Checking Off the Boxes

Alex creating her assignment sheet.

Alex creating her assignment sheet.

I finally figured it out. I'd looked for rubber stamps, I'd tried all kinds of preprinted materials and creating my own assignment books.

I wanted to be able to help a student create something like this:

That sweet spot of the 'tween years is a great time to get students involved in creating their own assignment sheets. This is one that my student, Alex, created yesterday. She played through her C Major Kuhlau Sonatina from the fabulous Level Two Sonatina Book. As she played, we stopped and used Washi Tape to mark all the places that she needed to work on. Then we took check-off box stickers and put them next to pieces of the same washi tape to make a graphic To-Do list. The more mistakes we found for her to work on, the more interesting the art project became. Instead of reacting badly to a problem, she got more involved because she was in charge of it.

I created these printable stickers for digital download. They should print correctly on any address labels that are 1  x  2 & 5/8ths inches. I used these Avery Labels, but they should work on any labels with these dimensions. 

Here's an example of each printable sheet. Each sheet will print 30 identical stickers of one kind on one sheet. Use one, or try them all.

Use them in any way you can think of. I like to put a sticker of check-off boxes over a place in a piece in a Primer level student's piece to show them that place needs extra practice.

As the students grow older, they use them to help create their own assignment sheets like Alex did. 

Let me know what uses you find for these stickers! 

Swimming with Dolphins

Clementine's assignment book with the  Owl Incentive Chart  and stickers for her to use at home.

Clementine's assignment book with the Owl Incentive Chart and stickers for her to use at home.

I wrote about creating an incentive program for my student, Clementine. This was the sheet that I made for her to use at home. Four successfully checked boxes meant she could put an owl sticker on her Owl Incentive Chart.

A week ago she literally could not play this piece.

Yesterday it sounded like this: 

Clementine exhibits several common student traits:

Swimming with Dolphins  is a Primer Level piece in Middle C position with an easy teacher accompaniment. Excellent first recital piece.

Swimming with Dolphins is a Primer Level piece in Middle C position with an easy teacher accompaniment. Excellent first recital piece.

  • Clementine plays very slowly - but it doesn't feel slow to her. She is busy and working hard all the time. The notes of the accompaniment help fill in the length of long notes. If a student is playing this slowly, a three-beat note can feel like it's an hour long.
  • Singing the words to the song helps her with the rhythm and continuity, as well as motivating her by engaging her imagination. (What would it be like to swim with a dolphin?)
  • Playing an accompaniment along with her aids her rhythm development more than any other single thing I can do. Music is just like any other sport. If you play with someone better than you, it rubs off.

I find I do much better as a teacher if I assume nothing. I take the time to show each student how to make a practice plan. At first, it's simple and basic because all I'm trying to do is develop awareness of what practicing is. If I only reward things done perfectly, my student will not try to find their own errors and fix them. In fact, the opposite will be true. My student will learn to ignore errors.

If I reward finding errors, and teach my student how to deal with them, the stage will be set for successful learning.


How to make an incentive program that really works

The best exercise is that which you do. The same applies for incentive programs. They can be elaborate, planned and refined, or they can be haphazard and random. You know what? If you have one, it will work. It will help some of your students focus on their tasks.

Mini Owl Incentive Chart  -my personal favorite.

Mini Owl Incentive Chart -my personal favorite.

I'll show you the way mine works below, but know that it is not without its flaws. I'm not always consistent - either in what the rewards are or with who gets them. Some students remind me, "Shouldn't I get some music money for that?" and others wouldn't dream of reminding me. Some don't think about music money until the recitals. 

If you're not in the mood for something elaborate, you can use something pre-made like these adorable Mini Owl Incentive Charts. They come in packs of 30, and you could use one for each student. Choose something that you'll give them as a reward, and you're done. The Owls are my favorite, but they also come in Pirate, Out-of-this-World (kind of a space-theme), and even Hungry Caterpillar. There is something for almost any age.

Kids like prizes. Having an array of different kinds of prizes used to seem daunting to me. Then I realized that it didn't matter that much exactly what they were, it just mattered that there was some way to recognize their efforts. Even kids from the wealthiest families like to get prizes.

(Once I was teaching a child from one of the wealthiest families I've ever known. It's a family name that you would recognize even if you live in Unalaska, Alaska. As recital prizes, I'd presented each student a set of pencils imprinted with their name. One student's older brother, age twelve, rushed up to me after the recital. "Where did you get those pencils?" he demanded. "I HAVE to have pencils with MY name on them!"  He seemed quite flummoxed when I explained that I'd specially ordered them for my students. Since he wasn't a student,  I didn't order any for him. That's when I realized it isn't about the stuff. It's about feeling special. But I digress.)

I've seen sophisticated kids go crazy over stretchy mice and cheese

Because of my personal values, the prizes I provide are gender neutral and not full of sugar. This eliminates Princess stickers and candy. That's just me. Perhaps you'll have drawers full of Disney mermaids and Snickers bars.

Here's how I do it. (Yours may be entirely different.)

Sample Music Money Price List

Decide what kind of behavior you want to reward with music money. Here's a sample Price List.

Prize Drawers with Prices








Find a container for your prizes and put it in a place where kids will see it. I use a set of plastic drawers. Mine is in my waiting area. The rule in my studio is "Only open one drawer at a time." Otherwise the $100 prizes will get mixed up with the $400 prizes. 

Then the fun part: fill the drawers with prizes. I'm often asked how I pay for the prizes; I pass the cost along to my students in my materials fee. I buy a great deal of tiny prizes at reduced prices online, but I also shop at office supply stores and raid their clearance sections.

For a few of my older students who have worked diligently, I've splurged and purchased  $10 iTunes gift cards. I used to try to price things at about $100 in music money equals $1 of real money purchase. A better idea is to have an older student help you price things. How much you paid for something, especially if you got a good deal on it, isn't a good predictor of how popular it will be with kids.

$400 prizes: Markers, Magic Treehouse Books, Fake Snake, squeezy toys

Prizes for tweens and teens: Blank journals, magnets and fancy paper clips, desk set.

I give every student $400 for playing in a studio recital. My most expensive prizes are priced at $400, with the exception of the iTunes gift cards which I prices at $1200. (There were a few kids who had hoarded their money AND worked hard!) My rule-of-thumb is that every kid should be able to buy something small every other month or so. Some kids like to get lots of little rewards. Some kids are thrifty and like to save their money. If too many kids aren't spending, I'll have an end-of-the-summer-sale-and-you-have-to-spend-all-your-money-right-now event to get my cash supplies back.

I used to think that every other teacher had a perfectly put-together system for everything. Then I realized that we're all just doing our best. We try to be organized, we strive for consistency, but we all fall short.

Is it time for you to stop trying to design a perfect incentive program? Should you just grab some Music Money, or an incentive chart, a few prizes and start one? I bet you'll be glad you did!

Would you like some help with studio business basics?

Thumb Puppet Lessons

I've been getting a lot of questions about exactly how I use Thumb Puppets

Here's the thing: I don't use them as any kind of finger-strengthening device. I use them for something else entirely.

The best way I've found to bring hand position to life is to use a Thumb Puppet. 

Reminding a student to maintain a beautiful hand position is one of the most important and most tedious parts of teaching piano. In addition to using a ladybug to help show a student what good hand position feels like, I have another set of props I like to use.

Here's a sample Thumb Puppet lesson:

  • Start by reversing the roles. 
  • Let your student sit in your teaching chair - you sit on the piano bench.
  • Have the student carefully watch you play a simple phrase.
  • Suddenly let your own hand position collapse.
  • Watch the delight when the student gets to collapse the Giraffe because of YOUR bad hand position!
  • Repeat this several times.
  • This helps them understand what to look for and makes it a much more joyful lesson.
  • Besides, kids adore playing the teacher. 

After they get the idea, switch back to your regular roles (and chairs) and try it again. They'll get the idea quickly. Once the thumb puppet has collapsed a time or two, put it away. Use the thumb puppet for short periods of time over many lessons. After a while, all it will take is to put the puppet on the music rack and they'll perk up their hand immediately.

It's important to pick something specific to work on, and not to do it for too long. Just like any other kind of practicing; you want to do it in small, achievable units. You want them to like it when you pull out the giraffe. It should feel playful and almost silly.

An added benefit of this is the opportunity to let the giraffe (flower, robot)  take on the role of hand position policeman. You can step out of that role and let the giraffe take on his own persona. Be imaginative with this. Don't take it all too seriously. 

Wouldn't you be more interested in working on your fingers if it impacted the well-being of a Giraffe?  A Pirate? A Robot?

It's so easy to forget that kids are kids. They want to play. They'd rather experience something than get a lecture. Wouldn't you? 

My favorite thing about using thumb puppets is that they move the focus off me and only something whimsical. And who couldn't use a little more lightheartedness in their teaching?

Here's a short video I made about my philosophy about thumb puppets. You can see the collapsing giraffe. How does it make you feel? Do you think it would get your attention in a lesson?

Octaves - One Simple Tip

Octaves One Simple Tip.jpg

The Board Dudes Magnetic 2-in-1 Dry Eraser Medium Point Marker is a magnificent pedagogical tool.

That is one sentence I never imagined writing.

I think it's particularly hilarious since it includes the word "dudes." (Though I do live near the beach in a town full of hipsters that work at places like Google and Twitter.)

My student Rohini is a scientist. She's finishing up her Phd. at UC Berkeley after doing her undergraduate work at Stanford. She loves playing the piano and takes public transportation from Berkeley all the way out to my studio on the west side of San Francisco each week for her lesson.

As with most of my adult students, we spend a great deal of time on basic technical issues. When adults return to lessons after a hiatus, the problems they had as young people haven't improved with age. 

She was working on the Khachaturian Toccata. She fell in love with a recording of it and was bound and determined to play it. (To be honest, it isn't my favorite piece but it's a piece that students love to play. It's another one of those "Sounds SO much harder than it is" pieces we all need up our sleeves.) 

She was struggling to play the left hand octaves with a stable hand. Desperate, I grabbed a two-ended dry erase marker I had sitting near me.

"Try holding this," I suggested.

We talked about ways she might experiment with it. She took it home with her and I wondered what would happen.

A week later, she came back and made this video to share her experiences with the Cool Dudes Marker

Part of the reason this worked so well was because of the size and shape of the pads on the ends of the marker. They're designed to be white board erasers. They had just the right amount of traction and cushion to force Rohini to make a firm shape with a flexible arm. If you don't have an arch in your hand, you can't hold onto the marker. 

I loved the connections she made about where the weight came from, how her hand had to be a firm shape and yet everything else was relaxed. The Cool Dudes had it right. They just didn't know they'd accidentally made a great pedagogical invention!

Now to find something just the right size for the interval of a 5th....



Behind the Scenes at Diane Hidy's Studio - a Gallery of Photos and Videos

  • Click on a photo to enlarge it into a light box.

  • Click the left and right arrows to scroll through the pictures. 

  • Hover over a large photo to read the caption.

This little video is one of my favorites. Gabriella is learning about skips and stairs on my studio steps. When she decides she wants to try "stepping" the song with her eyes closed, she doesn't see her mother coming in the front door. 

My adult students get together about four times a year to play for each other. This time we met at my student Sandy's beautiful house in Noe Valley here in San Francisco. We heard performers ranging in age from 28 - 82 years of age. We heard everything from Bach to pieces by the fabulous Australian composer Elissa Milne. The food was delicious and the company was enjoyed by everyone. I love how music brings such diverse people together. Scientists, psychiatrists, tech professionals and grandmothers.