Thursday, March 29, 2012

Six ounces of prevention...

   ~ A memory slip in performance

I think this happens to everyone at some point. As a teacher, this is really difficult to watch. Especially when a good student, who works hard, practices regularly, and has played the piece 47,000 times without incident, suddenly has an unexplainable memory lapse and can't recover. This is what happened to one of my students as they performed a competition piece in rep class the other day.

   This is not only frustrating for the student, but can incite pure panic when it happens in recital or competition. I work with all of my students on over-coming mistakes and recovering from memory lapses during a performance. There are a million and one reasons for this including, too much muscle memory and not enough aural memory, a slip of the fingering or hand position, or poor memorization to name three. Being video taped and recorded and having to play in front of classmates can add to an already increased anxiety level and disrupt memory.

   This link has helped me tremendously in the past when dealing with questions I can't find easy answers to and certainly helped me with this one as well:

Piano Pedagogy Forum

In order to get through mistakes and memory slips in performance, these are some of the things I do with my students regularly in lessons:

1. Red Light/Green Light
The student plays the piece and stops periodically, resting long enough to break their focus and concentration and then begins where they left off. Sometimes I actually stand behind them and lift both hands completely off the keys and challenge them to recover.

2. Freeze Tag
The student plays the piece while I stand behind them and tap them on the shoulders. When I do this they stop playing until I tap again. Sometimes we do this in real time- they continue counting or humming the piece or shadowing the piece with their hands until I tap again. Then they continue playing the piece where they would have been had we never stopped.

3. Act As If
The student continues to play through ALL mistakes, no matter how big, and acts as if that was EXACTLY what was written in the score! (I like this one the best for occasional wrong notes.) For these type of mistakes, we have 4 things we are forbidden to do.....
                            1. Stop and fix the mistake 
                            2. Replay the passage 
                            3. Justify the mistake ("I could play it better at home...") 
                            4. Apologize for the mistake ("oops", "sorry" or worse, "my bad")*

*"My bad" is particularly forbidden because we aren't allowed to talk like the cookie monster here.

4. Rewind
Go back to a place that they DO know. Go back to the beginning if they are still in the A section.

5. Fast Forward
Skip to the end. One thing I like to do is practice the ending before the piece is even finished in lessons. This way, if there is a memory lapse, they can jump right to the end. Having practiced it shortly after just learning the piece, they know it as well as they know the 1st two lines.

6. Hands Alone
When one hand forgets, another might remember. I have them continue playing with the hand that KNOWS the piece and eventually the other hand will catch up and remember what to do.

Topsy-Turvy Fun

This week is Topsy-Turvy week- where the student becomes the teacher, and the parents become the students! So far, its been a blast for everyone. Here are more pictures of some really supportive parents who have taken time out of their busy schedules (some have taken time off from work!) to bond and support their children in their musical educations. I am so proud of my students AND their parents!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Parents & Piano- Part 2

   Well, its here! Topsy-Turvy Week! My students are so incredibly excited about this! Instead of having a lesson, they are TEACHING a lesson-- to their parents! Each of my parents is coming in this week to be given a piano lesson by their child. This is a wonderful opportunity for parents to connect with their children, support their music education, and develop a new appreciation for all the detail involved in the daily piano practice they are responsible for each and every day. 
    Here is a picture of Grace teaching her mother Laura the bass clef notes. Grace was a fantastic teacher, too. She really explained things well and Laura not only learned bass clef notes, but really enjoyed having a lesson and left with a completely new appreciation for what Grace has to practice every week in her lesson. Grace and her mom had a great time. Grace even composed the song her mother is playing. 
   We began planning this weeks ago- I sent each student home with a checklist of things to chose from that they wanted to teach their parent. The following week, we picked out the appropriate teaching materials, games, and lesson material to assist in their teaching. Then we wrote out the lesson plan with copies of all the materials in a folder. My students took their folders home and practiced on an imaginary student. When they came back the following week, they practiced on me. And finally this week, they get to teach for real!
   What a wonderful example Laura has set for her daughter. Not only did they get to spend quality time together - just the two of them (with me standing by if Grace needed to ask a question), but Grace will be so much more likely to succeed in piano (and in life) with this kind of support at home. What a fun way for parents to be involved in piano!

Here is Miss Grace, sitting in my "teacher chair" working with her "student".

Friday, March 23, 2012

Markerboard Art

  I have a large marker board stocked with plenty of dry-erase markers in my waiting room for my students to express themselves while waiting for their lesson. Very often, siblings will draw while waiting for their brother or sister in lessons. Sometimes moms and dads submit their artistic talents, as well.

   Dry-erase boards by nature aren't cheap and neither are the markers for that matter! But we found a great solution on the cheap without spending $350 on just the board itself.  

Home Depot sells giant shower backing boards and you can buy a huge sheet for just $15. Originally, we were going to white board the entire wall, but then decided to just cut the board in half and frame it using cheap floor molding. 

I got the marker cups and holder from IKEA.

  I have seen so many beautiful pictures on the board and I always make sure I take pictures of this temporary art (I call "Markerboard Art") so it finds its way into my studio  yearbook. This way ALL the art my students create can be saved!

This picture was drawn by my student Molly and her mother Julie. What a wonderful way for parents and children to share music and art! And what a lovely picture. The keyboard underneath it was drawn by Molly's younger sister Sara. Sara was a toddler when Molly began lessons, and now she's old enough to create a wonderful piano keyboard- wow!

Here's a cute one from last year when my markerboard was much smaller.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Parents & Piano -Part 1

     I called this a "Part 1" post because Part 2 is going to be about just how having some fun in in the studio with my students and their parents can go a long way...stay tuned for next time and you'll see how this works.
   I have a guest post today by my daughter that I'm really excited about. She works for the National Association of Music Education at their National Headquarters in Reston, Virginia and encounters music educators all over the country on just about a daily basis in her job. Her post illustrates the importance of parental involvement in our children's music education. I'll let her words speak for themselves.

Thanks for letting me contribute to this blog, Mom! 

First, I'd like to begin by saying my Mom is the best Mom ever. 

Now that we have established this as fact, I'd like to talk a little about the importance of the parental role in music education. I am a staff member of theNational Association for Music Education where I work on student performance programs, and help identify other organizations that support music education. 

In addition to being a professional association for all music educators, we devote tons of time and resources (both financial and human) to advocating for the cause of music education. We believe that every student deserves a comprehensive education which includes music. We also believe teachers in the schools should be evaluated based on how well their students are doing in MUSIC. Not how well they performed on a standardized test. Being located in northern Virginia, we are able to meet with decision makers in Washington on a regular basis, and stay informed on the issues pertaining to education policy. 

So why should you care about music education as a parent? What can you do?

Some who know me joke that I was destined to do SOMETHING with music based on my mother's aptitude in subject. I know I was exposed to all the great composers and musicians before I was even born - Bach, Beethoven, Mozart... and Billy Joel. But although some studies have suggested that musical talent may be genetic, there has to be more involvement. Some of my best childhood memories involves sitting on the dining room floor watching and listening to my Mom play piano. When she wasn't playing, she was listening to music at home. Day after day, year after year, music was all around me. When it came time for me to become involved in school music, it wasn't a question of "if" I would become involved, the question became, what instrument will I play? Once I ultimately settled on the oboe (which Mom insisted was the easiest instrument) it was easy to be successful because she always encouraged me. She never told me it sounded bad, or suggested I stop the "noise." She drove me to lessons, attended my concerts, and took an active role in my development as a musician. 

You don't have to have a career in music, for music to have a positive affect on your life. It is a fact that music contributes to the development of crucial skills and qualities like teamwork, communication, and determination. With your guidance, love, and support of your child's musical endeavors, you are also helping to foster these qualities in them, just like my Mom did. 

Thank you for reading! For more information and studies on the positive effects of music, please visit

Victoria Chamberlin

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Studio Policies and Ethics

   I have a studio policy, but my policy at present doesn't include a written code of ethics for me to follow or that my clients can count on. Having a code of ethics in a professional organization can really help keep some teachers in line. Having a solid termination policy partnered with a code of ethics in my own studio will protect me as well.
   My studio policies are vital for my protection. The parents of my students have a set of guidelines to follow when studying with me and guidelines they know I will follow while they are my clients. By setting my policies I set an example of professionalism as well as having sound and fair but firm business principles. Anyone can have rules, but adhering to them takes a professional. My clients can count on this.

Here is a fantastic code taken from the MAPTA -Wisconsin that I will be sure to include in my own studio policy immediately:

Members demonstrate responsibility by:
  1. Striving for non-competitive, ethical behavior that reflects positively upon the profession;
  2. Avoiding discussion which might injure the professional reputation of another member;
  3. Maintaining strictly ethical business standards and adhering to clearly stated policies which are published for the benefit of all;
  4. Refusing to engage in direct or indirect solicitation of other teachers’ students;
  5. Accepting the pupil of another teacher after assurance is given that the agreement with the former teacher has been terminated to the satisfaction of both teachers;
  6. Instructing a transfer student at least six months before taking credit for a public performance by the student.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Decorating the Studio

   During the holidays I get to exercise my creativity once again and decorate the studio. I do what I can to make it inviting and festive for both the parents and students. Easter and spring are one of the last "decorative" holidays until Fall and Halloween. (I don't generally do much for July 4th- although maybe I ought to!)
   One of the fondest memories I have to being very young in school, 1st or 2nd grade or so, were the wonderful paper snowflakes on the windows and the cut-out turkeys we made of our hands. Oh, and I also remember these funny pencil holder cups we made out of orange juice cans, twine, and glitter.
   These memories make me really enjoy decorating the studio. I hope that someday my students remember the pretty decorations at their piano teacher's house!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Piano Teacher Journal

I keep a journal of my students in a large 3-ring binder. Each student has a section in the binder that holds their Student Information Sheet (basic contact info, school, grade, age, medical conditions, etc). I also have additional blank sheets that I use to periodically write some quick notes that pertain to each student. This is crucial when I need to look back over a student's general history. I don't write in the journal every week because then it becomes a chore and sometimes there really isn't anything to say.

When I think its time for an update, I run through the entire binder, student by student and make my notes. These are my notes only- not to be seen or read by students- these are for my own personal records, so I can be blunt and to the point in them.

Here is an example of what I say in my notes:

Jack - 8/27/11
Excited to begin another year. Didn't do much over the summer- needs to get back in the swing of regular practice. Needs review.
Much better- practicing a lot more and it shows.
Lots of improvement. He shows up prepared every week. Mother is supportive of lessons. He really likes creepy songs. Doing great.

Sally- 8/27/11
Doing ok- cancelled several summer lessons- still want to continue?
Doing ok. Always prepared but late 2 weeks in a row.  Will speak to mother.
Still comes late to lessons. Spoke to mother, but didn't make a change. May need a conference. Sally is doing well and seems to enjoy lessons. Moving into level 2 books next month. Needs new Pianolympics book.

Christine- 8/27/11
Seems excited about lessons. Mother seems supportive. Always prepared.
11/15/11 Still prepared- works ahead. Mother says she practices without being told.. Yea!
Still improving. Still shows up rock & roll ready. Spoke to mother about classic camp next year. Competition next year?

Andy- 11/15/11 Transfer student
Wow! Fantastic student! Really improving quickly- always plays ahead. Both parents very supportive. Will move into classic 2 in May. Assign more listening. Classic camp, competition next year.

Hannah- 8/27/11
No show to Back-to-school party.
Prepared- willing to play anything assigned. Cancelled twice.
Doing well. Still interested. Needs more practice. Parents not supportive at all. Pay late, arrive late. This will cause problems later.

Now I can begin to see a trend in each student and I won't forget down the road about cancellations, or preparedness for lessons.  This helps me to make decisions later regarding the student's future. This will also help me decide what direction they will be heading in the future and if I will expect more of them, or in some cases, dismiss them from lessons.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Double Scoop Recital

   Each spring, I hold a recital that is by far the most fun recital of the year. I call this the Double Scoop Recital. At this recital my students are permitted to choose what they'd like to perform. They generally choose their favorite piece learned in piano lessons.
   This recital is meant to be a fun, low-stress event in which students do not dress up, but wear jeans or play clothes instead. They can "double scoop" their performance with a duet or just play one piece. A very wise friend and teacher once told me that by combining music, food, and friends, I'd have the perfect recipe for a successful recital. She was so right. So each family brings their favorite dessert to share and after the recital, we all indulge in a "Double Scoop" of desserts!

   I let my students know that this is the one time of the year they get to eat dessert before dinner. And of course there is always a special dessert for members of the One Minute Club! This has turned into the most popular event of the year and last year we packed the house. You can imagine just how yummy its smelled with all those desserts nearby!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Piano Lessons and Hyperactivity

I have had students with various learning disabilities- ADHD hyperactive, ADHD Inattentive, Aspergers. I'm no expert on learning disabilities, that's for sure, but I can generally spot when a student is struggling to focus or stay on task in lessons. The only thing I know about learning disabilities are the same as most other piano teachers; what I can find in books and articles. And they all kind of say the same thing; patience, creativity, and allow the student to learn at their own pace. Last time I checked, this is what I do with all of my students. In an effort to find some specific practical ideas for the piano lessons themselves, the following items stood out to me:
  • Students with hyperactive ADHD thrive on one-on-one instruction. 
  • Some can be dis-organized and misplace homework and materials alot.
  • They need to know what they are walking into week after week after week. 
  • They need to BEGIN the lesson with the hard stuff. 
  • Some need to move around and expel energy during the lesson. 
  • Others need verbal cues to remain on task.
  • They generally need different learning tools- not just a piano or a worksheet. 
  • They need VERBAL guidance about behaviors- positive and negative. 
  • Inattentive ADHD students need minimal distractions. 
  • They need to learn one thing at a time.   
  • They need praise. Lots of it. 
  • They need it all in around 60 words or less. (that a tough one for me, I tend to talk ALOT!) 

 With these students, I use a daily report card and a reward chart. Reason- They need regular and immediate praise to know they are doing what is expected. And they need a reachable goal- one that is within their sights. Each week we do the same order of events. (This is crucial) No change ups, nothing "new and improved".

I use the ipad or a game as a much-needed break between stations. Or we use the break to  look at the birds in my bird feeders through the window or we talk about school- something unrelated to piano lessons. We also take a break after piano work and jump on the rebounder (the mini trampoline that I use to demonstrate staccato...more on that later). This expels pent up energy that has to be released right about now. For my inattentive ADHD students, I close the blinds before they arrive and make sure the room is quiet.

In my studio I use "stations".
1. The table
2. The piano
3. The sofa
4. The floor

1. The table- 
I start with this because I need to begin the lesson with the hard stuff- and that is the theoretical concepts and written work. Sometimes I change this up with an ipad app. Or a game to reinforce a concept. My inattentive ADHD students need a manipulative to maneuver in their hand while we work. Play-dough works great!

2. The piano-
We go to the piano and play major five-finger scales, intervals (2nd-5th), triads and hand-over hand arpeggios by rote. This gives a sense of piano playing accomplishment without the minutia of counting and lifting with dynamics.
   We learn a new scale or make up a funny song using triads- I'm the right hand, the student is the left hand adding intervals or triads to my melody. No break here,  I need to get the piano playing in all at once, before I loose them!
   Then we play the assigned material from the lesson book- we play and count and lift and use dynamics- no minimal expectations here!  Their IQ's are as high as everyone else, they just learn differently. I require them to play the piano just as well as all of my other students.

3. The sofa-
This is where the student can sit, lay down, stretch out or whatever. They can put their feet on the sofa and relax in anyway they like while I sit at the piano and do listening skills. (ABPL Ear Training is a great book for this and its usually their favorite part of the lesson besides the games and ipad).

4. The floor- 
If we need to do some rhythm activities, we sit right down on the floor and drag out all the fun stuff- triangle, sticks, bells, boomwhackers (a student favorite). We hit and count. Sometimes we play from a percussion sheet with really big notes- or we make up notes with flashcards.

We end the lesson by going back to the table and review the daily report card (above). We apply stickers to each task that was accomplished. When they earn 8 stickers, they get a reward  (below) from their parents at home, not from me. The reward can be whatever the parent feels is appropriate. It takes around 2 lessons to earn a reward- its close enough where they can see light at the end of the tunnel, but not so quick that its meaningless.

If they had to be redirected during a task, they know it because I give immediate verbal feedback to the student. This is not a time to mince words- be as direct as possible.
  • "Wow, Anthony, you really stayed on task during listening skills today. I'm really happy that you listened so well."
  • "Anthony, I don't like it when you are jumping around when I want to talk to you. I'd like you to stop now. Show me what you look like when you stay on task by paying attention to my words." 
Here's the good news- even with my most hyperactive of students, once they get the hang of this system and fully know what to expect, they don't need the reward charts or daily reports anymore! Hurray!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Music & Art

   To satisfy my own curiosity, I once took a poll to see which class my students liked better at school: music or math. Surprisingly, it was around 50-50 with several who liked both math and music equally. I don't know how scientifically true this is, but I find my music lovers do very well with classic and romantic music, while my math lovers do better with Baroque and Contemporary (maybe its all those time signature changes.....).
   I then asked how many considered themselves good artists. I was so sure my music people would be the artists and my math people would my surprise (again), an almost equal number of math and music people were artists!
Here are some more favorites!
   I love combining music and art and in the fall I will be implementing a program to combine the two, but for now I am satisfied with the drawings my students do for their listening CD's and concerts (see Planting the Seeds of Sound). Every picture they draw goes on the wall in the studio for all to enjoy. But what happens at the end of the year when the drawings come down and disappear off my wall forever?
   This is when I choose four of my favorites -- no easy task. These pictures get framed and hang on my waiting room wall for the entire following year! First place also becomes the yearbook cover, and 2nd place becomes the back cover. Not only do the students take pride in seeing their framed art on my wall and on the yearbook, but the parents are naturally proud as well.
   What about the rest of the drawings? Well, I save every single picture, card, photo, note or whatever else my student gives me in an individual file folder. They all know I have one on them and now and then they ask to look through it- this is a really fun thing to do at the Back-to-School party! Its so much fun to see some of those old pages where they were just new beginners and now they are so much older and advanced in their piano studies. Its kind of like looking through an old scrapbook.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Planting the Seeds of Sound

   Listening to classical music is such an important part of being able to express emotion in a piece. I can't count the number of students I've heard play a classical piece that do no more than "type" their way through the song. The whole thing is just flat-lined from beginning to end.
   Yes, typing skills can get a student through learning the notes, but that's where the piece begins, not where it ends. Just because they can hit the right notes doesn't mean we slap a sticker on it and call it done. Only after a student has hit all the right notes, can I then guide them through the piece to polish, work out performance practices, and finally perfect the piece. Some schools of thought say performance practices should be learned at the same time as the notes. Agreed, if at all possible, but I can't always know when they decide to play Fur Elise at home on their own.  All I can do is fix all the banging out of equally balanced RH/LH sounds, poor rhythm, and avoidance of the "hard parts" when they arrive at their lessons proudly announcing that they learned Fur Elise........(great.)
   Spoon-feeding dynamics, body positioning, wrist or arm lifting, and all the fine points (like rubato or many other particulars) can be done easily enough by me because I've heard a million performances of the piece and can discern what makes a good performance and what doesn't. But what about the students? What can they tell me about it?

Me: What kind of music do you listen to at home?
Student: I don't know. Nothing, really.
Student: Hip Hop, or rap sometimes.
Me: What do your parents listen to?
Student: Nothing.
Me: NOTHING? Ever?
Student: No.
Me: Does anyone ever listen to classical music?
Student: No.
Me: Do YOU ever listen to classical music?
Student: No. Do the songs I play on piano count?

   Ok, first, is it possible that some people don't listen to ANY music at all? Ever??...Oh, how much they miss! Second, isn't it more likely that everyone in the house has ear buds in and no one knows IF anyone is listening to music at all, let alone WHAT KIND of music they are listening to?
   No one listens to music out loud anymore. (Back in the Middle Ages, people read out loud....reading silently was considered weird....) Now, everything we do is silent in a way. But where is the one place I can guarantee a "captive audience" and music that IS played out loud?


   My answer to getting my students to listen to classical music is to tell the parents to play it in the car. The music they listen to are CD's that I burn myself of various genres and styles. The student borrows a CD for a week, kind of like borrowing  a book from the library. The student comes to their next lesson and tells me what their favorite track was. Then they draw me a picture of what that music made them think about. I don't really care what they come up with, and no one needs to write a dissertation on the subject. All I want to do is PLANT THE SEED.

   They earn one point for this. Twenty-five points (CD's) earns them a trophy. Yes, my students are award-driven and thats just fine with me. They get 2 points for attending a live concert, but they have to bring me the program and draw me a picture. Truly, a little bribery never hurts- and the trophy is earned.

   How will they EVER know what they like or how a classical piece makes them feel if they've never heard one? How can they play Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 if they've never heard the beautiful and serene sounds of the piece? Why play Chopin's Waltz in A-flat if they can't feel the loneliness of the melody?
   By listening to CD's, they can begin to get used to the sounds of classical music and connect with what they are playing on the piano. The parents hear the music, and then hear the student practice it and are more inclined to say, "Isn't that part supposed to be louder?". Hey, at least its a start.
They don't have to be music critics, they just have to be students who can say this:

Random person: Do you ever listen to classical music?
Student: Yes, my piano teacher lets me borrow lots of classical music CD's. We listen to them in the car all the time! I really like Beethoven Best!

The seed was planted, the flowers have bloomed!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Student of the Month

Each month from September through June I highlight one student in my studio as exceptional. This student is Student of the Month.

The chosen student has their photo on my wall of fame in the waiting room for the remainder of the year and they are highlighted on my Studio Blog.  Each Student of the Month is awarded a $10 Music & Arts gift card to spend on some fun music and a certificate at our annual Awards Recital.

My student of the month...
  1. ...Has perfect attendance 
  2. ...Has practiced and is exceptionally prepared for EVERY lesson.
...Has an encouraging spirit toward other students.
...Has a positive attitude in lessons.
...Has received perfect scores each lesson for the month.