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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

My Tips for Teaching Class Piano

I have been teaching a piano unit in my 5th grade general music classes for years now and I love it! I have learned a lot about how to manage the logistics to make it work in the classroom setting over the years, how to manage the logistics of the instruments so that it's not too labor-intensive for me, and how to continue to build on the skills and concepts they're learning while incorporating basic keyboarding skills. Here are my top suggestions for teaching class piano in elementary or middle school general music!

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Instruments

I don't have a class set if keyboards/ pianos, nor do I think anyone needs them. I have almost enough for half of my class, so I have them choose a piano partner and they share (a few have 3 together on one instrument). I don't have them doing anything that uses more than one octave at a time, so it's easy for two of them to play at the same time.

In my room I have 2 uprights (one acoustic that is dying a slow death, and one electric that I got to replace the acoustic when it dies) that are permanently set up on opposite sides of the room. The rest of the instruments I have are basic electric keyboards: they are from all different years and slightly different models, but similar to this one.

When I first came to this school there were only a handful of keyboards. When I didn't have enough to have the whole class using them at the same time, I printed out one or two octaves of a keyboard and laminated them so that students could practice hand positions, finding notes, etc while they waited their turn to use the real thing. Honestly, they didn't even mind (because piano is inherently cool), and it did actually reduce the noise level significantly. Don't let a limited number of instruments stop you from teaching class piano!

Storage/ Set Up

I was able to get some shelf space to store my keyboards when we're not using them- there is no way I want to have them set up year-round because they take up too much space (especially considering I only use them in lessons with one grade level out of seven)! The biggest issue for me, then, is getting them set up and torn down quickly before and after class. The best tip I have for that is leaving the plugs plugged into the outlets, and unplugging the cord from the back of the keyboard to store them away. It's a lot faster than trying to find the outlets against the wall each time!

I also did away with keyboard stands and have opted to just have them sit on the floor. It's not the best for posture and hand position, but I rotate everyone through the uprights so that they all have chances to sit at an actual piano, and it's worth having more time to spend actually playing the instruments instead of taking more class time to set things up and take them apart!

Management

Of course one of the hardest things about any type of class instruction on an instrument is getting everyone to stop playing when I need to give instructions! The way I manage that is by having students keep the keyboards off/ lids closed on the pianos when I'm giving directions, and when it's time for them to stop I turn off the lights in the classroom. I tell them ahead of time that when the lights turn off they need to turn off/ close the lid on their instruments, and if they don't do that they miss out on free play time at the end of class.

Free play time is another key element to making sure students are staying on task when they're given time to practice- of course they want to try out songs they know by ear, see what all those buttons do, or try to gliss up all the keys. They need time to experiment on their own. I always give them an extra-long free play time the first time they use the instruments at the beginning of the unit, and I try to have some free play time (maybe 1 or 2 minutes) at the end of each lesson.

Teaching Methods

One thing I've learned with teaching class instruments is to focus on one small skill at a time and give students short practice sessions on each small skill, rather than giving them larger tasks and expecting them to stay on task to practice a more difficult skill for longer periods of time. So if I want them to find C and play in home position with their right hand thumb on C, I'll have them go to the instruments and find C, then stop and have them play C with their thumb, then stop and have them put each finger on the other notes above C. Shorter practice times with focused, achievable tasks keeps everyone on-task during practice sessions!

Unit Content

The basic outline of my keyboard unit with 5th grade is to find C, play in home position with both hands, each finger playing its own note independently, play one song in home position, and then compose one song using those same notes. It's not a very involved or complicated unit, but it's enough to get everyone acquainted with the layout of the keys and get them comfortable with playing. You can see all of my detailed lesson plans and materials in my 5th grade curriculum as well.

If you want to see my tips and lesson ideas for other instruments, whether it's recorders, ukuleles, boomwhackers, xylophones, or other typical classroom instruments, head to this post:


What questions do you have about teaching class piano? What tips do you have from your own experiences with keyboards in the general music room? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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