Friday, May 20, 2016

The Connections Songbook: Every Graduate Needs One!

Your Orange Roots student is almost done with Let's Play Music classes forever.  First, grab a tissue and dry your eye.  After experiencing the joy and fullness of our classes and developing a tight bond with your teacher, it's a little sad to move on to a private piano teacher, but we know exactly what will help!
Connections: A Transition Songbook

Every graduate will get the Connections songbook to use with his or her new piano teacher.  You may be wondering: what is this book!? Why would teachers want it? Will my child like it? How will I get my new teacher to use it? Good questions! The connections book is the best way to build a bridge from LPM to whatever comes next for your family.  Here's how:

  • Use the book alone for 4-8 weeks only. 
  • EVERY student and EVERY teacher benefit. No exceptions.
  • This book does NOT replace your teacher's choice of method book.
  • Let your child honestly showcase and reinforce what he has learned.
  • DO NOT require further polishing of songs passed off in LPM.
  • DO use the activities to initiate a parent-teacher conversation about plans for your child's lessons/ education.

What Students Want: A Showcase

Your child has just mastered some awesome skills.  He has fantastic ear-training under his belt, can understand advanced theory, and even wrote his own song. When he goes to a new teacher, the first thing he wants to do is showcase his strengths. He wants her to be impressed.

That may seem obvious, but it can get tricky! Let's Play Music is not a piano course, really. It's a musicianship course. When your child shows his new teacher what he knows, she probably won't be expecting a showcase of advanced skills like completing the musical phrase, filling in the chords for a song, and listening to and identifying melodic patterns.  The connections books has examples of these skills so that he can show off exactly how great he is at these non-traditional but oh-so-important skills.

And if you're wondering what the best way is to showcase your ability to really master and play some songs, the answer is: play some songs you already know well!  The connections book has duplicates of songs your child learned in this year, specifically so he can perfectly showcase them. 

The Connections book is THE BEST way for your child to honestly showcase his skills.

What Parents Want: More LPM

As a parent, you've loved that LPM presented your child with SO MANY ASPECTS of musical education in every single lesson.  You had ear-training, composing, music history, music theory, classical music, sight-reading, and more on top of actually working a little bit on the mechanics of actually playing piano.

Be aware that that's a long list of skills to cram into a lesson! You saw your child develop beginning composing skills and even write an entire song, so you'd be let down if he never worked on composition skills again!  The connections songbook shows you new teacher examples of composing exercises and ear-training exercises that can be done with your child to help him keep progressing.  The songbook gives you an easy way to initiate this conversation with your teacher: "These are skills that we care about. Can you design a way to include these skills in his education? "

In Let's Play Music we use our blue bugs and our colored chords and some other lingo that mainstream teachers don't know.  During third year, your child started counting the traditional way and talking about I, IV, and V chords the mainstream way, but you'll want a teacher who is willing to talk to your child in "an LPM way" at the beginning. The connections book teacher guide walks the teacher through each lesson, prompting her in exactly what to say, giving her examples of how your child is accustomed to talking about music.

Finding a teacher who is willing to go through the official connecting process is extremely valuable! The connections process is THE BEST way to communicate to your new teacher what you've come to expect in music lessons.

What Teachers Want: Integration

Your teacher is excited to have a new students, but probably apprehensive, too.  What has the previous teacher been teaching? How skilled is this student? What weaknesses need to be addressed? How will I fit this student into the method books that I love?  One teacher I talked to (we'll call her Ms. Lemon) was SO nervous about taking transfer students that she made a studio policy to refuse all transfer students!  Oh no! She is missing out on the best students!

It's true that integrating a LPM student could be tricky the first time, but the connections  book makes the task so much easier.  Because your LPM child has  skills in musicianship beyond mechanically playing the music, Connections helps the new teacher touch upon each concept so she can accurately evaluate them and plan ways to incorporate them into the student's lessons

Each of the eight lessons touches upon different skills taught in LPM. If only Ms. Lemon had known these are probably the easiest eight first lessons she'd ever teach with a new student! All the planning has been done: the connections book has theory, repertoire, ear-training, composing, and the teacher's guide. Ms. Lemon could even watch the tutorial videos that show her how to use the teacher's guide. Follow it step-by-step for a few lessons and you're sure of success.

Successful integration often means using a beginner level method for technique but a higher level or a different method for theory, ear-training, repertoire, and composition exercises.  Integration also means finding creative ways to add "LPM-style" musicianship to otherwise simple method books!  A successful choice of repertoire and technique means the student will be excited and motivated while still making steady progress.

Teachers who have taken the effort to tailor teaching to the unique talents (but beginner fingers) of LPM students find that they really ARE THE BEST students!  Imagine having students that can hear when they play an error, that have developed a love of creating music, that know how to practice daily, and have an understanding of how music is structured.  It's worth a teacher's time and effort to tailor lessons for these students; if nurtured, they will make rapid and amazing progress, like a Chinese Bamboo. Their fingers will catch up to their brains in no time.

The Connections process is THE BEST way to evaluate and integrate a LPM graduate into a new studio. 

What to Expect in Real Life

Here are some scenarios (or warnings) of what could happen when you finish LPM and go on to a private teacher.  Learn from the experiences of others and be an advocate to help your child and new teacher forge a beautiful relationship!

Scenario 1: Unfair Evaluation
Philomena's mom took her to the first lesson with the new teacher, Ms. Apple. Ms. Apple knew that she'd been taking music lessons for a few years but didn't know anything about LPM. She pulled out her favorite method book and had Philomena sight read a piece.  It seemed tricky, so she chose an easier level.  By the end of the lesson, Ms. Apple had decided to start Philomena back in the primer level, and was confused about what could possibly have been going on in LPM class.  Philomena continued with these traditional piano lessons for eight weeks.  By then, Philomena had never had an opportunity to play songs that interested her, used any chords or intervals, composed, transposed, improvised, or used her other musicianship skills.  She thought piano was boring and wanted to quit.  Well, it was boring.
What happened?
Because Ms. Apple didn't know anything about the LPM course, she had no way of guessing the skills Philomena had developed.  She didn't know to use "LPM terminology" to help her succeed in answering theory questions.  Philomena's mom realized her mistake and asked Ms. Apple to go through the connecting process.  They got a connections book and spent about eight weeks working through that.  When they were done, Ms. Apple had a much better idea of which books Philomena needed for technique and which she would enjoy for repertoire.

Scenario 2: Polishing Old Songs
Gertrude's new teacher, Ms. Banana was willing to work through the connections book before transitioning to the new method. When she heard Gertrude play Cockles and Mussels, she saw lots of room for improvement and spent eight weeks focusing to improve dynamics, wrist position, arm position, and technique to create much more musical playing.  Although that one song became very polished, Gertrude hated practicing and was losing interest.
What happened?
Parents must be aware, and be prepared to remind new teachers that LPM is not a piano program, per se.  It is a musicianship program. Students are armed with a host of skills that will help them become truly talented and well-rounded musicians in life, but they don't have three years' experience of intense piano drills. Ms. Banana and other teachers will teach the students specifics of technique and piano-specific skills on new songs they will learn. Songs like Cockles and Mussels  are already passed off! Done! Finished! Gertrude's purpose in playing it for Ms. Banana was to showcase what she can do, not spend lots of time improving it. Remember, passing off a song in LPM is not nearly the same as polishing a song with a private teacher, but the child has been told she's finished with Cockles and Mussels. Ms. Banana should let Gertrude play it, notice where she needs improvement, and use that knowledge on future songs. Ms. Banana is right to add a little extra focus to weak skills, because some students need more chord practice while others need more sight-reading practice...but be sure she has a teacher's guide to keep her mostly on track.

Scenario 3: Double-Fun Teacher
Benedict's new private teacher, Ms. Orange, was also his LPM Teacher! Ms. Orange is smart and savvy. Even though she already knows all the "LPM Lingo" that the connections book translates for private teachers, she decided to use the songbook for a few weeks with Benedict anyway.  Having these lessons one-on-one with Benedict gave Ms. Orange an all-new new opportunity to carefully evaluate him and help him strengthen certain areas.  Ms. Orange says that even LPM teachers benefit from going through the book with students as they transition to private lessons!

Not By The Book

Clementine's new teacher, Mr. Grape, enthusiastically participated in the connections program and helped her through the Connections book.  He realized that Clementine needed a tailored program to help her keep improving musicianship skills. 

To help her feel excited about awesome-sounding music, he gives her some challenging repertoire, including a Bach minuet, to work on. He chose a theory book with some assignments that correspond with the repertoire.

To help her learn piano-specific technique, he assigns her several easy primer pieces from his favorite method book. He stresses hand and wrist position and dynamics and requires perfection to pass off these easy songs.  He assigns exercises and scales from his favorite technique book, but also assigns her to transpose them to other keys because he knows she can do it.

To continue her improvisation and chording skills, he assigns some easy pieces for her to master, then add or change the accompaniment, or to add embellishments and flourishes. He also takes two minutes during class to allow some improvisational melody, Echo-Edison style call and repeat, or time to work on a composition.

By now you've noticed that piano teachers have different styles, different method books, and different lesson formats.  Mr. Grape's teaching is not as simple as picking a pack of method books in one level and systematically working through them.  He doesn't mind finding out what a child can do and helping her make progress from where she is.  He uses his training and experience as a teacher to tailor the assignments he gives to Clementine, and she has a successful, well-rounded experience because of it.  

Find A Teacher

When you are looking for a new piano teacher, ask the question: "Are you willing to do the connections book to get to know my child? Are you willing to mix and match methods and levels if needed, to suit the needs of my child?"  

If a teacher is unwilling to use the connections book to get to know your child's skill, or to tweak her teaching program to suit your child's skills, be wary that this might not be a good match.  Remind your teacher of all the benefits of going through the book for just a few weeks, and that it is not a replacement for her favorite method book.

Like my acquaintance, Ms. Lemon, some teachers may stick to the routine they know and hate to vary the program.  On the other hand, now that Mr. Grape has found some activities that work well with Clementine, he's excited to have more LPM students and will probably use a similar path with them.

One place to look for a new teacher is at our Connections page. These teachers have taken the time to learn the LPM lingo, understand our teach philosophy, and review the skills and types of activities we've done in class.  This doesn't mean that they've specifically committed to practice ear-training, transposing, or composing with your child. It's up to you to be an advocate, stay involved in your child's lessons, and talk to the teacher about her plan for your child's education.  If your child is bored or feels like her teacher underestimates her skill, have a conversation. Find out if your teacher has really connected with LPM.

Nice Trombone!

This post is here to help students transition to new piano teachers, but many graduates to on to other instruments, too. When you meet your new instrument teacher, they will still be interested to know what you know.  The connections book gives these teachers a chance to see what you know musically, although not on your new instrument yet.  Your teacher will be empowered to know that you would like some ear exercises and composing exercises, and YES, you CAN do those on your new instrument.  Note reading skills and rhythm reading skills are valuable for any musician, so show your teacher what you've got!

- Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music educator

Monday, April 18, 2016

Let's Sing! Help Me Sing on Pitch

In the article Let's Sing! Part 1, we gave some tips for getting youngsters interested in singing, and explained one big reason singing is a fundamental part of musicianship training: the first year of class focuses on helping your child think tonically.

Singing in Your Brain

If your child's brain is hearing in tune, how will her teacher know? What test can we do to find out what she's hearing in her mind?  

Singing is the best feedback. In order to sing in tune, the brain must first hear in tune.  All ear training is actually brain training, and will help any musician rise to a higher level (even if you decide to be a guitarist or trombonist instead of a singer).

If singing in tune, singing on pitch, carrying a tune in a bucket, and Echoing Ed make you nervous, keep reading for tips on how to finally get on pitch.

The Echo Family 

In every year of Let's Play Music, teachers will present a variety of ear-training games in class and will almost always request singing from the students as feedback to see what they have heard and internalized. Don't worry, it feels like a playful game, not an exam!
Teacher Kim Seyboldt and her Echo Edie

In your first year you'll meet Echo Ed, and if you've been in Sound Beginnings, you know Echo Edie (Ed's baby sister). Both of these puppets make sounds and sing, and ask children to echo back to them.  

Ed sings two notes "loo loo" and wants to know: were you able to hear the exact pitches I just sang? Pitch is the quality that lets you determine if notes are high, low, the same, or different. Pitch is determined by the wave frequency, and identified by the note name. Even if you can't identify the exact pitches, "you sang an E, then G," you probably can hear that the first note was higher and the second lower. You can likely sing back a matching note.

Were you also able to hear the exact interval between the two notes? If you sing back the same notes, your teacher knows you certainly did hear it all correctly

A new student might sing back using different notes, or a different interval. She might be confused because she can't hear the difference between the pitches yet (keep training the ear) or because she can't get her voice to reproduce the sound she hears (keep training the vocal muscles).  Training the ear and training the voice go very naturally together. Most LPM students make progress in both skills simultaneously.

Built to Sing

The good news is, humans are wired to sing. It can be learned! Don't give up! The vocal range (entire span of pitches a child can produce) is remarkably wide from birth. Infants can imitate and experiment with their vocal instruments and even match pitch as early as three to four months of age.  Purposeful singing can begin at around twelve months. At this time, adults can recognize snippets of songs to which youngsters have been exposed. 

We've said before that music is a language. If you child has mastered English, she's focused on the skills necessary for producing the sounds of English words.  But what about that wide vocal range that she had at birth? If she doesn't experiment with it now that she has achieved the goal of speaking, her brain stops paying attention to all the different sounds she can make, but doesn't need. This is one reason we love Sound Beginnings classes: we help babies and toddlers continue exploring and understanding sound before they settle into just a small set of skills.

I'm reminded of an embarrassing incident, before I became a Let's Play Music teacher, in which a friend tried to quickly teach me some Mandarin Chinese.  Words differ in meaning based on tone and pronunciation. I had a hard time hearing the difference between tones that were rising, falling, falling then rising, or remaining flat, especially when spoken quickly and mixed into a string of words.  She thought it was hilarious that I couldn't distinguish between the "obvious" differences.  That five-minute teasing didn't go very well, but I feel confident that with practice I could train myself to hear what my friend was trying to explain.

The same can be said for our students. With some practice, they will be able to think tonally and show it by Echoing Ed. With repetition, exposure, and engagement, children extract the meaning behind the pitch exercises. They naturally start to "get it."

Sol-what about Sol-Mi?

Using the singing voice beautifully is a learned, complex skill.  Childhood, as I mentioned, presents a window of opportunity when students are open to all experiences and are willing to explore their voices without feeling timid. No one expects them to be experts. If we show them that singing in class is the thing to do, they'll belt out some fabulous sounds.  Adults must be brave enough to try singing, too!

Educator Zoltan Kodaly emphasized singing for improving musicianship.  He
Can you sing it in your mind?
helped children master  the first step: 'inner hearing' or audiation. This is the ability to accurately hear music in the mind/imagination.  The culminating skill involving audiation occurs when a student reads notated rhythm and melody and makes musical sense of it, 'hearing' it even though it is not played aloud.
That is exactly the skill my childhood friend, Jess (from part 1), was so well trained for. Any of us who've had a song stuck in our head (an earworm) definitely can audiate to some level.  The second step is training the voice to get the sound out.

Researchers have discovered there is a progression in children's perceptual sensitivities, moving from simple to complex. The easiest interval to hear, identify, and produce is a minor third.  You'll hear it when we sing "sol-mi".  

The first few weeks, Echo Ed will sing loo-loo with this interval.  In Sound Beginnings, we have two songs each semester (with reading notes on the staff) that use exclusively sol and mi.   

Tip: Revert to Sol-Mi. Any time a student is struggling to echo back on pitch, I go back to practicing with just sol-mi patterns.  It is worthwhile to help the child master several patterns or songs (mi-sol, sol-mi-sol, mi-sol-sol, etc.) before moving on.
Echo Ed sings sol-mi-sol.  Are you confident enough to echo back? Pictured: Shelle Soelberg
Tip: Go to his range. Any time a student sings back using a different starting pitch than my own, I repeat the exercise using the pitch he just sang (and is most comfortable with).  A struggling child often successfully hears and sings a minor third when I 'meet them' at their favorite starting pitch.

Tip: Snuggle up. Hold your child close, with cheeks touching your mouth near his ear and his mouth near your ear. Very quietly sing 'sol-mi' and have him quietly echo back. This personal, loving game helps youngsters focus on listening. He can hear and feel the vibrations of your notes through his cheek!

Tip: Any note is Sol. Let's Play Music teachers are required to have a particular skill, so you parents may as well practice it, too!  Play ANY NOTE on the piano.  Imagine it is 'sol'.  Now sing Sol-Mi.  To check yourself, take three half-steps down (that means go down 3 piano keys of any color).  Get good at hearing and singing this interval, no matter what note we start on. 

Why does Ed sing 'loo-loo' instead of 'sol-mi' in the beginning? Because we begin with experiencing and internalizing the pitches.  Even though these two words are the same (loo) they don't  sound the same.  We help the child focus on the one aspect that is different: pitch.

Only when tunes with sol and mi are mastered, la, is added. Dozens of songs can be composed with these three notes.  You know children love and practice with these intervals because they naturally use them over and over when they make up their own songs.  You know...these songs:
  • Nana-nana boo-boo! (sol-sol mi-la sol-mi)
  • Trick-or-treat! Smell my feet ! (sol sol mi.  Sol sol mi.)
  • Give me something good to eat! (sol sol mi-la sol sol mi)
  • You ca-an't catch me! (sol mi-la sol mi!)
  • Ring around the rosy (sol sol-mi la sol-mi)
  • Rain, rain, go away (sol, mi, sol sol-mi) 
Tip: Act like you're four. If your child is hesitant to sing, or echo in class, use all of the above songs at home frequently. Your child will start using those phrases himself.  Warning: once you invite your child to say "nana-nana boo-boo" to you, you may never hear the end of it.   

Tip: Compose. It also pays off to invent songs using the above patterns using sol, la, and mi and use them all the time: "Get into the ca-ar. Don't forget your sho-es."  These short tunes can be repeated during the day and there's a good chance you'll get some back: "Read me a sto-ry. Or I won't go to sle-ep." Your child doesn't need to know he's improving his ear; it just seems silly and fun.

Do and re are added next, one at a time into songs for echoing.  Singing a pentatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Sol-La) is easier than mastering the entire diatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do), so we practice the pentatonic scale in Sound Beginnings class.  Songs that include Fa and Ti are introduced last.

Singing Voice and Speaking Voice

We all seem competent walking around and climbing stairs,  but only someone who has specifically strengthened and trained their muscles will be able to pull off a back handspring.  Our vocal equipment is also composed of muscles, and like all muscles, they respond to training and strengthening.  Muscle memory applies to vocal muscles just like it applies to our fingers: when we repeat and practice actions, our brain and muscles remember how to do it. It gets easier. It starts seems automatic. 

So, each person has only one voiceWhen using it for speaking, muscles create succinct sounds at moderate volumes with small changes in inflection and pitch.  This seems easy because we have lots of practice speaking, and we don't demand great exertions 

When singing, we use the same equipment in a very different way: producing vocal overtones at great volume, held for long periods, covering a large pitch range. It's not surprising that singing requires more training than speaking, and that a singer often sounds very different when singing than when speaking! 

Can you sing an octave like the major scale?
A Let's Play Music student is learning how to get into his 'singing voice.' At first, he may be nervous to try to make sounds outside the few pitches that he uses for speaking.  Activities like swooping and hooting are used in class to encourage exploration of the vocal range. The tessitura (span of pitches that are comfortable for singing, smaller than the total vocal range) for Let's Play Music children is between middle D and treble B, so our songs are written within that range (except the major scale going from middle C to treble C...a little stretch).

Tip: Be A Siren. If your child has a hard time leaving his favorite pitch (sings monotone), play siren games as often as you can work them into daily life.  When driving toy cars or airplanes, make swooping high and low sounds.  Fly a bite of food on your fork with swooping sounds before it makes it to the hangar.  As you walk down the hallway with a laundry basket, announce that the ambulance is coming and "wee-ooo wee-ooo".  Now that you've modeled the swooping, encourage your child to do some, too.  He'll get in the habit of experimenting with high and low sounds, and start to expand his range.

Carrying a tune requires us to jump from note to note, covering the intervals exactly. We practice in class by working out our voices, practicing the intervals as they appear in songs and isolated.  Working the voice muscles in this way builds muscle memory to give us confidence that next time we need to jump the given interval, we instinctively know exactly how much to flex our vocal chords.   
By the third year, teachers show the students intervals with their hands (solfege) and they audiate and then sing.  This sight singing is a testament that audiation has occurred and that students' muscle memory for vocal muscles is well-developed.

Use tone bells to train your voice!
Tip: Muscle Memory. Play Do-Re-Do on your tone bells. Sing it back.  As you go about your day, sing Re-Do-Re or Do-Re-Do and have your child echo you. If you can't quite remember it, or can't quite get it right, go back to the piano or bells to check.  Tomorrow add Do-Mi-Do to your repertoire, then Do-Fa-Do, etc.  Any piano key can be Do!  Your vocal muscles are mastering the intervals.

And what if you have the child who is happy to sing loud and proud, but doesn't notice that he's not hitting the right notes?

Tip: Listen to Yourself. Encourage your child to listen to himself. In a large group, it's easy to get carried along and lose track of what sound is coming from our own voice.  It might help to sing along sometimes to a very quiet CD so he can really hear his voice.  In a large group he might need to plug one ear occasionally so he can hear his voice separate from the rest of the class. 

We're Singing Now!

If your child is able to sing along with the CD and even feels comfortable singing without the CD, he is likely ready for a bit more challenge!  Creating harmony challenges the child's ability to audiate: can he hear his part and sing it, even when other singers are doing something different?

Ostinati (short, repeating melody) and rounds are the best way to teach children to hear and sing in harmony. An ostinato produces harmony because the notes are sung against the main melody of the song.  When we sing "Three Blind Mice and you are asked to sing 'mi re do' over and over, you are singing the ostinato.
This is an easy way to introduce harmony because it has a persistent nature; the student can focus on repeating his harmonic melody while also hearing the main tune.

Singing songs in rounds, like "Are You Sleeping" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" gives a slightly more challenging opportunity to create harmony and strengthening audiation.  Now he must audiate and sing his entire song while not being distracted by other singers.  

Tip: Increase the Challenge. If your child is catching on to singing, repeat the songs and activities from class.  Assign family members to sing in a round, sing an ostinato, sing two-part songs like "Horsey Horsey", or multi-part songs like "Solfege Sea Friends" or "Treble, Bass, Line, and Space." Long car trips or hikes are a great time to initiate a singing challenge!

Sing Now, Sing Later   

I have had a few parents say to me, "we will give it our best shot, but what if he just doesn't learn to like singing?"  

In Let's Play Music, we will do our best to equip your child with skills to succeed as a musician.  A musician who rarely takes time to sing can still be a virtuoso on his instrument.  Although he hasn't trained his voice to confidently and accurately produce the pitches for singing, his brain is able to distinguish and audiate them.  This skill will be powerful to him as a musician, and could not have been introduced at age four without a few years of singing.

Please tell us in the comments- have you had a reluctant singer? or a child who struggled to match pitch? How did you help?

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher 

Don't miss part 1: Let's Sing: Why singing is fundamental
Another post you may enjoy: Musical Superpower: Perfect Pitch