A Teaching Recharge for the New Year

Do you ever feel like you just need a minute to catch your breath, let something beautiful sink into your soul, and recharge for another year (or even just another week!) of teaching?
Our local music teachers association meeting this morning provided just the recharge I needed! I was so thrilled that my friend and colleague, Wendy Stevens (of the renowned ComposeCreate.com website!), agreed to come and share some of her music with us. It’s a treat to have her in our area, and it was fun to hear a little more behind-the-scenes info about her wonderful compositions!


If you have a local music teachers association in your area, I highly recommend participating. It’s such a wonderful way to connect with other teachers, share teaching tips, and glean new ideas. And if you ever have the chance to have Wendy come and do a presentation, you will undoubtedly find yourself inspired and your teaching recharged!


Not to mention she gave us all these great little sticky note packs! 🙂

Super Awesome Sight Readers!

If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to check out this excellent series of posts by Dr. Julie Knerr (one of the creators of the fabulous Piano Safari method!) on how to train students to be “Super Awesome Sight Readers.” This inspires me to remain dedicated to the process of guiding my students to become confident, excellent sight-readers!

Here’s a quick link to the posts along with my favorite quote from each one:

Part 1: It Takes A Long Time!

“It takes an average of three years of diligent work for children to become confident music readers. This means that as we work with students on their reading skill week after week, month after month, we should not become disheartened if a child who has been playing for a year or two still needs help to analyze and decode a piece or a sight reading card.”

Part 2: False Assumptions

“It is so important to lay the foundation correctly when developing a student’s relationship to the notated score!”

Part 3: The Four Ingredients for Confident Music Reading

“Reading music is a complex skill that requires not only knowledge of note names, but an incredible amount of spatial awareness on the page and in the hands, combined with rhythm in real time. “

Part 4: Ingredient #1 – Patterns and Theory

“Valuable insight into the student’s thought process can be gained by occasionally asking the student to be the teacher and explain to you how to play a piece.”

Part 5: Ingredient #2 – Contours and Intervals

“Repetition builds confidence and fluency.”

(Also, I love the idea of contour stories!)

Part 6: Ingredient #3 – Rhythm

“Not only can good readers intuitively read any rhythmic pattern immediately, but they have a great sense of the macro rhythm. When reading, they do not feel all the subdivisions. Instead, they are able to feel the large beat and fit all the subdivisions between the large beats almost automatically.”

Part 7: Ingredient #4 – Note Names

“The goal is for students to see a note and know it immediately, just as they see the letter “A” and know it is an “A” immediately.”

(Dr. Knerr uses an approach similar to the NoteStars Challenge that I use with my students.)

Celebrating Thanksgiving by Giving Back (and with a $5 off Coupon Code!)

Perhaps one of the sweetest students I’ve ever taught, Luke is the one who would remark in awe at how much time I must have spent planning various activities or thank me enthusiastically for helping him with something. In his early years of piano lessons, as a 7-year old boy, I remember him looking up at me and innocently asking one day what I thought I would do when I grew up. I told him I thought I would like to be a piano teacher. He nodded in affirmation, seemingly unaware that I was already carrying out my “grown up” plans.

Luke is also the one who would sit at the piano with me for an hour improvising on pattern after pattern, but then the minute I pulled out a book with music to read, he would start glancing at the clock and commenting on the time. 🙂 Suffice it to say that his learning struggles made reading music a chore, but when given the tools and opportunity, his true musicality shined brilliantly! Here’s one of our improvs:

It’s been a few years since our days in the studio together, but I’ve kept in touch with Luke and his family, especially as Luke faces a degenerative disease that has relegated him to a wheelchair for the time being. In spite of all this, Luke maintains a spirit of gratitude, expressing that even though he doesn’t like what he’s going through he knows that God has a purpose for him in it. In honor of him, I’ve decided to run a special Thanksgiving sale in the Music Matters Blog store. From now through Thanksgiving use the code GIVETHANKS to get $5 off any purchase, and 50% of every purchase made will be given to Luke and his family to help cover some of his medical costs.

You might even want to think ahead to possible Christmas gifts for your students, like a beautiful Music Manuscript Book, The Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys, or a Mini Music Manual:

Piano Student Gifts

These have been some of my students’ best-loved and most-used personal music resources over the years! Just purchase and download once and then you can print as many copies as you need for your students (and yourself!).

Or perhaps you want to jump start your New Year with a motivating studio practice incentive theme! Or maybe you even want to take some time off this holiday season to curl up with an inspirational [non-music-or-teaching-related-oh-my!] book to refresh your soul. If so, Born to Deliver might be just the thing:

Whatever the case may be, I am thankful for each of you and for the incredible opportunity to be an independent music teacher and a part of the thriving and supportive music education community. This list of 30 Thanksgiving Blessings that I wrote for the Clavier Companion blog several years ago is every bit as true today as it was then!

Guiding Students to Become Independent Learners and Musicians

The more I learn about Classical education, the more I am inspired to help my students become effective learners in every area of their studies. After reading this insightful post by Katherine Fisher, one of the authors of my absolute favorite piano method (Piano Safari, in case you didn’t know :-)), I am contemplating ways of incorporating more rote teaching even with my older students as a way of helping them make better connections with what they are playing and the underlying structure of the music. The deeper their understanding of music and how it is structured, the better equipped they will be to learn on their own.

Katherine says this,

I do believe the beginning of the process [of becoming independent learners and musicians] for students is to develop the discipline to concentrate and store information in a logical way. In the realm of piano pedagogy, I believe this translates to teachers encouraging students to learn and memorize a large amount of music. This should not be done in a “blind” sort of way in which there is no understanding of how the music is constructed. On the contrary, students should understand from the beginning that music is composed of patterns and a logical form. For musicians, this is an essential element of the art of learning.

AMT Inspiration – Work Ethic

This observation by Bruce Berr in the February/March 2016 issue of the American Music Teacher magazine resonated with me:

The work ethic that was typically championed by parents, “Whatever you do, do your best” has been replaced in more families with “just have a good time.” Since music study requires a steadfast focused commitment of time and energy, that’s clearly a problem. Learning an instrument is increasingly view on a par with other leisure activities, some of which require little or no skill development, perseverance, and other qualities that help people grow into more mature selves. More so than before, music teachers have to educate children and their parents about the need for a work ethic.

What a great opportunity we have as music teachers to help students and parents grow in their understanding of what it means to have a strong work ethic!

AMT Inspiration – Create A Feeling

Several times this past year in both my teaching and my performing I have recalled a comment by Time for Three from their interview in the December/January issue of the American Music Teacher magazine. When discussing the variety of genre the group performs, Ranaan Meyer includes this in his response:

“Ultimately the reason an audience wants to hear music is that they want to feel. To connect with the music they want an artist who is real and who is human. It shouldn’t sound like the most complicated thing in the world. You can ask audiences about this: ‘Do you care if this is complicated?’ Most of them will say, ‘No, I don’t care about that at all, I just want to be moved.”

This is the perfect perspective to have when going into a performance, and it’s especially helpful for students to consider when they feel like they are playing a piece that is “too easy.” Instead of focusing on the difficulty level of a piece, students should ask, “How do I want the listener to feel when they hear this piece?” Then the performance is about creating an atmosphere and eliciting a feeling, not about playing something difficult or hitting every note right. This also helps get the focus off of myself, as the performer, and onto the audience, where it should be!

AMT Inspiration – Be Meticulous

We have had a wonderful year of learning and growth in our studio, perhaps none more so than myself! I am continually challenged and inspired to improve my understanding of what it means to be an excellent teacher, and how to implement new ideas into my teaching. As usual, each issue of the American Music Teacher has little nuggets of wisdom and encouragement that provide fuel for that inspiration.

In the December/January issue there was an interview with the world renowned pianist, Emanuel Ax. In it he gives credit to his teacher, Mieczyslaw Munz, “for teaching him to practice well by being incredibly meticulous in the lessons. Ax comments that Munz absolutely, relentlessly, liked for things to be correct.”

Now I realize that we’re not all teaching concert pianists, but Ax’s comment reminded me that the way I work with students at each lesson is the model that they will be most inclined to follow in their own practice. If I let inaccurate rhythms, ignored dynamics, or unmusical phrasing slip during the lesson, certainly the student won’t feel compelled to do differently in their personal practice regimen. Too often, I am wont to jot a quick note in their assignment book while neglecting to spend the necessary time at the lesson helping them pay attention and play correctly. But when I do prioritize truly teaching students to play correctly, the rewards are always well worth it!

Teaching Students to Practice Their Instrument More Effectively

In his always-informative newsletter, Gerald Klickstein, author of The Musician’s Way, linked back to his post on Beautiful Repetition. I love his four points:

  1. Insist on Excellence
  2. Reject Mindless Repetition
  3. Aim for Growth Rather than Sameness
  4. Evaluate Continuously

 

Visit his post for an elaboration and specific ideas for each point!

Diligence is Quite a Virtue…

…working hard will never hurt you; when you’re through there’s always a reward.” So go the lyrics of the “Work Song” from the record “Antshillvania” that I remember listening to over and over as a child. These words came to mind the other day as I was working with my kids on our Latin exercises. (So of course I had to pull this clip up on YouTube and make sure it was inescapably stuck in their heads along with mine. :-))

Not unlike the process of learning to read music, understanding and developing a working knowledge of Latin is complex and difficult. Often one read-through of the lesson is not enough to fully absorb the material. Rather it takes a considerable amount of repetition, meditation, and implementation. How very un-American!

Borrowing from the Character First! Education materials, I find myself often quoting the definition of diligence to my children/students when laziness is the preferred pastime.

“Diligence is investing all my energy to complete the tasks assigned to me.”

I was reminded again of the virtue of diligence when I read the recent article by Rebecca Grooms Johnson highlighting a research project conducted on “Work ethic, motivation, and parental influences in Chinese and North American children learning to play the piano” (published in the October/November 2015 issue of American Music Teacher). Of particular interest to me was the great divide in weekly practice time spent by Chinese students (295.26 minutes) versus their North American/Caucasian student counterparts (159.29 minutes). This is a reflection of “the broadly prevalent Asian cultural philosophy toward learning with a strong emphasis on hard work rather than an inborn talent or ability.”

Rebecca ends her report with a series of questions, among them, “Will our children’s apparently low levels of motivation and work ethic doom our culture to mediocrity?” Yes, indeed! That’s why we must make every effort to inspire, equip, and encourage our students to rise above such an indifferent approach to life and learning. We must push our students to work hard, to excel, to embody diligence in all their endeavors. We must refuse to accept half-hearted, lazy, excuse-riddled work, whether it comes to counting rhythms precisely, memorizing effectively, or even carefully reading and following specific practice instructions. If we truly want to see our students succeed, we must help them realize that it is not innate talent or ability that will propel them forward, but diligent and consistent hard work.

Exploring a Classical Model of Education

The first several days of this week I had the privilege of attending a Parent Practicum put on by Classical Conversations. What a fascinating and thought-provoking experience! An article by Dorothy Sayers called, “The Lost Tools of Learning” seems to be the underlying call of this movement to return to the more effective methods of education employed in earlier periods of history.

I hope to write much more about the things I’m learning in the days ahead, but for the moment I thought I would share one of the most useful tools for thinking and planning: The Topic Wheel

Right now I’m employing this tool to help plan our studio sumner piano camp and I’m so excited about how it’s helping me organize my objectives and ideas to hopefully make the camp a rich learning experience!