Saturday, November 18, 2017

Little Eyes and Finger Numbers

Stock photo

If you teach with any of the popular method books, you've had the following experiences.

  • Student sits down at the piano and asks, "What position am I supposed to use?" before even looking at the notes on the page.
  • Student comes back after a week of supposed work on a piece and says, "I couldn't figure out where to put my fingers" even though you've been drilling with flashcards for weeks.
  • Student encounters a note that isn't under his hand, but plays the finger number above the note on the wrong key, even though it is wildly higher or lower than the written note.
  • Student, when asked to identify D above middle C, calls it a 2.


I'm willing to bet you're nodding your head.

I once had a student say, "I feel like I've been hypnotized by the finger numbers."



She was absolutely right. But, while I understood that she had been conditioned by "position playing" - you know, the directions in most popular method books to use C position, middle C position, G position, etc., I still didn't understand the root of the problem until recently. The problem lies with the eyes.

In my college pedagogy classes, while considering how to teach a piece of intermediate literature, my professor made an interesting comment. "Sometimes, you have to teach a student to choreograph his eyes." She was referring to situations like the need to look at the keys for a big leap and then to return the eyes to the page, or in the case of both hands simultaneously leaping, which hand to look at first. The idea of choreographing the eyes stuck with me, and I've used that concept with many students at various levels over the years, not to mention in my own practicing. We have to be intentional about where we look first and where we look second.

In the case of almost every student who starts learning to read music with pre-reading notation, the student looks at the finger number before they look at the position of the note on the page or staff.

I understand the benefits of starting with pre-reading notation, particularly for students younger than about age 7. The Fabers have a good page that defends the value of it. I heartily agree that there are benefits in not introducing staff reading right away. Pre-reading gives the student a chance to internalize simple note values, steady beat, reading left to right, etc. But, there are some cons to pre-reading, too, especially when it comes to directional reading. On paper, it seems that pre-reading would help with directional reading because the contour of the notes on the page is so obvious. But, practically, I'm not finding it to work well. My students tend not to feel a huge need to play in the right direction; their overriding internal need is to play the right note. The thing that insures they're playing the right note is the finger number. So, the eyes look at the finger number first, the direction of the notes on the page second. So, when they move to the staff, if there is a number above the note, they have been conditioned by weeks or even months of pre-reading notation to look at the number BEFORE they look at the note's position on the staff.

These kids are still sounding out words - looking at the individual words rather than conceptualizing the entire sentence. The same is true with reading notes. They can't hold the contour of the melody in their mind while trying to figure out what the next note is. And even though the next note may be positioned slightly higher on the page, in some of the books, it's not positioned enough higher to really perceive it. I've tried drawing staff lines or stair steps over them. The steps are awfully small. And it doesn't matter anyway, since the child's eye isn't seeing that. It's seeing the finger number.

When I was small, I learned a song at church called "Oh, Be Careful Little Eyes What You See." I can't get that song out of my head while writing this post!

We need to help children choreograph their eyes and to understand that there's an order of where to look first, like the order of operations in math. Did you learn to say "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to remember that in an algebraic equation, we do the operations in this order:  parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction?

So, how do we get children to see the note's position on the staff BEFORE the finger number? Well, for one thing, we reject finger-number note reading. I have one child, a kindergartner, using pre-reading notation right now, and she's my last. I think I'd rather devise my own primer level course of study if I can't find something I like better. Now, I don't necessarily mean I want to start right in on full-staff reading. I think I could easily spend a couple of months or more teaching note values and playing rhythm games, learning the white keys, and letting our playing at the piano consist of playful improv. before moving into modified staff reading and then five-finger pieces. I agree with the Fabers that there's a danger of sensory overload in introducing too many concepts too quickly.

Even while my kindergartner is in pre-reading notation, I've begun using modified staff reading with Jennifer Fink's sight-reading cards. These are great - and free! The students enjoy using them, and there are no finger numbers above the notes. These require the student to see up/down direction and steps/skips and condition them to use the lines and spaces to determine the next note. You can also choose to use a different starting finger, emphasizing that there's more than one way to play those notes.


When I introduce the full staff to this student, I plan to introduce one note at a time. My first piano book was the old Thompson gnome book. (I loved that book! Do you remember it?)


The illustrations on the page delighted me even at age 7, and I didn't mind playing a piece that consisted entirely of middle C. I could focus on the rhythm. This is another way to avoid the sensory overload of too much to learn at once.

Thompson still publishes this book, just with updated illustrations of monsters instead of gnomes. Since I haven't seen it in a million years, I've ordered it to consider whether I might use it as transitional approach to the staff. I don't intend to continue with the Thompson series as I believe that piano pedagogy has changed in many advantageous ways since these books were published, but as a first step in staff reading, I think the monster book may be valuable.

I'm also interested in Irina Gorin's Tales Of A Musical Journey as a beginning method. While I have not seen the books in person, the description indicates that notes on the staff are introduced one at a time, and the testimonies contain many mentions that this method helps to combat "position fingering."

When my kindergartner does transition to the staff, I plan to teach several pieces using white-out to obliterate any and all finger numbers printed on the page. We will discover together which finger makes the most sense to use to accommodate steps and skips and the range of notes she needs to cover. I want her to take ownership of the fingering rather than having it own her. The most important thing is that we keep the horse ahead of the cart - the notes and their position on the staff determine the fingering, never the other way around. I hope that by making a drastic change and taking away all of the numbers, it will short circuit the conditioning she's already experiencing to look at the number first.

I am interested to hear what other readers do to combat finger number note reading. Have you found an approach that works for you?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Teaching Music Literacy Vs. Teaching Pieces



An 8-year-old student cried at her lesson with me last week, and it broke my heart. It hurt that she was sad enough to cry, but I was hurt and annoyed by the problem that precipitated the tears. Here follows a small rant that is probably a little rambling because I'm frustrated and strapped for time to write. Please indulge me and read it anyway.

The child came to me as a transfer student about a month ago. She is playing in the Faber Piano Adventures, Book 1. She played a decent rendition of Lightly Row, using both hands. Her rhythm was perfect. Her hand position decent. Her sense of line was good - she is very capable of making music. However, when I began to point to notes on the page, I discovered that she could not name a single note in the piece. Not one. At least not within a good 10 seconds per note, which means not knowing it, as far as I'm concerned. As the first lesson continued, I also discovered that she wasn't even very confident about naming the white keys on the piano. Now this kid is plenty bright. She has no learning problems.

At her lesson last week, she was reading through a piece for me and, reaching a point where the hand needed to change position, she played the note under the given finger number, not the actual note on the staff.

"Aha!" I said. "I just learned something about you. Your eyes look at the finger number first instead of looking at the note on the staff first."

She acknowledged a bit sheepishly that this was true.

"You know what, hon? The difficulty you're having with reading music is not your fault."

And the tears came.

Have you ever had someone offer you a bit of sympathy when you weren't expecting it, and you just totally fell apart? I have. Those moments usually involve something we feel extremely sensitive or insecure about. This child has been conditioned from her pre-reading notation days to look first at the finger number to tell her what to play. And the teacher who started her as a beginner did not work hard enough, or maybe at all, to counteract that conditioning once she began staff reading. Also, even though the books teach intervallic reading, this child needed much more reinforcement in that area in the lesson and didn't get it. She may have used flashcards for a while for note names, but whether the method of flashcard practice didn't work or there just wasn't enough of it, or it was simply the wrong learning approach for this child, she did not master her note names. And the teacher did not insist on either note naming or intervallic mastery before moving on through the method. Now, we have a child who is asked to play both hands together on most of the staff but can't read music and thinks that the problems she is having are her fault. She isn't good enough. She's a slow learner. These are the messages she is internalizing. And when a teacher who understands offers her some sympathy, she cries out of relief.

Lack of practicing may have been a factor. But, that means you have a conference with the parent and say, "We simply can't move on to new material without mastery of these concepts. That would be like trying to teach multiplication when she hasn't learned addition facts. I can't get the knowledge to stick in only 45 minutes a week. She'll have to reinforce it regularly at home and show me that she can do it before we move on to something new." If you don't have the stomach to do this, you are just taking somebody's money and leading the child down a deadend road to a place where, even if she tries to practice, she feels incompetent and incapable and will eventually quit.

This child is a victim of two things:  the visual conditioning to look at finger numbers that I've already mentioned, and what I call "turn the page" teaching. In turn the page teaching, the only educational objective is that the child can play a passable rendition of the song on the page, and when she can, the teacher turns the page and starts a new piece. A bright kid with a good ear can use trial and error to eventually figure out at home what to play and fake their way through it. This works about through Level 1, maybe part of Level 2, and then it doesn't work any more. That's when they quit piano.

Teaching piano is not just about turning out pieces like products.  At the early stages of instrumental instruction, pieces of music are tools that we use to teach music literacy. And of course, there are even more aspects of being a musician that we teach, such as improvisation, harmony and theory, technique, etc. But, if we are not teaching basic music literacy in the first two years of piano instruction, we are failing.

If I had to identify the biggest problem in elementary piano teaching today, and the number one reason that students quit (at least in the towns I've lived in), it's that they reach level 2 and still can't read music. 

I'm tired of transfer students crying when I absolve them of being conditioned by past teaching because I've had it happen way too often. We must teach note recognition in time (not just with flashcards), intervallic reading in time (aka sight-reading). We teachers must establish educational objectives for our own studios that support music literacy, not just piece-learning. We must have some kind of criteria by which we measure whether those objectives have been met. We need to have a backup plan for how we will teach mastery of that objective when the method book wasn't sufficient. We need to own our role as teachers and come up with creative solutions, not just serve as tour guides through the method book. And the method books themselves need to do a much better job. How about a small check list on the page that says, "You are ready to move on when you can...?" I have a degree in education. I understand objectives and mastery criteria, but most piano teachers don't have that degree. They look at the page and see a piece of music to play, and they don't see a need to buy a teacher guide since they already know how to play that piece. The method books need to more clearly spell out objectives for both the student and the teacher.

Stay tuned. I'll tell you how I work with, around, and beyond these methods to teach music literacy, because I use those methods, too. But, the truth is that presenting these ideas here is just preaching to the choir. Teachers who read blogs are already supplementing their method books with games, activities, supplemental music, worksheets and all sorts of other things. Many are resorting to methods only sold on the internet rather than the best-selling ones from the music stores because these independent methods are addressing the problems the big name books don't. Therefore, maybe I'm not really writing this for my blog readers but for the publishers. The fact that there are so many blogs being written with ideas for how to supplement their methods is testament to the fact that the methods are not enough.

Rant over. Thank you for reading.

Image credit:  public domain

Monday, January 2, 2017

Pachelbel Was NOT A One-Hit Wonder - Check Out His Other Works!


Sharing this post today from my other blog, Connections and Conundrums, which now features a Music on Monday category.

My family knows that every Christmas, they're going to hear me rant about Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. They steel themselves for it the same way I steel myself against hearing or playing this infernal piece one. more. time. The only thing worse than being locked in a room with it playing on a loop would be if the loop were "Mary Did You Know." She knows, okay? She knows! Every singer in the world has told her a million times.

What really gets my goat is that the whole world now thinks the Canon in D is a Christmas piece, thanks to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Whenever it comes on Holly in the car, my daughter lunges for the station dial to avoid hearing me screech "NOT CHRISTMAS MUSIC!"

The only redeeming thing is that when my piano students ask to play it (at Christmas, of course), I get to teach them the musical term "canon," which is not to be confused with artillery. A canon is a piece that follows a rule. In this case, the rule is that the bass line, played by the cello, repeats the same 8 notes (the ones in the cartoon below) for the entire piece while the violins play variations. Thank God I'm not a cellist.

Every cellist in the world hopes this was Pachelbel's purgatory experience.

The thing that bothers me the most is that so few people know Pachelbel's other works. He only became a one-hit wonder sometime in the last 40 years. Considering that he composed over 500 pieces of music, it's not fair that we reduce him to one now.

Pachelbel lived way back in the late 17th / early 18th century and was a friend of the Bach family and a teacher to Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother, Johann Christoph. He was influenced by Italian and South German styles, and he helped develop both chorale prelude literature and the pairing of preludes with fugues. One of his sons, Charles Theodore Pachelbel, emigrated to the New World, living in Boston and Charleston, and was a significant influence on music in the colonies. (One of Charles Theodore's few extant compositions is an aria called "God of sleep for whom I languish." I NEED a copy of this!)

Johann composed music for the organ and harpsichord, vocal music, and a few chamber pieces which include the infamous Canon. His works are staples of an organist's repertoire, and since we organists know that he is worth so much more than his one contemporary hit, we'd love for the rest of the world to get to know him better!

Some of Pachelbel's famous pieces for organ or harpsichord are the Fugues on the Magnificat, or as I like to call them, Fugues Related Loosely To The Magnificat since their only connection to the chant is found in the title. The thematic material in the fugues is free-composed and not based on any of the Magnificat tones. He wrote 95 of these short pieces using all of the 8 church modes. Many of them do not include a pedal part, so these are useful as piano literature, too. We believe these would have been played immediately prior to the cantor's singing of the Magnificat chant, and would serve to establish the key. Ultimately, we don't know exactly how many ways Pachelbel might have used these pieces. Improvisation and flexibility were the order of the day, and music used in one context on one day might be used in another the next.

Since we are still in the 12 Days of Christmas, this is a good time to listen or play these Magnificat-related fugues, but keep in mind that the Magnificat is used year-round in choral evensong and vespers. You can play these pieces any time.

I like this group of 8 fugues based on the fourth mode.





Just for fun...


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Reflecting on Nearly 3 Decades of Teaching: What Has Worked

As I approach another one of those birthdays that starts with the number 5, I'm shocked to realize just how long I've been teaching piano. I opened my piano studio in 1987, almost 3 decades ago. I took about 3 years off during graduate school and when my daughter was a baby, but still, it's been a long run! I'm happy that I can still say that I love it, and I don't plan to quit any time soon.

Fall always feels like a new beginning to me. School starts fresh, a new crop of students usually appears, and Advent begins the church year. It's a good time to reflect about what has worked and what hasn't. In another post, I'll consider what I might have done differently in all of these years of teaching, but today, I'll start with the positives. Here are some things (in no particular order) that I consider to have been successes. 

1.  Not using only one method book. Students come in all shapes, sizes, and learning styles. I've considered it an essential part of my job to stay abreast of new method series and carefully match one to a student. Sometimes, I choose not to use a method at all. In all of these years, I think I'd have gone bat-crazy if I had taught from the same books with every student!

2.  Attending conferences and symposia. Whether it was a state or national MTNA conference, a symposia at a nearby college, or workshops at a local store, attending these gatherings sparks my creativity and helps me stay current on literature and teaching ideas. 


3.  Writing and enforcing a solid studio policy that protects my time and income. It's not overly strict, but I do enforce it. It took several years of teaching before I became comfortable asserting myself in a friendly way, but the journey to that point is well worth it. I'm grateful for a good piano pedagogy teacher in college who taught me to present and think of myself as a professional and to establish professional policies. 

4.  Being willing to dismiss students from the studio. I've done it rarely, but I've done it. Families who don't pay, constantly bounce checks, are frequently absent without notice, and of course, students who never practice are all subject to dismissal. I write a short letter, hold a parent conference, and institute a probation period during which I expect things to change for the better. If they don't, I politely show them the door. Again, it took a long time to work up the courage to do this, but the relief is huge once you've done it a few times and you know you can do it again if needed. Friends, don't suffer through bad situations. 

5.  Always having an interview with prospective students and their parents. I don't make a big deal out of the fact that I'm deciding whether or not to accept them, but I am. During the interview, if I sense that we aren't going to be a good fit, I don't hesitate to broach my concerns candidly and to lay down some boundaries. For instance, if I'm interviewing a student heavily involved in sports, I make it a point to say, "I won't be willing (or able, due to my busy teaching schedule) to make up lessons missed for sports practices or games. You'll need to decide if you can really make a commitment to lessons." 

6. Giving myself raises from time to time. I keep the increase per lesson small, but I do this pretty regularly. Again, the first couple of times, I worried about the response, but it's never been an issue.

7. Having a dedicated room in my house that is my home office/studio or else teaching outside of the house. For about 4 years of my teaching career so far, I've had to teach in our family's living room, but I've been fortunate to be able to have dedicated space most of the time. It's definitely the way to go.

8. Putting the interests and well-being of individual students above the temptation to chase after achievements. Competitions, exams, and festivals have their purposes, but just as test scores are not the measure of school teachers and students, those musical events are not the measure of piano teachers or students. The older I get, the more I believe it. I'm not a Suzuki teacher, but I love these words of Shinichi Suzuki: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”


Monday, October 31, 2016

New Christmas Sheet Music - He Is Born

Why, yes, I do realize that today is Halloween! I also know that musicians everywhere are already working on Christmas music. If you need an intermediate level Christmas arrangement for solo piano, I hope you'll check out my latest upload to Sheet Music Plus Press - "He Is Born." I did some product testing last week by playing it for all of my students and my worst critic of all, my 14-year-old daughter. It's got a 100% approval rating! I'm a no frills kind of girl, so there's no cover art or illustrations. Just an appealing, pedagogically rich arrangement. Teaching opportunities in this piece include:
     Alberti bass
     octave changes
     grace notes
     descending scales over primary chords
     mordent
     trill
     variations on a melody
     melody embedded in figuration
     light thumb
     frequent dynamic changes
     terraced dynamics



I needed to make an mp3 recording to upload to SMP, and this sound file is not just low budget but no budget! It will give you a chance to hear it before purchase, though. Maybe if I write a bunch more of these and sell them, I can improve my no budget recording situation! 



Thanks for checking out "He Is Born." I also have a late intermediate arrangement of "Jesus Loves Me" and a LH alone arrangement of "The First Noel" in case you have a student with a RH injury at Christmas. Bookmark my publisher page for more titles coming soon.

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!