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.

A Fun Group Piano Class Rhythm Game

The last week of each month I hold a 1-hour group class in addition to the regular lessons for that week. This gives the students an opportunity to perform for each other, participate in ensembles, and play a variety of games to help reinforce musical concepts.

Since one of our primary focuses this year is on developing more proficient rhythm skills, my plan is to begin each group class with a fun rhythm game. This week we played, “Pass the Rhythm” – a variation on the old “telephone” game and adapted from the Rhythm Squeeze game on Teach Piano Today.

I split the students into two teams – boys v. girls in this case! They lined up front to back and the first and third player of each team was given a white board, marker, and eraser.

I began by tapping a 2-measure 4/4 rhythm pattern on the shoulder of the student at the back of each line. They had to notate the rhythm that they thought I tapped and then pass the board to the next player in line.

The next player looked at the rhythm pattern and then tapped it on the shoulder of the first person in line.

Finally, the one at the front of the line notated the rhythm pattern that they felt. After the rhythm was passed all the way to the front of the line, I had each team hold up their board and compare it with the rhythm I had written on my board for that round. Each team received one point for each correct beat. The students then switched places and we did the same thing for Round 2. We did several rounds and then tallied the points so that the team with the most points was the winner!

Everyone seemed to enjoy this engaging game, and it’s a great tool for determining where they are at in identifying and tapping rhythms!

A Simple and Fun Rhythm Activity for the Piano Lesson

Since one of my main objectives this year is to help my students master rhythm skills, we are finding a variety of ways at each lesson to help students decipher, play, and notate rhythms accurately. Here’s a fun multi-sensory rhythm activity we tried this week that was very effective!
This is adapted from Have a Heart – Feel the Pulse, but instead of using a page of hearts I drew four hearts across the top of a dry erase board and then wrote the 4/4 time signature on the row below the hearts. I played a simple 4-beat pattern of quarter and eighth notes and had the student place small magnets inside each heart to show whether each beat contained one or two sounds/notes.

After placing the magnets, the student translated them into notes, drawing quarter notes where there was only one sound and a pair of eighth notes where there were two sounds. This was a huge help in reinforcing the importance of identifying and maintaining a steady pulse while playing various rhythm patterns!

First Week of Lessons!

Some of you may remember my embarrassing confession earlier this year and my resolve to ensure that every one of my students becomes a fluent reader of music at the piano. I am happy to report that all of our hard work in the spring paid off! When I used our NoteStars game to evaluate where they were at this week, every student was still able to quickly and accurately identify and locate every note on the staff. They are also exhibiting a much greater level of independence in learning new music, which is exciting for all of us!

In our continuing quest toward playing the piano well, this year I am honing in on rhythm skills. Since note identification and rhythm are arguably the two most fundamental pieces of knowledge necessary to read music fluently, I want to equip each student to precisely execute any rhythm they come across in their music. Toward this end I have assigned each of them one part in an ensemble from the 4 Afro-Caribbean Songs for 5 Right Hands at 1 Piano book that I mentioned last week. (Note that you can download for free 4 of the parts from each song on the publisher’s website!) I introduced each piece by having the students look over it and tell me everything they could about the printed music. Then we discussed the time signature and used a rhythm instrument to play and count through the rhythm of the piece. At the end, I asked students which measure of rhythm was the hardest, then we worked specifically on that rhythm to make sure the student understood how to count it. I also had them count to see how many times that exact same rhythm was used in the piece, which led to the observation that musical pieces are usually comprised of repeating rhythm patterns. (Sometimes it’s amazing the things that I take for granted that students know or have somehow figured out on their own even though I haven’t made it a point to teach it to them!)

Part of my new resolve as a teacher is to take full responsibility for ensuring that my students have truly learned what I’m teaching them. Inspired by the following quote, my aim is to cause them to know the material and to essentially make it impossible for them to study piano with me and leave a lesson not having learned what I set out to teach them. It is such a wonderful responsibility and privilege to be a teacher!

“Teachers have redefined teaching as ‘the coherent speaking of an adult located at the head of the class to a passive gathering of students.’ They believe their primary responsibility is to cover the material in an organized manner.

They think about teaching as what they do–their focus is upon themselves. Many teachers cover their material and leave the room thinking they have taught. But if you gave their students a pop quiz, you would find out they hardly learned a thing. The divorce between teaching and learning is tragic and the root of many of our educational woes.

Obviously, the students are responsible to learn the material–but the teacher is responsible to cause them to know the material.”

~Bruce Wilkinson

Special Introductory Offer on Carnival of the Animals Music Camp!

Carnival of the Animals Cover

For all of you who have been anxiously awaiting (probably me most of all!), I’m excited to announce that the Carnival of the Animals Classical Christian Music Camp curriculum package is finally complete and ready for delivery! This extensive curriculum has been in the works for many years at a conceptual level, so it’s been thrilling to watch it fully come together this week as we’ve given it a trial run in the studio. And from now through the end of July, you can get your downloadable package for only $20 (that’s $10 off the regular price of $30)!

I’m amazed at how much the students grasped as we incorporated history, geography, rhythm, technique, music vocabulary, composition, science, art, and performance into our camp activities each day. It will also be exciting to see how the seeds sown this week continue to bear fruit in the years to come as the students draw on the knowledge and understanding they’ve gained through this experience.

The curriculum is designed as a 5-day music camp curriculum, but could easily be adapted for almost any setting and schedule. It has enough material to last for weeks! Creative music teachers could even use it as a springboard to delve into many other areas of musical study more extensively. Read a full description and view sample pages on this page.

I hope that this Carnival of the Animals music camp curriculum will be a valuable resource to help teachers and students around the world experience the enjoyment and enrichment of learning more about God and the world in which we live through the study of music!

Check out photo highlights from each day of the camp:

Day One: http://musicmattersblog.com/2015/07/13/highlights-from-day-1-of-carnival-of-the-animals-music-camp/

Day Two: http://musicmattersblog.com/2015/07/14/highlights-from-day-2-of-the-carnival-of-the-animals-music-camp/

Day Three: http://musicmattersblog.com/2015/07/15/highlights-from-day-3-of-carnival-of-the-animals-music-camp/

Day Four: http://musicmattersblog.com/2015/07/18/highlights-from-day-4-of-carnival-of-the-animals-music-camp/

Day Five: http://musicmattersblog.com/2015/07/18/highlights-from-day-5-of-carnival-of-the-animals-music-camp/

Highlights from Day 5 of Carnival of the Animals Music Camp

Day 5 of our Carnival of the Animals music camp has arrived! We played the ever-popular Guess-It! game as a way of reviewing all that we’ve learned so far this week.

The Science of Sound today explores two remarkable instruments – the piano and the glass armonica.

Students use their music vocabulary knowledge to attempt to translate the meaning of Cristofori’s original name for his musical instrument invention: the gravicembalo col piano e forte.

Next everyone gets to take a turn trying to produce a tone similar to one on a glass armonica by rubbing their finger around the rim of a wine glass containing water.

Wrapping up a fun week for a crazy bunch!

Reviewing proper performance procedures before the parents arrive. These admittedly cheesy performance signs still seem to do the trick of helping students visualize and remember each aspect of their performance!

Let’s practice bowing!

The parents are here and we are ready to entertain them with our own original Carnival of the Animals! Each student has written a brief narration to introduce their composition (ala Ogden Nash) – love the clever creativity!

Levi plays The Shark

Elise plays Dancing Turtles

Daniel plays Spy Cheetah

Stephanie plays An Elephant’s Life

Claire plays Swan Lake

AMT Inspiration – Work Hard!

Several years ago I came across a quote in Tim Tebow’s biography, Through My Eyes, that I have oft-quoted during piano lessons with certain students:

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

That is the heart of the message that I took away from the second installment of an article called “The Art of Possibility” by Steven Brundage in the June/July issue of American Music Teacher. He presents some fascinating quotes and research that address the ongoing debate of talent versus expert skill. Perhaps most fascinating is the experiment conducted by Laszlo Polgar with his three daughters to see if he could  train them to become expert chess players. His experiment produced incredible results, with all three daughters becoming world-renowned chess players.

Brundage goes on to observe:

“Most children, and adults for that matter, never dedicate themselves to skill development with the same deliberateness, methodology and guidance of child prodigies because, in most cases, they lack the opportunity, guidance or motivation.”

I was greatly encouraged by his recounting of numerous worthy achievements by men and women later in life who devoted themselves to the pursuit of various skills and then reached a high level of expertise (there is hope for us at any age if we apply ourselves and work hard!). His final paragraph includes this point:

“…there are those lacking talent who will achieve greatness because they possess more than the proper training and opportunity. They possess the burning fire of motivation and the determination to spend time and energy pursuing skill development without short cuts.”

This reminds me of a proverb that reveals the same truth:

“Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kinds; he will not stand before obscure men.” Proverbs 22:29

In a video our family recently watched by Dr. Jeff Myers, he issues a similar challenge to young people, noting that:

“Talent is distressingly common, but hard work is extremely rare.”

AMT Inspiration – Ask My Piano Students Better Questions

One of the perks of being an MTNA member is a subscription to their bi-monthly publication, American Music Teacher. I enjoy reading each issue and always take away some sort of inspiration for my teaching. Instead of keeping it to myself, I thought it would be fun to start a specific section here on Music Matters Blog to share some of the great thoughts and ideas with you!

In the April/May issue, Courtney Crappell, NCTM, in his regular column writes about the importance of “Fine Tuning Our Questions to Engage Modern Students.” He draws on the ability of a good story, especially a mystery, to capture our attention and engage our senses, and then encourages teachers to trade in our blase (“Did you practice this week?”) or generic (“What kind of piece is this?”) questions for ones that elicit more excitement and thoughtfulness (“How does this piece make you feel?”).

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve asked such unproductive questions in my lessons, so this is especially challenging for me! He makes his case effectively, though, when he asserts that:

“Music lessons designed to promote discovery through effective questioning also serve as models for our students’ practice sessions. Their most productive practice sessions will include periods of thoughtful exploration rather than simple repetition of physical motions. The questions we ask in lessons will ideally become the questions they ask themselves in practice.”

And I love this perspective on  lessons as a whole and practice in particular:

“We need our music lessons and their practice sessions to feel as engaging as reading a good story. They must feel the need to solve the mystery and discover solutions for themselves, and if they do, we can feel confident that they will be hooked into lifelong learning.”

The wheels are spinning, and I’m excited to consider how I can become more of a storyteller who  effectively engages students in the thrill of discovery in their lessons and subsequent practicing!

New Piano Practice Incentive Theme – C2: Igniting the Power Within! – Save $5

We finished up a wonderful year of piano lessons and this year’s theme – C2: Igniting the Power Within! – was  ton of fun! C2 is designed to emphasize the equal importance of developing character and competence to be a successful musician. It incorporates a rating system for each assignment and the overall lesson attitude that is similar to those used in corporate settings to evaluate employees. The idea is for students to consistently look for ways to go above and beyond, taking ownership for their own development as musicians.

C2 is a practice incentive theme to integrate with any teaching method and approach. Because it emphasizes character and competence, students of all ages and levels can work at their own pace and experience great success! If you’re looking for something new and exciting to launch in your studio this fall, you can save $5 on your copy of the C2 practice incentive theme from now until the end of June. Just enter the coupon code SUMMER when you checkout to receive your discount.

I’m looking forward to an exciting summer and hope to be posting semi-regularly again. We’ll see how that goes! :-)

Want Students to Advance More Quickly and Have a More Solid Foundation?

Growing up my Dad always told me that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That truism has served me well, but there are always a few exceptions. And this is one of them. It’s been a while since I first wrote about my foray into Piano Safari (ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote about much of anything!), but I love this method even more now than when I began using it!

Piano Safari Repertoire

I believe it is accomplishing exactly what its creators (Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher) intended – a solid foundation in the fundamentals of reading music notation while simultaneously developing fluency at the piano, thus enabling students to experience more musically interesting pieces sooner and advance to more challenging repertoire more quickly. All of my students who began with Level 1 have now moved into Level 2, and are doing a fabulous job!

Piano Safari Repertoire

Here’s a snapshot of Stephanie playing Flamingo Dancers. The crazy thing is that even though it is intended to be a rote learning piece, she was so anxious to learn it that she read the notes and figured it out on her own!

 Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards

The note reading skills are a combination of the NoteStars Challenge that I began with all my students in January and the fabulous Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards that are a part of the Piano Safari method.

Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards

The cards are very well sequenced and can be used in so many different ways to help students achieve mastery at reading music! (I’ve begun a Rhythm Masters Challenge that utilizes all three levels of the Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards that I’m hoping to write about soon!)

Piano Safari Technique Book

The accompanying Technique book is likewise a treasure trove of effective teaching exercises that are simple enough for the students to read and learn, enabling them to gain the technical skills necessary to play them well. Each one includes checkboxes to encourage transposition, and most of my students have no trouble easily switching from key to key (more than I can say for myself at their age!).

Piano Safari is not a magic pill that will make all of your students amazing pianists, but if you take the time to fully understand, appreciate, and implement this method (I definitely recommend watching the videos on the website, going through the Teacher Guides, and reading the Mini Essays!), I think you’ll be amazed at what your students are capable of at a young age. Not to mention how much they (and you!) will enjoy the process because of the musically rich pieces and experiences you will have along the way!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of Piano Safari Level 2 for review purposes, but received no other compensation. The views expressed above are my own.