A Great Tool for Helping Piano Students Improve Sight Reading and Rhythm Skills

One of my favorite resources to help students develop their rhythm and sight reading skills is the Rhythm and Sight Reading cards from Piano Safari. These are great to use as a supplement even if you don’t use the method books. Levi agreed to demonstrate how we utilize these cards:

After tapping the rhythm pattern, they move to the piano keyboard and select one key for each hand, then for the final run-through they improvise using the rhythm pattern for each hand.

Levi has struggled for quite a while with his sight reading skills, so we tried something a few weeks ago that has worked wonders for him! Before playing through the line of music on the piano, he audiates (hums or vocalizes) the pattern while “ghost” playing the fingers on his lap that he will use to play the line on the piano.

He demonstrates the same approach for the bass clef pattern. It has been amazing to watch his skill (and even his enjoyment!) of sight reading develop just from this simple exercise!

A Favorite Composition Project for Piano Students

Every spring (for 12 years now!) we launch The Psalms Project in our piano studio. This has proved to be an anticipated and approachable opportunity for students to learn valuable skills related to composition. After selecting a verse (or several) from the book of Psalms in the Bible, we work through a series of steps to consider what they want the overall mood to be, what key it should be in, and what melodic and rhythmic motives to use. I encourage them to work away from the piano at first to focus on the natural rhythmic flow of the text, then to experiment with melodic and/or harmonic ideas. You can click the image below to download a free composition worksheet if you or any of your piano students want to try doing The Psalms Project.

 

Claire exclaimed, “This is actually fun!” while learning to notate her composition after taking some time to tap and write out on a white board just the rhythms for her melody. Once the composition is entirely notated by hand (a great way to reinforce theory concepts in a meaningful way!), the students get to learn how to use the Finale notation software to input their work.

Now that we have our new Nessie mic, we might try making vocal and piano recordings of our songs this year to go along with our published music book!

Snapshots From This Week’s Group Class

In addition to performing for each other this week we practiced sharing definitions and descriptions of the musical elements of our pieces.

Composing with the fun new game Compose Yourself!

A game of notating Major and minor scales accurately by following the correct pattern. 

Major and minor scale-building game at the piano keyboard!  

We rotated pairs for each round to give everyone a chance to work with someone else and put their skills to the test!

Spin the wheel and draw a scale block, then see how quickly you can arrange the scale blocks to form the specific Major or minor scale!

 

Music is in [and on!] the Air!

We’ve had another fun week in the studio polishing up some cool piano pieces…

[“Cool Walkin'” by Melody Bober from Grand Solos for Piano, Book 3]

…recording important information (in our Mini Music Manuals, of course!)…

[It’s exciting to see the new level of ownership students are taking to really know all of their musical terms and symbols!]

…trying out our new Nessie Recording Mic

[I love utilizing technology to enhance the students’ musical experience and inspire them to greater heights in their piano playing!]

… and creating cool percussion tracks to accompany favorite repertoire.


[“Sneaky Ape” by Wendy Lynn Stevens from Piano Safari, Level 2]

Favorites On the Piano Rack

  
It’s our second week into the New Year and we are having a blast! It’s so exciting to watch students progressing and taking ownership for their own learning. I thought this picture of Stephanie at the piano was a great combination of some of our favorite materials here in the studio:

On Your Way to Succeeding with the Masters compiled and edited by Helen Marlais – This is a fabulous collection of music from every musical era with colorful introductions to give the students an overview of the various styles. I love that it even includes Medieval and Renaissance music! (Plus, this is a great supplement to Piano Safari Level 2.)

Piano Safari – This has quickly become my favorite piano method of all time! We love the music and techniques so much that Stephanie usually learns several new pieces on her own every week. We can hardly wait for Level 3 to be done!

Mini Music Manual – Of course I just had to mention this again. :-) It’s exciting to see the students continuing to turn to these manuals to take notes and refer to diagrams as they learn new music concepts, terms, symbols, etc.

It’s great to start the New Year with new ideas and renewed motivation! Hoping it continues for the rest of the year!

An Old Plan for a New Year

In addition to starting the New Year with the introduction of the Mini Music Manual, I also wanted to provide some clear structure for students and a way to them to work systematically on their musical progress. Instead of “reinventing the wheel” I pulled out my tried and true Music Progressions Curriculum Guide and decided that it was just what we needed!

Music Progressions Level Tracker

I compiled and printed off a modified chart outlining the first five level requirements for piano students in performance, music understanding and vocabulary, functional skills (rhythm and pulse, sight-playing), keyboard skills (scales, chords, arpeggios, intervals), written theory, and listening.

We spent time at each lesson today evaluating where the student was at, recording new information in the definitions and diagrams sections of their Mini Music Manual, and going over what was required for each level. I am starting each student at a specific level, but then letting them decide what level they want to work toward for this year’s Music Progressions evaluation event. It was exciting to see their enthusiasm ignited as they saw the potential for progress by learning systematic skills. And I was even more thrilled at how quickly they took ownership of writing things down in the Mini Music Manuals so that they could refer to it during the week. Here’s hoping that lasts through the rest of the year (and beyond!)!

Inspiration for the New Year – The Mini Music Manual!

 

One of my favorite things about taking breaks from a regular teaching schedule is the opportunity it gives me to evaluate how I’m doing as a teacher and how my students are doing learning and retaining new concepts and skills. I love pondering possibilities to help me be more organized and intentional as a teacher. And I love dreaming up creative ideas to inspire my students in their ongoing musical pursuits. From these musings the past several weeks was borne our latest musical resource: The Mini Music Manual!

The more time I’ve spent learning from and tutoring with Classical Conversations, the more I’ve become convinced of three important facets of a successful education: memorization, repetition, and ownership. Memorization is the first step of acquiring new information (a.k.a. grammar) that will serve as the basis for deeper understanding and application. Without an inventory of knowledge from which to draw, students are left grasping for random bits and pieces. In piano teaching I’ve become adamant that students memorize the essentials that they need for musical success. It’s amazing how easy it is to inadvertently move on to harder assignments when students can’t even readily identify notes on the staff!

Next, repetition is the means by which the memorized information is solidified for application. If I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years of homeschooling it’s that just because I said or taught something it doesn’t mean that the student learned it. Again, it’s easy to assume that if I know something and have communicated it to the student that they now possess that information as well. That couldn’t be further from the truth! The real test of whether or not a student has learned something is how well they can communicate that knowledge to someone else. If it can’t be effectively communicated then it has not truly been learned.

Third, ownership. So much education today is a spoon-feeding approach whereby the teacher feeds information to the student and the student is expected to receive, digest, and systematically regurgitate it (usually for the sake of scoring well on a test). I want my children and students to learn to learn. To think for themselves. To search out, process, and evaluate information. To derive well-informed conclusions and then use what they’ve gleaned to grow as individuals and then help others grow.

These three underlying philosophies are what led to the development of the Mini Music Manual: The Ultimate Reference Guide that You Create! I’m excited to begin using this manual with my piano students this semester to help them learn and memorize new information and take ownership for their music education. They’ll be writing their own definitions of musical terms and symbols, memorizing scale patterns and diagramming them with correct fingering, keeping track of their favorite repertoire, and more. I’m excited to see how it goes and will try to post updates along the way!

Linstead Market – a Fun Piano Ensemble for 5 People!

At the beginning of September I mentioned a cool piano book I had come across called 4 Afro-Caribbean Songs for 5 Right Hands at 1 Piano. After much sweat and many hours of counting I am happy to report that we were able to pull together the lively Linstead Market arrangement. I think everyone is beginning to grasp the necessity of learning how to count rhythms precisely while also listening to how all the parts work together to create the whole. Mission accomplished!

Hopefully there will be many more ensembles to come in the days ahead!

Compose Yourself – Giveaway #1!

Imagine the look on your students’ faces as they listen to a simple melody transformed into a gorgeous orchestral sound. That is exactly the awe factor that Maestro, Cellist, and Composer Philip Sheppard has in mind with his ingenious new creation, Compose Yourself. Distributed by the award-winning educational game company, Think Fun, Compose Yourself will appeal to experienced musicians, creative teachers, eager students, and even those with no musical background at all! You can’t help but love the simplicity of arranging a selection of transparent cards with unique note patterns to form a melody.

But the real fun is when you enter your personal pattern into the accompanying website and get to hear the results as performed by The English Session Orchestra and/or acclaimed percussionist Evelyn Glynnie. So cool!

Composer Yourself is a perfect addition to any piano lesson, composition lesson, or group class. Think Fun has generously offered to giveaway one free Compose Yourself game to a Music Matters Blog reader! Just leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing. One winner will be selected at noon (CST) on Friday, December 11, 2015 using a random number generator. Enter for your chance to win and then come back tomorrow for another sweet giveaway!

 

 

A Fun Memorization Game for Piano Students

Have you ever had students completely blow the performance of a piece that they’ve played numerous times without a glitch? Or have you ever been that performer? I raise my hand. Learning how to memorize cognitively has made all the difference for me, and I’ve used it over and over again to help students (even those who thought they didn’t need it!) prepare for an effective memorized performance. One way we approach this is by determining the form of the piece and creating little cards with labels for each section.

Here, Robert is in the final stages of preparation for a performance of “Lights in the Water” by Robert Vandall (this has become his all-time favorite piece!). We quickly created cards with labels for each section and began by placing them in order on the music rack. I had him play through it once by memory, taking mental note of each section as he got to it in his performance.

After one run-through, we scrambled the cards and placed them on the music rack for a second performance. He got lucky starting again with A-B! After that, though, the order was mixed up, so he had to see if he could recall how each section started and ended in order to play them in the arranged order.

This is a very helpful tool for creating a mental road map that can guide the student during a performance. Plus, even if they do get stuck in one section, they can easily move on to the next section without panicking! Anything that engages the brain to aid in a memorized performance is a step in the right direction toward cognitive memory and not solely muscle memory.