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In high school I had a friend who became his schools valedictorian.  We were both members of a speech club patterned after Toastmaster’s International.  One meeting Rich was scheduled to give a speech.  I remember it to this day.  It was on the subject of How to Learn Effectively.  Rich didn’t create this method but he used it with obvious success.

The method is SQ3R or Survey/Question/Read/Recite/Review.  I think this method can be adapted to be a superb plan for helping our students learn their repertoire assignments. In adapting the method for music study I slightly altered the sequence by switching the last two “R” items making it  Survey/Question/Read/Review/Recite.  SQ3R is a method guaranteed to improve learning and comprehension in our student’s music study.

I think most students just lunge into their assignment and begin slugging through their new pieces through sight reading. Another slightly more disciplined approach many students use is to first learn hands separately.  But, can this method for learning new assignments be improved upon?  I say YES!!  According to SQ3R jumping into immediately reading the piece is a mistake.  According to SQ3R “reading” is the third step of the five step plan.  Let’s review this plan and apply it to learning a musical composition.

The Overview

SQ 3R or SQRRR stands for Survey – Question – Read – Review – Recite.

SURVEY – Survey the piece for new symbols, words, dynamics, phrases, touches, repeats, fingering, possible trouble spots

QUESTION – As much as you can, study the piece and take in as much as you can without playing the piece through.  Mentally imagine playing isolated passages, for example.  And, after mentally playing through the passage, physically play through the passage.  If the piece contains thumb turns mentally imagine playing those thumb turns.  Make plans as to how to go about learning the trouble spots and then execute that plan by physically playing through it.

READ –  Read through the piece but first determine which parts you’re going to play hands separately and which parts you’re going to play hands together.  ANOTHER R to associate with reading is REPEAT.  REPEAT this step until you can play through the piece steadily and musically.

REVIEW – Once you can play through the piece steadily and musically; to bring this piece to the next level (if you so desire) begin memorizing the piece.  ANOTHER R to associate with review is RECALL.

RECITE – After the piece is well “in your fingers” and, for the most part memorized, we can take this piece to an even higher level and make it RECITAL READY.  ANOTHER R to associate with recite (for my students) is RECORD.  I ask my students to record their favorite compositions as part of their lessons.

I think by students not giving due attention to the first two steps (Survey and Question) they make the third step (Read) much more difficult than it need be.  I think if students will get in the habit of properly surveying and asking questions about their pieces, BEFORE taking their fingers to the keys and reading the piece for the first time, a goodly part of the reading issues will already he partially accomplished.  This is one of the major reasons I think SQ3R is superior to having students jump into reading the piece cold, without proper preparation.  Jumping into reading pieces immediately without due preparation is one of the reasons I think our students may get frustrated with the learning process in taking on their new compositions.

More Detail – SURVEY

In applying SQ3R to music study, I’m saying SURVEY would include those areas of a music composition would include all those items that can be learned through a quick glancing over the music.  I think it is important for the teacher to teach the student “how to survey” a piece of music.

If a composition has a repeat mark, point to the repeat mark and ask the student, “Where do we begin this repeat?”

Is the student familiar with all of the musical terms found in the composition.  The teach should define the terms.

Also include looking at the title of the composition!  If the piece is called Scherzo does the student understand the term and how that would effect the nature of his performance.  The teacher should inform the student so they have a basic understanding of the term.

Finally, at the SURVEY level the student should spot those areas that may provide technical or reading challenges.  If a student has little experience playing left hand eighth note patterns taking note of that passage would be in order.  If there are some very low bass tones the student has never played take note of them.  All this preliminary work help orient the student to the task at hand in learning this new composition.

To repeat, I think it’s very important for the teacher to impress on the student the necessity to SURVEY their composition before playing a note. This is counter to the impulse to get ones fingers running through the notes of a new piece as soon as possible.

Also, at the beginning stages of learning students are carte blanche  and need to develop the skill of learning how to SURVEY a piece of music.  It should be a part of the piano lesson for the first several years of piano study while the student gradually can do this independently from the teacher.  I would also recommend giving students a SURVEY ASSIGNMENT occasionally to check their growing ability of learning how to SURVEY their compositions.

More Detail – QUESTION

This step of SQ3R is where the student asks many QUESTIONS as to how to go about playing the piece.  This requires both mental work and physically work in playing through those isolated trouble spots one found in the SURVEY stage.

This stage is where the student takes the information gleaned from the SURVEY stage and gives it physical application.  If we take our example of learning our first Scherzo the student should give some mental thought and ask QUESTIONS as to how to create an image of playing a piece with good humor.

If the piece has some trouble spots we can isolate those passages, perhaps decide on a good fingering (mental work), and then get a start of learning that passage (physical work).  If one goes through this QUESTIONING method through each tricky passage of a composition one will be in a much better position when one finally gets to the point of playing through the complete composition.

As an example.  I recently started a new transfer student with only 4 months of previous lessons.  She wasn’t poorly taught but she was struggling with her note reading, as do many beginning students.  She already knew several scales and was beginning to learn about chords.  There was a lot of good teaching that I could build upon.  One of the first things I taught this student was “reading in steps”.  I taught her the concept of steps; notes moving from line to space.  THEN I would take a piece from her book and highlight all the step passages in yellow.  A good 85% of this particular piece was steps.  I asked the student a QUESTION. “How much of this piece is made of steps?”. The student quickly observed through my SURVEYING of the music for her that almost the complete piece was made of steps.  When the student saw that 85% of her piece was just stepping to the next note she immediately was able to play the piece with greater steadiness and security.   This is SURVEY and QUESTION at work!

Another example with the same student.  We were learning a very simple arrangement of This Land is Your Land.  This little arrangement had two repetitions of the main theme.  The second repetition had accompanying notes for the left hand.  We didn’t have a lot of experience with this type of simple harmonization so before playing a note I pointed out that this would be a “trouble spot” and something we have not experienced up to this point.  After seeing the problem we isolated those measures and I asked the students questions regarding the notes and we found the notes followed a pattern containing steps and skips.  We found this pattern happened twice, in fact.  We highlighted the left hand pattern and played it through a couple times until we had a basic understanding of the movement of the notes.  I repeated to the student the movement of the notes; a step here and a skip there.  I mentioned to the student when we play this hands together you have to remember the movement of the notes.  THEN we tried playing hands together.  She was able to get through the passage fairly well.  This is SURVEY and QUESTION at work!  It’s a frustration saver.

But again, I repeat.  At the beginning of lessons it will be largely the teacher’s job to help the student through these initial two steps of SQ3R.  In time the students will slowly, as they gain experience and knowledge, be able to take more and more responsibility themselves.

If we immediately hop to the READING step of SQ3r without these very important preliminary steps of SURVEY and QUESTION students will most likely be slugging their way through their new pieces and leading themselves into frustration.  And, in my experience frustration is one of the leading causes of potentially good students dropping their music studies.  The frustration eventually reaches “critical mass” and piano lessons just don’t become worth the effort.  SQ3R is a method that can ameliorate that constant frustration in learning new music; especially through its preliminary steps of SURVEY and QUESTION.

 

More Details – READ

If SURVEY and QUESTION is done thoroughly the READ step will come much more easily.  To save the length of this article I will not address tips on helping students with techniques to help them read music.

BUT ….. I would like to add ANOTHER R word to accompany READ.  That is REPEAT.  There will always be a need for repetition for one to gain fluency and  facility.  I think what we want to strive for is repetition that is meaningful and not meaningless.  One error is the mistake of playing a piece from beginning to end.  It is much more productive to work on more bite size units; a phrase and/or a unit (e.g. Theme One of a sonatina), than a complete composition.

Also, repeating should also have an end in mind.  To repeat a passage until a crescendo is mastered.  To repeat a passage until the voicing is executed clearly.  To repeat a passage until the tone quality is what your ear tells you is proper.

The ability to teach students to read well cannot be underestimated.  I would much rather have my students read well than labor over a couple compositions that gain them a superior rating at a music festival.  I would much rather have my students play 20 pieces nicely than 2 pieces artistically.  Of course, the ultimate goal is to have my students play 20 pieces nicely AND two pieces artistically.  BUT ….. it’s the ability to read music readily that going to be the lasting skill that will keep a student in music for a lifetime; and, for me, reading well gets the priority.

More Detail – Review

Applying SQ3R in the REVIEW step in academic work occurs after one reads the material and then goes over that same material again. This second going over the details is to cement them into ones memory. It is to maybe see if there is a macro theme to be found in this more refined reading stage of the SQ3R plan.

Applying this to music study I again add ANOTHER R to accompany REVIEW.  That word is RECALL.  One of my first teachers once told me that a musician doesn’t carry around his music in a bushel basket when he’s asked to perform.  My teacher had me buy a composition book and I had to alphabetize several pages for each letter of the alphabet.  I was to memorize my music and list these pieces alphabetically in my composition book.  After putting my memory pieces in my composition book I was to be able to play any piece listed instantly from memory.  It was a great discipline.

Unfortunately for me, this teacher quit teaching and my succeeding teachers didn’t continue this particular discipline.  But, developing our students memory skill, or their ability to RECALL, is important; especially to those students that are gifted with good memories.

Developing memory skills and giving students incentives to memorize pieces and/or develop repertoire lists is beyond the scope of this blog but memory, the ability to RECALL, is a discipline that can only benefit a music student.

More Detail – RECITE

Our final step in our SQ3R plan is RECITE.  In academic work after one READS an assignment and then REVIEWS the material so he can recall the significant points of the assigned reading; the student is asked to RECITE the assigned material and put it in his own words.

Here the students gets to the last point of academic mastery by “owning the material“; having absorbed the contents to the point of being able to, in his own words, RECITE the material.  This is learning of the highest order.  It is beyond just “recalling” the points of the assignment.

Some educators derisively call this “parroting”.  This goes to a higher level of learning that demonstrates full mastery of the material where the facts and details are totally absorbed into the student’s person.

Translating RECITE into music study I again give an ADDITIONAL R word.  That word is RECITAL.  After a student has SURVEYED his assignment and have asked good and insightful QUESTIONS about the assignment.  After the student has READ and reread the composition repeatedly.  After the student has thoroughly mastered the reading of the composition and REVIEWS it recalling its details from memory, his work still isn’t fully completed until he goes one more level.  He must now play (RECITE) the composition in recital.  The greatest level of mastery is to play in recital (for an audience); having thoroughly prepared through SURVEY-QUESTION-READ-REVIEW and finally RECITE.

My friend, Rich, who taught me SQ3R became his high schools valedictorian.  This was his method of study.  He became a successful lawyer.  I think if we apply SQ3R in our piano teaching (or creatively adapting its principles in our teaching) we will be “upping our game” in our studios and producing more masterful young pianists.

Survey/Question/Read/Review/Recite

 

 


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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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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.

THE CONCEPT OF VERTICAL SPACE

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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Letterhead - Valencia Studio
Piano Lessons – Mars PA

Dear Piano Lover,

I’m establishing a NEW PIANO STUDIO in Valencia, PA.  It’s in a location easily accessible to the people of Valencia, Saxonburg and Mars PA.

Most people would just love to play the piano. The reasons are many. They love the sound of the piano – they want some means to relax after a hard day at work – some just want a chance to get back the joy they had playing the piano as a child – and many parents want to give their child an opportunity for musical expression for their personal development.

I’ve been teaching piano for years and one of the most satisfying things about teaching is hearing from my old students, now adults, telling me how much playing the piano means to them. I presently have openings at my studio(s) in Wexford and Valencia to give you the opportunity to learn to play the piano.

Here’s what a former parent said of my instruction:

Mr. Severino is an excellent instructor, he teaches students on a age appropriate level. He is good at giving background history so the student is better educated in understanding how and why the music is composed. I had my child interview a number of instructors and she choose him because he made her feel the most comfortable. It has been three years and we could not be happier with her progress. Mr. Severino encourages a child’s talent and enjoyment of music. It has been a pleasure and truly rewarding experience.

Please give me a call (724) 898-0273 or eMail me at pianopressings@gmail.com to join my growing studio of great piano students.

Best,
Dan Severino

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Last month I began teaching piano lessons online.  Many of my online piano teaching colleagues have been doing this for quite a while and I decided to make the plunge.  Even before I began teaching online I spoke with my online piano teaching friends and speculated that the online piano lesson would be of a different nature than traditional studio teaching.

I found that I was correct.  To teach online piano lessons, as if it were simply like a studio one on one piano lesson, is to miss the subtlety that distance learning provides.  I feel it is a mistake to view online lessons as a lesser version of the private studio lesson but I think many people hold this incorrect assumption.  The two kinds of lessons are different animals.  It is important to know those differences to provide the most effective instruction.  The following quote gives us clues on the differences between online music lessons and one on one studio lessons.

American Journal of Distance Education, 24(2), 92-103. Orman, E. K. and Whitaker, J. A. (2010).

Time usage during face-to-face and synchronous distance music lessons.

This experimental study closely compares multiple aspects of applied instrumental music lessons in face-to-face and online lesson settings. Three middle school students (one saxophonist, two tubists) had lessons with a saxophone and tuba instructor respectively. Each student had a mix of face-to-face and online video lessons which were videotaped and coded for a variety of factors. When on-line lessons were compared to face to face lessons, there was a 28% increase in student playing, a 36% decrease in off-task comments by the instructor, a 28% decrease in teacher playing (modeling), and an increase in student eye contact. In the online lessons, less than 3% of the time was spent on technology issues, although audio and video quality concerns were mentioned.

This quote highlights the different nature of one on one learning (studio learning) with distance learning (online piano lessons). This quote also demonstrates they are indeed two different animals and brings out distinct advantages that online distance learning provides.  Let’s examine some of the statements of this quote and take note of distinct differences between studio learning and distance learning.

When on-line lessons were compared to face to face lessons, there was a 28% increase in student playing,

Online lessons, by their nature, is a medium that will increase the students playing time on their instrument.  Teachers need to use this information positively in designing their online lessons.  If the nature of the medium is to have the student play 28% more, on average, the teacher can adjust the lesson with this in mind.  The learning will be in the doing more than in the explaining.

The tasks of the online lesson are suited to the specific performance on the instrument more so than in studio one on one lessons.  I found this to be true in the lessons I taught online.  It was very natural to give focus to the performance and go through each passage several times.  In face to face lessons each repetition was an instruction dealing with what would improve the playing of the passage.  Another subtle difference was in the online lesson there was more trying out better fingerings instead of just a verbal instruction to use the fingering given in the manuscript.

a 36% decrease in off-task comments by the instructor

I also found this comment to be true and also something that’s simply the nature of online instruction.  When you’re with the student one on one it is natural to talk to the student about thinks not directly related to the musical material and it’s easy to get off task and speak of items not directly related to the lesson.  Certainly it’s important for any teacher to have some knowledge of their students that are not musically related but online lessons, by their nature, decrease off-task comments by the instructor. Knowing this the instructor can prepare a lessons that’s very task oriented and can feel at the end of the lesson they covered their material in depth.  The teacher feels not that “we had a good lesson this week” but “we got a lot of important material covered in this weeks lesson“; a subtle but important difference.

a 28% decrease in teacher playing (modeling)

Again, I found this to be true.  During the online lesson I do a lot less modeling than in the one on one studio lesson.  Again the nature of the online lesson directs attention very naturally on the student’s performance and the perceptive teacher will direct his attention to this fact; and I feel a very positive fact if the teacher uses it to their advantage.  It is in issues like this that I feel it is not smart teaching to make the online learning experience simply mimic the face to face studio lesson.  They indeed are two different animals and each has its own nature to give students the maximum benefit of the lesson time.  (NOTE: This blog is not to downgrade studio lessons but to highlight the distinct advantages online distant learning provides by comparison.)

and an increase in student eye contact

I find it interesting that online lessons resulted in an increase in eye contact.  But in private lessons when one doesn’t slide into non-musical conversation one involves themselves in teaching tasks that doesn’t require eye contact.  Things like modeling or writing in the student’s books and manuscripts or in pointing out items in the score.  But in teaching online after one is completed with all their performance tasks the student instinctively looks into the WebCam to look for the teacher’s next instruction and a good bit of eye contact is made because the teacher in looking into his WebCam to make eye contact with the student.  So, even something as personal as eye contact is increased in online lessons compared to one on one studio lessons.  Another plus for online lessons simply because of the nature of online learning vs studio instruction.

In the online lessons, less than 3% of the time was spent on technology issues, although audio and video quality concerns were mentioned.

To be truthful this issue did come up.  There were times when we got cut off or I lost the video of the student, or when using a different camera view I had to learn how to deal with microphone issues, but these were quickly resolved and just proved a minor inconvenience.

ONE MORE THING: Students take ownership of their music and manuscripts.

When I’m one on one with a student I generally did all the writing in the student’s books and manuscripts.  I cannot do this when teaching online, of course BUT I have the student write all my recommendations.  By having the student to do this, the student takes ownership of the music they are learning.  When they write “no pausing between sections” on their music it means more to them than if I do it.

I hope this blog got you to thinking of the different nature of piano lessons caused by the medium we use, whether one on one studio teaching or online piano lessons.  The different nature of each should automatically cause adjustments in our teaching.  As a teacher we need to maximize those adjustments to the full benefit of our students.  AND as the beginning research begins analyzing and comparing the two mediums online piano lessons provide some distinct advantages that can be utilized by the perceptive and savvy piano teacher.

SKYPE LOGO 6If interested in online piano lessons or studio lessons in the Wexford PA area call Dan Severino at 724-935-2840 or 724-898-0273.

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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.

APPLYING THIS TO MY HP SLATE 500 TABLET PC

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 …..

REPERTOIRE

  • 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.

FIRST NEXT WEEK; TECHNIQUE – finger joints

GOING DIGITAL ON THE SLATE 500

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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Why I Chose a Windows 7 Based Tablet

A couple months ago I finally made the plunge into the world of tablet computers.  It was a long journey as I bounced from iPads to Android based  machines and finally to Windows based machines.  Throughout my journey I wavered between these three basic choices several times.  Many, in fact most, of my piano teacher friends were choosing the iPad.  There seemed to be an almost limitless number of useful apps written for the iPad.  I was strongly considering the iPad and researching all the ways I could utilize the iPad at my studio.

My son in law is a computer professional and I sought his advise.  His advise was to wait.  This type of computer device wasn’t really ready for prime time.  He said to wait for a couple generations until this device was sufficiently designed for end users.  My research led me find that Bill Gates had come to the same conclusion.  Bill Gates main complaint was that, even with the iPad, this device needed better input capabilities.  He mentioned that in the research labs there were some fine advances in the making but they were not quite ready.  Another legitimate complaint with both iPads and Android devices was the limited amount of expansion capabilities.  With this rather disheartening information I dropped the whole idea for several months.

After the iPad 3 came on the market my interest was again kindled but the main complaints of my son in law was not addressed with with the iPad 3.  The iPad 3 didn’t address the limitations of expansion and limited input devices.

Then I noticed that Windows was coming out with Windows 8. Windows 8 was to be designed with the touch capabilities on par with the iPad and other Android devices.  Touch is a big selling feature of the iPad and Android based devices.  Before this time I didn’t do any research into anything Windows based.  This information caused me to research out this avenue.  Having a tablet computer that would run programs as Microsoft Office seemed to be a necessity for business and educational applications.

YouTube was a great source for research.  Many people devote themselves to reviewing high tech equipment.  I found there were several Windows based tablet PC’s that were on the market.  Some were rather expensive but others were very comparable in price to the iPad and Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy.  Many of the reviews addressed the same limitations of the iPad that I was already familiar.

Basically, analysts divided the tablet market into two major groups; the business community and the non-business community.  Both markets have different customers they are trying to satisfy.  Of course, this helped me see why Bill Gates/Microsoft and Steve Jobs/Apple would have different perspectives.  The different visions of each man led them to create very different products.

The HP Slate 500

Eventually I came across a Windows 7 based device manufactured by HP (Hewlett Packard) called the Slate 500.  This device made very clear the difference between the visions of the creators of the Apple and Microsoft.   The creators of the Slate 500 designed this machine not only for business professionals BUT FOR PROFESSIONAL EDUCATORS.  This really captured my attention.

The limitations of input devices was eliminated because the Slate 500 has included a digitizer pen that has an excellent program that can read ones handwriting with remarkable accuracy.  And not only that, commercial ARTISTS were pleased with using the Slate 500 for doing preliminary sketching.   So, the problem of input into the Slate 500 was addressed successfully.

Second the problem of expansion was almost completely solved.  The iPad’s memory capabilities are fixed.  The Slate 500 comes with 64 GB storage AND with the SD card slot one can purchase all the extra storage one may need.  I bought an extra 32 GB of extra storage for well under $20.

The rear view of the HP Slate 500 docking station

Another great feature of the Slate 500 is that it comes equipped with a docking station to charge the internal batteries or to use the machine when using an outside power source.  But this docking station is so much more.  The docking station also contains connections for HDMI.  It also contains 2 USB ports and that’s in addition to the one on the tablet itself.  There is also an audio port for connecting to external audio speakers.  One isn’t limited at all in any desire for expanding the Slate 500.

The HDMI is very useful because I can connect the Slate 500 to a 24 inch HDMI monitor.  This is a very useful feature for my studio work.  I can use the HDMI monitor as a projector in conjunction with Windows Paint for little presentations I can make for my students.

The USB ports were very useful because I purchased a bluetooth keyboard and mouse from Logitech for under $30.  When I need to use the Slate for more comprehensive work that requires more intense input I’m ready to work.  In fact, because my PC wasn’t available to be used this afternoon I used my Slate to write this blog.  Though for most work I do on the Slate the digitizer pen is completely sufficient.

Finally, the audio port included on the dock was easily connected to two Bose Speakers ($99) that gives my Slate exceptional sound quality when I want to play musical videos for my students.

To conclude, the reasons for my buying the Windows based Slate 500 are …..

1) It’s Windows based and runs Microsoft Office.

2) Its memory storage capabilities are not limited.

3)  Using it with additional input devices (keyboards – mice – digitizer pens) is no problem

4) It capacity for expansion; including 3 USB ports, SD cards, and HDMI

5) It is capable to the touch features expected of other tablet devices and smartphones.

6) It was designed with educators in mind.

7) DIDN’T MENTION IT but this can run Kindle as a portable eReader, too.

8) It’s fully capable of browsing the web

9) Microsoft has always caught up to Apple in the past and the nifty apps now available with the iPad will shortly find application with Windows devices as they gain in popularity.

My next blog will be on how I use the Slate 500 in my Music Studio.  Stay tuned.

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