Why Conferences are So Good

Why Conferences are So Good

Piano teachers are no longer an isolated breed. With webinars, memberships, blogs and Facebook groups, we have never been so connected or informed. So why should we bother to get off our bottoms and actually turn up to a conference or workshop, if we can get everything we need online?

Because there’s something about the personal connections that make it so much better.

Recently I had the privilege of attending and presenting at the MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) conference in Baltimore, USA. It is one of the premier PD events of the year and about 2000 teachers attend (about 98% of whom are piano teachers). It was held in a conference hotel right on the harbour (Sydney readers: think Darling Harbour, complete with ferries, aquarium and shops!) and in addition to the various presentation rooms there was a massive exhibition hall with everything a music teacher could possibly dream about buying.

I had the BEST time at this conference. Yes, I learned a lot, as one expects to do, but that’s not what made it so good. It’s what happened as a result of meeting people that made all the difference.

Short Story #1: Serendipitous friendship

I flew in to Baltimore late on Thursday night, giving myself a whole day on Friday to adjust to the time zone before the conference started. I couldn’t sleep past about 6am Friday and hopped on to Facebook (as one does). There was a friendship request from someone named Heather Nanney. I went to her profile to check her out, before accepting the friendship (as one does). She had just updated her status with a ‘hello, Baltimore!’ photo from the plane, so not only did I accept the friendship request I sent her a message saying ‘hi, are you here for MTNA?’ and from there we made an arrangement to get together that afternoon! Heather and I were friends for the rest of the conference and are now planning a blog post together. Not only that, it turns out that she is really good friends with Leila Viss, who I had been dying to meet in person, and on the last night the three of us had a lovely dinner together.

There is something about shared experiences at a conference which enables you to bypass all the small talk and get straight to the nitty gritty. All three of us commented later that that dinner was one of the highlights of the conference.

Short Story #2: Serendipitous connection

The opening night concert was by Igudesman and Joo and was worth the conference fee on its own! I was totally pumped when it finished and despite my ongoing jetlag there was NO WAY I was going to sleep. Heather had not made it to this concert, so I put on my best extrovert face, popped down to the bar and looked around for someone to talk to. I saw a group of women at a table which was not quite full; I marched up, introduced myself, asked if they too had seen the concert and could I debrief with them please because I didn’t know anyone else and I was too excited to sleep?!! These Canadian teachers were so lovely and I happened to be sitting next to Karen King, who was also wearing a ‘presenter’ badge so we got talking about our sessions. Her topic was why kids drop out when they do, and what inspires ongoing motivation, which interested me greatly, and as a direct result of this chance encounter I made sure I went to her session on the Monday which was immediately after mine. Wow it was good, and I’m not sure I would have put in the effort to run straight there after I finished (I nearly didn’t make it!) if I hadn’t happened to meet her in the bar.

I tried to talk to Karen at the end of her session but she was mobbed by the other attendees. Instead I found her on Facebook and messaged her asking if we could get together for a coffee so I could pick her brain, because I am giving a talk on similar concepts at the upcoming APPC in Adelaide. Karen didn’t see my message but it didn’t matter because I bumped into her in the exhibition hall about an hour later! When I said ‘I wondered if we could grab a coffee sometime’ she said ‘how about right now?’ and off we went! (The impromptu nature of which is absolute bliss, when one is unencumbered by kids.) For the next 90 minutes, we debriefed about our sessions and talked about motivation, and Karen recommended some great books like Drive by Dan Pink and some research by Gary McPherson (who I found it is giving a free lecture at UNSW at the end of April, who wants to come??).

Short Story #3: Serendipitous learning

On the last afternoon I was helping my lovely friend Elissa Milne pack (she had to fly out straight after her amazing session on repertoire rich learning) and wondering aloud about which of the remaining sessions I would go to. I had decided the one on rote teaching would be great and was super excited to meet the authors of the Piano Safari method. None of the others seemed all that enticing to me but Elissa looked at the program and said ‘oh! That session on Nicholas Kapustin’s music will be amazing! I wish I could go!’ It was not something I would have chosen but I’m so glad I went because it was indeed awesome. Just yesterday I heard some of his music on the radio (I actually guessed it was Kapustin, even before they back-announced) and it held extra meaning for me because I had gone to that session and learned about him as a composer. This is learning I would not have done if it had not been for discussing the program with Elissa.

Conclusion: Harvesting serendipity

When we attend a conference or a workshop, we get all the content that is already available to us online AND so much more, because we are also making personal connections. The three stories above are really all part of one serendipitous experience because the friends I made are also connections and new connections inspire and enable me to learn new things. In the conference environment, we can temporarily transform into extroverts and get instant payoff: we make friends, we discuss, we recommend, we learn things whether we set out to learn them or not. It’s professional development and personal development, and that’s why conferences are so good.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Why Conferences are So Good

  1. Leila Viss says:

    What a wonderful synopsis of your MTNA conference experience. I like how you dive in and take a chance. When you open yourself to the possibilities, go in with both feet, take a chance and step out, you will NEVER be sorry. Good for all of us to remember. It was serendipitous that we dined together and I’m so thankful for that experience. I have a blog post cooking about your wonderful session and what it has triggered in my studio. Can’t wait to share it. I really wish you lived a little closer but thank goodness for Facebook. All the best to you and yours, Samantha and keep up your inspiring work!

  2. Priscilla says:

    Your Newsletters alone, are an inspiration, Samantha. Thanks for your generous sharing of your experiences and teaching tips …. “Reference Point” is worth giving a good try… Would F A C E work as 4 reference points for the Treble notes? Same with A C E G in the Bass ?

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Hi Priscilla yes I think FACE works as four reference points in the treble, but once you introduce another four in the bass that’s where the confusion starts between the clefs and there’s not a lot of point if they understand how the staff works. In my opinion just one reference point to start off with is fine!

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