Time for Some Pictures!

It’s looking a little dull around here these days, so I thought it was about time for a picture post! Here are a couple things that have been going on in my studio recently…

Do you use the penny practice game? I have a jar of pennies sitting on my desk and my students frequently ask if they can play the penny game when we are spot practicing a difficult section in one of their pieces. The student just decides how many pennies they’d like to use. All the pennies they select are placed on the left side of the piano music rack. If they play the difficult spot perfectly, they get to move a penny to the other side. If they mess up, all the pennies on the right have to be moved back to the left. The goal is to get all of the pennies moved over to the right side. If they are successful, I let them keep the pennies. You wouldn’t believe how excited some of them get about taking home 8 cents! 🙂 James, above, especially loves this game – and it’s perfect for him because he’s one of those start-at-the-beginning-and-play-the-whole-thing-again-if-he-makes-a-mistake students.

Earlier this month twelve of my students participated in one of our favorite activities of the year – The Clavinova Festival (nine of the ones pictured above are my students – the other three were in a different recital)! As a part of the festival, all the students get their name entered in a drawing for their own Clavinova. I practically squealed into the phone when Johnny called me to tell me that he won the Clavinova this year! Amazingly, that makes four students from my studio who have won a Clavinova over the years. (And one of them is sitting in my studio, because the student who won it gave it to me as a birthday present that year!)

For his mastery challenge last week, Andrew was working on memorizing the Major Sharp key signatures. Since he’s still a little young to fully grasp the concept, I tried this approach with him. I mixed up all the key signature flashcards and then had him arrange them in order from the least sharps to the most sharps. He knew that the key signature with none was C-Major, so we put the C scale block in front of that flashcard. Then I had him hold up his right hand and figure out the fifth note above C by saying the notes followin C in the alphabet to see which note corresponded to his pinky finger. It was G, so the G scale block got placed in front of the G-Major key signature. And so on. He loved doing this and was ecstatic when he conquered the challenge by getting everything unscrambled and lined up in the correct order in less than 30 seconds! What a diligent little student!

13 Ideas for Parents to Prepare their Young Children for Piano Lessons

Occasionally I will get e-mails from parents with young children (3-5), inquiring as to what sorts of activities they can do with their child to help prepare them for piano lessons. Here’s a list of 13 basic ideas (pulled from an e-mail I sent) that even a non-musical parent can incorporate into their day to help their child develop various musical skills in preparation for lessons. I’m sure there are tons of other ideas, so feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Develop a solid internal pulse as a good foundation for rhythm in music:

· Clap or tap to the beat as you listen to music.

· Play “pass the rhythm” – while sitting, clap, tap your legs, tap your head, etc. in varying patterns and have her imitate you and try to keep right on beat so that you can go back and forth with different rhythms without pausing between them. (hopefully that makes sense! Harder to explain that demonstrate J )

· Give her a baton (or some stick that could work as one) and try having her “conduct” to music she listens to – you could even try teaching her actual conducting patterns! Try having her emphasize the downbeat so that she can develop an understanding of the organizational structure of music. (As an aside…I find that this is one of the hardest things for students. I play music and have them try to find the downbeat and identify the time signature. This is very challenging for almost every student. Doing this with clapping or tapping would be an easier way to start than with the baton, though.)

At the piano:

· have her go up and down the piano playing all the groups of two black keys, then all the groups of three black keys

· have her play all the Ds going up and then down or down and then up (I find that D is easier to start with, because it’s the white key in between the two black keys) Once they’re consistently accurate with D, I move on to C, then E, then F, G, A, B.

· learn steps vs. skips on the white keys. (I play a game with two dice that I made – one has “step” and “skip” on alternating sides; the other has “up” or “down” on alternating sides. We place a little game token on a starting key and roll both dice. The game token gets moved according to the dice and we see who can be the first to get to a designated ending key. My young students love this!)

To develop finger strength:

· learn finger numbers and take each finger for a walk (by tapping it by itself on a flat surface)

· do “finger o’s” – press each finger (one at a time) into the thumb and count to 10 and try to not let the knuckles on the finger collapse. (I often will use my fingers to try to pull a student’s “O” apart, testing it to see how strong it is. They love this!)

To develop music reading skills:

· If you can get a dry erase magnetic board and some markers and magnets, you can do a ton of stuff!

· Draw lines representing the staff – place a magnet on a line or space and have her identify it as a line or space note. Then you give the directive and have her place it.

· Place a series of magnets and have her identify up or down or repeating. Then let her arrange them.

· Place a series of magnets and have her identify whether they’re stepping or skipping on the staff.

· Once she’s consistently accurate with this, you can try transferring it to the keyboard – place the magnets in steps going up or down and then tell her to start on a certain note and play the next ones in the direction that the ones on the board indicate. (I usually just start with three magnets and then gradually increase the number as they grasp the concept of reading musical notes.)

Monday Mailbag – Not Using Theory Books

[Note: Sorry for the delay this week!]

You mentioned in your most recent Monday Mailbag post that you rarely use theory books with your students. Do you use other books instead? Or just do it all at the piano?

Almost all of our theory work is done directly at the piano and is based on their repertoire and/or technical exercises. And honestly, most of the theory is just applied theory rather than written theory. Written theory takes the form of analyzing chords and patterns in the repertoire, writing in counting if necessary, or notating compositions in their manuscript books. If I do feel like it would be beneficial for a student to do some written theory work to aid in their comprehension, we either do it on a dry erase board at their lesson or I write up a customized assignment on the manuscript paper that I include in the back of their assignment books.

My aversion to theory books is primarily due to the fact that I grew up doing written theory assignments every week, but by the time I was a senior in high school, I still didn’t know how to tell what key a piece of music was written in. There was a complete disconnect between what I was playing and the answers I was filling in in the theory books. I really want my students to understand concepts and to recognize theoretical concepts as the building blocks of music. For the most part, for me, that means forgoing theory books in favor of more concrete and musically relevant activities.

Once my students demonstrate understanding of the underlying principles of music theory, I often recommend completing a written theory course. Also, at the end of the year we have our state music progressions evaluation program and my students usually fare just fine on the theory portion of the testing.

I’m curious to know what others think. Has anyone else found the same thing in regards to theory books? If you do use theory books, why do you think it is beneficial for your students?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

New in the Music Blog World!

In the past week I’ve come across several new music blogs, so I thought I would pass the word on to everyone else, too!

ComposeCreate.com – Some of you are probably familiar with Wendy’s Piano Studio website and the great resources she offers. I was thrilled to recently discover that she has started a blog with “Tools for composing, creating, and teaching music.”

Rebecca W. Music – Music, Drama and Arts Education. Since I’ve been integrally involved with both drama and music education for quite a few years, I am excited to follow this new blog dedicated to the combination of these two areas!

The Music Notes Blog – A mixture of resources and free sheet music for piano and guitar. You may especially be interested in this free downloadable 3-octave piano keyboard graphic.

Teaching Adult Piano Students – I found out about this new blog from Rebecca, of the Piano Teacher’s Retreat blog. Its author, Dan Starr, has been teaching adults for over 20 years, so it promises to offer lots of valuable information for music instructors of adult students. You’ll probably also want to visit his Help for the Adult Piano Studio Blog.

Website for Those Who Like to Play Piano – Run by Annemie Van Riel, a Belgium teacher, the Tips and Games page especially appears to offer some promising ideas. (HT: Wendy)

If you’ve come across any other great blogs or websites, or have started one yourself, I’d love to know about it!

Monday Mailbag – Teaching Chord Patterns

How do other teachers go about teaching the I – V7 chord pattern? I use a scale book primarily. I do explain it to them and some students get it; others have no clue and cannot convert the pattern to any other key!

When I introduce the I – V7 chord progression, it’s after the student has already learned their pentascales, primary triads, and inversions. So I just explain to them that sometimes it’s desirable to have an easier and faster way to switch chords than using the root position for each of the primary triads. I show them how they can use the inversions of the chords to keep their hand in the same general area of the keyboard. For the 7th chord specifically, I would just show them how to add the 7th to their dominant chord and then invert it into different positions. This easily segues into playing the progression including the V7 chord either in addition to or in place of the V chord.

Of course, the student rarely immediately absorbs all of this information, but we keep discussing it in subsequent weeks and I usually have them utilize it in a harmonization assignment (they play a tune like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the RH while harmonizing in the LH). I don’t routinely use theory books with my student, so we do all of this at the keyboard or using the actual music that they are playing.

I definitely still need to work on more systematic approaches for some of these theory concepts, so if anyone else has suggestions of how they teach the V7 – I progression to their students, please feel free to share!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Interview with Elizabeth Wellburn

Today, I am pleased to welcome Elizabeth Wellburn, author of the children’s book Echoes from the Square, for a special interview.

What prompted your interest in writing this story about Vedran Smailovic, cellist of Sarajevo?
My daughter Amy is a cellist, and we had heard about Mr. Smailovic’s actions on the internet. I believed that what he had done was inspirational and I was intrigued by the idea of telling the story from the point of view of a child who had witnessed the performances. My husband Deryk Houston did the artwork for the book, so it was a bit of a family project.

What sort of background do you have in music and/or writing?
I am an educator and my specialty is really education technology. But the technology is something I see as a means to an end. Information literacy and critical thinking are what I believe should be the main goals of education in this information–rich era. And I am a huge supporter of the arts – to make us human and allow us to connect in important ways (some which can be enhanced by technology). So a project that could incorporate several of these aspects was appealing to me.

How long did the process take from conception to finished book?
The book was published just over ten years ago and the exact amount of time from start to completion is a bit fuzzy in my mind now. At least two years — but that time included gaps when we were “on hold.”

Can you describe your process for researching the information that went into the story?
Ahhh… it was a great research project and it involved a bit of detective work and a lot of luck. Smailovic’s actions were reported widely, so it was easy to find out which music he had performed, where he had played, etc. And there was plenty of heartbreaking information about the Bosnian war and its impact on the people and the area. I wrote a quick draft and Deryk did some rough artwork based on our daughter’s cello teacher. Rubicon, a small Canadian publisher, was interested (our timing was good), but we all really wanted to to base the artwork on the real Smailovic and have his opinion of the story. He was almost impossible to find, though. Amazingly, one day we received a postcard for our daughter from a friend in Boston, a dear person who we see, if we’re lucky, every couple of years. The card had Smailovic’s photo on it and was signed, to Amy, 1000 times love, Vedran Smailovic. Our friend didn’t know we were working on the project, but had been to a performance in Boston and thought Amy, as a cellist, would like the card. This led us to the person who had booked Vedran for the Boston performance, and we were then able to find him. Meeting him added a richness to the story and artwork that we couldn’t have achieved otherwise.

What sort of responses have you received from children that hear/read the story?
Children are so direct and wonderful. They often ask “why was there a war?” Many schools have used this book to as a starting point for art projects incorporating music themes, and it’s been very gratifying to see children’s interpretations of the power of music to make people feel better. One boy wrote and recorded a cello-violin duet that he has named “Echoes from the Square.”

You can imagine that we are thrilled that we’ve been able to help promote the idea of music for peace.

Any additional comments or thoughts you’d like to share?
We are delighted that our work aligns with the concept of “Creativity over Destructiveness” that is a main premise of the Zimbardo/Langdon “heroes in waiting” project — a curriculum to promote the conditions that lead individuals to seize the heroic moment. I’ve created a social media site to discuss this, in the context of:
– peace/conflict resolution
– creativity over destructiveness
– civic responsibility/resisting unwanted influences
– the role of culture and the arts in all of the above

We welcome people to participate at: http://echoesfromthesquare.ning.com/.

Echoes From the Square

Recently, I received an e-mail from Elizabeth Wellburn, author of the colorful and captivating book Echoes From the Square by Elizabeth Wellburn. It is the beautiful story of cellist Vedran Smailovic, retold in this heartwarming children’s book.

The video below is a recording of Ms. Wellburn reading the story, accompanied by images from the book and music performed by violinist Tasmin Little and Vedran Smailovic himself.

Don’t you think students would love watching this? Be sure to stop by tomorrow for a special interview with Ms. Wellburn.

Win a Free Set of Animusic DVDs!

Have you seen these super cool music animations produced by Animusic?

These highly creative animations are sure to mesmerize students, and are a fun resource for music teachers. In fact, Animusic has produced and made available free teacher guides for both of their DVDs. The guides were prepared by music teachers and correlate with items 6, 7, and 8 of the National Standards for Music Education. The first DVD has 7 unique music animations and the second one has 8.

Each animation lasts about 4 or 5 minutes. The videos on the Animusic DVDs have original instrumental music, which spans a variety of musical (and visual) styles. There is also one version of a classical piece – “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky. Check out the Reviews page to see how other music teachers are using and enjoying these animations in their teaching.

Now for the good part…I was recently contacted by Animusic and they’ve offered to give away 5 sets of DVDs to readers of Music Matters Blog! All you have to do is leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing. And, just for fun, you can earn an additional entry by linking to this giveaway from your blog or website. 🙂 (Just leave a second comment indicating that you posted a link and then you’ll be entered twice.) I’ll hold the drawing next Friday, April 24 at 12:00 noon CST.