Valerie Altman is a piano teacher from New York. She knows what students face as they work to sight-read new music and try to find time to practice. She encourages her students with lots of genuine praise.
Tell us your personal piano story as well as how you chose piano teaching as a career.
When I was born, my mother looked at my hands and said I had piano fingers. They were pretty long when I was a baby, although they are now pretty short haha! I received my first toy piano at the age of 1 like I’m sure many children do, but by the time I was 5 (my mom says I was 3…hard to believe) I was teaching myself to play by ear. My father taught himself to play guitar by ear in his early 20s and he will also dabble with the piano. We were unable to afford lessons until I was 10, but that didn’t stop me from begging! I took lessons for 8 years (until college where I focused on voice) while also doing choir, performing in 4 theatrical performances a year, writing and recording my own music and studying advanced placement music theory. Music was just in my soul! I studied voice in college and then music education. I had the desire to perform and work in a school, but through a lot of life changes, I realized that teaching lessons one-on-one was what I enjoyed the most. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Teaching lessons is something that feeds my soul just like music did when I was growing up.
Were you a good student?
I say yes and no! I tell my students stories about myself as a student and how I used to lie about practicing and that my teacher always knew when I was lying even before I played sometimes! My mother always tells this one story….she was going out to run an errand and told me to practice while she was gone. I said “okay” but of course I was busy watching something on tv. Before I knew it she was home and I panicked. She came in and asked if I practiced to which my response was “yup”. My mother looked at me and said “the keyboard is put away…you never put it away…you’re lying”. Caught! Haha. After the first year or two as I felt more confident in my reading (I had trouble learning to read so learning to read music was also a struggle) I began to practice more and of course, once I started learning pieces that I wanted to learn…I would constantly practice! I was (always have been) always polite and asked lots of questions. I had the desire to play but lacked the drive when things got tough…not unlike a lot of my students now.
When I got my first piano, things changed for me; I felt more excited to play.
What is one thing you often say to your piano students?
I am not a particularly strict teacher. I don’t scold my students if they don’t practice! However, I always tell them “if you don’t practice, you won’t get better”. The big thing I tell them is “practice makes PROGRESS” (not perfect….ever) and I always remind them that they have the capacity to do ANYTHING!!!
Listen to this episode for tips on finding time for regular piano practice: Episode 55 Let’s talk about practice
Is there a common struggle your piano parents deal with? How do you help them through it?
The parents do struggle sometimes when the kids aren’t practicing as much. Sometimes I feel parents are more willing to quit for their kids than the kids are. Fortunately, we have always been able to sit and discuss and the kids always pull through. I am very open in communications with my parents and I have to say that I hit the jackpot when it comes to the families that work with!
What keeps you motivated as a teacher?
The progress of my students. When they finally finish a piece or even when I get there and they are just happy to be playing….that’s motivation enough!
Do you have a favorite piece that you enjoy teaching your students?
I love teaching students ANYTHING that I learned as a student. It brings back warm fuzzies for me and they have a new love for it and it’s amazing. Two of the big pieces are “Für Elise” and “The Spinning Song”. (Shelly says: I also recommend “Fountain in the Rain” – one of the favorites that I learned growing up.)
(Note from Shelly: I am not professionally affiliated with Prima Music, I just love their sheet music selection, quick shipping, and excellent customer service.)
Tell us about an app or technology that you find useful in your teaching.
I use Piano Maestro by JoyTunes and Note Works by doremiworld. Piano Maestro is such a fun tool, the kids love it and it really helps with sight reading and rhythm! Note Works is an excellent app for practicing staff note recognition.
If you could visit with any composer or musician who would you choose and why?
That is a tough question. The answer has definitely changed over the years and honestly, I haven’t given it much thought in a while. I think I’d be more inclined to meet with someone my age who has been successful like Sara Bareilles. We are both in our 30s and the kind of music she writes is the kind of music I started to write in my teens and 20s. She now has a very successful show on Broadway (which I would love to see) and I have always respected her!
Watch Sara Bareilles and the cast of Waitress perform selections at the 2016 Tony Awards
Parting Words of Encouragement for Piano Parents
Be supportive and do not push your children. It’s great to sit down with your child and the teacher to come up with a practice schedule and even a rewards system for practicing, but do not badger them about it. They will quickly lose interest! Extra encouragement is always great! Make sure your child knows that they sound great (even if they’re playing a 1 note song)!
As long as they know that they are being supported that’s going to be the foundation for their musical journey.
Valerie Altman can be reached by email at email@example.com
Hey there and welcome!
Sign up to get Piano Parent Podcast updates delivered directly to your inbox. Special resources and content only for subscribers.