Sight Reading Duos

It seems so obvious, but I'd never thought to do it.

Mary and Dora after sight reading together.

I had created pages and pages of Sight Reading Flashcards. But I'd never used them with more than one student at a time. At one of my group classes last Saturday, I had three girls about the same age of varying abilities and with quite different strengths.

I asked them to sight read some of the flashcards with one of them playing the right hand and one playing the left. The process was fascinating.

Even in the short time they did them, there was discernible progress in their rhythm and reading. Their skills were solidifying almost before my eyes.

One thing I really loved about this was the way they taught each other. Their good playing rubbed off on each other. I did almost nothing but ask questions when something went wrong.

Here are just some of the skills they were learning:

  • Music Reading
  • Following along and waiting their turn
  • Patience when another student had a problem
  • Listening and looking for patterns

We did it in a Round-Robin style - one student started playing the right hand, then switched to the left hand as a new student rotated in. 

A brilliant symphony pianist once told me the most important thing to practice sight reading is conventional patterns. "The weird stuff," he said, "You can't predict that. So you gotta be great at the stuff where you can see patterns."

The most telling thing about this happened halfway through class. Mary asked if they could watch the video they'd just made. I said, "Sure," and we started.

We'd watched about five seconds when Mary blurted out, "Can we just DO some more sight reading? That's way more fun!"

Here's Mary playing Popcorn Clouds, a piece I wrote for her earlier this year.

The first page of  Popcorn Clouds .

The first page of Popcorn Clouds.

Popcorn Clouds  comes with Preparing to Play Teaching Tips to help you teach it successfully.

Popcorn Clouds comes with Preparing to Play Teaching Tips to help you teach it successfully.

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.


What's Enough

In the time since I first wrote about creating an successful incentive program, I've had a nagging question.

If I believe in intrinsic motivation, why do I have a chest full of prizes?

I find the book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes absolutely brilliant. 

So why do I need to use charts and stickers and music money? I think I finally understand how to reconcile these two seemingly opposing views. 

Tiny, incremental bits of learning are hard to quantify.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine is seven years old and loves music. She loves to sing the lyrics to the songs so much that she often forgets to learn the notes of the melody.

She's only beginning to understand what practicing is. Like most children, she thinks that "doing something right" is the desired behavior and a mistake should be ignored and forgotten as quickly as possible. Acknowledging an error seems like a pretty bad idea to Clementine.

This is where some kind of currency comes in. I need a way to show Clementine how to practice. A tool to measure and reinforce. It's not that she is thinking about prizes, we both just need some help.

Yesterday, we didn't even use Music Money because I needed something she'd never seen before. We started simply. I made a practice chart for her with little boxes to check off. If she made a mistake and went back and played that section correctly she could check off a box. Playing one page of a piece without error also got a checked box. It was a pretty messy page . The thing that actually made it work was the little Owl Incentive Chart. (I gave her the choice between Pirates and Owls. She chose Owls. I'd bought the Pirates specifically because I thought she'd like them. Go figure!)

At first, she thought that she could get a sticker each time she played something correctly. This is typical. The idea that there was a reward for making a mistake, catching it and fixing it was new to her. (Though I'd explained it before - it hadn't stuck.)

I explained that each time she filled in four boxes she could put an owl sticker on the chart. At first I gave her seven owl stickers to take home. As she bought in more and more to the process, I kept giving her more stickers to take home. ("Wow - you're catching onto this so fast I bet you're going to run out of stickers!")

We pretended that we were at home and did a practice session. She dutifully stopped when she made a mistake and repeated the measure correctly twice. Box checked. It didn't take long to get her first owl sticker. And then her second.

After a few minutes of box checking and owl stickers she looked me right in the eye.

"Can I practice when I get home today?"

I played it cool.

"Yes, Clem, you can practice when you get home today. And you know what? You get double credit for practice done when you get home from your lesson because it's the most important time to practice."

Clem's eyes lit up. I'll bet all those stickers will be on the chart when she comes back next week. Mistakes will have been made and corrected. Learning will have happened. Will it be perfect? Unlikely. But we've started something. She is beginning to understand how to make a goal into a set of tasks.

So much of what we do as teachers is cerebral. Simply saying, "Do it again!" over and over is not a rich and meaningful experience for our students. (Try keeping a tally of the number of times you say "Do that again" in a day. You might be shocked.)

Half the time they don't even know what they did wrong - how in the world can they be expected to stay interested?

Kids need to know when they've done enough. As teachers, we need to decide exactly what's enough.


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?

Post-it Note Power Practice: Case Study

Working with Iliana using Post-It Notes.

Working with Iliana using Post-It Notes.

My student Iliana came to her lesson having carefully practiced the piece I had assigned to her, The Superheroes from Piano Town Level One. It was well-learned except for one problem: she was stopping at each and every bar line. 

This is a common situation. The video below shows exactly how we worked through the piece to correct the problem. 

The Superheroes from Piano Town Level One.

I left this video intact so you can see the pacing and amount of time we spent on each task. Iliana plays the piece through at the beginning so you'll know what it sounded like when we began.

The goal of this kind of practice is to create a series of discrete tasks that can be completed successfully. The Post-Its help focus both teacher and student on each task and make it easier to assess whether it's been completed successfully. 

When you begin to introduce this kind of practice, do it in very small doses - just two minutes can be enough. It takes concentration and persistence. Iliana has lots of experience working this way and is a also particularly patient child.

Here are the 9 steps:

  1. Explain the trouble the student is having without judgment. Remember, she's doing the best she can. Express in clear, simple language what the problem is and how you'll help fix it. If she doesn't understand the goal, it will be impossible to achieve.
  2. Correct any visual trouble the student is having with the score.
    This might include having the student connect the beams on eighth notes (quavers), writing in "cue notes" at the end of a system, whiting out bar lines, adding additional fingerings.
  3. Isolate a small passage with post-its. Start with a measure that's already correct. 
  4. Move the post-it.  Add on notes one-at-a-time. Start with a correct portion and add to the front of the phrase. This works best if the student takes charge of moving the post-it. For this task I like to use small square Post-Its that cover up about a measure of the music.
  5.  The student should help assess the success of each task. How's that go? What did you think of that one? Is there anything else we should do? Are we ready to move on?
  6. Demonstrate the correct sound of each "added" note phrase. She's been hearing it played incorrectly all week - she needs a chance to hear it correctly. 
  7. Say "yes" to any suggestion the student offers. It shows she's engaged.
    This includes covering up notes, adding fingerings, starting at a certain place, expressing enthusiasm. Even if it's not the best idea, try it and discover why it didn't work! 
  8. Stay on task. When Iliana started a phrase in the wrong place on the piano, notice that I explained and gently guided her hand. This was not the time to work on note-reading and her errors were not caused by anything other than concentrating too hard. 
  9. Add the metronome. If the metronome is too distracting, tap gently or play a simple note or two to guide the rhythm a bit more flexibly.

Here's all you'll need for Post-It Practice:


Sample of  Still Blue  by Diane Hidy

Sample of Still Blue by Diane Hidy

Did you know there are new pieces in my online store?  

You might like Six Simple Tips for Teaching with Stickers.

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?

How to Turn Negative Into Positive


Parker was a precocious child who loved to play the piano. 

Then one day, she wasn’t. 

It was frustrating. She went from playful to pessimistic in a matter of weeks.

I was flummoxed.

How had she suddenly become difficult? It didn't matter what I said, she didn't want to do it.

I needed something persuasive.

I took ten $1 Music Money bills and put them on the piano.

“Parker,” I said, “These are yours to keep.” 

She smiled.

“Or yours to lose.”

She looked concerned.

“Every time you say something negative, you’ll lose a dollar. If you make it through the entire lesson without saying something like ‘Oh, that’s looks HARD’ or 'I don't think I can do that' then you’ll have $10.”

“Pretty cool!” she said.

“But if I hear you say anything negative, like ‘I don’t think I can do that’ you’ll lose a dollar.”

“OK!” she said positively.

I pulled out a new piece.

She eyed it suspiciously.

“That looks...” (She started to say ‘way too hard’ - but stopped herself.)

“That looks...challenging." Big grin. "And I LIKE a challenge!”


In my studio, when someone becomes a bit negative, I use Parkerization. I use whenever I need to show a student just how negative they've become without turning them even MORE negative.

Once I had another student request it.

“Diane,” she said, frustrated. “I think I need to be Parkerized!”

Perhaps one of your students could benefit from a little Parkerization?

Nightingale from Attention Grabbers Book Two.


The sweet piece “Nightingale” is dedicated to Parker. It’s in Attention Grabbers Book Two. It's a piece designed to sound like it uses pedal, but doesn't actually use the pedal until the last two measures.