Helping Students Learn Musical Terms

Last Thursday evening we held our fifth Olympic Event of the year (The Olympic Events are part of my practice incentive this year, which is titled “Go For the Gold.” After the year is over, I’ll compile all the materials and add it to my selection of practice incentive programs available for purchase.). My objective for this event was to help students learn the definitions of basic musical terms that it seems like I’m always having to remind them of during their lessons. As in…student has played their piece and I ask them what the tempo of the piece should be. Invariably I get a glazed-over look as if to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about…I’ve never heard that word before…” So I remind them for the 47th time what the word tempo means. I was determined that after Thursday night I would never have to remind any of the attending students again what any of these terms mean (Realistic? I doubt it…but I’ve never been known for being a particularly realistic person. Idealism suits me much better… 🙂 ). The six terms I chose for the night were: Tempo, Dynamics, Articulation, Mood, Key Signature, and Key, but the following activities could be adapted to any terms of your choosing.

Here’s the outline for the evening detailed descriptions of each of the activities:
* Terms That Stretch My Brain Object Lesson
I got this idea from a children’s conference I attended years ago and I just love it! (My students loved it too and kept asking, “How are you doing that? Are you magic?”) Here are step-by-step instructions for how to conduct this activity:

1. Print out the Terms That Stretch My Brain cards and display sign on cardstock paper. Cut along the dashed lines.

2. Introduce each term one at a time to the group of students. Have a student volunteer come to the front of the room and hold the term card in one hand and the definition card in the other hand. Say the term and definition once and then have all the students repeat it together after you (e.g. “Tempo means rate of speed”, “Key Signature means the sharps or flats notated at the beginning of the piece.”) Continue this process with each of the terms and definitions, having a new student volunteer come to the front and hold each pair. After adding each new term, review all the previous terms by having the students recite them together as you point to each student volunteer.

3. Collect the pairs from each student, placing the cards face down and making two separate stacks with all the terms in one stack and all the definitions in the other stack. Be sure that the location of the cards in the stack corresponds to the matching card in the other stack. Once all the cards are stacked, place one stack on top of the other. Shuffle the cards by placing the top card on the bottom until the students give the signal for you to stop. Count out six cards off the top and place them one at a time face down in a stack. Place the remaining six cards beside it without counting the cards off the top.

4. Refer to your Terms That Stretch My Brain display sign and tell the students that you will place the top card of either stack on the bottom of that stack for each letter of the word “Terms.” At any time one of the students can yell switch and you must switch to the other stack, placing the top card on the bottom. Once you move the card for the last letter of the word, flip over the top card on one of the stacks. Show it to the students and ask them if they can correctly recite either the matching term or definition (depending on which one is on the card you already showed them). Once they do so, flip over the card on the top of the other pile to see if they are correct. The top of the other card will be the match for the first card. If they are correct, let that student hold the matching pair. Continue the same process with each of the words on the display sign. Amazingly, the top cards on each pile will be a matching pair every time!

* Making Musical Term Posters

I divided the students into four groups and assigned each group a term (Tempo, Dynamics, Articulation, Mood). Their job was to design a poster for that term, including the term name and definition that we learned and all the symbols or other terms that would be included in that category. (e.g. Dynamics would include crescendo and diminuendo marks, forte and piano symbols, etc.) I had a stack of music dictionaries available for reference and the students had fun looking things up and learning new words (ever heard of Allegrissimo?). I also provided each group with a sheet of posterboard and lots of markers, crayons, colored pencils and stickers. After the allotted time was up, I had each group stand at the front of the room and show their poster to the other students and explain the symbols and terms they included on it.

* Performances

For the performance time, the students took their turns according to their term groupings. All the students from the Tempo group went first. As each of them played, the observing students were instructed to listen specifically for musical sounds they heard that related to Tempo. After each performance, we shared what things we heard, reinforcing the vocabulary of terms they learned while designing their posters. We followed the same procedure for each of the other three term categories.

We had a really great time and went over our scheduled hour and a half by almost 20 minutes. I told the students that I’ll keep their posters in the studio and if they come across new terms in their pieces or by doing their own research we can add them to the posters. 🙂 I even agreed to give them extra points if they came up with new terms that aren’t already on the posters. And maybe, just maybe, in addition to having fun they’ll even start to become fluent in this often elusive language of music.

Survey Question #3

Following is the third installment of the Survey Question idea I’m using in my studio this Spring.

If you could automatically improve one area of your piano skills, what would it be?

* Increasing my piano level.
* Learning hard pieces.
* Sight-reading.
* Lesson work.
* Romantic sounding pieces.
* Sight-reading.
* Sight-reading.
* Sight-reading (understanding chord structures, etc.).
* Curving fingers.
* Scales.
* Staying on beat.
* Improving my piano skills faster.
* Sight-reading.
* Playing really hard notes.
* Keeping fingers curved.
* Play all the songs in the world.
* Everything! (Learn more difficult pieces faster)
* Listening and playing big compositions by ear.
* Not having pauses.

Music Timeline

While searching for a music timeline tonight I came across this great site – The Classical Score. If you click the “Linear Display” links in the left hand column you’ll see a great layout, including World Events, Musical Characteristics, Genre and Forms, Theorists and Treatises and Collections, Composers and Major Works, and Hymnology. This is a fabulous resource for teachers and students alike!

Survey Question #2

My students seem to really be enjoying the survey questions! Here’s the second question I asked, followed by all the responses I received:
What’s the most helpful technique you’ve learned in piano lessons?
* Playing one hand at a time.
* Putting your weight into the keys instead of playing all with your fingers.
* Keeping my hands up, not flat.
* Learning chord progressions.
* Piano games.
* Emphasizing notes.
* Using the metronome!
* To have a good thumb.
* Counting.
* Curved fingers.
* Fingers curved.
* Scales.
* Dynamics.
* Playing slow.
* To relax my arms!
* Scales.

Year-End Evaluation Forms for Piano Students

At the end of each year I schedule the last week of lessons as a Year-End Evaluation day with each student and their parents. Prior to the evaluation I send a questionnaire home for the parents and students to fill out and I fill out an evaluation of each student that I discuss with them at that lesson. The evaluation form I use is posted here. I change the questionnaires a little each year depending on the feedback I want to receive, but the general layout of the forms remains the same. The images below are linked to MS Word documents so that you can edit and adapt them for your own use.

Year-End Student Questionnaire:

Year-End ParentQuestionnaire:

Survey Says…

Several weeks ago I started posting a weekly survey question on a white board outside my studio. At the end of each week I draw a paper from the jar with all the entries and the winner receives a prize. So far I’ve been letting the winner choose a piece of sheet music from my overflowing collection that’s accumulated as a result of receiving New Release packages from various publishers. The students have really enjoyed it and their answers to the questions have been rather enlightening! I’ll try to keep up with posting our studio questions and answers here each week. Here’s the question from the first week, “What is your favorite thing about piano lessons?

Here’s my student Addi filling out her answer…

Here she is dropping it into the entry jar…

Here’s a list of the answers I received. (BTW, I’m tracking all these in a spreadsheet for easy reference in the future.)
* Playing at recitals. I also like how Natalie treats and helps me through difficulties and other things just the same as others even though I have a handicap.
* A nice teacher to teach me.
* Playing the games.
* Time with Natalie and making up songs.
* New songs.
* You don’t let me get lazy! I love the accountability.
* Piano games.
* Miss Natalie.
* Adding up points at the end.
* Points.
* I like everything.
* Playing songs.
* Pentascales.
* The interesting songs I get to learn.
* Reading music.
* I like learning new techniques to make the motion of a piece better (like wrist motion, etc.).
* The end. 🙂 Practicing the songs.
* The help I get.
* Getting points.
* Learning to play fun and difficult pieces.
* Playing.

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Making A Difference in the World

Following is an article I wrote recently for our local association’s newsletter:

With the touch of a button or the click of a mouse almost anyone anywhere in the world has access to a vast anthology of music. Indeed, we are subjected to the sounds of music whether we are walking through a store, eating at a restaurant or riding in an elevator. Music is everywhere. This begs the question, “Whose music?” Whose music blares from the stereo in the car driving down the street? Whose music gently lulls a little one to sleep at night? Whose music wafts to the rafters in concert halls throughout the world? Whose music vividly recalls the footage it accompanied on our favorite films? The composers and musicians of today are the students of yesteryear. Conversely, the students of today are the composers and musicians of tomorrow.

When ten-year old Ryan walks in for his lesson on Tuesday evenings and eagerly slides onto the bench to play me the latest tune he’s figured out by ear, through what eyes do I see him? The eyes of a teacher who is intent on sticking to a set plan for the lesson? Or the eyes of one who wants to inspire and equip a young boy who has the potential to influence the culture of generations to come? The 18th century Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher once said, “Give me the making of the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.” As one who is actively involved in local and state politics, I find myself nodding in agreement. While politicians may be recognized for a time and certainly make a profound difference in the operation of our society, their influence is primarily external. The melody and words that flow from the song-writer’s pen touch our hearts – for better or for worse. Consider the psalms of David, inspired by God Himself, that have brought hope and comfort to millions of lonely, hurting souls. Or the Hallelujah Chorus, whose notes were penned by the great composer Handel, that hundreds of years later still causes our hearts to swell in unrestrained joy. Or the pop songs of the Beatles that helped define the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I approach my teaching this New Year with renewed enthusiasm. I find myself often quoting this Bible verse from Galatians 6:9, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” I am reminded that I’m not just teaching a piano lesson; I’m personally investing in the lives of those who will continue to impact the culture after I am gone. One student at a time I’m making a difference in the world.