You know the day I’m talking about.  The one where you in danger of becoming Jacob Two-Two because you have repeated the EXACT same phrase to (almost) every student you are teaching.  Perhaps it’s been one of those days (or weeks) where you have repeatedly heard …

  • “I just didn’t have time to practice.”
  • “I have NO idea where that book is! It went missing after our last lesson.”

Or, perhaps most of your students seem to have forgotten about dynamics, articulation, or making their songs more than notes on a page.

While I suppose it could be great for working on our delivery of phrases, it gets old by the end of day … Let alone the end of the week.  Thankfully, these days (hopefully) don’t happen to often.  But, how can we keep our humor & sanity?

Practice Issues:

Find out why the practice didn’t happen & help solve it:  

No matter what age or subject, I always find that teaching scheduling & time management are musts.  My students have learnt that certain steps happen when practice doesn’t happen.  One week of practice … It happens.  We quickly talk & move on.  Two weeks & we are making a plan to avoid another week of no practice, plus we are sharing said plan with mom &/or dad.  Third week of no practice means drawing a calendar of ALL your extra-curricular & responsibilities. On the calendar we label EVERYTHING so students learn to balance their weekly responsibilities with the fun stuff.  Then, mom &/or dad are emailed a copy with a politely worded request they help their child reach the goals they’ve set for themselves.  In the email, I also include a reminder of specific progress that was being made before the lapse in practice & how confident I am they will once again make great progress once they focus on their goals.  This is the same progression I use with my adult students … minutes the email, to mom or dad.  Awkward!

Missing books:

“Nothing is truly missing until mom (or the teacher) can’t find it.”

The first question I always ask is, “When did you last have the book?”  This let’s me know if any practice happened, whether the student asked for help, & where our best first look is.

The second question is, “Why is the book away from the piano?”  There are some valid reasons (ie. going between parents’ homes, performance, exam, etc.), but in my experience most reasons have little logical sense.  (Why is your book in with the Lego? Or, even worse, under your bed?)

This is why the “Measure Twice, Cut Once” award was created.  Everything for lesson, including pencil, eraser, & note for me, must be at the piano at the START of lesson.  If we are searching, you are one week further from earning the award.  When I started this award, I told my students it was the easiest award to earn.  Then, I wondered aloud if I shouldn’t make it a bit harder since they WERE earning prizes.  None of my students agreed.  They love that they are “gaming the system” with a super-easy award.  I love that I very rarely spend lesson time looking for books or other materials & have tricked them into having everything ready.  Sometimes, an award can be an easy fix to an ongoing problem.

Making a song more than notes on the page:

I talk with my hands quite a bit, including while I’m teaching.  When my students see my arms moving, they have figured out I’m asking for certain things … even if I haven’t said a word.  While this helps save my voice, specific instructions are key.  Feedback depends on the age, experience & interests of my students.  Below are some of the specific strategies I use:

For younger students, we tend to play make believe.

  • Staccato:
    • Bounce like a frog/cricket/kangaroo
    • Jump on a “trampoline”
  • Legato:
    • Glide on the air currents like an eagle
    • Skate on the ice
  • Crescendo/Diminuendo … Dynamics in general:
    • Flap our wings to go higher, glide down low for diminuendo … Stretch up higher & get close to the ground for added fun.
    • For high energy students (& a great personal workout), bounce at different levels.  Jump high in the air for forte.  Pretend to be a Russian dancer (without the leg kicks) to bounce low down for piano.  It’s the mezzos (mezzo piano, mezzo forte) & transitioning between dynamic levels that really gets the heart rate going.
  • Up & down on the keyboard:
    • Pretend your hand is a roller coaster car on a track.  Make the “track” go up when notes climb the keyboard.  Bring the “track” gently down as the melody descends.

For elementary/early junior high students, I tend to start demonstrating & explaining concepts based on how their body will look or how the muscles will feel.

  • Phrasing:
    • Move wrists, elbows, arms in the direction our fingers are moving.  This sometimes leads to moving the piano bench to different spots to try out how each feels.
  • Dynamics:
    • Piano:  A tiny little kitten we are gently petting (for younger elementary students) or using our finger to gently pull the key towards us.
    • Forte: Students pretend they are ‘punching’ the piano … at first notes are not hit accurately at all, but they soon discover that using their whole arm to create the sound is WAY easier than just using their fingers.
  • Pedal:
    • For students that are learning to drive (or really wish they were learning), I explain how using the clutch pedal while driving is similar to pedaling on the piano.  First, I demonstrate with my hands how as one hand goes down, the other goes up.  Next, I have students listen to the music for where I press down the pedal, followed by them watching my feet while I play the same passage.  Lastly, they try to create the same movement as I watch their feet.
  • Hand position:
    • I stress with my students that all those little nerves in our wrists need protecting.  If we drop our wrists, we make it harder on the nerves.
    • When students drop wrists, I tend to slide my hand under theirs (along the wood part below the keys) so they naturally move their wrists up to create space.
    • If the thumbs ‘share’ a particular note in the piece, let them know they are fighting over the note.  Who wins in each measure?  (This strategy works great with little ones as well.)

Where is a recording when you need it?

When it’s been one of those week that you wish you had a recording for a certain sentence or phrase, take heart that getting off the bench & taking a different approach may be just the thing … for you AND your student.

Engaging multiple sense & creating fun memories for students makes it much easier & faster for those neurons to find information in the future.  I’ll admit that my students often surprise me with what they remember, even months after learning a song.

When your students are in danger of calling you Jacob Two-Two …

What are your strategies when it’s become one of those teaching days?  Please leave your comments below!

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