033 – Utilizing Student Binders

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Episode Summary

3-ring binders are an excellent tool for keeping student materials organized. Here are some purchase considerations and ways to use them.


Items Mentioned


Hey there teacher friends! Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode. Before we dive in, I wanted to make sure you were aware that you can send me a voicemail through a link at the bottom of the show notes at any time. I think this is a pretty cool feature and was super excited to receive a question from a listener last week this way. There is just something about hearing the voice. It’s so much more personal and one of the reasons I am currently loving doing this podcast.

Besides being excited about receiving a voicemail, I’m even more excited to tell you that her question inspired this week’s episode! See – you, teacher friends, ARE my inspiration. You and my students, that is.

If you ever decide to send me a voicemail, just a heads up that I will NOT know who you are or have your contact information unless you tell me in the voicemail. So, just be sure and let me know how I can get in touch with you!

Without further ado, it’s time to kick off this week’s topic on utilizing 3-ring binders for organizing our student materials. Jill, my friend – thanks for taking the time to reach out – this one’s for you!

Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast where together we live life as independent music teachers. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin. In this space we talk about all things teacher-life related from organizing our studios to getting dinner on the table and all that comes between. You’ll get loads of easily-actionable tips on organizing and managing your studio while balancing life and home.

Todays topic might sound like a simple one but I think you’ll be surprised at the variety of things you need to think about when purchasing and utilizing a binder to organize your students materials. Just a quick clarification that what we’re talking bout today is giving every student a binder just like they receive a book that they bring back and forth with them to lessons. We’re not necessarily talking about having a 3-ring binder for yourself in the studio for each student to organize their materials IN the studio. You’ll want to jump back to epiosde 001 – Organizing Student Materials

Just so that’s clear.

Using binders for music lessons is not exactly a brand new idea. What I want to do today is talk you through some basic things to consider when choosing binders as well as help you think through all the different ways you can utilize this organizational tool. Of couse, along the way, you’ll get to hear exaclty what keep in mine!

First off – the purchase.

The first thing to consider is size. Generally 1” is an all around happy place. Students can grow into it and if you are purchasing a bunch at once, having all students in the same size makes it easy to purchse in bulk. I do have a few students with 1/2” binders but it’s usually either adult students or beginner students that are only in their first year or two of lessons. I don’t normally purchase 1/2” binders intentially, I just had them around and needed to use them up.

Baby steps here. The next question is COLOR. It really is somethign have you have to consider. Do you want all your students to have the same color? Do you have a studio theme color? Do you want everyone to have the same color but perhaps for siblings you have additional colors so it’s easy for for them to identify whose is whose. Maybe want to purchas a slew of random colors and let students pick which one they want? I’ve done all of the above and there is no right answer. It’s just something to consider in your purchase process.

Next. Style. Do you want them to have clear plastic outer sleeves or just be solid? The benefit of an outer sleeve is you can insert things like a specialized binder cover for your studio or maybe for a theme of the year, or your studio calendar.

Next. Pockets. Single pockets or double pockets on the inside? LOL I’m serious! These are the choices you have. For the record I find the double pockets not that useful personally. I don’t think double pockets come with most economy binders anyway.

Next. Ring opening style. Some of the nicer binders have lever at the bottem that makes opening the rings easier one-handed. That’s all good and lovely and yes it really does open easier, however, I’ve found these to be trickier for how WE use them because if the binder is on the music stand, it’s hard to open usign that bottom lever.

Finally, when it comes to the purchase, quality. My advice is not not go with the cheapest, cheapest ones. The metal rings often easy misaling and the goal here is to purchase ones that will last 2-3 years but aren’t so expensive it breaks the bank buying them.

The next thing to consider is dividers. You’re definitely going to want dividers of some kind or it will just be a stash of unorganized papers. The question to ponder is… 5 tabs or 8 tabs or maybe two sets of 5 if you want 10 tabs. Ah… living dangerously here.

I’ve always liked binder dividers that you can write with pen or pencil and erase easily. While the printable label ones would be wonderful, I always felt they would take too much work and being able to just hand write on the tabs would give more flexibiltiy. It’s your choise though! Again, just something to consider.

OK. Now that the binder choice details are out of the way, let’s get into the nitty gritty of what to put in your students binders.

Let’s start with the question listener Jill posted to me. While listening in on episode 031 – Easing into the First Lesson, she heard me talking about putting together materials for my student binders. She was curious if I had printables avilable for the RCM Technical Skills. She had struggled finding something or putting something together herself that was crisp and articulate.

So, the first item that is good to keep in a binder are technical skill sheets. If you do not use a dedicated technique from a method book, the binder is a great place to keep scale sheets and such. My answer to Jill’s question was that no, I do not have my own technical skills sheets for RCM. I simply utilize Joy Morin’s charts that she makes available for free on her website ColorinMyPiano.com. I will link to those in the show notes. Several other bloggers also have great downloadable resources for technique that I know of including Natlie Weber and Melody Payne.

The next thing that the binder is useful for is downloadable sheetmusic.

While most of my students play repertoire from hardcopy books, sometimes we do chord charts or lead sheets or they request a specific song and I simply download it from MusicNotes.com. On top of that these days there is lots of digital licensed music available. In order to save space in yoru students binders, do you best to print double-sided!

The third thing to use students binders for is keeping a list of your students mastered pieces. If you’re a teacher who likes doing the 40 piece challenge or even the 20 or 30 piece challenge, Wendy Stevens has downloadable sheets you can use each year. All you really need though is a numbered piece of paper. When the student masters a piece you write it down. While I don’t do the challenge formally, I like tracking their mastered pieces mostly becuase it’s so easy to forget how much music they have learned from teh start to the end of the year. It’s always fun to look back with them and say “hey, do you remember that piece!”

I like to also track students playign pieces by memory here. After students master a song, I ask them if they would like to keep playing it for fun, memorize it or be done. Kuddos goes to Piano Safari for this idea I’ve been doing for years and it works brilliantly. When they play a song by memory, I simply place a star next to it on their master repertoire list. I usually have them play a memory piece for me 3 weeks in a row before moving on.

What about student art work? If teach preschool age students or even early elementarly, including an art project of some kind tied to the piece they are learning can be fun. I use Marilyn Lowe’s Music Moves for Piano Keyboard Games books for you youngest students and will sometimes just give them a blank piece of paper and ask me to draw a picture of X piece and bring it to their next lesson. Keeping these all in there binder keeps them from getting crunched in the piano bag!

I already mentioned this one briefly when talking about having binders with outer sleeves, but there are a few items that are great either in the outer sleeves OR in their own divider tab. One of those is a student calendar. Another may be a copy of your policies document but I’ll just tell you from experience it’s really unnecessary these days and a waste of binders space. I just don’t think most families are going to go diggint there but you decide for youself.

A special single sheet I like to include in the back cover is a piano teacher family tree. I was lucky that my grad school teacher shared with me a special piano teacher family tree that was able to trace roots clear back to Beethoven. It’s a fun way to make students feel special – even if you can’t trace your teachers back to someone like Beethoven. This is something I share as part of a guest post written by Christina Whitlock on the piano pantry website called Varsity Musician’s Playbook Part 2: Studio “Locker Room” which of couse I will post a link to in the show notes.

We’re rounding the corner to our final few ideas here, friends.

The next segment of tabs it can be nice to keep is for Christmas music. While you could keep it in the same section as downloadable sheet music, I’ve always found it useful to keep them separate. I love having my students learn to play some christmas tunes by ear each year and even have a resource I launched in December of 2021 you can get at Piano Pantry.com.

Along those same lines, I have started to designate one entire tab divider to the song “Happy Birthday.” All of my students learn to play this song at the beginning of every year. Sometimes I review it mid-way and sometimes we don’t. I believe so strongly in the need for all students to be able to play this tun anywhere at any time that, as I said, one who divered tab in their binder is dedicated to this tune’s. This is a gesture that I hope shows them how important it is for them to know how to play the tune. Like the Christmas By Ear, I also have an item in the Piano Pantry shop for playing Happy Birthday by Ear you can use with your students as well both of which are linked in the show notes.

Stay tuned next week as we’re going to take a little dive into that topic.

Well, I actually had more more to say on that topic than I thought I did at first. It’s surprising how many little things are are to consider when implementing 3-ring binders into your students material organization.

While I tried to talk broad ideas, for a quick recap, here’s what mine look like:

1” width. Outer clear sleeves. Single pockets inside. Two-handed open, not single lever. Mid-level durable quality, not economy or high-quality.

I let students choose colors for the most part. Most last 2-3 years before I feel they need switched out.

I do 5-tab dividers that are eraseable. On top of the first tap is a paper we track student mastered and memory pieces, behind the first tap is technique sheets, the second tab is Happy Birthday, the third tab is Sheet Music, the 4th Tab Christmas, and the 5th tab is open to whatever that particular student may need whether it be art work, chord charts, a composition activity or whatever.

That’s it!

At the end of the school year I gather them up and clean them out myself, reset them as needed and return to them either in teh summer if they take summer lessons or at the first lesson of fall.

It’s such a simple way to add another layer of organizaiton to your students lesson experience.

Thanks for being here – before you go take a moment or rate and review this podcast on Apple podcasts his that subscribe button. Find me on Instagram at amy chaplin piano or on facebook at piano pantry.

This week’s fun fact is that I can sometimes be a bit gullible. I second guess myself sometimes and thus people can pull good ones on me if I’m not careful. Now, don’t take this as a chance get one on me because I’m sharing this with you in good confidence. OK!