Emily's Blog

Music and Laughter

Student turns over a music symbol card with the sign for trill.

Me: "That's called a trill.  I don't know if you've ever seen--"

Student: "Ooh!  OOOOOOHHHH!  I know!  It's what they play in a movie when something bad's about to happen!"

Very young student spots Grand Staff cards in her box and wants to play with them.

Me: Well, we really haven't looked at these yet, but maybe I can show you the C's.  This one's called High C.  Can you say High C?

Student: Hi, C!

Me: (laughing) I suppose I had that coming.  This one's called Treble C.

Student: Hi, Treble C!

Music Mind Games in the [English] classroom

Often my piano students and colleagues are surprised to learn that music is something of a hobby for me: my main area of concentration is English, and my "day job" is teaching literature at the high school level.  I have always longed, however, to be able to integrate the simple and fun methods of Music Mind Games with the daunting task of teaching the classics to an audience who is often overwhelmed, if not downright hostile!

One of the books on my syllabus is Billy Budd.  Written by Melville of Moby Dick fame, the novella is every bit as obtuse and inaccessible to modern-day 16-year-olds.  They struggled mightily last year and all of them disliked it more than anything else they read.  This year I thought and thought about how to make it simpler for them, and finally decided since they were going to read SparkNotes anyway, I might as well give them the plot up front.

I made a list of important events (18 in all) and found where each occurred in the text, then assigned each student or pair of students one paragraph to "decode."  Once they had their plot point summarized, they came up and typed it into the computer (I do this a lot during class; since we have a projector, it's easier than writing on the board.)  Then we had a list of 18 plot points, all out of order. 

At this point, it's easy to guess where I went: Play or Pass.  The students came up and dragged the statements around until they were reasonably happy with them.  Then I gave them some hints by bolding statements that were correct and thus couldn't be moved.  (I figured they deserved a little help, since they had never actually read the book!)  Some only played once or twice, and others seven or eight times.  There were a few little back-and-forth arguments, all in good fun, but in the end they got them all right.  It was tremendously empowering; as they read the book, they had this to refer to as a guidepost for untangling some of the thicker tangents and high-flown language.

In case you want to try your hand at a literary exercise, the eighteen statements are below.  I'll post the answers soon.  Enjoy!
  1. Billy is convicted and sentenced.
  2. Billy defends himself.
  3. Claggart tells Captain Vere that Billy is mutinous.
  4. The captain tells the lieutenant how sorry he is to lose Billy, and why.
  5. Billy is speechless; Vere tries to help him.
  6. Captain Vere dies, speaking of Billy Budd.
  7. The Dansker tells Billy that Claggart doesn’t like him.
  8. Billy spills his soup.
  9. An afterguardsman asks Billy to help with a mutiny of impressed men.
  10. Billy’s imperfection (his stutter) is disclosed.
  11. Claggart accuses Billy in front of the Captain.
  12. Billy strikes Claggart, killing him.
  13. Billy is hung, blessing the Captain.
  14. Captain Vere calls a court to hear the case.
  15. The rules of the sea are explained.
  16. Billy gets into minor trouble.
  17. Billy is impressed into naval service.
  18. The Dansker tells Billy that Claggart is behind the supposed mutiny.

Guest Post: Triathalon Speed - Not for the Faint of Heart!

This month's post comes from a longtime Music Mind Games instructor.  She's experienced, inventive, compassionate -- and she happens to be my mother!  Here's Colleen Oren:



I may be one of the oldest MMG veterans; I've been using the games since the 1980's when we made them ourselves with Michiko's detailed, carefully worded instructions.  She even had notes and rests drawn out so we teachers could trace them correctly.  Can you believe that I sewed two octaves of bean bag notes out of felt fabric, then glued cut-out felt letters to each one?  And that I had three children, all under the age of 8, at the time?  What was I thinking?  Thankfully, the games have come a long way, but I continue to consider them an important staple of lesson time every week.
I teach private piano lessons in my home.  Some of my students have opted to extend their lessons by an additional 15 minutes in order to have plenty of time for the theory games; in all the other lessons, I do my best to carve out 5 or 10 minutes of the half hour to include the games.  (Because I see a noticeable difference in the children who play MMG, I have no problem cutting the piano time a little short.) 
Triathalon Speed appeared one day when I was looking for yet another challenge for a more theory-wise student.  He was dragging a bit; it had been a long day and we were finishing his lesson after 7 p.m.  Then I had an idea, and said "Wake up, Trevor!  I have a new game."  As the name implies, Triathalon Speed incorporates 3 versions of Speed, and uses the Alphabet Cards, the Rhythm Playing Cards, and the Grand Staff Cards; you could, of course, substitute other sets of cards (such as the Tempo Cards.)  The first time I played it, we did this:
Round One:  Alphabet Cards (thirds)
Round Two:  Rhythm Playing Cards
Round Three:  Grand Staff Cards, (seconds)
I barely stopped between each game and dealt cards fast-and-furiously.  He was breathless and laughing by the end after trying to sprawl on the floor before we began.  His mom, who played with us, was panting...The game is versatile and can include many levels and variations, as you can see.  Try it next time your students need an extra challenge.  And an added bonus:  you're reviewing 3 different things, one right after the other!


Triathalon Speed 1 Triathalon Speed 2 Triathalon Speed 3


Blue Jello and Dominotes: A Fun Pairing

Hello, everyone!  I've had a busy summer and fall, but wanted to share this idea with you:


As many of you know, I teach private piano lessons in which I use MMG materials as often as I can.  Some students with longer lessons can spend ten or fifteen minutes playing games each week, while others may only get four or five minutes after we've gone through repertoire and reading.  Of course, "The Games," as my students call them, are indisputably their favorite part of the lesson.


A couple of weeks ago, I was reorganizing some of my materials and came across a fun game called Dominotes.  The principle is simple: instead of numbered dots, notes and rests indicate a number of beats, which is matched up with an equal number of beats on another Dominote.  Ian demonstrates below:




I used the game years and years ago, when I was traveling to students' houses and didn't always want to lug my games along; this was in the days before everything fit conveniently into a cute tote bag.  Eventually I stopped using it, since it seemed not to do very much except for very advanced students; I spent too much time explaining the rules and reminding students how many beats each symbol was worth.


When I looked at it with fresh eyes, however, I saw how easy it would be to incorporate Blue Jello words and hand signs, and this made it even more fun.  With young students, I'd begin by reviewing with Puzzle Notes and Rests and Chance Match, and then assign Magic Note and Gold Coin values to each note and rest.  Gold Coins are an easy way to demonstrate the concept of a beat; since the students love to look at and count them, it seems to stick more quickly. 


After that, I simply pass out Dominotes (we play an open hand first, so I can help them) and we start playing.  When someone makes a match, like Emma here, she simply signs it out:


Hand Signs


Here she was signing Fo-o-o-our; Three-e-e, Rest.  Students see right away when they haven't made a match, because they're mentally counting the number of beats as they sign.


The really fun part comes at the end; as in other games, it's not over until everyone has played all of her pieces (if we have to stop because of time, we just stop.)  Then we go back through together and sign and say the Blue Jello symbols for all the matches.  It's sometimes a little tricky because there are lots of splits, but we find the longest "train" and follow that one through.  For instance, in the photo at the very top, we'd need to decide whether to branch right or left at the whole note, and it would depend on which branch was longer.


That's it!  I hope you'll be able to try it -- my students all had a lot of fun.

A Year of MMG: Real Rhythm Cards

Apologies for my long absence, everyone!  I'm happy to be back.


It's a completely true cliche: teaching is learning, twice.  If you think you know something well, try teaching it to someone else.  The odds are ten to one you'll learn so much that you'll find it hard to believe you ever "knew" it before.


Which is a fancy way of saying I'm rethinking the order of games I've used for several years.  Here's the thing: Real Rhythm cards are absolutely ideal for initially explaining the relationships between notes and rests. They are yet another example of a material that teaches itself.  Unfortunately, they are not currently available (we're working hard to get a new version out soon!) but you can see an example in this video.  The old Warner Brothers version was very light blue with plain backs; the new ones are slightly darker blue and have pictures on the backs of Magic Note and Gold Coin values, in addition to tiny Blue Jello drawings.


As with any rhythm game, I start with the basic five notes: whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth.  "Can you find the longest note?"  I spread out the cards on the floor.  Since they're proportionally sized, even a three-year-old can find the biggest card, so it's a great success experience.


"Right; the whole note is the longest because it has four beats."  (The more you can repeat the terms, the better your students will learn them; just remember not to fall into the trap of quizzing them.  They'll remember on their own, in their own time.)  "And because it has four beats, we also call it fo-o-o-our."  Make the sign.  Then ask the student to find the next longest note, continuing the dialogue until the notes are all placed, one above the other. 


Next, repeat with the rests.  This is even easier, because you can just say, "Which rest matches the half note?  That's right, the half rest.  They're exactly the same size, because they have the same number of beats."  When you finish with these, you'll have a nice pyramid-shaped diagram; or, as I like to say, a Christmas tree.


"Now we can decorate the tree."  I like to start at the top, since teaching addition is easier than teaching division.  "This sixteenth rest is so tiny, it only gets one Magic Note."  It's a small note and we play it very fast. Can you say "huck?"  I say it with them, making the sign.  "Even faster?"  They always love to go faster!


Comparisons are easy: "The eighth note is twice as big, so if we added two sixteenth notes together we'd get -- right!  Two magic notes."  The students love to turn over each card and painstakingly cover the Magic Note drawings on the back with real Magic Notes.  When we reach the quarter note and rest, I emphasize the idea of a beat: "A blue is one beat, right?  How many blue kids are on the back?"  (Or, in case of the rest, "How many mice?")  They understand instantly and intuitively that a half note is two beats and a whole rest, four beats.  And at the end, their Christmas tree is twinkling with colored balls and glinting with gold coins.  They will gaze and admire and beg to do it all over again.


When these concepts are firmly established, I add in the dotted notes, again comparing sizes. If the child is old enough, I'll explain what the dot means -- half again as long as the original note.  Finally, we add the multi-note cards: jello, huckleberry, etc.  I add a few at each session, making sure to reinforce both the Blue Jello words and the musical terms, so that the students learn that they're interchangeable.


Once they know the Real Rhythm Cards well, they're fun to use for other games.  One of my favorites is Making Measures.  We start with 4/4, the most basic time signature, and create measures of music using the whole note and rest as guides.  If students try to make a measure with too many or too few beats, it's immediately obvious, because the line of notes is too long or too short.  They quickly learn to group eighth and sixteenth values together for more easy playing.  When the measure is complete, we sign and clap the rhythm, and sometimes even go to the piano and make up a melody.


There are many more games, of course, as for all of the Music Mind Games materials, and I'm sure you have your own in the works!  If you're fortunate enough to have a set of Real Rhythm cards, I'd love to hear how you're using them.

A Year of MMG: Music Symbol Cards

Every once in awhile, I run into a skeptic -- someone who just isn't sure about all this fun we're having at piano lessons:  "Isn't reading music supposed to be hard work?  And how do you know those Blue Jello words are really helping them learn rhythms?  You know, real rhythms like you see in real printed music?"


When I hear comments like these, I try not to get too ruffled, and as soon as I can, I bring out the Music Symbol Cards.  No other set of cards is more obviously effective in teaching the basics of music theory.


I group the Music Symbol Cards into a few different areas.  The first is dynamics.  Michiko's game for learning the dynamics, which can be found in Chapter 11 of the book, is brilliant: students go from curled up on the floor, whispering "pianissimo," to leaping in the air, crying, "FORTISSIMO!" and return, in stages, to the curled-up position (an important caveat for any teacher who wants to retain control of her class . . . )  Similarly, I teach crescendo and decrescendo by sitting cross-legged, curling up and then slowly stretching out my arms and neck as far as they'll go as my voice rises: crreeeeeeeSCEEEEENDOOOOOOO! 


Another group is the notes and rests.  This is a snap for students who have played Puzzle Notes and Rests, a game I won't go into for now since the Blue Jello Puzzle isn't available yet.  (But it will be very soon, and I promise you will LOVE it!)  The only difference here is that they're shown on the staff, so students get a sense of scale and placement.


The third group is cards that can be learned through the Grand Staff song: everything from clefs to lines and spaces.  The students are VERY interested in the alto and tenor clefs, too (a sure sign you're teaching Music Mind Games properly: students want to do the "hard" things first!)


Finally, I teach the odds and ends that are left over: ritardando, measure and a few others.  There are some great hints in the book for these, too.


Once the student knows a fair number of the cards (it's even more fun if they don't know them all) we play a game I call Foursquare: I arrange the cards face down in a 6 by 6 grid and we take turns turning over cards and identifying the symbols.  If the student doesn't know an answer, the card is turned back over to be chosen another time.  Cards that have been turned face up remain there until someone completes a block of four, at which point he gets to keep all four cards.  I usually try to let the student be the first to do this, and I don't explain the rule until we're at that point in the game, since I want to start as simply as possible.  After they learn this, strategy becomes an important element in the game!


The cards are perfectly numbered for this game, but if we're short on time I may only do a grid of 16, possibly only including cards the student knows.  And I'm not very strict about rules; sometimes I'll prompt the student to help her remember.  (Which is, after all, the whole point of the game.)


Music Symbol Cards convert even the most hardened skeptics.  They show clearly that all teaching methods are not created equal; given a relaxed atmosphere, challenging and fun games, and positive reinforcement, students learn more quickly and take more joy in their learning.

A Year of MMG: Tempo Cards

Compared with my last pair of posts, this one will be much simpler, though the material is just as useful for musicians of all types!


The Tempo Cards are lots of fun.  For one thing, if you've never heard a three-year-old pronounce "Prestissimo," you're missing out.  It is really amazing how quickly they pick up the words, even with lots of syllables in a foreign language!


As with any new knowledge base, it's important to start slowly.  I usually begin with five cards: the two slowest (Largo and Lento,) the two fastest (Presto and Prestissimo,) and the one in the middle (Moderato.)


For a much older student, I might use linguistic hints ("largo" means long in Spanish, and "lent" means slow in French; "moderate," of course, means centrist in English.)  For a younger student, I just use letters: "M for Middle, and M for Moderato.  Moderato goes in the middle!  Now, can you find the two slowest tempos?  They both start with L . . . "


It's very important that the student see there is a fairly large space on either side of Moderato -- large enough for three cards.  This way, they know that we will continue to add cards to the list.  And a little suspense is fun for everyone. 


Once they seem to have those five, we play games, usually Fine and War.  War can get tedious with only five cards, so I make it more interesting by changing the winning card every time there's a war.  For instance, we may begin by saying the fastest card will win, so Presto beats Lento and Prestissimo beats Presto.  But then we both throw down Largo, so after the war is completed, we switch to the slowest card winning.  Now Lento beats Presto and Presto beats Prestissimo.  It sounds a little confusing, but the students catch on quickly and it keeps them on their toes (and also keeps one person from capturing all the cards quickly, prolonging the game and the learning!)


At the next session, I usually introduce Vivace and Adagio, which add to the pairs at either end.  We repeat the learning process, playing a few rounds of Fine and War.


Finally, I introduce Allegro, Allegretto, Andantino and Andante.  These pairs go on either side of Moderato, and it can be tricky to grasp the meaning of the suffixes "ino" and "etto."  Both mean "small," so "Allegretto" means "a little bit fast," hence, closer to Moderato.  Similarly, Andantino means "a little bit slow," so it goes closer to Moderato on the other side. ("Andante" actually means "walking," a fact that older students find interesting.)  Students will nod and say they understand this, but then they'll put Allegretto above Allegro or Andante above Andantino.  Make sure to take plenty of time practicing with just these five cards -- playing Fine, Five Hiding (where Moderato is zero points, Allegretto and Andantino one point and Allegro and Andante two points) and War.


Once the student knows all the Tempos, he may be ready to play Fine and War with all 11 cards, but more likely he will need more practice with smaller sections of the list.  I usually pull out four or five cards at a time, mix them up, and have the student add them back to the list in order.


That's really it!  The only other thing I strongly recommend is to incorporate these words into the music lesson as much as possible.  "I love your Largo tempo, but maybe we could try Adagio this time?"  Or have a child play a very familiar piece, and as she's playing, vary the tempo by putting different Tempo Cards in front of her.  The more applicable the knowledge, the better the chance of permanent retention.

A Year of MMG: Grand Staff Cards

As stated in my original biweekly plan, I use the Staff Slates and Grand Staff Cards together.  However, I use them at almost every single lesson in the beginning, so we make progress quickly.  After a month, even the youngest children can usually remember where the C's and clefs are located on the staff.


The next step is to connect the pretty, colored, movable magic notes with the more ordinary, black, static notes found on printed music.  To do this, I have the student play a quick game of Fine, and while the pieces are still in place, I take out the deck of Grand Staff Cards and place one next to the Staff Slate. 


"Anything look familiar on this card?"  The student is always eager to tell me all he knows about the staff: the clefs, the brace, the lines and spaces.  He can also usually point out the note, which is probably not one of the Five C's.


"Is this a C?" I ask.  There might be some hesitancy, so I encourage him to just try his best.  If he says yes, it's a C, I put it in a pile.  If he says no, it's not, I put it in another pile.  We go through the entire deck in this way.  I never tell him whether he's getting them right or wrong; he's never done this before, so it's a new experience anyway. 


When we finish, there's lots of "C's", but lots of non-C's too.  (Some students think anything with a ledger line is a C; some think everything on the bass staff is a C.  It varies greatly from person to person.)  I congratulate him on doing such good work.  "Let's go through this C pile again, and you explain to me why you picked each one."


(I don't mean to sound didactic here.  Word choice is SO important to a child, who feels vulnerable and fears failure no matter how well he may hide it.  It's so important that we help him to learn without making him feel foolish for simply not knowing something we happen to know already.)


The cool thing is that during this process, the student is able to see why all the other notes aren't C's.  I ask questions, like "Which C is this?" and "How many ledger lines does that C have?" and "What part of the bass clef is next to that C?"  As they look for the answers, they discover on their own that many of the "C's" are actually not C's, and they feel proud of themselves for having eliminated another choice on their own.


Once we have the six C cards separated, we play Fine, putting them in order (as on a keyboard, left being the lowest) and transferring them to the piano (they stand up perfectly just behind the keys!)  Once they are familiar with the C cards, we play Slap the C's, a wonderful game invented by some students in Amy Fowers' studio in Salt Lake City.  Basically, the teacher (or parent or other student) lays down the cards one at a time, forming a pile.  When a student sees a C, she slaps the floor ("Not the cards, please," I say; "They're not invincible!") and takes the C.  It's fast-paced and teaches instant recognition, which is invaluable later and much better than trying to remember a jingle or acrostic.  A fun variation for more advanced students is to penalize them if they slap on a card that's not a C; I take one of their C's and put it back in the pile.  Then they have to watch even more closely to get it back.


The C's are the foundation for everything else we'll do, so I spend a lot of time ensuring the students know them backwards and forwards.  Once they're very comfortable with them, I'll move on to D's, laying out the six C's and going through the deck to find notes that are one step above C.  We play Slap the D's to learn them well and then move on to Suspense and Five Hiding, where I make D's more valuable than C's.


Next we learn B's in the same way.  And after that . . . well, you might not believe me, but after that, they basically know the notes.  All of them.  It's really that easy when they're having fun, getting constant reinforcement and learning instant visual recognition.  Yesterday I told one of my students, "You're a much better reader than I was at your age."  It was the understatement of the year: at his age, I was hiding my books and wailing about how much I hated reading music.  He'd just played a round of Slap the C's, D's and B's (yes, simultaneously!) and gotten 17 out of 18 right, all the while cracking jokes and carrying on a conversation with his father.


Every teacher should have the gift of a student who reaches higher than she ever could.  It gives you the feeling that somehow, the world really is getting to be a better place.

A Year of MMG: Staff Slates

What's the goal of learning an instrument?  Enjoyment and enrichment, yes; proficiency and technique on the instrument, of course.  But beyond that, most musicians want to acquire technical skills that will help them if they ever decide to sing in a choir, learn another instrument, or (best of all) teach someone else.


Hence, sight reading.


When I was a student, I hated sight reading.  Mostly, probably, because I had been playing pieces (via the Suzuki Method) for long enough that I knew I had a great ability to listen and imitate.  Why did I need to learn the notes?  Who cared about them?  I dug in my heels, screamed and cried, hid and ripped up my theory books, and generally made life miserable for my mother, my teacher and myself.  Eventually, grudgingly, I realized what a useful skill it was, and I am now very grateful for the ability to read and sing music I've never heard before.


For this reason, I am especially sensitive to students who resist reading.  In fact, I don't even use the word reading.  We start with a picture and a song.


The picture is the Staff Slate, and the song is one included in the accompanying materials and written by Lidia Usami, a teacher from New Jersey.  As you sing up the scale, you point to and trace symbols on the staff: treble clef, lines, bass staff, brace.  Then you sing back down, more quickly.  The students hang on every word, and they love doing this.


Once they're familiar with the symbols, I play These Five C's, which can be found in the book in a slightly different form.  (The main difference is that I'm playing with one student on a smaller board with Magic Notes.)  I show them Ledger Lines and place the five C's on the staff, one or two at a time, emphasizing the symmetry of their locations.  They copy me.  We play Fine over and over to ensure the student knows where all five C's are located.  Throughout the process, I use the terms continuously: "That's right.  Treble C goes near the treble clef.  Yes, Low C has two ledger lines and goes all the way at the bottom of the bass staff."  This is better than testing them, because they feel less pressure, but they are just as likely to remember the word.


At the same time, I'm teaching the five C's at the piano.  We place the same magic notes on the keyboard, also emphasizing the symmetry.  I have some Magic Notes onto which I've glued Kid Counters (bottom center of the photo) which fit perfectly.  I will be forever grateful to Sharon Su for giving me that idea; they fit perfectly, and the kids love them so much that one year I gave them all their own set of Five C's for Christmas!


From here, it's a natural transition to Tap Tap, Plunk Plunk.  Originally a game for the violin, played with the open strings, it works well on the piano too.  We place the Staff Slate on the piano bench and bend down to touch Middle C.  "Tap Tap."  We tap the magic note.  We move the magic note to Middle C on the piano and play it twice.  "Plunk Plunk."  We repeat that with all five C's.  This step in the process is vital, because I've found that many intermediate and even advanced students have trouble with the correllation between keyboard and staff.


Once the students really know their five C's on the Staff Slate, we're ready to move on to studying the Grand Staff Cards!

A Year of MMG: Blue Jello Cards

Teaching is hard work, but every once in awhile, you get the rare gift of a material so well-designed, it teaches itself.  This is why I love the Blue Jello cards.


It's important to know them yourself first, so that you can be confident and have fun while teaching them to your students.  This and other videos can help, or you can use the keys included in the packet (one with photos of hand signs, the other with the symbols found on the cards.)  You should be able to sign and speak at the same time, following a steady beat.  And, like many games, it's good to know how to play upside down, so your students can see right-side up.


The fun part comes when you introduce these cards to your students.  The less said, the better: just explain that you're going to play a rhythm game, and they can join in whenever they're ready.  They will be eager to follow along almost immediately.  I have seen the most wiggly boys (and girls) get calm and focused almost immediately when Blue Jello is in front of them, and the more experienced students are just as interested in going over them yet again.


Go as far as time allows you -- ideally, all the way through the stack.  Even if they drop out and just watch you, as long as they're interested, keep going.  Often they need to watch several times before their fine motor control catches up with their brains.


That's it, really!  Just signing and saying the words is a game in itself.  But here are a few options to liven things up, once you're a blue jello aficianado:


  • Make a snake with the cards, using as many as you want.
  • Clap or tap the rhythm instead of signing.  Use your hands or a rhythm instrument.
  • Go more slowly for very young students, pausing first to examine the card ("Oh, my!  How many jellos are on this card?" or "What's this new symbol?  Can you help me find it in the key?")  Be sure not to overload them; stop while they are still begging for more.
  • Take turns.  "You do all the jellos and I'll do the blues."  For more advanced students, switch off with every beat, so they have to pay close and constant attention.
  • Have a student play a blue jello card on her instrument, choosing notes as she goes.  This is a great introduction to composition.  She can start using just one note and branch out as she feels comfortable.
  • Play bingo: lay the cards out in a grid and clap or sign one pattern.  The student claps or signs back to you, then looks for the pattern on the cards.  He places a magic note on the card to mark it, then claps or signs one pattern to you.  You play together, not against one another, and you're both happy to get bingo.
  • Apply it: count Blue Jello rhythms as a preview for their next sight-reading piece.  You will find it a thousand times easier -- for example, "one-ee-and-a, two-ee-and, three-and four" versus "huckleberryberrygoose jello blue" -- as well as lots more fun!


Next week I'll talk about the Grand Staff cards and Staff Slates.  This is a great way to introduce note reading.  Stay tuned!

A Year of MMG: Alphabet Cards

As much as I appreciate the careful and beautiful design of the more complex Music Mind Games materials, the simplest ones may just be my favorite.  That would be the Alphabet Cards.


Well, to be honest, I don't have a favorite; I love all the materials for different reasons.  But these cards are my favorite place to start for any student.  They're so wonderfully simple!  All you need to know are the first seven letters of the alphabet.


I use most of the games from Music Mind Games to begin, especially for my youngest students (2-4.)  Chapter 1 has a wonderful progression that takes the child from identification ("What Letter is This?" and "Learning Letters") to ordering and categorization ("FAT SNAKE," "Fix the Order".)  All of the games are designed to teach and test simultaneously, enabling the teacher to assess progress instantly.  They're also very simple and intuitive; if someone tossed you a set of Alphabet Cards and said, "here, teach the class these," you'd probably start out with something very similar.


Chapter 2 reinforces the concept of the "circular" keyboard, which can be tricky for young minds.  It starts with SNAKE, a simple chain of letters that repeats over and over.  Students love to make snakes in all forms; it's one of the Classic Games, a concept that's applicable to many MMG materials.  FINE, another Classic Game, is also a great choice if time is limited; the object is simply to put your cards in order and call "Fine!" when finished.  You can build backwards or forwards, vertically or horizontally, and starting with any of the letters, for an almost limitless number of variations.  The chapter concludes with Alphabet Scrabble, which is always fun to teach (silently, of course, as in this video.)


After that (or right away, if the student is more advanced) we move to Chapter 8.  We repeat all of these games with thirds instead of seconds, and games like Solitaire and Speed, which are not too challenging with seconds, become a lot trickier and more fun.  Even games like Before and After give students pause when they're learning thirds.  You can really sense the effects of all the repetition sinking in here, and they're thrilled when they finally make a breakthrough and begin to think of the musical alphabet as a fluid progression.


Those should be enough for at least a month's worth of games, but I'll check back in next week with some ideas for the Blue Jello Cards!

A Year of MMG: Getting Started

The first time I saw Music Mind Games being taught was in one of Michiko's group classes.  I marveled at the way the children interacted with each other, sharing materials, teaching each other and generally having a great time playing together. 


For many reasons, however, such a scenario is not possible for all of us.  I teach out of my living room, where the rug seats only 3 or 4 people.  My students come from all different directions and distances, and most have so many other commitments that I've never been able to successfully "sell" the group lesson concept. 


So, how do I use Music Mind Games?  As part of my private lessons.  At the end of each 30- or 45-minute lesson, I take a few minutes to play a game with my students.  If they've brought friends or siblings, they're invited to play too (I've gotten lots of new students this way!)  The focus, of course, is on the student, making sure he gets a good balance of review, new material and plain old fun. 


For years, I simply grabbed something from my stack and went to town, not worrying about how long it had been since my students had seen it.  This is a great way to start, but over time I found there were certain things I gravitated toward, resulting in an unbalanced repertoire of games and a learning plateau for my brightest students. 


Several years ago, I hit on the idea of focusing on one set of materials per month.  This corresponds roughly to the Puppy Packet of materials, though there are a couple of sets from previous incarnations of Music Mind Games.  There are nine months in the school year (my lessons are more relaxed during the summer,) so here's how I divided them: 


  1. Alphabet Cards
  2. Blue Jello Cards
  3. Staff Slates & Grand Staff Cards
  4. Tempo Cards
  5. Music Symbol Cards
  6. Notes & Rests Cards
  7. Rhythm Playing Cards
  8. Staff Slates & Do-Re-Mi Cards
  9. Real Rhythm Cards

 The order isn't necessarily important, though I do feel pretty strongly about the first three -- they're very accessible for new students and loads of fun to review. 


Last spring, Michiko was asking me about how I used her materials in my studio.  When I explained, she suggested spending two weeks on each set rather than one month.  This would ensure that each student saw each set of materials several times over the course of a year.  I've tried that this year, and it's worked even better! 


In the next few posts, I'll write about what I do with each set of materials.  One more very important thing first, though: I strongly recommend each student have his or her own Puppy Packet.  Here's why: 


  • People value something more highly if it belongs to them.  For a student, that means "it's mine!"  For a parent, it means, "I paid for it!" This accomplishes both; the student will enjoy showing it off, while the parent will want to see it used often.
  • There is an incredible sense of wonder and excitement that's created when someone opens a package for the first time.  They want to take their time unwrapping it and examine every little piece.  The Puppy Packet is wonderfully designed for maximum enjoyment in that respect -- colorful Magic Notes, Plastic bands, cards and a see-through box are enticing and mesmerizing to children.  And, in my experience, to teenagers and adults too!
  • As a teacher, you'll get more bang for your buck: by assigning "homework" (which should really be renamed "homefun" in this case) you can ensure the students are getting more exposure and practice than the few minutes you're spending with them each week.  Think of your lesson as the teaser trailer for the feature film -- the fun they'll have exploring the games at home. 


How you do it is up to you: you can include the cost in the tuition of lessons or ask parents to purchase on their own.  Just be sure each student can claim ownership of her own little box of magic.  You will be so glad you did!

Where should I begin?!

Hello, Music Mind Games fanatics and newbies! I'm Emily Lowe, Teachers' Committee Chair. That's fancy music-teacher talk for "person who keeps track of all of our teachers." There's lots of you out there, and I love hearing your stories, so please e-mail me anytime!


Recently, another local piano teacher contacted me, wanting to know how I teach music theory. It's always exciting to be the one to introduce someone to Music Mind Games, so I pulled out my Puppy Packet and started showing her materials and demonstrating games. At the end of an hour, my floor was littered with Magic Notes and cards, and this poor teacher was completely overwhelmed. She stared at me for a minute and then said, "Okay . . . but where should I begin?"


Immediately, I realized my mistake. In my enthusiasm, I'd assumed she could absorb concepts as quickly as I could fling them at her, but I've been playing Music Mind Games since I was a student 20 years ago, and this was her first afternoon! Not smart.


Students who join my piano studio purchase their own Puppy Packets as part of their initial materials, and often I'll hear a similar question from overwhelmed parents. Sometimes it comes out more like, "Are we actually going to USE all of this stuff?" but the questions are really the same: they want to know what to do first. So, here are the first three things I would introduce to a Music Mind Games novice:


  1. Alphabet Cards. These are a great place to begin because they are so simple: students already (hopefully!) know the alphabet. Young students enjoy making snakes and playing Fine! Older students like Scrabble, and don't forget that you can make an easy game harder by changing the interval, e.g., Fine! with thirds instead of seconds.
  2. Blue Jello Cards. By contrast, this is something most students have never seen: abstracted music notes. The appeal here is that it's something totally new and different. However, the words are fun to say and very intuitive, so that after just a few repetitions, even the youngest will be signing and speaking the words right along with you.
  3. Staff Slates and Grand Staff Cards. I introduce dictation right away, since I want to know how well students can match pitch (which helps with musical accuracy in the study of any instrument, not just voice.) The Grand Staff Song is a favorite with little ones, and Slap the C's appeals to more competitive students. If you've never taught the notes on the staff this way, you'll be shocked at how much faster your students will remember the notes, minus the confusing acronyms.


In case you're wondering, this teacher was resilient (teachers tend to be that way) and began coming back for weekly "lessons," where we play games and review concepts together. She has been careful, since that first afternoon, to limit me to one or two per session -- and she's said that her students just love this new facet of piano lessons. But I have to say, I wasn't surprised to hear that. I have yet to find a student who doesn't love Music Mind Games!