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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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eyes and Brain Before Fingers!

I'll bet your students are a lot like mine. When mine start a new piece, they have their hands on the keys before they've even read the title! They have no clue what the mood or tempo should be, what key the piece is in, or even how many pages there are! I need to slow them down and get them to think before they make sounds. I tell them that we should use our eyes and brain before our fingers!

As a more experienced musician, I scan for all of the following before playing, and I don't even realize I'm doing it:  the key signature and meter, tempo indications, repeat signs, accidentals, and repeated musical material. I form a preliminary idea of the mood of the piece based on the title, the tempo or expression indication at the beginning, and sometimes the articulation. But, students have to be taught this habit, and we teachers need to be patient with the fact that what we can do in a couple of seconds takes a student several minutes.

If I just talk through a quick score examination with a bunch of leading questions at the lesson, I've still done the work for them. It doesn't really teach them to take charge of scanning the score for themselves. It's also a problem that I tend to speed through this process in the space of about 30 seconds because I'm trying to fit so much into the lesson. Better to let them own the process and take the time to really look over the piece.

So, this year, for the entire first month, my students are going to fill out a score study sheet before each new piece. We will do the first one together in a lesson, but the others will be done at home. You can download a simple form for free below. I have a more detailed sheet available for sale as part of my Student Binder Inserts package at my Etsy store. Hope this helps you to teach your students to make it a habit to use eyes and brain first!

You can preview the worksheet below.  CLICK ON THE LINK to download the sheet:  Eyes and Brain Before Fingers!

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