Activate the Brain!

I love to attend workshops or participate in courses that really make me think. You know, ones where the presenter shares fascinating research or information, and then you have to process it yourself and figure out what to do with that information, or how to apply it to your situation. Sometimes it’s also nice to have people who have thought through the information for you and are willing to share how they’ve implemented it effectively in a variety of scenarios. Well, in her “Activate the Brain!” online course, Jennifer Foxx does both!

The course includes 11 modules and several sets of bonus resources, including a fillable pdf so you can take notes as you watch each video. Here are some highlights from the first few modules:

Module 1: Introduction
This has a hilarious video clip that will resonate with every teacher and parent!

Module 2: Activate the Brain!
Drawing on the research of several neurological specialists and educators, Jennifer gives an overview of the different parts and functions of the brain. She reveals how the reticular activating system may be the culprit when you attempt to review something with a student only to have them respond, “you never taught me that.” [Sound familiar to anyone else?? :-)]

She goes on to share how stress impacts a student’s ability to learn and then gives many practical tips that teachers can use in piano lessons. I appreciated the reminder of the importance of review for making neurological connections in the brain. Jennifer ends Module 2 with a “Recipe for an Engaged Brain” that provides lots of great food for thought!

Module 3: Bloom’s Taxonomy and the National Core Music Standards
Developed in 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy laid the foundation for future educational philosophies and standards. Jennifer gave an overview of the triangle, explaining each part in more detail:

  • Remembering – Can the student recall the information?
  • Understanding – Can the student explain concepts?
  • Applying – Can the student use the information in a useful way?
  • Analyzing – Can the student distinguish between different parts?
  • Evaluating – Can the student justify a decision?
  • Creating – Can the student make something new?

Jennifer emphasized that while these are arranged as a triangle, there is no hierarchy in the relationships of each aspect of learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a theory, and as music teachers we should experiment and consider our own findings. After this, Jennifer went through the National Common Core Music Standards, sharing ideas and examples for each one.

As you can see, this Activate the Brain course is a wonderful combination of both learning philosophy and practical ideas to implement in your teaching. Just to whet your appetite, here are the remaining module topics:

  • Module 4: What is Engaged Learning?
  • Module 5: Teacher and Student Roles
  • Module 6: Learning Styles
  • Module 7: Teaching Styles, Strategies, and Techniques
  • Module 8: Create An Invitation to Learn
  • Module 9: Characteristics of Age Groups
  • Module 10: Over 30 Ways to Check for Understanding and Engagement
  • Module 11: Recap and Conclusion

If you’re looking for a way to continue your own education (from the comfort of your home!) and get the “wheels” spinning to come up with new ideas and approaches to try with your students, Activate the Brain would be a great course to take over the summer! And to make it an even sweeter deal, Jennifer is offering a special coupon code for all Music Matters Blog readers. Use the code ENGAGEDLEARNING to receive 15% off the course between now and June 30, 2017.

Vanishing Voices is Here and You Could Win a Complete Studio Display Package!

Every year around this time I release our latest studio Practice Incentive Theme, and I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am this year! Vanishing Voices: a musical race against time! is one of the most successful themes we’ve ever done in our studio.

I have seen every student grow so much both in musical skills and in their awareness and appreciation of the rich musical heritage we’ve been given by dedicated composers throughout history. We incorporated several principles of Classical education into the theme and experienced great results; namely, memorization and repetition. Have you ever asked your student what a scale is only to have them fumble for the words to express what you thought was clear to them? Or what about rhythm? Or an interval? In the Vanishing Voices theme, every three weeks students are given (or select) a new set of musical terms to memorize and/or review so that by the end of the year they can clearly articulate the definitions of dozens of musical concepts. It is so vital for them to have a good working vocabulary as a foundation for building a stronger understanding of music and the ability to play well.

At the same time, students are developing rhythm and sight-reading skills while earning Meter Miles, becoming fluent in scales while earning Muscle Miles, learning to put their knowledge in writing while earning Mental Miles, and practicing every day to earn Music Miles. To top it off, students can rack up hundreds of Bonus Miles with a variety of additional options that they can have fun accomplishing on their own. It has been a blast to watch the students excitedly calculate their mileage in order to travel to various countries and collect composers to add to their Composer Portfolio, trying to make it to each one before they…vanish!

I am indebted to cartoonist, Ben Lansing, author of the fabulous book, Bigwigs of Classical Music, for generously allowing me to use his composer caricatures for the Vanishing Voices theme. Aren’t these such fun drawings?!

Now…for the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Everyone who purchases the Vanishing Voices studio practice incentive theme between now and 12:00 noon (CST) Saturday, June 24, will be entered in a drawing to win a free complete set of all the studio display materials (that includes a 54″x36″ world map, 35 composer portraits for the wall gallery, timeline and marker, extra laminated student airplane markers, wall verses, and laminated composer and mileage charts!). If you’re looking for something new and fresh to start this fall that will keep your students excited and motivated throughout year, this may be just what you need!

Student Favorites to Wrap-up the Year

Since this was our last week of lessons (next week we have our Year-End Evaluations) I let each of the students choose what they wanted to do for the lesson. Several (not surprisingly!) chose games. They love to skim the 5 for Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson book for ideas!

One of my students chose an older version of Music Bingo that has collected dust in my studio closet, and it ended up being a fun and effective way to review music terms and symbols! We each managed three cards and then took turns drawing a card with a music term or symbol, then telling the other one what it was and what it meant.

And one of my students, inspired by Jon Schmidt’s crazy, comical performance of “Dumb Song” donned his own wig for this recording:

Several students (notably, the ones who started out in the amazing Piano Safari method!) wanted to play the Mystery Song Game and can play nearly every piece in their books by memory! Another student and I also pulled out a Pattern Play book and created some cool improvisations. We all had such a fun time that it almost made me want to let the students choose what they want to do at every lesson. Almost. 😉

Finally a Way to Track Repertoire!

One of my favorite things to do is brainstorm creative and effective ways to streamline processes and organizational ideas for both myself and my students. That’s one of the reasons that I develop a practice incentive theme for my studio each year. It provides a ways for students to set goals, manage their progress, and achieve success. Plus, it helps me remain organized from lesson-to-lesson and stay on track with each student’s goals. I also love using Music Teacher’s Helper to manage my studio bookkeeping in an organized and professional manner. However, one area I have consistently struggled with is keeping track of my students’ repertoire in a systematic and organized way. I’ve tried a variety of different approaches, both pen-and-paper style and digitally, but nothing has ever clicked for me in a way that I was able to maintain consistently. Until last month.

Amy Chaplin’s inspirational series on using Evernote for studio organization prompted me to re-download the free software and give it another try. I first tried it several years ago, but wasn’t able to stick with it. Even after downloading it this time, it sat on the “back burner” because I couldn’t figure out quite how to use it in a way that worked for me. But it all started to come together when I was adding a book to my Goodreads reading list and writing a brief review of it last month. As I did so, I wished that there was a repertoire database like Goodreads that would allow me to search for a particular book, add it to my list, create and tag certain categories to place it in, and write my comments about it. I don’t know of any such repertoire database in existence (if you know of one, please let me know!), but as I lay in bed that night I began to wonder if I could use Evernote in a similar manner to at least organize repertoire for my studio and students…

By the time the next morning came around, I was ready to open Evernote and get to work! Amy’s series helped me understand how to use the tagging system effectively, so I started creating a folder-type system using tags. I am SO excited about this system and think it will finally be something I can maintain consistently! Here’s a screen shot of how I ended up structuring it:


Here’s the step-by-step run-down, just in case anyone else wants to give this approach a try!

  1. Create a tag named, “Repertoire.”
  2. Create what will become the next layer of tags: By Era, By Key, By Level, By Meter. Then I also added a few other tags that were included in this second tier: Duet, Rote Pieces, Sacred Arrangements, and Student Favorites.
  3. Create the next layer of tags that will be nested inside the previous ones. In the By Era one I created tags for: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, 20th Century, and Contemporary. In By Key, I created one for each major and minor key, plus a tag titled, “Modal.” In By Level, tags included: Beginner, Elementary, Early Intermediate, Intermediate, Late Intermediate, and Advanced. By Meter has: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8 so far. (It’s tempting to try to think of every possible tag that I might want to use for a piece, but I decided to stick to these four main criteria so that it wouldn’t get overwhelming trying to keep up with every detail for every piece!)
  4. Within each era, I started creating a tag for each composer, titled by last name, then first name so that they appear in alphabetical order by last name.

Next, I created a tag and labeled it, “Events.” In this one, I didn’t nest any secondary tags, but instead I will create a note for each event in which I have students participating. The event is labeled by year, month, and then event title. For example: 2017.04 Music Progressions. This way they are arranged chronologically. In the note, I list each student and the pieces they are performing for the event, plus any other relevant information.

Finally, I used Joy Morin’s suggestion of creating tags for “Students-Active” and “Students-Inactive.” Then within the active students, I have a tag for each current student. Nested in that, I have three tags so far. Each one begins with the student’s name and then has either “Performances,” “Rep Ideas,” or “Rep Learned.”

This is where the tagging system is ingenious! Here’s the process for adding repertoire and assigning it to categories:

  1. Create a new note with the title of a piece of repertoire.
  2. Tag it with: which era it is, who the composer is, what level it is, what key it’s in, what meter it’s in, and then if I want to assign it to any particular student as a piece of repertoire that they’ve learned or as a repertoire idea for a piece I want them to learn. Now it is handily placed in all of those categories and is visible when I click that category. And to add notes, links, or any additional info, all I have to do is change the note once and it’s reflected across the board. So cool! Throughout the years I can keep adding tags to assign it to other students as well.

 

The other thing I do is click back on the event I created and tag it with the “performances” tag for every student who participated in that event. This way I can make any changes I need to to one event note, but then have it automatically updated for every student who participated in the event.

Now that I have a workable system in place that I love and that makes sense to me, I am so thrilled to be able to use it consistently for lesson planning, archiving events, tracking student participation, filing repertoire ideas and notes, and keeping a record of repertoire that every student has learned. I’m sure I’ll keep tweaking this in the days ahead, but for now I am excited to have one landing place for all things event and repertoire-related!

Mini Music Manual Review by Piano Teacher Resources

Chris Owenby, of PracticeHabits.co, has not only written a wonderful review of our Mini Music Manual, but has also made a special offer that anyone who purchases one by the end of today, April 22, will receive a free piece of sheet music from his shop! Wow, what a kind and generous offer!

The Mini Music Manual has been a great way for my students to take ownership of their learning, memorize new musical terms, keep track of scale fingerings, and take notes on anything else of interest to them.

Review of Carnival of the Animals Piano Camp by Music Educator Resources

Summer is just around the corner and with it the opportunity to switch gears and host some fun alternatives to traditional lessons. One of my favorite summer activities over the years has been putting on piano camps. We typically do a one-week camp, with students meeting every day of the week for several hours. By far, our most-loved piano camp is Carnival of the Animals.

Jennifer Foxx, of the inspiring website Music Educator Resources, has just posted a review of Carnival of the Animals, so if you’re interested in getting more of the inside scoop from another teacher, just head on over to her blog to check it out. (She’s also got a coupon code for $10 if you’d like to purchase the piano camp package and use it in your studio!)


Here’s a snapshot of my students at the end of our week of the Carnival of the Animals piano camp, displaying their completed art projects and the fun student workbook they used throughout the week!

Teaching Composition to Students

Or this post could be titled, “Reason #47 Why I Love Piano Safari!” 🙂

When Alyssa first began piano lessons last fall we tried some simple improvisation activities, but she was reluctant to play anything without knowing that it was the “right” notes. As we’ve worked through my all-time favorite piano method – Piano Safari – she’s gradually gained confidence and creative freedom. After a couple weeks of hashing out some ideas and discussing possibilities at her lesson, she came back with this fabulous original composition, Thunderstorm Over the Prairie.

The way this is presented in the method was perfect for her! She got to draw a picture to represent each part of the thunderstorm, then come up with musical ideas to reflect each element. She told me after she played this at her lesson that having the pictures was so helpful for enabling her to memorize her composition and keep track of where she was. As you can hear, she also enjoyed incorporating a familiar folk tune into her piece. I just love watching my students flourish as musicians who are comfortable all over the keyboard, whether playing written music, pieces by rote, or original compositions!

Using Key Signature Flashcards to Make a Circle of Fifths

This may be a no-brainer, but for some reason it just occurred to me this week that key signature flashcards (I love this set of Student Flashcards from TCW Resources!) would provide a great hands-on opportunity to create and understand the Circle of 5ths!

Mercy has been working hard on memorizing all of her key signatures, so at her lesson this week, we laid out all of the cards in order and then I arranged them in a circular pattern and asked if she could figure out why this arrangement of them was called “The Circle of 5ths.” After thinking about it for a minute, she realized that each subsequent key was a 5th above the previous key. The proverbial lightbulb flashed and she couldn’t stop thanking me for explaining this to her because now it all made so much sense!

We discussed the enharmonic keys and then moved into the flat keys until we arrived back at C Major/a minor. Doing this activity together helped her see in a very tangible way how the Circle of 5ths works and it finally clicked for her why you could count up in 5ths to determine the sharp keys and down in 5ths to figure out the flat keys. It’s so fun to help students grow in their understanding of music theory – hopefully in a way that they will never forget!

The Perfect Assignment Sheet for Piano Students

Somehow I just came across this fabulous compilation of free downloadable assignment sheets that Amy Chaplin, of the Piano Pantry blog, has either created or adapted! Even though I always create custom assignment books that correlate with our practice incentive theme for the year, I absolutely love the variety of ideas that Amy incorporates into these sheets. Whether you’re looking for an assignment sheet that includes helpful theory concepts, or one that outlines technique warm-ups, or even one that is based on specific practice tips, you’re sure to find one that is just the right fit for your students and studio!

The Speedy Scale Game for Piano Students!

As I mentioned last week, I love to incorporate a variety of games to reinforce and evaluate music theory concepts with my students. This week we tried a Speedy Scale game to help students develop visual-spatial skills (they weren’t allowed to look at the piano keyboard, but had to visualize it in their mind) and put their music scale theory knowledge into practice (they’ve all been memorizing scale patterns this year to earn Mental Miles as part of our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme)!

Daniel caught on really quickly, so I talked him into doing a step-by-step video of how to play this game during a lesson:

Here’s a snapshot of the supplies needed:

  • Two complete octaves of scale blocks (see here for a post on how to make your own scale blocks!)
  • A set of plain blocks with each one containing only one note name
  • A block with Major and Minor written on alternating sides
  • A block with a sharp, flat, and natural sign drawn on alternating sides


This is a quick, fun activity that is easily adaptable to students of all ages and levels. Since Alyssa just started lessons last fall she is just finishing up learning all of her Major pentascales. So in her case, I just had her select a block with a note name and then roll the sharp, flat, natural sign block, then arrange the scale blocks according to the pattern for the Major pentascale.


  1. After students had drawn a note name block from my hand and rolled the other two blocks, I walked them through this process for figuring out the arrangement of the scale blocks:
  2. Find the two scale blocks with the given key name (Stephanie’s was e-flat minor, so she found the two e-flats and placed them at the beginning and end).
  3. Fill in the remaining note names in alphabetical order with no regard for which ones are sharps or flats.
  4. Review the pattern for the given type of scale (we just used the Major and natural minor scales today) and write it out on the board if necessary.
  5. Begin with the “tonic” and work your way through the whole and half steps, rotating the blocks as necessary to represent the scale (a couple of times when students were tempted to switch out a block for something else – especially those pesky white key flats and sharps – it was essential that they remember they could only use the block that was next alphabetically!).

Each of the students thoroughly enjoyed this activity, and it was neat to see how much they improved just in the short 5-10 minutes we used at the beginning of the lesson!