One of the first questions I get asked by prospective students is: “How long should I practice?” but my answer often surprises them.When a family joins my studio, I often hear statements like “Should we set a timer for 30 minutes?” or “How much per week should my child practice?”My answer however is not based on how much time we dedicate to practicing, but rather how we dedicate ourselves to practicing in the first place.When it comes to young kids and practicing, my goal with them is to help them feel what it’s like to self structure their time. To enjoy the process. To feel like they are accomplishing goals. To feel rewarded by their progress.This can look like: reviewing pieces, reading pieces, composing a piece, improvising off of a piece, figuring out a song by ear, or anything that speaks to them and their journey. The reality is at their age as long as there is a sense of forward motion and help with that structuring from the teacher, there will be progress.I tell parents, good practicing for a young child is simply spending time during the week enjoying their own process.With adults, I take the same approach, however with adults I give an even stronger sense of ownership, and goal setting tends to be very self devised by the students themselves.The progress is based off of accomplishing goals rather than the time itself.We can set a timer for an hour and practice to our hearts content, but if we don’t practice with intention and with some sort of goal with forward motion, the time will be negated by the lack of structure.How we practice is what helps us put one foot in front of the other as students, performers, or educators. When we practice to achieve our goals, not just to see seconds pass by on the clock, is when we accomplish a sense of ownership and forward motion in our practicing, and see ourselves grow and flourish as students of the craft.
When I got my first pack of reading cards from the creators at Piano Safari, the first thought through my head was “How can I create with this.” As my studio grew with these cards and each kid spent more time with them, activities, explorations, and games have arisen which presented the cards in a new light for me. Not only can the cards teach intervallic reading, but they can teach technique, feeling a pulse and rhythmic subdivision, sight singing, composition / notation skills, and improv.TechniqueThe Piano Safari cards start with fingers 2 3 and 4 in both hands and likewise coincide with the “Tall Giraffe” technique of the method which is non legato on fingers 2 3 and 4. This is a progression from the beginning of the method which starts on finger 2. I’ve loved using the first level (Pink) of cards to work on helping kids find a supported bridge, work on natural hand shape, balance on the keys, and find a nice bounce with their arm (see a good resource on this here).The cards eventually progress to using all 5 fingers and students can seamlessly transition to reading with all 5 fingers, while they transition to techniques like “Zecharia Zebra” which involve the whole hand.Feeling A Pulse and RhythmsWith young kids, often times I like to take the cards off the bench and incorporate movement, singing, tapping, and other tools so not only can they see the beat, they can feel it. One exercise we will do is take a single measure from the card, and stand and tap a steady beat on our legs or shoulder together, and then sing the measure back and forth while maintaining that steady pulse. The bottom line of the card, which is simply a rhythm line, is wonderful for rhythm activities that get kids moving, singing, and getting involved with the beat.
When kids read the bottom line, often we will tap a steady pulse on our legs together, and we will sing the rhythms with a neutral syllable “bah.” Later, kids begin to associate rhythms with syllabic systems like Kodaly, Gordon, Takadimi, or similar. For a resource on why one would start with a neutral syllable and not immediately with syllabic system, click here.
A game I like to play is lining up all the cards on the piano or on a table, and singing or playing lines in a row. We call it the “Caterpillar Game.” Kids love making long caterpillars!
Sight SingingWhen a student is playing the cards, often I will make a large effort to incorporate their voice. I give them the starting pitch of the tonal pattern (in right or left hand) and then work on singing the whole pattern with a neutral syllable like “bum” without the piano. In addition, when students read the cards, they will sing the card while they play it in either hand, which helps connect the ear to the instrument. We sing the card back and forth with each other as an exercise, and help solidify the connection between eye, ear, and hand.Composition and NotationPart of the process of the cards for my youngest kids is learning how to internalize rhythms and see how they are represented on the page. When they begin to have their reading abilities unlocked, creative opportunities begin to unfold both in their lessons and in their practicing. Many of my young students compose their own pieces, and when they try and represent these pieces with notation they do so with their current understanding. This manifests as shapes, symbols, or notes as in relation to the cards and where they are currently in the method. Below a student wrote her own piece based on her exploration with the cards, and then improvised the notes based on the white keys.
6 year old beginners original creation
ImprovisationAs students build their sense of rhythm and their technique, their improv abilities grow and the cards are a prime opportunity for improvised exploration. The bottom rhythmic line can be filled in with improvised inventions of the student. Many students I’ve worked with take the bottom line and improvise compositions on the black keys, or on the white keys. In addition kids can sing a melody with the bottom line, or drum the bottom line, or we trade ideas back and forth. This concept of improvising off a score is paramount in more advanced stages of study.When I began to tap into the cards as a means for exploration and understanding, and went beyond just intervalic reading, the cards began to take on a new roll in my studio. Whenever I took out the cards my student knew it was time for an activity, a game, or time to create. Cards began to be a tool for working on not only reading, but skills that make up good musicianship. Certainly a welcomed addition and supplement to and studio and any method.
We’ve heard the story over and over again. A Student starts to lose interest in the instrument, stops practicing, starts giving attitude to the teacher, starts fighting back at instruction, and all progress seems to come to a halt.Immediately as teachers it’s easy to enter into problem solving mode. Can I give different pieces, can I structure lessons differently, what can *I* do different.But what if often the answer is sitting in front of us the whole time?There was a young 6 year old student I was working with, who all of a sudden started to put up resistance to a couple pieces we were doing. I took a pause, and I asked “Hey *Students name*, is there a reason you don’t want to do these pieces? What’s upsetting you?”Student answered: “I want to write music.”Of course, I thought to myself. We had done some composition before. But we had taken a break. So immediately I shifted the lesson and we started composing together using graphic notation. All of a sudden she was gung-ho about composing as much as possible. All I had to do was listen.A highschooler, was struggling with practicing, and so mid lesson I asked him “I noticed we’ve hit sort of a road block. Any idea whats preventing you from practicing these tunes?”He then opened up to me about how he was having trouble motivating himself. How he was struggling with balance with his other activities. We had a long dialogue and I told him how I can relate with my own balance.The following week, he had the tunes down.The younger a student is, the more they need assistance with feedback and being present to where they are. As they grow older and their awareness develops, we can spread out and have more of a mutual back and forth. But no matter where a student is in their own development, what can be so crucial to a positive experience is a tone of mutual respect, understanding, and us trying to understand *where they are right now.* Sometimes, all we have to do is ask. Often times, the student has the answer all along.
I used to REALLY hate youtube tutorials for students.I thought they were not learning music, a waste of time, not learning something correctly. Until I realized I could look at them a different way. Recently, I had a highschooler come to me with Bohemian Rhapsody learned from a youtube tutorial, playing beautifully, and then suddenly it clicked. What if youtube laid the foundation for student and teacher. What if it was simply transcription. Me and this highschooler first took a pencil and paper and mapped out the entire chord sequence of the tune he had just "transcribed." Then we analyzed the patterns, structures, and harmonic relationships. Then he wrote out the entire tune in proper lead sheet form with chords. And all of a sudden the tune went beyond simply playing from youtube, to actual understanding. The following week we did 2 more tunes. Both learned from youtube. With full harmonic analysis. All of a sudden his chordal understanding started to sky rocket. His theory improved in leaps and bounds. When youtube was approached as transcription, we could use our lessons as connecting harmony, context, and understanding. Online tools when used as a means for understanding can empower and inspire. It's amazing when we help a student to feel that sense of ownership and inspiration.
My approach to teaching used to be very different.I used to be very high energy and “on” all the time, constantly in go mode every lesson. Every lesson I plunged myself 100 percent and I drove myself to the max until I had nothing left.At this point (not so long ago) energetically, I was in trouble. My lessons were going smashingly well, but I was hitting a wall physically and mentally. I would get home and would be catatonic after. It was taking everything out of me, and my body was rebelling, and something had to change.The shift in my approach began with the simple concept of “don’t correct mistakes” and this snowballed into a total change of how I approach teaching in every way.What this shift looked like for me, is that instead of correcting mistakes, my role shifted into more of a guide that helped students become aware of their own process. That helped them learn how to correct their own mistakes. To be aware of their own journey (for all ages)When my role shifted from “lecturing” to “guiding” all of a sudden I noticed a change in both my own awareness, but also the dynamic between myself and my students. Suddenly the lesson dynamic became one of team mindset. “Let’s figure this out together.” Or “Let’s explore this together” or “What a great idea, what can we do with it”When the lessons became much more exploratory, all of a sudden I didn’t have to burn myself out every day, but my energy level began to shift into a much more manageable place. I learned how capable students of all ages are. How not everything has to fall on my shoulders all the time. How I can breathe and let them experience their own process, with me as a guide.All of a sudden, that catatonic end of the day feeling did a 180 shift into “Wow, what a great day, so many students grew and I grew with them.”