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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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

T.M.I.: Theory Means Improv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Motivating Students With Badges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?

The obvious answer to the question above is, "Of course!" But, I think it's the wrong question. I like this question better:  "Is learning its own reward?" I think the answer is "sometimes." Usually, when I hear the question, I walk quickly away because I know the conversation is about to become heated as lines are drawn and sides are taken on the issue of giving rewards or not giving rewards to piano students. I tend to believe that the truth almost never lies on the extreme sides of any issue, but somewhere in the middle.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Improvisation Inspiration - See How Lame I Am!

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

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

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

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