How To Spark Imagination and Creativity in the Lesson Room

Music

One of the biggest challenges of teaching music is finding ways to keep each student inspired and motivated to learn.

But it can also be one of the most satisfying parts about teaching since there are so many possibilities to explore!

Each student is different, and it takes time to get to know individual personalities and interests.

But if we put in the effort and find ways to spark imagination and creativity for students in their lessons they are much more likely to enjoy the process of learning, and this will translate to their practicing at home.

Here are some creative tips to incorporate into your lessons:

MIX IT UP SOMETIMES

Consistency is important, but deviating from the pattern from time to time keeps piano lessons fresh and exciting.

We’re always anxious to get to the next song in the book or get ready for the next recital, but now and then, throw in a musical game or take time to focus on a particular technique in a fun way.

This will help you avoid getting into a rut of always having the same routine, and it opens up other possibilities to explore and be creative.

BE INTERACTIVE

One of the best ways to keep students inspired is to hear you (yes, their teacher) play in the lessons.

It is beneficial and fun for them to hear you play the songs they are working on, and once they are ready, you can play duets with them!

You can also show them videos of music that relate to what they are learning, and you can ask them to find piano videos that they want to show you.

Another great way to be interactive is to teach them basic skills of how to improvise and then improvise with them, making new music together!

GET TO KNOW THEIR INTERESTS

Many students are happy to go along with whatever the teacher assigns for them to practice, but it is very common for students to want to be able to play a song that they have heard that is not in their method book or curriculum.

They might not always tell you what they want to play, so it’s important to ask.

If you can get to know what their interests are, you can supplement their regular lesson music with arrangements of popular songs.

This gives students a different sense of satisfaction in their practicing and performing, so when there is extra time in lessons you can focus a bit more on their interests.

Using this as a sort of reward translates to more overall interest in piano lessons in the long run.

ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS – REALLY MAKE THEM THINK

While teaching a new concept, make sure not just to tell them the answers.

Keep them involved in the learning process by helping them to figure out problems on their own.

Have students come up with ideas and solutions to particular technical difficulties, and then show them why their ideas would work or not.

This encourages students to think outside of the box and be more connected to the process of learning while being creative in coming up with solutions.

LET THEM INTO YOUR PRACTICE

As musicians, we’re always working on new music ourselves, and a great way to connect with students about being creative is to show them what you are doing in your practice.

Be honest about what is giving you trouble at the moment.

Show them ideas you’ve come up with about how to remedy your problems.

Students really like this; it helps them relate and see how their efforts could one day translate to more virtuosic playing.

It shows them how being imaginative when practicing helps us all to play better and have more fun!


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.


An Inside Look At the PracticeHabits Membership Community

One of my greatest passions is pouring into others.

I especially love pouring into piano teachers like you!

You do such important work – teaching, encouraging, and inspiring your students to learn the great joy of playing the piano and connecting with others through music.

I started PracticeHabits.co back in September of 2016.

And since then, PracticeHabits.co has served (and continues to serve) piano teachers all across the world!

It is a great privilege and honor to know that these piano pieces and resources are helping and resonating with teachers and their students.

The best place for me to serve piano teachers is within the PracticeHabits Membership Community.

The following article and video examples provide an inside glimpse into the Membership Community and highlight the many resources available to piano teachers like you!

The PracticeHabits Membership Community:

The Membership Community includes fantastic piano teachers who love having unlimited access to high-quality resources to share with their students.

By far, the main member perk is unlimited access to original sheet music:

Another exciting feature is unlimited access to a growing library of technical exercises.

I’m regularly adding fun scale, chord, and arpeggio exercises to the online catalog:

I believe that improvisation is one of the most important techniques we can teach to our piano students.

Improvisation forces students to recall chord structure, chord progressions, and harmonization quickly.

Lead sheets are great tools for exploring improvisation. And there’s a sizeable (and growing) lead sheet library within the Membership Community:

One of the most valuable gifts you can give to yourself and your students is to get their parents engaged in their child’s music education.

Why? You ask.

Parent engagement equals success in music lessons!

I’m regularly adding practice guides to the member’s area.

These practice guides teach parents the importance of practice and offer simple steps to help their children (your students) get the most out of their piano lessons.

And, as if the value wasn’t already amazing enough…

What’s a Membership Community without a place to talk?!?

ALL members enjoy a private Facebook group where they can learn from and inspire one another in the important work they’re doing.


So, there you have it: an inside look at the PracticeHabits Membership Community.

Members from all over the globe are enjoying high-quality resources and learning and growing together.

And you can too!

Click the image below for more information.

A Resource for Teachers with an Aspiring Composer

composer

What does a composer do?

Why does he do it?

The composer and his art form are elusive, to say the least.

Stories of Beethoven busily composing in the wilderness and Mozart meticulously composing entire compositions in his mind before notating them are among the grand stories youngsters first learn in music history class.

These stories are inspiring. But they paint a somewhat obscured picture, making folks like you and me think that music composition is an art form reserved only for a select group of people with supernatural ability.

This is not the case.

Composition is an accessible art form!

Of course, like with anything, a person must possess some degree of skill to participate in the tradition.


My Journey

I was thirteen-years-old when I first became interested in songwriting and composition.

I vividly remember sitting at the piano with my grandmother (a professional pianist).

She taught me how to play-by-ear and pick harmony that complimented the melody.

Composing music thrilled me to no end and filled my soul with ecstatic joy!

Putting my new found knowledge into practice, I began composing songs and instrumental pieces for my church praise team.

One thing led to another, and I enrolled in the music composition program at LaGrange College.

Thus, my swim in the deep knowledge pool began!

It was evident early in my studies that I quickly needed to learn music theory to keep up with other students in the program.

It wasn’t easy, but I learned a lot and received many opportunities to compose music for instrumental ensembles and choirs.

I went on to receive a Master of Music degree from Georgia State University.

Regardless of what I would call a successful journey thus far, I feel that I could’ve been more prepared to study composition in college.

I wish my piano teacher would have encouraged me to compose when I began to show an interest.


I’m thrilled that you’re reading this blog post!

I’m thrilled because it means the art of composition is still very much alive and relevant in our world!

I hope my words are resonating with you.

You see, the composer is most important to music!

Without her, there is no music. Without her, beautiful music that reaches deep into hearts and changes lives ceases to exist!

The world needs composers.


Do you have an aspiring composer in your studio?

Does she show an interest in crafting little songs and melodies?

Is he thinking about pursuing composition beyond middle school and high school?

Great!

There are things you can do to set your student up for success.

Encourage your student to create!

My parents wholeheartedly supported my decision to compose. I’m so grateful for the time they granted me to pursue my calling.

Encouraging your student to create provides him with a support base from which he’ll steadily draw energy and enthusiasm for his craft.

Lori Garcia, a contributor to babble.com, has this to say about student encouragement –

Recognize your […student’s] efforts and progress. Compliment them, showcase their work, and express pride in their determination and personal commitment.

Provide opportunities for your student to learn.

I can’t stress this enough!

Look for any and every occasion for your student to learn new things.

Whether it be in her lessons with you, online courses, training initiatives such as festivals and camps, attending concerts, or participating in concerts.

The National Education Association shows that students whose teachers and parents are actively involved in their education –

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education

Encourage and inspire the young, budding composers in your studio!

They will benefit greatly from being immersed in the multifaceted music world and from your involvement in their education.

They need the love and support that we mentors can provide.

Continue in the important work you’re doing, friend!

Improvisation in the Lesson Room

Improvisation

My three-year-old (Oh! excuse me) my three-and-a-half-year-old, Emma, is now interested in the piano.

Let me define interested here –

It’s early in the morning, and we (my wife and me) hear the pitter patter of little, sticky, bare feet across our rustic 1950’s wood floor.

We listen to a big CLUNK as Emma pushes the black fallboard of our mid-1990s Kawai Upright out of the way.

Tiny partially painted fingers begin caressing the white and black keys from low to high.

Next, dissonant clusters resound as groups of black notes are pressed with preschool force.

It’s not the most pleasant sound, but that’s okay.

She’s improvising.

That’s right; our three-and-a-half-year-plus-a-day-and-a-second-old is improvising!

I’m a huge proponent of dedicating a small part of the weekly lesson to improvisation.

Why, you ask?

Children learn to speak before reading, right?

Well, why should it be any different with music??

A child must first learn to speak the musical language before learning to read music from a page.

Consider this quote from an article featured 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.

My daughter is learning to speak music.

And I’m encouraging it!

Now, I’ve never been one to lord practice over my children. (I have a six-year-old as well – Abby.)

Instead, I’ve adopted a different approach –

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Abby.”

“Can you give me a pliano lesson??” (No mis-spelling. That’s how she says it. My daughter plays the pliano.)

Believe me – she doesn’t have to ask twice!

You can’t force small children to play. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t.

Abby has declined my offer to give her a lesson plenty of times. And that’s okay.

I want HER to make the decision to play. And so far this approach is working beautifully.

Now, back to improvisation.

Webster’s dictionary defines to word “improvise” as follows –

Improvise – to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously.

I feel like I need to define the long “e” word!

Extemporaneously – done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu.

Emma (my youngest) did not prepare her ebony and ivory improvisation well in advance or its execution. She just saw the keys and went to playing.

And this is a beautiful thing! Children need this opportunity!

Freedom to explore possibilities is essential to the learning process, especially as it pertains to music.

Are there ways you can begin incorporating improvisation in your studio?

Maybe you already do.

Are there things you can do to enhance the time devoted to improvisation?

Consider this –

1.) The Ostinato (a recurring rhythmic idea as found in Ravel’s Bolero) is a beautiful canvas on which the young student paints with his or her improvisatory colors.

(Example – Play a quarter note ostinato on a low “C” and then have your student improvise with a “C” in his left hand and a “G” in his right hand. You’ll be surprised at just how clever youngins are!)

2.) Next, change your ostinato pattern up slightly. A minute change may trigger your student to come up with something different as well.


Thank you for spending a few moments with me! I hope that you’re walking away with some nuggets to help you in the important work you’re doing.

Consider some of the lead sheets in the online music store to help you teach your students the art of improvisation.

There are some nifty Christmas arrangements in ALL twelve keys available right now!

3 Creative Ways to Increase Classroom Engagement

student in piano classroom

There she goes again (eye-roll).

Taking her eyes off of the music and allowing them to wander all around the room!

Sigh…

She’s such a good student when she focusses.

It’s a common scenario. Little minds wander. It’s hard to sit still. It’s difficult to focus.

But there are ways to increase engagement.

Here are three suggestions on how you can increase engagement in your classroom.

I’ve used these in larger settings, such as youth chorus, and group music classes. But they’re easily adapted to the private lesson room.

1.) Movement and Play

This one’s important. Young kids need to move! Some more than others. Believe it or not, this is a scientific fact.

In her brilliant article, Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement, Lara N. Dotson-Renta says,

Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences, but such opportunities are increasingly rare in school.

She goes on to say that kids learn through movement and play. Imagination is key!

Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement.

But how do we teachers encourage movement and play? Especially with our limited teaching time??

It’s a simple as reinforcing things via short games and activities.

For example, my class loves Rhythm Popcorn.

I simply line two rows of chairs facing one another, clap a simple rhythm, and then point to a student to repeat the rhythm. The student then points to one another student and he or she claps the rhythm. So on and so forth.

It’s a simple game, but it certainly increases classroom engagement. The students have fun and learn all about steady and precise rhythm.

2.) Transition

It’s easy to overlook this one.

Imagine you’re six-years-old again and asked to sit quietly on the piano bench for 20-30-minutes.

What would you feel? What would you think?

In their article What is a Normal Attention Span, Day2DayParenting says,

Young children do have relatively short attention spans and generally do best when alternating activities which require sitting still and focusing with those that allow for physical movement.

The younger the student, all the more necessary to transition, and transition often.

The article goes on to outline young children’s attention spans –

Children ages 5-6 years old typically can attend to one activity that is of interest to them for around 10-15 minutes at a time and should generally be able to filter out small distractions occurring simultaneously in the environment. They may only be able to attend to an assigned classroom activity for only 5-10 minutes particularly if they find it uninteresting or difficult for them and do not have adult guidance to stay on task.

Keep things moving along. Don’t rest too long on a particular song or activity. I’ve found 3-5 minutes to be the ideal time for each activity. Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

3.) Visuals

Inspiration.com cites the following as benefits for visuals in the learning environment –

Visual learning helps students clarify their thoughts – Students see how ideas are connected and realize how information can be grouped and organized. With visual learning, new concepts are more thoroughly and easily understood when they are linked to prior knowledge.

Visual learning helps students integrate new knowledge – According to research, students better remember information when it is represented and learned both visually and verbally.

Visual learning helps students think critically – Linked verbal and visual information helps students make connections, understand relationships and recall related details.

Who wants to stare at the same thing for 30 minutes? Especially boring white and black notes on a page?!

Consider changing it up.

Why not print music on green or red paper around Christmas? Or orange paper leading up to Halloween?

This is a fun (and super easy) way to increase classroom engagement.

I’ve found small, handheld whiteboards to be wonderful teaching tools. Drawing examples of notes, rests, etc., on these boards and asking students to name them adds an extra layer of engagement and anticipation in the lesson room.


We need to remember those childhood feelings and embrace them. This is how we keep the sense of wonder and imagination in the classroom.

We want our students to long for the next piano lesson, asking questions such as, what’s Mr. Chris going to do this week? And, I wonder what game we’re going to play this time?!

Let’s encourage creativity in the classroom. After all, encouraging creativity, play, and imagination encourages learning.

Now teach, and teach well, you amazing teacher, you!