Music Matters Blog is Shutting Down…

…but only for a week. 🙂 It’s been a long time coming, but the brand new Music Matters Blog is almost done and ready to be launched! YAY! I can hardly wait to get the new look in place, but it will take about a week to get everything transferred and ready to go. Thus, the blog will be inaccessible December 12-18. If all goes according to plan, you should be able to stop by for the grand opening tour on Monday, December 19! See you then!

Another Fun Video Editing App!

While the Videolicious app that I posted about several weeks ago is great for creating narratives, I’ve been looking for a video editing app that would retain the original audio from the video files. Splice is just what I was hoping for! It is super simple to create a timeline of video clips, edit them, add transitions, and either keep the original audio or add a different audio file. I love it! Here’s a quick compilation I put together from some videos I had on my iPod Touch just to get a feel for how it works:

2 Recital Prep Questions to Ask Students

With just a little over a week until our rehearsal for the Christmas recital, it’s going to be a close call for some of my students! It’s right about now that I start second-guessing myself and wondering if it was really such a good idea to give them a challenging piece to learn (even though it does sound really cool and they assured me they could learn it :-)). I know that our future as a pianist doesn’t hinge on one recital, but I sure do want each of my students to have a positive experience and to enjoy sharing their selections with those who attend the big event of the year.

At lessons this week I’ve found myself asking most students these two questions:

  1. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being completely performance-ready, what number would you say this piece is right now? (It’s kind of funny how many of them insert a .5 into their numeric evaluation – I’ve had a 6.5, an 8.5, etc…)
  2. What does the remaining [3.5; 1.5; etc.] represent? In other words, what still needs to improve on the piece to bring it to a level 10?

This has proved much more effective than just asking the student what they need to do to get their piece ready by the designated date. Because invariably I get the not-so-helpful answer, “practice.” I resist the urge to say, “Wow, how perceptive. I wish I had thought of that.” But I digress. Sarcasm aside, I realize more and more how important it is to have meaningful, musical discussions with students to gauge how well they understand their music and whether or not they have a clear idea of where they are headed with each piece and how to get there. This kind of interaction with students spurs me on like nothing else to become the best teacher I can be for each of them!

Connect the Dots – Sans Numbers

After a number of requests for me to send the numberless version of the connect-the-dots pictures I referenced in last Friday’s post, A Memorable Way to Convince Students That Fingering is Important, I decided to just upload my simple Word doc and make it available for easy download and printing. Just click here or on the image below to download it and use it with your fingering-challenged students! 🙂

Monday Mailbag – 5 Tips for Teaching Theory to Transfer Students

I have a 13 year-old student girl who came to me this fall after having had piano lessons for a number of years, but she has little to no theory background. She plays better than average, but doesn’t know simple things like what a sharp does to a note. The songs she played when she first came were Early Intermediate level, but although she could play the songs it was obvious that she did not understand what she was playing – no dynamics, no accents, no crescendos, etc. – just notes. She is more than willing to learn the information. I need suggestions on a method book that can cover the theory she is so far behind in and not be boring for her to study at home. She is in the Talented/Gifted programs at school so intelligence is not the problem. She also wants to play songs that are too difficult for her to learn right now and gets frustrated that she cannot execute the more difficult levels of music. We started a new song in 6/8 last week and she seemed so defeated when she could not understand that an eighth note would receive one beat in that time signature. I don’t think she had ever played in 6/8 time before – much less had to read the rhythms.

What a familiar scenario! Not only have I taken on numerous students that fit this description…I was one of them. I have learned so much from my own teacher and from experience as I’ve worked with gifted students who just didn’t have the benefit of a comprehensive music education when they were first starting out. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Accept the student for where they are at. It’s easy to get frustrated when a student doesn’t know even the most basic music concepts, but maintain a positive attitude toward the student and envision the two of you working as a team to learn and grow musically.
  2. Be open and honest with the student. I often say things like, “You play with beautiful expressive sound, but it’s obvious that you aren’t familiar with a lot of the symbols and terms on the page. I think you’ll be able to learn them really quickly if we work together to come up with a plan so that you can increase your knowledge in this area.” If you include praise for what they do well, clearly identify the area that needs work, and express belief in their potential for growth, the student will usually jump on board eager to learn! In the case of the 6/8 time, I might say something like, “Thanks for working so hard to understand this new time signature! Most people have a really difficult time when they first encounter 6/8 because we’re so used to play with the quarter not getting the beat. 6/8 is a compound time signature [then I usually do a little illustration using a white board and marker to explain what a compound time signature is as opposed to a simple time signature], so it can be confusing, but once you get the feel of it, it’s really fun to play!”
  3. You are your best teaching resource. That may sound odd at first, but rather than relying on a particular method or workbook, especially in cases like this, it’s important for you to have a very clear idea of where you want the student to end up in terms of theory knowledge. You can do this via making a checklist of sorts or just by maintaining a conscious awareness of what the student knows and where they are headed. Then, you can use every piece of music, every technical exercise, every tune learned by ear, etc. to integrate a comprehensive understanding of music theory.
  4. Aim for comprehensive understanding not just reiteration of facts. This is one of the main reasons I don’t use theory books, at least until students are quite a bit older and already have a good grasp of the relationship between theory concepts and the music they are playing. Talk about theory concepts as they relate to everything that the student plays. Also, aim for meaningful discussion to help gauge a student’s level of understanding. Ask questions like, “Do you know what it means to say that a piece is written in a particular key?” “How can you tell whether this piece is in G Major or e minor?” “Can you explain how to figure out if this chord is a major or minor chord just by looking at it and not playing it?” And so on. When a student can confidently identify and explain concepts to you, that’s when real learning has taken place.
  5. Use supplemental resources to reinforce theory concepts and transfer head knowledge to applied knowledge. This is one of the reasons I put together the 5 for Fun! booklet of games and activities for the lesson. It’s a fun way to test students and see how well they really understand the theory. It’s also really helpful for each student to have a manuscript book that they can use for notating compositions, writing scales and chords, etc. For older students who are ready for a more systematic approach to written theory, I love the Just the Facts series written by Regina Roper and Ann Lawry. And of course there are tons of printable worksheets and resources available on-line to address various theory concepts!

These are more along the lines of underlying principles rather than specific suggestions, but hopefully it will help give a framework for working with transfer students with varying levels of theory knowledge. It’s very exciting to work with these students and watch their eyes light up as they discover a world of musical understanding that they never knew existed before!

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!

A Memorable Way to Convince Students that Fingering is Important…

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I have a student who requires more than a convincing argument to believe that something I’m making them do is important. For example, fingering. I find this aspect of playing to be particularly challenging for students who learn to read the notes quickly. They seem to think that as long as they get to the right note at the right time, it doesn’t matter what finger(s) they use. Well, that may be true when they’re playing pieces at level one, but several years down the road, I assure them they will pretty much die musically if they haven’t developed the habit of using good, consistent fingering. That’s when I sometimes get the look – as if to say, “uh-huh…I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”

When I asked her recently, one of my students who has struggled with this for at least a year affirmed the above statement. She didn’t, in fact, think that fingering was important – contrary to what I’ve been telling her every week. So, it was time to come up with a creative and memorable (i.e. sticky) way to convince her that this reluctance would be her undoing in several years if she didn’t put in the effort to fix it now. We discussed it briefly and she was anxiously anticipating what I would come up with to convince her.

After considerable thought and prayer, I finally settled on an object lesson of sorts that I thought would do the trick. Enter: Dot-to-dot drawing sheets!

I printed off two of each of the following free dot-to-dot worksheets:

Smiling Flower

Underwater Seahorse

Since this student comes with her brother, I gave each of them a pencil and clipboard with the smiling flower dot-to-dot affixed. I instructed them to complete it as quickly as they could and that the winner would receive a complication coin (part of our An Italian Intrigue practice incentive theme this year!). The only hitch was that on my fingering-challenged student’s worksheet, I erased (via a computer program) all of the numbers. 🙂

Her brother finished a split second before her, but she didn’t seem to notice the lack of numbers and it didn’t faze her too much. On the second one however, it was a different story altogether! When I gave the signal to begin her brother was rapidly connecting dots while she sat in confusion connecting a few random dots, then erasing, then trying to figure out where to draw next. Eventually she got them all connected, but it didn’t look like a seahorse, and it took her almost a whole minute longer than her brother.

As I handed him his second coin, I explained that doing a dot-to-dot without the numbers is like trying to play a piece of music without using the correct fingers. At an early level you may be able to get by okay and play the piece how the composer intended it to be played, but at higher levels, it will take much longer to learn a piece and you may or may not be able to perform it as the composer intended it to be played. Using the correct fingering can make all the difference in the continuity, accuracy, and musicality of a piece.

When I finished the brief analogy my student was smiling (in spite of the fact that she lost out on two coins!). Only time will tell if it works, but I think she finally gets the importance of fingering now. She asked if she could keep the dot-to-dot coloring sheets and take them home with her. Of course I readily agreed. And added that she should display them prominently on the keyboard rack of her piano so that she is reminded to use good fingering every time she practices. 🙂

[Update: There were a lot of requests for the numberless version of the connect-the-dots pictures I used with my students, so I’ve uploaded my file and made it available for easy download and printing. It’s just a simple Word doc with both the numbered and numberless version of each picture embedded. Click here to download and use with your students!]

2012 MTNA – Concerts, Meet-up, and Live-Blogging!

Have you completed your registration for the 2012 Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Conference in New York City?! Today is the early registration deadline, so you can save $50 if you register by today. My registration is in and I am eagerly looking forward to a wonderful week in The Big Apple next spring!

Also, if you’re planning to attend the conference, check out the page of great discounts you can get at Carnegie Hall and for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra using the code provided by MTNA. The Summer 2011 issue of Listen magazine had an interesting article about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, so I was thrilled to see that MTNA secured a special discount for their concerts. Several friends and I have purchased tickets for their Saturday evening performance at Carnegie Hall. I think it would be fun to plan a meet-up for dinner prior to the concert on Saturday, so let me know if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop. We had a fabulous time at our meet-ups in 2010 and 2011, so I’m excited to do it again!

Lastly, I am excited to announce that I am planning to live-blog the 2012 MTNA Conference! Those of you who can’t make the trip to New York City this year will be able to follow along virtually as I post updates from the conference immediately following each session. It should be a fabulous conference and I’m looking forward to learning a lot!