Five Practice Tips for Staying in Shape During the Summer Months

practice tips

It’s Summertime again and the school year is over, leaving our students and families to plan what to do with all of their free time – A trip to the beach, a family road trip, maybe even pick up a new hobby?

It seems like every year they brush music to the side so that they can enjoy whatever vacation time they do have, only to come back to lessons in the Fall with a lot of catching up to do.

Since most students take a break from lessons during the Summer months, how can we encourage them to stay in shape with their instrument while still helping them feel like they’re getting that much-needed break?

Here are five brilliant practice tips to help your students stay in shape over the Summer.

Stay Inspired

If students stop thinking about music and close off their emotional relationship with it, then it’s much harder to find the willpower to practice when not having lessons over the Summer amidst so many other fun distractions.

Encourage your students (and their parents) to find the time to go to concerts (of any kind) and try to listen to the music they play and want to be able to play so that it remains strong in their consciousness.

It doesn’t take much, but it’s amazing what a difference this makes in their playing!

Stay Disciplined (When They’re in Town)

Many people take extended trips out of town during the Summer, so the time they do have to practice is significantly limited.

To remedy this, encourage your students to plan out their calendar as much as possible and be sure to make a practice schedule for the days they know they will be at home.

It’s important to stay continuous in practice whenever possible, as days off usually call for some time to get back into the swing of things.

Practice sessions can be shorter than during the school year, as long as students maintain a constant (or as constant as possible) connection to playing the piano.

This is the best way to avoid that “rusty” feeling in September.

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Set Reasonable Goals

During the school year, students have regular lessons, recitals and competitions to challenge them, but during the Summer they seem to be on their own.

Having goals moves them forward, and the key for efficient Summer practice is setting modest goals.

Choose 1 or 2 pieces for your students to work on by themselves so that they can bring them to their first Fall lesson in good shape.

Encourage them to have a family recital at the end of Summer to challenge them, or to make a recording of their pieces at least once.

And encourage them with all of that extra time on their hands to think about what pieces and styles of music they want to tackle next.

All of this will help motivate them to be self-disciplined.

Work to Strengthen a Weak Skill

One great way to take advantage of the Summer break is to focus on strengthening a weak skill.

Establish what this is for each student and show them how to work on it effectively.

In addition to their regular practice, they should take the time to sort through whatever particular issues they may have deliberately.

Summer break gives them the space to address these kinds of deficiencies without the stress of the hectic school year schedule.

Overall – Have Fun!

That’s what Summer break is all about, right?

So encourage your students to improvise, compose, or make arrangements of their favorite songs.

It’s good for them to do things that make them happy to be a musician.

Remind them to enjoy themselves, be inspired, and stay as continuous as possible in their practice by setting modest goals.

These practice tips will help them come out of the Summer with an even deeper connection to music and the piano!


About the Author: This guest post about staying in shape during the Summer months is by Carter McMullen from the Baltimore School of Music. You can read more about Carter and his work below.

Carter McMullen is a piano teacher at the Baltimore School of Music. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgia State University and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, both in Piano Performance. He continued his music studies at conservatories in Paris, France and London, England.

Carter maintains an active performing schedule including solo and chamber music, instrumental and vocal accompanying, and jazz. He toured South America three times with the Chase Educational Foundation, giving concerts and masterclasses in Argentina and Chile, and has performed in concerts in France, Italy, the UK, and the US. He regularly collaborates with performance students at the Peabody Institute.

In 2017, Carter founded the Union Square Chamber Music Society, and as Artistic Director, he organizes monthly salon concerts in which he regularly takes part as a performer.

Memorization

Memorization technique

The following is one of the most efficient memorization techniques that I’ve taught my students.

It’s common knowledge that students all around the globe practice too fast. And this produces poor results!

Slow and steady wins the race.

I always remind my students about The Tortoise and the Hare.

Who wins?

The tortoise, of course.

Why?

Because he’s slow and methodical.

The hare gets cocky and only knows one speed – fast! And this ultimately leads to his losing the race.

We have to take care in reminding our students to practice slowly.

Learning the piano is a marathon, not a sprint.

So, why memorize music?

Well, we encourage our students to memorize music because it helps them internalize and bring a higher level of interpretation to their music.

They don’t have to worry so much about the notes anymore and can focus on the dynamics, phrasing, and other musical nuances.

When it comes to memorization, I like to teach a back to front approach.

It’s not a quick approach, but it yields amazing results!

Maybe you, like me, have seen students attempt to memorize a piece from beginning to end quickly.

Impatience = Sloppiness

This is why it’s so important to remind students about the long game. In the end, the tortoise wins the race!

One caveat before we dive into the technique; a student shouldn’t attempt memorization until she can play a piece from beginning to end without making mistakes.

She must have a solid grasp of the music.

Now, on to memorization.

As already mentioned, I prefer a slow and steady back to front approach.

Once students are ready to begin memorizing, I have them turn to the very back of a piece, extract the last three to four bars, and play them several times slowly along with the music.

I stress slowly here.

Once they’ve played the three to four measure phrase slowly with the music, I ask them to play the phrase from memory.

Carving out small sections one at a time and practicing them in this way forces students to pay attention to what’s going on in the music.

What are the intervals? What does the melody sound like? What’s the rhythm?

Extracting small snippets of a piece and practicing them in this way gives way to solid memorization.

You’re determining these little fragments by the phrasing, or course. You could be working with six bars phrases in your case. Or it could be less.

But I would not bite off more than six bars. This may be a bit much for your students depending on the tempo and difficulty level of their piece.

I’ve had my students repeat as little as two measures at a time.

Once students have mastered the last three or four bars of a piece (or last part of a phrase), I have them back up to the preceding three to four bars of music.

Now, have them repeat the process. Not only with the new measures, but the measures they’ve already memorized.

This technique reinforces the music that they’ve already memorized and works extremely well when it comes to solidifying memorization of any piece.

Okay, so just to recap. –

  1. Play the last three or four measures of a piece (depending on the phrase) several times while looking at the music.
  2. Next, play the passage from memory.
  3. Then back up to the preceding three or four measures and play them plus the memorized measures several times while looking at the music.
  4. Now try the passage from memory.
  5. Rinse, wash, repeat.

This approach just works!

I encourage you to approach large-scale works, such as Beethoven’s sonatas a little differently.

You’ll want to break larger pieces into smaller chunks (one or two pages at a time) and then apply the slow back to front approach.


So there you go!

I hope this quick article gives you some food for thought as you’re resting and gearing up for a new semester of teaching

Remind your students of the classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Remind them who wins the race!


So what works for you?

What memorization techniques are you using in your lessons?

I’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

And as always, thank you for supporting the PracticeHabits community!

Student Procrastinating and Parent Involvement

work student procrastinating

Student procrastinating…

Oh, I remember studying (cramming really) for those school history and language arts tests.

Sincerely meditating on the test material, I’d allow my head to fall deeply into the center of the thick textbook memorizing dates and vo..caa…buu…lar…….y….. woooooo..r……d….ssssss (zzzzz……zzzzzz…..zzzz).

Oops! I’m sorry! I dozed off!!

Just thinking about it makes me super sleepy.

The textbook wasn’t as soft as my down feather pillow, but I made it work.

We’ve all been there!

  1. Temporarily fill brain with information.
  2. Take test.
  3. Dump information.

It’s unfortunate, really.

I used to procrastinate on my piano assignments as well.

I’ll never forget student procrastinating the week of piano festival. Oh, what a fearful experience that was!

Served me right, though!

My parents pushed me to practice, but they could have pushed harder at times.

It’s tough to strike the appropriate balance, right?

We don’t want our students to burn out. But they need to be pushed. And sometimes parents need to be pushed.

I believe that parent involvement is key to children’s success in the lesson room.

There’s perfect case study by The Center for Public Education on this topic. It’s not a quick read, but worth your time.

Unfortunately, too many parents allow piano teachers to shoulder all of the responsibility.

Sound familiar?

Many of you have told me that the two biggest problems you face in the lesson room are a lack of practice and parent involvement.

I struggle with these myself.

But there are ways to combat these problems.

One of the most efficient ways is to inspire students to practice with well-crafted and imaginative music. 

Rote pieces are perfect for early-late beginner students because they allow them to play more exciting music since they’re focussing on patterns and not note reading.

There are other ways to combat these problems, of course. But that’s enough from me.

I want to hear from you!

How do you open this dialogue with your families? What’s working for you? What’s not working for you?

Please leave a comment below.

Inspiring Music Sparks Imagination and Creativity

Inspiring

The boy in the picture looks pretty bored, doesn’t he?

I think he needs a new and inspiring piece of music!

Do you remember receiving a brand new piece of music from your piano teacher?

Do you recall the wonderful feeling you’d get when opening the clean, crisp pages for the first time?

I sure do.

What a joyful experience it was!

There’s something special about introducing a student to new and inspiring music.

This reason alone helped me fall in love with festival competitions.

My teacher, Mrs. Jackie Hudson, always picked the best pieces for me to play.

The vibrant and colorful pictures on the front covers and the clean smell of the new pages inspired me to practice (something Mrs. Hudson was super thrilled about).

Of course, the music had to be good as well!

And it always was.

The National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC) sure knows how to put on a good piano festival.

I’m always impressed at the attention to detail in every aspect of the festival.

They’ve produced a nice teacher resource of music titles suitable for students of all levels.

The NFMC Festival Bulletin is an excellent resource. And they’re always updating it. So you can trust its contents are relevant!

There are other sources for new and exciting music; PracticeHabits.co of course, and others.

I’m a huge fan of the Festival Collection series produced by F.J.H. Music Company Inc.

It’s perfect for actual classical pieces (no arrangements) and runs the spectrum from beginning to advanced students.

Many of my students have made their way through these books.

The repertoire contained in the Festival Collection series is excellent for festivals, auditions, and recitals.

Here’s a quick list of several other fantastic and inspiring resources I’ve used in my teaching journey –

  1. The Complete Book of Scales, Arpeggios, and Cadences
  2. Music and technical exercises arranged by Keith Snell
  3. Most anything by Dennis Alexander
  4. Alfred’s Music for Little Mozarts

What about you?

Are you in the market for some new and creative piano music to inspire your students this Summer?

I sure do hope so.

Well-crafted and inspiring music sparks imagination and creativity in piano students and encourages healthy practice habits!

 

What is Rote Learning and Why Should I Teach By Rote?

teaching by rote

Rote piano teaching seems to be experiencing a resurgence.

But what does it mean to teach by rote?

Webster’s has two definitions for the word.

  1. “The use of memory usually with little intelligence.”
  2. “Mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition.”

I don’t really appreciate the first definition…

Little intelligence?

I guess Webster is trying to say that there’s no formal process for solving a problem such as an algebraic formula or the scientific method.

But it sounds demeaning!

The reality is that this method of learning is an excellent way for students to quickly discover musical patterns and develop their ear.

The following is a quote from the mid 20th-century Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki. I firmly believe his thought process.

The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin. Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others.

The primary concern among piano teachers in teaching the Suzuki method is that it takes so long to begin written notation.

So, why not adopt a hybrid approach? Why not teach music by rote and traditional notation at the same time?

There are several benefits to teaching by rote.

  • It forces students to quickly identify musical patterns.
  • It helps student’s ears develop more quickly.
  • It helps students learn precise rhythm and correct fingering.
  • It allows students to play more exciting music at an early age.
  • It paves the way to excellent musicianship.

Alfred Schnittke is one of my favorite composers and musical thinkers.

Schnittke advocated that the future well-rounded musician would feel at home with various styles. In other words, she would play jazz, classical, pop, and other styles equally well.

Do you know any musicians that can masterfully play in different styles?

Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck, and Yo-Yo Ma come to mind.


So now that you have a good understanding of rote piano teaching and its many benefits, you may be asking, “what makes a good rote piece?”

Above all, patterns.

Music is all about patterns. Well-crafted music is full of familiar patterns to help listeners grasp the main themes and ideas.

Here are a few fantastic rote selections listed by Natalie Weber at the Music Matters Blog.

  • A Day in the Jungle by Jon George
  • Bumblebee Toccata by Lynn Freeman Olson
  • Buzzing Bee by Mark Nevin
  • Castle Days by Kathleen Massoud
  • Cross Current by Ted Cooper
  • Devil’s Night Dance by Catherine Rollin
  • Dragon Hunt by Nancy and Randall Faber
  • Dream Echoes by Nancy and Randall Faber
  • The Fly by Nancy and Randall Faber

Candle in the Night, The Music Train, and Running in Circles are three excellent rote pieces that you can find in the PracticeHabits.co store.

I love what Amy Greer has to say about scouring for rote piano pieces on Tim Topham’s brilliant Creative Piano Teaching Podcast.

She says that a good rote piano piece is a piece that’s easier to teach by patterns than traditional notation. If it’s simpler to learn from the music, then it’s not an ideal rote piece.


I hope that you’ve found this article to be helpful and informative.

As always, thank you for your ongoing support of the PracticeHabits.co community. I appreciate you.

Your friend,

Chris

Resources from the Music Matters Blog and PracticeHabits.co

piano resource

Resources are beautiful things, right?

Let me tell you about a great resource I’ve just discovered from Natalie Weber over at the Music Matters Blog.

Now, I’m not an affiliate, just a teacher excited about this fantastic resource!

If you’re like me, then you’re constantly looking for something to help you organize your life and your student’s lives, or at least their practice time!

Natalie’s Mini Music Manual (don’t you just love the alliteration!) is an excellent tool to inspire you and your students to be more creative and intentional about goal setting and ongoing musical pursuits.

It offers a section to record definitions (musical symbols, terms, etc.), a section complete with a keyboard diagram to record fingerings, chords, and scales, as well as a discoveries section where students can jot down facts about composers and make other observations along the way.

The Mini Music Manual also includes staff paper for the aspiring composers in your studio.

A helpful resource indeed!

This downloadable product is available on Natalie’s site for the super-affordable price of $15. And you can make as MANY copies as you need for your students!

Happy resource hunting, and as always, thanks for supporting the PracticeHabits.co community.

5 Brilliant Practice Habits For Piano Students

boy practice

Effective practice habits are central to learning the piano and just about every other musical instrument.

If appropriately and consistently taught, the wise teacher’s labor of love will help guide students to excellent musicianship.

Here are 5 practice habits to aid you on your teaching journey!


1.) Slow and steady wins the race.

“Practice makes perfect.”

We’ve heard it time and time again and probably said it to our students on more than one occasion.

Practice is important. But it doesn’t make perfect.

I like this phrase better – “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

And even then, things will never be perfect.

So maybe a better saying is “slow and precise practice yields excellent results.”

I admit the statement doesn’t flow as nicely as the first, but it’s more accurate!

Encourage your students to practice in slow motion. Remind them who wins in Aesop’s classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member Noa Kageyama has this to say about slow practice,

I had forgotten all about this [slow practice in music] until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).

He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.

2.) Quality over quantity.

It’s not how long a student spends practicing that counts, it’s the quality of her practice.

Let me tell you a story.

Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category.

I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students.

I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week.

I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day.

He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!

I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan.

You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way, squashing Cameron’s zeal for the piano.

I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there.

I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!

5-minutes of focused practice is much better than 30-minutes of unfocused practice.

Quality over quantity any and every day of the week.

3.) Back to front reinforcement.

Repetition is super important in the practice room.

Have students isolate small passages, such as the last four measures of a piece and slowly practice them several times before increasing speed.

Then have the student back up a few more measures and repeat the process, playing and reinforcing the previously learned passage.

This back to front approach ensures that students are working toward something and reinforcing what they already know.

This technique is so effective! And it really shines in memorization.

4.) Quickly move from one piece to the next.

I didn’t believe this one at first. But I gave it a try, and low and behold it works!

This approach works best once a student has lived with her music for a season.

Elle Kaplan, founder, and CEO of LexionCapital, teaches how this approach can help people learn and master any skill twice as fast.

Whether you’re trying to improve your motor skills or cognitive learning abilities, the key to transforming how your brain processes new information is to break out of the habit of learning one facet of a skill at a time. The advantage of this method is that your brain doesn’t get comfortable or store information in your short-term memory. Instead, interleaving causes your brain to intensely focus and problem solve every step of the way, resulting in information getting stored in your long-term memory instead.

For example, one study, gave a collegiate baseball team extra batting practice and broke them up into three groups: a control group, a blocked group, and a random group. The blocked group faced a variety of pitches in a set order, and the other group encountered pitches randomly. After six weeks, researchers found that the random group improved 56.7%, while the blocked group only improved 24.8%. That’s a massive difference! And similar results have been replicated in other sports and classroom learning studies.

Piano playing is far different from baseball. But Kaplan’s approach is worth trying with the student who has a good handle on his music.

Consider having students slowly play 8 measures of a challenging, fast-paced piece and then quickly move to a section of a much slower piece.

Repeat this process with several other pieces in a different order.

5.) Listen before you work.

Don’t discount the inner ear.

Some teachers oppose any listening prior to learning a new piece, concerned that it inhibits a student’s interpretation.

But I’m a huge advocate of listening before learning. Particularly in the formative years.

I love this quote taken from an article on the Suzuki Association of the Americas website

The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin. Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others.

Consider bringing several different recordings of a piece for your student to listen to during his lesson or borrow to listen at home.

The inner ear is an essential part of learning to play music.


I hope that you’ve found this article helpful and informative.

Maybe you’d like to add a practice habit to this list. By all means, be my guest! Please leave a comment below and share this article with your colleagues.

And as always, keep up the important work your doing.

Happy teaching!

Paving a Path to Excellent Musicianship

paving a path to excellent musicianship

We piano teachers share the responsibility of moving our students toward excellent musicianship.

Of course, students and parents also share in this responsibility. But that’s a post for another day!

Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced

What a tremendous privilege it is to see a child through all three stages! But how do we responsibly guide our students through each stage?

I’m convinced that we do this in the following ways –

1.) Instill students with passion and love for music and the piano.

Many students begin lessons enjoying the piano. Many do not. But it’s our duty to help them fall in love with the instrument!

Instilling passion and love for music should be at the top of every teacher’s list.

Imagine pursuing something without excitement. Without joy.

How dull.

Chances are you’ve been there. I sure have!

But our joy for music and the piano should be infectious – spreading from one student to the next.

Teach them to love the piano like they love their video games, TV shows, or playing outside (do kids play outside these days??!!).

Make it fun and exciting!

Make it a goal for your students to arrive at each lesson prepared and excited to learn.

May they never lose their sense of wonder and awe!

The next two principles come much more easily if they’re guided by the first.

2.) Promote excellent technique.

Students can not achieve excellent musicianship without proper technique.

Five-finger drills, scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, and Hanon exercises all help promote excellent technique.

Albert Franz of Key-Notes brilliantly reinforces the importance of teaching proper technique –

Piano technique could be thought of as the “interface” between a musical idea and the music that comes out of the piano. Piano technique is our control over our instrument.

After all, the most sophisticated airplane in the world is useless if you don’t know how to fly it. So it is with the piano.

Are your students learning how to control their instrument?

(Scales are the first exercises that come to my mind when I think about technique. Here are some fun scale exercises I created just for you! I’ve had great success with these!!)

3.) Encourage students to share the gift of music.

Above all, we should be preparing our students to share the gift of music with others.

We do this through providing opportunities for them to play in front of others in recitals, festivals, competitions, worship services, and community events.

Do you encourage your students to share their gift with their friends and family outside of regular lessons and recitals?

When was the last time you asked your students to play for the local retirement facility?

The elderly have become a neglected part of our population. It’s unfortunate but true. This is a prime opportunity to serve and share.

Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution has this to say about sharing music –

Musical talent and inspiration wasn’t given just for you to have and to keep. It was given so that you might give it out; that you might share it with others.

So if music is given TO you, and it’s best enjoyed when it flows OUT of you into the lives of others – then doesn’t that make you some kind of musical conduit or channel?

I like that a lot!

Music should flow out of our students. We pour in, and they pour out – blessing others one note at a time.


You’re helping your students along on this very fun and difficult journey. A journey that yields bountiful fruit if properly tended to.

Keep up the excellent work you’re doing. Continue paving the path to excellent musicianship!

Your students will appreciate it. And so will those who hear their fantastic music.