Posts Tagged ‘piano pedagogy’

Freebie Friday LOGOAbout six months ago I began FREEBIE FRIDAY over at PianoTeacherPress.com  Every Friday I offer a free excerpt from one of my Piano Teacher Press products.  I was recently looking over the wide variety of products that I’ve given away and I thought it should be something more widely known to my loyal readers and your piano teaching friends.

Not only do I give away a FREE excerpt each week but I provide a short commentary on the selection explaining how it can benefit a student in your studio.  To find out what we’re offering this week please click [here] on our FREEBIE FRIDAY LINK.

Here’s a smattering of what you have been missing by not being part of our FREEBIE FRIDAY GIVEAWAY!!

BK1A_00A OUTCOVER (COLOR)If you have difficulty getting the very young preschool student to read music KEYBOARD KIDS reading method may be your answer.  Our reading method introduces one music symbol at a time in a leisurely paced manner where young students are never overwhelmed.  Suzuki teachers have found KEYBOARD KIDS as a great supplement to introduce their young students into reading music notation.  I have used it for a over quarter century and it has been a great success.  One week I offered The Cool Ghoul as a FREEBIE FRIDAY GIVEAWAY.

SAMPLE - The Cool GhoulEach symbol on this page was introduced individually before The Cool Ghoul appears in their book.  … the quarter note (walk note), the rest, the bar line, the staff line, the treble and bass clef, the time signature (only the top number is given at this stage of learning), the double bar; even the fingering and the stem direction of the notes were introduced as in individual concept.

Reading is introduced to students as STEPS and SKIPS and students are given assignment pages to cement this critical reading concept into the students thinking.  This is introduced from the very beginning.  Students are taught to underC000-COLORIZED My Very First Theory Book (Cover)stand notation where reading becomes a natural process.

To help students understand STEPS and SKIPS we have My Very First Theory Book.  This book gives students exercises to help students think in steps and skips.  One FREEBIE FRIDAY I offered a page that helps student think in steps; not through notation, but through the alphabet.FF - SAMPLE The Next Letter

NOTICE:  This page gives the student the musical alphabet where “A” follows “G”.  After students gain mental facility in learning to think ahead one (musical) alphabet letter; students are given pages to help them think one step backwards.  The same exercises are repeated for skips.

These little exercise is a very good one to help students in doing simple thought exercises in basic reasoning and is one of the ways where understanding music is very beneficial for mental development.

This book provides a very good supplemental book to the KEYBOARD KIDS series of reading books.

Another week I also used The Cool Ghoul as my Freebie Friday Giveaway but this time as part of an exercise designed to build a students rhythmic skills.  This exercise is found in our Discovery Piano System – THEORY Book 1.00-FC THEORY_Middle C - COLOR Book 1  I will speak in more detail about The Discovery Piano System in a subsequent blog about our Freebie Friday program.  In THEORY Book 1 there is a section of nearly a dozen pieces that have student and teacher play in ensemble.  One player is the pianist and the other provides a rhythmic background played on a common rhythm instrument.FF - SAMPLE The COOL Ghoul

In this example the rhythm player must play on those beats where the piano player rests, almost always on beat 2.  On the first exercises of this rhythm section of THEORY Book 1 the rhythm part emphasizes the easier skill of playing on the downbeat (beat 1).  This exercises begins to develop the skill of having the student learn to feel an offbeat.  Even though the exercises are designed around simple concepts they are designed in a progressive manner where success is most easily achieved.  Students discover musical concepts in an almost seamless stream of little steps.

As I hope you can see our FREEBIE FRIDAY Giveaways not only give you free music but they give you pedagogical information where you can use the free excerpts and maybe even give you some ideas you can use in your own studio teaching.  To join our growing list of FREEBIE FRIDAY teachers go [HERE]– find the RED BUTTON that looks like the link below (which will be red and not purple) and in your correspondence write – SUBSCRIBE FREEBIE FRIDAY. FREEBIE FRIDAY BUTTONBe on the lookout for future blogs that go over all that we’ve been giving away each FREEBIE FRIDAY!!

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Of all the blogs I’ve written the one that has generated the most controversy has been “Piano Lessons Are FUN? THINK AGAIN!!”  I would like to revisit that topic with a slightly different angle.

The angle I’d like to explore in this blog is that of “excess“.  From this angle I think you can keep Keyboard Kidsyour own definition of fun in tact.  Whenever this topic comes up it seems several people will make the point of the necessity of defining the word “fun”.  This blog will allow you to define the word “fun” however you wish.  My point will be, with whatever your definition of “fun” you use, if it is done to excess you will undermine your effectiveness as a teacher.

FIRST POINT —  As a piano teacher your primary job is to teach, to educate, NOT HAVE FUN.  When you are not giving your primary attention to your primary job your priorities are in need of adjustment.  If your FIRST QUESTION is how can I make this teaching task “more fun” I think you’re asking the wrong question.  The FIRST QUESTION should always be how can I make this teaching task make sense to the student.  Your first question reveals your first concern.  Is it to teach or to have fun?

If your first question is about teaching, about educating, the element of making the task enjoyable, or fun, will just be one element of several.  There may be other elements that need attention.  Other elements may include, “How can I make this more clear?”  “How much detail is necessary at this time for this student to understand?” “How does this student best learn information?” “Can I make this more point more effectively through a story?”  “Would an activity that would involve more student interaction be more effective?”  “Could this task be accomplished through a demonstration of some sort?”  “Would my student benefit from more repertoire helping to reinforce the point the student needs to understand?”  “Would any sort of written assignment be beneficial?”

BUT, if the first question is about fun then every task listed above is evaluated according to its fun value and not its educational value.  You may think, “Going into detail may bore him.  I can’t to that.”  “Written assignments are a drag.  No one likes doing them.”  “This student doesn’t like this kind of piece.  He may lose interest if I assign it.”

YET, if the first question is about teaching, about educating, you will answer the questions above like this, “How can I make detail work interesting to this student?”  “How can I convince this student that this piece would benefit him?”  “What would aid this student in helping him see the value of this written assignment?”

Yes, these are more difficult questions to answer, but answering these questions can lead to a more intellectually engaged student and that, in turn, will result in much higher teacher satisfaction.

If a teacher’s primary concern is education, it will lead them to better questions and therefore better answers.  However, if your primary concern is making lessons “fun” you will be preventing yourself from asking proper questions and the answers to bad questions will result in answers that will lead to unsatisfactory results.

Now lets examine the concept of how excessive emphasis on wrong values can lead to very unhealthy consequences.

salt shakerLet’s compare “fun” in teaching to additives  like “salt” or “sugar” to the foods we eat.  Looking at these additives positively, we can all agree that salt can make something palatable, edible.  How many times have we been served something that needed salt to make it palatable?  Without the salt we wouldn’t, or maybe even couldn’t, have eaten the item served to us.  In like manner, some teaching tasks need to be salted to make them palatable to the student.

HOWEVER, I think we have all found that salt isn’t the only way to make something palatable.  Broiling cod in orange juice is terrific and requires no salt at all.  Often, herbs provide a great substitute for salt.  Sprinkling some Parmesan cheese on vegetables can cut down the salt content and eliminate the need for the salt shaker.  The point, through analogy, is that “fun” isn’t the only way of making piano “palatable”.  spice rackThere are many ways of making lessons palatable and even “delicious”.  Stories. Analogies. Demonstrations. Goals.

In fact, too much salt is not good for you.  Too much salt over a period of time is a cause of many health problems including high blood pressure and poor kidney function.  In like manner, always choosing “fun” will just as assuredly cause problems in piano study, including the “addiction” to “fun” as being a necessary additive to all education.  Would we become “addicted” to potato chips if they were unsalted?  Students need a judicious variety of additives to make their piano study healthy where they do not become sick.  Too much “fun” is as problematic as too much “salt” in the long term is, in both general health and piano lessons.

Let’s look at sugar.  “Sugar” is another culprit that’s used to excess and can be analogous to thoseSugar Bowl that feel the need to “sugar” every piano lesson, every activity, with “fun”.  But, we also know that too much sugar (excess) leads to diabetes; and diabetes can lead to other maladies, including blindness and even kidney failure.  Again, I see a direct line from a preoccupation with fun to meager results (poor piano health) after years of piano lessons.  When I end a lesson by telling the student, “We had a good lessons today!”, I’m always thinking the student learned a lot in his 30 or 60 minutes; not, that the student left the lesson in good spirits because we had fun in all the activities.

Also, don’t confuse palatability with addiction (excess).  A little sweetener is completely acceptable.  The problem is confusing taste with nutrition.  Sugar doesn’t give food more nutritional value it just make it more palatable, but the excess used day after day is what causes health problems.   In like manner, an undue concern to making our lessons sweet enough so they will always be enthusiastically consumed, is wrongheaded.  Our main concern should be the “nutritional value” of our lessons with only a secondary concern given to their “palatability”, and excesses need to be curtailed, if not dropped.

But let’s realize that food outlets know our addiction to salt and sugar.  People enjoy food that is salty or sweet.  It’s easy to eat a large bag of chips because we like the salt.  We can easily eat a dozen cookies because we love the sweetness.  We have become accustomed to unhealthy levels of salt and sugar because we are not sated by a few chips or a couple cookies.  We have been told by health care workers of all stripes to avoid excesses in salt and sugar.  I think the exact same thing could be said about education with the constant emphasis on making everything fun.

How many educational products are sold because of its “fun value” where its “educational value” is just given a passing incidental mention.  That’s because “fun” sells.  In fact, publishers will print and advertise products simply for their “fun value”.  Teachers can become addicted too and think that “fun” is the way to go and think through the pedagogical products they purchase.  Products that do not convince you of their “fun value” are viewed as not totally desirable.  Fun has become, not an additive, but an addiction given to us at excessive rates, and it’s harming our long term educational effectiveness.

I do need to make one important point before closing.  I am NOT saying that we don’t advertise ourselves as making music lessons “fun”.  We all have to dutifully mention that we make piano lessons “fun”; but, I’m sure we do that as a matter of feeling the societal pressure that it’s necessary to demonstrate we are not that stereotypical curmudgeon of past generations that rapped students on the knuckles for poor technical form or for scolding students for not practicing.   I get that.  I understand.

But I do see the need for us to see the serious drawbacks that can occur if we get caught up on the “fun trap”.  A trap that gives excessive attention to the feeling that making lessons “fun” is given a mouse_trappriority that it simply does not deserve.  “Fun” must only be considered an additive to make lessons palatable and needs to be administered judiciously, because in excess, it will lead to poor lesson health.  Remember “fun” isn’t the only additive in our teaching pallet; there’s stories, analogies, demonstrations, goals, and plain friendliness and genuine interest in our students as wonderful people.  But our priority, our first concern, must be on making our lessons educationally rich where music can work its magic in our student’s lives.

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The following selection is an excerpt from Middle C Repertoire – Book 2 — Ladybugs.  This piece is an excellent example of a composition tailor made for introducing piano students to eighth notes.
FF - SAMPLE Ladybugs p1
Many beginning students are challenged when eighth notes are introduced into their music compositions.  I find this is because:
1) The notes contain SKIPS or a combination of SKIPS and STEPS
2) The notes change their beat arrangement.  Sometimes the eighth note group begins on a weak beat and sometimes the eighth note group begins on a strong beat.  In each case each eighth note group has a different rhythmic feel.  An eighth note group beginning on a strong beat has a different feel than an eighth note group beginning on a weak beat.
FF - SAMPLE Ladybugs p2
On LADYBUGS every eighth note group is a set of REPEATED NOTES.  This takes away all reading difficulties and coordination issues created by eighth note arrangements of steps and skips.  The student can focus all their attention to the rhythmic feel of the eighth note rhythm
Also, every eighth note group begins on a strong beat; either BEAT 1 or BEAT 3; so, every group is going to have a slight accent on the “first note of the group”.   Every eighth note group with have the same rhythmic feel.  This constant identical feel will help the student learn the eighth note rhythm more easily.

I always group the two eighths notes with the following note.  In this case the group would be eighth-eighth-quarter.  I often call this little rhythmic unit a three note phrase as this is the way the ear most naturally organizes this rhythm.  Often I will say three note phrase as the students play this little rhythm while playing Ladybugs.

Try this piece with your beginning students in their learning of eighth notes and I think you will see a quicker learning curve in this little musical hurdle.

To learn more about Middle C Repertoire Book 2 “click” on the graphic below to view a video of the contents of Middle C Repertoire Book 2 and some of the pedagogical thought behind it.
Middle C - Book2A (Color Cover)
Middle C Repertoire – Book 2

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Piano Teacher Press is adding an exciting new line of teaching products called IMITATION SOLOS.  IMITATION SOLOS are FOLIOS of musical selections, theory briefs, written work, performance exercises and certificates of achievement.

The basic concept of IMITATION SOLOS is to take a selection from the Classical student repertoire and arrange a well known Folk Song in the manner of the Classical selection.  If the Classical piece contains alberti bass patterns the Folk Song is arranged with alberti bass patterns.  If the Classical piece contains a particular syncopated motif the Folk Song is arranged with the same syncopated motif.

The reason I originally did this was to take the “mystique” out of Classical music.  I remember as a grade school student in the 1960’s my friends talking about the Beatles.  They were in awe of them because they did some of the same thing in their songs as Beethoven.  WOW!!  My friends thought if the Beatles did the same things as Beethoven they must be on a higher plane of musical composition than even Elvis.

As young music students discover the musical world they are mentally trying to figure it out.  In the process they can come to some opinions that are formed without quite enough information.  IMITATION SOLOS were written to help students on that journey of mental discovery.  If the unknown “mystical” world of Classical music can be demystified by comparing it to something in the more familiar world of folk music then we will have facilitated that mental journey of discovery.


Most IMITATION SOLOS are going to begin with a page called Technically SpeakingTechnically Speaking lays out the technically common feature(s) between the Classical Composition and the Folk Song.

Let’s take the idea of Melodic Imitation.  In my private studio I’ve always used Kabalevsky’s elementary composition Chit Chat but since Kabalevsky’s compositions are still under copyright protection I composed an equivalent in a piece called HelloHello.

Hello – Hello is another piece of direct melodic imitation.  Each measure is directly imitated in the next.

Hello Hello Sample

Hello – Hello is followed by treating the Folk Song – Are You Sleeping? in the same exact manner of direct melodic imitation.

Are You Sleeping SAMPLE

But IMITATION SOLOS do not stop here.  There are two more important sections designed to help the student assimilate the concept of Melodic Imitation; WRITE ON! and PLAY ON!

In WRITE ON!  the student is given a little composing/copying assignment that reinforces the idea of melodic imitation through writing.  The student is given another popular folk song, Three Blind Mice, and asked to complete each of the short phrases in direct imitation; just like the Classical Composition and the Folk Song.

Three Blind Mice SAMPLE

After students do their written work they must play that work, their own creative effort, to see the result and to solidify the concept of Melodic Imitation.

When students experience Melodic Imitation in Hello – Hello and then see the same concept expressed in an arrangement of Are You Sleeping?; the “mystique” of Classical music becomes part of the common language of all music. Students begin to feel like they are an intellectual part of the long tradition of Classical music expressed through its actual creation.  This is a very different feel and experience than just learning to physically “play pieces”.

After the completion of understanding the concept of Melodic Imitation through Technically Speaking, learning the Classical Composition, learning the Folk Song arrangement (with the option to memorize these pieces), doing the WRITE ON! assignment to understand the concept through the act of writing, and finally playing the PLAY ON! assignment to gain fluency in the concept the student can feel a degree of ownership in understand an important aspect of musical understanding.  They can and should be justly awarded a certificate for his efforts.  There are two certificates that is included in your FOLIO; one for black and white printers and one for color printers.  Each certificate has “boxes” to check off the individual assignments to earn the certificate in Melodic Imitation”.



I have about 20 IMITATION SOLO FOLIOS in various stages of development.  They fall in the mid elementary to the mid intermediate level of advancement.  Stay tuned for future installments of IMITATION SOLOS.


Watch a YouTube Video narrated by Professor I.M. Pedantic.  Click HERE or on the graphic below.  (The video includes a performance of the Classical Composition and the Folk Song arrangement).PTP VIDEO LOGO -Professor Pedantic Speaks

To purchase IMITATION SOLO – Melodic Imitation go to Piano Teacher Press and click HERE or on the graphic below.  (The Web Site also includes a performance of the Classical Composition and the Folk Song arrangement).

PTP - Piano LOGO

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It is almost a mantra among piano teachers that they should teach artistry from the very first lesson.  This sounds very lofty.  It just sounds correct.  How could anyone disagree with something so sensible?

As a young teacher I was convinced that this would be my approach.  I was convicted to become the very best teacher I could be and that my students were going to become artistic performers.  I always was patient but I kept my standards very high.  I did my best to make sure there were no breaks in legato phrasing.  Every dynamic change needed to be clearly discerned.  We would work for perfectly timed ritardandos at the end of their compositions.  Staccatos passages needed to be perfectly even in their duration.  I would not allow a student to graduate from a piece until it was thoroughly mastered.  When my students were judged in their Guild Auditions the judges were very pleased with my attention to detail.  One judge told me that I brought each student to the potential of their ability.  I was pleased.

I was teaching artistry from the very first lesson and getting good results.  One year at Guild Auditions our judge was from the piano faculty of Carnegie Mellon University.  Her name was Helen Gossard.  She was quiet, well spoken and very intelligent.  I had the opportunity to speak with her several times during her stay judging my center, since I was the chairman of the center. I give her credit for helping me look at artistry from a different perspective.

I remember her telling me that she would give a student credit for simply making a good effort at playing a staccato passage.  I thought differently.  A good effort isn’t enough.  It must be done properly.  I mentioned previous judges comments that they appreciated my attention to detail.  She mentioned the work of another teacher in my center, a teacher in her 60’s when I was in my 30’s, who had much more experience than I.  She mentioned the high quality of her work.  I had to admit to the high quality of her work, though I thought I did a better job in teaching musical detail.  Ms. Gossard told me that the detail she taught was very good.

This experience got me to start thinking about my teaching and to consider if I was missing things because of being so strictly focused on performance artistry.  I questioned this not because I didn’t have a full class of students or that students were quitting, in fact, I would even inherit a few of this other teacher’s students through transfers.

I began to consider that there were other ways to consider artistry.  One important way is to consider the artistry of teaching itself, not only the artistry in performing music.  Everything I was teaching was driven by artistry whether it was scales, arpeggios, chords, transposing, ear training, ….. everything.  But giving thought to the artistry of teaching was a brand new avenue for thought that I had given very little attention.

I think one can learn a lot from observing artists in non musical fields and how they approach their art.  One TV show I loved watching as a young child was a show where I could observe John Gnagy, an artist, drawing landscapes and other drawings.

Observing an artist drawing a portrait of a person is very much like a piano teacher forming (drawing) a young musician.

I think this analogy will help give you  a different vision of how to develop a young musician.  Yes, it’s full of detail, but it’s not a detail where one notices a perfection on individual parts but a detail of general shapes and patterns that eventually emerge into a beautiful picture.  The artist will develop the portrait moving from place to place in the drawing adding more and more detail and the drawing emerges from the canvas.  This is NOT at all analogous to the image of my teaching, where every element of their composition had to be perfectly mastered before I was satisfied to move the student to new repertoire.


Snip 1Here is the drawing at the very beginning of the process.  There is no detail at this juncture, just a framework to get started.  We cannot discern,with any certainty, the image from these elemental markings.  I remember in my initial interview with a student as a young teacher I would ask the student very non musical questions.  Can you say the alphabet to G?  Can you say the alphabet backwards from G to A?  I would play little games with the student to determine if they were right handed or left handed.  I would ask the parent questions about their piano (no one had keyboards in the 60’s).  I would ask the parent where the piano was in their home.  I was just laying a framework of questions to see if we had the elemental markings necessary for a successful piano student.  At least I was doing this right.


Snip 2On the second image we can discern the outlines of a man.  We have the shape of a head containing an ear, an eye, a nose, the beginnings of a neck and a mouth.  We have a shape but we do not have detail.  I can now see the concept of giving a student credit for attempting staccato even though it may not be executed with great precision and detail.  In the first months of study it’s perfectly OK to be concerned with teaching the general “shape of staccato” but, this may not be the time to be concerned with great precision in the detail in its execution.  That detail can wait for another time.

But, the obvious question is “What do we then teach?”  “What do we do with the lesson time?” At this stage, you teach general musical shapes not being concerned with the detail that can wait for a future time.  You learn to teach these basic concepts and be satisfied by the efforts of the student that they can achieve at that moment in their development.  If eighth notes are not perfectly even that’s OK.  As they develop, under you watchful eye, this will develop.  There are certainly going to be many repertoire pieces that are going to feature eighth notes. But, to become fixated on the artistry of performance waiting for perfection from the student is like our artist working on the nose of his painting until it’s perfect in every detail before moving to the eye.  We must learn to be much more holistic in moving the complete performance ability of the student in all its individual parts (shapes) forward.


Sniip 3At the next level we begin adding some detail, but only at a moderate level.  After the basic shapes are gently sketched out we are ready to begin filling out the detail.  Also, the painting begins adding some issues of depth perception.  Also, notice at this juncture, the back of the head and the ear is still only sketched.

Applying this analogously to music performance we can make our students aware of some moderate level of detail in dynamics.  We could make students aware of some basic details on music forms.  Teaching, for example, about binary form is fine.  But, going into the detail of key changes and modulation through the A and B sections is an example of adding more detail than is necessary at this stage.  Some introductory comments about music’s style periods may be fine but the necessity of going into more detail isn’t necessary at this point.  Again, think holistically.  The goal is to keep in mind the whole image. We can make students aware of phrases in a general way but at this stage there’s no need to become specific or elaborate.  The goal is to move all the individual parts slowly forward at generally the same pace.  Why teach sotto voce when basic dynamic contrasts are not easily executable?  Maybe our student, at this level, is having difficulty in keeping his accompaniments sufficiently soft.  It would be a much better use of time to begin to work on this detail at a moderate level than the subtlety of sotto voce.


Snip 4At the intermediate level of this drawing there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to patiently be completed.  One thing I discovered when I was on artistry from the very first lesson approach was that my students could play well.  They scored very well at auditions and festivals, but they couldn’t read well.  This was a direct result of not building the whole student and being overly focused on performance detail.  It was actually a disservice to my students.

Many young students get to the intermediate level in late grade school and middle school years.  At this age their identity with popular music becomes very strong.  It’s the music of their peers.  Using popular music as a means to develop sight reading skills makes great sense.  Give them popular music, a lot of it.  It doesn’t even have to be at their performance level.  Giving students music below their performance level is perfect for sight reading material.

I find popular music provides very good material for teaching students about phrasing and the singing musical line.  It also provides good rhythmic challenges; different rhythmic challenges than classical music, but it is still good material for teaching students moderate level detail work for most students in their teen years.

But, there are many things that can be included in this intermediate level to be taught at a moderate level of detail.  The four major stylistic eras can be explored with some introductory music history.  An introduction to Baroque dances, an outline of the history of the piano, the association with composers to their style period would each make for a framework of study of music history to be fleshed out if lessons continue at a high school or collegiate level.

While students are learning their popular music, continue to work on developing the whole musician and work on music from every performance angle but still at a moderate level.  We’re not teaching students at a graduate school level.

SNIP 5 – MORE PATIENCE! Ending Moderate Detail/Filling in the Gaps

Snip 5Take time to think what are the basic shapes that need thought at the elementary level.  Think of every possible musical shape.  Often, we will think of rather sophisticated things, like unusual meters as 5/4 or 7/8.  Ask yourself, “How can I best prepare my students for these meters in the elementary level as “basic shapes?”  “How can I move my student from the elementary level to the intermediate level in teaching these meters?”  What would these meters look like at a moderate level of detail?  The goal is to lay the proper framework at the elementary level to move the student to the level of moderate detail and difficulty.  To do this without proper preparation is going to take considerably more time than with proper preparation.  Every part of our drawing begins with basic shapes before detail is added and piano teachers need to be thinking in the same manner.

The artistry of teaching is a very rich and rewarding enterprise but it only is achieved with a lot of active purpose and mental effort.  It is also a very different enterprise that the artistry of performance even though it may use much of the same information.


Snip 6At this stage the drawing is really beginning to look like a work of art.  An image is beginning to emerge.

I look at this extended process as NOT going from Point A to Point B but rather going from Point A to Point Z.   Going from Point A to Point B just requires simple easily discernible logic.  Going from no dynamics to learning forte vs piano is a rather easy step from the point of teaching; though it takes some patience and insistence on the teacher’s part for the student to master this basic rudimentary means of expression.  The same could be said for developing a staccato and a legato touch.

But, from going to Point A to Point Z is like the long process of learning to express the musical line. This is something that is well beyond the simple logic from going from Point A to Point B.  Phrasing beautifully is a long journey that requires a sophisticated touch.  It requires nuance.  It required the development of an artistic sense to intuit the rise and fall of the melodic line.  It requires a sense of a beginning leading to an end.  It includes a sense of breathing.  It includes an apprehension of the continuity of one phrase to the next.  It requires “sound poetry”.  I think if you would write your own list you could add many other very valid points.  All this leads to the fact that for something as sophisticated as artistically expressive music lines, we have so many elements that it cannot possibly be taught as a Point A going to Point B.  To burden an elementary student with this like asking a first grader to understand geometry.

It may be a good idea for a teacher to develop a repertoire of compositions that include your major points of phrasing you feel are musical necessities to great phrasing; in fact maybe have several pieces for each point.  It may also be a good idea to make a list of several Point A to Point Z issues that need a long look for mastery.  Understand meter, simple and compound through all the basic time signatures may be one.  Understand piano technique would be another; moving the student from simple ideas to moderately sophisticated ideas to advanced ideas.  It may be easier to just allow this to happen as the repertoire advances but isolating these issues would be advantageous to both teacher and student and really add the concept of the artistry of teaching.


Snip 8Here’s the final picture in all its detail.  What began as simple framework shapes is now a  real piece of art.  Developing a student as a “work of art” in itself requires thought of someone that approaches teaching itself as an art form and then superimposes his educational art upon his artistic craft of musical performance.

We notice an aged man, mature, detailed down to the lines and wrinkles of his old worn face and beard.  The artist created this drawing not by drawing each feature perfectly and independently of the other.  He drew it by first outlining his basic facial structure and slowly adding general details of each feature and finally by adding the final details which distinguishes this man as a unique individual.

I think by approaching music teaching from this perspective will provide us with an approach that will keep us from an ill advised fastidiousness to detail, that I fell into in my early teaching career, to a panoramic view with an eye to the end that still begins with the very first lesson.

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Many students take music lessons for several years.  Very good piano teachers have taught many students from preschool until they get involved in other activities in their early teen years.  At the end of that time many students can play individual pieces very convincingly.  The musicianship is strong.  The technique is solid.  The understanding of their piece is stylistically accurate.  You know from the performance that the student was “well taught”.  The student is “accomplished”.

But, put a new piece of music in front of this same  hard working student and it’s like having a young grade school student read a page of Chauser’s Cantebury Tales in original 14th century Middle English.  The student can make out an occasional word or two, maybe a short phrase here and there, but without any fluency that can make thought out of the text.  The delivery is very halting.  Words are pronounced very slowly and deliberately, often incorrectly.

This sounds like an entirely different student than the one just played so convincingly.  Unfortunately, this is far too often the norm and not the exception.  Why is this?  Why is sight reading music so difficult.

I definitely do not place the fault on the piano student.  If they can play well it is because they can respond to music as music.  Music is a language they can speak.  I do not fault the teacher because they have demonstrated obvious skill to get the student to the point of accurate performance.

I think the fault is one of priority.  We want piano students to first and foremost demonstrate musicianship.  We want to hear beautifully shaped phrases.  We want to inform students as to the meaning of all those notes on the page.  We get caught up so much on the “meaning of those notes” that we lose focus of the notes themselves.  They almost become an unimportant means to the end.  The priority we need to give to the notes gets shunted to the side because of our focus on the “meaning”.  We want to see a forest without appreciating the trees that create that forest.  Translating this to music, we want to hear the song without giving due attention to the arrangement of the notes.  If we want students to become good sight readers, we must make sight reading a priority.  A very high priority.

Sight reading needs its own “method” books.  Our best method books are not well designed for teaching sight reading.  They have been designed for performance purposes; for teaching musicianship.  I think most methods today do a good job in this department.  Most teachers, myself included, want to teach musicianship from the very beginning, even the first lesson.  We are trained to think this way.  Our method books are centered on the Lesson Book.  All other books are ancillary to that Lesson Book.  The Performance Book. The Theory Book.  The Technique Book.  The Reading Book.

Because we are trained to think this way we give such a priority to musicianship that we neglect giving students the skills read music fluently.   We see staccato in a little composition and we give a great deal of attention to producing a good staccato sound.  We give attention to how to do this technically.  We notice unevenness in the fingers, as fingers 4 and 5 cannot play staccato with the same precision as fingers 2 and 3 …… and then there’s the thumb.  The focus becomes so easily totally wrapped up in musicianship issues that before we know it the lesson is over.

This all involves very professionally training.  It involves real teaching skill.  It is all very satisfying work.  But, this pattern of giving so much attention to these musical matters is having the unintended consequences of having students that play well but can’t sight read worth beans.  Students rightly deserve their superior ratings in auditions and festivals but they were neglected the training to become the independent musicians we all desire.  I know many teachers, like myself, set before themselves the lofty goal of “making themselves obsolete”.  Certainly, one of the best ways to make oneself obsolete is to teach our student to become good sight readers.

This idea really deserves a full length book but I’m going to give some basic ideas to get us to thinking about this topic.


To read text, the eye must take in only a small amount of “vertical space”; a space no higher than the size of the font.  I remember in grade school, there were machines that would focus our eyes on this vertical space and the text would fly by at various speeds to help us become quicker readers.  This machine worked very well because in the sixth grade I was reading and comprehending at almost a 10th grade level.

Reading music is much more involved than reading text.  The amount of vertical space required is much larger.  No longer must the eye take in a single line of text, but the eye must take in the grand staff; a treble clef and a bass clef, and some sometimes multiple lines of music.

To read music one must develop the ability to not only move their eyes from left to right but also up and down.  If the right hand is a simple one note, treble clef melody and the left hand is a series of bass clef chords, the eye must move in a complex pattern of left to right to take in the melody, and, simultaneously with a down up motion to focus in on the changing chordal patterns.  This is “simple” monophonic music.  A piece with polyphonic elements is much more challenging.

Certainly a considerably amount of time needs to be dedicated to the development of the student’s ability to take in this high increase of vertical space.  So, to accomplish this task, a dedicated time commitment by both the teacher and the student is required.  Remember we don’t want to lose track of that lofty goal of “becoming obsolete”.

STEP ONE – The Music Reader

Remember the reading machines I mentioned that helped me read text more quickly? A very low tech equivalent is to make a “music reader” from dark colored construction paper.

Sight Reading Aid

Cut out a “see through” area (white). This “see through” area should be large enough to take in a single grand staff system.  The length should be long enough to help the student to be a few notes ahead of what they are actually playing.  This little invention will help focus the student’s eye directly to the music needing read.  Move the “music reader”, always keeping it ahead of the student’s performance.  This will also keep the student from moving their eyes back what they already played; a habit to be avoided when learning sight reading techniques.

For very undisciplined eyes the black area of the reader could be larger vertically.

Using this device should be part of every lesson.  We are slowly training the focus of the eye to take in greater vertical space in a methodical and systematic way.

STEP TWO – Choosing Materials for Sight Reading

Another idea that is helpful is to have students learn music that centers on the notes close to Middle C.  Remember this is a Reading Method, not a Performing Method.  The reason is that music that centers on notes close to Middle C is that it shrinks the amount of vertical space the student needs to take in.  Method Books, in their desire to get the student to understand the complete Grand Staff System, will include repertoire that take in a lot of vertical space.  Compositions in G position is a good example.  These teach the notes of the staff but they are poor sight reading material.  I find the old piano primers that grew symmetrically from Middle C to provide very good sight reading material; especially from the perspective of vertical space.

STEP THREE – PreScore Analysis

The following composition is an excerpt from Middle C Repertoire – Book 1 My Little Flat published by Piano Teacher Press.   (Click on the icon below for details)

PTP - Piano LOGO


excerpt - Middle C Repertoire - Book 1

Before actually playing the score I help the student analyze the composition.  I will ask the student of the sections in blue, “What do you notice about the sections highlighted in blue”?  I’ll ask questions until I get the recognition that each section highlighted in blue contain the same two notes.  Then I’ll ask, “What are the two notes?”   Then I’ll ask the student to play F and D.

I will then ask the student to find any pattern in the notes highlighted in orange.  I’ll ask questions to try to lead the student to recognize the orange notes follow a chromatic pattern.  We will play the chromatic pattern from B flat down to G.

We will finally analyze the two yellow passages and discuss that these notes are passages in steps (with some repeated notes).

If the student understands the B flat scale we may play that before playing the piece, but I probably wouldn’t teach the B flat scale before learning a sight reading piece; a repertoire piece, yes, a sight reading piece, no.

The next step is to have the student mentally play the piece in his mind and to the best of his ability hear the notes in his mind.  The last step in to actually play the piece with the “music reader”.  If the student is ready, certainly count to see if this can be done at a steady tempo.

This, I feel, is a good process to follow to teach a student to sight read music.  It needs to be a regular devoted routine so the student can accumulate a little bit of information each week, each lesson.

It needs to be systematic and the materials need to be structured where the steps accomplished are almost not discerned to the student.  No one is perfect, and sometimes it may be in the best interest of the student to give the student something more challenging, but overall the goal is read more and more difficult music fluently.  It’s also a goal to give the student confidence that they can sight read music successfully.

A good sight reading program needs to be constructed in a manner that trains the eye to be able to focus on more and more vertical space, so don’t neglect using the “music reader”.  This focus on sight reading will be a big step in helping us all reach that lofty goal of making ourselves “obsolete”; a little Everest for us and for our students.

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Tablets PC’s in the Piano Studio

I have always been fascinated with J.S. Bach’s — Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  This simple baroque folio gives us a glimpse into the methods of one of the first great pedagogues of the keyboard.  Of course, at this time there were no keyboard methods written.  J.S. Bach could’t go down to the local music store and get a copy of the latest Piano Adventures.

To me , I found a couple intriguing observations.  One was that sometimes there was only a part of a composition written.  I gather from this that Bach, and perhaps other teachers of the Baroque, was very interested in teaching not only the mechanics of technique but also the theory of  composition as well.  Another interesting point was that The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach also had a couple sheets of blank manuscript paper.  A teacher with the gift of improvisation as J.S. Bach would carry on that gift to his teaching.  He was ready at a moments inspiration to write out something he found necessary for his student’s continuing musical education.

This whole idea of Notebooks got me to thinking of possible advantages that we could bring our students in our age when so much is prepackaged for our student’s consumption.  The individuality of each student can easily get lost.  But individuality was NOT lost in the day of Bach.  It seems it was a natural part of the way students were taught music 300 years ago.  The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach was written for a specific individual — Anna Magdalena Bach.  That in itself is an important point to ponder.


During my research of finding a suitable tablet device and I came across the HP Slate 500 I began to see how I could design an electronic version of  The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach for each of my students.  Once I saw this was a real possibility, it became the main focus of my research.

With the great portability of a tablet PC; the HP Slate 500 also included a digitizer pen. I could take notes on each of my students without the need of a bulky keyboard or the limited functionality of the screen keyboards found on many tablet computers.

Many times I would end a lesson and the thought would come to me that I needed to go over some musical material at the next lesson.  Maybe I taught the student about scales but I didn’t have enough time to show the relationship between scales and chords.  If I had a file for each student I could write down a note so I have the reminder I needed to teach this at the next lesson I saw with this student.  I found this would be a very doable way of using a tablet PC.

On most lessons I don’t have enough time to cover every book in which I have a student working.  This would be another very doable application because of the portability of a tablet PC.  On the student’s file I just needed to jot down a quick note of any uncovered material that needed to be covered first in the next lesson.

I’ve also found that many students would purposely avoid playing a piece or a book.  Sometimes the student would postpone playing a piece for several weeks.  Writing down all uncovered material in a special file on my tablet PC solves this issue.  Now my lessons would have much better continuity than previously.

Microsoft OneNote and the HP Slate 500

About this time in my research I found that Microsoft has a fantastically flexible piece of software that could be a piano teacher’s dream for creating Student Notebooks patterned after Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  The software is OneNote.  It’s part of the suite of applications found on most versions of Microsoft Office.

The HP Slate 500 comes equipped with a digitizer pen and excellent handwriting recognition software.  It works beautifully in conjunction with OneNote.

First, I made a Notebook for each student.  I saved all my Student Notebooks on Microsoft’s SkyDrive.  I can give each student (and parent) a web address where they can always view my most updated version of their Notebook.  For my parents that are not so computer savvy I can eMail them the contents of their child’s notebook.  OneNote has the built in feature where I can eMail the parents directly from within OneNote.  (As you continue reading this blog you will see how useful this ability can be).

For my students that do not take their lessons at my studio where I may not have access to the internet, I’ve also a copy of each Student’s Notebook on a 32 GB SD card.  (If I chose, I could also store the Notebooks on the 64 GB hard drive that comes standard on the Slate 500.)  Windows 7 also has a feature where I can synchronize all my student Notebooks on my Slate 500 with the Notebooks on the SkyDrive.

The Student Notebooks and using them with the Slate 500

The first thing I should mention is that the Student Notebooks are NOT assignment books.  Assignment books are for the STUDENTS BENEFIT.  The OneNote Notebook is for the TEACHERS BENEFIT, but also has great usefulness to the student.  It’s a tool for the teacher to keep track of what’s going on educationally and digitally with each student.

I organize each Student Notebook into MONTHS.  I create a new page at the first lesson of each month.  I update the REPERTOIRE LIST I create for each student.  The REPERTOIRE LIST contains all the major compositions a student is working on.  I carry over my studio color code system directly into my OneNote Notebooks.  Regular pieces are listed in BLACK.  Memory pieces are marked in RED.  (I use red paper clips in my student’s books to indicate a piece that is to be memorized.) Performance pieces are marked in BLUE.  ((I use blue paper clips in my student’s books to indicate a piece being prepared for a performance.)  As pieces are completed for study I ask the student if they would consider the piece for their yearly Guild Auditions.  If they say YES – I highlight that piece in GREEN.  If they want to be completed with a piece I highlight the title of the piece in GREY.

A REPERTOIRE list may look like this …..


  • Alpine Sonatina – MVT III
  • Funeral March of the Marionette
  • Highland Jig
  • Alpine Sonatina MVT I
  • March of the Migrant Mouse
  • Chit-Chat:Kabalevsky

Having this list gives me, at a quick glance, a quick review of the exact work load of each student.  This is very beneficial to me where I can instantly organize the student’s lesson.

Another very helpful organizational note I can make in a Student’s Notebook is to make a notation as to something I need to cover the next lesson.  For example – If I notice a student is having difficult memorizing a composition I make a notation in the Student’s Notebook.  Like this …..

NEXT WEEK: Give memory techniques for Highland Jig

I often don’t get everything book covered in a lesson.  OneNote is the perfect memory jogger.  A simple notation is all I need.



One of the coolest features of the Slate 500 is that you can add hyperlinks to a Student’s Notebook.  If I’m working with a student on the old English folk song Greensleeves  I can, not only, play it for the student using the Slate 500 by going to YouTube but I can also add the link and make it a part of the Student’s Notebook.  I simply copy the link from my WebBrowser and paste in into the Student’s Notebook.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVWhxoIkHtY  Baltimore Consort:Greensleeves

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0GQceYJPdE&feature=related Greensleeves  (arr. Vaughan Williams)

Another way I can record using the Slate 500 is by recording a mp3 file.  If I record myself within OneNote it will automatically put the link into the Student’s Notebook.  What I can do is simply sent the student’s notebook to the student’s eMail address and the file automatically becomes an attachment.  Click on the attachment and the student can hear the recording.

Many times a student wants me to play a new composition for them so they can hear it.  It takes no extra time to prepare the Slate 500 to make an mp3 recording of their new piece.  Again, OneNote’s recording capabilities are all part of the OneNote package.  There’s no need to exit OneNote to a piece of recording software and then import the mp3 file into OneNote.  This can all be done within OneNote itself!

The eMail client I use is Mozilla’s Thunderbird.  Within OneNote itself I can directly export a Student’s Notebook to their eMail address.  ALL mp3 and videos are sent to my students through attachments.  In our example above the student would not only get my personal mp3 recording BUT ALSO the two versions of Greensleeves!!  All attachments are included in the eMail automatically!

Of course, just like the iPad, the Slate 500 contains two cameras; one for Skyping and another for “stills” and “videos”.

One time I was teaching a student about legato pedaling for the first time.  It is always a bit confusing.  So, I recorded the whole little lecture.  After I recorded the lecture it automatically created a mp3 link in hypertext as part of the student’s OneNote notebook.  The student had this mini lecture for her future reference just by finding the file and playing it again.  I recommend all my students make a special folder in their eMail program called Piano Lessons PLUS for all their correspondence I may send them.

For anyone seriously interested in the Slate 500 I should mention that it comes with a Docking Station.  The Docking Station comes equipped with a port for external speakers.  I purchased a pair of Bose Speakers and the sound quality is excellent.  My students get exceptional sound quality for everything I play for them from YouTube.  One of the greatest features of the Slate 500 is its expandability.

Using HDMI with the Slate 500

HDMI gives the Slate 500 the ability to connect to large screen computer monitors; even large screen TV’s if so equipped with HDMI.  I have my Slate Docking Station connected via HDMI to a 24 inch computer monitor.  When I place the Slate 500 on the Docking Station the screen on the Slate 500 is projected on to the large monitor.  This is a very nice feature when I’m playing a symphonic composition on YouTube.  When I set YouTube to play in full screen mode the 24 inch monitor adjusts to full screen mode too.  Students get an excellent view of the full symphony orchestra.

A really great educational feature of having the HDMI monitor is that I can to “chalk talks” using Windows Paint (a program included with Windows 7.  The Slate 500 comes automatically loaded with Windows 7 Professional).  After I’ve completed the “chalk talk” I can save the “chalk talk” as a .jpeg file and import this directly into the Student’s Notebook.  Where I used to do “chalk talks” on a dry erase board all I could do is  erase them and hope the student remembered the material.  NOW I can import the chalk talk into the Student’s Notebook and when I send this via eMail it can be printed out and reviewed.  Students know that when they go home there’s an eMail waiting for them with valuable information in what they just covered in their private lesson.

The nice thing about Microsoft Paint is that my “chalk talks” are in full color.  This is very handy.  If I am teaching a student about chord inversions, I can always color the ROOT in red and this helps the student easily identify their chords as they are first working through the material. And don’t forget, this is very easily imported into the Student’s OneNote Notebook.

I’ve made several .jpeg files of music staff paper.  If my “chalk talk” requires the music staff, which it often does, I’m ready to go in no time.  When I’m done with the little lecture I simply give the file a new name using “SAVE AS” and the file is ready to import into OneNote.  Actually, OneNote has drawing capabilities, but I find Windows Paint is more powerful for my “chalk talk” needs.

Another thing I have done it to convert all my Method Books into .jpeg files.  I can then import any composition of my method books into Microsoft Paint and make a theory lesson from their Method Book.  This saves a lot of superfluous writing in the students method books.  I think this simulates what J.S. Bach did by only writing out a single part of a composition.  The student could more easily learn their composition “brick by brick“.

Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse

Through one of the three USB ports one can connect a keyboard and mouse if one wants to use the Slate 500 for cleaning up a student’s notebook or for writing a studio wide eMail to all the parents of your student.  If you use Microsoft Office you can do work on any Microsoft Program; Excel, Powerpoint, Word and, of course, OneNote.

This blog only covers how I’m using the Slate 500 in the creation of Student Notebooks using OneNote.  But just this one application alone has brought my teaching fully into the 21st century.  I’m am fully satisfied with my purchase and I hope it has stimulated you into opening up your mind to new possibilities into using tablet computers.

The Slate 500 was specifically designed for professionals in both business AND education.  I think you can see through this blog how the capabilities of the Slate 500 has tremendous hardware capabilities that can enhance the educational possibilities of any music teacher.

I think ol’  J.S. Bach himself would be pleased.

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