Turn Practice into Progress with Power Tools

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Practice habits can dwindle in the summer and right now is the perfect time to give them a boost. In reality, we as teachers have little control over what happens between lessons. Because of this, it’s essential that we make time to teach purposeful practice strategies and use powerful tools that work at lessons and empower students’ practice between lessons.

Four years ago I wrote a post about practice pouches that my students assembled at their lessons. It is one of my most popular posts and now many students around the world(!) carry a practice pouch in their piano book bags.

Practice Pouches of the Past

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It is hard to keep a firm knuckle while squeezing a clothespin but it shows how knuckle buckle can happen so easily.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about them, here’s a summary of how practice pouches were first designed. (Follow this link for ALL the details.)

During lab time, which I now call Off Bench time (tap here to learn more) at the first lesson of the fall session students chose a bag and decorated it with fabric pens. The bags were cosmetic bags found at the Dollar Store. Students passed through an assembly line of tools choosing one of each of the following:

  • Clothespin to cure “knuckle buckle” syndrome.

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    Dumping an eraser off the wrist demonstrates the required motion for the ends of slurs.

  • Notebook to record new musical terms, repertoire, metronome markings and tallies for 20x perfect.
  • Mechanical Pencil so students “practice with a pencil” and write in counting or fingering where necessary, circle that one note that always comes out sour, etc.
  • Eraser: Wrist rolls and a lift at the ends of slurs allow for a natural tapering of sound/volume and immediately provides a more musical technique. The eraser balanced on top of the pianist’s hand is dumped off as the wrist rolls upward toward the fall board which helps students feel the correct motion required.
  • Stickers A small row of stickers are provided for students to place on a page they are
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    Reserve ONE color for dynamics so they always stand out.

    particularly proud of.

  • Yellow Highlighter to highlight all dynamics to add and listen for each one in their practicing.
  • Rubber Snake to keep wrists parallel to the floor, a small snake is placed on the keyboard ledge and students are advised to avoid droopy wrists and stay out of the snake pit!
  • Dice so the student can divide a piece up into 6 sections. The die is rolled, if the number is 4, the student finds section 4. The student rolls again and that new number is how many times section 4 will be played. The LAST time the section is played, ZERO errors is the goal.

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    Heather’s assembly line of practice tools.

Heather’s Practice Pouches of 2016

As I revisit the list, there are some things I’ll bag (pun intended) and others to add. Help with this updated list comes from Heather Nanney who recently adopted the practice pouch idea in her studio.

Take time to teach purposeful strategies and tactile tools that work at lessons and empower your students’ practice between lessons.

Heather included the following in her pencil pouches turned practice pouch.  You can find pencil pouches at Amazon and other stores. (I believe they are more sturdy than the bags I purchased at the Dollar Store.)

  • Mechanical pencil

    Plot out scales with erasers first so fingers know where to go.

    Plot out scales with erasers first so fingers know where to go.

  • Eraser
  • Clothespin
  • Ziplock bag to hold “Fast Fingers” for warm-ups and composing, etc.
  • Sticky notepad (instead of notebook.)
  • Tootsie Roll for when they practice every day of the week and they are “On a Roll.”
  • Eight pencil topper erasers to help mark scale degrees. This is inspired by a past post. Follow this link.
  • Music bookmarks (because they were hanging around the studio waiting to be used.)
  • Colored pen (because they were hanging around the studio anyway.)

Leila’s Practice Pouches with Traveling Power Tools

I can’t wait to add Heather’s ideas–especially the Tootsie Roll, and the sticky notes instead of the notebook. Also, it’s time to start using her Fast Fingers cards. You can get your set by signing up here.

Although these tools come in handy, there are SO many more that could power up a student in a specific practice pinch.

That’s why I have a trunk full of “traveling” practice tools. During the lesson, students may be “diagnosed” with a practice deficiency and then I prescribe a special power tool to help boost their practice and progress between lessons.

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Remember to place your name on items. My monkeys have not returned to me because a younger sibling snagged them!

Smaller tools–like paper clips or pennies–are placed in little pouches that I found at the Dollar Store or ziplock bags would work fine, too.

Students place the traveling tool in their practice pouch and take it home on loan for a week. Before they do we spend time at the lesson practicing how to use them. Many of these ideas are inspired by Philip Johnston’s book Practicopedia.

Traveling Tools and Specific Practice Strategies

Paper Clips for link and chain practice

This tip is ideal for lines or sections that are not flowing smoothly.

  • Play one measure perfectly
  • Earn a paper clip
  • Play the next measure perfectly
  • Earn a paper clip
  • Play both measures perfectly
  • Link the clips together
  • Challenge: see how many paper clips they can chain together in a day or throughout the entire week!

This strategy works with paper clips, puzzle pieces, Legos, Barrel of Monkeys, anything that links, snaps or clicks together.

Tic Tac Toe for staying on the bench

For those who struggle with playing things more than once, this can be helpful.

  • Student chooses X or O.
  • Student selects a measure or phrase.
  • If it’s played perfectly, student places an X in a desire square, if not, the teacher or a parent gets to place an O.
  • Continue until somebody wins.
  • If parent wins, student must play the phrase again 3 more times.

This can work with a sticky note and pencil or Target had some wooden Tic Tac Toe boards in the $1 bin that students take home with them during the week.

Turtle Tempo for those in a hurry

Isn't he cute? These are bean bag turtles I found at US Toy.

Isn’t he cute? These are bean bag turtles I found at US Toy.

For those who tend to speed through practice, give them a turtle named Atticus Adagio, Larry Largo, Louis Lento or any other SLOW tempo name you can think of. Ask them to set the turtle on the piano rack. Let them know the turtle has special ears and will report any reckless practice and fast speeds!

Turtle Tempo and a die for those who need to speed up

To build up the tempo for tricky sections try this. Give the student Turn-on-the-Turbo-Jets Turtle and then…

  • Find and write down the metronome marking for the “comfort tempo” of a designated tricky section at the lesson. “Comfort tempo” means it can be played perfectly at that speed.
  • Roll the die and add that number to the metronome speed.
  • Play the section again at the new metronome marking.
  • Keep playing until the section is perfect at the new tempo.
  • Write down that number.
  • Roll the die and add that number to the new metronome tempo number.
  • Play the section again at this metronome marking.
  • Keep playing until the section is perfect at the new tempo.
  • Write down the highest tempo marking reached each day.
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These are made of durable rubber and are priceless.

Dry Erase Die for transposition

If you assign a student to transpose a piece or technical exercise, ask them to roll the dry erase die to determine the transposition key of the day. Since it is erasable, you can change the sides to the keys of your choice.

Practice with these strategies at lessons to show that they work so students will use them at home.

Kazoo for singing

For those who are shy about singing along, have them buzz along with the kazoo instead. This can be exceptionally helpful to advancing students when voicing the melody above more complicated harmonic progressions.

Jumbo Dice/Spinner for around-the-world practice

Spinners are fun for a change from dice.

This is fun for a change from dice.

  • Ask students to divide up a piece into 6 sections for one die or 12 sections for two dice depending on the length of the piece.
  • Roll the dice.
  • Students must begin at that section and play through to the end of the piece.
  • Then students return to the beginning and play until they arrive at the section where they began.
  • This is exceptionally helpful for memorization!
  • Here’s some write-on spinners I just found. They would come in SO handy!

Rubber Bracelets for correct hand

Some students want to play Middle C with the right hand when it is meant for the left and vice versa. Giving them a rubber bracelet with a letter “C” on it will help them remember to play the “C” with the correct hand.

If students forget to practice hands alone first, loan them a bracelet of their choice for each hand and remind them to wear them and play hands alone first.

Skittles or Pennies for a face off with the page

  • Line up three Skittles on one side of the piano rack.
  • Choose a small section or measure of an assigned piece.
  • Isolate the area with sticky notes on either side to help the eyes focus on the selected measure. I call this “putting your blinkers on.” See Philip Johnston’s Practiceopedia for details.
  • Student must play the assigned section perfectly, with no errors.
  • If the portion is played with zero errors, (teacher must guide the student at the lesson to determine what qualifies as zero errors) one Skittle may be eaten. When all three Skittles have been rightfully devoured, practice on that portion is completed.
  • Choose another small section and repeat the steps above.
  • Can be applied with the use of any other desired candy.
  • OR this can be used with pennies, buttons or other small tokens. Just move them from one side of the rack to the other. It’s not the candy that makes this fun as much as the challenge of playing it perfect and moving the token!

Timer for neglected assignments

If a student seems to forget a portion of an assignment, give them a timer (a small hour-glass) and ask them to practice that assignment as long as the timer is running. It may not be long enough but it’s better than nothing!Teach in groups? Why not hold experiments. Let one side of the room use one strategy and the other side of the room use another. Then see you made more progress at the next lesson!

Teach in groups? Why not hold experiments. Let one side of the room use one strategy and the other side of the room use another. Then see you made more progress at the next lesson!

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Isolating a small portion suddenly makes the complicated simple.

Sticky Notes for EASY practice

Setting boundaries for eyes can be extremely beneficial for those who look ahead and anticipate and even panic about what’s coming next. Place sticky notes on either side of one measure or just a portion of it so students’ eyes only have to focus on the tasks within the boundary. This immediately takes away the intimidation factor of the entire piece and makes it “simple.”

Biting off a small chunk is “easy to chew” and an attainable goal that brings success. This feeling of success drives students to move the post-it and “do it again!” Here’s the process in more detail in my blog Make it Easy Practice Hard.

Camera for reminders

Don’t forget about your students’ smart phone! If they are having trouble remembering a rhythm or a technique, get out their phone. Have them record you playing the portion correctly. Then you record them playing the portion correctly at the lesson to prove that they CAN do it. This will encourage them during home practice.

Playing Cards to keep things interesting

Beat the Dealer

  • Shuffle at least two suits of cards.
  • Deal 4 cards face up for the dealer.
  • Turn over one card for the student.
  • Play a portion of the piece.
  • If perfect, students keep the card.
  • If not perfect, the card goes to the dealer.
  • To win, the students’ cards must add up to be more than the dealer’s.

Joker’s Wild

Give a student the JOKER card and ask them at home practice to change one measure within a piece that is to be perfected by the next lesson. Teacher must guess which measure was changed and how it was changed. Ideas to pass along to students include but are not limited to: play one hand up an octave, right hand plays left hand part, left hand plays one wrong note, play it minor instead of major…

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Organize cards into suits so that you can easily hand them to students during lessons.

Suit Up the Memory Bank

  • Divide a piece into 4 sections and label one with a heart, one with a diamond, one with a spade and the last with a club.
  • Students draw a card and must play the section labelled with that suit as many times as the card number.
  • The last time it is played, it must be from memory.
  • Draw from the deck at least two times each day.

Playing Without a Full Deck

  • Give students one suit of cards. Ex: Ace through King of Hearts.
  • Without looking, student draws a card.
  • The number on that card indicates the measure number that does NOT need to be practiced that day.
  • Choose a new card for the next day.
  • If students draw an ACE, the student can decide what measure to skip.

Hearts or Spades, Clubs or Diamonds?

  • Give students two suits of cards that have been shuffled.
  • Every day they draw one card from the deck without looking.
  • If they draw a red card, only the RH must be practiced that day.
  • If they draw a black card, only the LH must be practiced.

Variation for advancing students:

  • Draw a red card and only the right page needs to be practiced.
  • Draw a black card and only the left page needs to be practiced.

Allowing students the freedom to NOT practice may in fact make them practice.

Chopsticks to master rhythms

  • Isolate the rhythm of a piece by asking students to play the rhythm only.
  • As students read the rhythms, they tap the RH part on the score with a chopstick and the LH part on the score with another chopstick.

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    Isolating just one element can make all the difference in students’ attitude towards practice.

Bonus: Colored Paper Clips

Isolating rhythm or articulations or dynamics or any musical element can take the pressure off of getting everything right at one time.

With the abundance of colorful paper clips, I came up with a way for students to remember what to isolate during home practice. Follow this link to learn all about it.

It’s not too late to implement these practice tips into your lessons and even set up an assembly line for practice pouches. Your students will thank you for the creative practice strategies between lessons and you’ll enjoy the progress!

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COMING SOON!

Need more Off Bench ideas to reinforce your teaching? Then stay tuned for Rhythm Make It Count! This resource is packed with sequential app assignments and off bench activities to electrify your students understanding of all things rhythm. You’ll enjoy finding all the top apps and activities organized under one roof. I can’t wait to share it with you!

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Leila Viss

Creative Pianist, Piano Teacher, Organist, Blogger and Author of The iPad Piano Studio