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.

Why Practicing Students Are Good For Teachers

practicing

As music teachers, we encounter many different personalities and levels of interest with our students.

Unfortunately, some students are not as naturally enthusiastic about practicing as others, and one of the difficulties of teaching music is in getting a student such as this to practice consistently and more efficiently.

If this isn’t happening, parents can get frustrated with their child’s lack of progress and take them out of lessons altogether.

What can we do as teachers to avoid this and help all of our students feel fulfilled in their daily practice?


When students don’t practice regularly or efficiently, it causes many problems between them and their teachers and parents.

Parents sometimes feel helpless when they cannot get their child to practice, which ultimately leads them to take them out of music lessons.

If they do practice, but not effectively, the progress is plodding and can become a source of frustration for everyone involved!

The best way to make sure students are on the right track to practicing consistently and efficiently is for parents and teachers to help them set up a practice schedule that is a part of their daily life.

This helps set them up for success!

Within that schedule, the teacher must make certain that the student is practicing effectively (not just running through the motions) and this can take a considerable amount of time and effort during the lesson time to demonstrate and reinforce.

They must learn to be efficient and fruitful in their practicing. And the teacher has to be the one to ensure that they attain these most valuable skills.

One good way to introduce better practice skills with a student is to use a fun piece as the example for how they can become more efficient.

This does not usually work if teachers impose a piece that does not interest the student, so leave the choice up to them.

Once they have decided, use that piece to explore all the different ways they can develop their practice skills at home and spend time in the lessons demonstrating and analyzing the results.

This is an excellent way for a student to become more in-tune with her learning methods while still having fun in the process.

Working on developing better practice skills can be a very long process. But the benefits greatly outweigh any difficulties we experience.

How do students benefit from practicing?

When students practice consistently and efficiently, they become more engaged, enthusiastic, inspired and inquisitive.

We want all of these things for our students!

As students progress more quickly, they soon get to learn more exciting music, which helps keep them inspired.

Students can more easily see where their music studies are leading as they progress.

And then teachers have the opportunity to compare diligent students to other more advanced students to show how their hard work will eventually pay off.

How do teachers benefit from practicing?

With positive results from proper practice techniques, we are more inspired to push students further.

This also helps us feed off the students’ progress and to be more creative!

It opens an opportunity to use positive reinforcement instead of negative punishment, and successful students become good examples for the rest of the studio.

When students are efficient and diligent in practicing, we teachers feel like we have more time and space to add other aspects to teaching that they otherwise couldn’t, such as the exploration of other musical styles, theory, improvisation, composition, arranging and more advanced technique.

With successful students, we get a greater sense of accomplishment, which increases morale.

Not every student will be naturally enthusiastic, so we need to cultivate this kind of attitude to keep us motivated as teachers.

How does this affect parents?

When parents can see progress, they are more likely to keep their children enrolled in lessons and involved in recitals and competitions.

That’s a big one, right? I mean, we all like our paychecks!

Parents are a big factor in their children’s success in music, and they are instrumental in establishing a regular schedule, attainable goals, and positive reinforcement.

Clear progress helps parents stay motivated and excited about helping their children succeed in music.

When goals are set and met, parents can easily see where the path is leading in their children’s musical development.

Student success can ultimately encourage them to enroll other siblings, family members or friends for lessons.

This is a super positive side effect of students practicing!

Remember: happy parents are the best advertising we teachers can get!


Sharing the gift of music with our students is the most important thing we do.

Engaged students and parents equal success in music lessons.

The PracticeHabits Membership Community is a fantastic community for piano teachers dedicated to inspiring student practice and parent engagement.

Piano teachers are already benefitting from the wonderful community and resources!

CLICK TO LEARN MORE

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!

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.

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.

Sometimes You Just Need a Different Approach

Approach Emma

I once had a student who couldn’t sit still.

Come to think of it, most of the students I’ve taught fit into this category.

Nevertheless, Ava was a ball of energy!

Granted, she was four-years-old when she began piano lessons.

And this beautiful ball of energy was one of the brightest students I had ever encountered.

But…

I vividly remember arriving each lesson frustrated and baffled on how to approach little Ava.

Did I mention she was only four-years-old??

I’ll be vulnerable here – teaching little bitties was a new endeavor, and I was out of my league.

I knew how to teach the piano. But I did not know how to teach Ava.

It was a struggle.

An epic battle between mentor and protégé that looked something like this.


“Now Ava, this note is middle-C.”

Squirm, squirm, squirm.

“Oh! This is middle-C, Mr. Chris. I’m going to teach you today!”

Run, run, run around the piano bench.

“No, Ava. Please be seated.”

“Okay!”

Squirm, squirm, squirm, twirl, sit.

“Okay, Ava. Let’s try this again. Here’s middle-C.”

“Oh!! Mr. Chris. I made up a song. Want to hear it??”


My brain was melting by this point. And this was the weekly scenario.

I needed a different approach.

I gathered the courage to speak with her mother about the issue.

Together, we decided to shorten Ava’s lessons to 15-minutes instead of the usual 30-minutes.

And her mother began sitting in our lessons.

Now I’m not a huge fan of parents sitting in the lesson room. But this was a unique situation. And it worked beautifully!

She was able to gently guide Ava’s wandering mind back to focus speaking the ancient language known as “mom.”

Both of these changes significantly improved Ava’s lesson experience.

She grew with me. We grew together.

I eventually increased Ava’s lesson time to 30-minutes and her mother began sitting in the waiting area.

Ava was not a bad student. She was four-years-old!

And I just needed a different approach.


How about you? Do you need a different approach?

Well, there’s no better time to implement change than right now.

Have a question? Need guidance?

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!