The physical book is here at last. I am a contributing author in this pretty little volume. My thanks to Lisa for all her hard work as the editor.
I'm sure it's never happened to anyone else, but on occasion my daughter is a trifle upset during music practice. She's actually quite good about coming in the first place, but sometimes she's mad at me because I asked her to do something she didn't want to do and sometimes she's mad at herself because she isn't automatically perfect at everything and sometimes she's mad for no discernible reason at all.
I've tried various tactics to deal with this, but the one that's currently working is this handy little poster.
I've laminated it and posted it on the wall by our piano. Every day after music practice, I update the number of days of happiness. if we've made it through without an argument, it goes up. If we haven't made it through, it goes to zero. When she reaches 20 days, we have a Mommy-Daughter date to the dessert location of her choice, which we have done. If she can reach 20 three separate times, we'll go out to dinner at the restaurant of her choice, which we haven't managed yet.
As a side note, I'm always somewhat interested (and depressed) at how parents manage practice (or fail to manage practice, as the case may be). There's more than one way to do it, but here's what works for us. My daughter is 8 right now, but we've been doing this for several years.
I have often wondered how much progress my other students would make if I could convince their parents to maintain a schedule like this. I do realize it's harder if you have more than one child or if you're not a natural morning person or if you have very little musical knowledge yourself.
Even so, practice really does work.
A week ago I posted a comparison of three major piano method books, level one, and today I'm continuing on. I've dropped covering Bastien's because I don't own that book, and I don't have any students who have come to me from beyond the first level.
The way the different series number their books is a bit confusing. I would love it if they all just started with book one and then moved on to book two. But they don't, so this comparison is between Alfred's Level 1B and Faber Level 1. (Faber started with a Primer Level.)
The major difference here is that by the end of this level, Alfred's students have the conceptual basis for major scales, but not chords, while Faber does exactly the opposite. That aside, I'd say that overall a student at the end of Alfred's Level 1B is playing more complicated music than a student at the end of Faber Level 1.
To view the part two comparison, click here.
I'm also always on the lookout for a good Halloween activity to keep our lessons interesting in October. Here is a roundup of the activities and games I'm using this year.
1. The Skeleton
This is a perennial favorite with me and the students. We do this every year. I printed, cut out, and laminated this almost life-size skeleton. Most of the time, I use it to drill notes. I show the student a note on the staff. If they name it correctly, they get a bone. Some students like to use the little human skeleton picture that comes with the set to arrange their human skeleton on the floor. Some students like to ignore the little picture and place their bones in some weird arrangement to build a monster. The point is, you can use this to drill anything: rhythms, key signatures, notes on the keyboard, whatever you need.
2. The Poison Rhythm
This is a classic rhythm game. Write out a rhythm in one or two measures. This is the poison rhythm. I like to give my students three spider rings to be their three lives in this game. Then I clap rhythms and they clap it back. If I clap the poison rhythm, they should stay silent. If they do clap the poison rhythm, one of their spiders dies. The object of the game is to still have at least one spider life left when we run out of time.
3. Ghost Notes
Print out a large staff on orange paper. Print out these little ghosts. Cut them out and laminate everything. Then you can use a whiteboard marker to draw either a bass clef or a treble clef on the staff and start composing, using the ghosts for notes.
4. Improv in A Minor
My early students mostly play in C major and G major, though they don't necessarily know those terms. It's easy enough to teach them to move their hands to A position, where both hands have their lowest finger on A. They are then playing in A minor, and they can improv their own spooky song.
5. Make It Scary
Pick a piece that the student has recently passed off. Make it scary by playing it in one of the following three ways, or use a combination.
6. Are You Scared? (also known as Double or Nothing)
For this game I use a Halloween-themed board (see below) that I picked up as a free handout from a library in Germany. It would be pretty much impossible to get another copy, but you could use pretty much any game board or you could make your own Halloween-themed board with the help of free graphics on the Internet. As usual, the object of the game is to get your piece from Start to Finish quickest. On your turn, you roll the dice. If you answer a flashcard correctly, you can move that many spaces forward. As with the Skeleton activity, the flashcards can be anything you need to drill: notes, rhythms, major chords, etc. If you happen to be starting on a square with a number in it, you have the option of double or nothing. You still have to answer the regular question, but if you also answer a second flashcard correctly, you can move forward double the number of spaces. I usually make my second set of flashcards from a different category, like rhythm vs. notes. I also like to put that set of flashcards in a plastic jack-o-lantern. If you are using a different game board, you'll need to find a different way to determine when double or nothing is an option. Or just make it an option all the time.
Every year, I always spend a chunk of time looking for Halloween repertoire for my students. It's a tricky business to find something that is exciting and challenging, but not too challenging, for each individual student. Ultimately, the goal is to find several pieces for each student to choose from. They're usually excited about this music, and if we start in the first week of October and if they actually practice at home, we often do all of their choices throughout the month.
At any rate, the links for this year's Halloween music are below, roughly in order of difficulty. My thanks to the other teachers out there who are posting their own music. The pieces that don't have a composer listed below were written by me.
I'm using October as the time to discuss major versus minor keys, so I've written two versions of a song: one in major, one in minor. The astute students will probably recognize the tune Row, Row, Row Your Boat, but changing the Es to E flats will make a ghostly difference in the sound. I'm using these two versions together in the same week because they are so similar.
The very youngest students may not use the left hand at all except to do the cross over for the high C. More advanced students may be able to continue the chord in the left hand and stretch the right hand for that same high C.
I've written another Halloween offering, which is more advanced than the two I posted yesterday. Combe Carey Hall: The Haunted Mansion is in A minor and features the left hand moving between open chords, ledger lines in the treble clef, and delicate dynamics. It's also a great chance to practice reading harmonic intervals, even if the student isn't fully confident with the notes on ledger lines.
The title comes from a great book I've been reading with my daughter called The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathon Stroud. I highly recommend it!
Halloween approaches. It's not my favorite holiday, but any excuse to get the kids excited about practicing is fine by me, so here are two additions to the Halloween repertoire:
I also find there are several movie themes that kids get excited about playing by ear. These are available in many formats, but rarely do they appear at the exact right level for the kids who are excited about them. Fortunately, it's also a great excuse to play by ear. Here are the ones I have used:
I teach with the Alfred's Basic Piano Library series of method books, mostly because they are the series I used as a kid. I have other reasons for preferring it as well, but that's a different blog post. For today, I'm just commenting that I often have students transfer to me, and they've often used other books, and it's hard to know exactly how to transition them to Alfred's. It would be just as hard in the other direction, so I have put together this table of concepts and skills taught in the first level of Alfred's, Bastien's, and Faber's to make it easier to see what is taught and when.
The basic takeaway message is: While all the books are roughly the same length, Faber's moves slowly and covers much less than the other two. Bastien's covers the most, but in my opinion throws in several huge topics right at the end without a lot of explanation (e.g., triads, damper pedal, eighth notes). Alfred's is the happy medium. Go with Alfred's.
You can see the page by page breakdown of the skills and concepts here.
Continuing our theme of composing activities, here is a composing challenge that I use with multiple levels of students. I have sometimes given this out on the first or second lesson. I've also given it out for much more advanced students. The real difference is what elements you tell them they must include in their song. Do they need a certain form? Key signature? Intervals? Chords? Articulation? The most beginning students are told only that they need to think about speed, hand position, and dynamics. There's no limit on how complicated you can get with the more advanced students.
I am a lifelong lover of music, books, and travel. I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri, where I sing, teach piano, dabble in writing, work as an editor, and enjoy life with my husband and daughter.