Using OneNote as a Tool for Tuning and Teaching

When I first got my laptop for college, there was a widget that allowed you to put virtual sticky notes on your desktop screen. I LOVED that widget and used it all the time. Now it is 8 years later, and with Windows 8, that isn't an option. However, Microsoft does have a new tool that way surpasses those little sticky notes: OneNote. 

With Microsoft OneNote you can write yourself notes, turn them into to-do lists with little check boxes, and neatly organize data or lists. You can also draw on your lists (which is more helpful if you have a touch screen). OneNote will sync with any device you have, and you can share your notebooks with other people. (That's just a quick description. If you want more info, check out this link: The best part that I love about it is that you can open up a new page, click to write anywhere, and then move your text boxes around with ease. It's just like using little sticky notes, but now you can have tons of them, archive them, and see them anywhere (as long as your devices are synced)!

OneNote has seriously changed my note taking system, and makes life easier on a daily basis. I use it to keep track of my tuning clients and tuning history, to write down to-do lists so I get things done, to keep track of where my students have been and where they are going, to plan out meals (and then I open up my list at the grocery store and just cross things off), to sync to-do lists with my husband, to plan out blogs..

More specifically, here's how I use it for Tuning and Teaching.


My tuning course said to use cards for each piano and take these with me. This system is seriously outdated and was not working for me. Now I have a "notebook" for all my business related things. In that notebook, I have a section called "Tuning". In each section you can have different pages. I have a calendar page first, and then a page for each client. On the calendar page I list out every month and list clients under the specific months I tuned their pianos so I can see it at a glance. This tells me the months I don't have many clients, when to call people to remind them about upcoming tunings, who missed a tuning, etc.   

For the client pages, I list the piano make and serial number. Then I list the first time I tuned their piano. After that I write my notes for each tuning, and the date of each tuning. I add each new tuning at the top of the page so I can see the most recent one first. I then organize the pages alphabetically (I wish OneNote would do this for me, but the drag and drop feature isn't too hard). These notes sync with my phone, so when I go to a client's house, I can simply pull up their page and add any new notes. 

As I write this, I realized I don't have a page for my piano! So, here's what a page looks like, using my piano as an example. I haven't transferred over all my notes from my note card yet. I'm not even sure I still have it. I don't remember when I first gave my piano a proper tuning, but I just recently tuned it again. It's had too many practice tuning to even count! 


I use OneNote similarly for my teaching. I keep a purchase lists section with notes of books I need for the future so I can snag them when they are on sale. 

I also have a section called "Piano Planning" which I use for planning out studio events. I used this extensively when I was planning for the 40 piece challenge , since I needed to keep track of a huge list of books and pieces for each student!  I actually wound up changing how I structured my challenge from my original idea, but you can see the planning process here:

Finally, I keep notes on each student I teach. It is hard to keep extensive notes on everything they've learned so  I try to keep it as a quick review. I list:

  • Books they are currently using
  • Current struggles I need to remember to work on
  •  Books completed (so I can know where they've been)
  • Concepts learned (this one is really hard to keep up with!)
  • When they began lessons
  • Future music ideas

I got this idea of at-a-glance student notes from Joy Morin at Color In My Piano.  I do keep week to week lesson plan records, especially for my beginners, in my teaching binder. Those eventually get thrown out, but these digital notes help me keep long-term goals in mind.  


Disclaimer: Microsoft OneNote doesn't even know I wrote this post. This is just what I think, and an attempt to help you learn about the technology options out there for your business. 

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!

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. 



Making a Music Whiteboard

I made this whiteboard a little while ago for my students (based on a blog post from about learning notes on the staff). The letters are magnets with sticky cardstock (yep, that's a thing. No more glue!) I used stamps to make the letters since my handwriting isn't always that neat.

I drew the lines on with permanent marker and hoped for the best. Well, about two months later, this is how it looks: 

The lines disappeared little by little as the white board markers went over the permanent marker lines. So I went to Staples to try a new solution. Art tape:

(AKA white board tape)

I just applied this over my existing lines...

It is slightly raised, so I hope it doesn't ruin my markers. But since I can't find a white board like this (magnetic, small enough to fit in a messenger bag, with staff lines...) I guess I can buy new markers when I need to do so.

And here is my new board in use!

Ready for more student ab... use!!

And if you are wondering if you should make one too, I'd say ABSOLUTELY! 

Since I teach in several different locations, I have to take all my materials with me. This cuts down on photocopying staff paper just for little exercises,  makes playing games easier, and allows students to practice writing notes, and so much more. Plus, it is the perfect size to stick in my messenger bag. 

Technique Review

My hands-down favorite method for beginners (right now) is Piano Safaricreated by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr. Two years ago, I started teaching some beginner students, and kept running into the same problems with all of my beginners. (Now, some of it might have been my teaching... but not all). Most of my students struggled with remembering notes names on the staff, playing hands together, and just in general their music moving ahead too quickly. Since they were (and still are) young and impatient, they did not want to spend weeks learning music, but if I moved on too quickly they would soon get lost.

(Disclaimer: I think piano lessons are great for teaching patience and diligence, but that wasn't the ONLY thing I wanted to teach!)

One method book that I was using expected them to memorize a few new notes each week and it just wasn't happening, even with lots of review and games in their lessons, flash cards at home, and other incentives. So, I was on the search for something new. I read articles, blogs, looked into books, and somewhere during my quest to find the "perfect" method book I found Piano Safari. Everything I read about it made so much sense that I loved it without even seeing it. Then I found out the authors were re-writing the books and I had to wait almost a whole year to get one in my hands!

Fast forward to now, and I am happily using this method with my students. The students who had problems with rhythms love doing the sight reading every week with modified Kodaly syllables. The students who came to me week after week not remembering their staff now accurately identify their starting notes with confidence. Most of my students enjoy learning to play pieces hands together by rote and watching the reminder videos  during the week. (As a general rule, I'm not too into rote teaching, but this method is changing my mind a little). And the techniques represented by safari animals are great!  However, I've found that my students get tired of practicing them week after week to get them just right.

Now, I'm sure Piano Safari's teacher handbook (which has great teaching ideas, by the way) has something to say about this, but here is my solution: technique remixes. I've been writing technique review sheets so students can play through them as a warm up each day and in their lesson. This way they are still practicing the same thing, but have it presented in a new way, and have a piece of paper to take home to remind them what they are doing. It's a win-win!

(The Piano Safari authors are working on their second book right now. I hope they finish in time for me to continue using their books!)

UPDATE 4/23/13: After trying this with a student, I found that the alternating hands (on the first and last line) was difficult for students to understand as it moved back and forth more quickly than most of their music does. Since this is meant to be a review, and not super hard, I edited those lines to make it a bit easier.

UPDATE 6/12/2014: I've actually moved away from using these review sheets, despite the popularity of this post. I tried a new approach with a few students and it worked much better. I treated each technique as a warm up that we did at the beginning of each lesson.  I continued to do them and assign them until they were perfected. This way the student got into the habit of playing a warm up every time they practiced, and since we treated them differently than songs they weren't as antsy to move on.