We All Have a Muse

People have an innate, natural drive to play music. Everyone enjoys listening, but the impulse that gets you to move when you hear music is your natural instinct to participate; it’s the urge that makes you play “air instruments”, the urge that makes you sing along, or dance. With guidance, this instinct, YOUR instinct, can be nurtured and channeled, allowing you to express that initial impulse in an inspired creation of ordered sound—that’s music!

Learning Music, a Sensory Experience

I believe learning to play an instrument should begin with learning to understand and appreciate music itself. The most vital skill a music student can learn is to become a sensitive and informed listener. It is, of course, critical for the teacher to introduce written music and start the student on the path to becoming literate. Written music provides an illuminating blueprint to follow when we are first encountering musical elements and concepts. But since the whole point of playing or listening to music is for the feeling and the auditory experience, and nothing put on paper can remotely recreate either, written notation must not be aggrandized as anything more than a reinforcement of what we sense and know to be music. Students should all have the opportunity to acquire skills like proper technique and fluent reading, but the desire to play comes directly from the desire to hear and feel. These senses must be recognized and regarded as superior when teaching the art and nuance of music.

The Way I Teach

I don’t have a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to teaching my private students. Since the advantage of private lessons is to be able to create an individual course for each person, I fully exploit the opportunity by drawing from a variety of sources using the student’s musical taste as my guide. The materials I use are well known to many teachers and are popular among students, but my method of utilizing them is somewhat unconventional. You will not get a set of 3 - 5 matching books that ask you to start on page one and continue indefinitely in that fashion, one level to the next. I do have my favorite sources and will coordinate materials for my students, especially for very young children, but I don’t let the books dictate what’s taught in lessons.

Instead, I introduce the child to the instrument first, allowing them to experiment a bit and try their hands and fingers at short exercises. I get a sense of the personality and learning style of the student as we get acquainted, and then determine what course to set and which materials will assist us in our study. That way, students are not confined to a specific method series, whether they are having success with it or not.

I place a lot of emphasis on classical training, but as a devoted fan of contemporary music, I include a healthy dose of pop tunes, movie themes, rock, blues, folk, kids’ songs, and other modern styles. My main priority in lessons is developing playing skills and teaching practice techniques to ensure continual progress, but I also take special care to teach proficiency in reading and theory concepts so that my students can better function as musicians.

I give students music that will help them progress steadily, but I also encourage students to participate in selecting music that appeals to them. Having a hand in deciding assigned material gives the student more ownership and responsibility in the process. We try out different styles for good musical "cross-training" and to avoid boredom, but I absolutely encourage students to spend time at the piano making up their own tunes and learning by ear the songs they like. I do have practice requirements concerning weekly assignments, but I never want students to feel constrained to practicing only lesson material provided by me.

A Word on Suzuki Repertoire

I am not a Suzuki teacher. I am familiar with the method and philosophy, but I am not a Suzuki method teacher. That said, I often use the Suzuki collections of music because I believe the song arrangements train hands well, especially beginners’ hands. The melodies are simple and many are recognizable children's songs. The left hand accompanies with steady patterns that sound interesting and "make sense" when played independent of the right hand -- like a supporting melody. It’s easy to make a little study of each hand's part allowing the student to get introduced to chord progressions and melodies. A lot of other method books give the prominent role almost always to the right hand despite so much advanced piano music demanding equal dexterity of the hands. Method books that neglect to sufficiently train the left hand do the student a huge disservice.

I like that the Suzuki rhythms are simple and constant which encourages natural hand movement. The constant motion keeps the hands sort of oscillating, and the child falls into a fluid, regulated technique. Beginning students can get overwhelmed trying to read the pitch of the note and rhythm at the same time. Inevitably, as the rhythms get more complex, the student’s hands become tense, and weird habits can start to form. Therefore, I coach students to keep a relaxed attack by showing them some parts of the music by rote.

Finally, the arrangements of the songs sound like "real" piano music. Even though the first book is composed mostly of children's songs, the songs don't sound childish. Music for beginners often sounds sort of clumsy and noisy -- clamorous. The Suzuki songs avoid the telltale "beginner" sound and students find it very satisfying to sound somewhat "accomplished" right from the start.

The Last Word

I let students and parents know from the outset that my goal is to ensure they enjoy their time enrolled in lessons at Muse, but also that the enjoyment can continue for years to come. When students have good memories of lessons, they are more apt to keep up their playing, or to pick it up again in the event life temporarily diverts them from music. In the meantime, while they are under my tutelage, I do everything possible to help my students conquer obstacles and reach the next level of proficiency. I do my best to keep the satisfaction quotient high by setting little goals to achieve each week, and making mastery of skills the reward for the effort.

Finally, I take very seriously the necessity to inspire and encourage a young learner, and I make sure they know that I respect their ability to understand and interpret music as an art. When students know I value their contributions and opinions, they show me how best to teach them. As our partnership evolves and our journey unfolds, what is instilled in the child is more perceptive listening, intuitive playing, and most importantly, finer musicianship.

What Others are Saying

Dear Miss Cara,
You have truly been given a gift, and I am grateful for your influence on the kids. Who knew nagging three kids to play piano could be so rewarding.
--Muse Parent

I'm headed into my seventh year of teaching private piano lessons. You can find me at one of my two studio locations in Eagle River and Anchorage, where my students and I work on the rudiments of classical piano, get our groove going with contemporary styles, and explore the magic and wonder of improvisation and composition. I teach students how to transcribe and arrange music, something I used to do for my own ensembles and in collaboration with local musicians.

While at UAA, I tutored university music students and local musicians in music theory, style, and ear training. As a member and officer of Music Educator’s National Conference (MENC), I team-taught a “music immersion” program for home schooled children.

I have a lifelong history in theater, musical theater, and dance performance, providing me widely varied stage experience. I also taught children’s dance and theater summer programs through Community Education in Minnesota.

Music and Related Education

University of Alaska

Bachelor of Arts in Music

Performances and Coursework in Solo piano performance, Chamber music and ensembles, Vocal ensembles, Vocal instruction, Percussion ensembles, Private and ensemble Jazz Piano studies, Dramatic theater coursework and performances

Moorhead State University
Moorhead, Minnesota

Theater and Dance Program
two years

Performances and Coursework in Musical theater, Dramatic theater, Private vocal instruction, Dance and movement, African American music studies
Sight-read Piano Music Waaaaay More Easily

Of course, you may have heard “keep your eyes on the music.” But did you know it’s equally important to “keep your hands on the keys”?

If you are always losing your place on the piano while reading your way through the music, avoid a common and unconscious habit that many people have and don’t let go of the keys!

Find your starting place for each hand by reading the notes, and then finding the corresponding keys on the piano.

Once you play the notes, DO NOT let go of the keys you’re pressing when you look back up at the music.

Continue to do this as you read through and you will notice the next keys are easier to locate each time because you’ve “marked your place” with the previous notes! 

Happy reading!
Meet Emily

Emily is the first graduate of the Muse Apprenticeship program.

A home school graduate, Emily now attends the University of Alaska at Anchorage, pursuing a major in culinary arts and a minor in music.

Emily teaches piano to public and home schooled students at the Muse School of Music in Eagle River.

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