"Circuit Training" Music LessonsThey’re not all the same but every now and again you meet a teenager determined to fit the stereotype. With so much hair over their face you’re not actually sure what they look like, their shoulders are dropped so low their hands are practically touching the floor and all questions are met with an obligatory “dunno” response (if you’re lucky)!

Were we ever like that? I’m sure many of today’s finest musicians had their moments as teenagers and I would like to just say that many of the teenagers I’ve taught have been highly “switched on” and motivated. But how can we inspire even the most apathetic student?

Enter something I’ve been trying out I call “Music Lesson Circuit Training!”

Now I need at this point to warn you that Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Professional Development, Teaching Tips


Michael Kaeshammer

We all know that stickers, charts, music money, trophies, and competitions may motivate students to progress but these “tactics” are just that, extrinsic motivators to get your students to do what YOU want.

However, why not find more ways to trigger intrinsic motivation so that your students achieve and move forward just because THEY want to.

Nothing inspires me more than seeing someone do something that I want to do. With the availability of videos on YouTube, it’s easy to see and experience others excel and having fun making music. When viewing  videos on YouTube, each one usually inspires me in some way. It dawned on me that the same videos could have a monumental impact on my students. Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music History & Facts, Teaching Tips

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-young-boy-girl-fighting-image17751175In my last post, I promised that I would share a story about 2 students that challenged my perceptions about teaching young kids how to play guitar.  If you didn’t catch my first post, you can read it here.

I agreed to teach two siblings as beginning guitar students.  Brother is younger than Sister.  The two of them are complete guitar greenhorns.  Mom wants to “expose” them to music.  I’ll call them Manny and Madeline. (Not their real names.)  Keeping the sibling rivalry stoked, Madeline likes to point out her little brother’s short comings and often punctuates her observations with well-placed kicks to Manny’s shin.  The first time this happened, I didn’t even see it and I was sitting right in front of them.  There’s no wind-up to the kick; it’s more like one of those reflex reactions.  Brother says something, sister replies and boom!  It’s gotta hurt – she plays soccer.  She knows how to kick.  I seriously pondered the thought of suggesting to Manny that he bring a pair of shin guards to their lesson.  When I set up their chairs, I make sure Manny is well out of the reach of Madeline’s leg.

Mom says she is just trying to give them some exposure to something other than sports.  Dad, a self-described sports enthusiast, likes to make Manny and Madeline compete in everything they do.  This might explain why tuning guitars at the beginning of the lesson tends to turn into a grudge match.  Never thought I’d see two kids engage in guitar tuning trash talk!

At the first few lessons it took at least 10  to 15 minutes just to tune the guitars and get focused on playing one string or one note.  “Hey kids!  Let’s play the high E string together.”  Manny says, “E string?!  What if it was an E-I-E-I-O stwing?  (Oh, brother.)

As the teacher, I felt a lot of pressure to try to accomplish something at each lesson.  I mean after all, Mom and Dad are paying good money for me to teach their kids how to play.  What a challenge!    I can’t get either one of them to play a even a one-fingered chord!  And of course, both Manny and Madeline can’t wait for the lesson to be done.  (Clock-watchers!)  Frustration can easily set in.

Then one day, I had an epiphany!  Turn the lesson into a game!  (Some of you right now are saying, “Duh!”)  The very next lesson, I created a game called Crack the Code!  I wrote the following fret numbers on the whiteboard and offered a prize to the first one who could crack the code!

0 – 0 – 7 – 7 – 9 – 9 -7

5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 2 – 2 – 0

7 – 7 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 2

7 – 7 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 2

0 – 0 – 7 – 7 – 9 – 9 -7

5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 2 – 2 – 0

Their competitive instincts took over and the contest was on!  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  These two siblings, who prior to this couldn’t tune their guitars or play a one- fingered chord or even fret a single note, were suddenly playing a song!  Manny said, “Hey!  I know that song!  It’s Old MacDonald!”  ;-)

Over the weeks, I began to loosen up a little and have some fun with these two.  I tried to find kid friendly resources to help make learning guitar fun and it’s been working.  (Read more about the resources I use here.)  At their most recent lesson, Manny said to me, “Mr. Shelby, I had a dream today that I want to come true.”  I said, “Oh yeah, what’s that?”  Manny replied, “I dreamed that my guitar lesson would last 2 hours!”  I think these kids are teaching me a thing or two!

More posts by Pat Shelby:

I Don’t Teach Guitar To Kids (Part 1)

Why I Use Music Teacher’s Helper

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Posted in Teaching Tips

Robin Steinweg

Group Lessons

June 28th, 2014 by

By Robin Steinweg

Singing group of girls   When that waiting list grows out of proportion, how do you multiply your time? With group lessons!

Part I: Vocal Group Lessons

To multiply my time this summer, I’m conducting two 8-week group classes. I’ll write about the other (a group guitar class) next month.

Normally I’d advertise. But due to circumstances, I emailed  my present students and posted a note on facebook. Word-of-mouth proved sufficient, and I have enough students for a pleasant group.

A great thing about group lessons is that I can charge a lower tuition fee per student, but still earn a good deal more money per hour. Also, my time of preparation is once for all the students in the class. This tends to create more of a buzz about my studio, too.

Here’s how I’ve gone about it—you may have wonderful ideas of your own—please share them in the comments below!

*This group is for 8-12-year-old girls. Classes are 45 minutes long. If they are successful, I will try to offer a follow-up 6-8 weeks this fall.

*To help them get to know each other, I had them share birthdates, family, nicknames, pets, hobbies, musical experiences—they had fun with it. I wrote a curriculum with lots of flexibility in it until I could get to know their strengths/areas of growth.

*I found and created warm-ups. Physical movement (asked them to reach up as if for something on a high shelf that they want badly (a sugar glider, an American doll…), easy descending patterns, pulses, vowel formation, diction, ear training… done with as much humor as I can. Tongue twisters come in handy. Whining like a puppy and meowing like a cat on different pitches turned out to be surprisingly effective warm-ups!

Girls sing 3 parts

*Familiar songs in appropriate keys followed. I played just the melody and listened for who can match pitches and how much confidence they might have, and I began to get clues as to their vocal ranges. From this I can plan the rest of the group lessons.

*Rounds—I had nearly forgotten the benefits of learning to sing rounds! For beginning singers, not an easy feat. Some benefits: Social—you know how kids often walk together or sit together, but are in their own worlds with their phones, texting or playing games? Rounds are a bit like that. The kids are standing in close proximity, but each concentrating on their own thing—separately but together! If you have enough students, they can divide into groups or even just two on a part. Singing rounds requires much concentration, and tuning out the other parts while focusing on their own. Ear training—singing a melody and singing harmony.

Maria von Trapp (Sound of Music—the real woman, not Julie Andrews) said that singing rounds teaches you “to mind your own business.”

Surplus benefit: since rounds are based on mathematical relationships, students are learning math concepts while singing.

You can find some CDs of rounds here: http://fun-books.com/books/lester_family_music.htm

Here’s another source for rounds: http://roundz.tripod.com/

I’ve been using The Round Book: Rounds Kids Love to Sing, by Margaret Read MacDonald and Winifred Jaeger (80 songs).

Round Book the

*In addition to rounds, I included a couple of very funny (and obscure) songs to keep them laughing. And I remind them that laughing is great for feeling where the support happens. Talk about pulses!

*Real energy occurred when I asked the girls which musicals they would love to sing something from. As each girl mentioned a musical, the others exclaimed how they love that one too. Contagious. I promised them at least one piece they all love. They can hardly wait for the next group lesson. Win!

Even though the group represents abilities from not being able to match pitches to start with, all the way to one girl who does so unconsciously and has sung in public for years, they are working together, being challenged to progress, learning note-reading, intervals, solfege, blending, listening, focusing, and cooperating. In just a few weeks their improvement has impressed me.

This is the first time I’ve taught more than one vocal student at once. I’m liking the way I can multiply my time with group lessons!

singing children

I’ll share about the mixed-gender-mixed-age group guitar class on July 27th.







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Posted in Financial Business, Promoting Your Studio, Teaching Tips

Anna at CSU Outdoor PianoHere are some ideas to move your studio forward this summer:

Hold a sight-reading challenge. Set out good sight-reading books from your library for students to choose from each week. Give out prizes at the end of summer for reading a certain number of pages.

Host a summer camp. You could hold your camp one day a week for a month, or four to five days in one week. It could be to attract new students, or a fun intensive for current students. I like “Way Cool Keyboarding” books by Musical Moments for great ensemble playing with beginners.

Attend a concert and invite your students. Give your students “points” in the fall for each concert they attend over the summer. Email notices of upcoming events in your area, especially free events for kids. There will be a free “Peter and the Wolf” performance in my local park in a few weeks, so I sent a flier out to all my families.

Get out all the fun music. Take a break from your regular repertoire and find something different and exciting to learn this summer.

Prepare for fall competitions. This is the time to polish up pieces that need to be ready to go in October or November. For ideas, see my blog on “Preparing for an Event or Competition.”

Organize your music and files. Check for overdue borrowed books. Label and file new music. Enter new music into your Music Teacher’s Helper library. I use cardboard magazine boxes on my bookshelves to organize my music into labeled categories, so that I can find books quickly.

Order a new computer or iPad game.  Learn to use it yourself this summer so you can use it in your media lab this fall. Check out “The iPad Piano Studio” by Leila Viss.

Attend a workshop or seminar. Local colleges or music stores often host guest artists or speakers. Consider traveling a little to immerse yourself in a blues workshop, or an improvisation seminar.

Recruit new students. This is the time of year parents are looking for a music teacher to begin lessons in the fall. Make sure you are on top of your marketing strategies. For marketing ideas check out my blog on “How Do You Attract New Students?”

Try out Music Teacher’s Helper. If you don’t already use this fabulous tool, summer would be a great time to learn all it can do for your studio and your sanity!

Plan your studio budget. I swear I only make $.03 per hour after you take into consideration all the time I spend outside of lessons, and the number of “toys” it takes to keep me having fun teaching. But seriously, summer is a great time to plan for the money aspect of the next school year. List your projected expenses, and then calculate how many students you need, and what you need to charge for lessons this coming year.

Think through individual student needs. Summer is a great time to ponder each student, make a list of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and how you can best move them forward.

Decide on your “theme” for the coming year. My students are on a mission to find out what our theme will be for next year! Read my blog on “Themes Add Focus to Your Teaching” for more about how this can enhance your school year.

Look into Michelle Sisler’s games and motivational tools. Michelle is so creative! Every year she comes out with more and better ideas. Check them out at http://keystoimagination.com.

Get your instrument tuned and repaired. If you have been putting off this task, now is the time to get everything in tip top condition.

Learn new music. You could read through new music for ideas for your students, or brush up on some higher level pieces you will be assigning. You could also spend more time on your own musical repertoire.

Read a book. I am enjoying the book “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown, recommended on this blog site. If you can’t attend a seminar, a book is an inexpensive way to update and expand your thinking on a particular subject.

Get healthy. I’m serious. It is the only way you are going to live through next winter and withstand all the germs that are going to be traveling through your studio. Summer is a great time to make changes in your health habits.

Rest and refresh your spirit. Summer is a great time to take time for you! Do something you love but never get time for. Get outdoors, take a mini vacation, enjoy your kids and family, or just sit and enjoy the beautiful sunshine and be grateful for all you have been given.

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Posted in Music & Technology, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Using Music Teacher's Helper

Yiyi Ku

New Piano Music

June 22nd, 2014 by

Dear Teachers,

I hope this post finds you well and you are either enjoying a well deserved summer break, or will be having one soon!

Most private music teachers have a lighter teaching schedule during the summer months. This is a perfect time to research new teaching materials for the next semester.

In my last blog, I talked about offering different “tracks” of programs in my studio for the next school year. Here are the descriptions of the four tracks:

1. Fun Track – for students that want to keep piano in their lives but can not commit to regular practice.
2. Recital Track – for students that want steady progress and opportunities to perform in recitals and non-adjudicated events.
3. Festival Track – for students that want to participate in adjudicated music festivals and exams.
4. Competition Track – for students that are interested in competitions and higher level music examinations.

I believe in selecting appropriate supplementary music for the different tracks. For example, students in the Fun Track are more likely to practice if they are given familiar tunes to play, while students in the Festival or Competition Track need to focus on the classics and good quality original music.

Here are some new resources I will be using:



1. Famous & Fun Deluxe Collections – by Carol Matz


I gave a detailed review of this series in my previous post “National Piano Guild Auditions Part 2.”

I am very pleased to find that two new levels are now available – Book 4 (Early Intermediate) and Book 5 (Intermediate). These are exactly what the title says – Famous and Fun, and are just perfect for my Fun Track students. The list of songs included in each book is enticing, there is something for both girls and boys, a variety of styles are included (Pop, Classics, Favorites, Rock, and Duets), and what has impressed me the most is the quality of the arrangements.

These do not sound juvenile. These are sophisticated-sounding arrangements, yet are technically very accessible for the designated levels. Students in the Fun Track want to play tunes they know – Star Wars, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, Beauty and the Beast, Over the Rainbow. They want to play tunes everyone knows – America the Beautiful, Greensleeves, The Star-Spangled Banner. They may not have the techniques required to play the classics in their original form, but they will learn simplified versions – Pachelbel’s Canon, Debussy’s Claire de lune. They want to impress their Friends – Hey There Delilah, Don’t Stop Believing. Lastly, they want to have fun making music with others – duet versions of The Pink Panther and James Bond.

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Posted in Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

‘How unmusical is Man?’*

If music is intrinsic to humans as a species, hounmusical blindw can some people be so apparently ‘unmusical’? And what (if anything) can we do to help ‘unmusical’ students when they present themselves in your choir or in the teaching studio?

In last month’s post, I talked about some of the differences between so-called ‘musical’ people and people who appear to be ‘unmusical’, and I described two (imperfect, but I hope still useful) categories of apparently ‘unmusical’ singers:

I. Students who sing out of tune; and

II. Students who cannot sing in tune.

In the first category, I put singers who usually sing in tune but sometimes sing out of tune, and I discussed a few of the many technical reasons why these tuning problems sometimes arise in an otherwise well-functioning voice in a generally musical person. Please see my May 2014 blog “Teaching ‘Unmusicality’ – Part I” for more discussion.


II. Students who cannot sing in tune

tune micThis month, I’m going to talk about the type of singers I would put in the second category – singers who are unable to sing in tune, and appear not to be able to ‘match pitches’ accurately or reliably when they turn up for lessons.

I should say here that, although there is a lot of science behind our understanding of so-called ‘tone deafness’ and ‘pitch matching’ (type those words into Google Scholar and be amazed), my comments here derive primarily from my own experience of addressing these issues with singers I meet in community choirs and through my teaching studio.

For a good introduction to the science behind tone-deafness, or ‘amusia’ / dysmusia’ as it is sometimes called, I would recommend this article by Julie Ayotte, Isabelle Peretz and Krista Hyde in the journal Brain.)  (Ref: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/125/2/238.full)


Tone-deafness: part of what it means to be human?

Students who appear to have no sense of pitch – those whom we might call ‘tone deaf’ – profoundly challenge our assumptions that human beings are ‘naturally’ musical. If music is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, how do unmusical people come about, and what, if anything, can we teachers do with them?

Despite our belief that we are a naturally musical species, there are in fact many people who cannot sing in tune, and who demonstrate this perceptual difference in a number of typical ways. I’ll talk about three of the ones I have come across in my work in this post. Please add your own in the comments below!


1. The Generalist

generalist fallacThe most common type in the students I have worked with in community choir settings are those who sing entirely outside the desired key area.

When asked to repeat a melody or to sing along with me or with a group, these singers will have the words and usually the rhythms in the right place, but their pitch response will be unspecific, may be predominantly monotone, and may only demonstrate slight fluctuations in pitch when the true melody goes up or down.

I’ll call these singers ‘The Generalists’ since the sounds they produce seem to me to be part of an impulse to sing along, but to do so generally as part of a shared musical experience, rather than with the details of the melody in mind.

These singers are sometimes unaware that they are in the wrong place, and sometimes unsure if they are correct. There may be some residual awareness that something is wrong in their response in relation to the group, but they won’t be able to say exactly what, and they may not notice the discrepancy all of the time.

To my ear, it appears that The Generalists are probably doing either or both of one or two things: they are either (1) hearing melodies through a kind of mental filter that seems to condense the musical material as it comes in, or (2) if they are hearing discrete pitches, they are filtering and condensing as part of their vocal response as they reproduce these sounds through singing.

The Generalists also sometimes respond to ascending pitch patterns by singing more loudly, which to me is especially interesting; it suggests that they recognize that something is changing when a melody goes up, and they register this changes as a shift in intensity, but not in discrete pitches. They may also be hearing the increase in pitch but responding with an increase in physical intensity expressed through their breath (they ‘push harder’) which will make their singing louder.


2. The Skiers

lone skierA second type of singer, related to the Generalist but different in key ways, is the singer who can sing across a range of pitches, and whose voice correctly modulates up and down, but who nevertheless struggles to produce clearly differentiated notes with a scale area or melody.

When asked to repeat a scale played on the piano, for example, these singers will often respond with an undulating, sometimes siren-like, sound that may roughly correspond to the real range of the scale, but that will nevertheless lack the melodic ‘steps on the ladder’ – of the scale.

At other times, they start on a discrete single pitch, but when they move away it will not be by melodic step, but by sliding away from the first note, with equal volume both on and between the pitches.

I will call these singers ‘Skiers’, since they are crossing the right general pitch territory, but they habitually slide over, rather than pause on, the discrete notes in the scale or melody.


3. The Talkers

talking bubbleMy third category of singers who cannot sing in tune is those singers who sing quite well in certain parts of their range, but ‘ski’ or ‘generalize’ in the outer areas of their range. I will call these singers ‘The Talkers’, since the part of their range in which their singing is in tune is their speaking range. Their singing is like enhanced talking, and when they move out of this familiar part of their range, they lose the ability to match pitch.

If these singers sing only repertoire with a limited pitch range, and especially if they sing in styles that favour a speech-like sound (such as blue grass, blues, folk, rap, or some pop music), their inability to sing in tune in their upper register may go undetected.

These singers are interesting to me because it suggests that their ability to be precise with their voice functions very well when they are speaking. Singing out of this range requires a different laryngeal movement, however, and this change seems to be enough to make them feel disoriented and detached from their voice.


To tune in or to tune out? – That is the question

question markSo what, if anything, can music teachers do to help these singers?

Is the inability to sing in tune simply an inherited trait that cannot be changed, or is there something that can be done to help people who are considered to be tone-deaf, but who would like to improve as singers?

Preliminary diagnosis

I am certainly no expert in this area, and I would recommend that those interested read the literature on various forms of ‘amusia’ /’dysmusia’ and related conditions, to get a fuller picture of how professionals might deal with these conditions outside of the context of a music lesson.

But in my own work, I have seen some definite similarities between the Generalists, Skiers, and Talkers. I’ve also noticed a couple of key differences between the ‘unmusical’ and the ‘musical’ singers (see my May 2014 post for more of this different). In all cases, in my work, these singers seem to exhibit the following characteristics: 

1. the singers do not hear the details in music

2. the singers are not comfortable with the instrument of their voice.

3. the singers show a lack of coordination between their ear and their voice. Curiously, their speech is normal and they modulate correctly in the ‘tune’ of a normal sentence. But there is a separation between the two when it comes to their singing.

Have you met students like this in your teaching studio? Next month I will be offering some suggestions of techniques I have used to help people to learn to sing in tune. In the mean time, I’ll look forward to reading about your experiences with musically challenged students in the comments below!

* with apologies to John Blacking (‘How musical is Man?’ 1973)

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Posted in Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Following up on my post from last month, I’d like to pass along a few changes it has made in my teaching.  The last post was about the new study about learning published in May, called Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning.
In a nutshell, some of the changes I’ve noticed include:

1) Allowing both my students and myself to appreciate the process rather than following a procedure;

2) Finding ways to quiz students and to encourage them to quiz themselves;

3) Planning to move on before something is “mastered”, and then coming back to it when the student is fresh again;

4) Diverting attention from drilling a skill or musical passage to explore varied ways to approach it and think about it.

Here are a few thoughts on each:
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Posted in Teaching Tips

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

A is for Appdecide_now

My most recent favorite app is called Decide Now–only 99 cents!  Although it’s not a music-related app it is so easy to customize that you won’t be able to stop using it. A game of Piano Charades is just one example of how I implement this versatile app to reinforce music terminology by students acting out Italian terms at the keys. Here are the steps:

1) Call out words such as: piano, forte, fermata, ritardando, presto, largo, etc. and nudge students to act them out physically. This means YOU need to do it, too. For example: piano could be walking on tip toes while ritardando could be jogging in place and gradually slowing down the pace–like a train approaching a station.

decidenow-22) After all terms are physically re-enacted, have the students jot down each term to review the spelling and the definition. If they are youngsters, have them draw a picture instead of writing out the definition. Ex: ritardando could be represented with a train engine.

3) Ask a volunteer to play one phrase of a well-prepared piece as the composer intended.

4) The performer must spin the wheel featuring all the terms just reviewed without letting the others see where the Wheel-of-Fortune-like spinner stops. Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music Theory, Product Reviews, Teaching Tips