Monday, December 21, 2009

Teaching Pulse Naturally

Daniel Schmit, Master of Music student in Piano Pedagogy at the Michigan State University College of Music, presents ways to reinforce the concept of pulse in a student's playing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Unique Opportunities in Piano Pedagogy at Michigan State University

The study of piano teaching comes to life at MSU. While concepts for teaching all levels of students are covered in both undergraduate and graduate level courses in piano pedagogy, hands-on experiences are always available. Piano pedagogy students have gained experience by teaching both group classes and private lessons to all levels and ages of students under the supervision of Dr. Derek Polischuk, Director of Piano Pedagogy at the Michigan State University College of Music.

Beginning group piano students shine at their first recital with their teachers Allie Nisbett and Dan Schmidt who are both students in piano pedagogy at Michigan State University. These classes are taught at the beautifully appointed Timberlane Campus of MSU's Community Music School (

Lansing's Capital Area Music Teachers' Association is fully integrated into the musical life of the University through workshop, festival and competition opportunities including a winners' concert on the stage of MSU's Wharton Center for Performing Arts. Listen to the beautiful cacophony of so many young pianists warming up on 8 beautifully prepared Steinway D's in place for last May's Piano Monster Concert featuring MSU's piano faculty:

Michigan State University's Piano Pedagogy Department strives to make a positive contribution to communities in need across the state of Michigan and to populations undeserved by piano teachers. Each semester, students from the piano pedagogy department at MSU visit The Cornerstone School in urban Detroit to give masterclasses to talented young pianists in a thriving group piano program directed by MSU Piano Pedagogy alum Marina Ionescu. Watch this video of portions of Gina Yi's effective and passionate teaching from the November 2009 visit:

Allie Nisbett demonstrates a great way to practice the legato touch away from the piano:

Dan Schmidt proves that passionate teaching often happens at quick speeds:

Cornerstone students are inspired almost as much as MSU Piano Pedagogy students are:

For more information about Piano Pedagogy at the Michigan State University College of Music, please contact Dr. Derek Polischuk at

Christmas Greetings from Sandor Magyar

Sandor Magyar performs a beautiful arrangement of "Coventry Carol" as distributed by The FJH Music Company:

New Blog from a Washington Piano Teacher

Jeffrey Pettijohn, a piano teacher in the Seattle area, recently contacted me about his new blog: While this project is just getting underway, I look forward to upcoming articles and hope you'll take a moment to visit.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Derek Polischuk performs Mozart on WKAR Radio

Listen to WKAR Radio on Monday November 30th at 11am Eastern Time to hear my performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto in D Minor K. 466 with the MSU Symphony under the baton of Leon Gregorian from earlier this fall. WKAR can be streamed at, or can be found at 90.5 FM in much of lower Michigan.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

Musical Understanding through Sight Reading

I am a relatively new resident of the community in which I teach. There are a wealth of talented piano students in my town thanks to the extremely strong contingent of piano teachers, excellent public schools, and solid familial structures that encourage and support private music instruction in Mid-Michigan. I have taken on several students between the ages of 11 and 16 who have all exhibited talent and positive outlooks on practicing. Auditioning these transfer students has been an incredibly enlightening experience. I’d like to describe two of these students in order to hopefully illuminate an opportunity I have noticed for piano instruction.

Student A is extremely intelligent, hardworking, and has a calm personality. This 13 year old is a very successful and capable pianist and violinist, although his demonstrated ability does not come naturally. Student A has a very small frame and tinier than average hands, so a good amount of our time is spent on developing and refining technique and strength at the keyboard. In spite of these minor shortcomings, his musicianship is exceptional. Student A has a vast working knowledge of music theory and formal structure, is able to quickly discern vital characteristics of music we listen to, and, perhaps most importantly, is an outstanding sight-reader. This student understands the direct correlation between quality sight-reading and ease in learning, as well as the practical/real-world applications of being able to realize a piece of music in an instantly artistic manner. Furthermore, Student A also takes genuine joy in sight-reading new music, and in a likely related skill, gets new repertoire up to performance standard quicker than many of my college-age students.

Student B is a natural talent. This 15 year old has an effortless approach at the keyboard, and has hands built for creating a wide variety of tone colors through his strong bridge. Student B performs with passion and excitement, and also has an outstanding work ethic that translates into an extraordinary amount of practice hours a week.

Despite their minor differences, it is safe to say that both of these students are very talented and are highly skilled performers. The major distinction between these two students came during the final portion of their transfer audition, a basic sight-reading test. Two identical examples were given: a homophonic vocal accompaniment, and a two-voice polyphonic baroque excerpt[i]. Student A performed both examples with minimal pitch-reading and rhythm realization mistakes, and performed these examples at logical tempos. Most importantly, Student A attempted to perform these examples in a musical manner in as much of a performance style as he could muster.

Student B encountered difficulties in all aspects of this diagnostic. In the first example, Student B made frequent mistakes with the key signature of both examples, stumbled in his realization of a 6/8 pulse, and abandoned usual practices to achieve a convincing performance including pedal coloring, dynamic control, and phrasing. When asked about his priorities with this task, Student B commented that he was “only concerned with the notes.”

Both of these students have been studying with me for 9 months. Student A has consistently demonstrated the ability to learn music quickly and thoroughly. While the “end-product” of Student B’s learning continues to be compelling, pianistic performances, he almost takes twice as long as Student A to get to this point. Additional problems exist with Student B’s musicianship, including pulse-feel and consistency, key area familiarity, and rhythm recognition.

I have noticed this correlation between sight-reading ability and musicianship ability for years now, and have sought to address deficiencies in musicianship skills through sight-reading exercises. I have developed a five minute sight-reading drill for the beginning of each lesson that forces a student to quickly assess and analyze an excerpt in a practical way that will lead to a better reading. The improvement in overall musicianship skills in all of the students I have used this approach with has been much more rapid and complete than those I had previously introduced music theory to with more conventional approaches. The following is an example of how one of these drills might run:

1) Place a piece of music in front of the student, explaining that you would like them to begin playing almost immediately as if they were performing (these directions may initially be met with some trepidation, but once a student is more familiar with the progression of this activity, this may disappear).[ii]

2) Provide immediate feedback on the student’s realization of the score through self-evaluation. “How do you think that went?” “Did that sound like you thought it would?”[iii] “Were there clues on the page that helped your performance?” “Were there any clues that you missed?”[iv]

3) Provide additional feedback through suggestions that the student may have missed in their self-evaluation. Attempt to couch your practical performance suggestions in the language of music theory: “How could we make your 6/8 feel more like a subdivision of 2 big beats?” “Do these four sharps mean E major or the relative minor? What is the relative minor of E major?” “Do the different harmonies in this excerpt give us an idea of how we should use the pedal? Does the motion of the melody also help us figure this out?”[v]

4) Have the student perform the excerpt one more time, attempting to implement some of the suggestions you discussed with him or her. Provide positive feedback for those things that the student improved upon, reinforcing the concept of efficient improvement.[vi]

This exercise can be adjusted for ability level by choosing age and ability-level appropriate material. As you can see, this five-minute exercise can become a microcosm for the greater feedback and improvement loop that you may be wishing to develop in your students’ larger piano studies. This activity is not only a practical application of functional piano skills, but also a venue for discussing musicianship skills in a way that synthesizes these skills with actual music making.

[i] Pieces I often use for this test include the “Salti di Terza” from Lesson 1 in the Practical Method of Italian Singing by Nicola Vaccai and the “Bourree” from the Suite in E Minor for Lute by Johann Sebastian Bach.

[ii] “Jumping in” is an important approach to reinforce in this step. Your student should begin to understand that it’s possible to be fearless and confident when reading new music, while at the same time careful.

[iii] This question is particularly helpful in assessing a student’s audiation skills during an audition.

[iv] The reinforcement of self-evaluation helps a student development the skills of healthy self-criticism, active performance-listening, and self-teaching for their own practice.

[v] Guided questions rather than outright suggestions help a student further supplement the repertoire of questions they might ask themselves during the course of reading new music or more extensive practice of more familiar repertoire.

[vi] Reinforcing only positive aspects of the student’s performance at this point is key to establishing a system of learning something right the first time, rather than fixing those things that are “broken.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Upcoming Performances and Presentations

Happy Fall from East Lansing! The 2009-2010 academic year is underway here at the Michigan State University College of Music with many exciting events and opportunities happening on a weekly basis. Look for frequent updates and new articles on teaching piano here throughout the year.

I'll be making the following appearances during the fall, winter, and spring months. If you are near any of these areas, and are interested in attending, I would like to meet you. Please send me an email for further information.

-Recital with Janine Gaboury, horn, October 11, 2009, MSU Music Building Auditorium, East Lansing, Michigan

-Presentation at Michigan Music Teachers' Association State Conference, "Using Video Technology to Improve a Student's Awareness," October 12, 2009, Bay City, Michigan

-Preview Lecture for The Ahn Trio Recital, "The Art of Learning Brand New Music," October 15, 2009, Wharton Center, East Lansing, Michigan

-Recital with Melanie Helton, voice, October 23, 2009, "Absolute Music" Chamber Music Series, Absolute Gallery, Lansing, Michigan

-Mozart Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466, October 24, 2009, with Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra, Wharton Center, East Lansing, Michigan

-Recital and Masterclass, January TBD, 2010, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

-Recital with Paul Roczek, Professor of Violin at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, February 4, 2010, MSU Music Building Auditorium, East Lansing, Michigan

-Presentation at Vivace Music Club, "Improvisation in the Classical Style," February 8, 2010, Evola Music, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

-Recital with Janine Gaboury, horn, and Phil Sinder, tuba, February 28, 2010, MSU Music Building Auditorium, East Lansing, Michigan

-Recital, Masterclass and Piano Pedagogy Presentation, April 14, 2010, The University of Alabama at Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama

-Recital, Masterclass, April 16, 2010, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Auditions at MSU for the 2010/2011 academic year begin at the end of January. Please send me an email if you are considering becoming a part of our exciting musical community.

-Derek Polischuk

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Monster Piano Concert

Happy Spring from East Lansing!  It's the last week of what has been a very exciting semester in the piano department at the Michigan State University College of Music which, in addition to the stimulating piano pedagogy activities outlined in previous posts, was also recently highlighted by a visit from renowned pianist and pedagogue Russell Sherman, Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at the New England Conservatory, who gave an inspiring performance of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes and a moving masterclass last week.

 composite of hands at the keyboard

We're celebrating the end of the academic year with a rousing "Monster Piano Concert" this Sunday at 3pm at the Wharton Center on the campus of Michigan State University.  Eight pianists, including me, Panayis Lyras, Deborah Moriarty, Alan Nathan, Ron Newman, Kyomi Sugimura, George Vatchnadze and Ralph Votapek, will be performing 8-piano arrangements of great works.  Here's the program:


Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80


Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring


Sheep May Safely Graze


Tannhäuser Overture


Danse Macabre, Op. 40


Slavonic Dance in D major, Op. 46, No. 6

Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46, No. 8




The Entertainer

Stoptime Rag


Stars and Stripes Forever

Additionally, three of my students, Albie Feeny (1st prize in the 9th and 10th grade division), Nolan Feeny (first prize in the 5th and 6th grade division), and Rachel Symanzik (first prize in the 3rd and 4th grade division) will be performing movements from classical period Sonatas and Sonatinas as winners of their respective divisions in the Eileen Keel competition held earlier this semester.   This performance will also be at the Wharton Center, and will begin at 2pm.  Tickets are available from Wharton Center's box office by calling (517) 432-2000, or (800) WHARTON.  Here's a link with more information:

I hope you'll join us---judging by our rehearsal last night, this should be a lot of fun!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Graduate Seminar Update

We are now almost 3 months into our Graduate Seminar in Piano Pedagogy with student-subject Melody Gruber, so it's been a while since you've had the chance to see her progress.  Please see the following clip for highlights of some of Melody's very quickly progressing playing, as well as some beautiful teaching by Justine Sasanfar and Ann Chen, both students in this Seminar.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

MSU Piano Pedagogy Masterclasses at the Cornerstone School

On February 26th I accompanied four students from the Piano Pedagogy program at Michigan State University to the Cornerstone School Nevada campus in Detroit Michigan. The Cornerstone Schools are private schools in urban Detroit with flourishing academic and arts instruction under the guidance of passionate and skilled teachers, and through the support of business leaders and private and corporate donors in the Detroit metropolitan area. Cornerstone is certainly an inspirational model and a beacon of hope in a part of our country that desperately needs this. Please see their website:

A flourishing class piano program exists at Cornerstone, taught by Sarah Boyd and by Marina Ionescu while Sarah is on maternity leave. Marina is a graduate of the piano pedagogy program at Michigan State University. Sarah and Marina have done an exceptional job of teaching technical fundamentals, musicianship, and artistic sensitivity to each of their students. My piano pedagogy students tried to add an additional level of finish and polish to some of their performances through a series of masterclasses for students in 6th, 7th and 8th grade piano. Please see the following video for a few highlights:

This is my second time taking my students to Cornerstone, and I cherish this opportunity for them to practice the art of giving a masterclass that is in many ways an entirely different skill than teaching a private lesson. In meetings that preceded our visit, we discussed the ways that skillful masterclass teaching is unique, including limiting the discussion to large musical principles, engaging students, teachers and observers in the audience while at the same time addressing the needs of the performer, and providing the performer with an opportunity to immediately find inspiration in on-the-spot improvement in what can be a stressful and high-stakes experience.

What are your experiences with masterclass teaching? What are some of the characteristics of a truly great masterclass?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jazz Transcriptions as Repertoire

Our jobs as piano teachers have many dimensions. We train ourselves to properly teach our students a vigorous and effortless technique. We act as mentors to our students in both their musical lives and their larger existence as a young person in a confusing world. We provide our students with positive performance opportunities. We attempt to help our students be good stewards of their musical talent by cultivating it in a way where they might share it with people who don’t get to hear music often. Yet, too often, we negatively influence our students’ musical horizon by not allowing them to explore, discuss, study and perform music they listen to that might not be from the standard classical repertoire.

I have found great pedagogical value in introducing my students to the recordings of the great jazz pianists.  A quick google search for "jazz piano transcriptions" turns up music for Bill Evans, Bud Powell, "Fats" Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Keith Jarrett, and Thelonious Monk.  Noah Symanzik, a very talented middle-school student in my studio, has been studying a transcription and recording of "Dinah" as played by Thelonious Monk from the album "Solo Monk."  Listen to an excerpt of Monk's playing, and then Noah's.  Noah is doing an admirable job of playing in an authentic style, honoring the tradition of this great pianist and composer, while at the same time learning about a type of music that might be out of the realm of the traditional piano lesson.

I encourage you to think outside of the box when it comes to repertoire for your students with the hope of making them more well-rounded while at the same time continually stoking their motivation through the study of music that they truly love.

Dinah - Thelonious Monk

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Meet Melody

Melody Gruber is an undergraduate student in journalism here at Michigan State University and is kindly acting as the student subject for the graduate level Seminar in Piano Pedagogy for the spring semester here at the College of Music.  Melody is a singer, and took violin lessons growing up, but is brand new to the piano.  My students and I will be teaching her on a weekly basis from level two of the Basic Adult Piano Course from Alfred.  We'll be supplementing this method with pop music she has requested as well as other works from the classical repertoire, and assorted technical exercises.  

A student like Melody poses an interesting challenge for my students in that her musical ability and knowledge is coming from a childhood background in music.  She's a beginning pianist, but certainly not a beginner.  Please see the following video for a peek inside Melody's first two lessons.  As you can see, her dedication, passion, and preparation are outstanding.

Do you have adult students like Melody in your studio?  How does your approach to lessons with a student like this vary from your approach with students of other ability levels?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Presentations at Calvin College Symposium on Worship

I'm speaking today and tomorrow at the Calvin Symposium on Worship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan. I'll be demonstrating some skills that have become important for pianists in the church to have as well as about how to teach some of these skills to our students. Information about all of the workshops available can be found here:
Walk-up registration is available:

Have a wonderful weekend!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Piano Concerto Season

Hello, and Happy New Year to all readers of the Piano Pedagogy Blog. Thank you for your readership, support, and especially your comments during the latter half of 2008. I look forward to 2009 being a time when this blog will become a venue for spirited discussion on all topics related to piano teaching.

Here's a highlight reel of some of the outstanding concerto performances some of my pre-college pianists are giving in preparation for the Michigan Music Teachers' Association Concerto Competition and Lansing Symphony Concerto Competition. I apologize for the poor sound quality---this was recorded directly to my Macbook. Preparing a piano concerto is such an incredible accomplishment for these fine musicians that teaches them an entirely different type of performance practice. Please enjoy Nolan, Albie and Jody's performances.