It’s Small, White and Written All Over…
The iconic spiral-bound notebook. Is there a piano student in all of the world who can be found without one? One of the first, if not THE first one I had was small (approximately 3″ x 5″) with a red cover and side spiral. I kept it for years but cannot seem to find it in my old memorabilia. Knowing me, I probably threw it away during one of my “reduce and minimize” streaks.
Do you still have or remember your first notebook?
As a teacher, I used notebooks for years, but in my effort to grow and manage the structure of lessons better, in 2009, I started making my own assignment sheets. I distinctly remember this as a period of intense growth and scrutiny of myself as a teacher as I was in the early stages of my graduate studies.
During this time, I was trying to figure out how to be a piano teacher as opposed to a classroom music teacher. Although I had been teaching piano part-time for years, it felt like a whole new world as I learned about true piano pedagogy. I had no idea there was so much that should be incorporated into the lesson!
For years, I relied solely on method books to guide me and tell me what I was supposed to be teaching. It took several years and even some graduate pedagogy courses to truly have a deeper understanding of the big picture. Some of that growth came from simply studying and teaching from different methods, understanding the philosophy behind the progression, and experiencing what does and doesn’t work for certain students.
Methods are to Recipes…
I’m an avid cook. I grew up watching and helping mom out in the kitchen. Mom is a good country cook who raised her family through the 80 and 90’s – a time of Campbell’s soup and casseroles. Although she had her trusty favorite recipes, we often called her MacGyver in the kitchen as she could make a meal out of nothing. When I was first married, I used all her recipes, but when the poundage began to add-up on both of us, I realized I needed to learn to cook healthier and incorporate flavor through herbs and spices instead of butter and sour cream. Thus, I embarked into the world of cooking shows and an endless recipe obsession.
One of my favorite shows in Australia was Chef at Home, hosted by the Canadian chef from Prince Edward Island, Michael Smith. He advocates using your instincts and what you have at home to put together simple, easy, and delicious meals. At the time, I thought “yeah right!” I can follow a recipe and make an amazing meal, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of food to come up with something on my own. Uh-uh, no way – I’m no MacGyver.
A few years down the road and one day it suddenly dawns on me that I’m cooking something for dinner with complete confidence NO recipe in front of me! What a humiliating, intense and rewarding feeling that was!
Do you see where I’m going with this? Method books are a recipe. They help us know what musical concept to introduce in what order. However, when we understand pedagogy, how children learn music, the foundations of healthy technique, and more, we’re understanding the flavor of the ingredients and how those ingredients come together to make a pianist. It’s kinda like knowing how the ratio of flour, sugar, butter and egg make a cookie as opposed to a cake.
While I still use and rely on the sound progression and solid pedagogy of several methods on a regular basis, I was freed the day I realized I could teach a student without a method in front of me if I wanted.
Why the Addiction?
My assignment sheet obsession started out somewhat as a way for me to write out my own “recipe instructions.” Their role became a way for me to help guide my lessons, to remind me of what I needed to incorporate. Each one tells a different story of the goals I had at the time and things I was focused on as a teacher.
I create a new assignment sheet at least once to twice a year, and sometimes I trial a third through the Summer before I decide if I want to use in the Fall. They range from simple one-page sheets to a two-page spread that includes incentive program instructions. I’m not going to weed them out and present you with my favorites because, at one time or another, they were each perfect for me. Who am I to say which one will work best for you?
There were times in the early days when it almost felt that if I could just make the perfect assignment sheet somehow, I would be a perfect teacher. Bahahaha yes, we’re all laughing, I know! Looking back now I realize that is ridiculous. I’ve learned to let it go and honestly, the main reason I switch assignment sheets now is completely out of boredom. I get tired of looking at the same sheet day in and day out. Plus, I start thinking things like, “Gee, maybe if I add a new joke or quote to the sheet each week I’ll get some of them to fill it out more regularly.” Bahahaha, a laughing matter once again, I know! There’s always students who fill it out diligently and others who don’t bother no matter what I do. I’ve called them anything from “Weekly Learning Guide” to “Assignment Sheet” to “Assignments for the week of…,” to “Piano Homework” to “Daily Practice Steps” and more. Does the title make a difference or inspire them more? Nope, not one bit.
I have a few students who hate it when I switch in the middle of the year, so I just use the same assignment sheet for them all year. Others find the switch refreshing as I do and some don’t care either way. I have several colors of hanging files I store them in next to the piano, and I just pull a fresh one out and place it in the front of their binder on top of last weeks sheet.
I’ve designed them mostly in Microsoft Word and Microsoft Publisher but recently experimented with designing one on Canva.com. There were times where I’ve used the same sheet for everyone and times I’ve used a different sheet for adults, preschoolers, elementary level, and high schoolers. I keep them in a file drawer in my teaching area and color-code the files for each sheet.
My Very First Design
I’m sharing my very first design with you today. Please feel free to download and trial it in your studio!
The goal of this first assignment sheet was to help me remember to do a little rhythmic and melodic dictation during the lesson. I also liked the idea of highlighting one major concept for the students to remember that week. The door was wide open as to what went in that box whether it was that a whole note got four beats, that they should use more dynamics, or practice slower, etc.
I will be adding new assignment sheets for you to check out on a regular basis!
Assignment Sheet 01assignment-sheet-01