I’m always looking for something to motivate my students at the beginning of the year. But like many of you, I am always weighing the pros and cons of external reward systems for piano lessons. I believe that eventually, making beautiful music is what motivates students, so my aim in the last few years has been to help students learn how to make this kind of music from a young age. Any incentive program I use of late has been designed to do this. (See the free Certificate of Artistry program I used for 2 years.)

If you are a regular reader, you also know that I think any student who puts their own creativity into their practice and pieces is automatically much more engaged and excited about the learning process (hence the name of this blog…ComposeCreate). Children’s creativity is stifled so much in as a result of our obsession of business in life and the last thing I want is for piano lessons to stifle their creativity as well. There is no better or easier place to be creative than in the arts!

Several times this summer, I’ve heard pedagogues mention that it has only been in the last 100-150 years that we’ve prided ourselves in just playing what’s written rather than improvising as we go. This is rather sad to me, and I want to get back to the idea of students “making music” instead of always re-performing what’s been written by someone else.

So after hearing about something that Leila Viss did in her studio, I asked her to write this post about the “Lesson Book Bash” which incorporates this goal of mine and encourages students to move more quickly through their method books. She has even created a short video that will help you visualize some of the great ways of implementing this fun and creative idea.  I think you’ll enjoy this idea and hope you can adapt it to your lessons this fall.

Fall Lesson Book Bash

by Leila Viss

It would be very difficult to imagine teaching without the pedagogical guidance of today’s method books. I have the highest regard for the authors’ and their sound methodology and use them regularly. However, when prospective students ask what method book, I make it clear that I teach a person and not a method.

In fact because of this, I confess supplemental activities that keep lessons and teaching fresh, can steal time away from the continuity that lesson books, by nature, provide. Preparing ensembles, Christmas recital pieces, building up reading, rhythmic and lead sheet skills, the lesson book assignments find their way to the back burner.

A few years ago, as I prepared to the return to lessons in January (always difficult to do after the Christmas break), I decided that every student would spend more time in their method book to provide more streamlined progress in reading and theory skills. Two full months would be dedicated to lesson book repertoire only. I use the Faber method but only the Lesson Book, not the technique, theory…(I’m a rebel, I know). The first lesson in January, the student and I determined how many pages to be covered between now and the end of February. As they moved through the pages, students were asked to chose at least one favorite to keep playing, and one to memorize. With any or all pieces, they were encouraged to create variations of the piece; for example: an extended coda, filler notes, change in octave range, rhythmic or dynamic variance–anything to “make it their own”.

If pianists met their goal (I made sure the goal was realistic so they could IF they worked diligently), they were rewarded to learn a piece of their choice. While some choose a favorite pop piece, others asked for Fur Elise, Maple Leaf Rag, or a jazz piece.

What I discovered:

Yes, assigning and limiting repertoire to lesson book pieces improves skills, builds confidence, reinforces concepts.

With shorter, perhaps simpler pieces, students found they enjoyed creating variations and felt very comfortable with adding their own ideas.

Memory skills were “practiced” by memorization of shorter, simpler pieces. Students seemed to find it easier (a confidence booster) to approach memorizing longer pieces for the upcoming Spring recital because they had exercised their memory skills with accessible memory challenges.

Faber lesson books, along with others I’m sure, feature terrific pieces that students truly enjoy.

More advanced students were enrolled in the Back to the Classics bash and selected two pieces–one from either the Baroque or Classical and one from Romantic or 20th Century.

For various reasons, I have resisted competitions and festivals but I know for many studios, these provide deadlines for motivation and achievement markers. Designing units like a Lesson Book Bash (and others–perhaps for yet another blog) provides the structure to keep students moving forward and also provides the freedom for me to teach the pianist, the improvisor, the memorizer, the creator and not just the method book.

Here is a video explaining some of what you might encourage a student to do and click here to get the Fall Lesson Book Bash punch card that Wendy created to help her students keep track of their progress. (See specifics on how she uses this to motivate her students with music.)