I was recently interviewed on the influential Creative Piano Teacherpodcast with Tim Topham. Tim’s a wonderful educator who has a very active blog, podcast, and a membership site. If you’re a teacher and never heard of him, you’re in for a treat.
In the interview, I discuss
How and why I decided to create a method book
How color is used in the method
Why the Musicolor Method starts with vertical notation
How it avoids position or finger number based thinking
My 7 core principles of music teaching
Which type of student this method is particularly suited to
I also talk about a special offer on our newly updated Musicolor Masterclass
After a long recovery from surgery, Anne was wondering if she would ever be able to have the stamina and drive to teach music again. She reconnected to her love of early childhood education, and her passion for playing, when she came across the Musicolor Method.
Now, Anne has reinvented herself as a private music teacher to preschool and elementary age children. She’s got a thriving, part-time business with a waiting list of eager students.
Anne Vardanega Sydney, Australia
First instrument: Piano Age I started playing music: 7 Number of years teaching: 38 Number of students before The Musicolor Method: 3-4 Number of current students: 14, plus waiting list
Interviewer: Christy Goldfeder
Currently listening to:
Bohemian Rhapsody movie soundtrack.
I’ve loved music since childhood
I started learning piano at 7 years old. I studied for 5 years, and I took exams for it in high school for what we call here in Australia, the HSC. In the U.S., I suppose you would call it your high school graduation.
I didn’t actually think I was clever enough to study music to graduate from high school. But I was encouraged by an inspiring and dedicated teacher who told me that I could do it.
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher
At University, I studied early childhood education, and I included music in my teaching studies.
I was actually a musicology major. I didn’t have to actually do a performance, but I had to do musicology arranging and composing. I absolutely loved it.
Professionally, I focused on classroom music. I played the piano, the guitar and sang with my students.
I had my son when I was 30. I taught early childhood music classes with him. He was able to come along when he was 2-5 years old.
My son’s early music lessons were a disaster
He started at age 4 with the piano, and it really didn’t work. At that time, there didn’t seem to be childhood classes that bridged early music and formal lessons. If he had the Musicolor Method back then, he would have loved it.
My son started studying guitar in school. Now, he and his wife are professional musicians living in New York.
I started performing later in life—teaching was always first
My son inspired me to learn bass guitar and voice and start performing in my 40’s. I was the bass player, backup singer, and music director of the church.
When my son was older, I got a job at his school teaching High School music and as the performing arts convenor. It was a role that I loved.
I was helping students perform for their exams, their performances and prepare for their graduation. At the end of the year they were doing performances.
My son and his fiancee (now wife) said, “Why don’t you start off because you have your early childhood background, your general education background. Why don’t you start teaching piano?” So I taught Kinder Music and Music Theory after the school year was over.
The Musicolor Method created the next phase of my career
I was recovering from hip replacement surgery, and I was actually feeling quite down and out. I was thinking that I might not be able to teach any more.
Andrew contacted me through LinkedIn, and he sent me information about his program.
As a parent and a teacher, I already knew there was a gap for young musicians. That’s what I had experienced with taking my son to piano lessons at age 4 – they were way too hard and really turned him off learning piano.
I could see the value in the Musicolor Method right away.
Plus, I have always loved color. If I showed you around my house see you got bright color paintings. The creative use of color in the Musicolor Method really appealed to me too. And it has been fantastic.
The kids are engaged and excited by the colors
I just loved the colors, and the children took to it straight away. My students started singing a lot more, which appealed to me as an early childhood teacher.
We love singing songs and they loved collecting the ribbons. I made a fun folder for them. We could go slowly through it, it didn’t matter how long a child had to stay. I could slowly go with the child depending on how they were developing.
It bridges beautifully with the early childhood years of music with 3-4 year olds. It’s the perfect solution until they’re a little older and can go on to reading music.
I believe there are still not a whole lot of good resources that bridge that Kinder music phase in young children. A lot of books have young students playing on the black keys. I do utilize that as one tool for visualizing different positions on the piano, but it gets boring, and it is not as creative as the colors.
The colors inspire creativity and compositions
I do integrate composition a lot in my lessons as well because the colors make it so easy for the children to write something. I am putting together a book actually, to show Andrew what our studio here has composed.
The kids get inspired by something that happened at school, or being on a holiday, or even by the stuffed toys I have in my studio. They use all of them to write song.
Even if they are struggling with playing with five fingers, they can still be creative. I love that. If they were learning traditionally they wouldn’t feel so good about themselves as musicians.
My part-time roster is full
I have students from age 4-9 on the Musicolor Method, and I have some older students who have gone on to other instruments but they come back to practice with me. But they actually started with the Musicolor Method.
I use it to build that transition solidly so that my students don’t lose that love for music or say it’s too hard.
The Musicolor Method helps connect with older students too
One student is turning 11 this year. I have actually said to him, “I think you need a better piano teacher now because I just focus on early childhood.”
But he’s still with me, learning harder songs like Star Wars and Harry Potter. We’re also learning chords, Beatles songs, and having fun singing together. I think that is quite interesting that he could really go to a different teacher, but for him, it is about the connection and the fun and creative process. He can play without the colors, but he still enjoys that creative side.
There are two older girls, and they are playing clarinet and saxophone. They are in grade 6. They are both in bands and they come back to me to practice. I don’t play clarinet or saxophone, but they feel confident enough with me to come back for me to help them practice. Their moms pay me to help them, I feel that connection is there to support them in their music journey.
It’s probably not what you think, but it’s scientifically demonstrated to improve how you think.
Most of us think of IQ as a fixed thing, like an SAT score. You take a test, they tell you how smart you are, and that’s that.
Turns out that’s wrong.
Neuroscience is demonstrating that brain functioning is actually far more fluid than previously believed.
For example, research out of the University of Zurich shows that doing one simple thing can actually raise a person’s IQ. And we’re not just talking about children, whose brains are usually considered more pliable than those of adults. This works for both kids and adults – even those of advanced age.
So what’s the trick? Is it using flash cards to learn more advanced words?
No. It’s also not meditation, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or taking ginkgo biloba (though none of those could hurt).
It’s learning to play a musical instrument.
That’s right — playing music significantly improves brain functioning, and can raise your IQ by seven or more points.
There is a proper way to sit at the piano. By being mindful of this from the start, you can ensure good habits for life.
I used to suffer greatly from carpal tunnel syndrome from typing on the computer with poor hand positioning. Once I became conscious and aware of this, I have cured myself. Well, it did take some massive reconditioning and even occupational therapy along with a cortisone shot to start changing my habit! So, you see, habits can be tough to break.
Height of the seat at the piano is important as the arms need to be flat and level with the floor. There should be no tension or bending at the wrists as it will cause friction and that is the cause of all the pain. For my youngest students, I have to constantly remind them not to rest their palms or wrists on the edge of the piano or else the crocodiles that live under the piano will come bite them!
Another important note is how far from the piano should you sit.
Sometimes what looks like a low sitting position causing the wrists to “break” backwards is only because they are sitting too close to the piano. Some of my young students sit with their belly almost up to the keyboard. I always tell them that you can’t play like a Tyrannosaurus Rex! (they had short little arms.)
I’ve taught my son piano from an early age which can be a challenge as being father and teacher. When he was 10, I sent him to another teacher, and the first thing he says when comes home was, “Suzan says that I need to sit further back from the piano.”
I couldn’t believe it! I’ve been only saying that for the last 6 years!
How to play Happy Birthday on the piano. This is a popular perennial request and I’m posting here for educational purposes only. Recently, the courts in the USA have declared this as public domain! Woo hoo!
There’s been a lot of talk in the education world of late about the value of the soft skills, emotional and psychological. These are the skills that are traditionally not tested. Unlike math or reading or science, these skills are more nuanced.
Because I’m a music teacher and my wife is a long-time educator, I read lots of articles on this.
Grit & Self Control – 2 Determinants for Success
One of the researchers at the forefront of this movement is Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth. Her passion is in discovering how self control and grit can predict future success. Her research has shown that grit is a better determinant of future success than academic scores and achievement. See below for her excellent TED Talk video.
And if you didn’t realize already, music lessons are a long term sustained pursuit towards goals. They are the perfect example of a grit-enducing activity! It’s less about talent and more about the “stick-to-it-ness” that determines success in music…and life!
How To Praise – Right and Wrong Ways
Since reading about these studies, I’ve been more careful about how I praise in my private music lessons. Of course, praise is wonderful, but if you just say “good job” automatically you are sending a signal that any effort or any result is good. What I’m trying to elicit is a long-term grittiness. By praising the effort, focus and patience, I can now subtly influence how they are working towards their goal. Some of my best students are a challenge because if I give them a piece and they play it very easily – they love it. But if it’s just a bit too far out of their reach, sometimes they will shut down completely.
The never-ending process is finding the appropriate material that is just a single rung or two up the ladder of complexity. This can be either conceptual like introducing a new concept such as chord inversions or a challenge technically with a certain stretch or position of the fingers. By matching the material to a small enough distance, anything is possible.
With particularly challenging music, I have the student focus only on a single measure or sometimes even a few beats. I like to use Post-It notes to cover up the rest of the page to truly give them nothing else to focus on.
So as you work through my lessons with your kids, think about how you are teaching life-long skills of persistence, patience, and focus while learning the beauty of music.
In the NY Times Magazine, there was a feature article about Social Emotional Learning and can it be taught? Here’s a quote that caught my eye. Full article here: Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?
“So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier. This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.”
With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.
Repetition is the Mother of Skill
How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived! He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.
As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.
Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.
The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.
The famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,
“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”
You could say the same of music. Know the notes.
How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.
Tell A Story
To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.
Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature. Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story. Take a look.
I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!
Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”
So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.
Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.
Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.
Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.
How To Memorize Music
In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.
Chunking It Down
To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.
An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.
At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.
Writing as a Memory Aid
Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.
Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice
without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.
I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!
My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!
An Odyssey, A Memory Palace
There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.
There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.
The Benefits of Memorization
Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!
I’ve given a lot of thought to breaking down the process of teaching music and concepts to children. What most current curriculums do is pile on a lot of information in one lesson – overwhelmingly so. That only leads to confusion, frustration and often, quitting music altogether.
Kids want to PLAY piano, but most teachers want them to learn how to READ music before playing. How boring!
Here’s my overall approach to teaching piano to kids.
Number the fingers
Assign colors to the fingers and keys
Start with playing a simple pattern with 5 fingers on the right hand.
Now play it on the left
After a while, play both hands together
Add a new song (really just a finger pattern in disguise)
After a few weeks of this kind of practice, your child is playing with proper technique and some dexterity and ease.
In a parallel path, I start introducing concepts such as the Musical Alphabet, the Staff of lines and spaces, G clef, F clef and middle C as landmark notes.
After about a month, we can start very basic reading exercises. Meanwhile, piano PLAYING is already at a very high level through the use of simple patterns and a simplified color notation.
Because I’ve had experience as a graphic designer, my insight was that MUSIC NOTATION is really an information graphic. While traditional music notation is an amazing invention, it is extremely ABSTRACT and involves many high level concepts, far beyond the understanding and interest of most 4 year olds. So presenting music visually, is really a graphic design challenge!
This led me to experiment with many types of notational design. What I’ve come up with is working quite well with my students. I will share more about this in coming posts.