Practice Makes Better

I had just completed my first day of teaching in a new year at Shepherd Music School. It was a long day since I included some make-ups from the day before due to being sick. I shopped at the mall grocery store, where chicken is on special one day a week. Having put those in the car, I took a brief walk around the village of closed stores. Wow, it was great having the energy to do more than move from kitchen to couch to bed on repeat! Practice was far from my mind, or so I thought!

Unexpectedly, I ran into Dave and Buster’s, which is the new tenant in the old food court building. I’m always interested in investigating new businesses, no matter what they do. However, I will admit to especially liking those in which adults are encouraged to act like kids. I walked in, put $5 on a card, and had enough credits to casually play about 30 minutes worth of games. I even earned enough tickets to cash in for a ping-pong sized high-bounce ball.

There was a real mix of games, from those that were pure chance to ones where skill and experience are important. That’s especially important because just a little bit of an edge can mean scoring big versus earning just a couple of tickets. And that’s when it hit me. I was drawn almost exclusively to those games that required skill. After playing the basketball toss, Skee-Ball, and the piano game, I wanted to do it again and again. Yes, I wanted to practice, because practice makes better! Of course, getting really good at any of these games just unloads your wallet. At least you get to cash in your tickets for some merchandise that is almost exclusively branded with the Dave and Buster’s logo!

Practicing the piano follows the same logic. I want to practice my new repertoire to perform it to the best of my ability. Depending upon the difficulty, learning a new piece could take just a couple of hours in one sitting or dozens of hours over many days.

When I set minimum practice standards for my students, I think about what I go through now and then. I sometimes show students my books, filled with fingerings and practice markings. I don’t feel bad asking my youngest beginner to practice at least an hour a week, which could be just 20 minutes a day over three days. For an older beginner, I’ll ask that to be stepped up to 30 minutes a day. My best student, who is solidly intermediate, practices about 3 hours per week, typically 30 minutes per day over 6 days. It’s not a crazy or excessive amount, but it’s enough. Lessons are extremely productive: feedback is offered, practice solidifies the suggestions, and then we move on to new pieces fairly quickly.

Practice is where the real learning happens. Sure, I may be effective in giving guidance, suggestions, even a fingering that might work better. But it’s the student who determines what to do with all of that. I can’t take credit for what happens at home. I can just brag on my students who have done the work themselves, and be happy that I have had the chance to guide them along the way!

Posted 2018-08-16

Summer Lessons Experience

I just completed my first full year of teaching at Shepherd Music School. When I last taught in a similar setting, the school closed over the summer. Students could study privately as long as it wasn’t onsite. In that case, my summer students were a subset of the ones that I had from the school year, and tended to be the more serious ones. I wasn’t recruiting or adding any students. And, as expected, most of them came back to the school in the fall.

At Shepherd, we teach year round, adding students at any point, though we do tend to add most new students in August, January, and June, at the start of our fall, spring, and summer sessions, respectively. The summer session is really designed to be flexible. You can take just a couple of lessons, or you can take as many as you can fit in, which typically is eight.

There was one parent who was very clear about trying out the short summer session to see if her five-year-old was ready for lessons. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. But with others, the expectations were not set at the beginning: Students who I thought were starting a long journey were just like summer campers. This was not only a common theme at Shepherd, but something I read quite a bit about on piano teacher community Facebook pages.

I don’t have anything against a student studying just in the summer, per se. However, it’s one thing to teach a summer student who is at least a few years into their journey. You can work on some repertoire, and offer some artistic and technical suggestions along the way. It’s another thing to teach short-term a student who doesn’t read music, hasn’t learned how to keep a steady beat, doesn’t know how to hold their hands, nor play in a relaxed yet focused way.

Perhaps there is a way to offer a short curriculum that offers some type of closure, which I think could be helpful in two ways: 1) It provides the student a sense of accomplishment, and 2) It shows the parents clear progress in a brief amount of time, which may encourage further lessons.

This all sounds good, but the caution is that some serious shortcuts to the long-term learning process might have to occur. The biggest gating factor to a young learner playing recognizable pieces is her reading level. In order to learn these pieces, he might have to be taught by ear to guarantee a result. There’s nothing wrong with playing by ear as long as the parent understands that learning to read will take longer if it’s not made the top goal for the student.

So, my goal for next summer is offering more customized lessons, based upon stated up-front goals. I’m hoping that this not only adds a little music into the lives of my new students, but might convince the parents that this really should be a year-round activity, not just a summer camp experience.

Posted 2018-08-08

Looking Back at First Friday

My year-long project of preparing to host a booth at First Friday in Downtown Bentonville came to pass last night. It was geared to increase enrollment at Shepherd Music School, where I teach. I won’t lie, it was a tough process and I was near the breaking point a few times along the way. Our booth was very simple, yet coordinating all of the pieces and people consumed time and energy beyond any prediction.

This is actually the fourth time today I’ve written about the event today, including a post to the Shepherd Music School first, then to Facebook and Instagram, followed by an After-Action Review to the two parents and two instructors who supported me in this endeavor. I was ready to call it quits there, but decided I should put a tiny commemoration on my blog, too, for those who may read this later.

I’m glad to say I did this, and that I’m not sure how much better I could have done, given the circumstances. Whether this event was a success is really an open question. We didn’t get any enrollments for the school, but we talked to plenty of parents of young children who may think of us when it comes to taking lessons in the coming years. And I learned tons as well, including that you can really entertain young kids with inexpensive craft projects!

Posted 2018-08-04

Summer Project – Playing by Ear

This post, Summer Project – Playing by Ear, is the third in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I honestly had enough on my plate with my other two projects: researching iPad apps and learning how to offer online lessons. Obviously, I was wrong since I immediately attached to the charisma of Ruth Power when I saw her on a Webinar. As a result, I completed her free Ear Bootcamp and then enrolled in her formal course Songs by Ear.

Playing by ear is important for a musician, though it’s not a skill that many piano teachers, me included, find time to include in lessons. I find it a nice sideline to include when discussing harmony, which comes up both in the Arkansas state music curriculum and in method books. It’s nice to show how simple chord progressions such as I-IV-I-V-I serve not only as the basis for many childhood songs but also for popular music. Some of my piano students will see this in action sooner rather than later.

I’ll expand on this topic as my experience with learning how to teach playing by ear expands, but I just wanted to share some of what I’ve been up to in preparation for teaching this fall!

Posted on 2018-07-27

Piano Teaching Philosophy

Introduction

From time to time, people ask about my piano teaching philosophy. As a response to this, I wrote the following thoughts months ago but never published them. However, there’s only so much you can learn from a conversation. When you’re near the end of your interview process, I strongly suggest that you schedule an evaluation lesson. Both teacher and student should be comfortable before beginning what could end up being years of learning together.

Piano Teaching Philosophy

I believe that art and music are important to the education and enrichment of the lives of children and adults alike.

Piano lessons are expensive, so they should be undertaken with a commitment to get the most out of them, for the time that they’re pursued.

Learning to play the piano should be fun, though it’s not always easy. Proper technique, good rhythm, and sight-reading are necessary through all stages of learning. Written music theory and ear training are also important to round out all of the concepts learned at the keyboard.

Each student has his/her own needs, and I accommodate those as part of the learning process. Some pursue piano for recreation, others are more serious and ready to score high at the upcoming festival. Stickers motivate some but not all. In other words, lesson plans are tailored to the student’s ability and goals.

The process is as important as the final result. Learning how to break down a new piece of music and put it back together, and then doing it all over again, is what inspires me. Humility comes from realizing that there never will be a perfect performance. There is always an opportunity to learn something new from a great composer!

Posted 2018-05-29

Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy

This post, Summer Project – Online Lesson Academy, is the second in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. I invested in a reasonably priced online course given by the Upbeat Piano Teachers, a team of two – Sara Campbell and Tracy Selle. Sara was mentioned in a Webinar given by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). As a result, I listed her as a piano teaching resource in this post, which speaks about her own site and blog, Sara’s Music Studio.

So far, so good! All of the information was helpful and well put together. Now it’s time to do the homework assignments during the short window of time the course instructors are available to facilitate. There are two Q&A sessions, after which we are on our own.

What is the point? Technology has made online lessons possible. There are just several pieces of equipment needed to get started, including a laptop and a Webcam, or just a tablet with its built-in camera. Add high-speed Internet and you’re ready to go! It’s not much more complicated than that.

So why use it? The most obvious reason is to eliminate the need for makeup lessons when the problem is getting to the lesson. It could be inclement weather, a transportation issue, or even minor illness. Makeup lessons are the bane of music teachers everywhere, so why not try online lessons to teach during the allocated teaching time? There are some instructors who extend this technology to provide distance learning. This can occur if either the student or the teacher moves away, but both parties want to continue lessons. It also allows a teacher with special skills to teach outside of her geography.

One of the surprises of the seminar was the idea of video learning. This is offered where the student can’t show up for his lesson and isn’t available for an online lesson. The teacher can use the lesson time to create a customized video with specific instructions for the student. The student then has to watch the video within a short window and perform the assignments to be ready for the next lesson. It’s also possible to create a series of generic video lessons ahead of time to be offered to a student when it’s not possible to create a customized video.

That’s it so far! I’m excited to do all of this work, and then engage with parents and students to get started!

Posted on 2018-05-28

Summer Project – Music Apps Review

Summary

This post, Summer Project – Music Apps Review, is the first in a three-part series under the category of Piano Teaching. The inspiration for trying out apps came from a Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Webinar titled Fresh Approaches to Old-School Teaching, presented by Peter Oehrtman. I also poured over an extensive list of app recommendations by Tim Topham of the Inner Circle.

I did the first round of testing with free apps, or paid apps where I chose the free option. I was hugely disappointed, but it proves the saying: You get what you pay for. The second round of testing went much better, since I bought most of the apps. With just a couple of exceptions, I found that I couldn’t fairly evaluate paid apps just by using the free version, since their functionality was so stripped down.

I publish this list of recommendations (and not) by how useful I find them in my teaching practice. I did find some real duds. But more prevalent was that the apps didn’t seem to offer enough to me or to my students, or had expensive monthly fees versus a one-time price. All of the apps tested were tested just on an iPad, since iOS is the preferred platform for music app developers, and that is what I happen to own! Some of these apps should also be available for iPhone or Android phones/tablets, but that’s beyond the scope of my testing.

Recommended

Note Rush: Music Reading Game

Flashcard drilling using your piano/keyboard to verify the notes.

Price: $3.99

I find Note Rush a lot of fun to play myself, so I’m betting it will be a hit with my students. The app uses the device microphone to identify pitches, and it worked perfectly with my acoustic piano. It’s pretty easy to use, and it’s the type of app that you can use at different stages of your learning. It has the benefit of being fun as stress relief while at the same time helping reading skills. If you only want to buy one app, this is the one. It’s worth every penny!

Rhythm Lab

Rhythm drilling, using either one or two hand tapping on the screen.

Price: $3.99

This is a super fun app, though I don’t think it’s as essential as Note Rush. If you naturally play with good rhythm already, it’s not going to help you a tremendous amount. If you do struggle with playing in time, and are not self-aware about stopping at bar lines or at the end of difficult rhythmic patterns, this could be your app. The interface is a bit complex and the varying applause at the end of each exercise is a bit annoying, but those are just minor irritations.

NoteStar

A multi-function music reading app with lots of great music, with a pay-as-you-go model.

Price: FREE with in-app purchases

Here’s a case where the free version can be somewhat fun, or at least indicative of what the paid version will be like. Once you choose your song, sheet music rolls across the screen so you can play along. On songs that are more traditional classical repertoire, you can turn off either or both the left and right hands. On songs that are more pop music, the choice is to turn off either or both the keyboard or backing track. In all cases, you get a 30-second preview, with no pressure to buy the song once it finishes. The price per song is a reasonable $1.99 to $3.99.

Recommended with Hesitation

Super Metronome Groove Box

A more fun type of metronome with different instruments, beats, compound meter.

Price: $6.99

The free version was just awful, since the app times out after playing just 16 measures. The paid version is solid, it can be a lot of fun if it appeals to you. Try it out at a lesson, and see whether you like it, and will use it. There’s always the cheaper Tempo app, the free Metronome app from Onyx Apps, or no app at all. I know I’m a fuddy-duddy, but should you really be using a $400 iPad for a job that a $25 metronome can handle?!

Tempo – Metronome with Setlist

A more straightforward metronome app with bells and whistles not found on a traditional metronome.

Price: $2.99

This app reminds me of what was available on the deluxe version of Seiko or Korg metronomes. I never found those features to be that helpful, preferring either a simple Seiko $25 metronome or an old-fashioned Wittner Taktell. While some may find this useful, I’d almost say you should commit to the fun Super Metronome Groove Box instead if you want a metronome alternative.

Not Recommended

Piano Maestro

A comprehensive teacher/student app for teaching various skills.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

This is an app that is intended to be managed by the teacher, with assignments sent by the teacher to students based upon email address. The student work is then updated to the teacher’s dashboard. I love the idea, but I don’t love that the paid version is either $12.99 or $19.99 per month, depending upon whether the teacher buys a site-license covering the students (more expensive) or asks each student to buy their own client app (less expensive). There is lots of value in the free version, but I fear becoming attached to the app, and inevitably facing the wall where both the students and I have to invest in the paid version to continue. I’d just rather not go there. Still installed – I’m willing to try it with a student, if she is willing, to see if I’m wrong.

Simply Piano by JoyTunes

A play along service that combines the features of Note Rush and NoteStar.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

The premise of this app is great! You get tons of material (Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift) at the beginning to mid-intermediate level, similar to the à la carte app NoteStar. You are evaluated by how well you play along similar to Note Rush. All in one app. What’s not to love you ask? The price! Any of the fun stuff you want to do, including the songs, requires a yearly subscription, with the cheapest monthly option being $9.99 per month with 12 months paid in advance! It may be the best app in the world, but I’ll never know. I’m not willing to chance a short one-week trial period expires and a $119.99 charge appears on my credit card bill without getting a chance to test the app. Uninstalled.

Garage Band

I honestly don’t know how to describe it.

Price: Free

So, what do you do with it? It is a super complex program! I thought this was supposed to have some type of teaching purpose, but I couldn’t find what that is. It seems to be a powerful program for audio recording and editing, and all of it is free. But that still leads me back to my original question! Uninstalled.

ScaleTracks

An app that aids with practicing scales.

Price: Free with in-app purchases

Really, really hokey. If someone hates scales already, this app could make them hate them even more! Uninstalled before all of the others!

Last Updated 2018-09-11 | Originally Posted on 2018-05-22

Where Music Notation Fails

Have you ever faced a situation where music notation fails to convey the essence of the music? I routinely find this when dotted rhythms and syncopations enter the curriculum I use to teach piano students. Of course, preparatory activity like tapping, clapping, and singing the tune can be especially helpful. After all, any pre-school kid can sing London Bridge Is Falling Down. If I can convince an eight- or nine-year-old to sing, the teaching becomes much easier. Syncopations, especially those that cross the bar line, are another matter!

YouTube to the rescue! I always remind my students that the music came first and that the notation is just a necessary shorthand. Here is a short list of videos of innovative music that requires more complicated notation and time signatures.

La Bamba – Sing and clap where the words are just “La La Bamba”

America – Tap foot on the beat and clap off beat

Take Five – Feel and clap the innovative five beats per measure

Posted 2018-04-30

ASMTA Regional State Festival 2018

I participated in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) regional state festival for the first time this spring. I’ve now lived through a full-year cycle of teaching which included the Northwest Arkansas Music Teachers Association (NAMTA) Sonatina Festival last fall. This event was held on Saturday, April 14th, in the music building at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. From the moment I arrived, some minutes before 8 a.m., the halls were filled with kids and their parents. My four students were scheduled later in the day, and I managed to see all of them at some point during the day.

However, the experiences were extremely different. The Sonatina Festival is solely a performance-based event, with none of the theory, technique, sight reading, and ear training that are a key part of the state event. However, the regional state festival is very worthwhile to the students who participate. But it is not for the recreational piano student. There is a lot of work required to prepare a memorized program in addition to doing the musicianship and theory work that is tested separately.

The good news is that all my kids played well. All of them scored in the superior range. In fact, one of my students did well enough to be considered as an alternate to go to the state finals! As for the other testing, there were mixed results. Two of the kids did pretty well, one did okay, and another, well, missed the boat as the expression goes.

Due to the nature of the festival, where each student tests and plays at different times, I wasn’t able to get a group photo. However, below is a picture of their ribbons, placed on top of a blank certificate. I am grateful to the committee who lost a lot of sleep doing the advanced planning. Many of my fellow NAMTA teachers donated their entire Saturday to run the festival. As always, they were very generous sharing their teaching insights with me. Finally, thanks to the parents and kids without whom there would be no point to any of this!

ASMTA Certificate and Ribbons
ASMTA Certificate and Ribbons
Posted 2018-04-17

Piano Teaching Resources

Summary

I often find piano teaching to be difficult. Each student comes to you as an individual learner, with different needs from the next child. What motivates one student doesn’t motivate the next. What’s hard for one kid is simple for the next, and vice versa. Fortunately, there is an amazing community of teachers who offer lots of piano teaching resources, much of it free.

I explore for inspiration on the Web in several different ways. Much of it comes through Webinars from the Music Teachers National Association, to which I belong. When I find a good site, I’ll click links that lead me to find other great sites. If I’m looking for something specific, I often find it just through a Google search.

Update

As part of a recent continuing education project, I have dived a lot deeper into three of the resources on my original list, and found a brand new one to share as well. These are grouped under Recently Helpful. The other resources under Also Worth a Look are carryovers from when I first published this post.

Recently Helpful

Piano Picnic

Ruth Power comes to piano from a different angle than most others in this list. She grew up loving to play piano by ear, figuring out songs she heard on the radio. This while taking traditional piano lessons and going on to a bachelor’s degree in music. I took her free course Ear Bootcamp, which was offered as a teaser to her more formal paid course Songs by Ear. She not only gave me a teacher discount but gave me permission to offer modules of the class to my students, sort of like a site license, at no extra cost. How cool is that?

Sara’s Music Studio

Sara interviewed Ruth Power just before her Ear Bootcamp began. I ended up adding a third project to my summer list as a result. My second summer project was taking a course Online Lesson Academy that Sara offers with her colleague Tracy through the Upbeat Piano Teachers. I wrote a separate blog post on that subject.

Tim Topham

Tim is an amazing source of inspiration who has a very extensive Website. I’ve hopped onto many free teaser resources he offers, including newsletters, Webinars, and downloads, while resisting frequent pitches to become a paid member of his Inner Circle. I’m sure the Inner Circle is great, but it’s really expensive and outside of my budget for continuing education right now

Inside Music Teaching

Philip Johnston is a blogger and publisher of two books that I have purchased as teacher resources. Check out the posts that rotate through the jumbotron on his home page. One of the books that many of my students know first-hand is the very expensive Scales Bootcamp. I use this in lessons for students learning the correct fingering on full octave scales once they’re ready to move past pentascales. Philip, if you ever read this, please lower the price on this book, as I would ask all of my students to buy it! I bet you would make up in spades on volume what you would lose in per-book profit!

Color In My Piano

Joy Morin talks about her studio, her influences, and inspiration for other teachers. Most recently, she released a really cute Post-It note project. The free download provides the basic Microsoft Word templates that allow you to affix notes to a page and type your own text. The upsell is to purchase some inspirational messages she designed by hand, then digitized, that can be printed on these notes. It’s really a clever idea, but I think I’ll stick to designing my own notes for now.

Also Worth A Look

Pianimation

Jennifer Fink inspired me to put together a version of her floor staff carpet, using cards that she developed to relate intervals to that staff. I created a separate portable felt board that I loan to parents to help young learners with the staff.

Piano4Life

Teacher Natallia created this Circle of Fifths Chart that I use with students. I use it to check off scales learned in major and minor.

Last Updated 2018-07-30 | Originally Posted 2018-03-12