By Shane Cadman
Strong Rock Christian School, a Pre-K through 12th grade private school in Locust Grove, Georgia, places a high value on the arts in the lives of young people, and they integrate them into all grade levels. When it comes to music, you’ll find the usual classes here, such as band and choir, but you’ll also find a piano lab and a percussion ensemble. The piano program is run by Jackie Davis, an educator with both experience and vision, who is deeply committed to her students. She’s so committed that she moves the entire piano lab into their gym for concerts. A piano lab for concerts? While that may initially strike you as unusual, you’ll soon see that there’s something exciting going on at Strong Rock, and that a piano ensemble concert is nothing out of the ordinary.
The Long And Winding Road
Like many piano teachers, Jackie started off with a very traditional piano education. Fortunately, opportunities became available that allowed her to enrich her musical palette, and would ultimately provide the foundation for her program at Strong Rock.
“When I attended graduate school at Georgia State University, I taught in their digital piano lab as part of my core curriculum. I had taught class piano with acoustic pianos when I was first out of college, so I was familiar with class piano instruction, but now I had to learn to adapt to the many different features of the new technology, which piqued my interest. Also, one of my professors was a jazz teacher, and he taught a lot of improvisation, which helped to develop my interest in learning to improvise. But, it really wasn’t until I was teaching at a music store that all of these experiences started to come together. My husband owned the music store, and we sold digital pianos. This led to an involvement with a digital instrument manufacturer, which hired me as a curriculum specialist. During this time I went to Canada and studied with Merv Mauthe, and then started writing and arranging, as well as training teachers.”
The Best Of Both Worlds
When choosing pianos for education, there’s more to it than just how they sound–they have to work great for teaching as well. When Jackie had to find pianos she could recommend to other teachers, as well as to use herself, there were a number of factors that came into play.
“When I was working [for an instrument manufacturer], I trained teachers for school systems. When that division closed, I kept training teachers as a private consultant, but I had to find an instrument to recommend, and that I could work with. I started looking at different pianos, and talking to different people. I wanted a product comparable to the pianos I had been using. Great sounds and good action, along with user friendliness, were important. Some pianos were not easy for me to work with, but the Roland pianos were very user-friendly, and were equipped with what I needed for teaching built right into the piano. That’s why I started recommending it to the schools where I did training and work. They all went to Roland. When I was hired at Strong Rock, I naturally wanted to continue with Roland.”
The piano lab at Strong Rock is a fairly standard configuration, with 13 Roland HP-203s for the students, and a Roland KR-107 as the instructor keyboard, and they are all connected to a conferencing system for communication throughout the lab. But there’s more to this lab than just pianos (and students learning just how to play piano).
“I have a SMART Board, and a computer at my piano. There are also seven laptops that are connected by MIDI to student pianos. The students learn theory through software, along with using software to compose and do arranging, and we have a CD-2 that students use to record and make CDs. They start with just basic sequencing, and then the next year they start layering tracks. By the time they’re in the class for a couple of years, they’re making their own multi-track arrangements that they write, and they love it! ”
Do You Hear What I Hear?
With all that technology surrounding the students in the piano lab, Jackie was quick to respond when asked what excited the students the most.
“Of course, all of the different sounds. Once they find the drum kits, the students come up with new beats all the time, new patterns–they love to do that. To find all the many sounds–that seems to be most inspiring. We’ll play a song, and then they’ll say ‘Now can we play it on...’ and then they’ll name a different sound. ‘Sure, we’ll play it again.’ So by playing it with six different sounds of their choice, I get the song practiced six times. Something has to change for them to keep their interest, so by letting them choose the sounds, it’s exciting to them; but it’s also repetition, and that’s what I need to get them to play it correctly.”
We’re With The Band
With the students getting excited by all the different sounds that are available, using this feature on the pianos becomes an important part of the educational experience.
“Even the beginners–you take a class and divide them into four groups, and let each group choose a different sound. They’re playing the same note with four different sounds, so they think they’re playing an orchestra already, even though it’s unison. We even change sounds while playing scales sometimes, or even play them with a drum beat playing, just to make it more interesting. My goal is to get them to play the scale, and it works.”
Not only do the students change sounds for the keyboard, but as was mentioned earlier, the drums play an important role, particularly with the younger students. And because they’re playing with a “drummer” who keeps perfect time, their rhythm and timing becomes very solid.
“I have found that when I start these students from the beginning, playing with the drums all the time (except for the classical things–sometimes I’ll put on the metronome just for my own sanity), by the time they reach the second or third year, it’s amazing how good their rhythm is–it’s built-in.”
Just Can’t Wait
For schools fortunate enough to have a piano program, piano classes typically meet once, or maybe twice, a week. At Strong Rock, the program is a bit more intensive than that, and the students can’t wait to get to class.
“The fifth grade through the twelfth grade is what I’m teaching now. The elementary classes are after school, because of my schedule–I have so many students. I have five classes, and they have an hour class, four days a week, on a rotation schedule. It makes a tremendous difference in their progress from private lessons, where you go from seeing them once a week to seeing most of them every day–it’s amazing.”
All I Want For Christmas
With an intensive program like this, you would think that practicing at home would be encouraged, if not required. However, Jackie’s realistic approach is paying off in ways she didn’t imagine.
“In the beginning, I said ‘I don’t want students to be required to have a piano or keyboard at home,’ because I want it to be something that all students have the same opportunity to participate in. I really didn’t expect them to practice at home. By Christmas, I was getting e-mails from parents saying the kids wanted a piano or keyboard for Christmas. So of course I sent them to the local dealer, and of course they were asking for Roland. Several families purchased pianos or keyboards for Christmas, so by that time, about three-fourths of the class were playing at home.”
The Kids Are Alright
A healthy, realistic attitude when teaching is always important, so when Jackie found out that the kids were not just playing the assigned music, she was encouraged by their enthusiasm.
“Now, they weren’t always playing my repertoire, or my curriculum at home–they were going on YouTube and learning songs, and then coming in and showing me what they learned. Some of them were praise songs and some were pop songs, but they were doing very well with it, which they loved because they could play songs they hear on the radio.”
Maybe I’m Amazed
So picture these kids at home watching music videos on YouTube and figuring out how to play the songs on their keyboards or pianos. They’re not just watching TV, or playing video games. They have a desire to learn, and they’re using their eyes and ears to become better musicians–and Jackie couldn’t be happier.
“I had no technology growing up, so it’s amazing to me to see how having the computer has improved their ear. They’re playing by ear, and they’re playing by sight obviously, because they’re watching the fingers of the person play, but they’re not learning it by [reading] music. They’re playing things much more by ear, by what they hear, and picking it out on their own. I teach them to read in class, and I teach improvising, and we do some composition, but it’s difficult to teach somebody how to play by ear. You just don’t have that time in class, so for them to do this on the side is amazing.”
In the past, there has been a great divide between the “play what you see” and “play what you hear” schools of piano pedagogy. While it is sometimes desirable when teaching students how to read music notation to have them play what they see before hearing it, this has often been turned into “the right way to do it” for all students at all times (despite the fact that many of the great classical composers and performers were quite adept at improvisation). Jackie’s lessons as a child were no different.
“My teacher never played it for me–I couldn’t even hear it. I’d just have to read it just from the dots on the page, which is so backwards.”
Walking On A Wire
Thankfully, Jackie understands the need for learning to play by sight and to play by ear, and she balances them with their students.
“I really love the balance of being able to do both. I want them to read music, and that’s important, but to see them come in and play things on their own, and to enjoy it, it opens up a whole new world and it’s very exciting.”
In Perfect Harmony
Another unforeseen benefit to having her students learning songs on their own by ear was that it wasn’t long before the students were coming to Jackie and asking her about what they’re playing.
“They’ll come in, having learned a new chord, and they’ll want to know the name of it; so it does open up the door to show them that they have a need to learn theory. It makes the theory more interesting to them, instead of just theory for theory’s sake. They have a reason to use it, so they will learn it and then use it in their playing. Hearing the chords that they learn on YouTube does seem to pique their interest in theory more.”
Join Together With The Band
Jackie’s piano program at Strong Rock is not just about class piano–it’s also about piano ensembles. If you’re not sure what a piano ensemble is, picture an orchestra of all digital pianos, each able to play hundreds of different sounds. For many piano teachers, their first question is, “how does someone move from teaching class piano to developing piano ensembles?”
“I had a music store with a small piano lab, and had always taught music ensembles, so it was just sort of the natural thing for me to do. It’s so much fun. You can adapt band music or choral music, using all the different sounds, and play all the different parts. It’s so much more exciting of a performance than just a solo piano, and the kids enjoy playing aloud better. They learn so much from listening to each other, kind of like a choral experience versus a solo experience, like a solo saxophone versus playing with a whole jazz group. It’s much more motivating.”
I Hear You Knocking
Jackie is always thinking about practical applications when it comes to teaching, and that includes preparing her students for potential opportunities down the road.
“When I grew up, all I could do was play solo piano at church or for the chorus. I always wanted to go into band and play with the jazz band, or play with a group, but there were not those opportunities. By playing in the ensembles, my students learn to add string parts or bass parts, or playing a horn part. Then they can go and play with the church praise band or the school praise band. There are more opportunities for them to play, and they’re not just playing a piano sound and a piano part–they’re playing many parts. It opens up the world for them.”
At the end of the school year, Strong Rock put on a concert with the piano students and the percussion ensemble. Seeing that Jackie is known for her piano ensembles, this meant she would need all of the pianos for the concert. Since there is no room for an audience (or the percussion ensemble) in the piano lab, the only viable option was to have the concert in the gym, which meant that the pianos in the lab would have to be moved. Fortunately, the piano lab is just across the hall from the gym. In addition to the piano lab, Strong Rock has three more Roland pianos around the school, so she borrowed those as well.
“I had 17 pianos set up for the ensemble concert. There’s also a 15-member percussion ensemble. For the concert, we would alternate playing—we would play, and then they would play some, back and forth. You heard some piano ensemble pieces, then some percussion pieces, each with a completely different sound or timbre. For the finale, we combined the two groups on a Latin piece, which was a percussion piece that we adapted to include the pianos.”
Where There’s A Will
So what goes into preparing a concert finale that cannot be fully rehearsed until the day of the performance? Once again, Jackie used technology to serve her artistic and educational vision.
“Because the piano and percussion ensembles could not rehearse together before the day of the concert, I sequenced all the parts so the students could practice along with the sequence. We also had an MP3 file of the song, so the piano students could play it and hear the drums and the guiro. I made a MP3 recording of the midi sequence at four or five different tempos, and loaded it on the flash drive for all of the pianos. This way the students could practice along with the recording at a slower tempo, and work it up to speed during the three or four months before the performance. We put it all together only two times before the concert, but because we had all played along with the sequence and the MP3s, we felt like we were practicing together. It was very helpful to have that tool.”
A Good Problem To Have
As you can see, Jackie has an amazing piano lab, and she knows how to use the equipment and technology to create an exciting musical environment. Even still, it does not come without its problems.
“I wish I had a bigger classroom with more pianos, because I have more students wanting to take the class than I have pianos. That’s my biggest problem at the moment. We have 13 student pianos, and as students become more advanced, two to a piano doesn’t work for them. We could actually use three piano labs right now. I could run an elementary lab all day long, a middle school lab, and a high school lab. We have more students wanting to take piano class than we can accommodate at this time, which is a good problem for us to have.”
Jackie has a vision for the music program at Strong Rock Christian School, and it’s not just for piano students. In fact, her desire is to reach out to all of the students.
“The other thing I would love to have is a technology lab. We have three computer labs at our school, and I would love some MIDI keyboards put in, and to get someone to teach music technology to the non-piano students.”
More Fun In The New World
With a strong vision and a lack of fear, Jackie has developed a model piano program at Strong Rock Christian School. Fortunately for her students, Jackie understands the importance of keeping music education interesting and exciting, and she knows how to use technology to her advantage, all with the goal of creating lifelong musicians.
“It’s becoming more fun for the students, and if it’s fun, they’ll continue doing it.”