Piano lessons during this year of COVID have been challenging. I miss the warmth of in-person lessons. I miss being able to correct a hand position with just a touch. I miss being able to encourage a crescendo with just a gesture. I miss the spontaneous levity that happens more easily when we meet in person.
Given the challenges of online lessons, I have–this year more than ever–worked hard to find lots of pieces that will be quick wins for my students. For a piece to be a quick win, I look for these characteristics:
The student has to like the piece.
It must not have any huge challenges, but it can’t be so easy it’s effortless.
It needs to be fairly short.
It must be pedagogically sound.
It’s a big plus if it sounds harder than it is.
Recently, I’ve composed two new pieces that have been quick wins for many of my students over the past few months. I hope you’ll give them a try.
There is a wealth of fun, well-written Halloween music for piano students, but some of my favorite Halloween pieces come from the series titled Halloween at Its Best, published by FJH. I use pieces from this series every year, and my students always love them.
Here’s my student, Logan, playing Pumpkin Dance by Timothy Brown from Book 2.
If you’re a teacher who enjoys using background accompaniments with your students, you might appreciate the three accompaniment files created by Lori Frazer for pieces from Books 1 and 2. She makes them freely available at the Keys to Imagination website. You can listen to the accompaniments below, but you’ll need to visit Keys to Imagination to download them.
by Melody Bober (Clavinova accompaniment by Lori Frazer.)
Look at the Witches
by Elizabeth W. Greenleaf (Clavinova accompaniment by Lori Frazer.)
Things that Go Bump in the Night
by Melody Bober (Clavinova accompaniment by Lori Frazer.)
In my studio, summer is a great time to let students work on collaborative projects. Schedules tend to be lighter, and we don’t have the pressure of recitals or adjudications lurking just around the corner.
When I know one of my piano students also plays another instrument or takes voice lessons, I like to ask them to do a piece with another piano student. When that’s not an option, I might ask if they have a friend who could collaborate with them.
Parker and Drew know each other from church where they both sing in a choir that I accompany. I proposed the idea of having them play the Finzi Carol together a few months ago. They liked the idea, so they both got the music and started practicing. Today, they got together for the first time to rehearse. Their excellent preparation made the piece go together easily. Proud of them!
Parker, at the piano, has just completed 6th grade. Drew, on clarinet, just finished 7th grade. Drew is a student of Walter Yee. The piece is Carol, from Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 by Gerald Finzi.
I’m curious to know how other teachers set up collaborative playing experiences for their students. Have any stories or tips to share?
“I want to work on song writing in my piano lessons this summer,” Dylan said.
“Okay, get some lyrics written for your first summer lesson and we’ll get started,” I responded.
I love the opening lyric of the piece she worked on this week: “I play piano for a crowd, and everyone goes wild, and that’s who I am.”
Sounds to me like music might be kind of important in Dylan’s life.
She began by writing the lyrics. Then she figured out the chord structure she wanted to use. I showed her a long list of pop songs based primarily on the I vi IV V chord structure, so she liked the idea of starting with that, but she made quite a few variations, as well. Next, she recorded herself playing the piano part. Then she added a percussion track; and finally, she recorded her vocal part. She did all of this with the GarageBand app on her phone. That way she could go home and continue working on the piece after the time spent with me in her lessons.
Fun, creative project!
I could have insisted that Dylan continue working on repertoire and technique in her summer lessons, rather than taking on this project; but I’m guessing this affirmation of her innate creativity will have a bigger impact than learning another sonatina might have had.
”If I had a third arm, I could play this duet all by myself,” Annie commented after learning both parts of a duet in her Piano Safari book.
“But it’s so hard to find clothes when you have a third arm,” I replied.
“I know!” she responded. “I used to have one, but it was too inconvenient, so we had it removed.”
Pretty quick wit for a third grader, I thought to myself.
My piano students often enjoy a bit of silliness, and I’m always happy to oblige. It can help make their lessons fun and memorable.
Yesterday, Elliot came to his lesson with his practice chart filled out, and a solid amount of daily practice recorded–enough to warrant a dive into the prize box. He chose this sticky, stretchy green hand as his prize, and you can see what he immediately thought to do with it. It was 60 seconds of silliness that made us both laugh. Not a bad way to start a lesson.
Later in the day, Sarah, who’s healing from a broken finger on her right hand, was working on a piece for left hand from Melody Bober’s delightful Grand One-Hand Solos for Piano, Book 3. Sarah’s a good sight reader and a strong pianist in general, but she had tripped over a rhythm on her first reading of the piece the week before, so I immediately gave her a silly lyric to help establish the rhythm. By today’s lesson I’d already forgotten the lyric; but she, obviously, had not. As she played the piece, she sang the silly lyric, and her rhythm was perfect.
“My name is Sarah. What is yours?” “My name is Mister Light. Don’t forget it!”
A bit of silliness can go a long way with children to help them enjoy their lessons, or, as in Sarah’s case, to correctly establish a musical concept. We teachers are always mindful about spending our minimal lesson time well, but a bit of silliness and a few hearty laughs needn’t be time wasted.
Embrace a bit of silliness, I say. Your students will love you for it.
Do you teach on Halloween, or do you take the day off, knowing your younger students will want to spend the evening trick-or-treating? I’ve always kept Halloween as a normal teaching day, but I encourage students to wear their costumes to piano lessons.
“What’s your costume gonna be?” a student asked me this year. I have to confess, I just wore my piano teacher costume.
If a young student’s piano lesson falls during prime trick-or-treating hours, I encourage them to trade times with an older student who comes on another day. Most of the older students don’t participate in trick-or-treating anyway, so that often works to avoid lesson cancellations on Halloween.
This year only one student cancelled her Halloween lesson. Many years, we manage to work out lesson trading so that no one has to cancel. And the fun of having students come to their lesson in costume is a treat I always look forward to.
It’s a gentle reminder that might pop up when a piano student didn’t read his assignment and forgot to practice something, or when she arrived for a lesson without her piano books, or when he ignored the F-sharp for the entire piece. You get the picture.
Sunday, karma came home to roost when I showed up for a choral rehearsal and no one else was there. Clearly, when the entire group, except the pianist, knows there’s no rehearsal, the breakdown in communication was not on the sending end; it was on the receiving end. The message had doubtlessly been delivered verbally during previous rehearsals, via multiple emails, and also on the web. But this guy, the pianist, didn’t absorb it.
A large part of life is paying attention.
But the best part–and the reason I’m making fun of myself publicly–is that when I went to my car to drive to the rehearsal, I had a flat tire with a big chunk of glass sticking out of it. No time to deal with that, I called a Lyft. So, yes, I paid two drivers to get to and from a non-existent rehearsal.
I felt so stupid, I stayed and practiced piano for an hour anyway.
Setting up your teaching schedule can feel like trying to solve a complicated puzzle.
Are you stressing over setting up your fall teaching schedule? It’s that dreaded time of year, and I’ve witnessed many teachers expressing frustration with this process lately.
We’re grateful for all our students, of course; and having enough of them to make scheduling a challenge is not a bad problem to have. Still, the process can be exasperating.
I’m happy to say I’ve eliminated most of the scheduling stress in my studio. Here’s how I do it.
At the final lesson of the spring semester, we have a parent conference. At least one parent comes to the lesson so we can discuss progress, future goals, and fall term scheduling.
I always tell families they get first dibs on their current lesson time. That’s a big win for folks. They’ve grown accustomed to that time. They’ve managed to schedule everything else around it, making it work for the past nine months (or longer). Everyone appreciates having the option to keep their current time; and most families take advantage of it.
I should add that in order to secure their chosen fall lesson time, students must take a minimum of four summer lessons or pay the equivalent fee. Not taking any summer lessons means they get no choice for their fall lesson time and simply have to take whatever opening is left. I can’t remember any students ever having made that choice.
Of course, there are always a few students who, for one reason or another, really must ask for a new school-year lesson time. During the parent conference, I show those folks the times I already know will be available, and promise to email them with any other openings at the end of the week, when all parent conferences have been completed.
Often, families will select a new lesson time from the options I have available right during the parent conference. I ask the others to work out a new time from the pool of available slots before June 1.
If there are folks who just can’t find a suitable time from the available openings, I jump in to help.
This summer, I had to help only two families. When they told me that none of the available openings would work, I emailed a group of already-scheduled students whose lesson times were in the range of possibility for these families. I explained that the students I was trying to help would be getting out of school at a later time this year, so they required a later lesson time. Would anyone be willing to take an earlier time to help these two families? Thankfully, two students quickly volunteered, and we had a working fall lesson schedule within a few hours of my initial email.
One of the benefits of this system is that it prods folks to make their piano lesson time a priority. When families know there will be only a very small pool of lesson times to choose from, they often simply hang on to the time slot they already have. And committing to a fall lesson time at the end of May, or soon thereafter, necessitates that they schedule other after-school activities around that piano lesson time. I’m quite sure student families actually appreciate getting their fall lesson time nailed down early in the summer. I suspect it helps them as much as it helps the teacher.
Has setting up your school-year teaching schedule been driving you nuts? If so, I encourage you to give this system, or something like it, a try.
However you choose to create your schedule, I urge you not to do it in a way that makes people think you’ll be happy to jump through hoops at the last minute to accommodate all their other after-school activities. That’s too stressful.
There are kind ways to encourage students to commit to a piano lesson time before scheduling everything else they’d like to do.
How do you work out your school-year teaching schedule? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.