Monday Mailbag – 5 Suggested Resources for a New Teacher

I have been reading your site for the past year and have found it very helpful. I am a new teacher starting out so I have 4 students right now. In the fall I will be partnering with an after school program doing private lessons with possibly 8-10 more students. I saw your post about memorizing where you recommended Thinking as You Play: Teaching Piano in Individual and Group Lessons. I am planning to order a copy of the book but was wondering if you might have any other resources you would suggest to a teacher starting out.

Even though I have been teaching for 15 years now, I still feel like a new teacher in many ways! However, I am grateful for the many excellent resources in the music education community that have helped me develop competency and confidence as a piano teacher. Here are the resources that have been the most helpful to me in the order I would recommend them:

1. Association with music teaching colleagues – This is by far the number one most valuable resource you could ever have! If you have a local association in your area (check the MTNA website for local affiliates), you should definitely join it and become active in the meetings and student events. It would be impossible to measure the extent to which the teachers in our local associates have influenced me and my teaching. I have learned SO much through their input and example, and I honestly doubt that I would still be teaching if not for their encouragement and instruction. I know that not every area is blessed to have an association and not every association is populated with welcoming and generous teachers, so in that case I recommend moving to Kansas. :-) And if that’s not a possibility, then find some way to connect with other colleagues, perhaps through an association you can travel to once a month, a state or national conference, an on-line community, a collection of bloggers you can follow and interact with, etc.

2. Subscribe to industry magazines – in addition to being an avid book reader, I also love magazines! Industry magazines even have an advantage over books in that they can disseminate more current and relevant cultural trends and information about the latest musical research and technology available to music teachers. They also feature articles written by our contemporaries who are dealing with the same issues and student needs as we are. There are three magazines that I read regularly and highly recommend: American Music Teacher, Clavier Companion, and Listen.

3. Read a wide variety of books – there are a handful of specifically piano pedagogy books on the market that all have helpful insights related to both teaching and running a studio. However, I have found that I receive just as much inspiration from reading books on other subjects where I can relate the ideas and philosophies to teaching in a different way. Sometimes that might be a biography of an educator or a pianist; sometimes it might be a philosophy book; sometimes it might be a history of specific educational theories; sometimes it might be a theological book and how our view of God relates to the way we live and interact with others. (If you happen to be interested, here are links to the posts I’ve written for the past six years that compile brief reviews of the books I read during that year: 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012) If I had to pick a few personal favorites to recommend, though, here are the three (other than Thinking As You Play) I would choose: The Savvy Musician by David Cutler, Color Outside the Lines by Howard Hendricks, and The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein.

4. Study teacher guides – if you want to get to the nitty-gritty practical side of teaching, one of the most helpful things you can do is study detailed explanations and ideas from other teachers on how to teach or reinforce specific musical concepts. Some piano method series publish a guide for the teacher that is extremely useful for understanding the pedagogy behind certain activities or approaches. Legendary pedagogs Randall and Nancy Faber have an on-line guide with videos for their Primer Level piano method. The relatively new Alfred Premier Piano Course has an online assistant with lots of supplemental resources for teachers and students. And the one I’ve been poring over recently (and will be posting about much more extensively soon!) is the Teacher guide for the fabulous new Piano Safari method!

5. Follow piano teacher blogs – lastly, as a long-time blogger I would be remiss in not extolling the virtues of the myriad blogs now comprising the online music education community! There is nothing quite like peeking into the studio of another teacher and seeing the creative ways they run their studios and teach their students. It’s so much fun to look at pictures, download carefully crafted resources, and implement the imaginative ideas gleaned from other devoted teachers.

Those are my top 5 suggestions for new teachers, but I’d love to hear from other teachers as well! What advice would you give to a new teacher? What resources have been the most helpful to you in your teaching endeavors?

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 – Teaching Balance Between Hands

Some of my students have a lot of trouble with balance between the hands.  I have them play one hand very loudly, and “ghost” the other hand, gradually adding the other hand by tapping the keys, then playing softly, getting gradually louder, but would love some other ideas.

This is the same tried-and-true strategy that I use all the time with my students. Here are a couple of other considerations:

  • When teaching specific techniques, it’s helpful to make sure that all other hindrances are removed so that the student can focus all of their attention on the technique itself. For example, instead of having the student attempt to achieve proper balance on a piece where they are still struggling to read the notes or play with rhythmic accuracy, etc. try something simpler like playing a pentascale with one hand louder than the other. I devise lots of simple, on-the-spot exercises for students so that they can develop various technical skills.
  • Utilize exaggeration. One teacher I know uses imagery of a cast iron frying pan in one hand and a feather in the other. Encourage the student to still create sound with each hand, but to completely exaggerate the contrast between the two.
  • Alternate hands. For example, have the student play the melody note first, at the desired dynamic level, followed by the harmony note(s) immediately after. This helps them hear and feel the difference between the two without having to actually play them at the same time at first. Gradually play the harmony note(s) closer to the melody note(s) until they are eventually being played simultaneously.
  • Have the student play one part while you play the other. Skills like hand balance are very much a combination of technical facility and listening. The student has to be able to physiologically achieve the right balance, but they also have to know what they want it to sound like and listen intently to see if they have achieved the desired sound. Playing with the student helps them concentrate on their part while also hearing what it sounds like with the other part appropriately balanced.

Those are a few ideas, anyway. I’d love to hear others! Do you have any tried-and-true methods for helping piano students learn and achieve hand balance in their playing?

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

One of the fallouts of my computer crash several weeks ago is that I no longer have access to all of my e-mails. In particular, I had over fifty Monday Mailbag questions saved for upcoming postings. So…it looks like we’re going to have to start over from scratch. If you have a questions you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming Monday Mailbag post, please send me an e-mail with the question/topic. We should be able to get back on track with weekly postings, and if you get the question to me quickly yours should get posted soon!

Monday Mailbag – How to Develop an Internal Sense of Pulse

I want my students to feel an internal beat; it seems that any kind of external beat (counting, tapping, metronome, etc.) can be  “warped” or ignored while concentrating on note location, etc.  But, I’m having trouble with some students who never seem to get it (it doesn’t matter what song it is). When approaching a new song,  what do you teach first – note locations or rhythm? And do you have any ideas to move a student from external to internal beat?

This question is very apropos right now because I have a young student struggling with the exact same thing, so I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas to address this issue. In my experience, students who are strong visual learners tend to struggle more in this area because they are very focused on reading the notes on the page and tend to not be as aware of the sound they are making. And I should know because I was one of those students! Thanks to the patience and creativity of my dedicated teacher, though, I think I have developed a pretty good sense of pulse and rhythmic flow. So, some of these ideas that I share will be ones that she used with me. I thought I would use this as an opportunity to do a brainstorm post and just bullet point every idea that comes to mind that could be used to help a student develop a better internal sense of pulse:

  • Incorporate elements of Eurhythmics into the lesson. The basic idea is to use large motor movements to express the pulse and the rhythms, whether walking, dancing, swaying, marching in place, etc. (Don’t be afraid to make the student get off the bench and feel a little ridiculous if necessary. Even if they hate it now, it will be worth it!)
  • Grab a baton and teach the student basic conducting patterns.  I have a whole collection of kids batons and use them often with students to learn conducting patterns. They love it!
  • Listen to recordings of upbeat music and tap, clap, or play a rhythm instrument along with it. The Let’s Have a Musical Rhythm Band book and CD set is great for this!
  • Give the student a djembe and have them beat a steady pulse while you play or improvise a piece of music. I have this Toca Djembe and use it all the time in my studio – it’s a favorite for both the students and me! I especially like to have them emphasize the downbeat by hitting the drum harder or in a different spot to make it distinct.
  • Improvise duets together. Anyone whose been around here long knows I can hardly go a whole week without a reference to improvising! I use the Pattern Play series every day in my teaching, and it’s a great way to free students up from having to read musical notation to just listen and express themselves musically. Very helpful for cultivating more of an awareness of musical pulse and flow.
  • Record (audio or video) the student playing their piece, then listen to the playback and tap along with the beat. Have them keep a tally of how many times they hesitated or got off beat.
  • Find a book of duets at their level and have them learn one part to play with either you or another student. Ensemble playing does wonders for learning to keep the beat going!
  • When learning a piece (to address the other part of your question), have the student improvise whatever notes they want to, but play the rhythm as written. Sometimes to make the point that I really don’t care what notes they play, I’ll have them move onto the black keys and just play everything on random keys, but still keeping the rhythm accurate. The goal is to capture the character and flow of the piece, then later we will work on learning the written notes.

So, there are some of my ideas. I would LOVE to add to this list, though, so if you have other suggestions of how to help a student develop an internal sense of pulse, please let me know!

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 – Teaching Hand Position

I have a technical question – my boy wants to rest his wrist a lot while plays. I sit by him and sort of poke underneath to remind him.  Now he’s getting into harder stuff and has runs with 8th notes.  He tends to play with his fingers straight. What can I do to get his “finger posture” correct?

Well, I’ve heard of teachers putting nail strips at the edge of the piano, or smacking kids’ hands with rulers…but aside from the fact that these approaches are highly abusive, they do absolutely nothing to help a student understand why it’s important for them to maintain a good hand position. I am a firm believer in teaching students to understand the reasoning behind what they are being instructed to do so that they will develop a personal sense of responsibility and motivation for applying the instruction to their practicing and playing. Here are some resources toward that end:

  • Three essential areas of technical understanding: Gravity, Strength, and Conduction
  • Teach “slide position” for the thumb – (amazingly, one of the longest-lasting and most effective principles I’ve ever taught my students!)
  • The finger O game. Probably the simplest activity you can do with students, but I use it from the very first lesson and for years afterward and the students love it. They take turns pressing each finger against the thumb to form an “O” shape, then I see if I can use my index finger to quickly break apart their “O.” If I am successful, I make a big deal of how weak their finger is and how much it needs strength conditioning. Conversely, if their “O” shape holds, I make a big deal of how strong and pianistic their fingers are becoming. I encourage them to do Finger O’s all the time – when they’re riding in the car, sitting at the table, watching a movie, etc. The stronger the fingers are, the better they will be able to support the weight of the arm as it is channeled through the fingers to the keys.
  • Take videos regularly so that the student can observe their hand position and see tangible progress as they work to improve it. I use my handy little iPod Touch for this and have found it to be a very effective way of helping students understand how their hand position needs to develop. We record and watch the videos week after week with me pointing out specific areas of improvement: “Look how your thumb is staying in a much better slide position this week!” “See how your wrist is staying up and not dropping lazily onto the edge of the piano anymore!” etc.

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 – Planning a Comprehensive Curriculum for Intermediate Piano Students

I have been thinking a little more about curriculum. My younger students typically work through a method book with additional repertoire and activities added. My older students  choose several pieces to work on through the semester/year, discuss theory/musical concepts in their pieces, work through a theory book, and typically do scales or other technical exercises. Do you have any set “curriculum” you follow as far as what you expect students to learn/cover over the course of a year?

Last week we dealt with one aspect of this question – 5 Essential Resources for Selecting Repertoire for Intermediate Piano Students. This week we’ll look at additional resources for planning a comprehensive curriculum. It’s important, first of all, to understand that “comprehensive” does not mean “exhaustive.” You will never be able to teach any student everything there is to know or learn about being an excellent pianist. (Not that that keeps some of us from trying, but I digress… :-))

Music Progressions – I have mentioned our state piano curriculum before, but this is easily the most helpful resource to me in knowing what skills students should be working on at different levels. Music Progressions outlines a systematic approach for teaching keyboard facility (scales, arpeggios, etc.), applied theory (intervals, chords, etc.), rhythm, sight-reading, listening, and written theory.

The Brown Scale Book – I don’t use scale books with my students, but as I was referring to this wonderful reference book for some inverted arpeggio fingering for a student a couple weeks ago and trying to figure out how to help my more advanced students remember the correct fingerings, it occurred to me that I should just have them each purchase this book for their own reference. Duh. So I ordered four of them that afternoon from my local music store. This is way easier than writing down fingerings in their assignment books!

Practice Incentive Themes – Many of you are familiar with the yearly practice incentive themes that I develop for my students. These are particularly helpful for older students because they provide a framework for us throughout the year to ensure that they are receiving a comprehensive music education. It’s easy to revert to a repertoire-based approach to teaching/learning piano, so developing and using the structure built into the  practice incentive themes helps make sure we include other important skills like playing by ear, improvising, composing, memorizing, etc. Plus it keeps the whole process more fun!

Theory Books – I’ve mentioned several times that I rarely use theory books with my students. For written theory work, I often have the students use their Music Manuscript book, develop a program like Kick it up a Notch!, or use the Just the Facts II theory series from Music Bag Press.

If you have resources or tips for developing a comprehensive curriculum for intermediate students, 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!

Monday Mailbag – Favorite Christmas Arrangements

I have so appreciated your ideas and was wondering, if you find any great Christmas arrangements that you just love, will you let us know?

With our Christmas Recital coming up later this week, Christmas music is definitely on my mind! Here are some of the favorites on our program this year:

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear by Melody Bober – a gorgeous intermediate level arrangement!

Christmas Traditions by Phillip Keveren – this whole book is a gem! This is a great collection of musical arrangements at an elementary level, and many of them are perfect rote teaching pieces. One of my favorites for this is the Go, Tell it On the Mountain arrangement.

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Andy Fling – a fun, simple arrangement of this favorite Christmas classic.

In Christ Alone by Natalie Wickham – :-) A couple of my students requested a duet for the recital, and after considerable searching I thought it would be fun to see if they could pull together this duet that I arranged several years ago for another student.

Several of my students have written their own arrangements this year, and they are absolutely amazing! I’m so excited to share them with you all sometime after Thursday. :-) I won’t be able to live stream the Christmas recital this year, but I’m hoping to get it posted to YouTube like we did with last year’s.

If you have any favorite Christmas selections in your studio, please share! It’s always fun to find out about other great arrangements to add to the list of possibilities.

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 – Media Release Forms for Piano Students

Love the student videos. Do you have your students sign media consent forms before filming and posting publicly online? Just curious if you’ve experienced any negative reactions. I’m sure there are plenty of very positive ones as well!

Yes, I include a Media Release Form along with the Parent Questionnaire, Studio Policy, and business card at all of my initial student interviews.

I wrote this based on what seemed necessary for my studio, so I recommend obtaining legal counsel as you develop a form that meets your studio needs. Here’s the wording from mine:

“I, _______, hereby grant permission for my child, __________, born on ____________, to have his/her photo and/or video used by Natalie’s Piano Studio in promotional materials, downloadable products, website content, and blog posts.”

Parent Signature _________________________ Date ______________

I have only had one family decide not to sign the form because they prefer not to have any public internet presence. However, it has still worked out great to record the student and post the videos on my YouTube account, but set them to “Private” and just send the parents the links to the videos. They are pleased to retain their privacy, but still get to experience the technology used in the studio.

I’d be curious to know how other teachers handle this. Do you have parents sign a Media Release Form? What do you include on the form? Have you received complaints from parents?

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 – How to Incorporate Student Options Into Practice Incentives

What did you mean when you said a good practice incentive should include student options?

One of the primary purposes of a practice incentive is to motivate students to practice. And what better way to do that than to let them choose what they are going to practice? As teachers, we have to tap into what students actually want to achieve with their piano studies in order to develop assignments that will help them reach their goals. However, as teachers we also have a better idea than our students of what will contribute to their overall music education. So, if we want them to become well-rounded musicians we will give them options that are designed to help them build essential skills as well.

Think of it like this: A parent could give a child at dinner time of what they want to eat. If they gave their child the choice of ice cream or peas, I bet every time the child would choose ice cream. This might make the child happy and motivated to eat, but it would be extremely unhealthy for the child. Not to mention, bad parenting. However, a parent could similarly give their child a choice between peas and green beans. Perhaps the child dislikes both, but the fact that they are getting to choose which one they prefer to eat gives them slightly more control of the situation and instills a greater sense of responsibility for eating their vegetable since they are the one that chose it. This is an example of a good way to utilize options.

In a piano lesson environment, perhaps you realize that most of your students need vast improvement in their sight-reading skills. You could develop a practice incentive that would incorporate a variety of options related to sight-reading, and each week students could choose one challenge from a list to accomplish by the following lesson. Examples include:

  • Play through 5 easy level pieces of music.
  • Select a speed note drill and play each line in random order 3 times every day.
  • Work on a flashcard drill – see how many notes can be named and/or played in 1 minute by your next lesson.
  • Tap through one level of rhythm drills with the metronome at a certain marking.
  • Search for and play a sight-reading app every day.
  • And so on!

This is how I design all of my studio practice incentive themes so that students have plenty of options to help them reach their desired goals while still ensuring a well-rounded music education. This also makes every lesson new and different, but provides a wonderful framework to teach within all year long so that we stay organized and on track in our musical studies!

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 – When to Start Teaching Scales

When do you start teaching scales? I have been using the “Piano Adventures” method books and really like them, but they don’t teach scales or time signatures until four books in, and I am debating about teaching younger students scales before they encounter them in their music. How soon do you start introducing scales and key signatures?

Actually, I teach my students their first scale before we even begin lessons. They learn it when I do their initial interview/assessment. Really. They learn the pentatonic scale by way of participating in a black key improvisation with me. The only catch is that I don’t call it that; I just tell them that they can play any black keys on their end of the piano while I play black keys on my end. The reality is that students are learning scales and keys from the moment they learn their very first piece on the piano. They, of course, don’t understand the underlying theory yet, but we as teachers must be aware of this reality so that we can lead students to a real and relevant knowledge of what scales and keys are in the first place.

Anyone who has been reading here very long knows that I rarely use theory books. This is because I want students to understand theory concepts as being integral and irremovable from the music they are playing – whether improvised, by ear, or from a printed sheet. I would much rather have them transpose a simple rote piece to other keys on the piano, or figure out the notes of a particular scale by picking out a favorite tune by ear and then add harmony, or improvise on a given set of notes to develop an aural awareness of the way a key sounds, rather than merely play ascending and descending scales with a metronome. However, despite the fact that I would rather do this doesn’t mean that that is what I do.

I was largely inspired in this new way of thinking by the Pattern Play improvisation teaching intensive that I attended this summer. Even though I’ve moved away from teaching scales as consistently as before, I do still believe that there is a great deal of value for students in knowing what a scale is, how to construct it, and what fingering to use for maximum fluency. Now that I’ve spent three paragraphs not answering your question, I suppose it’s sufficiently clear that I am in a transitional mode in my philosophy and approach to teaching scales and keys. :-) That said, here are 7 goals that I work toward with every student regarding scales and keys (roughly in sequential order):

  1. Understand whole steps and half steps.
  2. Understand that every type of scale is constructed of a series of half and or whole steps in a particular order.
  3. Know how to construct Major and minor pentascales and Major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales.
  4. Understand relative Major and minor keys.
  5. Know how to play the primary and secondary triads in every key.
  6. Be able to identify what key a piece is in based on the key signature and context.
  7. Be able to play multi-octave scales with accurate fingering and musicality.

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!