Friday, September 30, 2011

Bass Clef Patterns

   Some of my off the bench activities include my kitchen floor, not far from my studio. I have been using my black ropes again as I teach the bass clef notes to MFPA Book 2 students. They need to experience the staff in many ways to understand the concept of the staff and the clef signs.'Learning a concept must be reinforced bu using the concept in varied contexts." Marienne Uszler

Sometimes figuring it out is exciting.
   October will bring group lessons back and I know the MFPA students will be having a Pumpkin Party where Tucker the Dog will want to hear every ones rendition of Tucker's Secret Life. This is such an engaging title and I have taken this about as far as I can go.Yeh Tucker!

His song is making my practice incentive art project into a real art display. We are adding sparkly paper shapes as we log into the 300-400 minutes of practice.
    It started out blank and then grew to this. Artistically this is pretty cool. My students are thinking about where to place their color and what shape they want to use. It should be very interesting to see it at the recital in November.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Big Dog Boogie

My First Piano Adventures Book B students are all playing, or have played, Tucker's Secret Life.This big dog boogie is a big hit in my studio. 
 What a great way to introduce the next rhythm pattern I want to highlight. CBAGFE will get much attention as we find different ways to drill this group of notes.Using the white board on my I-Pad, we locate and draw the CBA. The stylus makes drawing so much easier. Thanks Pianoanne for the heads up.

 Next we drill with Note Goal Pro on the I-Pad which has added a new tutor option of showing notes in sequence.

Then with some weeks on seeing these notes as steps we will practice them on Note Squish.

The great sequential lesson book and my added enrichment is making better progress than ever before.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Progress On Practicing Incentive

About 60% of my students are on board with my fall practicing incentive. On board means they are aware of how long they are playing each day, they want to report their minutes, and they have placed their first color shape on the board because they practice 100 minutes or more.
On Board
This studio wide art project will symbolize the many layers of musicality. It allows me to talk about this concept over and over again.

This fall incentive dovetails perfectly with my quest to ask better questions as many of my questions will be about adding more layers of musicality.
I am noticing the difference in participation and awareness as I expect my students to listen and evaluate their  playing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Asking Good Questions

 I am exploring and improving my ability to ask questions during my piano lessons. A passive role is safer for a student but I want my students to be able to think for themselves while they are practicing. Asking good questions is an art form. I find I often ask close ended questions where yes or no is the simple answer. These questions give some assessment but they reveal very little to the student. The best question invites revelation. The open ended question might ask the student to make an opinion or an evaluation. An example might be; how could you make this line sound more mysterious? What would the song sound like if we added a sharp here?

       Questions can be asked before a student plays and after she finishes. Before the student starts to play 
the questions can point to specific places in the music. These questions can give confidence that the task is understood and comprehended. The more difficult questions come after the piece has been played. Here the traditional role of the teacher is to assess the performance. But how can a student learn to evaluate his practice when he is alone if he is never asked to do so at the lesson. The best questions I asked last week were; if you were the teacher what would you say to help yourself play this song? She answered; you need to practice more. Which part needs the most practice? The middle section. Why is that difficult? My fingers get all confused. What fingering should you use in this section? 
  I find that I cannot ask questions in the same way to every student. Some seem to be on the same "wavelength" and others struggle with every question I ask. Those that struggle are often students who are "followers". They like to have the right answer and get wary if they are asked to have an opinion. I am seeing good results with a few of these students. They are trusting me more now and I see more observations skills developing. Does asking all these questions take up too much time? It can, especially if I still do too much explaining. I am trying to cut down on too much "teacher talk". They don't listen. If, however, I engage them with questions they are doing at least half of the talking. What do you think?
 I mindmapped my ideas to help me see the principles quickly. You can see them here. Enlarge the PDF to 75% and scroll down.
 "That's a Good Question" by Marienne Uszler is a great read.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Twin Spirits- Robert and Clara Schumann


"One of the most moving love stories in the world of music is the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann. In 2007, the British producer David Caird put together a music theater piece called Twin Spirits at London's Covent Garden in which Derek Jacoby narrated the romantic and tragic story, with Sting and his wife Trudie Styler reading passages from Robert and Clara's letters and the remarkable diary they kept together in the first years of their marriage. Some excellent chamber musicians and singers punctuate the readings with excerpts from the works of both Robert and Clara."
  This is a lovely DVD, a bit schmaltzy, but lovely. I was enchanted by the marriage diary Robert and Clara wrote together. The words written to each other are as beautiful as their music. Some of the details of their private life reveal their music preferences. Clara found the Don Giovanna score fascinating to play on the piano and of course, the music by Robert.
  They had 8 children in 13 years. When did Clara have time to compose, or for that matter, have time to play? And imagine the overwhelming mental condition of her husband which drove him to insanity. When she was alone she put her efforts into supporting her children, and mentally keeping Robert alive, with concert tours and composition.
 The Schuman's music is performed by superb pianists and vocalists. I found my copy of Traumeri and played with a different feeling after watching this production.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My First Piano Adventures

My life as a piano teacher is always more exciting when I get new students.
I have 5 students in my First Piano Adventures Book B and one new student in Book A this year.Here are three of them pouring over their new books.Oh, my, they look a little bored. Not to worry, they are studying what numbers are assigned to what fingers.
 Fingering for piano playing is different from other instruments.

 Thumbs are No. 1.

                    We spend time learning steady beat with the drums. Some children come with an internal steady beat but some of us build the ability to feel a beat and connect it to our bodies.The CD accompanying the book, is great for modeling the steady beat. It takes a long time to be ready to play along with the recording.

                          This week's lesson centered on finding A quickly on the keyboard. The three black keys are like The Three Black Bears." A" comes after the black key Mama Bear. A simple song to go with the bears idea is, "Three Blacks Bears, go upstairs" repeated as we play each octave of black keys
    "We've set aside our seriousness and inhibitions to join the child's world in a playful exploration of music and the keyboard. Through imagery, metaphor, and a diverse world of sound, we seek to develop a foundation of aural perception, eye tracking, and physical coordination. There is special opportunity to develop perceptual ability at a young age. Skills unfold while we engage the child's inherent love of music."                                      Randall and Nancy Faber.   A sincerely want to build a love of music in these and in all my students. We will build from the floor up.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Piano Parade

    Going into a piano store is like walking on the red carpet with your underwear on. The gleaming models pose in black and white, their price tags fluttering back and forth so you only see the dollar sign and miss the five digit number. There you are with your longing exposed but unworthy to be a legitimate customer. That is exactly how I felt the day I went into the store, at the mall, with my beloved aunt. Coming from a very conservative background, she often showed an adventuresome, reckless side. She beckoned me to flirt with the Steinway. I sat ever so lightly upon the black cushioned bench and stroked the keys. The sound cascaded out of the belly answering my touch, beckoning for more questions.
   "I am going to own a grand piano one day!" I declared boldly.

    "What are you waiting for?" She propped her round elbows on the lid and smiling, rested her chin in her hands.
    "I don't have any money set aside for that luxury." I stood up and dismissed the idea. She surprised me by opening her purse and handing me a one hundred dollar bill. The revealed cash was not unnoticed by the salesman who made his way over to us to render his assistance.
   "Here is the down payment." She laid the bill in my hand and pointed me in the direction of other pianos.  "Go find the one you want."
   I did not buy a piano that day. I had five children at home, a badly running station wagon, and only a handfull of piano students. This idea would find no support at home. I kept the hundred in my sock drawer as a down payment on a wish.
   My husband did not respond the way I thought he would when I told of my venture. He sat down with me to make a business plan. How many students would I need to add to make the monthly payment? The harder question was how would we fit a baby grand in the living room? We lived in an old, four bedroom, one bathroom home, with five growing children, two of them just emerging as teenagers.
   Still feeling ridiculous, the two of us visited another showroom. I played a fifty thousand Chickering and thought Chopin was whispering to me.

 I think I danced with every piano in the store and finally a shiny, black Yamaha yielded to my need. It was bright without being brassy, resonant without muddiness, and just firm enough to make me decisive. There were others that looked the same but this one sang with my voice.
    I needed five additional students to make the payment; I got ten. My children resented giving up the lounging area in front of the television; one of them learned to play like an angel. 

   The piano was paid off in five years and sixteen years later all my students have played on an instrument that responds to the novice and the master.
   Some risks in life just look like a raging river to cross, but end up being a puny puddle viewed from the other side.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ongoing Assessment- What do they really know?

      Student-Centered learning encompasses  being aware of what the student actually knows. We can’t assume that just because we taught it, the student has learned it.  Students need multiple explanations, repetition, and reminders. I often have a student say to me, "I played it perfectly at home". I usually smile and say, "It must be me." I know that real learning takes a long time to be stable and predictable.
 I discussed the process of learning with my brother recently. He is a professor of physics, who focuses his research on the human voice. He is currently writing a book for voice practitioners and he shared a chapter with me on motor-learning which I felt helped me in my piano teaching.

       "Motor learning is a process, inferred rather than directly observed, which leads to relatively permanent changes in the general capacity for motor performance, as a result of practice or exposure."
   New action patterns are not incremental and they do not accumulate some place in the head in an ordered way. They are dynamic, they fluctuate, but real, permanent learning means that various mental processes will occur consistently as a result of practice. Temporary performance shifts that may occur during lessons do not imply learning. Learning involves relatively stable changes and improvements in average performance over time. I had a student who has since moved away who would try to wing it at his lesson. As he played his piece for me I knew, and he knew I knew, that he had not practiced enough. "Wait," he would say, "Let me do that again and maybe this time I will be lucky."
   Improvement over a short period of time, such as during a lesson or a week long practice session, does not mean real motor learning is permanent. Distractions can impact learning. The best measure of how well something is learned is demonstrated by the first try with multiple distractions.

   Most studies hold to the principle that spaced practice tends to produce greater learning than massed practice. If a student is attentive and working on a problem he will be more productive if he works on it 10 minutes and then rests and comes back later in the day, than if he practices 60 minutes and does not go back for several days. The brain will work on the problem when the student is away from the piano. I felt a little discouraged when I read that because my student's lives are so full. Would they ever go back to practice on the same day?
   Verbal instructions from a teacher are not as effective as curiosity, from the student, to try different approaches and find the answer themselves. Attention to the experience the student is having is more effective than telling the student what to pay attention to. Asking questions such as "did that feel better" "was that easier", or "did it sound better" are more effective than "was your hand curved". Paying attention to the experience is better for processing than paying attention to the physical action.
    Watching others has been shown to be very motivational. Self goal-setting works better than having a goal assigned. Giving feedback while the student is playing interferes with his own processing of information. Waiting until after they are done, works better and asking them to evaluate their own playing first, helps them even more.
    Provide some variability in the lesson setting. Playing with different conditions enhances learning. I think we all know that when a student is practicing for a recital it is wise to practice in different situations; in front of family, on a different piano, or while someone is speaking. 
    Random practice, or playing pieces and exercises in a different order, is effective because it forces the learner to "reboot" and reconstruct his learning which he may not have to do if he has a rote practice agenda.
   Part-whole practice is effective for learning. Dividing a piece into sections and starting on a different section helps long term learning.
   These are just ideas researchers are working on. My brother is summarizing those that have had the most consistent results. He is hoping to help vocal coaches and vocologists who have students and clients who need to learn new motor skills having to do with their vocal mechanisms.
   I find these ideas most interesting and it explains many occurrences in my experience. One, for example, is the way note-reading seems to come and go, in a beginning student. They seem to be able to do it at our lesson, but then it falls apart at home. So, real learning did not take place at the lesson. The test of stability, getting it right on the first try, even with distractions, is the ultimate measuring tool.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pattern Recognition

  Wouldn't it be great to take the Magic School Bus into our student's mind and view music on the page they way that they do? Would we see that the lines and spaces move around and merge? Would we be surprised to see that they do not even notice the crescendo sign and ritardando sign we pointed to? The complexities of notation keep some of my students playing vertically one note at a time. I have a desire that they come to the point where they play horizontally, seeing, what Dr. Faber calls, "chunks" of notes. And so, one of the keys to student-centered teaching is Pattern Recognition.
  Pattern Recognition is seeing notes in larger and larger chunks. If seeing notes in groups is the desired outcome, why, I ask myself, am I drilling single notes? Why not do more sight-reading with groups of notes so that they become more easily recognizable in the pieces my student's play? This may seem obvious at first but as I analyze the emphasis I place on this endeavor I see I may be short-changing my students. I know I need to repeat and repeat and then assess if my students are actually seeing the chunks I am drilling.
  Dr. Faber made an interesting statement. Perception cannot be forced,  it must be invited. I have been pondering why that is so. I think one reason is because music is symbolic language and symbols have many layers to be explored. I could place flashcards in front of my students but  that does not guarantee that they see the relationship to these notes. I can talk to them and play it for them but really I need to invite them to be curious about how these symbols interrelate. As the student begins to explore these symbols I, as teacher, could invite them to see variations which keep the basic foundation but introduce a new element which changes their meanings. 

For example a 5 finger scale as a chunk, shows how notes step, like a ladder
 Add a bar line and introduce beats and rests, which makes the time signature become important. 

  Change the value of notes and see how the measure must extend. Behind this simple notation, are layers of more meanings; half-steps and whole steps, ascending tones needing dynamic interpretation and on and on. These layers of meaning take a while to perceive but my teaching should invite curiosity to widen perceptions. That is what I am after this new year. One book I am adding to my list for my beginning student "Piano Adventures, Primer Level Sight-Reading Book". 

  I hope it assists me in being more aware of my student progress and perceptions.How do you facilitate note-reading in chunks?