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A Journey to Excellence: Our Experience at the 2017 Baltimore MTNA Conference

On the way to the 2017 Baltimore MTNA Conference

At 8 am on the last day of spring break I found myself at Hannah’s door ready to embark for the open road. After the cats had been fed and with snacks and bags in tow we began our 8 hour drive to Baltimore from downtown Toronto. The day was clear and bright and the border crossing was a breeze. Two fairly innocent and non-threatening piano teachers whose only contraband was a small container of blueberries hardly put things to a halt. Once over the border we began to see some very American sights such as some beautiful wild eagles, a few federal penitentiaries and even an all you can eat KFC buffet. We stopped in Mansfield, PA for some lunch at the Cast & Crew, an “improvisational” diner with such delicacies as a Neil Patrick Harris burger and for my non meat eating self, the “herbivore.” The clever names fell a bit flat once we realized they had no actual connection to the food and decided that improvisational in this case meant simply making things up.

We rolled into Baltimore around 6 pm that day and met our roommate Evelyn Nojd, President of the Bolton-Brampton-Caledon ORMTA branch. While parking the car we saw the most amazing license plate: PNO 4TA (get it?) but then before we could take a picture, the car quite literally disappeared. Perhaps it was a mirage for our tired eyes.

The next day we awoke to the song “Good Morning Baltimore” which Hannah cleverly cued up! We didn’t stay in Baltimore for long though as we planned an extra day to take in the sights and wonders of American politics in Washington, DC. As we were leaving the hotel I was happily surprised to run into two wonderful musicians and past mentors of mine from the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Music - Dean Edmund Dawe and piano professor Dr. Daryll Friesen. While there weren’t that many Canadians at this joint CFMTA/MTNA conference, it was nice to connect with some prairie people as well as members from BC.

The following four days were exhausting but fulfilling (sessions began at 8:00am!). The exhibit hall was filled with books from publishing giants including Hal Leonard, FJH Music Company, Alfred, and Kjos Music. Many exhibitors had enticing giveaways and promoted new and innovative products. There were also 21 posters on the latest research ranging from piano pedagogy in India and the Philippines to creating visual rhythmic systems for young beginners, to biomedical techniques.

Each day featured several sessions 20-60 minutes long. The toughest part was choosing which one to attend (5-7 sessions ran concurrently).

Books from the 2017 Baltimore MTNA Conference

A few great takeaways (session name and presenter in italics):

  • The brain tends to remember the negative over the positive, so teachers need to make an effort to find ways to make the quantity of positive interactions and experiences outweigh the negative. In fact our brains need 12 full seconds dwelling on positive messages to make them stick. Overcoming The Brain’s Negativity Bias – Barbara Fast

  • Use rote pieces that are highly patterned to teach a specific technical or artistic goal. “Rote” Is Not A Four-letter Word - Julie Knerr (author of Piano Safari series)

  • Shakeup your studio through tweaking your current offerings and amplifying ideas. Keynote session: David Cutler author of the Saavy Musician and the Saavy Music Teacher

  • Consider a Reading Boot Camp for students with strong ears and fingers but a limited classical background and low reading ability. Hey...Listen To This! – Stephanie Bruning

  • Try giving your students a “repertoire rich” diet. Attempt a 40 piece challenge in your studio! Repertoire-Rich Learning - Elissa Milne

  • Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge might just be forever banished from my vocabulary after a provocative session which highlighted the ridiculousness of using mnemonics. Every Good Boy Deserves...Forgetting? - Samantha Coates

Liz & Hannah with Elissa Milne at the 2017 Baltimore MTNA Conference

Photo above (from left to right): Hannah Greiner, Elissa Milne, Liz Craig

Session handouts are available online for those interested at:

One of the highlights of the week was a masterclass given by Leon Fleisher. Here are a few quotes and ideas I was able to scribble down:

  • “The goal of the whole is the soul”

  • (Referring to a crescendo) “Just experience it, don’t do it”

  • “You are worshipping 1 and 1 is a false idol” (referring to beat 1)

  • He tended to start by asking the performer by what measure they were successful at what they were trying to achieve and what questions remain (if any) – what a powerful way to empower the student.

  • He compared a piece to a human skeleton whereby there are bones which cannot be moved (form, rhythm, notes) and joints which are connected to the bones that are flexible.

  • Memory is difficult because of self-consciousness. Focus of a series of tasks, of imagery. Make everything intentional so there are no accidents. Be ready to alter your intention as you learn and listen more and more.

Leon Fleisher at the 2017 MTNA Baltimore Conference

Beyond these wonderful learning opportunities, we both found much inspiration and joy in meeting our favourite pedagogical composers and well known bloggers and teachers. We were treated to fantastic music from the MTNA and CFMTA competitions and unforgettable recitals by the Fleisher-Jacobson Duo and comedic pair Igudesman and Joo.

Hannah and are were so glad that we invested our time to attend this conference. There is so much value in spending time with fellow musicians and music teachers networking and sharing ideas. MTNA holds an annual conference (Disneyland - March 2018) and the CMFTA holds a biannual event (Winnipeg – summer of 2019). For those readers who haven’t yet made it to a national conference, trust that doing so will reinvigorate your teaching for years to come.

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