Sparking Joy

Getting to know Veena Kulkarni-Rankin, Lead Instructor at the Faber Piano Institute.

Lead instructor Veena Kulkarni-Rankin, from the Faber Piano Institute, joins us with insights into repertoire selection that spark joy, increase student motivation and inspire performance success. Veena has kindly given The Piano Teacher readers access to her presentation “Spark Joy with Engaging Repertoire.” We also sat down for a chat with Veena to learn more about her experiences teaching at the Faber Piano Institute.

Welcome Veena! Thank you for joining us for a chat today and sharing with us more of your insights into your teaching in Michigan.

How long have you been at the Faber Piano Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan? 

I’ve been here 15 years!  I started right after completing my DMA in Piano Pedagogy and Performance.

Can you tell us about your role at the Institute?

I became the Lead Instructor through many years of teaching at the Institute. And that allows me to be a resource to other teachers at the Institute and teachers that call us with questions, as I know Piano Adventures well. I’m a sounding board for our Institute Director, for research projects such as trying out new material for upcoming Piano Adventures publications.  I also help plan events for all our students, such as the three super fun outdoor Institute concerts we held today, “Piano on the Porch.”

How much teaching do you normally do each week?

Each semester, I have about 22 to 28 students each week.  This includes 15 minutes between lessons or siblings, where I write assignment sheets or prep for the next lesson.

Do you have a favourite level to teach? (beginners, intermediate, advanced)

The longer I teach, the more I enjoy beginning and intermediate students.  Their sense of wonder and joy at discovering patterns, or making up a melody, or simply peering into a grand piano and Ooo-ing and ahh-ing at how it works is a privilege to see.  Problem-solving – be it rhythmic or reinforcing keyboard geography – must be fun in order to stick.  Or maybe it’s got to be fun for me to do it!

What does engaging repertoire mean to you?

Engaging repertoire for a student is simply a piece they are excited to get their hands on!  It’s also a piece which the student can play successfully.  Doing something well, be it playing soccer, or being a great writer, or playing a piece well – is the best hook.

How do you select repertoire for your students? (Also how much input/choice do you give students? If yes, why?)

I select repertoire with my students.  I have 2-4 pieces in mind and play excerpts for them in the lesson. Almost always, they are drawn to one or all of them – as all teachers, you get to know what lights the spark of a particular student.  But, I do like to throw in a surprise or two, something that is new in style to them, to see if they’ll like it.

I try to remember conversations we’ve had – did a student mention a TV show or movie they liked? Or a Spotify list they listen to while studying?  Of course, the students that walk in and say, “I want to play this” make our work easy.

There are times when I gently insist that, for example, it’s time to play a classical piece (for my highschooler who would gladly sight read romantic and contemporary pieces for days). Having allowed the student input on most other rep choices, I then have currency to make an executive decision or two 🙂

Compilations, such as Piano Adventures’ Developing Artist Series, or our Studio Collections in our PreTime to BigTime Series, make presenting a little combination platter of pieces easy and economical.

What do you do if you’ve selected a piece for a student and then they lose their engagement with it? Do you forge on or do you let it go to the backburner?

When I see that a student is losing steam on a piece, I usually pick one skill to master via studying the piece, say playing the semiquaver passages evenly, or mastering tricky position shifts.  And then I’ll tell the student, “Hey, let’s master such and such skill this week and then move on.”

What difference do you think engaging repertoire makes when a student performs?

Playing engaging repertoire is what drives a student to want to play for others.  I guess we never outgrow “Show and Tell.”  I can’t imagine having a student pick a recital piece they weren’t excited to play.

What’s your favourite gem in the Faber series? 

Picking just one is too difficult, so here are three! The bounce in Tuxedo Junction (FunTime Jazz & Blues – Level 3A/3B) is infectious and the connection required between the LH & RH to effect such bounce is golden. That whole book is a fantastic mix of styles. Shimmering Waterfalls in Nancy Faber’s Once Upon a Rainbow, Book 3, melds impressionistic and modern styles with comfortable and brilliant fingerwork. And practically every student for whom I play Russell Jacoby’s Sonatina in Piano Literature Book 3 (Developing Artist Series) says “Yes” right then and there!

Veena, thank you so much for joining us today and also for giving The Piano Teacher readers access to watch your presentation. There are so many gems from the Faber series highlighted and some wonderful insights into repertoire selection. 

All of the resources Veena talks about here are available in the Piano Adventures Teacher Atlas! You can check out our round up of all the features of the Teacher Atlas HERE.

As a special giveaway for The Piano Teacher readers, we have some 1-month passes for you to trial this digital platform. To win a pass, let us know how you choose repertoire and spark joy for your students via Entries closes 31 October 2021.

Veena Kulkarni-Rankin
Lead Instructor, Faber Piano Institute

Veena delights in teaching piano students of all ages — from the earliest years of study through advanced concert repertoire. She has also taught at Madonna University and at the University of Windsor in Canada. As a worship leader at the Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church, Veena is at home in both the contemporary worship band and on the concert stage, and performs regularly as a solo and chamber musician. In 2011, she won the Best Liszt Interpretation prize at the Liszt-Garrison International Piano Competition and gave two East Coast premieres. Veena earned a Doctorate in Piano Performance and Pedagogy under Logan Skelton and John Ellis at the University of Michigan. Prior to that, she studied at Indiana University with Emile Naoumoff and Professors Brancart, Auer, Gulli and Tocco, and at the Royal Academy of Music with Hamish Milne.

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