Monthly Archives: August 2010

Pony Over the Rainbow Practice Aid

If your students liked Stuck in the Tar Pits, try this one with your young girls. When I drew it, I was hoping to dazzle the girls with something they would really want to do, and so far my students have loved it. You will have to be the judge of what age girl in your studio will be interested, because all children are different. 

Play this the way you play the Tar Pits game. Start with a measure or short phrase that the student is having difficulty mastering. Place a small pony figure (or anything you have on hand) on the first cloud. If the student plays correctly, she gets to move to the next cloud. If not, she stays put. When she has moved 3 times,  “Melody” the pony, gets to land in the soft clover and join her pony friends in the background. The student will learn that if she plays slowly and carefully, she will play it correctly. It’s certainly a more fun way to repeat a measure!

For those of you who will want to know, I drew everything on this page myself and it took me forever. I used Photoshop with a Wacom tablet, creating my own brushes as I went along. If you are interested in more technical details, email me and I’ll do my best to help you out.

You will find the Pony Over the Rainbow practice aid on my website, Look on the right side for the latest items I’ve posted.


Filed under Uncategorized

Stuck in the Tar Pits

Tar Pits

I received this email the other day.  Susan, do you have any new material you will be using this fall that you can share with us?

The answer is, yes. Stuck in the Tar Pits is a new graphic that I designed and drew to teach students how to work on a difficult section, how to practice in small chunks, and how playing slowly will make it easier to learn a difficult section. As you know, young students have trouble with spot practicing.  They prefer instead to practice by playing the piece over and over and going back to the beginning if they make a mistake, rather than just working on the problem measure. 

This summer I visited the amazing tar pits in Los Angeles, and as usual, I thought of a way to not only share such a fascinating archaeological sight, but to tie it into piano lessons. Stuck in the Tar Pits is an idea that was inspired by Philip Johnston’s book, The Practice Revolution, that I reviewed last week.

 I waited to use this when a student was having trouble with a short passage. I noticed he was starting to get frustrated, so I did what I usually do in this situation, changed the subject.  I showed him a picture I took of the tar pits and how the prehistoric animals would get stuck in the tar, and now thousands of years later we can see their bones. He was too young to understand what tar is.  I grew up getting tar on my shoes in the summer but we don’t use much tar here in Texas. It’s too hot, I guess.  So we discussed how tar is sticky and gooey, and how the animals would get stuck in the tar.  After a short discussion of ice age animals,  we went back to the lesson. 

The student, distracted from his frustration, was excited to try to get out of the tar pits. We put a tiny plastic tiger (pretending like it was a saber tooth tiger!)  on the 1st black glob and the student played the measure that was giving him trouble. Oops, he played too fast and got it wrong, so we pretended like his little figure was stuck and he couldn’t move forward. On the second try he played  a lot slower and it was correct, so he moved to #2, and then to #3, moving his little tiger along until he was in the grass. He discovered it wasn’t so hard after all once he relaxed and played slowly. I gave him a copy of Tar Pits to take home and use and I laminated one to use in my studio.  

He learned a valuable lesson about practicing slowly and  how to spot practice.  On top of that, we had fun!


Filed under Teaching Aids

The Practice Revolution

Dear Susan,  I am just getting started teaching piano and I was wondering if you can suggest some books on piano teaching.

I am asked this question a lot, so during the month of August I will try to review some pedagogy books on my bookshelf that have been helpful to me. 

About 10 or so years ago I was surfing the web and came across a website by an Australian  music teacher, Philip Johnston. His writings on the web about teaching piano were so interesting and engaging I couldn’t resist buying the book he had just published,  The Practice Revolution, subtitled, Getting great results from the six days between music lessons.  

Have you ever read something that changed your thinking forever? Well, this book did that for me,  and I have used his ideas many times over the years. With humor and a real flair for the English language, Johnston goes through all the right and wrong ways to practice. Is your student “chopping wood with a spoon”, is he a “shiny object polisher”, a “speed demon”, or a “clock watcher”? These are examples of his clever descriptions of the different ways students practice. He has  chapters on why students don’t practice, practice flaws, how to learn a new piece, how to memorize it, and many more useful ideas that you can use right away with your students. This is not a head in the clouds, ivory tower textbook, but a realistic book for the private elementary to high school age music teacher.

Philip Johnston is so incredibly enthusiastic and positive about teaching that it will surely rub off on you.  I have never known a piano teacher who did not find this book helpful. The book is 320 pages and packed full of  ideas that really work. I find myself referring to my dog-eared copy again and again.  If you are looking for a book with a positive, can-do attitude to inspire you for the next teaching year, this is the one to do it.


Filed under Pedagogy Book Reviews, Teaching Business