Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Monster Candy Jar Practice Incentive

I have my good friend Angela to thank for this great idea to help motivate students in a fun way.
I usually do a "monster candy jar" incentive around Halloween - but it could work easily during any time of the year. I fill up a couple of jars with candy. During the month (or 2) students get a chance to guess how many candies are in the jar at their lesson each time they complete an item on their task list (see the ice cream party checklist). For some years I've done the contest based on how much they practiced that week (4 days=1 guess, 5 days=2 guesses, 6 days = 3 guesses), so the more they practice the more likely they are to win because they get more guesses. At the group lesson, students dress up in costumes, play songs for each other and then I announce the winners of the candy jars. The hardest part for me is resisting the temptation to "snitch" candy from the jar when its hanging around my house for a few months. I just make sure not to fill it with Snickers!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Music Therapy

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Last night I felt so thankful for the "refreshment of the soul" I felt as I played the piano to wind down after a stressful day. For me, playing the piano is the best kind of therapy to help me feel peace, optimism and gratitude after a hard days work of meeting the constant needs of my 4 (soon to be 5) children. I find the "best medicine" for a hard day is to play joyful, energetic songs to lift my spirits... like an Ecossaise from Schubert's or Clementi Sonatina and then ease into some calming hymns like "How Firm a Foundation" and "How Great Thou Art."
As I played last night I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for my mom who taxied me to & from lessons, sewed my orchestra "concert dress" and provided calming hymns for me to listen to every night as I fell asleep. My dad filled our home growing up with the sounds of a variety of classical music from his record collection and helped me gain an appreciation for music from Baroque to Jazz. Although neither of them played an instrument, I am forever grateful for the opportunities they gave me to discover the power of music. I hope to pass on to my children and my students the "medicine of music" for it truly is healing to the soul.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lego Rhythms Worked Fabulously

Check out this great idea for using legos on Jen's Piano Studio Blog . I tried it today while introducing dotted quarter notes to one of my boy students who loves legos. He built the right hand rhythms for each of the measures in the "London Bridges" song in his lesson book. After counting and "running his fingers over the bumps" as Jen suggested he said, "This is fun! Can I do the left hand too?" I think I might incorporate this idea into a game at my next group lesson by having teams race to build the measures of a song. It could even make a fun rhythm dictation activity.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Piano Preschool Snackmats

For piano preschool this year, my students favorite activities centered around working on their "snackmats." I used a variety of snacks including goldfish crackers, fruit snacks, cheerios, marshmallows, fruit loops, etc. to reinforce the concepts I introduced that day. My snackmats were simply white cardstock inside a sheet protector with a staff printed on one side and a piano keyboard on the other side. Next time I might jazz them up a bit more by mounting them on colored paper, letting the students decorate the border and covering them with clear contact paper. Following are a few ideas for using them:
On the Keyboard side-
Call out note names for students to place snacks on. If they place it correctly, they can eat it.
  • Cover the groups of 2 black keys (or 3 black keys)
  • "Hey Diddle Diddle the D's in the Middle"
  • Cover all the white keys stepping up the keyboard
  • Cover all the white keys skipping up the keyboard
  • Cover all of the keys that are in the C 5 finger scale
  • Cover all of the G's with a green fruit snack
Make fruit loop necklace "trains" by stringing fruit loops onto yarn. Then have students make tunnels with their hands on the keyboard while you drag their trains under their tunnels.

Set a snack on each white key. Practice picking up the snacks with different finger numbers. For example "Pick up a 'C' with fingers 1 and 3."

On the Grand Staff Side
Call out locations on the grand staff for students to place snacks on. If they place it correctly, they can eat it. You could make the "game" more competitive or challenging for older students by playing Simon Says. Here are a few ideas.
  • Cover all the of line notes (or space notes) with snacks.
  • Put a snack on middle C.
  • Put a snack on the Treble Clef (or bass clef)
  • Make a quarter note (w/ a chocolate chip and pretzel stick) and put it on the Bass Staff.
  • Make a half note (w/ a marshmallow and pretzel stick) and put it on the Treble Staff.
  • Cover the 2 dots on the bass clef (f clef), then put a "note" on the f line.
  • Make a Bar Line with Pretzels to divide your staff into 2 measures
  • Cover up the brace with snacks.
  • "Copy" one measure in your music by placing snack notes on the staff to match the rhythm and note names in your song.
Build Rhythm Patterns or measures on the staff w/ chocolate chips marshmallows and pretzels and practice clapping and then eating them.
Play "Snacks Between the Bar Lines" or "M&M's Stepping on the Staff".

Food for Major Triads

When introducing the major triads I like to use some food analogies to help my students remember what they look like on the keys.
For example:
"The Vanillas" are C, G & F - all white keys, like a triple decker vanilla cone
"The Hamburgers" are D, A & E - white on the outside and black in the middle, like a hamburger
"The Oreos" are E-flat, A-flat & D-flat - black on the outside and white in the middle, like an oreo
"The Oddballs" B, B-flat & F# are just odd, they don't fit in with any of the other triads
For a group lesson I had my students cut & paste small pictures of ice cream cones, hamburgers, oreos and draw their own oddballs on a Circle of 5ths chart. They especially enjoyed designing their own oddballs:). I find this activity especially helpful for students who are visual learners. A few times I've even rewarded the students at the end of their lesson with an oreo when they can play all of their "oreo triads."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tips on Practicing with a CD

Today I indulged myself and found a babysitter for the little ones so I could attend a 3 hour workshop by Dennis Alexander who was visiting as the adjudicator for the Musician's West Competition.
I love how so many of the new method books coming out include CDs - including Alfred's Premier Piano Course, which Mr. Alexander highlighted for us. I agree with his point that hearing a piece first helps students play more expressively. He emphasized the importance of demonstrating how to practice with the CD rather than just sending the students home with the instruction to listen to it because it will help them learn the song more easily. For example students could:
  • Listen to the cd as they point to the score and follow along in their music
  • Listen and clap the rhythm of the right hand (or left hand)
  • Listen and sightread the right hand part(or left hand) silently on the keys
  • COUNT ALOUD as they listen to the music
I've found the CD's that come along with the Hal Leonard method books and Faber My First Piano Adventures very useful in my studio during lab time. The Faber Gold Star Performance Books also have some excellent CD's. Following are a few "CD activities" for students to do .
  • Allow student to listen to 2 pieces and choose which one they would like to learn the most. Students are more likely to practice a song that they've "chosen."
  • Tap the rhythm of a piece on various instruments as they listen to the CD. I like to have 2 different instruments - one for the L.H. and one for the R.H. (Maraccas, castanets, tambourine, drum, etc.)
  • Fill out a music listening worksheet as they listen to the CD and describe the tempo, dynamics, style, etc. of a new piece.
  • Have the student listen and draw a picture of what the song makes them think of.
I like how both the Alfred Premier Piano Course CD's and the Hal Leonard CD's include both a practice and performance tempo for each song. I especially like how the "performance" versions on the Hal Leonard CD's are more like an orchestral or piano duet part. This provides students with a "duet" experience at home on a consistent basis. For beginners, piano practice becomes much more motivating and enjoyable when they can "invite the orchestra" (or other instruments) into their home to play along with their otherwise simple sounding songs.
I also like to supplement with other books that don't include CD's and do plenty of notereading lab activities so that students don't just learn to play all of their songs by ear.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Piano Cranium

A few years ago I made up my own version of piano cranium for my students to play at a group lesson using my Cranium Cadoo board. It has been a fun game to pull out for group lessons periodically. To keep everyone involved I made most of the cards "all-plays" so that both teams race to guess the answer. I included the following categories for the cards:
Music Meanie-Think of a word that means... (play short and separated, the speed of the music, gradually play louder, etc.).

Monday, May 3, 2010

Motivation and Piano Parties

I like to choose a different "incentive" program every few months to help keep my students motivated and accomplishing in various areas of piano. This month I gave each student an ice cream party checklist with a list of toppings and ice cream flavors on the left and various tasks to complete on the right. Following are the instructions and a sample list of tasks. I vary the tasks each year and focus on different elements of piano playing.
Select a few piano goals from the list to work on each week. When you complete a task have your teacher or parent initial it and then draw a line to the menu item you would like.
The more goals you complete, the more toppings you can choose!


  • Come prepared to your lesson to pass off 2 of your songs with a 3 star rating (*perfect rhythm, *notes and *technic)
  • Fill in a blank Circle of 5ths Chart
  • Memorize the Order of Sharps (Key Signatures)
  • Complete Eighth Note Rhythm Gym Challenges Counting Aloud (1-5, 6-11 www.practicespot.com)
  • Beat your own high score on a Music Ace Game at your lesson.
  • Practice 5 days in a row (20 minutes or more) w/ signed practice chart
  • 100 % on flashcards at lightning speed
  • Complete a listening sheet at home
  • Play 1 octave arpeggios in 3 keys
  • Pass off a “Notes in the Fast Lane” Sightreading Page
  • Pass off a level on Staff Wars (Note Names)
  • Name the 4 periods of music in order & name 2 composers from each period
  • Play 3 scales forte(LH) vs. piano(RH)
  • Play 3 scales staccato(LH) vs. legato(RH)
It is humorous to see how motivating a little bowl of ice cream can be for some of my students. Others prefer the competition of summer olympics, earning music money or the suspense of our monster candy jar guesses. We will celebrate their achievements at our next group lesson as they enjoy the ice cream and toppings they have earned at the end of the lesson. What are some of your methods for motivating?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Great Review/Giveaway on Music Matters Blog

Check out this great giveaway that Natalie at Music Matters Blog recently posted. Click this link to view her excellent review of "The Musician's Way - Guide to Practice Performance and Wellness"
Her blog also contains a wealth of information that I love including great ideas for practice incentives, games, links, printable worksheets etc.

Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

"The study of great composers' lives should be more than an academic exercise. Biography is to inspire, not merely inform" -Patrick Kavanaugh

After attending a performance of Brahm's Requiem by our local symphony last night, I was reminded of one of my favorite music history books- “Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, ” by Patrick Kavanaugh.

This book, offers a refreshing glimpse into the lives of 20 different composers including well known names such as Bach & Handel, and lesser known composers such as Elgar & Messiaen.
Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of each composer-their tempers, financial trouble and failures, he highlights the virtuous characteristics of each.

Each chapter begins with a brief story like narrative that introduces you to the composer in an engaging manner.Then follows a well-documented description of the "verifiable aspects of these mens' lives as they strove for good, sought to understand God, and found meaningful spiritual purpose in their lives." (p.13) My favorite part of each chapter is the conclusion in which the author highlights one particularly striking character trait that each composer exemplified. I found each chapter in this book both informative and inspiring. After reading it I felt inspired to be more like the great composers of the past... to have the humility of Haydn, the unselfishness of Ives, the determination of Beethoven and the optimism of Mendelssohn.
Some interesting facts I learned:
Who composed and performed while he was a prisoner of war during World War 2?
Who preferred to compose at his kitchen table while his children chased noisily about him?
Who was proclaimed by the public to be the “eighth wonder of the world?”]
Who said “when I sit at my old worm-eaten piano I envy no king in his happiness?”

ISBN 0-310-20806-8 approximate cost new $10.99 (I bought a nice used one on amazon.com for about $7)
"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”