Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Question of the Week: April 25, 2011: Pros and Cons of Teacher Breaks

As you may already know, last week was spring break week at my studio- YAY! Let's hear it for a week (well...three days at least since I ended up doing two days of make-ups) of no lessons and time to recharge and let my creative juices flow. A week to enjoy other pursuits and enjoy the 'un-teacher' side of my life a bit more.

And I did enjoy it...until I started lessons back up this week and remembered why I really, really have a love-hate relationship with teacher breaks. Here's why: give your studio even one week off and it starts falling apart! Students don't practice and end up coming back having regressed rather than progressed. Books are forgotten, assignments are uncompleted, and I feel like I'm starting over at square 1 with 90% of my studio- UGH!

So here's my question to all of you:
How do you approach scheduled breaks to avoid the negative consequences? Do you have any tips and tricks to help your students actually make progress over a break?

I enjoyed my week off so much- I want to be able to enjoy my well-earned vacations rather than dreading the following week when I have to reap the consequences!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Skittles Board Game with an Easter Twist!

While I totally enjoyed my spring break, I'm slowly getting back into the teaching groove. I wanted to do something fun this week to help my students get back into the swing of lessons after their own spring break from school, so I took Susan Paradis' Skittles board game and modified it using...jelly beans! I know this isn't the most creative, but I had to find some way to use the up the leftover jelly beans without eating them all myself! ;)

Anyway, if you're not familiar with the game, check out this post from Susan's website for more details. Basically, students draw a card with a note name on it (Bass G, Treble F, etc.) and then place a skittle (or jelly bean!) on the correct note on the grand staff gameboard that's also included. A fun and yummy way to review notes!

For my younger students I'm simply adapting the game using a tabletop keyboard. After they draw their card, they place the jelly bean on the correct key.

Have you been playing any fun Easter or spring related games with your own students recently? I'd love to hear about them!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Worksheets to Help Learn C and Middle C Positions

I had a student this past Friday who is just learning about the C Position in the Primer level of Piano Adventures. She's having a really hard time grasping the concept of using all 10 fingers at once. I assigned fewer pieces for her to work on and instead supplemented with some finger exercises in the C Position to help her get more familiar with the feel, but I also wanted to make some worksheets for her since she and several other students are just starting to experiment with the C Position vs. the Middle C Position.

This seems to be a really tough concept for many of my students to grasp. Even into the first Level of Piano Adventures they will get the two positions confused! I'm hoping these worksheets will help to solidify the differences between the two hand positions.

The first worksheet simply drills recognition of the two hand positions. It's a very simple exercise, but helps the student visualize the spatial difference between the two hand positions.
The second worksheet is a bit more involved and requires a good knowledge of finger numbers. Given a keyboard picture with one finger for each hand filled in, the student has to fill in the remaining fingers and then identify the hand position.

I haven't tried either of these out yet...but I'll definitely be using them in the coming week! Please send feedback- positive or negative- my way :)

Also...for those of you who often visit the printable section of my blog- how am I doing on organization? Do you find it easy to navigate and select the worksheet you want? Is there anything I can do to make things better organized?

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Was I So Worried About?!

Yesterday evening was our church's Maundy Thursday service. It's a beautiful evening of music and reflection, and our worship director usually pulls in other musicians to help add to the event. So I wasn't surprised when she approached me last Sunday and handed me some music to look at for the flute choir for Thursday. When I looked at it, however, I was a bit surprised at the level of difficulty and the intricacies...were we really going to pull this off on the fly for Thursday?!

She asked me to come early on Thursday evening to rehearse with the flute choir, which I agreed to do, but I left church feeling a little nervous about getting my accompaniment together before then.

The following days saw me spending a considerable amount of time working on the piece. Every spare minute found me at the piano. I meticulously copied the music, cut out the piano line and pasted it together onto 4 pages so I'd have less page turns. I worked with the metronome, gradually increasing my speed so I was certain I'd be able to keep up with the quartet. And while I wasn't worried about any other aspect of the service, I was pretty anxious about pulling this piece off!

...Until I arrived at church last night and realized that we weren't playing the piece for the service! In fact, we might not be playing it at all! Basically, Linda had given me the music because this was a piece that the flute choir was considering. Before they made their decision, however, they wanted to run through it once with an accompanist to see how that changed the nature of the piece...I was just an experimental add-on ;) When we did our trial run, I was also surprised (and a bit relieved!) to note that the choir was taking a much slower tempo than the one suggested.

Moral of the story?: I had basically gotten myself all worked up about nothing!

I could cite countless examples like this in my past experience as a musician when I'll get roped into something and literally feel like I'm pulling my hair out to try and get it together, only to realize that I was taking the whole endeavor way too seriously! I just have to laugh at myself and try to remind myself not to take things so seriously in the future.

Can you relate? Do you have any stories to tell about times when you as a musician found yourself 'overly prepared' and guilty of taking a situation way too seriously?! I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Enjoying My Spring Break

It's Wednesday and I haven't posted so far this week because...(drum roll!) I'm on Spring Break! While this might not seem huge to any of you, for me it is. I never used to take off at all over my spring term, but just pushed right through to the recital. After several years this started to mean major burn out by the time May rolled around.

So this year for the first time I decided to take a little 'me' time in the form of a week-long spring break! I'm still involved with multiple Holy Week church activities and services and I have a few make-up lessons thrown in here and there, but overall this week is lesson-free and I'm guilty of completely loving it!

I thought about my lack of posting this morning and felt momentarily guilty, but not guilty enough to post anything more than a little explanation. I'm determined to really, truly enjoy this week off!

I'll be back to more regular posting next week. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on spring break! Do you routinely take a week off sometime in the spring? If so, have you found it restful, or do you find yourself doing more planning than anything else?! If you'd don't take off, how do you manage to survive until the end of the term?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

FACE Flashcards for Treble and Bass Clef

As a relatively new piano teacher, I'm constantly in the process of developing new resources for personal use in my studio (I can't wait to see where I am 5 or so years from now- I'll have flashcards and worksheets galore! :) ).

This morning (Saturday) my hubby got called into work. I wasn't planning on doing any studio work...but I'd been itching to complete these flashcards so I started some laundry, made a cup of coffee...and voila! The flashcards are complete!

I don't know how many teachers use FACE in the bass clef to help students remember notes, but I've created a set of FACE flashcards for both bass and treble clef. This is a spin-off of a concept used by my mentor when I was student teaching. Basically, each card contains three notes from a FACE group...the goal of the student is to identify the notes as quickly as possible.

The possibilities are many and varied. You can use these cards away from the piano and have the student(s) call out the note names, you can incorporate this into an individual lesson as an activity at the keyboard by having them play the notes, you can mix and match both sets and play a matching game (if I made these cards correctly the treble and bass sets should be identical as far as note patterns go), you can use a tabletop or floor keyboard and have students place tokens on the correct I said- many and varied! And I'm sure there are many more ways they can be used as well!

I'd love to hear of any other creative ways you can think of to use these cards! They're available for download under the printables tab. Each set consists of 3 sheets- the third sheet is a template for flashcard backs- completely up to you whether you want them to have backs or not- it always helps me when I'm looking for a specific flashcard set in a hurry!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Surprise Composition Activity

Ever since group lessons last month, one of my Friday evening students has asked without fail at her lesson, "Are we going to play a game this week?" So I decided to cook up a little surprise for her this evening (don't tell on me and let her know that this kinda wasn't a game- she LOVED it ;) ).

She has just started learning about the staff, and I decided it would be fun to do a little composition activity! I pulled out one of my handy laminated worksheets and we used the back to make our grand staff (I did the staff lines but she did everything else).

Then we talked about what notes we wanted to add and what rhythms. She hasn't yet learned about time signatures, only knows 3 notes, and I didn't want to take a huge amount of time on this activity, so we just picked 6 notes and didn't worry about bar lines and measures.

Then we chose a title for the piece. As you can see, her mind was on sports with spring in the air! After we had our piece all completed she got to play it on the piano. She was so excited about this activity and called her mom and little brother into the room at the end of the lesson to play her composition for them.

Just a little fun away from the piano on a Friday afternoon! Have you had any teaching inspirations yesterday for your students?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teaching 'Aha!' Moments (For the Teacher :) )

It's so easy to get caught up in what I as a teacher am doing wrong that I can overlook the times I get things right. That's what these 'Aha!' posts are for- the moments when I experience a teaching breakthrough. I hope that these posts will encourage fellow teachers! Read on for installment #1...

I love love LOVE it when my students have 'aha' moments and you can literally see things click in their brains! But, I'm also a fan of those times when I have my own 'aha' moments as a teacher.

Sometimes finding a way to effectively communicate can be a real trial and a test of my ingenuity and creativity (and my level of patience!). It's always so rewarding when I finally light on the right explanation or solution to a given problem.

Like this afternoon...
I was working with a student on a piece of music that has a lot of ascending and descending scale passages. It was his second week on the piece, and even though I'd assigned metronome practice over the past week to try and get a more even, smooth speed something wasn't working! As he was playing, I suddenly had an inspiration: Why not change the metronome so that it was beating the eighth note instead of the quarter note? Once he finished his current run-through, I offered my idea and we tried it. WOWOO! It made a world of difference. The passages were smooth, steady, and confident. Seems like trying to subdivide while playing was really causing more stress than help. I was so excited to have landed on an effective solution.

Now, keep in mind that this is the same student who told me later in today's lesson that he felt that metronome practice wasn't really helping him...and you can see I've still got some work to do, both to convince him of the benefit of the metronome and to find better ways of assigning metronome practice so he feels like it is working and worthwhile. But it was a step in the right direction!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Question of the Week: April 11, 2011- It's Allergy Season!

I am extremely blessed in that I don't suffer from seasonal allergies. I can enjoy the beautiful springtime blooms without having to worry about all the excess pollen in the air. But there are those who dread the advent of spring each year because of their allergies. The symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, and, as I discovered last night, distracting!

Have you ever dealt with a young student who is experiencing allergies? ;) This was my experience yesterday evening. It took us twice as long to do every assignment and play every piece because there would be about a 30 second pause before the piece while the student itched his eyes, pauses within the piece itself as itches caused distractions, and pauses after the piece before I could discuss anything because the student was focused on their itchy eyes.

This was a younger student (I would NEVER have let my older, more advanced students get away with this) who normally has trouble focusing in any case, so I could completely understand how much more trouble he was having paying attention with the added distraction and annoyance of allergies and red, itchy eyes. Nevertheless, this wreaked havoc on any kind of focus in our lesson time.

As I'm sure that this issue will only worsen in the coming weeks, I'm trying to find creative ways to try and deal with the situation.

1. I am going to send a nice email to the mom asking that her child take some kind of allergy medication prior to our lesson (maybe he was on some last night- but it didn't seem like it!) to attempt to minimize the discomfort and maximize on focus.

2. ??? This is where I need a bit of help! So here's my query for the week:

Have any of you out there dealt with this type of situation with younger students? How do you stress the importance of keeping going and not pausing in a piece when allergies are a real and present distraction?

Any tips you may have to share would be most welcome!

Monday, April 11, 2011

FACE Worksheets

I've been having so much fun with my new laminator! It is probably one of the most versatile investments I have ever made for my studio. Not only can I use it to protect flashcards and game pieces, but I've recently started laminating my worksheets to eliminate paper waste.

Her are a few that I've created in the past week (and laminated of course! :) ). I can't wait to start using them with my students this week.

I have a fair number of students who are in Piano Adventures Level or have recently started Level 2A. I created these worksheets to help drill the treble clef space notes. Using FACE is an excellent way to reinforce spatial recognition as students use both 3rds and 5ths to identify these notes.

My goal is to drill these notes and then continue by translation that knowledge onto the keyboard, which is part of the purpose of the final worksheet. Note recognition doesn't mean anything unless they can translate it onto the keys, in my opinion at least!

As always, please feel free to provide feedback and use any of these worksheets for your own personal studios (click on the printables tab and scroll down to find these worksheets).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Re-Thinking Practice: Week 1

If you read my post on the group lesson activity on practice I planned, you already know that I have made it my goal to emphasize practice over the remainder of the spring piano term in my studio.

Taking the ideas introduced in group lesson and branching out from there, here's how I've been implementing the concept of better practice in my studio this week.

First, I enlarged and printed off the handouts I passed out to my students and hung them on the wall in my home studio- hopefully as an eyecatching reminder that I can reference with my students in the future.

Then, I spent some time thinking about the number 1 item on both charts and created a handout for students to fill out at the beginning of their lessons this past week to help them think about better practice. I plan to do this each week to help my students internalize good practice habits. I got all kinds of responses from my students- all the way from one student who took almost 20 minutes to fill her sheet out (I finally had to call it to a close since I wanted to get some playing time in!) to one student who looked a the sheet and 10 seconds later told me, "I don't know how to answer any of these" (yeah right- I don't think he'd even had time to read any of the questions, much less think about answers ;) ).

Finally, I'm getting creative and developing some alert stickers for my students! This weeks' stickers centered around spots in the music where students may have experienced a 'fumble', or sections where they speed ahead and forget to pay attention to details or wrong notes and rhythms
(a turtle reminds them to slow down, or they'll receive a 'speeding ticket' ). I'm hoping that putting these fun stickers on the music will make my students more conscious of their mistakes and help them be better listeners while they're playing.

This afternoon I'll be working on the handout for week 2- and some new stickers :)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Quick Tips for Better Practice

I have a student coming this afternoon whose mother just had her third child, meaning that he's been doing a good deal of practice on his own over the past month. He's a younger student as well as a quick learner, but I've been noticing that his practice habits lately haven't been as disciplined as I'd like them to be. He loves to speed through the music without taking the time to count or take in other details (I have a feeling he'll be getting a fair number of my new 'speeding tickets' but more on that in an upcoming post). So I took a few moments this morning to write up a short handout I'm going to staple into his practice notebook for him to use over the week at home. Hopefully this will help him be a bit more conscientious when he sits down to practice!

What do you do to help younger students whose home practice sometimes leaves a few things to be desired?! Anything you'd add to my list?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It's Good to be Back (to Regular Lessons)

Last week was group lesson week. I always enjoy the break from the usual lesson routine, the chance to see my students interact, and the prospect of a bit more free time (though this usually never turns into reality as project after project clutters up those rare free spots!).

However, while I enjoy the group lessons, over the years I've come to enjoy the individual lessons much more than group lessons. I used to hold group lessons every month, now I've dropped it back to once or twice a term. Why? First of all, I got tired of putting so much into the planning when my students weren't turning up. The parents wouldn't be willing to commit to a monthly schedule change, so I'd plan and plan only to have a few students come to each group lesson and all those who didn't meant a loss of income for me for the week. Second, I thrive on routine. While it's good to shake things up every once in a while (or else I can get way too addicted to my rut) I find that too much of this means I'm one frazzled girl. Third, I feel like students benefit most from the one-on-one time, and that frequent breaks from this routine impedes the focus and flow of progress.

Finally, I just love the personal interaction. As each of my students has returned for lessons this week, I've felt like I've been catching up with a long-lost buddy! We discuss what they've been up to, and it's so good to re-connect- even if it's been only 2 weeks since our last lesson.

So the long and short of it is, while I enjoyed the week of group lessons, I'm happy to be back in the routine and re-connecting with each and every one of my students individually.

How do you personally feel about group lessons vs. individual lessons? Do you prefer one format over another? Do you feel your students benefit more from one or the other? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, April 4, 2011

New Scale and Arpeggio Visual Teaching Aids

Here are some new studio aids I'm in the process of developing. Over the past year I've been using strictly visual aids for teaching scales to my students. I've found that picturing the scale patterns by seeing them laid out on the keyboard is much more effective than trying to read the scale books. This was most dramatically demonstrated this spring when I had some transfer students who used scale books and were struggling with learning and executing new scales as we got to the keys that had more accidentals. One week I decided to remove the scale book and replace it with visuals- and what a difference it made!

I just recently discovered Natalie Wickham's excellent scale charts on her Music Matters blog. I'd been using visual scales before, but was a bit disappointed that the version I was using didn't have all the sharp and flat key signatures. Natalie's version has every key! I'm excited to start using them with my students- thank you Natalie for your work. :)

I love these visual scale aids, but I had been unsuccessful with finding any type of visual aid for learning I'm making my own! Here is a picture of how they're turning out. If you notice, I use the 'traditional' 5-3-2-1 LH fingering- any thoughts on that? I'd be happy to revise to include 5-4-2-1 if some teachers prefer that...

I've gotten through all of the Major keys at this point. It's taken me a bit longer to work these up than I originally anticipated, but I hope to move on to minors soon. If you think these would be helpful for your students, please feel free to print them out! My only stipulation is that you let me know how they work and give me some good feedback! :)

In addition to this, I've designed my own scale spinners! WOOHOO! I've wanted to do something like this for a while. I love the musical dice that Joy has over at Color in my Piano, but as I teach from two locations and in students' homes and take a bag(s) with me, anything 3-D isn't likely to last too long! You're welcome to use these as well. They're a bit more detailed (they have all the flat and sharp key signatures on them) so if you're looking for something a bit more simplified, please let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Both of these documents are available under the printables tab of my blog.

I didn't get nearly all the work accomplished last week that I was hoping to, but I got some projects started. Stay tuned for more updates and hopefully some completed projects this coming week!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Great Website for Inexpensive Game Pieces...and Lots More!

While searching around for some studio game accessories, I came across this great website. Not only are there some neat game pieces available like dice, play money, pawns, chips, sand times, and spinner sets (all at very inexpensive prices), check out the beads and findings section! There is also a page with charms, decorative brads, and under the 'ephemera' page you'll find a kitchen sink pack, tickets, paper bits, and an alphamania pack....have I sold you on this website yet!? There are so many great items for games, studio prizes, teacher projects, etc...I am super excited about taking advantage of several of these great deals for my own studio. Happy shopping! :)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Group Lesson Activity: Best and Worst Practice Habits

While I haven't been nearly as productive this week as I had planned, I did want to share some of the fruits of my labors from group lessons. Here is one activity I used in all but my very earliest beginning group:

I found this great Top 10 Best and Worst Ways to Practice list posted on Marcia Vahls' Piano Perspectives blog. I loved the post and thought it would be a great item to present to my students.

I designed a colorful handout for each student to put in their binders, but I also wanted to spend a bit more time focusing on these concepts so that they'd hopefully retain them! So I ended each group lesson with an activity using the list- I printed off and cut out both lists and mixed them up. Up on the wall was a column for "Best Ways to Practice" and "Worst Ways to Practice". Each student had to pick one of the pieces of paper, read it, decide whether it belonged under the "best" or "worst" heading, and place it in the right spot. Sometimes the individual student decided, other times we all voted just to make it more fun! :)

As each group of students left and were given the handout I had designed, it was really cool to see them actually reading it, saying "Oh, I do that!" and sharing it with their parents.

I'm going to be further discussing these ideas in lessons over the coming weeks, but more on that later (I'm still tweaking)! In the meantime, the handout I designed for the group lesson can be found under the printables tab.