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.
Spring is in the air and many music students are busy preparing for practical exams.
As the exam approaches, quite a lot of time is spent preparing and memorizing all the required pieces. However, it is VERY important that students also take time to work on their scales, chords and arpeggios. Successful technique requires great perseverance, patience and preparation.
Here are seven teaching tips that have helped my students to do their very best on the technical portion of their exams.
Take Time to Learn Correct Fingering
Fingering matters. Learn the correct scale fingering from the start. Fingering is also essential for fluent triads. Watch the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the middle of the triads.
Say the finger numbers out loud as you play scales hands separately. This will help to reinforce fingering. Learn to play one key correctly before attempting to play the others.
Drill, drill drill. Muscle memory takes time. Playing scales correctly is like learning to ride a bicycle….with enough practice, they eventually become second nature.
Skeleton Scales are a fun way to help students learn fingering and visualize patterns. Play a C+ scale (RH) - 1 on C, 2 and 3 together on D and E, 1 on F, 2, 3 and 4 together on G, A and B, 1 on C and so on up and down the scale. Repeat with the left hand. Once you have mastered C+, try this exercise in different keys.
Take Time to Use The Metronome
The Metronome is your best friend. Play scales with the metronome from the very beginning.
The metronome is also 'The Great Controller'. You must learn to control the notes…..you can’t let the notes control you!
LISTEN carefully and make sure you are not going faster or slower. Try to ‘Catch the Beat’.
Slow practice gives you time to listen and think about arm weight and tone production. The scales need to be played consistently and correctly. Only then can you start to increase the speed.
Remember…..Slow practice is really Fast Practice in Slow Motion.
Take Time to Discover Patterns
Know your key signatures. Watch for and compare Relative Major and Minor scales. Did you know that the descending Melodic Minor scale is the same as it’s Relative Major?
Watch the 4th finger in hands-separate scales. It is almost always played on the same key. The 3rd and 4th fingers generally take turns.
In the hands-together scales with the pattern 123123412312345, the 3rd fingers generally play at the same time.
Identify all of your required scales that have the same patterns and practice them one after the other.
Memorize these three tricky scales separately (f#-, g#- and c#- melodic). Be careful because the pattern changes on the way down.
‘The Student Music Organizer’ has a very handy Comparative Fingering Chart on the back inside cover. This can be colour-coded to show which scales share the same fingering patterns.
For hands-together scales, watch the right hand on the way up and the left hand on the way down.
For scales containing lots of black keys, watch black and white keys for patterns. i.e. G flat+ - play the white keys closes to the 3-black keys. D flat+ - play the upper white key each time. B+ - play the lower white key each time.
I call d- and g- harmonic the ‘Grand Canyon’ scales. You have to jump from black key to black key across the canyon (2 white keys). The f#- harmonic scale has a white-white canyon!
Dominant and Diminished 7ths also have patterns with the white and black keys.
When arpeggios start on black keys, the thumb generally comes on the first white key (unless the notes are all black).
Take Time to Practice Technique All Year Long
Technique will not cram well…..practicing all year long builds confidence and finger strength.
All technique should be up to grade speed before applying for an exam.
Challenge yourself - strive to have your technique at the speed of the next grade.
Scale Charts save time. You can tell at a glance what’s hands-separate, what’s hands-together, what’s one octave or what’s 2 octaves. The major keys are in upper case and the minor keys are in lower case.
The Scale Charts are colour-coded and easy-to-read: green for hands-separately, white for hands together. Diminished 7th are also colour-coded. There are only 3 of them…the rest are inversions of the originals.
Scales are listed on the top of the chart, chords in the middle and arpeggios at the bottom.
The charts are also Weekly Practice Guides. (divided into six days)
You can write specific information in the boxes i.e. key signature, raised notes, fingering etc.
On-Line digital Scale Charts or regular charts will be available shortly for the new 2015 requirements.
Take Time to Plan Your Exam
Start your exam with technique. This helps to warm up your fingers. It also lets you get a feel for the piano and the arm weight required to produce the sound that you want AND it gives you time to relax and feel comfortable in the room before playing memorized pieces. When you start with your technique, you are telling the examiner that you are well prepared….go ahead, ask me f#- melodic….I CAN DO IT!!
In your exam, mentally prepare to play each scale, chord or arpeggio. Pre-think the patterns and where you are going before you start.
Listen carefully to what the examiner has asked for…then repeat it over in your mind. Is it right hand or left hand, Harmonic or Melodic, legato or staccato? Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the request.
Successful exams require strong technique and strong technique takes time. Work on your technique all year long, not just before an exam. Practicing technique every day is like going to the gym for your fingers.
Take time to prepare and you will be rewarded with a greater technical facility and you will have the confidence you need to do your very best on your exam.
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.
The holidays are over and life is slowly returning to normal.
I’m sure that everyone is anticipating the return to teaching this week. I think that one of the biggest challenges teachers face is trying to keep students motivated and excited about practicing, especially after they have had a break from their normal routine.
My students record their weekly practicing on their assignment page in their Student Music Organizer. If they have met their practice goals, then they receive a special Sticker of the Week. They can also put a special sticker on the wall chart in the studio. And I have treat week every 5 weeks.
All of this helps to keep them on track with their goals. However, I was concerned that they weren’t always focusing on and completing their weekly assignments. And so I came up with a fun program that I called 'Reach for the Stars'.
This program works especially well with junior students. It’s important to note that it is not mandatory. I give each participating student a 'Reach for the Stars' Information Sheet explaining exactly what I require for each star. Some of the requirements may not apply to all students. For example, some students may not be yet working on technique. I take all of this into account when assigning stars.
Here’s how it works:
Each week, a student receives a coloured star at the end of their lesson. The colour they receive will depend on how well they have prepared for their lesson (SUPER GOLD, Gold, Silver, Blue or Red). I assign points to each coloured star and keep track of their scores throughout the year using a special 'Reach for the Stars' Tracking Chart. (Click here to download my original Excel file). I do not share their actual accumulated scores with each other.....this information is kept confidential. However, my students do know exactly what I expect from them each week because I write detailed notes in their Organizers.
I usually start this program in October after we’ve had a few lessons together. However, it works just as well starting in January and running until June. The important thing is that they are not competing with each other, but with themselves and how well they have prepared for their lesson each week at their particular level. That way a beginner has equal opportunity to receive a Super Gold Star if they complete their weekly assignments.
Here are the criteria for each star:
SUPER GOLD (20 points)
A Super Gold star is saved for something amazing.
There has been an extra special effort.
Something has really impressed me.
(Extra theory, pieces memorized, musical playing that gives me goose bumps)
A very organized, musical and well-prepared lesson.
Gold (15 points)
There has been a Special effort.
ALL assigned pieces are played VERY WELL. Some may be memorized.
Playing is excellent and musical.
Theory is completed and well done.
Assigned scales are played well with correct fingering.
All required practice time is completed and noted on their chart (see Organizer).
Silver (12 points)
There has been a very good effort, but not quite GOLD.
Most assigned pieces are played well.
Theory is completed.
Assigned scales are good but still need some work.
All required practice time is completed and notedon their chart.
Blue (10 points)
There has been a moderate effort.
Assigned pieces are better but some still need work.
Theory is completed or almost completed.
Assigned scales have improved but some still need work.
Required practice time is completed or is almost completed.
1 point deducted if theory is not completed.
Red (7 Points)
There has been some effort, but there is room for improvement.
Most assigned pieces need more work.
Theory may not have been completed.
Assigned scales need more work.
Required practice may not have been completed.
I have a very cool Musical Treasure Box in the studio filled with goodies. The Dollar Store is a great place to buy things for the Treasure Box. My Treasure Box was a gift from a student.....it looks like a musical book! This gives students an added incentive to try their best each week. Students can pick something from the Musical Treasure box each time they accumulate three gold or super gold stars (they don’t have to be in consecutive weeks).
At the end of the year I total all of their earned points. I then give Star Awards at the recital in June. First place receives a small trophy. I give ribbons for 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th place. I will give ties if the scores are close. Every student receives a participation ribbon.
'Reach for the Stars' is a fun way to start the New Year with a fresh and interesting approach. This program helps my students stay motivated. It also helps them gain confidence for upcoming performances and exams. They really try to accomplish what is expected each week. They think about what they are practicing instead of just playing something to fill in time and they strive for perfection in their work. In short, they start to find the music hiding in the notes!
Have fun trying something new in the New Year…..have fun Reaching for the Stars.
”Music is written in black and white…..all you have to do is add the colours!”
There are many different ways to describe colour in music—dynamics, volume, expression, louds and softs, subtle shades of light and dark.
Colour adds interest and beauty to music. Without it, music would be boring. It’s how the composer and the performer convey the message, meaning and emotion of the music to the listener. It's such an important part of a performance.....I call it the icing on the cake. Unfortunately for our students, it also tends to be the first thing that disappears when they are under pressure. Nerves have a way of erasing the colours! So how do you teach your students to remember the colours when they are performing?
Many years ago, I heard an adjudicator at a festival class describe music as a black and white colouring book. She told the students that it is up to them to add the colours for their audience.
At that point, I had a brainwave....I love it when that happens!!! In order for students to remember the colours they need to SEE them! And so I came up with a colour code for music. My theory was that if they saw the same colours over and over again, they would be more likely to play the dynamics correctly. Their brain would eventually begin to associate specific colours with the corresponding dynamic markings. I used highlighters so that the colours would jump off the page!
Here are the colours that I use with my students with the pedagogical reasons behind them:
PINK for forte (loud) and crescendo (getting louder). It is a very bright colour and it indicates a loud sound.
YELLOW for piano (soft) and decrescendo (getting softer). It is a much softer, less intense colour for a quiet sound.
PINK with a YELLOW ring around it for mezzo forte (medium loud) because it is softer than forte.
YELLOW with a PINK ring for mezzo piano (medium soft) because it is louder than piano.
PINK with an ORANGE ring around it is for fortissimo (very loud). Orange is a very bright colour and so it reminds them to play louder than forte.
YELLOW with a BLUE ring around it for pianissimo (very soft) because blue is much softer colour. The BLUE colour tells them to play softer than piano.
GREEN is used for all the other markings on the page - accents, tenutos, any Italian terms, repeat dots, octave higher or lower, etc. Green can also be used for pedal markings if needed. I often tell my students that a sneaky little tenuto can hide on the page until it is coloured!
PURPLE is not included in the chart below because I rarely use it. It can be used occasionally for showing stem directions, especially if the piece is written in one clef but played with both hands. It can also be used to colour slurs or staccatos, if students are having trouble remember them. However, I don’t usually colour all slurs or staccatos because it gets too confusing. There is just too much colour on the page. PURPLE can also be used to colour one of the voices of a Fugue.
When introducing a new song to a student, the first thing we do is colour the piece. As the student colours, we talk about everything on the page. That way, I know that they understand all the markings before we begin learning the piece. When the dynamics are coloured, students are also able to spot patterns in the music (sequences, echoes, terraced dynamics etc). This helps when they are memorizing their piece.....they can visualize the colours as they play.
Here is an example of a simple piece that has been coloured. This is a Grade 2 piece called Gavotta in G+ by James Hook. Can you find the dynamic echoes?
Here's a more complicated piece - Sonatina in G+ by Diabelli (Page 1 and Page 2). Having the accents or tenutos coloured green is helpful because they are quite often the destination notes in the phrase. This can then lead to a discussion about melodic shaping.
Colouring can be used effectively with senior students as well. Here is an example of how I would colour the Fugue in E+ (J.S. Bach). Notice how each voice has been coloured differently so that the student knows exactly where the lines are. I have also used arrows to show where the voice entries are. (NOTE—Arrows will be discussed in a future blog post).
I have coloured music with my students for many years and I have used this technique with students of all levels. It has been a wonderful tool for helping them to perform their best. 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.
Colouring a piece is such a fun activity to do at the lesson. My students have often told me that a piece doesn’t look ‘worked on’ if it’s not coloured! Have fun colouring with your students!!
♥︎ Remember.....Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Sunrise (Canmore, AB) by Peter Eggers
This is one of the biggest challenges for a piano teacher. We want our students to love music but they have to practice if they are going to progress. And practicing is work! How can we motivate our students to practice more effectively?
My goal for my students is for them to have what I call "no nag" practice.
I want them to enjoy their practice AND I want them to progress. Here are some of the strategies that I have used in my own teaching to help my students meet their musical potential and have fun doing it!
#1: Set Goals
I always take a few minutes in their first lesson and talk to them about what they want to accomplish in the upcoming year. It's also a good idea to speak with a parent so that you know what they are expecting from their child's music lessons. I write these goals on a special page at the front of the Student Music Organizer. For a first-year student, their goal might be something as simple as becoming a better note reader, to learn lots of new pieces and, of course, to love music! For an older student, maybe they want to do an exam or finish a grade. Some students may have upcoming auditions or competitions. Each student is unique. Setting goals helps to ensure that the teacher, parent and student are all on the same musical page!
#2: Set Daily Practice Time
Once we have set some attainable goals for the year, then we discuss how much time they will need to practice each week to attain those goals. Students are juggling many things—school, sports, their social life, family commitments and other activities. The list is endless!! I usually write 3 different daily scenarios on the practice page at the front of the Student Music Organizer....good (30 minutes), better (35 minutes) and best (40 minutes). The length of time will depend on their grade and their goals. Once we have decided on their practice time, I require that they practice that amount 6 days a week...they can have one day off! We then break the time down even further. (i.e. 5 minutes for Sight Reading, 10 minutes for Technique and 15 minutes for pieces).
#3: Have Students Record Their Practice Time Each Day
There is a great chart on each assignment page of the Student Music Organizer where they can keep track of their practice times. If they do extra time, I write this below the chart. We call this a "Musical Bank". Then, if they have a crazy week and can't complete all of their time, they can 'borrow' some time from their bank! Students love this idea. I've had students competing to see who can get the biggest bank....it's a very sneaky way to motivate them to do more practicing!! For younger students, I usually have the parent fill in the practice time or have them initial it.
I have found that all students love stickers, not just the younger ones! I always have a special "Sticker of the Week". If they have completed their practice time for the week, then, at their lesson, I will put this sticker on their Assignment page. If they have a 'musical bank', they know that they can borrow from that bank and still receive their sticker.
#5: Studio Practice Chart
In September, I make a large chart on a piece of Bristol board and place it on the wall in the studio. If the student has completed all of their practice time, then they can put a special sticker on the chart for that week. Just knowing that they will be able to put their sticker on the wall really helps motivate them to complete all of their practice time! I also encourage them to try to spread their practicing out over the week. Consistent daily practice is much more effective than a marathon just before the lesson!
#6: Treat Week
If students have completed all of their practicing for the last 5 weeks, then they receive a treat. You wouldn't believe how motivating a Rice Krispie Square can be! My teaching year consists of 35 weeks, so that means that there are seven treat weeks in the year. I use a different sticker on the studio practice chart after each treat week. At the recital, I honour those students who have completed all of their practicing for the entire year with a special certificate. I call them my 'Perfect Practicers'. Most of my students will receive this honour.
Have fun helping your students to achieve their goals. Please feel free to share any motivational ideas that you have used in your studio.
♫ A SPECIAL NOTE ♫…The Student Music Organizer Website is having a fantastic 15/15 sale! For the entire month of August, teachers will receive 15% off of their entire order if they order 15 organizers or more. Use the discount code AUGUST at checkout to take advantage of this terrific deal.
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!