Ever want to beat the “solitary-piano-lesson” blues? Here’s a social activity for your studio that’s off the beaten path — pen pal letters!
Update: Never have piano lessons felt more solitary than they do now. It used to feel isolating just to be a self-employed teacher who worked with students one-on-one. Now as teachers everywhere are opting to teach online, the isolation as just clicked to the next level of being completely alone in a room with a screen. Our students are being asked to stay home from school and other activities. Now more than ever, reaching out and making connections with one another through pen pals will have a significant impact.
SOCIAL DISTANCING UPDATE: The novel coronavirus lives on inanimate objects for several days. To adapt this activity to paper-free letter writing, simply connect by email! Follow the steps for regular pen pals below. Inserted are adaptations for email pen pals.
Remember what it used to feel like to receive a real letter in the mail? How exciting it was? It was a big deal to write to someone who lived far away, and the distance between was felt because of the wait for the reply. The world felt bigger. The messages written by hand on real paper seemed more authentic, and maybe more important, folded in an envelope with a real stamp.
It seemed like such an adventure — the trip to the post office to post yours, then sometime later, the discovery of the reply and the anticipation all the way home to read what was written there. Then the sound of tearing the envelope open to see what was inside — then devouring every word.
You might think that the magic would be lost on our current generation of tech-savvy kids, but it isn’t. In fact, now real letters are a novelty like none other, and if it’s possible, the magic is even greater today.
A few months ago I put a message out on a facebook group asking if any teachers would have students interested in writing pen pal letters back and forth with my students. I had two students in mind and hoped I’d find a teacher.
Because of the response from several other teachers, I got my whole studio involved, all ages (even my adult student). Each time I delivered a new letter to one of my students, whether they were eight or 18 years old (or 35), they received it with a big smile and couldn’t wait to read it.
It has often been said that piano teaching is a solitary profession. We teachers love connecting with each other online and at conferences. Imagine this: our students also love to connect. Piano lessons can feel solitary for students, too.
Here’s how you can get started:
Ask for student participants
Begin with an email to your studio parents explaining the activity. Then in your piano lessons, ask each student in person if they’d like to be a pen pal.
Find a colleague with a similar studio
Your students will connect better with other piano students who are playing at a similar level of piano, and are a similar age. It’s pretty simple to put the word out on a piano teacher’s facebook group that you’d like some pen pals for your students. Or, you might try a personal teacher friend. Your connection need not span several studios, but could just be arranged between yourself and one other teacher.
Decide who will write first
One teacher’s students will write first, likely yours if you’re the initiating studio. Give your students a date to have their letters written by, collect them and mail them all in one envelope to the receiving teacher. Then, that teacher will distribute the letters, assign a date for responses to be written by, collect them and send them in one envelope to you. If your students are keen, this can continue back and forth several times.
SOCIAL DISTANCING UPDATE: Now that it is known that the novel coronavirus can survive on inanimate objects like paper for several days (maybe not from you but from someone in the post office), try email, instead. Get your students to type their pen pal letters on their own computers at home in a word app. The students can dress up their letters with colourful fonts and images clipped from online.
Your students could choose their own stationery or write their letters on your studio letterhead. If you’d like some special Pen Pal stationery, click here. Usually letters are written at home and brought completed to the lesson.
Guidance on how to write letters
Very few of today’s children have ever before written a real letter. Students may need guidance on where to write the date, how to say “Dear So-and-so” at the top, and how to say “Sincerely, Their name” at the bottom.
You may also give pointers on interesting things to write about:
- First name
- Generally where they live
- Music teacher
- How many instruments they play
- Music level
- Favourite piece of music they are learning, and why
- Other hobbies
- Questions for their pen pal
Tips on minor safety
SOCIAL DISTANCING UPDATE: Teacher A’s Students send emails to them with letters as attachments. Teacher A then attaches all of their students’ letters to one email and sends them to teacher B for distribution. Teacher B then sends one letter to each receiving student in a separate email. The reason students do not send letters to each other is for their security. It makes sense for teachers to do the communicating and for students’ emails not to get shared directly, unless they decide to do so with their parents’ consent.
I feel quite confident that the risks are very low with this activity. However, it is a teacher’s responsibility to ensure some basic, easy steps are taken for safety.
- All communication should be handled teacher-to-teacher. It is simply safer for the return address to be that of the professional organizing the activity. I would encourage students to use only the most general description of where they live, like “Calgary.”
- Students are encouraged to use their first names only, though with parental permission and knowledge, are free to share their full name if they wish.
- I discouraged my students from sharing photos, but then my own daughter wanted to share hers. As her parent, I felt the risk was fairly low, so I was okay with her taping one on her letter. If a student comes up with this idea, double check with their parents to ensure they have permission.
Letters are even more special with drawings and stickers. Have stickers on hand when you collect the letters in case your students want to add more. If you teach group lessons, it is an excellent chance to have a fun activity of working together to decorate letters before you send them off.
Piano need not be a solitary pursuit. It is very motivating for a student to hear from another person their age, learning similar music, talking about practicing the piano and their favourite piece of music. It is also motivating to read about all of their pen pal’s other interests, to hear that someone who lives far away is just like them. It helps the student know they’re not the only one.
This time I reached out, the response was overwhelming. Request after request came in and the teachers were so enthusiastic I couldn’t turn anyone away. By the time I sat down one evening to match students up, I had more than 70 children from eight studios in seven cities, plus another teacher joined with a piano class that wrote as a group. Our studios were coast to coast.
From the responses of all involved, it was a resounding success. I highly recommend this as a fun activity for any piano studio.
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Video of the week: ‘Out of the Blue’ from Rock That Train, Elementary to Late Elementary. Can be taught by note and rote.