Kelly, West Dallas

Kelly is majoring in piano performance and pedagogy at Meadows School of the Arts. For summer 2011, she was named a Maguire & Irby Family Foundation Public Service Summer Intern by the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU. Kelly is interning at West Dallas Community School, where she is teaching piano to students in first through fourth grades.

A recital and a new idea

I finished my final week at West Dallas and could not be more proud of my students. From the moment that they walked onto the stage to their final bow, each student exhibited confidence, dignity and a healthy sense of pride in the work that they accomplished over the summer.

I was pleased with the thought and care that they put into the performance despite some nerves and recital jitters. Each student maintained a steady tempo, most of them were able to project beautiful dynamic contrasts, and when a few of them had memory slips, they were able to skip to the end of their pieces and finish with poise. I found this especially commendable as they played for an audience of nearly 100 people (all very enthusiastic), including family members, friends, and school faculty. That is NOT easy an easy first-time recital experience.

I was so blessed to receive feedback and thanks both from parents whom I had not yet met and those whom I had. The foremost question I received was “Where do we go from here?” Several students (and their parents) have stood out in their work ethic, attitude, natural ability, and dedication, and I am determined to do my best to make sure that they continue to receive lessons during my final year at SMU. I was surprised at how much some of the parents of other students who I thought weren’t as interested in piano lessons want their kids to continue as well.

I am currently in the midst of writing a proposal to Dallas piano teachers and their studios to share my vision with them about continuing these students’ piano lessons until next spring and to ask them for their help in making it a reality. I believe that this could be an especially beneficial situation for proficient high school piano students who are looking for volunteer community service hours to fulfill. This opportunity would allow them to learn and refine the art of pedagogy in a positive environment, and to build relational bridges to a group of people that they otherwise might never have the opportunity to get to know.

I can personally attest to what a positive experience this opportunity is as I have seen growth in my own technique, musicianship, ability to adapt and teach to different students’ learning styles, patience, and compassion.

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Countdown to the big recital

The last 2 weeks have continued to help mold me into a better musician and teacher. During the week of the 11th, I was prvileged to be on faculty at SMU’s National Piano Institute for Young Artists in the mornings and to continue my internship at West Dallas Community School in the afternoons.

I spent my entire day teaching and got very little practicing of my own in that week (I had also come off the long Independence Day holiday weekend with less practice than normal, so I was a little nervous about how my own piano skills were holding up!). I was surprised to get back to the practice room the following week and find myself more alert and in tune to what my hands and fingers were doing. I found myself watching and analyzing my own technique and listening more closely to the music I was making.

As I was talking myself through the various things that I needed to fix, I realized that the amount of time I had spent teaching over the past week was helping me to identify practice problems and solutions more quickly. Seeing the progress in my students also reaffirmed in my mind that practicing correctly actually works!

I’ve also seen improvement in a good number of my students’ practice habits. We are approaching our final week of lessons and the final recital on Friday evening. We spent this week’s group class solely in preparation for the recital, and I was pleased with most of my students’ preparation skills. A few of them have yet to fully memorize their songs, which is making them (and me!) a little nervous.

As I started a mental checklist of things that I need to prepare for this next week, I realized that this will be a completely new experience for me. I have held and attended student recitals for years and always get a little nervous for beginner students at their first recital. But my mind is always put to ease when the more experienced students are able to set the stage and show them how it’s done. Not only that, but if any of the first-timers end up having a breakdown, I know the show can still go on after they’re done.

But as I went through my mental checklist, it hit me that not one of these students has been in a recital before. Some of them have sung in choir on stage, and some of them have even given reports in class, but performing memorized solo music in front of an audience of peers, parents, siblings, friends and teachers is an entirely different challenge.

Two moments this week touched me and helped me regain perspective into my mission at WDCS. The first moment occured when a student came into his lesson. He quickly got out his books and came over to me with a big smile on his face and pulled a chocolate Hershey’s kiss out of his pocket. It must have been at least 90 degrees out so the chocolate was completely melted, but I was taken aback by this boy’s thoughtfulness and eagerness to share.

The next moment occured at the end of another student’s lesson. He had just finished repeating to me the practice steps that he needed to follow (a little more closely!) the following week and was on his way out the door. I was getting ready to head out myself when he turned around and gave me a big hug. I almost melted and was a little surprised because I was not always sure how much he enjoyed his lessons.

Both of these boys’ instances of thoughtfulness encouraged me that regardless of how smoothly the recital goes on Friday, I have been able to develop a relationship with my students and to provide for them an opportunity to showcase the self-discipline, perserverance, and creativity they have worked very hard at this summer.

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Practice, practice – and some fun

The last two weeks at West Dallas have been another two weeks of both trials and successes. It is becoming more and more clear how much students benefit from precision and consistency.

Most all of my students are getting their practice time in every week, but these past two weeks they have started to learn the difference between just playing through their pieces and following consistenly the practice steps that I assign to them.

It’s easy for me to get a little bit frustrated, but then I realize how long it has taken me and how many times I’ve had to be reminded to actually follow directions completely and consistently. That is helping me to be patient and is challenging me to make sure that I check their practice steps at every lesson and give them clear and consistent practice instructions.

My youngest student keeps me smiling. She was taking quite a while to play through a new piece I was assigning her, but every few minutes she would stop, sit back on the bench, close her eyes, tilt her head back, and take a deep breath. This is actually something that I encourage students to do (although surprisingly, she picked this up on her own), but in her case it was getting a little excessive. After about the fourth time this happened, I must have appeared a little frustrated because she looked up at me and said very sincerely, “You need to do it, too. You keep talking.”

I told her that I thought this was a great idea, and so we both closed our eyes and took a deep breath. Afterward she looked up at me and said ever so sweetly, “There, do you feel calm now?” I had to laugh and admit that I did feel better. It also jogged my memory that I’m not running a conservatory (even though I want and expect these students to be the best that they can be!) and that music is meant to bring joy and, in some cases, relaxation.

These students are all rising to their Friday performances, and I am especially impressed with their level of enthusiasm and their improved listening skills. We are all excited for the recital on August 5!

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Learning from my students

My second week at WDCS seemed smoother than my first week. I think that just knowing what to expect helped me to anticipate my students’ needs more accurately and to pace myself better.

On Friday I led the first set of group classes, in which I used games and drills to reinforce and build on concepts that the students learned in their lessons. Each of the five groups of four students had its own unique dynamic.

One of the challenges of these groups is the different ages of the students participating. Some of the classes have 1st and 3rd graders; others have 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders; and one of my groups has a set of 4th graders and 1 kindergartner. I was a little bit concerned about this last group, particularly for the little kindergartner.

I prepped the 4th graders in this group that they would have a younger student joining the class, and I asked them to make her feel welcome and to help her out as they could. Each one of these 4th graders rose to the occasion and showed patience and a willingness to work alongside her. I was surprised, too, at how this brought the younger student’s understanding and participation to a higher level.

In our first segment of class, I played a timed flash card game with the students in which they had to identify the note value and clap and count it as fast as they could. By the end of the game, the younger student was quickly identifying note values that hadn’t even been introduced to her until that day (and which most of the other 4th graders had some experience with).

This drove home the idea that we as teachers should always shoot to bring our students to a higher standard rather than assume that they are only able to handle a lower one. I am so blessed to be teaching and learning each week from each of the students!

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My first piano students

I just finished my first week at West Dallas Community School as a summer intern through the Maguire & Irby Family Foundation. It has been an exciting week!

I met 18 of the 20 students whom I will be teaching, and I am slightly overwhelmed at the challenge of getting all of their names and faces straight. The thing that has impacted me the most this week is how eager each of these students is to learn and how willing they are to try something new.

One student in particular, Angell, brought a smile to my face. She was having difficulty understanding a concept that I was trying to teach her; we repeated (and repeated and repeated!) an exercise to help drive this concept home, but she could not perform the exercise consistently right. I thought for sure that she would become frustrated and get tired of it (and I myself was starting to get frustrated), but after each mistake she just laughed and put her nose right back to the grindstone to try again. This was a good lesson for me, not only in perservering (cheerfully!) but in flexibility.

I tried another approach of teaching the same concept and found that her problem wasn’t a lack of rhythm but merely an inability to understand the concept the same way that I understand it best. She responded very well to this new approach and right away was able to show an understanding of this concept. I successfully used this other approach with several of my other students as well and now have an effective tool in my teaching arsenal.

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