Game: Note Line-Up


This game is very similar to the Key Signature Line-Up game, but is designed to drill note identification instead. First I give the student a selection of note flash cards (in this case, we were working on bass clef notes from the low G up to middle C) and have him line them up in order from the lowest to the highest note. (This can be very revealing as it’s surprising sometimes to see a student struggle even with this first step and realize that they need help understanding the basic ascending pattern of notes on a staff.)

Once lined up, they place a scale block with each card to correspond to the name of the note. Again, sometimes it’s surprising to see which students still haven’t fully grasped the way the notes move alphabetically up the keys/staff. If the student struggles with this at all, we continue repeating this phase of the game until they grasp it and can line everything up quickly.

For phase two, mix the cards up and have the student lay them out in a random order and try to match the scale blocks with the corresponding card. You can time them and let them try to beat their previous times or just emphasize accuracy and let them work at their own pace, developing understanding as they go. Anything hands-on like this is great for kinesthetic learners and those who lack the focus to do worksheets reinforcing the same concept. And they have fun doing it!

Game: Key Signature Line-Up

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Monday Mailbag post about Finding Time for Games, this week I’ll share some of the games that I’ve been using in my studio this year.

This is a really simple game! First, have the student line up the key signatures in order from the least number of sharps or flats to the greatest. Then, they place a scale block in front of each key signature to identify the name of the key. You can see in the above picture that I had this older student identify both the Major and minor key. I try to emphasize the Circle of 5ths over and over so that my students use that to figure out their keys.

As an aside, I never use mnemonic devices or the other little tricks for figuring out key names. (Although sometimes they learn them at school and them come and proudly announce to me that they found out another way to identify their keys…at which point they often proceed to confuse themselves trying to remember which trick went with which keys, etc. :-))

But I digress…back to the game! After they’ve lined them up correctly, we proceed to phase two of the game. I mix up the key signatures and then place them on the music rack in a random order and the student proceeds to line up the scale blocks again, matching the key names to the corresponding key signatures. If it’s a student who loves competition, I often time them to see how fast they can place them all correctly, then let them try one more time to see if they can beat their previous time. Lots of fun and easily adapted to a range of levels by doing only Major or minor keys or just using a few key signatures at a time.

Scale Labels

One of my favorite new tools to use with students are these fabulous keyboard labels that Susan Paradis, of the Piano Teacher Resources blog, created. I’ve started sticking one or more of these labels in the student’s assignment book and having them say the whole-step half-step pattern and place X’s on the corresponding keys. In light of some of our recent discussions on scale fingerings, it occurred to me that you could also use these to have the student write the finger number that plays each key instead of just marking the key with an X. It seems like that could be particularly effective; I’ll have to try it!

Here’s another fun activity that I did last week to reinforce scales. Hayley chose memorizing the Major sharp key signatures for her Cosmic Challenge last week and did a fabulous job, so I decided to reward her with this game:

1. Hayley randomly chose a flashcard with a Major sharp key signature from my hand.
2. When I said go, I started a timer and she could look at the card. Then she had to select and arrange the scale blocks to form the corresponding Major scale. (I encouraged her to line up all the notes diatonically first and then go back through and rotate them to indicate the appropriate sharps.)
3. After she was done, she would say “stop” and I would stop the timer. (I had told her that she would earn 10 points if she arranged the blocks correctly without any input from me. She asked if she could earn bonus points for doing it faster, so that’s when we added the timer element!)

Hayley loved playing this game and was quite pleased with all the points she racked up in the process! I really love all the great discussion and ideas that have been shared in regard to scales lately – it’s re-motivating me to emphasize scale theory and playing with all my students. I’d love to hear any other great ideas for helping students work on scale theory and/or playing!

Prescription for Scale Sickness

I could totally relate to this comment that Mindy left on Monday’s Teaching Scales post and I’m sure that many others can as well!

But truth be told, I am sick to death of teaching scales. It’s not that I don’t think it is important, I do. I am just lacking incentive to go at it again with my students. They are in shock! Perhaps I need to rethink my approach and we will all be more successful. I’d take any incentive ideas you have for getting through all the scales.

So I thought maybe we could do some brainstorming and share ideas of ways to make learning all the scales more exciting. I’ll start with a few that come to mind:

* For starters, I include this scale and chord progress chart in my students’ assignment books each year. This helps us at least keep track of what scales they’ve learned.

* Plan a fun Olympic event centered on scales. Give the students a designated number of weeks to learn as many scales as possible and then place them on teams and have them compete against each other in a scale relay. You can watch a video from one of my piano camps where we did this. Here’s a post with a more detailed explanation.

* Make several sets of scale blocks and focus more on the theory-side of constructing scales for a while. You could teach the major and/or minor scale patterns and then have them close their eyes and draw out a block from the jar. Then time them to see how fast they can construct that scale. You could post the times or just record them in their assignment book to see if they can improve their times from week to week.

I’m sure there are tons of ideas that can help us incorporate scales into lessons in a way that we don’t become sick of them. Feel free to leave your ideas below or post them on your blog and link back to them! This should be fun!

More fun ways to use scale blocks!

As I mentioned in last Monday’s Mailbag post, I’m always looking for ways to turn the teaching or review of a concept into a fun activity or game. Here are shots from a couple of lessons last week where scale blocks became the perfect hands-on tool to help students grasp the concepts we were working on.

Naomi is working on understanding how to identify and construct major, minor, diminished, and augmented intervals. One of the things that I always want students to understand is the importance of determining the correct letter name of the interval distance first, then adding the appropriate sharps or flats to construct the designated quality of the interval. To help reinforce this, I gave her a starting note and had her place that scale block on the fallboard in front of her. Then I’d name the specific interval (dim. 5th, major 2nd, etc.). She had to first select the correct scale block and then either turn it to the corresponding sharp or flat side or just tell me what it should be (for instance, if it required a double flat or sharp since I don’t have a side on the block with double flats or sharps).

Holly is moving from pentascales into octave scales this year, so we started out by learning the complete pattern for Major scales. I had her write this out on the white board for easy reference. Then we used that pattern to figure out the correct notes for the first three Major scales that I teach: C, G, and D. She had to select and line up the scale blocks according to the whole step-half step pattern, and then we played the scales on the piano.

One of the things I’m trying to do better about is guiding my students to play things correctly the first time. This requires a great deal more explanation and preparation ahead of time, but it sets them up for success and more rapid progress. For example, when a student is learning the D-Major scale, I don’t want them to play it leaving out the C# the first time, running out of fingers the second time, with an inconsistent pulse the third time, etc. Instead, I want to prep them so that on their first playing of the scale they are able to play with correct fingering, accurate notes, and a steady pulse.

If they are trained to do it correctly from the very start, the likelihood of error-filled week-long practices greatly diminishes. Scale blocks are a useful tool toward this end. The brain is engaged, the concept understood, and then the technique well executed. I freely confess that this is an ideal that I often fall short of, but that’s what I’m working toward!

Another Key Signature Game

This sister duo is always begging to play a game if we have time at the end of their lesson, and I usually try to accommodate them! This week, the younger one was working on all her Major flat key arpeggios and memorizing the corresponding key signatures, so I decided to play a related game.

I gave each of them a set of scale blocks (+an extra “C” block). Then I lined up the flat key signature flash cards and had them line up their blocks according. Once they understood the pattern, I had them scramble their blocks and race to see who could get them put back in the correct order the fastest. When they both were getting this figured out without any problem, I decided to increase the challenge; I scrambled the key signature flashcards and then they had to rearrange their scale blocks in the corresponding order. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge, but was incredibly helpful in determining how well they really knew which key signature was which.

This is one of the benefits of having lots of ready-made tools (like scale blocks and flashcards) at your fingertips. You can spontaneously come up with games and activities that reinforce specific concepts that relate to what the student is studying that week. Plus, I tend to think this is a more fun and effective way to learn and reinforce concepts than filling out worksheets/theory books anyway.

Time for Some Pictures!

It’s looking a little dull around here these days, so I thought it was about time for a picture post! Here are a couple things that have been going on in my studio recently…

Do you use the penny practice game? I have a jar of pennies sitting on my desk and my students frequently ask if they can play the penny game when we are spot practicing a difficult section in one of their pieces. The student just decides how many pennies they’d like to use. All the pennies they select are placed on the left side of the piano music rack. If they play the difficult spot perfectly, they get to move a penny to the other side. If they mess up, all the pennies on the right have to be moved back to the left. The goal is to get all of the pennies moved over to the right side. If they are successful, I let them keep the pennies. You wouldn’t believe how excited some of them get about taking home 8 cents! 🙂 James, above, especially loves this game – and it’s perfect for him because he’s one of those start-at-the-beginning-and-play-the-whole-thing-again-if-he-makes-a-mistake students.

Earlier this month twelve of my students participated in one of our favorite activities of the year – The Clavinova Festival (nine of the ones pictured above are my students – the other three were in a different recital)! As a part of the festival, all the students get their name entered in a drawing for their own Clavinova. I practically squealed into the phone when Johnny called me to tell me that he won the Clavinova this year! Amazingly, that makes four students from my studio who have won a Clavinova over the years. (And one of them is sitting in my studio, because the student who won it gave it to me as a birthday present that year!)

For his mastery challenge last week, Andrew was working on memorizing the Major Sharp key signatures. Since he’s still a little young to fully grasp the concept, I tried this approach with him. I mixed up all the key signature flashcards and then had him arrange them in order from the least sharps to the most sharps. He knew that the key signature with none was C-Major, so we put the C scale block in front of that flashcard. Then I had him hold up his right hand and figure out the fifth note above C by saying the notes followin C in the alphabet to see which note corresponded to his pinky finger. It was G, so the G scale block got placed in front of the G-Major key signature. And so on. He loved doing this and was ecstatic when he conquered the challenge by getting everything unscrambled and lined up in the correct order in less than 30 seconds! What a diligent little student!

This Week in Photos

I’m thinking of starting a new weekly post idea…throughout the week I’ll take pictures of various activities and lessons in my studio and then on Friday I’ll put up a post with a couple of favorite pictures. What do you think?

Since I’m leaving tonight for our annual state music teachers conference, I’ll post this week’s pictures today:
null
Naomi has been working on learning the different kinds of 7th chords (half diminished, fully diminished, minor, major, and dominant) and is still a little fuzzy on some of them. We thought that doing a fun chord-building activity with scale blocks might be fun!

null
I just called out the name of the chord and then she had to build it. Easy, but fun.

null
For one of his Mastery Challenges this week, Graham chose to work on identifying the treble clef ledger line notes. I started by having him line up all the ledger line flashcards in order on the music rack.

null
After he got them all lined up, we played a game where I used my conductor’s baton to point to one of the cards and then he had to play it. After we did several practice run-throughs, I timed him to see if he could get it in under 1 minute. He blasted through them and pulled it off in 52 seconds! He was a bit slower when I put them all back in a stack and had him run through them without being able to associate them with their placement in the line-up, but he’s much better than he was when he walked into his lesson!

Memorizing the Order of Sharps and Flats with Scale Blocks

In September of last year I made several sets of scale blocks. I’ve been using them periodically during lessons, but I decided to make more of a concerted effort to use them as a teaching and reinforcement tool with my students. Joey just finished learning all of his major scales, thanks to the aid and motivation of the scale chart in the front of his assignment book. Before we move on to the minor scales I told him that I want him to be able to immediately recall how many sharps or flats each key has and what they are. For example, I would say, “A Major” and he would reply, “3 sharps – F#,C#,G#.” I decided that step one toward that goal would be memorizing the order of sharps and flats. Enter: scale blocks!


After discussing how to figure out the pattern initially, Joey arranged the blocks in the correct order. I timed him and it took 25 seconds. I gave him 2 more chances to beat his time and he decreased it substantially each time, with a final time of 7 seconds. Next week at his lesson he’s going to see if he can beat that record! We repeated the same process with the flats. Part of his assignment this week is to write the complete order out on the staff in his manuscript book each day of the week in both bass and treble clef while saying their names out loud.


We both had fun and decided that using scale blocks is a great way to memorize the order of sharps and flats!

I’m going to continue trying to squeeze out my creative juices to come up with other fun ways to use the scale blocks. Does anyone else have any ideas they’d be willing to share?

Make Your Own Scale Blocks

Inspired by this Bag O’ Blocks and several others like it that I’ve seen, I decided to try making my own scale blocks. I could have just bought this wonderful set from Music Educator’s Marketplace, but I wanted to have several octave sets and couldn’t afford to buy more than one.

So, I began my creative endeavor with the following supplies:

60 one-inch wooden blocks, matte finish craft paint, 4 one-inch paint sponges, small paint brush, a can of clear acrylic sealer (also matte finish)

Step 1:

Make sure I know what I’m doing. I drew up this little diagram so that I would know which blocks needed to be painted white-black-white-black and which ones needed to be painted white-white-white-black.

Step 2:

Start painting! I painted white first that way if there was overlap, the black would cover it up.

Step 4:

Keep painting! Since there were two sides that didn’t need key names, I decided to paint them in my studio colors: red and yellow. The longest part of this project was painting all the key names. It would have probably worked (and definitely been faster!) to use a paint pen, rather than a brush, but I didn’t have any on hand and didn’t feel like making a run to the store.

Step 5:

The paint dried very fast, so as soon as I finished the last key name I took them outside and sprayed them with the acrylic sealer. I left them out to dry for about 10 minutes, then turned them over and sprayed the other side. After about another 10-15 minutes, they were done. (I definitely advise using a sealer. It was amazing how much better the blocks looked and felt after they were sprayed with it. I can tell they will last longer this way!)

Step 6:

Bag them up, with two complete octaves per set, and think of lots of ways to use them! I’ve already used the scale blocks at least 5 times this week and hope to post some specific ideas in the future. They are such a blast!