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. 

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.