As I write this, most American music students and teachers are entering the contest/recital time of the year. We spend lesson after lesson, practice time after practice time, preparing for performances that will help evaluate our progress over the past year. Normally, these performances are live, in front of either an audience or a judge, a one-time shot at getting the right notes, rhythms, and interpretations. It’s stressful, to be sure, for both student and teacher.
In the present Covid culture, the stress has been multiplied by our newfound need to use technology for live/recorded performances. Will the microphone(s) work? Is the lighting too much or too little? Is the Internet connection strong enough? It’s all new and untried by most of us, and it has made an already tense situation more and more wearing and fatiguing.
So it’s not strange at all that students and teachers both feel wrung out as the recital and contest season is at its' end. The goal has been reached, the performances have been given. The question becomes--now what? To return to the same sort of lessons that have been the norm for months isn’t an appetizing thought. For that matter, returning to learning more pieces for the next performance season isn’t a thrilling idea, either. To do nothing definitely isn’t the answer, as we all know that knowledge and skill left unused become stagnant. What are we to do for a change of pace that will still move the student’s music study forward?
I’ve faced this problem many times over my nearly four decades of teaching, and I’ve been able to come up with some fun and educational ideas that will let a student relax a bit while still learning important concepts and practicing fundamentals of music in a new and different way, while not requiring lots of new and expensive aids. Most use music and teaching aids a teacher already has in the studio, or which are a click or two away on the Internet. These suggestions have a lot to do with the particular emphasis that makes my studio unique--making music a second language for each student, to use not only in reproducing others’ music (the recital) but also in creating one’s own music (through composition and improvisation). Here are four possible ideas for consideration.
1: Sight-reading ONLY
One of the things most students are tired of after the recital or contest finishes is the constant round of practice (on the same piece) that’s needed to prepare music for the event. Now, I’m the last one to suggest that students should stop practicing, but I’m also aware that most students prefer playing to practicing! How about challenging students to NOT practice at home, and spend their lesson and practice time sight-reading?
Of course, the music should be approximately 2 levels lower than their current playing level, a level they would find easily digestible and playable. Most teachers have music of different levels that can be used as sight-reading pieces. Old method books can do the trick! Also, after a few years, most teachers accumulate free pieces from conventions and publisher reading sessions. Some publishers give out free books full of sections of pieces to help sell their new and revised music. Finally, a quick Google search for “free piano sheet music pdf” or “free vocal sheet music pdf” or similar search terms will also yield dozens of hits that are good for sight-reading.
I keep a file of possible pieces (copies of PDFs and a list of books/pieces) for each student who opts to do this. Every week, the student reads pieces at the lesson (which can be taken home if requested) and is also given some more pieces to sight-read. Those are played at the next lesson. Some are even added to the student’s repertoire (as the pieces get closer to the student’s performance level). Pieces are only “worked on” for about 2 weeks at the most. Not only does this widen the student’s knowledge of musical styles and composers, but it is also a great way to review the basics of music reading and increase the speed at which the student can read the music and translate it to their voice or the keyboard.
# 2: Improvisation/Arranging
Maybe what a student needs is a chance to do their own thing at the keyboard. Understandably, students who have played from printed music throughout their lessons are usually nervous about attempting to play anything not written down. I use a stepping stone approach to improvisation studiowide, throughout the yearly teaching term. Each step has some concepts to teach, such as embellishments for melodies, basic chord theory, and chord accompaniment patterns. I use a lot of Bradley Sowash’s music and teaching materials to help with this. (Please note: I teach piano and voice, so I also offer voice students the chance to try beginning keyboard improvisation.)
I start slowly by having students play written melodies (usually familiar folk tunes), adding embellishments as they can. The next step is to play a melody by ear, singing or humming along with me and picking the notes out on the piano. As the student learns basic triads (I, IV, V), the other hand adds harmonies. Usually, for a beginner, that is enough to keep them going for several weeks. More experienced students can be shown different rhythmic and chordal patterns to add some interest to their playing, as well as simple transposing.
Pure improvisation can also be used, where the student creates a new melody, usually over a chord progression. A really neat way of doing this is to have the teacher play a melody and, at a predetermined spot, play just accompaniment, letting the student fill in with an original 2 or 4 measure melody. At first, This can be based on the melodic rhythm or other predetermined rhythm and use chord tones or scale-like patterns. If you don’t want to “reinvent the wheel”, you can check out Andrea and Trevor Dow’s website (Teaching Piano Today) for their improvisation fun sheets.
# 3: Composition
Many students approach music one note at a time, not perceiving any order or pattern to a piece. Teaching beginning composition is a great way to help a student analyze others’ music as well as get their own creative juices flowing. This works with students on all instruments and the voice. If the student isn’t proficient in notating music, you have the options of helping them learn to notate it themselves or of asking them to be creative and make their own symbols for the sounds they want to make. Nowadays, students can also record themselves on their phones or tablets, but I really like to use composing exercises as an opportunity to work on greater music notation fluency.
There are many, many websites that offer ready-made composition exercises and hints for students. Once again, Google Search is your friend! A recent search I made (“teaching composing to piano students”) yielded over 36 million hits, and another search (“teaching composing to music students”) gave over 147 million hits. If you don’t have time to scroll through search results, two of the best websites to look at are Teaching Piano Today (Andrea and Trevor Dow) and Colourful Keys (Nicola Cantan). Both websites offer blogs with wonderful free printables and aids to composing and other musical concepts.
“And now, for something completely different…” (from the Monty Python school of improvisatory comedy). I don’t think there’s a music student out there that doesn’t enjoy shaking, tapping, or beating on a percussion instrument. In fact, I think everyone likes to play percussion every so often! And what a fun way to work on rhythmic pulse and reading fluency!
Bucket drums are just that--hard plastic industrial-type buckets that can be purchased at nearly every hardware store or hardware section of a big box store. They’re inexpensive (one bucket costs less than the average music book) and very sturdy. I usually purchase 2 per student--one to sit on and one to play. Students can use their hands or cheap drum sticks (usually available at a local music store or online--as cheap as $2 per pair when purchased in packs). The students can also make and decorate their own sticks using wooden dowels, available at most craft stores.
What can students drum? Any rhythm pattern will work! Most methods include some sort of rhythm flashcards or pages of rhythm patterns. Students could also play the rhythms of their new method book songs or their favorite pop songs. Thankfully, there are also multiple bucket drumming websites and music teaching websites with bucket drumming pages. A Google search I did of “teaching bucket drumming” yielded nearly 9 million hits!
One of the most interesting sites is bucketdrumming.net (Sammy Foster). You can download drumming patterns to many popular tunes as well as music videos for students to play along with. Several teacher planning sites also have bucket drumming materials for purchase, and there are complete bucket drumming teaching books available for purchase on Amazon.
What’s after the recital? The sky’s the limit!
There’s an old proverb that says (with my additions), “All work and no play makes Jack (or Jill) a dull boy (or girl).” There’s a lot to be said for self-discipline, but allowing yourself to play with music is a great way to rekindle your motivation and jump-start your creativity. Some time off from the usual grind is a wonderful way to reward a student’s (and a teacher’s) hard work. The four suggestions above are just the tip of the iceberg of fun and educational music activities. Let your mind roam and imagine the fun music can give, and you’ll soon have more activities than any student could finish!