My friend Mary was cornered by a 4th grade student one day, who told her, “You’re pretty smart, for a music teacher.”
Mary asked the little girl why she thought most music teachers weren’t so smart.
“Because you only teach singing and playing instruments. Can you multiply? Can you divide? Can you do fractions?”
How would you answer this little girl?
Does this tell us something about our compartmentalized world? The little girl was learning music but should she have been taught the connections music has with everything else?
Should music teachers make these connections obvious? Or are we so intent on making music fun and doable, or on accomplishing specific tasks involved in learning a skill or satisfying a curriculum, that we don’t have time or mental space to tie things together as we teach?
I find that making connections in music learning to people’s work lives, to school subjects, to decisionmaking, to learning, help people learn music better. But I can’t say I methodically connect all the dots. Do you?
Below are some connections meant as food for thought for music teachers. (And please, add any subjects or angles that you feel are missing!) Read more…
The UK composer Elena Cobb has been busy recently!
Hot off the press is her latest book for complete beginner pianists entitled “My Piano Trip to London.”
Printed in full colour landscape, the first thing you notice is a sticker page that children will love using when they complete each song.
Each of the 17 songs represents a different London landmark or icon, giving a nice opportunity to engage the pupil in conversation outside music and then to relate it back to the lesson at hand. It’s quite an adventure to embark on with the pupil as you work your way through the book, from the Royal Albert Hall, to the London Eye, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben to mention but a few.
Over the years I’ve seen piano methods that contain lots of detailed instructions and exhaustive advice that quite frankly nobody bothers to read. Elena Cobb has really struck the balance I think in keeping each page clean and simple so that the teacher can do their job but also providing concise facts and tips that will be useful and enjoyable. I laughed to myself when reading Read more…
Performance is always the desired outcome of practice and music lessons, and yet music teachers typically spend only a small proportion of their time with students on the practice of performance itself.
We ‘perform’ in a sense whenever we play of course, and in this respect running through your pieces for your teacher, or for family and friends, can help musicians to begin to see the full shape of a piece. But bringing the piece off as a complete idea – an idea that bears your unique interpretive stamp as a musician – is something else entirely.
Few pedagogical avenues exist that can replicate performance sufficiently well to allow for development in this area. In this short blog series, of which this is the second instalment, I’m focusing on one such avenue: the masterclass.
The masterclass, in which a student performs a piece in front of a live audience and is then coached on it in an intensive session with an expert performer, is the best possible environment in which to nurture your students’ ability to imagine their own performance and to deliver it with confidence and heart to their audience. Read more…
It will be hard to outdo the Christmas gift given to my student families last year. The savvy keepsake came to me when I saw that it was possible to link a video to a QR code and print the codes on stickers.
FYI: A QR code (short for Quick Response) is a specific matrix bar code (or two-dimensional code), readable by dedicated QR bar code readers and camera phones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded on a QR code can be text, a URL link or other data like a video.
I bribe my students with Music Money. (Read more about it here.) They are given the chance to shop and spend their hard-earned cash various times during the year at my studio store and as a result, they accumulate many trinkets and gifts. Because of this bribery system, it seemed appropriate to give the parents of my students a gift instead for the holiday season. A handmade item crafted by their adored, budding musician seemed appropriate and definitely more meaningful than any store-bought item. This line of thought triggered the idea of students designing cards with QR code stickers for their parents. more
A screenshot of the top of my Thumbtack profile page.
One day I saw an ad on my Facebook page from Thumbtack. Have you seen it? It said something to the effect, “Thumbtack needs guitar teachers!” Curiosity got the best of me one day so I clicked on it.
Turns out they do! Thumbtack connects people that have project goals with professionals that can help them accomplish those goals. As a private guitar teacher, I can post a profile on Thumbtack that allows people searching for a guitar teacher to send me a request for a lesson quote. If they like the quote, Thumbtack puts us in touch and voilá, I’ve got a new student!
Thumbtack made it pretty easy to get started. The sign-up process was guided and surprisingly easy. When finished, your profile will have a clean and professional look. Here’s a link to my profile. (I’ve included some screenshots of the edit view of my profile page in this post.) You can include a bio, studio logo, details about the kinds of services you offer as well as professional credentials and that’s just for starters. You can included links to your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts, too, not to mention your Music Teacher’s Helper Website! When you’re ready to reply to customer requests you purchase credits, which are currency on Thumbtack, you use to pay when you send a quote to a customer. (Quotes cost between 2 and 9 credits depending on the type of project.) For guitar lessons it costs 2 credits or about $3 to send a prospective customer a quote. Would you be willing to pay someone $3 to find you a new student? That should be a no-brainer! Read more…
Piano Marvel drastically improves practice quality by using gaming technology to keep students focused on goal oriented practicing. It allows teachers to track daily practice and more easily involve parents with learning through weekly automated emails of students practice and progress reports. Your students will have fun perfecting a piece while accelerating their rhythm accuracy and sight reading skills.
Music Teacher’s Helper and Piano Marvel are friends, so right now you can receive a 30-day free trial and 20% discount by using the following code when signing up: 3EEED31A
Piano Marvel has been around since 2009 and their newest version has just been released with many improvements. Here are some notable updates:
A better way for your students to try it out – free access for the initial Level 1. When your students reach Level 2 they can choose to upgrade to premium to access those songs. All the premium features will be open access for the first 30 days of their account.
With a recital looming on the horizon, some of my students asked how they could prepare to perform before an audience. So I made it the subject of a master class.
Snacks came first—the best-ever ice breaker. I found out some of their favorite cookies ahead of time, and did a little baking. It’s surprising how food warms the student heart and softens the attitude. Apple cider and some new flavors of candy corn brought a fall flavor to the table. Some gourds for décor, and we were all set.
I got out my white board and asked the group a few questions about how they would prepare to perform. They recorded their answers on the board in their favorite colors. Let me share some of them. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s this group’s list, and I applauded them for it:
Keeping the arm behind each finger is a concept that should be taught early on in the piano teaching process. Here are some of the steps I use to help the students understand what I am asking of them.
I start by asking the students to stand up tall; like a dancer, or a graceful tree.
Then I have them try to feel their shoulders in different positions; way back, curled forward, hunched up toward their ears. The final position is the arms handing freely from the sockets, with shoulders relaxed and open-feeling. I also have them try breathing in each position and notice how much easier it is to breathe standing tall.
To reinforce the relaxation of the shoulders I have them bend slightly forward from the waist and let their arms sway freely. I try to give them an image, such as wet spaghetti noodles, or willow tree branches—anything limp.
Next they turn their palms down and lift their forearms a 90º angle and try to keep the relaxed feeling in their shoulders.
Now we move to the piano and I talk to them about three firm joints and three relaxed joints. The three firm joints are in the fingers. The three relaxed joints are the shoulder, elbow, and wrist (the wrist being more “flexible” than loose).
To get the feeling of strong fingers under a heavy relaxed arm, we practice holding a pencil with the eraser-end down, and dropping it onto a table or closed piano keyboard cover. When this feeling is mastered we move to dropping it on to the actual piano keys. Playing with a pencil may be a very crude approach to touch, but I would argue that it is a good beginning point with young students because it is so difficult for them to execute the feeling of a relaxed arm and strong finger joints at the same time.
I have a “trick” pencil that is bendable, so at this point I bring it out and point out that we can’t make the same nice sound at the piano when the pencil collapses, and it is the same with our fingers.
Now we look at the three finger joints and talk about how they should be shaped and held, and how they need to feel strong for holding up a heavy arm. At some point in here we also talk about the strong arch needed in the hand shape, formed by a concave palm.
We work on strengthening the finger joints, preparing them to feel the weight of the arm, by making circles with the thumb, pressing each finger on an eraser tip, making “dog houses” on a flat surface, etc.
I have found that playing with just the third finger for awhile gives the student a chance to succeed and internalize this feeling. I then branch out to the second and fourth fingers, and finally the fifth finger and thumb—which need their own special lessons. Working with just one finger at a time also seems to help the student play with the non-playing fingers more relaxed, instead of sticking out all over the place.
I ask students to play non-legato until they master arm weight. Later, when we start legato playing, I go slowly and teaching them that the “walking arm” is still behind each finger.
Another tool I use is five-finger rhythms that have the student get a lot of height between notes so they can have the feeling of falling down on to the keys. It is hard to feel the weight of gravity if you are only a half inch over the landing.
Students might start to add an extra “push” behind the arm weight which results in a harsh sound. It can help to have them play the finger in the palm of their hand or on their own arm so they can “feel what the piano feels.”
When we get a firm foundation with the hand and fingers, I go back to work on the arm weight. I tell the students that each finger should feel like the arm “belongs to it” and is always right behind it. I use various tools to help them feel this weight, such as a length of fleece that creates a sling on their wrist. I work with them until I feel a completely relaxed arm as I hold up the sling. I also use girls’ hairbands on the wrist for this exercise. Having the students drop their arms freely onto their lap can help to regain the feeling of looseness during a lesson.
I point out to the student the better tonal quality they produce when their technique is good. I ask them to listen for the differences and describe them to me. Good technique can make your fourth grade song sound like you are a professional, and bad technique can make it sound like you are still in kindergarten.
In the beginning I go through all or part of this sequence every week until I feel like it is engrained in their muscle memory. After that I only make small corrections as needed during a lesson.
I have much better success with this process if the student has had no previous piano experience and there is no unlearning to do. To be honest, unless an older student makes a conscious decision to make the requested changes, you can have years of less-than-ideal results.
It is good to give students exercises to practice these skills that are played by ear, so there is no distraction of a printed page taking their focus off of the physical experience.
Finally, I visit the student’s home once a year to see if they have proper sitting posture at home. After all, this is where most of their time at the piano is spent, and habits are ingrained. I often have to ask the parents to get booster cushions, and sometimes a footstool, to get the right position. This website has the best cushions at the best price: http://www.young-musicians.com/product-p/psc1.htm. They also sell reasonably priced footstools.
I realize there are many ways to teach the concept of arm weight, and much more detail that could be covered, but this is just an overview of how I approach the subject. I would love to hear back from you with more ideas so we can all keep improving.
Playing a musical alphabet game is a great way to reinforce the concept of reading music. Younger piano students also love to do any activities ‘off the piano bench’, don’t they?
Alphabet Game for Piano
Teaching the Musical Alphabet
One of my favourite piano games helps my beginner students to learn the musical alphabet using a set of foam letter blocks.
I encourage them to trace over the letters, put the letter blocks in the correct order, place them one at a time on the piano keys (having picked them randomly from my bag) octave by octave – students see how the letters can be read backwards through the alphabet. These are only a few of the ideas that could be used.
We are excited to introduce the Music Teacher’s Helper Android app, now available in the Google Play Store. Free to download and use, this brand new app compliments the Music Teacher’s Helper web app. If you do not have an active Music Teacher’s Helper account, you can sign up for a no-risk trial here.
How to download the Music Teacher’s Helper Android App:
Select the Google Play Store icon from your Android device.
The Android app allows you to do many of the same functions as the web app version of the software. Here are some examples where the app could come in handy:
Easily add, view, or edit student information and call, text, or email them from your phone.
View your schedule when not in front of your computer or laptop.
Add mileage right from your phone before stepping out of your car (make sure to park first!).
There are many more reasons to use the app. Different teachers use it for different reasons. Your students can also use it to record practice sessions (with a built-in timer) and check their lesson schedule and payments.
What is a Public Beta?
Initial launches of an app can be tricky. There are thousands of Android devices with different screen sizes. We are excited to get the app into your hands, yet we understand it may not be perfect immediately. We would appreciate it if you let us know of any bugs, or anything we could create in the app to help you manage your studio better, and save you time every day.
We also want to know what features from the site you want to see in the app next, so reach out with your vote. You can send feedback from within the app or get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To check out the Music Teacher’s Helper Google Play page, click here.