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!

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!)!

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

3. Apply it
What is the one thing you could do that would best give kids the internal drive to master music theory? Teach them the application.

When kids realize that music theory empowers them to create their own fun songs they’ll want to learn everything they can from you.

Far too often kids study the piano for years and years, but then can’t play a thing if they don’t have a piece of sheet music in front of them. What happens if they get asked to “play something” when they don’t have a piece worked up? They’re embarrassed and find themselves feeling that their lessons have failed them to some degree.

If a student really understands his instrument, he should be able to make music—even if he doesn’t have a sheet in front of him.

Music theory teaches us how music works, and if you can help your students realize that applying their theory will open a whole new world of enjoyment at the piano, they will thank you forever.

Kids can start applying their theory even as young beginners. When you introduce a new concept, ask kids to go home and create a song that uses this new principle. You’ll find that kids learn the concept faster, are thrilled to play their song for you and their confidence at the piano skyrockets.

For some fun exercises that get kids creating impressive songs using their theory knowledge, you can check out these piano improv activities. You definitely want to teach the “Snowflake Technique” to your students—it’s super easy and sounds awesome:

When your students know their theory well they’ll make faster progress in their lessons, learn new songs with less frustration and spend hours at the piano having fun creating their own music. Remember these three tips for getting kids excited about learning theory: make it fun, make it social and teach the application. Before you know it, your students will become music theory rockstars!

A huge thanks to Kristen Jensen for sharing her wonderful tips and resources with us in this series, 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

2. Make it social

Studying piano can be kind of lonely. Kids practice by themselves. Then they sit in a small room with an “old” teacher who for 30 minutes tells them everything they’re doing wrong. Then they go home and repeat.

One reason why so many kids end up choosing sports over piano is that their friends are there with them. And when friends are together, there’s laughter, camaraderie and the desire to succeed together.

There is a way to make piano a more social experience, and that is to offer group theory lessons. You could do a group theory class once a month, or maybe offer a special theory master class anytime there is a 5th Monday in a month. Maybe you could get even more creative with your scheduling. I provide a group theory class almost every week–my students love coming, have developed strong friendships and are learning a ton.

Plus some friendly competition goes a long way in motivating kids to nail down new concepts! When kids are playing a game with their friends they have much more incentive to master the principles because they want to be included in the fun and they want to do well in the game.

Here’s a favorite group activity that is as old as the hills and has a million variations, but is really effective. Knowing note names is a foundational skill that kids will build upon for virtually everything else we do in music theory, so it’s always my goal to help students learn the names of the notes on the staff as quickly as possible. We do this activity a lot! To play, place a printout of the grand staff in a page protector and give a copy to each student. Then give each student a mini marshmallow and call out a note name. All students who place their marshmallow on the correct line or space get to eat it. You’ll be able to play many rounds of this “note name drill” because your students will want more treats!

Ear training is also great in a group. Ear training is something can easily be neglected, but it makes a world of difference in students’ musicianship. When your students are just getting started, use simple ear training games like playing two notes and asking students to call out if the notes are the same pitch or two different pitches. Gradually work your way into more advanced exercises (using fun activities, of course), and before long, your students will have a well-trained ear that helps them quickly learn their favorite songs.

Come back tomorrow for Part Four in the series 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars by Kristin Jensen. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

Now that you know the three steps, let’s dive a little deeper into each one and learn some specific action steps you can take to implement these practices in your studio.

  1. Make it fun

When I was a student, learning theory meant doing written assignments out of a workbook at home. I always completed my assignments, but I usually put it off and had to race to quickly fill in my answers right before my lesson started. Theory was boring and I didn’t put a lot of thought into it.

I’ve learned that theory doesn’t have to be boring. And when we make it fun, kids eat it up!

My students who are working on key signatures have a blast with this Paper Airplane Review Game that is super simple to pull off in a group lesson. We first do a worksheet to review the key signatures, and then I give each student a blank grand staff and a plain white sheet of paper. Students write the name of a key signature on their plain paper and then fold it into a paper airplane. On the count of three everyone throws their airplane into the air and then races to catch another plane. Students then go to their grand staff and draw the sharps or flats needed to complete their key signature.

Here’s a game that my little students enjoy when they are first being introduced to the names of the piano keys. I call it Twist and Play. The student stands with her back to the piano. I call out the name of a piano key and she quickly turns around and plays the key. We’ll repeat the fun, silly twisting until we’ve reviewed all the keys, and it’s so fun to see these little ones giggling during a “drill.”

I love to issue challenges and tie those challenges in to our unit’s theme. For example, if we’re doing a cowboy theme and I have a bunch of students working on interval recognition, I might issue the “Bucking Bronco” challenge: everyone who can identify 5 intervals from our flashcards in 30 seconds *without counting lines and spaces* at next week’s lesson gets a prize.

I also like to use fun worksheets with my students. The key word there is “fun.” Kids decide whether or not they’re going to like something within milliseconds after first seeing it. So if a worksheet looks boring, kids immediately decide they won’t like the exercise.

But if a worksheet looks fun, kids will be excited to complete it. I’ve created tons and tons of fun, colorful, kid-friendly music theory worksheets and you are more than welcome to use them with your students.

Don’t forget to capitalize on kids’ excitement for the holidays! Reviewing the same old concept again can suddenly become interesting if it’s tied into a holiday theme. I have lots of printables and game ideas for Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day that you are welcome to incorporate into your lessons.

As you can see, it really isn’t all that hard to make learning music theory fun. Five minutes away from the bench during a lesson for a game or a kid-friendly worksheet can work wonders, making your students much more excited for their lessons and setting them on their way to becoming music theory rockstars.

Come back tomorrow for Part Three in the series 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars by Kristin Jensen. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

It was a special day when my first two 4 year old students aced the first grade level theory exam. Kids have proven to me time and again that they are capable of doing so much more than we realize.

Those two four year-olds really stretched my creativity as a teacher as I realized that they could go far, but needed to be taught with an approach that capitalized on their fun-loving nature. Now all my students are benefiting from this new approach and learning at an accelerated rate. I’d like to share three tips I’ve learned along the way that help kids become music theory rockstars.

  1. Make it fun

Theory really can be fun, and kids learn so much more when they’re enjoying the experience. Continue reading for ideas and games you can easily fit into your lessons.

  1. Make it social

Consider teaching theory in a group setting. Kids love learning alongside friends and a group of peers can motivate each other to excel.

  1. Apply it

Help kids understand why theory is important. The best and most fun way to accomplish this is to teach them how to create their own songs.

Now that you know the three steps, let’s dive a little deeper into each one and learn some specific action steps you can take to implement these practices in your studio…

Come back tomorrow for Part Two in the series 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars by Kristin Jensen. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

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. 😛 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!

 

Theory Strips – An Ingenious Idea!

At the MTNA Conference I had the privilege of meeting Bonnie Slaughter, the creator of this ingenious approach to theory. I like to think of it as the text messaging approach to music theory. :-)

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Theory Strips are a 10-level program that organize music theory concepts into strips that can easily be completed one day at a time. I love this approach, especially for students who might be overwhelmed at the prospect of working through several pages at a time.

You can order these directly from Bonnie on her studio website. Or look for them soon at the Music Educators Marketplace, Music Teacher Store, or Riverton Music!