Using Composition and Notation to Teach Music Theory

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!

Music Note Memory Game

For this year’s Jungle Expedition studio practice incentive theme, one of the huts students can travel to is the “Game Hut.” Stephanie used her last 30 tickets to go to that hut and had fun looking through the 5 For Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson to make her choice. She opted for the Music Note Memory game, and we had a great time playing it!

   

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!

Free Piano Scale Discovery Worksheet

It’s amazing how much more fun it is to learn about chords and scales on the piano when you’re using a magnetic board, some cool thumbtack-looking magnets, a set of scale blocks, and a piano scale worksheet!

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:

Teaching Students to Practice Their Instrument More Effectively

In his always-informative newsletter, Gerald Klickstein, author of The Musician’s Way, linked back to his post on Beautiful Repetition. I love his four points:

  1. Insist on Excellence
  2. Reject Mindless Repetition
  3. Aim for Growth Rather than Sameness
  4. Evaluate Continuously

 

Visit his post for an elaboration and specific ideas for each point!

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!)!