The Most Important Question I Ask In Teaching

The Most Important Question I Ask In Teaching

As teachers, we ask a lot of questions. But, did you know there are different kinds of questions (or ways of asking questions) that can actually promote learning? A good question does more than assess student learning or mastery of a concept; it can actually foster a deeper level of understanding, open a space for productive dialogue, and promote self-reflection.

This is important because, as music educators, we love nothing more than seeing people learn and grow, as individuals and as musicians.

There are two main types of questions: closed-ended and open-ended.

Here is a bit more about each one:

Closed-Ended Questions

These are questions that have a yes/no answer. This doesn’t promote a lot of deep thinking, as the answer is typically given in the question (e.g. "Is the bottom line of the treble staff an E?") and the learner has a 50/50 chance of getting the answer right. These types of questions work well for younger students when you're comparing things, though I would rephrase the question to, “Were those the same or different?”

Goal-Setting for 2014 - Part I


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Happy New Year, friends!

This has been such a peaceful week for me - back home after a week of traveling, time with good friends (old and new), cooking, and yes, doing a little planning for the New Year.

I must admit that goal-setting has been a little bit more challenging for me this year than last (read more here, here, and here). I started off 2013 super motivated and ready to take on my ambitious goals (not that ambitious goals are a bad thing...). That lasted a few months but once summer came around, and the pace of life slowed a little bit, my action-oriented goals felt a little more like things on my ever-present to-do list. By the time fall came and school picked back up, I barely looked at my goals.

Granted, I did make progress. A lot of good things happened, in part as a result of setting thoughtful goals at the beginning of the year. But before I set standards and expectations for what I want to see happen in 2014, I want to make sure I spend time reflecting on the things that worked well and the things that didn't work last year.

This is how we learn, right? We try things, we experiment (like that vegetable casserole I made for dinner tonight, right, SD?), but it's only in the reflection that follows that true learning really takes place. Here's what I learned:

Things that worked:

1. Rest and space on the weekends. This made such a difference for me this year. It gave us something to look forward to each week but I also felt like my working hours were more productive.
2. Setting professional goals. I made significant progress on my degree this year, in part due to some goals I set for myself early in the year.
3. Goal-setting in January. In general, this was a great way to start the year with focus.
4. Blog calendar. I started using this free printable in November and loved it! Thanks, Em! Planning to use it again this year.
5. Monthly duty days. I first read about "duty days" here and loved the idea. Now, I use part of the day the first Friday of each month to catch up on paying bills, depositing checks, and miscellaneous home and business to-dos.
6. Afternoons to work at home. I am such a home-body that taking time to occasionally work from home for part of a day is actually refreshing. I can't and don't really want to work from home all the time right now but every once in a while, it's a good thing.
7. Getting up on time. Yay me! We did fairly well with last year's goal. I'm not much of a morning person but my day always feel more productive when I get a lot done in the morning.

Things that didn't work:

1. Lack of monthly action steps for goals. I lost motivation over the summer when my schedule changed and it was hard to get back on track with my goals come fall.
2. Letting distractions in while working. Especially checking email and social media.
3. Complaining. Especially to people who couldn't help! This is fruitless.
4. Writing on two separate blogs. I decided to do all of my writing on this blog in the coming year.
5. Comparing myself to others. As Lara said, "comparison isn't just the thief of joy, it's the thief of everything."
6. Choosing goals that became more things to do. Trying to come up with a better way to choose and write goals that are meaningful, things that center and focus my life rather than adding to my schedule.
7. Consistent exercise schedule. It's always the first thing to go when things get busy. I walk to school most days (a mile each way) but I want to find a more consistent time to exercise in addition to that a few times per week.

Good things that happened:

1. This post pretty much sums it up but here are a few others:
2. Started teaching piano at Harley
3. Traveled to new places with SD
4. Made time for 30+ runs in 9 months
5. Had my writing featured on the Clavier Companion website
6. Received two grants
7. Wrote a hymn arrangement
8. Recorded two songs for SD
9. Made time for writing (outside of academic writing - blogs, poetry)
10. Read four books: The Go-Giver, 7, The 4-Hour Work-Week, and EntreLeadership (almost finished!)
11. Got all of my inboxes to zero
12. Purged negativity from my social media feeds
13. Started volunteering with RAIHN, a hospitality organization for homeless families
14. Paid off one of my student loans ahead of schedule
15. Invested more in our Roth IRAs than past years

I really have so much to be grateful for. 2013 was a good year, a fun year. I am ever grateful for God's "immortal love, forever full" (one of my favorite hymn texts) and His grace that covers all. I am so grateful to be married to SD and for the blessing of our marriage. I am humbled by the people I work with at Eastman and am honored to be part of such a community.

Y'all, I love our little neighborhood - our daily walks (when it's not 5 degrees outside), cozy restaurants with waitresses that know what we want before we order, and happy hours on the roof overlooking the city.

I am grateful for people who truly listen and love extravagantly. I am grateful for opportunities to make music and share it with others in meaningful ways. I am humbled by the ways God provides for us. I love our everyday adventures and the joy that we find in the little things.

I am thankful for intentional rest and quiet days to be home. I am grateful for opportunities to do new things with SD (like bowling!). I am grateful for the promise that each new day holds because of His great faithfulness.

2014 is going to be a good year.

Building Musicianship - Part II


paradigmA glimpse at some of my notes from class

I am four weeks into the spring semester and four weeks into my "Keyboard Skills" class that I mentioned in my previous post.  Let me just say that this may be my favorite class ever.  I am learning so many practical skills for performing, improvising, teaching, playing church music, etc. and I'm learning so much about myself as a musician in the process.  Let me give you a little sneak peek into my practice time these past few weeks:

1. Paradigms Paradigms are a fancy theoretical word for short chord progressions, essentially expanding the tonic key.  Each paradigm has 3-4 chords, functioning as a building block in music (we've been practicing them in all twelve keys, major and minor).  Each week of practice assignments builds on the week(s) prior so as we progress, we're expanding our tonal vocabulary more and more.

Week 1: seven paradigms Week 2: seven paradigms Week 3: thirteen paradigms Week 4: three paradigms

This week, we're also working on diatonic scale harmonizations--or, in English--adding chords to an ascending and descending scale line (think vocal warm-ups). With a total of thirty paradigms, harmonizing a scale line (or really any melody) is just a matter of linking these progressions together in different ways.

2. Score Reading In addition to reading treble and bass clef, we're learning (or re-learning) how to read alto clef.  To practice this, we've been working on mostly two-part repertoire (alto clef in one hand, bass or treble clef in the other).  A few practice techniques:

1. Hands separately 2. Hands together 3. Hands alternating by measure 4. Hands together, stopping/starting

Practicing with hands alternating every measure trains your eye to move quickly between staves and trains your mind to translate the various clefs quickly and efficiently.  Starting and stopping (while you keep time in your head) gives you an opportunity to audiate what's on the page (hear something in your head without the sound being present) and again trains your mind to quickly recognize various clefs.

3. Transposition We've had three transposition assignments now--two hymns (4-voice texture) and the accompaniment to a Schubert Lied.  There are a few strategies here, as well:

1. Analyze the harmonic progression--think about function 2. For homophonic music, think about the intervals within the hand (practice hands separately in the new key) 3. Identify cadences (and tonicized keys, where necessary) 4. Use clef transpositions whenever possible 5. Practice hands together in the new key, staccato

Clef transpositions means looking at the stave as if it's in another clef.  For instance, if a piece is in A Major, and you need to transpose it to C Major, think of the treble staff as being in bass clef (the second space is A in the treble staff and C in the bass staff).  Use alto clef to help you, too!

4. Coordination We keyboardists tend to think of ourselves as fairly coordinated but let me tell you, reading a bass line with your left hand and conducting a 4-beat pattern with your right hand is complicated!  Here are a few ways to practice coordination (beyond what we normally do):

1. Sing + Play - For 2-part music, sing one line, play the other, then switch - For 4-part music (hymns are great), sing one voice and play the remaining three 2. Play + Conduct (play with one hand, conduct with the other) 3. Practice standing up

5. Sequences This is a prequel to reading figured bass but the practice of filling in chords aurally while reading only the melody and bass line is a valuable ear exercise.  Sequences are pattern-based so it also reinforces good voice-leading and keyboard-style playing (three voices in your right hand, one in your left hand).

Whew!  A lengthy post (props to you if you're still reading!) but hopefully it's helpful to some of you as you continue your own journey of building musicianship.  Next up in this series--harmonization!

Previously: Building Musicianship - Part I

Building Musicianship - Part I


IMG_1427 Musicians often talk about "developing their musicianship."  It's the artistry in performance, it's interpretation, it's an approach to one's instrument, it's the way we communicate without words.  Truth be told, it's something we're never quite done with.  You see, there are always new things to be learned, things that could be more efficient or more natural, different ways of thinking, bad habits to break, etc.  As musicians, we are all continual works in progress.

So, we find ways to develop our musicianship, our artistry.

For me, this means some of the things I mentioned in my list of goals for this year: become a better improviser, sightread and sightsing on a more regular basis, become more efficient at transposing and reading open score (4+ lines of music), and become a more competent listener.  How do I improve these things?  Practice, practice, practice.

I'm taking a wonderful theory class this semester called "Keyboard Skills" - essentially, a theory class at the keyboard.  More on this soon (sneak peek in the picture above!).  The assignments for this class go hand-in-hand with my musicianship goals for this year so yesterday, I sat down with my planner at the kitchen table and blocked off some time in my schedule (with striped washi tape, of course) to spend in the practice room.

Goal: Learn five songs in twelve different keys

This is one of my specific goals for building musicianship this year.  Playing simple songs by ear will improve my harmonic listening skills (listening to more than just the melody) and learning them in every key will aid transposition and improvisation skills.  Each week, I'll focus on a few keys, adding to the list with each successive week until I've worked through all twelve keys (major or minor, depending on the tonality of the song).  Here's how I plan to make this happen:

Week 1: Play song in C, F, G, and D Week 2: Play song in A, E, and B + review C, F, G, and D Week 3: Play song in F#, Db, and Ab + review C, F, G, D, A, E, and B Week 4: Play song in Eb and Bb + review C, F, G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, and Ab

This week, I started Song #1.

This is the first of a few posts I plan to write about my strategies for building musicianship.  More in the weeks to come!


It’s the last day of my spring semester classes and I could not be more grateful!  This semester has stretched me farther than I thought possible and molded me into a different teacher than I was when I started.  Here’s my semester, at a glance: 45 students 330 PowerPoint Slides 89 pages of notes (single-spaced) 28 lesson plans 15 Quizzes 7 Group Project Assignments 2 Paper Assignments (5-page, 10-page) 4 Playing Quizzes (4 tracks each) 12 Piano Juries

Can you believe it’s been two years since I started as an adjunct?  There have been moments where I felt I was in over my head, teaching classes I didn’t feel qualified to teach, and drawing connections between content I had only learned myself through my lesson planning.  But, I knew the challenges would be worth it.  I knew overcoming those fears was necessary and important to my future success.  I knew I had to say “yes” to these new opportunities even though my head (and all sensibility) said “no.”  I knew I had to leap – and trust that I could build my wings on the way down.

What have I learned through the process?  I’ve learned that some students really love learning and soak up everything you say like a sponge.  I’ve also learned that some students struggle with the demands and responsibilities of college – enough to lie multiple times about a missing assignment.  I’ve learned that some students have never been asked to write a research paper before and don’t know where the line of plagiarism falls.  And I’ve learned that some students care enough about their final papers that they look up the archives of a Russian newspaper to find a review of a musical premiere – even though they don’t read Russian.  I’ve learned that accessible teaching means connecting to things they know – like showing the Family Guy Remix of Steve Reich’s tape phasing experiment, “It’s Gonna Rain.”

What’s holding you back?  Is it fear that keeps you from doing and being your best?  Define it, acknowledge it, and then set it aside.  Who’s stopping you?  Are you stopping yourself?  Is your head telling you you can’t, you’re not good enough, you’ll fail?  Identify whatever it is that disables you and move on.  Take that leap and learn how to fly.

Matthew's Lesson

Every Monday night at 6:30 p.m., seven-year-old Matthew comes for a piano lesson.  Some days, these lessons are 80% discipline and 20% playing but this week’s lesson was an exceptional contrast. In preparation for our lecture recital, Steve and I had moved the piano from it’s usual front right position to front and center (and rotated 180-degrees).  This change to our normal lesson scene made an immediate difference with Matthew.  The curly-headed, wiggly child sat right down and flipped his book open to our newest page.  “Are we starting with this piece?” I asked, pointing to the first of the two.  Without a word, he brought his hands up to the keyboard and began to play.  He meant business!  I sat to the side and observed until the end of the piece.  Matthew has an excellent sense of rhythm so generally it’s just fingering and tonal patterns that we need to review.  This performance, however, required no review!  He played the song in it’s entirety while chanting the text.  I was impressed!

We moved on to the second piece on the page by reviewing the rhythm/text.  After tapping and chanting, I asked him to find his hand position.  Again, he played straight through, while chanting the text with no issues!

Normally, by this point in the lesson, I would be kindly asking him to take his feet off the pedals, sit still, play with only fingers 2 and 3, etc.  Since he was so focused and playing so well, I encouraged him to explore the change in sound when adding a little pedal.  He played very gently – adding about half of the sustain pedal throughout.

At the end, I asked, “How did that change the sound?”  He had an immediate response.  “It stays,” he said simply.  “Yes!” I replied enthusiastically.  “It makes the sound last longer, doesn’t it?”  “Yes, and if I were just playing notes like this-” he stopped to demonstrate a pattern of steps “then I wouldn’t need the pedal.  But if I were playing here [high register] and then I wanted to go down here [moving to the mid-low register] then I would need the pedal.”  What an insightful response!  It became clear to me that Matthew not only recognized the sound difference but knew how he would use it in the future as a way of connecting patterns in different registers!

Having recently learned about 2nds, playing on white keys (this book starts on the black keys), and dotted half notes, I asked Matthew to improvise a piece that incorporated all three things.  He thought for a minute before beginning.  Thoughtfully, he played a stepwise melody with a repeated rhythmic motive.  He used both hands and a wide range of keys.  The piece ended rather abruptly but from the look on his face, this was intentional.

“That was beautiful, Matthew!”  I said.  “What’s the name of that piece?”  “I haven’t decided yet,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.  “Let’s ask your grandma what she thought,” I suggested.  “I thought it sounded whimsical,” she said.  Seeing the perplexed look on Matthew’s face (“What the heck does that mean?!”) she quickly added, “Like playing with toys.”  “Hmm, what do you think, Matthew?” I asked.  “Toy Days,” he stated.  And “Toy Days” it was.

We moved back in the book to review his recital pieces – “Inchworm” and “Playing Frisbee.”  We work on text from the very beginning of learning a new piece but in preparation for the recital, I’ve been working on having Matthew think the words internally instead of speaking them out loud.  We reviewed this for both pieces and as I joined him on the bench to add the duet part, I reminded him about bringing our hands up to the keyboard at the same time and lifting our hands off the keys and back to our laps at the end of the piece.  His grandmother was very impressed.

I had one more piece to review – “Merrily We Roll Along.”  This is a great example of knowing/singing a song one way and reading it another.  This elementary piano book carefully presents this song within a 3-note range for each hand and with only basic rhythms (for instance, no dotted rhythms).  I believe that reading is important, but I also know that Matthew knows this song with a different rhythm.  I’m not going to correct him with the simplified version when he can hear and play the more complicated version.  All I had to do was turn to the page and he began to play.

I had turned for just a minute to make a comment to his grandmother about practicing but I could hear him working out this song by ear.  He was looking at the book but we both knew he wasn’t really reading it.  He was singing to himself and when he played a wrong note, he would say to himself, “Wait!” and then begin the phrase again and again until he figured it out.  He didn’t stop until he could play all the way to the end.  I thought this was excellent and praised him for using his ear to self-correct.  I played my accompaniment for him and we sang the melody together (with the familiar dotted rhythm).  After that, it was much easier to play both parts because he already had an idea of how the two parts fit together.

We ended our lesson time with a few preparation steps for a new song – reading the text in rhythm and tapping while chanting.  We discussed the implications of the title (“Parade”).  “Have you ever marched in a parade?”  I asked.  “No, but I’ve seen a parade before,” he answered.  “Well, what do you think would happen if you were marching in a parade and suddenly, you decided to stop?”  “You would get run over!” he replied with big eyes.  “Probably so!”  I said.  “That’s what this song means when it says, ‘Keep the step!’”

Lessons like these remind me why I love teaching.  The creativity, the innocence, the playfulness, and the imagination make music so much more fun!  Can we all be a little more like seven-year-olds sometimes?

Boys Will Be Boys

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I am learning so much about the nature of boys from my piano lessons with seven-year-old Matthew. 

At first, it may seem to an observer that Matthew is easily distracted, often outspoken, and possibly disinterested in piano. However, after several weeks of lessons, I see the situation a little differently.

Tonight, I introduced the slur (Unit 3 of Time to Begin from the Music Tree Series).

“Do you know what this curved line means?” I asked.

“No!” said Matthew, boldly.

“It means to play things smoothly – like this,” I said as I demonstrated a connected melody.

Wiggling on the bench next to me, Matthew instantly began playing loudly in the bass register of the piano, cutting off my more delicate melody.  Instead of stopping him or suggesting that his playing was loud or interruptive, I let him play. 

I recognized after just a second of hearing him play that he was experiencing this new concept of smooth playing.  He heard me define and demonstrate it – now he needed to experience it.  Imagine the learning that would not have taken place had I cut him off abruptly!

“Can you demonstrate something that is not smooth and connected?” I prodded.

Relating a new concept to what it is not is always helpful in the learning process.  Instantly, Matthew began playing – with both hands.

“What do you call that?” I asked.

I wanted to encourage him to name this opposite style himself rather than me enforcing a foreign name such as “staccato.”

“Crime,” he said with big eyes.

“I guess it might sound like crime,” I responded.  You can never expect the path that true imagination takes!

“We could call it disconnected or – popcorn!” I said, catching myself introducing a foreign word.

Seven-year-olds can relate to popcorn, though this analogy still required a demonstration before he agreed.  Once Matthew understood the concept of the slur and experienced what it felt like to play in a smooth and connected style, the next few pieces came easily.

I have also learned that Matthew loves rhythm and it comes very naturally to him.  To encourage rhythm study in lessons, I created a series of rhythm pattern cards in triple and duple meter.  I let Matthew choose 8-12 cards each week to arrange in any order. 

Tonight, he was confident enough in his rhythm reading that he performed a series of four patterns while I read a contrasting series of four patterns.  This is his favorite way to end our lessons each week!