Monday Mailbag – Students and Pop Music

How “strict” are you about your students playing popular music from films, radio, etc. as notated? The piano arrangements are never really identical to the song the student knows, and they naturally play the rhythm they know. Lately I’ve been going through the notated rhythms with them correctly and then giving them permission to play like they know the song, so they realize that what they’re playing is not what’s written in the music. What’s your approach?

Please don’t call the rhythm police on me for this, but I usually let them play it however they think it should sound rhythmically. For those who are interested in playing familiar pop music like this, I often just have them figure it out by ear anyway, so that eliminates the discrepancy between how they think it should sound and how it is notated. For those who do go off of the printed music, though, I let them use it sort of as a loose framework for the piece, but then let them go as much by ear as they want.

My philosophy has shifted over the years as I’ve come to realize the importance of teaching music as sound, not as notes printed on a page. The printed page is just someone’s best attempt to represent visually a sound that they like and want others to be able to reproduce. Some music lends itself more to precise notation; other music…not so much. I will caveat this answer, though, by saying that my approach does depend also on three significant factors:

1. The student’s personality (do they want to learn things precisely, or do they enjoy just being able to play a familiar song without me nitpicking every detail?).

2. The purpose of learning the piece (will it be played in a public forum, or with a group of some sort where it would be important for the student to be playing it exactly as written?).

3. The learning value of the particular piece (is there some element with which the student especially struggles, and that I could capitalize on their interest in the piece to motivate them to strengthen that weakness?).

How about everyone else? Do you make students learn pop music exactly as written? Or do you give some leeway in this area?

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!

A Week of Year-End Evaluations

Eight years ago, I started doing Year-End Evaluations with students and their parents at the last lesson of the spring semester. This has been such a helpful tool! A couple weeks prior to the evaluation, I send home a Student Questionnaire and a Parent Questionnaire. I change the questions a little bit each year based on what we’ve done and any specific feedback that I’d like to receive, but they follow the same basic layout.

In addition to having the student and parent complete their questionnaires, I also complete an evaluation of each student:

Even though it takes a pretty good chunk of time to go through and complete the evaluations, it’s a very helpful process for me in that I have to really think through where the student is at in each area. I usually jot down specific notes related to their progress in each area, as well as circling the appropriate rating. Perhaps the most helpful part, though, is thinking through specific ideas and recommendations for the following year. I know that if I waited to do this until I do my lesson planning for the year (in August) the details for each student would be much more sketchy! Thinking through ideas for future improvement and soliciting the same from the students and parents gives me a great framework to work within when I do my lesson planning and brainstorming for the year’s practice incentive theme.

Feel free to download and use and/or adapt any of these forms for use in your studio!

Year of Collaborative Music

Did you know that we are in the midst of the Year of Collaborative Music? It commenced at the March MTNA conference in Albuquerque and will culminate at the MTNA conference in Milwaukee next March. I am really excited about this and am thinking about designing my practice incentive theme around this initiative for next year. In particular, January 22, 2010 has been designated the International Day of Collaborative Music.

Chris Foley, of The Collaborative Piano Blog, has put together a wonderful compilation of 20 Collaborative Piano Videos that I’m loving! I’m hoping our local associations will be able to get on board with this initiative and plan a festival in conjunction with it. Are any of you doing any special projects or festivals in conjunction with the Year of Collaborative Music?

A New Approach to Teaching Thumb Position

At our fifth Briefing Session this year, the theme was “A Galaxy of Theory Concepts for Creative Minds.” Each student had to present a musical concept of their choice. The presentations could be simple or elaborate – basically as creative as the student wanted to be with it. It turned out pretty fun, and I was impressed with some of the concepts the students chose!

Having become recently convinced of the incredible importance of the position of the thumb for proper technique, I was wracking my brain to come up with a creative way of presenting it so that students would remember it and be motivated to work on it in their playing. Thus was born the “slide position.” It’s quite goofy, but has managed to have very good “sticking” power in my studio, so I thought I would share it here. 🙂

I created this Piano Thumb Position poster. (I’m sure someone could easily create a more attractive poster, but I had to do this on the fly in a couple of minutes, so sorry it’s a little tacky – at least it got the point across!) The presentation started with me showing them the picture of the flat slide and asking if they would like to go down such a slide. How fun would it be? How effective would it be? Of course, they probably wouldn’t go anywhere because it is laying flat on the ground!

Then I showed them the regular slide and asked how they would like that one. Of course, it would be much more fun and exciting because they could get up their speed and enjoy a nice ride! Similarly, when playing the piano, we want to channel the energy and weight from our arm through our thumb into the keys on the piano. The best way to accomplish this is by keeping the thumb in “slide position.” I made them all hold their hands up in a playing position and told them to pretend that there is a little man in the crook of their thumb trying to slide down onto the keys. This is when they really started laughing and making fun of me. 🙂 Oh well, I use it to my advantage and get onto my students when they are not providing an enjoyable ride for our invisible little man.

Super goofy, I know, but now we all have a common terminology – slide position – and they know exactly what I mean when I say or write that they need to keep their thumb in slide position when they are playing scales, technique exercises, pieces, etc. And that’s what counts, right?!

Monday Mailbag – Explaining Time Signatures

I am useless at explaining Cut Time.  In fact time signatures in general. I was trying to explain this to a student today and just kept going round and round in circles with the poor girl getting more and more confused. I tried to explain that the bottom number refers to what kind of beat and that that number is figured out by how many notes fit into a whole note.  Rarely have I been able to get the message across thoroughtly though. How do you explain time signatures like cut common and compound duple?

One of the principles I try to keep in mind is that I should teach students what they need to know to be successful at their level while ensuring that all information is accurate and will not be contradicted by future information. This especially applies in the area of rhythm and is one of the reasons that I try to avoid saying that a quarter note automatically means one beat, a half note equals two beats, etc. Instead, I introduce the note values to them relationally – i.e. a half note would be the value of two quarter notes put together, a dotted half note would be like three quarter notes put together, etc.

When I very first introduce time signatures to a young student, I don’t even use a lot of the terminology associated with them. Instead, I explain that music is placed on the page in an organized manner and the number at the beginning helps us understand what the pattern of beats is. For example, if the top number is a 4, we know that we should count in patterns of 4. This is the terminology that I use and write all the time in my students’ assignment books, “Count in patterns of 4 – 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,etc.” Same for 3/4 or 6/8 or 2/2.

If they are working with a compound time like 6/8, I tell them that it should feel like there are two big beats that are subdivided into three smaller beats each. If they are working with cut time, I might show them that the structure is the same as what they are used to with a 4/4 time signature, but the emphasis of the beats now is on two bigger beats, rather than four.

I want my students to understand these concepts, but it’s important to remember that understanding doesn’t usually come all at once. Help them understand as much as is necessary to be successful, then keep looking for ways to increase their understanding in the weeks to come. Eventually it will click!

Does anyone else have any suggestions on this? Teaching some of these more complex time signatures can be a challenge, so if anyone has devised some creative ways for helping students understand, I’d love to know about them!

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!

4 Tips for Dealing with Unmotivated Students

Especially this time of year, it seems like a lot of motivation is fizzling out and everyone is ready for a break. I still have some students going strong, but there are definitely a handful that are squeaking by until summer break! That’s why I thought now would be a perfect time to address this question from another teacher:

I hope I am not alone with the feeling of somewhat “losing” a student. Not literally, but feeling that he is not really with you during lessons, has no motivation to practice and the only thing that seems to be keeping him alive is the recital! Help! Do you have ideas for sparking excitement and helping students get back on track when they are flailing?

1. Is it a phase or a pattern? Everyone goes through slumps. If the student is normally diligent in their practicing and works hard, then I let a few weeks slide here and there (especially at the end of the year like this!). If it persists for a period of time (several weeks in a row), though, then I address it. I talk candidly with the student first, and then with the parent, if necessary.

2. How does the student feel about it? If I sense a lack of motivation, I ask the student what’s going on, why they’re not practicing, etc. One of my high school boys and I were just talking about this last week and he said that’s kind of how he feels about everything right now. The end of school is just around the corner, and he’s kind of sick of everything and just ready for a break. Fair enough. He’s actually still practicing and moving along, he just doesn’t have the same energy as he did at the beginning of the year.

3. Does the student still have a desire to play the piano? Except in rare circumstances, I won’t accept a student into my studio who doesn’t want to take piano lessons. This is one of the questions that I ask on my initial student and parent interview, and if I learn that it’s just the parent who wants the child to take lessons, but the child has no interest in it, that’s a determining factor in whether or not I will take the student. It’s hard enough to maintain a consistent practice schedule if you do want to learn to play the piano, let alone if you don’t have the desire in the first place. If the desire has completely dissolved, then maybe it is time to end lessons…at least for a while.

4. Is there something in particular the student would really like to learn or play? If there is still the desire to play, but not the motivation to practice, I ask the student if he has any particular things that he would like to learn. We might take a break from regular lesson assignments for a few weeks to do more improvisation, try arranging a familiar piece, do a whole lesson of just games, watch piano performances on YouTube, or tackle a harder piece that sounds really cool! There are lots of possibilities! The main thing at this point is to establish common ground with the student and make it clear that you’re working together to help them get past this stage and back into practicing and enjoying it. Ideally, piano lessons are for the long-haul, so don’t feel like a few weeks here or there spent focusing on other things is a waste of time. A lesson of music games could be just the thing to remind the student of how much they’ve learned, or 20 minutes spent watching and listening to piano performances on YouTube could be just the thing to re-ignite their enthusiasm for music!

Partly because my personality is such that I always like to try new, creative ideas, I tend to teach that way. I get bored easily with things that never change, so I’m always surprising my students with some new thing or another (my poor students who thrive on constancy and predictability…!). I like to think that this helps keep motivation alive for my students, but in some ways I think it would be more accurate to say that it keeps motivation alive for me. And when we, as teachers, are motivated and enthusiastic about teaching our students, that will tend to rub off on them.

Rhythm, Rhythm, Who’s Got Rhythm?

Not very many students, unfortunately! 🙂 I received this question from another teacher and thought it would be a great one to get some feedback and suggestions from others. I’ll share a few of my thoughts below, but I would love to glean some ideas from other teachers as well. How would you answer this question?

When do you let students stop counting out loud for a prepared piece during lesson time?  I understand that counting out loud is a good tool, but sometimes students start associating it with the notation, not the actual rhythm.  The student also has to learn how to count in his head and be able to see a rhythm pattern and just play it.  I understand this, but am having trouble getting this across to the student, or knowing the right time to transition.

Don’t you love it when you observe that a student is playing the rhythm of a piece incorrectly, so you ask them to count it out loud and they respond, “But I’m counting in my head.” Uh-huh. I’ll bet. I usually say, “Oh good, this should be easy then. Just have your mouth say what your brain is already thinking.” Of course, every experienced teacher knows that no such counting was taking place in the recesses of the brain. It was probably diverted down other neurological pathways…like pondering the fare to be offered at the next mealtime, so some such musically-related topic. 🙂

Okay…satire aside, this is a huge issue for many students and it is one that I have become much more strict about over the years. If a student plays the rhythm incorrectly, they count out loud. Period. If they ask when I will let them stop counting out loud, I tell them “As soon as you can play the rhythm correctly.” Some students naturally have a great sense of rhythm and mentally associate rhythmic values with sound. They intuitively play the rhythm correctly, even if they’re not counting it in their head or out loud. Super! No point in making them count out loud if the rhythm is already correct. (They have separate rhythm drills where they have to learn the process of counting rhythms, but if they play rhythmically without counting, I’m fine with that.)

One of the things I try to emphasize with students right off the bat is the difference between rhythm and pulse. I relate pulse to our bodily pulse and call it “the heartbeat of the music.” Doing a variety of Eurhythmic activities, clapping, snapping, playing rhythm instruments, tapping, walking/dancing, etc. is an excellent way to help students develop a sense of pulse. Also, listening to music and trying to tap along with the pulse is helpful. With some students, this is a long process. They won’t get it in one week, or one month, or even one year, but we keep hammering away at it. I try to make little steps of progress each week, constantly reinforcing the importance of excellent rhythm skills. Yes, it’s hard work for them, but I assure them over and over again that it will be well worth it in the end. I know, because I was in their shoes once myself. 🙂

Related Posts: Feeling the Pulse Teaching Ideas Category

Musical 20 Questions

It’s simple. It’s fun. It requires no supplies or preparation. It’s Musical 20 Questions! If you’re looking for an easy, but fun game that can be played with any size group of students, you should give this a try. At our final group class last week, we played a round of Musical 20 Questions followed by a handful of performances, then another round of the game, followed by performances, and a third round of the game followed by the final performances.

The way we played it was by having one student come to the front and think of a musical term or symbol. Then all the other students took turns asking a “yes” or “no” question until someone thought that they knew what the term or symbol was. Whoever correctly guessed the term or symbol first got to be the next one to come to the front. This was great for three reasons:

1. It involved everyone. Even if a student wasn’t the one selecting the term/symbol or asking the question, everyone had to listen closely to the other questions and answers so that they could eliminate certain ideas and eventually arrive at the right conclusion.

2. It helped the students think more deeply about musical terms and symbols. If someone selected 8va and students asked questions like, “Does it affect the pitch of the note?” or “Does it have to do with the dynamics?” the answering student had to think about what the term/symbol really means and what effect it has on the sound.

3. It required no supplies, set-up, clean-up, etc. Super easy and super fun! 🙂

The Results of the Any Song Assignment

Two weeks ago, I shared about the Any Song Assignment that I started giving certain students a couple years ago. At our final group class of the year last Thursday, it occurred to me that two of the students were playing pieces that they came up with as a result of the Any Song Assignment, so I thought I would share them with you here:


This is just an excerpt from Lucas’ performance of Morning Has Broken (sorry, I didn’t decide to record the entire pieces until a few students later). He downloaded Cat Stevens playing this song and listened to it until he had worked out the entire piece by ear the following week.


Suzie was randomly “doodling” around on the piano to come up with her Any Song and struck on some melodic figures that she really liked. The inspiration kept flowing until she had composed this lovely piece that we’ve affectionately dubbed Suzie’s Song. 🙂