Reader Question: Focusing the Mind

I have an intermediate student who has a very good ear for music but tends to let her ear “mindlessly” guide her fingers while playing.  This results in mistakes and sloppy work.  How can she learn to fully focus her mind on the music and use her ear to aid her mind?


This is a very interesting question!  Obviously, I don’t know the student, and knowing this particular student would be quite helpful.  I have not personally encountered a student whose good ear for music has a direct negative impact on accuracy.  But I wonder if what you are saying is that not all of the senses are involved in playing.

Reader Question: Strategies for Teaching Perfectionists

Readers are invited to pose questions and the faculty of the New School for Music Study will collaborate to come up with the best response that we can.  Questions may be submitted by writing to  This week’s question is answered by Amy Glennon

How do you approach teaching young beginners who are perfectionists? I have tried to encourage these students that making mistakes is ok, and to look at the whole process of learning. From my experience with two perfectionist students, I’ve learned that it’s crucial to set them up for success during the lesson, but it’s inevitable that a mistake or two will occur. The problem is that they are not open to trying new things; my current six-year old student will not play his homework assignment for me until he feels it is perfect to play. How do you approach working with these students?

I asked the teacher posing this question for more information.  I learned that:

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Reader Question: Guiding students toward playing beyond “just the notes”

I have a student who is very smart, but does not play musically.  He doesn’t want to do any detail work, can sight-read and doesn’t want to polish anything. 

It is so difficult when students’ goals and standards are dramatically different from our own.  We can really only effectively teach in the area of common experience.  There are two aspects of “polishing:”  ease and musicality.  Ease will be achieved when the student is practicing at a “thinking tempo,” in small sections, and with meaningful, correct repetitions.  Experiencing the success that these practice  strategies produce in the lesson might motivate the student to continue with this successful experience in his home practice.  The problem may be that he doesn’t realize that he is making errors.  Recording a performance might be enlightening.  Also, assigning repertoire at the right level will be key.  In this response, we will deal primarily with the musical aspect of performance.


Demonstrating for the student is key:  the teacher plays a phrase for the student, the student “copies” and then repeat the process again and again.  To carry this step further, send the student home with a recording of your performance of the piece, with the direction:  “Make your playing sound just like the recording.” Get students involved in the sound and to begin to have the same high expectations for performance.


Begin a process of self-examination.  Record the student’s performance one week, and both you and the student will listen for positive attributes only (choose his “best” piece.)  The next week, repeat this process, and ask the student to listen for something obvious, such as observing all of the dynamics in the score.  You might begin with the directive:  “We are going to record this performance.  See how closely and musically you can follow the dynamics, and they we’ll listen for that.”  It can be a bit tempting to use recordings as a “gotcha!” moment, illustrating for the student what you’ve been saying all along.  In the scenario outlined in this response, he has a better chance for success. If he is able to indeed improve his dynamic contrast, and this improvement is evident on the recording, let the student know that you will begin the next lesson by playing this recording once again, followed by the student playing the piece with at least this much dynamic contrast.


We suggest re-evaluating the chosen repertoire.  Does he really like the pieces that have been assigned?  We often use a “rating” system:  rate this piece from a scale from 1 – 10.  If he’s fully invested in the pieces he’s learning, there might be increased motivation to polish.  Also, we have sometimes found that “educational pieces” (Robert Vandall, Catherine Rollin, etc.) might be a good place to start for students who are not yet ready to tackle the sometimes subtle requirements of Classical repertoire.  Student/teacher duets might help with fluency (a duet can highlight when there are stops and starts) and musicality (the teacher can guide the dynamic plan of the piece, shaping, etc.).  Consider rote pieces (or teaching part of a new piece by rote.)  This will allow the student to focus exclusively on the sound he is making, and following your model.  Finally, since the student is a good reader, you might meet him “halfway” by continuing with an influx of new material, and allowing some pieces to be short-term reading assignments, not necessarily polished completely.

Reader Question: What makes balanced assignment?

The important element of this topic is that we teachers do, indeed, plan the lesson.  It is very easy, in the rush of our busy lives, to welcome the student into the lesson, and simply “shoot from the hip” based on last week’s assignment.  But the fact is that an effective lesson, one that strategizes for growth each week, is based on a plan:  the teacher’s plan.


A helpful start to a lesson plan involves the acronym TERRAC.  Each letter stands for an element which is to be covered in the lesson.  TERRAC assures a well-rounded lesson.

T =  technique

E =  expressivity

R =  reading

R = rhythm

A = aural skills

C = creativity


TERRAC does not imply a chronology in the lesson.  As in an anagram, the letters can be mixed up and can follow any sequence the teacher determines for that particular lesson.

Several letters can also dove-tail into the same activity or lesson segment.  For instance, when working on a technical assignment, the student can be urged to plan a dynamic shape to the exercise and listen for the change in dynamics (T + A).  New assignments can involve sight-reading and a discussion of expression (R + E).  Coaching repertoire previously assigned often combines several elements, such as expressive playing, rhythmic accuracy, and listening (E + R + A).  Duet playing is a fertile opportunity to combine R + R + E.


The creative element of the assignment can take many forms.  It is, however, an important part of the lesson plan.  For elementary students, composition assignments can be made to reinforce concepts being learned.  The best results come when the assignment clearly states what is to be used, and either provides a title or asks that a title be given by the student.

Assignment:   Make up a piece using half steps in both hands. 

                                                Title:  The Inchworm.


Assignment:  Make up a piece using black keys going downward

                                                Title:  Falling Leaves


Titles are important.  One of our primary goals is for the student to create expressive sound.  The title helps the student associate sound with the story or image being presented.


Notes jotted down by the teacher during the lesson can be helpful springboards for planning the next lesson.  “Save time for sight-reading.”  “Work on interval recognition.” “Hand shape needs reinforcement.”  “Drill steady beat.”


Lesson planning need not be limited to one week at a time.  It is helpful to sketch out a monthly plan for repertoire to be covered, new pieces to assign, technical goals, etc. This can be expanded to planning for the term or for the year.


In short, the better we plan, the more progress the student will make.

Reader Question: What habits do you want to establish with your students?

We discussed habits in our faculty meeting, and Rebecca Pennington brought up a phrase commonly heard in parenting circles:  “Start as you mean to go.”  For example, if you want your 14-month old not to throw his food on the floor, don’t ignore this habit and hope it will get better later.   Some habits we would like our students to develop, not in any particular order:

1)     Steady Pulse:  Establish a steady pulse from the very first lesson with movement and listening activities.

2)     Sitting Position:  Help students to make the connection between the seated position and the sound.  Proper height and distance are crucial!

3)     Technique:  Some desired qualities:  Good posture, naturally rounded hand position, free arms, notion of arm weight.  Tracy Grandy likes to use imagery as a tool:  “Let me see your ballerina fingers.”

4)     Practice Habits

  • From the very start, use some practice steps which will aid in achieving an accurate first performance and cause the student to study the music before playing.
  • Develop the habit of practicing with a slow, careful practice tempo.
  • Show the student the value of meaningful repetition.
  • Involve the family of the student in establishing a regular practice routine.  If the parents are working in cooperation with the teacher, good results are much more likely.

5)     Ownership/High Standards/Self awareness: This is possibly the most difficult habit of all.  Our desire is for students to self-evaluate both in the lesson and in home practice. When a student draws a bracket for special practice, without any advice from the teacher, and decides to practice this part first every day, the student is on the road to independence.  When the student is dissatisfied with some aspect of the sound, without teacher input, the student is really listening and will progress much more quickly.  If the student becomes his own “teacher,” it is like having 7 piano lessons a week, instead of one.

What have we left out?  Join the discussion.