Congratulations to Kaitlyn Tholen!

kaitlyn head shotA very big congratulations to Kaitlyn Tholen, who is the first recipient of the Lynn Celestin Memorial Scholarship through the Steinway Society of New Orleans and Hall Piano Company.  With the help of my mother and Hall Piano Company sales associate Emily McWilliams, I founded this scholarship to honor the memory of my childhood teacher, Lynn Celestin.  Lynn Celestin was, without a doubt, one of the most highly respected teachers in New Orleans.  She taught for 60+ years throughout the New Orleans area and eventually in Gatlinburg, TN, where she relocated following Hurricane Katrina.  She has inspired many of her students to become teachers and inspired all those around her to become better people.  It has been a privilege to work on this scholarship, which benefits Hall Piano Academy students who show an interest in teaching and/or sharing their musical gifts with others.

Kaitlyn has been teaching privately and to small group classes for almost two years now and has shown an outstanding acumen for both teaching and business.  She is independent, hard-working, and an excellent role model for her students and her fellow students alike.  In addition, she performs consistently throughout the year at various competitions, recitals, and events.  Please come support Kaitlyn and the scholarship fund at our Scholarship Launch Concert on Saturday, September 20th at Hall Piano Company, 7:00pm.


Creating an Atmosphere for Creating

Let me start off by saying how much I love summer.  If I could write a song to summer to let it know how happy it makes me, I would.  After my first year of teaching in the Community College system in New Orleans, I now understand why summer is such a relief for teachers.  That is not to say that I don’t enjoy my job.  I absolutely love teaching at Delgado Community College, but it is hard, hard work.  Grading and lesson planning and generally trying to be an engaging, intelligent person all of the time is exhausting.  All of this being said, I am enjoying my dog’s very low expectations of me as I revel in my mornings and early afternoons off before my private students. The other thing that summer has taught me is that I am not very good at not being busy.  Of course, this is something I have always known about myself, but it becomes much more screamingly clear when I am faced with extended periods of time off.  Luckily, there are a lot of things that did not get done during that year of teaching that have been filling my time.

Let me back track a little here by saying that I moved into a fantastic house last year where I have a very sought after, but elusive thing called a “home office.”  I had heard about it in tales of yore, but only discovered it last year.  My little home office is the most magical thing in the world, as I can finally sleep in my bedroom and not work in it.  Unfortunately, having a home office also supplies the baggage of having to keep the thing organized to find all of the stuff you put in the home office.  Easier said than done, and this has been my summer project. I am proud to say that my desk now has empty surfaces, I have filed all of my paperwork and receipts, and I have a filing system that includes real file drawers and everything.  That’s right.  I file my receipts according to category…because it only took 10 years of being self-employed to figure out that it might be a good idea.  I also have *gasp* actually caught up on my taxes in preparation for a house hunt in the year to come.  My CPA must be so proud.  I’m sure, at this point, if you haven’t stopped reading already, that you are wondering why you care and what this has to do with making music?  For me, this has everything to do with making music.

The business aspect of teaching, playing, writing, and really being involved in music in any professional capacity is time-consuming and mentally taxing, at best.  It can become overwhelming, so much so that it sometimes eclipses the actual music-making that is supposed to be taking place.  Personally, I am not a particularly organized person by nature.  I have become more so out of necessity, but it does not come naturally to me, and I do not enjoy it.  Interestingly, the past few weeks of frantic organization parties with my dog have yielded exceptional productivity at the piano.  Now that I am able to see clear path towards my financial and personal goals, I am able to start realizing some musical goals.  Getting the mundane out of the way allows space for the creative, and being more creative inspires us to keep the mundane tasks in perspective.

Now, I am not promising that I won’t be back here in two months complaining about the mounds of paper that have piled up on my desk, but I believe in taking steps in the right direction.  For me, finding balance and finding literal and figurative space to create is ultimately most important.  I feel best when my “space” is at its best, so I guess that’s on me.

Now Enrolling Students for the Summer

It seems crazy to say this, but summer is just around the corner!  Many of you will begin planning summer activities for your children, so please consider starting them in piano lessons!  Summer is a great time to start your children in private lessons and help them establish a routine before the school year begins.  I have a variety of days and times open at Hall Piano Company, and I would love to see some new faces!  Feel free to contact me via e-mail for more information.


Wendy Yang, age 16

Sicilienne – R. Schumann

Wendy Yang is a consistent, hard-working student.  After only two years of lessons, she has made exceptional progress through her diligent practice and attention to detail.  Following the purchase of a new piano, Wendy has been making great strides in every lesson.  Always up for a challenge, she has jumped at every opportunity to perform and is always willing to take on difficult pieces.  Most recently, she earned a “Superior” from both judges at N.O.M.T.A.’s Romantic and Contemporary Auditions and will be performing in the L.F.M.C.’s Festival this month.  

Wendy is in the 11th grade at Haynes Academy in Metairie, LA.  When she is not practicing, she enjoys reading and cooking.  She enjoys music because she feels that it helps alleviate stress.  Congratulations on your hard work, Wendy.  Keep it up!


Elizabeth Murray, age 11

Elizabeth Murray has been working very hard on her new pieces over the Christmas and New Years break and is being recognized for her positive attitude and enthusiasm for learning.  Elizabeth has happily participated in every performance event offered since beginning lessons about a year and a half ago.  Most recently, Elizabeth earned a “Superior” rating for her performance of “The Noisy Woodpecker” in N.O.M.T.A.’s Romantic and Contemporary Auditions.  Elizabeth is currently preparing two pieces to play for the LFMC Festival in March, and she is doing an outstanding job with her preparation.  

Elizabeth is in the 5th grade at Scoeffner, where she has been on the honor roll for several semesters.  Elizabeth also participates on the swim team and enjoys drawing when she is not busy practicing!  She particularly likes playing “Mousehunt” and “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music.  Elizabeth is a joy to have in each lesson, and I particularly appreciate her willingness to try to new things.  Keep up the great work, Elizabeth!


Breaking the Routine

As musicians, many of us live and die by bizarre routines.  Sometimes it’s practice routines, pre-gig or post-gig routines, or performance routines.  We depend upon them for our sanity and self-confidence.  After all, we are creatures of habit.  I am no exception, or I guess I should say WAS no exception.

When I was in grad school, I had a pretty rigid practice routine.  The routine helped me stay on schedule for my weekly lessons and break up my sessions in a way that was physically and mentally healthy.  Unfortunately, post grad-school me hasn’t seen a solid practice routine in awhile.  I will have good weeks and bad weeks, and I have found it difficult to motivate myself.  Not having to meet the demands of a weekly piano lesson, I have let my routine go and have struggled finding repertoire that makes me want to get back in my routine.  *sigh* I have let myself go.

On another note, over the holidays, I decided it was time to brush up on some vocal technique.  I was a voice major in college and sing with a chorus on a weekly basis now, but I have started to lose some of the technique I worked so hard to hone while in school.  Having not felt the inspiration in piano lately, I decided that the holidays were a great time to get friendly with my voice again.  The results have been fantastic, as I have started vocalizing again and working on some performance material, as well.  Revisiting my old friend provided some creative inspiration that I desperately needed.

I made a few other changes this holiday season, as well.  I allowed myself the unimaginable…a whole 3 days off in a row!  After 6 months of working 4 jobs, I was on mental overload and really needed a break to do real people things.  I literally just sat on the couch for 3 days.  I will amend that statement by saying that there was some cleaning and family time in between, but I mostly just turned my brain off and detoxed.  After 3 days of contributing nothing to society, the obvious result was extreme boredom.  The unexpected side-effect was my overwhelming desire to use my brain!  I really, really wanted to practice, and not just because I felt guilty for not doing so.

I think that the point here is fairly obvious, but it warrants restating.  Inspiration does not always have to come from the routine.  Inspiration should beget a routine.  I think, too often, we musicians rely on our chosen path to be our hobby, career, passion, and routine.  It leaves no room for outside influence.  Whereas us pianists can be pretty hard-core about our practice routines, it is important to realize that conveying a musical, emotional message requires us to be real people…not just mechanics at a machine.

My students know upon walking in the door each week that I will immediately know whether or not they have practiced and exactly how much.  They also know that a rough week here and there will not go unnoticed, but it is allowed from time to time.  Life happens…. and thank God, because who would want to listen to us play if it didn’t?


Hannah Lorio, age 12

The Open Window – B. Frost

Hannah Lorio, the Student of the Month for September 2013, is in the 6th grade at St. Edward the Confessor School in Metairie, LA, where she participates in violin lessons, art club, chorale, band, and her school newspaper!  Hannah likes the color pink and very much enjoys playing piano, especially hymns.

Hannah stays very busy with her school activities, but she has shown excellent discipline in keeping up with her piano practicing.  Her sight-reading has improved tremendously, and she has been working diligently on her memorization skills.  In addition, Hannah will be participating in N.O.M.T.A.’s Romantic and Contemporary Auditions at Loyola University in November.  Congratulations to Hannah for her hard work and excellent progress over the last few months.


You may have noticed that I have gotten more than a little behind in my Student of the Month choices this year.  As I have so many students doing exceptional work right now, I thought it was about time that I started recognizing students individually.  Let’s get back to it with August’s Student of the Month, Destiny Sanders!

Destiny Sanders, age 12

Bold Cossaks – Goldston

Destiny Sanders is being recognized as August’s “Student of the Month” as a result of her excellent progress in the last month.  Destiny has reached milestones in her scales, technique work, and devotes extra attention to preparing and memorizing pieces.  She is preparing for the upcoming Romantic and Contemporary Auditions in November, and she has taken huge strides in her preparation for lessons in the last few weeks.

In addition to studying piano for two and a half years, Destiny is on the volleyball team at Atonement Lutheran School and acts as a nurse at Fifth African Baptist Church and Second New Guide Missionary Baptist Church.  In 2012, she was on the honor roll at school and won the “fastest typist” award!  In her spare time, she enjoys reading and believes that “music inspires you to do different things in life.”  Well said, Destiny, and congratulations on all of your achievements!

Trent Reznor and the Reason Why Traditional Music Lessons Matter

“My grandma pushed me into piano.  I remember when I was 5, I started taking classical lessons.  I liked it, and I felt like I was good at it, and I knew in life that I was supposed to make music.” – Trent Reznor

This morning, I woke up feeling groggy and somewhat uninspired, so I decided to watch Dave Grohl’s movie Sound City, one that had been on my list for awhile and just happened to pop up on Amazon Prime this weekend.  Towards the end of the movie (which is fantastic, by the way), there is a segment that highlights electronic musician, Trent Reznor, from Nine Inch Nails.  Most musicians would agree that Trent Reznor is one of the more intelligent, well-spoken people to have influenced the “hard rock” genre, so my ears immediately perked up when I heard him say “My grandma pushed me into piano.  I remember when I was 5, I started taking classical lessons.  I liked it, and I felt like I was good at it, and I knew in life that I was supposed to make music.”  This is some information that really made me think.  Trent Reznor is an extremely well-respected rock musician who has been in the headphones of teenagers for the better part of 25 years now, and the man started his music career out of a love of classical piano.

“I practiced long and hard and studied and learned how to play an instrument that provided me a foundation where I can base everything I think of in terms of where it sits on the piano.” – Trent Reznor

As a teenager in the 90s, I grew up in the grunge era, developing a love for Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, etc.  I was hanging band posters on the walls in between practicing Chopin and Beethoven on the piano.  I guess I felt like a bit of a lost soul, but I was definitely not alone.  Many of the other musicians I knew at the time had roots in classical music, but all we really wanted to talk about were the newest bands out of Seattle and the emergence of new sounds like those that came from Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.  We were not lovers of rock music or lovers of punk or lovers of classical…. we were lovers of music.  We used whatever means we had to learn how to express ourselves through music, and for many of us, it began with the piano.

“I like having that foundation in there.  That’s a very un-punk rock thing to say.” – Trent Reznor

As we all got a little older, many of us started experimenting with writing our own music, assembling bands, and learning new instruments.  Our parents began to panic, as we started spending more of our time learning how to manipulate our instruments for our own creative purposes rather than practicing what our teachers had assigned for the week.  We learned songs off the radio.  We wrote melodies for our own lyrics, and we copied down chord progressions for the guitarist or bassist to follow.  We used the piano and our classical training to develop our ears and our sounds and our own creativity, and we found a way to appreciate the tradition of formal music lessons, in a way, by rebelling against them.

“Understanding an instrument, and thinking about it, and learning that skill has been invaluable to me.” – Trent Reznor

Myself and many other music teachers have a deep-seated fear.  We are afraid that, one day, the tradition of formal music lessons will die out.  As technology quickly replaces the need for human involvement in many industries, we worry that we are becoming replaceable.  Human interaction has become less and less important to the younger generation, and most have been raised on the pop culture ideal that “image is everything.”  Talent and hard work are worth less than they were 10 years ago.  We are all secretly wondering, “How are music lessons still relevant?”

The answer to this question is very simple.  Music lessons are still relevant because music is still relevant.  For every teenager, there is a rite of passage in discovering the latest great band and sharing it with your friends.  For every adult, there is a bond that you can share with someone you have met for the first time once you find out you share some common musical interests.  For every child, there is satisfaction in producing a sound from an instrument that is entirely your own.  The state of the music industry will always be changing, as will music itself.  Music lessons will come in and out of fashion, but the foundation that they provide will never be irrelevant.  Music is a tool.  For myself, it is a tool that I use to challenge and express myself.  For others, it may be a tool for self-motivation, discipline, creativity, or simply education.  However you decide to use it, music is the basis for one very simple human ideal: happiness.  The good thing about happiness?  It never goes out of style.

Practical Application: Sight Reading

This has been the summer of sight reading for both myself and my students.  I will be the first to admit that my sight reading skills leave something to be desired, and I have been working diligently to improve upon that this summer.  When you live in a city where summers mean 104 degree heat indexes and constant thunderstorms, summers are a great time to take on all of those things that you have put off for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, in the music industry, many people believe that you are only as good as the gig that you get.  While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that belief, getting A GIG would really be nice now that I have this fancy piece of paper that proclaims my “master” status.  In the meantime, I am working to improve what needs improving upon, so I can start feeling a little more comfortable in the “gigging” world.

As all of this has been on my mind lately, I have begun to reflect upon my own students’ possibilities for the future.  It’s fantastic that I have such a great group of kids who practice diligently, perform regularly in local competitions, and take on Classical literature, despite its decreasing popularity; however, am I preparing them to be functioning, gigging musicians in the future?  I am comfortable with the fact that my own specialty lies in my teaching experience and ability.  I have always recognized this and done my best to capitalize on my experiences, in order to become the best teacher possible.  I have also spent the last two years in school honing my technique and performance chops (something I have never been entirely comfortable with), but two years of formal education does not necessarily prepare you for the day-to-day grind of being a working musician.  As my mom recently commented to me, “Isn’t it nice that you spent two years in school getting a masters degree so you could get paid to play hymns?”  Time to get better at playing hymns.  Moreover, as much as I love teaching, my students may choose a different path, and it’s my job to prepare them for whichever path they choose.

In light of all of this, I have started paying more attention to lessons I am giving, making sure that I am providing the well-rounded education that is necessary in order to become a functioning musician.  If I am incorporating sight reading into my daily practice sessions, there is no reason why I should not be doing the same for my students.  For the benefit of my students and anyone who may be interested on a professional or personal basis, I have put together a short list of sight reading materials that are great for both teacher and student.  I hope you find it useful, and I may expound upon some of these at a later date.

Bach – Inventions, Anna Magdalena Notebook
Bartok – Mikrokosmos
Beethoven – short pieces (Ecossaises, Sonatinas, etc.)
Chopin – Mazurkas, Polonaises, Preludes, Waltzes
Clementi – Sonatinas
Grieg – Lyric Pieces
Kabalevsky – Chilren’s Pieces
Liszt – Consolations
Mozart – Sonatas, short pieces for children
Schubert – Waltzes
Hymns (any denomination)
Technical Exercises – Czerny, Burgmuller, Lecouppey, etc.