Monday Mailbag – 5 Tips for Helping Students Fix Persistent Mistakes

How do you help your students when they keep playing the same mistakes? I tried different method and section or so-called “smart practice” with him, but somehow, he still makes the same mistakes even though I have said that a thousand times!

What a relevant question for all of us music teachers! This is such a broad issue that we could approach it dozens of different ways, but let me just offer 5 tips for addressing persistent mistakes:

  1. Identify what the root issue is that’s causing the mistake. As the teacher, you basically have to be a super sleuth – watching every little detail as your student plays so that you know what’s going on and what issues need to be addressed. For example, let’s say that your student is playing the wrong note every single time in a particular place. As the teacher, you have to observe and figure out why – is he reading it incorrectly? Or is he using a poor fingering choice that’s causing him to miss the note? Or is he playing by ear and has the wrong note stuck in his head so that it sounds like the correct note?
  2. Guide the student to identify the problem. Start more generally and move to specific targeted questions, like, “Are there any spots where you’re having trouble?” “Do you like how the piece sounds when you play it?” “Do you have any questions about any of the notes?” “In measure 5, do you realize that you’re playing a note differently than what’s written in the printed music?” “Can you tell which note it is?” And so on.
  3. Help the student hear the difference between the correct way to play it and the incorrect way that they are playing it. This seems similar to the previous point, but it’s one step further. I actually hit on this crucial step after one of my lessons one week. At my first practice time following the lesson, I stared at my printed music, thinking, “I know there was something about this section that I needed to fix, but now I can’t remember what it was!” As I thought about this disconnect in my own experience, I realized that teachers often hear a problem and tell the student what it is and how to fix it; but unless the student actually hears the problem for himself, he won’t be able to take the appropriate ownership to make a difference in his playing. Basically, you want to get the student to the point that when he plays it incorrectly, he immediately hears it and is compelled to fix it.
  4. Determine the student’s level of interest in fixing the mistake. Is this a piece that the student has been working on for months and is sick of playing? Do they like the piece? Do they want to play it better, or are they happy with where it’s at? Of course, you don’t want to enable students who have a tendency toward laziness, but I think there are plenty of legitimate reasons to move on even if a piece is not perfected. As the teacher, just make a note of the concept or skill with which the student is struggling and find another piece of repertoire that will address it.
  5. Be up front with the student. Maybe it’s because I’m impatient with lack of progress, or maybe it’s because I’ve just learned not to gloss over things with my students, but I have no problem saying to a student. “OK, you’ve been playing this same mistake for the last three weeks. Are you really still having trouble with it or are you just not putting in the time to fix it?” Put the responsibility back on their shoulders if you’ve given them the tools and instruction they need to fix the mistakes and play the piece. Above all, welcome communication. Find out what’s going on and why they aren’t making progress. I used to have a habit of tip-toeing around things like this because I didn’t want to hurt my students’ feelings, but nobody enjoys doing something repeatedly that they’re not good at, so if they’ve been stuck on the same problem for a considerable length of time, be up front and work with them to figure out how to get past it. Encourage them and let them know that you have confidence that they can overcome the difficulties and play the piece beautifully. Everyone – including the student – will be much happier in the end!

Like I said, there are many other ways of addressing situations like this – and we all face such situations! So, does anyone have other tips they’d like to offer for helping students overcome persistent mistakes?

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!

Getting Ready for Another Year (or…random ramblings)

For quite a few years now I’ve been taking off teaching for the month of August to give myself time to travel, come up with a practice incentive theme for the next year, catch up on other projects, do lesson planning, and hopefully feel put together by the time my students return for another year of lessons. The last of those objectives is feeling increasingly unattainable right now, though! 🙂

Our practice incentive theme for the year is now finalized and I’m really excited about it! I can’t divulge the details yet in case some of my students sleuth around here looking for more info, but here’s a sneak preview:

I’m heading off to the teacher resource center this morning to do some laminating and get all the wall decor designed and put together. And this Friday, we’re having our annual local association Kickoff event where I’ll be presenting a workshop titled, “Creative Collaboration: Making Every Lesson Come Alive!” We’re jumping on board with MTNA’s Year of Collaborative Music and planning a variety of events and workshops to coincide with this theme. I’m making an effort to emphasize this in my studio throughout the year as well. Is anyone else focusing on collaborative music in their association or studio this year?

In other random news, it occurred to me recently that I’m getting ready to celebrate my 5th anniversary! Not wedding anniversary (remember, I’m not married!), but it’s been almost 5 years since I launched Music Matters Blog with the official Welcome post. And to think that I was so worried when I first started the blog that I would run out of things to post about. In fact, truth be told, I mapped out the first 60 days of posts just to give me a cushion and time to concoct other post ideas. It’s all rather humorous now, especially considering that I have way more ideas than I ever get around to posting!

Anyway…I figure this is the perfect excuse to do a complete site overhaul. I’ve been tired of this current design for a long time, but just haven’t taken the time to work on a new design. Now I’m ready! I’ve started working on it, but I can tell it’s going to take a while to get the new site up and running. So in the meantime I thought I would open it up for any ideas or suggestions you all have. Is there anything specific you’d like to see on the new site? Feel free to leave any and all thoughts in the comments below or e-mail them to me directly.

Until then, though, we’ll make the best of this current look. I’ve got a number of exciting things lined up for this fall, so stay tuned! 🙂

And the Winner Is…Everyone!

I couldn’t stand it growing up when we would be playing a game or doing a competition that involved subjective criteria and the adult/judge would conclude that it was a tie and everyone was a winner. My competitive nature wanted there to be a real winner (preferably me, of course :-)). But I digress. I don’t think anyone will complain about the outcome of this!

We do have an official winner of the Music Ace Maestro giveaway. Drumroll, please, for Stephanie of the Music @ SWV blog! However, Harmonic Vision has extended a fabulous offer that is available to any Music Matters Blog reader! For a limited time you can receive a $30 discount off of Music Ace Maestro (making it only $97.95), plus receive a free copy of Music Ace Deluxe – PSE (36 lessons vs. 48 lessons, jewel case, no paper, no box) good for student use – a $39.95 value! All you have to do is enter this coupon code when you checkout at the Harmonic Vision store: MAMMMB55

Stay tuned, because we’ve got several other giveaways coming up soon!

Monday Mailbag – When Students Can’t Memorize

What happens when students just can’t memorize (I’m one of them; I just don’t have the capacity for memorization)? Do we give up on them as musicians, or is there another way?

We are all gifted in different ways, with different capacities for various skills. In my opinion, it’s more valuable to be able to sight-read with ease than memorize with ease. But that’s probably because I can sight-read well, but have great difficulty memorizing. One of my students and I have this debate frequently because he is…shall we say…significantly lacking in the sight-reading department, but he can memorize effortlessly and play dozens of songs off the top of his head. Naturally, he thinks that memorization is a more desirable skill than sight-reading. Too bad for him that I’m the teacher, so I win the debate by nature of that fact. 🙂

Anyway…my personal philosophy is to never have such a narrow view of what a music education has to look like that it doesn’t leave room for students who have a desire and/or talent to learn, but may not possess the capacity for certain things – like memorization. Along those same lines, unless my students are playing in a competition or festival that requires memorization, I leave it up to them whether they want to perform from memory or with the printed music in front of them. Some play better from memory; some enjoy the challenge of working a piece up to that level; others prefer the security of playing with the book. I’d rather have them play beautifully while looking at the printed music than have a disastrous experience just because I required memorization and they couldn’t handle the pressure.

I guess for me, memorization just isn’t that big of a deal. But I’d be interested to know what others think. Do you require memorization? What if you have a student who just can’t seem to memorize? Is that okay with you?

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!

Monday Mailbag – Notation Software

I’d love to be able to use notation software in my studio. I have some budding composers, and I also would love to do my own “edits” of songs for some students that is more readable than me just printing it out. However, there are several products out there, and they all claim to be the best! 🙂 Wondering if you use any, and also thought this might be an area that folks could share their expertise!

My first steps into the world of notation software came when a friend gave me her used copy of Print Music. I used that for several years until I came to the point where I needed capabilities that it didn’t offer. After doing some research, I eventually settled on Finale. There is considerable debate between Finale and Sibelius users and I won’t pretend to know enough to make a case for either. My only experience has been with Finale, but so far it does everything I need it to. They also have a NotePad version that is great for students as a starter-level software. It used to be free, but now costs $9.95. Still well worth it in my opinion!

There are a couple of free programs available: MuseScore is one that I heard about not to long ago. I’ve been wanting to take a look at it, but haven’t done so yet. LilyPond is an automated engraving system that looks really cool! I investigated it in depth several years ago, and if I had the time to devote to learning it, I would love to give it a try. (Definitely just for the more geeky among us, though. :-))

If you do decide to purchase a software program, I found this website called AABACA Music Barn that had by far the best prices I could find. It’s been quite a few years since I did my research, but I suspect they are still one of the best deals out there for music educators.

Obviously, my expertise in this field is rather limited, so if anyone else has thoughts or recommendations on notation software, please 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!

Custom Design Your Own Flashcards with these Free Files!

As I was working on some plans for the upcoming year of lessons the other day, it suddenly occurred to me that I could design some flashcards and print them fairly inexpensively using VistaPrint. I don’t know why I’ve never thought of that before, but now I’m so excited about all the possibilities for utilizing these cards!

As you can see, I used a colorful design for the back of the cards (the same one I use for my students’ manuscript books) and intentionally made them all the same so that I can use the cards for memory-type games. Then I used a blank staff design for one set of cards and a blank keyboard design for another set. I have several specific game ideas in mind that I’m hoping to post about in the coming months after I try them out and see if they work! In the meantime, though, I thought I would post the files here in case anyone else wants to get their own printed so that you can customize them for use with your students.


Follow these simple instructions to have your own flashcards printed in no time at all!

  1. Right click on the above three flashcard images (one at a time) and select “Save As” or “Save Target As” in order to save the image files to your computer.
  2. If you don’t already have an account at VistaPrint.com, click on over there and select the “Get Started” button for the postcard option.
  3. Click on the upload your own design button. Navigate to where you downloaded the above images and upload them as prompted (they are sized exactly for the postcard printing).
  4. Upload the colorful music image for the front and the staff or keyboard image for the back. (This is so that the glossy finish is actually on the back of the flashcard and you can use a marker to customize the other side without having to worry about smearing.)
  5. Finish the order process until you get to the checkout page. When given the option, set up an account so that your images will be stored for future use.
  6. Do a quick Google search for something along the lines of “free postcards vistaprint coupon code.” This should turn up several options that will allow you to either click on a link or enter a coupon code to get 100 postcards for free. (Even if you use the option where you have to click on another link, your postcard designs should still be in your cart, so just navigate to the checkout page and they should now show up as being free.)
  7. Complete the checkout process, pay for the shipping (there will probably be a small fee for uploading the images as well, but this is a one-time fee for these images), and start dreaming up all the creative ways you can use your custom cards! 🙂
  8. Repeat the same process for the other set of cards as well. I ordered my sets separately because even though you have to pay for shipping twice, you can use the coupon code again this way to get the cards themselves for free. If you put them on the same order then the free 100 postcards will only apply to one set of cards.

Let me know if you end up getting some of these printed for your students and/or if you have some creative ideas for using them!

Inspiration from a Musical Savant

Wow! Have you seen this video clip about British musical savant Derek Paravicini by Lesley Stahl, of CBS’ 60 Minutes? Talk about inspirational! In addition to watching and hearing from Derek and his parents, I really love listening to his teacher and seeing how he approached working with someone like Derek. (I think the book, In the Key of Genius, by his teacher, Adam Ocklelford, would be fascinating!) I am reminded of the importance of looking at each student as an individual, with unique God-given talents.

Yes, it’s essential to have structure and lesson plans and some sort of a framework to work within as a teacher. But it’s equally essential to know when it’s okay to throw all that out the window and just teach to the needs of the individual student. Most of us will never have a Derek Paravicini in our studios, but each of us have students with unreached potential walking through our door week after week. We just need eyes to see beyond the current challenges and frustrations and cast a vision for the future…because you never know where it will lead!

Monday Mailbag – Choreography at the Piano

How can I help my students express with their bodies when they are playing? Many of them just SIT THERE and play. Even the students who play with all the expression (dynamics, phrases, articulation, etc.) feel intimidated when I ask them to move a little and not play like “robots.”

Years ago, when I was going through a class on storytelling techniques, one of the principles I learned was to move with purpose. Make your gestures match your words. I believe the same principle applies to playing the piano. Movement should be with purpose, subservient to the greater goals of beautiful sound and natural technique. That said, usually “robotic” playing is conducive to neither of these. 🙂 Here are a few thoughts from working with similar students:

  1. Start small. Be content with little bits of progress. For example, my first approach with students is always to get them comfortable with using the weight of their arm. I have them drop their arms in their lap, then have them drop one arm at a time into my hand and demonstrate by letting it go whether they have truly dropped all their weight, or are holding back. Sometimes even this little thing can take a student a couple of weeks. Others get it right off the bat. You just have to start where the student is at and go with them from there.
  2. Emphasize natural design and flow. The impetus behind movement in playing is that we want to use every part of our body as it is designed and as it functions in the most natural way. For example, rather than using our fingers as levers, we can achieve greater velocity and consistency by maintaining a fairly stable hand position and just rotating the bones of the forearm that connect to the wrist. (Many people refer to this as “wrist rotation,” but I prefer to have the students think of the rotation as originating in the forearm as a more true understanding of the function.)
  3. Less is more. Ultimately, we want to plan our gestures and body movements so that we achieve the greatest results with the smallest number of movements. For example, consider the 2-note slur technique. Most students want to lift the wrist after the first and the second note. This generates more movement, but it is counter-productive. And it greatly impedes the flow of a piece of music at a faster tempo. Instead we aim for one intentional gesture that drops weight into the first key, transfers to the second, and releases in a natural fluid movement.
  4. Lead the students to an experience that convinces them of the value of the movement. Again, if we are merely encouraging movement for movement’s sake, the student will easily disregard it because it feels awkward or unnecessary to them. However, if they are working on a piece and you show them a gesture or movement that makes it easier for them to play or enables greater technical facility or helps them create a more beautiful sound, they will be eager to put it into practice in their own playing.
  5. Dig deeper. In my experience, most students’ movement – or lack thereof – at the piano directly correlates with their attitude. If a student plays with a sort of droopy look, they may be angry or depressed. If they play timidly, perhaps its because they lack confidence. If they play really fast and stiff, maybe they are stressed out. And so on. Instead of just observing piano techniques and movements as components toward the end goal of becoming a musician, you can also use them as “windows” into the hearts of your students. Because the music we make ultimately comes from the heart, the best way to play beautifully is to have a heart that’s in the right place. As we take time to get to know our students, communicate with them, and reach their hearts, the things we are teaching them about music and movement will be able to flow in a true and uncontrived manner from within them. I talk with my students a lot about the musical gifts God has given them and how we can use them to praise and glorify Him. Of course a whole range of emotions make their way into our lives and music, but if we want to be effective musicians, we should have hearts that are open to learning and growing so that we can develop our talents and skills to their greatest potential.

This is really a fascinating topic, so I’d love to have input from others. What have you found to be effective in helping students develop better choreography at the piano?

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!