memorized their pieces, they often practice from memory at home, and as such, their memory collapses. Even when told to use their music to practice, they often just put it on the music stand, and their eyes are not actually looking at the music, but at their hands and fingers instead. Everyday I have to remind someone to practice with their music, instead of from their not-so-reliable memory! Students often think they have memorized the notes, but they fail to memorize other details such as phrasing and dynamics.

2. Practice hands separately. Again very obvious right? Many students do not do this. They feel it is too boring, and they are “good enough” to not have to do something as basic as this!

3. Practice slowly. It is painful to play slowly. Students do not like it! “But the piece says Allegro”, I often hear, or “I heard someone play this fast on YouTube!” It takes so much patience to practice slowly, and we all know how important this is in order to consolidate technique, not to mention solidify the memory. Students do not know this, or they often forget to do it!

4. Practice with the metronome. In order to practice slowly, and keep the tempo slow, we need something to keep us steady – the metronome! I have a saying in my studio – the metronome does not lie! Students often get faster and faster and they do not realize it. Metronome practice requires discipline and patience – very important skills!

What are some of the things you have discovered that are so shockingly obvious to you, but you find your students forgetting to do? If you are also preparing students for exams, good luck!

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