I see the pattern!

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is leading students to a discovery of knowledge. Renowned pedagogue Frances Clark reminded us, “Teaching is not telling.” As easy, and seemingly efficient, as it is to fall into the rut of telling students what I want them to know, the reality is that they will almost assuredly remember what they discover and experience for themselves far longer than they will retain the words that I speak. That is one of the primary reasons that I incorporate games into our piano lessons. Games are an opportunity to both evaluate a student’s knowledge and understanding of a particular concept and to lead them to new and exciting discoveries.

At Claire’s lesson, when she struggled to correctly identify the key signature flashcards while playing her favorite “Whack-It!” game (a selection from the book “5 for Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson“), I knew we needed to do something to help her better understand key signatures. I pulled out a set of key signature flashcards and our jar of scale blocks and had her start by lining up the notes of a C-Major scale under the key signature flashcard for C-Major. Next, we set down the flashcard with 1 sharp (G-Major) and I slightly moved the last four blocks of the C-Major scale down under that flashcard, then asked her to finish lining up scale blocks for the notes of the G-Major scale. I did the same thing with the flashcard and scale blocks for the D-Major scale and then her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “I see the pattern!” She was able to effortlessly complete the [not so circular!] Circle of 5ths and see how every key related to the next and moved progressively. Like everything, this will require repetition, but it’s sure fun to see the proverbial light bulb going off in students’ minds, isn’t it?

The Speedy Scale Game for Piano Students!

As I mentioned last week, I love to incorporate a variety of games to reinforce and evaluate music theory concepts with my students. This week we tried a Speedy Scale game to help students develop visual-spatial skills (they weren’t allowed to look at the piano keyboard, but had to visualize it in their mind) and put their music scale theory knowledge into practice (they’ve all been memorizing scale patterns this year to earn Mental Miles as part of our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme)!

Daniel caught on really quickly, so I talked him into doing a step-by-step video of how to play this game during a lesson:

Here’s a snapshot of the supplies needed:

  • Two complete octaves of scale blocks (see here for a post on how to make your own scale blocks!)
  • A set of plain blocks with each one containing only one note name
  • A block with Major and Minor written on alternating sides
  • A block with a sharp, flat, and natural sign drawn on alternating sides

This is a quick, fun activity that is easily adaptable to students of all ages and levels. Since Alyssa just started lessons last fall she is just finishing up learning all of her Major pentascales. So in her case, I just had her select a block with a note name and then roll the sharp, flat, natural sign block, then arrange the scale blocks according to the pattern for the Major pentascale.

  1. After students had drawn a note name block from my hand and rolled the other two blocks, I walked them through this process for figuring out the arrangement of the scale blocks:
  2. Find the two scale blocks with the given key name (Stephanie’s was e-flat minor, so she found the two e-flats and placed them at the beginning and end).
  3. Fill in the remaining note names in alphabetical order with no regard for which ones are sharps or flats.
  4. Review the pattern for the given type of scale (we just used the Major and natural minor scales today) and write it out on the board if necessary.
  5. Begin with the “tonic” and work your way through the whole and half steps, rotating the blocks as necessary to represent the scale (a couple of times when students were tempted to switch out a block for something else – especially those pesky white key flats and sharps – it was essential that they remember they could only use the block that was next alphabetically!).

Each of the students thoroughly enjoyed this activity, and it was neat to see how much they improved just in the short 5-10 minutes we used at the beginning of the lesson!

These are a few of my favorite [teaching] things…

We are officially two weeks into piano lessons for this fall, and everyone is off to a great start with our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme! It’s fun to watch the students study the gallery of composers on the studio wall and learn how to pronounce their names.

I attended a training seminar this weekend for homeschool parents and especially appreciated a quote by Andrew Pudewa, a Suzuki violin teacher-turned Language Arts educator. He said, “Saturate the environment with what you want the student to learn and remember.” I can certainly see the value of this advice, as students absorb so much just by seeing the same posters. We’ve already had some great conversations about various parts of the world and how they relate to the composers we’re collecting.

Now, on to the real topic of this post! I thought I would share some of my indispensable teaching tools – things I turn to over and over again to help students understand and retain various musical concepts. After working through primarily Major scales last year, I decided to launch this year with a focus on minor scales. At her lesson, Stephanie and I discussed what makes a Major scale Major and what makes a minor scale minor. Then we learned the pattern for natural minor scales, which she wrote out in her Mini Music Manual for future reference. Then we used some little place markers to construct the scale on the keyboard. And finally, she arranged a set of scale blocks to depict the correct name of each key. (Side Note: You may notice on the fallboard a set of Level 3 Sight Reading Cards from Piano Safari. These are a must-have even if you don’t use the full method because they are such a systematic and effective way of helping students build sight reading and rhythm skills!)

In addition to the scale blocks, Daniel uses a magnetic dry erase board to jot down and compare the Major and minor scale patterns. I use these handy boards all the time for quick teaching illustrations and examples.

Finally, I can’t imagine how I ever taught without a video recording device (a.k.a. smart phone) at my fingertips! It’s only her second piano lesson, but Alyssa is already learning to express creativity through composition, and enjoying the opportunity to share it with others. Thanks to inspiration from this Piano Safari video (below), Alyssa and I played the Animal Improvisation game at her first lesson and then I assigned her to make up her very own animal piece during the week. She went from reluctantly playing a single note representing an animal to creating this entire composition, which she informed me was not just about one, but two animals: a dolphin being attacked by a shark!

What fun to watch students acquire deeper musical understanding, explore creative possibilities, and develop excellent skills through their study of piano. I am reminded anew of what an awesome privilege we piano teachers have to be a part of this learning and growing process!

Free Piano Scale Discovery Worksheet

It’s amazing how much more fun it is to learn about chords and scales on the piano when you’re using a magnetic board, some cool thumbtack-looking magnets, a set of scale blocks, and a piano scale worksheet!

After learning how to count the half steps to construct major chords, I called out the name of a chord, Claire lined up the scale blocks beginning at that note, placed the magnets on the correct keys on the piano diagram worksheet, eliminated every other block following the first one so that she knew which three blocks it had to be, then rotated them accordingly to display the correct sharps or flats.

She loved doing this activity, and using both the visual and tactile teaching materials makes it much more memorable!

I initially created this worksheet to help students at a group class gain a better understanding of scales, but it’s great for a variety of activities including this one that teaches students how to construct chords. Click on the image below to download your free copy of the Scale Discovery Worksheet:

Snapshots From This Week’s Group Class

In addition to performing for each other this week we practiced sharing definitions and descriptions of the musical elements of our pieces.

Composing with the fun new game Compose Yourself!

A game of notating Major and minor scales accurately by following the correct pattern. 

Major and minor scale-building game at the piano keyboard!  

We rotated pairs for each round to give everyone a chance to work with someone else and put their skills to the test!

Spin the wheel and draw a scale block, then see how quickly you can arrange the scale blocks to form the specific Major or minor scale!


Note Categories – A Music Note Identification Game

After getting a good start on our NoteStars challenge, I also assigned every student the Note Categories game.

This game is very simple, but definitely challenging for students. I use one of each letter name scale block and time the student as they go through the set of student music note flashcards, placing each one below the corresponding scale block.

Like the NoteStars challenge, I started by timing the students according to each level, but they all quickly moved into using the whole deck of cards. Unlike NoteStars, students only have to identify the name of the note, so that adds a nice variety while still building an essential understanding of the music staff.

A Simple and Fun Note Identification Game

Several of my students seem to need constant reinforcement with understanding the staff and identifying notes on it. And some of them are still in the phase where the “light bulb” hasn’t quite gone on yet. 🙂 So I’m always looking for different approaches to use during lessons. Here’s a simple game that I’ve been playing with various students for the past couple of weeks:

With his eyes closed, Andrew draws a scale block from the container. Whichever side he looks at first is the note that he must draw on the staff (for the younger students who haven’t learned sharps and flats yet, we just go with the natural note on the block that they select).

The student may draw the note anywhere they want in the treble of bass clef…but they can only use each line or space once! So, if they draw multiples of the same note, they have to find another place to draw it on the staff. We haven’t done this yet, but you could even have the student play the “pattern” of notes on the piano after they’ve used up the length of the staff!

A Game to Assess Musical Scale Skills!

You should see the way my students’ eyes light up the minute I pull out some dice and tell them that we’re going to start off the lesson with a game! In fact, this is what prompted me to compile and produce the 5 for Fun! book. Just setting aside 5 minutes a lesson to do something fun energizes the atmosphere – and can be highly educational, too!

In thinking through how to deal with the Technique Troubles I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I settled on using this game as a way to assess where my students are at with their knowledge of and ability to execute scales. It’s super simple, but proved to be very enlightening! All you need is three dice and either a white board and marker or pencil and paper.

The student started out by rolling all three dice. Then I explained what they had to do based on their roll.

Here’s a close-up of the dice: one is 12-sided with a number on each side – representing every key of the piano starting with C as number 1 and counting up every black and white key after that (this was purchased at a local teacher supply store); one is a 6-sided wood block with two each of the following three options – “Sing It!”, “Play It!”, and “Write It!” – indicating how they were to do the scale; one is a 6-sided wood block with Maj and min on alternating sides – defining what type of scale it should be.

If a student didn’t know how to complete any part of the activity according to the roll, we discussed what it meant and how to figure it out. For example, if a student rolled A-Maj-Write It!, but didn’t know what to do, I would walk them through the process:

  1. Choose and write the clef.
  2. For scale writing assignments, if you don’t immediately know the scale, begin by notating an “A” and then notate all eight notes of the scale (i.e. write a note on every line and space up to the next “A”).
  3. Use the Major scale pattern to visualize the keyboard and determine which notes should be altered with a flat or sharp. If you can’t remember the Major scale pattern, use the C-Major scale to refresh your memory.
  4. Write in the sharps or flats as needed, being careful to identify them correctly based on what you have already notated on the staff.

I adapted the activity as necessary and did it with students of all levels. For younger students, sometimes we stuck to the pentascale, or if they rolled “Sing It!” I played the scale and just had them sing/hum along with me; whereas older students had to figure it out for themselves before singing it. For the ones who went quickly, they got to take more turns; the ones who struggled only got one or two turns. This was so helpful for me in assessing each student’s current scale understanding and ability. My plan is to continue this for several weeks as an approach to teaching scale theory and helping them become more proficient. We’ll see how it goes!

Monday Mailbag – Scale Blocks

Would you mind also explaining your step 1 of how you make the scale blocks – why you needed 12 of the first block and only 8 of the next ones?  I’m sure there is a very simple explanation, but at this moment it is eluding me!

This is in reference to the How to Make Your Own Scale Blocks post.  The only reason I did this is because I made four full sets of two octave C  scales, and I placed a C at the beginning, middle, and end. Here’s the picture so you can see what I mean:

It would probably make just as much sense to do an equal number of all the blocks so that it would be consistent for forming any scale, but I decided to do a few extra of the C-block. Click here for a variety of games and activities that you can play with your students using the scale blocks!

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!

Game: Chord-Building!

For this game, I just used three dice and three game markers. One die had Major, minor, augmented, and diminished on various sides, another die was just a 9-sided number die, and the final die had Root Position, 1st Inversion, 2nd Inversion on varying sides.

The student rolled the three dice and the built the specified chord on the piano keys with the game markers. We just used the number to represent the identity of the chord (1=C, 2=D, 3=E, etc.). For another student later in the day, we used the scale blocks for this purpose instead of the number die. Here’s an example, then, of what is pictured above:


Root Position


This is really helpful preparation for our yearly Music Progressions evaluations because one of the written theory requirements is that students both identify and complete chords on pictured keyboards. This helps them learn to identify and create chords without hearing the sound – quite difficult for those aural students! You could also adapt the game and instead of having them build the chords on the keyboard, have them do so on a printed staff. In fact, eventually, I will probably do both – have them build it on the keyboard and then transfer the same chord to a staff so that they see the relationship between the two, especially valuable for learning to recognize inversions of chords in music!