Teaching Piano Students to be “Let Go” Players

Boy-jumping-off-a-cliff1Piano Students Need to Let Go!

Nicholas was playing the Beethoven Minuet in G Major when he suddenly lost his place in the trio section. “Ms. Hall where am I?” he asked. “Second line, second measure” I answered. My student then did something rather strange. He pointed to the measure with his nose. “You mean right here?” he asked again. I have seen this behavior before. This boy doesn’t want to let go of the keys. He is hanging on for dear life as though he may never find them again.

There is definitely a fear among less experienced players that they will lose their bearings on the keyboard. They feel that by being in close contact with the keys they will lessen the chances of making a mistake. It’s kind of like walking on a winding mountain trail, hugging side as closely as possible for fear of falling off of the edge. Just hang on and everything will OK.

But will it? While may or may not increase the chances of playing accurately this overly cautious playing can’t be very much fun for the player or an audience. In the end, this “Hang On” playing is not very musical and it’s not what I want for my students. I want my students to be “Let Go” players.

Playing the Piano is Fun!

I tell my students that in order to be a “Let Go” player you have to let go of the idea that playing the piano is something to worry about. Playing the piano is supposed to be fun! With some careful practice and the right mindset it can be. Let me explain how I teach my piano students to be “Let Go” players.

Right from the start while teaching piano students I teach beginners to lift and relax their hands. We practice playing a note using the pad of each finger and then lifting and gently closing the hand as if picking something up. After that, we work with several notes at a time, and them all five fingers. Playing, lifting and relaxing. I remind my students to relax and have fun. If I see a student getting nervous or hanging on to the keys I have them go back to their simple “Let Go” exercises.

For more advanced players I believe the key is to choose appropriate repertoire and practice letting go. If a piece is too difficult it is natural for a student to become stressed. Stress causes the student to be fearful of making mistakes, resulting in a stiff or “Hang On” style of playing. To combat this I intentionally have my students practice slowly with relaxed arms and hands. I use a “place and play” technique for practicing. This is especially effective for left-hand jumps. It works like this; play a note then go to the next note or chord as quickly as possible, place your fingers on the keys before depressing them. This allows muscle memory to come into play your hand and arm will remember just how far it has to go to get the right notes.

Something else that really helps is demonstrating “Let Go” playing while working with students and having the watch great concert pianists. This way they can see what “Let Go” playing looks like. I point out to them that music is a performance art and performance is about watching as well as listening. How we sound, look, and feel while we play determines the experience our audience will have.

I also make it a point to refer to my students as “pianists” from the very first lesson. I want them to see themselves as real musicians. I let them know that it doesn’t matter if they are playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or a Chopin Etude their job is to make the music they are playing beautiful, interesting and meaningful. Because that is what the art of music is all about.

Read the post, “Love Will Keep Us Together Helping Students Fall in Love With the Piano”

Playing the Piano is About Letting Go!

It was Beethoven who said, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable”. Making music is not about perfection. As much as we all strive for the error-free performance, mistakes happen. Sometimes big ones! But playing music is about being human, about connecting with others. It should be something that makes people happy, and that includes the performer.

So, in conclusion, being a “Let Go” player is about preparing the music well and then enjoying the experience of playing the music. Playing the piano is awesome! That’s why (almost) everyone wishes they could. I encourage my students to have fun let go and play!

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Overachieving Piano Students

The Overachieving Student

Overachieving piano students, We love them! In fact, most of the piano teachers are overachievers so we can relate to them. Students who are willing to practice like crazy because they want so badly to be able to play the piano can be like a breath of fresh air for teachers who are used to trying to convince students to take practicing seriously. These awesome students don’t come along everyday and when they do we need to everything we can to assure they are successful. But I have found that is not always as easy as one would think.

smilingI have had experience with OA students in all age groups. I once had an OA four year old student who was determined to keep up with her two older brothers. Right now I have two students that fall into the OA category. One is a young man in the eighth grade the other is actually a retired adult student. The thing that all of the over achieving piano students students have in common is the dream of being able to play well.

So what’s the problem? Why worry about students who want to practice? They are better off than students who don’t practice, why not let them just go ahead and practice all they want?

Young Overachievers

We all agree that practicing is a good thing. That is the right kind of practicing. My four-year-old overachiever was determined to keep up with her two older brothers. They, of course, had the advantage as they were older and had started lessons before she did. Fortunately, her wise mother realized that she was trying too hard and gave me a “heads-up” on the situation. My student was practicing to the point of frustration. I was a younger teacher at the time and had never before faced a situation like this. All I saw was a little girl who was coming into with her lesson prepared every week, prompting me to keep up the pace of the assignments I was giving her.

The danger here was that my student could have become overwhelmed, putting her at risk of becoming discouraged or even giving up on the piano altogether.

My solution was to give my student less work, more praise and to let her know that she was not expected to keep up with her brothers. I am so glad that her mother let me know what was going on. Now I make sure to ask parents and students how the practicing is going. I ask how much time they are spending assignments and whether they are finding the work I am giving them too difficult or too easy.

Teen-aged overachieving piano students

The eighth-grade student I have right now is a fantastic young man I’ll call Jonah. He loves the piano and is an overachieving piano student. He started this year and I know he wants to make up for lost time. He completes every assignment I give him and then some. He never misses his lesson. Jonah is super intelligent. I have no doubt that he will learn to play the piano, no matter what! but I want him to reach his goals as quickly as humanly possible. The operative word here is “humanly”. We can only absorb so much at one time. I want to give him plenty of music at each level to work with and I don’t want him to skip ahead too fast. I want to make sure he can read the music, understand and execute what he is working on before advancing to the next level.

Jonah, like most young people, loves popular music. He frequently comes into his lesson with music he has learned by watching Youtube tutorials. Personally, I am all for this. I use this as an opportunity to teach theory, chords and ear training. However, I prefer that my students learn to play popular music by listening to the original song and then getting some ideas by listening to other pianists play covers. I find that the tutorials usually move either way too fast or ways to slow. Besides, I want my students to begin plunking out tunes by themselves and learning to hear chord changes on their own.

The danger for Jonah is that he will advance faster than his mind can absorb musical knowledge and faster than his hands and body can develop the proper technique. I don’t want him to spend to much time on things like Youtube tutorials or worse, learn to play instantly schemes. He may have unrealistic expectations and become disheartened or he may even give up.

My solution is to give Jonah music that allows plenty of practice at each level and check to make absolutely sure that he is reading all of the notes and rhythms independently and correctly. I know he is doing a lot of playing and advancing quickly so I started him on technique and scales right away. I work with him to set attainable goals for his playing and how to manage practicing so that he can meet his goals.

Read the post, “9 Tips for Teaching Beginning Teenaged Piano Students”

Adult overachievers

My adult student is in her seventies. Joan is a smart, youthful woman who has always dreamed of playing the piano. I love working with her! She arrives every Tuesday at 3 pm “with bells on” ready to work. Joan has been studying for about a year and a half and I think she is doing very well. Joan tells me she practices at home about two hours a day, which is a lot for this very busy lady. She has high standards and sometimes becomes frustrated with her playing. I want her to reach her goal of playing the piano but I also want her to enjoy it along the way.

The danger for Joan is that she will not enjoy learning to play the piano. She will push herself so hard that she won’t have fun with the piano.

The solution is to assign her music she likes and can learn fairly easily. We work on a combination of music that she reads, music that uses chords, and pieces she can play by rote. The lessons need to be super fun and Joan needs lots of encouragement. After all, Joan is an amazing person!

I have seen over achieving piano students do a few other things to try to learn to play faster. Things like writing in notes and then erasing them before the lesson or having a parent or sibling teach them the music by rote so that they seem prepared for the lesson. Anything that can hold them back, in the long run, should be avoided. The goal is to create independent players.

I have focused this post on overachieving piano students in the beginning stages of piano study. While there can be advanced students who are overachievers the issues are different. Most advanced students who choose to practice a lot are able to handle it without any problems.

Overachieving piano students certainly make great students. However, they need to realize that learning to play the piano is a long-term project. It’s difficult for everyone and there are no shortcuts. Enjoying the process of learning is vital to the continued success of these students. As teachers, we can help them realize their dream of being able to play the piano. How awesome is that? Not only are we so very blessed to be pianists ourselves, but we get to pass that awesomeness along to others!

All of my overachievers are doing well. My four-year-old student is now 19 years old she graduated last year after studying with me for 14 years. She is a fine pianist as are her brothers who I also had the privilege of teaching until graduation and beyond.

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10 Tips For Accurate Piano Playing

 Accurate Piano Playing

“Ms. Doreen, which instrument is the easiest to play?” I get this question quite often. Though I’m not sure why my students want to know. A few probably are trying to find an easier project but I suspect most of my kids are proud to be taking on the challenge of playing piano. Many of them have friends who play other instruments so it may be a bit of the old “my instrument’s harder than your’s” routine.

I tell my students that all instruments are difficult in one way or another. For pianists reading piano music and playing all of the notes and rhythms correctly is difficult indeed. So here are a few tips that may help your students play accurately;

10 Tips for Accurate Piano Playing

  1. Choose the right piece. Something that is on or just above the student’s level.
  2. Peruse the piece with your student. Check out rhythm, notes, key changes, and things like that.
  3. Have your student listen to accurate recordings of the piece. Your student will need your guidance especially if he/she relying on Youtube videos (as many of my students do). Not all Youtube performances are created equal.
  4. After sight reading through the piece I recommend hands separate practice with super careful attention to fingering. I harp incessantly on fingering with my students I explain to them that consistent fingering is crucial for accurate playing. Getting the right fingers on the right notes at the right time is the name of the game when it comes to playing accurately.
  5. “Hesitate, don’t make a mistake” This recommendation comes from a book called “The Pianist’s Problems” by William S. Newman. In a perfect world my students would always play with rhythmic accuracy, but I have found that it is better to hesitate and get the correct notes and fingerings than to forge ahead and play the right rhythm but the wrong notes.
  6. Practice carefully with the right mindset. I tell my students it isn’t just about how much time you spend practicing. You need to focus and practice as accurately as possible.Try not to practice mistakes. Otherwise you will actually spend time at the piano and play worse than when you started!
  7. Use the metronome. I call it my music “cleaner”. I know the metronome is a controversial tool, but I am a big believer in using it as a practice tool for intermediate level players and higher. Have students start so slowly that it is easy to get all of the notes, rhythm, fingering, articulation, phrasing and dynamics perfect. Repeat increasing the tempo by 2-8 beats per minute each time. This technique works miracles!
  1. Decide whether or not your student will memorize or use the score. If the piece is to be memorized do so quickly. I find that my students have accuracy problems whenever pieces are half memorized. I tell my students either play from totally memory or use the music. Don’t memorize and keep the music in front of you as a fail-safe.
  2. Once pieces are memorized refer to the score from time to time. One of my teachers once pointed out that his colleagues who never went back to the music once they had memorized a piece always had trouble playing accurately during concerts. I found this to be true as it is easy to change things little over time, and as a result have trouble playing perfectly.
  3. Tell your students to stay calm. There is an old saying among musicians; “The amateur practices until he gets it right, the professional practices until he can’t possible get it wrong.” It is possible to practice so much and so well that you really can relax and trust that you know the music. Having confidence and getting nerves under control will help anyone to play better.

While it is possible for students to play the piano accurately it is also likely that mistakes will happen from time to time. Almost no one plays perfectly all of time. Flawless playing (or the illusion of flawless playing) comes with time and experience. So I believe it’s important to teach our students to keep going and do their best. And above all, enjoy playing and play musically.

“To play a wrong note is insignificant to play without passion is inexcusable.”

…Ludwig van Beethoven

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The Perfectionistic Piano Student

The Perfectionistic Piano Student

Have you ever had an experience with a student that just doesn’t compute? You know the child is smart. She’s in the gifted program at school yet she doesn’t seem to understand what you are trying to teach her. She is reluctant to try new things and wants to focus on the easy stuff. She begs for only a small amount of music to practice each week. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying the lesson at all. So what gives? Is it me? Does this student just hate the piano? Is she unmotivated? Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe she is the perfectionistic piano student.

Now granted, I haven’t seen many

perfectionists in my piano studio. In fact, the vast majority of my
students could use a little dose of perfect. I spend most of my time
trying to get kids to count and play the correct notes. A student who
wants to play perfectly is an exciting prospect! After all perfection
or at least near perfection is what we musicians strive for. So how
can we spot the perfectionistic student, and more importantly how can
we nurture this person so that she will become a happy and successful
pianist?

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Traits of the perfectionistic piano student

Shy doesn’t talk much at the
lesson.
Reluctant to try new things, plays
each note very slowly and carefully.
Takes on less work than she is
capable of accomplishing.
Sensitive to criticism.
Nervous or distracted at the
lesson.
Does not practice sufficiently at
home.
Plays in a mechanical fashion,
without much feeling.
The easiest way to confirm the
suspicion that a particular student may be a perfectionist is simply
to ask her. “Are you afraid to get this wrong?” At this point, the
student will probably say yes and give a sigh of relief.

What to do

Now that you know your student has
unreasonably high standards, you can begin to formulate a plan to
work with her. I always begin by telling my perfectionist student how
valuable she is, how wonderful it is to really want to get things
right. I tell my little perfectionist (and her parents) that she is
in the right place. If she loves to focus on the details and produce
a polished product, then the piano is a great place to do those
things.

But, that is not the end of it. There
is a real danger in being a perfectionistic piano student. After all,
who’s perfect? We wish we all were. At times some pianists play
perfectly, but living with mistakes and mishaps are part of the game.
We must teach our students that everything doesn’t have to be
flawless to be good. In fact, mistake-free playing does not equal
good playing. Playing the piano is about more than hitting the right
keys at the right time, (no disrespect to Mr. Bach). It’s about a
connection between music and people. Music, in general, and piano
playing in particular, exist to enrich the lives of both players and
listeners. It is art. It’s supposed to be fun. As teachers, we must
get this point across to our students, especially those with
perfectionistic tendencies or we risk losing them to the frustration
of trying to reach the unattainable.

So how can we as teachers help our
students have a healthy view of their relationship with the piano?
After letting my student know how much I appreciate her desire to do
a great job, I try, as much as possible, to set her up for success.
If that means she only learns a small amount of music during those
first few weeks, that’s fine. I am trying to build a trust
relationship. I want my student to feel comfortable and confident. I
can pile on some more work later on after she has experienced a
measure of success.

As time goes by, and I have the
opportunity to get to know my student better, I start talking about
the fact that none of us are perfect all of the time. I tell them
even the great artists make mistakes from time to time. This is when
I start to challenge my student with more work and more difficult
music. I want her to feel confident, but I don’t want her to become
bored because the music is too easy. I have found that most
perfectionistic students are very bright and need to be challenged.

Recitals are particularly tricky for
the perfectionist piano student. In my studio, recital attendance is
a requirement, so everyone has to play. Some students are very
nervous about playing in front of others, so I music make sure that
the recital is a positive experience. I do this by making sure the
recital piece they will perform is well within reach, and leave
plenty of time for the student to learn the music. Many times I will
play a duet with my students at the first recital to take the
pressure off. I have the students play for each other and I tell
parents to have the kids play for everyone who comes into the house.
I do everything in my power to ensure that my students have a
successful first recital experience.

Success begets success; Especially for
the perfectionistic piano student!

I am so excited when I discover a piano
student who wants to strive for perfection. I know this student has
the potential to become a fine musician. With the right nurturing the
sky’s the limit.

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Overcoming Stage Fright,

Stage Fright

Stage fright anyone? Or should I say stage fright, everyone? We’ve all been there. Those sweaty palms and sick stomachs are things all performers experience. And I do mean all of us. Not just musicians. Actors, Dancers, and Public Speakers have all experienced stage fright. It’s a human thing. We all want to do well and be accepted by people.

 

 

It is not a wonder that getting up in front of others and letting them see us doing something we really care about can feel really scary. For some, it is downright debilitating, yet others overcome the fear of performing. I’d like to share my journey to confident performance and share how I help my students to face the fear of playing for others and learn to enjoy sharing music.

 

What Causes Fear?

In order to overcome stage fright, we must understand what causes it in the first place. Why can it be so frightening to get up in front of others and play music? Is it the music itself that’s so scary? The fear of having a memory slip (forgetting everything in the middle of a piece) or making a mistake? Maybe. But I don’t think these things are the main reasons for stage fright.

 

I think the reason for stage fright goes much, much deeper. I believe how nervous we feel about performing directly correlates to how much we care about what we are doing.

For example, I am a pianist (no surprise there) I may get nervous about playing the piano, but if someone handed me a trumpet and said “now play this” I wouldn’t be worried at all. I would probably blow a few toots and laugh it off. After all, who cares! I’m not a trumpeter, I haven’t put a drop of effort into the trumpet. But the piano, that’s another story, another story indeed.

The piano is my life…

 

I have devoted a major chunk of my existence to the 88 keys, I care about my piano playing. The very idea of a bad performance makes me nervous, I know many can relate to this. The fear of performing comes from putting that which we care about most up for the scrutiny of other people. The fact that music is art, that it involves emotion and personal creativity makes the situation particularly disconcerting. In addition to the fear of rejection or the ridicule of others, most of us who are drawn to the study of music, where the demands for excellence are so incredibly high, are also very critical of ourselves. So it would seem there is a lot a stake when we sit down to play.

 

A Lesson Learned

I learned to overcome most of my performance fears by being well prepared for performances. For me, this was key because I used to try to do everything. Whatever anyone threw in front of me I thought I had to play it, even if it was too difficult or there wasn’t adequate preparation time.

I learned an important lesson from my friend and duet partner Nancy Porco. Nancy was a first-rate pianist. She held a Master’s degree in accompanying from the Manhattan School of Music and had played all over the world. I was honored to be her duet partner.

But I noticed whenever she was asked to do something she’d say “Where’s the music?” She would demand that she had the right music, and had it in plenty of time to learn it well. Much to my surprise she regularly turned down jobs. As a result, she was calm and she always came off as a winner!

Once I came to my senses and adopted this philosophy, my own stage fright decreased by 60 percent. I dropped another 20 percent or so by not taking myself too seriously.

That leaves 20 percent. That 20 percent is here to stay and I’m glad. Because it means that I care, and it keeps me on my toes.

 

 

How I Help my Students Overcome Stage Fright

Now it’s time for me to help my students deal with stage fright and feel good about performing for others. I take my student’s performances very seriously. So much so that if they don’t play well I feel that most of the time it’s my fault (most of the time, not all of the time). Here are some of the things I do to help my students have a good experience playing.

 

 

Preparation

First I make sure that I choose appropriate repertoire. I choose review pieces or pieces that I know that the student can WELL handle. My students are required to keep a list of three or four pieces current so that they are always ready to play. If the piece is new I make sure that the student has ample time to prepare the piece to be played. Which means that recitals and auditions are set months in advance.

 

Pieces are learned carefully, especially with regard to fingering (to ensure accurate muscle memory). The music once learned and memorized it is practiced in sections. I have the students jump from section to section. Sometimes I take the students hands off of the keys to simulate a memory slip. I then have them jump to the next section. I teach them NEVER TO GO BACK, always jump ahead. I have seen many a student go back in a piece after a memory slip, only to have the same problem in the same spot.

 

Performance Practice

We work on ending the piece gracefully in case of disaster. We do a lot of “dry runs” in the studio. I have the students play for each other and I encourage them to play for friends and family members often. The city where I live has several coveted arts programs for which students must audition. I usually make the audition piece the recital piece as well and have the recital first.  All of these things help students to overcome stage fright.

 

A Good Experience

The perception of playing well at a performance builds confidence making it easier to perform in the future. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If a student feels as though a performance went badly it will likely cause anxiety in the future. The effect of this is cumulative. A series of good experiences will make performing become easier, a series of difficult or bad experiences will make performing more and more frightening.

For this reason, I reserve the authority to take a student out of a performance. If I  think that a student is not ready I generally won’t let them play. When this happens, I explain to student and parents that I care deeply about their musical education and I want to ensure that they have a great experience.

Because I want to make sure that my students have practiced well and are ready to play at performance time. I require that all students have their pieces performance-ready two weeks before a recital, evaluation, festival, or audition.

 

Most Importantly

No matter much practicing and preparation students and teachers do there may still be mishaps. Mistakes, flubs, and memory slips can and do happen. There’s always an element of risk. After all, that’s really what makes the live performance so exciting.

 

I explain this to my students over and over again. They can all finish this statement,

“Playing the piano is not easy if it was easy…Everybody would do it!”

 

Positive Perspective

If a student feels that their playing has been less than perfect. I encourage them to press on and get past it. While the performer may be very upset about his performance it’s unlikely that anyone else is thinking about it. Plus, there will always be another time to try again.

Most of all I want my students to have fun playing for others. I teach them not to take themselves to seriously. I tell them “we’re musicians, not physicians if you make a mistake nobody gets hurt”.

I teach them that it’s all about sharing the music. About the joy of playing the piano.

I help my students realize that they have accomplished something amazing whether or not they feel that they have had a great performance.  They have faced their fear and got up and played anyway. This is something many people have never done. Something to be proud of and to celebrate!

 

This post is written in memory of

Nancy DeCicco Porco 1959-2002

 

How do you help students overcome stage fright? Leave a comment below.

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Learning Piano Scales and Arpeggios the Easy Way

Learning Piano Scales and Arpeggios the Easy Way

In the last blog post “Convincing Kids to Play Piano Scales & Arpeggios” I wrote about explaining to students why playing scales and arpeggios is important for aspiring pianists. Hopefully, this explanation will help students to get on board. I am not talking about kids jumping for joy at the idea of playing scales, but at least having a willingness to practice and memorize them. This is how I make learning piano scales and arpeggios  as pain-free as possible for my students:shutterstock_17243083

Where to begin

I start teaching piano scales & arpeggios at the end of book 1 of the Paloma Method (when I used other methods I would also wait until the student could read some music and play with hands together). I consistently follow these steps when teaching scales and arpeggios:

1. I start with the C major scale two octaves, hands separately. I never teach one-octave scales. I think it’s pointless. The pianists’ standard for exams and auditions is the four-octave scale, learning two octaves from the start makes it easy to play three and four-octave scales (or arpeggios). I write my scales out as follows to make them easier for my students to learn;

 

2. When teaching scales I ask my students to pay super careful attention to technique, i.e. arms parallel to the keyboard, hands relaxed (especially the fifth finger), thumbs travel smoothly under the hand.

3. Once my student can play the two-octave scale well, hands alone she begins putting the hands together. We do this at the lesson and I make sure that my student can play hands together before she leaves my studio. I know that if I leave it up to my student to learn hands together at home she probably won’t. If all she has to do is practice what she already knows how to do she probably will. I always drill into all of my students the importance of daily practice especially on the day of the lesson and again on the following day! No waiting a couple of days to practice

4. When my student can play the C major scale two octaves hands together memorized at a decent steady tempo (eighth notes at 80 bpm) I have her learn G major in the same manner and then follow the Circle of Fifths. The reason for this is two-fold, the first five scales have identical fingering with third fingers always playing at the same time and Bb through Db have the same left-hand fingering. This is also a great way to reinforce key signatures.
In my studio scales always take place at the end of the lesson unless I have a student who just refuses to practice them all together, at which time I move them to the beginning of the lesson.

As my students are learning the scales we constantly review the ones they already know. For example, my students know that if they are on the B scale I may ask for them to G scale as well at that lesson. Also, I will ask them to play the Ab scale if they are studying a piece in that key. Once in a while, we will just have a “scale review day”. This is usually when a student has had a busy week and not much time to practice or when a break is coming up and I want to wait to begin work on a new piece. I always try to make it fun. My goal is to give the students a chance to practice in the studio what I know they would rather not practice at home.
After my students have learned all of major scales (two octaves hands together) we start on the arpeggios (also two octaves hands together). I teach the arpeggios in the same order as the scales. The students review the corresponding scale while learning each arpeggio.

That’s pretty much it. At some point, I ask my students to turn two-octave piano scales & arpeggios into three and then four octaves. Once all major scales and arpeggio are learned I just keep reviewing them, forever. At the end of every lesson, I assign next week’s review scale and arpeggio. This is as painless as I can make it.
So what about metronome studies and the minor scales? I teach these only to early-advanced and advanced students or students who need to learn them for auditions or exams. Although the vast majority of my students are not studying piano to become professional pianists, I absolutely want to teach so that every one of them has the option of a career in music if they should so decide on one somewhere along the way.

In a perfect world, my students would focus more on piano scales & arpeggios. Most of them would spend more time practicing overall. But the fact is, I only see my students for 30 minutes per week and all of them have lots of other things going on in their lives.

The end game.

This method of learning scales & arpeggios fits well with my personal teaching philosophy. I believe learning to play the piano should be enjoyable. I want to balance gearing lessons to meet individual student goals with guiding them to become lifelong pianists and well-rounded musicians. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to learn piano scales and arpeggios the easy way.

You can find free Major Piano Scale & Arpeggio Sheets right here at Paloma Piano.

Read this post Convincing Kids to Play Scales and Arpeggios

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Convincing Kids to Play Piano Scales and Arpeggios

Let me start by being perfectly honest. I don’t like teaching scales or arpeggios. Come to think of it, I don’t like playing them either. I don’t know of many teachers or students that are jazzed about practicing scales. When it’s time during a lesson to play scales I always kind of feel like the nurse who comes in at the end of a checkup to give out the medicine. I know that my students are secretly hoping that I will forget to ask for the scale assignment. No, I don’t like teaching scales and arpeggios, not at all.unnamed-5 So why not just quit? After all, I could get by without scales, my students would be happier and no one would be the wiser. I don’t like pushing my students into doing things they don’t want to do and besides aren’t piano lessons are supposed to be fun? That stuff is so “old school”. Convincing kids to play piano scales and arpeggios, why should I? who needs em’?

Actually, we all need them. Really we do if you want to learn to play well and understand the music you need to study scales and arpeggios. When my students whine and tell me scales are boring I let them know I fully understand how they feel. I spend a little bit of time commiserating with them and then I set about the business of convincing them to practice those scales and those arpeggios.

Check Out Paloma Piano’s Free “Major Scale and Arpeggio Book”

Reasons to Play Piano Scales and Arpeggios

 

Here are five good reasons I give my students to get cracking on scales and arpeggios.

To begin with, I point out to my students the fact that all of our key signatures are connected to the scales. The D major scale has two sharps, so does the key signature. The relative minor scale also has two sharps. Scales give us the basis for music theory. I tell my students that piano players always excel in music theory class.

Chords are built upon scales and arpeggios are broken chords. This fact should be of particular interest to students who wish to play popular music or jazz.

Scales and arpeggios build technique. Students may not care to much about technique but I tell them that scales develop speed and strength. They can relate to that, especially the boys.

Scales and arpeggios give us the basis for piano fingering. If you know your scales and arpeggios you will have the basis for naturally correct fingering.

Classical music is chocked full of both scales and arpeggios. That’s a huge shortcut when it comes to learning new pieces.

Of course, I could just insist that my students practice their scales (and I do) but I like for my students to understand why I have them do things. My teaching practice is focused on helping my students reach the goals they have for their own playing as quickly as possible. For my students, this means a minimum of learning four-octave major scales and arpeggios.

Convincing kids to play piano scales and arpeggios is not the highlight of my piano teaching job, but they are important. I like to think of scales as vitamins instead of medicine. They keep your playing well balanced and healthy.

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Stay tuned for the next blog post. “Teaching Scales and Arpeggios the Easy Way”

 

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Easy Music Theory

Music Theory doesn’t have to consist of boring drills and endless busy work. Easy Music theory is in every piece so why not teach it as you go.

I majored in Music Theory and Composition in college and I happen to find the subject fascinating, but I realize I may be in the minority. Most piano students would rather just play than study Music Theory. In order to teach Music Theory effectively, three questions must be asked: What is Music Theory? Why should students bother learning it? and What about Music Theory do piano students really need to know? Once these questions are answered we can begin to devise a strategy to teach Music Theory easily and effectively.

What is Music Theory?

The subject of Music Theory is incredibly vast. According to Wikipedia, Music Theory is the Study of the practices and principles of music. I think of  Theory in music as the study of how music works, what makes the music we hear… well, the music we hear.

Why Study Music Theory?

Understanding music makes us better musicians.  Theory helps with learning and memorizing pieces, and it is imperative for composition and improvisation.

What Theory of Music do piano students really need to know?

Piano students need to know how to read music notation and understand basic musical terms. But I do not consider these things “Music Theory” per say. Music Theory goes deeper it deals with how the music is put together. Here is what I teach my students:

  • The definition of music.
  • The elements of music (Pitch, Rhythm, Timbre).
  • How sound is made.
  • How pitches are made.
  • Timbre.
  • Understanding rhythm. (Music is organized sound, the sound moves through time, rhythm is the timing of music.)
  • The hierarchy of beats within the measure.
  • Half steps and Whole Steps.
  • How to make a Major Scale.
  • Key Signatures (Well Memorized).
  • Relative Minor Keys and Scales.
  • The formula for creating Chords (Major, Minor, Dominant Seventh, Diminished, etc.)
  • Time Signatures.
  • Musical Form.

I like to teach Music Theory along with the pieces the students are learning. I make it a natural part of the lesson using the pieces the students are studying. I use the music Theory Lessons on the Paloma website as a jumping off point for discussions about theoretical concepts or to help reinforce things like intervals or Key Signature Memorization. I do not assign Music Theory “homework”, instead Music Theory is an ongoing part of the piano lesson. Concepts are presented again and again on an ongoing basis, so that the students learn them thoroughly.

In my studio I begin lessons by asking the student questions about the piece/pieces he is studying. For beginning students I ask will ask:

  • What are the names of the notes, clefs?
  • Explain the Time Signature.
  • How is the rhythm counted?
  • How many measures are in the piece?
  • Explain tempo marks and dynamics.
  • Intervals (Half Steps and Whole Steps)

For my intermediate students I ask all of the above plus:

  • Explain the Key Signature.
  • Play and explain the Scale associated with the Key Signature.
  • How is the Scale made? (WWHWWWH)
  • Name the Relative Minor Key
  • Talk about other Key Signatures (Review the ones the student has worked with)
  • Talk about basic musical form (ABA etc.)
  • Find Intervals with in the piece.
  • Chords (Beginning with I, IV, and V7)

I have the students do some written work at the lesson to reinforce the concepts that need memorization such as Key Signatures and Intervals. I also work in ear training by having beginning students sing, instead of say, the note names. With intermediate students, we work on recognizing chord qualities and playing by ear. My goal is to have students understand the music they are learning. I want them to be able to improvise, read a lead sheet and learn some popular music or church music by ear or by watching covers on YouTube.

These are the basic requirements I have for my students. I have found that by working Theory into the lesson, students learn these concepts easily and naturally. I occasionally have advanced students who want to go further with Theory. At that point I will present more advanced concepts. But for most, a basic working knowledge of  Theory is what they need to become confident pianists.

How do you teach theory? Leave a comment below.

If you would like lots of free piano music you can use in your studio

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Convincing Students to Count Rhythm

To Count rhythm? or Not to Count rhythm?

Convincing students to count rhythm. Here I go again trying to cajole a student into counting aloud. I can tell what she’s thinking by the incredulous eye-roll, “Really count out loud? I don’t think so!” In my experience most piano students hate to count, especially counting aloud. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to make sure they understand and can play rhythm accurately. But before I can do this, I need to convince them that counting is worth doing.

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I think I know why piano students have more trouble with rhythm than students of other instruments. Pianists have to integrate counting to accommodate both hands while reading the grand staff the way other players read only one staff from left to right. It takes a lot of coordination to play the piano with hands together so pianists often have to slow down sections of the music to accurately play all of the notes, and most young players also tend to speed up the easy stuff. This distorts the rhythm of the piece. When the student plays the wrong rhythm the ear hears that wrong rhythm and accepts it as correct. The result is… well, a mess.

Additionally, piano students don’t usually play in ensembles where counting is crucial. Playing alone means there is no one to keep the rhythmic accuracy in check. That is why it is so important for young piano players to learn to do this for themselves.

What is music anyway?

I believe that it all goes back to the very definition of what music is, “organized sound”. Moreover, “organized sound that moves through time”. What is rhythm? Simply put, “the timing of the music”. This makes rhythm the most important element of music.

To illustrate this point, I tell my students that time is to the musician as the canvas is to the artist. In my studio, I have a painting. I point out that the picture exists on the canvas, the artist painted it and there it stays. I then ask where music exists. Some students will point to the score at which time I explain to them that the score is not really the “music”. It is only the notation of the music, kind of like a recipe. You can read a recipe, but in order to experience it, you have to prepare the food and then eat it. To experience the music you must play and hear it – this takes time. Your piece starts at 5:00 and is finished at 5:04 those four minutes of time are where the music exists. To take it one step further, I ask the student to imagine what the painting would be like without the canvas. That is what the music is without the rhythm.

See Paloma Piano’s Music Theory Resources here

This usually starts to convince them that maybe they should consider counting but I still have one more trick up my sleeve to drive the point home. I take a piece they are working on (one that has various rhythms) and play it straight through with no rhythm whatsoever. I play every note is a quarter note. I then play the piece with all of the wrong notes but the correct rhythm. It is plain to hear which sounds like music and which does not.

Convincing Students to Count Rhythm

I assure my students that I really want them to become good players. I tell them I don’t enjoy harping on rhythm (or should I say drumming it into them) but I must, in order to be a good teacher. Once the discussion is finished, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and work on counting. But that’s a subject for the next blog post.

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Piano Method Books – A Brief History

I have been doing some research on the history of piano method books. Who taught the great composers of the past to play? and what materials were used to teach these great musicians? Has piano teaching changed over the years? I think this topic is worth exploring.

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It is well known that Johann Sebastian Bach began his musical education under the tutelage of his very musical family. It is thought that his eldest brother Johann Christian probably taught him the basics of violin and music theory. He also played the Organ and the Harpsichord. What materials were used to teach the young Bach, who is now regarded as the father of modern music, is unknown. We do know however that Bach created his own music to use in teaching his second wife Anna Magdalena and several of his children to play the Clavier.

Most of the other great great musicians were trained by their musical families or by prominent musicians of the time. Mozart was trained by his father Leopold. Brahms learned piano from his mother but little is known about what music was actually used to teach these great masters or anyone else back in those days. We can assume that they had probably used Bach’s works as well as the easier works of other composers. Scales, and Arpeggios were undoubtedly used as well.

Carl Czerny (1791-1857) was the first composer to include fingerings in his music and actually create exercises based upon those fingerings. He also wrote a library of teaching pieces. Czerny’s music is still standard fare for the aspiring pianist. About the same time composers Henri Bertini, Franz Kohler and others wrote piano method books. These books consisted mostly of drills and exercises and are not wisely used today.

The time period around 1925 is referred to as the “Golden Age of the Piano”. The instrument gained popularity as many piano manufacturers made the purchase of a piano attainable for the middle class family. To coincide with the surge in interest a “New Age” of piano method was born. These newer piano books promised to make learning the piano more fun and featured whimsical songs and illustrations. The most popular of these older methods were written by John Schwam and John Thompson. There are newer versions of the same of these such as Faber and Faber, and the Alfred Piano Method.

In addition to traditional style piano books there are also a plethora of piano books with catchy themes and gimmicks that are supposed to make piano playing easy and fun. And let’s not forget learn to play online methods and those that rely heavily on technology such as computer based piano learning programs.

Keyboard playing has little changed since Bach’s time. Aside from the fact that Bach did not have the Piano as we know it today (The Piano Forte was invented by Bartomoleo Cristofori circa 1700.) the mechanics of playing are comparable. Music notation remains virtually unchanged since the 1600’s as well. And people are still people. So what has changed? Why do we have all of these “new” piano methods?

The culture has changed today’s piano students are more independent and I believe more sophisticated than I was as a child. Today’s kids have the world of music at their finger tips. They know what they like and what they don’t. They have technology and they know how to use it. They live in a fast paced highly engaging world, there are many things competing for their attention. I can not imagine any of my students sitting through Bertini’s Piano Method. No disrespect intended toward Mr. Bertini he was a fine pianist in his day but tastes and preferences have changed.

I really don’t believe in gimmicks or learn to play instantly piano methods. I firmly believe that students need competent teachers. I love to write music so I set out to create a piano method that would have some fresh music and would help my students with reading by moving slowly and omitting gratuitous fingering numbers. But I want Paloma Piano to be more that just a piano method, I envision a community where we can share ideas. Piano teaching is always evolving it is my wish that we as teachers can work together to better meet the needs of piano our students,

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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