Parent Engagement in Music Lessons

Parent engagement is critical for a music student’s success.

There is a reason why a parent has chosen to send their child to you to learn music. To keep the child and parent invested in whatever reason that was, it is necessary to completely engage the parent in their child’s lessons.

There are several ways to get and keep a parent more active in their child’s learning.

1.) Be consistent in attendance.

Your prompt attendance sends a strong message to parents about the value of what you are teaching. Arriving late, canceling lessons, or not showing at all without warning shows the parents and the students your lack of value in what you are teaching. It is disrespectful of their time, money and desire to learn to flippantly cancel lessons or arrive late.

When emergencies do arise, explain what is necessary and be prepared to offer a make-up immediately. Having an alternative in mind before canceling shows forethought on your part and shows that you value the time and energy you are being privileged to pour into your students.

2.) Have a plan.

Learning music is a journey. When teaching children, you have to get the parents on board. They want to see the full itinerary before they commit to this journey. You should have clear goals of what you’d like for each student to accomplish including the various techniques and skills. You need a checklist of success- a written one. Your own written plan should be gradual, comprehensive and realistically attainable.

List each skill you want to accomplish as well as method book examples and repertoire that incorporates the skill. When choosing repertoire, make sure you have several pieces for each skill you’re trying to have the student master. A method book is great to start out a student, but they’re limiting and somewhat boring.

For the parents, you don’t have to be quite as specific as listing all of the choice pieces for each skill goal, but having a sample plan laid out as a checklist for the parents is extremely beneficial and helps them completely buy into your teaching.

While you are aware of the minute moments of advancement, it is difficult for the parents to follow along and they are easily disenchanted if they do not see the noticeable progress in their child that your trained ears and eyes see and hear. With this plan of teaching, you have a concrete syllabus to hand to parents so they know where their child is headed in their musical advancement.

3.) Communicate.

This one, as simple as it is, is difficult to accomplish if you have the efficiency of back-to-back lessons. This is also where the written plan comes into play. Balancing your goals with parents’ expectations and keeping them both within the confines of realistic expectations of progress is quite an act. Giving them the checklist and holding the child as well as yourself accountable to it helps you communicate with the parents the progress their child is making even when you are unable to communicate face-to-face with the parents who drop off their child and go shopping.

If you are blessed with parents who wait close by for the conclusion of the lesson, invite them in when their child has achieved something exciting. Watching you be thrilled with their progress helps them stay engaged in the process as well.

Also, pointing out specific techniques the child is mastering such as arm and finger placement gives the parent something to look for in practice time as well as letting the child know you are watching and noticing their hard work.

4.) Listen.

Parents have a reason for committing time and money to children’s activities. As early as possible, find out the reason. There is something the parent wants to see in their child when they bring them to you. Sometimes, they are checking off a box, but most times, they just want to see the joy in their little ones. Work to give them that.

Be present in the lesson and be cognizant of what excites the child to play the instrument. Listening for parental verbal cues or even straight up asking the child what they want to learn makes the whole process more enjoyable for all involved.

5.) Arrange opportunities to play.

It is critical for parents to see their children in a different environment playing their music. Leaving the safety net of their home or your studio and presenting their education to strangers is an important part of their development.

Arrange a recital with the opportunity to mingle afterward. It’s good for parents to talk to each other as well as you about the challenges of raising a young musician.

Arrange an outing for several students to a senior residence or nursing home. This opportunity for outreach will not be better received by any other audience. Our aging population loves to feel special and especially loves to see young people doing something they love and see them doing it well. Your parents watching this occur will enable them to see the benefit of crossing the generation gap and they will likely be as engaged in watching the residents as they are in watching their own child.

Get your parents involved and interested in what you are teaching their child. Help them see why music is important for lifelong learners. As we engage parents in their child’s education, they will make music learning a priority. As they make it a priority, the child also will.

Teaching Strange “Tuplet” Rhythms

Rhythm. It is one of my favorite parts of music because unlike technique, phrasing, style, and programming, there is a right and wrong answer, a black and white.

Rhythm is not a matter of opinion: it is either correct or incorrect. I like having a definite something in my music making. Don’t get me wrong- I like the freedom of expression as well- I just really enjoy the freedom that comes within a defined space as much as I like rubato.

Rhythm is an organized pattern of sound and silence in a piece of music.

The important thing is that it is organized and should be precise.

Before you mess with the placement of these sounds and silences by adding phrasing and rubato, you need to know where they actually go. If your understanding of rhythm is lacking and you add rubato on top of that, it’s like adding syrup to the side of your stack of pancakes instead of directly on them. You have the idea of the rubato without the fulfillment of it really being thought out.

Teaching strange “tuplets” is one of the biggest challenges of rhythm: fitting three where there use to be two or five where there are usually three of four. It can be intimidating. It is, however, just as important as posture. There are several ways to help accomplish this feat.

1.) Make sure you have a consistent method.

This means throughout all of your teaching of rhythm. Duplets should fit as easily in your compound meter counting as triplets and quintuplets fit into your simple meter counting. Even if you alternate between strict counting and words as rhythm, use the same syllables and words for each time. I am not a fan of the cheese-bur-ger/ ap-ple-pie plan, but sometimes the student needs it instead of one-and-a two- e-and, particularly a younger student.

Likewise, I prefer One-O-Let to pine-ap-ple all day long. If you choose to use words instead of counting, make sure the word actually sounds like the rhythm. No one actually says Choc-O-Late as triplets, so avoid that one as well as any others that do not fit easily into counting without adjusting the natural flow of the word.

2.) Use visuals to demonstrate space.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in teaching awkward rhythms is dividing the space into equal parts. For example, I frequently have students who turn three triplets into two sixteenths and eighth the first time they attempt the rhythm. Turning this imaginary space into something tangible can be very useful.

First, get some string and divide it with colored tape or markers into various subdivisions. Next, hold the string with one hand above your knee or the table while the other moves up and down with a metronome. Now, the student will be able to actually see the amount of time between the various subdivisions.

Start slowly so that they can process and say the new syllable as your hand moves over it. It also helps for the student to know how which note of the subdivision happens right before the half-way point of the beat.

Drawing it out in the music is a big helper. Have them put a large line through notes that fall directly on the beat and then draw where the half beat goes. This way, they can set their metronome to quarters or eighths and really tighten up that subdivision.

3.) Use a metronome.

We are imperfect and are incapable of maintaining a steady beat on our own. Enter the metronome. Using a metronome is a skill that must be practiced. It’s a very important skill when trying to divide the beat into various odd-tuplets.

Start slowly and gradually increase the tempo. Your student should be able to easily count up to septuplets before increasing the speed. Start by counting or articulating quarter notes, then go with eighth notes, followed by triplets, sixteenths, quintuplets, sextuplets and the ending with septuplets.

Have your student count each subdivision for a set number of measures before switching. Then, have them decrease the number of subdivisions until they arrive back at quarter notes. Always keeping the metronome going, have them count rhythm flashcards two measures at a time, but not necessarily in order this time. Just remember to give them time to process the upcoming rhythm change.

Remember, when we walk in the dark, we shine the flashlight a little ahead of where we’re walking instead of directly at our feet. We need to know where we’re going next. If you look directly where you are, it’s too late to adjust to a change.

4.) Use your feet.

We are walking around the room. Again, I would do this with a metronome. This time, we’re walking with a steady beat. It’s difficult to not walk along with the beat of the music when you are a trained musician, so we’re going to use this to our advantage.

With the metronome going and music in their hands, have them walk around the room singing a trying passage. Counting of all the subdivisions is helped with this exercise. This time, instead of taking the weird division of imaginary space and turning it visual, we now turn it into a physical movement of defined space.

This helps the student make adjustments in their counting so that all the notes fit.

Knowing where to place your notes allows for more freedom in your music making. Counting is a critical part of that. As I say in my classes quoting from two teachers whom I respect greatly, Seth Gamba and Susan Brown, “If you’re not counting, you’re guessing, and if you’re guessing, you’re wrong!”


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Motivating Students in a Mid-Semester Slump

Can you believe we’ve nearly made it to October? For many of us, we’ve just about reached the midpoint of our semester.

And maybe, just maybe, some of those students who were so on fire at the start of the term have started to lose a bit of motivation?

 

That glorious “new” factor has worn off, causing piano to slip into the same old, regular stuff category. And also, your students’ other activities are likely in full swing, leaving them overstretched in the first place.

ALL of the holidays are coming up, and they are coming up fast! We need to help our students gain some momentum back before the holiday break!

How do we ignite a spark during a piano slump?

 

I truly believe that it’s our job to continually search for pieces that our students will love and be motivated by. And I believe that it’s possible to send them home every single week with a piece they are absolutely excited to learn!

Otherwise, they are really not going to put in much effort. For some students, this will mean all of the wonderful, classical music of our dreams! But for others, why not explore a more contemporary sound, different genres, or help them learn one of their current favorite pop songs using a lead sheet. This is definitely the most important tool for solving a slump. Find the right piece, and watch them get excited…seriously, it works!

Another fun idea to build up some motivation would be to introduce an exciting monthly theme or a different weekly theme for a month. For example, an easy one would be Halloween for October. You could use only Halloween themed activities and music. It’s novel, it’s not what they’re used to doing in lessons. New is good. New is renewing!

Here is a link to some Halloween themed fun.

You don’t have to go with the obvious, either. Instead of Halloween, you could do sea creatures, outer space, pirates, colors, famous composers…It will most likely be just as fun for you to have a change as it will be for your students. And, if you do a Pirate themed month, please please please come to lessons with an eye patch on!

Maybe you’d rather have a new theme every week for a month… really keep them guessing! You could use the kinds of themes previously mentioned, or you could use different piano skills. For example, one week could be improv week, one week could be theory game week, one week could be composition week…you get the idea.

Set aside the first 10 or 15 minutes of each lesson to devote to the new activity.

 

Your students will be thrilled to come in each week and find out what you’ve got planned!

For more inspiration on themes, check out a calendar of wacky and bizarre holidays. Thank you, Google! I now know that October is National Popcorn Popping Month. Sad to see, though, that I missed National Cream-filled Donut Day, on September 14th. 

Another great motivator would be to plan a performance!

 

Maybe mid-semester is not when you usually host a recital… even better! We’re mixing it up! And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big, formal deal. It could be more casual, going along with your special monthly theme. Maybe pieces don’t have to be memorized, maybe participants come in costumes! It should be a light-hearted and FUN performance, not one to add more stress to your over-scheduled student.

If everyone is too busy for a weekend recital, why not have back to back students perform for each other one week? Or video your students performing at their lesson (costumes still encouraged) and periodically post these videos on your studio Facebook page.

One more motivator (and the one I use most sparingly) would be to introduce a new practice incentive program.

 

I’m all about intrinsic motivation and teaching students to practice for the love of the music and pride in their work, but a well-timed practice incentive, if not overused, can be a wonderful thing! If you’re not giving out prizes every week for practice already, then a practice incentive program can be very exciting and very effective! Maybe you do it for a month, and maybe it incorporates your special theme.

Practice during Pirate month would be rewarded with gold doubloons that buy prizes at the end of the month. Hang up a chart in the studio so that everyone can see who is in the lead. Explain to your students that this is a limited time thing and really sell it to them! It may be just the push they need to reignite that spark!

I hope these suggestions help to bring some passion and motivation back to your studio!


How to Solve Common Intermediate Student Problems

Intermediate piano students… what a special group!

They have stuck with piano lessons through the basics and their love of music continues to grow! Many teachers feel less prepared to teach this level because they have so much more experience with beginners. But those teachers who do teach intermediate students should count themselves lucky.

We should really value the commitment that these students make to continue on in their lessons.

We should also value this unique position in their music education that we get to be a part of. This is a big transitional time. Students who can make it through this intermediate level will become advanced students (the dream!! All the heart eyes!!)

These students are more likely to play music for the rest of their lives.

This is the time to really see musicianship bloom. And think of all the exciting repertoire!!

For our purposes, let’s consider intermediate level students to be those who have completed a basic piano method, or much of it. (I would consider Faber’s Piano Adventures book 5 to be decidedly reaching into the early intermediate level).

Students at this level have covered the basics, have a good grasp of basic technique and are starting to play longer, more involved pieces in a variety of keys.

During this exciting time, we can expect to encounter several common problems.

Probably the most common problem with intermediate students is simply keeping them in lessons!

Their school homework load is growing. Their extracurricular commitments are growing. And the pressure to be with friends or in other group activities is growing. It is probably pretty hard to sell them on the idea of 45 minutes of solitary practice a day! There will, of course, be those that just love piano and will continue to do so.

But for those on the outskirts- the ones that like piano (but probably not as much as lacrosse or volleyball)-those are the students that may quit if we don’t adjust our perspective and expectations.

So how do we win them over and convince them that piano is the best thing ever?!

First, we need to listen well to what they desire to learn in piano lessons. It is probably not the time to assign only Bach Inventions if you know what I mean.

We need to let the students discover and choose for themselves the styles, composers, and pieces they wish to play.

It may mean setting aside our ideas of “pieces you absolutely must learn as a piano student.” Some students will happily follow that plan in your mind, but others will not. And if we can keep them playing music -any music- shouldn’t that really be the goal?

So if we want to give them greater autonomy over what they play, we need to open their ears to the variety that is out there! We need to listen to music with them and assign listening for home practice. The greater the variety of music we expose them to, the more likely they are to find their niche. Watch some young piano YouTube stars with your students. They may have no idea that even exists and that actual kids their age are enjoying making music!

Here are some other ideas to motivate your intermediate students to stick with it:

1.) Let them choose a monthly theme or a recital theme. Giving them this kind of ownership will naturally increase their feelings of investment.

2.) Host occasional group classes for these students. Bonus points for duet or ensemble playing! Most students at this level love anything social!

3.) Pair your beginner students with an intermediate student mentor. They will enjoy imparting their hard-earned wisdom to the younger ones. This also helps grow the sense of community in your studio. When students feel a part of something, they are definitely more likely to stick with it!

4.) Make sure to include composition and improvisation in lessons for students that are interested.

5.) Have a composition contest.

6.) Help your student record a CD when they have a certain amount of repertoire learned.

7.) Have your student invite a friend to a lesson. They can give them a mini-recital, teach their friend one thing about piano, and they can play a duet!  Even if the friend has no musical experience, you could teach them an easy piece by rote, and your student could play a fun accompaniment alongside them!

So now that you’ve got your intermediate students sticking around,  another problem that often arises is repertoire burnout.

These students have been checking off their beginner pieces left and right, speeding through their books without too much of a problem. And now they are learning longer, more difficult pieces. Some students tend to shut down when they encounter this stage. They want to check off a piece in a week or two. They don’t want to polish every last detail, because it just seems to go on and on and on!!

The solution here is simply to choose repertoire carefully, building up your students’ tolerance to this kind of work over time. We may want to choose “growing pieces” for our students. But it’s a delicate balance, finding one that is going to stretch them just enough, not break them. Also, we should balance these growing pieces with easier pieces, pieces they can get a bit of instant gratification from. And that is a good thing for motivation, and also for sight reading!

Interconnected with the problem of repertoire burnout is another problem that often becomes highly evident during the intermediate stage: Students not knowing how to effectively practice.

And that’s maybe our most important job, isn’t it? We have to teach students how to practice. That begins with learning how to set goals. We should help our students set short term and long term goals for their pieces. I say help them set goals because again, they need autonomy; they don’t need us to set goals for them.

We can and should guide their goal setting, though. A short-term goal for a piece might be to play a certain measure 25 times a day for the week, or to be able to play a certain phrase 3 times in a row perfectly by the next lesson.

Long-term goals might include having a piece memorized in a month or learning a certain number of pieces during a semester. We should help them set attainable goals, the more specific, the better!

In order to be effective practicers, students need to be keen problem spotters.

Once they are good at spotting the problems, they must learn many, many different ways to solve the problems they encounter. Effective practice strategies would be a whole blog post in itself, so I’ll save that for another day, but a couple of fun books to explore that topic are Philip Johnston’s Practiceopedia and The Piano Practice Physician’s Handbook by Nicola Cantan.

Another part of effective practice is time management, and this is a crucial skill to develop at this level.

As aforementioned, intermediate students are often at an age where piano has to compete for time with several other activities and homework. Often a student will say “I had no time to practice this week.” And while some weeks that might actually be true, I am confident that we can teach them how to find some time in their schedule most days of most weeks.

The trick is once again, readjusting your (and their) expectations. They may not have 45 minutes, but if they have even 5 minutes, and they approach that 5 minutes with a specific and attainable goal in mind, then they will accomplish something. Too often, they are all or nothing.

If they can’t practice everything, they won’t practice at all. We can teach them how to prioritize and choose tiny, bite-sized goals for those days when time is limited. And they will see by the end of the week just how valuable even 5-10 minutes a day can be when used effectively and purposefully.

Of course, we hope to get more minutes than that, more often than not! But we’ve got to work with the time they have, and accomplishing something is always better than accomplishing nothing. A book that has changed my perspective on practice and setting expectations for practice is The Practice Revolution by Philip Johnston.

Finding new ways to motivate students, giving them more control over their repertoire, and helping them to set effective goals are all ways to help your intermediate students thrive during this exciting time in their musical life!


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6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them – Part Two

common beginner student problems

This is part two in a two-part post on the on the topic 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them, by Ivy Belk Pirl.

In part one she highlighted the first 3 common problems and how to solve them. (Click here to read part one.)

She continues with problems number 4, 5, and 6 in part two –


4. Rushing And/Or A Generally Unsteady Tempo

Some kids come to lessons with a natural steady beat, but some definitely don’t!

My thoughts on why this is (and why music literacy is in decline, and music is sometimes reserved for only the “talented”)…well, that’s a topic for a different post. There are, however, ways that we can develop a steady beat and fluid playing in our students.

First would be to have students listen, listen, listen!! Have them listen to you playing their piece or listen to recordings of their pieces.

Play duets with them all the time! Assign them other pieces to listen to. Just have them listen to lots of music! While they listen, they should move their bodies. Maybe sway, maybe stomp around the room; small motions, big motions- anything to help students internalize and feel what they are hearing.

Another suggestion would be to have them sing the songs, though some students are reluctant to sing (another worry of mine, see above). For those students chanting rhythms may be helpful.

And finally, use more rote pieces in the beginning.

Some students are just struggling so hard to read the music that that is all they can manage.

Teach them fun songs by rote and you take the worry of reading out of the equation. Most students will automatically play more steadily and fluidly this way.

5. Associating Finger Numbers with Specific Notes

Does your student think that her right-hand finger 3 is “E”?

If you ask her to play a “D” with her right hand, does she automatically place her hand in C position and press finger 2?

This issue can be solved by carefully selecting the method you want to use to teach reading (or make your own).

Methods that rely too much on 5 finger positions (and stay in these same positions week after week) really contribute to this problem. Some kids are flexible and can make the switch when moving out of familiar positions. And some kids will be stuck in C position for a frustratingly long amount of time.

Reading pieces should begin in many different positions so that one finger never has a chance to become associated with one particular note.

Also, if you do flash cards or a note naming app, have the student play the note answers all with pinky one day. Students usually get a kick out of this, and you will get a more accurate feel for their note naming and finding abilities.

6. The Honeymoon Phase Is Over…Now They Are Bored!

Well, can you blame them?

Their beginner pieces may not be the most exciting pieces to hear and play. They might be beginners, but they still have discerning ears that want to hear interesting and exciting music.

This is another reason to teach some rote pieces in the beginning. Students are able to play more advanced and more interesting songs than they are able to read.

So teach them some awesome songs by rote that they will be proud to go home and practice and play for people!

There are many wonderful collections of pieces out there for beginners that are meant to be taught by rote. They often come with links to online videos that students can watch to have help at home.

Having music to be excited about is key to keeping kids hooked on piano!


So that’s my 6: the 6 most common problems I see in beginner piano students. None of them have easy, quick fixes. They all require time, patience and persistence, but the benefits are worth it!

Do you remember how awesome it feels to begin something new? It’s so enlivening. You almost feel like a new person! How lucky we are to teach beginners!


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6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them – Part One

common beginner student problems

This post, 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them, is a two-part post by Ivy Belk Pirl. 

In part one, Ivy discusses three of the six common beginner student problems.


Teaching beginners is so wonderful, isn’t it?

Their excitement can brighten up our days and remind us why we started teaching in the first place!

Seeing music through their eyes can freshen up our view and give us a renewed appreciation for being able to make music.

But, teaching beginners comes with some heavy responsibilities, too…right??

We want to keep their spark ignited, and we also have A MILLION AND ONE things we feel we must teach them!

Over my years of teaching beginners, amidst the novelty and excitement, I have also come to recognize some common problems that pop up at this level of study.

Here are 6 of the most common beginner student problems I see and how I go about solving them!

1. Poor Hand Position

We teach our students at the first lesson what a good piano hand shape looks like. We tell them how important it is.

And still they keep coming in week after week with collapsed hands, flat fingers, drooping wrists…

And we remind and remind and remind! So how do we fix this super common problem for good?

I believe that, 90% of the time, poor hand position can be fixed by correct bench positioning.

The other 10% can be fixed with some kid friendly reminders (gentle nagging??).

Most of the time I find that students are sitting too low. This makes it very hard to keep a proper hand shape.

They need to sit high enough so that their hands can approach the keys from above. Their hands should be level with the wrist and forearm and parallel to the keyboard.

This is especially important for small beginner hands that need the support of the arm behind each finger to depress the keys with ease.

Obviously you can only control this set up at the student’s lesson, and if they are sitting incorrectly the rest of the week, they will have some bad habits to correct.

I like to have my students text me a picture of them sitting at their piano at home. This way I can really see what’s happening and offer suggestions for improvement if need be.

For young beginners, having the parent involved in this process is imperative!

So once their set up is correct and they are physically able to play with a proper hand shape, what do you do when problems still persist?

That’s where some fun, kid friendly reminders can help.

I use small, animal puzzle erasers for this. If you’ve never used them in your studio, you should! They have so many uses! You can buy them in bulk on Amazon.

  • So your student chooses an animal eraser friend, let’s say, a unicorn.
  • Once she is sitting properly with a good hand shape, you can place the unicorn under her hand and show her that she has just built a house for the unicorn.
  • The unicorn is so happy and cozy in her perfect house. (But, if your student’s wrists droop or her fingers become flat, the unicorn house will collapse. Poor, poor unicorn!)
  • You can also have the unicorn walk the magical path from forearm to wrist to hand.
  • It should be smooth and flat with no hills or valleys. (If the unicorn falls into the Valley of the Drooping Wrist, she may, sadly, perish! Oh the horror!)

After doing this activity a few times you will probably only have to call out “don’t smash the unicorn!” and your student will make a quick adjustment.

2. Collapsing Finger Joints

I’m sure you’ve had a piano student with this problem! It is so common and can unfortunately be very persistent.

Students need to learn to keep that lowest finger joint strong, because a collapsing joint does not allow them the full or efficient control over how the key is played.

Consequently they will not have as much control over the sound that they make, and an inefficient technique is a stunted technique.

With my beginners, we will make ‘O’s” (or glasses or owl eyes, if you prefer). They can practice this with each finger.

  • First make an “O” with thumbs and second fingers.
  • Tap the fingertips strongly together several times, feeling that firmness and not collapsing.

I always make sure to show my students how to do it the wrong way, with a super collapsed finger.

  • This is the “wimpy” finger (cue the sad trombone: womp, womp, womp).
  • And then I show them what a strong finger looks like. Wimpy, strong, wimpy, strong… they love pointing out my wimpy fingers!

Another fun way to help students with this problem is to use some playdough or silly putty.

Have them balance a firm fingertip on the playdough and then use their arm to press the finger into the dough several times without collapsing.

The playdough provides a bit of resistance and something to focus on.

This is also fun if you use firm fingers to press some chocolate chips into the playdough. Of course eating some extra chocolate chips after is the most fun part!

3. Non Playing Fingers That Are Raised, Sticking Out, Or Generally Wonky Looking

This common problem is really a symptom of a larger issue.

The “T” word. TENSION!

The source of that tension could be anywhere in the body, so teaching students what a relaxed body feels like is so important.

But, as you know, we cannot simply say to them “Relax!!” because that is the last thing they will do!

For pianists, a relaxed body has a tall spine, is grounded, supportive, breathing freely, and it has heavy loose arms that hang from relaxed shoulders.

I love the way the Piano Safari Method teaches students about arm weight and relaxation. It is called the Lion’s Paw, and you imagine that you have heavy, sleepy, lion arms.

  • We practice this away from the keys first, having the student imagine that she is a sleeping lion and I come to lift up one of her sleepy, heavy arms.
  • When I let go of her sleepy, heavy lion arm it should drop right down.
  • I also have the student check if my arm is asleep by trying to wiggle it around and then lift it up and drop it.
  • We practice this at the keyboard lifting our heavy, sleeping arms from our lap over the keys and dropping into no particular finger or key, and then being able to drop into specific fingers one at a time.

Another way to help this problem is to make students aware of their tension. (You can use those animal erasers for this as well.)

  • Place the unicorn on the student’s shoulder.
  • Have her raise her shoulders. (The unicorn cries, because she’s afraid of heights!)
  • Then have the student drop her shoulders, and the unicorn breathes a sigh of relief.
  • The unicorn can travel down to the arm, wrist, hand, and fingers checking for tension.
  • Sticking up fingers can be told to fall asleep.
  • Or we take our hands, lift them in the air with floppy wrists, dip them down into an imaginary bucket of water, and then bring them back up to shake off the drips!

A couple more ideas about fly-away fingers, tension, and hand shape…

There is so much to think about in the beginning of piano study.

Often when a student is learning to read music, she struggles to keep a good hand position, she has tension, and she can’t even notice because she’s staring at the page for dear life.

I find it helpful to focus on rote pieces in the beginning while you are establishing this very important technical foundation. That way the student can really give attention to how her hand shape looks and how her body feels.

Also, students should not be made to play legato at the beginning of their study.

Playing legato too soon, before a good hand shape and arm/finger coordination is established, will almost always invite tension in.


Click here to check out part two of Ivy’s fantastic post, 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them.

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Making the First Piano Lesson of the Season Extra Special

Piano Lesson

It’s back to school time!

And though it’s been a very long time since I’ve been back to school, I can still vividly recall the anticipation, the excitement, that first bit of chill in the morning air, and the smell of new school supplies!

I love this time of year!

Fall is (hopefully) just around the corner. The light outside just looks different. The sky is bluer.

As I write this I can hear a high school marching band in the distance learning their new show, and soon I’ll be able to hear them playing on Friday nights at the football games.

This will inevitably bring to mind my college days when a Saturday during football season turned the town into one big, friendly tailgate party with smells of hot dogs and hamburgers wafting through the air wherever you went.

Seriously, Fall is just delicious!

But my most favorite part of this time of year (as if it can get better than colorful leaves, sweatshirts, apple picking, and apple pies) is the new beginning that it brings.

A new start. Full of so many possibilities and so much potential!

As piano teachers, we should take full advantage of this fresh start and the natural momentum that it brings.

So whether you have students who will be returning to piano lessons after a summer break or students who are just continuing, now is the perfect time to bring this new energy into your studio and get your students excited about lessons!

I’m sure it goes without saying, but the first piano lesson of the new school year needs to be super fun!

Most students are probably not thrilled that Summer break is over and school is back in session. So let’s make the piano lesson a place they will be thrilled to go every week!

Not only do we want to make this first piano lesson extra fun, we need to make it different!

So maybe you won’t even open up their tried and true lesson book at all. You want to give them a taste of all the fun possibilities that you’ve got up your sleeve for this coming year.

First, why not begin with a little question and answer game to find out a bit about their summer.

See how much you can figure out by asking only questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Except instead of answering you with a word, they will use a musical answer.

For example, use a major chord for yes and minor chord for no. Or a high note for yes and low note for no. Or have a couple of rhythms written out, one for yes and one for no.

Obviously, you can easily tailor this to fit the level of each student, and you’ll hear about their summer adventures while easing them back into the piano lesson!

Next…NEW MUSIC!!!

Isn’t that the most exciting part?!

I still remember the excitement of walking into the studio as a child and seeing a stack of brand new music on the piano. That meant my teacher had been to the music store during the previous week, and some lucky kid was about to get some new music.

(We offer free sheet music and other resources from time to time! Download and enjoy ‘The Colorful Kite’ when you click on this link!)

Oh, I could barely wait to find out if one of those new pieces was for me!

So in the Fall, rather than diving straight back into their usual books where we had left off, I like to mix it up a bit.

I like to bring in an assortment of exciting sheet music with tons of variety and choices, and then…best part… the students get to choose! There are so many wonderful options out there for pieces written with students in mind.

Fun pieces, that are pleasing to their ears with fun titles and illustrations that will capture their imaginations and make them excited to learn.

I find it so valuable to consistently research new (or new to me) repertoire, because much of the time, waning interest can be solved by finding just the right piece!

Next, do something silly with an old piece of music, or save this to do with their new piece at the next piano lesson once they’ve practiced it a bit.

For example, have them hop on one foot the rhythm of the entire right hand. Or, have them play the piece with hands crossed over each other, left hand up high and right hand down low.

Or, have them play the piece as if they were a robot.

You get the idea.

You need about 5 to 10, silly to outrageous instructions. Write each one on a tiny piece of paper folded up and thrown into a hat for the students to pick from.

Maybe also let them pick one for you if you’re up for a challenge!

Finally, during this first piano lesson back you’ve got to play some games!

As a way to introduce new theoretical concepts or just to review things learned in the past, what better way is there than playing a game?

And a quick internet search will yield more results than you could ever possibly need for any concept you could ever possibly hope to find. In the past, I rarely made time for games thinking we just had too much to do.

But I’ve seen the excitement and interest in a game carry over into the rest of the piano lesson, and now I’m sold!

It switches things up and keeps the piano lesson fresh and exciting…exactly what we’re hoping to do as we start this new school year!

The start of a new school year is also a time to think about goals.

To get my beginner and intermediate students thinking about longer-term goals, I like to do a studio challenge.

This year I am going to do a 10 piece memory challenge. Students are encouraged to polish and memorize 10 of their pieces during the school year. They choose which ones and perform them for me when they’re ready.

Each student has a laminated punch card they can use to keep track. We also list the pieces in their notebooks, but it’s surprisingly fun to hole punch your card each time you accomplish part of your goal!

I should make a punch card for myself to use for mundane household chores!

The idea behind this challenge is to encourage students to not only polish more but also for them to have a larger repertoire in their fingers that they can play anytime, anywhere.

I also have a chart displayed in the studio showing each student’s progress in the challenge. This is just a little bit of inspiration (competition) for those students who need it!

For another studio challenge idea, you may consider something like the “30 piece challenge” that is floating around the internet in piano teacher land. The goal of this challenge is to learn 30 pieces.

Obviously, you’d need to make some pieces easier than others, but the idea is to develop more fluent readers and enhance all areas of musicianship simply through quantity of pieces learned.

The thought is that when it comes to quality vs. quantity, though we all definitely desire quality, there is something to be said for quantity as well when it comes to time spent at the piano.

10,000 hours (of deliberate and quality practice) makes an expert, right?

Maybe you’ve done this kind of challenge before? I would love to hear about the results you observed!

(For other fun lesson ideas, check out the article, ‘How To Spark Imagination and Creativity in the Lesson Room.’)

And finally, one last idea to bring some fun into your piano lessons this year (and probably the idea I am most excited about, maybe even more than my students):

Bring a mascot into your studio!

And by this, I mean a stuffed animal with a name and an interesting backstory that gets to go home with one lucky student a week along with a practice journal.

In the journal (which you can personalize in so many ways) the student will tell how they practiced with their furry friend.

What was furry friend’s favorite piece? Which part was hardest for them? How many times did they practice measures 3-6? How many total minutes did they spend at the piano together? Did they do any other non-piano things together?

Including pictures is encouraged!

Previous entries will be enjoyed by each student who gets a turn with the mascot.

They will get a glimpse of what other students are working on and how they practice. Students may even be impressed to see how many minutes other students are spending at the piano in a week!

Think of the possibilities! Fortissimo Fox, Beethoven Bear, Susie Sloth, Adagio Alligator… so much fun!

So breathe in that crisp Fall air and welcome some newness into your studio!

Your own renewed energy and fresh ideas will be contagious, and your students will be more excited than ever!


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This Piano Student Story Could Inspire You…

So, I sat down to teach a brand new student this past Monday, Chesney.

She was SO nervous – clinging to her mother whispering, “I really don’t want to do this…”

I told Chesney we were going to have fun together. That she would be smiling and excited to play upon leaving the lesson that day.

Reluctantly, she sat on the bench.

I asked her a few questions and made a couple of jokes just to lighten the mood 🙂

She began to talk to me.

We then eased into her Faber, level 2A. She played “Home on the Range.” She played the piece well!

I congratulated her and asked, “Why do you like this piece.”

She said it has a nice melody. I told her that “I agree!”

Then I asked, “What’s your favorite style of music?” To which she replied, “I’m not sure, but I like the song from Harry Potter.”

“You mean this song?” I then proceeded to play the simple (not so simple – very chromatic) tune.

HER EYES LIT UP!

She walked away from that lesson having learned how to chord the harmony in her left hand and play half of the melody in her right hand.

And of course, she was assigned a small, but healthy dose of scales, and a song from her lesson book.

What’s for dessert after all of the veggies?? The theme from Harry Potter, of course 🙂

(That’s the power of connecting with a student on a level that instantly resonates with them. Finding the music that makes them tick!)

Be encouraged friends! AND SHARE YOUR STORY!!!

What inspiring story do YOU have to share?? Post it in the comments section below!


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