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.
And there I stood! A shy, male, British, teenager!
Everything was conspiring against me. Especially my music teacher. Right then as he commanded me to “sing” I was thinking unspeakable thoughts of hatred towards him.
Why did I need to sing in the school choir? After all I was an instrumentalist. I’d managed to survive all these years of mumbling at the back during class singing so why did everything need to get so ugly?
And there I stood! The whole choir of immature boys and girls just waiting to poke fun at me. Why couldn’t I just run around the corridors naked? Surely that would be less embarrassing?
But he made me do it! Oh how I seethed with anger at the time. But when I look back now, he probably gave me one of the greatest gifts to my musicianship!
So why sing?
Reason 1: Helps You Express Yourself Better
When you can’t articulate into words what you mean to another musician, singing simply fills in the gaps. The more frequently you sing to express musical ideas, the more relaxed and “normal” this method becomes. I love to promote a safe environment in my studio where everyone feels relaxed enough to communicate through singing their musical intentions without Read more…
With this post, I’m going to start a short series of blogs on the theme ‘An Invitation to Performance’. I will be exploring performance as an action, a skill, and as something that every teacher should consider offering as an integral part of his or her teaching studio. As my students and colleagues well know, I can get quite evangelical about the importance of providing access to performance – in particular experimental performance (about which more later) — to all students, whether aspiring professionals or dedicated amateurs.
Performance offers us commentary on and access to a part of our musical self that no other medium can: it is the window into our true, communicative, musical responses, while at the same time being in the only venue in which we can observe or consider those truths. Performance is a lot of other things as well, things that my friends well know that I take great pleasure in discussing far into the wee hours. It’s a space; it’s a shared arena for action; it’s the special place where only musical things happen; it’s our only access to the creativity of our audiences.
I’ll be saying more about these and other ideas surrounding performance in future blogs, but for now, let me me start the series by banging a favourite drum regarding an effective practical option available to all music teachers who wish to give their students more access to the joys and intrigue of performance: the institution of the studio masterclass.
Making masterclasses work
There can be few experiences more stimulating for both music teacher and student than witnessing an expert performer working with a student in a masterclass setting. Once the hard graft of technique, musicianship, and style have been addressed, and once the many long hours of practice have been clocked, the opportunity for students to step out into the light of the concert hall and begin to experiment with performance under the expert guidance of a professional is an invaluable one. It is the crucial step between practice and performance, in particular, professional performance – in my opinion, the crucial step.
And yet, not all teachers make the space for masterclasses as part of the regular studio activities. Read more…
“Students at any age will be encouraged to develop independence at the piano so that music can be enjoyed on the bench for a lifetime.”
The quote above is my longstanding mission statement. Growing “lifetime” pianists calls for meticulous planning, appealing music with a dose of quality teaching and most importantly, an installation of strong technical skills and diligent practice habits. While reading the TeachPianoToday blog…. I was inspired by a post about a special welcome bag given to each new student. I thought this would be a great way to kick off fall lessons in my studio but instead give every student a “welcome-back bag”. The idea of these bags becoming “practice pouches” made sense as practice is a habit that can always use a boost, especially after a summer break. Read more…
One of the biggest challenges students face when playing guitar is learning how to strum correctly. They usually have a favorite song they’d love to learn how to play but when they sit down to try and figure it out it just doesn’t sound right. Every time they try it, the strum sounds all herky-jerky instead of smooth and flowing. Sound familiar?
Before we get started, be sure to open this PDF: Keys To Strumming, which I’ll be referring to throughout this post. If you’re wondering what chords to play during this lesson, click here to use any to use any of the common-tone chord shapes I wrote about.
THE QUARTER NOTE BOUNCE
It’s fairly easy to teach a student how to play the quarter-note strumming pattern in Fig. 1 (Keys To Strumming PDF). All you have to do is play a down-strum on every count (or beat). Every time you strum down, you count 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. But there’s really more going on here. Once the down-strum is played, you have to lift your hand back up to prepare for the next down-strum, right? This down-up movement of the strumming hand is more accurately represented by eighth notes. Look at Fig. 1 again. The arrows above the staff, hovering over each down beat and up beat, represent those eighth notes. In other words, you should be counting “one and two and three and four and” as you strum down, up, down, up, etc. This steady down-up strumming movement is what I call The Quarter Note Bounce. Read more…
“Can I do the 100-day practice challenge?” Ava asked, her eyes wide. “If I do it, will I get my name in Piano Explorer Magazine?”
“Yes, and yes,” I said. Piano Explorer Magazine publishes names of students who complete 100 days, 200 days, and more. Read about it here: Piano Explorer
Ava and her sister Callie are two of my go-getters. Their assignment binders include a box to check for each day they practice. But from a free online site, I printed Hundred-charts for them so they can see their days accumulate.
About two weeks after they started, they challenged me. “Are you going to do the 100-day practice challenge?”
At first, I said no way. I play and teach several different instruments. I do daily lesson prep for a lot of students. I write music for some of them and for my choir. I’m working on… everything. But as I looked at their eager faces, I wondered how I could expect them to commit to what I’m not willing to do. Deep breath. I said “Yes.”
Each week they reported their progress and asked if I was keeping it up. I did so for nearly three weeks before I forgot a day. I had a great excuse. But still, I forgot. So I started over. I copied myself a new Hundred-chart. When I shared my failure with the girls, they were sympathetic and encouraging.
How long to practice each day? Occasionally I might get in an hour. Or I might make it through a song once. One day I was gone from early morning to late night. But in the car that day, I worked out some fingerings so that the next day, I had them down cold. I shared this with my students in case they’re traveling sometime without access to a keyboard. In a pinch, yes, it can count!
(I practiced every day!!!)
What to practice? Since PE Magazine doesn’t specify, neither do I. They can sightread, play a repertoire piece, work on their lesson, or learn something new.
Not the only way—I’m not saying it’s necessary to practice daily. This is just one possibility. Do you have any practice incentives going on?
The excitement catches on with other students
Surprise benefit: I’m playing more for fun—rediscovering enjoyment—while before this 100-day practice challenge, I’d gotten into doing only what I “had” to do. Ava and Callie are progressing quickly. They are excited and motivated at lessons. And—
Doesn’t look like I’m discussing music apps for ear training? Please bear with me…
If I could, I would head to our local Lifetime Fitness Center everyday. A habit or a hobby–not sure which–I try to squeeze in a workout as much as possible. One of the main reasons is because I like to build muscle and keep the metabolism up so I can eat my husband’s scrumptious cooking. The other reason I workout? Because I’m addicted to step class (among other classes) thanks to an outstanding instructor named Heidi.
This is a resort-like fitness center one-stop-light-away from our house!
She can “holler” at us with her New Orleans’ drawl and yet everyone remains extremely loyal to her group instruction because she works us hard and we see results. In addition, Heidi cues and designs steps and combos like no one else which makes for an exceptionally good workout for the body as well as the brain. Yep, step class, the trend started by Jane Fonda years ago-gulp–many more years than I’d care to admit.
I stepped right along with this video before my young boys popped out of bed.
Why am I talking about my exercise regimen in a piano-related blog? Because I’m amazed at how a Heidi-cue will prompt me to move my feet to the beat for 8 to 16 counts. When Heidi says “V around the world” or “ham-string-straddle-knee hop” I know which foot to use, which way to go on which beat. Of course, this was after enduring the first class or two adjusting to Heidi’s lingo and that 12-inch step in front of me. I, along with my husband, as he is now a huge fan of the class as well–have become imprinted with Heidi’s cues and combos and are forever faithful to following her every command.
Heidi and my husband after a one-hour step class
So, if my body responds to verbal cues accompanied by just a few visual aids from Heidi on the stage, it seems my ears could also train my fingers in a similar fashion. Why don’t I seem as committed to building my ears and fingers on the bench like I am to strengthening my biceps and quads at the gym? If my ears can train my body, why can’t they train my fingers?
I believe there is one simple reason for weak ears: because I’m lazy. My eyes have dictated every move to my 10 fingers for so long, that my ears sit back with their feet up and moan whenever they are called into action. Unfortunately, my well-trained eyes have made my ears dull, insecure and withdrawn. Read more…
A friend recently offered to take me out to lunch if, in return, I would let him pick my brain about teaching guitar. He was feeling the tug to teach and wanted to explore how I got started. It was fun for me to recount my story – I’ll share some of that story here.
Growing up, music was the most important thing to me. I declared myself a music major when I entered a 2 year junior college in 1977. I loved every aspect of musical performance, however I was convinced that I did not want to pursue teaching. When the end of my 2 years at this school came, I was lost and confused. I didn’t know what to do. I was certain I would fail if I tried to continue school so I did a 180 and hit the road. Literally.
I started a career as an over-the-road bus driver. I traveled all over the U.S. and Canada taking senior citizens on vacations and driving regular routes. I borrowed a guitar from one of my brothers during this time and started teaching myself how to play. I loved playing that guitar, but I didn’t have any aspirations to do anything with it. I totally kept my playing on the down-low. Read more…