This year in my studio, I decided to try something completely different. This past spring, I hosted a ‘Music Enrichment Day’
for my students. This was not a competition, but rather like having a mini lesson with another teacher. Each student had the opportunity to perform two to four songs while I sat in the waiting area the entire morning so that I could encourage them and keep things running smoothly. Memorization was not mandatory, but it was encouraged. Our guest teacher was my friend and colleague, Frances Balodis.
My students participated for various reasons. Some wanted to gain confidence performing for another teacher. Others were preparing for an upcoming exam. Some just wanted to share their music and perform the best that they could. For some, it was their first time playing for another teacher. One brave adult student played 2 songs from memory. He was so proud of himself because he had not performed in many years and this was WAY out of his comfort zone!
My ultimate goal was for each student to continue to grow and develop as musicians.
Here are five tips to help you plan the best Music Enrichment Day ever:
- Pick a date early. Let your students know in September that you are planning a special musical event in the spring. This year, April worked well because I had several students doing exams in June.
- I did charge a registration fee for this event. This gave me funds I needed to pay the adjudicator plus a little extra for treats and adjudicator awards.
All registration forms and fees were collected by the middle of February. Click here to download a fillable PDF Information Sheet and a also a Registration Form that you could use for your own Music Enrichment Day. Feel free to copy and change these forms to suit your own needs.
Finding the Right Person
Book the adjudicator early. Find a teacher in your area who shares your vision of teaching. I wanted someone who was competent, kind and understanding.
- You could keep the cost down by teaming up with another teacher and offering to listen to their students as an exchange.
Timing is Everything
- Know the length of each piece being played. This will help you to plan the day.
Allow extra time so that the adjudicator can work on one or two problem areas. My students loved the fact that they had a mini lesson with Frances. She took the time to demonstrate and even danced a Bourrée with one of them! Click here to download a scheduling sheet (Excel).
Make it Special
- Music Enrichment Day is a great idea, especially for students who feel intimidated or overwhelmed with a formal festival or competition. It's also excellent for those who are performing for the very first time. Above all, you want this to be a fun and encouraging experience for everyone.
My students had a great time. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here’s what some of them had to say about our 2015 Music Enrichment Day:
- “I liked how she taught us different things that we could do with our songs”.
- “It was fun! It wasn’t stressful and I wasn’t scared. The lady was really nice”.
- "I really liked that she's a composer and I got to play a piece that she had written! It was very cool to know what her ideas and thoughts were when she wrote the song. She told me what she was imagining. It was amazing!
- “She gave us lots of great advice. I loved that it was such a comfortable feeling”.
- “This was my first time playing for someone else. I liked that she taught me something. It was fun when she showed me how to dance to my Bourrée”.
- “Miss Frances was really nice. She allowed us to let loose and play our best and she gave us great tips on how to improve our songs”.
- “I got to play in front of someone that I didn’t know. She helped me get ready for my exam”.
- “We got to work with an actual composer. She made me feel welcome”.
- “She liked my songs AND we got treats afterwards!”
- From a Grade 8 Student - “I loved how friendly she was. It wasn't intimidating at all and I instantly felt comfortable playing for her. Her passion for music was so obvious through her comments and excitement when she found out what songs I was playing for my exam. I thought it was a very encouraging event and made me feel more confident about my songs”.
And from my adult student (who also had 2 of his children participate).
- “We had an opportunity to get an unbiased 3rd-party view. It provided validation for what I was doing and for what my teacher was teaching. I also liked that we were expected to perform at a high level. This encouraged me to work hard. It was a great opportunity to perform with nothing on the line. The most important thing was that she was kind and encouraging to everyone”.
Music Enrichment Day is a great opportunity for students to perform their pieces for another professional in a relaxed, friendly environment. It's also a great way to help students gain performance experience and confidence. Frances was the perfect choice for an adjudicator. She was able to reinforce the things that I had been saying in my teaching. Repetition is always good, especially from another person! My student’s playing improved significantly after this event. In the end, everyone had a wonderful time sharing their music.
Have fun planning your own Music Enrichment Day.
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
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.
Take Time to be Organized
The Student Technique Organizers are a great resource for both teachers and students. These handy Scale Charts are one-page practice guides for the RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) technical requirements.
- 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!!
- Mock Exams help. (See previous blog post - ‘8 Essential Keys for Successful Exam Preparation’). Scroll to the bottom of the blog post for lots of great ideas on doing Mock Exams with students.
Take Time to Listen and Think Before you play
- 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.
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credits: Playing Piano, 12-2009, Time, 01-2008
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.
(Teresa Richart) Study - Teacher’s Own Choice (Canadian Composer) from 'At Sea'
(Frances Balodis) Study - Teacher’s choice (Canadian Composer)
(Boris Berlin) List C (Canadian Composer)
(Martha Duncan) List D (Canadian Composer) from 'Isla Vista Suite'
KEY #4 MEMORIZE IN SECTIONS
Don't Practice Until You Get it Right, Practice Until You Can't Get it Wrong.
Here's my Theory....there are 3 levels of memory for pieces
- You can play it at home, but it is still shaky at your lesson.
- You can play it at your lesson, but it is not yet ready for performance.
- You can play it for anyone because you know it inside out.
- Divide pieces into logical sections according to form and phrasing. Label them A, B, C etc.
Learn and memorize pieces Hands Separately (HS) and Hands Together (HT) in sections.
Be able to start at any section - RH, LH or HT (Safely nets throughout piece).
- Keep going in performance….jump to the next section if you must but NEVER go back.
- Practice 'jumping' while playing....student starts their piece, teacher calls out a section and the student must jump to that section and keep going!
- See our handy Sight Reading Memory and Performance Cards for lots of great ideas on Memorizing and Performance.
KEY #5 PERFORMANCE EXPERIENCE
The Importance of Performance Practice
- 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.
See my blog post on Maintenance Practice for more ideas.
KEY #7 ORDER MATTERS
Plan the Order of the Exam Carefully
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.
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: Alice's Door Knob, 7-2012
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.
I have several incentives in my studio to help motivate my students. Some of these have already been outlined in a previous blog post entitled “Stickers, Charts & Rice Krispie Squares—Strategies for Practice Motivation”.
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 noted on 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.
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: "Star Walkers" by Paul Kline
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 ♥︎
”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
"A goal is a dream with a deadline."
This is a quote from the early 20th century American author Napoleon Hill. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers on how to be successful in life. Another of his hallmark expressions was, "Anything the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve."
The beginning of the piano year is an ideal time to talk to our students about musical goals. It’s important that the teacher knows what the student would like to accomplish in the year ahead. The student also needs to know what the teacher believes they can achieve.
Here are some simple goal-setting strategies that you can use with your students:
I always take a few minutes at the first lesson to discuss and record each student's goals. This gives me the opportunity to suggest an appropriate amount of practice time per week. Even beginners can have musical goals. For them, it can be something as simple as 'This year I’m going to love music!' On the Forbes website it states, "Creating clear and measurable goals and writing them down is the key to success."
- Communication between parents, students and teacher is very important. Make sure that the parents have the same expectations as the students. Problems can arise when the goals of the parents are too difficult for the student. You may need to speak to the parent alone to express these concerns and come to a compromise.
- Goals for more advanced students might include finishing a level or grade (practical or theory), doing an exam or taking part in a competition. If students don’t want to do exams, then their goals could be to improve their sight reading by completing a certain number of classical or popular pieces. It helps to be specific. For example, a good goal might be to learn a number of scales or pieces by a certain date.
- Musical goals will depend upon the students' abilities and also on how much time they can devote to practice. It’s important that their goals be achievable so they don’t get discouraged.
Having said that, sometimes I've had students set a goal that I thought was too difficult. I try to support them and so we discuss the practice time required to reach their goal. For example, last year I had a student who was working at a Grade 3 level. My goal for her was to do a grade 3 exam. However, she expressed a strong desire to complete Grade 4 by the end of the year. We adjusted her practice time and came up with strategies to accomplish this. She worked very hard and did complete her grade 4 with an excellent mark.
- 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....for example: 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).
- Review the student's goals throughout the year. This helps to ensure that they are still on track. You may have to adjust the goals from time to time depending on the progress of the student.
- There is such a great feeling of accomplishment when students are able to reach their musical goals. A Musical Report card is a wonderfully positive way to finish the year. I always list goals that have been completed. I also recognize students at the year-end recital who have completed all of their practicing for the year. I call them my “Perfect Practicers” (see blog post entitled It's June - Musical Report Cards and a Fond Farewell).
'The Student Music Organizer' has a special spot on page 2 at the front of the book for listing musical goals. This makes it very easy to review these goals regularly throughout the year. This page also includes a place to keep track of favourite repertoire and a section for exam planning. On page 3, there is a very handy place for planning and organizing the student's practice time.
Teaching is like a triangle. The parent and the teacher are at the bottom supporting the student at the top. Working together as a team is the best way to ensure musical success for the student. Remember - The First Step to Reaching your Goals is Believing You Can Get There.
♥︎ Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: mindfulwishes.com
It's September...time for music lessons to start again. I'm sure that many of us have new students who are just starting piano lessons. It's so important that their first lesson be a very positive and enjoyable experience. I'd like to share with you a fun game that I play at their first piano lesson. My younger students really enjoy this activity and they are learning so much while they are having fun. I call this game "Who Lives in the Doghouse?"
Here's how it works:
Using the right hand, have the student tuck their thumb, 4th and 5th fingers together so that you only have fingers 2 and 3 showing (like 2 stork legs)!
Have them play all the '2-black keys' on the piano with fingers 2 and 3. Start on the right side of the piano and go to the left.
As they play, ask them what they notice about the sound (the notes start high and get lower and lower). Remind them to drop the arm weight forward into the keys as they play so they make a nice sound.
When they have finished playing the 2-black keys, have them tuck the thumb and 5th finger behind fingers 2,3 and 4 on the left hand and have them use those fingers to play all the '3-black keys', starting on the left side of the keyboard and going to the right. Again, have them listen to the sounds of the notes and tell you what they notice.
The next step is to make 7 ‘doghouses’! They especially love this part! Take 7 various coloured 3x5" file cards and folding them in half. I have the student decorate these with dog stickers. Place a doghouse over each of the '2-black keys’ on the keyboard.
At this point, I ask the question…."Who lives in the doghouse?” And they answer - "The dog, of course!!"
I then tell them that the white key between the 2-black keys is called a D.....D for Dog!
In the right hand, have them place their thumb behind the first joint of the 3rd finger and play all the 'Dogs' on the piano. Start with the low, grouchy dogs and play up to the high dogs!
The thumb behind the 3rd finger helps to support the joint so that it doesn’t collapse. It also gives a nice, rounded hand position and helps them to feel the arm weight drop into the keys. Take care that they don’t raise the 5th finger as they play.
Next I ask ”OK….what note comes BEFORE D in the alphabet?" They usually have to think about this one for a bit!!
Finally they say C. I tell them that the note to the left of D is the Cat (C)! He lives under the dog house because the dog won't let him inside!! Have them play all the Cat's on the keyboard.
"Now...what note comes AFTER D”? “That’s easy….E!” “E is for Elephant. He won't fit inside the doghouse, so he lives on top of it!!” Have them play all the E's on the piano.
You can alternate between starting high or starting low on the piano.
I call the "3-Black keys" the big house! “What note comes before C?” “B is for Boy. The boy lives on the roof of the big house because he feeds the cat!”
The rest of the game goes like this.....Father (F) went to Africa and came back with an elephant! He lives in the basement of the big house so he can feed the elephant!
The Grandma (G) lives downstairs in the big house because she doesn’t like the stairs. However, the Aunt (A) lives upstairs.
I usually embellish the story as we go along! They like to add to the story as well. Students also love to ‘practice’ their doghouses at home!
My beginner student came for her second lesson this morning. Her mother said that she absolutely LOVED the doghouses! She had placed cat stickers on the back side of the cards. When I asked her why, she said "Because the cat lives beside the doghouse!"
I play this game with my students for several lessons until they have a solid knowledge of the keys on the piano. My older students tell me they still remember their first piano lesson when we played this game! It’s a great way to make the first lesson special. Have fun making doghouses!
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Summer is a great time to relax and enjoy the nice weather. But for music teachers, summer is also the time to prepare for the fall. There is always so much to do before regular lessons resume. Organization is the key to having a well-run business. With a little planning ahead of time, you can sail into September knowing that everything is ready to go! That way you will spend less time worrying about all the things that you have to do and more time enjoying the time off. I would like to share with you a few great organizational ideas that have worked for me.
One of the first things that I do when preparing for the upcoming season is to work on my Yearly Studio Calendar. I have an Excel chart that I use to generate a one-page Calendar for parents and students. I can use the same chart each year. I just change the dates and add all the important information that I feel my students and parents need to know for the whole year (i.e. master classes, recitals, festivals, holidays, deadlines, exams, upcoming events, vacations, etc). In late August, I e-mail this to all of my parents along with a reminder of their first lesson date and time. I place a copy of the Calendar on the bulletin board in my waiting room. I also tape a copy in the back of each student’s Organizer so that I can refer to it at their lesson throughout the year and highlight any upcoming dates. I've included a link to my original file for the Yearly Studio Calendar in this post. That way, you can download it and change the information to suit your own teaching year.
- The iPad is an amazing tool. For me, it was definitely worth the investment. (See previous Blog Post called 'The iPad and the Music Teacher'). The Calendar App is one of the best studio organization tools on the iPad. I love how it backs up automatically to the cloud so that I don’t have to worry about losing my information. Entries can be colour coded to keep track of lessons that have been changed or missed. You can also write notes pertaining to a lesson directly on the individual entires. The search function is fantastic. In an instant, I can see all of the lessons for one particular student for the entire year. I also find the Contacts App very useful for keeping track of all student information. My iPad has revolutionized the way that I organize my business. Here's a link to help you get started. This article will help you with the basics of using the calendar App.
- I have a very handy ‘Performance Tracking Chart’ (Excel File) that I use to organize all student performances throughout the year. Once I’ve completed my yearly calendar, I set up this chart with student's names and dates of all master classes, recitals and other performances. Then I print it and put it on a clip board that I keep beside me in the studio. I can use this chart for performance planning throughout the year. In September, the first thing we do is pick a Master Class piece (for the end of October) and a Christmas recital piece. I will also use this to help plan performances for exam preparation. I can keep track of all performance pieces for all students throughout the year on these sheets. I find it easier to work with a paper copy in the studio. I can fill it in as I’m teaching. Every two weeks or so, I will update the chart on the computer with any changes or additions and print it again. This gives me a running list of all performance pieces being worked on by my students at all times. I also list the students' pieces in their own Organizer. There is a column in the chart for keeping track of the total playing time for pieces which is useful for timing recitals and Master Classes. Here is the original file of my ‘Performance Tracking Chart’. This will allow you to input the names, dates and events to suit your own studio.
The Student Music Organizer is another great time-saving teaching tool. Each September, my students start a brand new book. The book is written on 8 1/2 x 11” paper so there is lots of room for writing notes. It is is designed to last for an entire year of lessons so you don't have to buy 2 or 3 smaller notebooks. At the end of the year, you will have a complete record of what has been done for the entire year. Parents love it as well. If they have a question, I can tell them to check the Organizer! Here are some of the sections included in this great resource:
Goal Setting Section — I do this on the first lesson so that we know how to plan for the year.
Favourite Piece Section — This is very helpful when planning recitals, festivals or exams.
Exam Planning — for students doing an exam in the upcoming year, we start planning right away.
Practice Planning — after we have set goals for the year, we then decide together how much time they will need to practice each week to attain these goals. This time can then be broken down into smaller sections so they know how long to spend on each aspect i.e. pieces, technique, sight reading
The Organizer contains 35 Assignment Pages. These sheets can be filled out during the lesson. Each page contains a chart for recording weekly practice. There is also manuscript across the bottom and the pages are numbered so you can refer back to a scale or exercise assigned earlier in the year.
The back of the book contains lots and lots of valuable reference material. You will find extra manuscript paper, a composer chart, summary sheets for musical time periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionism and Modern), music dictionaries, basic music theory reference guides and a wonderful comparative fingering chart for keyboard instruments.
- ♫ 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.
Have a great rest-of-the summer AND have fun getting organized for September.
♥︎ Remember, Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎
♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credit: "Over the River and Through the Woods" by garlandcannon
All Cows Eat Grass.....this is one of the many popular sentences used to teach note reading on the grand staff. But is this the most effective way for students to become the best sight readers?
Sight-reading is a key. It can open the door to the amazing world of music. To be a good sight reader, a student must first learn how to read the notes. It is important to remember that music is a language. When a child is first learning to read a language, they have to start by learning the alphabet. Then they learn how to read words, sentences and eventually books, using those letters. It is the same for music and it takes a good deal of time and effort.
Sight-reading is a gift. I often tell my students that sight reading is probably one of the greatest gifts that I can give to them. My hope for my students is that they will continue to play the piano long after they have finished taking lessons. Many times I have heard adults regretfully admit that they took lessons when they were young but can no longer play.
Sight-reading is a skill. Acquiring this skill begins with the very first lesson. Here are a few ideas and strategies that have worked for me as I train my students to be the best sight readers they can be.
- Start note reading at the very first lesson. I prefer to teach the actual notes rather than having students read general positions on the staff and then switching them to the actual notes later on.
There are two main methods that I have used for teaching note reading. The first method is to use acronyms and words (mnemonics) to memorize where the notes are on the Grand Staff. The spaces on the Treble Staff spell 'FACE' and the lines are 'Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (Fun)’ or 'Empty Garbage Before Dad Freaks'. The Bass Staff spaces are 'All Cows Eat Grass' and the lines are 'Good Boys Deserve Fudge (Fun) Always’ or ‘Great Big Dogs Find Animals’. You can also make up your own acronyms. Students generally learn to read quite quickly using this method. However, my experience has been that they can become dependent on these short cuts. It takes much longer to be able to read the notes without saying the sentences, especially in the bass clef. I use this method if the students are not able to learn any other way.
My preferred method is sometimes called The Symmetrical 'C' Approach. I find that this method takes longer but achieves better results in the end. The Symmetrical 'C' Approach uses landmark notes throughout the Grand Staff. I call them Hitching Posts. Have students memorize these notes right away. This gives the students something to 'hang on to'. Once they have their Hitching Posts memorized, they can figure out other notes around them.
The Grand Staff is like a Mirror. Have them memorize the position of Middle C in the middle of both staves. This is the first Hitching Post. I tell my students that the staff is also like a Ladder....you have to be able to read the notes forwards going up and backwards going down. Have them say the letters ABCDEFG as fast as they can. Then try saying the letters backwards just as quickly...GFEDCBA! Students love trying to see how quickly they can say the letters backwards!
After Middle C, I teach the Hitching Posts G and F. In the Treble Staff, G is two lines up from 'Middle C’. The Treble Clef can also be called a 'G Clef' because G is in the middle of the large swirl. And if you stretch your imagination, the treble clef kind of looks like a cursive G. In the Bass Staff, F is 2 lines down from ‘Middle C’. The Bass Clef is also called an 'F Clef'. The big dot of the Bass Clef sits on this F and the two smaller dots are in the spaces on either side of it. If you really stretch your imagination and add two small lines from the small dots back to the bass clef, it kind of looks like an F!
When I feel that the students are ready, I teach that the next Hitching Posts are 'Treble C' (3 spaces up from Middle C) and 'Bass C' (3 spaces down from Middle C). Students can memorize these notes, then figure the notes out around them.
Later on, you can teach that 'High C' (2 ledger lines above the Treble Staff) and 'Low C' (2 ledger lines below the Bass Staff) are also Hitching Posts. Having these notes memorized helps students read ledger lines.
Each Assignment Page in The Student Music Organizer has manuscript across the bottom. For beginner students, every week I write notes on the Grand Staff for them name. I use this to review the all the notes they have learned so far. This becomes part of their theory assignment each week and I will continue to give them notes until they know them fluently. Another great idea is to have them play the notes with their thumb behind their middle finger (RH or LH) while naming the notes out loud. They can do this all week as part of their practice and then add the letter names on the page just before the lesson.
Flash Cards can be a very effective tool for students who are just learning to read notes. Have them practice the flash cards at home with a parent or sibling.
- There are Reference Charts for both note reading methods on page 6 of The Student Music Organizer. These Handy Note Readers are also available on small, two-sided or in 8 1/2 x 11 format for teachers to use in the studio.
I have the students start in 3 or 4 beginner books and I use the Dozen a Day books as well. I want them to read lots and lots of music....I call it 'eating music'. The more they read, the quicker they will learn to sight-read. Here are some of the beginner resources that I have used successfully:
Music Flash Cards (Jane Smisor Bastien) or Music Flash Cards - Set A (Hal Leonard)
A Dozen a Day - Mini Book, A Dozen a Day - Preparatory Book (Edna May Burnam)
Easiest Piano Course Part One (John Thompson) I like this book because there are no finger numbers.
- Teaching Little Fingers to Play (John Thompson)
- Teaching Little Fingers to Play Disney Tunes (John Thompson)
- The Leila Fletcher Piano Course - Book One (Leila Fletcher)
Progressive Piano Method for Young Beginners - Book 1 (Gary Turner & Andrew Scott). This book has a wonderful accompaniment CD that can be used at the very first lesson. It also teaches the right hand first and then the left hand in C position.
- Leila Fletcher's Music Lessons Have Begun (Leila Fletcher)
Piano Adventures - Book 1: Lesson Book. You can also use the Technique & Artistry, Performance, Popular and Gold Star Performance. I find that these books work well after students have completed the initial beginner books.
If you have any favourite beginner books that you use, please feel free to share these in the comments below.
Sight-reading is a skill that takes time to acquire. But it is well worth the effort.
♥︎ Remember.....Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎
Photo Credit: denisbin