Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

September 6, 2012

Tickling the ivories

September is National Piano Month, and two local instructors discuss their methods.

TAHLEQUAH — For over 30 years, the one constant in Dana Waters’ life has been the piano.

September is National Piano Month, and whether she’s performing or teaching, Waters derives tremendous satisfaction in tickling the ivories, or “tinkering,” as she calls it.

“The piano is my best friend,” said Waters. “I have spent more time with the piano than any person. In my life, the piano is exalted.”

Waters began playing at age 6, took a liking to it, and has never looked back. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Music Performance degree from Oklahoma State University.

Today, Waters teaches piano lessons at The Music Room on North Muskogee Avenue, and is constantly coming up with new ways to inspire her students.

“Being able to find what it is that inspires a student to seek the discipline and want to play is key,” said Waters. “Coming out of the classical tradition, with 10 years as a national guild scholar, I’m used to the traditional way of teaching, which comes with a lot of discipline. I want my students to seek the discipline and reap the benefits that having it brings.”

Waters offers individualized study, tailoring lessons to meet each student’s needs and desires. While the businesswoman in her recognizes the need to encompass mainstream and popular music genres, the academic in her tows the classical line.

“I have my studio and my dream studio,” said Waters. “A lot of what makes up my dream studio comes from [local piano teacher Mary Ann] Head. She has three different rooms with instruments, and students can always hear a variety of different things going on. I appreciate the way she teaches.”

Waters teaches a four-point method, incorporating warm-up, reading, memory playing and improvisation.

“I sneak the theory in during warm-up, as the mention of the word can bring eye-rolls,” said Waters.

“Reading is just that – reading and playing written music. The memory section is based on the Suzuki style of teaching, where students often hum or sing a tune and play what they’re singing. Improvisation teaches students to apply the theory they’ve learned.”

Waters believes that to be a true pianist, a person has to love to “tinker.”

“Piano players are tinkerers,” she said. “You have to enjoy tinkering to go anywhere. Sure, you can continue to play printed music, memorize pieces and enjoy playing, and for some, that provides plenty of enjoyment. But there’s always someplace more you can take that by tinkering with it. And then, like any other art form, it can become addictive.”

Waters encourages her students to compose original pieces, but firmly believes theory provides the groundwork.

“It’s why I like to stick with classical; you learn the theory,” said Waters. “If you learn the theory, you can gain the tools you need to tinker, and you must have the tools to compose. And really, what kid doesn’t want to play his own music?”

Waters also uses the latest technology to hone her students’ skills.

“Some kids will come in and refer to a YouTube video, and we’ll look it up online, and learn to play it,” she said. “Often, children, especially the younger ones, can play far beyond their reading capability, and it’s important to foster that growth.”

Mary Ann Head has taught generations of students to play the piano, and she, too, tailors her teaching methods to fit her students.

“I’ve been teaching piano lessons since I was 15, under the direction of my first piano teacher. Even when I taught in public schools, I always had private students. This is the story of my life; it’s my love of teaching.”

Head believes that ideally, students should begin lessons at age 8 or 9.

“Very gifted students might profit from starting earlier, if a parent recognizes that. Generally, it’s the child of a musical parent,” said Head. “But 8 or 9 is good, after they’ve been to school for a couple of years, and they can apply what they’ve learned in school to lessons is best.”

Waters and Head both stress the importance of performance. Waters hosts two recitals per year, with many students playing original compositions. Head believes preparing students to perform in the community is key.

“I think performance is key to the development of interest in music,” said Head. “What is important, from a practical standpoint, is students who can play for churches, weddings, parties, funerals and other community functions. To do that, they must be good sight-readers. I teach a very integrated approach to sight-reading. It’s all well and good to play an audition piece for the Oklahoma Music Teachers Association and Music Teachers National Association auditions for piano education and theory, but it’s equally important you take the best of all those avenues and give that to the individual student to play for performance.”

Head’s goal is to make sure students can read from sight “from any hymnal in any church.”

“Yes, they can play at competition, but they can also function in the community setting, at church and for community events,” she said. “I am proud of my students’ reading abilities. We need to be good readers, whether it’s the printed page, or from magazines like Clavier’s Piano Explorer, or music from our archives.”

Head said many of her young students compose original pieces, and it gives her a foundation on which to build.

“I teach composition skills, and sometimes it’s amazing that it starts with a very young beginning student whose ears want to hear a group of notes,” said Head. “I can build on that, and show them how to improve upon it [using theory] and that builds a piece.”

Jayna Smith, an adult student of Head’s, began playing the piano nine months ago.

“I have three children, and my two girls have taken piano lessons,” said Smith. “This is all new to me, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

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