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!

 

An Embarrassing Confession

I’ve known this for a while, but it’s one of those things that’s easy to ignore as a piano teacher, perhaps supposing that eventually there will be an epiphany and the student will automatically know it. But sometimes you have to confront the truth. Embarrassing as it may be. I recently decided that it was time to own up to the reality.

What reality, you ask?

The reality that most of my students do not read music fluently.

Are you shocked? Rightfully so.

In my preparations for my most recent workshop (Facts and Fun: Great Games for Teaching Music Theory) that I presented to several local associations, and honest reflections on the quality of performances at our Christmas Recital and Dinner, I finally had to face this reality. Granted, I have a relatively small studio now of students who have only been playing for several years (or less), but I realized that I have no business giving them printed music with notes, terms, symbols, and more that they cannot readily identify and execute at the piano. I’ve always been of the mindset that it’s good to give students a challenge and let them rise to the occasion. But the truth is that I’m not being fair to them when I take this approach. I am not adequately preparing them to successfully play (let alone perform!) some of the printed music I’ve been either assigning them or letting them tackle on their own. In truth, it’s like giving them a Russian novel when they are still struggling to learn the Russian alphabet!

Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a huge proponent for creativity, improvisation, and rote technical skill at the piano (none of which is dependent on the ability to read music). But if one of my primary goals is that my students are able to play printed music well, then I needed to make some drastic changes to my teaching approach.

And that’s what I did.

At the beginning of January, I sat all my students down at the beginning of their lesson and asked them to evaluate their own level of fluency in identifying and playing any note on the staff. Most of them knew that they were sorely lacking. The one who didn’t was quickly proved wrong by a brief activity designed to evaluate the aforementioned skill. I continued our heart-to-heart by asking them whose fault they thought that was. Some of them sheepishly mumbled, trying to take the blame. All of them were shocked when I confessed that it was my fault. And one told me that it was okay, that she still thought I was a great teacher. :-) Anyway, I told them that I was putting a halt to the learning of any new pieces of printed music until they had fully mastered every note on the staff (for starters). They nodded in understanding, and we’ve spent the last month working our tails off to learn and master identifying and playing every note on the staff. This is our first step, but I am already seeing such tremendous results that I’m excited to continue in this path to ensure that every one of my students becomes a successful and fluent music reader.

In the hopes that I’m not the only teacher guilty of such notational negligence, I thought I would begin posting the activities, games, and approaches we are using to make this goal of musical fluency a reality (and even have a little fun along the way!). So, stay tuned for fun and practical ideas you can implement in your studio. And if you find yourself at the same point I was and are ready to get serious about making this skill a priority for your students, I highly recommend ordering a box of these Student Flashcards (you can order one box for every two students because there are two of every note in it). I’ll explain how we divide them up and start working step-by-step toward mastery.

Resources that Private Music Teachers Love

Music Teacher’s Helper (one of my favorite resources!) recently conducted a survey asking private music teachers what their favorite resources are. They compiled the results into this handy, hyperlinked infographic (including yours truly :-) ):

View the infographic here as well: http://www.musicteachershelper.com/blog/resources-music-teachers-love/

Review of Good Music Brighter Children by Sharlene Habermeyer

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s! Reviews have been absent for a while here on the blog this past holiday season for the sake of regrouping, spending time with my wonderful family, and for the sake of meeting my goal to thoroughly go through the aforementioned (in the title) book so it could be the next review.

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I was quite intrigued by “Good Music Brighter Children-Simple & Practical Ideas to Help Transform Your Child’s Life Through the Power of Music” after reading the overview of its content, and I was most definitely not disappointed once I got my hands on the book and began reading it! Originally published 15 years ago, this revised and updated version is the culmination of 25 years Habermeyer has spent researching and studying the positive effects music can have on humans.

One thing I really appreciate about this book is that the findings documented in the book are not just credible because of the plethora of stories, studies, practical applications, and personal experiences, but because of the passion and devotion with which Habermeyer writes and lives. Even though it’s over 350 pages long, it’s very nicely laid out into 5 different sections/topics (see below), and I found it very easy to read and understand which was so nice! Plus, it was really refreshing that the book just focuses on the effects of classical music/learning an instrument vs. creating a debate over “good” and “bad” music.

Separated Into Four Sections:

Part 1-Why Music:
Overture: The Power of Music (Chapter 1)
Music and the Brain: Nothing is Minor About Music (Chapter 2)

Part 2-Music In The Home:
Home: Set the Tone with Music (Chapter 3)
Making Sound Choices: Choosing an Instrument & Teacher (Chapter 4)
Practicing: Keeping the Tempo (Chapter 5)
Noteworthy: Learning Values Through Music (Chapter 6)

Part 3-A Need for Advocacy: Music Ed in the Schools:
A Dynamic Movement: Music’s Power to Educate (Chapter 7)
Striking a Chord: Music’s Impact on Cognitive Delays & Physical Disabilities (Chapter 8)
Improvisation: Creativity and the 21st Century (Chapter 9)

Part 4-A Cultural Heritage
Voices in Unison: Supporting the Arts in Your Community (Chapter 10)
The “Do Re Mis” of Starting an Orchestra” (Chapter 11)

Part 5-Finale
Building a Legacy: A Parent’s Responsibility (Chapter 12)

After the final chapter you’ll find 50 pages worth of RESOURCES (some of them mentioned throughout the book), followed by 22 pages of NOTES, and then an INDEX section. It’s definitely structured in such a way to be a helpful tool and enable readers to easily reference specific things. The book was also designed in such a way that each chapter can stand on its own which I think makes it much more appealing for someone who’s only interested in certain topics.

Because I work so much with kids I was quite fascinated by the chapter, Home, which discusses the long term effects music-specifically classical music-can have on children’s brains, even while they’re in utero. As a physically disabled musician myself, Striking a Chord definitely hit home for me and was very relatable and had some very inspiring stories. The emphasis on the need for creative thinkers in the Improvisation chapter was very eye-opening and interesting-particularly all the quotes from those in the business world. The final chapter, Building a Legacy, was one I greatly appreciated. Not because it exhorts parents to be involved in giving their children musical exposure, but because it points out one of the key elements of good parenting that I believe the majority of couples lack: building relationships with their children. On the matter, Habermayer says, “Material possessions, these ‘things’ that permeate our culture, ultimately do not make children or adults happy or fulfilled. When we lose the things in life that really mean something-like a warm relationship with our children-nothing else matters.”

Here are a few other excerpts from the book that were quite fascinating and inspiring:

“Dr. Frank Wilson…reports that learning to play an instrument refines the development of the brain and the entire neurological system. It also connects and develops motor systems of the brain in a way that cannot be done by any other activity. Dr. Wilson believes that learning a musical instrument is vital for the total development of the brain and individual.” (Page 25)

“Thomas Verny found that the unborn child ‘can see, hear, experience, taste, and, on a primitive level, even learn in utero…Although musical studies on babies in utero are continuing, the research suggests that by singing, talking, playing classical music and lullabies, and reading to the unborn child, parents can give them a significant advantage in early language, memory, and music development.” (Page 40; 41)

“When a child learns a musical instrument, most of his senses are being utilized. For example, a child learning the piano is using his eyes to read the music, his ears to hear the correct notes, his hands to play the notes, and his feet to coordinate and play the pedals. All of this requires a level of concentration, memory skills, motor coordination, and symbol recognition. Both sides of the brain, as well as the front and back portions of the brain, are being used to accomplish this incredible feat. Not only is the child experiencing the enjoyment that comes from learning a musical instrument, he is also learning skills that will help him succeed in school and beyond.” (Page 55)

“…But my expectation for them is more than what they accomplish in school and in band-I expect them to represent what they have learned in my program at home, at church, on the job, and in the community…” (Barry Trobaugh, Director of Bands at Munford High School-Page 92)

“‘Even today, I do not love to practice but I do it knowing how important it is.’” (Jenny Oaks Baker-Page 106)

“You could be a genius, but if you can’t cooperate and work with others, your intelligence will not be your greatest asset.” (Page 131)

As I was reading this book and would tell others about it, the word I found myself most often using is, “fascinating.” And though there were certain chapters, philosophies, and viewpoints that I didn’t love, looking back over everything I learned from this book, I can’t get over just how fascinating and phenomenal music is. It’s such a beautiful masterpiece of creation! Toward the end of the book the words of J.S. Bach kept coming to my mind, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.”

Whether you’re a parent, music educator, student, professional musician, school teacher, I believe there are things within “Good Music Brighter Children” that every one of you would find profitable. :)

To learn more about Sharlene Habermeyer and her research visit her site: www.goodmusicbrighterchildren.com
From there you can also purchase your own copy of the book!

2014 Christmas Piano Recital and Dinner

Last night was an evening of tradition and new beginnings. It was our 17th annual studio Christmas recital, but it was also our 1st annual Christmas dinner! Thanks to the vision of my creative husband, we decided to combine our studio recital with a special Christmas gift to our studio families – an evening of dinner, fellowship, and inspiration. Here are a few snapshots from the occasion:

Our theme was based on Matthew 1:23, ““Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

We used the Fireside room in our church building – a warm, cozy escape from the blistering winds and snow flurries that started falling in the afternoon!

Once all the families arrived, they were directed to their tables and offered hot drinks. My four kids were each assigned to serve a table, and did a fabulous job keeping drinks filled, serving each course, and making everyone feel welcome! You can see my husband attired in his kitchen apron also checking in on guests – he and my mom manned the kitchen and dished up plates of food to be served to the guests.

The courses were interspersed with musical selections – a variety of solos, duets, and ensembles – and a time of sharing testimonies of how we have experienced “God with us” throughout this year. I was so encouraged and blessed by all that was shared!

All of the students collaborated on a “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” ensemble (from A Christmas Gathering by Lynn Freeman Olson). Fun!

A group shot of all the students, plus a few guest artists (a.k.a former students) who contributed to the musical program.

I wasn’t sure how everything would work out, but thanks to the help and participation of each person, it proved to be a wonderful success! We look forward to many more years of Christmas recitals and dinners!

A Collection of Free Composer eBooks by Thomas Tapper

In doing some research for next semester, I came across this section on gutenberg.org that contains a set of 13 composer books by Thomas Tapper that are available as free downloads. You can download them for Kindle, iPad/iPhone/iPod, or as an HTML file. The files contain easy-to-read text along with photographs and portraits relevant to the story – a great resource for music teachers, students, and parents!

Review & Giveaway of Sonoptic

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The metronome gets an encore” is a very fitting tagline for the app, Sonoptic. I never cease to be amazed by the innovative and ingenious apps produced by developers-and Sonoptic is definitely among that lot of ingenuity.

After trying this app myself, here is how I would describe it:
It’s as if Sonoptic’s developers started with the idea of digitalizing Hanon exercises/a metronome app and then went to a whole new level by not only creating digital Hanon-like exercises, but ones that would cater toward whatever needs you might have! So these exercises include anything from basic scales to Blues & Jazz figures, and then from whatever one of these you select (or one of the other 5 options that I didn’t mention), you can choose subcategories to help you target a specific area in your practice. Sonoptic offers nearly 400 exercises which helps make the $6.99 price tag a little more understandable.

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It also includes customizable features like changing the tempo or key, selecting a specific note value to have the exercise favor, choosing one of the many instruments it has available, selecting a specific cycle for the exercise (repeat, randomly vary the keys) etc…

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However, the feature I like best by far is the real-time visual critique. With this feature, you can see what you played correctly/incorrectly, what you played too late/right on, and what your dynamics/articulation looked like. And then, if you desire to hear how you did, you can listen to yourself by pushing the playback button at the bottom. I can see this being very helpful for the practicing student to see where they need to improve in their scales, chords, arpeggios, and other skill building exercises.

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Overall, I think this app is quite the sophisticated metronome! :) It has beautiful notation that is easy to read, and the developers did a good job with the layout and filling the app with lots of content. Something I do hope to see them update at some point is the ability to do exercises with the left/right hand together in the piano setting.

Sonoptic is available for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch and if you’d like to enter for a chance to win your own download, express your interest in the comments and you might just be the winner next week!

 To view the Sonoptic website and get more info click here

To purchase Sonoptic click here

To view a Sonoptic demo click here

To see more pictures of what Sonoptic looks like click here (As you’ll be able to tell, the app operates in portrait mode and the iPhone layout is slightly different than the iPad and vice versa.)

Review & Giveaway of Transpos-O-Matic

It’s happened to me and I’m sure it’s happened to you. You were in a position where your teacher asked you to transpose one of your pieces, or you’re playing with a group and for the sake of the vocalist you have to lower a song by two half steps, or someone randomly asks you what a certain note is if they transpose their song to b flat minor…or something along those lines. I can find my new starting note and primary triads with no problem, but figuring out where all the rest of the notes in the song now need to be played is definitely NOT something that comes naturally. Typically my reaction is, “Well……I guess I’ll just figure the whole thing out by ear,” or “Maybe I can find something on Google that can help me?”

In actuality, though, I need a visual reference that can be placed right on the piano, something that aligns the original key with the new key so I can see where the new notes are.

If you also struggle with easily transposing and are in need of a tool to help you remedy this weakness and become more of a master, you should check into purchasing David McCord’s handy/portable transposition slide-rule. :) The Transpos-O-Matic slide-rule comes in two different sizes and is made from 14 pt SBS paper board material, so don’t worry about having to replace it every two weeks from wear and tear because it’s pretty durable. :) (If you check out the video, you’ll be able to see what else this device has to offer on the opposite side! :) )

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If you have more questions about the Transpos-O-Matics check out the website.

Lastly…the giveaway! Because of the generosity of Mr. McCord, if you enter the giveaway-via the comment section-THREE of our MMB participants will win one of his handy dandy Transpos-O-Matic tools. Whether for personal use, your studio, or a friend, I can see this little resource becoming a great asset.