Summer (finger exercise) Games: In Retrospect

Over the course of the past two weeks, I've handed out about 20 rice crispy treats to a group of my students. With that, my summer incentive/game has ended and it is back to lessons as usual. So time for a review- did it work?

Back track: here's a picture of the "game board" on the wall. Eight circles for the eight exercises stapled into the rug that serves as a sound barrier. This was taken when my students were just starting.  

The students had to play a short exercise in 4 different keys (always starting in C major). The exercises were designed to work on technique, so they had to play them without errors to move on to the next exercise. At the end of the summer, one student made it to exercise 5, two made it to 4 and one made it through 2, and another didn't return. 

My goal was to retain more students during the summer, give them something fun to work on, and progress in learning all the five-finger scales and correcting some poor technique. 

What didn't work:

Hoping the incentive would help retain more students.

The problem was that most of the students took a lot of time off anyway. I don't blame them, I know family life tends to get busy during the summer and some students wind up traveling a lot. But it did take the momentum out of the game and no one made it the whole way.

Fixing technique.

I had mixed results with correcting technique, especially with the students who were gone a lot. I suppose it was a lesson to me that I can't just magically fix something, technique problems take a lot of time and repetition to change. But it was a good way to focus on what they were doing with their hands without feeling too repetitive. 

What did work:

Learning five-finger scales

This was a great way to teach about transposition and hand positions for some of the more obscure five-finger scales. Though the students don't often play in B major, or A flat yet, it was good for them to see how those keys feel in their hands, especially for when it comes to playing chords later. This is the part that challenged my older students (and may have actually been a little too hard for the younger ones). Here's a look at some of the keys for exercise 5. 


Would I do it again? 

I don't think I would do this exact game again, but  I definitely liked having something different during the summer months. Next time I'd like to actually get all of my students through all the five-finger scales, so maybe I will develop something around that. 

Summer (finger exercise) Games

I've been noticing poor hand technique in some of my younger students for a while and trying valiantly to help them fix it. However, there are only so many analogies I can give and so many times I can remind them in each lesson and during each song to lift their wrists and bend their pinkies. After all, there are other things I am trying to teach them as well!

Good hand technique is something you have to consciously work towards until it enters your sub-conscience and your muscles remember what to do. It also means students need to spend a decent amount of time watching their hands to see what they are doing and correcting it if necessary. "But you told me not to look at my hands!", my students say when I ask them to watch what they are doing. I have to remind them that there is a time and a place for both looking at their hands and for looking at their music.

So to help them spend some quality watching their hands, I decided to dedicate this summer to just that: hand technique. And because the summer is a time that most students are less likely to practice and tend to miss lessons, I made it a game and added an incentive.   

(If this looks like a rug as a background... it is. The walls of the studio are covered with rugs, so I try to work with what I have.)

I've compiled eight exercises that they will play in four different keys. We'll cover all 12 five-finger scales this summer while they work through the eight exercises. They get two tries for each key and must play them perfectly (in all four keys) without any yellow card infractions (World Cup, anyone?) to complete the exercise. The infractions are:

  • flat fingers (especially pinkies)
  • heel of hand on the piano
  • incorrect rhythms
  • incorrect notes
  • inconsistent tempo

If that sounds a little tough, it is on purpose. This is my chance to demand excellence and get them to really think about what their hands are doing. 

Here's a look at the first exercise:

The circles under each key correspond to white keys and black keys. I have the students color in the circles that will be played as black keys. (I got this concept from Piano Safari and find it really helps the younger students to have another visual). The exercises gradually get harder, but every one of them is written in C major and is short enough to be easily memorized. 

While I intend to go over every key with my students, the last exercise is a review of the seven white key five finger scales:

Their prize is one homemade rice krispie treat for each exercise they complete by Sept. 4th. That's 10 weeks of lessons to finish eight exercises! I'm excited to see how they do this summer.  

PianoOpoly and Teaching Incentives

As I prepared for fall lessons, I read a lot about using teaching incentives with piano students. Some people are completely against them, others think they should only be used for a short period of time, while still other teachers always have some sort of game or incentive going in their studio. While I'd love for my students to just practice for the pure joy of learning piano and making music, the truth is no matter how good of a teacher I am, there will still be times they don't want to practice.

I still remember being 8 and having a timer set while I was practicing piano to make sure I stayed on that bench long enough to satisfy my parents and my teacher. I also still remember the rocket ship posted on my first piano teacher's wall. We were split into two teams and were competing to see who could make the rocket ships get to their goal the fastest. Suffice to say, I think for a certain age student, teaching incentives work wonders to get through those slumps of learning how to practice and why practicing is important.

Since most of my students fall in this age range, I decided to make a game for them this fall. My goal was to have a game that was: 

  •  portable (since I am essentially a traveling teacher and need to carry everything with me)
  •  applied to as wide a range of students as possible
  •  would cover a variety of subjects and skills
  •  and could be played for multiple weeks

Allow me to introduce: PianoOpoly! 

I based my board game around the idea of Monopoly (hence, PianoOpoly... creative, I know) basically only in the sense that students could go around the board multiple times, getting a prize every time they passed GO! The corners of the board all have bonus squares (kind of like the specialty corners in Monopoly), allowing the students to move extra spaces if applicable. 

Then I came up with questions applying to various things I thought my students should know. Some were purposefully difficult (What is the Tempo of Your Piece?), while others were really easy. In my planning, I actually rated them by difficulty to make sure I had a good balance. I also tested the board, doing practice rolls, to see how many "weeks" it would take to get around the board.  One time I made it around the whole board in one "week"! Good thing I knew this was possible, because one of my students made it almost all the way around on week! 

 After all this, I put the game into action with my students. I printed the game board and had it laminated so I could simply write their names into the appropriate squares with a dry-erase marker.  

Here were the results from this fall


  • All my students made it around at least once! (That was the goal). 
  • The questions were just the right difficulty. Not too easy and not too hard. They got stuck enough times to make them think without feeling like they would never make it around the board.  
  • It was portable! 
  • My students liked it so much, they would remind me when I forgot to have them roll their turn for their lesson. 

Feel free to use this with your students! I used it with students who were at least in Piano Safari book 2 (this can work with beginners who at least know their lines and spaces and some other important concepts). 

Rings and Finger Numbers- Games for Preschoolers

I've recently started teaching a preschool student, which is a new age for me. I've had a few 5 year-olds, but none younger. I discovered pretty quickly that my favorite curriculum for young beginners just was not going to work in this case because the concepts moved to fast and demanded too much from little hands still working on those fine motor skills. So after some research I decided to use

Anne Crosby Gaudet's "Music Discoveries

" with my student. After all, why reinvent the wheel when there are great free resources out there?  

The songs and concepts progress really slowly and have plenty of worksheets to send home to reinforce concepts. I found that I am still have to make up games to fill up the lesson time. Keeping short attention spans occupied for half an hour necessitates lots of short activities! One worksheet in "Music Discoveries" has a page of hands with rings on a finger of each hand. The students has to color the hands according whether they are left or right hands, and then write the finger number corresponding to the ring on each hand. 

To go along with this coloring page, I decided to play a game with rings and dice. Most little girls love playing with rings! 

Rings on Fingers

How to Play: 

1. Choose two different colored dice and some rings (I used red and blue dice, the same colors she was asked to color the hands on her worksheet so that we could work on both hands at once.)

2. Identify which dice color is for which hand

3. Roll dice and take turns placing rings on the other person's hand. Make sure the dice number and color match the hand and finger.

If you roll a 6, pick a finger and identify it. 

It's that easy, but my student loved it!