Piano studio setup for online lessons

The Covid-19 pandemic has required piano teachers from around the world to adapt quickly from in-person traditional lessons to online piano lessons. For  teachers like myself who had zero experience teaching online piano lessons, it brought some challenges. But these challenges were worth working through to ensure the safety of my students and their families.

When I transitioned to online lessons I made changes in my studio setup as well as how to keep track of assignments. Every organization change was simple so I can keep it up. Everything I use is movable so at the end of teaching we can use this room as a family room, and quick to setup because time is valuable. This post is going to cover the following

(1) Using Google Presentation to keep track of assignments

(2) Organizing piano books used most often during lesson

(3) Organizing individual student materials if they are separate sheets of paper

(4) Studio Setup during lessons

(1) Google Presentations as an Assignment Tracker

During in-person lessons I filled out assignment papers for students to use at home. It was a simple and effective method to remember what they were to practice. I needed a way to do this with online lessons that I could fill out during lesson and the parents could access and print out for students to use as a guide for their practice.

This led me to create a Google Presentation. Here are the details.

    • Slide size changed to 8.5″ x 11″ so it would print on a normal size paper.
    • One presentation per student.
    • Presentation shared with the parent/student.
    • A simple table that doubles as a place for me to type out instructions and the students to mark off practice.
How it is used during the lesson
    • At the beginning of each lesson, I open the student’s presentation and duplicate last week’s slide. This creates a new slide at the top of the slideshow. This becomes the current week’s slide. I replace things as they are ready to move on, or keep them on and change their practice goals if they need another week.
    • Background color indicates if it is current week or a past assignment sheet.
      • Background of Current week’s slide = Green
      • All past Assignment Slides = Blue.
      • This allows the parent to easily see which slide to print. Parents can choose “print black and white”. Once printed, the student can then mark which days they practice the piece.

I am happy to share this setup with you. In order to use it, you must click on the link below. Then go to FILE >> Make a copy. This will copy the presentation onto your own Google Drive. Once it is there, you can make any changes.

Click here to view the Google Presentation.

(2) Organizing piano books and materials

Book organization

Organization of things is something that does not come naturally to me. Any organization system I try to implement needs to be simple and should require almost no time or effort to keep it up.

I’ve tried bins with all my piano books separated. It took me a day to sort and put things away. And didn’t last very long. (The only thing still separated currently are wedding piano books because I use them about three times a year)

This three-shelf rolling cart has three separate categories.

  1. Top shelf is where I put my computer that I type on during lessons.
  2. Middle shelf is Piano Safari books (It’s my go-to piano curriculum that almost all of my students are currently in.)
  3. Bottom shelf holds everything else.

As you can see I don’t have a lot of books to keep track of so this works for me. If you had a lot of books this may not work or would work with changes. Top shelf you could put in some book bins and have books standing upright if you needed more organization.

Organization of Other items used

Some other items I use constantly stay on the top of my piano.

  • 11 x 14 magnetic dry erase marker board
  • dry erase markers and eraser (or a lone sock, depending on if I lost the eraser)
  • circle magnetic dots we use as a concrete way of showing where the beats fall.
  • Large-numbered Clock. It has the date and a USB port to charge a phone if needed.
(3) Organizing loose student papers

My own piano teacher showed me this idea. The inclined file sorter holds loose student papers, including if a student sends something they want to work on (free sheet music) or I need to print off sheet music for them, this is where it goes. Then, I can pull it out as needed. If I have studio copies of the sheet music that I print off and the parent needs to stop by and get it, I can place it here in their folder to grab easily.

(4) Studio set up during a lesson

(The first thing I noticed when I uploaded this picture is that the vacuum cleaner, a pack of toilet paper, and a random folded up area rug that we haven’t decided what to do with are in the background. Isn’t this picture just true to real life when you’re busy raising a family, taking classes, homeschooling, and teaching piano?)

This set up takes me less than five minutes to complete. It really is so simple.

  • Laptop 1 is used for FaceTime/Skype/Zoom. It is placed on the music stand for ease of moving around the view. I move it so students can see my large dry erase board. When not in use, the music stand just gets put up next to the piano.
  • Laptop 2 sits on top of the rolling cart and is open to table of contents of different versions of the books that I have and Google Drive for my assignment pages so I can type directly into them. The rolling cart holds all the books I need so I can easily reach them.
  • The piano bench is pulled away from the piano and doubles as a catch-all and beverage holder. Who else usually has a couple drinks — coffee and water? Or tea and water?
Small changes make a big difference

I made these changes slowly over the semester as I reflected on the deficiencies of my setup. There will likely be more changes to follow as I have announced that all lessons will be online for the 2020-2021 school year.

What changes have you made to the set up and organization of your piano studio so that piano lessons run smoothly and all studio materials stay in place.

Group Piano Class – Ideas from Spring 2019

Students experience the joy of music through folk dancing.

Group piano class is one of my favorite events of the year. About six of my students are able to make it, and we gather in my basement studio. During this hour, we enjoy each other’s company, listen to each other’s pieces, play a couple group music games, and folk dance.

The students usually bound out of the house with big grins on their faces, and anxiously await the next group piano class. I think it’s because I usually pick a rather lively folk dance, but maybe that’s my bias talking. I used to teach in a general music classroom and would jump in and do the folk dance if someone needed a partner. It has always been a favorite of mine. Continue reading “Group Piano Class – Ideas from Spring 2019”

Creating an Effective Progress Report

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that I am always looking for ways to make something better. Perhaps it comes from all those years of piano lessons where we ask ourselves the question “What can I do differently next time to make it better, more musical?”

My latest project has been to create a progress report that was considerably better than the one I tried one last year. Last year I just wrote in narrative form what each student had done throughout the year, along with things they were doing well and things they would be working on. It was too cumbersome for me (it took over an hour to do fill one out), and I don’t know if any of the parents looked at them because it was too much to read. Continue reading “Creating an Effective Progress Report”

Steady Beat Part 2: Beyond the Metronome – Movement Activities to Establish Steady Beat with Piano Students

These are bean bags I made for steady beat games.

Steady beat used to be a concept that I used to assume all students just kind of knew. I didn’t understand the deep necessity for students experiencing it, and how a strong sense of the steady beat would improve other areas of a student’s performance in piano.

I talked more about this in the importance of establishing a steady beat with piano students in the first post of this series. You can read it here: Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students.

Today’s post will detail the different steady beat activities that I use frequently in my studio. I am a firm believer that when teaching music to young children, we must first allow them to experience a new concept before asking them to intellectualize it (Choksy, The Kodaly Method I: Comprehensive Music Education. 3rd Edition. p10). Because of this there is always a couple steady beat activities in every lesson for the first few years they take lessons. Continue reading “Steady Beat Part 2: Beyond the Metronome – Movement Activities to Establish Steady Beat with Piano Students”

Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students

My first two years as a classroom music teacher, I had my students do rhythm drills. We started with rhythms of half and whole notes, while students used traditional counting (1-2-3-4). From one lesson to the next, they could not accurately clap the correct rhythms and count. They could tell me that a quarter note got one beat and a half note got two, but there was something missing. It was frustrating for my students and for me. I was failing them somehow, but I could not understand why.

My music education experience centered on telling students about music. We explained it intellectually and then expected the students to be able to do it. Continue reading “Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students”

Analysis of Beginning Piano Literature Series Part Two:

Knowing how to sequence the materials and literature for a student ready to learn beginning standard piano literature can be difficult. As I talked about in Part 1 of this series, this question of how to sequence led me to begin analyzing beginning standard piano literature, using an analysis form. This post, Part Two in the Analysis of Beginning Piano Literature Series, goes into what each individual section means and in general, why I have included it in my analysis form. Continue reading “Analysis of Beginning Piano Literature Series Part Two:”

Analysis of Beginning Piano Literature Series Part One: Why analyze music?

“What do I teach, and when?”

Within my teaching career, both in the classroom and in private lessons, the above question has been my biggest obstacle. There is a lot to think about: What concepts do I teach, and in what order? What songs and pieces do I use to teach each concept? What concepts are developmentally appropriate for a child? And how do I know my students have mastered a concept and are ready to move on? 

Back when I was teaching in the classroom, I attended a Level 1 Orff class in an attempt to find the answers to these questions. Throughout the two week course, we learned so many wonderful musical activities that immersed the students in experiencing music. But at the end, I asked the instructors, “These are all great ideas. How do I know what to teach and in what order? How do I know my students have learned it and are ready to move on?” Their answer? “You’ll just know,” was an incredibly disappointing way to end the class. I didn’t know, that’s why I asked. 

I went back to my classroom, and my students loved the new activities. But that’s all they were — disjointed activities that had no logical sequence or progression. 

Five years after leaving the classroom to be a stay at home mom, I attended my first Kodaly Level Class. We focused on making music a JOY for students, and were inspired to become better musicians and teachers. We were introduced to a sequence. It was formed by music pedagogues, and used research on child development. This concepts outlined what concepts to teach, and in what order. We also learned how to prepare our students to experience, discover, understand, and internalize each musical concept. Heck, there were even sequences within the sequence for specific concepts. For example, there is a specific order in which to teach rhythm combinations of ta and ti-ti. Throughout the course, each concept was thoroughly and completely explained, and when I left I felt confident I had the resources, knowledge, and network to successfully implement it.

Part of this process is diving deep into folk literature. You write out the music using just rhythm and solfege. This is called tonic solfa. Then, you have specific items you are looking for, based on what you see in the tonic solfa. You look at the components that make up the song. From the knowledge of the smallest components, you can then decide WHEN you will use a song, HOW you will use a song in the classroom, and FOR WHAT PURPOSE.

Now, I was not at this point, and am still not, teaching in a classroom. Instead, I teach private piano and vocal lessons. While I have found a method I am confident is solid, my students enjoy, and I can alter to include sound before sight, I am still struggling with the order of which to beginning piano literature pieces to teach.

After much thinking, I came up with a plan to create an analysis form, similar to the one we used for Kodaly class, but tailored for piano literature. I posted a picture of the analysis form for beginning piano literature that I created on a Facebook Piano Pedagogy collaboration group. There was a lot of interest, as well as a lot of questions. The questions ranged from, “why would you do this?” and “How would this help you as a teacher?” All the questions were valid. This post answers the whys. The other parts of this series will explore other aspects of the analysis. 

Here are my reasons for wanting to analyze the beginning piano literature. The first reasons directly relate to with teaching the piece to the student:

  1. By analyzing each song, I will know what concepts each piece contains.
  2. By knowing what concepts are in each piece, I know if I need to create a preparation activity for it several weeks before introducing the piece to the student, and what concepts I can use it to reinforce.
  3. What are the most difficult aspects of this piece so I can adequately prepare a student before presenting them with the piece

The following are more long-term goals:

  1. What order should I present pieces, based on most difficult concepts?
  2. At what point can I eventually get away from piano method books, and instead use the piano literature only?
  3. What is the highest quality of piano literature available to teach each specific concept?
  4. What folk songs can I use to prepare concepts that are needed to perform beginning piano literature?
  5. Can I adapt the Kodaly sequence to fit the needs of beginning piano literature, using the knowledge of the requirements needed to perform the beginning piano literature as a consideration?

I have a series planned out on the analysis form. This is the first in the series, that explains the WHY behind the form. Of course, the “WHYs” cannot fully be understood until we finish the series. I hope that by explaining thoroughly what each section is about, and then finally, the application of it, the “WHY” is explained.

How “Decoding Music” Can help a Struggling Student to Confidently Read Music

I would love to be able to figure out why some students can latch onto reading music easily and quickly, while others take more direction, reinforcement, and time.This past year I had a couple students, who had been studying with me for a year, that were still struggling to recognize landmark notes as well as if it was a step up or skip up. Struggling with something basic can lead to a lot of frustration and stagnation in lessons.

Whenever a student struggles with a concept, I first assume that something was lacking in my instruction. And then I look to find ways to re-introduce and reinforce the concept. Continue reading “How “Decoding Music” Can help a Struggling Student to Confidently Read Music”

Assignment Pages – Whose needs are they fulfilling?

{Nothing Era.} My student’s assignment sheets have evolved quite a bit over the last decade. When I began teaching, I wrote nothing down for both myself or for my student. This is probably because I was emulating my childhood teacher.

{Notebook Era.} But as I took on the role of the piano teacher, I realized that I needed a record to glance at and know what needed to be covered in the lesson. It was supposed to also help the students know what to practice. Thus, it led me to my “notebook” era. The idea was to write which book, the page number, and title of song the student should practice. But my notes were never consistent – I’d forget to write the page number, or the book and the formatting was never the same. Continue reading “Assignment Pages – Whose needs are they fulfilling?”

A Discussion on the Challenges of Incorporating Kodaly Method into Piano Lessons

Last summer I completed my Kodaly levels, and although it has completely changed how I teach my students, I want to continue to include more of the philosophy, structure, ideas, and sequence into piano lessons.But before I can truly change my piano teaching, I refreshed my memory on what the ideal music education looked to Zoltan Kodaly. To start, I decided to re-read my copy of The Kodaly Method I: Comprehensive Music Education, and finally read Kodaly Today. Continue reading “A Discussion on the Challenges of Incorporating Kodaly Method into Piano Lessons”