Learning by Observing

One of my favorite things to do is watch other teachers teach. Anytime I get a chance to attend a masterclass, I jump on it because I’m sure that I’ll pick up some little gems that I can incorporate into my teaching. Our local music teachers association had a masterclass event several weeks ago from which I gleaned several teaching gems that I’ve been using a lot! Here are a couple:

1. Start duets with a gesture. I’ve been in a habit of counting in to start duets for a long time, but one of the masterclass teachers reminded me of the value of having the primo player lead into the duet with a slight gesture to cue the secondo player. I’ve been working on this concept with many of my students – it sure does look more professional than audibly counting in!

2. Be intentional with left hand phrasing. When working with a student on a piece that had a left hand arpeggiated chord accompaniment, the masterclass teacher discussed the three potential ways of phrasing it – all notes equal in volume, slight crescendo through the pattern, or slight decrescendo through the pattern. He had the student try each of the ways and then determine which was the most musical.

And then, of course, there was the recent experience observing my brother’s cello teacher that revolutionized my view of dynamics! 🙂 Last week and this week, I’ve had several students from one of our local universities observing lessons in my studio to fulfill one of their class requirements. I love opening my studio to these students because I know how much I have learned just by observing others!

Have you been to any masterclasses recently? Learned anything helpful that you’ve been able to apply in your teaching?

Win Your Wish List!

Rebekah Maxner, of the Notekidds website, is hosting another Win Your Wish List contest this year! Just visit the Notekidds website, select $75 worth of your favorite materials, and fill out the simple form on this page. One winner will be drawn from the entries received and will be the recipient of their selected wish list items! There are lots of great materials to choose from, so have fun (but hurry, because the contest ends this Saturday, October 31)! 🙂

Prescription for Scale Sickness

I could totally relate to this comment that Mindy left on Monday’s Teaching Scales post and I’m sure that many others can as well!

But truth be told, I am sick to death of teaching scales. It’s not that I don’t think it is important, I do. I am just lacking incentive to go at it again with my students. They are in shock! Perhaps I need to rethink my approach and we will all be more successful. I’d take any incentive ideas you have for getting through all the scales.

So I thought maybe we could do some brainstorming and share ideas of ways to make learning all the scales more exciting. I’ll start with a few that come to mind:

* For starters, I include this scale and chord progress chart in my students’ assignment books each year. This helps us at least keep track of what scales they’ve learned.

* Plan a fun Olympic event centered on scales. Give the students a designated number of weeks to learn as many scales as possible and then place them on teams and have them compete against each other in a scale relay. You can watch a video from one of my piano camps where we did this. Here’s a post with a more detailed explanation.

* Make several sets of scale blocks and focus more on the theory-side of constructing scales for a while. You could teach the major and/or minor scale patterns and then have them close their eyes and draw out a block from the jar. Then time them to see how fast they can construct that scale. You could post the times or just record them in their assignment book to see if they can improve their times from week to week.

I’m sure there are tons of ideas that can help us incorporate scales into lessons in a way that we don’t become sick of them. Feel free to leave your ideas below or post them on your blog and link back to them! This should be fun!

Around the Music Blogosphere

Here are several posts that I’ve found particularly interesting over the past week or so:

Jason, at The Piano Pedagogy Page, has been doing a series on Do-It-Yourself In-Service for independent music teachers. What a fascinating concept! I really appreciated this sixth post in the series on taking the time to practice and play well the repertoire that our students are learning.

Mike, at Howtopractice.com, has posted some information and additional video clips about the El Sistema documentary. Remember, you can win a free copy of the DVD by participating in our essay contest!

Wendy, at ComposeCreate.com, has posted about scholarship opportunities available to music teachers through MTNA.

Joy, at Color in My Piano, muses about Creativity in the Piano Lesson. I am curious to see the end result and wealth of ideas from her research!

Monday Mailbag – Teaching Scales and Such

After looking through your blog, it seems to appear that you write out your scales, chords, and arpeggios for your students.  Why do you do this versus using a book?  And, if I would prefer to have a book that already has scales, chords, and arpeggios written out for me, do you know of any such high quality book?

Good question! Actually, I don’t even write out the scales, chords, and such for my students. They learn it all by theory/rote. One of the fundamental concepts I teach my beginning students is half step v. whole step. Once they have that down, we learn the Major pentascale pattern. They have to memorize the pattern, and then we start working our way around the Circle of 5ths learning each of the Major pentascales. At the same time, we are also playing either triads or chord shells, depending on the size and coordination of the student. From there we move on to minor pentascales, then octave scales.

The reason I don’t have them play these things from a book is because I want them to really understand the theoretical concepts that underlie the scales, chords, etc. If they are merely playing notes from a book, the chances of them fully comprehending the theory that is the basis for the scales is much smaller.

There are several scale-based books that I’ve used before for various purposes. Here are some ideas:
Keys to Success by Kevin Olson – there are three books – Major pentascales, minor pentascales, and Major scales. Each key includes a technique exercise, a short mystery tune that the student is supposed to identify after playing the non-staff notation in the specified key, a short composition exercise, and a short piece.
Get Ready for Scale Duets and Get Ready for Chord and Arpeggio Duets – I haven’t actually used these, but they look like a fun complement to scale playing!
Scales, Patterns, and Improvs – I used this book with my piano camp this summer and it was a lot of fun!

I would love to have some input from other teachers on this. Do you use scale books with your students? Why or why not? Have you found any other scale/chord/arpeggio-related resources that have been helpful?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

More fun ways to use scale blocks!

As I mentioned in last Monday’s Mailbag post, I’m always looking for ways to turn the teaching or review of a concept into a fun activity or game. Here are shots from a couple of lessons last week where scale blocks became the perfect hands-on tool to help students grasp the concepts we were working on.

Naomi is working on understanding how to identify and construct major, minor, diminished, and augmented intervals. One of the things that I always want students to understand is the importance of determining the correct letter name of the interval distance first, then adding the appropriate sharps or flats to construct the designated quality of the interval. To help reinforce this, I gave her a starting note and had her place that scale block on the fallboard in front of her. Then I’d name the specific interval (dim. 5th, major 2nd, etc.). She had to first select the correct scale block and then either turn it to the corresponding sharp or flat side or just tell me what it should be (for instance, if it required a double flat or sharp since I don’t have a side on the block with double flats or sharps).

Holly is moving from pentascales into octave scales this year, so we started out by learning the complete pattern for Major scales. I had her write this out on the white board for easy reference. Then we used that pattern to figure out the correct notes for the first three Major scales that I teach: C, G, and D. She had to select and line up the scale blocks according to the whole step-half step pattern, and then we played the scales on the piano.

One of the things I’m trying to do better about is guiding my students to play things correctly the first time. This requires a great deal more explanation and preparation ahead of time, but it sets them up for success and more rapid progress. For example, when a student is learning the D-Major scale, I don’t want them to play it leaving out the C# the first time, running out of fingers the second time, with an inconsistent pulse the third time, etc. Instead, I want to prep them so that on their first playing of the scale they are able to play with correct fingering, accurate notes, and a steady pulse.

If they are trained to do it correctly from the very start, the likelihood of error-filled week-long practices greatly diminishes. Scale blocks are a useful tool toward this end. The brain is engaged, the concept understood, and then the technique well executed. I freely confess that this is an ideal that I often fall short of, but that’s what I’m working toward!

New Website with Lots of Free Music Resources!

Have you seen the new InsideMusicTeaching.com website? The site was created by Philip Johnston, founder of the popular PracticeSpot.com. In his e-mail last week, Mr. Johnston indicated that he would no longer be updating the Practice Spot website, so it looks like this new Inside Music Teaching site will be the place to keep up with the newest music teaching resources.

I was exploring the site a little bit and really like the Secret Word Worksheets. These music worksheets (along with lots of others!) can be viewed and downloaded for free from the stationery section of the site. Just click on the “worksheets” category in the viewer and scroll down to the Secret Word worksheets. The Musical Pictures worksheet looks fun, too! The Online Magazine also includes a nice collection of articles that Mr. Johnston has written about a variety of studio and teaching issues.

One super cool part of this website is the Aural Drills section. This is something that I rarely make time to focus on during lessons with my students, so I’m always on the lookout for great online resources in the aural skills department. I love that this is approached in a systematic way so that students can just work on their own and move on the higher levels as they master the previous ones. This is something I’ll definitely be encouraging my students to check out!

Monday Mailbag – Mysterious Repertoire

After reading about the success of your incentive programs I decided to come up with my own for this fall. I’m still working on it, but it’s going to be about exploring the mystery of music. I’m wondering if you have any pieces that come to mind for recitals? (So far I have Agent X, Super Sleuth by Melody Bober, and Our Detective Agency from the Faber method books.)

I’m definitely going to need some help with this! I love finding really cool-sounding repertoire for my students to learn and play, but I’m terrible at remembering piece titles and composers. I’m hoping that there are some other teachers who can help answer this question – what mystery-related music have your students played that you would recommend to this teacher?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Interesting Survey

Yesterday, I received a notification about a survey being conducted by Carnegie Hall and The Julliard School. (Click here if you are interested in taking part in the survey.) The survey is gleaning information from teachers about the plausibility of offering a National Music Achievement program. I think it’s an interesting concept, and completed the survey in about 10 minutes. I found a number of the questions somewhat thought-provoking, including this one:

What factors do you believe motivate your students to be engaged in music? Please think of your students between ages 5 and 18. (Please select all that apply)

* Playing music naturally excites them
* They enjoy gaining recognition for their skills
* They hope to use music to help them get into college
* Their parents urge them to continue playing music
* None, my students are not really motivated to study music
* Other (please specify)

I’d be curious to know how other teachers would answer a question like this. What do you find are the motivating factors for your students? I’m actually going to ask my students this question, too, to get their first-hand answer on what motivates them. That will be quite interesting, I think!

Guest Post – Piano Lessons for GenZ

For the first time in my piano teaching career I’m seeing a new breed of piano students come through my studio door. No, these kids haven’t grown any extra fingers, but they are coming to piano lessons with a new set of expectations. Meet GenZ, the digital student.

One teen came to her lesson last week and after eight lessons she decided she didn’t need her books anymore – she just wanted to learn how to “sit down at the piano and play.” Another student performed a Taylor Swift piece she learned from a YouTube tutorial  followed by one of her own compositions, complete with vocals – a vast improvement over her performance of her assigned lesson material. Another boy worked on his Halloween improv and asked for ways to make it more “scary.”

These students are typical of the new generation. They’ve never known a world without the Internet, instant messaging, and email. They believe everyone has a shot at fame in a world where TV is “reality TV” and one YouTube video can bring instant “stardom.” They are easily bored because they are accustomed to what Mark Prensky refers to as the “twitch-speed” of video games and its instant rewards. They have no patience for lectures. They know exactly what they want to learn and tune out anything they feel is irrelevant. In fact, the bottom line is that their brains are different than ours. Studies in neuro-plasticity show that students of the digital generation have become parallel processors rather than linear processors.

I’ve learned that if I want to keep my roster of students, I’ve got to be quick-thinking, flexible and open-minded. Czerny and Hanon have been shelved for now. My finger exercises are simple patterns using the first five notes of the major and minor scales. Polishing repertoire has been replaced by an emphasis on sight-reading. Free improvisation has replaced written composition. Ear training and music theory are more important than ever. And lessons have become collaborations between student and mentor where the goal is for the students to be able to teach themselves, become musically independent, and ultimately, confident creative musicians.

Written by Cathy Shefski, of the All Piano Website.