Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

I have learned a lot from my dog, and I realized recently that some of it ties right into teaching music!

There are the stern dog trainers, intent on reducing the dog to an obedient creature paying as little attention to other dogs and the world as is convenient for the owner. But then there are the dog whisperers, the ones who know their dog so well that they know the right time to ask the right thing of them, knowing that dogs want to please when they love their owner.

In my case, I learned that if every single interaction with my dog was positive, she was open to anything I wanted her to do.

If you apply that philosophy to teaching music, you end up with a very observant and carefully crafted system of working with students. When a student doesn’t do things you want — practice, follow your advice, or even do what you just asked them to do, for example — what do you do? Intimidate? Stress that you know what they should do and they don’t? Lay down an ultimatum?

There is certainly a place for challenging students and seeing if they can rise to the occasion. However, if they don’t do what you want, there are more interesting and constructive options than applying force (repetition, punishment, intimidation, contracts, etc.).

If you decide you are going to make every interaction a positive one, this does not at all mean praising where no praise is due. What it really means is   [···]

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What do you do when a student shows up for the lesson with a friend in tow, and says (with wide, hopeful eyes and a big smile), “Can _____ stay for the lesson?”

It’s smart to prepare for these times. In fact, it can be a huge plus for your business to schedule a friend week or allow students to bring one friend per school year (or semester, if you like). This helps limit potentially disruptive visits and turn them into a positive.

If you need ideas for what to do with a friend at piano lessons, I have some here!

Get Acquainted

This may be the first time you’ve met this friend. To help both of you feel more comfortable, try this.

Ask a few questions from a list of possibilities:

  • what is your name (or age or grade)?
  • do you have a pet?
  • do you play an instrument?
  • are you married (ha!)?
  • what is your favorite (or most despised) food or restaurant, and why?
  • where would you like to visit?
  • what’s your favorite book?
  • what kind of music do you enjoy most/least?

Piano Bring-a-Friend Ideas

Your student could teach the friend a rote piece or a pentascale.

If the friend plays piano, choose an easy piece for them to play together, one reading treble staff, one reading bass staff. Switch parts.

If the friend plays piano, invite him/her to play a piece by heart.

Play a game together:

Give the friend a choice of rhythm instruments to accompany your student’s playing. Have him/her keep a steady beat, play only on beats two and four, only on the rest, etc.

Teach the friend an easy ostinato. Your student can improvise with it. Add a small stuffed critter to keep on the tops of their heads as they play, to illustrate posture. Now add a coin to the backs of their hands. Can they do this with a straight face?

Two improv pieces for the friends to try:

“Game On” by Robin Steinweg

The lower hand plays four 8th notes on each of these: A down to F, down to D, up to E.

The upper hand improvs on an A minor pentascale to create a video game sound.

“Mandarin Oranges” by Alyssa Hawkins

The lower hand plays a pentatonic scale repeatedly up and down (3 black keys, then the 2 black keys, up and back down). The upper hand plunks black keys to improvise a melody. Use the damper pedal.

Improvise a trio!

“Triumvirate” Put the friend on a repeating bass pattern in A minor and the student on an upper A minor pentascale. You, the teacher, improvise in the middle. Make sure the students know what triumvirate means. From the Cambridge English Dictionary: “a group of three people who are in control of an activity or organization.”

If improvisation seems scary, read this.

To make a week-long event of friend visits, check out Teach Piano Today’s “Bring a Buddy Day” package.

You can make this a Promo Opportunity for your Studio!

Photograph the visit. Post pictures on your Music Teachers Helper website. Consider videoing or audio-recording the friends making music or playing a game together. Send it to your student’s parents, and ask them to pass it along to the friend. Let them decide whether to post it on social media, but be sure to ask them to tag you and/or your studio if they do!

If something the friends tried sounded pretty good, you might want to invite them to perform together in your next recital.

Create buzz for your studio, and give your students even more fun– making music with their friends.

If you need ideas for bring-a-friend to guitar or voice lessons, see my article from August 21st at Music Teachers Helper.

 

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Dear readers,

Throughout my teaching career, I have been blessed with many different kinds of students: the young, the old, the good, the bad, the amazing, the astonishing, the talented, the hardworking, the lazy, the slow, the ones that practice and the ones that don’t… Each has made me a better teacher and I am the teacher today because of every single student I have ever taught. Today I am writing about a very special student whom I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with for the last two years. His name is Kodi.

Kodi is a 22 year old student. He is blind and autistic. He is a musical savant. Before Kodi came into my studio, I had not even heard of the word “savant.” It means he has exceptional ability and memory. He can hear a piece of music once, and basically play it back to you.

Prior to Kodi, I did not have any experience teaching blind students. I had very limited experience teaching students on the autism spectrum, although none as severe as Kodi. Kodi can not carry a conversation. He understands everything I say, but he can not communicate with words. His speaking vocabulary is very limited. However, he is a great singer, and he is basically a human jukebox, he knows the music and lyrics to just about every song under the sun. 

Not surprisingly, like many autistic students, Kodi has perfect pitch. His piano technique is unique. It is a combination of years of self exploration around the keyboard and limited formal instruction. Because he can not see, he has basically memorized exactly where each key is in relation to one another. The black key groups are his “landmarks.” It still amazes me how he can go from one register to another with extreme accuracy. He can play many of the classics, for example Beethoven’s Fur Elise, because he has heard them from somewhere. His versions may not be perfect, not because he can not play them perfectly, but mostly because the versions he heard were imperfect to begin with.

People who know about Kodi often ask me how he learns the materials to begin with, since he can not see the score. I do not teach Braille music. Everything Kodi learns with me he learns by ear. I play absolutely everything for him at first, and he copies. Because of his extraordinary ears and memory, he can learn very complicated pieces relatively quickly and easily, much quicker than if he had to learn it through Braille. (That’s an entirely different topic, and since I am no expert in Braille, I will not attempt to go into that further.)

I am writing about Kodi, because there must be other teachers like me who teach blind students, autistic students, or students with other differences, that we can share our experiences. I belong to the amazing Facebook page The Art of Piano Pedagogy, and every so often, someone would ask how to go about teaching such students. Every autistic student is different, not all blind students are autistic, and certainly not all autistic students are musical savants. I want to share what I have found from my experience with Kodi, and hopefully this post will find others with similar experiences. 

Last November, Kodi performed at Carnegie Hall. He is going again this November, as a First Prize Winner of The Golden Classical International Music Awards Competition. Last year his winning piece was Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat major, this year he won with Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. These are advanced scores for any student, and for Kodi they were major accomplishments, since he did not come to me with the usual classical training and foundation one would need in order to play these pieces. Because of Kodi’s prodigious ability, memorizing was the easiest part! Here were some of the challenges:

  1. Fingering – Because Kodi had been largely self taught, his fingerings were all over the place. He did not like to use his thumbs! I think it’s because the thumbs are shorter fingers than the rest, so subconsciously he avoids them, especially on black keys! He still does not trust his thumbs, and often will use other fingers first, but whenever I say “I love my thumbs” he will know what I mean. Kodi is also an expert in redistributing. He will sometimes play certain notes with the other hand than what the composer intended, because for him it is easier to find that note with that hand. Sometimes this is ok, but sometimes the resulting sound is different. 
  2. Unnecessary stretching – Because he can not see, he often stretches to find the next note. He has amazing span between every finger. He can play very large intervals between any adjacent fingers. This causes tension to my eyes! I am not sure if it causes physical tension for him, probably not, because he is so used to it. I do remind him not to stretch when there is another solution. 
  3. Arm and Wrist movements – vertical movement involving the wrists going up and down are very difficult for Kodi. He keeps his hands and fingers on the keyboard, he changes registers by moving horizontally and the idea of lifting your hand in the air is hard for him. I guess if I could not see, I would not want to leave the piano keys, either. This is the most challenging aspect. 

Every time I see Kodi, I am in awe. We often record our lessons live, so he can go home and listen to them again. Recently I shared one such clip on the Art of Piano Pedagogy, and the response was phenomenal. If you have a moment, take a look. If you have any experience teaching students like Kodi, please comment below!

https://www.facebook.com/Yiyikupiano/videos/1859466117502748/

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