4 Tips To Honour Family Culture In Your Piano Studio

Chances are your studio is multi-cultural (even if it may not seem like it on the surface). While families differ in the way they celebrate their culture, we can honour family culture through the music we offer our students.

A connection to the past

My kids are part of a multi-cultural family. We’ve celebrated this through food, music & yes, stories about their ancestors. When they were quite young, my mom & mother-in-law pulled stories about our twins’ great-grandparents into a keepsake book filled with pictures.

It’s been especially important to share our family culture when I saw, as a young adult, how many people in my own culture had no connection to it. One boyfriend didn’t even know what borscht was. To put this in perspective, this was the most common peasant soup that our ancestors ate because it used the ingredients on hand. In my family, the stories of hardship & staying true to ethics not only stuck with me but are ones my kids have heard often. After meeting my husband’s family & hearing their stories, I made sure our kids heard the incredible stories from before they moved to Canada as political refugees. They have a rich heritage on both sides of the family. And, I want to make sure we celebrate that.

Helping student’s families

Making time to honour family culture through music is so important. And, this is another way we can support the families in our studio.

Just like those young people who didn’t really know their own culture, studio families can struggle with how to share family stories. Especially if they come from a background of hardship or struggle.

While it isn’t our place to make the decision on how to honour family culture, we can do a few things to feed curious minds & provide music that our students identify with.

The debate

There has been debate between music that is inspired by a culture vs. written by a composer from that culture. Only you can decide what approach is best for you & your studio. All I can share is my insight & opinion.

On a personal level, we have always celebrated both of our cultures in our home. We’ve also made sure that our kids are aware of & have tried food, music & much more from cultures around the world. It’s possible to celebrate another culture even if you aren’t born into that culture. The richness our family has experienced with this approach has been incredible!

On a teacher level, there has been an accessibility problem here in North America. (I won’t speak for other continents.) Much of the music written for early level students has been written by Western composers. The pieces that do celebrate music from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, South/Central America, & Indigenous music tend, at early levels at least, to be written by composers not from those cultures & are simplified.

This simplification is for good reason. If students are unable to read or technically play the complex rhythms in African or Latin music (for example), they need to be simplified so students can be successful.

Walls or bridges?

My father-in-law really likes my pebre (a traditional Chilean salsa). But, I’m not culturally Latino.

A wall approach says I should never make pebre. Never write music from cultures other than my own. I should only purchase or have music played in my studio that was written by composers from that specific culture.

A bridge approach says I make the pebre understanding there are some modifications from the traditional recipe. Even dishes from my own culture changed when family moved to a new continent & no longer had access to the same ingredients. My pebre honours the recipe my mother-in-law taught me while also making use of the ingredients & equipment we have available. Plus, my father-in-law gets to enjoy a version of pebre he really likes!

Personal opinion

I think we need less walls. Walls are what:

  • Divide us,
  • Make it difficult to understand where someone else is coming from,
  • And perpetuate a fear of those that are different than “us”.

A bridge approach when it comes to honour family culture is looking for the best music at the best level for our students. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Perhaps modifications where made with the ‘ingredients’ of the song: rhythm, pitches used, chordal structures, accompaniment patterns. But, at least our students can begin playing this music at a much earlier level.

If you don’t agree with me. No worries. Remember. Your studio. Your rules. My only hope is that it gets you thinking a bit about the why when it comes to choosing music.

Tip 1: Simplify

One of the families I taught years ago came from a Muslim background. Their mom had asked me to teach her children some music from their “culture”. (In this particular case, the mom made no distinction between culture & religion.) She had realized that growing up there hadn’t really been music in their home. Eventually we found a small book of songs that not only culturally, but religiously fit the bill. They just didn’t really work for the level her kids were at & were designed to be sung.

Thankfully, she was okay with me taking the book home for a week to get a better understanding. I chose a few songs that were level appropriate with a some modifications. After playing the songs for the kids, they each chose one song. We talked about drones (the musical kind, not the flying kind) & how these influenced the overall sound of the music. We explored what each of the voices brought to the song & which ones we were going to focus on.

Don’t be afraid of simplifying things. There is so much music written for more advanced students or potentially different instruments. In those cases, it may very well be a necessity to simplify the music.

Tip 2: Decide the goal

The goal of a song can be many things: technical/pedagogical, interest/passion, fits a studio theme, dealing with emotions, or something else entirely. I would argue that each of these goals is just as important as the other.

The goal dictates the music chosen.

By this I mean that you can use the bridge approach to find music that meets your student’s level while also reaches the goal you have in mind.

Family culture + technique

Perhaps you are introducing a musical element of family culture (like my example above). Take a look at what technical elements a student needs practice with (or needs to be introduced to) & focus on music that has those elements.

Family culture + interests

If you have a student that loves anime & is interested in Asian culture, find some anime music. Chances are this genre didn’t play a huge role in their ancestors lives … but, it can help your student feel closer to them. Especially if you take it a step further to see what links this music to their music their ancestors may have listened to.

This same approach can be used when using a studio theme that explores music around the world or travelling through time.

Family culture + emotions

When one of my Omas (grandmothers) passed away a few years ago, I was drawn to one of her favourite hymns at the end of her life: Gott Ist Die Liebe. Listening to the hymn helped me feel closer to her. And, ultimately it became the inspiration for a song I wrote about her life.

The hymn itself doesn’t celebrate my culture. It is a connection or bridge to my Oma.

However, in using the song as a inspiration, “Lena’s Journeydid honour our family culture while celebrating her life as well. It encapsulated the hardship in her early years, the journey & ultimately the joy she experienced in the later half of her life.

If your student is dealing with a lot of emotions (especially when it comes to loss), perhaps pulling a song that is a bridge can help the healing process. Depending on the age of your student, talk with their parent to see if this could be a beneficial approach.

Tip 3: Compose

For students that like to compose, they may want to use the same approach I did. Find a favourite song or genre from a family member as the start of a song. This is an incredible way to honour family culture!

In this instance, look to the following for inspiration:

  • Style/genre
  • Mode of the song
  • Form
  • Chord progressions
  • Rhythms
  • Accompaniment patterns

Please remember for copyright’s sake that you are not looking to duplicate the song. That’s illegal. But, you can pull elements so long as the end result is obviously & significantly different than the original.

Also keep in mind that you are using this piece for inspiration. Want to convert a section of the chord progression to a minor key? Go for it. Want to simplify or add more complexity to the chord progression? Or, switch the form entirely? Go for it.

I did all of these with “Lena’s Journey” which resulted in a much better song than if I had rigorously stayed with the original elements of the inspiration song. Was it significantly different? Well, the initial feedback I got was, “It sounds nothing like the hymn!” Perfect!

For online teachers, I have some tips to compose during online lessons. For in-person teachers, the tips shared here are ones I used for in-person lessons as well!

Tip 4: Capture a moment

Any song that’s about mangoes (regardless of the genre) will probably remind me of one of my Opas (grandfathers). That may seem weird when we talk about how to honour family culture.

My grandparents would visit in the summer & Opa would purchase a box of mangoes. We would look on avidly while Opa peeled the mangos & cut off slices for each of us. Fast forward to when my twins were young & we have photos showing them avidly waiting for their pieces of mango as well. It’s incredible seeing how happy Opa is & the lasting memories created in those two generations of photos.

Look for music that captures a moment or a memory. Honouring family culture can be more about the story than the genre. For example, “Winter At The Cabin” was written to celebrate how the extended family of one of my students would get together every year. As he told me what they would do at the cabin, I could see these were lifelong memories being created. Those memories will become stories that are passed down through their family culture.

When you link to a student’s story it makes it more meaningful. And, it may create curiosity for genres that fit culturally. “Storytelling Makes For Better Teaching” gives further ideas on how to make this happen.

Honour Family Culture Through Music

My students have loved exploring different cultures in my studio (both their own & others). Their parents have loved seeing their kids’ faces light up as they share new styles of music.

By actively looking for ways to incorporate family culture, you become more than a “piano teacher”. You become someone who is helping tell family stories. While your clients or students may not necessarily realize that, they will feel a bond that goes beyond the typical student-teacher relationship.

Which was your favourite tip?

4 tips for honouring family culture in your studio:

  • Simplify arrangements to your student’s level.
  • Focus on a specific goal combined with genre when choosing music.
  • Composing using inspiration from a family member’s favourite song.
  • Find music that celebrates a specific moment or memory.

Let me know below!

To get your studio-licensed copy of “Lena’s Journey” click here or the image below.

Lena's Journey: Intermediate to Late Intermediate Piano Solo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.