The ABCs of My Many Memorable Moments at CMC

The ABCs of My Many Memorable Moments at CMC

By Cheng-Feng Lin

cheng-feng headshot

Over the years teaching at CMC, I have had many memorable moments. These lessons are really special, where I get to know each student at a deep level, often for more than one decade. For that, I am grateful for the trust from the parents and the students.

 

Here I have compiled an alphabetical list, from A to Z, for certain qualities that have been consistent and present in the lessons I have been giving throughout these years at CMC.

Click each row to expand!

The lessons are filled with a lot of affection and appreciation. We also explore ways to play with affection and appreciation, as the musical pieces demand them to communicate these affects from their inner states and through their fingers.

The process of music making requires the students to be present in the body and the breath so that they are available to serve this art form. With the presence and attentiveness, breakthrough and transformation may then take place.

The students enjoy making decisions alone or with me during the lessons for issues like, fingering choices, interpretive choices, phrasing shape choices, for example. This leads to many positive benefits, such as empowerment, autonomy, curiosity, awareness, and more. I often tell them that they will not always have a teacher in the future, and they need to know how to process the music at hand independently.

I always love to hear what the students would respond in our conversation about music. However, it is even more interesting to listen to the shift when they speak their inner thoughts out loud: “it’s difficult” or “ I can’t” gradually turns into, “let me try again”, or “Ah, I almost have it”.

My students’ eyes often light up when they experience the magic of the cause and effect between the input of their physical effort with a particular energy/intention and the outcome when the piano ‘sings’ back to them in that particular energy mirroring theirs. They hear it!

The lesson is definitely a fertile ground to develop the capacity to focus: to be as aligned as possible in what they feel, think, see, and do, wiring many senses together in one unified state while playing the piano. They are invited to do so without the excessive tension and stress.

I often encourage the students to be generous with their time and effort for their learning and practicing. Instead of seeing the learning and practicing as a chore or obligation, I would discuss and help them to see it as a generous gift—the gift of possibility and competency.

Oh, the honesty of these young children! They are direct when expressing their thoughts upon hearing the music, or upon certain tasks that I propose. They would often show me their preferred way of learning something. Teenagers are far more discreet. It comes with a little sigh or a hesitant look. With some encouragement, they do tell, “I will have many tests next week, and I am not sure if I could get to all these scales..”

Here I am referring to the musical intuition. Intuition literally means the tuition or the guidance from within. I put in high priority in developing and encouraging this internal musical guiding force of the students. I see this happening when the student (apparently not reading the music sheet on the stand) got ‘lost’ in the middle of the phrase, but managed to ‘invent’ a sensible alternative ending within the measure without even realizing they had done so. Or when the student instinctually builds up the energy of a phrase while playing it, without noticing the crescendo sign on the page. Another illustration would be improvisation. When the student enjoys improvising on the piano and delights in exploring new melodic patterns.

Juggling with many tasks in life is the reality of the students I meet at CMC. Good time management on their part for home practicing is crucial. Considering the length of the lesson time (short), frequency of the lesson (only 1x/week), and the amount of materials (a ton), I am still learning the art of time management of giving a lesson.

Oh I only wish if some of the students would not be so hard on themselves. The road of learning music never ends and the going does get tough often. Being kind and compassionate to one’s own learning process is one of the secrets to the life-long musical practice.

Listening is a phenomenon that engages our whole being. It is about giving care, attentiveness, awareness and discernment while listening. Easy said than done, as we can be so busy with playing and not really listening. At the lesson, we often exercise this sense by isolating certain musical segment in order to listen in a particular way while playing. We would share our reflection after listening/playing. “How was the E in the end of the phrase? How did you shape it?”, for example.

I would like to broaden the contemplation of musicality in reference to the students’ personality and their self expression. To me, each one of them is like a piece of living music. Here are some examples: the sparkle of their eyes when they hear that alluring harmony; the little nods to the groovy beats of the pop song they would like me to teach them; the melancholy student who tells me that Bb minor is her favourite key; a sudden obsession to make sure that very quiet sound at the end sounds ‘just right’. The musicality that lives through them is intrinsic, visceral, and spontaneous.

Once, a student said to me, while playing Beethoven’s Für Elise, “the music sheet is like a post card from Beethoven. I get to know his thoughts from the music.” Yes, my dear! Beethoven passed away, but his messages remains with us. And one way to be in touch with these great composers’ spirits is by listening, studying and performing their work. It is the nourishment for our whole being.

This happened recently: A student could not stop saying oops every time she made an error at the piano. The anxiety was not helping. I had to intervene before it went too far. It took a while to get her back to feeling more relaxed. Later she had an easier time playing upon embracing the errors as part of the learning process.

Learning how to practice is essential. The art of practicing, as a topic, can be another long discussion. I often remind my students to make it fun.

As the saying goes—Often the question is more important than the answer. The motivation behind the question is equally fascinating. “Do I have use that fingering?” “I really want to start the crescendo earlier. Why does the composer put the crescendo from here?”

After taking lessons for a while, the students know repetition is necessary for instrumental learning. Often my students find the experience of repetition for certain musical passages useful and reassuring. In fact, they would request to repeat just to feel more secure. I would recommend that for each repetition, have a particular objective in mind, for example, this time I would like to listen to how I shape the left hand melody; or, I want to check if I use the correct fingering for this triad; and so on. This would bring mindfulness, awareness and efficiency to the practice.

I know it’s a piano lesson, but singing is fantastic. We sing a lot in my lessons. There is nothing more organic than being enriched and informed by our own voice. It helps the piano players to shape and express the phrases, without sounding like typing a secretarial letter.

Tenderness is a quality that is gentle, soft and with care. It allows subtlety to come through in our gestures which then has influences over the tone production on the piano. My students enjoy this very much. It relaxes them and helps to release some old patterns and let go of unnecessary muscular tension.

During the lesson the students have the teacher next to them. I can guide them and help them. But the remaining six days, they are on their own. Often students come back and claim that they had difficulties when practicing at home. It is important that they learn how to simplify and unpack the musical materials. I often ask them to verbalize helpful practicing strategies to unpack the dense musical materials, so they could apply them during home practice. The strategies could be: one hand at a time; working on a smaller unit in one sitting; or clap the rhythms first.

Each student/family is unique. They have different learning styles, temperaments, and goals. Some students set the goals to complete exams, while some want to be able to create their own music. And there are also general working/learning values that are common sense. In the lesson, I try to collaborate and establish shared values that blend in the students’ personal goals, learning styles, and learning habits that may best support them.

The mental and neurological health benefits of learning and performing music is evident, thanks to the scientific research data. Recently I began a collaboration with the mental health research institute of university of Ottawa by giving music and movement classes for the seniors. When I visited the research institute located in the Royal Mental Health Centre, several of the meeting rooms have pianos. It is exciting to see that music and mental health has become one of the main research topic. However, even without the scientific data, I witness the positive impact each time I teach at CMC. A child would walk into my lesson gazing in the distant horizon, not able to answer simple question like, ‘how are you?’, and she would leave elated, wanting to share with her mom the song she just invented at the piano.

I use the term, X-ray, when we analyze the music together at the lessons. Why does this passage sound so good? Why does the composer indicate an accent here? Look at the first note of these four measures in the bass, what are they made of? This is especially useful for those musically intuitive students who are driven by their good inner guidance for musical expression. The analysis brings deeper integration to their knowing—a blending of their intuition and intellect.

To those kids who try to be polite and swallow back their yawns: Yawning is embraced and encouraged in my lesson. The students are more relaxed and attentive after the yawn.

For sport and performing art psychology, the zone indicates a state of performance that is focused, relaxed and with flow. After all the detailed polishing work, at one point, I have to let go. The students have to exercise their confidence and stamina to perform the entire piece of music. This is when I sit back and admire them as their loyal fan. Watching and listening to them as they play in deep concentration and with embodied expression really moves me.

To conclude the ABCs of my experience at CMC…

As we can see, these lessons are the laboratory in developing the wholistic potential of the students through music. They are engaged with the whole self, and so am I. Watching the students grow and evolve over the decade is also a very special privilege. And seeing them leaving each lesson, feeling more integrated than when they walked in, is why I would continue to do what I do.

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