Have you ever tried for weeks (or longer) to help a piano student improve something about their playing, only for the idea not to catch on? Maybe they have an entrenched awkward fingering, or they slur beautifully through several notes, only the notes are written to be played staccato, or the student forgets to lift between phrases. Lesson after lesson you point out the fix. After overseeing repeats, they leave the lesson able to play convincingly well, only to return the following week with the same old problem.
It is important to continue to teach to the standard you’d like your students to attain. It’s even more important to stay positive.
If you’ve ever searched for maps online, you’ll recognize the red locator that pinpoints a place. It’s the universal symbol for ‘here’s where it’s happening.’ In piano lessons, it can be the perfect visual cue to encourage students to remember your feedback and to participate in the feedback process, themselves.
To learn how to include these map pins in your responsive teaching approach, keep reading. This is the third post of my series, Master Your Feedback Style.
When the teacher’s pencil isn’t enough
As teachers, aren’t we all searching for ways to make our feedback more memorable?
If you’re like me, your feedback consists of identifying tricky spots that need polishing. You go through a solution, discussion, and demonstrations, having the student try repeats in the lesson. Then on the music page you write instructions for improvement, and in the student’s dictation book, a practice outline.
But even with our best attempts, sometimes the ideas just don’t hit home.
Here’s an example of how all of my attempts to help a fix failed: A student learning Purcell’s “Hornpipe” had successfully learned the Baroque-styled articulation, save the lift between a D and E (shown in the photo below). You can see that I tried many times to remind her of this lift. I had circled the notes and dated them “Feb 27,” a strategy that helps students identify current spots to repeat while practicing, and helps me in subsequent lessons know when I taught the fix. In a later lesson I had added a box around the spot for focused repeats (the student repeats only the music inside the box). This was a proverbial same-old-same-old rough spot week after week.
Recently in a lesson I added the focus pointer with the word “lift” written in the white circle. We practiced the lift again and I crossed my fingers that this memory-jogger would work. The first week it didn’t. But then, almost miraculously, after months of trying to help that spot, the second week the lift was fixed!
This is only one such example from recent lessons. Since I’ve introduced red focus markers, several students have had breakthroughs on musical details. As we’re now working towards several performances, this is welcome progress!
Lately I’ve been trying something new. Instead of leading the discussion right away, I’ve been asking questions. “How do you feel about that spot?” If the child misses a detail I’ve noticed, I’ll guide them a little without saying it outright. “What about this phrase mark?”
When the student is the one thinking up what to say (in other words, working harder than you are) it is more likely that they will remember what is said.
A student’s own feedback can be more valuable than your pencil. They often know where things didn’t go as planned, or where they consistently forget something. It was exactly this kind of discussion with a student that first gave me the idea to use map markers directly on the music.
The most exciting change in my teaching isn’t the markers, but letting my students make decisions. “Where do you need reminders?” I ask. The student can usually identify where they find the fingering difficult, or where they need an extra reminder for a dynamic mark.
I asked the student learning “Hornpipe” where she wanted reminders, and she admitted she was having a difficult time with the left hand detached fingering 3-1-2 (followed by 1 on G), so we placed a marker in the spot with the fingering highlighted.
In my studio, once the student has polished a spot, they love it when I erase the pencilled-in boxes, circles, words and arrows to clean up the page. (I never erase finger numbers, we keep those.) My students relish the moment they see all the marks disappear. It means they’ve accomplished so much, and don’t need those marks anymore. The page is now clean and ready for the next generation of marks and suggestions.
Lately, my students have been so aware of their own progress that they’ve been the ones to request that I erase my marks from their pages.
Now that we’re also using the red markers, it gives a whole new opportunity to mark progress when the fix is complete and the pin can be removed from the music. Students want to be part of that decision, too.
The design is bright with a white centre, making the markers easy to write on and notice. For fix-ups, it’s the ultimate ‘it’s happening here.’ The word or symbol you choose to write on it is an action statement, a ‘do this’ direction, which is very empowering for a fix. This was the topic of the first post of this series, which focused on the power of positive redirection.
At this time I’m using a little tape to stick the markers on the music, which makes them easy to remove when spots no longer need reminders.
I’ve created two different sizes, to help them fit into print music. To print your own, visit my Printables section. If you don’t have access to a color printer, the design still works with grayscale.
With the design of the sheet, they must be cut out by hand. Depending on the size of your piano studio, that might get time consuming. In your prep time before your teaching blocks, I recommend cutting out two for each student to get you started for your first lessons using them.
Keep them in a bowl next to your piano, where they’ll be ready when needed. I’m finding them so effective as practice reminders that once a practice spot is fixed up, the markers can be removed, erased (if written on in pencil) and used again.
Please visit my Printables section to get your own FREE Focus Markers sheet and get started with this simple, fun and effective feedback tool!
The only thing that remains is hoping our students actually practice with their books open…but that’s another matter.
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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!
Video of the Week
Black Light (Intermediate, Level 5), is an impressionist piece for Intermediate piano students. “For nights that make you slightly scared, but happy.” Perfect for any time of year but has an especially haunting sound for autumn. From the print and eBook The Color Collection, 10 Expressive Piano Pieces to Color Your Days, and also as the single Black Light eSheet.