Each year I’ve observed that students are increasingly unfamiliar with the carols of Christmas. It’s important to me to introduce them to as many as possible, and to enable them to entertain or accompany their families and friends with songs of the season.
Many of them start practicing Christmas songs as early as October. I decided to make Carols of Christmas the subject of our December group master classes.
I chose a Christmas instrumental CD to play as they arrived, and we gathered around my kitchen table for snacks. Food makes everything friendlier! I decided to treat them to sparkling grape juice, which most had never tasted. There was also lemonade and apple cider, grapes, cookies, candies, chocolate-covered pretzels…
While they snacked, I read them stories of several carols’ origins.
I found a number of activities about the carols of Christmas at brownielocks–scroll to the bottom for more.
My biggest challenge was to find those that could apply to a wide range of ages.
I tapped the beginning rhythm of a number of carols. Even the youngest students were able to participate and guess song titles. Of course, I knew what they’d been practicing, so made sure to use those pieces to give them a good chance.
I also sang the first few notes of a carol, without the rhythm, just to see if they could guess—they did pretty well. For more mature students, I had a Carols of Christmas fill-in-the-notes game. I’d give them a few measures of a carol, leaving out a few notes or a measure or two. They could fill in the missing parts.
There were activity pages concerning lyrics of Christmas carols. “Where would you go to hear silver bells?” “Who danced with a silk hat on his head?” Some questions read more like jokes, but all of it got them thinking more deeply about songs they may hear while shopping, but haven’t focused on. Talking about lyrics brought up the meaning and history of words or phrases usually heard only once a year: deck the hall/don we now/noel/gloria/yuletide…
For a final touch, I had bent some sparkly pipe cleaners into treble clef shapes, and set out a variety of beads that they could thread onto the pipe cleaners, and either keep or give away as tree ornaments.
I’ve had reports from various parents how fun it is to hear their children sharing the carols of Christmas with their families.
How do you introduce Christmas songs to your students?
Student workbook and assignment book to coordinate with game board.
It is so exciting to start a new school year. I usually take August off to give myself time to get ready for a new direction in the fall. In my never-ending attempt to keep kids engaged in the study of piano and music, I create a different theme and activity set each year. This year my theme is World Music, and I’d like to share with you how I have put this to work.
Game pieces to move around the board; little superheros.
Game board. Students move a space for each day of practice.
As the basis for my activities I chose to use an assignment book and game board from Keys to Imagination, created by Michelle Sisler. (http://www.keystoimagination.com/) There are several themes available, and I am using “Where in the World is Mr. Arpeggio” to coordinate with my world music theme. Each student gets a
workbook that includes assignment pages, along with activity pages at the beginning of the book which correlate with the game board. I purchase these books for the students out of their fall deposit money. A vinyl game board is pinned to my bulletin board and games pieces depicting superheros are added. The game board depicts a map of the world with a trail for students to follow as they track down clue cards to find Mr. Arpeggio, who has been stealing musical symbols. The clue cards also include interesting history and composer facts. Students progress on the board according to the number of days they have practiced the previous week.
In order to add a competitive element to the game, I also hung an even larger world map (under $15 at Hobby Lobby) on another wall and marked out a route for the students to race around the world. Students will choose a cute paper luggage tag on which to put their name, and then move the tag along the route as they accumulate points. In order to get on the map they need 15 points to get to Denver International Airport. From there they work their way to New York City, on to Paris, then Shanghai, and eventually end up in Los Angeles. Their prize reward increases at each destination. They will earn points by collecting the previously-mentioned clue cards, bringing their books, playing their scales cleanly, writing compositions, completing theory pages, playing at recitals, and other activities and goals.
Large map I added to have a race around the world.
During weekly media lab time I will add in world music activities on the computer. I may also use some of Keys to Imagination’s “Are We There Yet” studio series. This curriculum provides many activities related to studying world music. I will incorporate the world music theme into my group lesson activities and any special concerts or field trips we attend this year.
Multicultural activities for group lessons and media lab time.
Media room decorations.
Students will also be choosing a piano piece to study from a foreign country. I usually have a theme-specific recital sometime during the winter so the students can share these pieces with family and friends. I’ll encourage them to write a report about the country and/or the composer and maybe share some of those facts before they play.
This long banner ties it all together.
To set the mood, I ordered very inexpensive decorations from www.PartyCheap.com in the world theme—lots of flags! I may leave these up all year, or move some of them around from time to time. I have little cards to send out before lessons begin letting students know about the “world wide search” and how I need their help to find the thieving Mr. Arpeggio!
I’d love to hear from other teachers who use a theme each year for motivation!
We all know that stickers, charts, music money, trophies, and competitions may motivate students to progress but these “tactics” are just that, extrinsic motivators to get your students to do what YOU want.
However, why not find more ways to trigger intrinsic motivation so that your students achieve and move forward just because THEY want to.
Nothing inspires me more than seeing someone do something that I want to do. With the availability of videos on YouTube, it’s easy to see and experience others excel and having fun making music. When viewing videos on YouTube, each one usually inspires me in some way. It dawned on me that the same videos could have a monumental impact on my students. Read more…
I try to pick a different area of study for my studio each year to help me focus my activities. Below are some of the areas we have studied in depth.
It can be fairly easy to chose an “era” of music on which to focus. We have done Medieval/Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic. Within each era you can choose to study specific composers of that era, stylistic considerations, and concurrent world history. I use this to help focus my group lessons, special events, recital pieces, and history study.
Going in depth with one or two specific composers can be fun. Last year we studied George Gershwin by watching movies of his life and his musicals, reading books about him, learning to play some of his music, attending an all-Gershwin concert, studying about the culture and society that helped to shape his life, and posting pictures of him in the media area. The students also wrote a report about an aspect of his life and did an original composition. There are so many composers to choose from that I suggest Read more…
“When I was confronted with official tuition, the academic thing, I could see no relationship whatever between that and the music I’d been writing since I was 11.” – Harrison Birtwistle
For many musicians, and for many music-lovers who listen to them, the term “academic” has become a kind of musical dirty word. Defined variously as “not of practical relevance”, “of only theoretical interest”, or “pertaining to scholarship rather than practice”, the term is assumed to have little or nothing to do with the sound of music, or the enjoyment of music, or of music as an innate form of human expression. Indeed, the term “academic”, can for some by synonymous with “anti-practice”: we engage in “academic” music when we study theoretical concepts or argue about obscure points of critical theory; we engage in “practical” music when we put away our books, pick up an instrument, open our hearts, and sing.
But there is a difference and I can hear it!
It’s of course true that reading a book about music is not the same as playing an instrument or attending a concert. And I agree that, in some quarters, so-called “book learning” of historical and compositional concepts can lean strongly toward the abstract, and can aspire to meet expectations of meaning and relevance that appear to have nothing to do with practical music-making or the preferences of the ticket-buying public.
But this is OK with me as a practicing musician, for three reasons: first, because it is these same “book-learners” who have provided musicians with so much of the foundation of practical music-making (from well-edited scores, to treatises, to knowledge about how our brains process musical information); second, because the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake – especially about something as essential as music – is important in its own right (if we can say that art justifies itself, then surely scholarship too can be self-justifying as a human pursuit); and third, because, in my experience, many student musicians and concert-goers vastly underestimate the significance of the role “academic” knowledge plays in the study, performance, and enjoyment of practical music-making, both for performers and for audiences. Read more…
What can we teachers do to keep the love of music alive for our students? As I said in my opening blog last month, one of the best things we can do is to have our students make music with other people as much as possible. Whether we are teaching absolute beginners or advanced students, playing music with your teacher, sibling, or another student is always possible, and it is guaranteed to enhance solo playing, while also at the same time being informative, inspiring, and fun.
Finding duets … in unlikely places
We may agree that playing duets with our students is a great way to keep them engaged, but where can we find material? And how can we do this for all our students without having to buy an entirely new library of pieces for multiple players?
For all instruments, including voice, there is much we can do to find music to play together with our students from the music we already have. The first step is to remember that every solo piece we play is already a duet – or at least a potential duet – and that the more time we teachers spend giving our students tools for unlocking the duet potential of their pieces, the more we will be opening up some of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of music making for them.
Every teacher will have their own way of approaching the music they teach, and every musician will of course see different patterns and other improvisational potential in the solo pieces they play. By way of example, here’s a brief overview of a few of the approaches I take both in my studio and in my work as a performer to unlock the duet potential of solo pieces. These examples use quite simple pieces to demonstrate my point, but of course the same approaches can be applied to music of all levels.
Finding the song
Whether a solo piano piece, a jazz standard, a Handel aria, or a Bach partita, every piece of music can in one way or another be reduced to a song, by which I mean a piece in two parts: a melody with an accompaniment. Sometimes the division between these two parts will be obvious (a Handel aria – a catchy tune with many repeated chords underneath!), while at other times they will be more blended (a Bach fugue or the development section of a sonata). But some form of melody and accompaniment will always be there: we simply have to take the time to learn to winkle them out.
Once we find a melody and accompaniment in a piece, we have found the basis of the duet hidden in the piece. (There are many possible versions of course; use your ear to find out what melody and accompaniment stands out as sounding most representative to you.) We will also have identified the building blocks for endless varieties of musical play, whether swapping parts, changing rhythms, or adding or subtracting melody notes or harmonies as we explore the piece together in two parts.
Finding the duet in a solo piano piece by Haydn
To show you what I mean, here’s an example from the solo piano repertoire: the first section of a simple binary form in Haydn’s Minuet in C (fig. 1).
A teacher starting a student on this piece might start by *not* giving the piece, but instead providing the student with a harmonic pattern to play, for example something like this (fig. 2): [To make the scores shown here, I’ve used noteflight.com].
The potential for duet playing with a pattern such as this is endless. The teacher can play both parts or one part, one person can play the pattern while another improvises over it, or one person can sing (if possible using solfège) while the other person plays.
Exploring the harmonic and rhythmic pattern in this way helps the musical imagination, increases the awareness of harmonic motion, and is of course just plain fun. Once this can be done freely by the student (including the second part of the binary form of course), the teacher can then give the piece, which will look strongly similar – but in key ways different! – than the general pattern on which it is based.
The soloist will now approach the piece completely differently. There will be much more to hear, many more patterns to recognize, variations to notice, and it will be much easier to play with natural emphasis both note-to-note and in phrases. In an important way, even the beginning student will be approaching the piece in a way that is much closer to the position the composer took. He or she, too, will have created the piece as a kind of fixed variation on some known pattern or improvisation.
Playing duets with singers
Everyone can benefit from duet playing, and if you teach singers, I would strongly recommend that you take them off the melody line and into other parts of the texture to get them thinking more broadly about the role the melody plays from their very earliest lessons.
As in the above example, singing teachers can do this by preparing a student for a piece by first giving them some form of harmonic outline, and then engaging with them in different levels of musical play. The teacher and student can swap parts; the student can learning how to both play and sing; and both teacher and student can trying out some improvisational singing over a chordal framework extracted from a solo song.
Here is an example of a simple chord progression taken from the first phrase of the song ‘Flow my teares’ by English composer John Dowland (fig 3).
Before starting students on the piece, teachers can give this progression to students to take home and practice to the point that they can play it fluidly enough to be able to improvise a sung melody as they play. (If they are really challenged at the piano, they can be asked to play just the bass line, or the bass line and the top note in the right hand.)
Improvisation is not easy for everyone, so it helps to give students some tips to start them off with confidence. Once they can play the bass line, they can be told to sing any note indicated in the treble clef in that bar. As they get better at this, they can try to sing all the notes in each treble clef bar, and then play around with these notes by singing different rhythms, and by filling in or leaving out notes in each bar as they please.
The key is to get the singers to listen to the chords as they sing and to learn to accept or reject notes that don’t ‘sound right’ (based on the style of the piece as made clear in the chord progressions) by trial and error. (For singers who do not play piano, a graphic representation of the chords on a picture of the keyboard will work very well instead of notated music in the first instance.)
You can also send the text of the song home with the singer to see what they come up with when asked to write their own realization of the lyric or poem over the composer’s chosen chord progression.
When the student then brings the material to their next lesson, both student and teacher can improvise together using the same methods. When the student is finally given Dowland’s melody (fig 4), his clever text setting and beautiful dissonances will be heard as the revelation they are.
Singers who strum
If your singing students play guitar, ukulele or other chord-based instruments, it can be hugely interesting and informative to get them to bring these instruments to their lessons and to try to ‘accompany’ themselves while singing. This works whether they are singing a Schubert song (many are based on existing folksongs that can be sung and compared to Schubert’s version), a Bach aria (often very elaborate note to note but quite simple harmonically when all the ornamental notes are removed), or the recitative from a Mozart opera (these cannot be sung correctly if you don’t know how the chords fit together with the cadence of the text).
The music will suddenly take on a completely different shape if singers are asked to think of their line as something that must fit together with an ongoing harmonic motion they are producing themselves, or that is being produced as part of alternating duet playing with their teacher in lessons. Without a doubt, once they are back in their role as soloists, their pianists and conductors will notice the difference immediately.
The elephant in the room
Careful readers will have noticed that there is one term that I’ve not used throughout this blog post: ‘music theory’. This is because, while I recognize that this can be taught separately from performance, I strongly believe that all performers must understand how music fits together, whether they acquire this knowledge instinctively through playing or through improvising as outlined above, or technically through other study.
Creating duets out of solo repertoire as part of the learning process is one way to do this. There is much more to say on this topic and I invite all readers to chime in on this thread by sharing their techniques and experiences in the comments below.
The solo duet
In closing, I’d just like to add that, as a singer, I’m rarely performing truly solo repertoire in a professional context. Inevitably there is a pianist or an orchestra present, so in this work, of course, I’m writing from the perspective of a chamber musician.
But, like most singers, I practice predominantly by myself, and in these moments one can feel very much like a soloist, finding one’s own way through complex music and text in a quiet room, alone. Being able to play other instruments is hugely helpful in this regard, and I would certainly encourage teachers to press their students on this point; it really is necessary for singers to have at least basic piano proficiency if they intend to be professionals, and it’s always better to start sooner rather than later.
But it’s also helpful for all so-called soloists to remember that, really, we are never playing alone: our composer, and if our music features text, our poet, are always in the room with us, actively seeking our improvisational (in the sense of unique) response to the infinite number of possible interpretations they have left open for us in the score.
Any skills we gain duetting with our teachers, family, and friends, will certainly increase our understanding, and enhance our musical pleasure. But they will also serve us well when it is most important: when we are duetting with our composers, alone.
Welcome to my first post on the MTH blog. I’m looking forward to getting started, and to sharing my thoughts about music with fellow teachers, students, performers, and music lovers.
a musical conversation, pieter de hooch, 1674
I’ve spent a lot of time working as a performer, and also an academic researcher, and I love both these pursuits. But it is teaching music that I always come back to, and that I find the most fascinating and surprising. Teaching offers me the wonderful opportunity to pass on my love of and interest in music and music making, and to learn from my students in studio lessons, masterclasses, tutorials, and performances.
Teaching creates a wonderful space in which we can connect the practical making of music with ideas about music as part of our discussions with students who are coming to the different aspects of music for the first time. We can chat about, play through, experiment with, and ponder all that puzzles and moves us about music in all its beauty and complexity as part of a natural learning process. As we all know, teachers can learn as much from their students as their students learn from them, both from students’ questions, and from their comments and musical responses.
Keeping the love alive
One of the most difficult tasks teachers face is keeping the love of music alive for students, whether the students be school-age children, teenagers or adults balancing their musical life with social and family pressures, or university-level performers- and teachers-in-training concerned with maintaining good grades and securing a good position.
Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived! Is that what comes to mind when you think of the famous Tudor King of England? I imagine that his chat up line should have gone something like this: “Don’t worry; I won’t keep you for long!”
On a more serious note, probably a lesser known side to this colourful character of history was his ability as a musician and a composer! Born in 1491, Henry received an excellent education from the leading tutors of the day. As was expected of children born of the nobility, Henry was to become proficient in many skills such as hunting, fencing, jousting, archery, hawking, wrestling, dancing, writing poetry, singing as well as learning to play several musical instruments.
A Very Long iTunes Playlist!
Henry developed a life-long love of listening to, performing and composing music. He built an extensive collection of musical instruments over the years including some 78 flutes, 76 recorders, 10 trombones, 14 trumpets, 5 bagpipes and many others! He was well respected as a competent musician and singer, doing much to actively encourage the very best musicians of the day to attend court. Many of the finest musicians and composers were attracted to this centre of musical culture with some coming from faraway European countries! During his reign, much experimentation in combining different musical instruments together in ensemble playing contributed greatly to the developing Renaissance era. At the height of this musical community, Henry had almost one hundred musicians and composers at his beck and call! They were highly organised, taking shifts to provide the King with an almost constant soundtrack to his day. From his waking moments, appropriate instruments would entertain his seemingly insatiable appetite for music.
Who Needs a Barry White CD!
Perhaps rather shocking is King Henry the VIII’s requirement for musical accompaniment whilst he entertained the ladies in his Read more…
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Ever since I opened my private piano studio (a nice way of saying a LONG time ago), I’ve always used lab-assisted instruction. Students not only have a piano lesson with me but stay another 30 minutes to complete activities on the computer, on worksheets and now the iPad. As I consider myself an expert consumer of technology but NOT an expert, meeting Michelle Sisler years ago at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy has been life changing and yes “lab changing”.
Are We There Yet?
If you are interested in expanding the use of technology in your studio or music classroom, I highly recommend becoming familiar with Michelle’s products at her site Keys to Imagination. She not only sells and supports a host of software programs and books, but also authors and produces her own unique products. It would be difficult to make a complete list here so instead I’ll highlight a product that I believe you will find a perfect solution for your upcoming summer plans, a unique camp or theme for your private studio lab, a music classroom or even a general classroom unit. It’s called Are We There Yet? A Musical Journey Around the Globe®.
Michelle describes it as “a unique multimedia, interdisciplinary program to teach students about world music, instruments, culture, people, and geography through colorful slides, text, photos, videos, music, crafts, games and puzzles. Designed to be used with a projector or SMART board or computer station for an independent lab, this curriculum is completely done for you! Simply read the slides to students, click on related sound clips and videos, and complete activities as directed.”
Let me reiterate that when Michelle mentions it is completely done for you, she means it is completely done for you. I’ve known her and used many of her products long enough to know that whatever she produces will be comprehensive, extremely well researched, organized and most importantly, easy to use. In addition, Michelle aligns herself with top-notch people for all her projects. For the Are We There Yet series she collaborated with Dr. Deborah Brener (among others), an expert in world music. Deborah’s doctoral work concentrated on multicultural studies in teaching music and the blending of western and non-western teaching styles. She has written numerous published articles and given presentations on this topic nationwide. The pair decided to create a product to bring world music to elementary students using an interdisciplinary and multimedia program. As both Michelle and Deborah have different areas of expertise, I vouch that this team’s collaborative efforts have proven successful.
An easy to follow plan for music or non-music teachers, no experience in world music is needed
Sensitivity to the use of music to enhance learning
An all-in-one multi-cultural curriculum that classroom teachers could coordinate with other subjects
Well-researched content with music, text, photos, videos, crafts, games, and puzzles aligned with the national standards
Flexibility with which to customize classes or a student’s lab session by choosing slides and activities to fit your schedule
Currently six country kits are available with another six in development
Lovely orchestrated accompaniment tracks showcasing instruments from around the world to enhance hand-selected and carefully arranged pieces for piano, Boomwhackers, Orff and rhythm instruments and singing (FYI: the arranger, Levi Taylor was hired by Dr. Randall Faber as a result of his work on this project)
A classroom or piano studio version: the classroom version is licensed for an entire school building and multiple classes. It also includes music for Boomwhackers (already color coded for the teacher) or other Orff instruments, rhythm instrument and vocals. This is an optional add-on kit for the piano studio version.
Perhaps the best way to learn more about the unique cross-cultural curriculum is to view this video in which Michelle steps through the details about the latest addition to the series: Africa. You will enjoy seeing her activities in action with real students.
So, book your tickets (the rates are reasonable at $40-$80 per kit), pack your bags and take a trip to a foreign country and culture in the comfort of your own studio or classroom. With her Are We There Yet?series, Michelle Sisler–in collaboration with respected colleagues–provides key programs to spark your music students’ imagination.
The following post is from guest blogger, Emily Steves:
Some of the most important instruments in the history of music have been stringed instruments, which range from early to modern forms of the violin and the guitar, through to contemporary experiments with amplification and electric or digital recording. Forerunners to current instruments have been found in ancient burial sites, and demonstrate a clear historical progression into the stringed instruments that we use today.
Some of the earliest stringed instruments have been identified in archaeological digs of Ancient Mesopotamian sites, which include artifacts over three thousand years old. Lyre instruments with wooden bodies, and strings used for plucking or playing with a bow represent key instruments that point towards later harps and violin type instruments; moreover, Indian instruments from 500 BC have been discovered with anything from 7 to 21 strings.
During the medieval era, the rate by which string instruments developed arguably varied from country to country – Middle Eastern rebecs represented breakthroughs in terms of shape and strings, with a half a pear shape using three strings. Read more…
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