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9000 teaching pieces on YouTube: The University of Iowa Piano Pedagogy Project

This century's technology provides many tools for keyboard teachers, students, and parents. Internet MIDI, Skype, blogs, YouTube, and many other innovations bring new ways of learning music at the keyboard. The University of Iowa Piano Pedagogy Project on YouTube is an ambitious undertaking Dr. Alan Huckleberry and Dr. Jason Sifford initiated in 2011. Their goal is to record YouTube videos for more than 9,000 compositions on the Iowa Music Teachers Association Piano Repertoire List. I had the opportunity to ask Alan and Jason some questions regarding this exciting resource.

What was the impetus for starting this project? 

AH: I was teaching one of my precollege students and told her to go to YouTube to listen to the piece she was playing—I think it was the Khachaturian Toccata. She came back and said she couldn't find anything. I said "Come on, there's got to be something good out there." So I went on my computer and looked for it, and, lo and behold, I could not find a really good recording of it. Then I started looking for other standard teaching pieces. There are a lot of other students out there playing things and some are very good. But, I think if you have a twelve-year-old looking at a video being played by a sixyear- old it can be very frustrating that the performer is so much better or younger. And that frustration won't happen if you have professionals playing their pieces. So that was kind of my impetus and I talked to Jason, my best friend here, and said, "What do you think about recording 9,000 videos?" And he said, "Yes."

Can you tell us a little more about the Iowa Music Teachers Association Piano Repertoire List? 

JS: The list is used for two different things that IMTA does. We have a non-competitive state festival which usually happens in November, and at least one of the pieces students play for the judge and teacher has to be from the list. The list is also used for our state auditions; these are competitive auditions which usually occur in January or February. The students present three pieces to a judge and also take a theory exam. Then each district sends students on to compete at the state level.

AH: Students have to play three pieces, and the repertoire periods rotate every year. One year they'll do Baroque, Classical, and either Romantic or Contemporary. The following year it will be Romantic, Contemporary, and either Baroque or Classical. The levels on the list go from Level A to F—A being beginners, F being the most advanced. We decided to record up through level D. There are plenty of good recordings of Beethoven sonatas and Chopin scherzi.

JS: And, we didn't want to learn the entire Beethoven sonata cycle!

How many videos have you recorded so far? 

AH: To date, we have recorded approximately 1,250 videos, about 100-150 videos a month. But, because I'm on sabbatical this fall, I hope to record up to 400 a month.

How did you determine what pieces to record first and what to record next?

AH: For my part, it has basically been what is on my shelf, while covering as much breadth as possible. 

JS: I pick something that I like. So far, most of my recording has involved complete collections of things. I'm a big fan of Jon George, so I did one of his books. I did a whole book of Gillock, a set of six Bach preludes, a book of dances. One of the ways I find things is through teaching something from an anthology, and I'll wonder what everything else from a particular opus is like. For example, Gurlitt Op. 117—there are dozens of pieces, but only a handful show up in most anthologies. So that's kind of fun, getting to know other pieces in these collections.

I noticed on the channel that you allow requests; have you had many? 

JS: Yes, we actually get quite a bit of mail. I know someone requested I record some of my own music that I wrote, and I just recorded some Dennis Alexander pieces requested by a viewer.We talk to the local teachers a lot; we presented this project at local meetings and our state conference to learn what people are interested in. That's part of the fun, too, to see what their reaction is like, and getting a feel for what repertoire teachers are using in their studios. 

AH: I had a father of a student in Oregon contact me asking me to record Garden Treasure by Carol Klose. And he actually followed it up by sending me a $50 Amazon gift card to purchase the music. Really unsolicited—I told him not to do it—but he did it anyway. So I recorded that, and I signed a copy and sent it back to the daughter as a little gift back. I've been in touch with him; he's asked me to watch videos he's taken of his daughter's playing and comment on them. Of course, before I did that I contacted her teacher, because I didn't want the teacher getting mad at me. So I had a conversation with her and she was all into it. It was kind of fun—a little bit of long-distance coaching.

Do you have a philosophy regarding how you play the repertoire? 

JS: I try to make sure I'm playing musically and getting a beautiful sound out of the piano. I didn't want to make anything a caricature of what it is in order to get something across. It's just a chance to listen to a good, solid, musical performance.

AH: I would absolutely second that. I've tried to be as urtext as possible. Especially with the newer pedagogical composers—if they're writing forte, if they're writing piano, if they give a metronome marking—I want to be in that ballpark; I want to do it justice.We're not trying to tell anybody how to play the piece; it has to be this way. It's a place for people to learn about the music; it is a possibility of how to play the music. We also want to set good examples for presentation; that has been important for us. How we start each video, how we end. It's not "play and then we're out."We start from our laps, we get prepared, we use correct posture and alignment, those basic things are important to us. We try to dress nicely. That's another reason why we record from a concert angle. A lot of requests are "Can you please have an overhead shot of the hands so we can watch the fingers?" First, that's technically more complicated. Second, I think that would defeat our purpose. Again, we're not trying to show how to play the piece—what fingering needs to be used or whatever— this is the piece, take it or leave it.

Has recording this repertoire changed your teaching in any way? 

AH: It definitely has helped and amended it. I'm currently recording Czerny's Op. 599, his method. It's been fascinating for me to see how he sequenced things and how early, for instance, he uses double thirds and chords. And then I start to think, well why would he do that? I think that they are really good for hand position and those kinds of things. Knowledge of the repertoire is an additional area; I've learned a ton of repertoire. Some which I never would have looked at are good pieces for my teaching, and also for my pedagogy program at the university. I can then direct my graduate students to this teaching repertoire.

JS: The biggest thing for me is that it has given me an appreciation for what students go through in recitals. Sometimes it's easy for me to forget what it's like for students to perform. Even when you're playing "easy music"—Level 1, Level 2 stuff—it still takes a certain kind of focus and a certain kind of care to put together a good performance. So that was kind of eye-opening. It gave me more respect for what students go through. It has also been a good way for me to discover new repertoire. I've always been a bit of a "repertoire geek." I just like the music a lot. And it's fun to explore and find all these new things. Sometimes you'll go through a collection and you'll start to realize why that's the one piece they picked for all the anthologies, because maybe the others aren't so good. And, every now and then, you'll find a piece and think, "That really deserves to be heard and shown off."

Do you have suggestions for how teachers might use the videos? 

AH: There are a variety of ways. Most teachers use them in the lessons. The teacher pre-selects maybe five of the videos, and the student chooses a piece to play. Or, they'll send the student home with a list of videos to watch and ask the student to come back next week with her favorite one. 

The videos are also a great tool for teachers to choose and learn new repertoire. I think a lot of teachers don't have the time to find new pieces, so they tend to go with their available warhorses. This is a quick and easy way to listen to new repertoire. 

JS: I think this goes back to one of the purposes of the project. There are fewer and fewer music stores who are able to stock a lot of music on the shelves, and many of us are not able to go to a music store with Jane Magrath's The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature in hand and look at music. The videos really do offer people a way to "browse." When I was a kid we would go to the music stores, go through the shelves, and see what was there. And today, I just don't know that there are a lot of places in the country where you can do that.

AH: And one of the exciting things is that every video is tagged, and the tag notates the technical problem in a piece. So, for example, if the piece deals with lots of different articulations, you can search our site for all pieces within a certain level that deal with a lot of different articulations— or LH melody, or cross-handed playing, whatever it may be.We have a list of about twenty-five or thirty keywords that you can search. We think that is extremely helpful to the teacher.

I've had teachers write to me about two positive influences they've had. 

One teacher said: "I had a student who would not play a piece in the correct style. It was technically correct, but artistically really wrong. Her father had her listen to your recording on the computer at home, and the piece is so much better."

Another commented: "I've had my students listen to the pieces at their appropriate levels and let them bring me lists of the pieces they thought they would enjoy playing or performing. They have to think about contrast of style before they give me their suggestions. The parents are also taking an active part in this listening experience. The programs and suggestions have been excellent. I have taken them to heart on what they would enjoy playing based on the listening experiences of your videos. It has been a very good tool for the teacher-student and parent relationship. During all the 100-degree weather, they didn't play video games—they listened to IMTA music videos. How cool is that?"

To view videos in the University of Iowa Piano Pedagogy Project visit To purchase of copy of the repertoire list visit wordpress/?page_id=104.

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