Weekend Repertoire: Minuet in G

In an effort to start some discussion about specific repertoire and ways to teach it, I have started Weekend Repertoire here on The Teaching Studio!

Today's piece: Minuet in G from Johann Sebastian Bach's Anna Magdalena Notebook.
Level: Early-ish Intermediate :) (how's that for technical?)
Teaches: phrasing, five-finger patterns, changes in hand position, cross-over fingerings, binary form, balance between right and left hand
Listen: Click here to listen to this piece (scroll down and select the first Menuet in G Major on the list). Also, this great orchestral version really captures the simple beauty and elegance of this piece - I'm thinking Jane Austen era ballroom...

Yes, I know, this little piece is super familiar. Everybody and their dog plays it and knows it. But it really is a great little piece with so much to learn by playing it. I have often found that even when teaching the most simple pieces, sometimes students simply just learn the correct notes and call it good. They learn the notes alright, but have they achieved a truly musical performance? There are so many simple, easy ways to add color and musicality to a piece that will really help the music come alive for a student. Even when playing Baroque music :)

My teacher in high school had all these big, beautiful, ornate paintings hanging in her living room. Kind of like these:

I can still hear her voice, "Look at these people - they're not about to go out and play football!! They are elegant. Refined. Graceful."

And how true that is - this piece should never be overly loud or passionate or abrupt or romantic. It should be  graceful and elegant. In fact, considering the keyboard instruments available at the time this piece was written sheds some light on its interpretation - according to my trusty old History of Keyboard Literature, the clavichord had a "soulful tone," and was ideal for achieving "sweet, delicate sentiments," while the harpsichord had a "sweet, pristine tone" and it required careful phrasing and the use of nonlegato touch.

So how can we teach our students to play this piece with elegance and refinement? Help them to achieve nice, legato phrasing in the right hand (I like to draw little arrows where they should do a slight lift of the wrist to end a phrase); a beautiful, singing melody line that does not rush (hands-alone practice in small sections! and the metronome is a great little pal and may help a LOT); and a softer accompaniment with nicely-phrased eighth note runs.

And a Pride and Prejudice dress wouldn't hurt, you know, just to get the right mood :)

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Some software that I LOVE

Pianomouse Goes to Preschool, Hybrid CD-ROM
So I need to tell you about some awesome piano/music software that I just bought.

I currently have a little student who is preschool-aged (not to mention an almost-3 son who LOVES learning about music and piano with his mommy). Because of Janina's recommendation, I decided to buy Pianomouse Goes to Preschool. And let me tell you, I absolutely LOVE this software! You should go buy it. Seriously.

This software is published by Pianomouse (and I just discovered that if you go to their website, pianomouse.com, they are currently updating their software and creating a new product line for 2011 - can't wait!) and it is made for children ages 3 through 5.

Some things I love about this software:

  • The characters are fun, and they fully narrate the entire game
  • Colorful illustrations and fun music
  • It is simple to use, even for young children (my almost 3-year-old loves it)
  • Teaches recognition of the musical alphabet, musical symbols, notes, musical instruments, and composers, as well as how many beats each note gets - can you imagine teaching a 5-year-old who already knew all of these things? I think it is great.
  • I think my favorite part of this is Khachaturian's Keyboard - it teaches keyboard topography and includes finding high and low notes, finding groups of three black keys and two black keys, and finding groups of high black keys and low black keys.
  • I love that my son can already distinguish between the different types of notes and can even pick out a half note without seeing another picture of one, and that he is saying things like "treble clef" :)

Children select games from the interactive menu screen. As you move your mouse over each picture, the names of each game are narrated by the fun characters.

The software consists of twelve different games, some of which have a couple of different levels -

Gone Fishing

The Apple Note Farm

Musical ABCs
Khachaturian's Keyboard

Pianomouse Coloring Book
Clara in the Concert Hall
Meet a Famous Composer
Pianomouse Concentration
Instrument Parade

Puccini's Musical Hopscotch
Pianomouse's Music Workshop

I think that this software is an excellent addition to any music class or studio that involves young children. It helps give them a great foundation for their continued music and piano study.

New Giveaway on Music Matters Blog

Natalie over at Music Matters Blog is giving away a CD called Sonatinas and Little Sonatas. I think it is so important to get our students listening to great piano literature, even our youngest beginners! This sounds like a great CD to get our younger students listening to and wanting to play some good classical music. Head on over there and enter the giveaway!


Weekend Repertoire: Clouds

Weekend Repertoire: Discovering Clouds from Four Roman Sketches, by Charles Griffes, 1915

I don’t know about you, but I am all about pieces that paint a picture or tell a story. If I can convey a beautiful scene or tell a great story, or just really relate to a piece of music, that is when I feel I can really play it well. (A good thought to remember when helping students relate to and interpret their pieces!) I once played a cool piece by Abel Decaux from a set entitled Clair de Lune (and don’t let the name fool you – it is as different than Debussy’s famous piece as they come!). The piece was called La Mer, or The Sea – and because of its crazy chromatic harmonies and dark feel, a friend told me that it reminded him of the ocean in Italy at night – and BAM, there was my picture to paint!

I first became familiar with the piece Clouds  by Charles Griffes while working on a crazy enormous listening assignment for my piano literature class in college. I popped in the CD, and as the first beautiful chords rang out, I looked out my window just as the sun was rising and saw this:

(By the way, this photo definitely does not do the true view justice, as I just had a little point and shoot camera at the time – but still, you get the idea… right?)

This piece with its gorgeous yet interesting chromatic harmonies completely described the view I was seeing, as the clouds covering the sky turned pink and purple with the sunrise. Pretty cool. Although I have not learned this piece in-depth, whenever I play through it this scene immediately comes to mind and is the inspiration behind the music for me.

I have loved this piece ever since hearing it that day.  It definitely is quite impressionistic (which I love), but he also put a very original twist on it with his crazy, somewhat oriental, harmonies. In Hinson’s Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire, Hinson says this about Griffes:  “Love of oriental subjects and a preoccupation with impressionistic techniques were the major influences on Griffes’ music.” You can definitely hear those influences in this piece.

A little about Charles Griffes – he was an American composer, born in New York in 1884, and died in 1920. His major piano works include a sonata (1912) and Four Roman Sketches (1915), from which the piece Clouds comes. Although he is a somewhat obscure composer, his works are definitely worth a listen!

This is pretty much the only recording of this piece I could find on YouTube or anywhere else, except for one other that I thought was just way too fast. Enjoy!

Do you have any similar experiences with pieces? Do you like to picture a scene in your mind when playing? How do you teach your students to "paint a picture" through their playing?

Weekend Repertoire: New Feature!

I have noticed that many readers and visitors to this blog have shown an interest in finding new repertoire to teach their students, particularly at the intermediate level. So it got me thinking. I have decided to start a new feature where we will feature a piece of repertoire and discuss its background, what level of student it is appropriate for, and what concepts and techniques it is great for teaching; and we will share a few tips on how to teach it! I am really excited about this, and hope to have a post on this topic every other week or so. And on the off-weeks.....

I love discovering "new" (well, new to me at least!) piano literature - listening to it, reading about it, playing it. Many of the pieces I have learned in the past (or have started to learn, or have on my "repertoire wish list" to learn in the future) are pieces I have heard others perform. I once attended a Leon Fleisher recital, where he played a beautiful transcription (by Egon Petri) of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze that moved me so much that I just HAD to learn it. I opened my senior recital with that piece.

The point is, I love discovering new pieces! It is inspiring and motivating, and makes me excited to continue my learning and continue to develop my piano talents. So I have decided to start a new feature on The Teaching Studio to help us all become familiar with great pieces from piano literature, learn a little about composers and music history, and hear some great music.

So each weekend we will feature a piece of repertoire - either for your inspiration and enjoyment, or to give you ideas on what to teach your students. I am so excited!

Have a great weekend!

Poll Results: Over-Scheduled Students

Thanks to all who participated in our poll! Here are the results:

Do you ever have any issues with students who are just too darn busy to practice?

Looks like this is definitely a common concern!

We also had a great comment from a reader, Renee, who said this:

Interestingly, our area was hit by a huge storm last week that knocked out everyone's electricity, canceled school functions, and canceled extracurricular sports, etc.. My student's piano practice shot through the roof! This week has shown incredible results. I think they are also shocked with their own rapid improvement. It showed me what these children are really capable of doing on the piano, if they just had more free time.

What an interesting thing! I think that a lot of our students don't realize their real potential and what they could accomplish if they would just practice more consistently (and more often!).

Thanks to all your input! Stay tuned for our upcoming topic and a couple of new features on The Teaching Studio!


The Over-Scheduled Student

Over-scheduled students come in all shapes and sizes. Or, I should say, all ages and abilities. I have taught 6-year-olds who are so involved in dance, sports, and playing other musical instruments, that finding time to practice is difficult. But a more general trend is that as kids get older, they get busier. Which is why this topic goes perfectly with the discussion on keeping teenage students interested, because almost without fail, as soon as kids hit high school, they experience an explosion in their extracurricular activities. They make the cheerleading squad, the dance team, the show choir, the school musical, the softball/basketball/soccer team. They have hours of homework every night. They are getting up for early-morning practices, and staying up late to finish calculus assignments.

These over-scheduled kids (of any age) generally fall into one of two categories:

  1. Those who want to find the time to practice, and
  2. Those who couldn't care less about practicing.
The second group is obviously the more challenging group to teach. I have spent many hours in lessons with students who didn't touch the piano once during the week. Sometimes I have felt like they are wasting my time and theirs, as well as their parents' money. Other times I have felt like the relationship I have with these kids is more important than any musical knowledge they will ever gain from me. Sometimes I am frustrated because of the natural ability that is going to waste. Other times I am able to step back and see that life is not all about music (gasp!) and these kids are going to be okay if they can't play a B minor harmonic scale or a Chopin Prelude.
I have had a lot of students spend years with me, only practicing in their lessons, and making minimal progress. And yet, on more than one occasion, I have had a student who, through consistent nudging, week after week, has eventually begun taking a little more initiative at home, and ended up creating a really valuable musical experience for themselves. But no matter the outcome, I have never regretted the time spent with any of these wonderful kids, who all looked to me as a friend (even the teenage boys, who would never admit it). Don't give up on these students!
Of course, the first category of students, those who really want to practice but just can't find the time, can be just as frustrating, though in a different way. The most important thing to remember here is that consistency makes all the difference. If this is a student who has always been a pretty good practicer, but is suddenly finding himself way too busy to fit it in, you can fall back on that good foundation and help him maintain good habits. Even if all they can manage is 10 minutes a day (my high school piano teacher called this "survival practicing"), they can make some progress in that time. Perhaps they can find one or two days a week where they can still put in a good hour, and they can use the 10-minute days for learning one section, drilling one trouble spot, or memorizing one line of music. If they can stay in the habit of playing the piano every day, even for a very short period of time, they will continue to make music a part of their lives during this busy period and beyond.
And, on that occasional week when the musical is running, or the basketball team is in the state playoffs, and the piano doesn't get touched at all, it's okay! If they have managed to stay consistent on other weeks, one week isn't going to hurt them. I have had many students perform quite well in recitals after a week of no practicing, because their preparation was consistent in the weeks beforehand.
Obviously, I am sort of describing the best-case scenario here. Most students will not be so perfect about maintaining good habits when they find themselves over-scheduled. But even here, consistency on the part of the teacher (and the parents, if you can get them involved) will make the biggest difference. Keep practicing with them, keep teaching them how to practice effectively, keep motivating them to fit the practicing in. Keep talking to them about their schedules, stay interested in their other activities, let them know you care about them as a person. Make it about what they did do each week, not what they didn't. And most of all, have fun with them and with the music!


Teaching Teenagers

Teaching teenagers - is it a joy or is it a frustration?


In my experience, it is either one or the other :) Some of my absolute favorite students I have taught have been teenagers. I just love getting into the really "fun" repertoire, seeing my students really progress musically and really grow to love the piano (independently of their parents wanting them to take lessons), and I love the challenge of teaching more difficult (and more rewarding) repertoire. When teenagers are motivated, hard-working and make piano a priority, they can be a definite joy to teach! (I loved Mariel's comment on my last post where she shared some ideas to help our students realize the importance of music and to help make piano a priority in their lives!)


On the other hand, some of my very most challenging and frustrating students have also been teenagers. It can be so challenging when they are so busy with school and other extracurricular activities that they don't make piano practice a priority. Picking repertoire is a definite challenge - for if the student hates their pieces, they will hate practicing and hate coming to lessons (and by extension you sometimes feel like they hate you!! not good!).

So what can we do as teachers to motivate our teenage students?

I decided that to really get into this topic, it would be helpful to actually talk to someone who has much more recently been a teenage piano student and get their perspective. So, I interviewed my little brother, Josh.

Josh Gibbons is an awesome guy, an amazing pianist and is a piano teacher, as well! Josh is 18 and just began college; he took piano lessons for many years. He recently performed Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with his high school orchestra for Concerto Night. He absolutely loves to play the piano and it is a big part of his life.

Is it true you almost quit piano lessons at one point during high school?
Yes, it was more in early junior high though. There was a point where I just totally stopped practicing and didn't care for it too much.

What was it about piano lessons that made you want to quit?
I was never really good at practicing, and I would easily get frustrated while learning a song. I felt overwhelmed sometimes with all of the songs I had and that it was taking a long time to learn them. I guess I just wasn't patient enough.

Why did you continue your piano study?
First of all, I realized that my friends and everyone else liked it when I played the piano. But also, around that time, I changed how I played the songs. I realized how much you can change each song to how you want it, through the dynamics. I loved having the freedom to change the tempo how I wanted, making the song my own.I then started loving the songs I was playing and enjoyed piano a lot more.

Are you glad you kept taking piano lessons?
I'm very glad that I kept taking lessons. I definitely would regret it now if I had quit. I love having the opportunity to serve in my church through music and I'm sure it'll be wonderful to have this skill when I serve my mission for my church. Also, the better I got, the more I enjoyed playing. If I had quit, I would be missing out on something that is a huge part of my life now. Looking back now, I have a great feeling of accomplishment that I kept taking lessons all these years.

What opportunities would you have missed out on if you had quit?
If I had quit, I wouldn't have been able to learn the great pieces I've learned in the past couple of years, and I wouldn't have played in Concerto Night. Playing in Concerto Night was definitely one of the biggest highlights from my high school experience. Also, I wouldn't have been able to play with my church choir as the accompanist, which has made me even better. I probably wouldn't have any friends either because who doesn't like it when someone can play the piano?

What things about piano lessons made you want to keep playing?
My teacher definitely made a difference for me. I can't recall one piano lesson that I went into, that I didn't leave with a smile on my face. Even after a week of little practicing, my teacher was very encouraging. She taught me great lessons on how to be a better pianist but also lessons on how to be a better person. The piano lesson was a great way to start off the week.

What are some things you would suggest to teachers of teenagers to help keep other teenagers interested in lessons?
I would suggest to teachers to make a great connection between themselves and the student. I was a piano teacher myself, and I think I could have done a much better job of really connecting with the student so they could trust me and they would trust my advice. Also, don't just teach straight piano. Let them know that you care about their life and what they are doing, and give them advice to help them in their life. Once the student knows that you really care about them becoming a better pianist, and just a better person in general, they will want to practice more for you. Also, make sure the student knows HOW to practice. Even today, I still feel like I'm not the best at practicing. It's different for every student, however. For me, it was hard to practice straight for a long period of time. Try to help them find the best way for them to practice.

Josh and his teacher
Thank you Josh, for some wonderful insights! I think there are some great ideas he gave us that we can all work on to improve our teenage students' experience with piano lessons. He said some interesting things - which lead to some great questions we can all ask ourselves about our teenage students:
  • Do your teenage students know how to practice?
  • Are they frustrated or overwhelmed with their pieces?
  • Do they know how to make a song musical and put their own expression into a piece through dynamics, articulations, etc.?
  • Do they have opportunities to perform for their friends and other peers who think it's "cool" to play the piano?
  • Do they have opportunities to use their piano skills for accompanying or other things where they will feel like their skills are needed and appreciated?
  • Do we help our students feel encouraged and motivated?
  • Do we care about our students and what they are going through in their lives (which is a lot during the teenage years)? Do they look up to us and trust us?

What insights and ideas do you have to share? I'd love your comments!


Giveaway on Music Matters Blog

The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a DifferenceReaders - there is a great giveaway going on at Music Matters Blog, where Natalie is giving away an autographed copy of the book The Savvy Musician. It sounds like a great book for any musician or music teacher. Head on over there and enter!

Poll Results & Making Piano a Priority

Thank you to all who participated in our poll - it is great to see the variety of ways that we teach rhythm to our students!

How do you teach beginning students to count rhythm?

Other Answers & Comments:
1: "ta-ta-half note"
2: "ta-ta-ta-ta or ti-ti"
3: "Gordon method"
4: "I start with the 1-1-1-2, but I move them to 1-2-3-4 as soon as I possibly can, based on when they 'get it.'"

This week we would like to talk about The Over-Scheduled Student and Keeping Teenage Students Interested. Although two different topics, I think that these are very related to one another in that they both fall into the category of Making Piano a Priority in a student's life.

How can teach effectively to help make piano an important part of our students' lives? Are piano lessons fun, exciting and engaging? Are our students progressing enough to keep them loving it? How can we communicate to our students and their parents the importance of consistent practice? What can we do to keep an open line of communication going with the parents to help encourage practice and continued piano study?

I just read a great post on this subject on the "Music for Tots" blog. One thing I loved about this post was that the author talked about weighing the importance of music study as a family and then prioritizing accordingly. So what does that mean to me as a piano teacher? To me it illustrates the importance of educating parents about the importance of music in their child's life and about the importance of effective and consistent practice. It reminds me of my important role in making lessons a positive part in my students' lives, in discovering each student's unique strengths and abilities and in teaching each student in such a way as to help them learn and progress.

Thoughts? Comments? :)

p.s. Don't forget to take our new poll!


Teaching Eighth and Sixteenth Notes

Once a student has a pretty good grasp on basic rhythm, they are probably ready to move onto some trickier concepts - eighth notes, sixteenth notes, dotted notes, etc. Now what??

Understanding Meter

When teaching eighth notes, sixteenth notes, dotted notes, triplets, etc., I think it is good to make sure the student understands meter. Aside from knowing that 3/4 time means that there are three counts in a measure and the quarter note gets one count, can your student feel the strong and weak beats in each measure?

I just came across a great game on Susan Paradis' Piano Teacher Resources blog - this would be a wonderful game to play at a group or performance class to get your students thinking about and listening for meter.

For a crash course (or a great review) on simple vs. compound meter, check out this lesson on musictheory.net.

Teaching Rhythm

But how do we actually teach these rhythms? Now there are so many out there who have shared much more creative ways of doing this than I have ever used (which I am so grateful for! I am excited to try some of your ideas and to use a lot more hands-on teaching methods in my own teaching). A good way to explain eighth and sixteenth note rhythms is to use fractions. This especially works well if your student loves math! I like to draw out a little chart for them, so they can see that there are two half notes per whole note, two quarter notes per half note, two eighth notes per quarter note, etc. There are so many ways you could make this more fun and exciting and hands-on. Check out Susan Paradis' awesome Rhythm Pizza game, and Jen Fink's Lego Rhythms. (In fact, Susan Paradis' blog is an AMAZING resource - check out all of her rhythm activities and games!) The possibilities are really endless. How about taking a little "field trip" to the kitchen to do a little hands-on rhythm lesson using measuring cups - 1 cup equals a whole note. You need to pour two half cups of water to equal a whole cup, or four quarter cups, or eight eighth cups.

Counting Out Loud

I have always believed that counting out loud is so important when learning rhythm. I have had many a student who has struggled playing the correct rhythms during their lesson, but when they start counting out loud almost everything gets fixed. I know there are many ways to count (as seen in our poll this week!). For eighth and sixteenth notes, I personally prefer the "1 and 2 and 3 and" and "1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a" method. I think counting like this can serve as a good reminder of the main beats in the measure, helping the student to remember that all of the notes must fit into the overall rhythm and meter of the measure.

Practicing with the Metronome

A great help in learning this and playing the correct rhythm is practice with the metronome. Once a student can play the correct rhythm while staying with the beat of the metronome, they probably have a pretty good grasp on the rhythm.

What fun ways have you come up with to teach rhythm to your students?
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