A creative approach to enhance expressive playing in elementary and intermediate students through story-telling
It was a pleasure to present my second talk at the APPC last week. The art of teaching through story-telling has always captivated me. In instrumental pedagogy, this is by no means a groundbreaking idea, and throughout my own lessons at the university of Auckland with teachers such as Rae de Lisle, Stephen de Pledge and Sarah Watkins, I observed this strategy being used to help students even at a tertiary level. So it is definitely a teaching tool that is used widely.
In 2015 I completed a Master's degree in Piano Pedagogy. My research was based on how to foster musical expressiveness in a student’s playing. I discovered many interesting facets surrounding this topic, and one of them I am really fascinated in, is the use of story-telling in the lessons to help the students understand and express music they are unfamiliar with.
For this session, I wanted to focus on using storytelling techniques to help children learn music they are initially "uninterested" in. I feel that children have a nature inclination to be interested in the popular, jazz, and romantic genres, and after speaking to many teachers on this subject, the classical repertoire seem to be one of the most ignored genre of music, especially during the first few years of piano learning.
One of the most memorable moments durying my research was when I interviewed NZ pianist and composer, Gillian Bibby. She has taught many accomplished Kiwi pianists and conversations with her are always so inspiring. When I asked her about when it is appropriate to bring in the stories she indicated that it can be used to polish a piece once all the notes have been learnt, and it is so important to have originality and creativity with the stories:
“Particularly when the notes and technique has been done, we need the stories even more. You don’t just do this one loud and this one soft, that’s boring! But if this one is the witch going into the cave to meet the dragon, and in the repeat the dragon is curled up in a ball, saying hello to the witch. That is such an extraordinary image! That would make such a big difference in a piece of music! That was my story, and I would ask them, ‘'What is your story?’” – Gillian Bibby, on teaching expressivity.
How adding a narrative can help
The beauty of sonatinas and sonatas are that because the titles are all the same, we can help children interpret them into a story their imagination can fathom and discover. When they can do so, you can instantly see their eyes brightening up and faces starting to beam, as they find themselves suddenly able to bring to life a previously boring sounding passage because it is now a part of a meaningful story.
When story telling is used effectively, it can greatly enhance the character of the piece because it can provide a reason for any dynamic/articulation changes. Often the imageries help with any technical training. When a child is able to come up with their own story, it allows autonomy in their learning by stimulating imagination and creativity, which is why we get really fast results that last. Finally, the best part is how much more they seem to enjoy the music. It can be really fun.
I can honestly say, my students that have been taught their classical pieces in this way from the very beginning, all love learning and playing the classical repertoire as much as their romantic and jazz pieces. By involving storytelling in their learning they know they get to be just as creative and expressive with these pieces.
How to use story-telling effectively in the lesson?
According to the results of my research, as teachers we first need to understand which aspect of musical expression we would like the student to improve. Is it the dynamics? Articulation? Over-all character of the piece? So we need to have a really clear idea of the final result before we start with the student.
We then need to associate that aspect of musical expression with a subjective experience the student can relate to. The binding ingredient is to give an auditory or visual representation of the final musical product. For example, with a fast piece full of chromatic staccatos we can say to the student, “Play as if you are trying to outrun an army of swarming wasps!” (which in my books is a pretty imaginative metaphor) but unless the students hear exactly how fast the piece is, how short the staccatos are supposed to be and know how to physically make these sounds... He or she is unlikely to consciously produce and reproduce the desired musical result. So the nuts and bolts of these musical components, should be taught by modelling.
Examples of using story telling in the lesson
Here I wanted to give an example of how to use the "cheat-sheet" with Sonatina in C, by Kuhlau:
So if we go to the cheat sheet – does the piece have a melodic line? Yes, and it is in major key. So let’s say to the student, imagine the beginning is Cinderella gracefully wondering through the forest, and the repeated quavers in the second bar are like when she sees her animal friends, and takes a few quick steps to go and greet them.
Next, does the piece have a conventional accompaniment? Yes! The alberti bass represents her soft footsteps – if you play it too loud, Cinderella will sound more like the ugly step sister!
Here is a short video of my APPC talk on a couple more examples of using storytelling in the lessons
So hopefully today I have given a snippet of what you can do with the stories, and it will encourage your students to learn more music, not necessarily limited to sonatinas and sonatas! We want to use stories to encourage imagination, creativity and connection with the music.
Our goal is that in time, students become autonomous at analysis and interpretation, transforming music into their personal storytelling journey.
APPC: Interactive Teaching Games for the Modern Studio (free Note Rush theme giveaway for conference delegates)
Effectively using technological and hands-on tools to enhance the piano learning experience
I really enjoyed presenting my interactive workshop at the APPC. I was delighted to be given an opportunity to talk about something I am really passionate about - that is gamifying teaching and learning in the piano lessons.
So how did I get so interested in games in the piano lesson? Well, I first started playing the piano at around about 3 years old. Thinking back to my first few years of piano learning as a preschooler, I was lucky enough to have my grandmother as my first piano teacher, and I remember I just loved practicing everyday. My grandmother had never formally studied the piano or any kind of educational pedagogy, but she clearly knew that play, fun and discovery based learning is how to entice a young child to love playing and learning the piano! Her ways of gamifying learning eventually became a big influence on my own teaching today, as I strive to harness the obsession kids have with games and use it to my advantage as a piano teacher.
I was really excited to be able to share some of these games with my audiences, but because we had very limited time, I could only demonstrate one or two games on how each of the following aspects of piano playing could be gamified:
And of course, how could I not mention Note Rush! I use Note Rush all the time in my teaching, and I love the fact I can customise the notes I would like my students to practice each week. I also use the app to train for sight singing and relative pitch skills in my students. Here's a video of what I got the whole room of piano teachers to do:
Thanks to the awesome creator of Note Rush, APPC delegates can get a free Studio Licence of the Dinosaurs theme! (requires purchase of Note Rush to redeem). Go to www.noterush.app/appc to redeem! This is for a limited time only.
Studio wide challenges: I also mentioned a couple of my studio-wide challenges. I have written about these previously on my blog: Student of the Week Polaroid Challenge, and Around The World Scales Race.
Teaching Italian Terms and Expressions: I wanted to give everyone at my session a quick taste of how entertaining learning aspects of music theory could be. Traditionally when we teach Italian terms and expressions, we might give students a list of words they have to learn by the next lesson and we test on them on it. However, for such a theatrical and expressive language, there are many better ways of learning it! One of my favourite ways of doing so is to play a game of charades with students. For example here we have a list of Italian terms. I got two volunteers to come up act out one of these words to give clues, and the audience had to yell out the correct answer as fast as possible. Here's our entertaining clip from my talk:
I think I have scratched the surface of what we can do with games in the lessons during my talk. I believe pretty much any element of piano teaching can be gamified to some extend. As the famous nanny Mary Poppins once said: “in every job there must be done, there is an element of fun!”
What I hope I also demonstrated is that when games are used correctly as an educational tool, it has the benefit of giving instant feedback to the student in a fun and non threatening way. It allows us to extend our teaching beyond the studio and yet still have a role in designing and activating learning. And for me an unexpected positive outcome is that it gave me a chance to show our kids how relevant classical music can be in their modern lives, because as teachers we should never cease to think of ways to connect our students to their music every day.
A creative activity to get the entire studio excited about scales, sight-reading, key signatures and traveling! *Free Download for Teachers*
After a wonderful summer break, I am guessing most of us are going back to teaching this week. I have been really looking forward to seeing all my students again, which must be a sign that I enjoyed a rejuvenating holiday!
What I love about this time of the year is that every student comes through the door with a renewed enthusiasm for learning, and the delight of seeing them standing a smoot higher than the previous year!
The beginning of a new year is also a good time to establish a routine to encourage the practice of some of the “less popular” (or indeed, least popular) aspects of piano learning. I’m talking about scales. Arpeggios. Broken Chords. Sight reading. Theory.
As I imagined myself repeating the above elements to my students, I pictured the smiles on their faces fading away, and their newly-gained stature starting to deflate. Those are not the words most students want to hear on their first lesson back. We have to find a more engaging way to get students to master these components of piano learning without them pouting over it!
A little studio challenge I am setting up for all my students this term is the “Around the World Key Signature Challenge”. I have done this a few times throughout the years already, and this is what the “challenge” looks like:
Objective of the challenge: The first student who collects a stamp for all 11 countries wins the grand prize, and every other student who collects a stamp for all 11 countries by the end of term wins a small prize.
Learning goal: To explore different key signatures through sightreading and scales.
Duration: Term one (Feb- April)
Cost: Printing of the Around the World Chart, prizes at your own discretion (I recommend Easter Eggs!)
And here is how the conversation usually goes...
“Let’s have a look at this term’s studio challenge! What you want to do, is to try and visit all of these countries and collect a stamp for each of them by the end of this term. The first student to collect all of the stamps wins the race and gets the grand prize from me, and everyone else that has all of the countries stamped by the end of this term will get a small mystery gift from me.”
If you get this kind of response from your student, you know you have them “hooked”. It is then time to lay down the terms and conditions:
To earn a stamp for a country, a student has to complete a series of tasks for its correlated key signature. Depending on the level of the student, I will differ the tasks to reinforce pre-existing knowledge and skills, as well as nudging them a small step forward to stimulate their learning.
I would recommend teachers adjust the requirements for each student slightly each week to optimise the learning experience, but here I have included some examples of what I might do for the different levels:
I tend to be flexible and alter the weekly task for each student, adding, subtracting or swapping activities depending on how much a particular student can process in a week. A good rule of thumb is that if this assignment takes more than 1/4 of a student’s daily practice routine for them to accomplish then chances are, they are going to be put off rather than encouraged to explore these keys. So, for a grade 3 student who practices 40 minutes a day, I may include Noterush, a natural minor scale, and blocked chords. But for a grade 8 student who practices an hour a day, I might include Noterush, sightreading, chromatic scales a third a part, and a contrary motion arpeggio.
It is important to find the balance - we want a student to feel like they are slightly challenged, but they still believe they can succeed and get that stamp by the following week. So, it is crucial to adjust the “difficulty” setting for each student.
I have done this challenge a few times in the past years, and although not every single student would finish the race, it really does benefit the majority of students in my studio. Last year there were 9 students out of 35 in the studio who ended up learning 12 keys or more in 10 weeks' time as a result of it. It was also the only time I got asked by students if they could do more than one scale that week because they really want to “win the race”! I always think if such challenges get even one student excited about learning more key signatures, then it is well worth the effort.
This blog post is by Melody Deng