Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Smart Sharing: Posting Student Media for Motivation and Marketing

In my very small hometown, our local newspaper celebrated student achievements, even small ones, by publishing lots and lots of photos. Nice older folks in my community would clip those photos and articles and mail them to the students with congratulatory notes. These days, we do the same thing with social media and "likes." This year, I've created an Instagram account for my studio. Parents can easily share links to a post with grandparents and friends, and this makes it convenient for them to support the student.

I plan to use Instagram 1) as a way to celebrate small student successes by posting photos and short videos, 2) as an instructional tool, and 3) as a way to shape my "brand" as a teacher. Instagram is my tool of choice this year because it seems to be the best option of the social media formats popular with my students. Also, the 60-second limit on videos means that I won't be tempted to spend too much time creating masterpieces. In fact, I can snap a picture or short clip with my phone and upload it within seconds, so it's super easy. I'll continue to use a private YouTube channel for things that need to stay private or longer videos.

The use of social media as a motivational and instructional tool is obvious, but you might not have considered how it can help advertise your studio. First, it gives you a means to demonstrate that you aren't teaching your grandmother's piano lessons. Pictures that include students playing off-the-bench activities or using an ipad show that you are innovative. Video clips that feature both classical and pop styles show that you are versatile. Clips of your cat and dog play-fighting next to the piano show that you are human. Secondly, a social media outlet such as Instagram allows you to make contact with others who might either enroll in lessons or refer you to others.

If you decide to use Instagram for your studio, I strongly suggest that you keep your studio account dedicated to studio stuff. Have a separate account for your personal posts.

Before you jump on the social media bandwagon, it's wise to take some precautions to protect both your students and yourself.

1.  Obtain the parents' permission on a media release form before posting your students photos or videos.

Schools now require parents to sign a media release form indicating that they do or do not consent to their a child's photo or video being used in online media. This is required by the Family Educational Rights And Privacy Act (FERPA). Some states also have additional laws. As a small business, your best practice is to comply with any federal and state laws that the schools must obey. If parents don't wish to grant permission, then don't pressure them, and don't post! Your media release form can also serve to protect you and should mention that no compensation will be given for the use of student photos or videos and that you are not liable for others' illegal use of your photos or videos. Your best option for creating this form is to consult an attorney. If you don't want to go that route, at least do some research online by searching for "sample media release form for minors."

2.  Obtain the child's permission before posting and promise to delete any posted material if the child changes his/her mind.

The digital rights of children is another evolving topic, and it touches on their rights to use digital media as well as their rights to consent and privacy. Never before has it been so easy for parents and piano teachers to upload photos and videos without the child even knowing, much less consenting. If I sense any hesitation from a student about sharing their picture or video, I won't do it. Don't post anything that you and the student are not willing for the whole universe to see. I hope it goes without saying that you should only post media that reflects positively on the student.

3.  Don't include any identifying information.

Don't use a child's full name, and don't link your posts to any of their social media accounts. I use pseudonyms only. Don't provide any geographical information or tagging. Turn off the geotagging feature on your smart phone's camera. Don't allow background images to give away your location. I take more precautions about this than my daughter's school does, and I point that out to my studio parents.

Adult Students

If you teach adults, it's a good idea to create a media release form for them as well. Again, this is the right thing to do for the student, but it also protects you and your studio from potential liability.

If my precautions haven't scared you off, I hope you'll consider embracing social media in your studio this year. If you're using it already, I'd love to hear how you're incorporating it and how it's working! Please feel free to comment!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Boost Your Teaching Skills With Bradley And Leila

Two of the most creative people I know are offering a webinar soon! Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss have great ideas for helping your students succeed with rhythm. I know from my experience in Denver at the 88 Creative Keys Conference that Bradley and Leila are super at creating hands-on lessons for students. Their inventive activities will help your students move from mere mental knowledge to experiential mastery. The webinar takes place on Monday, September 26, but you can access a recording of the session later if you can't make that date. The price is reasonable at $49. Click on this link to learn more or sign up!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Embracing Technology in Piano Study

Apple iPad Mini Piano by iadwords

Technology has been slow in coming to the traditional piano studio. Most teachers over 40, like myself, didn't use anything more techy than a digital metronome and a cassette tape recorder in our own study. However, if we want to stay relevant in the decades to come, that means embracing technology such as apps, digital recording and composing tools, and digital collaboration via social media or other means. This is not just true for those who want to teach popular styles. Respected music schools and conservatories around the world are increasingly using technology in their courses, and young, tech-savvy music majors will soon transform the landscape. I want to continue to be a tree in that landscape for at least a couple more decades, so I'm working to evolve my teaching practices one baby step at a time!

A few years ago, I resisted technology in piano teaching because my impression was that the technology had become the primary goal rather than learning. While this is still sometimes true, better educational applications and practices have come along to improve on that situation.

I think, as piano teachers, we must consider two truths:

1. Students feel limited within traditional piano study when they know from their other learning experiences that so much more is possible with the judicious use of technology. Piano teachers who have not been inside a grade school classroom since they graduated from one may not realize that technology has created a new standard of service that is expected in 2016.

2. Students are going to access the internet, social media, and other forms of technology for piano study whether we are involved or not. We lose the opportunity to guide that discovery when we reject technological tools.

Even classically-oriented piano students live in the 21st century. They expect to use resources online and to have collaborative experiences that are facilitated by social media, even while also benefiting from the expertise of a highly-respected private teacher. Read this article to see how classically-rooted pedagogy is incorporating technology at schools and conservatories around the country: Conservatory Tech Makes Sweet Music. I still hear traditional piano teachers reject the idea of having students watch YouTube videos because there are so many poor ones out there. That's laughable when it also offers pages like this one from New England Conservatory. Instead of dismissing it, we need to give students a road map to navigate it, as we need to do for all of the online resources available for pianists. There are some really good examples of online instruction out there and some really, really bad ones. Our students are going to visit those sites with or without us.

Beware The Technology Generation Gap

While I assert that we should embrace technology, I'll also assert that we need to use it judiciously. One of the things I learned as a long-term sub in a middle school English classroom is that using technology for learning is no longer novel and exciting for the kids, but is as normal as a dictionary was for me at that age. While we piano teachers are dipping our toes cautiously into YouTube, my 7th and 8th grade students are using 3D printers and making "smart" clothing in their computer class. So, when a piano teacher uses a digital tool as a sort of bait to make learning more "fun," students are going to roll their eyes. They are highly perceptive (and frustrated) when teachers use tech tools merely for technology's sake. In fact, that may be the new definition of "generation gap." I asked my 13-year-old daughter what she saw as the pros and cons of using technology in her classes. Her number one con: "Sometimes, teachers will get too attached to it and rely on it way more than they should. It can become an extra that is just more busy work." Adam Schoenbart writes about potential pitfalls of tech tools in the classroom in his online article 5 Mistakes I Made With Educational Technology, and my daughter's frustration is one of his points. However, he also asserts that technology is the new normal. The lesson is always to consider the learning outcome you hope to create by using that particular technology.

Embrace The Opportunity For Student Discovery
If some obscure subject like circumzenithal arcs piques my daughter's interest, she can look it up online and, in the space of a few days, practically become an expert on the subject. She has the opportunity to communicate via email or within online forums with bona fide experts, perhaps college professors or working scientists. If I wanted to do the same at her age, my parents had to drive me to the library. It isn't at all likely that I could have had a conversation with the author of the book I read. My school teacher and my textbook were my narrow world, but kids today don't have to depend on anyone else to explore their interests. As the internet becomes a more prominent feature of human life, teachers and schools naturally lose the role of being the gatekeepers of knowledge. While I have resisted the death of the "sage on the stage" model of teaching, the truth is that no single teacher can compete with the internet. We must be the navigators in a vast, wild sea. We need to see the internet as an advantage in piano instruction, not a threat, and find ways to encourage students to use technological tools to discover things that go far beyond what we teachers know ourselves.

Embrace The Opportunity For Collaboration

My daughter told me that one of the best benefits of using technology at school was that it "allows you to connect to what other teachers and students are doing." As my very old-fashioned dad frequently reminds me (he still uses a typewriter), "two heads are always better than one." Collaboration is not a newfangled idea, but we are still married to the idea of the teacher as the ultimate source of knowledge for a studio full of disciples. If you read blogs and watch webinars on the internet to improve your own teaching, you are using technology to learn from many teachers. We need to facilitate the same kind of learning opportunities for our students rather than corralling them into one stable with one trainer.

So, as a 51-year-old, classically-trained teacher, what should I do? I can start by considering how technology might enhance my student's learning experience. We should always start with the desired learning outcome, not the technology itself. But, the technology available right now is absolutely mind-blowing, and failing to embrace it is like a doctor failing to consider the newest medical technology. There are more fantastic apps and programs out there than I can stay current on. When I can't figure out how to use them, I can enlist my students or students' parents for help.

Second, I can look for opportunities to allow students to collaborate in any way possible using technology. This might involve using MuseScore to share student compositions, or allow them to work collaboratively on compositions. It might mean creating a mini masterclass using Instagram. They want this community.

Third, I can use technology as a means to bring in experts besides myself to broaden the knowledge base my students have access to. This might include creating a webquest for students to complete at home, or collaborating with another studio, or watching really fine teachers teach students online.

Explore what music schools around the country are doing in their degree programs. Make friends with your local school music teachers. They've been using technology for a long time. Follow some mus. ed. blogs and resist the urge to click away out of intimidation/fear when the article gets techy. Ask questions. And keep reading here because I'll be elaborating on those ideas above!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lodging for 88 Creative Keys Conference

If you're looking for a fresh dose of enthusiasm for your teaching, consider attending the 88 Creative Keys Conference in Denver, CO this summer. I attended last year and found it very worthwhile. If you're traveling alone, I have a great money-saving tip. Use airbnb for lodging. That's what I did. I stayed here. Since I can't attend this summer, I hope someone else will enjoy staying in Victoria's beautiful home!

Victoria was a great hostess, and is now a friend. Her home is in a nice, safe neighborhood, and she even has a grand piano! The pictures you see at airbnb are not exaggerated - that's exactly what her place looks like. The drive to this year's conference location is 21 minutes, according to Google maps. Last year's conference was in a different place, and I could drive there in 15, but I'd consider it worth the extra few minutes to know that I had a safe, beautiful place to stay - with a piano! She's currently available, so book now. Tell her I sent you!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

I'm Back...Plus Shakespeare!

Photo by Priscila Guimaraes is licensed by Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dear readers, I am happy to report that my English teacher hat is back on the shelf and my piano teacher hat is back on my head. For those of you just checking in, I've been AWOL while I stepped in to teach 7th and 8th grade English at my daughter's school for a solid 5 months as a long-term sub. Wow, has education ever changed since I last taught school 1990! I was challenged to adapt to a digital learning environment. I used a Smartboard, posted handouts and homework assignments and even YouTube videos to a class webpage, and I graded things like film documentaries. Aside from the technology, I was also challenged to adapt to a more collaborative learning experience. In all of these things, I found both benefits and drawbacks, but suffice it to say that some of the decorations on that English teacher hat are now decorating my piano teacher hat. Expect some changes to the blog and some new posts soon.

As both a musician and a lover of literature, I can't resist posting this fun little song today on the anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Pentatonic Power Part 2

C Major Pentatonic Scale

In my last post, I explained the pentatonic scale and why it's such a useful tool for for helping students learn to make their own music. I'm discovering that lots of folks aren't familiar with this scale and its versatility!

Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly both incorporated pentatony (isn't that a fun word?) in their widely-used methods for childhood music education, noting that it was a native tongue for the folk songs children already knew and also that the absence of half-steps made it easier for children to sing in tune. In elementary classrooms today, children often play on Orff instruments which their teachers have prepared ahead of time by removing the 4th and 7th scale degrees to create an instrument that only plays the pentatonic notes. Since the notes of the pentatonic scale will blend with just about any chord progression within the key, children can instantly make music together. Pentatonic improvisation gives students a quick and easy way to exercise their creative muscles with immediate success both at the lesson and at home.

So, how can you put the power of the pentatonic scale to work in your studio? Here are a bunch of ideas, but first, here's a quick explanation of the major and minor pentatonic scales.

For reference:  
The major pentatonic scale corresponds to the major scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.
The minor scale uses the same notes as its relative major. For instance the a minor pentatonic scale is a, c, d, e, g - the same notes as C Major pentatonic, just starting on "la."

The Boring to Beautiful Improv
Play a boring ostinato consisting of a fifth on do and sol (blocked or broken) and have your student help your boring part sound more beautiful by improvising with the notes of a pentatonic scale. The easiest way to do this at first is to play in Gb. The student can use just the black keys, and your ostinato is on Gb and Db. To add some interest, you can shift to an open fifth on la and mi - in Gb this is Eb and Bb.

As students learn their major and minor scales, have them find the pentatonic scale in each key. Repeat the "boring music" exercise in each key to help students become comfortable in each one. This simple improvisation has proven to be one of the best tools for giving reluctant students a fail-proof way to improvise, and also for helping students explore and develop their creative melodic ideas.

Observations from doing this with my own students on a regular basis:

1.  Giving students opportunities at the lesson to improvise validates their creativity, and this means that they are also more likely to improvise at home.

2. Students are becoming more aware of tonality - what key they are playing in and where to find "home base."

3.  Students' improvisations start out sounding very random, but after repeated experiences, they come to realize that using short rhythmic or melodic motives can give their tunes some structure and make them sound more "normal." (As we progress, I'll help them think in terms of melodic motives and structure, but to start, I just want to get them playing!)

4.  Students eventually ask to learn my part and begin to play both hands together, even when I didn't think they'd be ready for the two-handed coordination.

5.  Almost all of my students love doing this. It's especially beneficial when working with a student who is struggling with note-reading. For a few minutes at every lesson, everything he plays is correct.

Graduate to Chord Progressions
Instead of playing an open fifth ostinato underneath the improvised part, use a chord progression. The easiest one is the I-IV-I-V-I primary chord progression we all learn to play in conjunction with scales for exams.

As your students learn these cadence patterns for their exams, they can begin to accompany their pentatonic improvisations themselves. This is a great way for students to make the connection between their scales/cadences and the literature that they play, both of their own invention and that of others.

You could also play those primary chords in the standard 12-bar blues pattern. Again, as students are able, they can learn to accompany their pentatonic melodies themselves and many will eventually ask to do this. In another post, I'll talk about teaching some melodic "licks" that students can use as "vocabulary words" when improvising, but as a starting place, I'd suggest letting students play whatever they want until they grow comfortable.

12-Bar Blues Progression

I    /  /  /
IV  /  /  /
I  /  /  / 
I  /  /  / 
IV /  /  /
IV  /  /  /
I  /  /  / 
I  /  /  /
V  /  /  /
IV  /  /  / 
I  /  /  /
I or V

Don't feel limited to primary chords in your accompaniment! You might try this progression which has been used in umpty-gajillion pop songs:

I - V - vi - IV  

or the progression from Pachelbel's Canon in D:

I - V - vi - iii - IV - I - IV - V

Wouldn't it be fun for your students to create their own variations for the Canon in D? Since the pentatonic scale tones will fit with all of the chords, there's no way to mess up! Creating their own set of variations is a great way for them to really understand this well-known piece. 
You could also play them a recording of Mozart's 12 Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je maman," and then have them learn to play the Twinkle Twinkle tune over a primary chord progression. There's the theme. Then use the pentatonic scale to create variations in the RH over the LH progression. (There's a handy lead sheet for Twinkle, Twinkle here.)

Here are some other accompaniment possibilities for pentatonic improvisation.

Use Method Book Pieces

As an accompaniment:
I've been experimenting with having students improvise using the pentatonic scale while I play their method book piece as an accompaniment. Because pentatonic nearly always blends, it often works pretty well. 
As a source for a ritornello:
Another option is to take a 4-measure phrase from a method book piece and treat it as a ritornello. Give the student 4 measures to improvise using the pentatonic scale in the key of the piece, then you play the method book phrase in between, and repeat as many times as you like. This is a good, hands-on way to teach ritornello form. 

Use Piano Maestro 
I sat down with Piano Maestro and went through nearly all of the Alfred Premiere Level 1B lesson book, playing the background orchestration on Piano Maestro while I improvised on the pentatonic scale in the key of the piece. Most of the time, it works pretty well! Since you're not playing the written melody, you won't earn any stars, but you will be earning improvisation skill! You can do this in the lesson, and if your students have this app at home, they can practice improvising with a background track at home.

Use Tin Pan Rhythm or Loopy
These ipad apps allow you to either set up a chord progression or record a loop. Your loop might be an ostinato such as the open fifths I described above. With Loopy, you can layer up to 4 parts, I think. This means, you could take an Orff orchestration and record the parts and then improvise over it. With Tin Pan Rhythm, you can set up a chord progression of 4 to 8 chords and then improvise above it. So, you could set it to play the progression for Canon in D and practice your variations!

Use iRealPro
There's a band that lives in this app and plays chord progressions! The app has several charts meant to be used as practice exercises, and you can also go into the forum and find charts for other songs. The blues exercises work well as an accompaniment to pentatonic improvisation. You can also create your own charts.

Use recorded music or music from a streaming service.
This can double as an ear-training and theory activity if you have students who are up to this. Try putting on Adele's Rollin' In The Deep and letting the student explore the piano to figure out that the tonic note is C and the piece is in c minor. The pentatonic scale for c minor will be C - Eb - F - G - Bb - the same notes as the relative Eb major's pentatonic scale:  Eb - F - G - Bb - C. For lower level students, of course, you can just tell them which pentatonic scale to use! Once the student knows which five notes to use, they can improvise their own part along with the song.

For a really fun Christmas activity, use Winter Wonderland / Don't Worry Be Happy by Pentatonix and have students improvise on black keys along with the track. Pentatonix generously recorded this one in Gb just for us! Now, you can explain to students what the name "Pentatonix" refers to! In a future post, I'll list some other songs that work well as a background to pentatonic improvisation and their keys. This is a great way for students to start improvising at home, and it will also serve as a great diagnostic tool for discovering that the student's piano is out of tune. Keep those business cards from your tuner handy to give out!

I hope you'll get creative and start exploring what you can do with the pentatonic scale! You're going to notice it now all the time - the tune for Amazing Grace is completely pentatonic, for instance. My daughter came in humming a song from her middle school's musical and we realized it was a pentatonic tune - which led her to the piano to play around with it and explore variations on the melody! You're going to find yourself taking your recorded music to the piano and trying to improvise along with it all the time! And, if you get excited about it, your students will catch this beneficial virus and do the same!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Pentatonic Power

Last Friday, I provided the program for our local Music Teachers' Association. My title was "Unlocking Your Students' Creative Potential:  A Report From The 88 Creative Keys Conference."  If you read here, you know that I attended this conference in Denver last summer, and have been inspired to incorporate many more creative elements in my teaching. It makes sense to me to think of teaching music as teaching a language. Just as we learn to read and interpret, we learn to express our own thoughts with it. As I explore how to teach my students to do this (and how to do it myself), I am finding that the pentatonic scale may be the most powerful tool at my disposal. Don't know what the pentatonic scale is?  Keep reading!

In this video Bobby McFerrin plays the crowd, quite literally, using the pentatonic scale. You'll laugh out loud at how he sets up expectations and, using no words at all, gets the crowd to sing exactly what he wants. He says this works everywhere he goes as long as he sticks to the pentatonic.

If you have a couple of hours, you can watch the whole panel discussion that took place at the World Science Festival in 2009:  Notes & Neurons:  In Search of the Common Chorus.  (I haven't watched it myself yet - it's a long video.)

In my presentation, I asked for a show of hands to this question, "Who has heard of the pentatonic scale?" Only about 20% of an audience of piano teachers raised their hand. Everybody in the room had a music degree, but most of them looked puzzled. The person who confidently gave a definition was the one whose dad is an accomplished jazz player. Go figure. I should point out that pentatonic scales are not the same as pentascales. The words are similar, but "pentascale" refers to the first five notes of the regular 8-note major or minor scales. The pentaTONIC scale is something different. I think the lack of knowledge about the pentatonic scale among piano teachers is a big problem. Here's why.

The pentatonic scale is probably the most widely-used scale in the world. It is used in the folk music of almost every culture from Appalachia to Germany to Greece to Africa to the Far East. There are even those who suggest that the pentatonic scale is a universal human phenomenon, that we are biologically predisposed to it. It's ubiquitous in jazz and pop music. Composers who were inspired by folk music (Bartok, Dvorak, etc.) used it widely. You'll hear it in Chopin (think Black Key Etude) and Debussy (think Pagodes from Estampes). You'll hear it in playground chants  - nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah sung to the scale pitches 5-3-6-5-3. You know how it goes!  

Let's put this in context - lots of pianists with music degrees are unfamiliar with the most widely-used scale in the world.

This fact is amusing since the pentatonic scale is visibly evident on the piano. It corresponds to the black keys!

How does this happen? Is it because we're too sophisticated for folk music idioms? Chopin and Debussy weren't. I think it's more likely due to the fact that our piano degree programs are so focused on teaching literature. The music ed. majors are ahead of the pianists in recognizing the power of the pentatonic because Orff and Kodaly methods draw heavily on pentatonic material. Those of us who teach piano to children can take a cue from our music ed. friends and start making use of the power of the pentatonic scale to teach our students how to speak the musical language for themselves.

While there are several versions of the pentatonic scale, the most common form is very easy. Take any major scale and leave out the 4th and 7th degrees - that's a major pentatonic scale. So, C Major pentatonic is C, D, E, G, and A.  The Gb major pentatonic scale is just the black keys on the piano. Elementary school kids learn it with ease. This scale demystifies melodic improvisation instantly because all of the notes will fit in reasonably well with any diatonic chord progression within that key. In fact, one of my favorite slogans from the 88 Creative Keys conference is Bradley's famous advice about improvising a solo line: "When in doubt, pent out." Of course, if you are improvising in a classical style, there are voice-leading concerns, but as a precursor to more sophisticated improvisation in either a classical or jazz style, learning to "pent out" over diatonic chord progressions is a good way to develop your ear and your internal musical vocabulary. It's an ideal way to help young piano students (and anyone new to improvisation) grow comfortable speaking in the musical language.

Check out Pentatonic Power Part 2 for some very practical suggestions for incorporating pentatonic activities into your piano lessons.