Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Professional Development for Pianists 101

Professional development is a long and never-ending road, with no clear end in sight, but many rewarding waypoints along the way that can energize your career. We are led in equal parts by necessity, curiosity, and passion, sometimes by hunger. Without further ado and in a somewhat loose order, here are 101 things you do to jumpstart your Pro-D today:

  1. Build your repertoire.
  2. Build your technique.
  3. Learn a scale system from over 100 years ago. (see Dohnanyi, Brahms, Liszt, etc.)
  4. Play through an entire book of Celebration Series Piano Etudes. Marianne Uszler once mentioned in one of her books (The Well-Tempered Piano Teacher, I think) that playing through an entire volume of Celebration Series etudes is one of the best warmups one can find. 
  5. If you're a vocal coach, learn more languages. In addition to the usual English, French, German, Italian, and Latin, that could include Russian, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, or even Hieroglyphics (see works of R. Murray Schafer).
  6. Learn how to sight read better than anybody else. 
  7. Develop killer aural skills. I've recorded 11 sets of Online Ear Tests for The Royal Conservatory's Four Star Sight Reading Books that are are used by developing pianists across North America. 
  8. Learn how to read from scores.
  9. Learn how to transpose. Human transposition skills, if developed, are better and more reliable than anything you can find on a computer program. Singers will love you for this, call you regularly, and give you more work. 
  10. Learn how to play from figured bass.
  11. Learn how to play from lead sheets.
  12. Learn a few 2-3 minute solo works that you can play anywhere. You never know when you might need them. 
  13. Learn how to sing from a first-rate voice teacher. There is no more committed voice student than a fine collaborative pianist! 
  14. Learn new musical styles. 
  15. Find a country and learn its music. 
  16. Play through all the repertoire for a composer.
  17. Play through all the repertoire for a genre. 
  18. Learn how to arrange pop music for classical piano. See Christopher O'Riley's arrangements of Radiohead
  19. Learn how to compose. 
  20. Learn how to use MuseScore, Sibelius, or Finale to craft beautiful and professionally presented scores that performers will want to play. 
  21. Find performers who will want to play your music. 
  22. Learn how to play with an orchestra.
  23. If you would like an orchestra gig, check out the rep lists from orchestral piano openings. It's a ton of prep but worth it in the end if you get the gig. 
  24. Learn how to conduct. It has been said that no-one has such an effective entrée into the conducting world as collaborative pianists. Why? Because they can read scores better than anyone else. 
  25. Learn how to play with the rhythm section of a band. Hint: sit back on the beat. 
  26. Start a chamber group.
  27. Start a choir.
  28. Start an opera company. 
  29. Art song may be dying as an art form. Build a community around intimately and beautifully presented art song programs, many of which can become one-of-a-kind projects in an urban area. (see the Florestan Recial Project)
  30. Organize house concerts. (see Groupmuse)
  31. Develop a working knowledge about the body and how it functions at the keyboard. There is no better guide than Thomas Mark and Barbara Conable's What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body
  32. Learn yoga.
  33. Learn meditation.
  34. Learn how to demonstrate yoga and meditation techniques to performers so that they can learn to address performance anxiety more effectively. 
  35. If you're primarily a collaborative pianist, learn how to teach piano.
  36. If you're primarily a piano teacher, explore the world of collaborative piano.
  37. If you're primarily a soloist, explore both #35 and 36. 
  38. Keep track of the accounts that you have with all current clients.
  39. Learn how to write and send a professional invoice. If you're a freelancer, this might be the most important piece of advice in the entire list. 
  40. Learn accounting and bookkeeping. I recommend Heather Young's Finance for the Arts in Canada as a quick primer to get your feet wet.
  41. Learn an accounting program such as QuickBooks Online (all platforms) or if you're on Windows, learn Simply Accounting (much closer to the classical accounting process but much more difficult).
  42. Build a website. No, you don't need anyone to do it for you. Do it yourself. Do it now. (see #53)
  43. Update your résumé. 
  44. College teaching résumés can often clock in at more than 15 pages. For many potential positions, no one will even bother to read a résumé of this length. Therefore, write a succinct 2-page résumé and know which context is best to send the long or short version.
  45. Realize that your website is your résumé to most people. 
  46. Realize that not just your website, but the totality of all your online activities, including your website, blog, Facebook profile, Twitter account, YouTube comments, and LiveJournal rantings from 2004 are also your résumé.
  47. Assume that every potential recital partner you work with with from now on will Google you in detail before they even meet you. 
  48. Assume that every parent who wishes to interview you for potential lessons will Google you in detail before they even decide to call you to set up the interview. 
  49. Assume that everyone you wish to interview for will Google you in detail (or have administrators who will, in even greater surgical detail) before they make the decision to book you for an interview. 
  50. You need to look fabulous. Get a wardrobe upgrade and some world class promo shots. Come up to Toronto and Liz Parker can get you started with both wardrobe acquisition and staging the photo session. 
  51. Learn how to network. Not just the LinkedIn pretend connections. Real connections with real friends in the professional world that you can trust and count on. 
  52. "If they can't find you on Google, you don't exist." - Nikki Loney
  53. You need online registration for your teaching studio or collaborative piano practice. You really need it. Online registration is a killer app and no one will be able to compete with you once you've got it set up (more in a later article). I recommend My Music Staff as the simplest, most professional, and cheapest solution that gives you everything you need. 
  54. If you're looking for work, answer your phone and email messages faster than anyone else. 
  55. Know the best freelancers in town and ask how to get on their referral list. 
  56. Know the busiest teachers in town and ask how to get on their referral list. 
  57. You need a calendar whose events can be linked to invoicing. Again, My Music Staff fits the bill like no other. (see #53)
  58. Post your résumé online. Update it often.
  59. Learn how to teach music theory. There is no better guide than The Royal Conservatory's Theory Syllabus, 2016 Edition, supported by the Celebrate Theory series.
  60. Learn Robert's Rules of Order. Nearly every executive, board, and academic committee uses these. Knowing them well can help to kickstart your way to leadership and governance.
  61. Join your local MTNA branch if you're primarily a teacher, or your local NATS branch if you primarily work with singers.
  62. With #61, go to the next meeting and talk to some members of the executive. If you're under 50 years old, chances are that they'll recruit you for the executive within the year. 
  63. Don't teach repertoire piecemeal. Teach a system where repertoire, etudes, technique, ear, and sight skills are taught in tandem in order for your students to reap the benefits of structured music education. I recommend The Royal Conservatory's Piano Syllabus, 2015 Edition  (and the Celebration Series books that support it) as the best overall method. Consider also working towards RCM Teacher Certification and join a vibrant and growing community (and gain access to years of online teaching materials).
  64. Learn how to speak about music in an inspiring manner. 
  65. Learn how to give a killer workshop. 
  66. Learn how to use PowerPoint in a workshop. Don't be boring.  
  67. Learn how to write about music in an inspiring and engaging way. Don't be boring.
  68. Start a blog.
  69. Learn Squarespace
  70. Learn WordPress. This is what Helen Hou did and now she's the lead developer at WordPress.
  71. Learn how to use Facebook Pages in order to build a community for your projects. I did this for the Collaborative Piano Blog several years back and now have over 3,500 followers. 
  72. Learn how to use Facebook Groups in order to foster better discussion around communities. Nicole diPaolo created the Collaborative Pianists' Community, which is now one of the most useful places on the internet for substantive discussion among collaborative pianists. 
  73. Use Facebook ads to promote your studio or your projects. Everyone that has used this service has mentioned how useful its demographic targeting is, and at very reasonable rates. I've seen Facebook ads used to promote artists, albums, teaching studios, and organizations, but I've never seen a Facebook ad that featured a collaborative pianist. Promote yourself. The field is open. 
  74. Learn how to use Twitter the right way to promote yourself. And I don't mean just tweeting links and boasting about yourself. I mean connecting and communicating with people. 
  75. Learn how to use Instagram to promote your projects. Remember to #hashtag your #projects so the right people are drawn to your content. 
  76. Learn how to use Pinterest boards to show all the cool stuff you're using in your work. Take a look at what Teach Piano Today has done with their resources and links. 
  77. Once you've done #65 or 67, submit your articles to MTNA or NATS branch, regional, or national newsletters and magazines. These organizations always looking for well-written articles from members. Afterwards your articles can easily be spun off into future workshops.
  78. Learn how to be a podcaster. As with #76, there is no better example in the piano field than Teach Piano Today (you can the episodes they did with me here, here, and here.)
  79. Learn how to interview people. Hugh Sung is really, really, good at this skill. You can find his interview with me here
  80. Write your own method book. 
  81. Rather than giving a sizeable cut to publishers, publish it yourself. Nikki Loney and Mim Adams did this with The Full Voice series and now have a large international body of sales. Hint: they have a podcast too! (See #78)
  82. Learn about the balance between administration and creative staff at every place where you work. Often there is a shared vision and purpose between the two groups, while at others you may find an insurmountable gulf.
  83. Know the difference between a coworker and a colleague. Always seek out colleagues, who are to be valued and treasured.
  84. Learn about Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Green Lumber Fallacy. Many of the best administrators in the arts field have a very limited arts background, but that doesn't necessarily limit their passion for the arts or how well they can manage organizations. You can learn much from these administrators, and they make wonderful colleagues. 
  85. Learn how to organize yourself, your stuff, and your surroundings. 
  86. Check out the Getting Things Done method of David Allen. Even after 15 years, it's still the gold standard in productivity.
  87. Learn Agile Methodology. Many companies and products are organized using this philosophy. (see #53)
  88. Learn Kanban to organize your projects. 
  89. Prefer to use pen and paper? No problem. Check out Ryder Carroll's Bullet Journal, Patrick Rhone's Dash/Plus system, or one of Mark Forster's time management systems
  90. Learn project management.
  91. Learn event planning.
  92. Learn how to be a leader.
  93. Learn governance.
  94. Learn how to reach your potential. (#95 may just be the best way to accomplish this)
  95. Learn how to help others reach their potential. (perhaps even more important than #94)
  96. Read books about the great composers and performers. 
  97. Read books about the great teachers. 
  98. Learn how the great teachers helped others reach their potential. 
  99. Learn how to impart genuine artistry to your recital partners.
  100. Learn how to impart genuine artistry to your students.
  101. Act as a beacon for the lifelong love of music.


  1. Very inspiring, I hope I ticked some of those points in the past and I will do the rest in the future!

  2. This list puts our profession on steroids!

  3. I love this list. It was encouraging to see many things that I have tackled. (Most are never "done" - just areas of growth.) I shared it with my teachers group here in Wisconsin.

    One question: I have considered getting an ARCT diploma in pedagogy. Is there a reason you recommend the RCM certification instead? I'll admit I'm reluctant to get involved in something that has a significant annual renewal fee.

    1. Rebecca, thanks for the comment! As to whether or not you decide to pursue an ARCT diploma or RCM certification, remember that there is a huge amount of resources that you'll have access to for the cost, including a massive collection of videos and teaching resources for every level. In addition, access to Medici.tv and the entire Naxos recording and video collection is almost worth the entire price of certification. Since so many parents are looking for RCM teachers on the National Teacher Directory, your prime position on that list in your area will also help you to get more referrals.