We have had a wonderful year of learning and growth in our studio, perhaps none more so than myself! I am continually challenged and inspired to improve my understanding of what it means to be an excellent teacher, and how to implement new ideas into my teaching. As usual, each issue of the American Music Teacher has little nuggets of wisdom and encouragement that provide fuel for that inspiration.
In the December/January issue there was an interview with the world renowned pianist, Emanuel Ax. In it he gives credit to his teacher, Mieczyslaw Munz, “for teaching him to practice well by being incredibly meticulous in the lessons. Ax comments that Munz absolutely, relentlessly, liked for things to be correct.”
Now I realize that we’re not all teaching concert pianists, but Ax’s comment reminded me that the way I work with students at each lesson is the model that they will be most inclined to follow in their own practice. If I let inaccurate rhythms, ignored dynamics, or unmusical phrasing slip during the lesson, certainly the student won’t feel compelled to do differently in their personal practice regimen. Too often, I am wont to jot a quick note in their assignment book while neglecting to spend the necessary time at the lesson helping them pay attention and play correctly. But when I do prioritize truly teaching students to play correctly, the rewards are always well worth it!
We are wrapping up an exciting year of expeditioning at our studio, and we have had a blast! The students have loved traveling from hut to hut as part of Jungle Expedition: where mighty musicians survive, earning various privileges and treats. I’m impressed at how hard they’ve worked all year long to improve the consistency and quality of their practicing and to tackle Extra Endeavors (they’ve especially loved earning tickets for memorizing pieces and performing for friends!). It definitely makes the hard work of planning and conducting a practice incentive theme worth it when we can look back and see how far the students have come during the year!
We still have a few weeks of lessons left before we take a break or change things up for the summer, so most of the students are frantically collecting tickets and trying to get to one final hut before time runs out!
Rarely have I been so excited for a new music book to be released, but my students and I have been eagerly anticipating the completion of Piano Safari Level 3 for quite a while now! This piano method has completely transformed the way I teach piano, and I can’t imagine what I did before it was around. I’m looking forward to reviewing Level 3 here on Music Matters Blog soon!
As I took piano lessons for years growing up, I always dutifully completed the obligatory theory lesson that correlated with the repertoire pages for the week (even if I was scrambling right before the lesson to get it done!). However, after 10 years of lessons I still had no idea how to identify what key I was playing in. There was a complete disconnect between what I was playing and the theory work I was doing. This dichotomy is the primary reason why I rarely use theory books with my students, especially at the lower levels. Instead, we spend a great deal of time discussing the underlying theory of each piece of music and lots of repetition to memorize what each term and symbol means.
The Psalms Project we do each spring provides a wonderful opportunity for students to solidify their theory knowledge as they compose and learn to notate their compositions.
Even though we eventually input all of the compositions into Finale on the computer, I require students to notate everything by hand first as part of the learning process. It’s fun watching their “aha” moments as various concepts (like the fact that since the key signature includes an F# they don’t have to notate sharps on each F throughout the piece) click!
We lined up a column of flashcards with notes on the staff and another column with marked keys on a piano keyboard.
We each took a turn flipping over one card from each column to try to find a match. Whoever found a match got to go again, and then whoever had the most matches at the end won! This was a great quick game to reinforce note identification skills!
After learning how to count the half steps to construct major chords, I called out the name of a chord, Claire lined up the scale blocks beginning at that note, placed the magnets on the correct keys on the piano diagram worksheet, eliminated every other block following the first one so that she knew which three blocks it had to be, then rotated them accordingly to display the correct sharps or flats.
She loved doing this activity, and using both the visual and tactile teaching materials makes it much more memorable!
I initially created this worksheet to help students at a group class gain a better understanding of scales, but it’s great for a variety of activities including this one that teaches students how to construct chords. Click on the image below to download your free copy of the Scale Discovery Worksheet:
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!
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!