Wednesday, September 23, 2020

I'm Making Videos!

I'm a month into our fall term with now 4 online students and 11 in person, and thankfully, no students have gotten sick - at least not with Covid. If you've read my previous posts about my cleaning and masking protocols, I'm happy to say that's working out well. I'm thrilled to have 6 beginners this year, the most littles I've had in a while. They're all delightful!

Now that I've grown a little more comfortable seeing my face on a screen thanks to online teaching, I'm starting to branch out and make some videos! I hope to post videos on my youtube channel fairly regularly. I'm finding that with all of my students, but especially my online ones, it's helpful to have some easy resources for them to look at during the days between lessons to refresh their memory. 

So the first video is up! This is an explainer of major chords and the root, third, and fifth, plus a quick, visual method to find major chords on the piano keyboard. 

Some of my  students have been playing this game I found at Heidi's Piano Studio, and we'll branch out from here to play cross-hand arpeggios and learn about inversions. I hope you'll subscribe to my youtube channel and follow along! I'm scared to commit to uploading a video a week, but I'll do my best!

Here are more videos that I like and have shared with my students.

I use MuseScore for notating music, and some of my older students do, too. It's free, open-source software, and is relatively easy to use. I've been meaning to make a tutorial video, then I discovered that Nicola Cantan of Colourful Keys has already made a really good one. Check it out here.

My middle school students have gotten a big kick out of Mrs. Volk's Online Music Classroom. We particularly enjoy her videos on the elements of music!

Pitch, Melody, and Reading Music






Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Returning to In-Person Lessons: Part 2

In Part 1 of my returning to in-person teaching posts, I discussed my cleaning protocols for keeping students safe from germs in the studio. This post will discuss policies that I've created for students/families.

First of all, I continue to offer online lessons for anyone who wants them. It's not my preferred way to teach, but I'm happy that I have this as an option to offer. There are tons of articles/blogs available out there on virtual teaching. I'm not a techie expert, and my preference is to keep things simple, so I'm not your best source on that. Google for good ideas!

I feel that my best policy of all is to create trust. I want my families to know that I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure no germs are spread in my studio. So, I've sent them a policy sheet describing exactly what I'm going to do as well as what I'd like them to do. I've also created a handout for students describing our routine in the studio for keeping things sanitary. Our theme for the year is emojis, so I used them liberally on the student page! You're welcome to use these policies of mine as inspiration for creating your own. 

Click here to see my policy sheet regarding Covid.

Click here to see my student handout regarding Covid routines in the lesson.

Some of my colleagues are asking their families to sign a waiver asking them not to sue if a child gets covid. I'm opting not to do this. First, I don't think that these waivers are legally effective. Their purpose seems to me to be more of a deterrent. Second, it would be extremely difficult to assign legal liability unless the victim never left their own house except to go to piano lessons. Third, I think it undermines my best policy - that of creating trust. However, if you'd like to see an example of a waiver, go to the facebook group Piano and Instrumental Teachers With Coronavirus Concerns. If you join the group, within the files, you'll find a waiver that you can use as a resource. 

I am asking students to wear a mask while in the studio. I'm supremely uninterested in the argument about whether a mask is effective. It is incomprehensible to me that adults are actually arguing about whether a fabric barrier slows down the travel of water vapor when we speak, cough, laugh, etc. Because I love my students and their families, I'm more than willing to deal with the inconvenience of wearing a mask if it offers even a small degree of protection, and I don't mind asking that they do the same for me. I'm 55 with no co-morbidities other than severe allergies, but if I get sick, both my husband and my daughter would also have to quarantine, staying home from work and school. It's just the respectful thing to do.

To that end, I am sewing some cute masks for my students out of music fabric! After a bunch of experimentation with different patterns, I've decided to use a combo of two patterns I found on pinterest. This one uses t-shirt yarn for straps that tie, my preference since they're totally adjustable for different sized heads and ear-placement and the fact that they can hang around your neck when not on your face. This pattern makes the same 3-D mask style, but the pattern includes child and teen sizes. So, I'm using the instructions from the first pattern, and the template from the 2nd. If you decide to use the same template, be aware the edge of the pattern is cut off when you print it. You'll have to add a little to the side for the 2 largest patterns. If you need a tutorial on creating T-shirt yarn, this one is good. I will also have a few disposable masks available in the studio in both child and adult sizes in case somebody forgets to bring theirs. I found these at W*lmart and T*rget. I'm starting the mask sewing project today, and I'll share pics later!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Returning To In-Person Lessons: Part I

My county, as of 8/8/20 - Harvard Global Health Initiative

Well, piano friends, the schools in my county have been back in session for a week now. The elementary schools are open a full 5 days/week, and the middle and high schools are doing a hybrid of in-person and online. All of my piano students except the ones who were already home schooling are back in classes. At the same time, we're in a hot spot. My county, according to the Harvard Global Health Initiative, is still in the highest category of risk. (Maniacal laughter!) We are also in an area where people want very much to return to some kind of normalcy, and feel they can take enough reasonable precautions to be safe. They want to come back to in-person piano.

So, with all my students back in school, I am offering the choice of online and in-person lessons for fall, starting August 17. Am I crazy? Yeah, maybe. I have a very small studio of 14 students, and all but 3 are choosing to come back in person. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to make my studio as safe as possible, but I am going to give this a try. Any student who is showing symptoms, who has been exposed, or who is waiting for test results should go back to online lessons, and of course, if I meet any of those conditions, all lessons will be online. (Policies in the next post.)

Please keep in mind that I moderate comments on my blog. I won't post any judgmental or unkind comments, and my blog post should not be considered a recommendation on my part that you return to in-person lessons. You'll have to make that decision based on your families, the demand for it, and the health conditions in your community. But, if you decide to teach in-person, and you'd like to know what another teacher is doing to make conditions safer, here ya go!

This is going to take more than one post. This post, Part I, will cover my studio setup, that is the safety provisions and protocols I am putting in place as students arrive and use the equipment. Part 2 will cover policies such as masking, etc. There may be a Part 3. We'll see.

This cleaner, along with Lysol Kitchen Pro, disinfects in only 2 minutes.

I'll write first about cleaning supplies. I got up early for a Saturday and hit 4 stores at their opening times looking for cleaning supplies. Since March, there have been no disinfecting wipes and very few disinfecting cleaners on the shelves during the time of day I usually shop, but I'm happy to report that the early bird gets the worm, er, the wipes! I found Clorox wipes as well as Lysol all-purpose disinfectant spray cleaner that works in only 2 minutes. Clorox wipes require 4 minutes. 

When considering what kinds of disinfecting cleaners to use, you need to think of whether your cleaner actually kills covid (there's an exhaustive list from the EPA here), whether your surfaces will be damaged, and also how long the cleaner has to sit on the surface to actually disinfect. You might be surprised to discover that some take as long as 10 minutes. Read the labels, because if you're cleaning between back to back students, you want the stuff that works in a short time. 

But, wait, Laura. Surely you're not going to wipe down the beautiful black lacquer finish on your piano with Clorox wipes or Lysol cleaner? Well, that finish has seen lots of hard use, but no, I'm going to try to preserve what beauty is left! I'll be using wipes and spray on pencils, door knobs, door facings, the piano bench seat and handles, the plastic cover on my ipad, and the bathroom. The piano itself is another story.

Found at Lowe's. Handy for piano keys and electronics.

On my piano keys, I'll be using alcohol. I was lucky enough to find these alcohol wipes at Lowe's this morning, but if I hadn't found them, I'd just use 70% alcohol on a cotton pad. The advantage of this is that it disinfects within seconds, and it evaporates very quickly. When cleaning the keys, you want to avoid getting any moisture under the plastic key cover so it won't degrade the adhesive that holds it on. By the time I use one wipe on my keys, it's hardly wet any more because of the quick evaporation.

Foam board covered with contact paper on frequently-touched surfaces. Washi tape on ledge in front of keys. These can be wiped.

I'm not content to clean only the keys when I have children that I know will be touching everything, but I don't want to damage my piano's finish. I puzzled and puzzled this morning about what to do, and then I hit upon an idea. I had some foam board that I bought weeks ago for a craft project I abandoned. I cut it to fit my music rack and music desk and covered it with contact paper. I can wipe or spray that between students. I may add some more pieces on the music desk. On the little ledge in front of the keys, I used easily-removed washi tape. I can wipe that and replace it as needed. I'm hoping the tape will last a few days before I have to replace it. There's a good bit of black finish on the piano still exposed. I'm hoping that if I make a game of it (the black finish is lava!), I can reduce the amount of touching. I'll let you know how it works.

Printer paper makes a place mat for pencils so we can avoid touching the black lacquer finish which can't be disinfected. I can change out the paper between students.

It took two strips of washi tape, overlapping, to cover the ledge. Can replace it as needed.

Here are some other protocols I'm putting in place. We will have a teacher pencil and a student pencil on the piano. No sharing. My pencil is marked T with a sharpie. To avoid students touching the black music rack, I slipped a piece of printer paper behind my foam board and folded it up to make a little placemat for the pencils. Also, I reduced the number of colored pencils to 3 so I'll have fewer to clean in between lessons. (I can't teach without them!)

Students in the past have come in and thrown all of their stuff - jackets, school bags, music book bags - on my sofa. This year, I'm asking them to put purses and jackets on the coat rack in my foyer and book bags in a bag bucket on the floor. Nothing goes on the sofa but fannies. I don't ask students to take off their shoes when they come in my house. My family doesn't take them off, and students need their shoes on when pedaling. It's never bothered me before, but since we often play games on the studio rug, I'll be putting down a beach towel or sheet on the floor when we sit down there. I had several old beach towels, and I cut up an old king-sized sheet, so I have enough to use a clean one with each student, and they will hold out at least a couple of days before I need to wash them. No walking on the beach towels with shoes, and no hands on the rug. The rug is lava! We're on a raft in the ocean, and there are sharks in the water! Stay on the raft! I'm hopeful, but not very convinced that they'll be able to follow this rule. Eh, it's worth a try! If this isn't successful, I may resort to putting up a TV tray in front of the sofa to create a game table. 

Hand sanitizer on a plate to catch the drips.

Of course, I'll be asking students to use hand sanitizer as soon as they have hung up their jacket and dropped off their bags. We'll also use hand sanitizer both before and after playing any board games. Some of my board game items are laminated, but all are not. Also, we've used hedgehog erasers for tokens in the past, but this year, I'll use plastic buttons that I can wipe off.  

Telescoping pointer aids in distancing.

We will be wearing masks. More about that in the next post. But distancing? That's tough. My studio is pretty small, and sitting across the room kind of negates the point of being in person. I've asked parents not to congregate in my small foyer. While I don't want to discourage parents who'd like to sit in on a lesson, I've asked that if they are just coming in to pick up a child, let the child run out to the car. If they have concerns to discuss, we can talk on the phone. One of my piano teaching colleagues is having parents text when they arrive, and she tells them when it's safe to come in. I hope I don't have to resort to that. I think most of my parents can police themselves in this. As far as distancing myself from the students, I can sit back a bit and use my telescoping pointer. But, sometimes, I'm just going to need to reach up to the page. I'll be talking to the kids about the need to maybe slip off the bench on the other side while I'm leaning forward. 

Beach towels and old sheets cut up into manageable size for sitting on floor. Holmes room-sized air purifier. 

Finally, I'll be running a true HEPA air purifier with ionizer in my room. I don't know if this will really help with covid, but most of my students suffer from allergies, as do I. We live in a terrible area for allergies. If nothing else, cutting down on the allergic sniffling will save us from worrying whether the sniffling is covid or pollen. The model I use is this one from Target. You can buy cheaper filter replacements from a 3rd party on Amazon. 

My protocol will be to have the student begin their lesson by playing a learning game on my Ipad (on a clean towel on the floor) while I spend a few minutes wiping down the piano, the bench, the footstool, doors, doorknobs, pencils, and bathroom (if it was used). A quick wipe of the ipad when they're done, and we'll move to the piano. I'm going to need some heavy duty hand cream by the end of the day. Any recommendations? 

I think this is about the best I can do. If you have any creative ideas I haven't thought of, I'm all ears. Please share in the comments!

Update:  I've discovered a product called "barrier film" that is used in dental offices to cover items and keep them sanitary. Supposedly, it is easy to remove and doesn't leave a sticky residue. I'm going to try it out on my piano's music desk to allow me to wipe that area with a disinfecting wipe. I'll let you know how it works! 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Just A Beginner...

We piano teachers hold some negative feelings about things people say about piano lessons. One is when parents refer to lessons as "practice," like soccer practice. At soccer practice, tennis practice, basketball practice, a lot of the time is spent in drills to reinforce movements and techniques. With piano lessons, since we meet only once a week, those drills need to be done at home (practice), so we can move forward learning new things in the lesson. Another is "I can't do that because I'm not very talented." We hope parents and students realize that talent is no more than a kernel of potential. Skill comes from practice, and almost everybody can develop basic skill with effort. But, the phrase I hate most is any phrase that includes these three words:  just a beginner.

"Well, she's just a beginner, so grandma's old piano with 6 sticking keys, a cracked soundboard, and no more capacity to hold tune (because it hasn't been tuned in 2 decades) will be good enough for her to start on."

Yikes! Please, no! She will never feel competent on that instrument and may not even be able to play all of her pieces.

"Well, she's just a beginner, so we bought a $100 keyboard from Walm*rt that has only 76 keys and we let her sit cross-legged on her bed with it to practice."

Eek! Please, no! If she studies with me, she'll need to have all 88 keys at her disposal, touch sensitivity that allows her to play both loudly and quietly without using the volume knob, and a damper pedal (sustain pedal), all within the first year of study. At home, she needs an acoustic or digital piano at the proper height with a bench, preferably adjustable, and a pedal. She can't learn technique if she's sitting all hunched over on the bed!

And this is the worst. "Well, she's just a beginner, so she's taking lessons from the nice lady down the road who plays a little. She's the cheapest teacher in town, and since she's JUST a beginner..."

Oh, boy. I've been teaching piano since 1987. I have a masters in performance, and 2 more years of graduate study. I LOVE teaching beginners, but I can tell you, beginners are the most challenging students I have.

Prior to my official start of piano teaching, I taught a cousin of mine and a couple of neighbor's children when I was in high school. I was a pretty good pianist at that point, but a terrible teacher. I was what I now call a "turn-the-page" teacher. I got the students a method book, we learned the first 2 pieces, they came back and played them, and then we turned the page and did the next 2 pieces. I depended entirely on the method book to tell me what to cover next and what issues to address. When the students had problems with posture, hand position and technique, reading, rhythm, or expression, I had no tools in my toolbox to know how to help them beyond what was written in the method book. When that wasn't enough, they grew frustrated, I grew frustrated with them because my explanations weren't getting through, and nobody had any fun. It wasn't their fault. They were just normal kids. It was mine. None of those kids grew up to continue playing.

Every beginner I teach is different. Some are a perfect fit for the method books I tend to use the most. Most are not a perfect fit. This means, I need to be familiar with the teaching materials on the market so that I know how to supplement the method or choose a better one if necessary.

Some automatically use great hand position and posture and have natural technique. Most do not. That means that I need manipulatives and props to help students feel what to do, and an eagle eye to watch and head off at the pass any physical approach to the piano that has the possibility of sabotaging their future growth,

Some students have a natural affinity for rhythm and latch onto meter and note values with ease. Some don't. That means I need to have tricks and games up my sleeve beyond the method book to help them develop those skills.

Some students learn to read the notes on the staff with ease. Some do not. I need as many different approaches to explaining note reading as I can possibly have. (And sometimes, the patience of Job!)

Some students simply can't sit on the bench and concentrate for 45 minutes. Actually, most of them can't! I need games and off-the-bench learning activities to keep a student's attention.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take piano pedagogy courses from a fabulous professor in college. This included surveys of the teaching materials available on the market, tons of ideas and activities for teaching specific concepts and techniques, practice teaching, and mentorship from an expert as I taught in front of our class. I have been to teacher workshops and continuing education. I don't consider that I will ever be finished in learning how to be a good teacher.

Parents tell me that they want their child to be able to enjoy music for a lifetime. That's, of course, what I want, too. It's most likely to happen if you don't settle for what you think is "good enough" for a beginner, but give him/her equipment and tools in good working condition and a teacher who has invested a lot of time and effort in learning to be a good one.

No student is just a mere beginner. This may be the most important stage of growth for a pianist! A house built on a shaky foundation will not last a lifetime. Beginners are the best, most fun, most demanding, and most rewarding students to teach! Pick a teacher who can establish the best start to ensure future growth!

Monday, October 29, 2018

You Can Afford An Adjustable Piano Bench!

Here's a photo of one of my 3rd grade students. In the right side photo, she's sitting at standard bench height with no foot stool, and in the left photo, she's at the proper height with a stool for her feet. She looks pretty uncomfortable on the right, doesn't she? It's impossible for her to use a good hand position when she's sitting at the wrong height. How long do you think she'll persevere in practicing without growing frustrated if she's not comfortably aligned? Not as long or with as much focus as she would if were sitting at the appropriate height with her feet supported!

Some folks make do with pillows, cushions, carpet squares, or those foam floor puzzle pieces, but I find it hard to get students high enough on those and still be stable and comfortable. Most teachers know the value of using an adjustable bench, but, many don't use them because, well, they're expensive! A fancy artist's bench can cost several hundred dollars. Not only are they expensive, they're heavy as lead. I take my adjustable bench to my recital venues, and I'm very grateful that it isn't too heavy to move around. The good news is, you can invest in one for less than you might think, and you can find good options for your students to purchase for their home practice for less than $50. It's definitely worth it. Next to the piano, I consider my adjustable bench the most important piece of equipment in my studio, and I always make it a point to suggest to parents of young students that they consider getting one themselves.

A piano teacher needs a bench that can be adjusted quickly. Back around 2001, I bought one from a Canadian company called Concert Master. They're now out of business, and good thing, because it took over a year and a threatening letter from my cousin the attorney before I ever received the bench I had paid for. That company was bought out by Exemplar Furniture, another Canadian company, and they still sell the bench. (That is, unless it's just a rename of the same company. I don't know which is true.)

At today's exchange rate to US dollars, my bench would cost $321.38 including shipping to Georgia. I have no experience with Exemplar, but I will say that despite the frustration in receiving it, I do love my bench. It adjusts quickly and easily with a scissor-like mechanism to 7 different positions, and the highest one (23.5") has been a good height for my shortest students. I put it all the way up for my first and second graders. It's one of the tallest benches on the market. I've been using it since 2002, and it's very sturdy. I really like this particular type of adjustment mechanism. I'm not a fan of the scrolling knobs on a typical artist bench, even just for myself. They take too many turns of the knob to adjust, some are hard to turn, and all but the most expensive benches seem to get wobbly after a while. It would be especially annoying to deal with if you needed to change it for several students a day. If you've got the budget for it, I do recommend this bench from Exemplar Furniture. If they ever make a doubly-adjustable duet bench, I'd probably buy it, but I think I'd get some kind of binding contract with them about when I could expect to receive it or I'd be refunded.

There's another company that makes a very similar-looking bench - Made of Wood Piano Benches. They're in California, and the price looks similar ($320). Frustratingly, they don't show their shipping prices on the web page.

If you don't have a $320 budget, here are some more budget-friendly options for your studio. Be aware that I have no personal experience with these benches, but I'm choosing models I'd be willing to take a risk on based on the features and reviews. A teacher will want to look for the following features:

  • the ability to adjust to 23" high to accommodate young children (this knocks out a whole bunch of them)
  • as many height positions as possible
  • a quick and easy adjustment mechanism in case you have a first grader followed by a college student followed by a middle schooler...
  • sturdiness - you don't want something that's going to become wobbly in a year or two of piano teaching
  • a total weight under 30 pounds if you plan to take it to recitals

This bench by OnStage adjusts hydraulically. I like it because it adjusts up to 23", close to the same height as mine and the hydraulic mechanism is quick and allows for an infinite number of positions. A small student may not be heavy enough to lower the bench with their body weight (requires around 75-80 pounds), but you could easily slip over and sit on it yourself to lower it. It weighs 29 pounds, which is a little heavier than I'd like, but it's not as heavy as some artist's benches. It's $199 on Amazon Prime.

You can save a few more dollars with this bench by Stagg. ($144.40 with free Prime shipping)  It gets pretty good reviews, appears to be sturdy, adjusts up to 23", and according to one review by a piano teacher, is relatively easy to scroll up and down. It does adjust by turning knobs, which I don't prefer, but if it's easy enough, you can let the students do it and save the wear and tear on your own wrists. It weighs 25 lbs.

Finally, this is the cheapest adjustable bench I'd be willing to recommend for studio use, and a very good one to recommend for students' home use. This bench by OnStage adjusts up to 24.5". This is the tallest I've seen. It's only $47.95 with free Prime shipping. There's a video on the listing, but I can't quite tell how the adjustment works. Several reviews indicate that it is fairly easy. Do read the reviews about this - it seems that there are 4 holes for pins to create the height options, but it may be possible to get up to 8 different height settings. Some reviews seem to indicate that adjusting it requires turning it upside down, but other reviews indicated that it could be adjusted in 30 seconds and wasn't that hard. For a student, this bench would be ideal since, even if it takes a little more effort to adjust, he/she would only need to readjust once they grew a bit taller.

You'll notice in my photo that I use a stool under students' feet for support. It makes a huge difference in how comfortable they are. My students really like using it, and they readily set it up for themselves when they sit at the piano. It's 5 1/2" tall and that's just about right as a one-size-fits-all solution. When they start to grow out of it, we have about a month or two when their toes just reach the floor, but their knees are uncomfortably high with the stool. A couple of textbooks on the floor takes care of that. I also have a pedal extender that provides a higher platform for shorter students, but I seldom need to use it for that purpose. That perfect purple stool is what's left of a regrettable purchase years ago of The Firm exercise program. (As Seen On TV!) There were two exercise steps that could stack together, one taller and one shorter. They were dubbed "the fanny lifter." If you saw me today, you'd know that there's been no fanny lifting going on around here! These are not sold anymore, and it's terribly hard to find a step stool that is not too tall and has a cut-out to accommodate the pedals. If I didn't have this one, I'd probably build something. You might be able to make do with an exercise step like this one or this one.

If you've had success with a particular model of adjustable bench that isn't more expensive than these, or a great solution for foot stability, please share with us in the comments!

If you share my frustration with scrolling piano benches, you'll enjoy this video by an inventor who found a solution!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

#TempoVirtuoso Activity For Learning Tempo Words

I'm willing to bet that your students are a lot like mine. At some point after trying to remember the difference between Allegro, Allegretto, Allargando, Adagio, Andante, and Accelerando, their eyes start to cross. Here's a fun way to teach all of those tempo words using something that they do already - hashtagging!

Our students are all social media experts. You probably won't have to explain to them what hashtagging is, but in case you need a refresher yourself, think of them as keyword links that help to organize posts that have something in common. You can create a hashtag by putting the pound sign (#) in front of a word or short phrase with no spaces. #ThisIsAHashtag. (Capital letters are optional.)

Sometimes hashtags are merely keywords, but sometimes they are humorous comments or further insights. For instance, a friend of mine who has a camper trailer always hashtags her instagram posts about camping with #Chasing68Degrees. Even younger students who are not yet using social media grasp hashtagging pretty quickly.

I've created a new teaching resource to help your students learn 18 tempo words and it's on sale in my etsy shop, #TempoVirtuoso! You'll get an instructions page for the teacher, a reference page with 18 words and definitions that you can print for each student, and a set of index cards for every word that can be printed for each student. You'll have studio rights to print them for all students forever within your own studio, just please don't sell it or share it with another studio.

This is a great opportunity for creativity! Some of the hashtags my students have suggested for Allegro include #cheetah, #myskink (because his pet skink runs quickly), #racecar, #lunch (because she has to eat lunch fast at school), #needmoresugar, #bunny, #policecar, and more. The more personal or wild the association is, the more the student will remember it. This activity always sparks a lot of laughter!

So, #hurry to my Etsy Shop and check it out #presto! While you're there, be sure to check out the vintage items I have for sale. It's an eclectic shop!

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. They only see the next note.

So, how do we get children to see the note's position on the staff BEFORE the finger number? One good way is to use modified staff reading early. 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.

Another is to introduce notes on the staff one or two at a time. I like Susan Paradis' Animal Alphabet songs which introduce the notes from A below Mid C to G above Mid C. The old John Thompson easiest piano course (which has been updated from gnomes to monsters) also introduces staff notes one at a time rather than introducing a whole position. Just 3 or 4 weeks of this approach before beginning the C position, middle-C position, G position tonal approach found in the Faber and Alfred methods can make a huge difference.

Once students are beginning to play pieces in the method book, I try to help them 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? We look at the note on the staff first, then we look to see what finger we should use for that note. If I find that they are dependent on the finger numbers - and you can often discover this is true by hearing them name a D as a 2, for instance - then, I just cover up the finger number with white out. And we do some more of Jennifer Fink's cards!

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