It's December and preparations for Christmas are in full swing.
Last Friday evening, I held my annual Christmas Piano Recital/Musical Party. My students look forward to this event all year long. They started picking their pieces months ago. I have a rule that once you pick a piece it's yours...no one else can play it. One student has already picked her piece for next year.....The Bell Carol is certainly one of the most popular selections! They don't have to choose a Christmas song, but most of them did. One student decided to play Sonatina in G+ by Clementi. We both felt that this was a great opportunity for him to test his memory for an upcoming Grade 8 exam. (I did think of calling it The Christmas Sonatina…..maybe not!)
The recital was a huge success. All students were in attendance and everyone had a great time. Some used their music, some took the music up and didn’t even look at it and some felt brave enough to play from memory. The most important thing is that they were excited to share their music with each other.
This was certainly the case with my youngest student. She could hardly wait to play Jingle Bells with me. She has only had 11 lessons, but she already plays with confidence and she loved having the bells on her arm.
I'd like to share my six secrets for planning the best Christmas recital ever:
I use an Excel sheet called 'Christmas Recital Planning Charts' to organize and prepare for my recital. The file contains several worksheets including the Initial Planning Chart, a Program Planning Chart, the Final Program Planning Chart and a Refreshment Sign-up Chart. I use the Initial Planning Chart to time the pieces before I put the program together.
I find it works well to have the students sitting together at the front of the hall. It helps to have numbers on the students' seats. That way, the students know where to sit and what order they play in. This facilitates the flow of the program.
Shorter is Better
Time the recital pieces! Parents and students will get restless if the program is too long. I find that 60-75 minutes works best…I call this a 'Father Friendly' recital. If you have lots of students, you could hold two separate events (Junior and Senior). My Christmas recital last Friday started at 7:00 and was over by 8:00.
Make sure the students have 6-8 weeks to work on their pieces. Some students are able to get their songs up quickly...that's great. We can put those pieces on a shelf and work on something else in the meantime. However, most students require more time to feel comfortable performing in front of an audience. It's important that they also prepare mentally for their performance. They are not allowed to say the word nervous….instead I tell them that they are 'excited'…it’s a whole different feeling.
The Three Levels of Memory
This leads to my next point....pieces should be memorized. I don't require them to play from memory at the recital unless they feel at ease doing so. However, they will play so much better if their piece is memorized.
I have a theory about memory and performing. (My students know that I always have a theory about something!)
My theory is that there are three levels of memory.
Level 1: The first level is if you can play it at home, but not for me.
Level 2: You can play it for me but it is still not really ready for a performance.
Level 3: You can play it for anyone. Your piece is memorized in sections and you have many safety nets all the way through. I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this - "Don’t practice until you can play it right. Practice until you can’t play it wrong!"
One of my students played Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Tchaikovsky. We discussed the fact that it was written for the celesta. That led to the idea of performing it on her keyboard, which has a cool celesta setting.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Make sure that you have lots of variety. I love finding new and different arrangements of familiar songs. I place special numbers throughout the program and I list them in darker print on the program. This helps to keep the program interesting. Some of my students play other instruments as well. Last Friday, we had additional special performances with harp and voice, accordion, several duets and a fun keyboard piece. Here is an excerpt of What Child is This. The singer is a piano student who has never had formal training. She has a naturally beautiful voice that blended so well with the harp.
Make it Fun
Above all, the recital/musical party should be FUN. My students wouldn't miss it.....it is one of the highlights of our musical year. It is so important that this be a positive, enriching experience for them. Each Christmas, I make the traditional Piano Cake which is reserved just for them. After the recital, we had an informal social time with the parents supplying the rest of the refreshments. This also gave me a change to mingle, visit with their families and take pictures.
At their lesson this week I will ask my students what they liked the best about the recital….something other than the food! I know that they will be excited to share their favourite moments. We might even pick their piece for next year.
This Christmas season, my wish for all my students is that they develop a deep love of music in all its beauty and variety, that they learn to play this instrument we call the piano, that they learn to sight read well, that they gain self-confidence as they perform and that they continue to play, enjoy and share this wonderful gift of music throughout their life.
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
One of the biggest challenges for a teacher can be finding appropriate pieces that students love to play! I’m always looking for interesting, well written music that captures their imagination but also contains sound pedagogical ideas. Finding such a piece is like finding a hidden treasure.
These past few weeks my students have been busy preparing for their first master class and for the Christmas recital. I teach many different levels, ranging from beginners to advanced. Several students are working towards specific goals such as recitals, exams or evaluations.
We currently live in a rural area and all of my students celebrate Christmas. Because of that, most of them have picked a Christmas song for the recital. However, this was not always the case. When I lived in a large city, I had a more multi-cultural program, reflecting the various ethnic backgrounds of my students.
Master classes and recitals are great because students have an opportunity to share their musical gems with others while building confidence at the same time. It’s important to broaden their musical horizons by having them experience all different styles and types of music, from the Classics to Modern to Pop and Jazz. It's also important that we, as teachers, avoid getting stuck in a ‘musical rut’ by always teaching the same material.
Every year I try to find something new and fresh to share with my students. It makes them feel special because they are playing something unique. They especially enjoy descriptive pieces that paint vivid musical picture.
Here are some of the wonderful musical gems that my students have worked on this fall. A few are regular graded pieces, others are Christmas songs, some are pieces that I have taught before and some I am teaching for the first time.
Elementary (Pre-Grade 1 - Grade 2)
- very simple and yet very beautiful
- have students write a story and draw a picture
- great piece to introduce descriptive playing to a younger student
- great piece for teaching the pentatonic scale
- I played the duet with my student while her sisters improvised on a xylophone
- evokes picture of a magnificent eagle soaring high above the majestic mountains
- patterns, counting, pedal, phrasing
- another wonderfully descriptive piece
- broken triads, smooth peddling between hands, dynamic contrasts
- can you imitate the wind as it ebbs and flows? Think of a windy, stormy winter night!
- one of my favourite books, based on poems by Robert Louis Stevenson
Intermediate (Grade 3 - 5)
- very dramatic piece, fun to play
- alternating arpeggios, peddling, dynamic changes, 6/8 time
- the password to obtain the audio track is on the inside cover of the book
- imagine the lazy bedbugs laying around waiting for their next meal!!
- teaches counting and rhythm (swung eighths), listening and staying with the beat
- click here to listen to this piece (from the website)
- all pieces based on provincial flowers of Canada
- Blue Iris is the flower of Quebec
- can you visualize a field of beautiful flowers moving gently in the breeze?
- left hand ostinato, melodic projection, fluid flowing lines
- check out Red Leaf Pianoworks
for more exciting new piano repertoire
Intermediate/Early Advanced (Grades 6 - 8)
- very descriptive piece with modern notation
- always a student favourite
- many changes of dynamics and mood
- dream-like story about a castle, bats and wolves in the dark mist
- great collection of clever and creative arrangements of Irish folk tunes
- fun but challenging piece in 6/8 time
- lots of clef, tempo and key changes, very rhythmic and lively
- Grade 8 exam piece (RCM Syllabus), uses some modern notation
- chord clusters and rapid repeated notes to create a shimmering effect
- lots of dynamic changes and patterns
- very ethereal, beautiful sound picture
My students love playing creative arrangements of familiar tunes.
These types of arrangements can sometimes be challenging to find, but they are well worth learning.
Elementary (Pre-Grade 1 - Grade 2)
- easy arrangement of a classic song by Tchaikovsky
- relay the history of the piece and explain the use of the celesta
- Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course level 2
- beautiful arrangement of this song
- gentle syncopation, chord patterns, melodic projection and balance
Intermediate (Grade 3 - 5)
- this book contains lots of beautifully simple and elegant arrangements
- clever use of Brahms' Lullaby throughout
- balance, phrasing and rubato
- well-written fun, jazzy arrangements of Christmas favourites
- syncopated rhythms and jazz harmonies
- beautiful, inspiring and interesting arrangements
-book 2 is also a favourite
- gentle syncopation, melodic projection, tricky scale passages
Intermediate/Early Advanced (Grades 6 - 8)
- classic carols written in the styles of some of the great composers
- creative, fun way to introduce styles and time periods of different composers
- second volume is called 'More Bach Around the Christmas Tree'
- this book is truly a hidden gem
- wonderful arrangements of familiar and not-so-familiar carols
- fresh approach using Celtic rhythms and colour
- fun romp in 6/8 time
- changes of time and key signatures
Duets - Early & Late Intermediate
- 3 wonderful volumes in this series
- lovely arrangements, great for recital programs
Our first master class of this year was a HUGE success. Everyone loved sharing their special songs and hearing new and interesting pieces. After each performance, I asked them what they liked about the piece. Here are some of their varied and insightful comments....I loved the dreaminess of that piece, I closed my eyes and imagined that I was flying over the mountains, I loved the sounds of the different chords, I could clearly hear 2 voices in the right hand, it sounded very dramatic, the balance was GREAT, I LOVED the story!
Don’t be afraid to try something different. My students love playing imaginative and descriptive pieces. They also enjoy playing creative arrangements of old favourites. Have fun exploring some of these musical gems with your students.
**Feel free to share your Musical Gems in the comments below.**
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Musical Report Cards
The musical year is almost over.....time to look back and see what has been accomplished. My students really look forward to receiving their Musical Report Cards. This has been a tradition in my studio for many years.
A musical report card is a great way to give students a summary of what they have accomplished over the past year. It's also good for the parents to see the progress that their child has made.
Here are some ideas for using Musical Report Cards in your studio:
- Try to make the report card as positive as possible. Encourage, encourage, encourage!! Every student can usually receive an excellent grade in at least one area i.e. attendance, cooperation etc.
- I find it best to grade as excellent, above average etc. rather than give actual marks or A's, B's etc.
- I have a place on the report card to check if the student is what I call a "Perfect Practicer". (I will talk more about this program in a future blog post).
- I always write a few comments at the bottom of the report card. I usually include one or two areas that the student could improve on next year.
- I list all recitals, exams, master classes, auditions etc that the student has been part of throughout the year. That way, the report card becomes a summary of their musical accomplishments for the entire year. Parents especially appreciate this.
- The report card also gives the teacher an opportunity to summarize and review the entire year with the student at their last lesson. You could review their goals for the past year to see if they have met them. It's also a great time to start planning goals for next year.
I have included the original file for the Musical Report Card. You can use my design or personalize it for your own studio. You can easily add your studio logo or header at the top of the report card.
A Fond Farewell
June is also the time when we say goodbye to some of our students. I would like to recognize the accomplishments of two of my students.
The first student has been with me since 2007. She was a transfer student at the Grade 5 level. She completed her RCM Grade 9 piano with me last year with First Class Honours. This year, she has also completed her Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Harmony and her Basic History with Joe Ringhofer (Phoenix Conservatory). I'm very pleased that she has been accepted into the music program as a piano major at a well-known University in Ontario. I wish her all the best in her future.
Here is a video of her performing a beautiful piece entitled Monarchs from the Isla Vista Suite by Canadian Composer Martha Duncan. A big thanks to Martha for permission to post this performance. This piece is on the Grade 9 RCM list.
The other student that I would like to recognize started with me as a beginner when he was 10 years old. He also completed his Grade 9 piano last year (First Class Honours with Distinction). He is pursuing a career in Music Ministry and has been accepted into the music program at a well-known Bible College in the US.
I have included a video of him performing his amazing recital song—Prelude in c#- by Rachmaninoff.
Both of these students are amazing musicians and I will miss them.
Here is the latter student performing the closing number from my June recital with his brother. It was an entertaining and very funny performance of CS Theme and Variations by Randall Compton. (Published by Heritage Music Press).
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
It's May and many music teachers are busy planning for their year-end recital. It can be a very busy and stressful time of the year. Along with the recital planning, there are also student exams plus preparing for next fall. I would like to share some of the effective ideas that I have used for planning, organizing and preparing for "The Perfect Recital".
Start planning early. Finding the best piece for each student takes time. They need time to prepare and hopefully, memorize their song. It's better to have the song up early and put it on a shelf for a few weeks then to be rushing at the last minute.
- Once a piece is picked, don't let anyone else play that song. Students love having their own 'special' song. Sometimes they even pick their song for the Christmas recital before the summer break!!
- Take care to choose pieces that showcase the student's strengths. Also keep in mind the level of difficulty. Try to encourage them to choose something that is a challenge but that they can reasonably perfect for the recital. It's so important that they feel good about their performance.
Timing is essential for a successful recital. The perfect length for a 'father friendly' recital is about 60-75 minutes. As a rule of thumb, each performance should not exceed five minutes. Of course, this also depends upon how many students are performing. Longer songs can be performed in a master class setting. If students are doing a piece that can be modified (i.e. a popular piece), then help them come up with an arrangement of the piece that is not too long, but will still showcases their playing. This is also a valuable skill for them to work on!
- Make sure that the students are well prepared. That way, the program will flow well. I don't require that they play from memory unless they are preparing for an exam or audition. However they will play better and with more confidence if their song is memorized. We work at memorizing the pieces in small sections, preferably hands separately! Then they can chose to use the music or not, depending on their comfort level. Some take the book up with them and never look at it! This helps to take the stress out of performing.
- Try to have a variety of fast and slow songs. Make sure that there are not too many slow songs in a row. It's also good to have a mixture of musical styles including classical and popular pieces.
- Spice up the program with a few special numbers. These pieces should be spaced evenly throughout the program. It's a good idea to list the performers and the piece on the program, but I like to surprise the audience by not giving the details of the performance. There is no need to have them announce their pieces at the recital if there is a program. This also saves time. Make sure each student has a copy of the program.
Pool your resources by involving musical parents or siblings. Maybe some of your students sing or play other instruments. A small choir or vocal ensemble is a fun addition. Try adding duets and trios. The special numbers for my upcoming June recital include two trios, two regular duets (one with a CD backtrack), one piano/harp duet and one piano/organ duet. We also have a student playing a harp solo and a parent playing accordion.
- It's important to keep parents in the loop when it comes to recital planning. I send reminders via e-mail at regular intervals. I also send an information sheet to each family about a week before the recital. This includes important information such as the student's seat number, the piece they are playing, any special numbers they are involved in and what snack the parent is bringing. There is also a map to the recital venue, what time they should arrive, what time the recital starts and any special instructions on dress code.
- My students always look forward to the social time after the recital. At Christmas, I make a special piano cake for the students (see picture at the end of the blog) and the parents help by bringing refreshments. We always take a class picture for the recital history book! The social time gives me an opportunity to visit with the families and friends of the students. (Note...my recital history book contains all the programs and class pictures from previous recitals. It's on display at every recital. Students love to look back and see the progress they have made. They also love to see how they have changed!)
- I find it works well to have the students sitting at the front of the hall. It helps to have numbers on the student's seats. That way, the students know where to sit and what order they play in. This facilitates the flow of the program. I used a free musical font called Onpu to print the numbers seen below. I'll include a link to this font. I downloaded the font and printed the numbers directly onto coloured card stock. Then I had the cards lamented. You can set custom margins to print onto 3x4" cards.
I've included a link for my Blueprint for a Perfect Recital planning sheet. I follow this blueprint every time I'm working on a recital. I've uploaded the Word version of my file so you can modify it for your particular circumstances.
I've also included a link for my Recital Planning Charts. This Excel file has 4 different charts (see the buttons across the bottom of the Excel screen). I've left some of my information on the files from my upcoming recital to show how I use the four different charts. This can be easily erased. Here are the charts that I use to organize my recital:
Initial Planning Chart: This chart is used for picking the pieces and planning the program. All the students are listed in the order that I teach them in the week. They are only allowed to play one regular piece each. I update the information on the computer and print a new sheet every week. I can keep track of progress, make necessary changes and work at timing the recital. The special numbers are listed at the end (orange). Seven to ten special numbers per recital works well. These numbers add interest to the program and give keen students a chance to do something else.
Program Planning Chart: This chart is used to place the pieces in order for the program. Special numbers are listed in dark print and are placed throughout the program as surprises! This chart has a place for seat numbers. I can also use this chart to take attendance on the day of the concert and there is a column for final timing of the program.
Final Program Planning Chart: Just before the recital, all the information from the 2nd sheet is copied onto the 3rd sheet. There are no lines on this chart, so you use it to generate the final program. You can then have the program printed on special paper.
Refreshment Sign-up Chart: This is a sign-up sheet for refreshments. It's posted on my board in the waiting room about 2 weeks before the recital.
Remember that the recital should be fun for both students and parents. Many students have told me that both the Christmas recital and the June recital are the highlights of the year. Very few students miss these events and I rarely have a problem with students leaving early. They look forward to sharing their music with their families and with each other in a relaxed and enjoyable environment. And they especially look forward to the treats afterwards!
Have fun planning "The Perfect Recital"!
My Piano Cake
Last spring, I had an interesting experience with one of my students....I'll call him Lee. He came to his lesson one afternoon and he seemed very upset. He said "My teacher at school wants me to play The Cup Song for our class". I didn't think much of it. "Ask your teacher for the music. You can bring it next week and I'll help you learn it", I said and went on with his regular lesson.
The next week, Lee came for his lesson as usual. However, when he walked in the door, I knew something was wrong. "My teacher wants me to play The Cup Song", he said again. This time, he looked visibly upset. "OK" I said, "Did she give you the music?" I asked. He looked horrified!!! "That's the problem" he said, almost in tears. "She doesn't have any music. She told me to just figure it out!". More tears!
ABOUT FACE!! I quickly abandoned what I had planned to do for that lesson.
"OK" I said. "Where can we find this Cup Song?". I had never heard of it before! "It's from a movie." he said. "It's on Youtube. We sing it at school. My teacher said to say Pepsi instead of whiskey!". I had no idea what he was talking about but I was very interested to find out!!
"Well, let's look on YouTube and we'll see what we can do!"
I searched YouTube on the iPad and quickly found the song. I played it over several times and we listened to it together. Thankfully, it was in C+!! (Yes, I thought. I don't have to transpose it!!)
I explained to him that you don't always have to have music to play a piece. What a revelation!! He looked shocked and surprised at the same time! "Wow, that's cool", he exclaimed!
We turned to the manuscript paper at the back of The Student Music Organizer and I started teaching him how to figure out a melody by ear. Then we had an impromptu lesson on how to transcribe it! I showed him how to figure out the time signature. The melody was simple enough but the rhythm was quite tricky. By the end of the lesson, we had written out the melody for the song and he had something to practice for his teacher! It had been a great lesson and Lee went home smiling!
I called his mother in the middle of the week to see how he was doing with the song! "It's all we've heard", said his Mom!! "He plays it over and over and over!".
At his next lesson, I said to him, "We figured out the melody last week and you can play that. Now let's see if we can add some chords". Again, he was intrigued. I proceeded to teach him the basic chords in C+ (I, IV, V and vi). Then I showed him how these chords can be added to the melody. I told him to listen carefully so that he could figure out which chord would work for which notes. We worked through the song and added the chord symbols over the appropriate notes. It was another great lesson and Lee went home, ready to try the next step.
When he returned the following week, he could play the whole song. He was thrilled. Best of all, his school teacher was thrilled!! He ended up playing "The Cup Song" while his whole class sang and did the rhythm with cups. Then the class performed it at the Spring Concert for the entire school! The most important thing was that Lee felt great about what he had done. He had fun playing music with his friends. He was the hero of the class. Mission accomplished!
Here are some fun ideas on teaching basic ear training in a lesson:
- Start with a familiar tune. Have the student figure out this tune by ear. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well.
- The student could transcribe the melody on manuscript or just learn it by ear.
- Then teach some basic chords (I, IV, V and VI).
- Have the student figure out which chords go with the melody and where they change.
- After that has been mastered, you could have them try some variations with the accompaniment.
- Try some other 2 and 3-chord melodies i.e. Amazing Grace, Happy Birthday or Silent Night.
- Have fun exploring with your students.
"The Cup Song" is also a great song for teaching rhythm. I found out that quite a few of my students knew this song AND they knew how to do the cup rhythm. I had another bright idea!!! Let's do this song for our final recital in June. The students worked well together and they came up with their own arrangement. The biggest challenge was keeping it in sync. They really had to learn to listen to each other and adjust. The above video was our final rehearsal before the recital .They did it perfectly for the concert AND Lee played it from memory! It was the highlight of the recital!!
The moral of this story: Always be ready to change a lesson plan to meet the needs of your students!
My next post will be: Can You Find the Music Hiding in the Notes?
I have just discovered a cool book which helps to teach rhythms while taking advantage of the cup "craze". It is called "Rhythm Cup Explorations" and it is published by Wendy Stevens. Her Website is called Composecreate.com. It's a reproducible resource, so you only have to buy it once for your studio!