Using Animals to Teach Piano Technique

Sometimes I feel a bit like the odd one out as a piano teacher who isn’t equal parts animal lover. But it’s true. I’d probably rather practice scales than pet your cute little kitten, no matter how soft it is, or how adorable it sounds when it purrs. That said, there’s something different about a wild animal. Maybe it’s that it’s okay to observe and appreciate it from a distance without getting fur or drool all over my clothing or having to clean out a litter box. Whatever the reason, the use of animals in Piano Safari has resonated with me, and I really enjoy the animals they have selected to represent various technique concepts.

When I was recently exploring their new website, I was excited to come across this video clip that gives a brief overview of each of the concepts and how to apply them:

I even watched it with a student who has just completed Level 2 as a way of quickly reviewing all of the techniques and then discussing which ones would apply in her new repertoire piece. Even if you’re not using the Piano Safari method, this is a great resource for helping students visualize and practice essential techniques at the piano!

And the Winner of Little Gems for Piano Is…

#21 – Lisa Smith
#32 – Alondra McEldowney
Congratulations, Lisa and Alondra! You both should have received an email from me with instructions on how to claim your copy of “Little Gems for Piano” by Paula Dreyer.

But, thanks to Paula’s generosity, everyone has a chance to get their own copy of one or both of her books. For the next 30 days she is running a promotional on her website and at Amazon (Volume 1 and Volume 2) so you can receive 25% off of her books! Thanks, Paula!

AMT Inspiration – Work Ethic

This observation by Bruce Berr in the February/March 2016 issue of the American Music Teacher magazine resonated with me:

The work ethic that was typically championed by parents, “Whatever you do, do your best” has been replaced in more families with “just have a good time.” Since music study requires a steadfast focused commitment of time and energy, that’s clearly a problem. Learning an instrument is increasingly view on a par with other leisure activities, some of which require little or no skill development, perseverance, and other qualities that help people grow into more mature selves. More so than before, music teachers have to educate children and their parents about the need for a work ethic.

What a great opportunity we have as music teachers to help students and parents grow in their understanding of what it means to have a strong work ethic!

AMT Inspiration – Create A Feeling

Several times this past year in both my teaching and my performing I have recalled a comment by Time for Three from their interview in the December/January issue of the American Music Teacher magazine. When discussing the variety of genre the group performs, Ranaan Meyer includes this in his response:

“Ultimately the reason an audience wants to hear music is that they want to feel. To connect with the music they want an artist who is real and who is human. It shouldn’t sound like the most complicated thing in the world. You can ask audiences about this: ‘Do you care if this is complicated?’ Most of them will say, ‘No, I don’t care about that at all, I just want to be moved.”

This is the perfect perspective to have when going into a performance, and it’s especially helpful for students to consider when they feel like they are playing a piece that is “too easy.” Instead of focusing on the difficulty level of a piece, students should ask, “How do I want the listener to feel when they hear this piece?” Then the performance is about creating an atmosphere and eliciting a feeling, not about playing something difficult or hitting every note right. This also helps get the focus off of myself, as the performer, and onto the audience, where it should be!

Review and Giveaway of Little Gems for Piano

UPDATE: I was just alerted (Thanks, Amy!) that the comments were turned off on this post. Oops! Apparently a setting got changed so that in all new posts comments were not enabled. You should be able to leave comments now!

If you’ve been around Music Matters Blog for a while you know that I am a huge fan of rote teaching as a vehicle for teaching students technique and artistry. Piano Safari is my absolute favorite resource in this respect! But I was thrilled when I was recently contacted by Paula Dreyer, author and composer of a new collection of rote teaching pieces called, “Little Gems for Piano.” There are two volumes, the first one is for beginners and the second one is labeled Early Intermediate. Some of the early beginner ones didn’t appeal to me very much, but the further I got in the book the more I enjoyed the sound of the pieces.

Here’s a clip of one of my favorites in Volume 1: Carnival Celebration:

In addition to utilizing rote pieces for teaching artistry and technique in general, I’ve also found that rote pieces can be a great motivator for students who struggle with vision problems or the ability to read music fluently. Rote pieces can also be an effective tool to use with students who have trouble memorizing. Because they are so patterned, it helps the students learn to recognize melodic and rhythmic motives and commit them to memory very quickly. Don’t we all like to have cool sounding pieces that we can learn quickly and easily perform by memory at a moment’s notice?!

Now, for the exciting part…Paula has generously offered to giveaway a copy of each of her “Little Gems for Piano” books to Music Matters Blog readers! We’ll be giving away one copy of each volume, so just leave a comment below for your chance to win. Two winners will be chosen using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, May 13!

AMT Inspiration – Be Meticulous

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!

Jungle Expedition Practice Incentive Theme is Here!

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!

Piano Safari Level 3 is Here!

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!

Also, MTNA is offering a webinar by Piano Safari authors, Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher, this Friday on “The Role of Rote Teaching in the Development of Reading, Artistry, and Technique.” I’m sure this will be a treasure trove of teaching philosophies and tips, and is sure to invigorate your teaching!

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!