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Monday, August 24, 2015

T.M.I.: Theory Means Improv


My daughter and I often communicate by text message. Here's a conversation we exchanged recently when I asked her to do some cleaning in the house while I was out:



I may not have recognized "nvm," but "T.M.I." is a little more well-known. You probably know that it's urban slang for "too much information." This is what my daughter says with a dramatic eye-roll when I make a comment that is only slightly more personal than "My, what hot weather we're having!"

This year, my piano students have a new definition for T.M.I.: Theory Means Improv. It's my goal this year to incorporate an improvisation component into every theory lesson.

Last week, we started our fall semester and my early level students reviewed basic note values by taking home cards printed with various 4-beat rhythms. They could spread out the cards in any order they chose and then improvise their own melody using that rhythm and the notes within a 5-finger pattern. Some of my intermediate students were assigned to improvise broken chord patterns alternating between major and minor triads. Changing major triads to minor and vice-versa was a review for them, but using those triads to make their own music added a new twist. This group will soon be reviewing diatonic triads within a key as we work toward learning to play from lead sheets this year.

If you've been reading my blog, then you know that I had a great time attending the 88 Creative Keys Conference in Denver with Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss. As I think about how I want to incorporate more improvisation into my teaching, I keep coming back to the idea that I am teaching a language. Before I went back to school for music degrees, I taught English. If I teach a grammar lesson on direct objects, then a good follow-up assignment would be to ask students to write their own sentences containing action verbs and direct objects. It's a better way to determine whether they really understand than asking them to circle the direct object in a given sentence. So, why wouldn't we assign students to create their own melodies using quarter and half notes after a lesson on those note values? We all know the proverb:  "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand." Students who create their own music using the theory concept being taught will recognize those theory concepts at work in their literature more quickly.

It's easy to find lots of ideas on the internet for improvisation projects, such as teaching students to create their own 12-bar blues piece. And these are appropriate. Their parallel in a language class would be composing paragraphs and essays. But what if improvisation was a more integral part of our teaching? What if it were the primary way we asked students to demonstrate their understanding of the language? This is the equivalent of asking students of a foreign language to converse in real time. If you say to a student of German "Welches Datum ist heute?" then the correct response should be that the student tells you today's date, in German. No translation necessary. What if our theory assessments at Festivals and similar events went beyond translating theory knowledge into English (what is the definition of a plagal cadence - student responds by describing a plagal cadence with words), but about expressing that understanding in the language (play a plagal cadence in the key of F Major - student responds in the language, no translation necessary)? I write the theory exams for our local association's Festival, and I know that trying to create an assessment like that would be a nightmare because it would require one-on-one time with a theory examiner for each individual student. But, if we believe that music is a language, then shouldn't we expect some "oral" exams? It may be too unwieldy for Festival, but it's quick and easy and entirely appropriate in a one-on-one lesson.

So, we're experimenting with T.M.I. in the studio this year! I'm interested in hearing your ideas and suggestions!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Motivating Students With Badges


This year, I'll be awarding digital badges to students to celebrate and  document their achievements. I'm using ForAll Rubrics, a website that allows teachers to create rubrics, checklists, and badges. They also have a mobile app called ForAllBadges that will run on your ipad, smartphone, chromebook, or tablet.

Digital badges are a little graphic that can be placed on a student's online "badge board" and represent an achievement, a completed project, or a set of skills. Think Girl Scout badges, except digital. The teacher can create specific criteria for each one. For instance, I will have badges for accumulating repertoire:  the Rep 10 Badge will be awarded once the student has mastered 10 pieces or 10 pages of music, Rep 20 for 20 pieces, etc. I'm making badges for completing projects:  the B.B. Blues badge will be awarded once the student completes and performs a 12-bar blues improvisation (this one has a crown graphic on it for B.B. King). There are badges for skills acquisitions:  the Fiver Jiver Badge is for students who can play all of the Five-Finger Patterns (pentascales) and the Grand Scale Master badge means the student can play all scales around the circle of fifths, hands together, two octaves. You can make as many badges as you want and organize them into collections such as Rhythm, Sight Reading, Repertoire, Scales, Theory, Creative Projects, and so on. Students can login to their personal badge board at ForAll Rubrics and see their badges, share them via social media, email them to Grandma, or print them out and hang them on the refrigerator. They can also view all of my available badges and "pledge" to earn them.


Here's what I love. This is an incentive program, a parent communication tool, and a tracking tool all in one. Earning badges is an incentive that lives at the crossroads of internal and external motivation. The badge is a celebration of achievement, and the student is motivated by the sense of mastery that earning the badge provides. Because these badges are so quick and easy to make, I can provide a lot of them in each category and allow the student to "level up" often, tapping into the gamification model and giving lots of immediate feedback. Parents can log on to the website and see the badges earned, and can see the specific criteria for earning each one. This communicates very specific and meaningful information about what the student is learning, as well as the value of what I provide in my studio. As a tracking tool, this lets me see at a glance what skills and projects the student has completed so far this year. The student's badge board is almost like a visual resume.


Another great feature is that you can allow students to self-assess. So, for instance, if students are assigned to sight-read a short piece at home each day, once they have sight-read a specified number necessary to earn a badge, they can award it to themselves. I like the potential for autonomy. Students might be creative and suggest additional badges. You can even set it up so that students can award badges to other students. Imagine the group class possibilities! There are just so many potential ways you can use badges.

If you like this idea and want to try it yourself, there are several sites to do it. ClassBadges is where I started, and the graphics for the badges there are super cute, but the program has some serious bugs. Deleted things never went away, moving around the site was awkward, and worst of all, there was no good help page. I mourned my wasted time and moved to another site. For All Rubrics is much more powerful and versatile, and has very clear explanations on the help pages. My only complaint is that their badge designer tool wasn't so hot. I am using MakeBadges to design my badges and then uploading them to F.A.R. It's very quick once you get the hang of it. MakeBadges doesn't have many music icons to use, but you can upload your own images if you want. Since I'm making so many, I'm doing them the quickest way possible. Other people seem to like using Mozilla Open Badges. I haven't tried it out, so I can't offer a review.

You will need to set up your class and make your badges on the website, not the mobile app. You can upload an entire class roster using an excel template that F.A.R. provides. You can set up your entire studio as one class, or make different groups. Then create your badges. This is the most time-consuming part, and I'll probably be creating badges in my spare time for quite a while. Once your students log in, they can upload a profile pic. When you get your class set up, download the ipad app, login on the ipad, and your class will appear. Tapping on the student picture brings up a page where I can easily choose the collection of badges I want and award one.

Here's the best thing of all. Except for the time invested, this whole setup is free, and my students can accumulate badges year after year.

Let me know if you try this! I'll be reporting back on how it works.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?

The obvious answer to the question above is, "Of course!" But, I think it's the wrong question. I like this question better:  "Is learning its own reward?" I think the answer is "sometimes." And usually, when I hear the question, I walk quickly away because I know the conversation is about to become heated as lines are drawn and sides are taken on the issue of giving rewards or not giving rewards to piano students. I tend to believe that the truth usually doesn't lie on the extreme sides of any issue, but lives somewhere in the middle.

We piano teachers have to compete with so many things that prevent our students from practicing - sports practices that happen every day of the week with travel tournaments on the weekends, heavier than ever homework loads, the stress of high-stakes standardized testing, etc. Sometimes the issue is not whether the student is motivated to practice piano, but whether he is motivated to get the homework done in the car, or at daycare, or at brother's soccer game so that there will be a few minutes for piano practice between supper and bed. Many of us resort to incentive programs, although all of us hope that our students will be motivated to practice for the love of it, not for a reward. Yesterday, I discovered an article that discusses the issue of extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation in the most rational manner I've seen. Ask the Cognitive Scientist:  Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?  The author addresses the pros and cons of using rewards very fairly, citing relevant research that shows when it is detrimental and when it can be helpful and avoids the kind of black and white approach that can cause arguments. It's an easy-to-read article, and I highly recommend it.

If you've got a little more time, the Carnegie Foundation has just published (in July 2015) a 48-page document called Motivation Matters:  How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement.

As you know if you've read here before, I do use incentive programs in my studio. My Findin' Buried Treasure program is a token economy system, a type of motivator used by many classroom teachers. The student receives tokens of some kind (either physical or in the form of points) that can be exchanged for something the student wants. The advantages of such a system include that it is based on positive reinforcement, the reinforcement is immediate, and it mirrors real-life experiences. Incidentally, most gamification systems such as Piano Maestro are also forms of token economy. Students earn points. Accumulating a certain number allows him to "unlock" (buy) the next level and gain more points and a higher ranking (status). If a teacher uses any token system manipulatively, it can be negative - just as manipulative praise is negative. Based on the reading I've been doing, I believe that token systems are effective when:

1- The teacher is consistent - not promising to give a token and then forgetting. This destroys trust.
2- The system represents a contract between the student and the teacher that is clearly defined. The student should be able to predict exactly how the system will work.
3- The items that can be purchased with tokens are desirable.
4- The tokens are given immediately.
5- Participation in the system is an option, not a requirement, and there is no penalty for not participating. This means that the teacher is not using rewards as a bribe in any way.
6- The token or the purchased item is not the primary goal but a symbolic way of celebrating the achievement of a goal or skill. Celebrating a student's achievement of goals is a way to boost their sense of self-efficacy which gives them courage to try new things.

Last year, I made up an incentive program that was really cute, but didn't work very well in my studio - nowhere near as well as Findin' Buried Treasure. So, I decided to scrap it instead of selling it. If you have young students, you should check out Jennifer Foxx's really intriguing gamified program! My students are aging out of that one or I'd jump on it! I do have some plans for this year, and they will focus mainly on student's independently setting and tracking their goals. My studio is mostly made of students 11 and older, and I think they can do this. I'm trying to incorporate the principles in the articles above. I'll be back to describe it once I've got it all worked out. In the meantime, I hope you'll check out those linked articles above.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Life Strategies For Piano Teachers

Photo by Andrew Leddy
A piano teacher's life is challenging! School starts in about a week here, and I'm doing my yearly planning for life management. This includes scheduling students, scheduling my daughter's activities, figuring out when and how I'll prepare meals, when and how I'll clean my house, how I'll stay healthy, and which organizational commitments I'll accept. You know how this works. I usually take a sheet of graph paper and map off my days in 45-minute segments. I usually fill up every one, ending up with a schedule that demands that I follow it with military precision, or there won't be enough time to get to everything.

An article I read somewhere about a year ago made the point that productivity depends on energy, not time. This was a revelation for me, but it seems so obvious now. If something drains the life out of me, it won't matter that it was a fairly small time commitment because it will require additional time for recovery (or complaining). On the other hand, a heavy time commitment that I enjoy will boost my well-being and make me more productive. So, this year, while the graph paper schedule is inevitable, I'm giving myself permission to think in terms of energy management, as well as time, when I plan how to live.

Here are some strategies.

1.  Hire a driver.
Now that my daughter is in 7th grade, the needs have shifted from child care to transportation to and from after-school activities. This past week, I hired a retired neighbor to take over this job. Now, my daughter can continue playing on the tennis team, and she has the opportunity to audition for the school musical without me hoping she doesn't make it! I can relax and teach. In fact, it makes it possible for me to teach 6 more students for the year, making it a very cost-effective decision.

2. Batch Planning.
Batch panning is my term for reducing multiple decisions to one decision. Put another way, make stock choices about mundane things to free up time and energy for creativity about the things that matter. Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein both wore a uniform - the same outfit every day. (Let's hope they had multiples or did daily laundry!) The point was to avoid wasting brain energy on something so mundane. I'm always looking for areas where I can batch plan, but here are two where it's most effective:



Meals:  My husband has what I call an "extreme job," so it's rare that he can take over this arena, although he does when he can. I make a menu plan for the week and only one trip to the store. It saves additional shopping trips, additional decision making, and happily, some money. The second part of the strategy is "cook once - eat twice." This halves my menu decisions. I cook enough for two full days, and it's in the refrigerator ready to be thrown on a plate and microwaved whenever anybody wants it (or in the crockpot). A new strategy for me this year will be adopting a meal rotation to reduce the decisions even more.

Lesson planning: I like to do lots of supplemental activities in lessons, but it's easy to get scattered. I pick a topic for a multi-week unit, such as intervals, so my brain can focus on teaching that one thing. Week One may be recognizing intervals, Week Two more practice, Week Three ear-training with intervals, Week Four improvising using a required interval. I get out all of my related games/resources and use whatever is appropriate for each student's level. For another unit, we may concentrate on rhythm, and everybody will do Wendy Steven's Rhythm Cup Explorations. Of course, sometimes, I discover in a lesson that one needs a little reinforcement to help him remember a scale, so I whip out a game that is "out of theme," but having an overall focus helps me know what I've covered and that I've covered everything I wanted to and reduces my decisions.
3.  Get enough exercise.
Last year, I joined a tennis league. At the time, I thought it was a crazy decision - piano teachers don't have time for tennis! I thought the challenge of scheduling my home schoolers and adults around clinics and matches would create more stress, and I was prepared to have to back out. It turned out to be exactly the opposite. Playing tennis boosts my well-being, gives me physical and mental energy, and makes me more productive. I also haven't lost any teaching time to sickness since I started exercising more. This is a great example of making energy management a bigger priority than time management, and having it benefit my time as well.



4.  Limit Commitments 
I used to agree to do things based on whether I had a time slot open for it on my schedule. Bad idea. Now, I limit my community service commitments to my local MTA and a couple of faith-related things. Throughout the year, I do a few one-off jobs at my daughter's school, but no committees. There's enough on my plate for just one person, and it's good to remind myself of a saying stolen from one of my friends:  "You don't have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm." Recently, I composed some questions to consider when I am asked to take on another responsibility. I call them "Burnout Avoidance Criteria," and I think they are a better alternative than asking "Do I have time?"
 A) Does serving in this capacity align with my personality, my life-purpose, and my values? Does serving in this capacity prevent me from doing something else that aligns better?

 B)  Would serving in this capacity sabotage my mental, physical, and emotional energy for those things that only I can do? (such as parenting or maintaining my own mental and physical health)

 C) Will the time and energy I invest in this still matter in 10 years, or is it mostly busywork?
 D)  Is there any chance that I might be agreeing to this office or position just because it makes me feel important? (The right answer is "no." See A above.)
 E) Does agreeing to this job give me an excuse to have no time for something else that is difficult or scary? (If you fill up your time with obligations, you can avoid having to deal with that family problem. Or, if you fill up your time, you'll never have to face any criticism of your creative work because you'll never have time to do any. See below.)


5. Refuse to feel guilty about leisure.
Creativity is hard to cultivate when you are rushing from one thing to the next. When I can't find creative time for myself, then my soul starts to suffer - along with my parenting, my teaching, my friendships, and my productivity. I need leisure time in order to reflect, write, and play something on the piano other than the accompaniments I'm responsible for, and not just once in a blue moon but as a regular part of my routine. That means sticking to my guns about not over-committing, even when people don't understand.

The strategy I still need help with is preventing my leisure time from being sucked up by the computer! There are so many good blogs, so many pinterest boards, so many good friends on facebook! I justify it because I do find lots of good teaching resources and ideas, and it's great to stay in touch with friends, but I need to reclaim some of that time. If you're reading here, I know you spend time on the computer, too. How do you establish limits around computer time? Share your tips about that or any other strategies you use to establish a good work-life balance!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Improvisation Inspiration - See How Lame I Am!

While looking for something else today, I discovered a fantastic set of videos by Dr. Peter Schubert of McGill University. Using an exercise first conceived of by Mozart to help a piano student who played well but "had no ideas" for creating her own music, Dr. Schubert coaches a student through the creation of his own piece. Supposedly, Mozart presented the student with an opening phrase and said, "See what an ass I am! I've started this piece, but I can't think of anything to come next! Can you add something to this to finish it?" While you might want to change the name of the exercise to something more kid-appropriate, it should be something funny! Off the top of my head, I can imagine calling it "See how lame I am!" Maybe you can think of something better. Incidentally, the existence of the story is evidence that even amateur students were expected to compose and improvise in those days.

In no particular order, here are some factors that I think make Dr. Schubert's exercise successful:

1. No wrong answers. Dr. Schubert makes a big point of this in one of the videos.
2. It's playful. They're laughing and having fun.
3. They're singing rather than laboriously picking out the notes on the piano. That can come later. Singing is instant.
4. Dr. Schubert is liberal with compliments and encouragement.
5. Rather than trying to manage full chords as accompaniment, they use only one note. This student is clearly already thinking of the harmony and playing a chord root, but with a younger piano student, the accompaniment could be delayed until the melody was worked out.
6. They work on one short phrase at a time.

What other aspects do you see that make this work so well? How could you adapt it to piano students at a variety of levels?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation?

The 88 Creative Keys Educator's conference only lasted 3 days, but my head is still there. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store. I just needed a couple of items, but I also came home with a beach ball, dry erase crayons, some cute little rubbery animals, and a magnetic fishing pole. This is what happens when you spend 3 days with a creative teacher like Leila Viss. Suddenly, everything looks like something you could use while teaching piano! Stay tuned in the days to come as I figure out how I'm going to use these things!

Since the conference, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the philosophy behind 88 Creative Keys. If your conception of Bradley and Leila's message is that it's all about jazz or ipad apps, you're missing the point. Bradley Sowash is one of the best at communicating how to play jazz, but his ultimate message isn't "teach your students jazz," or pop, or any other specific style. It's teach your students to make their own music, whatever style that might be, and the skills to make your own music are primary musicianship skills, not secondary. 

Leila wrote the book (literally) on using ipad apps in your studio, but she shared much more than ipad apps. We spent equal time exploring physical manipulatives and other ideas for creative teaching. In fact, most of the apps we used were more for utility than novelty - this is something I want to write more about as I have resisted some technology for the wrong reasons, and I think many other teachers do as well. Leila's message is keep your teaching fresh and creative, take advantage of helpful technology, and engage your students with elements from their own world, which is a vastly different world than the one most of us grew up in. (That link goes to Wendy Stevens' blog ComposeCreate.com where she interviews Pete Jutras, editor of Clavier Companion, about how piano teaching is changing. It's worth reading if you haven't.)


So, I'm convinced that creativity and improvisation in particular should be an essential part of piano instruction. Now, how am I going to put that to work in my studio? Before I make concrete plans, I'm considering some questions I think will help me develop my teaching philosophy where improvisation is concerned. I'm not offering answers...yet. One of my favorite high school teachers taught me that you can't solve a problem until you define the problem. So, for now, I just have questions. While I'm not giving answers yet, I'm really interested in yours. Please comment!

1.  What caused pianists to abandon the craft of improvisation even though organists did not? We know that improvisation was common among keyboard players up until the late 19th century. So what factors contributed to its decline among pianists?

2. Should current piano pedagogy be governed by those factors?

3. What kind of improvisation did classical pianists do back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? What kind of improvisation do classical pianists currently do? What sort of improvisation could they do, and who would listen?

4. If I believe that improvisation skills are desirable, how do I make them an essential part of my piano pedagogy, not just a filler activity at the end of a lesson? As an extension of that, how should we structure our piano festivals and evaluations and method books to reflect our values?

5.  What kinds of demands for creative musical skills do my students encounter in their musical lives apart from me, at church or school for instance? How can I help them with these needs? What print or online resources are available?

6.  How important is off-the-page creative music making for my students' personal well-being, and is this something my teaching should address?

7. Can I and should I embrace improvising in all sorts of styles? How can I influence my students' development of good taste while not stifling their creativity when that creativity emerges in a style that I don't know much about (jazz) or might not like (current pop)? What defines "good taste," and is it dependent on genre? Can pop be useful? Whose opinion influences my answers to these questions?

8. Can I be comfortable giving and listening to assignments that are more about a messy process than a nice, clean product?

9.  How can I teach improv in such as way as to give students some immediate gratification while also encouraging the discipline of drills and exercises that will help them learn to think harmonically on the fly?

10. How much lesson time am I willing to devote to creative music making as opposed to performance and interpretation?

I could probably think of more, but these questions are enough to drive my blog for a year! I hope they've gotten you thinking, and I hope you'll share those thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

88 Creative Keys Conference: Day 2

 photo 1ee9590d-b6fd-472e-a74e-d78fb81a8759_zpssmgiyrhh.jpg

Quick - can you spell a Dm7(-5) chord? How about a C7sus4? If you can spell it, can you think really fast of 2 different activities to help your students learn to spell it? If you have students who want to try out for their school's jazz band, they'll need to know. And that means YOU need to know.

Today, at the 88 Creative Keys Conference in Denver, I practiced spelling those chords and a bunch more in a variety of fun ways. I also collaborated with 5 colleagues to produce a 5-person arrangement of Rock Around The Clock in about 10 minutes time. And, more importantly, I realized that my students could do that, too. And, if I had a blast doing it, they would, too.

One of the big take-aways from this conference is the realization that this improvisation business really is attainable. By pulling us right out into the pool and making us swim by DOING the improvisation and THINKING of creative ways to teach it, Bradley and Leila are showing us that we can be creative enough ourselves to teach it to our students.