Monday Mailbag – Student Assignment Books

I’ve enjoyed reading about all of your incentive programs. I was wondering about your assignment book. Is it separate from the incentives or a part of the incentives program? I think I’m getting confused. Most of my students are beginners or early intermediate…K-8th grade.

That’s a great question! I probably need to clarify that on the resources page. All of the practice incentive programs come with a complete assignment book file, instructions on how to implement the program, pictures of my studio so you can see how I set things up, and corresponding files for the wall decorations.

Each practice incentive program can be used straight “out-of-the-box” or you can feel free to adapt and customize it to meet the needs of your studio. If you read my post, 4 Components of a Good Practice Incentive, you’ll see that one of my primary objectives is that it is appealing to all ages. I use mine with students ages 4-20. The program provides the basic framework that undergirds lessons all year long and then I make whatever adjustments I need to based on the needs of individual students. Any program like this should serve to make your teaching more effective, not constrain you or hinder your ability to teach to the individual student. That’s what I always aim for anyway!

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 Game to Assess Musical Scale Skills!

You should see the way my students’ eyes light up the minute I pull out some dice and tell them that we’re going to start off the lesson with a game! In fact, this is what prompted me to compile and produce the 5 for Fun! book. Just setting aside 5 minutes a lesson to do something fun energizes the atmosphere – and can be highly educational, too!

In thinking through how to deal with the Technique Troubles I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I settled on using this game as a way to assess where my students are at with their knowledge of and ability to execute scales. It’s super simple, but proved to be very enlightening! All you need is three dice and either a white board and marker or pencil and paper.

The student started out by rolling all three dice. Then I explained what they had to do based on their roll.

Here’s a close-up of the dice: one is 12-sided with a number on each side – representing every key of the piano starting with C as number 1 and counting up every black and white key after that (this was purchased at a local teacher supply store); one is a 6-sided wood block with two each of the following three options – “Sing It!”, “Play It!”, and “Write It!” – indicating how they were to do the scale; one is a 6-sided wood block with Maj and min on alternating sides – defining what type of scale it should be.

If a student didn’t know how to complete any part of the activity according to the roll, we discussed what it meant and how to figure it out. For example, if a student rolled A-Maj-Write It!, but didn’t know what to do, I would walk them through the process:

  1. Choose and write the clef.
  2. For scale writing assignments, if you don’t immediately know the scale, begin by notating an “A” and then notate all eight notes of the scale (i.e. write a note on every line and space up to the next “A”).
  3. Use the Major scale pattern to visualize the keyboard and determine which notes should be altered with a flat or sharp. If you can’t remember the Major scale pattern, use the C-Major scale to refresh your memory.
  4. Write in the sharps or flats as needed, being careful to identify them correctly based on what you have already notated on the staff.

I adapted the activity as necessary and did it with students of all levels. For younger students, sometimes we stuck to the pentascale, or if they rolled “Sing It!” I played the scale and just had them sing/hum along with me; whereas older students had to figure it out for themselves before singing it. For the ones who went quickly, they got to take more turns; the ones who struggled only got one or two turns. This was so helpful for me in assessing each student’s current scale understanding and ability. My plan is to continue this for several weeks as an approach to teaching scale theory and helping them become more proficient. We’ll see how it goes!

Music Lessons – The Parents’ Perspective

From the Top, a non-profit organization that produces a weekly NPR radio show featuring the best young classical musicians in the country, has been posting a series of blog posts called The Parents’ Perspective that are full of inspiration and practical advice from parents of some of the country’s top classical musicians. Here are the topics that have been discussed so far:

  • Musical Beginnings – thoughts about determining your child’s interest in music and helping them get off to a good start with formal lessons.
  • Now What? – thoughts about finding the right teacher.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice! – thoughts about establishing an effective practice schedule and maintaining motivation.
  • Skipping School for the Sake of Music – thoughts about how to handle conflicting demands between school and music-related activities – from great relationships to difficult teachers to homeschooling.

This is an ongoing series, so I encourage you to check it out for yourselves and consider sending the link to parents in your studios!

Government Funding of the Arts – To Be or Not to Be?

That is the question! 🙂

There has been a flurry of activity lately in my neck of the woods as word spread quickly that our new governor (Sam Brownback) has proposed cutting funding for the Kansas Arts Commission. Music educators across the state are being called upon to send letters of opposition to the governor and legislators, urging them to vote against the proposed cut. I sent a letter to our governor (and similar ones to my state representative and senator). But instead of opposing the cut, I strongly support it:

Dear Governor Brownback,

Even though I am a devoted music teacher and believe in the importance of arts in our communities, I applaud you for recommending the discontinuation of funding for the Kansas Arts Commission. It is no secret that Kansas, along with the rest of the nation, is rapidly heading toward economic collapse. Any efforts to remedy this disaster must begin with the de-funding of all government programs and initiatives that are unconstitutional (and that would be almost all of them). While this will reap obvious short-term personal losses in the way of jobs, equipment, supplies, etc., the long-term advantages of returning to a free-market society, allowing citizens to retain and disperse their own money, and providing opportunity for creative, resourceful, and entrepreneurial ventures will provide a much more stable framework for our state. I hope that you will do everything in your power to see that all unconstitutional expenditures are cut from the budget and to promote the biblical principles upon which our nation was founded.

May God bless you and grant you wisdom and understanding as you govern our state!

The reality is that every line item on the state budget is there because it is important to someone. No doubt, there are equally fervent measures being undertaken by those in other areas where cuts are being proposed. But we cannot continue to bemoan the fragile economic state of our state and nation, solicit those in positions of leadership to effect stability, and then throw up our arms in protest when “our” area is slated for the chopping block. It has to start somewhere. I just hope that it continues across the board.

In a recent article in our local paper, a county commissioner and past board member for the art museum was quoted as saying, “…believe me, if this goes through, there are going to be managers in a lot of organizations in Sedgwick County who are going to have to work very hard to figure out where to find the operating money they will lose.”

While this was stated as a negative repercussion if the cut passes, it reminded me of another quote, this one by the renowned inventor, Thomas Edison, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Obviously there are passionate views on both sides of this issue. Many believe that the arts community is better off with government funding. I believe that the arts community can not only survive government cuts, but can actually thrive as a result of them. But we must not act victimized! We have to see this as an opportunity to think harder, plan harder, and work harder to develop creative ideas and entrepreneurial ventures that are self-sustaining. Rather than depending on a government handout, we must be resourceful and devise new ways of reaching out to people and providing value in their lives in a way that will compel them to support the arts. The opportunity before us is great, so let’s don the overalls and get to work!

Review and Giveaway of Hymns and History DVD by City on a Hill Ministries

My family and I sat down to watch Hymns and History, Volume 1 – First Century-The Reformation, a documentary on the history and people behind four well-loved hymns the day after it arrived in the mail! The film project was undertaken by a family as the first volume in a series of films highlighting various periods throughout history. This one quickly traverses 1500 years, beginning with an exploration of the old Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”, and the legacy of the courageous St. Patrick, who lit a fire atop the Hill of Slane in defiance of King Leoghaire’s decree. Based on a medieval poem attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, the viewer is next introduced to the story of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” In seven sections, the poem addresses various parts of Jesus’ body, describing His sacrifice on behalf of His people.

Moving forward to the 13th Century, we find the devoted St. Francis of Assisi expressing his love for all of God’s creation in the majestic words of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” St. Francis’ prolific writing, including over 60 hymns, continues to influence Christians hundreds of years later. And finally, the viewer joins Martin Luther, giant of the protestant Reformation, as he nails his 95 Theses onto the door of the Wittenberg church and pens the stately hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The words of the hymn, based on Psalm 46, ring true in the life and work of Luther as he evidently finds strength in God to stand alone often against the corruption of his day.

Each hymn is accompanied by original musical performances, panned images of historical documents and art, and background film clips reenacting the people and events that are discussed. The music is beautiful! Lovely original musical performances by Charlie Zahm, Amy Salter Rutherford, Ross Smithe, and others capture the depth and richness of each of the four hymns. The accompanying information is interesting and well-narrated, but honestly the visual imagery didn’t add much to the presentation. The reenacted clips, in particular, lacked purpose and seemed more to fill space than aid in the viewer’s understanding or appreciation of the material. That said, the project is a worthy one, and I’m sure that each subsequent volume will continue the tradition of well-researched historically-rich information and, undoubtedly, improved effective use of film to engage and educate students of history and music. As an aside, I know from my very limited experience working with my students to produce our Isaac Watts documentary several years ago that it is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging to embark on such a project, so I appreciate what the Smithe family and their crew have accomplished. In addition to watching this film for its educational value, I could see it also being a great resource for any teachers that are interested in working with their students to create a similar type of documentary as a studio project.

Here’s the great news: City on a Hill Ministries has offered to give away one copy of their DVD to a Music Matters Blog reader! Leave a comment below if you’d like to be entered to win so that you can view the film for yourself. The drawing will be held on Thursday, February 3, at 12:00 noon (CST) using a random number generator.

Monday Mailbag – Teaching Eighth Notes

How do you teach eighth note rhythm patterns to students?  Any tricks?

I’ve used all sorts of approaches for this over the years. In fact, I distinctly remember a phase I went through where I would use different food names for rhythm patterns. One of my students was struggling with rhythm, so we spent a good deal of the lesson learning and saying things like “ap-ple pie pie ap-ple” and so on. Her mom – an accomplished pianist – was observing that week. As we concluded the lesson, I congratulated myself on this clever approach that I had picked up from some workshop. When the student returned the following week she had the rhythmic counts written in throughout her who song and explained matter-of-factly that her mother said the other approach was silly and she should count it. So much for that cleverness!

I quickly reached that same conclusion for myself and have reverted to being a firm believer in just learning to count with numbers right off the bat. Usually to first introduce eighth notes, we set the metronome and tap along with the beat. Then I have the student imitate me in tapping two times per beat. Lastly, we attempt to tap the beat in one hand and two times per beat in the other. I make a point to explain that eighth notes do NOT mean that you play faster. The tempo is what dictates the speed, not the notes themselves. When you see eighth notes, you just easily play two notes in the space where you would normally play one quarter note. The goal is to avoid two things:

  1. The short-long rhythm that many students play, rather than an even distribution of the beat between the two notes.
  2. Tension in the student when they see eighth notes and think that they have to play faster.

Ultimately, they have to both understand the division of the beat intellectually and be able to feel the beat intrinsically. Much easier said than done, right?! But this is why we start with tapping and often incorporate other body movements as well. The more they can feel the beat, the better!

There is another method I heard about a while back from my friend and colleague, Amy, called Takadimi that sounds and looks interesting, but I haven’t investigated it in enough detail to know if it’s something I would switch over to or not. Do any of you use Takadimi or some other approach to counting? Any tricks you’ve learned to help students learn eighth note rhythms effectively?

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!

And the Winner Is…

#22 – Jenny Boster of The Teaching Studio blog! Congrats, Jenny!

However, not only is Rebekah giving away a copy of Old MacDonald had the Blues, she has also put together three fabulous deals that are available for Music Matters Blog readers:

  • Old MacDonald had the Blues Buy 2 get 1 FREE. Buy two books for your students and get your own book free!
  • Recital Mega-Deal. One teacher had the brilliant idea of having a themed recital with Old MacDonald had the Blues. Plan this event for your studio and get a set of books at wholesale – that’s 40% off.
  • FREE shipping on all orders over $25. Teachers could stock up on books, games or all of the above!

Visit the Notekidds website to learn more and get your copies today. Stay tuned for another great giveaway coming up next Tuesday!

Take a Test to Determine How Musical You Are

EasyEarTraining.com recently posted about a new test that has been developed to determine musical aptitude. The test was developed by researchers from the “Music, Mind and Brain research group” at Goldsmiths, University of London in collaboration with the BBC Lab UK. In 25 minutes, test-takers will “discover [their] complex relationship with music.” I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds intriguing. I wonder if you could use it with prospective students to get a better idea of their musical strengths…

If you take the test, you’ll have to let me know what you think!

Books, Books, and More Books!

Thanks to everyone for the fabulous suggestions you offered in response to my quest for more good biographies! I know many of you are equally interested in getting good biography recommendations, so I’ve compiled several lists that I hope will be helpful.

Biography Recommendations from Others

Now if only I can decide which ones to order first! I have a never-ending stack of books to read, but I am so excited to check out some of these recommendations. Biographies are definitely at the top of my list of favorite genre – the well-written ones are so engaging and inspiring, and there is always something to be learned from the lives of others. I’ve also compiled a list of some of my favorite biographies that I’ve read over the years:

Favorite Recommended Biographies

A Student Success with Scales Patterns and Improv Book!

How do you know if a particular book or approach is helping a student? Well, when the student tells you that they think the book has really helped them, that’s a pretty good indication. 🙂 If only all students would just come right out and say so!

One of my older beginners has been using Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book 1 by Barbara Kreader this year and commented several weeks ago that she could see that it had really helped her in a number of different areas. It’s not her favorite thing in the world, but seeing the benefits for herself has motivated her to keep working through it. I used the book with a piano camp group one summer, but this was my first time to use it for an individual lesson. Here are some of the specific areas she mentioned:

  • Listening – since she tends naturally to be more visual than aural, playing along with the CD helped her hear the different parts and how they fit together.
  • Theory – each unit focuses on one key and has an improv exercise, a scale, chord progression, arpeggio, and a short piece in that key. She said this helped her understand the different keys much better.
  • Rhythm – this is an area that has been more challenging since Day One, so using this book helped her come a long way in being able to keep the beat going and in working toward accurate rhythms.

This was so helpful for me to know! I can use her input when I start using this book with other students – which of course I’m going to now! 🙂 And perhaps this will be one way that I can start addressing my technique troubles that I mentioned yesterday. We’ll see!