onlinenotesI’m trying an experiment in online teaching — live classes.  If you have tried these and would like to discuss them or have questions, by all means, leave your comments below!

Live classes are different from online private lessons.  Private lessons have their own differences from in-person lessons, but I’ve discussed this in another post, so I’ll focus here on online classes with multiple students.

If you consider doing this, here are 10 questions you’ll want to take into account as you make your plans.  I’ll also mention some ways I’m dealing with it.  I’m not saying my approach is necessarily best, or even that it’s what I’ll end up with, but let’s consider it a work in progress… read on for 10 questions to get your thoughts in gear — Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

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

I try to pick a different area of study for my studio each year to help me focus my activities. Below are some of the areas we have studied in depth.

Eras
It can be fairly easy to chose an “era” of music on which to focus. We have done Medieval/Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic. Within each era you can choose to study specific composers of that era, stylistic considerations, and concurrent world history. I use this to help focus my group lessons, special events, recital pieces, and history study.

Composers
Going in depth with one or two specific composers can be fun. Last year we studied George Gershwin by watching movies of his life and his musicals, reading books about him, learning to play some of his music, attending an all-Gershwin concert, studying about the culture and society that helped to shape his life, and posting pictures of him in the media area. The students also wrote a report about an aspect of his life and did an original composition. There are so many composers to choose from that I suggest Read more…

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Posted in Music History & Facts, Teaching Tips

“Have you worked this Up and Down?” 2909_wpm_lowres

My students hear this at many of their lessons. Up and Down is one of my favorite practice games. It is not always my students’ favorite method of practicing (let’s be honest. They prefer playing a piece from beginning to end two times and calling it good), but it works beautifully.

Here’s how it works:

1. Isolate a tricky passage in your music and mark it with brackets or by using sticky notes on either side of the problem measures. (These passages are often marked in their practice charts as “Dailies.”) Read more…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

blue river6 fun pieces for intermediate to advanced pianists

When I was a teenager, I innocently asked my piano teacher one day if I could possibly learn some pop songs in my lessons. I will never forget his reaction!

Well, the colour drained from his ancient, wrinkly face and I could tell it was all he could do to withhold the rage clearly brewing deep within him!

“Why would you want to learn such rubbish?!?” he finally exploded.

“But it’s fun! And nobody has heard of the pieces I play” I grumbled, for he kept me on a strict diet of scales and Bach! I was tired of the same old routine and desperately wanted some excitement.

“Could I then just learn some jazz and blues?…What about some Scott Joplin even?” His cheeks were starting to puff uncontrollably and he gripped his chair for support. I could tell this was going nowhere!

I dropped my shoulders is resignation. The situation was hopeless. In fact I resorted to learning to play the “Maple Leaf Rag” in “secret,” dreaming of one day playing some cool popular music. The local music shop was just as disappointing carrying an antiquated stock in their so-called “popular music” section.

Now fast forward twenty or more years on and what a different world we live in! Exciting music is easily available from all over the world with the click of a mouse (or a poke of an iPad)!

Take one such book that I recently stumbled upon…

“Blue River” by Elena Cobb. A collection of six original pieces for the immediate to advanced pianist (grade 6+). Now had such a book been available for me as a teenager, I would have loved it! And to have shown it to my old teacher…now that would have been cruel but funny!!!

Full of bluesy, jazzy pieces and even some latin thrown in for good measure, this is an exciting collection which some of my advanced piano students are really enjoying at the moment. It’s challenging them but they are having lots of fun.

Cloud Seven, Latin. This was the first piece that caught my attention. It has a classic Cuban style groove, so perfect for Read more…

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Posted in Music News, Performing, Practicing, Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

New college cloister“When I was confronted with official tuition, the academic thing, I could see no relationship whatever between that and the music I’d been writing since I was 11.” – Harrison Birtwistle

For many musicians, and for many music-lovers who listen to them, the term “academic” has become a kind of musical dirty word. Defined variously as “not of practical relevance”, “of only theoretical interest”, or “pertaining to scholarship rather than practice”, the term is assumed to have little or nothing to do with the sound of music, or the enjoyment of music, or of music as an innate form of human expression. Indeed, the term “academic”, can for some by synonymous with “anti-practice”: we engage in “academic” music when we study theoretical concepts or argue about obscure points of critical theory; we engage in “practical” music when we put away our books, pick up an instrument, open our hearts, and sing.

But there is a difference and I can hear it!

blackboardIt’s of course true that reading a book about music is not the same as playing an instrument or attending a concert. And I agree that, in some quarters, so-called “book learning” of historical and compositional concepts can lean strongly toward the abstract, and can aspire to meet expectations of meaning and relevance that appear to have nothing to do with practical music-making or the preferences of the ticket-buying public.

But this is OK with me as a practicing musician, for three reasons: first, because it is these same “book-learners” who have provided musicians with so much of the foundation of practical music-making (from well-edited scores, to treatises, to knowledge about how our brains process musical information); second, because the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake – especially about something as essential as music – is important in its own right (if we can say that art justifies itself, then surely scholarship too can be self-justifying as a human pursuit); and third, because, in my experience, many student musicians and concert-goers vastly underestimate the significance of the role “academic” knowledge plays in the study, performance, and enjoyment of practical music-making, both for performers and for audiences. Read more…

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Posted in Music History & Facts, Performing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Boy with Ears & Music

Using Various Technologies to Provide Play-Along Recordings to Students

One of the things I feel very strongly about as a music teacher is developing the  student’s ear – early, and often. I’m not just referring to the ear training exercises that most of us probably employ, but also using recorded examples at every possible opportunity.

I could write an entire post on why I believe this is so critical to the student’s success, and why I think audio examples and play-along recordings should be used constantly from the very beginning. For now, I’ll assume that most of you are already on board with this idea, and perhaps just need some ideas for HOW to provide recordings to students.   Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Product Reviews, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Uncategorized, Using Music Teacher's Helper

IMG_2720

A beach theme was used for the last studio recital. Can you tell?

Apparently I’m not the only one scarred by a horrendous memory black out during a recital. Riding home with fellow adjudicators from a nearby Federation of Music Clubs Festival, I discovered that others have endured unforgettable and traumatic experiences where the memory bank crashed during an important performance. As I’m preparing my students to participate in a local Federation festival that requires memorization, it’s critical for me to equip performers for NOTHING but a successful experience. I do not wish to pass along my personal past performance scars to anyone.

Playing for an audience is already risky but playing from memory for others including adjudicators could be equated to walking a tightrope.  If performers are going to tip toe on that high wire, it’s important that a safety net is below ready to catch them when, not if mistakes occur and bounce them right back up on the rope.

Designing a plan that will empower students to play through an error, find an exit, manage a detour, reroute and get back on track all within a feeling of control and not panic is essential–but not easy. I figured if I came up with as many options as possible, students would be equipped to rely on a number of fallback plans to ensure a positive performance experience. Below is my piano-teacher-not-very-scientific list for building a strong memory bank. Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips