Fitting it all In
Robin Keehn, Washington
I wanted to provide a bit of clarification here and repost information I’ve sent out. There are a number of questions here that I’d like to address, in no particular order.
First, I want to clarify that once I start on an Arrangement Project, I keep that going a bit each week until that particular piece has been learned. It is important that you see an arrangement through to its conclusion and put it prominently on the Playlist so that it is played and remembered.
As to Accompaniment, once I start it somewhere in mid-to late Level 1 or Level 2, I do work on it regularly but it may not be a weekly project. It may be every other week. We do focus a bit more on Accompaniment from January through March due to our Accompaniment Workshop in March but my students work on it throughout the year. Once students are through Accompaniment 1, we work on the Accompaniment Variations which are rhythmic variations that can be applied to the Accompaniment 1 pieces.
Always, I have my students supplementing the Accompaniment 1 pieces with songs that they want to play. Students in one particular group may all be working on Danny Boy, but they are each working on a piece of their own choosing. These projects are really quite simple to manage. For example, your group is learning Amazing Grace and Auld Lang Syne in the key of C. In addition, you find out what popular songs each student likes and you have some Hal Leonard Fake Books in your studio. You could have them buy the book or loan them a book or have them download the sheet music from a website and bring it to class next week. Each student can then work on a piece with C, F and G chords for the next week.
The following week in class, you ask everyone how they did with their new piece and perhaps you have one or two students play through their piece while everyone sings along. Or, say one of them is constantly moving their left hand to new positions and so everyone is at the piano watching and you say, “If you put your left hand here, do you see how you can cover the C, F and G and never have to move it?” You are instructing that one student but everyone learns. You don’t need to hear everyone play everything. You can just hear a bit from each student to make sure they get it and move to your next project.
Comp and Improv is another project that you can do every week in a very short time. You give an assignment and the following week, you ask who is ready to share what they did. You can hear one or two students play just a part of what they have been working on. Perhaps you play the left hand of Jackson Blues and have one student play the blues scale over the LH and give everyone the assignment of improvising on the blues scale to Jackson Blues on the audio. The next week you give a couple of students an opportunity to do it with you.
I think that having a place of recording this information from what you covered in class is very important. Some teachers take a picture of their white board after class when the assignments have been given. I have a little form that I developed that I find handy to keep track.
The rest of this post is from a document I have sent to new teachers about fitting it all in. It’s really important that you feel confident in your ability to manage all the streams.
Fitting It All In
I have continued to get questions from teachers about how to fit everything in. I completely understand how daunting it can be, especially when you are trying to learn all the programs, to know how much time to spend and how to manage your own prep time. I am going to try to address a couple of these topics here. This won’t be comprehensive but I’ll continue to add to the conversation.
I think for the teacher, the situation can be summed up by saying that there is a lot of material to learn in the first couple of years of teaching Simply Music. That requires that you have time to prepare for your classes and that you really manage your classes with skill. Let’s talk about what is REQUIRED that you teach and when. I think it is important to be very clear here because very recently there are a number of optional programs that you can elect to teach or not.
The first year of teaching you need to teach Foundation Level 1, Foundation Level 2, Composition and Improvisation, Arrangements Level 1 and Accompaniment 1.
The good news for new teachers is that Foundation Levels 1, 2 and 3 build on each other. You are building a foundation, and there are a number of songs that are introduced in Level 1 and developed in Level 2. The same holds true for some of the Level 3 pieces as well. We are building a set of learning tools and strategies that are critical in moving students forward.
The Comp and Improv Program is fairly loosely structured. You can start by having students playing on black notes (the Pentatonic or Five Note Scale) with the pedal on to open the door to creativity. You move on to the “Three Note” and “Five Note” songs. There are other ideas and projects and many ideas in Simpedia. Preparing to teach Comp and Improv isn’t difficult but you have to be willing and able to do what you ask your students to do. If this isn’t your area of comfort, you will have to do some work first.
Accompaniment is also very easy to learn and easy to teach. This is something you can start with students in the middle of Level 1 or sometime later in your first year (but don’t wait too long!). You can learn the first four chords (C, F, G and Gb) and teach those to your students and open up the world of music. Once they know those and have played lots of songs, teach the next chords–D, E and A. You don’t have to learn everything at once. Just learn the first chord shapes, the ratios and you’re ready to teach.
Arrangements require more preparation. The Arrangements are meant to be taught in very small doses on a weekly basis. Pick the easiest one in the book, listen to Neil’s instructions on the audio while you sit at your piano and learn how to play it and teach it. Just learn one arrangement and then take three or four weeks to teach it. Take a week to learn the next easy arrangement and teach it over a few weeks. It’s just one step at a time. You don’t have to do this all at once.
So, now you know what you have on your plate. By the way, Arrangements Level 2 is something you can hold onto and tackle when you are ready. It maybe something you get into after your first year. Don’t worry about it but remember you have it. There will be students who aren’t ready for any of the pieces in Arrangements Level 2 until their second year.
Teaching NEW Students–The first lessons
The best way to prepare is to look at your projects. Lay the pieces out on your table and plan your lesson. Let’s say you have a 40 minute lesson (four students). Here is what your time might look like at the BEGINNING of your lessons–(Weeks one through three or four).
The students come in and take a seat. They may not have started a playlist yet. You greet them, ask them how they are and how they are feeling about piano. You can complete this part of your lesson in two minutes. If you have talkers or students who want to tell you everything about their week, you will learn how to let them know with love and tact, that you just want a quick wrap up of the main events because that is all you have time for. Now, ask each of them how they are feeling about piano and start the Thumbs Up (12:00), Thumbs Down (6:00) or anywhere in between (or present your version Relationship Conversation). Be sure to ask if anyone has made anything up this week. If a student has, you can invite them to play their creation.
Listen to each student play something that they’ve learned (Dreams, Storm and Jackson Blues). Early in lessons I want to hear a lot of playing just to make sure we are getting a solid base in place. This will take about one to two minutes for each student. I usually will also hear the last song we learned from each student as well. So, in a group of four we have used about four minutes for gathering and 16 minutes for hearing last week’s song and one other song from each student. I’m now about halfway through the lesson.
I have about 20 minutes left. I am going to spend about 12-14 minutes teaching the next piece (or whatever I can accomplish in 12 minutes). With the remaining eight minutes, I am going to demonstrate playing on the black notes and then have one or two students improvise on black notes with the pedal down. I will finish by writing the notes on the board, and students will write them in their Notes Book.
Let’s jump forward a month or two. Your students have a solid foundation of several pieces (fewer if they are young and more if they are older or have previous experience). Your lesson now includes learning Arrangements and Accompaniment. Here is how your lesson time may look:
The beginning of the lesson doesn’t change much. They come in, now with their playlists on their laps, open so you can see them and collect them (if you so choose). After greeting them, asking them how they are and how they are feeling about piano this week, you do some playlist review. They have a number of pieces and the most efficient way to hear a number of pieces is to ask a student to start any number of songs. You have to set this up so that when you interrupt them and ask them to go onto another piece, they are not offended. Typically, if they can start a piece, they know it. As you listen, use a red pen to make a check mark on the piece you heard on their playlist. This will assist you in quickly being able to pick something they didn’t play last week. After you’ve heard something from the playlist, you can move to reviewing the piece from last week. You may want to hear everyone play it or choose not to. Let’s say that this part of the lesson takes 10 minutes.
Next, you can teach a small amount of an arrangement to the group. Maybe it is three chords or one or two sentences of a piece. Spend about 5 – 8 minutes on this. We are now about 18 minutes into a 40 minute lesson.
Teach ten minutes of the new Foundation Level piece. You have to be prepared for anything to happen here. If they get it quickly, you may be able to teach the whole piece. If they take more time than you imagined, stop at a logical point and be prepared to continue with it next week. If you need to, remind students that you are giving them the ingredients and the real “cooking” happens every day at home. They can perfect it there, not in class.
Now you have 10 minutes left. Get out the Accompaniment book and do one project. You may be teaching them the Triangle Chords (D, E, A) and assigning Amazing Grace in the key of D. Does everyone need to process this at the piano? No. Pick one or two students to process a piece of Amazing Grace while everyone else is standing at the piano watching. That is enough for everyone to take that home and work on it.
Take three minutes to ask about Composition and perhaps hear someone’s project. Or, give students a new assignment. Ask them to compose a five note song with the topic being, “Rain” or “Starlight” or something that gives them a context. Asking students to compose something without any direction usually results in nothing being done. A topic of any sort gives parameters and is very helpful.
Finally, with the last couple of minutes, write the notes on the board and send them on their way!
It is possible to deliver all of these streams within a 40-minute lesson. You have to be organized, prepared and have systems in place for recording what you did in class and for keeping track of the playlist. You can certainly vary the order of how you deliver the content. You can also take some breaks from a particular stream. For example, I will teach an arrangement over the course of three or four weeks. When we are done, I may take a couple weeks off of arrangements and spend a little more time on Accompaniment before introducing another arrangement.
I hope that helps you get a vision of how to fit things in. The same concepts apply if this is a 30- or 50-minute lesson.