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.  

Recital Preparation

I returned to teaching from maternity leave to find that my students had about a month until the recital. We quickly dove into choosing pieces and putting extra work into them in their lessons, but I wanted a way to encourage them to perform more at home. I had grand plans of making a game for them to this end, but it never made it out of conception form before I was running out of time. (And seriously, when you have an 8 week old kid at home, who has time to make nice looking game boards?) So, I jumped onto my favorite practice-help website, and searched for recital preparation worksheets. A quick search later and I found a sheet to use! It wasn't as pretty as I had been planning, but it would do the job, and more importantly I wouldn't have to pour hours into making something else. 

I sent home a note with my students asking parents to help them complete the sheet before the recital. To complete the sheet they had to perform their piece 30 times. Each time they would color in a block marking if it was "good", "great", or "wow!". If they brought it completed to the recital, they would get a "small prize".

Now, since this is the first time I had done anything like this with these students, I wanted the prize to be something substantial enough that if/when I do another game in the future, they will have the motivation to participate. Let's face it, no one likes putting a bunch of work into something just to get a lousy prize. I think this fit the bill well:

Everyone loves water ice and ice cream, right? 

So I handed out the papers, explained the instructions and waited till the recital to see what would happen. 

My students all eagerly returned their worksheets at the recital and claimed their prizes (which were neatly wrapped because we learn from two-year-olds that wrapping paper makes life more exciting). Some of them apologized for how it was colored or filled out but I was more concerned about the end product. Here's what one looked like:

The big question is: Did they help?

I think they did! My students all played much better in this recital than the last one, but more importantly, I think they are listening more. Having to think about how they played each time, versus simply whether or not they made it to the end, helped them listen to themselves more intently. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the doing part of playing piano and forget about the hearing. All in all, they made me proud!


*For more free practice worksheets, check out The Practice Shoppe. A lot of them have to do with violin, but can be applied to other instruments too.