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!.

About The Method Blog Successful Teaching Business

How do I know what to say on my music teaching website?


What To Say On Your Music Teacher profile or website?

As I talk to my music teacher coaching clients, I’ve heard many of the same questions.  One of these questions is, “What do I say on my website?”  Or “What should I put on my profile?

Once upon a time you could make a simple poster, put them up around the neighborhood and voila, students would appear!

Those days are long gone.  Nowadays, most students are seeking teachers through their smartphone.  Whoever lands at the top of the search engine wins.  Or at least they get a look.  And when they get there, they want to read something.

So, what do you say?

To do this, let’s first think through the strategy behind the web page or profile.

  1. Who do you want to reach?
  2. What’s the problem you are solving?
  3. How do you want to make them feel?
  4. What’s it like to work with you?
  5. What makes you different?  What’s your superpower?
  6. What should they do now?

[box] Note:  This post is a sneak peek inside our weekly Office Hours, which is included in our Musicolor Method Online Course.  As many of our teachers are running their own studio businesses, marketing is a big issue.  [/box]

1)Who do you want to reach?

My first website for teaching was just a single page.  It was a letter from me to parents of young children in my neighborhood.  I wanted readers to feel reassured.   I wanted them to feel I shared similar values as a parent. In other words, I’m just like them and have the skills to help their children learn an instrument.  And then, directions to send me an email or call me to discuss your child.


2) What’s the problem you solve?

This can be deeper than you think.  When most people think of a coffee shop, they think the problem solved is a cup of joe, a jolt of caffeine.  But Starbucks saw themselves as solving the problem of space.  They were a third place – not home or work – where you could relax with an excellent cup of coffee like in a European cafe.  By redefining the problem they were solving, they stood out miles ahead of Dunkin Donuts where the entire experience is aimed at getting you coffee and donuts fast.  Most of us would never want to hang out there!

The same kind of thinking can apply to the business of teaching.

The problem I solve at Park Slope Music Lessons is to train children in skills necessary for success in life through the vehicle of music lessons.

3) How Do You Want To Make Them Feel?

We may believe we make logical decisions.  But, it really comes down to emotion.  How do we feel about buying this product or service?  Later, we justify it logically.  I needed that new iPhone because of my business.  Really?  Well, it does make me feel pretty cool and cutting edge.  Plus, it’s sooo beautiful! And it’s water resistant and has an amazing camera that I can use in my lessons and…

There you go justifying it.

So by putting in a few personal details, you can really help to convey an emotion.

For a music teacher website, I would suggest emotions like:

Fun, Trustworthy, Honest, Caring, Compassionate, Patient can be very effective.

Here’s an example I just made up.

Welcome.  My name is Samantha and I teach guitar to children in Burlington, VT.

I love working with children, and have three of my own, and a cute poodle named Buffy.  I am a patient, kind, and loving teacher with a great love of folk, pop, and classic rock.  Give me a call so I can learn more about your child.

In this profile, I’m using a first person narrative, meaning I’m writing to you as Samantha.   Now take a look at this one written in third person.

Welcome.  Your teacher’s name is Samantha and she teaches guitar to children in Burlington, VT.  Samantha loves working with children, has three of her own, and a cute poodle named Buffy.  She is a patient, kind, and loving teacher with a great love of folk, pop and classic rock.  Give us a call so we can learn more about your child.

Both are basically saying the same details.  But the first feels like you’re talking to Samantha directly, where the second feels like a big company has hired Samantha.  This may be useful for those of you who are uncomfortable to brag about your accomplishments.  But I do feel it’s a bit colder.

Do you see how even just listing the qualities of patient, kind, and loving has made you feel a certain way?

What you are trying to do from the start is to qualify your customers.  This is just a fancy business way of saying, choose the right customers for you.  That’s one of the reasons we mention the three kids and and the dog.  Small little fun facts can help you stand out.  They can help you attract the customers you most want to work with.

We are looking to build rapport with the audience immediately.  Parents will likely feel a resonance with another teacher who is a parent.  Dog lovers will love knowing about Buffy.  Cat lovers or people averse to dogs will go elsewhere.  This is fine!  They probably wouldn’t want to come anyway as they may be afraid, allergic or not comfortable with dogs in the area.

4) What’s it like to work with you?

This is where you tell them your process.

Example:  Weekly 30 minute lessons in your home, packed with fun and real skills.  Lessons are $30 per half hour.

Keep it simple but engaging.  Don’t go deep into the theoretical or drop the names of all the teachers and conservatories you studied with.  How are you going to help the client with their problem?

Example: I teach kids 6 years old+ to be future rock stars / leaders of the world!   We have a beautiful upright piano in my home teaching studio located conveniently at ___.  The cost of the lessons is $40 per hour and lessons are payable in advance in monthly payments.  The first two lessons are trial lessons where we determine whether it’s a good match between student, teacher, and instrument.

5)  What Makes You Different?  What’s Your Superpower?

Everyone has a superpower.  It’s the thing they do better than everyone else.  Quite often, they don’t even realize that it’s a power.  It’s so easy and obvious, they will often ask, “But doesn’t everyone know and do this?”

No!  Whatever comes so easily and naturally to you is often the very thing you are not valuing.  Because it’s so obvious.  But for other people, they would gladly pay you to do that.

A Strange Question

If you are not sure of your superpower or powers, try this experiment.

Send a quick email to 5 people who know you well.  They can be friends, colleagues, former colleagues, neighbors, people from the community, and maybe family.  Family quite often have no idea because they, like you, are too close to the subject.

The subject line of the email is “a strange question.”

Then you tell them, something like this.


I’m taking part in a course and need your help.
Can you tell me what my greatest strengths are?  What is my superpower?

I need an answer by Friday at 10pm.  (You need to give a deadline)

Thanks so much!

I did this experiment a few years ago.  It was incredible.  Though I knew many things about myself, there were a few things that did surprise me.  It also just feels incredible to know that all these people would share their love of you!

So as you write your bio summary statement, you can list some of these superpowers.

For example:

My students and clients have told me many times that I’m a great listener who just seems to get what they’re saying even before they say it!


I can relate to just about anyone.  I am especially good at reading people’s feelings.  I have a high EQ.


I’m super creative and can pull in all kinds of ideas into a lesson.  I’ve used stories from my life, pop culture, and folk stories to help illustrate a point.

6) What Should They Do Now?

In marketing, they call this the Call to Action.  What is it they should do next?
For most of you, that would be either an email or a phone call.  You want to engage the client in a conversation to see if they are the right fit, they understand your pricing, and how you work.

By the time the client calls you, they should already have answers to these questions, but they usually want to be reassured by talking to you, that you will be a good fit.

Keep it Simple and Smile!

Think of this acronym:  KISS.  Keep it simple and smile.  It will all work out in the end!

Blog Teaching Methods

Teaching Strategies For Growth Mindset

What is the most important factor in a student? Many people would say it’s talent, or effort, or persistence, or luck or some combination of these.

Behind all of this is something that is more important – the proper mindset. Recent research (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) has shown that there are two different mindsets among students:
1) intelligence as a fixed, static trait or you got what you got
2) intelligence is a changeable, flowing trait, in other words:  you can learn whatever you put focus and effort to

Most of my music students do have a growth mindset, but may need some extra encouragement.   To do this I need to use a specific way of communicating.

The Dangers of Praise and How To Do It Right

Researchers have discovered that if you just praise the intelligence of the child, there are negative consequences.  So just being positive and saying “Good job!” is actually detrimental and has a backlash because given a new challenge, the child would rather not participate (quit) in order to “save face” and live up to the expected standard.  Rather if the child was praised for their effort, the next harder challenge was met with more effort.

Communicating Learning Goals

Almost daily I have a student who complains
“That’s too hard! I want to just stay on the same song!”

Here’s some things I say and you can too in your classroom, studio or with your own children.  Though I’ve made these specific to music, you can apply a variation of these to any subject.

  • Learning music is like playing a video game. Once you achieved the last challenge, we’re on to the next level.
  • You’re not supposed to know this already, this is brand new.

High Expectations For Forward Motion

  • I KNOW that you can do this, that’s why I’m showing you this.
  • This will be challenging, but I’ve seen you do amazing work before.
  • Remember how hard _____ piece was? And now you can play it so well. This is like that one only better.

Struggling Even With Effort

  • You are not there…YET (emphasis on the yet)
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remind yourself that you can’t do it…YET.
  • Let’s take a break and come back to this tomorrow.
  • I admire your persistence.
  • I appreciate your effort and focus on this.
  • I love how you never gave up on that last piece. Let’s do it here too.

Struggling But May Need Help With Strategy

  • Let’s work on just the one spot giving you trouble
  • What part is giving you trouble? Let’s just look at that.
  • How about we make a plan to learn this piece? You can do section A today and then section B tomorrow and then back to A…

By setting the proper belief system in place at an early age, we can guide our children to future success in music, and in life.

For more information, read this excellent article from Prinicipal Leadership, a magazine aimed at school principals.