Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Completely Awesome Technique

I'm not really a fan of scale books per se. I do use the FJH Classic Scale book with my more advanced students- its pretty comprehensive as a reference and has a nice chart for tracking progress. But before a student reaches that level of technique, there are a number of fundamentals I want them to understand. I haven't found a single book that covers what I want them to know in the order I want them to know it, so I created my own called "CAT" books.
Completely Awesome Technique

Here are the contents of my first 2 CAT books. (There are 4 CAT books in all before we get to the FJH scale book).

C.A.T. 1
  • 5-finger major scales
  • major triads in root position
  • 5-finger pattern of  WWHW
  • Major 2nds & 3rds
  • Perfect 4ths and 5ths
  • Major arpeggios (hand over hand)
  • Sight reading in major keys (5-finger position parallel motion)
  • Written major 5 finger scales in letter names and musical notation
  • Written intervals (2nd-5th) in letter name and musical notation
  • Major triad identification
C.A.T. 2
  • 5-finger minor scales
  • minor triads in root position
  • 5-finger minor pattern of  WHWW
  • minor 2nds & 3rds
  • Review of  M2, M3, P4, and P5
  • minor arpeggios (hand over hand) w/major review
  • Sight reading in minor keys (5-finger position parallel motion)
  • Written minor 5 finger scales in letter names and musical notation
  • Written intervals (2nd-5th) in letter name and musical notation
  • Written major and minor triad in letter names 
  • Major triad identification review
  • Minor triad identification
  • Major/Minor triad inversion- (Root, 1st, and 2nd inversions)

   It takes almost the first year of lesson to get through CAT1, but getting through CAT2 is a breeze because its laid out the same and they quickly know that to get a minor triad they just drop the third a half step. They already know all the majors, and how they are spelled, so this book never takes long and they are in CAT 3 before we know it!

   Every week we drill 5-finger scales, triads, intervals and arpeggios. I use the key chain that I made out of keys bought at Michael's crafts. I used a silver sharpie to write each major and minor key on the key itself. Using the key chain, I can randomly pick a key and call it out. The student plays all of the above exercises in that key. They really have a sense of accomplishment when they can do any major or minor key I call out. (I try to stump them by calling out an enharmonic- but they always get a kick out of letting me know that I just called that one already in a different key!)

Once they know all their majors and minors, the possibilities are endless- I can call out ANY major or minor key for them to transpose a lesson book song in. I can call out an easy chord progression and they know exactly what to play. I can teach them to play from a lead sheet....in any key! They can harmonize a piece pretty easily using triads or intervals in the left hand. They can play triads in the right hand with octaves in the left hand (add in some pedal) and sound like a pro.  Learning 7ths and 9ths is also easy once they know all the triads.

Monday, February 27, 2012

One Minute Club

 Each year after the new year, I begin One Minute Club initiations. Jane Bastien was one of the firsts to advertise this idea years ago.
(her daughter Lori has a great blog, by the way). Bastien Piano

Each year during One Minute Club initiations, my students who can read notation run through their flashcards one letter at a time. New students become fluent in reading and returning students refine their skill at reading all their flashcards in under one minute.

(As a rulemy students are required to have a set of flashcards at home- I drill them at and away from the piano regularly until they are fluent and can recognize and play each note randomly and on sight.)

   During initiations they have to master all the letters of the music alphabet, one letter at a time. Once they master all the C's, they add D's to the list. The following week they have to play all the C's and D's combined and so on. As long as they can continue playing the cards in under 1.5 minutes, they can move to the next "round" and so on, until all 7 letters of the music alphabet are mastered. (36 Flashcards in all from B1 to D6)
   In order to actually join the One Minute Club, they have to play all the flashcards on the piano in under one minute, three times consecutively. Once in, Club members get a $3.00 Menchie's gift card and special treat at both the "Double Scoop Recital" coming up in April, and the "End of the Year Awards Recital".
Club members also receive a One Minute Club Membership Card thanks to Susan Paradis - her teaching resources are marvelous!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Game Week

   Another anti-burnout tool I use is "game week". Ordinarily I will play a game with a student at the beginning of a lesson. (about once or twice a month) The games are fun and take only minutes of the lesson.
   This was game week and I played between 2 and 4 games in a row with each student. This was a big hit and they each commented on how much fun this was! I will be sure to do this more often.
   Thanks to the blogs of many other piano teachers, I now have tons of various games used to work on concepts such as rhythm, note reading, keyboard identification whole and half steps, scales, triads, musical terms and symbols.

The Ladybug game 
I was able to make this thanks to the downloads and instructions of Piano Discoveries. Here's how we play- Each person rolls the dice. If they land on a ladybug, they pick a ladybug card and follow the instructions on the card. If they give the correct answer, they get a flower out of the bag. The person with the most flowers at the end of the game wins. We go around the board multiple times until we run out of ladybug cards.

Beat This!
This is essentially a deck of music cards I bought at the music store that contain tons of rhythms and time signatures. I separated the deck to use only the rhythm examples for this game that include various notes and rests- we include eighths and dotted quarters. We play on my battery-operated roll-out piano (which my students just LOVE!) Each player begins on the lowest key- each player then picks a card and counts out the beats. They move their player the number of beats on the card. The person who reaches the highest key first, wins. (As we move our characters, we make them sound every key.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

No more initialed practice sheets!

   Last summer I made the decision to cease having parents initial practice sheets when I noticed some parents signing them in the driveway as the student arrived for the lesson --then the student would come in very obviously unprepared. I had been awarding practice ribbons based on those initials- big mistake. People who did not practice undeservedly received the award.
   Thanks to the piano teachers who share their ideas on a blog, I found someone who uses a rating system. Not only has this GREATLY improved my students preparedness, but this year I have seen the most progress overall. As soon as I can remember who I got this idea from, I will acknowledge them at once!
   Each week I now rate my student's lesson on how well they can demonstrate their assignment. Of course I don't count it against them when they have genuine difficulty understanding something, but overall, its apparent to me if they practiced or not (and how much they practiced) as soon as their hands hit the keys.
   Thanks to Music Teacher's Helper, I was able to edit the lesson notes email template with a description of this rating. I email the rating to parents each week automatically as I reconcile the lesson. The student is immediately held accountable for what they did, rather than what the quickly dashed-off parental initials said they did.
   Immediately following the lesson, my students receive the same number of beads as their rating to string on their practice chain. The practice chains hang in my waiting room and are a HUGE HIT !  Students have a visual reminder of just how daily practice builds over time. They can see what their peers are accomplishing at the same time and this can help a student who may be lagging behind with their practice habits very quickly. Because the beads are black and white, some students chose to emulate piano keys while others just do their own pattern...and some are just randomly strung. Right now, many are into their 2nd keyboard (88 beads, of course) - the first and second keyboards are seperated by 2 stars.

   At the end of the year, the students who consistently rated 4's and 5's will receive the 1st place practice award. They've EARNED it.

Here is the system I use:

1=Student was completely unprepared and likely did not practice much at all during the week. Progress may be lost. Supervised practice is necessary. 
2=Student may have practiced a bit, but was unable to demonstrate a minimum 50% of their assignment at the lesson. Progress was limited this week. Supervised practice is strongly recommended.
3=Student practiced, but could not demonstrate a mastery of the assignment. Home practice habits may need to be reviewed or the student may have failed to complete the assignment by forgetting written work, leaving a book at home, or forgetting to read the assignment instructions and could not demonstrate the instruction in the lesson. Progress may be limited.
4=Student practiced, completed the assignment, and demonstrated a satisfactory understanding of the entire assignment in the lesson. This was a job well done! The student will progress quickly.
5=Student not only practiced the assignment, but went beyond and played even better than I expected. Student may have looked ahead or practice more than was assigned. Student will progress VERY quickly.

Credit for the bead idea goes to Piano Perspectives.
For the latest version of this year's practice chains- read the following post.....

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Practice Instructions

  Every month I create a new Lesson Assignment sheet. I print it out on both sides of the page and punch holes on both sides. When students complete their weekly assignment on one page, I turn it over and write the current assignment on the other side.

   The page is visually pleasing to the student and I get to exercise my creativity every month when I change the design and colors, etc.
   Practice instructions are specific so my students can open their binders and the very first page is always the assignment. The page itself stays fairly clean and consistent simply because my students are the ones following it.
A typical assignment usually looks like this:
Assignment 1- Theory workbook
A. Complete pages 12, 13, 14
Assignment 2- Rolling over: Lesson Book Page 14
A.Play and say each letter.
B. Play and count out loud.
C. Play and count and lift at the end of each marked phrase.
Assignment 3- Flashcards
A. Practice Level 1, 2, and 3 cards at the piano (Play each card)
B. Practice away from the piano (say each letter)
Assignment 4- Listening CD
A. Listen to the CD and draw a picture of what this music makes you think about.
B. Tell Mrs. H about your favorite track. What instrument did you hear? What was the character of the piece?

You can see from the Assignment sheet that written work comes first, assignment instructions come 2nd, sight reading comes 3rd (more on sight reading later), and fun play comes last. Practice sessions are EVERY day and should last as long as their lesson. When they return the following week, I rate their ability to demonstrate progress through home practice...more on that another day.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Student Choice

   On any given day, I am trying to think of new ways to keep things interesting for my students. They can and do get burned out over time when coming to lessons and getting the same routine over and over and over.
   Last year I began "student choice" month in February. (From August to December students are preparing performance pieces. In January, we're finishing up old books and supplemental material.) February is the perfect time to begin something new.
   For four weeks my students choose their own material to work on in lessons. They can choose anything that isn't too far beyond their level of ability. Anything. If they don't have something particular that they want to learn, we'll just continue with our regular lesson material. Needless to say, I sure teach my fair share of Fur Elise and the Canon in D! But this year, my 5 of my students actually requested such pieces as Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, Rachmaninoff G minor Prelude, Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", Tom Jones "Its not unusual", and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody.
   In the end, my students are very connected to their music; they read better, count better, and really have a great time learning. It doesn't get any better than that.

First Post

First of all, thanks for reading. There are so many piano teacher blogs out there that are fabulous- thanks to them I am encouraged to begin my own. I won't pretend to have all the answers, or even the right answers. I can only do what works for me and my students. I hope this blog is a good place to share what I do with you. I will always give credit where credit is due and if by chance I fail to acknowledge an idea I found on your blog or website, it is truely an oversight on my part and I will correct it immediately.

Enjoy the posts.