Lesson Plan Ideas

A first lesson on piano

Within three minutes of a first lesson, our beginning students learn a song.  The song is really an exercise in disguise to get them using all ten fingers assigned to a five-finger position.  We also use fun words personalized to their tastes.

For some, this is Peanut Butter Sandwich, and some apple juice.

Other kids have chosen other 5 or 6 syllable phrases like:

  • “I like bacon ice cream, and some water too.”
  • “Strawberry ice cream, and some sprinkles please.”
  • “Pepperoni pizza and some lemonade.”
  • “Tuna Fish Sandwich and a glass of milk.”
  • “Creme Brulee Ice Cream, and some sprinkles too” – I kid you not!

You will notice that we don’t worry too much about the curvature of the fingers at first.  We are looking to work on the major muscle groups and playing with the whole arm is our first goal.

We also send home the student with our Musicolor Notation™ which enables them to take responsibility for practice right away – even if they can’t read words! The Musicolor Notation™ is so simple and intuitive, it is music everyone can read. This helps for non-musical parents as well and gives a fabulous sense of accomplishment for our young students. Even if we start a student older, we can adapt this song to be just numbers like “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.”

By working on technical exercises disguised as songs, we move quickly past the hurdles of facility and get into playing songs that sound like real music.

Our success is based on directly labeling the keys, fingers, and notation with color, and then, using a gradated curriculum to move the student quickly from ground zero to playing complex songs.

There are 6 phases in the Musicolor Notation™ that lead the student from very simple to more complex to eventually reading music on a staff.  You can learn more here. 

Lesson Plan Ideas

How To Be A Better Music Teacher Part 3

So in my last two posts, we’ve discussed some ideas for becoming a better music teacher.

In the first, we talked about focus and rejuvenation.
And last time, we talked about structure.

Today, we’ll talk about evaluating the structure and quality of a curriculum.

Remember, we defined the curriculum as your plan of teaching.

These days, if you can’t figure something out, you just go and “YouTube it.”   There’s so much free content out in the world that you can learn to do pretty much anything.

  • How to tie a necktie.
  • Create a new look with makeup.
  • Speak with a Bronx, Brooklyn or Jersey accent.
  • Change a fuse.

(I’ve used all of those, except the makeup one – that was interesting though!)

It’s incredible. It’s all free, and it’s right at your fingertips.

The same goes for learning music. You can learn how to play just about any song on any instrument, right now. For free.

But this freedom has its own cost.

There’s no guarantee that the content is going to be accurate, useful or relevant to your current level of awareness, technique, and musicianship.  There’s no path through this jungle of information. You have to click, poke, and pick your way through it all to get to some level of mastery.

In other words, there’s no structured learning.

There’s no organized path through the information. As we discussed in the previous post, there’s no curriculum.

You would have thought that the explosion of YouTube videos would have decimated the teaching profession. Still, however, there are colleges, conservatories, and workshops all charging for their information. Why?  It’s because we need that structure to truly learn anything well.  Sure, learning how to tie a bowline knot for your canoe is very simple and you can learn it in 5 minutes from this video.

But getting better and better at any skill requires a path of increasing complexity at just the right level each time.  Simple things like a one-off tricky knot are great with YouTube. Becoming a great guitarist? Not so easy.

And this is what a teacher can do with a great curriculum.  So, now that we know we need a curriculum, we can either design it ourselves or look to the internet to find one.  Regardless of which you choose, you should always have a structured plan for how to evaluate that curriculum based on your needs and the needs of your students.

A thorough tip to evaluating curriculum is to always ask these six questions:

6 Key Questions For Evaluating A Curriculum

Does this curriculum…
…have a clearly defined purpose and scope within a defined framework and philosophy?
…structure, organization, and an appropriate amount of flexibility?
…aligned with natural learning processes?
…target the appropriate age group? Does it value, understand, and empathize with the student population you are teaching?
…encourage clear expectations and measurable goals for students?
…provide comprehensive training for teachers?

A Clearly Defined Purpose and Scope

The curriculum you use to teach your students needs to have a defined purpose and scope. The scope is how much you are planning to accomplish, and the purpose needs to match the scope.

For example, the first part of the Musicolor Method™ curriculum has a purpose to teach young children to play single note, two hand unison piano with basic technical skills while learning about basic music concepts and having fun. The scope is 12 to 18 weeks. Concepts of rhythm, pitch, and intervals are introduced during this period.

Structure, Organization, and Flexibility

Organization is key to learning and the transfer of knowledge. Presenting material in a structured way allows students to put these to relevant use and store it in the right place for later recall.

Alignment with Natural Learning Processes

There is a natural way and order in which we learn. We need the basics before we can combine them to create complexity. You can’t teach grammar without first knowing the alphabet, then words, then sentences. The same is true in music. You can’t teach harmony when you haven’t learned single pitches.

Clear Expectations

There should be a clear expectation of what is required from the student, the teacher, and other stakeholders (parents, grandparents, etc.). If you teach children, your clients are usually the parents, and those parents need to have a clear understanding of your expectations.

Measurable Goals

If the scope and purpose of the curriculum is clear, then you will know how to measure its success and set achievable goals.

We use these questions:

Is material appropriate for their age and development?
Can students play the lessons on their own at home?
Are students improving week to week?
Are students motivated and having fun with the entire learning process?

Framework and Philosophy

What is the underlying philosophy and framework of the curriculum you are using? A solid curriculum’s framework and philosophy should speak to and inspire you.

The Musicolor Method’s philosophy is all about teaching life skills through music. The framework is the growth spiral. This spiral is seen throughout the universe in organic forms like seashells, flowers, and the galaxies in the stars above. It’s an organic natural part of life.

Matching the Audience’s Interests, Age, and Skill

Teaching music to a 4 vs 6 vs 8 year old is going to be vastly different. The stages of cognitive, physical and social emotional developmental are completely different from year to year. Thus, the materials, lesson plans and approach need to be tuned to the stage of the student.

Training For Teachers

Does your curriculum provide adequate training for educators? Do you have a way of clarifying questions or asking for advice?

For hundreds of years, music method publishers have relied on music method books that try to do it all. The pages address three separate audiences: teacher, parent and then student. Not ideal.
Our program uses an online platform to deliver training on demand.

No matter what curriculum you use for your students, these questions can help clarify your objectives.

I hope this has been helpful.

P.S. We’re preparing for a new cohort to take our training in the next few weeks.  Get an invite here.

Lesson Plan Ideas

How To Be A Better Music Teacher Part 2

Ever tried to interview and hire a music teacher?

Recently, I combed through hundreds of resumes responding to a simple offer for a part-time job.   It shocked me to see so many Masters and PhDs graduates responding to an offer for a $20/hour, part time position.  

It was puzzling.

To me, learning to be an effective music teacher is like building the perfect home-based business.  You can literally do it from your living room, a rented closet, or at the customer’s home.  And yet, here were hundreds of resumes from obviously talented musicians, seeking a job for which, some might argue, they are overqualified.  So what’s going on?

A Pattern Emerges

As I interviewed candidates, a pattern began to emerge. It wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t that these teachers were not able to play or teach well.  It was far simpler than that.

These music teachers were lacking one basic thing.  

What was it?

It relates to an experience I had recently.

My teenage son loves to explore the city.  One day he returned home and told me about how he checked out this amazing new shopping mall at Ground Zero in Manhattan.

My Sharpen The Saw Day

“It’s called the Oculus.  The architecture is really cool and it looks like a gigantic eye on the ceiling.  It’s filled with amazing stores like the Apple store and Gucci and other high end shops.”  So on my “sharpen the saw” day (learn about this phrase in last week’s post), I decided to have a nice lunch, write in my journal and check out this interesting spot.

He was right. It was amazing.  Here’s a photo.

The Oculus Mall near Ground Zero Manhattan
The Oculus Mall near Ground Zero Manhattan

Everything Begins With An Idea

What really struck me about The Oculus was the fact that everything I was seeing, enjoying, and experiencing had started as an idea.  Somebody imagined this and organized people, resources, and money to create it.  Everything in this building was impeccable.  The shops were beautiful, and in their designs, it was obvious that someone developed a specific plan to sell men’s shirts or high end bags for wealthy women. Even the restaurants lining the marina were structured and organized. No detail was overlooked.

My Epiphany

It must have been something in the air and the light that day.  It was unseasonably warm.  For whatever reason, I was bowled over by this epiphany.

I felt so small. Here I am, organizing content for my students, my teachers, and for you, the readers of this post.  How amazing is it that someone organized an entire mall for so many people to enjoy? Where does one even begin?


The answer to that question, and to my question about what so many of the applicants I met with were missing is: structure. It’s all about structure.

As I sat in the late afternoon sun recording these feelings in my journal, I realized that from chaos, order emerges.  We humans long for order and organization.  We seek it here on earth, in the cosmos, and when we recognize it, we rejoice. 

Fractals & Fibonacci

The fractals and the waves and the fibonacci patterns all give us a sense of order. We can believe that all is well in the universe.  From science and biology to technology and economics, we crave structure.  Even in the most trivial and mundane tasks, we search for patterns.  As I completed the seemingly arbitrary task of interviewing candidates, I realized that these candidates all lacked structure.  They lacked a coherent way of organizing their offerings to the world.

Something Lacking In These Music Teachers

For some, it was a lack of training in the ways of marketing and business.  For many others, it was a lack of understanding how to structure a lesson for a cohesive body of students.  Many of these teachers had one or two students who were five year old beginners, a couple of teenagers, and a few seniors, but had no idea how to appropriately communicate these lessons to a large body of diverse students.  Everything from their presentation of themselves to their proposed teachings methods lacked structure.  Many admitted to making up lesson plans on the spot.

Course of A Race

An educational plan is called a curriculum.   It comes from Latin and literally translates as the “course of a race.”   Over time it was used to describe the “course of study” and now is generally understood to describe the content, organization, and structure of a learning experience.

A Curriculum For Music Teachers

A curriculum can be rigid or loosely pulled together.  Though most of these teachers said they followed a curriculum, theirs were haphazard at best.   Most had no thoughtful process, and some just relied on what the next page of the current method book called for.

However, this isn’t necessarily always the fault of music teachers. Many of the teachers I interviewed were working as teaching artists in after-school programs, where they were given little or no guidance as to what to teach.   And yet, parents were paying to send their children to music and arts programs which advertise a “robust and student-centered curriculum.”  

It’s stressful.  The anxiety of always trying to figure out what to do next — especially for younger, less experienced teachers — was palpable.

So how do you know whether your music curriculum is doing the job?  

Next:  6 Questions To Ask If You’re Curriculum Is Effective.

Lesson Plan Ideas

How to Encourage Focus in Yourself and Your Students

How To Be A Better Music Teacher, (Part 1 of 3)

“Focus!  Focus!  Focus!”

Have you ever heard that?  Perhaps from a teacher?   Maybe you’ve said it yourself. Maybe you’ve even said it this week.

We music teachers are all about focus.  It takes focus to teach, to practice, and to play an instrument.  We direct our student’s focus.  

And it’s all good — until it’s not.

The McDonalds Effect

When we are depleted and feeling like we have no more to give, we slump into our easy chairs and zone out to some mindless television, novels, or magazines.  The comedian Jim Gaffigan calls it “the McDonald’s effect” — it’s consuming stuff that we know is not really good for us because it’s mindless, distracting, and tastes good…for a while, at least.  

We need that sometimes.  My “McDonald’s” (aka, my guilty pleasure) is reading technology magazines about super geeky, cutting edge tech.  Most of these gadgets solve ridiculous problems that only the top 1% of the 1% even have, but it’s mindless. It’s a good way to blow off steam.

However, there is danger in taking our guilty pleasures too far. If we fall too far into our “McDonald’s,” we risk tumbling into a downward spiral, unable to accomplish anything we originally aspired to do.

Major & The Minor In Life

So, how do we know if we are moving ahead on the major — and not the minor — things in life?   

I wrote an article about it here.

Cool, right?

A Walk In The Woods

I recently took a little trip to do some hiking in the woods.  There’s nothing like nature to break the pattern, to rejuvenate and inspire.  No matter how healthy, strong, motivated or ambitious you are, you need to take time off.  Burnout is a very real thing.  The human brain is a muscle, and because of this, you can only make so many decisions in a day before you are just plumb worn out.  

The Woodsman

There’s an old story which goes something like this:

A hiker comes upon a guy cutting down a tree in the forest.  He’s sweating bullets and cursing under his breath.  The hiker waves hello, but the guy just keeps going harder and faster.  After a few more minutes he stops to catch his breath.

The hiker, sensing an opportunity to be helpful, says, “You know, you would cut that tree faster if you just took some time to sharpen your saw.”

At this, the guy turns beet red with anger. “Who asked you?  Can’t you see I don’t have time for that?  I’m trying to cut down this tree!”

The 7 Habits

In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People , author Stephen Covey talks about this story and states that “sharpening the saw” is one of the seven titular habits.  

“Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have — you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.“

Managing Focus

This idea has resonated with me for decades.  Over the years, I’ve tried so many tools for managing my ability to focus.  I’ve read hundreds of books in the areas of psychology, self-development, spirituality, time management, productivity, and growth hacking.  I’ve used and discarded so many tips, tricks and tools.  But, over time,  I’ve figured out which ones work best for me and for managing the focus of others — namely, my students.

My Deep Focus Tool

In fact, at this moment in my life, I am feeling more productive and aligned-with-my-goals than I ever have before.  
What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw?

What are some of the biggest obstacles you face when trying to focus on your longterm goals?

Would you be interested in learning more about my focus planning tool?  Let me know in the comments below.

Ready for the next part?

Read How To Be A Better Music Teacher Part 2

Lesson Plan Ideas

How To Use A Focus Window to Combat Overwhelm in Students

In the jungle that is music education, there lives a beast.  

A terrifying dragon that lurks behind every chair, instrument and music stand, it is the Distraction Dragon.  This beast is the greatest and most common enemy of all teachers.  

We tremble upon sensing the slightest breath of distraction rising up among our students.

And though many have logged years of training, this beast still haunts us.  You will never slay the dragon completely.   

But with some practice, you can corral it with a few effective dragon-wrangling techniques I will share below.  Let’s get started!

Dragon Bait

A common lure the dragon of distraction uses is the “shiny ball.”  The shiny ball is anything that is more interesting than what you are saying, doing or demonstrating at that moment.  

If you teach children, you know there is a problem of focus that is just not part of teaching teens or adults.  Young children have shorter attention spans and are easily distracted!

Corralling the Dragon of Distraction

Steps can be taken to keep the distraction at bay.  Some of these things may seem obvious, but you must look out for them

  • Limit clutter in the teaching space
  • Remove potentially attention-grabbing toys or objects
  • Have  a policy that  phones must be set on vibrate
  • Limit the seating to discourage too many siblings in the space
  • Don’t allow eating in the studio
  • Limit or remove pets
  • Use music notation that is visually clear and clutter-free

Music Notation That Is Dragon-Free

As so much of our visual attention is placed on reading music notation, the following can greatly assist in attaining focus.

When presented with traditional music notation, students are often overwhelmed by how complicated it all looks.  And it is complicated!

Reading music is a high-level skill.  It takes a long time and a lot of practice  to understand all the symbolic language and the nuances.   

In the first few stages of our Musicolor Notation, students begin to learn structure.   They begin to notice the patterns of the entire piece as a whole and which parts are slightly different but mostly the same.  Then we dive into the smaller details.

With traditional music notation, we do the same.  But so often, students still feel overwhelmed by all the abstract symbols on the page.  

To help with this, we developed a Focus Window.  

What’s a Focus Window?

A Focus Window is a way of directing the student’s attention to a specific portion of the page.  You can use a Focus Window for not only  reading music but also for teaching reading words to young children or to place attention only on a portion of a large picture, graph, map or chart.  

By using a Focus Window, students can work on a smaller area  than they would naturally reach for.   It limits the information overload.

Constructing the Focus Window

There are a few ways you can construct a Focus Window.  

Originally we tried to use flashlights by focusing light beams on  certain areas of the sheet music.  That didn’t work too well with young students.  The dark room was too extreme and all sorts of hilarious screaming ensued!

Paper and cardboard cutout windows were mildly successful.  

Our Recommendation

Our favorite and simplest method of constructing a Focus Window involves Post-It notes.  These wonderful little 3” by 3” yellow squares of paper with the light adhesive made by 3M have been an essential part of our studio for years.

By using the Post-Its to block certain areas of the page, you can quickly create an area in the middle that is the Focus Window.  

Here’s an example of how to block out a small Focus Window from a larger piece of music.

What Is A Focus Window?
Focus inside the window

The Mental Desktop

Too often, students try to play an entire phrase which it too much for them to  hold in their mental desktop.  By making that phrase smaller, (much smaller!) and only showing a small portion visually, we can control their focus.

The benefit of using removable Post-It notes is that you can quickly resize the Focus Window or even move it as your student progresses through the piece.

Cluttered Page Layouts

Some Focus Windows are quite large and are made by covering up all the extraneous information many method book publishers clutter the page with.

So often there are instructions meant to be read by a teacher or parent but not the student.  This type of text is very overwhelming for young children.  The same is true of the small duet parts often printed below the student part.

Also, many times there are beautiful illustrations and graphics on the page.  These can be charming and helpful.   For pre-literate children, the illustrations can be the way they remember which song is which as they can’t read the titles.

But the graphics should be limited as they do pull away focus.

Focus Windows at Home

We also teach the parents of our students how to do this at home.  It allows us to send home lesson notes that say, “Work on the one measure in the Focus Window and then enlarge it to include 2 measures.”

Learning how to practice is a skill that affects a student’s life forever.  By teaching students  how to effectively practice by limiting data and concentrating repetitively on small parts at a time, we can teach mastery skills.

The Itch of Curiosity

By using a Focus Window we limit the data.  We obscure parts of the whole.  This can be used to our benefit.  It triggers a universal psychological effect known as the information or knowledge gap.  

In the 1990’s, Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Lowenstein put forth the “Information Gap Theory of Curiosity.”

“It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” (Wired magazine)

No Peeking!

If you tell your students “you can’t peek under this until next week,” you have effectively created some curiosity.  Many of them will actually look just to see what’s there.   

Some have even “figured it out themselves.”

Others have practiced even more to make sure they get to “open the window.”

The Hidden Answer Window

The inverse of a Focus Window is a Hidden Answer Window.

Do you remember those interactive children’s books that have hidden flaps that allow a child to discover more content?  These were fun and engaging because of the curiosity invoked by hiding answers or parts of the story.

You can do this with music too.

Sometimes students are just not ready to work on certain phrases or maybe a left hand piano part is too tricky right now and you want them to work only on the right hand.  

By covering the tricky bits with a little Post-It flap, you create a Hidden Answer Window.  They remind us that there is still unfinished business on this page, but we will discover it  together in future lessons.  

A Hidden Answer Window in Music
No peeking please!

This  lowers the stress level of students who are desperately trying to seek your approval by playing everything perfectly.  It lets them off the hook.

It’s funny how some simple this is and yet kids find it so fun and engaging.  Of course they’ll peek, but they know that they’ll get to it soon.

Where’s the Dragon Now?

And best of all, there have been no sightings of the Distraction Dragon.  

So from one dragon-wrangler to another, go forth and teach without fears of dragons!

Download the Accompanying Resource

If you found this useful, check out the free download:

10 Tips To Make Music Practice Easy, Effective and Fun!.

Best practices Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset Music and Science

How to get concepts to stick for music students

What cognitive disfluency teaches us?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

We are drowning in information these days. There’s so much information that our eyes glaze over.

The boards of education of every school district in America are touting the importance of having information about student attendance, test scores, reading ability, curriculum, assignments, and so on. And everywhere, we see charts, graphs, and tables. How can we keep up?

It’s so easy to put all this information into a pretty chart, but do we really understand it?

The Educational Benefits of Ugly Fonts

A few years ago, I read an interesting article in Wired called The Educational Benefits of Ugly Fonts. They discussed a research study where student volunteers were told to read some information. In one group, the information was easily scanned and read with a clear and legible typeface. In the other group, the same information was presented in an ugly, hard to read font. The students had to really work at making out what was being said.

The results?

The students faced with the ugly fonts actually remembered and retained the information better than those with the easy-to-read fonts. This is called cognitive disfluency.

“People process new information along a continuum, from very fluently (with great ease) to very disfluently (with great difficulty). Researchers have long recognized that people prefer fluently processed stimuli across a broad range of dimensions. A more recent stream of research suggests that disfluency sometimes produces superior outcomes.” – Adam Alter, a professor at NYU. See an interview here.

I was once given an assignment to copy the music for a Beethoven string quartet by hand. This was for a composition class at Juilliard School of Music. By the time I had written a few measures, I began to really get into the structure of the piece. It also helped me to retain some of the phrasing ideas that Beethoven was using.

I’ve done this kind of exercise before with creative fiction writing. I copied by hand the opening chapters of some of my favorite novels and short stories. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a favorite. After a few pages, my mind started to flow with the longer, mellifluous and magical phrasing he is known for.

In advertising classes, copywriters are given sample sales letters and told to write them out by hand for at least 30 minutes a day. After a few weeks, they are ready to start writing their own sales copy.

These are all examples of cognitive disfluency in action.

Smarter, Faster, Better

In Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better, he describes how a Cincinnati public school turned itself around using cognitive disfluency.

“In 2008, the Elementary Initiative was launched. As part of that reform, Johnson’s principal mandated that all teachers had to spend at least two afternoons per month in the school’s new data room. Around a conference table, teachers were forced to participate in exercises that made data collection and statistical tabulation even more time consuming.”

Teachers were required to make handwritten index cards with each student’s data and then transfer the information to long rolls of butcher paper lining the walls of the data room.

“It was intensely boring. And frankly, it seemed redundant because all this information was already available on the students’ online dashboards… ‘The rule was that everyone had to actually handle the cards, physically move them around.’… “Handling the cards, she found, gave her a more granular sense of each student’s strengths and weaknesses..”

This made me think of my process for music lesson planning and notes.

I have been writing lesson notes by hand after each lesson for the last six years or so. I then transfer them into my Music Teacher’s Helper to send to the parent and keep a running record for myself.

What I’ve noticed is that I am incredibly cognizant of where each and every student is on their path and what the right next step for them is. I’ve been training a few teachers in this method, and they too are getting wonderful results. The fact that I’m handling the data gives me that deeper understanding.

So the counter-intuitive act of making it harder to input data to a system (and my brain!) has enabled me to retain it in a more readily available form.

When To Use Cognitive Disfluency

Cognitive disfluency is an advanced technique.  It is best used for understanding big conceptual or structural knowledge like in the understanding of how Beethoven composed a string quartet or Picasso created a cubist portrait.

For basic concepts, you want to be very intuitive and easy to understand.

Once your brain understands the basic building blocks of any activity –  it chunks the information together.  This is how you can drive a car and listen to the radio without getting into an accident.  The small blocks have been made into habit routines that are chunked together.

However, this is exactly when many people miss information.  They back the car over the tricycle because they are not as carefully monitoring the environment the way they did in the first month of driving.  The same is true when viewing the fancy charts of data or understanding a finished piece of music.  You can easily gloss over the real details without internalizing any of them.  And…forget about retaining the information as it was never stored in the first place.

What do you use for your lesson planning?

You may want to try the harder, less convenient way for greater results.

Feel free to forward this to your friends, music teachers, clients.

A version of this article first appeared at the Music Teachers Helper Blog.

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How To Know If Your Child’s Music Lessons Are Backwards?

The Joy of Music

One of the best parts of my job as a music teacher is witnessing the pure joy that music can bring. 

Here’s one of my young students who started her first lesson with me at the end of June.  We had a few lessons over the summer and then a break.  But she loves to practice.  This song was in our 3rd lesson and is her favorite.

Walking Before Talking?

As we ended the lesson, a student’s father said to me, “I took lessons in 2nd grade, but they started me with having to learn to read the notes and I just gave up.  I wish I had you as a teacher back then.”

Me too!

Back then, the only way to teach was reading notes first.  And, unless you were a childhood prodigy like Bach or Mozart, then, sorry!  Forget about any preschooler taking piano lessons!  You had to wait until you were at least 8 years old.

It’s like asking a child to walk before they can even talk!  It’s backwards!

Somehow, the child-centered approach to early childhood education never seemed to make it to the music education departments of Universities and conservatories.   

There is a natural growth cycle of human development.  And reading cannot come before speaking, ever.  So why expect it in a music lesson? Reading music notation cannot come before playing the instrument.

Everything In It’s Place

In the Musicolor Method™ curriculum, we have a strategically designed sequence of songs that build technique while disguised as fun sing-along songs.  There is a right time for everything.  We use several phases of Musicolor notation that is instantly readable and yet guides the student towards reading traditional music notation.  And we use a concept called direct-labelling, that comes from information design, to facilitate the entire process.

If your child is struggling with reading notes,  it’s probably not their fault.  It just may be out of sequence.

I Wanna Rock!

Recently, I met a father of a former student.  He was very complimentary about my students abilities.  He told me how his other daughter went to a big franchise music school that promised to teach kids to play in a rock band.  And yet when she came home each week, the father would ask her to play a song.

“Well I can’t remember.  And I only play one note in the whole song.”

That sounds more like playing a video game like Guitar Hero where you don’t actually learn the skills to play anything on your own.  You just play along with backing tracks or the teacher plays the real song while the kids get to play one note.  That doesn’t sound all that fun to me.  And judging from the father’s disappointment, not what he was expecting.  There was no organized method or curriculum.

As a teacher and a parent, I’ve never been a fan of this kind of teaching.  It’s more of an after-school activity to kill a few hours until dinner time.  Where’s the growth?  Where’s the mastery of skills?

Learning any new skills requires structure and organization.  Even with a million instructional videos on YouTube, how do you know what to watch next?  How do you have an organized path to mastery?

How Do You Know If Your Child’s Music Teacher is Effective?

Do you have your child in music lessons?  Do you see consistent growth every week?  Is your child able to play music alone without the backing tracks or duets and still sound like music?  Are they learning the life skills of focus, perseverance and practice?  If not, you may be experiencing the old-school, traditional method.  I call it walking before talking.

Send Your Teacher To This Unique Training

We can help.  Send your teacher to our training, you can learn more or sign up here.  We have a full curriculum to teach piano, guitar, ukulele, dulcimer, strumstick along with general music theory to children as young as 3!

Here’s a video of a 4 year old who worked with me for 9 months from the age of 3 1/2.

Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset

Music Education And The Belief of “Control of Destiny”

As a parent, I have always wanted my son to have a music education.  It’s not that I want him to be a professional musician, it’s because

  • It’s so much fun and he loves it
  • the life skills accessible through music lessons

Brain Development and Music Education

There have been so many scientific studies and articles in the media over the last few years.  They have all proven the benefits of music education in brain development, personal growth, self esteem and success in later life.  

In my private teaching practice, “Life Skills Through Music” is clearly stated as my objective.

Part of this bundle of life skills is a “growth mindset.”  Growth mindset has become a buzzword in education and psychology these days.  It came from Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford who conducted a study of 5th graders in 1998.  

In the study, the students were given a challenging test.  At its completion, they were all told they did well.  

However, half the students were also told, “You must have worked really hard on this.”  The other half were also told, “You must be naturally smart.”

The difference in the next round of testing was startling.  

The kids who were praised for their effort and hard work, tried to live up to that praise and pushed themselves harder and longer.  The kids who were praised for their natural gifts, took less risks, and gave up quicker on challenging questions.   

All because of HOW they were praised.

In my training for music teachers, we discuss growth mindset with extensive resource videos.  So I was a little surprised to hear that the US Marine Corps are also using it.    

In Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive, he tells the story of a young man with no ambition, drive, or motivation.  It seems this man was never made to do anything for himself.  Everything was given to him and after the structure of school, he had no idea of what to do with his life.  Somehow he found his way to the U.S. Marines which completely transforms him.

Locus of Control

Duhigg interviews the officer who reinvented basic training based on studies like Dweck’s that show the importance of an internal locus (point, position, or location) of control.  

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan
U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

“We were seeing much weaker applicants.  A lot of these kids didn’t just need discipline, they needed a mental makeover.  They’d never belonged to a sports team.  They’d never had a real job. They’d never done anything.  They didn’t even have the vocabulary for ambition.  They’d followed instructions their whole life.  This was a problem.  Because the Corps increasingly needed troops who could make independent decisions…We need extreme self starters.”

The officer discovered “studies the Marine Corps had conducted years earlier that showed the most successful Marines with a strong internal locus of control, a belief that they could influence their destiny through the choices they made.”

Duhigg continues:

“Locus of control has been a major topic of study within psychology since the 1950’s.  Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence.  A student with a strong internal locus of control for instance, will attribute good grades to hard work rather than natural smarts…

People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer and report greater professional success and satisfaction.  

In contrast, having an external locus of control, believing that your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control, is correlated with higher levels of stress, often because an individual perceives a situation as beyond his or her coping abilities.”

So what does this have to do with music education?

The entire process of learning an instrument with a caring teacher is like the perfect process of developing a strong internal locus of control:

  • Learning how to focus on playing a piece well through repeated practice
  • Linking cause and effect based on student choices
  • Persevering through difficult pieces – building grit!
  • Breaking down big problems into smaller manageable pieces
  • Trying different approaches in speed, rhythm, quality, etc.
  • Development of personal responsibility for practice
  • Public performance and presentation
  • Memorization skills

To name just a few.

Duhigg interviews Professor Dweck who says,

Carol S Dweck  - Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

“Internal locus of control is a learned skill…Most of us learn it early in life. But some people’s sense of self-determination gets suppressed by how they grow up or experiences they’ve had.  They forget how much influence they can have on their own lives.  That’s when training is helpful.  Because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control – where that internal locus of control is re-awakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel they are in charge of their own lives.  And the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

Did you notice Dweck says practice?  

It’s as if she’s directly talking about music lessons!

And there’s some good news

The U.S. Congress recently passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which has done away with the controversial No Child Left Behind.  So no more common core curriculum!  

Instead, the goal is for a well-rounded education.  And for the first time in 50 years, music is now a stand alone subject in that well-rounded mix.  

Hopefully, this means the demand for music teachers will increase.  Perhaps there will be a bit more respect, and most importantly, funding for programs like band, chorus, orchestra, and general music.  

Music is the practice of developing belief that we control our destiny through our actions.

So the next time your child brings home good grades on a test, don’t just say “Good job!” Take a moment to praise the effort.  And sign them up for music lessons! With some guidance, they just may turn out to be extreme self-starters.

Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset Teaching Methods

How To Teach Music in The New Attention Economy

The Information Economy?

People sometimes say that we are living in the “information economy.”  I think that is only partially true.  Instead, I believe we are living in the attention economy.  Think about it.  There is nothing more precious than our attention — not time, money, or material possessions –and everyone wants a piece of it!


There has recently been a lot of talk about mindfulness in the media,and I believe it’s exactly because of information overload.  We as a society need to stop and learn to filter out the signal from all the noise.

Fully Present

I specialize in teaching music to children.  One thing that I have done from the beginning is made it a point to be truly present while teaching or interacting with my students and their families.  At recitals, I give my unwavering focus to each child on the stage, to the point where I feel both emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the performance.  It is as if I am willing their success through my 100% attention.

I didn’t realize that I was doing this until my wife mentioned it to me.  She said,

“I love to watch you at your recitals because you are completely there for your students.”

I believe that this total focus on each student in front of me is a big part of why I have such a strong rapport with them.

It is unfortunately so rare for a child to have that complete and total attention from any adult these days. Many parents are so distracted.  Not only is there the normal work/life balance, but now there is also the ubiquitous smartphone constantly beeping in the background.  Many children seem to never have full attention, and “act out,”  because negative attention is better than no attention at all.

An Audience of One

Each lesson is also a performance.  You have an audience of one, and you are fully engaged in listening, responding, and leading the student to new heights of understanding and ability.

What happens when you give a child your complete presence is remarkable.  You have complete trust;  you have a safe space where you can encourage, coax, or even cajole your student to move far beyond their previous internally-constructed obstacles.  When the student says, “I can’t do it”  you can say, “…yet!”  and they believe you.

I was so humbled to receive this comment from a parent:

“You have a unique capability to communicate, share and nurture enthusiasm for music…  you teach to the individual child.  You find a way to access each student where he/she is, and to find the music that touches him/her.  I have noticed with Mary* that (while she never wants to disappoint you) she does not fear judgment from you…you have created a safe place for the journey of learning.  While you gently push your kids, you are an incredibly patient and kind teacher.

Be Present

So the lesson is this: Stop trying to multi-task.  Be completely present, and it will enable you to move mountains and maybe even change the world.

*Student’s name has been changed

[box] This article originally appeared at the Music Teachers Helper blog.[/box]

About The Method Lesson Plan Ideas Teaching Methods

What Miss Shelly Discovered In A Nightmare Piano Lesson

Shelly took a deep breath.  

Her lesson wasn’t going the way she thought it would.  A fun and simple song had turned into a struggle of multiple problems- technique, rhythm and simply playing the right sequence of notes.  She had to catch herself as she was becoming visibly flustered.


“Did I do something wrong Ms Shelly?”  Evan asked innocently from the piano bench.

Evan was only 5 years old and a beautiful boy with striking blue eyes set under a golden white head of closely cropped hair.


“No Evan, of course not.  I’m just thinking of a better way to show you this song, that’s all.”


“Okay.”   Evan went back to banging at the keys in the way that so irked her.  

“Stop!  Stop!  Please just stop!  It’s not music when you bang the instrument!”

Evan’s eyes welled up and he ran and hid his face in the sofa.


Oh dear.


“Ms Shelly?”  

Evan’s mother appeared in the door of the piano studio.  


“What’s going on?  Why is Evan crying?”


“I’m sorry, I don’t think this is going to work out.  Maybe when he’s a little older.”


“But he was so enthusiastic about music!   What did you do?”




Shelly had no other lessons that day and decided that she needed to take the rest of the day off.  It was Friday, and her husband wouldn’t be home for hours. The kids were still at her mother-in-law’s until Sunday.  


The deep rich smells of freshly ground coffee soothed her senses as she entered the Green Dot Cafe, her favorite locally-owned coffee place.

How could that lesson have been so disastrous?  Shelly mused over her steaming cup of joe.

I have a masters in music education from a top conservatory, over ten years of teaching experience, and I truly love teaching – why was this so difficult?


Lately she had experienced a downturn in business as less adults and teens seemed to be interested in learning the piano.  She had tried to expand to other instruments like ukulele, guitar and even banjo, but still nothing.  After nearly 11 years of a steady stream of clients, it seemed that no one was interested in learning to play a real instrument anymore – it was all turntables or electronic doo-hickeys or music video games that didn’t even teach you any music skills!    She wasn’t alone in feeling this way.  Her friend Becca had more schooling than her with over 20 years of experience  and was now down to 5 students!  

How could anyone survive on that?


Then, Shelly started receiving phone calls from preschool parents.  In the past, she would usually turn them away if they weren’t at least 8 years old.  

I mean, how is it possible to teach a child who couldn’t even read the words of the song yet?


But still, more and more young parents seemed to want piano lessons for their children.  Most of these parents had never played an instrument during their lives!  They had read some studies about how important music lessons were for brain development and decided this was it.  It wasn’t about the music, it was about getting an edge for their child for when they eventually applied to Harvard!


That lesson was a terrible mess.  Have I gone crazy and lost my teaching skills?  Maybe I should look into that job at the Walmart.


That night, Shelly was reading through her emails and came across one from another piano teacher friend, Eloisa.  Eloisa was both a friend and a competitor and there was a bit of rivalry at times, especially since she didn’t seem to be affected by this downturn in students.  


“Hey Shel, I was thinking about you because you told me about you needing a few more students…”

A few?  It seems I could use a whole studio!  Is she rubbing face in her success again?


“…I came across this course that actually shows you how to teach preschoolers.  I’ve been taking it for the last few months and I must say it’s amazing.  It has helped tons. Andrew (the guy who teaches it) explains it well – he uses colors as direct labeling so it’s very simple to use. It opens up an entire market for kids to start playing, feeling good about it, and feeling like they “own” it as the music they play is represented on a page. They can immediately point to something they’ve learned, a big confidence booster for them.”


Wow.  No wonder Eloisa is getting so many students lately!


I would recommend the course because it is thoroughly set up with not only resources for The Musicolor Method, but it also includes educational and professional components ( mostly in video format) that have really challenged me as a teacher. It has allowed me to grow as an educator. I’ve been teaching early childhood music for over 30 years but I still love to grow. Andrew continues to add ongoing professional development each week.”


Shelly spent the next hour and a half diving into the Musicolor Method website.  She particularly liked that the creator of the course, Andrew Ingkavet, came to this work because of personal need and his desire for his son to play the piano..  He built a successful studio for the last 10 years working with hundreds of students while using and refining these methods.  The method was actually pretty simple.  It developed from insights Andrew had due to a diverse career in design, advertising and communication – well outside the normal teaching path, though he also had that as well.  


Shelly had a hard time sleeping that night.  She kept dreaming of a full teaching studio,  assistant teachers, and a grand recital in a large auditorium where the crowd was chanting her name.  


She woke up later than usual to the smell of bacon and eggs.  As she entered the kitchen, she saw her husband standing at the grill, coffee mug in hand, and a big grin on his face.

“Shel, I didn’t want to wake you – it seemed like you needed an extra few zzz’s.”

Shelly yawned and gave her husband peck on the lips.

“Honey, I was having a hard time sleeping until the wee hours.”

“Well good thing you have no lessons today.”

“Good thing?  That’s just the point.  It’s not a good thing Dan!”  her tone had suddenly changed.

Dan stood frozen.  The bacon was starting to burn and he quickly grabbed the tongs to place it on serving platter.

“I’m sorry honey.  I have been feeling a little like a failure lately…no students and all.”

“I thought you had a new one yesterday?”

Shelly shook her head and buried her head in Dan’s shoulders.

“It didn’t work out.”


Dan ruffled her hair and stood silently as he held her.


“But I think I found a solution.”

Dan smiled expectantly.

“What is it?”

“It’s a course that Eloisa sent me last night.  It’s all about teaching preschoolers and it shows you these 3 things:

1) core principles of teaching this method

2) a step by step curriculum to follow

3) games and activities to teach them.  

I’m kind of excited.”


“So when are you leaving” Dan said with a wink.  

“Oh it’s not in a place, it’s all online.  They’re actually pre-recorded videos and downloadable sheets and templates and stuff.  I can even start today.”

“Well, hold on a second honey.  I mean, weren’t we going to celebrate our anniversary today?”

Shelly smiled.  She had forgotten that the whole reason the kids were away was because of their “special celebration” tonight.  

“I didn’t mean I was going to start it right now!  It’s all self-paced, so I can do a little every day or every week, whatever.”


After breakfast, while Dan was out running a few errands, Shelly called Becca to tell her of her new discoveries.  She reached her voicemail.


“Hey Becca, it’s me Shel.  Eloisa, you know, “Ms-Never-Can-Fail-Eloisa”, actually told me about something great that I want to share with you too.  Call me back.”


A few minutes later Becca called back.  Shelly was excited as she shared her findings with Becca.  However, after a few minutes, it had turned to disappointment.

“I already know everything about teaching!  After all, we went to the conservatory together!  We’ve been teaching for a combined total of 31 years!  And don’t you know that colors are just a crutch?  These kids are not learning real music!  I wouldn’t go near that with a ten foot pole!”

“But, Becca,” Shelly stammered, taken aback by her friends negative reaction. “How could you be so sure when you only have 5 students?”


Becca had hung up on her!

Why was she so threatened by this?  It seemed ludicrous to be so threatened by the mere idea of teaching with a different approach.


“Hon, is everything alright?”  Dan stroked her cheek.  Shelly looked up at her husband.  

“The dinner was divine, the restaurant perfect and this wine is as fantastic you are.”

They kissed.

“I’m sorry but I was a little distracted thinking about a conversation I had with Becca today.”

Dan rolled his eyes.  “Oh Becca, you mean something wasn’t perfect in her world?”

“Well that’s just it.  I was telling her about the course I found and she was so negative.  It was like she was physically threatened by the mere idea of it.”


“Well, speaking as a professional now,” Dan sat up straighter with a look of pompous arrogance playfully on his face. “I would say that Becca IS feeling threatened as she is feeling obsolete in her old world mindset.  Times are changing.  It’s somewhat like  how technology has disrupted the old worlds of business.  Remember the video stores?  They’re all gone, and it’s not because no one wants to watch movies anymore, it’s just how they do it.  I would hypothesize that it’s the same in every industry today,especially teaching.  From the outside looking in, it seems to me that the world is teaching pretty much in the same way since the 1800’s with classrooms, lectures and some of the same books.  Am I making sense?”

Shelly loved it when Dan went on one of his “expert lectures.”  As a global marketing consultant he did have a larger perspective than most of her friends and neighbors.

“Well that makes a lot of sense.  I saw some of the books on Becca’s piano and they were straight out of the 1800’s!  I don’t think I could ever show any students that stuff – they’d be bored out of their minds!  And there’s no way could I get a preschooler to even understand how to read that.”

“I think that music is at an all time high in both access and interest.”

“What?  Can you speak like a normal person honey?”

Dan chuckled.  He sometimes forgot when he was going into business lingo.

“Sure.  I mean that the music business has changed how they get their music to the masses.  It’s the same with the video stores.  Now you don’t have to buy a physical album or CD or tape, you actually don’t even buy it – you rent it like Netflix is for movies.  You pay for a music subscription from services like Spotify, Apple Music or Amazon’s Prime Music.  You get to listen to even more music than ever before.  I don’t think people aren’t interested in music or learning music, it’s just that maybe the teaching is not connecting with the interests of the consumers, I mean, students.”


It was a bright spring morning and Shelly was clearing away the breakfast dishes.  Dan and the kids were out the door and she had a few hours left before her first student would arrive.  She was thinking about how different her life had become in the last 4 months since she started i the course.  It was as if  she had completely shifted her mindset.  What was once so hard and even unfathomable now seemed like an obvious and basic foundation.  Her studio was now close to maxing out her weekday hours and she was considering taking on another teacher for weekend lessons so she could still have an income while spending time with the family.


I should check in with Becca.


It had been almost 4 months to the day since Becca hung up on her.  Even though she had tried to reconnect by sending text messages and emails , Becca seemed to have dropped Shelly from her circle completely.  Shelly had heard from a mutual friend that Becca was now considering a part-time position at a local department store- “for the benefits of course.”  Her studio had dried up and she was still not willing to talk about other “professional development.”


Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.


Shelly typed up a brief email.  


Becca, I care a lot about you and want to send you this gift.  It’s a 7 day trial of the course.  You can always cancel if you don’t find it to be useful.  But I, as many others, have found this to be a great kickstart to my own teaching practice, business and life.  My studio, as you know,  was down to 1 student, and then none, and I now am seeing 25 students every week.  I’ve been keeping some others on a waiting list until I am able to hire and train another teacher on the weekends.  It would be so great if we could work together!  Anyway, hope we can get a coffee sometime soon.





This is a work of fiction based on the experiences of our teaching fellows in the Musicolor Method™ Online Course.  Learn more.