Composing & Arranging

  • How can I get my piano students to play musically?
  • Will they ever learn to truly perform rather than just play?
  • How can I help them to become more confident music readers?

These are some of the challenges that Alison Mathews has addressed in her new book “Doodles” published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

Aimed at beginners to around grade 3 (ABRSM), this chunky book contains 128 little pieces of 4-8 bars (measures) arranged in four difficulty levels.

Now the interesting part! Rather than name each piece, Mathews has provided a small picture, often an emoji, hence the title “Doodles,” which is meant to inspire a mood in the music student. She has also given lots of interesting directions like, “playfully – fish are chasing in the coral” or “fast and furious – what else could you do to make it sound stormy?” I love how at the centre of these short activities the emphasis is on performance. The pupil just simply can’t resist but will soon be inspired to create their own pieces. Watch out John Williams, we will all be writing shark music at this rate!

An interesting feature is the use of the same pieces at each level but with increased difficulty and technique. This a great way to help a student see how to develop a composition. I can see my pupils having lots of fun improvising with these pieces and using them as the basis of their own compositions. Young pupils love engaging their imagination, so this book will inspire them not only to be better readers of music but more importantly, to play with feeling and understanding.

Lots of different playing techniques are explored through the pieces and are an intrinsic part of each song. Legato, staccato, dynamics, tremolandi and glissandi are all represented. I’ve even picked up a tip for helping young pupils to play a glissando without hurting their fingers by using a roll of sellotape!

My only criticism is that there are no key signatures used. I’m very keen on introducing a sense of key very early in development but this is a “minor” grumble compared with the fantastic way that musicality is being taught here. Maybe this is an issue that could be addressed in later editions or subsequent volumes.

For its ability to inspire musicality in such a fun and engaging way, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

To purchase the book, click here.

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I carried on for a while not fully realizing how much I didn’t enjoy my music anymore.

Music was the money-maker that put me on planes to sing, record, and perform in Hawaii, New York, and almost every state in between. I had an enviable life in the eyes of many.  

(If you missed the first part of Stacey’s story, click here for part 1)

Opportunities seemed to fall in my lap — and they would occasionally reignite the flame of my music:

  • Recording for two projects on EMI records
  • Getting to work with Celine Dion
  • Getting to fly to the town where the President (at that time) lived as we performed a concert there with other amazing artists

Those were the firework times of excitement — but mostly, I was restless with discontent and all the technicolor living I had been doing seemed to fade to grey tones when I looked at my life.

I was this woman who, as a little girl spent all her extra time on the piano; and now I was resentful of sitting down at it. All those days and nights as a kid in New Jersey with my big, puffy headphones on listening to my 8-track, and then in Connecticut as a teen with cassettes, and eventually California as a young adult with CDs full of my favorite artists — all of those were traded for talk radio or silence as I drove the 405 freeway up to Los Angeles for another gig.

I guess when you’re looking for a change, sometimes life brings you an unexpected one.

At the age of 27, I ended up pretty ill. The doctors couldn’t figure out why, but after a scrillion tests and a year and half later, they told me to get my affairs in order (because they thought I was dying), and that if I did live that I’d never have children.

I stopped everything and examined my life.

The nitty, gritty.

The “what was driving me?” kind of questions.

Not questions about music, but about me. What was going on, on the inside of me?

The answers came back in my introspection. How I was driven by Fear, by performing for others in relationships as “the good girl”, “the hard-working, responsible girl”… as a way to be worthy of their love.

I realized that I was working so much because I didn’t want to stop and rest. Because when I did stop… when I did rest, the noise in my head was non-stop criticism of me. The voice that lived in my head wasn’t a kind one that told me how proud it was of me. Nope. It was negative, judgmental, always looking for my faults instead of my goodness. When I kept moving, working, and the music turned on then, I couldn’t hear my inner static and angst.

Slowing down, being sick while aiming to be healthy meant evaluating my life those next couple of years. In that reflective time, I was able to see that I had lost my love, not only for my music, but for me.

I also realized that my love for music needed a certain environment to be in: It needed to have a certain trust and hope that life was good and everything was going to be okay.

I didn’t feel that way and so, I used music — not as an expression of my joy anymore — but to provide safety for my life that I didn’t feel in other places.

I know it’s really heavy and deep but there’s something that I’ve learned:

That it’s hard to feel joy when you don’t feel safe.

My lack of joy in my music was to me, a signpost that I didn’t feel safe.

It was partly because of how I was raised in my crazy home and some of those after-effects and realities were catching up to me in my 20’s. It was partly some crappy spirituality that sent fear-based messages that made me live like I was being chased by a bear, only it was called “God.” It was partly because of my marriage that was not a balanced partnership and I was more committed to people thinking we were okay than I was to letting myself be known in my pain.

Different things contributed to it but it was basically me not able to find my joy again.

Music is an expression of the heart. We can’t live the passion of the music without the connection back to the heart of who we are.

In all my fear and messy stuff in my head and life, I had lost touch with heart of the music because the heart of the music doesn’t just live in the song, it lives in me.

That was my journey… to get back to the heart of me.

There’s so much more to the story… about the healing my mind and heart experienced. The healing my spirituality experienced. The healing my body experienced. The healing my marriage experienced. All of those were the long and winding road stories that I write about in my books. I knew that as I was healing — that something was shifting.

After having two boys (that the doctor’s said I’d never have) we moved to upstate New York for a two-year stint, working at a church.

It was another rainy day, something we had often like my New Jersey childhood but unlike my Southern California experience. At the same time, it was a different day for me. It was a marker moment when I could see that my life had healed to a different place of safety and reconnection to my heart.

I was ready. I could tell.

I asked my husband if I could have my iPod back. He had been borrowing it since I had zero interest in anything other than the music I had to do for my work for a few years. On this particularly different day, I gave him a piece of paper with one song on it.  He smiled and disappeared into the room for about 5 minutes and came back and handed my iPod to me.

I looked at him with gratitude, put my earbuds in, stepped out the front door into the drizzle that was falling and looked up. I didn’t care about the conditions, I was on a mission…

I walked up and down the street, on the crooked sidewalks, with the skies opening up as Natasha Bedingfield was in my head singing, “Unwritten”:


“I break tradition,
Sometimes my tries
Are outside the lines
We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes,
But I can’t live that way, no…

Feel the rain on your skin.
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips.
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still Unwritten.”

 

What a powerful moment.

Because it wasn’t just a moment when I was reconnecting to the music that I was starting to love again, it was reconnecting to my life — my soul… my heart… where the music lived in me.




Feeling Burnout? I totally get it! Here are some valuable questions and tips to get you back:

Valuable Questions:

  • Why am I a music teacher? What inspired me?
  • What other things in life inspire me?
  • Do I feel like I’m making enough money to feel safe or do I feel like I’m just squeaking by and every month is a stress?
  • Do I feel safe and happy in the other parts of my life that matter? My health, my spirituality and my key relationships?
  • Do I feel like I’m being honored in my work? (Remembering that honor comes first from us toward us and then, is reflected in our work relationships. People don’t honor you in their attitude, dollars, or time if you don’t honor yourself in those areas.)
  • Does my life have a good balance of the ratio between work and play?
  • Is there something I’m afraid to tackle in my business that is taking all the fun out it?
  • Is there a part of my business that I dread that I can either be equipped and trained in or that I can outsource? (That’s part of why Music Teacher’s Helper exists — to take the burdensome parts out of our hands so that we can focus our energy on teaching.)

 

Valuable Tips:

  • Taking the advice of the Shaman’s to make sure that each day is filled with singing, dancing, playing an instrument… for the sake of joy. This is separate from your work.
  • Read Julia Cameron’s classic: “The Artist’s Way” — In The Artist’s Way, she talks about taking an Artist’s Date each week. Something where you get to enjoy an antique shop, a comedy club, a poet’s reading, a jazz concert, a painting class — something where you’re feeding YOUR soul with what inspires you.
  • Take a day off. Non-stop work can create burnout.
  • Fill in these blanks: “If this ________________ were out of my life/different in my life, THEN, I would be happier.”  And, “If this __________________ were in my life, THEN, I would be happier.”

 

Remember: if there’s something that can make a difference in your experience of life, the most important thing to remember is that you’re in charge of making it.

I’m excited for you to return to the joy that inspired you into this beautiful art form called “Music!”

Keep on as you remember that your joy and your life makes such a difference in the joy and lives of others!

Stacey Robbins

(Here’s the photo of Stacey, her husband, and their boys)

 

 

 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Photo by Kat Smith from Pexels

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

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I was 15 when I started my professional music career. We had just moved our crazy, Italian family from New Jersey — the land of big hair, sarcasm, and amazing cannoli — to Connecticut where my dad (a former singer/songwriter turned “responsible” business professional) was being promoted to VP of a stock brokerage firm.

I asked my parents, “Can I work at G.Fox at the Danbury Mall with my girlfriends? I will learn how to work a cash register and make $3.03 an hour!” I was excited.

My parents looked at me like I had a squirrel on my head.

They shook their heads… no.

“Stacey, you have a gift in music. If you want to work before college, you’re going to have to do something in music for your job.”

Totally NOT the answer most kids get, right?

I had been taking piano lessons since I was 10, writing songs since before then, and knew all the words to Karen Carpenter, Rush, Barbra Streisand, and much to the chagrin of everybody, Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”.

(“Mom, what is this song about? I don’t get it!”)

I performed in any talent show at school, and sat most nights at the piano practicing the songs, from classical to pop, that inspired or were assigned to me. I had just spent my summer at the illustrious “Center for Creative Youth” at Wesleyan University in Connecticut with some of the best professors and professionals in the music field, honing my craft in the arts.

They were right: I did have a gift.

My mind dreamed up places I could play: Our church, as an accompanist — my community theatre for the musicals — as a teacher of young, interested students.

I can’t remember if my dad brought it up or I did but the question came, “What about our country club?”

Before you think I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth, let me assure you with clear images of a gold Riviera in my head, that I wasn’t. I watched my dad climb the corporate ladder, and my mom run the house and hold part time jobs in the office at our school. I remember the tense arguments behind closed doors and when we lost the house when the market, and my dad’s job, had crashed in the late 70’s.

What I had was a sense of “I can do anything.” Despite all the whacky stuff that I was raised in that I won’t go into because I spent enough years in therapy for all that — I was also sent this message: “Anything is possible and you can do anything, Stacey.”

So, I got dressed up and my dad drove me to the country club where I talked to Tom, the manager, and found out that the pianist had quit two weeks ago. Tom needed a new pianist starting this weekend. He would pay me $50 for 2 ½ hours of playing so, I basically was making $20 an hour in 1985, doing what I loved in a beautiful setting with really rich people who drank expensive drinks.

It was awesome.

Tipsy people talk to you at the piano and don’t really think, “Hey. Maybe she’s busy reading music right now so, I’ll wait.” Nope. They just lean on your piano with their really expensive whiskey and start telling you stories and asking you questions.

So, I learned how to listen to people and talk while I played. They asked for songs I didn’t know, but I was a great sight-reader and would pull out these compilation books to play new/old songs, on the spot. Totally honed skills I had no idea would benefit me for my entire career.

I was able to, with my money, go to one of the most esteemed vocal teachers in Connecticut, Lucibelle Anderson, and study Bel Canto method with her since my dad, who always paid for my piano lessons, absolutely refused to pay for my vocal lessons so they were on me.

He told me, “You’ll never make money as a singer. You’ll always make money as a pianist.”

He was wrong by the way – and he was right: I made money as a singer – a lot of it, for sure.  But most the time, I got the gig over the singer because I could accompany myself on the piano. I was a built-in, two-for-one special. I could run rehearsals, warm up other vocalists, and pinch-hit for the uber-talented pianist who was a no-show.

I became invaluable.

Those following years were spent as a short stint as a music comp and theory major until I just had so much work that I left school. Performing live and in the studio, recording songs that I had written or with different artists and, after I married at the tender age of 20 to my sax-playing/singer husband, Rocky Robbins, (PERFECT name for a sax player, right?)

I ended up traveling all over the US performing music at spiritual conferences, being hired by companies for their amazing corporate events, and working with major artists on their projects, in addition to teaching, leading workshops, special choirs, and CD projects for kids.

People were booking their wedding dates around our availability and I had 40 students on my wait list after teaching 60 students a week.

It was crazy.

I had no time to cash the checks that would sit in a pile on my desk in the living room.

I definitely wasn’t the most amazing musician in the world — I was just one of those who was good at what I did and had the business mind and savvy to carry it all out.

I was one of those on-time, on-task, get the job done really well, no matter how much chaos was in my life — and trust me, there was a lot — kind of people. I did it with a lot of heart and my life was balls-to-the wall music for 80 hours a week.

At some point? I resented it.

Hated it, even.

Dreaded it.

I fell out of love with music.

And everything changed…

 

(Stacey’s story continues here in part 2)

 

Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash

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