Every September in the piano studio, I like to match my students’ excitement about the return to lessons with small open ended projects that get our creative juices flowing and our fingers moving and our eyes reading again after the summer break. Often I send out an email in early August with suggestions for practicing in preparing specially for the first lesson of the new school year. Often small prizes are included when a student completes a short checklist of suggested activities. Sometimes these projects lead into major themes of study for the year, or they may just simply be used in the first month of practice. But the most essential component, is a varied list that creates an incentive for students to share with me, anything they may have explored on their own during the summer months, whether it is some composing or listening to You Tube videos of their favorite pop songs or mastering a piece that was started at the end of the previous school year in June. *
This year I borrowed a suggestion from friend and fellow colleague Lynn Wilby that involved creating a Bingo Card of piano activities. When a student completed all the activities in a row, either across or down or diagonally, they would receive a prize. Perfect, I thought for a beginning of the piano year activity. I devised projects for each square that would allow students an opportunity to re-master musical components that we covered during the past year. Music theory, music literacy, rhythm exercises, counting skills, playing from their memory list, learning a new piece of music on their own, opportunities to compose or improvise; these areas were all targeted and included. I also wanted to remind my students and parents of the online music theory and music making apps that I subscribe to for the benefit of the whole studio. And I wanted to make sure that all students remembered their user names and passwords so that they could check their own mp3 recording page that is stored on my website. Tasks such as these were all included in the bingo squares.
Students and families seemed excited to start after I emailed the cards to be printed out at home. At first I saw this as a one-week activity…just complete one row of projects for the first lesson and receive a prize from the prize box.
But I soon realized that all of the projects in the bingo squares were valuable but also, that students would need some guidance to complete some of them as intended. So, I changed the requirement to allow for an entire month of use, with students earning a colorful, biodegradable straw for each bingo row completed and then, working in cohorts with our local ice cream shop, a $5 gift certificate for a frappe, to go with their collection of straws, if they completed the whole card.
Cool yes? Exactly. I was as excited as the students to be approaching the piano in a new and unexpected way. But the biggest surprise and satisfaction came after using the bingo piano project for three weeks. Parents noticed it too. This project led to a “flipped classroom” approach to teaching! In a “flipped classroom” the teacher is no longer the prime disseminator of information. Students use videos and information at home to learn. Then they come to lessons for guidance to complete their projects. For example, I rarely suggested an order of bingo squares to complete. Students decided on their own, which project and which direction they wanted to go in. They came into lessons with pieces started, compositions sketched out and ideas for improvisations. They were tapping and clapping to learn the pieces they selected because they figured out that by practicing one piece, they could solve several squares of suggestions at one time. In order for me to put a “stamp” on a square that signaled completion, I might have to help them to lengthen their composition or encourage their attempts at improvisation or help them with counting aloud or completing their landmark note reading guides, but that is exactly the approach of the “flipped classroom.” I was their guide, not their lecturer.
I was shocked at which students chose to dive right into creating or drawing pictures that suggested the expression of a piece or making up lyrics to a classical piece where there were none. I had a chance to see which students are also natural artists, poets; inventive with sound and who was able to use their music skills to learn independently…which is our actual goal…unquestionably.
I found myself starting each lesson with something that I wanted to set up…like “this is the week we start our scale practice again”. But then I always specifically turned the rest of the lesson over to them…for the students to show me what they wanted help with, in what order they wanted to work on their mini-projects and where they saw themselves working the following week. It was exciting. Remarkable. Unforeseen advantages with keen interest all around. In the end, we are keeping up the project until everyone earns a special New England style frappe, before the chill of winter settles in.
*An alternative bingo card was created for young and new students.
The advantage of studying music with a private teacher is that lessons can be tailored to each student as an individual. There are many variables, such as personality, learning style, age, gender, attention span, short and long term memory, reading ability, executive function skills, and strengths and weaknesses peculiar to learning the language of music. But often overlooked in assessments of student learning is leadership style. Some students thrive only if they can self-direct the order of their lesson. So if such a student comes in with a piece of music they discovered, but you already had a plan for that lesson, you would be better off shelving the plan momentarily and take up what the student has brought with curiosity and pride in their independence. There will be time, with the student’s help, to make a connection between this “new discovery” and the lesson at hand. Just as often, there will be students who are so eager to follow a known curriculum that they will likely want to keep working in a series of graded lesson books, because they are given concrete information about their progress. For this student, progress can be perceived safely, incremental and predictable.
Then there will be students whose behavior or thought processes turn to the immediate thing in front of them, only to have their attention wander to something totally different. In this case, we teachers may inadvertently feel like a police monitor, saying things like: “no don’t do that”, “lets do this”, “no we can’t do that at this moment”, “please put that down”, “we are working with this,” etc. Before you know it, all thoughts of a lesson plan have fallen apart and both student and teacher are lost in a world of distractions. It would be easy to label this student as non-compliant or suggest to the parent that the student is not ready for lessons.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned from teaching music to very young children, it is that you can always help a student gain control over their learning by changing the teaching environment. For example, I have a mirror hung on the wall next to the piano so that we can always check our posture. But recently, one young, first grade student of mine, took every moment he could to make funny faces in the mirror. So, for a few weeks, I took the mirror down and put it away before his lessons.
Students who have trouble with directing their focus for any length of time are often frustrated in the academic school environment as early as first grade. These students also have short fuses, when it comes to learning by experiencing mistakes, a style of learning that is taken for granted in most schools. But I’ve noticed that these distractible but super-creative kids learn best through positive experience. The more they perceive themselves as performing well on a task, the more they will be willing to try the next step.
For example, Liam, a first grader just starting piano lessons, already had a few “breakdowns” because he became afraid that he could not do something without making a mistake. I always try to watch Liam for a few moments while he is in the hallway waiting for his piano lesson. One time, he found a favorite studio toy in my waiting room basket … a large needle art frame that produces 3D Pin Art. It makes temporary impressions of whatever you stick into the rack of plastic colored pins. My students most often stick their hands and fingers into the soft pins to take an impression of their hands. Liam was doing just that when I went to invite him into the piano room for a lesson. Liam’s dad immediately asked him to put the Pin Art toy down. But I’d already made it a habit to take whatever Liam was bringing to me to be the start of his lesson. The lessons that began with my preconceived notions, based on curriculum planning, more often than not ended up with Liam becoming frustrated.
I invited Liam to bring the Pin Art Impression pad into the studio. Sitting at the bench, I tried to use it so that we could review finger numbers. I couldn’t get the impression needles to work the way I was envisioning it, but Liam knew how! So our lesson began with my learning something from Liam. We continued to work a game out together in which we placed one hand in the impression box and then had to pull one finger away so that it was missing from the picture. Liam had to say which hand and which finger were missing, but what he didn’t know was that he was also exercising finger independence. We took turns. It was as good an exercise as playing scales and when we went to play Penta scales, Liam was ready, warmed up and showed excellent dexterity.
Since we were now focusing on finger numbers, I directed Liam back to a review songs in his lesson book, Piano Safari by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr. Rather than start a new piece, we reviewed all of his prior pieces, because they were dependent on recognition of hand and finger position. I had not yet used the song cards that are available with Piano Safari, so I got them out and we created a long “Jacobs Ladder” string of music successes.
When it was time to wrap up the lesson, we determined which fingers Liam would need to use in his next piece, took a photo of the impressions his hand made in the Pin Art toy, and sent this as a text to home. All was fun and successful, and now I have another tool in my toolbox for teaching finger numbers and correct hand positions.
Thank you Liam, for showing me some new tricks.
Penny Lazarus, NCTM
January 16, 2018
Piano lessons in January amaze me. One would think that students would be tired from the glitter and promise of the December holiday season. It’s a long way off to the next school vacation. The concrete goals of a holiday recital are past. The next practice incentives and recitals are still just in my head, not my students. Here in New England, many students ski and their energies are often focused outside, not in. It’s a back to the basics kind of month…getting scales up and running. Reminding students that music theory is important homework. Getting back to learning new literature, which might not be as familiar as Christmas music.
But just when I think a Saturday morning of teaching on a dull, grey January day is going to be hard, no matter how much I put on a cheery face…I am almost always utterly surprised. The kids are getting it! They are making connections on their own and eager to share their discoveries with me! I always hope that each lesson is more about sharing than my directing every student’s move. And it was just that this past Saturday. First up, Aidan. I showed him a piece called “Mist” by Clyde Poole in the Royal Conservatoire Repertoire book, for our upcoming recital based on Handel and his “water” music for King George I. I played the piece. We looked for patterns. And suddenly Aidan’s eyes lit up. “The skips of thirds and fifths remind me of the opening of my favorite Japanese Anime cartoon theme song Castle in the sky! So we looked it up on You Tube. And he was right. I bet Aidan will look forward to practicing this week.
Audrey is just starting to read music. And because learning to read a new language is hard, so very hard, her practicing had slackened a bit…no, a lot. But this day, she came bounding into the studio…”Teacher Penny, Teacher Penny, I can play this whole book! And then and there, she took out her Music for Little Mozarts and indeed played through the entire book. Taking a breath, we started to talk about one of the pieces. We identified scales and arpeggios in the 8 measures that comprised this song. We talked about repeated notes, because more mistakes in reading take place with repeated notes than just about any other kind of pattern. Our brains just want to experience change…not stasis. But it was Audrey who noticed that the piece was composed using contrary motion…even though she didn’t yet know what contrary motion means. “Teacher Penny…the last half is upside down from the first half!”
Audrey’s sister Alexandra’s lesson was next. And here too…they made an amazing discovery themselves! Alexandra works in Jennifer Eklund’s Piano Pronto series and Alexandra just finished Jennifer’s arrangement of the Bach Minuet in G, simplified of course for the first book. But Audrey also recognized the melody, from a simple line in her Music for Little Mozarts book. The comparison didn’t stop there. The two girls created a duet arrangement, which they played, with only a little help from me to align the rhythms securely.
Sophia, a 9th grader, hadn’t really faced two against three rhythms yet in her lessons. But starting Heller’s Sailors Song we had to come face to face with the first of the difficult sets of polyrhythms often used in 19th century Romantic period music. But Sophia is a mathematical wiz. She stared at the dotted quarter note and eighth note paired against two sets of triplets. I could literally see her mind at work. She started mumbling about fractions and fractions of beats. Before I knew it…she had taken three of my rhythm sticks to represent the triplets and set them up on the music rack of the piano. I added two square stampers. Sophia put it all together, showing where the odd eighth note would fit in between the second and third triple, based on her knowledge of math.
Connections. Making Connections. That’s what all artists’ do. And so can our students.