The Evolving Educator

Adaptation in a modern teacher

Category: Understanding Learning

Note Recognition: Improving Fluency with Game-ification

One of the first major challenges that students encounter when they first begin to learn piano is note recognition. Standard musical notation involves translating symbols on the musical staves into letters which correspond to physical keys on the piano. This integrates many skills simultaneously and can be slow-going for new learners. Many of you who took lessons in the past probably remembers using acrostics to remember note names like “Every good boy deserves fudge.” (or my new, modern take “Every girl band deserves funding.”). Note recognition is traditionally scaffolded with memory aids and polished through completing pencil & paper exercises like this:

Traditional note recognition exercise (https://notebusters.net/note-reading-sample-content/)

However, I have recently been experimenting with a new way to help students develop fluency with note recognition: game-ification. Specifically, I have been integrating an iPad app, Staff Wars, into my group and individual lessons. This program challenges students to blast notes with lasers from an X-wing by naming each note as it scrolls from right to left. I like it because it has an element of urgency. When sight-reading music, it is not uncommon to feel stress as you read ahead through a passage, anticipating notes and chords to come. The game is designed in such a way that you experience a similar crunch, which I believe enhances its applicability and validity to real piano play. With Staff Wars, you capture a feeling that cannot be emulated in a pencil & paper exercise. The goal is that students develop an automaticity with naming in which they intuitively ‘know’ a note’s identity without having to use acrostics or memory aids. So far, I’ve been seeing good results in students who have been incorporating this app into their practice regime.

Image result for staff wars

Screen capture from Staff Wars on iPad

I will say that Staff Wars is not perfect. There are a few features that I wish would be integrated. First, the app only allows you to enter responses using the note names (“A”, “D”, etc.). I wish that students could also enter their responses using a diagram of a keyboard, to further reinforce the connection between the staff and a physical position on a keyboard. Also, this app is excellent for training single-note recognition. However, a trouble area for many pianists (myself included) comes with reading clusters of notes in chords. I would love to see a setting where students name all the component notes in a chord as it scrolls from right to left. Still, for $0.99, it is a worthwhile investment for any piano teacher or new learner.

-S

Piano Program Pilot Reflection

Having completed much of the mental leg-work and preparation for the group program, I finally had an opportunity to see it in action! With help from three of my friends – Sam, Alex & Sylvie – I did a live pilot of the piano program. The three learners & I met for 1 hour at a time over a two-week period to see how they were able to learn in this context.

Some footage of the pilot learning environment.

Overwhelmingly, it was a success! I thoroughly enjoyed teaching in this social environment & was always on my toes. The students really enjoyed it as well (as evidenced by their unanimous desire to continue with the program). After we completed our second session, the participants participated in a discussion and debriefing with me. Below, I’ll share some of the strengths and areas for improvement that were revealed in the pilot.

Program strengths:

  • Social – over the two sessions, the participants seemed to bond & get to know one another. They felt comfortable sharing their experiences, discussing challenges and celebrating the group’s successes. Moving forward, I’ll continue to find moments for sharing at the beginning, middle and end of the sessions. For instance, learners shared some of their favourite piano music with the group which was assigned as ‘listening homework’ to broaden everyone’s horizons.
  • Productive – as I hoped, the sessions were highly productive for the students. The individual time to work fostered focus. During circulation, I was able to correct errors and draw attention to aspects like technique, articulation and rhythm. Overall, the students were learning at a rapid rate, having passed through ~30 pages of the Faber Primer book & Adult Beginner Course in only 2 hours. Sight-reading of notes & rhythms was as good or better than what I see at this point in 1:1 students.
  • Challenging – learners reported feeling lots of self-efficacy. I was particularly happy to hear from them about their experiences with performance anxiety! They agreed that working solo was great for learning and polishing. In all the learners, however, they felt the familiar tense sensation of performance anxiety whenever I plugged into their keyboards and began to listen. I see this as a huge benefit – getting exposed to performance anxiety in bite-sized pieces. If I manage to frame these encounters with lots of positive reinforcement, balancing any tips with genuine praise for their progress, I believe we can extinguish or lessen the nerves they feel playing for others. This will make it easier for them to eventually perform their work publicly.
  • Encouraging – the learners also noted that they enjoyed having other beginners around. They could overhear little tips and comments I made to others and be reminded to integrate these practices into their own play. It also made them feel good to hear that others were having trouble with note recognition, rhythm reading and finger independence (issues that plague every musician).
  • Affordable – The director of the studio has agreed to charge only 50% of the typical rate for hour lessons in the group format. This is great for the learners.

Areas for Improvement:

  • Integrating Adequate Theory Practice – the group lessons are designed to ‘first teach the hands, then the head.’ I would prefer that students learn to play before being inundated with cumbersome and discouraging theory. That being said, I would like to find a way to dovetail this work with appropriate theory exercises, perhaps from the Faber series.
  • Tightening Up Explanations – when you have so many learners to inspire and guide in only an hour, it demands that really tighten up your explanations. Instead of having minutes to describe the function of a dotted rhythm, you may have only 30 seconds. I think this is a challenge that will really promote my growth as a musician and teacher by forcing me to truly comprehend the core of a concept in order to explain it effectively and efficiently.
  • Mixed-Experience Groups – while this pilot cohort are all beginners starting at the exact same level, it is conceivable that I will have groups in the future. I want to strongly consider how to have groups of mixed ability levels moving forward but still keep the communication, discussion and ensemble performance features.
  • Rewards System for Young Learners – my years tutoring at Sylvan taught me the potential value of token economies for promoting good habits in students. I envision, especially for <13 learners, implementing a system where students earn ‘quarter notes’ for meritorious behaviour (asking good questions, attention to detail, encouraging groupmates, etc.)
  • Use of Technology – could music-education games like Ningenius and StaffWars be used throughout the lesson to diversify the experience of the learners?

Anyways, overall, I am pleased with how the pilot went. Since my pilot group is going to continue with their lessons, I’ll get lots more opportunity to hone this and consider how this program qualitatively differs from my 1:1 pedagogy.

-S

A Social Model of Piano Pedagogy

This June, I was fortunate to be hired as the new piano instructor at the South Island Studio (SIS). The director of the studio, Lonny Koch, floated the idea during my interview that we could develop a Group Lesson program at SIS.

My initial reaction was confusion and a little bit of dread. Having always enjoyed 1:1 lessons with my teachers, the idea of a group piano lesson seemed to be a pedagogic and logistical mess. How could a teacher effectively instruct more than one student at a time? However, Lonny & I registered for a primer course by a piano instructor named Daniel Patterson which provided us with a basic model for group lessons. We worked through those materials & considered how we could modify the program to match my teaching style, experience and musical worldview. In the end, we developed a system for 3:1 lessons which I will describe in brief below.

In essence, the experience I am trying to address with the group lessons will be familiar to anyone who has taken 1:1 lessons with an expert: the experience of trying to realize a teacher’s suggestion as they watch. For instance, while I was taking lessons in jazz piano this summer, I found myself wishing I could enter into a private practice ‘bubble’ to work through a suggestion from my teacher. He might ask that I perform a passage in a certain way, or practice a lick in twelve keys. Having him watch over me created a sense of performance anxiety and doubt which clouded my thought and slowed my progress. This is what I am trying to address.

If you’re wondering about the format, refer to the diagram I’ve included below. Everyone has their own digital keyboard and is practising with headphones while I circulate to give feedback and guide your progress. Having a private sonic space to work in allows you to hone and develop your music at your own pace & without the anxiety of having a teacher hover over you. Furthermore, it builds self-sufficiency and sight-reading ability by encouraging you to develop your own inner-teacher. Throughout the lesson, we remove our headphones and come together to have discussions, learn new concepts and play aloud as an ensemble.

Schematic diagram of the proposed learning space.

Moving forward, I have four principle goals for the program:

1. To emphasize playing first and foremost. Teaching the hands more than the head, at least initially.
2. To create a supportive, social, fun environment in which to learn piano, collaborate and get excited about the instrument with other beginners.
3. To make it more accessible by charging a significantly lower hourly rate.
4. To build self-efficacy & teach students how to practice.

This section of my website, found under the Inquiry >> Group Piano Lessons Program tab, will document my experience of developing and implementing group piano lessons at SIS.

-S

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