4 Tips for Writing More Effective Piano Lesson Assignments

The topic of the latest newsletter from Music Educators Marketplace really resonated with me: Tips for Effective Practice Assignments. It always amazes me how often students return to their lesson with very little reference to their assignment book during the week. (I’m not the only one that deals with this, right?!) But the more I’ve pondered this, the more I realize that some of the fault lies with me and my approach to writing assignments. I think as teachers we may subconsciously write the assignments more for our own benefit than the student’s! So, I think it’s definitely worth exploring ways to make assignments more effective. Here are the 4 Tips shared in the newsletter:

1. Consider Visual Appeal

2. Include Specific Goals and Specific Suggestions for Results

3. Engage the Student as a Collaborator in Creating Practice Steps

4. Expect Student Engagement with the Assignment at Home

Click here to view the whole newsletter with more elaboration of each tip. I’m doing lots of revamping of my studio for this fall, so I’m excited to take these tips into consideration and figure out ways to make student assignments more effective so that their practicing, in turn, will be more effective during the week. If you have any additional tips that have worked well for you, please do share!

e.p.i.c. is Here!

I’m sure everyone has been waiting with bated breath for this moment, right? Well, at least I have been!

My studio saw quite a shift this past year, with many of my older ones graduating and moving on, and 9 new piano students just starting out! With that in mind, I knew I needed a practice incentive theme this year that would be conducive to a younger and less experienced studio, but that would still engage the students I already had.

When I was journaling last summer about the forthcoming theme, I stated, “I want it to be easy to understand, simple to implement, highly motivational, and primarily music-focused.” I also wanted there to be an emphasis on establishing consistent and quality practice habits and encouraging the students to develop the character to succeed in their musical endeavors. With that criteria and some inspiration from my backpacking trip through The Grand Canyon last August, the theme was borne:

e.p.i.c. – an unforgettable musical journey

This proved to be a very easy practice incentive theme to maintain throughout the year (which is good considering my year took quite an unexpected turn!), was a great fit especially for the younger beginning students, and was appreciated by parents because of its emphasis on character, learning to practice with enthusiasm ( a good attitude), perseverance (work hard), initiative (practice without being told), and creativity (try something new). The students loved choosing e.pi.c. experiences along the way and selecting a poster of their choice when they reached designated milestones. In summary, it was a ton of fun!

I know a lot of you are looking ahead toward next fall and planning practice incentives and themes, so for the remainder of the month of June, you can receive $5 off your purchase of the e.p.i.c. practice incentive theme when you use this discount code: 835M024P

Hope you all enjoy it as much as we did!

Free Piano Interval Worksheet

The final e.p.i.c. Encounter (a.k.a. group class) of our e.p.i.c. practice incentive theme was last week, and our topic for the evening was intervals.

We started the class with an overview of what an interval is, then each of the students received a set of these interval worksheets to fill out and keep for their reference.

This was a helpful visual tool that launched us into an evening of fun interval activities and challenges. The hit game of the night was the “Flashcard Drop.” This ingenious idea (compliments of my creative husband!) involved us dropping note flashcards (we used this wonderful set from TCW Resources) through the slats in our deck to the patio below where the students were gathered in teams of two. As they collected cards, the objective was to identify the interval between any two notes, then run the pair of flashcards up to us on the deck and correctly identify the interval. Every correct answer earned the team a point. Whichever team accumulated 10 points first was the winner! This proved to be a bit of a challenge for the students, but a ton of fun!

We also enjoyed playing The Mystery Note game and the Spelling Challenge from the 5 for Fun! book of music games and activities. I just modified them so that the students could continue working in pairs as we played each game. These Wipe Off: Keyboards and Staffs by Bastien are a wonderful resource for group class games and activities!

Project 28 Studio Practice Incentive Theme Now Available! Special $5 Off Offer!

In Courtney Crappell’s article in the latest issue of American Music Teacher, “Dealing With Narcissism: Are Our Students Self-Absorbed Or Just Afraid?” he shares two concepts gleaned from another author that we can embrace as teachers to help our students overcome fears that may hinder them from learning: 1) Letting down our personal guard; and 2) sharing in personal growth. He goes on to say, “Showing another that I am a work-in-progress is scary and immensely challenging. Perhaps most significantly, this act requires us to believe in, and promote, our current level of ability rather than something more. Instead of selling ourselves as the perfect model teacher and performer, we must sell who we truly are.”

Largely inspired by my time last summer at the Pattern Play Teaching Intensive and the Creative Life Conference, I did exactly what Courtney suggests, I let down my guard and committed to sharing my personal growth with my students. That became the impetus for one of our most enjoyable and fruitful Studio Practice Incentive Themes: Project 28. You can read more about the philosophy behind the theme in my guest post for Easy Ear Training: 4 Steps to Playing By Ear. The way I set up this theme required a bit of a paradigm shift, particularly as I pondered what it means to study music as a language and what it takes to become fluent in another language. Thus, the assignment pages were completely revamped to include a space for Hear Music, Speak Music, Read Music, Write Music, Think Music, and Live Music. I was nervous about how it would all play out, but I found that as I approached each lesson with a willingness to learn and work with my students to help them achieve their goal, we had a ton of fun together and learned a lot!

Project 28 begins with the student answering the question, “What do you want to be able to do by next May that you can’t do right now?” From there, the teacher and student work together to determine their first 4-week (28 days…hence the title, Project 28 :-)) goal and what skills and resources will be required to achieve it. This becomes the basis for the assignments from week to week, thus adding an element of relevancy because the student and teacher have a clear idea of the purpose of each assignment. Every four weeks is dubbed, “Film Week,” and the student has the opportunity to share on camera (either verbally or musically or both) what they have accomplished in those four weeks. My students really enjoyed the Film Weeks, and they provided great accountability as they worked toward their goals. In fact, here’s a shot of a brother and sister duo who loved putting together creative presentations for each Film Week:

All of the details and resources for Project 28 are outlined in the downloadable theme package. And from now until the end of June, you can use the following code to receive a $5 discount on any purchase from the Music Matters Blog store: E91O40F4.

I hope this serves as a great tool and motivator for you and your students as you work together to become better pianists and musicians!

Consecutive Club

In the latest e-mail from Yellow Cat Studio, Sarah shared her idea for the Consecutive Club, a simple way to keep students (and herself!) accountable for spending time at the piano every day. I really like this idea, and may try to incorporate something similar into my practice incentive theme next year! We did something similar quite a few years ago with The Box Club theme, but I’ve gotten away from an emphasis on/incentive for practicing every day and I think it’s something I need to reinstate. There’s just nothing that can take the place of consistent, daily practice!

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 – 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!

What do you want to be able to do by next May that you can’t do right now?

One of the quotes from The Creative Life conference that gave me lots of food for thought was one by Michael Card, “You can’t say everything all the time.” The more I pondered this, the more I realized how much I try to do this as a teacher. I want so much to equip my students with a well-rounded music education that I try to make sure that they do everything all the time. Isn’t that the oft-face and frequently discussed dilemma in music education circles – how do you fit everything into every piano lesson? Well, I finally have an answer. You don’t. :-)

Instead of presenting students with a list of options or repertoire I’ve selected for them, our entire practice incentive theme (Project 28) this year is built around one question: “What do you want to be able to do by next May that you can’t do right now?” Actually, I’ve used that same approach for myself to focus on an area I’ve always wanted to improve: playing by ear. In light of that, I’ve written a guest post for EasyEarTraining.com outlining how I’m hoping to accomplish that goal. Here’s an excerpt:

Several years ago I enrolled in a pottery class at our local rec center. I was thrilled about the prospect of learning a new art, and had visions of creating an entire set of dishes that I could use for years to come. I was less thrilled when I completed the class eight weeks later with only a misshapen dish and an unstable vase to show for my efforts. I haven’t touched a pottery wheel since.My problem was the same as the one I encounter with most adult students who begin taking piano lessons from me. And it’s the same reason I’m not any good at playing by ear.The official diagnosis? Unrealistic expectations for the amount of time and effort spent to achieve the desired end.

Playing by ear does not come naturally to me. I’m not good at it. And I don’t particularly enjoy working on it because I usually end up stuck in a rut playing the same thing over and over. For years I’ve tolerated this musical deficiency while wistfully imagining that someday, somehow, I’ll wake up in the morning and find that I’ve magically acquired the gift of playing by ear. Well, Christopher’s fabulous post on learning to play by ear put all such fantastic notions to rest for good :)

It’s time to get serious about learning to play by ear, and I’ve decided to drag my students along for the ride! Across the studio, no more of this wishful, generic longing to magically improve as pianists. If you’ve been living off of your imaginary dreams of pianistic prowess like me and are looking for a way to exchange cloud nine for reality, hold on to your piano benches because it’s time to kick it in high gear and move forward!

>>Click here to read the rest of the article.>>

A Couple Quick Images

Have you missed me?! :-) There are so many things I have been learning and working on that I want to post about – especially an amazing creative arts conference that I attended last week. (In fact, I’m planning to do a week-long series of posts on it next week, so stay tuned!) But for now, I wanted to share two quick images:

Music Matters Blog reader, Lorrie, sent me this photo from her studio. They are getting ready to launch the Go For the Gold! practice incentive theme this fall and she wanted to show me how she decorated her studio. I love it! It’s so exciting to hear about and see how others are using the themes in their studios, so if you have a picture you want to share, please send it my way!

And here’s a sneak preview of our new studio theme for this year. It’s still in final development, but I am so excited about incorporating some of the things I’ve learned this summer into the theme. I’ll be officially announcing it to my students at our annual September Surprise! in two weeks and then I’ll post a little more about it here. Can’t have any snooping students finding out the scoop ahead of time, you know? :-)

It’s Ready! An Italian Intrigue Practice Incentive Theme Package is Available and You Could Win a Complete Set of Studio Decor!

Thank you for your patience as I finished putting together the complete package from our studio practice incentive theme this year: An Italian Intrigue!

If you are looking for a fun practice incentive theme to use in your studio next fall, this travel-themed adventure will capture your students’ enthusiasm! They will become better acquainted with the geography of that land, see some of the world’s oldest architectural structures, learn a bit of history, and experience a taste of Italian culture – all while learning to play beautifully, naturally, and excellently.

And…for the best news, you could win a complete set of studio decor and supplies to use in your studio! Everyone who purchases An Italian Intrigue practice incentive theme package between now and Thursday, July 19, will be entered in a drawing to win the following materials: a 24″x30″ Italy wall map, printed photo clues of the mystery musicians, a set of Free Travel Passes, and a bag of 600+ Complication Coins!