Rachel Jimenez is a classical piano teacher and pianist living in Brooklyn, NY. She shares her home with her husband, her son, and her beloved dog. She studied the piano from the age of five, eventually earning degrees in piano performance from New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and Yale University Graduate School of Music. Since 2004, she has been living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY and running a successful piano teaching studio out of her home. She created her own teaching materials and published them as “Fundamental Keys”. More information available at www.fundamentalkeys.com.
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This week we’re chatting with pianist Rachel Jimenez who not only has her own teaching practice in Brooklyn but has created her own teaching method, Fundamental Keys. Rachel currently is running an Indiegogo campaign to fund the completion of the second edition of the method, which she promises will be a new way of teaching beginners of any age that would lead seamlessly into serious classical studies.
When did you start playing piano? How did you get into teaching?
I started playing at the age of five. The first couple of teachers I had only lasted a few months each. I was kind of bored with it until my mom took over teaching me and had me just work on classical music. It has been my favorite thing to do ever since!
I did some teaching while I was in college and grad school just to make ends meet. At that time I mostly taught through established community music programs. It wasn’t until moving to Brooklyn that I decided to put all my effort into building up my own base of students. I found that trying to perform for a living was much too stressful for someone with a temperament like mine, so I fully embraced becoming a teacher and even developed my own teaching materials so that I would feel confident in what I was communicating to my students.
To some, playing piano seems to be a technical exercise involving skill and memorizing the notes. Can you explain how to be creative while playing the music someone else has written?
It’s something I’ve thought a lot about… how an interpretive art can be a creative exercise. The way I see it, the written page of music is a very imperfect vehicle for expressing music. It isn’t expressive of anything at all until someone takes the written notes and turns it into something others can listen to and experience. It’s just like an actor taking a script and turning the words into a convincing, multi-dimensional character. An actor first has to learn the lines flawlessly, since any hesitating or tripping over the words will immediately distract the audience from believing in the character. But, just learning the lines isn’t enough. The lines have to be delivered naturally and with intensity for the audience to really be moved. Similarly, a classical musician’s role is to first technically master every detail of what the composer wrote down, and then to deliver it in a way that expresses their concept of what the music means. That makes an end result that is polished, convincing, and moving to the audience. No two performers play a piece exactly alike, and one performer’s interpretation can change drastically over the course of their career. So, it really is a creative exercise!
How do you teach this creativity to kids as they are just learning to master technical skill needed to play?
Well, this part is not so easy. What I try to do with my students is discuss some possible interpretations of the pieces they play. We talk about what words might describe the mood of the piece and whether there is even a rough story line that the piece could be following. This helps them engage their imaginations with something while doing all the “grunt-work” of learning notes and trying to achieve accuracy.
What prompted you to create your own teaching method?
Before moving to Brooklyn over 10 years ago I tried a bunch of different piano teaching books with my students. I never enjoyed teaching from any of them.
I also wasn’t impressed with the way any of the books approached the skill of reading music. Once I decided to focus my career on teaching, I knew I had to create materials that I would enjoy using. They had to be materials that fit with my personality and my goals as an educator. Since I couldn’t find anything on the market that I could get excited about, and since I’m also pretty handy with a computer, I started making up all my own materials and changing them as needed depending on the challenges I would come up against.
How does it differ from other piano teaching books/methods
My approach is very straightforward. I use a modern and respected method of teaching note-reading, but I present it very succinctly and seriously. My materials don’t have cartoon characters in them or cute songs with lyrics. I present concepts thoroughly but also efficiently, and I give the student lots of ways to master each idea (through playing exercises and written exercises). Very early in the process (within a year for most kids and adults), the student is ready to start playing elementary classical pieces that composers in the 1700’s and 1800’s wrote for beginners. There is a lot of great teaching material from that era, and my method is built around getting into those kinds of pieces as quickly as possible.
My method may not be right for every teacher or every student, but I do think it’s something that someone needed to create.
Who are your favorite composers and pianists and what makes their creativity special to you?
In order to keep the article from getting ridiculously long, I’ll limit myself to one composer and one pianist.
Favorite composer: Mozart. His music is extremely expressive, but because he was such a talented composer from a very young age, the music is also amazingly natural. There’s just something about his music that sounds *perfect* in every way. He expressed every human emotion there is but within a framework that was in some ways very rigid. Every note sounds brilliant but also like it absolutely HAD to be the note he chose — like no other note was possible. The elegance and refinement in his music combined with the broad emotional range is just unparalleled as far as I’m concerned.
Favorite pianist: Krystian Zimerman. No contest! He is a Polish pianist who has been performing since the mid-1970s. He’s a bit reclusive and doesn’t release too many recordings, but as far as I’m concerned no one else can touch him. He has every quality you could want in a great classical pianist: technical perfection, intense expressivity, original interpretive ideas that he conveys with an air of authority. Really, there is just nothing else like a Zimerman performance. Plus, I got to meet him, and he is incredibly friendly and approachable.
Why are there so few well known female composers/pianists in modern day and in history?
In the days of the great classical composers, the tradition was that most women of means learned to play the harpsichord or piano, but just up to a certain point… just enough to entertain at dinner parties. The serious business of producing and performing music for the nobility and for the church was completely male-dominated. It was the same as virtually any other occupation — women were amateurs and only men were encouraged to become experts.
Over the generations, women have made greater and greater strides in the field. Since the middle 1800’s there have been many great women concert pianists who are regarded as equal to the men of the stage. I would say that the student body in the conservatories I went to had a good proportion of women studying performance and composition, so I do think as time goes on, there will be more balance.
How has being a mom changed the way you teach and play the piano?
I can’t practice as much! Ha! Actually, I recently got a digital piano so I can practice at night with headphones since all the hours during the day when I used to be able to practice are now taken up by parenting. I feel really lucky that the digital technology has advanced to a point where it’s possible to practice demanding classical music on an electronic instrument. It’s enabled me to keep working on my own playing and share my music on the internet. Of course I prefer my 1925 Steinway grand piano, but I’ll be able to practice on that during the day again once my son starts school in about 18 months.
You’ve taught children before you’ve become a mom, but do you feel like your relationship/perspective with your child students has changed now that you are a mom?
Definitely. I feel like I have more patience than I used to. I always had a good reputation for being patient and kind with my students, but now even more so. Whenever I find myself getting frustrated while teaching, I think of how I would like a teacher to work with my son, and that helps me stay focused on helping the child do better using positive reinforcement techniques.
Do know of or have a quick activity moms can do with their kids to develop their appreciation for music?
A great way for parents and children alike to learn to listen to music more carefully is to just play random classical music on Pandora or Spotify or YouTube, etc. You can just pick pieces at random, listen to a minute or so, and then talk about what emotion the composer was conveying. Some good adjectives to use are:
Happy, Sad, Scared, Anxious, Lonely, Cheerful, Proud, Excited, Peaceful, Tense, Angry, Calm
It’s ok if you and your kids have different opinions. Talking about it just opens them up to listening for expression in instrumental music.
You can also try to pick out instruments whenever you listen to music. I love Baby Einstein’s “Meet the Orchestra” to teach kids the sounds of the different instruments.
Fill in the Blanks!
Instrument I’d play if it wasn’t the piano: CELLO – no contest.
If I could be a modern day musician (alive today), I’d be: Krystian Zimerman (a female version).
My current pet peeve is: Concert pianists who are too “flashy” with not enough substance.
My dream venue to play in: Carnegie Hall, of course.
Please support Rachel’s indiegogo campaign and help her inspire piano students everywhere!