Creativity on Heart and Soul

Have you ever had a student come into their lesson thrilled to show you the new song that their friend just taught them? Only to discover that it’s at the top of every piano teacher’s list of Most Disliked Songs? You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you? Yup. Heart and Soul. But, as much as you might want to plug your ears and scream the next time you hear it, the reality is that students love playing it! Plus, it can serve as the perfect tool for learning to improvise freely using the chord progression in it. In this video Claire demonstrates the Heart and Soul remix she came up with just for fun:

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Piano Technique – A Guest Post by Doug Hanvey

A Word from Natalie: Perhaps the most impactful thing I have learned in my years of playing and teaching piano is the importance of understanding and properly using the body to achieve artistic playing with the greatest ease. The three greatest catalysts of this in my own education were: my teacher and mentor, Sylvia Coats, attending a one-week Suzuki teacher training led by Doris Koppelman, and the fabulous workshops of Beth Grace on Beyond Scales and Hanon. I have experienced first-hand the immeasurable value of using proper technique when playing piano, and I have seen students (both my own, transfer students, and students I have taught in masterclass settings) suddenly accomplish musically or technically what they didn’t think was possible when I help them understand the basic principles of Gravity, Strength, and Conduction. So I am excited to host Doug Hanvey as a guest today because he touches on some of these issues that have been “game-changing” for me. I hope his points pique your interest and propel you to either begin or continue your journey to understanding the amazing design of the human body and how it can be maximally employed by you and your students to become excellent pianists!


1. Anatomy Is the Foundation of Technique

Seems like anatomy should be part of piano pedagogy, but did your musical mentors teach you much about it? Maybe you think of your body like a car – as long as it’s running, and a mechanic is only a phone call away, there’s no pressing need to understand how it works. While we “use” the body to play piano like we use a car to drive over to Aunt Edna’s, the body is not the same as a car. You are in command of your body’s movements to an infinitely greater degree than the mostly automated, mechanical motions of a car. And these movements are infinitely more complex than a car’s will ever be. A correct and thorough understanding of how your body works to play piano can only be to your advantage.

2. Your Body Does Not Control How You Play

Every piano player has a “body map,” an internal representation of the body that is used to determine how you move to play. Strictly speaking, it is your body map, not your body, that determines your movements. Unfortunately, a body map may be inaccurate or even outdated. But just as the explorers who followed Columbus made ever more accurate maps of the New World, we can make a more accurate body map based on our understanding of anatomy suffused with an inclusive awareness of the body.

3. Concentration Can Impede Healthy Technique

The concentration demanded of pianists can contribute to unhealthy technique. Concentration is one-pointed attention. When we are concentrated – for example, on the music in front of us – we may be less than fully aware (or not aware at all) of our body, breathing, and movements. This doesn’t mean you should stop concentrating, but consider the value of bringing more awareness of the body and its movements into each moment of playing.

4. You Should “Map” the Whole Body

You should understand, feel, and “map” your whole body, not just the arms and hands. For example, the arms and hands aren’t separate from the spine, which bears so much of the body’s weight and is directly relevant to technique. (Interestingly, it is the front part of the spine, closest to the center of the body, that is the weight-bearing part, not the bony structure running down the back that we usually think of as the spine.) By becoming aware of the support provided by the spine we can enhance the efficient movement of the arms and hands.

5. Balance Is More Important Than Posture

If you feel like it takes a lot of effort to sit up straight, you may not be in balance. When you are balanced your skeleton supports your posture with minimal effort required. If you are out of balance, you are probably using muscular effort to maintain your posture, which can lead to chronic tension and contaminate efficient movement in other parts of the body.

6. Resolving Neck Tension Is Vital

Most people these days carry unnecessary neck tension. (As I type this I’m well aware that I’m one of them.) Neck tension can be particularly detrimental for pianists. It can hinder arm movement and even inhibit healthy nerve impulses to the arms. A relaxed neck helps us play with a freer motion and supports optimal balance (see above). If you carry habitual neck tension, do what you can to resolve it so it doesn’t affect your playing in the long term.

7. Bench Height Is More Important Than You Thought

An optimal bench height keeps your elbows on about the same level as the tops of the white keys, giving you the best mechanical advantage for playing. Many, if not most, benches are too low for most people.

8. Your Fingers are Not Attached to Your Hands

If I asked you where your fingers begin, you would probably point to your knuckles. But the fingers are actually attached to the wrist! Try moving your fingers right now and see if you can feel this for yourself. (This is an example of what is involved in developing an accurate body map.)

To learn more about anatomy and body mapping, check out Thomas Mark’s What Every Pianist Needs To Know About the Body. Mark’s book contains valuable information for piano teachers, pianists who want to develop the best possible technique, pianists who have been injured, and pianists who want to avoid injury – meaning just about everyone that plays the piano.


Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, OR. He writes educational articles for piano students and piano teachers on his studio website’s blog, which can be found at the above link.

Note Categories – A Music Note Identification Game

After getting a good start on our NoteStars challenge, I also assigned every student the Note Categories game.


This game is very simple, but definitely challenging for students. I use one of each letter name scale block and time the student as they go through the set of student music note flashcards, placing each one below the corresponding scale block.


Like the NoteStars challenge, I started by timing the students according to each level, but they all quickly moved into using the whole deck of cards. Unlike NoteStars, students only have to identify the name of the note, so that adds a nice variety while still building an essential understanding of the music staff.

Free Printable Music Note Name Worksheet – with a sweet bonus!

The great folks over at MakingMusicFun.net recently linked to a simple, but fun music note name challenge and worksheet. It’s called the M&M Note Name Challenge. I have more than a couple of sugar-holics in my studio (a.k.a. my children!) who would eat this up. Literally. :-P I might have to give it a try at our next group class!

NoteStars – A Fun Challenge for Learning Music Notes on the Piano!

As I mentioned in my last post, we’ve been devotedly working on note identification and music reading fluency in our studio this past month. The first thing I started my students with was this NoteStars challenge:

I just printed out this worksheet on white cardstock (you can click on it to download it for free!), filled in the name of each student in the left hand column and then used a pencil to track their progress in the corresponding column. Using the Student Flashcards, I separated the deck of notes into four levels as follows (one of the things I love about this set is how many ledger line notes are included!):

Level 1 – Treble clef notes on the staff (11 cards)

Level 2 – Bass clef notes on the staff (11 cards)

Level 3 – Treble clef ledger lines (10 cards)

Level 4 – Bass clef ledger lines (10 cards)

How the challenge works:

Set a timer for one minute. Supply small game pieces or blocks that can be placed on the piano keys. Give the student the level of cards according to where they are at (I started everyone at the beginning of the orange tier). They must go through the cards and place a game piece on the key that corresponds to each note on the staff. However many they get correct before the timer goes off is their score. They can try for as many levels within the tier as they’d like, but they may not advance to the next tier until they successfully complete every level within the first tier on the same week. Please note: For this challenge the student doesn’t have to name the note, just correctly place the marker to show that they can correlate the note on the staff with the key on the piano.

Why this is important:

If a student cannot complete this challenge in the designated time, they do not sufficiently understand the staff in order to fluently read music. The more I work with my students, the more I believe this. It’s been amazing to watch their understanding grow exponentially as they diligently strive week after week to improve their speed and accuracy!

 

An Embarrassing Confession

I’ve known this for a while, but it’s one of those things that’s easy to ignore as a piano teacher, perhaps supposing that eventually there will be an epiphany and the student will automatically know it. But sometimes you have to confront the truth. Embarrassing as it may be. I recently decided that it was time to own up to the reality.

What reality, you ask?

The reality that most of my students do not read music fluently.

Are you shocked? Rightfully so.

In my preparations for my most recent workshop (Facts and Fun: Great Games for Teaching Music Theory) that I presented to several local associations, and honest reflections on the quality of performances at our Christmas Recital and Dinner, I finally had to face this reality. Granted, I have a relatively small studio now of students who have only been playing for several years (or less), but I realized that I have no business giving them printed music with notes, terms, symbols, and more that they cannot readily identify and execute at the piano. I’ve always been of the mindset that it’s good to give students a challenge and let them rise to the occasion. But the truth is that I’m not being fair to them when I take this approach. I am not adequately preparing them to successfully play (let alone perform!) some of the printed music I’ve been either assigning them or letting them tackle on their own. In truth, it’s like giving them a Russian novel when they are still struggling to learn the Russian alphabet!

Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a huge proponent for creativity, improvisation, and rote technical skill at the piano (none of which is dependent on the ability to read music). But if one of my primary goals is that my students are able to play printed music well, then I needed to make some drastic changes to my teaching approach.

And that’s what I did.

At the beginning of January, I sat all my students down at the beginning of their lesson and asked them to evaluate their own level of fluency in identifying and playing any note on the staff. Most of them knew that they were sorely lacking. The one who didn’t was quickly proved wrong by a brief activity designed to evaluate the aforementioned skill. I continued our heart-to-heart by asking them whose fault they thought that was. Some of them sheepishly mumbled, trying to take the blame. All of them were shocked when I confessed that it was my fault. And one told me that it was okay, that she still thought I was a great teacher. :-) Anyway, I told them that I was putting a halt to the learning of any new pieces of printed music until they had fully mastered every note on the staff (for starters). They nodded in understanding, and we’ve spent the last month working our tails off to learn and master identifying and playing every note on the staff. This is our first step, but I am already seeing such tremendous results that I’m excited to continue in this path to ensure that every one of my students becomes a successful and fluent music reader.

In the hopes that I’m not the only teacher guilty of such notational negligence, I thought I would begin posting the activities, games, and approaches we are using to make this goal of musical fluency a reality (and even have a little fun along the way!). So, stay tuned for fun and practical ideas you can implement in your studio. And if you find yourself at the same point I was and are ready to get serious about making this skill a priority for your students, I highly recommend ordering a box of these Student Flashcards (you can order one box for every two students because there are two of every note in it). I’ll explain how we divide them up and start working step-by-step toward mastery.

Loads of Free Piano Flashcards!

In planning for our studio group class next week I was doing some online searching for flashcards. It’s been a while since I visited Jen Fink’s fabulous Pianimation website, so I was thrilled to re-discover this page chock-full of free piano flashcards that you can print and use in your studio! I’m going to be printing off a handful of these to use for various games and activities.

One of the biggest challenges I face repeatedly with my students is a lack of instantaneous note recognition on the staff and correlation with the right key on the piano. Does anyone else struggle with this? I’m going to try to hone in on this deficiency at the next group class to see if we can make some substantial progress in this area. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions or resources that you’ve found helpful to build this skill in your students, please do let me know! :-)

Musaic – A New Treasure Trove of Advice from Music Professionals!

As I’ve attended music teacher workshops and conferences over the years, one of the highlights has always been attending master classes. I love watching other teachers interact with students and gleaning insights that I can utilize in my own teaching. Musaic – an initiative of New World Symphony – seeks to bring masterclasses and dozens of other videos from professional musicians right to your fingertips! In addition to masterclasses, you can view a growing collection of performances, tips, and how-to videos that will prove beneficial to music teachers and students alike. What a great project!

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HT: The Musician’s Way Newsletter (November-December 2014)

Integrated Learning

One of the things that I love about teaching piano is the challenge of figuring out how to integrate every part of the student’s learning so that they understand concepts in a relevant way. One of the ways this can be done very effectively is through structured improvisation assignments.

If you’ve been a reader on Music Matters Blog for any length of time you know that I’m a huge fan of Pattern Play as the most effective approach I’ve found to truly teaching improvisation at the piano. But now that most of my students (and I!) have become more comfortable improvising, we create a variety of assignments from week to week that utilize improvising as a way to help students cement various musical concepts.

Right now Mercy is learning chord inversions as part of her Theory and Technique section in our C2 practice incentive theme, so this was the short piece she improv-ed using a c-minor chord and inversions:

It’s amazing how much more exciting and relevant theory concepts are when you see them become a creative expression like this!

Two Great New Resources!

Many moons ago I, like most music teachers, dreaded the “b” word. We love to teach, to play, to create. But, by and large, we do not like to do bookkeeping. I don’t mind finances at all, but I had such a difficult time collecting money from families or reminding them when they had overdue lesson fees, etc. Then in 2006 that all changed. Music Teacher’s Helper came on the scene and that has forever changed! This is probably the best money I spend every month because once I have everything set up for the year, I create automatic invoicing and the whole process is seamless. Families receive their invoice on the first of each month with their lesson fee amount plus any additional materials, book, or event fees. They can pay on-line or check their account at any time for details.

My posts about MTH always seem to turn into sales pitches, but the main reason I’m posting is because they have finally revamped their IOS app, and I am super thrilled! I do a lot of business from my iPhone, so it’s been a pain not having a working MTH app to record student payments, update info, etc. The new interface looks great, and I can highly recommend the whole MTH package to any teacher looking to make the business side of their studio operations a headache-less venture! (When you click on the links in this post for Music Teacher’s Helper, you’ll receive 20% off your first month and Music Matters Blog will receive a small commission that helps keep this site running.)

I am still pretty much in love with Piano Safari – the latest and greatest (in my humble opinion :-) ) piano method on the market! The students who started and are still working through it have done so well and truly enjoy making music at the piano. Even though they are learning more musically rich music via rote teaching right from the start, the approach to reading rhythms and notation is thorough and effective.

So I was excited to see that the Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards for Level 3 are now available! What’s even better is that if you order the package of all three sets of Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards (and believe me, you want these no matter what method you are using with your students!) are available for 20% off for a limited time. There are so many great ways to use these cards in the lessons (this week we’ve been having fun using rhythm instruments to play the rhythm patterns while selected rhythms from my keyboard provide a steady – but fun – beat in the background!) and the students enjoy having easy-to-manage exercises that they can work on and achieve success in their sight reading endeavors. I have a few students working through the Level 2 books and cards right now, so I’m excited to check out this new set of cards for Level 3!