X-RatingHave you noticed that almost every product online has a rating? It’s an easy way to help you decide whether you should buy something based on the number of stars awarded by other consumers.

Let’s move this discussion to the world of music teaching. Take scales for example. Often an exam syllabus will require a number of exercises to be learnt. Here are some of the problems I was finding as a teacher:

X Which scales was the pupil supposed to be learning through the week?

X Which exercises were weaker than others therefore requiring extra practice at home and attention in lessons?

X How could I get students to give as much attention to the exercises in the back of their scale books as the ones in the front?

X How could I, and indeed the student, get an overview as to how close they were to reaching the requirements of the particular grade (or standard) they were studying for?

X How could I motivate them to do more scale practice?

Enter the X-Rating system!!! After some deliberation, I came up with the idea of Read more…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

The Great Cupcake Practice Goals Challenge…

By Robin Steinweg        0309084435

It’s big. It’s breakable. It’s bodacious. It’s pink and white with a cherry on top, and has a slot like a piggy bank…  It’s a cupcake bank given to me by a choir member. And what might a grown woman do with a giant hot pink cupcake bank?

Just not right for a centerpiece...

Just not right for a   centerpiece…

Use it as inspiration for my students to set practice goals, and meet those goals each week. Two months of walking past that cupcake, wondering what to do with it, did the trick.

Students (with my input) set three practice goals each week (along with their regular assignments). Goals could be as simple as mastering a measure, finding hand position or doing their theory. They could be as involved as analyzing/labeling harmonic progressions or memorizing a recital piece. But they are all possible in one week.

Example of 3 goals

Example of 3 goals

Practice goals were emailed to parents via Music Teachers Helper. The following lesson we evaluated whether the student passed. If so, his/her name went on one piece of paper per practice goal, and into the cupcake.

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At the end of the given time (2-3 months), my husband drew seven winners—first prize (worth $10), second ($5), and five third prizes ($1 each). Not extravagant. Everyone’s name went in a number of times, and some never missed a goal. All had a chance to win, though the ones who practiced most had the best chance.

a really big bowl with hundreds of names!

a really big bowl with hundreds of goals met!

I allowed winners to choose from a list:

 First Prize:

$10 card for iTunes, local music stores, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Hobby Lobby or Michaels crafts.

Second Prize:

$5 card for iTunes, local music stores, Half-Price Books, Culvers custard, ColdStone icecream or Michaels crafts.

Third Prize (five winners):

Choose from a number of dollar items in a basket (book cover, nail clipper, gel pens, treble-clef-glittery-glasses, journal, craft items, notebook) or from my list: candy bar or something from the dollar menu at McDonalds.

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(Kennedy tries on glittery glasses, and Ava knows just what she will choose)

Take-away for Students: quicker progress due to focused practice (and more of it); sense of excitement seeing the cupcake fill and get emptied a few times; learning how to set practice goals (reachable, with a finish date); sense of accomplishment for goals met; a possible prize.

Priceless: at the lesson after the challenge ended—student places hands in lap and says, “Miss Robin, you didn’t write down any practice goals for me this week.”

Says I, “You’re right. The cupcake challenge is over. But you still have practice notes.” My student, with a wise look, says, “It would be a good idea to keep the goals.”      wink

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Posted in Practicing, Promoting Your Studio, Teaching Tips, Using Music Teacher's Helper

Make-it-stickA ten-year study of learning, just published 6 weeks ago, has come up with some surprising conclusions.   One is that drilling a passage of music over and over is not the way to master it.  For some students and teachers, this will come as a shocker!

Below I’ll discuss details about the book, its authors, and a link to a summary article online, but let’s get into the meat.

It turns out that working in a focused way on one thing yields results, but they’re only temporary.  One example is the way someone might cram for a test and get by, but then forget most of the material soon after.  But it applies to learning music or any other subject as well.

A couple of other strategies work much better than single-minded practice, if the goal is mastery and long-term results.  Read more…

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Posted in Music News, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Watching is better than listeningIf you’re anything like me, it can be really challenging encouraging students to listen properly to their performance whilst at the same time playing (or singing).

The other day, one of my beginner pupils made the all too familiar statement: “I can’t hear a tune!” Yet any other person listening would have, like me, surely been able to make out the strains of Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy!”

So why then can it be so hard to actually hear what you are playing whilst in mid performance? And more importantly, how can students be encouraged to “hear” what is “good, bad and ugly” in their playing or singing so that they can improve?

The answer lies in two facts:

  1. most humans are better at understanding what they can see rather than what they can hear
  2. the process of trying to listen properly whilst at the same time read the music and physically play or sing is at best, extremely complex

So what’s the solution?

A simple method to assist students is to Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

A while ago, I blogged about online lessons wondering if they were for the birds.  Since then I’vephoto-2 begun my online training with Bradley Sowash in pursuit of playing in various styles beyond the page. Some may call what I’m learning “Jazz” but it’s more than that. Jazz is not just a style of music but a uniquely American approach to creating music which can be applied to any style.

In an effort to journal my progress I usually record myself showing my best efforts AFTER I’ve practiced and perfected my improvisation assignment from Bradley. He continues to challenge me with his online, methodical and expert instruction. With limited time to practice, I decided I’d come clean and let you in on the photo-3somewhat messy process BEFORE “perfection” or let’s say “close to perfection” occurs.

What you’ll see in the video below shows how I tolerated cleaning my bathroom–not my favorite chore–by allowing myself periodic breaks to practice. Come to think of it, this would be a good way to encourage my students to practice. Parents could offer two options: practice or clean a bathroom! Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Practicing, Professional Development

1000By now, most of us are familiar with the idea, given a broad audience through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of work to achieve an expert level at various high-level activities: some sports, chess, and of course, music.

I used the 10,000 hours idea in a group class a few months ago to help persuade my students that the more time they spent per week at the piano, the faster they would accumulate knowledge and skill. We discovered that it would take 10 years of practicing 20 hours a week, 20 years of practicing 10 hours a week, and with the average of 2 hours a week it would take 100 years of practicing to achieve this nebulous “expert” level. We all laughed, especially those of my students who struggle to get more than two hours of practicing in a week, but it left me thinking: while achieving expert level is certainly important to some of us, it is not the goal of most of my students or their parents. What is important to them? Being able to play a song from Frozen, accompanying a friend in a school performance, playing for church…in other words, they want to be competent pianists. Read more…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

Robin Steinweg

The Relaxed Recital

April 28th, 2014 by

By Robin Steinweg

Recital Reception cookies, yum!

Recital Reception cookies, yum!

Oh, for a more relaxed recital! Jitters, butterflies, loss of sleep. At the worst, a sick tummy or stage fright. Brrr. Must our students experience these before every recital?

I believe students should know how to play under the increased pressure of a formal performance. But sometimes I’d like a relaxed recital.

Here are some ways I lowered recital anxiety this spring:

Start Early

*6 months ahead—secure the location.

*2-4 months—students choose songs (pending my approval). This gives them a sense of ownership.

*2 monthsget volunteers to help serve food and to video the recital. A wonderful stress-reducer for me.

*1 month—plan reception food, beverages, décor. Make lists of what I’ll need to bring (sound equipment, instruments, stands, programs…).

*1 month—memorize their pieces. But bring music just in case.

*1 month—send out reminders (via Music Teachers Helper) about date, time, location and volunteers. Ask each family to bring a dozen of something for the reception. This helped me so much!

Recital snacks Recital Healthy Snacks

*3 weeks—students dictate 2-4 sentences about themselves. I type an introduction for each of them. This was a great tension-diffuser at the recital. The intros often got people laughing (one student likes to wear pajamas to lessons, another likes her brothers to bug her when she practices because it trains her to concentrate in spite of distraction…).

*3 weeks—decide the order. Consider age, level, variety.

*3 weeks—distribute introductions to the students. Each one will introduce the next. Have them practice reading these aloud. Tell them to bring them to the recital, but not to stress out if they lose them, since I’ll bring a master copy. This was an effective way to deflect attention onto others instead of themselves. Less tension!

*3 weeks—invite families and suggest they invite friends and relatives.

*2 weeks—focus on expression. Students should practice hands separately and together slowly, to ensure songs are played consciously—not by muscle memory.

*2 weeks—students rehearse logistics (sit in order of performance, get to the instrument quickly, introduce the next student…). A big stress-reducer.

*2 weeks—explain recital etiquette. Students set the example for adults and visitors. No talking, whispering, giggling or wiggling. No cell phones or other noisy electronics.

*2 weeks—send ideas for snacks. This time I was made aware of people with potentially life-threatening nut allergies, so I needed to alert my families and make suggestions.

Krispie bars are always a hit

Krispie bars are always a hit

*2 weeks—do my recital/reception inventory and shopping.

*1 week—let families know what to expect when they arrive. Ask a couple of students to greet people and hand out recital programs. Visitors felt welcome!

*Recital Day—set up food and recital room early.

**What may have helped most to promote a Relaxed Recital: I had a graduating senior, in lessons with me for nine years. He’s played in coffee houses and for weddings. He entertained for nearly fifteen minutes before-hand. I let everyone know about this so they were prepared to come and listen. Students had little time to be nervous about their own performances, focusing instead on the cool guy playing and singing!

Tyler entertains before-hand

Tyler entertains before-hand

The reception was a hit,

Listening to Tyler helped them to relax!

Listening to Tyler helped them to relax!

and families stayed to visit. Students complimented one another and had a blast. They seemed much more relaxed for this recital. Win!

See? Happy and chillin' out!

See? Happy and chillin’ out!

Have you ever held a relaxed recital? What did you do to help your students have less stress?

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Posted in Performing, Practicing

Playing the Blues“Can I hear your progress on that song we were working on last week please?”

He just shrugged his shoulders and looked at me sheepishly!

“Oh okay then. How about those exercises we were doing? Can I hear how you got on with them?”

He just looked at his feet!

“Oh dear! What HAVE you been practicing?”

Suddenly a mischievous grin appeared on his face.

“I’ve been playing the blues ALL week!!! It’s been driving my mum crazy. I play it before and after school. I can’t stop!”

It never ceases to amaze me how much fun students have at learning to improvise the blues. And not forgetting the kudos it earns them when they can use it to entertain friends and family. Best of all, it’s just so easy to learn!

So this month, here are some free resources to get you started or to add to the ones you use already. I’ve tried to make the sheet music universal to whatever instrument you play or teach (treble & bass clef/guitar & bass tab). I’ve also recorded a slow blues backing track (in G) that you and your students can “jam” with.

Introducing the coolest scale on the planet! Whatever instrument your student plays, they will love learning the Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

The Blank Stare.

blank stareWe dread it, but we’ve all seen it: the face that tells you unequivocally that your students are lost and haven’t got a clue what is going on. This can happen suddenly, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Picture this scenario:

My lesson or class has been rolling along smoothly, and I’ve felt encouraged by the odd head nodding, or some gentle smiles tentatively creasing passive faces. I’ve smiled myself, warming to my subject, and then I’ve taken the fatal step.
                ‘And that’s how we know that the composer is modulating!’, I swoon. ‘She’s been hinting for the last two systems with those occasional B-flats and now we know from this arpeggio followed by the cadence: we are in F-major!’. 
                My revelation is met with silence, which is not what I expected. A hand shoots up, breaking the still pool of now immobile faces. ‘Why is it F-major and not F-flat major?’.  
                What?!’ I think, and try not to frown.  ‘Can you explain what you mean?’, I say.
                ‘I thought you said those were the “flat keys”, so why isn’t it F-flat major?’.
                ‘Because F isn’t flat,’ I reply. 
                Faces go blank and a thick pause of unknowing oozes across the classroom. Heads drop and a faint voice cries into its sleeve, ‘I don’t get it!’ and (since this is the film version) all the desks start shrinking backwards away from the teacher and disappear into a black abyss at the back of the room….

“Unknown unknowns”

ha ha i don't get it tshirtIt would be my guess that every music teacher reading this will have experienced at least some version of this same scenario. It can happen with children, teenager, or adult students, and, although it looks like the moment of catastrophe was caused by what I’ve called ‘one fatal step’ instructionally speaking, of course, these scenarios represent a series of moments of unknowing coming to a head. The student who asked this question (and it is a real question asked me in a class just last year) must have experienced many moments in previous classes when he hadn’t understood what was going on but hadn’t said anything. At the same time, I will have been happily piling concept after concept on top of this student without realizing that he hadn’t understood what was going on.

How can it happen that we sometimes unwittingly leave our students behind? And is there anything we can do to help those students who find the theoretical side of music difficult, or are some people simply ‘more musical’ than the others, who will always at some point get left behind? Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Final 5 Teaching Tips Inspired by Physical Therapy

By Robin Steinweg     teacher and piano student

Following an accident, I discovered similarities between physical therapy  and teaching music. Fifteen of them.

You can read the first five tips here 5 Tips and five more here 5 More Tips.

physical therapist and patient

Below are my final 5 teaching tips inspired by physical therapy.

11. Hydrate: my therapist Katie offered me water after a strenuous exercise. Dehydration causes fatigue. Our bodies contain up to 60% water. Our brains, 73%. By the time we feel thirsty, we’re already dehydrated.

I’ve sometimes offered water to my voice students. Katie’s act reminds me to make water available to all my students. Have some water!       refreshing!

12. Repeat. Repeat again: Katie reminded me that it takes much repetition to become expert at anything.

Whether you aim to strengthen your body or to learn a musical pattern, repetition is the key to developing muscle memory or motor skills. (It’s called practice! Find a structured plan of practice in this short article: Practice Plan)

Question mark, redLetter xHow many times? Until you’ve got it.

13. Slower Takes More Muscle (or Technique) Than Speed: Okay, I’ve got this exercise down cold. See how quickly I can do it? I must be really good at it if I can go this fast! Katie smiles at me. “Slow it down now and see how it goes.” I do so.

“Ouch.” I get the point.

My student proudly tells me she’s got the song down cold. She takes off and her fingers fall over each other, blurring the scale notes. I smile at her. “Slow it down now and see how it goes.” She does so. “Oops.” Some fingers play, others lag behind. She gets the point. We decide she should practice slowly and carefully, building dexterity in the fingers individually instead of relying on impetus.

Turtle crossing signSlow down for better technique.

14. Fewer Repetitions More Often: “Too many reps isn’t going to do you much good. In fact, it could cause strain,” explains my therapist. “Do fewer reps more often.”

I think about my students who go all week without practice, and then try to learn their lesson in one sitting. “Practice shorter amounts of time, but more often,” I say. Even playing the song once a day for six days generally yields a better result than a panicked six times through on one day. Build gradually. Leave the instrument out where you’ll play it more often.

Develop skill progressively, in small doses.

15. The Tools We Use: the therapy clinic has a treadmill and bike, some monkey-bar equipment, weights, exercise balls, etc. But instead of suggesting I spend money, Katie says I can heft soup cans or climb stairs. The primary tool in therapy is my own body.

pricey

 

 

Stairs, walking up

Students might need a costly instrument. But they wonder if in addition they need an electric tuner or a finger strengthener. Not necessarily. You improve with practice. If you play your instrument, your fingers will get stronger and more nimble.

Bells and whistles may be fun, but simple tools can be sufficient.     Fingers on guitar

Bonus 1: It is possible to practice in the busiest of times. Two minutes here, five there…

Bonus 2: There is satisfaction in the sheer physical act of exercise–or of playing or singing. With improved strength and agility, even walking brings greater pleasure. In music, each level of ability offers new freedom and joy. 1104195249

I hope you’ve enjoyed my final 5 teaching tips inspired by physical therapy. I’m a more aware and better teacher as a result of my therapist’s help. Thanks, Katie!

The previous sets of teaching tips are here 5 Tips  and here 5 More Tips   .

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips