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 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…
I am currently responsible for the my own practicing, for the practicing of three of my four children, and for assigning the practicing of my more than twenty piano students. As you can imagine, I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out ways to make daily practice palatable for all of us! After all, music and music lessons are supposed to be fun, right?
Well, yes! Of course they are! To that end, I have music dollars they earn to spend at an end of year auction. I offer prizes when they reach goals on their 40 piece challenge charts. We use the iPad and time off the bench to reinforce concepts. They come to group classes and play games and have treats. I am a happy, encouraging cheerleader in their lessons. Their assignment sheets are covered with happy faces next to statements like “Watch out for those flat pinkies!” and “Remember metronome!”
Music is fun! Music lessons are fun! Practicing is fun!
Except, of course, when it’s not.
Are we doing our students and ourselves a disservice when we try to play up the fun and play down the work? I recently came across a quote that has reminded me that sometimes practicing is just plain hard work.
Eliot Butler said:
To learn is hard work. It requires discipline. And there is much drudgery. When I hear someone say that learning is fun, I wonder if that person has never learned or if he has just never had fun. There are moments of excitement in learning: these seem usually to come after long periods of hard work, but not after all long periods of hard work.
In defense of happy learning, I want to say that I love learning. I love the lightbulb that goes off when something suddenly makes sense. I love working on a phrase and finding it fit better and better in my fingers. I love the way the world seems to expand when I learn something about a subject with which I am less familiar. BUT! Getting to the fun of it absolutely does take work.
I love rehearsing with other musicians BUT I would hate it if no one was well-prepared. I love learning new music BUT I would hate it if I hadn’t learned to sightread well over years and years and years of playing my instrument. I love teaching my students BUT it sure is less pleasant when they haven’t done any work on their own.
The life lessons that are taught through music lessons are invaluable: hard work over a long period of time pays off. It’s best to be consistent in your habits to make progress long term. Learning to take a big piece of music and taking it apart to its tiniest parts to learn to perfect it teaches important lessons about how to approach a major project: one step at a time. These are just a few of the things I hope my students and my children learn from their music study.
And along the way, I’m planning for us all to have lots and lots of fun.
Group classes are a great way to reach more students, multiply your time and promote your studio. I taught a group vocal class over the summer (Group Classes) and a group guitar class. Find the first two guitar class posts here (Group Guitar part 1 ) and here (Group Guitar part 2).
What I cover in weeks 5-8:
-how to tell the key of a song
-transposing, review how to make your own chord charts, and the 3/4 strum
-the “Happy Birthday” song. You’d be surprised how many accompanists I’ve met who can’t play it!
-another parody I wrote for this class, with only 2 chords, to the tune of “Clementine”. This one I personalized with their names and some positive traits:
1. In a church one sultry summer, round a table sat The Six: sore fingers, sore brains, but they strummed their acoustics.
2. Guitars ready, keep it steady, press your fingers till they bleed. Making music is so fun! What more in life could you need?
3. Play the 2/4, play it over and over again. “Almost got it,” says the teacher, “Take a little rest.” But then…
4. …comes another even harder, will we ever get it right? Now the strings are out of tune, but do I loosen or turn it tight?
5. There is Jerry, always ready, and Malea’s cheerful grin, Leslie’s great dry sense of humor; Robin says, “Play it again.”
6. Asia strums and Doris hums and Gavin, fearless, forward goes. By the end of this guitar class, every one of them will be pros!
What I choose to review and for how long depends on how they did at the last lesson, and what I think they need:
-the 4/4 strum and appropriate songs
-a demonstration that 2/4 and 4/4 strums can be interchangeable
Note: whenever I introduce new chords or strum, I choose songs with as few chord changes as possible. I aim for a good mix of musical styles and tempos.
I sing the melodies until they can. Sometimes I say the strum aloud: DOWN, downup downup downup—and we pause at the chord changes until they have their fingers in place. Once most have the hang of it, I make sure to do parts of the songs slowly and parts quickly to accommodate all class members. It’s equally frustrating whether you can’t keep up, or you’re being kept from going as fast as you are able, so I do some for both.
I admit it. I want everyone to be happy; even me! This fall I took a few surveys to help me better understand what behaviors and circumstances promote happy students, happy parents and happy teachers.
It is much easier for me to know which behaviors in my clients make me happy as a teacher. Some of these things are important enough to be included in a policy statement—a place where clear communication can set healthy boundaries and solve problems before they happen.
Here is what I included in my registration packets this fall: Keep Happy Teacher
be willing to try new things, and new ways of doing old things
listen to directions and follow them at home
read your assignment notes over at home each week
enjoy the songs you are learning
have a respectful attitude
practice faithfully, and record it in your assignment book
smile a lot
tell the teacher frequently that you love piano lessons
always bring all your books to your lesson
participate in studio activities
take good care of borrowed books and return them on time
offer your child support, incentives and encouragement at home
set aside practice space and time in your child’s schedule
say uplifting things about piano lessons in front of your child
provide an adequate instrument on which to practice
keep your expectations high, but fairly close to reality
help your child participate in studio activities and recitals
respond to studio emails in a timely manner
rarely cancel lessons, and call ahead on those rare occasions
drop off and pick children up on time
pay your tuition on time each month, without a reminder
call me when you have a concern or problem so we can resolve it
remember that I thrive on appreciation, and your kids thrive on praise
That covers my side of things, but what about the students’ or parents’ perspectives? For the last few weeks I have been surveying students and parents from my studio, as well as parents with other teachers in my local association, about what makes them happy with a piano teacher. Below is my compilation of the student and parent responses.
I expected certain things to be high on the parents’ list: keep tuition rates low, limit the number of outside activities, high tech studio, make sure we get our perfect time slot, be flexible with sport schedules, vacations and illnesses, have a location close to school or home, have lots of degrees, certifications and professional performance experience.
I was wrong. Not one of these items was mentioned. Read on to find out what wasRead more…
This is a guest post from Sam Rao, founder and CEO of Practicia.com.
Adequate home practice has been a problem for as long has music lessons have existed. Music teachers would love to crack open the black box of home practice and see how much and how their students are practicing at home. The six days between music lessons are often a complete mystery to teachers.
Parents can be strong allies but more often than not, they are too busy just trying to get through the day to effectively monitor their children’s home practice. Some parents are willing to help, but often lack the necessary musical background to be effective.
So why don’t students practice? Reasons range anywhere from simply not wanting to practice to lacking the time management skills. Also, many students don’t remember what and how their teacher asked them to practice during the week. Among students that do practice regularly, many prefer to spend all their time playing through their favorite music often ignoring technique, which would lead to the most improvement in the shortest amount of time.
How have teachers traditionally dealt with these challenges?
They have employed a variety of strategies and tools to aid their students. Some of these methods have been effective. One prominent tool is of course “the assignment book”.
Many teachers have given copious instructions in their assignment books week after week. While we would love to believe that students and parents would conscientiously open and follow all the directions given to them, we all know too well that that’s not the case. Few students and their parents ever even open the notebooks. Among the few that do, many students often don’t remember the practice directions from merely reading about them. Since most parents are not at the lessons, they are often unable to understand what the teacher expectations.
Teachers also use several motivation techniques to get their students to practice. Some hold regular recitals and performance opportunities so their students are always “under the gun” preparing for the next big event. Others use practice charts to track their students’ practice and reward them with all kinds of prizes for milestones achieved. Prizes can range from candy and trinkets to outright cash! However, the problem with self-reported practice routines is that no one knows for sure if the students practice as much as they say they did. More importantly, no one knows how they practiced. So while many of these strategies can be effective, how can we improve upon them using technology?
Enter The Cloud: a means of storing and accessing data over the Internet instead of a computer, smartphone or tablet’s hard drive. How can it help teachers? Tools like Youtube allow teachers to create video tutorials so students and parents can better understand practice instructions. Students can also record their practice sessions and upload them for their teacher to hear how they are practicing. Tools like EVERNOTE enable a teacher to enter practice instructions on their smartphone or computer, organize them, and share with students. However, these tools are just the tip of the iceberg. The cloud and mobile devices can enable us to do so much more:
What if we can use cloud technology, through mobile devices, to effortlessly assign multimedia practice instructions to students who can then access them from their own devices?
What if we could track their practice, listen to it, and even comment on it?
How about creating incentives that would automatically drive better practice habits such as time spent with the instrument, consistency, and practicing all that is assigned to them?
What if all of this could be done from the comfort of our smartphone or tablet?
What if parents would be notified via email every time we issued a new assignment or new instructions on how to practice something? Or every time their child practiced? Or every time their child reached a practice milestone?
What if students, parents and teachers could share practice accomplishments on social media?
How about dividing a studio up into “practice teams” that competed with each other for practice honors?
Practicia (pronounced Prac-TIS-ee-ah) is an app that is currently in development that will attempt to do just this and much more. Information is available at www.Practicia.com.
Some teachers might feel a bit hesitant in exploring a technology solution to the age-old problem of practice. But consider this: most students already expertly interact with these devices. Most young parents also have access to several devices and constantly check their email and text messages. Teachers may find themselves pleasantly surprised at how cloud based applications could transform practice at their studio.
Whether you are a new teacher building a studio, or a seasoned teacher gearing up for a new year, there comes a moment with every new student when you will need to convey information about your studio policies – what you charge, how to pay, what to do in case of illness, and how you handle cancellations.
These are the standard details that keep your studio running, and they become part of the working culture you establish with your students over time. They are also a set of rules that your students agree to abide by when registering in your studio- whether they realize it or not.
Following (and not following) the Rules
Managing your policies and distributing this information can be difficult. Even in the age of the studio web site, when policies are clearly displayed and usually have their own menu listing, they are rarely read in full, even by those who have clicked to say that they’ve understood your policies before booking!
What is more, policies vary widely from studio to studio, and even the most well-meaning students can become confused as they move from teacher to teacher or between institutions. Some students may not fully understand the importance of taking your policies seriously, or they may begin to relax the policies as your relationship with them becomes closer.
Nothing to sneeze at
In my own studio, for example, my studio policies clearly state that my students must never come to a lesson when they are ill. This is a standard courtesy, but is made all the more important because I am also a professional performer, and will lose significant income if I have to cancel engagements. Nevertheless, a number of my students still do come to lessons with a cold, or the remnants of one, especially if they are in the run up to a performance themselves, or if they are preparing for a competition. I deal with this by sending them away – they are always shocked! And yet there it is in the policies on my studio webpage, which they click to agree to abide by every year.
Other teachers will find that new students often apply the ‘imaginary 24-hours notice policy’ when cancelling a lesson (does anyone actually have this as a policy any more?) even when their studio policy on their website clearly states that notice of a fortnight or a month must be given. Most teachers I know have much longer cancellation warning times (mine is 4 weeks to cancel without payment owing), and an increasing number of teachers I know only make up lessons if the teacher is ill, but never if the student is ill or has to miss. So there is a lot of opportunity for the culture of behaviour between students and teachers to get confused – one of the many reasons why we have studio policies.
So, how can we convey our studio policies in a way that will make students understand the binding nature of their agreement to work with us, without impressing too heavily on them a set of potentially alienating ‘rules’ that will make our relationship with them seem too authoritarian?
The ‘Welcome Letter’
One of the ways I have dealt with this in my studio is to write a ‘Welcome Letter’ to students at the beginning of each new teaching year. Crucially, I provide these in hard copy, printing them out and handing one directly to each student as he or she comes in for the first lesson of the new year. I write them on computer, but I do sign each one by hand to emphasize the import personal nature of the contents for the student.
The Welcome Letter has four functions: 1. It clarifies some thoughts about the enthusiasm I feel about singing, and especially about working with my students on their singing in the coming year; 2. It reminds the students what it is that I aim to achieve with them in their lessons from a technical and interpretive perspective; 3. It clarifies the students’ role in the learning process and emphasizes how important it is that they stay active and engaged as part of the overall project of my studio; and 4. It forces students to review of my studio policies as part of our agreement to work together. Read more…
A few months ago, I joined a few piano teachers’ groups on Facebook. They have been a great source of teaching inspiration and have reminded me how many differences there are within our ranks as music teachers, even with teachers of great experience. A recent discussion has again sparked my interest in that basic teaching tool: the score and how we mark it to help our students succeed.
A score from a transfer student was posted: every fingering was marked as well as numerous note names. The score was cluttered with many section numbers, reminders and colors. The teacher sharing the score said that she prefers a cleaner score, with a student translating the necessary information from that mostly clean score, then asked the opinion of the group.
Here are some of the varying practices of the group:
1. Pencil only so they can erase scores before they send their students to an adjudication or competition.
2. Colored pencils or pens with a different color each week so it is clear what details were covered in the most recent lesson. Most of these teachers also advocate copying music before beginning study on it so that the copy is the one covered in color and the original score remains clean for judging purposes.
3. Eraseable colored pens so that both purposes of 1 and 2 can be achieved (i.e., colored to make notes more evident, but erasable for later so the score isn’t as cluttered.)
4. Different types of office supplies to help keep the score clean: Post-It tape so that the notes are removed when the problem areas are addressed, highlighter tape for the same thing with more impact, removable red dots for specific problem areas.
5. Students mark important details themselves, often before study begins.
6. Important fingerings marked, as well as articulation, dynamics, phrasing indications, chord symbols, section numbers.
7. No teacher approved of every finger number marked in a score. The only note names that were agreed to be acceptable to be marked are notes that are continually missed or tricky ledger line notes. (I will admit that when I had an assigned amount of organ practice to do in college along with my piano practice, and when there were no organs available, I often sat in the hall and wrote every single fingering and pedaling into my score to count it as practicing. That was my almost-one-and-only stint of fingering every note, but I found it helpful enough that I tried applying the principle to the Bach Partita I was learning on piano and loved the exactness I felt as I worked through each measure so carefully.)
8. Something important to note for teachers of students entering festivals or competitions: none of us as adjudicators preferred a marked score from students. The rule should be clean copies only for judges, unless you would like the judges to immediately zero in on the offensive sections and be looking for the problem during performance.
I was interested that so many of the teachers in the pencil-only camp were quite passionate about their dislike for cluttered scores. As a student of many teachers who marked my scores with colored abandon, I must admit to a certain affection for those teachers and those lessons when I return to my multi-colored pages from years past (the picture at the beginning of this post is one page from college.) I never imagined that so many people would consider these rainbowed scores to be inconsiderate or offensive! Many teachers in the group mentioned a similar affection for their scores from previous study, especially when marked with effective fingering and inspired instructions. I now have more respect for the other viewpoint as well, but I think I am set in my bright and colorful ways.
What are your score marking principles? What are your students responsible for marking? (Mine are supposed to mark section numbers, important fingerings, and in a perfect world, chord symbols.) What are your most common markings? (Mine are a phrase tapering mark, fingering, chord symbols, and articulation. And lots of rainbow circles around dynamics, etc.)
Last month in Part 1, I explained how learning just 4 chord shapes that shared common tones, and using a capo could get your students up and running and able to play lots of songs in multiple keys. I promised to expand the concept to include a few more chords. So let’s get started!
In Part 1, I used the basic open position chords for G, C, D, and Em – the 1, 4, 5, and 6m chords. Let’s expand that now to include all the degrees of the major scale. The root note of each chord below, in the “basic chords” diagram, represents each degree of the major scale. The result is a “chord scale.” Just like you can assign a number to the degree in the scale, you can assign a number to the degrees in the chord scale. If you play through the chords in order from 1 through 8, you’ll hear the major scale – the root notes ARE the scale! A quick aside here, I highly recommend teaching the chord shape I use for the 5/7 chord, D/F#. There’s a huge pay-off in terms of future learning a super-valuable, movable chord shape. More on that in a future post.