Thursday, March 31, 2011

Group Lesson Week, Free Cool Music Notation Fonts, and Laminating Madness

It's been group lesson week here at Discoveries Piano Studio, and I think we've all enjoyed a slight change of pace from the usual weekly grind.

I've been working on several 'projects' through the week since I had a bit more free time and I'll be posting about them soon- after my students give them the test drive. But I wanted to share a few great things I've stumbled across and put to use this week.

While browsing the web earlier this week, I lighted upon a this website. Matthew Hindson, the owner of this site, has graciously provided several free music notation fonts for use with Windows, Mac, and Finale. I was so excited when I stumbled on this resource! There are fonts for figured bass, tempo indications, and even some really cool fonts for recorder and saxophone fingerings! I'd encourage you to visit this website and check out all the resources available.

I also wanted to share about my latest favorite gadget- my laminator. ;) Now, I'm sure that many of you teachers out there already own a laminator and use it on a regular basis, but I just recently bought mine and have been thrilled with the results! I found it for a very decent price on Amazon. I went a little wild this week (using the group lessons as my excuse!) and used it for the first time. I laminated flashcards and worksheets- it was a breeze! I'm only sorry that I didn't take the plunge and buy it sooner.

So that's been my week. A change of pace with group lessons and tapping into some great new resources. What new and unique resources have you found recently?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review: Portraits of the Sky

Ever found yourself teaching a teen student who has absolutely no desire to be taking lessons? It can be so hard to motivate some teen students! While I am blessed to have some who love piano and consistently put forth effort, there are still those whose progress is snail-paced and whose desire to succeed and put forth the effort toward weekly progress is next to non-existent.

I try so hard to maintain a positive attitude, but they very rarely enjoy lessons, and that makes it really hard for me to enjoy teaching them!

I found myself in this scenario at the end of 2010 with a transfer student. While their current reading level and technical skills placed them far below other students their age, I knew that they were going to balk at not having something more 'adult sounding' to play. As I got to know the student, I spent several weeks searching for just the right book that I hoped would motivate them without overwhelming them at the same time.

That's when I lighted on "Portraits of the Sky" a delightful collection of 8 original early to mid-intermediate piano solos by Randall Hartsell. While these pieces sound impressive, they are not incredibly difficult to master due to repeated patterns and musical sequences. The romantic nature of the pieces also make them perfect for students who need a little extra work on expressive playing. Titles like "By the Moonlit Tides" evoke graceful, peaceful images, which Randall Hartsell perfectly paints throughout the pages of this book. The many moods and scenes create enough variety to make this book interesting and refreshing from start to finish.

I knew this book was a winner, so I purchased it and we've been working through it ever since. Has this book completely revolutionized the motivation level and practice habits of the lucky student recipient? I wish I could say yes, but we still seem to be in a motivational rut. However, they are progressing musically and expressively, and their mother has made several comments to me about how much she's been enjoying the music and how much she feels her child has improved in the past few months.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Church Musician: Less is More

Our church choir is pretty small to being with, which means that any absences can have a significant impact on the overall performance (especially in the mens' department!).

This morning, due to some expected and un-expected absences, we found ourselves gathering for warm-ups with a total count of 4 choir members (including our director who decided to don a robe and sing to boost the numbers)! Could we really pull it off? After some deliberation, we decided to go ahead and perform the offertory as a quartet.

It ended up being a beautiful musical offering. While our numbers were diminished and our forces small, we still were able to perform the piece well and in a very moving, convincing manner.

There are times in music when less is more. A small, intimate performance can create the type of ambiance that is much more meaningful than a large mega-choir. There is a time and place for both, but I found myself especially blessed this morning by the ministry of our choral quartet!

Have you ever found yourself as a church musician unexpectedly turning what could be termed a potential disaster into a positive, and even meaningful, experience? I'd love to hear about it!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Chord Construction Madness Game for Major Chords and Inversions

Next week is group lesson week here at the studio. While planning, I realized that I wanted to do some kind of an activity for some of my intermediate students that emphasized chords and inversions. After thinking for a bit, I developed this game.
There's nothing ingenious about it, but I'm hoping that it will help reinforce major chords and inversions. At their turn, each student draws three cards. The first names the chord, the second specifies the inversion, and the final card details how they will create the chord: either by spelling the chord, writing the notes on the staff, or playing the chord on the piano. I hope this will be a fun activity in our upcoming group lessons and for individual lessons in the future as well.

Let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement! The document can be found under the games section of my printables page.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Just Added: GoodReads Widget

I'm excited to announce a new feature on my blog; a Goodreads widget that lists some of my current favorite teaching supplements as well as any excellent pedagogically-related books I may be reading for personal enrichment. This is a project-in-the-making which I hope to add to over time as I discover more teaching treasures. As I list new books, I'm giving them my personal rating as well as providing a short review. In addition to this, I hope to do occasional blog-post length reviews for a more in-depth glimpse into some of my favorites. What do you think! ;)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Question of the Week: March 21, 2011- Using Theory Books

When I started student teaching back in high school (I won't date myself here... ;) ), my mentor didn't use theory books. In fact, she used an entirely different method than I use now.

So when I started out on my own and switched to using Piano Adventures, I was, understandably so, a bit prejudiced against the use of the corresponding Theory Book. There were a number of reasons. First, as a piano student I hadn't really been exposed to systematic theory training perse. I did do some theory testing as a young student, but that stopped as I got older. Second, I can still remember my horror when one of my teachers in middle school tried to give me a theory book. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Third, it was outside of my teaching comfort-zone, and as a new teacher I wanted to minimize the uncharted territory as much as possible.

So for a few years, I supplemented. We did theory in lessons and group lessons, and I made scales and pentascales a part of the lesson, but no theory books appeared. For technique I used the Treasures in Technique series published by FJH rather than the corresponding Technique and Artistry books.

Then just in the past year or two, I decided to do the unthinkable! I introduced both the Theory and Technique and Artistry books into my teaching repertoire! It was a bit of a learning curve, but I managed to adjust.

However, as this term continues, I'm starting to rethink that decision yet again. I am pretty pleased with the Technique and Artistry supplement, but Theory has been a bit more of a challenge.

Theory is the part of the weekly assignment my students most often overlook, and complain about the most. I try to assign it as homework for the students to do over the week as a supplement to what we've learned in the lesson (after explaining the requirements of course) but I often find myself wasting lesson time trying to get kids to 'finish up' uncompleted pages.

So here's my question:

How much emphasis do you, as teachers, put on theory book assignments each week? Is theory inseparable from lesson and technique, or do you supplement with other theory materials? Is it too much to expect every child to do work in a theory book each week?

A few further thoughts from me. I had two students (siblings in fact!) who both recently moved up to the next level in Piano Adventures. After some deliberation, I decided not to provide theory books for them. Neither one practices as much as I'd like them to, and I'd rather they spend their limited practice time focusing on technique and the material in their lesson book rather than adding something else to the mix. We do worksheets and games from time to time to drill theoretical concepts, and the students actually look forward to these breaks from the normal routine.

Contrast this with another younger student who actually throws temper tantrums each week (so I'm told by his mom) when she tries to get him to do his theory homework...

I'm still undecided on this issue, and as you can see, am in the process of a few 'test cases'. But in the meantime, I'd love to hear some feedback from other teachers!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Keyboard Note Template for Teacher Use

If you have beginner students who need a little more work with note names, I've designed this template for use in a variety of ways. I plan on using it for flashcards, worksheets, and maybe even some little sticky labels to put in students' notebooks. It took very little time to put together, and I'm excited about the multiple ways I can put it to use!

Anything great is better when shared :), so I thought I'd post this on my blog for other teachers to utilize in designing their own activities. There are two pages- the first has just blank keys, and the second has stars on keys to drill specific notes. You can download the template by following the link on my printables page. It is a Publisher file, so please let me know if you need another format. You should be able to re-size the keys to whatever works best for your current activity. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Question of the Week: March 14, 2011

Yeah, it's Thursday- I'm a bit behind. ;) But the week's not over yet, so I wanted to get some feedback on an issue I've been seeing in my studio over the past few weeks. I've been having students come to lessons and tell me that they didn't have enough material to practice over the previous week. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm always willing to assign more and raise the bar if my students are willing to fulfill their side of the bargain...but with all of these aforementioned students this was how the lesson panned out:

As we progressed through the lesson material I found that in each case specific instructions I'd set forth the previous week had been ignored. One student was working to memorize a song and had been struggling with a specific phrase. After our discussion on the importance of focusing on that particular phrase over the week, they returned with the same problems and told me they hadn't spent any extra time on that phrase over the week. Another student brashly told me that they 'hadn't gotten to' several of their pieces, another had uncompleted theory homework...and yet they were telling me that they hadn't had enough material to work on!

As I teacher, I try hard to find a balance between too much and too little, and in giving assignments I am very specific- I write out detailed instructions for each piece. Even with all these precautions, I still find my students lacking the discipline to complete their assignments or listen to instructions.

So what do you do to help make sure your students are disciplined and actually follow your instructions? Any tips to help me regain sanity in this regard?

Monday, March 14, 2011

St. Patrick's Day Note Name Worksheet

Yet another worksheet for my beginner students. I've taken on an awful lot of beginner students in the past month, and I'll be using this in my upcoming group lessons for students who are just learning the names of the keys.

I got the inspiration for this worksheet from Susan Paradis' wonderful piano teacher resource website- thank you Susan! I wanted to design a worksheet that drilled note names while keeping with the St. Patrick's Day theme for March.

You can find this worksheet over on my piano printables page.

Creating a Brochure for our Local MTA Chapter- Looking for Ideas!

In the recent monthly newsletter, our local association president mentioned a possible upcoming publicity project to help garner more visibility for our group. She was toying with the idea of creating a tri-fold brochure with information about our local chapter that we could leave at local music stores and have available at events throughout the year.

As I love any kind of artistic design project, I contacted her letting her know a few of my ideas and also adding that I'd be willing to assist in the project.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into. She responded asking me to send a draft of the project when I had it completed! I was a little taken aback, but I tackled the project and sent a draft her way. The draft is already completed, but I'm really interested to know if any other local chapters out there have brochures containing information on their association. If so, I'd love to hear a bit more about the design and contents so that I can tweak our upcoming publication.

Any information would be great to have as I continue to work on this project! Thanks in advance for any information you'd be willing to share.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

If Only I Had A Few More Minutes...

I'm lucky as a teacher in that I offer only 45 and 60 minute lessons. I can't imagine trying to cram all I want to get done into 30 minutes, but hats off to those of you who do so from week to week! However, even with the luxury of 45 minutes, I often find myself pressed for time at the end of the lesson and wishing for just a few more minutes! No matter how hard I try to plan, it always seems there's just one more thing that I need to get across even though the time is up. So what's a teacher to do when the clock it ticking and there's still too much to do!?

Unfortunately, once you've gotten to that point, it's almost too late to try and remedy the problem. Rather, it's important to plan ahead during the lesson. Being proactive throughout the lesson will keep the last minute cram sessions to a minimum.

I've written previously about flexibility during the lesson, and how to capitalize on what we can control, but now I'd like to offer a few tips on how to maximize weekly lesson times.

How to Avoid Getting 'Bogged Down' When Teaching: Tips to Maximize Limited Lesson Time

1. Don't Skip Warm-Ups!:
As tempting as it may be, these are essential to the lesson. Warm-ups help the student relax, settle in, and focus for the lesson ahead. Skipping warm-ups can negatively impact the entire lesson.
2. Gimme a Break: Kids have a hard time focusing for extended periods of time. If you expect a child to sit at the bench and be fully engaged for the entire lesson, you're going to be disappointed. To keep a fresh focus, taking a mid-lesson break to do some other music-related activity away from the bench will give the student fresh focus when they return, meaning that the end of the lesson will be more productive.
3. Stick to Your Guns: Do you have a timeline before you begin? Do you have a good idea of what you want to accomplish and how that's going to pan out over the timeframe of the lesson? If not, you're setting yourself up for disaster! Know what's on the list to accomplish before the lesson- and do your best to stick to that schedule. Flying by the seat of your pants never works- trust me!
4. Let it Alone: If you find yourself with limited time and a planned task to accomplish that you know you won't be able to get to- skip it! Yes, skip it! Instead, pull out another activity- a short game, worksheet, or do some sightreading. Trying to cram at the end won't do you or your student any good. Then, plan to hit that area first the following week.

As teachers, we have to be insightful, sensitive, and intuitive. When do we spend a bit more time focusing on a certain aspect, when is it best to move on? Is a student engaged, do they need a break? Are they comprehending what I'm explaining or do I need to try a different approach? This is all part of what makes teaching such a challenge-- and what makes it so rewarding! I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you avoid last minute cramming at lessons and how you work to keep your students focused!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Capitalizing on Lesson Time: Learning What We Can and Can't Control

Earlier this week, I started a post series on how we as teachers can make the most of limited lesson time. I noted that the most important idea to keep in mind is flexibility- realizing that there are some issues we cannot control and that all the planning in the world can't foresee certain circumstances.

But while we cannot control some aspects of the lesson, there are some aspects that we can control from week to week. Learning to identify and maximize on those aspects will make us more successful teachers.

First, I'd like to stress that we can still control the overall structure of the lesson. While the details may change a bit- students' reactions may mean a quick restructuring of the plan or re-prioritizing of concepts- don't let that throw off the general lesson structure. Keep in mind the bigger picture and what the overall goals are that you want to accomplish.

Next, remember the PURPOSE of a lesson. We're not meant to spoon-feed each and every detail to our students. While there are some students who will need more guidance, beware of 'over teaching'. Rather, introduce the material, make sure the student has a firm grasp of what's required to accomplish the material, outline your expectations, and leave it at that. In the ensuing weeks, you'll discover just what works and doesn't work for each student, but free yourself up from the responsibility of feeling like you have to teach EVERYTHING!

Finally, remember that it's about internalization, not itemization. In other words, don't feel that because a student stays with the same piece for a week or two that they're slacking off somehow or that you are not teaching coherently. Some pieces were meant to be multi-week pieces, and some concepts take more than one week to internalize. It's better to take the time now to make sure the student completely understands than go for the new-material-every-week mindset. Make sure your students are on board with this too and that they understand that success is found in mastery of a concept, not in the number of pieces they get 'crossed off'.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on aspects of a lesson I can control. While things may not always go exactly as I'd planned, if I keep the bigger picture in mind, free myself from 'over-teaching', and focus more on the concepts than crossing off I will be well on my way to being a more focused, and less stressed teacher. :)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Excellent Article on Sequential Warm-Ups

It's a busy day for me here between juggling lessons and then Ash Wednesday service at church, but I wanted to share an excellent article I read yesterday regarding piano warm-ups.

I have to admit that I probably don't put enough emphasis on this as a teacher. While I typically have my students start with scales in lessons and when they practice at home and then move on to technique (either from Piano Adventure or some other type of technical warm-up), I probably don't spend enough time emphasizing why this is so important.

I've been trying to improve in this regard, and that's why I so appreciated a recent blog post from Jason over at The Piano Pedagogy Page. He discusses the importance of sequential warm-ups as part of the student's weekly lesson. I totally agree with him! I'm going to see if I can make this type of approach to warm-ups more a part of my weekly lessons, while helping my students understand just why it's so important.

Has anyone else had success with taking time for sequential warm-up at the start of each lesson? I'd love to hear your thoughts and any tips you may have to help students understand the importance of thorough warm-ups!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Let's Think Spring with a Pentascale Worksheet!

For group lessons this month, I'm really going to be drilling key signatures, the circle of fifths, and...pentascales! This is one of my favorite concepts to drill with my young students. Teaching them the simple pattern (Start-W-W-H-W) we discover new pentascales together and experiment with transposition. I'm always amazed at how quickly they pick it up and how well it sticks- usually! :)

But for those who need a bit more practice, and as a good review, I've designed this worksheet that drills a few simple pentascales, as well as tonic and dominant (a concept that always seems to be a little harder for my students to grasp!). If you don't teach pentascales outside of the Piano Adventures series, your students should be ready for this sheet by the time they're in Level 2A and begin learning D, A, Cm, and Gm. If you teach pentascales earlier, then this worksheet can be used anytime. it's available for download on my printables page.

Let me know if you have feedback or suggestions!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Church Pianist

Other than Christmas, I consider the upcoming season of Lent the most stressful season for church musicians. While I absolutely love this contemplative season of the church year, the extra responsibilities it places on me as a musician often find me contemplating all the extra music I have to prepare rather than the spirit of the Lenten season!

I spent a good portion of this morning pulling out books and reviewing and selecting music for this week's Ash Wednesday service. As often happens during one of these sessions, I'll pull out a book that's been sitting on the shelf for a bit and re-discover what a treasure it is! I LOVE it when that happens! :)

Here are a few of those 'treasures' I found this morning with highlights on my favorite selections:

"The Cross and the Crown" arranged by Anna Laura Page

I'm still not quite sure exactly when and where I stumbled upon this book, but I absolutely love the selections. The stylistic variety is excellent (there's nothing I hate more than to find a book that contains arrangements that all sound alike!) and the hymns are so tastefully arranged that this book really is a must-have for church musicians! My favorites include: "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" (pure fun to play!), "My Jesus, I Love Thee", and "What Wondrous Love Is This" (a hauntingly beautiful arrangement). It's hard to pick just a few because I love each and every arrangement in this book- a rarity for me.

"What Can I Play on Sunday? Book 2: March & April Services arranged by Cindy Berry
I've asked myself that very question many times, and this particular series of books have been lifesavers for me on numerous occasions! The arrangements are usually well-done and are very accessible- especially appreciated when I find myself in a last minute pinch! While I'm not crazy about every selection, there are several tasteful arrangements that I plan to use for upcoming services, including, "Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us", "Just As I Am", "All Glory, Laud, and Honor", and "Were You There?"

"A Month of Sundays: Easter and Lent" arranged by Jan Sanborn

Last but not least, another treasure that I haven't even fully explored yet! I've only had time to play through about half of this book, but I'm liking what I've heard so far. While some of the harmonies are a bit less traditional, I'm excited to find more contemporary arrangements to use in upcoming services, including "What Wondrous Love is This?", "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna", and "Beneath the Cross of Jesus".

I'm sure that there are other books out there that are staples for church musicians during the Lenten season, and I'd love to hear what some of yours are! Please feel free to share your favorites- I'm always looking to add to my collection :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Structuring Lessons: Leaning to be Flexible

You casually glance at the clock, only to realize that there are a mere FIVE minutes remaining before the lesson time is up. A quick glance at the lesson plan and what's been accomplished thus far leaves you wondering just where the time went and how you can bring things to a close in such a short period of time...

How many of us teachers have found ourselves in that type of scenario? I know I have! I'd like to take a few moments this afternoon to think together about the question of lesson structure and how we as teachers can make sure we stay on schedule while getting the most out of the limited lesson time we have with each student.

The most important thing to remember when preparing a lesson plan is flexibility! I don't know how many times I've meticulously planned a lesson only to see it go off completely differently. I used to feel frustrated when that happened, but over time I've gotten to the point where I'm ok with it. We can never predict how a student will react. Students aren't machines, and no matter how hard we try to cater to individual personalities there will always be surprises.

It's also important to remember that outside influences we can't see and have no control over will impact a students' level of preparation for the lesson and their attitude during the lesson.

With these factors, it's easy to see that if you as the teacher are not prepared to bend a little from your set lesson plan you're setting yourself and your students for frustration and perhaps failure.

So yes, there are things we as teachers can't control about lessons. In the coming week, I will be posting my thoughts on what we can control in our student's lessons and how to make the most of those elements. I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback as well!

But until the next post, try to enjoy the challenge of a lesson that goes slightly different than expected/planned! Learn to think on your feet and make the most of what you have to work with. Expect the unexpected and learn to capitalize on it! That's what good teaching is all about ;)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Finger Number Worksheet

I have taken on several beginner students in the past month, all of which seem to need a little extra work with getting comfortable with finger numbers. In trying to come up with multiple creative ways to help them drill the finger numbers, I came up with this worksheet.

After tracing each hand, the student gets to use a little bit of artistic creativity! I've only created a worksheet for the RH so far, but a corresponding LH sheet will follow soon! These worksheets are available for download on my printables page.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Question of the Week: Feb. 28, 2011

Time flies! We're already into March. Last week's question resulted in some excellent discussion on adult students. Thank you so much for everyone who shared their advice on their experiences.

This week, I'd like to focus on another issue that I find myself struggling with from time to time (no pun intended ;) ) in my studio: time management! I teach lessons back-to-back and sometimes it's really hard to cut off lessons the minute that particular student's time slot is up. If I go over, I give the next student their full allotment of time, but usually this finds me getting behind before too many lessons have gone by- ugh! :(

I have more questions along this line- but for this week just want to focus on the issue of lesson length. Any teachers out there have advice on how to try and keep lessons the proper length without running progressively later and later?!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lily Pad Interval Game

Interval recognition is key to good sightreading skills, and with that in mind I've designed this simple game for my students. You can use it with individual students, or in a group lesson setting as a game for teams.

Print the lily pads using card stock. Place the lily pads on the floor or table top. (You can pick and choose which lily pads to use depending on the students skill level or if there are specific intervals that need work). Then give each student or team a stuffed frog. Hold up an interval card (Jennifer Fink has some great 'interval tower' flashcards available at her website here) and see how fast the student or team can identify the interval and make their frog leap to the correct lily pad!

I'm looking forward to trying this game out in upcoming group lessons, but please give me any feedback you may have from using the game and if you have any suggestions. I wasn't too pleased with the image quality on the lily pads. You can find the game on my printables page.