When You Want to Teach One Sibling, but Not the Other

My mother with the three youngest kids in our family. I'm the baby in her arms.

What a dilemma. I faced just this situation a few years ago when a mother came to me with three children. I immediately wanted to teach the older daughter and the younger daughter, but didn't want to teach the boy in the middle. There were lots of reasons why I wanted to teach the oldest and the youngest—they were interesting children, completely ready for lessons and I immediately liked them. They'd had some "lessons" with another teacher, but I could tell right away that they would be successful piano students.

The boy was completely different. He was definitely hovering at the edge of the autism spectrum and had great difficulty controlling himself. That wasn't what actually mattered in making this decision. Yes, he had some physical challenges that would make piano playing difficult for him. But even more important was the fact that he was fiercely competitive with both of his sisters. Even in the interview, he compared himself to them constantly. Trying to teach the three of them would have set him up for nothing but frustration. 

Years ago I might have thought the only options were to take all of them or none of them. I've gotten wiser in my dotage.

Here was my solution:

I took the mother out for coffee. Sometimes it's easier to have difficult conversations in person. You can make eye contact and use non-verbal cues to convey your sincerity and warmth. Email can be particularly treacherous in situations like this, especially if you're just getting to know someone.

We met in a Starbucks to discuss the situation. I explained why I thought that having all three kids playing the same instrument was, in this case, not advised. I clarified exactly why I thought that playing the piano, specifically, would be more challenging for him than it would be for his sisters.

She agreed with me that he was too competitive to tolerate watching his sisters shoot ahead as he struggled. He needed something that, by definition, would make him special and make comparisons more difficult. I felt that it would be better if her son played a completely different instrument and suggested the guitar. (The guitar is easier to play, especially at the beginning, and almost impossible to compare to the piano.) I was completely honest with her about my assessment of the situation. And though I was kind and understanding, having raised a difficult boy myself, I didn't offer to take on her son as my student. I took the girls and, as I'd predicted, they did quite well. 

Here's the thing: if you can see heading into a situation that it won't be successful, follow your instincts.

Any healthy parent would always prefer your honest opinion as long as you are kind, gracious, and offer another solution that will work better. You'll be doing no one a favor if you teach a child that you think isn't a good fit, even if the siblings are studying with you. It's far better to follow your heart and speak the truth kindly. 




Fast and Furious

I'm furious.

I'm at the Music Teachers Association of California annual conference. I know that it's hard to make a great conference happen. It's hard to make even a decent conference happen. 

Tomorrow afternoon a man will present this session:

Fast and Furious — Technique and Repertoire for Boys
When you consider all the sports, activities and technology that fill the lives of boys these days, keeping them inspired and motivated at the piano can be a challenge. This session will consider three key factors for motivating males: cool repertoire, relational teaching and appealing technology. 

When my friend first told me about this, we joked about proposing a session for next year about how hard it is to keep girls motivated since they're so busy with all that makeup and girl stuff. Like baking and sewing. Maybe we could call it Slow and Sullen.

Then I realized that this session was going to happen. An actual man was going to get up and talk about boys as if their musical needs and preferences were:

a. different than those of girls
b. deserving of special attention
c. going to be addressed, though those of girls were being ignored

Several years ago I wrote a lengthy post called Music Has no Gender. The only people who sent me angry messages were those with a horse in the race. People with collections like Especially for Boys and Especially for Girls

I'm disheartend that a blatantly gender-stereotyped session didn't bring up red flags for the planning committee. How can anyone think it's acceptable to perpetuate these screaming gender stereotypes?

Is there any teacher who doesn't currently have girls who are busy with sports and activities? Girls who are engaged with and by technology? Girls who want to play cool repertoire?

It's a intolerable step backward. 

Just in case it needs clarifying, women can be furious. 

Like me, tonight.

I Hate Teaching Scales

There. I've said it.

What about you? C'mon. Tell the truth.

When you assign a new scale are you already dreading listening to it the next week?  I am.

Perhaps you'll understand me better if you know that I love playing scales. I just don't like teaching them. At least I didn't until now.

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It's Kinda Like Art: Highlighting Tape in a Lesson

Here's Charlie's first lesson on a new piece called Melody for the Left Hand. This video shows exactly how we prepared her to successfully play the piece.

What I like best about this kind of work is that it puts the child in control of their learning. They plan out what chords will be played most frequently, which are rare. They scan through the entire piece happily before they play a note. I especially like that this prevents the student from playing until they make a mistake. It's so much easier to learn when you have a road map in front of you. In this case, it's a colorful map that points out all the curves ahead.

Try it the next time you present a piece. Let me know how it works for you!

You can find highlighting tape here.

World's Cutest Copy Cat

Watch 7-year-old Charlie playing a Copy Cat piece! You'll wonder why no one thought to write pieces like this before. They're a perfect way to teach sight reading, ear training, and key signatures all in the same book. Find out more here...

A few ideas for using Copy Cat pieces:

  • Play one part yourself, let your student play the other.
  • Play a piece first using the version with accidentals written into the score. Then cover up that version and let them try the version with the key signature. What becomes harder? Is anything easier?
  • Play one part yourself and see if your student can play it back to you without looking at the music!
  • Have the student play one part and see if YOU can play it back without looking at the music!
  • Play the phrases in a different order. Try playing every other phrase. How does that change the way the piece sounds? Do some phrases sound like endings? What do the other phrases sound like? Why wouldn't you want to end with some of them?

I hope you and your students have as much fun with these pieces as I have had with my students.



Thomas, age 7 tries Sight Reading Flashcards

A few weeks ago we watched Natalie as she used my Sight Reading Flashcards for the first time. Now we have a chance to watch her twin brother Thomas give it a try. It's interesting to see how differently they approach the same task. Natalie is more serious, Thomas jokes and pranks his way through. Both of them learn all the concepts they need to, and both have a good time.

Here's a peek behind the scenes at my studio this week: 

Having the right materials can make all the difference in your ability to teach sight reading, and your students' success. 

Get your copy of Sight Reading Flashcards (with a studio license) here. 

Ten Tips for Teaching Sight Reading

 Burgmuller Arabesque: Those pesky eighth note rests weren't typos after all.

Burgmuller Arabesque: Those pesky eighth note rests weren't typos after all.

"Those little squiggles? I assumed they were just typos." My new student, Harold, was playing the Burgmuller Arabesque. I'd asked him if he knew what the eighth notes rests were.

How had this happened? Harold, age 67, was a new transfer student. He'd been studying for years, but his teachers had let him down. He couldn't read music. He didn't even know what the most basic symbols meant.  

In my years of teaching, I've met many Harolds. Each one arrived at my door with their particular mix of limited knowledge and illiteracy.

It's turned me into a champion and teacher of sight reading. I, myself, was a child who didn't learn to read music until well into middle school. My combination of perfect pitch and a first teacher who didn't notice I hadn't learned to read had left me musically illiterate. It wasn't until playing flute in my middle school band and accompanying the chorus forced to learn to read that I finally did. By that time I was already playing the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto. Not able to read it, but playing it nonetheless.

I think we owe it to our students to teach them to read well. It is a matter of making it a priority and assembling the right materials.

Here are ten tips to make you a better sight reading teacher. 

1. Every musician plays better than they can sight read. 

This may seem obvious, but it isn't. I can play Rachmaninoff Concertos, but I can't sight read them easily or fluently. There's a relationship between the music I can sight read and the music I can play. I am an excellent sight reader, but even I can't play at sight the music I can play after hours of thoughtful practice.

My student, Audrey, with diligent practice, can play a piece like Fountain in the Rain by William Gillock, but it would be too difficult for her to sight read. She sight reads fluently a few levels below Fountain in the Rain. At her last lesson, she sight read through my entire Sight Reading Book One . In fact, she blew right through it. (Her Mom joked that perhaps she should get a refund since I clearly hadn't taught her anything!) 

2. Students do best when their sight reading stays only a few levels below their performance ability.

Brent, another transfer student, came to me at age twelve, able to play Joplin Rags and Beethoven Sonatinas. As I got to know him better, I realized that he couldn't read a note. I mean, he literally couldn't read music. Didn't know the difference between an eighth note and a quarter note. He vaguely knew whether notes went up or down, but couldn't tell a second from a third.

His previous teacher simply hadn't realized that every time she demonstrated something for him he was swallowing it up and regurgitating it note-for-note.

When we started working on sight reading, we went back to nearly a Primer level to find something he could play fluently at sight. It wasn't fun, because his playing ability had gotten completely out of the range of his ability to read. There was no relation between what he could read and what he could play.

3. The bigger the discrepancy between reading and performance level, the more the student will try to hide it.

Students who perform their practiced repertoire well may often not realize that their sight reading level is not expected to be at the same level. If the only music they are given to read is music that takes weeks or even months to learn, why would they think otherwise? 

It's embarrassing to admit that one doesn't know how to sight read a piece. Teachers need to take the time to explain and discuss the perfectly normal gap between reading and performance ability. 

4. Sight reading music that's too difficult isn't really sight reading.

Playing at sight means exactly that — playing it at sight. Not fussing around and making mistakes and apologizing and making the same mistake and apologizing again. Sight reading should be done with music that one can play when one looks at it.

Struggling and stumbling through difficult music, and by that I mean music that is difficult for any given student, isn't the same as sight reading. It's more like driving your car into a wall again and again. You're in the car, but you're not taking it for a drive. (Is this the metaphor I chose because one of my student's mothers drove her car into my house this week?)

5. Sight reading should be enjoyable.

Reading music for pleasure should be the same as reading books for pleasure. You should know the vocabulary, the basic sentence structure, and be able to figure the rest out by context. It shouldn't feel like reading this dissertation on C.P.E. Bach.

C.P.E. shoved aside the decorous roccoco style of the era to embrace "Sturm and Drang" – "storm and stress" – as well as Empfindsamkeit, or "intimate expressiveness." The dark, dramatic, improvisation-like passages that turn up in pieces by Haydn and Mozart bore the direct influence of C.P.E.

(If this is your thing, please feel free to read the rest of the article here...)

6. Too easy is better than too hard.

Reading a book that you can understand is more fun than reading one that leaves you puzzled. It's the same with music. Finding the sweet spot of what one can do easily and mixing it with teeny, tiny challenges can require some thought and preparation. It's also why materials made specifically for sight reading can be so helpful.

7. Do it with them.

In my studio, this usually takes the form of me playing one hand while the student plays the other. Some of the benefits to this kind of sight reading are learning:

  • The value and meaning of rests (if one doesn't observe them, the piece will fall apart)
  • Listening and keeping a consistent tempo
  • Playing something slightly more difficult than the student could play alone
  • Hearing a new piece in a more complete way
  • Hearing me make a mistake and realizing even teachers make mistakes

8. Prepare the score

 Paolo highlighting chord changes.

Paolo highlighting chord changes.

It's not cheating to look through the score first. In fact, I recommend it.

Preparation is especially easy if the "piece" is a flashcard that's only four measures long. Looking for patterns, direction changes and hand changes makes it more likely the first time through will be correct. This will vary depending on the student. Some students might need to highlight each note in the simplest flashcard. Others may need no preparation at all and be able to dive right in. It will also depend on how challenging the material is for the student.

 Circling the thirds is an excellent way to help students learn to spot them.

Circling the thirds is an excellent way to help students learn to spot them.

  • Circle the thirds.
  • Write in fingering.
  • Use highlighter tape, highlighters or washi tape to mark changes. 
    This could mean highlighting the LH notes blue and the RH notes red. Or, highlighting all the C Major chords purple, the possibilities are endless.

9. Make it social.

It's more fun to sight read with someone else. Not only does it increase the opportunities for learning, but as you'll see in this short clip below, it can also increase a student's awareness of their own strengths and challenges. Watch the dynamic changing between these sisters as they become aware that their assumptions may not be correct:


10. Sight Reading is forever.

Sight reading isn't a single skill to acquire. It's more like the cardio in your workout routine. You need to keep doing it so that you don't lose your ability to do it. It's one of the most important, if not THE most important skill you can teach. If we want to create independent learners, then we have to teach them the skills of independence. The ability to read fluently has to start at the beginning.

Recently my dear friend, Elissa Milne, posted this on the Art of Piano Pedagogy:

What strategies do you recommend for developing reading skills in beginners who seem to memorize their pieces almost instantaneously?

I understand her question. If a student memorizes something almost instantaneously, how do you teach them to read?

At the beginning, for some gifted students, they can play at almost the exact same level they can read. This doesn't usually last long, but I have had it last for as long as six months. My student, Leo, was like this. My strategy was simple. I kept him reading. We "assigned" pieces even though they were memorized by the time he left, and we kept assigning them week-after-week until there was finally something to practice. In the process, Leo became one of the best readers I've ever taught. The fact that he could memorize his music did not in any way prevent him from becoming an excellent sight reader.

Here are some materials I've put together that may help you in your goal of creating a studio full of excellent sight readers. Let me know how it goes!

Diane Hidy's Sightreading Flashcards Book One (Studio License)

You'll wonder how you ever taught without this 32-page book. I made these cards for my students to give them plenty of opportunities to practice all the different skills they were acquiring. This series starts with the simplest possible rhythmic patterns on the Landmark notes Middle C, Bass F and Treble G. Each set becomes incrementally more difficult.

Here are a few of the many different ways to use these cards:

  • Encourage students to write in their own fingering. This paves the way for making true fingering choices later on
  • Circle the thirds before starting to read the flashcards. This helps the student focus on the difference between steps and skips.
  • Help your student write in their own staccatos and slurs. Try them out. Talk to them about why they do or don't like them. 
  • Help the student add dynamics and phrase marks.
  • Print these in their entirety and use them as a book.
  • Print them on heavy paper or card stock and cut them into separate cards. Trying sending home a set with a student and ask them to become proficient with each one. At the next lesson, mix them up and play them in random order. It’s a nice combination of preparation and reading.

I wish you every success using my Sightreading Flashcards!

Diane Hidy

Note: I have intentionally omitted all time signatures, rests and fingerings. You may wish to add each beginning finger number. Each five-finger position has all up or all down stems. This is especially helpful for students with dyslexia and attentional issues. These same accommodations appear in my Attention Grabber books. 

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Copy Cats Book One (Studio License)

Copy Cats Book One
Studio License

Note: This is a 12 page downloadable PDF to print and reprint as often as you'd like.

Each COPY CAT piece is made of catchy, physically comfortable phrases which are immediately imitated by the other hand. In some pieces, the right hand begins and the left hand imitates it. In others, the left hand starts. These pieces encourage an unusual and important combination of both sight- reading and using one’s ear.

COPY CATS provide multiple opportunities to experience how playing the same notes in each hand doesn’t mean using the same finger numbers. They purposely do not include dynamics so the student can focus on interval reading and simple articulation.

Note: the pieces in D Major, A Major and F Major are printed in two different versions — one with the key signature and one with no key signature. These side-by-side examples provide a refreshing opportunity to see exactly what a key signature does. The piece in G Major is printed with the left hand in two different positions - high and low.

COPY CAT pieces can be used for:

  • Sight Reading
  • Transposing
  • Balancing skills when one hand is stronger than the other
  • Assessing reading level and ability

"I used these with a student last week -- amazing what it revealed about his reading, especially perception of intervals, and how they connect with his ear. These are truly useful tools for developing reading and coordination."

  —Keith Snell

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