Dordt College News

Leila Viss: Using technology to keep students on the piano bench for life

June 24, 2014

Leila (Alberda) Viss graduated from Dordt in 1987 with a major in music. Shortly thereafter, she moved with her husband, Chuck Viss (’86), to Denver for Chuck’s job. Unsure, at first, about what she wanted to pursue, she began a master’s degree in piano pedagogy and performance at the University of Denver. Viss held church music positions and taught in a local school before throwing herself into the business of setting up a studio.

“It’s because of Chuck that I can be what I am and do what I am doing,” she says. His flexible hours allowed him to drive and accompany their three sons to events during years of afterschool and evening piano lessons. It also helps that he’s a computer guy.

It’s easy to believe that Leila Viss is an engaging piano teacher. She’s certainly an engaging presenter. At a January workshop for Dordt students interested in setting up a studio, she spoke enthusiastically about how she tries to keep children “on the bench for the rest of their lives.”

Viss began the session by holding up two plain white paper plates and asking those in attendance to follow her every move. Gradually everyone in the room loosened up and followed her lead as she moved the plates rhythmically and interpretively to Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” from Piano Sonata in A.

“It helps students feel the pulse,” she said, adding that it also gives them an intuitive sense about the musical form of the piece; it encourages active listening; and it allows them to use their whole body—a good thing for children who have been sitting in school all day.

“I don’t want them to say “I used to play the piano,” she says. So in addition to a variety of activities, she uses lots of technology to get students excited about music. Each of her students attends a half-hour lab session in addition to their weekly half hour on the bench. While Viss is working with one student at the piano, another is practicing a variety of skills on an iPad or keyboard—with earphones, of course.

Use of technology, especially the iPad, is one of the most obvious things that stands out about Viss’s studio. In fact, she recently published a book titled The iPad Piano Studio in which she shares many of the digital resources and creative strategies she uses.

“Technology is a way to engage kids, and it’s here to stay,” she says. People expect to use electronic devices in almost every setting today, she notes. So she does. And the software and apps she’s found have transformed and improved the way she teaches and the way her students learn piano.

“I can’t imagine teaching pop and jazz without iTunes and YouTube,” she says.

That is, in part, because Viss makes her students take early responsibility for their learning. They learn to adopt tools and strategies for practicing as well as choose the songs they want to learn. In an interview in the Spring/Summer issue of SimpleTEC magazine, a magazine for music educators, Viss says, “I ask them to arrive with a list, or better yet, with their phone or iPad playlists. We search for piano covers for ideas and inspiration.”

What students play is only the beginning. Viss uses apps and software like iReal Pro, which allows them to create chord charts, choose a rhythmic style, and create a back-up band; AnyTune, which loads tunes from her iTunes library and slows them down without changing the pitch; MuseScore, a notation program for composing, and GarageBand, which lets them record their work. She also uses programs to keep an online schedule and help her with bookkeeping for her business.

Viss finds that technology is just as helpful for teaching classical repertoire. She has loaded all of her CDs into her iTunes library to help students find songs they want to learn; YouTube helps them hear and see how others have performed them.

“You can’t expect students in the 21st Century to learn with 18th century methods,” she says.

Viss shares many more resources and ideas in her book, through her 88pianokeys blog, by writing for other music blogs, and at camps and workshops across the country.

Despite her busyness, Viss finds that just as she needs to keep her students engaged and exploring new things, she needs to do the same for herself.

Viss is quick to note that there’s not one good way to teach piano, but she’s decided that this is how she will run her studio. She knows there is a learning curve to using technology and that it’s not for everyone, but for those who want to try, she shares as many resources as she can.

“When you’re learning something new, you’re a better teacher,” she says. She might also say, “when you’re practicing you’re a better teacher.” She holds a full-time organist position that keeps her involved as a musician.

In the past few years, she has been inspired by Philip Johnston, author of the Practice Revolution and the Dynamic Studio; she is studying and working with Bradley Sowash, a composer, creative pianist, recording artist, and educator specializing in improvisation who is perhaps best known as the author of the best-selling jazz piano method, That’s Jazz; and she’s collaborating with Dr. Sam Holland, Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and author of many piano method books—including the Music Tree series that first introduced Viss to the piano as a child.

This summer, she will offer an improvisation camp for piano teachers in collaboration with Sowash, and she will participate in Southern Methodist University Institute for Piano Teachers. At workshops that Viss is helping to lead, she has scheduled participants to break at 3 p.m. and join in dancing—hip hop, ethnic—to help participants become more engaged—just as she does with her own students.

Sally Jongsma

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