piano lessons

Three Things I'm Doing Differently in My Piano Studio This Year

Three Things I'm Doing Differently in My Piano Studio This Year

It's been a while since I've written anything about private teaching here. This is a big part of what I do during the week, even though I don't talk about it much here, and I know many of you teach privately, as well, in addition to the other things you do. 

I teach private lessons four days a week at a private school as part of their extracurricular and after-school programming. At the beginning of this year, I shared eight ways to continue developing your teaching skills this year.

Developing Aural Skills in the Piano Studio

Developing Aural Skills in the Piano Studio

Aural skills (also known as ear-training) is a fundamental facet of musicianship. Learning to listen, identify, discern, and understand music without notation present helps develop the inner listening skills needed to become a well-rounded, well-versed musician.

Finding the steady beat
Recognizing strong and weak beats
Discerning meter and tonality
Understanding rhythm and tonal patterns
Recognizing dynamics
Discerning articulation
Feeling interval distances
Understanding cadences
Recognizing chords

Aural skills "help musicians at all levels to become more discerning in they way they play, sing and listen to music" (source). 

We all remember those 8 a.m. aural skills classes in college - sight-reading, singing intervals, singing bass lines, spelling chords. But what kinds of aural skills experiences are we giving our students before college? How can we incorporate aural skill activities in our weekly studio lessons

How to Build and Run a Successful Piano Studio

How to Build and Run a Successful Piano Studio

On the surface, it might not look like much work, but running a successful private studio means running a small business and there's lots of behind-the-scenes work that happens in between those weekly 30-minute lessons.

Whether you're just getting started, looking to build a studio in a new city, or searching for ways to streamline your process and help the business side of your studio run more efficiently, this post has something for everyone.

Today, I'm sharing ten tips and tricks for building and running a successful piano studio (many of these suggestions are applicable for other music studios, as well!), including ideas and helpful resources, insight into how I run my studio, and a few things I've learned along the way.

Why You Should Have Consultations with Prospective Students

Why You Should Have Consultations with Prospective Students

Last year, I received an email from a piano teacher asking about initial consultations and interviews. What do you do? What questions do you ask? How long should it be? What materials do you give them? Great questions! Here are some of the reasons I offer consultations to prospective families (and why you should, too!):

Why Are Consultations Important?

1. They give you an opportunity to meet prospective students (and their parents) face-to-face before either of you commit to lessons.

2. For students who are transferring from another teacher, it's important to see what music they're currently working on, assess what they know, and determine where you want to begin in your first lesson.

40 Ideas to Inspire Creativity in Your Students

40 Ideas to Inspire Creativity in Your Students

"To stimulate creativity, one must develop the child-like inclination for play.”- Albert Einstein

As a piano teacher, I love teaching young beginning students. I love their enthusiasm, the questions they ask, their excitement over little successes, and most of all, their creativity.

Young children are naturally curious and inquisitive, with vivid imaginations. I love finding ways to bring that into our piano lessons and their practicing at home. I added a "Creativity Challenge" to the bottom of my assignment sheets a few years ago (available as a free printable here) and each week, I write a short prompt to encourage creative exploration, discovery, and music-making during the week.

Six Ideas for Fall Piano Lessons

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Do your students love Halloween as much as mine do? 

Every week they come to lessons so excited to tell me about their costume plans and the decorations in their classroom or at home so this year, I decided to introduce lots of Halloween and fall-themed music and lesson activities during the months of October and November to celebrate the season.  Here are some of my favorite ideas:


Six Ideas for Fall Piano Lessons

Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!

1. "Trick-or-Treat" warm-ups

A great way to review scales and warm-up patterns!  Have students draw a few technic patterns from a bowl (or perhaps a festive jack-o-lantern!).  Will they stumble (trick) or master the pattern on the first try (treat)?  Of course, some sort of treat will make this challenge all the more fun!

2. Creativity challenge

My younger students LOVE making up their own pieces each week.  This month, I've been assigning Halloween "creativity challenges" and I love hearing the things they come up with during the week!  Here are a few examples of "creativity challenges" for Preparatory B/Level 1 students:

- Make a piece about Halloween using your new warm-up (5-finger scale in A minor).
Make up a song about Halloween using four rhythm patterns (notated on assignment sheet).  Don't forget to write words for your song!

3. Rhythmic speech match-up

I saw this idea on Pinterest and knew it would be a great activity for lessons leading up to Halloween.  Create a list of seasonal phrases (i.e. "acorns falling from the trees" or "pumpkins are round, orange and brown") or use this list of Halloween phrases that match a series of set rhythm patterns.  Have students read the phrases out loud and choose the rhythm pattern that matches.

4. Seasonal pieces

There are so many great pieces out there for fall and my students love having a "special piece" (usually something not from one of their books) to work on in addition to their other assignments!  Here are a few of my favorite pieces for fall for Preparatory B/Level 1 students:

- The Haunted Mouse (Faber & Faber, Level 1, Lesson Book)
- Song for a Scarecrow (Faber & Faber, Level 1, Lesson Book)
- Pumpkin Boogie (Faber & Faber, Level 2B Lesson Book)
- Whirling Leaves (Faber & Faber, Level 2B Lesson Book)

5. Candy corn dictation

Such a cute idea from Emily at The Sweetest Melody!  This is another fun rhythm activity for fall lessons, appropriate for all ages, as the rhythms you choose for dictation can be tailored to the individual student.  For example, I might choose duple rhythms with triplets for one student (to reinforce her understanding of triplets), duple rhythms with quarters and eighths for a first-year student, and patterns with more subdivisions for an intermediate level student.

6. Duet improvisation

I love playing duets with my students during lessons, especially ones that we create together in the moment.  The Haunted House improvisation in The Music Tree, Part 2B has the perfect programmatic title for Halloween-themed lessons!  (Note: Since this is an improvisation activity, it's really suitable for a range of levels, since the musical material provided is just a starting place.)

Happy fall teaching!

iTeach

Look at me writing a post from my phone!  That’s right – you’re looking at the newest member of the iPhone club!  From FaceTime to iMessage to real-time traffic reports to web-surfing that’s faster than my laptop, I am a huge fan.  I can keep up with my emails on the go, update Twitter and Facebook in one fell swoop, and of course, write these fun updates for y’all while I’m traveling!

In addition to the personal and professional benefits, I’ve been experimenting with the iPhone as a teaching tool.  Last week, I introduced “Model T” from The Music Tree: Part I to a student for the first time.  We identified the rhythm and tonal patterns but when it came time to put everything together, I realized my student didn’t know what a Model T was.  Have no fear, the iPhone is here!  I quickly looked up a picture and a short Wikipedia article to share and discuss for a moment.  Following this teaching moment, the tempo indication, “bumping along” made much for sense!

A few days later, I had a high school student working on “Minuet en rondeau” by Jean-Philippe Rameau.  “Keyboard music from this period would have been written for what instrument?” I asked.  After a moment of thought, she shrugged.  “The harpsichord,” I said.  In order to dispel the notion that the harpsichord was played vertically like a harp, I quickly pulled out my phone, looked up a picture, and found a video performance of a 2-manual harpsichord so she could see and hear the instrument in action.  This opened the door for a conversation in stylistic interpretation, articulation choices, and the historical differences in instrument construction.  Now she recognizes that the ornamentation has a practical benefit as well as a decorative one.

Tonight, I plan to bring this recording of “While By My Sheep” into choir practice.  I think I’ll use my iPhone.

Image Credit: Jen Shenk

Creating Practice Plans with Beginning Students

Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!

Last year, I spent some time observing at the New School for Music Study in Kingston, NJ (read my notes here, here, and here). 

This school, founded in 1960 by Frances Clark and Louise Goss functions as a keyboard pedagogy lab: pedagogy students gain teaching experience, community members gain instruction, and new teaching approaches are constantly being tested and evaluated.  One of Clark’s strong beliefs was that students should be taught to be self-motivated learners – this essentially makes the teacher dispensable!

In trying to develop independent learning in my students, I recently began introducing “practice plans” with my students during lesson time (an idea I observed at the New School).  Practice plans are 2-4 specific items or practice strategies per piece, neatly written on a sheet of paper that they can keep out next to their books to (hopefully) better organize their practice time at home.

Think of how much learning takes place at home during the week!  If a student practices 20 minutes a day, five times a week, that’s 100 minutes of solitary time spent on these pieces (as compared to the measly 30 minutes they spend with me each week).

Here is an example of what this sheet looks like:

practice plan

This student (age eight) is working out of The Music Tree, Part 1.  At the beginning of today’s lesson, we reviewed the last practice plan and checked off the completed items (she was very honest about what she had and had not completed!).

After reviewing the pieces in progress and performing her two recital selections, we wrote out a new practice plan together.  This is not a practice notebook where I sit and scribble notes while she plays and I hope that she goes home and reads them later.  Practice plans are collaborative. 

*As as side note, I do keep a lesson notebook for my own purposes – mainly, keeping up with student progress and repertoire assignments.

“What are two ways you can practice this new piece?”  I asked today. 

Erin made a suggestion, I made a suggestion, and I made sure she could demonstrate whatever it is we were writing down.  After all, writing “tap/count” is great but if she doesn’t know what it means when she gets home, it’s not a real practice item!

The exercise of talking through a practice plan for each piece doubles as an assessment tool for me: by having students make suggestions for their practice time (setting their own goals), I have a better understanding of what they’ve learned and how they are applying and reusing ideas and strategies from previous pieces we’ve studied.  Also, I find students are more accountable to me the next week when they have to report on the effectiveness of their practicing – they take more responsibility for their progress.

For more information on Frances Clark, visit the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy website.

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?

Little Carnegie of the South

It was Friday, July 13th, 2007 - a hot summer day in south Georgia.

I pulled into the driveway of the southern house off Forsyth Street, known as Little Carnegie of the South for my first piano lesson with Louise Barfield. On the phone, Louise (with a southern drawl) asked me to prepare all major and minor scales, four octaves, for our first lesson. I was cordially ushered in off the wide front porch by a tall woman, truly delighted to see me. Her hair was tied back in a loose bun and she wore cowboy boots.

I took a seat at one of the two grand pianos in the long living room and she took hers at the opposite end of the room, settling in comfortably at the end of a row of velvet chairs.

I began with C Major. I played four octaves up, four octaves down and stopped. "Why are you stopping?" She asked. "Play them in sequence." I began again. C Major, C# Major, D Major. All the while, Louise stood at the back of the room shouting, "Louder! Faster! Pretend you're in Carnegie Hall - you have to play to the whole room!!" About the time I approached F Major, my arms were burning. My fingers felt stiff and uncontrollable but I could not stop. She would not let me stop. I dragged my hands up and down four octaves until I finally (somehow) managed to arrive back at C Major. A few minutes later, we did this again. Louise took out a piece of paper and wrote down these questions (the answers I gave are included below):

On a scale from 1 to 10 - rate your performance - 10 being the best. 6 - tempo was fairly consistent, fingering needs work, need more endurance.

Why is it important to practice scales? Physical strength, endurance. Awareness of keys and key signatures. Strengthens fingers. Tempo consistency.

Why is fingering important? Ease of playing. Scale lines in music. Consistency.

Describe what you know about the technique of scale playing. Finger position must be curved, wrists and arms must be relaxed, elbows must be used to broaden control, tempo must be consistent.

My notes from this lesson read:

- curve fingers more - lead with body - lift fingers off key - don't touch key first - tension only permitted in 1st joint of fingers - "free the music from yourself" - energy is all mental - watch dropping fingers on keys - play in the air - the energy plays the keys - watch follow-through for each finger - be aware of our physical inhibitions - don't let them constrict the music - every action is plotted mentally - "you are your own teacher" - be aware of ego and laziness when practicing - fingers do the playing - support with strong body muscles

We began a few more technical exercises that day:

- drop: one finger at a time, up and down the scale line - drop/release: scale fingering (watch follow-through) - stretching/finger independence: C-Eb-Gb-A-C (or B), Bass C and Treble C position, hands separately. Play all notes together then lift/play one finger at a time, 4x each (straight fingers, not curved). Strengthens thought. Other fingers should be relaxed and resting. No finger, hand, arm, or shoulder strength - use diaphragm and energy from inside. Finger combinations (4x each): 5+3, 4+2, 3+1, 5+4, 3+4, 2+3, 2+1, 5+1.

July 13th, 2007 was a humbling day and one that marked a turning point in my understanding of music. We spent the rest of our lesson time reviewing one scale - note by note, finger by finger, muscle by muscle. For me, it was overcoming fear, being completely vulnerable and taking a step toward playing with confidence. It was a day I will never forget.