Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hand Over the Pencil - Actively Engaging Music Students

I've enjoyed putting together the newsletter for our local music club this year. It has helped me to actually put into practice many of the ideas floating around in my brain. Following is one of the recent articles I wrote.
I remember the frustrating experience of being trained as a temp. secretary by an employee who sat at their computer rattling off a bunch of instructions to me for processes they had completed hundreds of times, as they clicked furiously on different areas of the screen. Meanwhile, I sat at the side taking notes as quickly as I could. I would have retained so much more if they would have just “handed over the computer” to me and let me experience the process asking questions along the way.
I am thankful that my first piano teacher had me analyze my music extensively with colored pencils. Following are a few ideas for “handing over the pencil” to your students to facilitate their retention of musical concepts. When introducing new music/concepts, keep a pack of colored pencils close by and select a few “coloring tasks” for the student to do that pertain to the particular song they are learning.
♪ Find and draw a colored line over Repeating Rhythms
♪ Find Repeating melodies and label the Form by drawing colored lines over each section
♪ Color all of the Tonic Chords Yellow, Dominant Red, Subdominant Blue
♪ Find and Label Scales or Arpeggios
♪ Color Dynamics various shades (I use light or pastel for softer sections, dark or vibrant colors for louder dynamics).
♪ Outline the Accents in a bold color
♪ Write some words that match a prominent Rhythmic motif
♪ For Strings: color notes on various strings different colors
♪ Find & Color a specific interval
♪ Draw up arrows at the end of each phrase or draw a star at the high points of phrases
♪ Color the melody bright/dark, harmony soft/light
♪ Circle all of the flats/sharps when introducing a new key signature
♪ Find and color various types of cadences
♪ Write in chord symbols using different colors for major, minor diminished & augmented

As students experience this analysis process not only do they become more active learners, but they also improve sightreading skills, memorize more easily and tend to play more expressively because the details in the music become more salient. Often it is through this process that I detect when a student is not catching on to a concept. Another added bonus for me is that while they are “coloring” their music, I can write more specific practice instructions or outline new concepts on their assignment sheet without losing the students attention.

For more ideas on analysis, “chunking,” and teaching with questions check out these resources
“Chunks and Links” by Marienne Uszler – (Online at )
“That’s a Good Question…How to Teach by Asking Questions” by Marienne Uszler (available for purchase at the Piano Gallery)
“How to Organize the Presentation of a Piece” by Frances Larimer(Online at


  1. Thank you for this colourful analysis suggestion and time saving idea. I have done similar things in the past to teach concepts, but nothing this extensive in reinforcing them. (Normally I do the analysis for them when they learn a piece). I am looking forward to expanding the music analysis content in my studio and putting the pencil in the student's hand more often.

    Ms. Natashia

  2. These are great ideas! Thanks for sharing them!