Conferences, Group Classes, Music Camps, Reading Notation, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (4): Functional Skills are Important by Martha Hilley

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Martha Hilley at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.


“Functional skills” include skills such as harmonization, improvisation, transposition, rhythm, and theory.  There are many fun ways to incorporate functional skills into group/private settings.  Today we are going to try out some examples:

Rhythm Activities

Activity #1. Make up a series of patterns such as:

Tap   Clap    Tap    Clap
Tap   Clap  |___|  Clap
Tap  |___|   Tap   Clap
Tap  |___| |___| Clap

Put them on a transparency or write them on a whiteboard.  (The box is the quarter rest.)  Most students don’t have time for rests!  They want to keep going.  So give them something to do during the rests (e.g., saying “rest” aloud; or making some kind of movement during the rest).  This is a great activity for class piano or monthly group lessons.

Activity #2: Play a recorded accompaniment while tapping a notated 8- or 16-measure rhythm (the rhythm should include plenty of rests, and the accompaniment should have nothing to do with the rhythm other than have the same meter).  Shout out the counts aloud as you go (and count musically!).  The accompaniment should be nothing too heavy or serious sounding.  Keep it light and fun.  Do this regularly doing group lessons or class piano to build rhythm skills.

Activity #3: Take a notated rhythm and instruct the student to add finger numbers to the rhythm.  Ask them to choose their favorite pentascale (major or minor).  Students can play along with a percussion background (teachers can make 16-measure percussion tracks in various meters in advance, and even make them into mp3’s to send home with students).  This activity builds both rhythm and improvisation skills.

Activity #4: Take a notated rhythm and divide students into 3 groups.  Assign each group a note value and a type of body percussion (snap, tap, clap, hiss, stomp, etc.).  The hardest part are the long note values!  First ask each group to only do their own note values/body percussion.  Then ask everyone to do everything!

Activity #5: Name That Tune!  Prepare notated rhythms of familiar tunes.  After a student guesses the tune correctly, ask them to play the tune by ear on the piano (choose a key for them).  Before they do so, instruct them to play the I chord and then ask them if the tune starts on the tonic or not.  This activity is a great activity to do at Christmas time with favorite Christmas tunes!

Reading Activities

Activity #1: Reading/Fingering Exercise: Prepare a notated line of whole note of random pitches.  Ask the student to identify letter names first, and the second time to play each note with their index finger.  The second and third times, ask them to play each note as three beats and then two beats — and this time, encourage the student to use other fingers too.  Suggest that they think about four measures at a time to prepare good fingering.  Think about fingering as either the thumb moving away from the hand, or the hand moving away from the thumb.

Activity #2: Reading Flashes in a Bowl:  Prepare a short notated melodies (for more advanced reading flashes, add harmonies too) in advance, cut them out, and laminate them.  Place a bowl near the door so that students know to take one (or two) as they enter.  They must play whatever their card tells them to.  This activity is great for piano classes or monthly group lessons to build sight-reading, rhythm, and improvisation skills.  You can also make other types of cards: Improvisation Flashes specify a key, chord progression, meter, number of measures, and a physical activity that the improv must describe (and we’ll guess what it is; e.g., leapfrog, running, etc.).  Rhythm Flashes specify a written four-measure rhythm and the student must choose a pentascale to create a melody using that rhythm.

Activity #3: Sight-Reading for Two: This activity can be done between teacher and student, or between two students, and would ideally be done on two separate pianos.  In advance, the teacher chooses a piece to sightread.  The first person plays the first measure and the second person must immediately continue the piece by playing the second measure, and so on until the end of the piece.  The second time through, the sight-readers must alternate every 2 measures.  The final time through, they must alternate every 4 measures.  This activity helps establish good habits for playing fluidly when sightreading rather than stopping to fix mistakes.

There are many creative and fun ways to build functional skills with our students – and a great time to do it is during monthly group lessons!  Make a game of it.

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