Game Time! – Interval Edition

This week, I’ve been dazzling the kiddos and putting unsuspecting parents on the spot with my super fun and fabulous interval game!  Read on to see how it’s played, get a free printable of the game, and discover why going intervallic is the smarter way to read music.

Interval Game 1

What is an interval?

An interval is the distance between two notes.  It is measured by the number of pitches that fall within the span of the interval.  For example, the interval from A to C spans three pitches: A, B, and C.  Intervals are always called by their ordinal numbers, so we’d call the interval from A to C a “third” rather than a “three.”

Why are intervals the smarter way to read music?

The intervallic approach encourages students to correlate an interval on the staff with the feeling of that span in their fingers.  Intervallic reading eliminates the need to constantly “count” through the alphabet in order to identify notes on the staff.  It also reduces the need to look down at the hands or keyboard while playing.  In a nutshell, it trains students to become amazingly agile music readers!

How does the game help?

The game encourages recognition of seconds and thirds in order to help students build fast and accurate music reading skills. Students will need to identify intervals on a partial staff, with finger numbers, and using the musical alphabet.  The intervals are presented in these different forms to help reinforce the connections between written notes, keyboard topography, and finger movements.

Interval board game-variety 2nds and 3rds


Let’s Play!

You will need:

How to play:

All players place their game pieces on the arrow marked “start.”  The person who practiced most recently spins first. Once an interval has been randomly selected, the player must move their game piece to the square that represents the given interval.  Players take turns until someone crosses the finish line.  For an extra challenge, set a timer and complete the game in 5 minutes or less!

Interval-game

 

Technique 101: Ode to Curved Finger Joy

Whether you’re looking to increase your understanding of piano technique or just want to help your child avoid weekly nagging about their awkward spider-hands, this post is for you!  Read on to find out why we need curved fingers, why so many of us struggle with it, and how you can give your technical skills a tuneup in a few easy steps!


Curved Fingers: The Only Known Cure for Spider-Hands

Beethoven once said, “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without curved fingers is inexcusable.”  Kidding!  Well, Beethoven said to play without “passion” is inexcusable; I made up the part about curved fingers. Of course, Beethoven was a fellow piano teacher, so I bet he dropped a few pearls of “curved finger” wisdom in his day after all!

Unfortunately, being vigilant about healthy technique often falls low on our priority list during practice time.  It may seem like learning notes and rhythms is more important than having curved fingers, but listen up, flat-fingered friends!  Curved fingers are the cornerstone to all piano technique.  They play a crucial role in controlling sound production and preventing injury.


You’re Only Hurting Yourself (And the Innocent Victims Who Live with You)

Obviously, injuries are bad and should be avoided, but why is controlling sound production so important?  Isn’t that for more advanced students to worry about?  –No way, José!  You may not think it, but even the earliest beginners are sensitive to sound production.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen students struggle as the keys barely produce a whisper, if any sound at all.  I’ve seen tense and out of control fingers drift out of position and collide with wrong notes.  I’ve seen shoulders rise to almost ear-level in the battle against unevenness.  Sure, there will always be some growing pains when learning a new instrument, but what pain could be greater than having the ability to read and understand music, but not play it?  Unfortunately, many beginners fall into this category.  Oh, the frustration!  Who knew you could already be a tortured artist at the tender age of 5?


Attention Parents: Full-time Nagging Positions Available

For a lot of people, playing with curved fingers is easier said than done.  Sure, it’s a piece of cake to form your hand into a curved shape, but it’s quite difficult to maintain that shape while playing if you don’t understand how to use healthy technique.  If you don’t know what I mean, try making a rounded hand shape then quickly and firmly press down on one of your fingers as if to play a note on the piano.

ricochet-fingers

Did you notice how some of the other fingers ricocheted out in a strained and awkward manner?  Yikes!  That is a far cry from healthy and controlled playing.  Unfortunately, this is the default for almost every child I’ve come across.  Without the watchful eyes of a parent, this frightening scene of strained muscles and contorted fingers is likely to persist. Thirty-minutes with your teacher won’t be enough to correct a week’s worth of unhealthy practicing, so why not be a little extra vigilant at home?  I guarantee it will go a long way in helping your child progress!


weird 4Students also struggle with the curved fingers concept because they don’t recognize how important it is.  Have you ever listened to a great piano performance and thought, Wow, I love the sound of curved fingers! – Of course not.  Understandably, it’s hard to get students, especially kids, to put in a good effect with their technique.  Many students are able bulldoze their way through a song with collapsed finger joints, deviated wrists, shoulder tension, and a host of other cringe-worthy habits, and won’t know the difference as long as the notes sound right!

When the process seems difficult or complicated and students don’t understand the benefits, they sidestep the issue.  That is, they sidestep until they are forced to confront the problem during their weekly nagging sessions!  Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I come armed with knowledge, visual aids, and eye-roll inducing humor to help get you past the curved finger….well, hump!  (See, I warned you.)

Let’s pretend you and I are engineers examining the parts that make the piano-playing machine function:


Fingers

The first step to playing with curved fingers is to *gasp!* curve the fingers.  This means bending all three of the finger joints.  Keeping the middle joints curved is usually a piece of cake.  The biggest culprits are the naughty distal joint…

Collapsed distal joint

 

…and every piano teacher’s nemesis, the collapsed proximal joints.  Some teachers refer to these joints collectively as the hand’s “bridge.”  Trust me, musically or architecturally speaking, a bridge collapse is never a good thing!

Collapsed bridge

 


Thumb

The thumb is the greatest enemy of curved fingers everywhere!  Your thumb supports most of the weight of your piano-playing mechanism, so if it doesn’t provide a solid foundation, the rest of your structure could collapse.  Think of it as the arch underneath your hand-bridge.  Like your fingers, the thumb joints need to be curved too.  Unfortunately, joint #3 can be hard to locate.  Take a moment now and try to find all three joints in your own hand.

thumb joints

Now, since those elusive little thumb joints don’t provide us with a solid visual, your best bet is to look for a rounded O-shape between the thumb and pointer finger.  If you see a V-shape like this…

thumb collapse

…then imagine there’s a ball in your hand, or try practicing the “bloom” technique.  To bloom, simply make a tight fist then let the fingers uncurl naturally.  Remember to look for that O-so important O-shape between the thumb and pointer finger!  (Sorry! I have no shame.)

Bloom-and-Perch2


Wrists

Poor, poor wrists.  Why must fingers steal all the glory? Oh, the inhumanity!!!

tenor
[GIF by Tenor]
There’s something magical about a pianist’s fingers that transfixes us.  We’re so obsessed with the image of long slender fingers flying up and down the keys, a pianist might as well be a pair of disembodied hands!  (In fact, that was actually the plot of a terrifying Goosebumps book I read as a child.)   I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “Oh, so you play piano?” while miming wiggly jazz fingers, or “So-and-so has such long fingers; She should be a pianist!”

Well, I’m sure that by now you’ve been anticipating a pretty hefty truth-bomb to followup all this finger ranting!  If you’ve been paying even a little bit of attention, you should know what’s about to drop…

Folks, we need the whole arm!!!

Come on, Engineers, think about it!  Would you rather have an engine powered by the itty-bitty finger muscles or the big ‘ol meaty ones in your upper arms?  Exactly!  Now in order to harness this incredible horsepower from the arm, we’ll need two things: First, those curved fingers need to be nice and firm in order to support our arm power.  Second, our wrists need to stay loose and flexible so that we can transfer the power from our arm-engine to the fingers.  If your engineer brain is buzzing with the word “driveshaft” right now, you’re totally on the money, (and probably a little over-invested in these engineering metaphors, although I dig your enthusiasm).  Now, obviously your machine won’t function very well if there’s a kink in the driveshaft, so make sure your fingers are aligned with the forearm bones.

Wrist-straight

The official term for the wrist kink I mentioned earlier is wrist deviation.  Not only will this sap your horsepower, it can also lead to serious injury.  (Warning, warning! System failure….Ahhhhh!!)

Wrist-deviated

Before we shift this engine into gear, we need to start in neutral.  When in the neutral position, the wrist should hang below your knuckle-bridge at about the level of your fingertips.  Let’s get a sense for what a healthy neutral wrist position feels like by applying what I call the “Goldilocks” method.  (Very scientific, I know.)  Take a moment now to practice positioning the wrist too high, too low, then juuuuuuust right!  Be mindful that you’re only moving your wrist in this step and aren’t forcing the wrist to go up and down with your shoulder power.

Goldilocks-wrist


Elbows, Shoulders, and the Whole Machine!

Now it’s time for us to shift this engine into gear!  You’ve prepped those nice curved fingers so they’re firm and ready to support the power from your arm.  You’ve checked for a supported thumb with a rounded O-shape.  You’ve properly aligned your wrist so there are no kinks, and you’ve done a “Goldilocks” check to ensure it’s loose, flexible, and in the neutral position.  It’s time to watch this baby go!

First, make sure your forearm is at a right angle to the piano.  If you’re new to this piano-stuff, I realize the middle C position is probably what you know and love, but playing directly in front of the body could lead you astray, (i.e. more prone to wrist deviation), plus it’ll be harder for you to recognize the sensations of what healthy technique feels like.  For now, I recommend practicing about one to two octaves outside of middle C.

Next, try to maintain a little bit of space between your elbows and torso.  Locking your arms against the torso impairs your machine’s ability to function and can cause unnecessary tension, so remind yourself to loosen up.  This isn’t the subway, people!  You can take up as much space as you need.  While you’re at it, check that your shoulders are loose too.  A nice shrug up and down should do the trick.

Finally, push your elbow forward toward the finger you want to play.  Since your wrist is nice and flexible, it will rise up and forward in the same direction while transferring the kinetic energy from your arm into your finger.  If you experience the “ricochet” fingers mentioned earlier, it means you’re still using the wimpy finger muscles instead of letting the arm do the work.  To help get a sense for what arm playing should feel like, try letting your non-playing arm do the work by providing a little push from the elbow.

Goldilocks-1

Now, before you start going crazy with your expert-level piano skills, keep in mind every attack must have a release.  Make sure you reset your wrist to the neutral position before performing the movement again, otherwise you’ll start to lose control and accumulate tension.  Long, held notes are the way to go until you really get the hang of it.  Hey, I warned you it would take time and patience, but if you made it this far and are still reading, I think you have what it takes!


Well, why aren’t you practicing already?

Congratulations, Engineers! You’re officially certified to operate your piano-playing machines!  As you master these skills, you’ll start to enjoy playing with a newfound freedom and ease.  In no time, you’ll be reveling in the artistic nuances and finesse achieved through your superior technical control.  I have faith in you!!  Oh, and if your machine ever needs a tuneup, you know who to see.

Happy practicing!

–C


 

 

Star Charts

At the beginning of the school year, I introduced a new sticker chart system to reward my young students for their hard work.  Each week, students have an opportunity to earn stars by following instructions on their practice sheets, completing theory games, or by going above and beyond on their assignments.  So far, the chart system has been a huge hit! My students have been working extra hard to earn their stars, and a few have already been awarded the coveted “three-star” prize.  Now, I’ll do a happy dance for that any day! 🙂

Star Opportunity #1

1. Brought practice sheet to the lesson.

2. Checked off one or more practice days.

3. Correctly performed one or more prep-steps picked at random from practice sheet.

Star Opportunity #2

1. Completed weekly Tonic Tutor assignment.

2. Completed any additional homework assignments.

Star Opportunity #3

1. Exceeded expectations by a significant amount.

2. Teacher was shrieking with delight.

3. We all jumped up and started dancing.

 

 

 

 

How to Be an A+ Student from the Start–Part 1

Are you taking lessons for the first time? Resuming lessons after a hiatus? Getting ready to switch over from another studio? In this blog series, I’ll discuss some tips and tricks to help you be successful right from the start!


Treat your music with care and remember to bring it every time!

Why: Although my music library is constantly growing, I don’t always have extra copies on hand. Also, chances are your score has been marked up with finger numbers, corrections, or other comments. These markings help me keep track of your progress and address your weaknesses more efficiently. Additionally, failure to work from the same score can create inconsistencies in your practicing. This in turn will slow your progress and leave you frustrated. Piano is challenging enough with the proper music; so don’t let this problem become a roadblock on your path to success!

How: The solution is simple: Stay organized and keep everything in the same place. For most of you, a 3-ring binder is essential since you will receive handouts on a fairly regular basis. Similarly, if you’re the parent of an early elementary student, your child will likely have multiple books to keep track of every week. In this case, it’s helpful to store your books in a carrying tote or bag when not in use. If you make it into a habit now, you’ll be ready to grab and go on lesson days!


How to Be an A+ Student from the Start–Part 2

10 Ways to Maximize Your Child’s Piano Lessons

With many students taking only one thirty-minute piano lesson per week, a significant portion of the learning process must take place at home.  Regardless of your musical background and experience, there is plenty you can do to help your child manage his or her practice time and maintain a healthy mindset while doing so. Read on to find out how you can maximize your child’s lessons!


Lessons

Be involved. Regardless of your understanding of music, you can and should take an active role in your child’s piano lessons. Having parental support during lessons and home practice time greatly increases your child’s likeliness of success. Remember, if you aren’t present during your child’s lessons it will be harder for you to listen, experience, and respond properly when your child is practicing at home.

Summarize what you’ve learned. It seems we always play our best right after a lesson!  Take advantage of this by recording a two-minute summary video on your phone. Use the video to point out trouble spots in your music, model proper hand shapes and techniques, or count rhythms aloud. Refer back to the video throughout the week when you need to refresh and reorganize your goals.

Get organized. Have a designated tote bag or backpack to carry books and materials to and from lessons.  It lessens the chance that important items will get left behind.  If your teacher writes weekly assignments in a notepad, encourage your child to stay on task by awarding completed items with a sticker.  For older children who crave more autonomy during practice, put a sticker or checkmark in their assignment pad after you have carefully read through the assignments together.


Attitude

Understand that the word “talent” can be damaging. Multiple studies have confirmed that children praised for their talent or other innate abilities will become more easily frustrated when faced with difficult tasks. Many of these children suffered a significant drop in self-esteem after experiencing their first failure, and were thus more likely to quit lessons. On the contrary, children praised for their hard work and effort showed significantly higher success rates in their piano studies and reported higher levels of enjoyment–even when the level of difficulty increased.

Don’t underestimate the importance of modeling. Modeling patience, care, and positivity for your child will help him or her learn to persevere through difficulties, become more musically aware, and develop greater emotional depth.  Piano practice tends to be a solo endeavor as students get older, so the mindset you model to your child now may set the tone for the rest of his or her piano career.

Show off your child’s hard work.  Stickers, trinkets, and treats are excellent motivators, but we often undervalue the greatest reward of all–the joy of music making itself! Celebrate your child’s success by arranging a mini-recital for friends and family or share a video of your child on Facebook or in an e-mail. Seeing others react positively to your child’s musical performance will leave you both feeling accomplished.  It may even inspire you to start mastering the next piece of repertoire!


Practicing

Be a practice enforcer.  Anyone who has tried to stick to an exercise routine knows the importance of having a “workout buddy” to motivate you on your bad days.  Similarly, your child will inevitably need a little push now and then during practice time. Try to make practice a daily routine with your child and reward them for their efforts.  Acknowledge that keeping any daily routine is a challenge that even adults struggle with!

Enjoy having time together. Having parental supervision during practice will help your child maintain a higher level of concentration and can help combat the feelings of isolation that are often associated with piano practice. For students with siblings, one-on-one practicing may be one of the only times they get mom or dad all to themselves. Again, regardless of your musical aptitude you can have a positive influence on your child’s practice routine just by being there.

Don’t use practice as a punishment. Making a child stay inside to practice while their siblings get to play outside or watch TV can feel like a form of torture!  Keeping up a daily practice routine is difficult enough as it is, and any attempts to coerce your child with negative reinforcement will only add to your struggle.  Learning piano can be a challenging pursuit, but ultimately it is one to be enjoyed.

Create a healthy practice environment. Tune acoustic pianos twice annually, keep the area free from distractions like TV’s and computers, and make sure the area is sufficiently lit. Have proper seating available in the form of a piano bench or a flat-bottomed chair. Swivel chairs and chairs with arms should never be used. Smaller children may be more comfortable sitting with a footstool to support their feet or may practice standing up.


Parents, what would you add to this list?  Which aspects of practice or lessons has your child found most enjoyable?  What has been the biggest contributor to your child’s success during practice time?