Friday, March 19, 2021

Piano Vocabulary: Scales and Chords

It’s a common occurrence in my studio for a beginning student to respond with a lovely scale when I ask for a chord, or a beautiful chord when I ask for a scale. We ask first and second-year piano students to learn so many new words! It’s understandable that they sometimes get them confused! I’ve made a new explainer video and published it on my youtube channel to help my students remember the difference between the words “scale” and “chord.” You can watch it here, or better, visit my channel and subscribe!

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Using Boom Cards In The Piano Studio


A few days ago, I was surprised to discover I had won a giveaway on Instagram! 5,000 free points on! I'm not sure how I got so lucky, but I thought I'd share with my piano teacher friends how I've been using Boom Decks in my piano studio since January. They did not ask me to write this post, but I thought I'd give them a shout out here in appreciation! 

The boom learning site is a very reasonably-priced subscription site where you can purchase and share boom decks, aka online learning games. They are essentially very cute interactive flashcards, therefore called "decks," but I always refer to them with my students as games because that sounds more fun than flashcards. They are self-checking, colorful, and a hit with my students!

They are not specific to music - there are decks for just about every subject from learning the ABCs to geometry - but there are pages and pages of *music* decks starting with the simplest concepts and going right on up to AP music theory. Some decks are free, but there are many more that can be purchased by buying points. I've seen some games for as few as 6 points and some for 600. The games I'm using range from 150 to 350 points. You can preview any game before you purchase it. I like the fact that these games can be accessed on any device - laptop, tablet, ipad, or any smartphone. 

So, how do you get points? Well, if you're not lucky enough to win them, you buy them. Three dollars buys you 250 points, but you can get discounts by buying bigger bundles of points. Because of these discounts, I prefer to buy boom decks from the boom learning site, but many boom card creators sell their decks on Teachers Pay Teachers and on their own websites. 

These are great for online teaching. You can share the games with your students in one of two ways. The most immediate way is to create a "fast pin" and essentially send them a link to the game. This is useful in a live lesson. However, my preferred way is to create an account for each member of my studio and assign them games individually. The advantage of this is that I can see individual reports for each student on each game. So, for instance, if I assign Suzie a game, I can tell when she's finished it, which questions she missed, which questions took her longer to answer, how many times she played the game, etc. If I see she's struggling with a particular concept, I know I need to spend more time on that in the lesson. Also, if I see she breezed through and got every question right on the first try, I know not to waste time explaining that any more. 

You can also edit decks to just show the cards you want. This is helpful if you want to use a game that is perfect for your student except it has a few concepts included that you haven't taught yet. Here's how to edit the deck. 

I've created an account for each of my students. They get to choose their own avatars, and they have a login and password. I make an assignment for them in Tonara that just says "Boom Games," and includes the link to the boom site. Once there, they log in and see what games I've assigned them. 

Melody Payne has a great post about using Boom cards, and she make and sells some wonderful decks.

I hope you'll check out boom learning! 

Monday, February 22, 2021

My Pentascale Process

This week starts my pentascale unit in the piano studio! I have a big crop of beginner students this year, and Spring is my time for pentascales. Several years ago, I wrote a post about how I teach these by starting with learning about half-steps, then learning the half and whole step formula. It's been one of my more popular ones, so it seems like a good time to do an update. I made the video above for my students to watch in between lessons as a reminder about half and whole steps. Maybe it will be useful for you too! (There's a verbal gaffe in there where I say half-step when I meant whole-step - extra points to my students if they can tell me when I did that!)

I teach all the major pentascales and their related major chords to my first-year beginners, then all of the minor pentascales in the fall of the second year. When playing the chords, many of my beginners don't have the control yet to play block chords, so I teach them as broken chords and encourage them to experiment with playing them as block chords, as much as their fingers cooperate. We'll spiral back to block chords later. As we go, we classify the major chords associated with each scale and log them on a chart. These are the chord types:  Snowman, Hamburger, Oreo, Ant, and 4 Triple Scoop Chords.

As students practice their pentascales and chords, I have them name the keys out loud as they play. I have a printed chart that goes in each student's notebook. Each week in the studio, we mark the keys with colored pencils that belong in the pentascales and chords assigned for that week. The following week, when they demonstrate mastery, we check the box. I'm feeling particularly generous today and sharing this 8 page document with you along with my Chord Shapes and Sorter doc! Links at the bottom of the post.


Here's my week-by-week plan. 

Week 1  - Learn half steps and whole steps.

Week 2 – Review HS and WS. 

                Learn the pattern. Assign C, G, and F pentascales and chords. (Snowman chords)

Week 3 – Review HS and WS. Review pattern. Review C, G, and F. 

                Assign D and A. (Hamburger chords)

Week 4 – Review everything learned so far by playing Scale/chord roulette with Decide Now app

                Assign all pentascales and chords learned so far as pre-practice warmups.

Week 5 – Assign E (hamburger chord) and B (TS-VOB chord)

Week 6 – Scale/chord roulette with Decide Now app for all white key pentascales and chords

Week 7 – Assign Db, Eb, and Ab (oreo chords)

Week 8 – Do Gb (ant chord) and Bb (TS-COB chord)

Week 9 – Review all

Week 10 – Pentascale roulette and certificate

Most of my beginning students are second graders, and this is absolutely not too hard for them. Occasionally, I have a first grader that needs to go a little more slowly, but this is usually fine for them as well. Besides the theory knowledge they get from this unit, I make a big deal of talking about hand position, collapsing finger joints, legato touch, etc. By this point in the year, they have so much more muscle control than they had in the fall, and this is a much more successful experience than it would have been sooner. And, then at the end of their first year of piano, I have students that have ALL the major chords in their vocabulary! Woot!

In my next post, I'll share some of the games and resources I use to teach half and whole steps. Stay tuned! 


Pentascale Patterns on the Keys - 8 page worksheet for major and minor pentascales and chords

Chord Shapes and Sorter - classifying chords


Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Haunted Time Signature

Are your beginners like mine? Do they add a little sneaky 4th beat when playing in 3/4 time? Here's how I deal with that in my studio!

Call in the Ghostbusters!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Not Your Grandma's Piano Lessons

When I first started teaching piano in the 80s, there were no blogs, webinars, or facebook groups for piano teachers. No downloadable teaching tools, no youtube videos. I started out armed with a notebook full of ideas from my pedagogy professor, a survey of the various methods on the market, and the 2-volume set of books by Denes Agay, Teaching Piano:  A Comprehensive Guide and Reference Book for the Instructor

Over the last 10 years, I have accumulated little board games or printable teaching tools for most of the concepts that I cover in the first 3 years of piano lessons. I have new ways of communicating concepts and technique, thanks to blogs, music teacher conferences, webinars, and facebook groups. I have  manipulatives like a stuffed sloth to remind students to practice slowly and a large staff for my floor. I have several ipad apps that do things I could have never imagined in the late 80s. 

And yet, the delivery method for piano instruction was still pretty much the same as it had been for centuries - a student and a piano teacher sitting at the keys together. Then, March of 2020 hit, and it all changed. 

Yesterday was Tuesday. I usually teach one online student and 3 in-person students on Tuesday, but because my 3 in-person students all had colds, I taught all of my students on the Rock Out Loud Live platform with options to use both a front camera and an overhead camera on my keys, Classroom Maestro software, and a digital piano. I now upload assignments and pdfs into the Tonara app, and play games with For some reason, the connection with one of my students was sketchy. So, after my day finished, I put my favorite frozen pizza in the oven, and while it cooked for 15 minutes, I created 2 videos for her using my Blue Yeti mic, an overhead Logitech c920 webcam, Open Broadcaster Software with a split screen showing my hands on the keys on one side and Classroom Maestro demonstrating what I was playing on both a staff and a keyboard graphic. It was all already plugged up and ready, so creating the videos was a short affair. I uploaded both videos into Tonara so she could view them later, and just as I finished, the oven timer buzzed, and I took out my supper.

It has become clear to me that we're never going fully back to the old fashioned method of piano lesson delivery. Younger teachers than I were already embracing techy approaches, and now that even old fogeys like me are doing it, the techy piano lesson is here to stay. 

And you know what? I'm happy about it. For the first few weeks of online lessons last March, I was exhausted as I tired to figure out how to offer quality instruction with only a laptop and a sketchy wifi connection. I knew I could make lessons better with the right tools, but it seemed so overwhelming to figure out what I needed and how to use it. My plan was to ride out what I thought would be a short lockdown and get back to what I knew how to do - sit side by side on a piano bench. But, over the summer, I realized that I didn't want to just make do. I wanted my studio to grow with the times and to grow in the sense of what I could offer. So, here I am now, with my webcams, fancy microphone, overhead booms, and new software. 

The truth is, it was inevitable. I taught high school English in 1983-84 with nothing more than a textbook, my college notes, and my own imagination. I taught middle school English as a long-term sub in 2015-16 with tons of online resources for interesting lessons, online resources connected to the textbook, a classroom smartboard, an app for communicating assignments and uploading resources for students, a digital gradebook that made it possible for parents to know their child's grades in real time, and lesson plans that included having students create their own documentary videos. None of these things were new for classroom teaching in 2015. So, those of us who were still teaching old-fashioned piano lessons were already behind the times in educational delivery 6 years ago. Much less now.

I've never been one to indulge in sad nostalgia, to look back at the conditions of the past and say, "Oh, how I wish we could go back to..." whatever. It feels negative and pointless. Especially when the conditions of the present offer so much that is positive. I'm feeling quite positive about video instruction - asynchronous instruction with video exchange. I think that a video can deliver focused instruction as well as in-person instruction, especially when there's an option for individual feedback via video. 

Distractions? No problem. A video can be viewed multiple times and at a time of the student's optimal condition for learning. I teach several young students late in the day because that's when our schedules align, but it's not the best time for young students to focus. A video does not require our schedules to align. A teacher's time and scheduling limitations are less restrictive when we can deliver instruction efficiently by video and then engage in shorter episodes of personal feedback via video exchange. I can only fit 4-5 students in an afternoon when I'm teaching 45-minute lessons. I can reach 3 times as many students with a video and video exchange model. 

With video instruction, I can offer lessons to students in locations where there are no degreed piano teachers, but plenty of computers, smart phones, and ipads - places like my hometown and other rural areas where the only people with masters degrees in music are the school music teachers whose schedules are already full. If there are, in fact, school music teachers. Technology is an equalizer - your location does not have to determine the quality of the instruction available to you. I don't need to pay rent on a storefront location or worry about liability insurance. Want to travel? Technology allows me to teach from any location.

Want to specialize as a teacher and teach only beginners or only advanced students? I love teaching beginning and intermediate students and have been happy to have only 2-3 more advanced students over the years. Not that I don't like teaching the advanced ones, but I want to practice their music and do some research to be more prepared to teach their literature. It takes time. I've thought many times that I wish we had a system in place where students could study elementary level music with one teacher, graduate to the middle school level teacher, then move on to the high school level teacher. This becomes so much more possible with digital delivery systems because your options for teachers are not limited to your geographic area. 

I have more thoughts about things like screen fatigue and quality concerns, but this blog post is already long. In short, I'm excited for the future of private music instruction. The pandemic that got us here might be awful, but I see these new developments in instructional delivery as silver linings. Let's embrace it!

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Wonderful, Magical Hocus Focus Tool

Beginners sometimes have trouble getting started practicing their pieces at home. Here's an idea that might help!  Watch the video to see how I use a magical Hocus Focus Tool to teach students how to start their piece.  You can download a template for your own Hocus Focus tool here. (Or just draw your own on cardstock!)

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Happy New Year! Free Terms & Symbols Flashcards

I don't know about you, but I'm super happy about celebrating the arrival of 2021! It just has to be a better year than 2020, right? I even had some Happy New Year cards printed this year and mailed them instead of Christmas cards. Unfortunately, we lost our big dog, Bella, to cancer shortly after this photo was taken. We were so glad to give her one last trip to the beach, so there are very good memories attached to the picture. Our beagle Mollie has stepped up to take Bella's place as the Lowe Studio piano dog, and our kitty Max (not pictured) sometimes drops in to listen, too.

As a Happy New Year gift to my readers, I'm giving away some free flashcards! 

In spite of the fact that I'm using more digital resources than ever before, I don't think I'll ever give up on good, old-fashioned flashcards. They're infinitely customizable. Work on 2 at a time, become a master at those 2, add 2 more. Want to work on just notes and rests? Take those out of the stack and focus on them. Don't want to waste time reviewing stuff you already know? Take the easy ones out of the stack and work only on the tricky ones. 

Make two sets and use them to play a memory game like concentration. (Instructions here) Spread a few out on a table and swat them with a fly swatter when the teacher calls out the definition. Use them as the question cards for a racetrack game. Time yourself as you match question to answer cards, and try to beat your time on subsequent rounds. There's no end to how you can use flashcards. You can even study solo with them. 

I haven't purchased flashcards for students or had them purchase any for many years now. Almost every kind of card I need is available for free online somewhere so I just print them off and give them to students. The one thing I haven't easily found online has been flashcards for terms and symbols. So, sometime in the past, I made a set that is appropriate for students in Faber Primer - Level 1 or Alfred Premiere 1a - 1b. 

These were made using an Avery template 28877 for business cards which will print on both front and back. If you want to go the easy but more expensive route, you can purchase the Avery cards and print on those. If you're like me and you want the cheaper option, print them on cardstock and cut them out. If your printer will print double-sided copies, set it to flip on the long side. 

The first set does not have cutting guide lines. Use this one if you're printing on business cards. The second set is the same but with cutting guide lines. Use this one if you're printing on cardstock. Enjoy!

Click here for the first set, or click on the popout thing in the top right below.

Click here for the set with cutting guides or click on the popout thing in the top right below.