February 27, 2013

Mean Teacher/Nice Teacher

On my trip out to Carnegie Hall last weekend I was told by a student that I'm "a lot more laid back and less intimidating" than she had previously thought. It made me reflect a bit on what kind of teaching styles I use in different settings. I've known for a long time that I'm stricter and less friendly in some situations than others but it was interesting hearing it from a student for the first time.

This particular student was basing her assessment off of my teaching style at a summer theater camp compared to working with me as the accompanist at her high school. At the theater camp I tend to adopt a tough-love "getting it done" style attitude. I strive for high quality productions and like to treat the kids with respect and high expectations, and to that end I often run very stern rehearsals and save the fun for down time. Working with the high schoolers though I'm usually easy-going (as long as they don't test me) and make a lot of jokes. It's easy to see how it can be confusing for someone who has experienced both of these sides.

My piano teaching attitudes are totally different from both of these and it can often vary from student to student. With my young students I like to keep things light and I'm rarely stern, even if they deserve it. I figure that this is a unique situation, where they are alone with an adult who isn't a family member, and I should make it as fun and least terrifying as possible.

As students get older I tend to get more stern and expect more of them. In college I had a professor who was extremely hard on me. He molded me into a much better pianist but I almost dropped the instrument and vowed not to teach like him. In the end I've probably adopted more of his style than I thought I would. I don't think any of my students would ever label me as cruel or scary, but I do have high expectations.

I always make sure to leave a student feeling good as she leaves my studio. I know what it can feel like entering a studio having not practiced, or leaving a lesson feeling a sense of dread about the next week. I think it's important to bring a student back up as much as you may have brought them down. Most of these students are having a tough enough time just being kids and don't need adults hurting their feelings. It also doesn't do any good to labor one thing for too long. If the kid didn't practice, it won't do any good to keep bugging them about it. I have a student who didn't practice for two months straight. We're the lessons painful? Absolutely, but they were painful for both of us and he felt that as much as I did without me tearing him apart for it week after week.

In the end I'm a fan of tough love, as long as the students know that I care about them as human beings. In the piano lesson it means that I make jokes, and try to understand them on their own level. In the classroom it means balancing work and play, and at rehearsals it means connecting to the kids outside of work time so they understand that I'm tough because I care.

February 22, 2013

You didn't teach us that! The words teachers hate to hear.

You're running a choir rehearsal. It's a long work with multiple movements and you've been working on it with your group of singers for a very long time. You get to a movement you haven't touched for awhile when the complaints start to bubble out: "We haven't learned this yet! You haven't taught this to us!" The tension soon reaches a boiling point as indignant students create a coalition against you and in defense of their own bad memory. The only problem is, you have taught this to them. Probably twice, and you know it. Some of the kids are even backing you up. But the seed of doubt has already been planted and the kids who claim ignorance have probably even wiped their memories clean in order to destroy incriminating evidence. Now you as the teacher get to waste time re-teaching the same old thing.

Nothing sends me into a Bruce Banner Hulk-rage faster than hearing the "You didn't teach me that" refrain. I mean, sometimes it's true and I haven't taught a particular section or concept to my student. This is bound to happen when I've got around 35 students at varying skill levels. But the legitimate "don't know what this is" claims are far outweighed by the mass-amnesia "You are a cruel and powerful teacher" claims.

I haven't found any solution to this problem. I have a theory that it has roots in the desire for younger people (especially males) to show their dominance over every other living thing within sight by either physically intimidating them, hurting them, or conquering them with volume but I could be wrong. The hardest part is not becoming defensive and shouting back at the kids "I DID TEACH IT! I DID!"

There are four things you can do:

1) Smile.
2) Teach your students absolutely everything all at once.
3) Be the best planner in the entire world and never deviate from that plan.
4) Eat ice cream, the balm for hurt feelings.

Remember kids, Teachers Have Feelings Too.

February 12, 2013

Tenuto: An App That's Worth Real Money

When I entered graduate school I had to take a test that checked my ear-training and theory proficiency. I aced the theory test, and failed the ear-training thus forcing me into a remedial class with undergraduates. I ended up really enjoying the class, partly because my other graduate student classmates were just as good humored about being in the class, partly because I liked the TA who taught the class, and partly because I was good at it. The remedial class was far easier than the test that I had failed, and because I was comfortable singing in front of a group the class wasn't too hard. Well, except for that fact that I still stunk at ear-training. Our TA recommended the website musictheory.net to us and I used it religiously. The website isn't pretty, but it's extremely useful and easily customizable. I actually use it for my own piano studio and send kids to it weekly for exercises on note learning.

I recently acquired an iPad and downloaded the app made by the people at this website. It's a program called Tenuto and it's been great to use in the studio. I realize that this post all sounds like a big advertisement, but I assure you I'm not getting any money out of this. I had been using a device called the Wright-Way Note Finder for all my note-naming practice. It's a great little gadget that makes note testing easy for both the teacher and student but it has its limitations. It doesn't go above or below a C in either clef, and it's impossible to practice sharps and flats, so it's only useful up to a certain level.

Tenuto has a number of different exercises that you can use to practice note names, intervals, keyboard identification, and a bunch of ear-training programs among many other things. The program I use the most is the note identification. You can customize the clef (including alto clef, tenor clef, etc.), the range of notes displayed, key signatures, whether to use note names or solfege (or pitch-class integers), and of course whether to use accidentals.

You can also bookmark exercises so that you don't have to sort through a bunch of options each time you have a new student come in. As you can see above, it's also possible to keep track of your score (I missed one) and there's also a timer feature if you want to put students (or yourself) under some pressure.

This kind of technology is intuitive. You can plop the tablet down on the music rack and kids will automatically know what to do. I've been using it in my studio for a week now and every kid who uses it tells me they like it. Even if we're just doing the same thing that we would have done with the Note Finder, they like this more because it feels more interactive. Also, just by having the exercise be on a screen it acts as a good reward and can get kids excited.

Another feature I've been using a lot lately is the Guitar Fretboard Identification. I've been trying for years to memorize the names of the notes on the neck of the guitar and this is another tool to do that with. In this mode you can specify which strings to use, what kind of instrument to use (it has 6-string and 7-string guitar, as well as basses, mandolin, banjo, and ukulele), the tuning of each string, and how many frets to be tested on.

One of the features I haven't been able to use as well are the keyboard modes. Because I have a keyboard right in front of me it's hard to justify using the display keyboard. Additionally I find that the method of highlighting keys can be a bit confusing. It's obvious which keys are highlighted, but in the example below, it doesn't looks very natural and the colors sort of blend it together. Especially because the highlight color is red, and so is the wood of the piano.

The ear-training exercises are what would have really gotten me through college classes. They use the same type of interface as the other programs but have an audio component. This is probably the best of any ear-training exercises I've used but it's still not perfect. The sounds are all midi based (at least they sound that way) and can all blend in with each other in a way that makes the listeners ear dull to the sound. Additionally, when doing chord identification it's really difficult to pick out the individual notes of the structure because the tone of the piano blends in with itself so completely. Now, you can pick out different instruments, but they are all midi based. The examples can also be too short, without enough decay time to make them sound like real notes. Despite these complaints though, the interface is still rock-solid and any exercise with these is time well spent.

Some other cool features are the calculators which you can use to check chords for your analysis, build chords to see what they look like and sound like, and my favorite, the Matrix Calculator. If I had gone to college just a couple of years later, this puppy would have saved me so much time. Of course, they probably would have still made us to these by hand, and let's admit it, matrices are super fun to build.

Overall, it's an app worth purchasing if you're in school, or if you're teaching in a private studio. Not all of the exercises will be useful to you, but you'll find ways to integrate it easily into teaching.

Product: Tenuto
Publisher: MusicTheory.net
Cost: $3.99
Platforms: Only on iOS, sorry rest of the world. Also, I had it on an ipod which was alright for personal use, but I would never use it in the studio unless it's on a tablet.
Upside: The build is solid, the interface is intuitive (kids won't need any instruction on how to use it), the exercises are useful, every thing can be customized to suit all skill levels (even advanced)
Downside: It's only useful for teaching on the iPad and there's no Android version, the ear training tones and note lengths are difficult to get used to, the random generation of notes can get stuck on a particular clef for a long period of time.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. If you're a teacher trying to incorporate more technology into your studio, this is a great investment. If you're a student struggling in your ear-training class, buy it. Although we've grown used to getting applications for free, this is absolutely worth the small price. It's easy to use, takes very little time to set up, and kids instantly understand it and latch on to it. Grab it for your students, and you'll end up using it a lot yourself as well.

February 10, 2013

"The Lonely Pine": America's Saddest Teaching Piece

I teach out of the Nancy and Randall Faber Piano Adventures series of books and have gotten to know their pieces very well. for the most part the content is light-hearted and kid-friendly (of course it's kid friendly) and the pictures are interesting but not distracting. One of my absolute favorite pieces from these books is called "The Lonely Pine". It's  8 measures long and only takes up half a page but compared to the rest of the pieces aimed at this age level, it has the emotional weight and complexity of Crime and Punishment. Found in the pages of the Faber's Piano Adventures, Lesson Book Level 1, the piece uses an FM7 chord (the unit is based on learning the spaces of the treble clef which happen to make up all of the members of this chord) to create a melancholic backdrop for its utterly depressing lyrics:

I'm so lonely,
I'm so lonely,
Come build a nest in me.
I'm so lonely.

Faber, Nancy and Randall. Piano Adventures: Lesson Book Level 1. Dovetree Productions, Inc. Ann Arbor, MI. Illustrations by Terpstra Design, San Francisco. p20

I've thought about this piece a lot. Way more than most pieces in the book. I don't push it on kids, it's right for some of them, but a lot like to skip it. Usually the quiet, "deep" kids latch on to it though. I like the piece for the way it sounds, the major seven chord is a richer sound than we normally get this early in a method series. I also like it because it's unexpected, a sad song aimed at 7 year olds. Mostly I like the song because it recognizes that children are capable of and subject to a variety of emotions. It's a fantastic gem that proves it doesn't take a lot of notes to create a moving, meaningful work of art.

February 5, 2013

The Value of a Sticker: Sticker Economics II

In my previous post I talked about my hang-ups and eventual embrace of stickers. Now it's time to get into the specifics. What makes some stickers more coveted than others? Why is a butterfly better than a dinosaur? I don't know the answer to that, but I've tried to determine what gives one sticker more value compared to its peers.

Make it raaaaaain!!
Click the jump for the sticker scoop.

February 3, 2013

Sticker Economics

When I first started teaching I was determined to not use stickers as incentive. Stickers are the scrip of children, the dirty prison currency exchanged between jailer and inmate, a bribe given to increase production at all costs. I had decided that kids should not turn to stickers for motivation but should instead turn inward and take satisfaction from their own accomplishments. That naive clear-eyed piano teacher had no idea what was coming.

I have no idea how old stickers are, or how long they've been used to motivate kids but I imagine it's been a very long time. They're used to keep kids quiet, make them do their homework, use the toilet, NOT hit their brother, and so on for as long into the future as can be seen. The basic struggle I was having as a beginning teacher was the balance between intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems. Extrinsic rewards being the type of rewards where you do work because you will get something in return such as a paycheck or a diploma, or in this case a smiley face bubble sticker. Intrinsic motivation is when an individual does a thing because he or she wants to. This is the "doing it for it's own sake" type of motivation.

The reason was so hung up on this that intrinsic motivation has been shown to be a better long term motivator for a particular habit or skill. For those who rely on extrinsic motivation, the will to continue an activity usually wanes as the reward becomes either commonplace or decreases in amount. A good experiment to find out whether you are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated is ask yourself "do I like my job enough that if I got paid less than I do now, would I stay?". Of course there are other factors associated, but there's the basic premise.

I've seen the proof of intrinsic motivation in my own students. Adults and late beginners are almost always intrinsically motivated, and have put themselves into piano lessons because they want to be there. These students are also my best both in terms of rate of progress and in terms of attitude. The extrinsically minded kids typically learn in bursts, at a slower rate, and are more interested in which sticker they get than in getting a sticker at all. Some of them also have miniature fits when they don't get stickers....because they're children after all.

There are exceptions on the sticker-kids side. Some of the kids who like getting stickers also move at a fast pace and don't seem to be upset if I forget their reward. There are no exceptions on the intrinsically motivated side however. All of these students move quickly, and look for no further reward than a piece well played.

So why did I turn to the dark side when the results are so blindingly clear? Because I can't fight years of precedence. I am still, on the whole, a stingy Scrooge-like dealer of stickers. Kids will transfer into my studio with books so plastered with stickers that you can't read their titles anymore. Where once was an adorable notebook with fuzzy dogs on the front is now a war zone of butterflies, stars, and Lisa Frank acid-trip designs. They are in for a shock when it is revealed that I may give out one prize every lesson. Maybe. There is no sure thing.

I talked to my father about this problem a year ago as I was starting to cave in and dole out stickers from a worn out little paper bag like a drug dealer with a conscience. As someone who has worked in consulting and human resources for a number of years I figured he could give me some advice on the topic. He told me about the concept of intermittent reinforcement. Under this plan I give out stickers based on good behavior and good practice habits as normal. The twist is that sometimes I don't give them out, even if the kid is deserving. This has been shown in more academic studies (and I'm assuming in dogs) to increase motivation and create better habits. If a student doesn't know when the sticker is coming, she won't rely on it, and will try harder all of the time.

When I tell friends about intermittent reinforcement they think it's cruel. It's not. Although to be honest I have no idea how well it works in the context of my piano studio. Some kids don't get any because they don't seem like they need them. Some kids get two because they we're both pleasant and practiced. Some kids don't get any because they had a temper tantrum. Some kids get them because it was the only way to get them to stop.

Despite the stress that stickers bring into my teaching I've become fascinated by them and the hold that they have on students. I've ditched the dirty brown bag and upgraded to a pink plastic box. I've accrued a mean collection. I now cruise the sticker aisle at the store and keep a watch out for the latest technology.

Don't hate the player, hate the game.