Monday Mailbag – How to Teach by Rote

Natalie, how exactly do you teach these rote pieces? I am curious, as my students seem to lose what they learned at lesson before the next week.

There are only a handful of students that I ever teach anything by rote. Kinesthetic/tactile learners are the best candidates for rote teaching because they tend to have keyboard facility that exceeds their ability to read music or even play by ear, for the most part. It’s helpful if they have a good ear, but the students who love rote-learning are typically those students who can play something once or twice and then just remember how to play it with no further instruction. Which is partly why learning pieces from printed music is so difficult for them – if they play it once incorrectly, they are apt to keep playing it that way by default (you know that glazed-over look when a student is looking at the book, but you know they’re not seeing a thing? :-)).

I don’t go out of my way to teach pieces by rote to students who aren’t naturally inclined toward that style of learning. If I think they might benefit from it, I’ll try one of the simpler pieces from my list of favorites (Cross Current and Poet’s Lament are two in particular that I teach a lot!). Here’s the procedure I usually follow:

  1. Play the entire piece through up to tempo and with lots of emotion.
  2. Ask if they like it and would like to learn how to play it. This is usually met with an enthusiastic nod and a little bit of trepidation because it seems out of reach for them.
  3. Proceed to play only the first phrase at a slow tempo, pointing out the patterns that make it relatively easy to remember and play.
  4. Break it down to just the left hand (since usually this is the more steady, straightforward part), play very deliberately, talking them through the note/scale/chord pattern and which fingering should be used. Incidentally, playing the first time with correct fingering is extremely important for these types of learners!
  5. Have them try the first left hand phrase that I’ve just demonstrated. If they are successful, have them repeat it a few times to establish the muscle memory. Again, as they play talk them through each movement to assist them in playing it correctly the very first time, including fingering, notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, mood, etc. You’ll be amazed at how much they can absorb at once this way!
  6. Teach the remainder of the first phrase for the left hand this way until they have it down solidly.
  7. Teach the right hand (usually the melody) in the same manner until they have mastered the first phrase.
  8. If they seem ready, let them try putting the hands together. Don’t make this a big deal, though. Often they need some time to work with the parts separately on their own at home, and almost without fail they’ll come back the following week with all of it hands together.
  9. I often conclude this teaching session with a stern admonition that they must practice this every single day and keep it fresh in their fingers because I am not going to teach them the same thing the following week. Of course, I make exceptions if the student genuinely struggles with some aspect of the piece, but it’s not worth the time for either of us to keep re-teaching/re-learning the same thing week after week. And usually they are motivated enough by wanting to play the piece well that it’s not an issue for those who truly are inclined toward this learning approach.

Any other thoughts on rote teaching? Do you teach some of your students by rote? If so, do you have any steps to add to this? or strategies that have worked well?

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 Great Example of “Sticky” Teaching!

Do you ever feel like you’re teaching the same thing over and over again and the students still can’t remember exactly what you said? I love how Cathy Shepherd, of the Music for Tots blog, explains her reaction to this realization in reference to teaching her students the definition of ostinato:

“I decided that it is not that my students are dumb—it’s ME. Evidently I’m not teaching the definition of an ostinato correctly.”

So she took action and devised a creative, “sticky*” approach that will probably keep the definition of ostinato fresh in her students’ minds well into retirement. 🙂

This is one of the reasons I love teaching so much! Every time a student doesn’t understand something or struggles to remember what came easily to us, it provides vast opportunities for creativity, resourcefulness, and more effective teaching approaches.

[*The term “sticky” is derived from the principles laid out in the fabulous book, Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. I wrote a brief review of this book in my post, 2009 Year of Reading in Review.]

Taking Classical Music to the Masses!

Earlier this week, one of my students (are you reading this, Luke? :-)) commented how much he loves classical music and would like to help other people develop more of an appreciation for it. Apparently Daria van den Bercken feels the same way, especially about the keyboard works of George Frideric Handel. For anyone who has ever bemoaned the piano’s lack of portability, think again! Check out this amazingly innovative approach to sharing the music of Handel with audiences everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. 🙂

Handel hits the road! from Daria van den Bercken on Vimeo.

Daria plans to record Handel’s works next January. Her passion for his music is evident: “There have been moments in my life when certain music — more than normally — struck a chord in me and I felt this sense of incredible beauty. It happened again a while ago when playing the keyboard works of George Frideric Handel.” I look forward to keeping up with her Handel at the Piano project via Facebook and Twitter in the coming months!

(HT: Chris Foley of the Collaborative Piano Blog)

Marshmallows and Music Festival!

Last Saturday, one of our local associations held a fall festival dubbed, Marshmallows and Music. I’ve always wanted to put on an outdoor recital, so I was thrilled to be a part of this group effort! We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for our inaugural effort of what may become a yearly favorite!


One of our members graciously invited us to use her home/tree farm for the festive occasion. Isn’t it gorgeous?!


Each of the students donned their brightly colored festival t-shirt for the occasion! Several rows of chairs provided seating for the students just in front of the deck so that we could quickly work through each of the performances. Family members and friends brought chairs and blankets to place on the lawn where they could listen and enjoy the performances.


Here’s a snapshot of all of my students who participated in the event (except for one who disappeared right before we took the picture!).


Ben, Joey, and Jed did a great job working together to prepare a captivating performance of, Secrets, by OneRepublic for the event.


Noelle, Naomi, and Amanda did a lovely job with their rendition of, Impromptu, by Gurlitt.

I am so proud of each of my students and their musical performances! And I’m so grateful for the dedication of other teachers in the area that enables us to collaborate and put on events like this for the benefit of our students, their families, and the broader community.

Are any of you involved in festivals with your students this fall?

Monday Mailbag – The Treble Clef Game

What a great filing system. I’m interested in the treble clef on the side of the tall cabinet. What do you use it for? A game? counting goals?

This is a much-loved game in my studio! It’s one of the first ones I made and students don’t mind a bit that it’s all constructed of simple, homemade materials.

Here’s a close-up of the treble clef game. The treble clef shape is cut out of white posterboard and orange and blue circles are placed on the treble clef to create a path. Then I laminated it to preserve it. To play, each student places their game token on the first circle and draws a card from the draw pile. If they answer the card correctly, they get to roll the die and advance their game piece.

The dice are made from foam cubes and then I used a black ink pen to draw a keyboard or staff with a different interval on each side. The student rolls the die that corresponds to the color space he is on on the treble clef board. He must identify the interval and then move the equivalent number of spaces (i.e. 4th – move 4 spaces).

Here are a few specific ideas for pre-reading students:
* pictures of a piano keyboard with an “X” to identify the name of the key
* simple rhythm patterns
* note values
* basic dynamics
* pictures of instruments to identify

Here’s a close-up of the simple note identification questions that are included in the deck. For students just getting into reading notes on the staff, you could make cards with all the staff notes and just include a specified range of those in addition to other easier cards. Or you could make it multiple choice. Another fun approach might be to do a series of notes and have the student see if she can identify the word that is spelled. (Click here for a list of Musical Alphabet Words.)

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!

My Weekly Masterclass

It is so inspiring to watch a great teacher in action! My brother recently switched to a new cello teacher and I think I enjoy his lessons as much as he does. 🙂 Ever since I started taking him to lessons several years ago, I’ve loved sitting in and observing because I always pick up valuable music perspectives and teaching tips. Now, with a new teacher, we’re benefiting from a different approach and emphases on specific areas that need to be improved.

My schedule doesn’t permit me to observe other piano teachers (other than at conferences), but sometimes I think watching teachers of other instruments, or even other disciplines, can be even more beneficial because of different influences in our teaching practices.

Here, Quinn is working with my brother on his tone quality. She referenced four elements: air, earth, water, and fire. Then she had him play his piece in a way that reflected each of the elements. It was fascinating to hear the contrasts he was able to achieve with this imagery! This and lots of other aspects of her teaching give me inspiration and new ideas for working with my own students.

Does anyone else observe other teachers regularly? Do you ever make time to visit other piano teachers’ studios to watch them in action? I really want to figure out a way to incorporate more of these “masterclasses” into my schedule next year!

Top 10 Classical Works Used in the Movies

In the latest mailing from Mid-America Piano, they included a fun list of Top 10 Classical Works Used in the Movies. I have no idea how they come up with the data for this list, but I thought it was pretty cool. I don’t recognize the titles of a couple of these, so I’m curious to look them up and see if I recognize the music!

  1. Adagio by Samuel Barber
  2. Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner
  3. Piano Concerto No 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov
  4. Flight of the Bumble Bee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
  5. Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
  6. Symphony No 5, Adagietto by Gustav Mahler
  7. Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo by Pietro Verdi
  8. La forza del destino Overture by Giuseppe Verdi
  9. Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi
  10. Canon by Johann Pachelbel

Check out the original post for quick links to live stream and/or download these pieces!

Inspirational Quotes to Ponder

A couple weeks ago, our pastor at church shared a portion of a quote that caught my attention. I jotted it down and looked it up when I arrived home. It is attributed to British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since then in relation to teaching and thought I would share it with you:

“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”

I love the balance between idealism and practicality. It reminds me of a friend of mine who once told me, “Good intentions are good; good results are even better.” As teachers we can cast a vision for our students of what they can achieve, and as we work with them week after week we can also lay out a step-by-step plan to make it a reality.

As I was searching for the above quote, I came across this other one also attributed to Toynbee:

“It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.”

Intriguing. I’m not sure if I totally agree. What do you think?

Giveaway of Princess Piano App!

Light up the imagination of your young girl students with this fun princess-themed piano music reading app! From the developers, “In this melodious adventure, Princess Piano introduces the notes of the scale and how they are written on the staff. As Princess Piano climbs the skies towards the Cloud Kingdom, you will start with simple melodies, but will soon progress to be able to play well-known folk songs and selections from classical masters such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Debussy.”

Can’t you see your budding elementary girls just loving this? What a fun way to introduce and reinforce note recognition and reading!

The developers of the Princess Piano app have generously offered to giveaway five codes for a free copy of this app to Music Matters Blog readers! Just leave a comment below to be entered in a drawing to win this for you (or a student!). The winner will be drawn using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Thursday, October 27.