Posture

A musician’s posture is one of the most important physical aspects of their playing. It affects every part of an instrumentalists ability to relax (hopefully preventing injuries), articulate, breath, and play effectively. It can also have an influence on the musician’s longevity as an active musician.

Here is a tried and true exercise to insure good posture in yourself and your students. This has been proven effective for vocalists, as well!

Stand straight and stretch your arms up toward the ceiling. Then wiggle your fingertips – this is really important because it helps reduce unnecessary tension in the arms. Slowly begin to lower the arms straight out to the sides, and make sure the elbows do not bend. Keep wiggling the fingers!  Continue bringing your arms down until they are hanging at your sides. Your shoulders should now be in the “perfect posture” position.

This method works really well in helping teach young children, and is far more effective than merely saying “stand/sit up straight,” or “put your shoulders back,” or other common directives.

 

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Check out our favorite book for elementary violin students. This makes a wonderful start prior to launching into the Suzuki books.

Cover tiny file look inside Essential Elements for Strings – Book 1 with EEi Essential Elements. Instructional, Methods and Play Along. Softcover Media Online. 48 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.868049).

 

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Composers

Composers. That word sounds a little technical, if you ask me. Maybe it just feels technical. Or maybe it isn’t really technical at all. Maybe it’s just too historical for musicians like us who would rather sit with a violin under our chins or a keyboard under our fingers than with our noses in a history book.

Whatever the case, the subject of music composers is an important one for anyone who wishes to play music, not to mention those who are in teaching positions. But really, how do you teach about this, and does it really affect our playing?

Let me answer the second question first. Yes, it does really affect our playing, in more ways than one. I’m not talking about merely having random facts stored in our brain like some kind of mental timeline stocked with stickers from over the centuries highlighting important events and dates, but about really knowing and understanding more about the people behind the music we play.

Did you know that Bach had twenty children? That’s an encouraging fact when you are practicing amid the noise of 3 other instruments and other unnamed chaos. Or that, in spite of the fact that most people today use much of his music for keyboard and strings, Bach’s primary instrument was organ. It is also interesting to note that the Baroque era of music ended the same year as Bach’s death (no, everyone didn’t awaken sounding like Mozart the day after Bach’s funeral, but that is the recognized date marking the change in music styles).

Speaking of Mozart, did you know that he began composing at the age of 5 years, having already become proficient at both violin and piano? Or that he was interested in chords at the piano at the age of 3 years when watching his 7 year-old sister, Nannerl, study piano with their father?

Nannerl wrote the following after Wolfgang’s death at the age of 35 years:

“He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good… In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier… He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time… At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.”*

How about Beethoven? He is one of the few (if not the only) composers who spanned two eras: he composed repertoire in both the Classical era as well as the Romantic era. Time would fail to speak of Debussy’s extraordinary abilities that were recognized in his youth though criticized for the unusual innovations they led him to produce, or of how Haydn married a woman who disliked music and used his manuscripts for hair rollers, or of Vivaldi’s fire red hair and work with orphans, or of how Beethoven and Haydn met and on Haydn’s advice, Beethoven moved to Vienna for the remainder of his life, or of Haydn’s creative genius in the composition of the Farewell Symphony…

The point is, we ought to become acquainted with these people as we endeavor to play their music. They were real. As we learn more about them, they will cease to be in our minds and the minds of our students as known yet unknown geniuses of the past for whom we have no personal appreciation. And better still, when we teach their music to our students, we can talk about them with the warmth and appreciation we have for other great historical figures who have impacted us for good under the sovereign hand of God.

 

For more ideas on teaching about eras and composers of music, read here

 

Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics Level 8. By perf. Scott Price. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Classics. Masterwork. Book; CD. 56 pages. Alfred Music #00-16741. Published by Alfred Music (AP.16741).

*Excerpt taken from Wikipedia.com

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Teaching Practice Techniques

Teaching practice techniques is one of the most rewarding things a teacher can do (or at least, that’s my opinion :)). When you teach a student how to practice, your teaching is no longer limited to the music he/she is learning. Suddenly, their potential to grow and strengthen outside of the lesson time is escalated to hitherto unknown levels.

There are two main things a teacher can do when teaching practice techniques and they are both increased in effectiveness when you use them together.

  1. Demonstrate
  2. Explain

Most of us learn best by example, so demonstration is an incredible tool to have at your fingertips. This can take a little bit of extra work on the teacher’s part, because now, instead of saying “work on measures 7-8 and make the notes even,” we have to work through exactly how to get those stubborn sixteenths even. There are scores of good techniques for learning various skills in each of the different instruments, so work to have these ready to use at a moment’s notice.

I find it helpful to demonstrate a technique a time or two, depending on the situation. Then, I’ll demonstrate it again step by step, talking about exactly what I’m doing and how. I don’t usually like to let a student leave a lesson until they have tried and succeeded at mastering at least one facet of what we talked about, so after I have demonstrated with explanation, I let them try. I usually have them work on a smaller section than my original demonstration: maybe just two measures instead of eight, or sometimes half a measure instead of 2 whole lines – this just needs discretion because you want them to succeed at whatever you give them to do.

The student’s work will probably need to be alternated with more demonstration and explanation, but that’s okay! A big point here is to not leave a subject until there is a thorough understanding of what is desired as a goal, clearly defined steps to get there, and some (usually small for lack of time) level of success accomplished. Once they have mastered it on a small area, you may desire to repeat the process on a larger section or just on another section. In some cases, it is equally effective to just verbally apply it for their reference at home.

Depending on the maturity of the student, the distance of time between lessons, and their track record for being able to remember what you say :), writing down the practice technique(s) in detailed instructions can be very helpful. See also “Forgetful Students” for more tips on taking notes in a memorable way.

Don’t be afraid of taking lots of time to make sure your point is carried. If you spend half of the lesson discussing how to practice one phrase, your time is not wasted. Every technique you instill into your student is an investment into their ability to practice well in the future, which is actually an investment into their being able to continue progressing into the boundless levels of advanced repertoire.

 

Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 1-2. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 24 pages. Alfred Music #00-6583. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6583).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 3. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6584. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6584).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 4. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6585. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6585).

 

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2019 Planner Pages | Coming Soon!

Stay tuned for the official release! We’re excited to be able to offer another free download of calendar pages for 2019!

Features will include:

 

  • a month-at-a-glance calendar, with spaces to write a verse, your list of projects, and contacts that need to be made
  • a cover for each month where you can conveniently write important reminders like errands, gifts, and events
  • weekly pages, for those who need detailed planning of more than just the monthly overview

P.S. If you downloaded the 2018 planner pages, we would love to hear your feedback!

Coming Soon! | In Righteous Paths

In Righteous Paths is a collection of sacred solo arrangements for intermediate viola, complete with piano accompaniments. These arrangements were written with the amateur violist in mind, but are also appropriate for those who have reached more advanced levels. Also included is a bonus arrangement of Abide with Me set for violin/viola duet with piano accompaniment. Artistic yet simple, these solos are perfect for church services and much more.

Theory and Technique: Competitors or Completers?

The words theory and technique are often lumped together in the world of piano pedagogy, especially when in the context of elementary and intermediate students. There are often books that are labeled for developing theory and technique together, which could be fine. For many situations, though, it may be well to address these two aspects of music individually.

Theory is, essentially, the nuts and bolts of music, and deals primarily with the mind and intellect. The sharps, flats, and naturals; the order of sharps and flats in key signatures; note values, and how they relate to each other; intervals; chords and chord progressions; time signatures; major vs. minor, et cetera.

Technique, on the other hand, is the nuts and bolts of the physical interaction between the body and the instrument. How to sit or stand; how to touch the instrument or hold it; how to attack the strings, valves, or keys with the fingers, et cetera.

Without any doubt, students need to learn about and understand theory. They also need to know the how-to’s of their particular instrument. As teachers, we need to learn to balance educating our students’ minds as well as their muscles. This can be quite the challenge, especially for new teachers or musicians whose teachers may have taught both well, but didn’t explain the difference between the two.

It is important, whether teaching theory or technique, to be equipped with the necessary tools to make the most positive impact possible, in the most time effective manner possible. What are these tools, then? In a word, they are books. The books you choose to use with your students will shape them for better or for worse. Some of the issues I have faced in this area include using books that focus almost exclusively on developing the mind to the demise of the muscles.

As a side note, literature is where we gain much technique, but exercises and etudes are almost indispensable as well (these form the foundation of technique that will then be applied in the literature). Learn to see the theory and technique that is being presented in the literature and teach as you go. This is often quite effective in reinforcing what you have talked about in exercises, and provides “real life” application for what the student is learning.

What I have found and am still finding to work well is to divide the two into individual materials. Rather than using books that are designed to teach both at the same time, use theory books and technique books. Our favorite theory books are the Just the Facts series by Ann Lawry. For technique building, Jane Magrath’s Masterwork Classics series is wonderful, both for its incredible leveling of classical repertoire, as well as the supplementary Technical Skills series that provides exercises to enhance the study of literature. (See links below.)

We obviously need both theory and technique, and even though they fall on two different sides of the musical equation, they ought to complete each other, rather than compete with each other, in the lives of a musician. Keeping them separate can help each side get the attention it needs.

Work from the beginning of your student’s journey to develop these two sides of study. It can be a challenge, but the effort will be worth it!

Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 4 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-4).
Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 5 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-5).
Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 6 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-6).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics (Level 3) Level 3. By perf. Valery Lloyd-Watts. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Classics. Baroque, Classical Period and 20th Century. Collection and examples CD. With standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 48 pages. Alfred Music #00-166. Published by Alfred Music (AP.166).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 3. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6584. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6584).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics, Level 4 Level 4. By perf. Valery Lloyd-Watts. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Alfred Masterwork Edition. Instructional. Collection and examples CD. With standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 48 pages. Alfred Music #00-168. Published by Alfred Music (AP.168).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 4. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6585. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6585).

If you enjoyed this article, check out the others about music pedagogy here.

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Helps for New Music Teachers

I don’t know about each of you, but there are some key things that I had to work through when I first began teaching music. Helps for new music teachers can be so valuable because these teachers are new. They don’t have 10, 20, or 50 years of experience, trial, error, and success from which to draw to help answer their myriad questions.

I remember so well the first piano lesson I ever taught. I called my older sister (who was newly married at the time) and told her how nervous I was. She was very reassuring, and told me that for the first several weeks, all I would have to do was read the material as it was presented in the method series we use. Whew. Talk about pressure release! I didn’t have to be creative, stressed, or anxious – all I had to do was just read.

That is probably one of the best pieces of advice for new teachers. Unless you are naturally fearless, have an ease and confidence about new challenges, can think “on your feet” without any hesitation, and feel no qualms about being thrust from the studio as a student to a new studio as a teacher… Well, certainly none of those things described me that week. It was almost entirely new ground in my experience, and it didn’t help that it had been years since my own journey as a beginning pianist had begun, which meant that I didn’t remember any of the techniques my own teacher used in my first lessons.

So read the method book. You need a method book that aligns with your goals, both short and long term. We desire that our students learn early on how to read music, and not rely solely on the finger numbers. We also prefer curriculum that supports our Biblical worldview, and isn’t filled with meaningless ditties about ghosts and goblins or other undesirable content. When we first opened our home-based studio, these were the two primary qualifications for the books we used. Since then I have added to that list, but more on that at a later date.

In keeping with our first two qualifications, we have come to highly recommend the Keys for Kingdom series. This course includes an effective means of teaching students to read notes, and also introduces beginner theory in a systematic and understandable way. Regardless of what method you decide to use, know your book and especially the pages that you will be assigning for the student’s practice that week.

The next tip came from one of my other sisters a little while into my teaching journey. I was struggling through knowing how to maintain authority in the lesson, how to graciously inform parents that new books were needed (I strongly dislike telling people they need to spend money!), as well as navigating general student/teacher and parent/teacher relationships. My helpful sister put it simply: You are the teacher, so be the teacher. Period. Yes, our words need to be gracious and kind, but our demeanor ought to also be confident and at ease with our position – even when we are trembling and screaming from terror on the inside. What you say, the student must do. What you say to the parent, they ought to heed because they are paying you to help your child excel. If new material is needed, then tell them (there’s no need to be apologetic). You would be doing them a disservice by not disclosing the information. Then, of course, other relational difficulties could and probably will arise. We will not address them specifically here, but keeping in mind that you are the teacher is key. And this one simple fact means much more than it may appear at the surface level!

I hope to be able to take a closer look at other challenges new teachers face in the future, and rejoice in the immense blessing it is that so many young people are taking their responsibility seriously to sing to the Lord a new song, and play skillfully with a loud noise.

If you found this post helpful, please take a few minutes to leave feedback in the comment section below. Also, check out the Keys for the Kingdom piano method series.

Cover tiny file look inside Keys for the Kingdom Level A Method Book. Shawnee Press. Christian Instruction. Softcover. 64 pages. Shawnee Press #H5001. Published by Shawnee Press (HL.35012003).
Cover tiny file look inside Keys for the Kingdom Level B Method Book. Shawnee Press. Christian Instruction. Softcover. 63 pages. Shawnee Press #H5002. Published by Shawnee Press (HL.35012009).

 

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Traits of a Good Teacher

While attending a workshop on piano pedagogy recently presented by Dr. Susan Kindall, the students in the class were given the opportunity to describe in one word a good teacher by whom they had been positively impacted (these traits were not given exclusively as descriptions of music teachers). As each person in the class shared, it was both intriguing and inspiring to hear from students’ perspectives the positive qualities of those who guided their studies. Some of the adjectives given included the following, on each of which I have briefly expounded.

  • Caring
    Private teachers have an amazing opportunity to work one-on-one with students of all different personalities, backgrounds, and more. Take advantage of the opportunity God has given you to speak into these eternal lives.
  • Approachable
    We want our students to feel free to talk to us. When we ask a question, we ought to make sure that they know that if they don’t know the correct answer, it’s okay. They don’t have to be musically perfect, but they should be encouraged to discuss things over with us. Also, give them chances to ask questions. Many students will only ask about something if the conditions are just right, so endeavor to set up a comfortable, communicative atmosphere in the lesson.
  • Knowledgeable
    We all want to learn from our teachers, so having a teacher who has extensive knowledge about what they are teaching is invaluable. Obviously, no one can know everything, but we as teachers ought to 1.) Have a good foundation in what we are teaching and 2.) Continually seek for “gaps” in our own education and endeavor to fill them.
  • Precise
    Rather than listening to a student play something and then reassigning it for another week of practice to “finish learning” or “polish,” give them something specific to work on. If you are needing to reassign the piece, then there is obviously something not finished about it. What is it? Give specifics – “you need more dynamic contrast,” “double-check those notes,” “bring the tempo up gradually,” etc. Then explain the “how” for whatever is needed: “physically play into this section for emphasis on the fortissimo then drop the amount of weight you put into the keys to bring it back to pianissimo,” “analyze the chords and see what is going on ‘behind the scenes.’ Then you’ll have a more solid idea of the notes required,” “work with a metronome beginning at 60 on the quarter and work up 2-3 speeds at a time until you are at 120.” Precision is key!
  • Thorough
    Don’t settle for a perfect tempo with imperfect notes; be nitpicky about rhythms; don’t be afraid to reassign a piece (especially to an intermediate or advanced student) for work in one or two “little” areas or skills. If there is something amiss, do all you can to develop the student’s skill and repair the problem.
  • Exciting
    Get excited about the wonderful things your student is learning. Be enthusiastic about the progress you see each week (even if it’s miniscule!). Emphasize how much you love what you do: the instrument itself, the music you are studying, the thrill of training the next generation of musicians, geeky music theory… the list is endless! There is so much to be excited about; help the student see that!
  • Pushing
    Reach for new skills that will stretch the student’s ability. One of my favorite teachers has a saying: “Never say ‘I can’t.’ You may say ‘I can’t yet.’ Then I can help you.” In addition to always reaching beyond current limitations, insist that current skills be mastered thoroughly before moving on. Sometimes it’s better to plateau for a little while before beginning the next portion of the ascent up the mountain of music mastery.

 

Check out these excellent books by Jane Magrath, filled with graded standard repertoire purposefully selected for building technique for the pianist. These are amazing resources!

Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics (Level 1-2) Level 1-2. By perf. Kim O’Reilly. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Classics. Baroque, Classical Period and 20th Century. Collection and examples CD. With easy piano notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6581. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6581).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 1-2. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 24 pages. Alfred Music #00-6583. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6583).

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Beginner’s Plunk – What Can We Do?

If you’ve ever heard elementary pianists play, you probably know what I’m talking about – that unmistakable beginner’s plunk (with which I was plagued myself as a young musician).

For the first several months of my teaching experience, I thought primarily of achieving one thing in the training of my piano students, and that was to get them to read music fluently. As time has moved on, this still remains a very strong goal. However, other things have also risen to the surface of mind, making my mental list of “topmost important things beginners should be taught” grow rapidly. Added to the note-reading fluency have been rhythmic accuracy, adherence to written dynamics, a beautifully correct hand position, a kneading or massaging motion when depressing the keys, and more.

More recently, I have noticed that the results I am seeing in my upper-elementary students leave something to be desired. Granted, they are upper-elementary, and will not, even with their best efforts, play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” the way a professional concert pianist would. This isn’t about absurd goals and utter perfectionism, but about reaching the highest level of excellence possible.

Something I want to see in my beginners (and have seen in some cases) is agility in the hands when moving across the keys. Additionally, students should be taught to play musically and with personal artistic expression, but within the general boundaries of era and style. Too often there is a tendency for the beginners to produce the plunking sound with which we are all familiar, and I surmise that this can have multiple causes.

Two of the causes that I’ve identified are 1.) a lack of understanding about legato (see the previous article, Pianistic Legato for more specifics on this) and 2.) muscle stiffness, which can be much decreased by the implementation of scales into the student’s daily work (one octave is good for beginners).  Five-finger exercises have proven very effective in removing the muscular stiffness and developing finger independence, as well.

Depending on the student’s note-reading ability and general teaching philosophies, another solid resource for developing agility and overall maturity on the keyboard and relaxing the hand muscles is The Little Pianist exercises by Carl Czerny.

Cover tiny file look inside The Little Pianist Op. 823 Composed by Carl Czerny (1791-1857). Edited by Ruthardt. Studies. Sheet Music. Edition Peters #EP2845A. Published by Edition Peters (PE.EP2845A).

Finally, consider utilizing the student’s ear.* Most of us learn best by example, so if there is trouble achieving the desired sound, try demonstrating it a few times and then allowing the student to imitate you. With demonstrations, it can be helpful to play the entire passage so that the student can get a better idea of the “big picture,” but then back down to a phrase or two as you work together to reach an accurate imitation.

Every student is going to be different, and there is not a one-size-fits-all cure for developing technique. Analyze the situation – the music, the hands, the student’s overall positioning, past successes and difficulties, general strengths and weaknesses. Articulate to yourself exactly what is missing and then direct the student accordingly.

*For students who have a naturally good ear, demonstration should be used carefully, as “feeding” the points that are already strong can hinder the growth of the weaker areas, especially that of note reading. If your student a) doesn’t have a good ear, or b) is already reading music somewhat fluently, I think demonstration can be one of the most effective and wonderful techniques at a teacher’s disposal. Also, students who struggle with hearing the music need to have their ears trained so that they can reach their maximum potential.

 

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