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! 

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?

The Feel of the Keys

"You don't think you really feel like doing it," Emily said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.


"Well...." she hesitated. "It's just like taking a bath. When you think about it, you don't think you want to do it. And you keep saying, 'I don't want to take a bath' and then you finally go and take a bath. And you know what?" she asked.

"No, what?"

"It feels really, really good. Yeah, practicing is just like that."

Emily, age ten, was just starting to love to play the piano. She couldn't quite figure out why it felt so good. So physical. So pleasurable. When she equated it with a warm bath it suddenly made sense.

The best musicians revel in the physical sensations of playing. I love the feel of the keys, the shape of a chord, the contour of a phrase. 

Remember to teach the love of the sensation of playing the instrument. The importance of a gesture. The joy of an interval, a staccato note, a first chord. These are all new, treasured experiences for our students - both young and old.

Take the time to enjoy them with your students. 

One of my adult students just left. On his way out he was chatting with his duet partner about why he and his wife hadn't accompanied her and her husband on their recent trip to India.

"I didn't want to go through piano withdrawal," he said.

I'll bet it wasn't the intellectual part of playing he didn't want to be without. It was the joy of the piano. The wonderful, physical, delight of making music.

That's what we all need to teach today. And every day.

Bath Photo by WickerParadise