Monday Mailbag – What’s the Point of Teaching Pieces by Rote?

You suggest teaching by rote, and your website lists “24 Piano Pieces Perfect for Rote Teaching”.   I certainly appreciate that you took the time to develop this list.  But I don’t get it.  Why teach by rote?  How does learning a piece by rote develop skills necessary to aid in learning the next piece of music?  Where is the spill-over” impact of learning by rote?  Why are some music teachers so concerned with “The  product” that they have to “teach” by rote?  Why not focus on the process; since a good process will lead to a good product!  Please enlighten me…

This is a great question, and not that many years ago I had similar feelings about teaching by rote. This was due in part to the experiences I’ve had working with numerous transfer students who can play intermediate level pieces, but lack basic music reading skills. So, to borrow the cliche, I threw the baby out with the bath water. I didn’t want to be one of those teachers who just showed a student what to play so that they could sound like an amazing pianist on the surface with no foundation supporting them.

Thankfully, I have had numerous opportunities and influences that have enlightened me in this matter, so now I will do my best to pass on that enlightenment to all who may be struggling with similar misgivings.

Define “the product” – In my studio, the final product/goal we are aiming for is clearly stated in my studio policy. It’s “that each student will become a skilled musician who will use his/her talents and abilities to serve the Lord. It is important that each student receive a balanced music education that will prepare them for whatever their future in music may be. Every aspect of music works together and contributes to the overall ability of any musician. For this reason I include performance, ear training, technique, theory, composition, improvisation, and sight-reading in the music education of each student.”

The realization that hit me this summer as I participated in the Pattern Play Improvisation Teaching Intensive is that the core of my teaching model was reading and learning repertoire, and other areas of musicianship were included if we had time. This led to a complete revamp of how I organize my teaching and what is assigned every week. (And thus Project 28 was born!) If your ultimate end product is for students to be strong sight-readers, then by all means don’t teach them anything by rote; but if in addition to sight-reading you want them to develop a strong ear, cultivate creativity, build excellent keyboard facility, and have fun playing familiar or cool-sounding tunes that are beyond their reading level, then definitely consider including rote teaching (and also playing by ear and composing and improvising!).

Define “the process” – Chances are if you have more than one student, you have more than one process for learning in your studio. 🙂 Even if your ultimate goal is to develop strong sightreaders, there are probably a hundred different ways you could help them develop that skill. For example, I’m going to assume that many teachers introduce pentascales or full-octave scales by rote. You probably explain the concept to the student and then show them the keys, point out the correct fingering, encourage them to phrase the scales musically, etc. Same with primary triads, chord progressions, and other theory concepts. Then when a student is working on a piece you can point out the use of a particular chord or scale and help them tap into the experience they have already had playing it to generate a more fluent and musical rendering of it.

In the same way, teaching a piece by rote (or learning a song by ear, or improvising on a particular chord progression, etc.) can be every bit as much part of the process of becoming an excellent musician as reading printed notes off of a page. In fact, I can say without reserve from my own musical experience that I wasn’t nearly as good a musician when all I could do was read music (and I’m a strong sightreader!) as since I’ve learned to play by ear, rote, and improvise freely at the piano.

Define “the next piece” – Perhaps tomorrow a student will be asked to play a Christmas song (with no printed music on hand) at a friend’s party; or maybe they will be recruited as the keyboard player for a church service; or they’ll find out it’s the last day to sign up for the school talent show; or a friend will request a song for her wedding, but all she has is a recording of it; and so on. I think sometimes we teachers get so sequestered in our own little studio worlds that we forget the real world of possibilities our students are facing. Having a broad range of skills is essential if we want our students to succeed and impact the culture around them. They should be able to pick out a tune by ear and add a musical accompaniment to it. They should be able to play chords from a lead sheet. They should be able to listen to or watch a piece of music being played and figure out how to replicate it. And yes, they should be able to sightread a piece of printed music with good accuracy and musicality.

Obviously this is a tall order for us teachers to fill! There are so many things we can teach our students to equip them to be successful pianists. And we’re never going to be able to do it perfectly with any student. But what a privilege it is to work with each of them as individuals, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and incorporating the best teaching approaches to help them reach their potential.

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 Reading and Rhythm Skills to Students Who Already Play at an Intermediate Level

What kind of approach do you use for older transfer students who have trouble with reading and rhythm, without hurting their self-esteem or making them feel incompetent? I have one 12-year old transfer student who had been taught how to play the piano by rote, though he plays at an intermediate level. I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t have any foundation in theory or reading at all. I’d appreciate any suggestions you have!

Unfortunately, this seems to be an all-too common phenomenon in the piano teaching world. I have had numerous students start studying with me who have already learned to play up to an intermediate level of piano repertoire, but have no idea how to count rhythms or read printed music fluently. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Be glad that the student is still interested in studying piano! The truth of the matter is that we all have gaps and weaknesses in our music knowledge and playing ability. Accept and embrace each student wherever they are and consider what an incredible privilege it is to be able to share your love of music with them and help equip them for a lifetime of playing the piano.

2. Be honest with the student about their gaps. If the student has come to you as a transfer, they obviously still want to learn, and believe that you have something to teach them. Don’t try to gloss over their weak areas; if they are struggling with a rhythm, tell them you can see that they haven’t internalized how to count out rhythms, so you want to help them learn to do this fluently. If they take forever to figure out a note, make the observation that they are not up-to-speed in note reading and you are going to come up with some ways to help them develop instantaneous recognition of notes.

3. Be intentional in developing strategies to help the student succeed. Spend time thinking about the student and what you can do to help them learn the essential musical skills of rhythm and reading. It may involve having them learn entire books of early level supplementary pieces with duets so you can play along with them. Or maybe you will have them pick out familiar tunes by ear and then learn how to notate them with the correct note placement and rhythmic values. Perhaps they will learn conducting patterns and practice conducting their pieces while counting out the rhythms. Or maybe a sheet of rhythm drills could be used as an improvisation exercise where the student can make up and play melodies or chord progressions using a line of rhythm. There are so many possibilities for creatively addressing these needs in a way that keeps the process interesting for any level of student!

4. Be willing to listen. Ask lots of questions and let the student openly share where they feel like they are struggling, how they are feeling about their assignments, and ideas they have for further approaches to develop these areas. Find out how motivated the student is to even work on areas like rhythm and reading. Do they see value in it? Do they understand how these skills are relevant to their playing ability and future success as a pianist? You may have to take some time not just to teach these things, but also to convince students that they are worth learning!

5. Be open-minded about how you teach and what the student plays. The worst thing you can do is hone in so much on the details of rhythm and note reading that it saps the joy of music-making right out of the student. Always make sure that the student still has other things to play that are full of music and fun. Here are a couple of possibilities:

I imagine this will continue to be an issue for teachers forever, so if anyone has other tried-and-true approaches for helping older students develop rhythm and reading skills, please share! It would be great to have as many ideas as possible!

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 – Using Games to Teach Piano Technique

I am a student teacher and would like some tips on teaching technique via games. I have a 7-year-old student who is struggling with “keeping fingertips tall” and “keeping a rounded hand shape”. I find technique drills are not working and I hate to make technique seem like the enemy. Do you have any games that you have used to re-enforce the concept in a fun way?

As much as I love to use games as a teaching tool, I confess that I’ve hardly ever used them for technique purposes. Instead, I use more of an understanding-based approach when working with students on technique principles. From early on, I explain scientific principles of gravity, strength, and conduction to students to help them understand why they should keep their wrists up, fingers rounded, shoulders relaxed, etc. You can read a post I wrote on Finger Strengthening here.

I also still use my goofy thumb position image poster to show students how to play with their thumb in the “slide position.” The Beyond Scales and Hanon sessions I’ve attended by Beth Grace have also been invaluable in helping me understand proper and injury-preventative piano technique so that I can model it for my students and direct them accordingly no matter what repertoire they are playing.

Most of my  5 for Fun! games and activities for the private piano lesson are theory-based rather than technique-based, so I would love to hear from other teachers on this topic. Do you use any games that have proven particularly effective in helping students learn and implement good piano technique?

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 – What Curriculum Do You Use?

Do you have any set “curriculum” you follow as far as what you expect students to learn/cover over the course of a year? I know there is the Carnegie Hall Achievement Program that provides “expectations” for each year of study. Is your incentives program for setting goals for students each year?

Yikes! These are the kinds of questions that I’m also afraid to answer because it will expose how scattered my teaching really is. But I decided to be brave and just put it out there in hopes that I’m not the only one and that maybe some teachers who have it all together will offer words of wisdom for the rest of us. 🙂

There are a number of states that have a syllabus or curriculum or achievement tests of some sort (along with the nationally-oriented Carnegie Hall program) that are a wonderful resource for teachers! Our state curriculum, Music Progressions, has been invaluable in helping me develop more of a systematic understanding of and approach to teaching theory concepts, in particular. It also provides a framework to determine where a student’s sight-reading, rhythm, ear-training, and keyboard facility skills should be at as they work through each of the ten levels.

I would highly recommend picking up and studying some of these program curricula and even enrolling some students who are interested in studying and preparing for those achievement-oriented exams. However,  I do not make this a requirement for my whole studio, and actually prefer not having very many students participate each year. Perhaps it’s because of my own non-traditional educational background, but I think that using programs like this across the board can stifle both the teacher and the student and put them in a box that may not fit their natural bent or personal goals.

I firmly believe that the teacher is actually the core curriculum. In fact, an article in the latest issue of American Music Teacher about renowned pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky, underscored this truth. Here’s a quote that I love from one of his pupils:

“The great quality of Leschetizky was his vitality…there is no Leschetizky method. It is a mere legend – an absolute fallacy. He never spoke, at least I never heard him to speak, of technique. Several of his assistants and some of his pupils have published books on his method which are all diametrically opposed. Don’t be misled by them. There was no method. His teaching was much more than a method. It was a current which sought to release all latent vitality in the student. It was addressed to imagination, taste, and personal responsibility.”

The best thing you can do to provide your students with a comprehensive music education is to keep learning! Go to workshops, conferences, concerts; read books and magazines and blogs; talk with colleagues; observe other teachers; pursue new skills; etc. The more knowledge, understanding, and skill you acquire, the more you will be able to customize your teaching to the needs and goals of every [unique] student in your studio. This is part of the reason why I develop yearly studio practice incentive themes – they provide a wide-open framework that allows for maximum flexibility in working with each student to become a skilled musician.

I always feel like I need to be more streamlined in my teaching, but I think I just gave myself philosophical justification for continuing this scattered life as a teacher… What do you think? Is it better to have a set curriculum or to develop a spontaneous curriculum of sorts for each student as you go? Does it have to be an either/or proposition?

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 Can Parents Help Motivate Their Children?

I am a new piano mom. I’ve been wanting to put my children in lessons for many years, but we’re just finally able to put it in our budget. My two daughters both started lessons a few weeks ago at ages 9 and almost 7. Their teacher doesn’t use an incentive program or anything, so I’m wondering what I can do to help encourage them to practice at home. One of them is already getting a bit bored with lessons; I can see how it would be a little discouraging when it takes a few months to start seeing a lot of progress. Thanks for any insights!

Like a lot of things in life, I’m realizing more and more that there will be seasons of great enjoyment in working on piano assignments and there will be times where you just have to be disciplined and do it when you don’t feel like it. A piano teacher can only do so much in a short weekly lesson; the rest is up to the parents to make it a priority and the student to take responsibility. In the end, it has to be a combination of everyone working together to make learning any instrument a successful endeavor. That’s the only way to progress.

That said, probably the two biggest motivators in general are:

  1. Learning music that the student loves – pieces that sound cool, are fun to play, and give the musician the opportunity to play musically.
  2. Having an outlet to play for others – recitals, group classes, festivals, and church specials are wonderful, but even if it’s a family gathering every month where each child is given the opportunity to perform a piece that they’ve worked up to a polished level, that does wonders for giving a child a reason to practice and learn a piece well.

Any parent can help influence and motivate their child by expressing enjoyment in their music, asking the teacher if he/she has additional suggestions for fun music their child could learn, and providing opportunities for them to play in a variety of settings. If you have other suggestions, either as a parent or a teacher, feel free to share! What can parents do to help motivate their children when it comes to learning and practicing an instrument?

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 Teach Key Signatures

I’m starting to wonder if my method of teaching both major and minor key signatures is too cumbersome for my students. So I have been researching more intuitive approaches. When do you start teaching key signatures and how do you introduce and drill them so that they are second nature?

This is an area that I start drilling into my students almost from day one…and keep drilling for the rest of their lives! I think I’m particularly passionate about it because when I attended an intensive music course my senior year of high school, my biggest question was how to figure out what key a piece was in. After covering two years worth of college theory in three weeks I went home finally understanding the concept of keys and key signatures. Imagine my shock a short while later when I uncovered several years worth of old theory books where I had dutifully identified dozens of key signatures throughout the lessons! Obviously there was a complete disconnect between the theory work I was doing on paper and the music I was playing. (This is part of the reason why I rarely use theory books with my students…)

Within the first several months of lessons I introduce my students to pentascales. As they learn their pieces, I often ask them if they can tell what pentascale notes the piece uses. This is the preliminary terminology I use to pave the way for discussing key signatures later. Even with simple pieces, students can understand the concept of playing the same pattern using the notes from a different pentascale. For example, an early level piece in the C-pentascale can be transposed to the G-pentascale and will sound almost the same if they play the same pattern of notes.

Similarly, I encourage students to pick out familiar tunes by ear from the first lesson. A simple rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can become a pretty exciting challenge when I assign the student to see how many different keys they can start on to play the same tune! This, again, can lead to a discussion of what pentascale a tune is using.

Honestly, the concept of key signatures usually comes quite a bit later and is much less important to me than that a student understands the concept of musical keys and scales – both Major and minor (part of the reason why I made and gave each of my students a Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys). I thoroughly dislike the practice of teaching students to identify key signatures by looking to the second to last flat or figuring up a half step from the last sharp, etc. This does nothing to aid their understanding of what it actually means for a piece to be in a particular key.

Sequentially, I usually work around the Circle of 5ths to learn the scales, primary triads, and chord progressions, and incorporate Major and relative minor keys as seems best for each student. It’s not perfectly systematic for every student, but I do hope that by the time they are encountering key signatures in their music they have a solid enough foundation of musical scales and the concept of keys that they quickly grasp the idea of key signatures.

This is a huge topic, so I’d love to have input from others! What do you find works best in regards to teaching your students about key signatures and what they mean?

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 Teach Hand Coordination to Beginners

How do you help your students with hand coordination, especially for beginners?

This is often one of the most exciting moments in teaching – watching a student learn to play with both hands together! In fact, it was kind of cool to see that when I asked my students our question for the year: “What do you want to be able to do by next May that you can’t do right now?” several of them said they wanted to be able to play pieces with both hands together. For young students, this seems to be the pinnacle of what it takes to be a good pianist! So, here are some ideas for how to help students achieve this ability to play hands together:

  • Improvise! Usually at our very first interview I play simple black key improvisations with the student to assess their musical aptitude. I play an accompaniment pattern and then tell them they can play whatever they want to on the black keys. Especially encourage them to try using both hands to create sounds. It’s actually pretty easy to play hands together when you don’t have to give any consideration to hitting the “right” notes!
  • As soon as the student can play simple one-handed tunes from a lesson book, challenge them to see if they can play the same pattern in both hands simultaneously. I use the Faber Piano Adventures Primer Level Lesson book for most of my beginning students and one song that they love to do this with is the theme from Ode to Joy.
  • Teach the student to play pentascales, then show them how they can play the pentascale in one hand while playing just the tonic and dominant in the left hand when they play those keys in the right hand. So, when they play the “C” of the right hand pentascale, they play the ” bass C” in the left hand, and when they get to the “G” in the right hand pentascale, they play the “bass G” in the left hand, then back to the C’s together. I had a student working on this last week. When I assigned it to her at her lesson, it took her 14.3 seconds to play it. I told her we would time again the following week to see if she could improve her fluency. When she came for her next lesson she nailed it in 3.4 seconds! And not only that, but she was thrilled to show me how she had transposed the exercise to the D, E, F, and G pentascales as well!
  • Have the student pick out a simple melody by ear and play it in the right hand. Assign them to try playing different keys in the left hand whenever they think it would sound good to add some harmony to the song. It’s kind of cool to see what students come up with when given an assignment like this!
  • Teach a cool-sounding piece by rote! Sometimes what the student really needs in order to learn better coordination is just the inspiration of being able to play a piece of music that sounds really cool. Check out this compilation of 24 Piano Pieces Perfect for Rote Teaching for specific suggestions.

These are a few things I’ve tried with my students to help them build the coordination to play hands together. I’d love to hear other suggestions, though! What have you done with your students to help them develop coordination between the hands?

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 – 4 Tips for Teaching Students How to Practice

[It’s back! After taking a break over the summer, I have an incredible backlog of questions in my inbox so I’m excited to resume the Monday Mailbag feature here on Music Matters Blog. I always love hearing from other teachers with both thought-provoking questions and helpful answers. Many teachers send questions with the hope of getting a variety of feedback from other teachers, so please feel free to leave comments below!]

Last year, a mom confided to me that her children really aren’t practicing well…..normally they just sit down at the piano, play straight through their piece, and check off their practice square with no further thought. I realized that while I can teach the kids everything they could ever want to know about the piano at their lesson, if they don’t practice well at home, they can never succeed in becoming an accomplished pianist. This being said, I would love to hear from you how you implement, teach, and enforce good practice skills for your students to take home with them.

I suppose “hope and pray that they figure it out” isn’t the answer you’re looking for. 🙂 There are dozens of very helpful resources out there with practice tips and suggestions. I’m willing to bet that despite the creators best intentions these are primarily purchased and used by teachers rather than students. But I don’t think that’s entirely bad. The reality I’ve discovered is that regardless of what you say about how or what the student should practice at home, it is the model you set in the lesson that is most apt to be imitated.

The longer I teach, the more I realize how essential it is to model and incorporate good practice habits as early as possible in the lessons. Here are a few practical tips that can be applied to teaching students of all ages and levels:

1. Hone In On Trouble Spots First – How often do you tell students not to automatically start practicing a piece at the beginning at home, but then have them play each piece they practiced that week for you at the lesson by starting at the beginning and playing through? Instead, try asking the student, “Which part of this piece was the most difficult for you?” or “Is there any part of this piece that you’re having a hard time with…any measure that as you get closer you know you might have to slow down in order to get through it?”

2. Circumvent Difficulties – When assigning a new piece of repertoire, have the student identify what aspects of the piece they think will be the most difficult – either concept-wise (e.g. a particular rhythm pattern) or measure-wise (e.g. a big transition point). Then resist the urge to just talk about how to practice! Instead actually work through the process with them to see how quickly and efficiently they can master that aspect of the piece using appropriate practice strategies (that you will know from all those practice resources you’ve purchased over the years…).

3. Be Patient – Give the student time to implement the practice strategy, even if it means not getting to some other part of the lesson. Don’t give up on them! If they are attempting to play a measure seven times in a row correctly, insist that they get all seven there at the lesson. Or if you’re doing the “add-a-note-strategy” for a line where they keep adding one note until they can play an entire phrase fluidly with correct notes, rhythms, and fingering, work with them to the end. This instills confidence in the student and reinforces the value of effective practice. If they get frustrated and want to give up, I remind them that this is more painful for me than it is for them. It’s not for my own listening enjoyment that I make them stick with one hard spot until they can play it seven times in a row. 🙂

4. Focus on the Long-Term – Approach practice strategies conceptually so that the student is able to transfer what they learn to other similar situations. For example, if a student is struggling to play the rhythm correctly, just playing it or tapping it for them and having them imitate the sound does nothing for their long-term music learning abilities. They may know how to play that particular piece correctly, but will probably struggle with the same problem in another piece. One approach I use is to tell a student, “If I was to let you know that there is something incorrect about the rhythm in measure 12, what are some strategies you can use to identify the error and fix it?” This is direct enough so that they understand where and what the problem is, but open enough so that they still have to use some critical thinking skills to find a solution.

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 – Year-End Evaluations

A number of people have commented and/or asked questions about the Year-End Evaluations that I hold in my studio. I started doing this ten years ago and it has been so helpful for me and the families! The last lesson of the year one or both parents attend the lesson with their child. The week before this, I send home a Parent Questionnaire and a Student Questionnaire, and I complete a Year-End Student Evaluation. I tweak the questionnaires a bit each year so that I get input and feedback from the parents and students on specific issues. (You can click the above links to download copies of this year’s forms.)

Conducting these evaluations does take a considerable amount of time as I consider each student’s progress and evaluate where they are in different musical areas. But the results of my own time spent doing this and recommending specific goals and ideas for the future, along with the responses on the questionnaires from the parents and students, has proved to be invaluable as I work on a theme and lesson plans for the following year. I highly recommend giving this a try in your studio if you haven’t already! If you conduct Year-End Evaluations in your studio, I’d love to hear what you include and what’s been most helpful to you.

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 Raise Tuition Fees

I have not raised my rates since I began teaching in 2007.  I charge a flat monthly rate, and am considering increasing each month’s payment by $5 starting in Sept.  I find myself worrying about how my families will react to this change, and how I’ll prepare to answer.  I am very involved with MTNA and my local chapter, which I was not 5 years ago, I have more resources at my finger tips, I attend conferences and workshops, and I earned NCTM… not to mention inflation, and the fact that I recently got married and have a hungry husband to feed every day!  I don’t want to go into too many details, but want to stay professional.  Would it be easier if I just increased monthly tuition by a dollar every year?  How do you handle this?  Any advice?

Continuing in the same vein as the last two weeks with a business-related question, I though this one seemed particularly apropos for this time of year as we evaluate and implement changes in our policies for next fall. I’m sure there are lots of different ways to go about raising rates, but I personally think that a brief statement with a reminder of the studio benefits is probably sufficient.

As much as it’s tempting to want to give long-winded explanations (a.k.a. apologies) for rate increases, as you alluded to, the professional approach is to assume that families will understand the rising costs and place enough value on the services and education they are receiving from you to be completely fine with it. A $5/month increase per month seems very reasonable in light of what you are providing for your students. You might want to read this post on Three Simple Questions to Help You Figure Out What to Charge For Lessons for additional ideas. I also encourage you to read the comments on Do Independent Music Teachers Get Sick Days? and Determining Monthly Tuition for some fabulous perspectives from other teachers!

In case it’s helpful, here’s some sample verbiage that I’m using in my studio update this week to inform families about the new studio rates:

The rate for lessons will be increasing from $__/month to $__/month effective September 1, 2012. This will continue to include weekly private 45-minute lessons as scheduled, participation in all studio group classes, recitals, and creative projects, access to the studio lending library, use of studio technology, and opportunity for involvement in many other community festivals and competitions.

If anyone else has input on how to raise tuition rates in your studio, please feel free to offer suggestions!

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!