Monday Mailbag – The Purpose of a Sight-Reading Book

What is the benefit of using a sight reading curriculum? Isn’t every new song in the student’s book an opportunity to sight read?

My emphasis on and philosophy of sight-reading tends to shift the more that I work with students. I agree that the number one way to build fluent sight-reading skills is to play through a LOT of new music. However, what I’ve discovered with many of my students is that they don’t intuitively recognize patterns in the music that seem obvious to me. This is why I recently started using the series, Joining the Dots with a few of my students.

So far it’s going really well! The students are experiencing great success with the approach and are even enjoying it (I intentionally chose a few students who don’t prefer sight-reading, to put it mildly :-)). The way each unit is organized, it does a great job of building pattern recognition, utilizing keyboard topography skills, and incorporating rhythmic awareness through improvisatory activities.

These are some of the specific benefits that I have found from using a sight-reading book. I’ve used a few others over the years as well, and find that for most students it is necessary to intentionally point out patterns over and over again before they start to automatically recognize them in their new pieces. And as students develop confidence in their sight-reading abilities through shorter, systematic pieces, hopefully they will be more inclined to play through new music on their own at home.

Any other thoughts? I’d love to hear from others on this topic! Do you use a sight-reading book/curriculum with your students? What benefits have you experienced from doing so?

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!

25 Things to Do at a Piano Lesson When a Student Forgets Their Books

Jenny Bay, over at The Teaching Studio blog, has posted a fabulous collection of 25 ideas that teachers can use if a student forgets his books. Not that that ever happens in my studio, of course. :-) As long as we’re speaking hypothetically, this is also a great list to refer to if a student should happen to not practice at all in a given week.

What’s your favorite idea on the list? I love the suggestion to, “Get out a piece from your own library and have an entire lesson on how to learn a new piece.” In fact, I think you could call it, “How to Learn a New Piece in Less Than an Hour” and walk the student through all sorts of cool “tricks of the trade” for learning new music quickly. Most students would probably be surprised at just how effective good practice strategies can be! Maybe I should implement a studio-wide leave-your-piano-books-at-home week so that we can give it a try…

Teaching Tips from Snowboard School – Part Two: Give Students a Vision of Success

When I first fastened my boots onto the snowboard, the prospect of whizzing down the slopes like the other snowboarders I had observed for years propelled me forward. From my experience years ago, though, I learned that the gap between where I want to be and where I actually am can quickly seem insurmountable (i.e. lofty visions of expert maneuvering don’t survive long when every turn ends in a faceplant…:-)) . I’ve experienced the same phenomenon with numerous students – their view of where they want to be musically is so far beyond their current level that they soon lose hope of achieving success. But what they really need is someone to give them a realistic vision of success.

Our instructor didn’t point to the proficient boarders at the top of the mountain and tell us to imagine ourselves traversing the mogul-covered double-black diamond trails. Instead he pointed to the gently sloping greens and said that by the end of the day we’d feel comfortable making our way down them. Now that was something I could believe and work toward! Oh sure, I still watched every snowboarder intently, but my focus now was on learning from their examples so that I could reach my immediate goal – making it down the lower mountain slopes intact.

So, how do we do this for our students? First, we have to have a clear vision in our own minds of our students’ potential. Start by picturing your students ten years from now. What will they be like? What will they be capable of doing on their instrument? How will they be using their musical skills? Now picture them a year from now. What image comes to mind? Will they have acquired better musical skills and participated in enriching musical experiences? How will they be different then from their lesson last week?

Once we – the teacher – have a vision, the purpose and direction of each lesson will take on new meaning. When we point to the experts as a model (via YouTube, recordings, or live recitals) it’s not to set our students up with the expectation of being like them, but so that they can apply what they observe to their more immediate goals and difficulties. This vision also encourages us to be more intent on teaching concepts than on simply making corrections in a given piece of repertoire. Confused expressions will give rise to more creative approaches as we develop methods for helping students overcome obstacles. Students are contagiously infused with a greater sense of purpose in their musical studies, but it also gives us a foundation from which to project, “by this time next month I think you will have mastered the dotted quarter note-eighth note rhythm” or “you’ll be playing every Major pentascale flawlessly by the end of the year” or “you’ll be ready to start learning some of Beethoven’s early compositions if you continue on this track,” etc.

I have seen this element of our Year-End Evaluations (click here for the free downloadable forms) build excitement and renewed interest in students many times, but as I consider this I’m reminded of the importance of approaching every lesson with that same forward-thinking mindset. And I’m excited about the prospect of doing a better job painting this vision of success for each of my students in the weeks ahead.

Read the rest of the Teaching Tips from Snowboard School series: Introduction | Part One: Be a Pro

Listen to Carnegie Hall Recitals Live

A partnership with WQXR and American Public Media and Carnegie Hall presents the Carnegie Hall Live series so that music lovers everywhere can listen in on world famous concert artists! Check out a recording from the February 15 concert featuring Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Here’s a rundown of his program (thanks to Piano Street’s Classical Piano Blog!):

Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20
Bartók: Suite, Op. 14
Debussy: Images, Book I
Intermission
Chopin: Waltz in F Minor, Op. 70, No. 2
Chopin: Waltz in G-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 1
Chopin: Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 3
Chopin: Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42
Chopin: Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1
Chopin: Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23

Encores:
Chopin: Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1
Granados: Spanish Dance No. 5
Rachmaninoff: Etude-tableau in C Major, Op. 33, No. 2

It looks like if you stop in for the live virtual concert you can also participate in a chat session on the website. The next live broadcast will be on Saturday, February 25 with the Berliner Philharmoniker performing the “Resurrection” Symphony by Gustav Mahler.

A Fabulous Way to Introduce Students to Classical Themes

I’ve been playing catch-up on blog posts for the last couple of weeks and ran across this wonderful post by Heidi that’s a Classical Themes Lab Assignment for her students. In her assignment she creates a list of all the pieces in the In Recital, with Classical Themes by Helen Marlais and pairs it with a YouTube video recording of that piece. A brief couple of sentences describe each piece or its historical style, and students are instructed to rate each piece according to their level of interest in learning it.

I’ve used similar approaches with my students when they are learning a transcription of a famous symphony or opera, but I LOVE the idea of having a page like this laid out so that students can easily go through the entire contents of a book and select their favorites. Since Heidi’s already done the work for this book, I’ll probably just use her post with my students. Now…who wants to do the work for the other books in this series? :-)

Monday Mailbag – 6 Steps for Teaching Students to Practice Well

These two questions are very similar:

How do you encourage your student to practice correctly when they are at home, especially when their parents have no music background and cannot hear the mistakes to correct their piece?

I have a three piano students from one family (girls aged 10-12) who practice at least an hour a day…I find sometimes that so much practice means that they play certain mistakes REALLY well! Do you have any thoughts on this?

One thing that occurred to me a while back is that since students don’t automatically come to lessons with an understanding of how to practice effectively, the way we introduce and go through pieces at the lesson will tend to be their model for how to practice at home. Yikes! This meant that my former method of sticking a new piece on the music rack in front of the student and saying, “Alright, why don’t you just sight-read through this once and see what you think” had to go. This may be moderately helpful for developing sight-reading skills, but it’s about the worst possible way for a student to jump into learning a new piece of repertoire.

Perhaps the best way to explain an effective approach for introducing a new piece of music to a student and giving them tools for practicing it well at home is to use a real piece of music. I did this three years ago with the piece, Twister, by Wendy Stevens, and decided to copy those steps here for those interested in a systematic approach to teaching a student a new piece of music. This is obviously more time-consuming than handing them the repertoire and wishing them well with it :-), but wow is it worth the time invested in the long run!

For starters, I would make sure that the student who is going to learn this piece already has experience playing cross-hand arpeggios and staccato vs. legato between hands. So, without further ado, here are the steps I would use to help a student successfully learn Twister:

1. Play the piece for the student up to tempo. I know there are different schools of thought on this, but I almost always play new repertoire for my students. They can develop their reading skills from their method books; with these supplemental repertoire pieces, I want them to have a vision for what they can accomplish. It’s hearing cool-sounding music like this that inspires them to aspire to new heights.

2. Ask the student to make at least 5 observations about the piece. This helps me see what they are most aware of, whether their perception is that it’s too hard, whether they like the piece, etc. Then we develop and discuss those observations. In a piece like Twister, I would expect them to notice things like: there are staccatos and accents on some of the notes, the time signature is 3/4, the dynamics go from piano to forte, you use the pedal at the end, your right hand moves into higher octaves, there are a few sharps and flats, etc.

3. Identify what key the piece is written in. For younger students, identifying the key of a piece means figuring out the scale upon which the piece is built. Twister is in c-minor. I have them play the c-minor pentascale and chord, and in this case would have them demonstrate a c-minor cross-hand arpeggio (this is setting the stage for a future step!).

4. Label the form of the piece. I’m definitely not a form and analysis expert, but together we look for how long the phrases are (8-measures mostly), whether subsequent phrases are the same or different than the first one, and any patterns within the phrases. For example, in the B-section of Twister, I would briefly highlight the concept of a sequence and show them how three of the 2-measure patterns follow the same interval pattern with each one moving a note higher than the one before. We would likewise look at the places where the right hand moves up in octaves repeating the same pattern. All of this gives the student an overall picture of the piece and makes it easier to learn.

5. Tap the rhythm hands together with the respective hands tapping each part. We do this together at a slow tempo, with me keeping a steady pulse throughout the piece, thus forcing the student to keep going even as they make mistakes (which they almost inevitably will!). As I’m tapping, I incorporate dynamics and articulation elements, but I don’t expect the student to do so at this stage. After we’ve gone through the whole piece like this, we choose one section to focus on first. For Twister, I would teach the last 8-measures first for several reasons: it sounds cool!; they’ve already played the first four measures without even realizing it when they played their cross-hand arpeggios for number 3 above; and it encompasses most of the elements that will be encountered in the rest of the piece.

6. Successfully learn the selected section. I would have the student tap and count the last 8-measure section again, this time moving their hands up or down on the fallboard to portray the octave changes. Sometimes, depending on time constraints, I also have them finger it out by “playing” on the fallboard the fingers that they will use when they actually play it. Once they determine that this feels easy, I let them try it on the piano. I make sure that they incorporate the dramatic crescendo at the end and finish with a brilliant accented staccato. And of course, the rhythm and notes must be correct! With this section “under their belt,” they are ready to go home and apply the same practice strategies to each additional section of the piece. I let them learn the sections in whatever order they choose – forward, backward, or random.

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!

Do You Keep a Studio Journal?

I’ve been an avid journaler since before I turned 10. And at least three of the pedagogy courses I took required some form of journaling. Perhaps that’s why I made a point years ago to start a studio journal of sorts. There are probably a variety of ways one could use a studio journal, but I’ve opted to use mine to record memorable and/or humorous remarks made by students. I usually jot these down on a piece of note paper right after they occur and then transfer them over to the journal later. As I was going through some files I came across one where I had recorded a few such student remarks. Reading this one brought back such a great memory, and I thought you all would get a kick out of it, too :-):

While playing his Christmas song, Luke came to one point and stopped to figure out the correct note. I was proudly observing that he appeared to be mentally working through the staff notes to figure out the correct one when I heard him say, “Hmm…what would sound good with ‘is’?”

~November, 2009

So I’m curious…do any of you keep a studio journal? What do you use it for? Do you record memorable remarks from students?

Teaching Tips from Snowboard School – Part One: Be a Pro

Like I mentioned in my Introduction to this series last week, I think the instructor we had in Snowboard School was one of the best on the slopes. The interesting thing to me was that he knew it and wasn’t shy about “tooting his own horn.” Many people are afraid of coming off as arrogant, so they wouldn’t think of extolling their own virtues to prospective or current students. And then there are those who use their own personal accomplishments to compensate for continued growth and excellence in their field. Neither of these are a helpful attitude for building a successful studio.

Here’s something that hit me a while back: not only can you be really, really good in your field and still not know the answer to the things your students and/or their parents ask you, having an attitude of still learning and developing expertise in your field is one of the marks of someone who is really, really good. Being a pro involves acknowledging the extent of your own expertise and also taking advantage of opportunities to continue learning and advancing.

Here are three specific tips for how to Be a Pro:

1. Know Your Subject – nothing can take the place of real knowledge. True confidence is not something that can be fabricated; it is the result of intentional study and investment in your field. If you are teaching general music or an instrument, take time to learn as much as possible about music theory and history. Study various educational philosophies and teaching methods. Be able to share stories about different composers. And when you are whole-heartedly investing your time and energy to educate yourself, you will be confident enough to admit when you don’t know information or have an answer for something. For musicians, knowing their subject usually also involves being skilled on an instrument. The better you play, the better your students will play. Play often and learn new repertoire (even if it’s the repertoire your advanced students are working on!) so that you can address potential problem areas, share practice tips, and…commiserate with your students about the woes of tackling and overcoming difficulties. :-)

2. Gain Experience – be open to lots of different avenues for teaching, performing, and being involved in the music community. Our snowboard instructor began his teaching on the east coast, then migrated west and taught at multiple ski resorts. Each place brought him into contact with new people and helped him gain valuable insights into what was effective teaching-wise on a broad scale. On the east coast, the beginner class was only an hour and a half; in the mountains of Colorado the beginner class is an all-day affair. If he was able to turn out successful snowboarders in an hour and a half, you better believe he had some sure-fire tips for quickly improving your skill level on the board! In the same way, a teacher who incorporates group classes, private lessons, duo sessions, distance learning, special workshops, mentoring relationships, and more will probably become more of a pro than the one who restricts himself to only one mode of teaching. Every avenue provides the impetus to communicate more clearly, interact on new levels, and fine-tune teaching skills to meet the needs of many types of students.

3. Market Yourself as a Professional – don’t undersell yourself. Whether it’s via a personal website, in conversations with new acquaintances or friends, or in gatherings with other professionals, the way you carry yourself will dictate how others treat you. If you love what you do and believe that the work you are doing is meaningful, communicate that with both body language and the words you use. It’s not mere semantics to answer an inquiry as to what you do as “I run a music studio” instead of “I’m a piano teacher.” If you are serious about the importance of your teaching, be convincing! You should want every person you meet to leave their conversation with you with a greater appreciation for the impact of music on culture, its important role in the lives of people, and an interest in becoming more involved on a personal level (i.e. they should want to do whatever it takes to become a part of your studio!). Idealistic? Probably, but that’s my preferred perspective on life. :-)

In essence, being a pro puts you in a position to inspire others to take up what you’re teaching for themselves. Does it work? Well, it may not be a no-fail guarantee, but I do know that our snowboard pro converted me to snowboarding for life!

Read the rest of the Teaching Tips from Snowboard School series: Introduction