What is Essential Piano Posture?
Making sure your child is set up at the piano correctly will make a world of difference in their comfort and piano technique!
In my many years of teaching private piano lessons, I always prided myself on treating each and every piano student as an individual, with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. In fact, offering individualized instruction was the core value I wanted people to take away about my studio: I won’t put your child in a box. I won’t expect them to learn the same way as every other child. I won’t assign them the same pieces in the same order as all my other students. I want your child to love music and will make sure there are no arbitrary obstacles in their path.
I taught with this individualized instruction mindset for about 10 years (and loved it). I actively learned about my students' worlds and carefully observed the ways each seemed to learn best. And then I adjusted my teaching accordingly, guiding each student along a customized path I made just for them.
Then, in the summer of 2018, I met Marilyn White Lowe, author of the audiation based piano method, Music Moves for Piano. It was a pleasure to hear her speak about teaching in small groups, and her flexible, open door policy, where students were welcome to stay late and make music with other students during the next scheduled lesson. She explained the benefits of children learning in groups: how the older and more experienced students naturally became leaders and the younger and less experienced students were inspired, challenged, and supported.
I started to wonder… was designing a unique learning path for each individual student really the best thing for them? Or were they missing out on an important social aspect of learning I’d never fully considered?
I was already a piano teacher who, like many others, organized periodic group piano classes for my private students. I also paired students for duet projects from time to time. But I was inspired to try something more like what Marilyn described and started to research small group piano teaching. She and others offered lots of great ideas about how to teach in groups and I became even more convinced that I wanted to give it a try. But I also knew I didn't want to lose the benefits that an individual focus can provide. After some consideration, I decided to offer 75 minute group lessons that were approximately 50% group activities and approximately 50% one-on-one time.
Now, when you talk about giving students one-on-one time in a group piano lesson, many people envision a keyboard lab model, with students practicing with headphones on and the teacher visiting each student. I knew without a doubt that was not for me. I strongly believe that piano learning should be done on acoustic pianos, and also wasn’t the whole point of a group lesson that the students be learning from each other? So I settled on "project time/one-on-one time." During the second half of the lesson, students would work on focused projects while taking turns having one-on-one time at the piano.
I offered this new lesson option to my students starting in August of 2018 and many students agreed to try it. I was so grateful to the families who trusted me enough to take the leap! Fast forward to July of 2019 and I've taught in this new way with four small groups for almost a year now. While certainly challenging, it has been immensely gratifying. Here are some of things I've learned this year:
There is nothing like the joy of making music with others. Having an off day? Students a bit tired or distracted? Watch their eyes light up as you start to sing with them in a circle. Or get them going in a rhythm train at the piano. Or get them improvising together. Can a teacher do these things with a student in a private lesson? Yes. Is it more fun and natural in a group of peers? YES.
I still provide individualized instruction. It just takes a lot more work. In fact, I was inspired to compose a lot of short pieces this year that were purposefully scalable: melodies that can be easily played with one finger or all 5 fingers… harmonies that can be played as single notes, 5ths, or triads… leading to students duetting (melody + harmony) or playing hands together in a variety of ways. I have also been teaching pieces that easily work in a variety of articulations and tempi, so that students can learn the ‘same piece’ in many different ways (thank you Forrest Kinney, Paula Dreyer, Marilyn White Lowe). And, of course, students get their very own pieces during their one-on-one time.
Students love to lead. One way I use one-on-one time is to teach a student a piece that they will later ‘teach’ the rest of the group. When the student is ready, they can help me teach the piece by demonstrating the piece and sharing their knowledge with the group. Students love knowing their next leadership opportunity is waiting for them as soon as they polish a piece!
Students rise to the challenge. Students are aware when another student is able to do something they haven't learned to do yet and are often inspired to rise to the unspoken challenges presented by their peers.
Students still progress at the same pace. I don’t spend much, if any, group time on review (unless it’s clear that the entire group needs a review). Students who need it get review and extra support during one-on-one time. Students who are ready for new challenges get new challenges!
I plan to write a lot more over the coming year about my ongoing experiences teaching piano in small groups. Stay tuned and please send me any questions you have about this shift in my teaching!
Very excited to announce the release of two elementary solos, designed to be taught by rote/ear, Make Way for Mischief and Cold Blast, available at laurensonder.com!
Reading piano music is a complex activity for many reasons. One of the biggest challenges beginners face is correlating notes that go up and down on the staff to keys that go "up and down" (right and left) on the keyboard. One teaching aid that I and many other teachers have found helpful is the "sideways" or horizontal staff. By turning the staff 90 degrees, students can more directly see how the staff and keys are related. Obviously, the staff can't stay that way, but seeing it turned on its side can help students make the connection even when it resumes its usual vertical form.
In 2013, I decided to make a large horizontal staff with "notes" (colored squares) that actually lined up with the corresponding keys on the keyboard. I color coded the squares to match some wooden letter beads I'd bought. Unfortunately, the bead set is no longer available for purchase (and I lost my pink "G" bead!). It's not hard to get your hands on pink, blue, and purple Post-it notes or highlighter tape though, if you like the color matching idea!
I've linked to two files below: an oversized PDF file that can either be printed on a large printer like a plotter or tiled over six 8.5 x 11" pages (see below), as well as an 8.5 x 11" PDF version that includes a printed keyboard.
Horizontal Staff PDF - Oversized (22 x 13")
Horizontal Staff PDF - Letter Size (8.5 x 11")
You are welcome to use these files in your studio and send them home with students for home use! I only ask that you not redistribute or alter them. Please share how you are using them in the comments!
Printing the Oversized PDF at Home:
You can print the oversized file in Adobe Acrobat Reader using 8.5 x 11" paper using by tiling it over 6 pages and trimming carefully!
A couple years ago, I made my own Velcro staff to use with my students. It's come in handy for many activities, from identifying landmark notes to melodic transcription. It is sturdy, lightweight, and sits easily on my upright piano's music stand. I've posted instructions below on how to make your own. If you do, please let me know how it turns out!
My student really enjoyed this piece from Tales of a Musical Journey Book 2, called The Grasshopper. I added a simple treble duet with quirky grace notes, which she thought sounded like a cricket. Fun for both of us :-)
This post is a modified version of an "About Practicing" handout I recently made for parents of my piano students. A lot of prospective have questions about what home piano practice looks like. Endless amounts could be (and have been) written on this topic, but here are some helpful basics to keep in mind:
How much should students practice?
Daily, quality practice is essential to a student's progress and enjoyment in piano. Unlike other activities for children, which are often scheduled 2-3x a week, piano lessons are generally scheduled only once a week, so reinforcement at home is very necessary. In my studio, I give the following guidelines:
What is meaningful practice?
Meaningful practice is, essentially, practice that helps reinforce concepts learned in the lesson. It is extremely helpful for students to practice immediately after their lesson, or the very next day, to reinforce what they just learned. Students may need to be reminded to work on the assigned goals for each piece. Simply playing through pieces without specific goals in mind is not meaningful practice.
What about repetition? How many times should a student play each piece (or phrase or section)?
Students rarely do their best work on their first try. Repetition is important for improvement, but it helps to focus on improving one thing per repetition. Point out positives before reminding students about something they forgot to do or still need to work on.
Sometimes my child just wants to “mess around” on the piano and make up their own songs. How can I get them to focus on their assignments?
Messing around (improvising) on the piano is a wonderful activity with many benefits and should not be discouraged. Remind your child that they may only have a certain amount of time to play the piano (before it's time for dinner, for example) and that they need to make sure they have time for their lesson assignments too, so that they can get better at playing the piano.
Thoughts on Piano Teaching
Lauren Sonder is a piano teacher in Norman, OK.
She believes in providing a well rounded musical education that emphasizes training the ear, learning music in a variety of styles, and being creatively engaged at the piano.