Sophia figures out the polyrhythm 3 against 2.

Piano lessons in January amaze me. One would think that students would be tired from the glitter and promise of the December holiday season. It’s a long way off to the next school vacation. The concrete goals of a holiday recital are past. The next practice incentives and recitals are still just in my head, not my students. Here in New England, many students ski and their energies are often focused outside, not in. It’s a back to the basics kind of month…getting scales up and running. Reminding students that music theory is important homework. Getting back to learning new literature, which might not be as familiar as Christmas music.

But just when I think a Saturday morning of teaching on a dull, grey January day is going to be hard, no matter how much I put on a cheery face…I am almost always utterly surprised. The kids are getting it! They are making connections on their own and eager to share their discoveries with me! I always hope that each lesson is more about sharing than my directing every student’s move. And it was just that this past Saturday. First up, Aidan. I showed him a piece called “Mist” by Clyde Poole in the Royal Conservatoire Repertoire book, for our upcoming recital based on Handel and his “water” music for King George I. I played the piece. We looked for patterns. And suddenly Aidan’s eyes lit up. “The skips of thirds and fifths remind me of the opening of my favorite Japanese Anime cartoon theme song Castle in the sky! So we looked it up on You Tube. And he was right. I bet Aidan will look forward to practicing this week.

Audrey is just starting to read music. And because learning to read a new language is hard, so very hard, her practicing had slackened a bit…no, a lot.   But this day, she came bounding into the studio…”Teacher Penny, Teacher Penny, I can play this whole book! And then and there, she took out her Music for Little Mozarts and indeed played through the entire book. Taking a breath, we started to talk about one of the pieces. We identified scales and arpeggios in the 8 measures that comprised this song. We talked about repeated notes, because more mistakes in reading take place with repeated notes than just about any other kind of pattern. Our brains just want to experience change…not stasis. But it was Audrey who noticed that the piece was composed using contrary motion…even though she didn’t yet know what contrary motion means. “Teacher Penny…the last half is upside down from the first half!”

Audrey’s sister Alexandra’s lesson was next. And here too…they made an amazing discovery themselves! Alexandra works in Jennifer Eklund’s Piano Pronto series and Alexandra just finished Jennifer’s arrangement of the Bach Minuet in G, simplified of course for the first book. But Audrey also recognized the melody, from a simple line in her Music for Little Mozarts book. The comparison didn’t stop there. The two girls created a duet arrangement, which they played, with only a little help from me to align the rhythms securely.

Sophia, a 9th grader, hadn’t really faced two against three rhythms yet in her lessons. But starting Heller’s Sailors Song we had to come face to face with the first of the difficult sets of polyrhythms often used in 19th century Romantic period music. But Sophia is a mathematical wiz. She stared at the dotted quarter note and eighth note paired against two sets of triplets. I could literally see her mind at work. She started mumbling about fractions and fractions of beats. Before I knew it…she had taken three of my rhythm sticks to represent the triplets and set them up on the music rack of the piano. I added two square stampers. Sophia put it all together, showing where the odd eighth note would fit in between the second and third triple, based on her knowledge of math.

Connections. Making Connections. That’s what all artists’ do. And so can our students.