Summer Piano Study: Ideas and Inspirations
While routine can be valid and effective for piano students and teachers, sometimes a break from the usual can be refreshing. After nine months of the school-year schedule, the summer months provide an ideal time for the exploration of new approaches.
The benefits of summer study include the freedom to try a different format for your teaching—if you normally teach one-to-one lessons, perhaps a group experience would breathe new life into your students' learning. The summer might be a good time to try new teaching concepts that you have considered, but haven't found the time to try during the hectic school-year months.
With students out of school, concentrated focus and guided practice can yield a large improvement in a short amount of time. Additionally, summer study options can help maintain your income during a time when students are on vacation.
Below are ideas from three teachers to stimulate your thinking and imagination. May this summer blossom with invigorated student learning and renewed teaching energy.
A motivating week of variety and focus
Christy Kiespert (Yukon, Oklahoma) started a Piano Camp ten years ago. Below she shares some of the history, philosophy, and activities of this successful program.
How did your Piano Camp get started?
I started out being an assistant for a music camp led by my undergraduate pedagogy instructor. I loved the group experience and the opportunity students had to work together and develop community. When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to do a directed study where I outlined my goals for the semester. The culminating project was to do a three-day camp for my own students. The next year I expanded it to a five-day camp, and in the last few years we've done two different weeks with a total of twelve to thirteen students per week.
Can you describe some of the activities you use?
Every morning we start with a rhythm game where the students are playing percussion instruments in different groups according to their level. Then we do a bonus round where they all play at the same time, so different rhythms are happening in each group at the same time—like a big ensemble experience.
After the rhythm game, we usually have a little time to talk about practice tools and strategies.
Then we break off into individual groups. I have assistants who help the students practice either one-on-one or with multiple students, depending upon how big their ensembles are going to be.
Our next activity is Music Adventure, a music history experience. We go back in time, highlighting a different period and composer each day. We also have activities integrated with the composer experience: the students might be dancing, singing, pointing to a map, or writing something on the timeline on the board. We also get to listen to the composers' music, both from recordings and performances by the assistants.
Next is a snack time. Because the Music Adventure session was our most focused time of the morning, we have to have a little bit of freethinking time!
Following snack time, we either play a game that rotates each day or we spend some time performing for each other. Finally, we have a wrap up of what we did today, what you can tell you your parents, and what you need to do for tomorrow.
Tell us about your assistants.
They are my students, and they are so excited to be part of the camp. Usually late middle or high school students, most of them attended the camp when they were the age of the campers, which is first through sixth grade.
Do the campers perform during the week?
Yes, and that's a big part of the experience. We learn on Monday that Friday we are giving a performance, and during the whole week we're reminding the students this is what we're working toward. At the performance on Friday we also do a presentation about what we've learned about the composers so that the parents know we haven't just been practicing. The kids always tell their parents about the games, so I don't have to worry about that.
When do you start preparing for the camp?
Well, normally my first thing to figure out is which composers I'm going to feature. I choose one composer in particular to be my "Challenge Composer" for the summer. The older students are required to practice a piece by that Challenge Composer.
After I choose the composers, I usually spend a little time figuring out which students will be eligible to attend, and I definitely let the parents know about the date in January so they can look at their calendars.
What needs to be done as the camp draws closer?
I prepare the composer information in early June and try to get that completed before I get the enrollments in. Once I receive the enrollments, I usually work on the ensembles and prioritize who is going to play with whom. I do try to make sure that all of the ensembles correlate with one of our composers. I just started doing that in the last couple of years, and the kids really responded. They get excited when they practice a duet and then on Thursday of camp we listen to part of it. They will often exclaim, "That's my piece!"
The next priority is to prepare the notebooks. The notebook includes a warm-up page for something to do while we're waiting for everyone to get there, two or three pages about each composer, a page about what we did today, a page with ensemble information, and a practice tool page.
How do you structure the camp to promote the best behavior by the students?
Sometimes students act differently with the teacher in a private setting than they do in a group. I've had students who were very quiet and respectful in the lessons, and then you get them in a group and they suddenly have what seems like a whole different personality. Part of it is knowing my students and learning what kinds of triggers they might have. Another important factor in classroom management is planning the day so that there are a variety of activities—you're not stuck doing something too long or changing things up so quickly that students can't relax and focus. My schedule is not particularly rigid, but I do have purpose behind the selection and order of activities.
One of the things that we talk to the students about each morning is the importance of listening. I even had a little girl this year say, "We need to be listening with the whole body." I thought this was just beautiful! In addition, I find that, during the game time, competition can of course bring out the best in people, but it can also bring out the worst. As a result, we do not only give points for correct answers, but we also give points for a good attitude, encouraging your teammates, encouraging your competitors, handling things well when you don't get the right answer, and being a good listener. All of those things are positive reinforcements, and very rarely have I had to actually enforce a consequence with a student.
How has the Piano Camp provided motivation for the rest of the teaching year?
I have had many students who tell me that piano camp is one of their favorite things about playing the piano, and I don't take that lightly. It is very common for students to build relationships with each other that then support them through the times when they are struggling with something in their lessons and they're not quite as committed to practicing individually.
Camp can also be the highlight of the year for the assistants. The opportunity to perform for the campers changes their motivation and the pieces they want to play. I had a situation this year where a high school assistant was asking me about counterpoint and Handel, which we had discussed in camp. The campers had sung "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in a round and she said, "Is there anything similar that is written for the piano?" And I said, "Well, actually, yes!" and we counterpoint in inventions and fugues. And she said, "Ooo, can I hear some of those? I'd really like to play some." So, I sent her some recordings of some of my favorite introductory ones, and she was so excited! She wanted to start working on one as soon as possible.
What have you learned in the ten years you have taught the camp?
I have learned a lot about what level of music my students can achieve during a week of practicing. Sometimes I have higher expectations than what they can do; sometimes I have lower expectations, and they could have done more. Finding that sweet spot is important. I have really learned a lot about my assistants, as well. My first assistant had already taken from me, but she had gone away to college and come back to help with the camp. She had a different level of maturity and kind of experience. My middle school helpers haven't had those years of experience, so I've also learned that I need to have a training time for them.
Has the camp changed your week-to-week teaching?
Actually, I think the camp is the way I would like to teach all year. I would really love to have five days a week with these kids and work with them for three hours every day. It's the highlight of my year, too. The achievements the students produce in the camp can provide motivation throughout the year. I may say: "Well, you know, you should be able to learn this in one week; you could do it for camp, you can do it for this." Now they know it doesn't have to take three months to learn a piece.
Do you think that is the result of a week of guided practice at the camp?
Absolutely, one hundred percent. They've had guided practice with me or one of the assistants, and it is amazing to see what they can achieve.
Do you have an even gender distribution in the camp?
One thing that has just continued to amaze me is how much the boys love this camp. And, I think I have been very intentional about making sure that it is something that would appeal to both girls and boys.
What do you do to help the camp appeal to boys?
I'm very particular about the repertoire I choose for the boys, especially ensembles. I want to make sure the music sounds bold, active, and exciting. Some of my favorite memories are of working on ensembles with boys. Once those boys figure out they can make this awesome sound on the piano, they just have the best time of their lives. It is wonderful to see them encourage each other and motivate each other to count and practice and say, "Come on, we can get it this time."
Any final thoughts?
One of the philosophical places I'm coming from is that music is meant to be shared and that music is meant to be an experience of communicating with each other. Unfortunately, pianists don't get that opportunity as often as we would like. The camp is a place for the kids to be able to share with each other, create music as a group, and play for one another.
Composing a creative summer
How did you get started teaching composition?
Back in 1999, I was dreading the onset of summer and the stress of watching my income take its customary and significant dive as students dispersed. I started thinking of ideas that would supplement my income. I decided to offer composition lessons. I had never taken a composition class. I don't know what I was thinking, but I started telling my students that I was—for the first time ever—offering a summer composition program.
As the word got out to my private students, I was excited and nervous as a few of them started to sign up. It was time for me to get in gear. I seriously had no idea how I was going to pull this off. As luck had it, I attended a "Focus on Chopin" weekend at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro early that June. There, surrounded by colleagues, I seized every opportunity to ask others if they had ever taught composition, and if they had, could they could share any words of wisdom. The two best ideas I went home with were (1) stay in a 5-finger pattern, and (2) use words from a poem for lyrics. I returned from the weekend, borrowed a book of Shel Silverstein poems from the library, and selected a handful to offer my students.
I wanted to use a notation software program as part of the process. I knew of a few teachers in my area that owned notation programs. I took a short piece of music to each of their homes, and they showed me how to enter it using their software. This was really helpful, as it let me see how easy or cumbersome the different programs were. My last stop was at composer Carolyn Miller's home. Although she didn't use Finale herself, she told me Finale was the industry standard, and I should go with that. Keep in mind, there weren't nearly as many choices of notation software programs in 1999 as there are today!
Next, I found a teacher in town who knew Finale. She came over and spent a few hours with me to get me started. From there, it was a huge uphill learning curve.
My students started coming for the composition program. We met individually for ninety minutes each session. The composition times were scheduled separately from their regular piano lesson times. Each student chose a poem; we spoke the words, figured and wrote out the rhythm we were speaking, and then came up with pitches. We chose either the key of C major or A minor. When the melody was created, we added accompaniment. I required the students to write pieces that they would be able to play. I also made them do all the writing, other than my providing little examples of what was expected. The entire piece was written at the piano. Only after we wrote the notation out by hand did we move to the computer to use Finale, where the student sat in the "driver's seat" and learned to use the software.
That first year, I printed the finished pieces on loose sheets of paper and gave copies to the students. Thereafter, I started printing on 11x17 pages. Each student created his or her own cover art. Finished pieces look like professional sheet music.
The composition process builds a great deal of confidence and pride. Writing the notation by hand reinforces the language of music. Over the years, I opened my composition program to students from other studios. Some students wrote collaborative pieces for multiple instruments. Some have studied every summer for up to six years in a row. One student went on to earn a degree in composition, and is now working on his master's degree in that field. I embraced every challenge along the way, including a student who wrote a piece for two cellos; a piece for piano and violin; piano, flute, and viola; and piano and trumpet. When students want to write for other instruments, I require them to know people who play the instruments they are writing for. This makes a future performance far more likely. I also stopped using copyrighted words, because it's easier to submit a composition in a competition if the words are original.
One student wrote a school spirit song for a school that was going through a renovation and wanted a fresh theme song! Another wrote for his school orchestra, which then performed his pieces more than once! A third grader wrote a song for a classmate who had cancer. One wrote a piece as a tribute to his grandparents. Another wrote a touching piece in response to September 11th.
Some of my students have been adults, two of whom have won state OFMC contests, which award a hefty $600 prize! One adult started composing with me, moved to California eleven years ago, is still composing, and stays in touch. Once or twice a year, he sends his latest creations.
Student composers motivate the next round of composers. Once the recital audience hears and sees the student compositions, excitement rises, and I always have one or two students who come to the lesson after the recital and tell me they want to write a piece, or even that they already have composed a piece and they're anxious to play it for me.
My advice to teachers thinking about teaching composition is (thanks to Nike) Just do it! You know more than your students, and you'll learn as you go.
Preparation and reinforcement with Aline Giampietro, Judith Jain, and Jane West
The summer options at New Tampa Piano and Pedagogy Academy help prospective and existing students learn and reinforce concepts they will use during the school year in their beginning music study.
Can you tell us the purpose of your summer camp and how the camp is organized?
Our summer camp is a program for prospective and current students, ages six to nine. We design our camp activities around the concepts covered in the first two books of The Music Tree, the series we use at New Tampa Piano and Pedagogy Academy. For new students, it is a jump start, and for current students it is a great reinforcement of what they already know.
We usually have six to twelve students at camp, and students sign up for one to four weeks of camp. They attend for three hours, usually in the morning from 8:30–11:30, Monday through Friday.
The Music Tree focuses on intervallic reading. Can you provide an example of an activity you use to strengthen that skill?
Much of what is done in camp is a preparation for what will be taught more in depth throughout the Preparation and reinforcement with Aline Giampietro, Judith Jain, and Jane West semester. For instance, through the use of games, students are taught note values, high and low sounds, the music alphabet, black and white keys, and intervallic reading. One very helpful teaching game for approaching intervallic reading is using a floor piano mat and a die with music intervals.
The purpose of the game is to match the intervals from the die on the piano mat. Students divide into two groups, one for the higher register of the piano and the other for the lower register. Each group is assigned colored cups that they place on the piano mat showing the intervals according to the die. They start by placing the first cup on C, and then they throw a die. If the die shows a five, for example, the second cup is placed a fifth away from the first cup. The process is repeated with the other group. The points are collected as the groups answer correctly with the distance and direction of the intervals. Whoever hits twenty points first wins the game!
What are some of the other activities you use?
Camp activities that do not require note reading or music vocabulary are used frequently at camp. MusikGarten's highly acclaimed core developmental concepts of listening, repeating, clapping, and dancing basic tonal and rhythmic patterns in the form of a participatory group setting make for numerous interactive activities. Starting at the very beginning of camp, every child gets a special introduction by having the instructor sing a short tune and adding the student's name at the end. This is then repeated going around the circle. This helps students learn each other's names while simultaneously feeling a sense of belonging. Other concepts, such as body movement and the expression of musical feeling, are put together through "Travelling Movement," an improvisatory exercise. A story is read, such as "Rain Dance," and then the children show the actions with their bodies. This creates a different connection with music learning—one that is rooted in freedom of expression.
After preparatory games and exercises, the students work on the "project of the week." This is a piece taught to the campers by rote. Most of the elements are prepared: rhythm, knowledge of finger numbers, intervals, and key names. Rote teaching allows us to teach a "harder" sounding piece, as it isn't limited to their reading level. At the end of the week, students perform the piece on one of our Clavinova pianos with an enhanced digital accompaniment. We record their performance and share it with their parents, as a musical treat.