Christmas Break!

The recital last Thursday night was a wonderful time! I am so proud of all of my students for their hard work leading up to the recital, the poise they exhibited in their performances, and for being a blessing to so many people with their music. And I think we’re even starting to get the after-performance bow mastered! 🙂

Thanks to all who have contributed great ideas for the Christmas gift idea list! In fact, if you have an idea that’s not specific to Christmas, but is still a great gift idea for students, I think the list will be valuable for teachers for any gift-giving occasion. So, keep sending those ideas my way and I’ll work on getting the list compiled!

I’m off of teaching this week and next, so I’m also planning to take a couple weeks off of blogging here. I’ve got a ton of ideas and topics that I’d like to post about, so hopefully the next couple of weeks will give me some time to organize and do some preliminary work to launch 2010 off to an exciting start! Stay tuned!

May you all have a blessed and merry Christmas!

Christmas Gifts for Students

I recently received a great question from another music teacher asking for some ideas for Christmas gifts for students. I realize it’s kind of late this year, but I thought it would be great to compile a list of ideas that I could put together in a single file and make available here on the blog for any teachers looking for creative, meaningful, and inexpensive gifts to give to their students – either for Christmas or as a year-end gift.

So…if you would be willing to contribute some ideas to the list, send me an e-mail with a description of the gift, a picture (if you have one), a link (if applicable, to any store or website resources needed for acquiring the gift or any parts of it), and your name and website link (if you have one). I’ll compile all the ideas into a master list and post it here as a free download for anyone who wants it!

Monday Mailbag – Billing and Payments

How do you deal with payments?  I’ve been billing my students on the last week of the month, for the next month.  Seems quite backwards, but I’m not sure how to do this!  Do you do postdated cheques?  Some teachers find that works well, but what if the student misses a lesson?  Please just give me some ideas here, and tell me what works for you and why!

Over the years I’ve tried several different approaches and have now been using the same approach (which I love!) for several years. First of all, if you have not checked out Music Teacher’s Helper, you absolutely MUST do so! I’ve been using it now for about two years and it saves me so much of the time and headaches that were formerly a part of my bookkeeping efforts. MTH automatically bills families on the date you choose, allows you to set up a separate access code for each family so that they can check their payment record, amount due, etc. at any time, allows for on-line payment via credit card, and so much more! (You can read Review One and Review Two for more info.)

Anyway…on to a few specifics on how I handle billing. I charge a flat monthly rate that includes the weekly lesson plus all group classes and recitals. This amount is due at the first lesson of the month and is the same regardless of the number of lessons that month. I disseminate a calendar at the beginning of the school year indicating what weeks I will be teaching for the fall and spring semesters, plus I reserve the option of taking one additional week off each semester, if necessary. There are no refunds for missed lessons, but if possible I will offer a make-up lesson.

A handful of my studio families pay on-line, but most pay by check. I have heard of teachers allowing “postdated cheques,” but I think that is primarily a Canadian practice (at least I’ve never known any teachers in our area to use that approach). There are many different ways to handle payments (and hopefully some others will chime in with ideas!), but the key is to figure out what will work the best for you and your studio families. In my mind, the primary goal is to increase efficiency, streamline the process as much as possible, and provide great value for my students so that they always feel like they are getting their money’s worth!

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!

7 Tips for Enjoyable Recitals

The rehearsal is over and the countdown has begun! Well, actually I started the countdown a week ago, but that’s beside the point. 🙂 Last night was our Christmas Recital rehearsal (thus my excuse for the lack of posting this week!). It took us about an hour and a half to get through the whole program, but the time seemed to fly by! As I mentioned in a previous post, our theme for the recital this year is Jesus: God of the Galaxy!

I had five students volunteer for narration parts, so they read short introductions for each of the pieces while the performing student takes his or her place. We have a variety of different instruments, as well as a guest artist who will be sharing several vocal selections with us. One of the things I really try to do is make the whole recital an enjoyable program so that everyone who attends has a good time. This is partly due to the fact that I greatly disliked attending recitals growing up – both performing in them and being an audience member. I want this to be a very positive experience for my students and all their family members and friends that come to hear them. That can be a challenge, so here is my list of 7 things that I do to contribute to an enjoyable experience:

1. Take specific requests so that the student can learn and perform a piece of their choice.

2. Try to carefully select pieces that are level-appropriate, but that will make the student sound really good. Highlight their strengths (e.g. if they love to play fast, lively pieces, give them something with lots of scale runs; if they are very expressive, give them a slow, lyrical arrangement, etc. I even have a handful of students who have written their own arrangements or adapted one from a book to their liking).

3. Schedule the recital from the beginning of the year and start talking it up so that everyone is excited about participating.

4. Add some extra perks to the recital. Years ago I started holding a program cover contest where any student could contribute a drawing and then all the students would vote on their favorite. I then incorporate this into the final program design. Students who love to play extra Christmas songs can sign up to play part of the prelude music before the recital. Students who enjoy speaking or acting can sign up to read narration parts. The main idea is to incorporate different elements so that students with different interests and talents will get even more excited about participating.

5. Hold a rehearsal the week prior to the recital. This has become an absolute “must” for me! The students get a chance to test out the piano, perform in the same setting as the recital will be, become more comfortable playing in front of others, and otherwise scare themselves into working their fingers off for the final week leading up to the recital!

6. Hold a reception following the recital. Seriously, for some of my students, it is all about the food. 🙂 Every family brings a plate or two of goodies to share, and after the recital, we head to the fellowship hall for a time of visiting and munching on the treats. Very easy!

7. Change it up every year. I love keeping my students and families always guessing about what is going to happen next. Always be on the lookout for new games, new approaches, new pieces, new ideas to incorporate. If everything is always the same, a certain boredom sets in, but if things are different and unexpected, I think it promotes a sense of curiosity and wanting to be a part of what’s going on. That’s my opinion, anyway!

One new thing that I’m trying this year is hiring a professional photographer to take pictures during the recital. Has anyone else ever done that? Every year I just ask someone to take them with my camera – usually as an afterthought – and they turn out blurry and generally not-so-great. So this year I thought I’d try a new approach. I’m going to have the photographer take pictures throughout the program, a group shot at the end, casual shots during the reception, and family shots around the piano for anyone who would like them. Then each family can opt to purchase a disc with all the pictures. I’m still nailing down a few of the details, but I think it will be SO worth it to pay to have someone do this. And I think most of my families will love the idea, too! Will have to post an update after the fact to let you know how it turns out! Plus, I have someone shooting video as well since I always like to have full video/audio recordings of each of the recitals.

Anyway…that’s a bit of a ramble…can you tell I’m excited?! Hope you all are enjoying the season and are getting your fill of lots of Christmas music these days!

Monday Mailbag – What to Wear?

I am 23 years old and have been teaching piano/theory since I was about 17. Back then the students I had were all students I knew for a while, because my mom passed them on to me, but recently I’ve gotten a lot more students that I dont know, and I’m just wondering how I should dress. I used to just wear my “normal clothes” (jeans, sweats, etc.), but was wondering if I really should be wearing dress pants and dressy tops and what not?

This is a great question and I will definitely be interested to see input from other teachers, as I’m sure there are a wide variety of thoughts on this topic! Years ago, I remember someone telling me that one should dress to convey the importance of their message. This has always stuck with me and I make a point to dress professionally for every lesson. If I want to communicate that studying music should be taken seriously and if I want to establish respect for the music teaching profession, then it’s important for me to dress accordingly.

Plus, I notice that the way I dress affects not only the perception of others, but also my own attitude. If I didn’t’t take the time to dress up for the day, I would feel lazy and haphazard in my teaching. But when I dress professionally, I feel more organized, pulled together, and ready to approach lessons with verve!

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!

New Discovery for Building Sight-Reading Skills

One of the things that I really wanted to work on this year with my students was building their sight-reading skills. This was a key objective that I took into consideration when planning this year’s practice incentive. With the help of Susan Paradis’ Notes in the Fast Lane worksheets, I am seeing some great improvement in this area!

I made multiple copies of each level and placed them in sheet protectors in a notebook. One of the Cosmic Challenges that the students can select each week is “Speed Notes.” In order to pass that Cosmic Challenge, the two levels that they take home must be played the following week with 100% accuracy. Yes, the student actually gets to practice the worksheet all week long! The notes are random enough that even those with really good ears find it almost impossible to play back the patterns by ear even after a week of practice. But for the rare student who actually does memorize the pattern, I just randomly select the lines for them to play. After the initial shock of me making such a request, we find out if the student is really reading the notes or not. 🙂

One of the reasons I really like these worksheets is because while the notes are random, they are also placed in the context of a grand staff where the student can still have some sense of intervallic (or at least directional) relationships between notes. This is an aspect of sight-reading that is lost when only individual note flash cards are used.

I’m doing several other things to help build sight-reading skills, but this is proving to be one of the most helpful so far. Plus, the students love the challenge associated with it and are eager to get through as many levels as they can!

Black Key Improvisation

I guess I’m on an improvisation kick this week! As much as I am not a naturally gifted improviser, I have always admired those who were, and I see the value in helping students develop an openness to improvisation. Ever since I started doing student interviews years ago, one of the areas that I include in the interview is a brief improvisation activity. I tell the student that we will play a black key improvised duet. They can play any black keys they want and it should sound good!

I usually give them five style options: waltz, circus, cowboy, flowing, jazzy. Once they pick a style, I start improvising an accompaniment pattern in that style in the lower register on the piano. They are usually a little timid at first, but I gently encourage them to just try playing any black key in the upper register. If they can, I also encourage them to match my beat with whatever they are playing. As they warm up to the idea, they often play with both hands and even try imitating the rhythmic or melodic patterns that I am playing.

As we do this, I watch for three primary things:

  1. Did they maintain a steady beat?
  2. Were they relaxed and free in their technique?
  3. Did they incorporate the specified style of playing?

These are huge musical indicators to me and give me a good feel for the strengths and weaknesses that we will likely encounter in their musical studies. But at the same time, the student has a blast discovering that he can already play something that sounds so good even though he’s never taken lessons before! Of course I praise the student profusely for his musical abilities and both he and his parents leave even more excited than before to start lessons! 🙂

Quick and Easy Improvisation with Students!

If I have a student who struggles with note reading, but loves “doodling around” on the piano and/or if I have extra time at the end of a lesson, I often opt for my quick and easy improvisation activity. I sit at one piano and the student sits at the other (if you only have one piano, one can be in the higher register and the other in the lower). Between the student and myself, we determine the following three elements:

1. Chord (for more advanced students, we pick a key rather than just a chord)
2. Visual description (i.e. putting a baby to sleep, walking around at a carnival, watching a thunderstorm, etc.)
3. Time signature and tempo

One of us gives a count-in to set up the beat and then we begin playing. We can play any note of the chord/key anywhere on the whole piano, but we have to play with the beat and try to capture the mood of the visual description. We continue for an indeterminate amount of time and then try to coordinate a convincing ending by exchanging glances and listening to each others’ sound.

This is super easy (even for a non-improviser like me!) and almost always sounds surprisingly cool – which the students love!