Starting a new piece with a student can sometimes be a daunting challenge. It should be something that appeals to your student and helps them progress musically towards their goals. It should also contain sound pedagogical ideas. Some questions that you need to ask yourself are….what time period do you want your student to explore? Do they need a certain type of piece for an upcoming exam? Does the piece help them to reach their goals? Can your student handle the technical challenges within the piece? And most importantly…..do they like it!!
OK….so you and your student have picked the perfect piece. Now what? How do you make this piece fun, attainable, and approachable? In this blog post, I’d like to share with you some of the ideas that have worked for my students.
Introducing….Colours, Sections, and Arrows!
Colouring the Music
After we have chosen a new piece, the first thing we do is colour all the markings on the score. (I know…some teachers may not be comfortable colouring the score. I find that my students really enjoy doing this. They tell me that the piece doesn’t look ‘worked on’ if it’s not coloured!)
I have a code that we use…Forte is pink, piano is yellow etc. We colour all the other markings green…tenutos, accents, Italian terms & signs. My theory is that when they see certain colours, they will associate that colour with the dynamics marked in the music. We talk about each marking as we colour it. Accents, including tenutos, tend to hide on the page. They are much easier to see when they are coloured green (see previous blog post for details). We also discuss key signature, time signature, articulation, phrasing and any terms or signs.
Colouring has worked for students of all ages. A fugue is MUCH easier to learn when the voices are shown in different colours. (This could be done on a copy rather than on the original score).
Over the years, my students have done many exams, recitals, evaluations, festival classes and auditions. It's important to note that adjudicators and examiners have never had a problem with or even mentioned the fact that my students were using music that was coloured.
Break the piece down into logical, manageable sections, according to phrasing, structure and motifs. I do this by drawing a pencil line at the end of each section. The sections are then labeled A, B, C etc. If a long song has more than 26 sections, we have actually resorted to using double letters! (AA,BB etc.)
Make sure that repeated sections are divided the same way i.e. in the recapitulation of a Sonata or Sonatina.
As you are marking the sections, you can discuss a little of the history, style and form of the piece. You can also make note of any key modulations and mark the main cadence points.
When teaching a new song, I like to have them start by playing the left hand first. We compare the sections and look for patterns. Check and see if the patterns are repeating. Do they change key? Do the intervals change? Are there any sequence or imitation sections? Are there any variations in the patterns?
Have your student start by learning 1 or 2 sections, hands separately and then hands together. You can add more sections as they progress week by week. That way, if there are mistakes, they can be fixed quickly. This saves time because they learn it properly the first time.
Having a piece divided into sections is also essential for memorization. It provides safely nets all the way through the piece - places where your student can jump if they have a lapse in memory.
Boxes are small parts within a larger section. They can be labeled Box#1, Box#2 etc. These are very tricky passages within a larger section that need special attention.
Have your students practice the boxes hands separately, then hands together at a slow tempo, until it is fluent and played correctly. A box can also be subdivided into mini-boxes!
Arrows are great for correcting learned mistakes. I use the coloured Post-it Flags (Mini Arrows). They can be placed on the music to point to specific problems, you can write on them and they can be removed once the mistake is corrected. They are also reusable!
As I’m listening to a piece in a lesson, I can quickly mark mistakes with these arrows. I can then go back at the end of the performance and explain why the arrows are there.
The next time I hear the piece, I can removed arrows from issues that are fixed or move them if there are other problems. The really cool part is that I can place the arrows as the student plays the piece. It's quick and easy. This helps me to remember what I have heard and what I want them to fix. It also saves me from having to write a lot of notes!
You could take the arrows a step farther and colour code them for certain problems i.e. blue for wrong notes, yellow for missing dynamics, red for phrasing issues, pink for missed rests etc.
Sometimes my student's pieces are COVERED with arrows! When the problems are fixed, the arrows are removed. My students love trying to get rid of all the arrows on their music!
We do remove all arrows just before a performance such as an exam or audition.
Here are a couple of examples of how I would use these techniques. These pieces are coloured and divided into sections. The problem areas have been boxed. I have used red arrows to show phrasing concerns, yellow arrows for problems with dynamics and green arrows for other problems.
Gavotte in D Major
Sonatina in G Major
As a teacher, I always strive to make the music learning process as fun as possible. My student love to colour their music. The sections and boxes make it so much easier to learn and memorize a piece AND they have safety spots throughout their song. The arrows let them know exactly what needs to be fixed. Have fun exploring these ideas with your students.
Exams…the very thought can strike fear into the hearts of many a student! But they can also be an important part of the musical journey. Successful exam preparation is a HUGE part of what we do as teachers. I often say that passing an exam is like opening a musical door. As a student completes an exam, he passes through that door and enters a whole new level of music.
There are many wonderful Conservatory systems offering graded exams for students. I use the Royal Conservatory of Music Examination (RCM) for my students. It’s a great way for them to logically and systematically pass through the various levels. This past year, 9 of my students completed their piano exams, ranging from Grade 1 to 8. All marks were 84% or higher. Several were 90% or higher including two Grade 7's with 92%. My Grade 8 played his exam just 2 weeks ago. He received 91%!
I would like to share with you some ideas that have helped me prepare my students for exams.
(Note....I'm giving away FREE mock exam charts at the end of this blog post).
KEY #1 BE READY
Are You Prepared for the Next Level?
Moving too quickly through early grades can lead to discouragement later on.
Students need to have the technical facility and sight reading skills before they start taking exams. This can take two to three years for a beginner.
Each student is different. Sometimes it's good to do a junior exam so that students become familiar with the process. Other times, it's better to wait until they are older and more mature. Some students need a certain grade for a school credit.
Exams are not for everyone. Some students enjoy doing recitals or master classes. Others prefer competitions. The most important thing is that they learn to love music. Find out what they like. Encourage them to do lots of different styles of music, including duets and trios.
KEY #2 GIVE IT TIME
Long-term Planning is Critical
Once a student is ready, it can takes 6-8 months to prepare for a junior exam (Pre Gd 1 - Grd 3). Intermediate exams may take an entire year. Senior exams usually take longer.
All of this depends on how hard they work, how quickly they learn and how busy they are with family, school and other activities.
Last-minute preparation leads to frustration for both the student and the teacher.
An effective learning technique that I use is....have students learn and memorize their exam pieces early in the year, put them away for a time and don't play them, then bring them back and perfect them.
Have them play other pieces at the same time. That way, they don't get tired of their exam pieces.
Technique, Sight Reading and Ear Training are worth over 30 marks on an RCM exam AND they can't be crammed. Work consistently on these areas throughout the year.
KEY #3 PICK PIECES CAREFULLY
Strategic Piece Selection
Try picking pieces that are in the syllabus but not in the current books. Students love to feel that they are doing something unique. It’s also refreshing for an examiner to hear something totally different.
In the RCM system, you can replace one study with a Popular selection OR a ‘Teacher’s Own Choice’ (Grade 3 and up).
Pick pieces that will highlight the student's strengths.
Here are some interesting and varied pieces that my students have chosen recently. All of these pieces work well for exams.
Perform each piece at least once in a master class or recital before the exam.
Do a video of each piece before the exam. It's a great memory check because it simulates the exam experience.
Have a special Exam Master Class about 3 weeks before exams.
Have each student perform their pieces, one after the other, as a concert group. There usually isn't time for studies.
Have a 'Scale-a-Thon' at the end of the class....here's how it works:
Each student receives a small plastic bag.
You will need the 'Scale Charts' or technique books for each grade and a bowl of M&M’s.
Call a student’s name and a scale or triad from their grade.
Students take turns running to the piano and playing their technique for each other.
If they do it well, they can put an M&M in their bag. The goal is to get as many M&M's as possible.
Before the class, students work harder on their technique knowing they are going to be playing them for others.
After the class, the younger students work harder to improve because they've heard what the older students can do.
KEY #6 MAINTENANCE PRACTICE
Maintaining a Piece is Like Mountain Climbing
Students sometimes struggle to keep fast-paced pieces at performance level.
Having a piece ready for performance is like making it to the top of the mountain. However, if you are not careful, it will start to slide down the other side! Jelly Fingers set in!
Get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain. What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course....he should be your best friend.
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion.
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
All fast pieces should have a maintenance speed. You can practice it up to speed as well...but only if you have paid the price with slow metronome practice.
The fast speed should be a little under the suggested metronome speed. Adrenaline will take care of the rest! If a student has practiced slowly with the metronome, he should be able to control his piece in performance.
In the RCM exam system, a student is allowed to chose the order of the exam (i.e. doing pieces or technique & studies first, order of studies, order of pieces).
Here is my preferred order for an exam:
Start with technique. It should be well prepared...I have my students play their technique at the speeds of the next grade.
Doing technique first gives them a chance to try the piano, settle into the exam, and warm up their fingers.
Studies will be next. They do not NEED to be memorized, but they should be anyway. Having the music as a 'security blanket' will take away the pressure of 'having' to memorize studies.
Choose the order of songs so that they start and end with their strongest pieces. Alternate fast and slow songs for interest and variety.
Ear Training and Sight Reading are always done last.
KEY #8 MOCK EXAMS WORK
Mock Exams - An Essential Part of Exam Training
Do mock exams on the last 3 lessons before an exam. Students feel much more comfortable with the whole exam process by the third mock.
Pretend to be the examiner. Run through the entire exam exactly as it will be done on their exam day.....minimal cordial talking only, have them wait quietly while you write, no comments or feedback from examiner, only written comments. The first time that they experience this can be very unnerving.
I use the graded Mock Exam Sheets (for sale on this website). They are fillable PDF files. I can write in them for the mock exam, save them and then e-mail the sheet to the student at the end of the exam. Each Mock Exam Sheet comes with a handy Percentage Calculation Chart.
I do give them marks on their mock exam. I explain to them beforehand that I are not their examiner, that this is just one moment in time and that their mark can certainly change on the day of their exam. I usually mark harder than the examiner. I just want to make sure that they are in first-class territory (80%).
You can ask your students to print their mock exam sheets and tape them into their Organizer for future reference.
A practical piano exam is made up of many different components….Technique, Studies, Pieces, Ear Training and Sight Reading. Preparing for a piano exam requires that all of these things peak at the same time. I like to compare an exam to a musical box….we add each of these prepared elements to the box one at a time until the box is full. Then and only then is the student is ready for their exam. Good luck preparing your students for their music exams.
Maintaining a piece for performance is a lot like mountain climbing.....I tell my students this all the time.
It's also very much like trying to tame a wild horse!!
This is the time of year when students are busy preparing for exams or recitals. They work very hard to learn and memorize a piece and get it up to tempo. However, sometimes students struggle with keeping that piece at performance level. The faster the speed of the piece, the harder this is. And so we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses.....
Having the piece ready to go is like finally making it to the top of the mountain. But what happens then? If you are not very careful, that piece will start to slide down the other side of the mountain! Jelly Fingers will set in!! You need to get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain.
What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course!
So what does all of this have to do with wild horses? If a student practices a piece over and over again at a fast pace, that piece can turn into what I call a 'wild horse'. We talk about that horse galloping across the field, totally out of control! What we need are reins so that we can get that horse under control.
And what do the reins represent? You guessed it.....the metronome!
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
The metronome should be your best friend. I encourage my students to name their metronome.....I call mine George V!! I've gone through a few metronomes in my time!
George V is a much more sophisticated model than his predecessors. I LOVE this version (Korg KDM-2). I especially love the middle button on top. I can tap along with a student and know exactly what speed they are playing. I can also tap the exact speed that I would like for a piece and it will tell me instantly what that speed is. And unlike a traditional metronome, it goes up to 256 (which I actually used this week with a student!)
This past January, I had 3 students do Royal Conservatory of Music exams.....two Grade 7's and one Grade 8. All of them did quite well.....one received First Class Honours and the other two First Class Honours with Distinction. I also had two Grade 10 students audition for University and College programs. This June, I have students doing exams for Grade 1, two Grade 4's and Grade 5. For each student, the challenge is the same....how to maintain the faster pieces.
Here are some effective ideas that I have used with my students:
Preparing to maintain a piece starts on the very first day the piece is introduced. I work with the student to divide the piece into logical sections, according to phrases and form. (I will talk more about this in a future blog post). I label these sections with capital letters and circle the letters. If there are more than 26 sections, we use double letters. I also have the students figure out the basic key signature of each section, making special note of sections that modulate to a different key. If the piece is in a certain form, then we label these sections as well. i.e. Exposition, Development & Recapitulation.
Draw a box around any tricky areas that needs extra practice and label these as Box #1, Box #2 etc. These should be practiced separately until they are fluent.
Learn the piece in small sections, using the metronome as soon as possible. Consistent metronome practice helps to keep the piece in control. Learn it correctly the first time....it's so much easier than having to fix things later. Of course the rhythm and notes are important. However, also pay special attention to all the details such as fingering, articulation, phrases, rests and dynamics. Learn one section at a time. You can add more sections once you have mastered the first one.
Once the piece has been learned correctly, then you can memorize it in small sections, preferably hands separately. Be able to start playing at any section. This gives you safety nets all the way through the piece. You can also compare sections to see which ones are the same and which ones are different.
My students love to play the musical card game. I have a set of file cards with letters which correspond to the sections in their piece. I shuffle the cards and hold them up, one at a time. They love playing the mixed up version of their piece!! For an extra challenge, ask for the left hand only!!
Always have a maintenance speed and work at the slow speed several times before attempting allowing yourself to it up to speed. Four times slow and once fast works well! Exaggerate the arm motions at the slow speed.Be very careful not to over practice at the fast speed.
Remember....Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
Putting a song on a shelf is a good strategy for maintaining a song. I actually draw a little shelf on the student's lesson page in The Student Music Organizer. I put it right underneath the lesson practice chart. Putting a piece on a shelf means that we leave the piece and don't play it for a while. This can also be called plateau learning. Then, when we revisit the piece, we can take it to the next level!
Table practice is a good way to maintain finger strength and articulation. Play the piece away from the piano on a flat surface. It helps to play with a little 'bite' in the ends of the fingers, using correct arm motion.
Another valuable technique is to "mind play" your piece. Find a quiet place away from the piano. Read the score as you would a book, while you 'listen' to the music and imagine yourself playing the notes. Observe and make note of all articulation and dynamics. This can also be done in sections. It is also a great way to reinforce memory.
One of my students is working on a piece called Intrada by Graupner. It is her Baroque piece (List A) and she is doing it for a Grade 5 exam later on this month. Click to see how I divided it into sections and prepared it for her to learn. It is now memorized hands separately in sections. She played it for me at her lesson last week and it was quite good...just about ready to go. But she doesn't play her exam for a few weeks. So we go into maintenance mode and we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses!!
Here are a few of the pieces that my students have maintained or are continuing to maintain for exams, auditions and recitals this year.
Prelude & Fugue in E+ (Bach) Grade 10
Prelude in c#- (Rachmaninoff)
Sonata in C+ K330 1st movement (Mozart) Grade 9
Etude in c- Op.29 #7 (Bertini) Grade 7
Suite #8 in G+ HWV 441 IV: Aria (Handel) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 55 #31st Movement (Kuhlau) Grade 7
Sonatina in C+ Op. 36 #3 1st Movement (Clementi) Grade 7
Suite #1 in D+ VIII: Gigue (Krebs) Grade 7
Wound Up (Norton) Grade 7
Intrada in C+ (Graupner) Grade 5
March of the Terrible Trolls (Niamath) Grade 1
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!