In this episode, I’ll answer some great questions from members about improvisation, finger dexterity, concerts and note reading struggles.
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You're listening to Episode 13 of the vibrant music teaching podcast. I'm Nicola Cantan. And in this episode I am answering questions from teachers about improvisation finger dexterity concerts and note reading struggles. Let's dive in.
So this is a special Q and A episode of the vibrant music teaching podcast. So in these episodes I answer questions from vibrant music teaching members from the Facebook group from emails I get and from specific questions that are submitted for the podcast. The first question today came from Laura in New York and she wrote this in the Facebook group. She said. Im so bad at improv how can I teach it if I cant do it. The circle of fifths odyssey (that's a course by the way) seems so cool. I have tried it on two students the first lesson but I feel like I need to demo better to encourage them help anyone? So I totally hear you on this Laura and I wanted to mention it on this podcast rather than only replying in text which of course I did because it deserves a bigger discussion because of so many layers to this is the first layer which I think is that you don't feel confident improvising right. You say I'm so bad at it and I get that but its practice like anything else. right I'm not a particularly amazing improviser at all. Ive gotten a bit better but for the most part I just do it as a teacher. I'm not someone who sits down and improvises for hours and has all these cool riffs built into their fingers that they referred to.
I understand the benefit of that and that approach to it but I approached it improv and made things like the circle of fifths odyssey what I'm really using it as a teaching tool and Ive gotten pretty good at using it in that context more than just about creating amazing music or having students that can literally just play anything on the spot. Its not about that to me its about utilizing it for various reasons. So the Circle of fifths odyssey for those who aren't familiar is a course inside vibrant music teaching. And I did a webinar about this recently. You may have seen that as well and the idea behind it is that we improvise our way around the circle of fifths. So we're starting at C Major improvising in C then in G and in D etc.. Over the course of 12 weeks and we're building it up so that students see the pattern of building up the sharps of the way their patterns fall on the piano and from there taking that to scale fingerings and chord patterns and all of that but starting with this very freeform improvisation where they're just making whatever music they can in that key. So to go back to Laura's question she's asking how can we demo it better. Well I don't demonstrate it at all. In other words all I say to the student is okay we're going to improvise in the key of C and if they're not familiar I'll say what do you think improvising means.
Maybe they'll know maybe they won't. And we discussed the fact that it basically just means making it up as you go along. So we're going to make up our own music in the key of C. What does that mean. Well it means that we're gonna use only the white keys to improvise with and we can play whatever we want and make our own music using only the white keys. And then I just start my chord progression which is just a 1 5 6 4 with whatever rhythm I feel like at the time and in whatever inversions I feel like at the time and then encourage the student to join in. Some students will be nervous of this. At first I found if I introduce it right for the vast majority of students they will just jump in and try something. The older they are at the beginner level the less likely they are to just jump in. They might need a little bit more encouragement. A four year old will almost always just get going and they might make awful sound but they'll have a go and then they'll find their own groove. I don't need to give them any much more help than that. If they are playing and smashing lots of keys and they're doing that week after week I will encourage them by saying let's use just one finger.
Let's play just one note at a time for now and then if they play something nice in the middle of a big mess. Encourage them by picking that out. It sounded really cool when you just went down step down on the keys and then repeated that C at the end something like that. Just pick out something they did that really did sound musical and they'll build it up that way you'll be expecting it to sound great right away because it absolutely won't. And that's really not the point. The point is giving them the opportunity to experiment and to find out that there really is no wrong answers but there are things that sound better than others and you'll find your own style with that. So with the younger they are the less I need to do and it's more just about repeating the activity until they come up with musical sounding music. Older students if they really are reluctant to jump in. One thing I love which I don't have reason to use that much but I do love this phrase so Bradley Sowash who's behind the ear eye revolution blog and several other things he has his own jazz books and all of this great resources. But anyway he has this fantastic thing that he says.
So if a student literally plays you set off with your chord progression and they play nothing. You still find something good to compliment them on and you say oh that was a fantastic use of rests there just to bring a little lightness into it. Right it's just a little joke a little playfulness and you know everything is improvising if you choose to have a giant rest in a piece that is improvising too. So if a student is very reluctant. One thing you can do is make a little joke like that and just encourage them to dive in but there really is nothing wrong. But another thing that I will do is I'll keep my chord progression going could even just keep the left hand going with just like a single note just to have some kind of baseline and I'll just pick out a few notes with my right hand and on purpose and partially because I wouldn't do anything fancy anyway but on purpose I do not do anything fancy here I use just my finger too and I play EDC or something right. Something incredibly simple that sounds like a bit of a song. It doesn't have to be amazing. It doesn't have to be some cool riff. And really if you come into the right attitude even a teenager even an adult student is going to find that enjoyable to listen to enjoyable to play and musical.
It doesn't have to be incredible 12 hour blues all the time. It can be simple it can be a little melody that they make using a five finger position or something like that. So if you're worried about it not sounding amazing straightaway the number one thing I would say Laura is don't be. It doesn't have to sound amazing. It's about the experience of it. It's about the learning we're getting from it. Yes we want it to sound good and we want to encourage the bits that do sound good but it builds up over time. So don't be too hard on yourself. Don't worry about you giving amazing examples just give extremely simple melodies and that will get you going. Okay so I hope that helps Laura and that little bit of advice encourages you to carry on. Because I started where you are now and I haven't come a huge amazing distance but I have gotten more comfortable with it and I think that's really what's key here. The next question comes from Shona who is in Wales. She said. So I have a pupil who is finding finger dexterity if I got five years old really keen but finding keeping fingers per tricky and getting frustrated and trying lots of fine motor activities lots of songs and games for fingers. What have you got any other ideas.
Wanting to do lots of activities for them to really help them make progress. Okay so Shona I really have to start with a couple of follow up questions here. Which obviously you can't answer so I'll do my best to talk through the different angles that we might be talking about here. But really we need to be asking first and foremost what curriculum are you using and what method book or other curriculum are you using with this student. What is your approach been and how much emphasis are you placing on this and in particular are they using all five fingers straight away. Okay so I don't know what your experiences with preschoolers Shona or you know young beginners junior infants senior infants that kind of thing because teaching a 5 year old is extremely different to teaching a seven year old even and those two years are a massive jump and you haven't told a lot of five year olds. You might be jumping straight in. I'm not accusing you of anything but just say you are jumping straight into a very traditional method book that uses five finger positions from the beginning so the first thing I would advise you to do is stop that. Take it out of the mix because if they are jumping straight in and having to do Dozen a Day or John Thompson or piano adventure's even right if they're doing something like that right from the get go then you haven't put in enough steps along the way for a five year old to develop that dexterity.
So if you are not using Piano Safari already or something with a similar approach like tales of a musical journey or anything that encourages one finger at first develops the non legato touch over five fingers and then gradually very gradually moves to legato and I'd highly encourage you to check out something like piano safari would be my favourite or tales of musical journey like I say is a similar approach I believe. Hello piano also has a similar approach in terms of working with one finger first and developing the arm control first. So that's the approach I would take with a 5 year old. I'd be starting with one finger hopping around and doing lot of rote pieces and even reading pieces with just finger 2. In the beginning and this is to promote I guess I am control arm weight and the way they move at the piano with freedom without tension because if that tension is there at the gross motor level moving their arms and it's very hard to get rid of it at the fine motor level and it's very hard for them to have a curved pan. Now moving on from there let's say you've done all that preliminary work like Tara who commented on your post had mentioned that she was using Piano
safari and she was doing that and she still wasn't quite getting there with her students. So in that case maybe you're expecting too much too soon. I am not expecting my 5 year old my 4 and 5 year old students. Do you have a beautiful round handshake until along with reading and along with all the other things that are going on. Everything all at the same time until minimum six months would be my expectation but I wouldn't be worrying about this all happening together until about 18 months in. Yes I'm serious. 18 months. I want them to be able to make that round hand shape when we call for it and especially when they're not reading much earlier and we're developing that that whole time and I'm encouraging it but I'm not expecting it all at the same time. I'm not expecting reading two hands together with a round handshake with the wrist at the right height and beautiful technique in every possible way and I'm expecting all of that at the same time. Until 18 months in is when I start to go oh hey maybe there's an issue here but until then it's just about developing it in various contexts and gradually bringing all of these elements together you mentioned you're doing some fine motor activities that's awesome games and games for fingers and all of that.
So that's fantastic. You want some more and you might may or may not have used these ones so far but I'll make a few suggestions. First suggestion would be the finger rhymes were during the library. My students absolutely love these. They get such a kick out of them. Hmm it really helps them to develop their fingers and also their sense of beat and rhythm as they say them in this rhythmic way. So for example one is dancing fingers in the air dancing fingers in my hair dancing fingers on my knees dancing fingers on the keys. OK so we say them in this sort of poetic way. This rhythmic pattern and we're doing the finger actions at the same time and I guess moving their fingers and in some of them they're moving individual fingers as well. So check out that she'd that would be a great place to start. Other things you can do of course is things like Waco's and waggles where they're moving one finger at a time that a finger no going finger no twister when they where they've to isolate certain fingers place them on the board and various other games and then those things that just require fine motor control as part of the game.
So Susan Paradis has a game where you clip clothes pegs onto either a letter to match and note name on the staff or alive to match a key name on the piano. So those are great. Those are free on Susan Paradis's blog and I've been experimenting with some new matching games as well. So those are going to be up on the blog in a few weeks probably almost a month I'd say but to give you a quick rundown of them the first one that I've been using involves an egg carton so I have taken an empty egg carton a cardboard one or a plastic one that'd make a horrible sound for this activity. So cardboard one. Flip it over and cut little slits in the top and then I've made cards which go on the side they're stuck to the side and then other cards which are on lollipop sticks popsicle sticks to Americans and those slot into the egg.
So the idea there is it's a matching games that's working on recognising whatever we want and I'm going to have several sets of these up in the library. I get in about a month but they're also working on putting those through the holes so developing that motor control that they need. Okay so that's a little bit about motor control but my inkling. Not having seen your student or knowing too much about your situation is that probably what's happening is not that they need that much more fine motor control work like the separate games and all of that those can be helpful but the big thing is managing your own expectations of what their technique should look like and whether you should be expecting Legato or whether you should be expecting finger five to really stand on its side. Tip for or curve properly in the beginning. I'd focus more on the round handshake not worry too much about the fingers bending backwards in a five year old. Okay in a seven year old I'd be very focused on the firm finger tips but the big thing that I want to establish in the very beginning of having their hand in a five finger position is wrist at the right height bridge not collapsing that's the knuckle joint right. If those two things are happening then we will emphasize the firm fingertips more making sure they're bouncing from their arm not trying to push with their fingers. I hope that helps Shona and if you want to give me more follow up details or let me know if I've gone down the wrong path with this discussion here then do let me know in the group next question came from Rebecca.
Also in the group she's in New Mexico and she said I'm doing a winter concert this year. I teach voice and piano so it's combined. I have people doing ensembles piano duets some piano players accompanying singers etc. Since it's less formal than the end of year recitals I have decided that I'm going to perform as well. I question for those of you who perform as well as your students at concerts and recitals. When should I place myself beginning and in the middle somewhere. I know I am overthinking this but I want to one not intimidate and inspire and to show than your parents that I am a performer as well. So I love this question from Rebecca and I really enjoyed the discussion that it prompted. I think she got some great answers but I wanted to take it on to the podcast here because I just think it's a great thing that comes up quite regularly and I've missed at the start of her post there but she actually mentioned not wanting to be controversial. She knows some people don't agree with playing at student recitals. I don't think it's a huge deal either way. I used not to do it. I do now because one piano mum specifically asked me or you know sort of goaded me into to she want to do it she said.
Oh we know we're good to hear you play or whatever. And I said all right I'll do it. I think she's right you know putting myself through the same thing especially as someone who is a very nervous performer mostly because I didn't have to do it until I was 16. I really wasn't in any concerts during never had to play in front of anyone except an examiner which is a very different situation so I always have been a very nervous performer. Most my students who start doing it at a very young age are not at all. But I think she was right in saying that you know I should be getting rid of them. So I've started doing it just at the end of year concert not at the middle of the year concert and I think that's a good balance for me and for my studio. So that's the way I am handling it for me now. I of course am playing duets and all of this at every contact but for the solo performance for the bit where just I am playing. I choose to do it at the start. I think there are good arguments both ways and I am curious as to which way Rebecca goes on it. But there are good arguments. Either way you look at it. I choose the start for several reasons. Number one I do not want to wait through the whole concert knowing that I have the play. That's just me. That's just I know my mind would be flipping back to the piece I have to play.
I wouldn't be fully concentrating on all the stuff that's going on aren't as important and I want to enjoy my student performances. And also when I'm playing duets I don't want to you know be thinking about the piece that I have. They are my own and therefore not concentrating fully and being present for the duet that I'm playing might sound like a silly thing but it does make a difference to me. Another reason is it's just a natural point for me to play in my opinion because at the start I'll give a little welcome speech right and it makes sense to me that I just then sit down and say okay I'm going to kick us off with the first piece no one else has to go first and sit down and do my pieces get up again and introduce the first student performer. That makes sense to me. The third reason which I've sort of mentioned there is a little token to say no one else has to play first because I'm going to do it. Still there has to be a student who has to go first and I'll always make that someone who's pretty confident doing that. So that's a major factor for me but the fourth factor is very important to me and that's that were the experiences of any kind. What people remember best is the end. Okay and this goes for everything you know. Scientific studies have to take it completely away from piano.
Scientific studies have looked at colonoscopies when colonoscopies used to be much more painful than they are now and found that if they continued it with less uncomfortable sensations at the very end so extra time they didn't need to be there but without pain. People actually remembered it better even though it was longer and therefore a brings more discomfort throughout the whole thing. The ending was not quite as bad. And that's what people remember. Whereas if you end the very painful bit it people are much more reluctant to go back and do a repeat procedure. Okay so what has that got to do with piano performances. Well I want people's biggest memory of the performance of the concert to be my star performer my most advanced student the student who's worked extremely hard and some fabulous piece not me. I don't want them to remember my performance the best that is not the point of the concert. So that is probably the biggest reason why I think I should be at the start. I think people should basically forget about my performance. I think it's good that I show that I'm willing to get up and do something and I tend to use it as an opportune also to talk about an interesting composer a female composer from history or a modern composer a contemporary composer that students might learn and might look forward to something that will appeal to them. And I think that's great but if I put that at the end that's going to be the strongest memory and I feel more like that should be that moment in the spotlight should be given to my most advanced student teen or whatever has been working extremely hard on some fabulous piece and I want to give them their moment to shine.
So I'm curious to see which way do you go on that Rebecca. But I just wanted to give my thoughts on that. Here I final question that I wanted to discuss. I'm going to leave anonymous since it came through an email so the person might not want to share who they are but she said the mother seems bothered that her daughter is not reading the note well. So this is about a student but this teacher has and the note reading is not progressing that fast and the mother has approached this teacher about this. So the mother seems bothered that her daughter is not reading the notes well and tried to tell me how to teach her. I listen. I know that no reading can be a challenge for some but I dont push it. Her air is well developed and technique it is good. Having taught for many years I try not to make a big deal about it. It comes at what I try to tell the mum. She's a bit of a perfectionist also and the student just can't seem to connect notes on the staff with the name or where it is on the keyboard very well. It's been about a year of lessons.
I do a lot of note recognition games and flashcards. Any thoughts on how to help her develop reading or how to deal with the mum. So I just wanted to mention this email because it hits at something that a lot of us come up against and that parents trying to tell us how to teach. So that's the first half of this is regardless of the fact whether or not the daughter is progressing okay or not. With no reading it is not the mom's place to tell you how to teach or even what to emphasise and sometimes when they do this they're just being pushy. But generally it is usually out of concern for their children and they usually do it when they don't feel like they're being kept in the loop. So the first thing to do in a situation like this in my view is to let them know that you are aware of what is happening that you have a plan. Lay out your plan to. This is what we're going to do. This is how I am handling this. I know that you might feel like non-reading is blahdy blah but in my studio it happened this way and it might be different to the traditional way that you learned or that you've seen others learned. This is the progression of skills in my studio. I'm not worried about your child progress or not reading is a little bit slower than her or work but one area is always going to lag behind the other.
That's just the way learning works it's not always going to be plain sailing and even stevens between every skill and emphasize to the mom. You know that she's doing so well in this other area. You say she has her ears well developed and her technique is good so that's fantastic and emphasize that that's almost the most important part. I mean I would say especially the technique that's the big thing in the first year. If you can get back going right. That's a fantastic achievement for the first year of lessons so I would start off by emphasizing all of those points and explaining your plan. So don't leave her completely out of the loop don't just say. Now this is not your place say this is what my plan is and do it very confidently. Whereas here that you've thought this out that you have a plan in place and that you know what you're doing. If she continues to push beyond that get a bit tougher and tell her to back off but in the nicest possible way. But most parents all they need to know is that you do have a plan. You know what's going on. You see it too and you're not concerned you not worried about it. You have a plan for tackling it. The second half of this of course is how you actually tackle this issue so it seems she's not relating the note to the keyboard. So I would suggest games such as piano puzzle lions tigers and bears even key clamber take it back to the piano key names.
Just make sure she definitely can easily find each piano key so key clamber musical alphabet memory anything like that and then just keep relating things back to the piano. You also might like to check out that section in the piano physician's clinic so you could look at. Actually the octave disorientation videos even if that's not what's happening. Those would be good suggestions for how to help her navigate connecting the two things to each other and the keyboard to the start. But it sounds to me for the most part like you're not actually worried. So those things might be helpful if there's some underlying issue in your you. But after a year of lessons not reading completely fluently not always immediately relating that things to the keyboard from the staff might not be an issue. And if you're only worried about it because the mom is bringing it to you then you just need to let her know what the progression is and how you're tackling it and what to expect from lessons at your studio. I hope that helps. Thank you so much to all of the members who left the questions in the group and in emails that I could choose from today we had some great discussion points to talk about. I hope it was useful to everyone listening because I know these are all things that we all come up against from time to time in our studios. That's it for this week. I've out
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