Category Archives: Pedagogy

The “Gamification” of Education

This is the third post in a four-part series on how technology is changing music education. Check back tomorrow to read the conclusion, or subscribe to new posts by email!
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future

Many of today’s music-teaching apps and software are structured like games.

A study from NYU and CUNY found that “well-designed games can motivate students to learn less popular subjects, such as math, and that game-based learning can actually get students interested in the subject matter—and can broaden their focus beyond just collecting stars or points.” 1

“Gamification” is a hot topic in education today. Authors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2 observe that game players exhibit “persistence, risk-taking, attention to detail and problem-solving skills”–all skills that we want our music students to display. Games allow players to build understanding in an active, involved way rather than by passively listening to a teacher; they learn at their own pace while collaborating and achieving just-in-time learning.

Gamification works in my studio. When my students use educational software structured as games, they try harder and learn better, without prompting from me. And kids—including grown-up kids—like games. For them, it’s a fun part of music study. “We have to expand our mission and get people in the door,” Kristin Yost observes. “Teachers are being forced to ask how to accomplish this in our age of symphony bankruptcies.”

Apps and Software for Learning

Games are an important part of what technology has to offer music learners. But their benefits are not just for students. I think technology frees teachers to do what they do best: connect. “Technology frees teachers to use their ‘soft’ skills: communication and creativity”, says Kristin.

Apps and software are already changing the structure of music lessons. Many tasks that “ate up” contact time with the teacher can now be off-loaded to technology, with teacher supervision. 3 Piano Maestro is an app that can monitor progress at the keyboard and check note and rhythm accuracy while student plays a repertoire that includes many pop songs. Playground Sessions is a similar program.

Apps like Tenuto or Music Ace can explain concepts of musicianship, provide drill activities and monitor student learning, so that each student doesn’t proceed to the next level without true mastery of the preceding material. Some teachers I know make their own theory program and post it on-line using a service like Edmodo or Udemy.

Technology can make playing the piano more fun. I have worked with George Litterst on apps (well, he did the app, I edited the content) that can accompany students playing Christmas music composed and arranged by the incomparable Christopher Norton. The accompaniment can even speed up and slow down perfectly in sync with the student. 4

Apps for Running Your Business

There are several of these. Since my main teaching responsibilities are at the University of Kansas, I have only a few pre-college students and haven’t made use of studio management apps. I have heard good reports about Music Teachers Helper. But don’t go by what I say: check out one of the many Facebook piano teaching groups and see what active users say. Instagram and Pinterest are also full of good ideas.

Apps I use

Here it is: the list of apps and software that I use in my own teaching. It’s a grab bag of tools that I have learned about from Facebook Teachers groups, friends, and trial and error.

I’ve already mentioned my Disklavier, which I use for playback and long distance teaching.

Rhythm and Meter

I use two metronome apps: Tempo, which I like because of its wide-ranging speeds and ability to choose subdivisions; I also use Pro Metronome for its ability to “tap” the speed your student is playing into the metronome and find out what speed he or she is actually taking.

PolyRhythm is a marvelous tool for counting cross rhythms.

Playback

I think the Amazing Slow Downer is…amazing. You can take any recording, by a famous concert artist or your student, and play it at any speed, without altering pitch. It’s a great way to focus on details of tone, balance and pedal.

Technic

I’m just starting to use Coach’s Eye, a video analysis app designed for sports that allows you to make quick videos and immediately review, play back in slow motion or with side-by-side comparison, do audio voice overs and use what they call “telestration”, the ability to diagram on the screen. I think this will be very useful to talk about the mechanics of technic.

Check back tomorrow (or subscribe to get new posts by email!) for Part 4 of the series: what I believe technology means for the future of MTNA
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future

Notes:

  1. These statistics are drawn from a post by Yuval Kaminka, founder of JoyTunes, available at www.echcrunch.com/2015/01/10/channeling-positive-tablet-usage-to-foster-childhood-development/. Hat tip to Linda Christensen for drawing it to my attention with a post in the Facebook iPad Piano Studio page.
  2. Eric Klpfer, Scot Osterweil and Katie Salen, with contributions by Jason Haas, Jennifer Groff and Dan Roy, 2009. http://education.mit.edu/papers/MovingLearningGamesForward_EdArcade.pdf.They state that the most comprehensive book on this subject is What Video Games Can Teach Us About Literacy and Learning, James Paul Gee.
  3. Please note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of apps and software and that I am not being paid to mention these products.
  4. Christmas Piano Play-Along sets, available from Time Warp Technology at http://timewarptech.com/store/christmas-music/novus-via-music-group.html

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Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers

This is the second post in a four-part series on how technology is changing music education. Check back over the weekend to read more, or subscribe to new posts by email!
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future
Disklavier Controller
Disklavier Controller

The first reason that technology will help us reach more students is simply financial. Acoustic pianos aren’t cheap. Nor are private music lessons. Surveys indicate the overwhelming majority of American families want music lessons for their children, but that costs associated with this are a major impediment to music study. Sales of acoustic pianos have been down since the 1970s, as sales for more affordable—and perhaps more “hip”—guitars have skyrocketed (according to the Music Trades Industry, a total of 3,302,670 electric guitars were sold for the year 2007 in the United States, compared to 62,536 total pianos. 1)

Author and educator Kristin Yost makes an interesting point. “I keep reading articles about decreasing sales of acoustic pianos,” she told me. “But does this mean that piano teaching is declining? Or is it that the entry point for study isn’t always an acoustic piano?”

I see the increased availability of reasonably priced digital pianos as a boon to piano teachers. More students can afford to take lessons. And as distance learning becomes more common, teachers will be able to reach more students, rather than limiting themselves to those who can travel to the teacher’s studio.

I am a great advocate of Yamaha’s Disklavier. The University of Kansas owns one, and I have my own in my home studio. I consider it the greatest innovation in piano teaching in the history of the instrument. The play-back-at-any-speed capability alone makes it unique; I don’t believe we have even begun to tap its distance learning capabilities. The Yamaha Disklavier Education Network is a great hub for teachers who use this marvelous technology.

I believe we will continue to see development of hybrid grands, with elements of the traditional acoustic piano enhanced with electronics. “These are the wave of the future,” Mike Bates, the retired head of Institutional Sales for the Yamaha Corporation, told me. “They are much more durable, require less maintenance—and the price point is appealing.”

There are many instrumental options for people who want to learn to play the piano. No one I know thinks keyboards will replace the grand piano. But any technology brings more people to music making is a good thing.

Check back tomorrow (or subscribe to get new posts by email!) for Part 3 of the series: how games for learning are changing the face of education
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future

Notes:

  1. Cited in Danielle Baldassini “The changing role of the piano”, Blast Magazine, March 1, 2010

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Music Teaching and Technology

This is the first post in a four-part series on how technology is changing music education. Check back over the weekend to read more, or subscribe to new posts by email!
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future
iPad Piano
Seen in a Best Buy store

To me, it seems like the technology revolution has arrived. In my local teachers group, even older teachers (OK…the same age as me) are creatively using their iPads for teaching in ways that would have been astonishing even two years ago.

I started to write this blog post on February 7, after just finishing serving as moderator for a discussion group at the online MusicEd Connect Conference. We were scheduled to discuss “Memorization”, the topic of my workshop a couple of days earlier. We did talk about it–for about 2 minutes. Then followed a lengthy and lively discussion about distance learning, camera set-ups and favorite apps. I learned a lot.

For the teachers in my MusicEd Connect group, as in my local Music Teachers Association, technology has transformed teaching. But has it for everyone? “People assume technology is a done deal in music teaching,” Mike Bates told me in an interview. Mike is the retired head of Institutional Sales for the Yamaha Corporation, now working as an independent consultant. “Music teachers’ attitudes still need to change. Technology is the way children learn these days. Even little kids can intuitively use devices.”

Many have concerns about this. Do children spend too much time staring at a computer, and not enough time playing outdoors? Maybe…but since the average eight–ten year old child spends eight hours a day in front of a computer screen 1, perhaps more important questions for teachers to ask themselves are: what activities take place when students use technology? and what is the educational outcome?

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center did a survey about children’s use of computers. They found that kids from aged two–ten spent less than half of their screen time on “educational” material. What if we took part of their computer time and used it for music learning…would more people play an instrument? Would they reach a higher level of accomplishment? Early research seems to answer “yes”.

I believe that technology and social media have the potential to revolutionize music teaching and expand opportunities for music study to more students than ever before. Educational technology, used by qualified teachers, can make the learning experience more fun and ultimately more successful.

Check back tomorrow (or subscribe to get new posts by email!) for Part 2 of the series: my thoughts on the changing roles of acoustic pianos and electric keyboards
  1. Music Teaching and Technology
  2. Pianos, Keyboards, and Disklaviers
  3. The “Gamification” of Education
  4. Technology: MTNA Into the Future

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The D Song & The Thumb Drill

This blog post is a slightly revised excerpt from a two-part article I wrote on scale-playing, published the September-October and November-December, 2013 issues of Clavier Companion.

I feel strongly about the importance of starting technical work in contrary motion; in my opinion, it is an easier and more natural way to move one’s fingers.

Try drumming the fingers of both hands on a table, and see if you agree with me. Most students will drum their fingers in contrary motion, medially, that is, starting with the fifth finger and moving in toward the center of the body.

However, I use lateral (from the thumb out) contrary motion in The D Song, the first exercise I teach beginners, for a reason: to focus on the thumb.

The D Song

The D Song

The thumb is the “problem child” of technic because it is so different from the other digits. It has only two phalanges (finger bones) instead of three; it works in opposition to and indeed has a different position from them as well. The thumb metacarpus (which attaches the fingers to the hand) is capable of a wider range of movement compared to the other fingers; the tip of the thumb also has a more extensive motion range than the other fingertips.

What all of this means for beginning piano students is: trouble.

In the beginning stage, the most important task is to establish the proper position and movement pattern for the thumb. I start with a simple away-from-the-piano drill I call, with a startling lack of creativity in titling, The Thumb Drill.

The Thumb Drill

  • Rest your forearm on a flat surface
    • The arm should be relaxed, really “resting”. I sometimes tell children that their arm should feel like it is asleep
  • Fold the four fingers (not the thumb) under the hand, making a loose, relaxed fist
  • Move the thumb gently up and down five times per hand, with the tip turned in slightly. At the bottom of the stroke, it should gently tap on the flat surface, not pressing or holding

Why fold the fingers under the hand? This position makes it virtually impossible (though some students try) to move the thumb incorrectly. The thumb moves easily from the metacarpal joint, rather than the knuckle, and acts independently.

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Notes from Taiwan

Taiwan-mapShould pre-college piano students play “big” pieces?

Taiwan was the first Asian country I visited, about 25 years ago. It’s changed a lot. Based on what I can see, the daily life of the people is in many ways better.

Some senior piano teachers of my acquaintance there complain. They say there aren’t as many students as before (demographic statistics support this, Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world) and the students that do study are practicing less, for a variety of reasons just like those in the States: too much homework, too many distractions and, well, I have to say it, I heard the word…laziness.

So it was a pleasant surprise to work with some very talented and hard-working students during my time there, in all cases, no matter what their age, playing advanced-level works.

Is this wise? I remember asking the distinguished American pianist Abbey Simon (still performing today at the age of 92) this very question, about a 14-year-old girl with big hands who wanted to learn the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.1. “It won’t be good now,” he said. “But when she’s 34 she will have played it for 20 years.”

Good point. But does learning “big” pieces too young cause student burnout? Does it increase the likelihood of hand and arm problems later? Is it, simply, too much too soon?

What do you think?

P.S. I had a great time teaching in Taiwan. Thanks to my former students Daniel Chia-Te Liu and Wan-Ju Ho for arranging things for me. Based on what I heard, the art of piano playing in Taiwan is healthy and going strong.

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How to Expect the Unexpected

Today is Ensemble Kiowa’s competition day and, as often happens, there is a problem that requires special handling. The piano on which we will be competing does not have an operational sostenuto pedal.

Not a problem, you think? Who uses it anyway? Our Ensemble Kiowa pianist, a marvelous KU doctoral student named Cong Cong Chai, does. He and I have worked out our pedalings very carefully for this program, including the sostenuto, and its use is notated in our cool, funky contemporary piece Techno-Parade (2002) by the French composer Giles Connesson.

Deann Brown and the MTNA West Central Division Competition staff have been very fair. They gave us an extra 15-minute rehearsal in the concert hall, and will inform the judges about the problem. The North Dakota State tuner was great, too; he tried his best to fix it, but “no go”.

I always tell students that the contestants who remain cool, stay focused and make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation are often the winners. Ensemble Kiowa will have a chance to test that today!

This short video is from the end of our 15-minute session. I have my students review competition pieces in reverse order, ending with the work that they will play first in the competition. It my view, this imprints the all-important opening firmly in their minds. So this is excerpts from their first piece, Aram Khachaturian’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, third, second and finally first movements, with loud interjected comments from me. The shaky camera-work is mine, too.

 


Ensemble Kiowa is Margaret Lambie, flute; Mickayla Chapman, clarinet: Man (Mandy) Wang, violin; and Cong Cong Chai, piano, all students at the University of Kansas. The group is co-coached by my KU colleague, Dr. Michael Kirkendoll and me.

 

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On Preparation and Performance Anxiety

This is the day before Ensemble Kiowa (the string chamber music group from the University of Kansas that I co-coach with my colleague, Dr. Michael Kirkendoll) competes in the MTNA West Central Division. We all had a good night’s sleep after yesterday’s 10-hour drive to Fargo, ND, and are ready to get to work.

I follow research about performance preparation and I wish there was a clearer model of “what-to-do-right-before-the-event”.  It seems that every successful performer has his or her own idiosyncratic routine.

Shura Cherkassky
Shura Cherkassky at an upright piano

I remember taking the late, great Shura Cherkassky to try out a piano. He played one ascending arpeggio and asked, “when can we go to dinner?” That was it. But he insisted on having an upright piano moved into his backstage dressing room, on which he practiced at an excruciatingly slow tempo right up to the moment of performance. That’s the routine that worked for him.

Back to the research, there are two consistent factors for successful preparation that I have identified. First, be well rested and don’t over practice. Second, do what you need to do to feel confident and “in a good mental place to play”.

Let’s see what we need to do today to make this happen!


 

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A Landmark Study from ABRSM

ABRSM-logoMaking Music 1 is the fourth survey of music making in the United Kingdom undertaken by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. This report, prepared in cooperation with Trinity College London, is the first such in 14 years.

Authors of the document describe it as “the most comprehensive collaborative survey of this kind yet undertaken.” Almost 5000 British music teachers participated, 1700+ children and about 1250 adults.

The data, and the conclusions drawn from it, are fascinating. In Great Britain, just as many young learners now play the guitar as play the violin and many young people play two or more instruments. Older learners make music in a wider variety of ways, compared to previous populations studied, and technology plays an increasing role in musical engagement.

Adults in Great Britain report significant levels of musical involvement. Those who took music lessons as children and participated in a music exam are more likely to continue playing. The higher the exam grade achieved, the greater the likelihood that they will continue learning

British music teachers, too, seem to be quite happy (but see the last two bullet points below). According to the survey, both vocal and instrument teachers express high levels of professional fulfillment; they find the act of teaching enjoyable and rewarding.

Positive? Yes, but there are some areas of concern:

  • Lack of student access to music lessons
    • Children from lower socio-economic groups have significantly less opportunity for music study
  • Many students have no music lessons beyond elementary school
  • The cost of instruments and lessons is a major barrier to music study
  • Teachers reported widely varying experiences concerning job security and rate of pay
    • For some, rates have dropped and job security is low
  • 50% of teachers report lack of school and parental support and poorly motivated students as the negative aspects of their career choice.

I’m still studying the implications of all this data. There’s a lot to think about! Readers (and especially MTNA members), I’m curious about your ideas on this. Are you highly fulfilled professionally? or are you having some problems, be it low pay, lack of security or lack of support. What do you see as the barriers to music study in your area?

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An Innovative Conference

I’ll be participating in a fun—and exciting—event on February 4, 2015. It’s the MusicEdConnect conference, featuring nationally recognized presenters (including me!) in an online conference.

This will be the second year for the conference, and for me presenting in it. It felt awkward, at first, connecting with my audience through a laptop. No eye contact and no real-time feedback!

But I got used to it quickly and ended up really valuing the opportunity for online interaction with attendees. There is an on-line exhibit hall, too, and many opportunities to network—without leaving your own home!

My topic this year will be “Memorization: Psychological Data and Some Practical Tips”. You can also view my talk from last year, “Musical Punctuation and the Art of Interpretation”.

The lovely people in charge of the conference have offered a coupon code for my readers. You save $20 when you enter the code AMAZINGSCOTT today and tomorrow (I didn’t think up the name, but I didn’t argue, either…). You can visit the website at www.musicedconnect.com.

MusicEdConnect Coupon
Here’s the coupon

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Can We Really Play “Relaxed”?

Hand with Stuffed Animal
Holding my favorite stuffed octopus

The piano-playing hand doesn’t maintain its natural structure without some muscular energy. I’ve heard fine teachers call this “flexion” but the word that physicians use is “tonus”, the alternating low-level contraction and relaxation of neighboring muscle fibers that holds parts the body in a neutral functioning position without getting tired.

I’m not sure that this is what most piano teachers mean by “relaxation”. Many of my pedagogy students seem to be under the impression that a good technic requires total relaxation at all times and that arm weight alone is enough to play the keyboard.

I disagree. To paraphrase Edna Golandsky, former Artistic Director of the Taubman Institute and now director of her own eponymous festival, movement is impossible from a state of total relaxation. If you don’t believe us, try getting up from a prone position without flexing any muscles. Impossible.

Different dynamic levels and sound qualities require different types and amounts of muscle tonus. To give my students a basic idea of how this works, I use stuffed animals. Yes, even my university students.

Take a smallish stuffed animal and grasp it in your hand. Flex your fingers enough that you can comfortably hold it in your hand, not squishing it, but not relaxing so much that it drops, either.

Look how great your hand position looks. That is, more or less, the degree of muscle tonus we need to play the piano.

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