40 Piece Challenge

I am kicking off this year of lessons with a 40 piece challenge for my students. I have never tried something like this before, but have read a lot about it and think it will challenge my students and challenge my teaching. I knew my more advanced students needed to learn more music, but I wasn't sure how to motivate them to do it until I started reading about the 40 piece challenge. 

Elissa Milne, one of the main voices behind this now world-wide movement, writes about how it got started here: Where did the 40 piece challenge begin?

The idea is that for students to become better musicians and excel at sight reading, they need to be exposed to lots of music. Sight reading is one of those elusive skills that is hard to teach, but vital for a pianist. The more music a student sees and plays, the more likely they are to connect that music with other pieces they see, making it easier to play. When students only play 5-6 pieces per year, they don't have a broad foundation to stand on. Beginner students tend to play many pieces each year, each concept being taught using several pieces. But as students get more advanced, we give them harder music. Soon their music is taking longer to learn, so they are given fewer longer and harder pieces. That excellent foundation that they started with is not continued. 

I am bringing this challenge into my studio this year. I've have two different sets of rules, depending on the level of the students, and two sets of prizes as well. For beginners, they receive the prize only if they achieve the 40 piece mark (which I am almost positive they will surpass halfway through the year). For more advanced students, the threshold for a prize is 20 pieces, and after that each additional 10 will give them an addition to that prize. The advanced students can even go beyond the initial 40 and continue to add on to their prize. 

For the advanced students I created punch cards for each set of 10, with spaces for the students to write their piece when they start it, and a note to hole punch when they complete the piece. 

For the beginner students I bought wide Popsicle sticks and glass containers. As they complete a piece, we'll write the name on the stick and put it in the container. Each week I will ask them to select at random a certain number to review, in addition to their regular work. Knowing how to work review into my teaching has never been my strong suit, so I am glad to have found a way to build it into this challenge.  

My hope is that this challenge will help keep my students motivated to work on:

Sight reading


Reviewing "completed" music


I'll let you know how it went when the year ends!

Why I Love Celebrate Piano! for Young Beginners

When piano teachers begin working with students, they usually choose a method series to use to help teach concepts in a certain order. My two favorites are Piano Safari and Celebrate Piano! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the name). Piano Safari has been my first choice for a few years, but I recently started a kindergarten student in Celebrate Piano! instead so that she and her brother could use different methods. I was blown away by how well it works for younger beginners (Pre-K and K).

This review will probably make more sense if you read my Piano Safari post first. This post will compare and contrast with that one a lot.

Here are my favorite parts:

Singing Intervals:

This was a big hole in Piano Safari. Not only does Celebrate Piano! teach by interval first (just like Piano Safari), they also include animal songs for each interval. In each unit, the student sings through the interval songs, like "The Middle C song", "Busy Bee" for seconds, etc. Each song emphasizes very clearly the interval associated with it. This way, the student learns to hear intervals before they even learn to play intervals. This is HUGE! (And I'll get to why later). 

Interval Reading:

I'm not going to go into depth on this, but reading is taught using intervals, not just note names.  This is something I always look for in method books, but it isn't always featured.

End of the Unit Ear Training:

Each unit ends with Clap Backs (patterns that the teacher claps, and the student repeats), and Play Backs (similar but with playing), and then Question and Answer. In the Question and Answer section, a short opening melody is written, and the student is instructed to write the "answer", or a conclusion to the melody. The Q&A is unique to this method as far as I know and allows teachers to talk about how to write melodies that sound pleasing and correct (because there is a science to it after all). There is also sometimes a pitch detective part where the student has to notate intervals based solely on hearing. My one student told me this was easy because she just sang her interval songs in her head. <--- And that is why I am so thrilled to have interval singing included!!

Lots of Work Pages:

Throughout the book there are lots of work pages for the students to practice note writing and theory concepts right in their lesson book. No theory book required. For young beginners, the constant repetition is very helpful, and they tend to enjoy the work pages. I'm not sure it would be that same with an older age group. 

Playing in Many Keys:

Like Piano Safari, Celebrate Piano! has students all over the keyboard and playing in many 5 finger positions early on. In book 2a, after a little over one year of lessons, my student already plays using  all 12 major 5 finger scales.  The book also highly emphasizes transposition which is a skill that is best learned early in lessons, but is not always included. 

Practice Plan:

At the beginning of each piece is a "practice plan" which outlines steps to take in order to learn the piece, or highlights stumbling points the student may have. For example, it might say 1. Clap the rhythm

2. Name the Landmarks

3. Find where your hands play together.  

This is especially good to teach beginners HOW to practice music.


Things I don't like as much about this method are:

Now let's take a look at some of the things I am finding frustrating. (And note, there aren't very many!)

All the work pages:

I have a love/hate relationship with the work pages and the childish art. They work well for younger students, but not older students. If there was a slightly better balance, I might use this book for all beginners! I think that a mix of Celebrate Piano! and Piano Safari would be perfect for me as a teacher.

Teaching of Note Names:

Celebrate Piano! starts on the staff pretty quickly, but does not introduce clefs for some time. When the student does learn about the grand staff, they learn the usual landmarks (Treble C, Treble G, Middle C, Bass F, Bass C). For a while, that is all. By the time they reach 2a, they have yet to learn the rest of the names of the lines and spaces. To be fair, they encourage using landmarks to find close starting pitches. And my student can decipher them. She has learned the names of the keys on the piano, knows those landmarks, and knows her intervals. Between those three, she can figure out what the names are . But I am uncomfortable depending on just that for so long. I've been following the method to see how it all plays out, but I'm not sure I like this approach any better than Piano Safari's approach. 


If you want to look inside Celebrate Piano!, here's their brochure about their method: Exploring Celebrate Piano!


Here's a final comparison note, and quick summary:

Piano Safari lacks in ear training, while Celebrate Piano! is too childish to use with all beginners, and lacks creative technique and rote learning. 

I find both methods lacking in their introductions of note names on the staff. 

However, they both address rhythm well, teach intervocalic reading, are not stuck in one hand position, emphasis transposition, and move at a slow pace for beginners. That is why I love them for beginners!

Lessons Learned from a Duet Christmas

December was a doozey. Isn't it for all musicians? I had one week were everything happened: recitals, concerts, rehearsals. The following week it was juries. Then I got sick. Then I was on break. And now it is 2015 and I have a lot to catch up on!

I was really excited about my plans for my students all learning duets for their December recital (you can read about that here). Here's what I learned about the need for collaborative work, assigning duets, rehearsing duets, and planning ahead:

My students needed to play with others. 

Some of them had never played with other people, either in a band/ orchestra context, or an accompaniment context. For those that had it wasn't often. The student who did best with the duets was actually the one who plays in an orchestra AND a band. She was great at following the other pianist and jumping back in when she got lost. For my youngest students it was starting to turn into a race. When they got lost or felt like they weren't playing together, they would just play faster! My takeaway was- they need to do this again. When I accompany them, I follow them, and help them out. As a trained pianist and accompanist it is hard not to! But when they play with others, that doesn't happen. It is the blind leading the blind. And it gets pretty scary. 

I should have picked other music.

My students toughed it out and learned their music. Sort of. But these arrangements were not written intuitively. Not at all. I played through them with a friend while trying to figure out which pieces to assign to which student and I noticed that our hands were really close, but I ignored what should have been a red flag. It wasn't a big deal for two trained pianists, but for students they were constantly running into each other and  having to learn how to get their hand out of the way in time. It wasn't a huge problem, but not ideal for a first duet situation. 

I needed more time. 

I was right about the difficulty of the music. It was hard for some and easy for others. We worked on the pieces a lot during lessons, but I didn't start early enough because I didn't take into account the inevitable cancellations of lessons. Losing even one or two lessons put one of my duet pairs significantly behind. I also didn't insist on enough rehearsal time with both partners together. I was trying to respect their time (and let's face it, their parents' time). I had grouped students based on ability and lesson times to maximize rehearsal times. But I still ran into scheduling problems and we wound up doing too much last minute rehearsing. I also had a solo piece picked for each student, but some of that music didn't come soon enough, and some students didn't start practicing it right away. We could have used much more time on the solo pieces, but we didn't have it. 

But we pulled it off! 

When all looks dreary, sometimes all you need to do is cut out parts. One student is struggling with a tricky part and the other student plays it well? Make that section a "solo" section. The piece will sound better and they will both feel better about it as a whole. In the final hour I did some serious reevaluating and worked with my students to re-think the parts that were messing them up the most. While I wanted them to try to learn it as written, I also didn't want them performing something messy just because I was holding onto an *arrangement* too strongly. As a result the final performance was ok. It wasn't wonderful, but it wasn't bad. And I'll take that. I also had to cut some of the solo pieces. I wanted them all to have something of their own to play as well as the duet, but we should have started on that earlier as well. The students who were prepared played their pieces, and those who weren't just played their duet. In the end it all worked. 

Next time, I will choose Christmas music during the summer and start it right away in September. 

Next time, I require that they practice together at least twice outside of dress rehearsals. 

And next  time, I will do a better job of selecting well-written duets. 

A Nutcracker (Duet) Christmas

Last Christmas, the biannual studio recital/dinner theater took me by surprise. I was still pretty new to the studio, pregnant, and just not on my game. My students rose to the challenge of learning their music in just a few weeks, but I didn't want to do that to either of us again. 

So this year we are starting in October! That sounds early until you consider that the event is the first week of December and we will loose a week in November for Thanksgiving.

My students play as part of the studio dinner theater, but the main event is the vocal group's performance. So far I hadn't really made the effort to have my students do much of a theme or anything along those lines. This year I am rested (well, kind of), know what to expect, know what my students can do, know their parents better to discuss new music, and all around am much more prepared, and on fire to do something fun.

I wanted a theme to tie everything together and I really wanted to incorporate duets.   Young pianists spend so much time playing by themselves, but once they become older pianists, the chance of them always playing solo works as some sort of concert pianist are very slim. Instead they may find themselves accompanying choirs, accompanying vocalists, playing for some sort of church service, funeral service, wedding, etc. What do these all have in common? Collaborative piano or accompanying. Playing with people. This is actually the kind of work that I love best, so I'd like to  give my students a taste of it as young as possible!

Then I happened on the Nutcracker. It occurred to me that it would be a fun Christmas theme, and even the easiest Nutcracker music would sound pretty cool with two people on the bench. I'm still in the process of assigning pieces, but I am really excited, and I can tell it is rubbing off on my students. So far they each have one duet and eventually they will each have one solo piece as well. Between all of them we will tell the (abbreviated) Nutcracker story! 

Here's the duet book that I am using: 

I have Elementary level students, Early Intermediate students, and Intermediate students, so this book is a little hard for some and little easy for others. It seems like it will work for all of them. For solo pieces, I am working from other Nutcracker books published by Alfred in various difficulty levels. Hopefully this will give a more cohesive sound. I can't wait to get started in those as well!



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.