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.

It has been a year since I created an amazing opportunity for my students – paid gigs! 

Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon (except Christmas, Easter, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day), one of my private students performs at a local restaurant for two hours. They get a small stipend, a free meal, and whatever tips they happen to receive from customers! This program has been so successful, and I will share with our dear MusicTeachersHelper blog readers on how you can create a similar one for your students!

  1. Find a restaurant with a piano. The one I work with has a baby brand. It is a very nice, upscale restaurant, and has a newly opened wine tasting lounge – perfect for live entertainment. 
  2. Talk to the owner. My program started because the restaurant was looking for a classical pianist who can perform for two hours every Saturday and Sunday. Someone gave them my number, I said I could not do it myself, since I have a baby and weekends are precious time, but I offered my students. Based on my studio reputation and student success, they accepted. (This is why you absolutely must have a studio website and Facebook page to showcase your students!) 
  3. Negotiate the terms. How much will the students get paid, if any? Can they expect tips? What else? Perhaps a free meal? My students and I are very lucky that the restaurant we deal with is very generous. Obviously the students should not expect professional fees, but some sort of stipend should be negotiated. It really motivates the students!

Benefits for the students

This program has greatly benefited my students. It gives them real life, professional performance experience. As mentioned before, they also get paid and a free meal, and many have made handsome tips. Kids love money, and food! It really motivates them to practice harder so they can be ready for their next paid gig. Many students, after having performed once, tell me they realize they don’t have enough repertoire (two hours solo playing is not a short time!), so they are motivated to learn new pieces. It is also good to send those that have a major exam or competition coming up so they can test-drive their program. I also use it as an incentive – “if you finish learning all these pieces you will be ready to perform at the restaurant and make some money!” Many of my students are very seasoned performers now because of this program. Their sight reading skills have also improved dramatically, as I tell them to sight read some easy classics so they can fill their two hours. They have gained confidence (for many it was the first time they ever got paid), learned the value of hard work, responsibility, and time management skills. The restaurant was so impressed with one particular student, that he got his own gig deal! One door opens another. 

Benefits for me

It is a lot of work to coordinate. The restaurant does not contact the students. All they know is that someone will show up every Saturday and Sunday. I do all the communication. I book who is to perform when, and I use Music Teachers Helper to help me keep track. I do it for free, and my students get all the stipends and tips. Every Saturday and Sunday at 3pm I expect a text from whoever should be there to let me know they showed up. At 5pm I expect another text to let me know things went well. Every now and then something unexpected can happen – for example one time the restaurant had a private party and forgot to tell me not to send someone, or the manager is away and no one is in charge, so I have to chase down the payment on behalf of the student, or the student has an emergency or is sick so I have to quickly find a replacement, etc. It is extra work for me. But all of this is giving me publicity as well, as I ask that my students put my business cards on the piano. Mostly, knowing that my students are greatly benefiting from this experience is why I do it. The parents really appreciate it, too, and they know this program is unique, no other teachers offer it.

Benefits for the restaurant

The restaurant gets new customers. Parents go, grandparents go, friends go, to support the students. They find out the restaurant exists. It is now on their list of dine out options. I also tell everyone I know how wonderful it is that they support live classical music. It truly is amazing that a business would do this, and I convey my appreciation to them often. 

What unique opportunities do you offer your students?

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Ok, this is going to be controversial!

It is competition season where I live. We just had the Southern California Junior Bach Festival (read my previous blog), and last weekend we had the Temecula Young Artist Piano Competition. I have established a reputation of being a teacher who prepares students for competitions, so obviously for me the answer is yes – I believe in competitions!

Here are my reasons:

  1. Provides motivation – This is the biggest reason. Just like preparing for exams, competitions motivate students to practice more. They put in extra effort because there is the potential to win something. Kids love medals and trophies, and teenagers love cash! Money motivates!
  2. Opportunity to learn – Listening to others perform in competitions can be extremely beneficial for a student’s growth as a musician. Sometimes a fellow competitor may play something they learned in the past – they learn to critique and form an opinion on whether they did a better or worse job. Sometimes they hear someone play something that they don’t know and they are inspired and want to learn it, too. They can also learn a great deal about stage presence and expression from watching others. 
  3. Life is a series of competitions – Whether we like it or not, competition is a very real fact of life. Most people have no problems with sports competitions. Think Super Bowl. When it comes to music competitions however, many people frown. “Competition is for horses” they say. Getting into a good college is a competition. Getting a good job is a competition. If we shelter students from competitions because we do not want their feelings hurt, well they are going to get the shock of their life eventually. 
  4. Reality check – Sometimes, students or parents have a different perception of how good they are. Competitions can open their eyes and ears. The world is full of very talented and hard-working students!
  5. I learn, too – I learn a great deal from attending my students’ competitions. Especially when other competitors play a familiar piece, it is good to hear a different interpretation than the one I have taught my students. It also opens my eyes to some amazing performances by other teachers’ students. 
  6. Dealing with unfavorable results – Sometimes the results of a competition is strange. We can never understand the judges! For the most part, they do a great job selecting the winners, but sometimes, it is very different from our own selections as to who the winners should be. Oh well – that is life! Music is subjective. Don’t let one competition result destroy your faith. Here is an open letter I wrote to my students about dealing with competition results.
  7. Keeps us all humble – No one wins all of the time. This is good for students to learn. We can never take success for granted. If we are not successful this time, it is ok. Try again next time!

This does not mean that I think every student should do competitions. I also have students that don’t compete at all, and I love teaching them just as much! But certainly, if a student wants to compete, or if I feel they are ready and will benefit from competing, I will not hold them back. 

What are your thoughts regarding competitions?

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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 Works.” 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 effort – 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.

As teachers we read many different types of student reports throughout the year from various exams, festivals and competitions. 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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