Friday, March 30, 2012

Swingset Music and Movement

Another Season of Swingset Comes to an End

   Winter Swingset just ended today.  Our Singing Stories curriculum was very easy and smooth to teach and I hope fun for the kids. I teach pre-school music once a week, many weeks of the year. Did you know that many picture books are songs and qualify as Singing Stories, not just reading stories. It warms my heart to see two-year olds singing and moving without self consciousness. Grandmas and Dads show up as well as Moms and Caregivers and all participate to the joy of their children.

   Here we are moving up and down with Miss Froggy who teaches us many adverbs to match our moving.

  Could it be that pesky flea on my head as well as on my toe?


             Dancing like the wind is so whirly and twirly.

   And playing the drums requires listening, evaluating each drum for it's sound value, and trading back and forth.

   There are more classes to view here and here. We are starting again in April, maybe you will join us?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Drop A Note

   "Why should I play it again?" That is a question I have not yet found a good answer to for my 5-6 year olds. But I have a few games to make playing it again more fun. Previously, on another post, I featured the IN-OUT game and today it is time to reveal the game DROP A NOTE.

    I ask the student to choose a note in their song that they will not play and I play it on my keyboard, or on my i-pad, and I often use a crazy sound which makes us both laugh hysterically. On the next turn I choose a note, one that is used infrequently, to make them play more of the song. The goal is to keep the song flowing nicely and in the right tempo. Works like a charm!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Igniting the Desire For "Deep Practice"

   In the last post I wrote about the book "The Talent Code" and explored the concept of "deep practice".

   How do we as teachers ignite that desire to practice deeply?  I'll start with my own life and draw on the events that pushed me into desiring a higher level of practice. The first reason I can think of that started my relentless pursuit of competence was when I started singing the pop hits on the radio. I wanted to be able to accompany myself on the piano and I needed better skills to make that flow. I think that made me count out loud for the first time. My teacher had asked me to do this with every piece but I did not do it until I played songs with intricate rhythms.
   I saw another ignition when I was asked to accompanying the children in my church. I was too ashamed to show up and flounder at the keyboard, so I practiced and practiced. The adults gave me so much praise for my efforts that the desire sustained itself.  Ignition is cued by primal instincts, to be part of something big, to be included in a desirable group, or to be well thought of and brought into the fold. Ignition does not follow rules so, as a teacher, I may not be able to control it but it works as energy to get the task moving.
   What do teacher's do to spark ignition? The most important events in my studio are group lessons. When I take a small group of students and we work together on improving a skill I see more progress in that skill in private lessons. Yes, it is the power of peer pressure or peer approval, but in a positive environment it is a spark. Recitals can also be a spark. In the last recital I played a Beethoven Bagatelle which is featured in "My First Piano Adventures Book B". I asked the audience to sing the simple words every time I played that part. I have never had to ask any student in that age group to practice "Beethoven's Door". They can't wait to learn it because of the group experience at the recital.
   Lastly, I've captured a few images of "deep practice" on my piano bench.

However fleeting the moment is, it is precious to behold. Here also is a U-Tube video of "deep practice"

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Deep Practice

  One of my piano parents suggested I read "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle. He is a kid's soccer coach and required all of the volunteer parents to read it to help their understanding of how skill is developed.

   I find the book fascinating because it answers the question about why some of my students come with music in their heads which they have been diligently working on at home. They show me pieces they have figured out by ear, pieces they have added variations to, and pieces they have composed. The task requires "deep practice" and I am learning to recognize the look on their faces when they enter that zone.
  They don't always "deep practice" the pieces I assign and so I am exploring how to ignite that interest.
  What is "deep practice"? These are the elements Daniel Coyle outlines in his book.

Rules of Deep Practice-

1- Chunk it up
   A. Look at the whole piece
   B. Divide it into the smallest chunks posssible
   C.. Play with time- slow it way down, then speed it up to find the inner architecture

2- Repeat it
    A. Time spent is not as important as time with deep practice

3- Learn to feel it
    A. It is tiring
    B. Get used to the feeling of failing
    C. It feels beyond your abilities

When I watch my students practice this way I see them  going over an over a part and often going back to the beginning countless times. As a teacher I have in the past halted that behavior as I feel it makes them unable to understand the whole piece. But, this intentness should not be discouraged. Perhaps these ideas are not so new to pianists but his research on how the brain reacts to "deep practice" is very new and important. More later......

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Do Our Brains Learn Best?

   I have been very curious about how our brains work when we learn to play the piano and read music.

   Of note in the blogging world is Tara Gaertner's blog about how the brain learns music. In my opinion, the world is learning much about how our brain works but our habits do not reflect what we know. Take for instance the truth we know about the brain's need to recall new information within a short timespan. In my teaching experience I have proven to myself that if a student practices a short time on the day of the piano lesson the recall of the lesson improves dramatically all week long. If this truth were to be implemented then the parent would have to make a consistent effort to make time that evening to allow the lesson learning to be reviewed and processed. Even talking with your child about the lesson and asking questions would expedite recall.
  I look forward to reading Tara's posts and finding ways to use my own brain better and encourage anyone I might influence.
  "Welcome to “Training the Musical Brain”, a blog combining my interests in neuroscience and music pedagogy.  I believe that neuroscience, psychology and related areas of research have a lot to tell us about the affects of music on the brain, and about the best ways to optimize our musical training."

Hands Together, Hands Apart

     Tara Gaertner, at "Teaching the Musical Brain", posted a most thought provoking question. Why do we practice hands apart? 

This is certainly standard procedure in my studio. Although, when we do sight reading exercises I expect the hands to play together very slowly. I did not understand why I knew this to be the best method until I read Tara's blog post.
"What this means for pianists is that playing the right hand by itself is not really the same as playing the right at the same time as the left hand.  So why do we practice hands-separately?  "
   Tara's understanding of how the brain works helped me see why hands apart does not make it easier to play hands together.
   "In other words, if we are playing the piano with only one hand, our motor cortex is inhibiting the motor cortex of the opposite side.  So, if we’re practicing only the right hand part of a piano piece, we’re probably learning to inhibit the left hand.  And when we learn the left hand part by itself, we’re probably learning to inhibit the right hand.  Is it any wonder then, that when we go to play the song hands-together, it’s still really difficult?"
    But here is the thing, if a student starts a piece with no aural model playing hands together can end up being just a cacophony of sound. I think finding the melody line with the right notes and rhythm helps to set off the harmony. I remember going to piano lessons myself and having the teacher comment that I certainly played with conviction but I had lost a whole harmonic line. The notes were there but because I couldn't hear the  part I was not able to articulate it enough to bring it out amongst the other parts. Separating melody from harmony seems to speed up the understanding process. But does it speed up the process of playing together?

"I think the bottom line is that, although there’s certainly value in hands-separate practicing to focus on details, we don’t really improve at playing hands-together by practicing hands-separately.  This is definitely a different approach than the one I was taught with, and it’s not really what I’ve been doing with my own students.  But I’ve also noticed that my own children are always eager to play their pieces hands-together before they know them well hands-separately, because it’s more satisfying to hear both parts at once.  And we could argue that satisfaction in playing is really what it’s all about."
   I think I am going to stop letting a week go by with assigning hands apart. Learning a smaller portion with hands together may be the more desirable outcome. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Estelle at the Piano

   I have an adult student who I admire. She approached me about having piano lessons and I told her if she could find a piano to practice on I would find a spot for her in my studio. Adult students don't lack desire they just are swamped with life and finding a time during the day to fully concentrate on music is difficult. Mothers are especially vulnerable to losing themselves in the lives of their families. So, I admire the three mothers who are currently taking lessons from me.

     Estelle is especially motivated and hungers for achieving results in her practice. She never fails to amaze me as she learns, not only notes. but fluency in her pieces. She also has a delightful desire to share what she learns. I have seen her volunteer to play in church without fear and this has moved her progress forward. At the root of Estelle's success is a huge love of music, from the classics to pop. She listens and uses music to accompany her life.

   This series has been well received by the adult students I teach. We also hangout at
to find the songs we really want play.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dr. Seuss App for Ipad

   Pianoanne cued me in to a new music app for i-phone and i-pad. It is still free with upgrades coming and I think it is a hit in my studio. Certainly, I don't have time for it every week, but, I have some students staying longer for computer lab and this is a great rhythm teacher.

  The colored ribbons must be played on time and on the beat in order to get the most points. Tempos change from song to song and they have three levels of difficulty. Some require quicker fingers than mine and the most difficult levels are fun to play over and over again to get a higher score. Check it out1

Friday, March 2, 2012

New Faber Supplement Books

   I just looked at a great little page about the new Faber Pre-Time- Fun Time books. They have some videos with Randall explaining aspects of the pieces. It was worthwhile for me and I wanted to share. Have any of you used these books and what is your favorite?

    There is also a feature on this site which allows you to see the whole Faber catalog and check off any you wish to purchase. Then the site routes you to your favorite internet music retail site and places your selections in their check-out page. Wow!! I spend a lot of time trying to find just the right book online because the search engines on the music sites seem to be limited.