Music Therapy + Piano teaching

It has been a long time since I wrote in this blog. I am now a board-certified, masters level music therapist working full time at a psychiatric hospital for older adults. And still, I have retained twelve of my students… I just can’t seem to give them up! Over the past few months, something new has been brewing in my mind. How can I combine these two disciplines in a blog – music therapist and piano teacher – that will both efficiently serve the needs of others who may be interested in reading/watching, and will inspire me to stay motivated to continue to publish on a regular basis when I have such a busy schedule?

One of my favorite parts of being a music therapist is how much I am constantly learning about music. It’s part of the job. I have to learn new music all the time for use in music therapy groups or individual work at the hospital. I have to learn it quickly, and it has to be efficient (as in, I hope to frequently use what I learn). I love listening to music and coming up with an accompaniment style on the keyboard that fits what I hear in the song and works well to accompany myself singing the melody. Therefore, I’m going to try out a new direction for this blog and see where it goes: every week or two weeks, I will be posting a SHORT piano tutorial video (with optional accompanying written blog) for a genre I use in my work as a music therapist. I intend to make these tutorials accessible. They are for music therapists or piano students who are interested in being able to easily translate pop lead sheets (or lyrics/chords sheets if you already know the song) into live music on the piano. These styles are intended to help a music therapist or music student accompany him/herself singing melody; I may also include variations in which the right hand plays the melody and the left hand takes over full accompaniment.

Stay tuned and enjoy!

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Falling Boulders Game

I’m taking a slightly new approach with my newest student. We are focusing predominantly on 2 things: note recognition from staff to keyboard and rhythmic understanding (before we move on to other musical skills). To focus on note recognition, my student has come up with a great game that I have tweaked to address this skill. It’s called the “Falling Boulders Game”.

1. He makes a fist and it falls through the air to land (lightly) somewhere on the keyboard; at this point his fist is holding down 3, 4, or 5 white keys.

2. He finds the closest C (of the 5 C’s) to the lowest note in the boulder; then he says the name of that C, plays it, and draws it with pencil on an ink grand-staff (you can also use this tool I have found very helpful*: http://www.musichouseshop.com/store/notefinder.html). Then he finds the actual note and locates it on the staff.

*By the way, I am not selling this tool nor am I being paid to advertise it! I just like it a lot. The only downfall with this tool is that you can’t change the stem direction.

3. He repeats step 2 for the highest note in the boulder.

4. You can either drop another boulder at this point, or you can take this one step further by asking your student to identify the interval between the lowest note and the highest note. I’ve included my student’s notebook page so you can see how I’ve laid out this next step for him (we added this step only yesterday).

This activity works on the following skills: understanding the concepts of “low” and “high” on both the keyboard and the staff, associating areas of the keyboard with notes on the staff, reinforcing the landmarks of the “5 C’s” on both the keyboard and the staff (low C, bass C, middle C, treble C, and high C), and the optional skill of increasing the student’s understanding of interval relationships on the keyboard.

Most importantly, this activity is fun and imaginative for a beginner, and for weeks now has continued to be very motivating for my student! You should know that this student usually has a parent or a big sister help him with this practicing. Also, I think it’s very important to use a GRAND STAFF in this activity, because the skill of truly understanding the relationship between the areas of the keyboard and the staff relies on seeing the whole piano staff.

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Sight reading for the non-sight-reader

At my student’s lesson last night, we came up with a pretty effective in-lesson sight reading activity. His S.R. skills are still developing so it can be a stressful activity for him. More than anything, he needs to be able to feel relaxed, motivated, and inspired as he explores and discovers his sight reading abilities.

As he read through “Amazing Grace”, I asked him just to play the first beat of each measure and hold for the full measure. This would work well for any chorale. (I should note here that my students all work on a points system — they accumulate points from documenting their practice and from in-lesson games and activities). For this activity, I told him would get 1 point for playing the correct notes on time, would not gain or lose a point for playing incorrect notes on time, and would lose a point for playing correct OR incorrect notes late. He got to choose the tempo. With such an emphasis on timing, he immediately understood the priority when in sight reading — don’t stop, and don’t be late! And this emphasis on timing encouraged him to choose a very slow tempo that he could handle. It was a very successful sight reading experience for him — 13 points out of the 16 measures we read, and he didn’t stop or lose the beat even once!

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Random Measures Game

Maybe it’s not the most creative title for a game, but I think “Random Measures Game” is going to make a big difference for at least one of my students. I came up with this during her lesson when I noticed she was having trouble reading the notes of a piece she really should be able to read easily at her level… I suspect many piano teachers are familiar with this scenario! I have been thinking a lot about how my students’ minds make sense of the notes on the staff and how they relate to the notes on the keyboard. I think there is a slow connection here for many of my students. For example, many can tell me the name of the note on the staff but can’t find the correct octave on the keyboard very quickly or confidently. One way I want to help strengthen that connection is through my students’ association of the notes on the staff to the “5 C’s” that also appear on the staff and can quickly be found on the keyboard: Low C, Bass C, Middle C, Treble C, and High C.  Strengthening that connection through this step-by-step game is something I’m going to try with one student first and just see how it goes. This activity works on other skills, too: More quickly recognizing interval relationships, strengthening the end rather than the beginning of the piece, and challenging muscle memory by starting in unusual places (such as mid-phrase).

The game goes like this (required materials include 1 piece of music the student already is familiar with, 1 or more dice, the keyboard, and pencil and paper to keep track of their points):

Step 1: Roll the dice (number of dice correlates to how many measures are in the piece. For example, a piece with 24 measures should probably require 3-4 dice)

Step 2: Go to that number measure

Step 3: Find the closest C to the first RH note in the measure; say the name of the C; tap that C on the keyboard

Step 4: Find the correct RH note and finger

Step 5: Find the closest C to the first LH note in the measure; say the name of the C; tap that C on the keyboard

Step 6: Find the correct LH note and finger

Step 7: Play from that measure through the end of the piece

Step 8: Give yourself a point for completing all the steps in order!

This is a good activity to do during the lesson at first, so they then know how to do it on their own throughout the week. As their teacher, you decide how many points they need to get before they win the game and can move onto something else in their practice session. I also went over this activity with my student’s mom who helps her practice during the week.

Variations include leaving out the dice completely and tossing an eraser or some other game piece onto the page to see what measure it lands on. I think dice would work better, though, because it seems less distracting than laying the music flat between each round. Also, the game piece could easily go astray, which could also be distracting.

I’ve done similar activities to this, so I am pretty confident this will work well. But I want to note that I explained to my student the main point of this game: to help her brain draw its own map that connects the notes on the page to the notes on the keyboard. That is why it’s so important to do the steps in order and to find the closest C’s even though she may immediately recognize how to play that measure. In the end, she should be able to more quickly connect the notes on the staff to the notes on the keyboard without having to figure it out so slowly and laboriously, and more importantly, without having to guess!

 

Update:

I saw this student again a week later, and here are some important follow-up notes. Choose a piece in which the hand position changes at least 2 or 3 times (I find the pieces from Schaum books good for more frequent hand position changes), OR choose several different pieces to do this activity with throughout the week. Otherwise, the student will be tempted to memorize the hand position and the closest C. But overall, her playing of the piece was significantly improved and her understanding of the 5 C’s is much stronger than it was before practicing with this game. I have since tried it with several other students, and I can already tell they are starting to re-think how they translate the notes from the staff to the keyboard. It seems to help with their confidence knowing what note they are looking at instead of feeling like it’s always a guess.

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Example of a lesson book page

I often feel like lessons have a lot to do with me teaching my students how to practice while I’m not there. This is why I give many of them specific practice guidelines in their notebooks. The only problem is, I can’t take their notebooks home with me for my own personal record of their progress, points, and weekly goals! But I think I have found a solution: Lately I’ve been taking pictures of my students’ notebook pages before I leave the lesson. It’s a good way for me to keep a record from week to week and to be better prepared for the next lesson.

Example of a lesson book page

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Mental Practice and Perfect Practice

A problem often comes up for me when practicing a new piece I haven’t yet internalized: practicing it incorrectly. This can happen even when using the “perfect practice” approach – something about the slow, laborious process of perfect practice seems to make my brain shut down and before I know it, I’ve lost concentration and am practicing mistakes.

Another seemingly unrelated problem comes up when I have a lot of music to practice: not enough piano time. I have extra time, but not necessarily home time. I may be sitting in the car between lessons if I have an awkward gap (I travel to the students’ homes), or on a plane, or waiting at the pharmacy for a prescription. Or I may just feel stir crazy and suddenly can’t be home for another minute, so I go to the coffee shop. Recent discovery: I can practice (very effectively) while doing all these things!

This is a totally new discovery for me. I used to play in college but was totally immature about practicing, and the idea of mental practice was… well… just not something I was going to do. It’s no wonder I left the piano performance path.  Anyway, being a little bit more of a grown-up now, I am taking lessons again and feel quite differently about practice. As in, I take it seriously. Plus I teach piano, so the goals of my piano teacher for me have much more weight.

So I tried some mental practice recently on a plane, traveling to Reno for my grandfather’s funeral. Just for the heck of it – and because I was excited about the condensed music binder I had recently made to make it easier to carry music around – I packed my music in my carry-on. After the flight attendants came around a second time with soft drinks, I suddenly felt the urge to get out my music. For the next hour and a half, I was totally focused on the music. It was shocking to discover I could actually feel the muscle movement as I read carefully through my music!

I got some piano time in at my aunt and uncle’s house the next day, and amazingly, my hands did exactly what I wanted them to do even when playing some of the pieces I was as yet fairly unfamiliar with. Knowing this has totally solved my perfect practice dilemna. Now, instead of slowing down to a crawl and losing focus, I just take my music away from the piano. When I come back, I can practice so much more effectively. It feels like I’m feeding my future (hypothetical) performance with perfection as early in the learning process as possible.

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Allemande and Sarabande, from J.S. Bach’s French Suite V in G Major

I performed J.S. Bach’s French Suite in G Major, Sarabande, for other piano teachers at BCAPT’s recent meeting.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about memorization, after my own piano teacher recently reminded me that understanding the theory behind a piece is the most reliable way to memorize.  As part of my preparation, I looked back at one of my comprehensive exam answers from a few years ago as a way to help me memorize the Sarabande, and decided to edit and post some of the relevant bits.

The Baroque Era was the golden age of the instrumental dance suite, and Bach’s French Suite No.5 is an ideal example.  The courante, allemande, and sarabande rose to popularity a good 200 years before this piece was composed, but it was Bach who made the idealized dance suite a polished product of the Baroque Era.  The standard form of the dance suite Bach employed was Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Optional, and Gigue.  This is true for his French Suite No.5, except he included two Bourrees, and a Gavotte inserted after the Sarabande, which gives this particular suite variety in performance and distinguishes it from other dance suites of the time.

Just as people can only hum one note at a time, they can usually concentrate on only one musical line at a time.  Bach’s contrapuntal music is the exception to this.  Let’s take a look at the 3rd movement of the French Suite No.5, the Sarabande.  This is a good movement in which to analyze contrast between subject and counterpoint because the melody stays in the upper voice.  What are some things that jump out at the listener about the melody? It is highly ornamented, there are few large leaps, and most of the movement is stepwise.  When looking at the other two lines, notice there are no ornaments, there are more leaps and less stepwise motion, and the rhythms are in contrast with the melodic line and often with each other.  All of these qualities reveal a striking contrast between a subject and its counterpoint, the purpose of which is to give equal importance to each musical line.  When listener can concentrate on more than one moving line, the composer has great power!  Now let’s look at what Bach does with this power.

Bach knows how to “trick” the listener into shifting their attention to the dominant almost without realizing, and then back again during the second half of the piece.  In the first measure of the first movement, the Allemande, there are three voices occurring, each with their own function.  The upper voices the melody, the lower the bass, and the middle provides rhythmic movement and harmonic depth.   What results, using mostly stepwise motion, is the strong establishment of the key of G major.  After the initial key establishment he manipulates the listener through several harmonic relationships revolving around the tonic by trading the initially established function of each voice between the three lines of counterpoint.  But then measure 10 comes along, and by using only one accidental, he begins to subtly shift the tonal center to D major for the cadence at m. 12.  Then, in the second half of the movement, he shifts back to the original tonic in the same way, to arrive back on G major.  This subtle shift (which eventually evolved into the development sections of sonata form) and the many processes Bach used to achieve it are the true art of his music.

Resources

1. Bach, J.S. Bach Masterpieces for Solo Piano, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY, 1999, pp. 66-73.

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