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Monday, March 16, 2015

Ten Steps To Hosting Your Own Piano Festival

Whether you call it a Piano Festival, Achievement Day, or something else, an evaluation event is a great way to motivate your students. There are lots of reasons why you might want to host one just for your studio. Maybe you live in a rural area without a local music teachers association. Or maybe the events in your area are not appropriate for your students, and you'd like an evaluation that suits your needs better. Maybe the date of your local MTA's event conflicts with another thing that your students are involved in. Whatever your reasons, hosting your own Piano Festival is a great way to encourage your students to work up their pieces and skills to mastery, to give them an achievement to feel proud of, and to get valuable feedback about your own teaching. And, it's easier to pull off than you might think!

Most of my students participate in our local MTA's annual Piano Festival at a local college. This involves playing two memorized pieces, a scale test, and a sight reading test before a visiting judge and taking a written theory exam. Students receive comments and a rating in each category:  Superior, Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor. While I've never actually seen a judge award a rating of Fair or Poor, the kids don't know that, and they work hard, hoping for a Superior. My students know that I consider Festival a mandatory event. But, this year, 4 of them had unavoidable conflicts. I did not let them off the hook. I just held THEIR Festival at my house, visiting judge and all! I'm fortunate to have several colleagues who are qualified to judge, and one of them was available. It all went well, and if I ever find myself living in a rural area again, I'll do this for my entire studio. If you'd like to host your own Festival, here are ten steps to organize an evaluation event. Of course, tweak these ideas to meet the needs of your own studio.

1.  Set a date well in advance, and get an an early verbal commitment from your students.

Check the school calendars. You'll want to avoid a long holiday weekend, or the All-State Chorus Festival, or whatever big event might be going on. Set your date far enough in advance to allow plenty of preparation. It's not too early to start thinking now about doing this in the spring of 2016. Set your date over the summer, and start talking it up at the beginning of the school year. Ideally, your students will be perfecting their performance literature, scales, sight reading, and theory skills all year long in preparation for the year-end Festival.

2.  Engage a judge.

Use a well-qualified judge. One of the benefits of having your students participate in this type of evaluation is the feedback you receive about your own teaching, so choose someone who can give expert feedback. If you're not as lucky as I am to have local friends to call on, start with the closest college. Even if the piano faculty there isn't able to judge for you, they are likely to have recommendations for someone else. Our MTA often uses doctoral students. Your state MTA may also have a list of judges who are willing to drive an hour or two to events. It's not too early to engage a judge in October for a spring event. There will be lots of events which need judges in the spring, and if you wait, you may have a harder time finding someone.

You'll need to decide how much to offer to pay your judge for time and travel. I'd offer a fee based on the approximate number of hours you'll need them for, and offer to pay at least as much as you'd expect for the same amount of teaching time. You'll be asking your students to pay registration fees to cover the expense.

3.  Decide what events your festival will include.

My students did sight reading, scales/cadences, and took theory tests in addition to playing two memorized pieces. You might also consider ear-training, arpeggios, etc., but keep your program small enough to be manageable. For each skill challenge, you'll need to create tests at various levels as needed for your students. (Keep reading for more on preparing these tests.)

4.  Set a registration fee for students. 

Find out what it costs to sign up for sports tournaments in your area. For instance, the fee for my daughter to participate in a local tennis tournament is usually at least $35. Fees for Piano Guild exams start at $26 and go up. Don't charge less than what the experience is worth!

5.  Consider T-shirts.

Our students love buying Festival T shirts. We sell them as a fund-raiser, but if you did this for your studio, you might just charge for the cost. When your students wear them, you get free advertising for your studio.

6. Sign up your students.

Make an information form that includes age and performance level of student, how long the student has studied, and what level of sight reading, scales, or other challenge the student will be doing. Keep it handy as a reference as you are preparing for Festival, and then include this in the students' folders that you'll be giving to the judge. Set a deadline about 6 weeks before the event and have them turn in their money. I recommend making the registration fee non-refundable. This guarantees that you can pay the judge even if the student bails on you at the last minute, and it keeps students from waffling around about their commitment to the event. Ideally, you will have already talked it up and received a verbal commitment long before this time. Ideally, they will have been planning to play at festival for the entire year, and working on their theory, sight reading, and scale skills all along.

7. Make adjudication forms and student folders.

You need adjudication forms for the performance evaluation, and one for each of the skills challenges except theory. Decide on your criteria for each event (other than a theory exam) and on the adjudication forms, include a rubric which will give the judge guidelines for rating the student. You'll need a photocopy of each form for each student. Make a file folder for each student, and put the forms for each of the events in which the student will participate inside of the folder along with the student's registration form. Here are links to some adjudication forms online that might give you some ideas.
Solo Performance 1       Solo Performance 2 (scroll down for rubric)   Solo Performance 3 

Criteria for judging scales might include steady tempo, even tone, correct fingering, and note accuracy.  On that form, you'll need a place for the judge to write which scale is being heard, and then a rubric for each scale played. For sight reading, good criteria might include rhythmic accuracy, note accuracy, observance of dynamics, and observance of articulation and phrasing.

8.  Create your skills challenges.

Sight Reading:  Choose a sight-reading selection for each of a variety of levels. Have these pieces bookmarked for the judge with sticky notes on the front of the book indicating which level it is. When the student enters the judging room, the judge will check their sight reading level, and pull the appropriate selection for that student.

Scales/cadences: For my 4 students, I provided the judge with a list of all the scales/cadences that each student was prepared to play and said "choose any 4." Another option is to create a list of required scales corresponding to levels as with sight reading. The judges guidelines can include instructions for how many scales the judge should ask for at each level.

Theory tests:  decide what you want students to know at each level, and then you can make tests yourself with a notation program or hand write them on manuscript paper. I made the ones for our MTA Festival, so I just printed those off my computer. (Sorry, I'm not at liberty to share them.) There are excellent sample tests that you can print off at some of the state MTA websites such as Texas (has an early level 1 test which includes naming keys on the piano and fingers on a hand) and Georgia (earliest level test is a bit harder than the one from Texas). You could use these sample tests as your festival test if the student has never seen them before.

9.  Certificates / Awards

Prepare your awards. Our big Festival (and my small one) is a non-competitive event. Students compete only against a standard of excellence, not each other. I gave a certificate for each skill challenge, reflecting the rating the student received. At our MTA's Festival, we award a gold seal on the certificate for a superior rating and a silver seal for excellent, so I did the same. Other good ideas include medals and ribbons. But, do give the students something to celebrate their achievements!

10.  Create a schedule and send it out to the students.

With your student registrations turned in, you're ready to create a schedule. Allow each student enough time in the judging room (your studio) to play their scales, their sight-reading, and their pieces.  This will depend on the student's level and length of their music. You also need to allow a few minutes for the judge to write comments. For an elementary student doing performance, scales, and sight reading, I'd allow no less than 10 min. (At my home festival, once the student had played for the judge, he/she took the theory test at my dining room table.) Instruct the students to arrive about 10 minutes before their scheduled time so there's no lag time for the judge - students are always ready to go. Remind them to be sure to bring their music so that the judge can follow the score while they play from memory.

NOW, you're ready!
My students arrive and check in, play for the judge in my piano room, take their theory test at my dining room table, and then leave. I collect the test and the adjudication forms from the judge, and later that day, I make out all of the appropriate certificates. The student gets their results at the next lesson and we celebrate their accomplishments.

If you don't have a local festival to participate in, I hope you'll take a stab at hosting your own. It's such a great motivator, gives your students a sense of achievement, and helps you to be a better teacher as well!




Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Theory Knowledge Knuggets


It's January, and in my studio, that means that we're doubling down on learning music theory in preparation for our local Piano Festival's theory exams. Even though I'm not using my pirate-themed incentive program this year (stay tuned for a new incentive program offering this summer!), I still use my Theory Knowledge Knuggets document as a guide when teaching theory. Now, this guide is available to you, too!

Theory Knowledge Knuggets is a comprehensive, 10-page collection of 46 Knuggets O' Knowledge about music theory, and it's available in my Etsy shop. This document is included in Findin' Buried Treasure, so if you own that, you don't need to purchase this as well. However, you can now purchase the Knowledge Knuggets separately if you don't want to use the incentive program. 

In my piano studio, I find that the theory books that correlate with the popular method books don't progress quickly enough to prepare my students for the theory exams we encounter at our local Piano Festival or our state exams. So, I created this Knowledge Knuggets document to serve as a syllabus for the topics we needed to cover in preparation for our yearly theory exams. These are knuggets of knowledge gold!

At the beginning of each school year, I decide how many knuggets I will cover with each student based on the theory level I feel he/she should achieve that year. With a beginning student, I may cover only Knuggets 1-6 in the first year, for instance. I then print off that much for the student to include in his lesson binder. When a student has mastered all of the knowledge described in a Knugget, we check it off, the student gets a small reward, and we move to the next Knugget. Learning theory in small bites at a time is really motivating to students since they get to feel a sense of achievement every time they move to a new Knugget. Even if you're using a theory workbook, you can use this guide as a testing syllabus. I prefer to teach theory without a workbook, going along in a topic-based approach and writing explanations by hand in students' notebooks, and then reinforcing with games.

The topics start at a level appropriate for pre-reading students. By the end of the syllabus, students will have covered topics such as writing key signatures; scales and cadences; identifying the key of a written passage; transposition up to a fourth away; and writing major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads. In addition, the student will learn a large number of musical terms. This document can serve you for years!

The Knowledge Knuggets document doesn't tell you HOW to teach the theory; it just gives you a great list of topics in a logical order. Feel free to skip around - you can choose for yourself what order to teach the knuggets according to your needs!


I hope you'll stop by the shop and browse around! I've also recently added an ebook which provides a schedule for keeping your house clean. If you teach from your home, you know how embarrassing it can be when students come in and you haven't had time to clean up. This guide will show you a painless way to keep everything clean and tidy. I've been using this schedule myself, and am very happy with the results!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Presents for Students

I like to give a small Christmas gift to my piano students each year. Since there are quite a few of them, I need to keep the price low, so crafting something is my usual solution. This year, I gave each student a really cute ornament.

I found clear plastic ornaments at Michaels for half-price, making them $1 each. Several months ago, I picked up an old volume of yellowed music at the Salvation Army store - works of Bach. I admit that I cringed to cut it up, but it was heavily edited. I wouldn't have played from it or given it to a student. It's great for crafting, and I think I only payed about a dollar for it.  I cut strips of sheet music, rolled them up and slipped into the balls. They opened up nicely once inside. I also put some strips of Christmas scrapbook paper inside, and dropped a bit of loose glitter in and shook it around after closing up the ball. A bit of wired ribbon finished it off. Since I already had everything but the ball itself, these were very easy and cheap to make! 

I think I'm going to have to make a few more of these to give to other people as well. I'm very pleased with how they turned out! What do you do for student gifts?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pre-Flight Checklist for Piano Students

My students often barrel right into playing their music without stopping to think first. I'm sure your students never do that (wink), but I've been looking for ways this year to get them to think before playing. One solution has been to teach them to do a bit of score study before starting a new piece.  I made up some score study worksheets and posted about that here.

That is certainly helpful, but it's a bit cumbersome to do for EVERYTHING they play, and I still want them to think before playing on everything. So, here's a quick solution.

I tell the students that they are the pilots of the piece, and I'm the co-pilot. Then, just as though we are checking the plane's systems before take-off, we'll go through the checklist below. I call out each item and as the student does or checks it, he answers "check." The plane can't take off until all systems are go!

1. Adjust bench for height and distance.
2. Sit straight and tall!
3. Check starting keys and place hands.
4. Check time signature.
5. Check key signature.
6. Check first dynamic sign.
7. Check tempo/mood.
8. Hear a few measures in your head before starting.

Here's a quick draft of my checklist. Click this link to download it.  (And as soon as I get a chance, I'm going to learn a better method of embedding PDF docs!)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Copywork To Correct Reading Problems?


I'm trying an experiment. I have a couple of students who are good practicers and who both have an exceptionally good ear but are challenged with their music reading. They play music more from what their muscle memory feels like and what their ear expects to hear than what they see on the page. Both know all of their lines and spaces very well, so knowledge of notes isn't a problem. However, when one of them sees a passage in their music that contains a sequence (the pattern repeats starting on a different note, often only a step away), they simply see the shape of the figure and play it again without shifting to the new position. They also tend not to notice when a pattern repeats but has one small difference, such as ending in a skip instead of a step.

It occurred to me one day that there might be a very simple, old-fashioned way to address the problem:  copywork.

I'm not asking them to copy entire pieces, or even entire lines of music. I'm just asking them to copy the notes of the offending section onto manuscript paper. I took a few minutes of a lesson to teach them how to mark notes quickly (without drawing circles and filling them in) and to space them out neatly. Both students were actually eager to write music on their own manuscript paper!

I think this will slow them down and force them to focus on the visual notation before they start to practice and end up "reading" the piece incorrectly.  I'll let you know how it works! Have any of you ever dealt with this problem?


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reward Cards For Piano Students

Get Out Of Scales Free!
Sometimes, you need a small reward for your students that isn't junky dollar store stuff or candy. Here are two sets of reward cards that might be just what you need! These Get Out Of Scales Free cards and Extra Time With Piano Maestro cards can be printed on card stock or business card blanks and (according to the Avery template site) they are compatible with the following Avery products:

15871, 18871, 27871, 27881, 27882, 27883, 28371, 28873, 28876, 28877, 28878, 38871, 38873, 38876, 5371, 5376, 5377, 55871, 55876, 5870, 5871, 5874, 5876, 5877, 5878, 5882, 5911, 8271, 8371, 8372, 8376, 8377, 8471, 8476, 8571, 8865, 8870, 8871, 8872, 8873, 8874, 8875, 8876, 8877, 8878, 8879







If you use Piano Maestro in your studio, your students will be happy to earn these cards!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Letting The Agenda Go

Photo by Wel Han Frank Lin
Today, I had the most delightful lesson with the most adorable 6-year-old boy. He's my only "little" this year - actually, my only one in two years now. I remember in former years feeling so pressured to cover so much material in the first lesson because I wanted to be able to send the student home playing the first pieces in the lesson book. And, in order to get to the first pieces in the lesson book, I had to cover the first several pages, teaching how to sit at the piano, how to hold the hands properly, which end of the piano had high sounds and which had low, what a quarter note and a quarter rest were, etc. Then we had to learn how to follow the directions on the page and what all of those words said. I always felt like I was spewing information, not really teaching them to be excited about making music.

Today, I let the agenda go.

We started by reading Mole Music, as recommended by Andrea at Teach Piano Today. I loaned him the book to take home. Next week, I'll use her printables to help him apply the story to his own study of music.

Then, we explored the piano. We opened up the top of my console piano, and I let him stand on the piano bench and peer in. We watched the hammers dance. We learned the names of hammers, strings, dampers, and keys. We explored what the pedals could do.

We talked about high bird sounds and low bullfrog sounds and made up a name for the middle keys. They are the Panda keys. Doesn't make any sense, but does it really have to?

We traced around his hands and learned that "King Thumb is No. 1."  Then we played the worm game. The fingers are worms, and when I call out the worm numbers, they come out of their hole and rest on the keyboard cover. But, birds like to eat worms, so they have to jump back into their hole quickly before my hands (the birds) can grab them. Many giggles. He had a little trouble with fingers 3 and 4. No matter. We focused on fingers 1, 2, and 5. When his fine motor control is a little better, 3 and 4 will come easily enough.

In a few short minutes, he learned how to clap quarters and quarter rests, saying "one" for the quarters and "sh" for the rests. In no time, he could do 4 measures all by himself. Then, we made up our own song using our four-measure rhythm which I had written out on a sheet of paper. He wanted to play clusters of keys on the quarters. No matter. They were on time. His hand position was not correct. There will be time to address that later.

Forty-five minutes went by before we knew it, and I had never cracked one of his books, Yet, not a minute of that lesson was wasted, and not a minute was dry. He went home with permission to create his own music. If my measure of success was to send him home playing a piece in his book, I failed.

I don't think that is my measure of success any more.

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