061 – A Note-Naming Challenge for Your Students

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Episode Summary

How to run a note-naming challenge in your studio. We’ll cover things like objectives, leveling, scheduling, rewards, frequently asked questions, and more.


Items Mentioned

The One-Minute Club Note-Naming Challenge

The 10 Levels of Karen Lien’s “One Minute Club”

TCW Flashcards published by Kjos

20% off discount code for the Piano Pantry shop 7YEARS (expires March 24, 2023)

A Sequenced Assignment Series for At-Home Practice with Note Rush


Other Related Items

The One-Minute Club Goes Virtual

A Big One-Minute Club Update and Free Landmark Notes Download

Breaking Down the One-Minute Club (Lauren Lewandowski)


I’m Amy Chaplin, and this is episode 61 of The Piano Pantry Podcast. Today we’re going to talk about a note-naming challenge I have been running in my studio for years called the One-Minute Club.

The main premise is simple – students have to name and play a pre-determined group of notes on the piano in one minute or less to “get into” the club. From my knowledge, Jane Bastien was the one who first made this popular. After seeing Susan Paradis start sharing tools and resources like tracking sheets and note-sets on her blog years ago, I started running the annual challenge in my studio.

While I know a lot of teachers who run this challenge, I also continually come across teachers who have never heard about it, which is why I wanted to share it with you today. We’ll cover things like objectives, leveling, scheduling, rewards, frequently asked questions, and more.

By the end of our short time together I hope you’ll walk away having a variety of ideas of how you might be able to incorporate an annual challenge like this in your own studio.

Don’t forget to stick around until the end to hear my special tiny tip of the week.

Before discussing all the nitty gritty details of running an annual note-naming challenge, let’s address the all-important question of the goal or the objective – otherwise known as “what’s the point?”

You might be surprised to hear that the only goal in holding something like this is not JUST so students can learn their notes. Yes, there are always musical learning objectives in what we do, obviously – but there can ALSO be other reasons for what we do besides just learning a certain musical skill.

The big one for me with this has been creating any opportunity that involves (almost) my entire studio. (I say “almost” because eventually, yes, they graduate from the challenge.) Unless your studio is entirely made up of group classes, students do most of their piano-learning work alone. Do I even need to say the whole “lonely sport” phrase out loud? I don’t think so – we all know it! Kids love being part of things – this is one of the things that makes team sports so popular. Even though a note-naming challenge isn’t something they do at the same time or together, it’s still something they can see everyone participating in. It creates awareness of the achievements of others in the studio and, in turn, a little sense of competition.

A little side-note here, though, that as I’m saying this, I’m also brainstorming that you COULD run this during a group class week and have students watch each other do it – which could also be a good way to build that feeling of competition a little. Anyway, just a thought…

So, it builds community while giving you AND your students a progressive means of achievement, just as they would with a leveled exam or festival but with just one musical element.

Now let’s talk specifics and all the nitty-gritty. The beauty of something like this is you can run it however you want. While you could just run it for all the students who know all their notes on the staff, I like creating levels so all students can participate, and, as I mentioned earlier, it creates a means of progressive achievement.

Mine has even morphed a little over the years, depending on how I approached note reading, as yours may as well. For example, when I was using Piano Safari a lot, the design I created was the first level was the landmarks Treble G, Middle C, and Bass C (like they use in book one) and notes that were steps and skips above those landmarks. Since Piano Safari uses the skips alphabet approach to teach note notes from there, the next level was all the space notes on the staff, then all the line notes on the staff, then all the notes.

In recent years, I’ve moved more towards an entirely landmark approach as I like how it teaches the mirrored image design of the grand staff, beginning with bass f, middle c, and treble G, then moving out to bass C and treble C then low F and high G and finally low c and high c and all the ledger lines in between the staff. Thus, my one-minute club levels have shifted. I still like teaching students the skip alphabet because it is another way of understanding the layout of the staff and how the bass and treble clefs come together, but I prefer not to make it the focus of how to identify notes quickly.

If you use Irina Gorin’s Tales of a Musical journey, then maybe your first level – as she teaches in book 1, is just 8 notes – middle C for both bass and treble and then D, E, F above in the treble clef and B, A, G below in the Bass clef.

Anyway, I really don’t want this episode to be about debating approaches to note reading – I’m only telling you this so that you can see how there’s not one answer to how you design your note challenge. Do it based on how YOU teach note reading in your studio – the sky is the limit. You could make it three levels, five levels, or I’ve even seen people do ten levels. In fact, I’m going to link to a blog post where one of my piano teacher friends, Karen Lien at You Love Piano, several years ago shared specifics on her ten levels.

The next thing I want to address is a question that’s popped up over the years regarding the amount of… “items” I’ll call it, per level. That is, do you make students do the same AMOUNT of cards (like make sure all the levels include exactly 20 cards they have to name and play in one minute – so some higher levels might have 20 different notes and easier levels might only have five notes but with four repetitions of each note. My answer to that honestly is – I don’t think it matters. Again, do it how you like. Yes, you could do it like this. The only potential difficulties I could foresee with doing it this way would be the need to create card sets with multiples of notes and designing levels with the exact amount of notes that also make sense in combination. For example, if you want a Bass C to Treble C level, that would only include 16 notes. So, which notes would you repeat? See what I mean? Now, one remedy for this would be working toward having the number of cards (as in flashcards) be CLOSE TO the same number but not exact, so maybe instead of having a level with just 8, you have all the levels with at least 15 or more. Again, just brainstorming.

What I have concluded for myself is – I don’t care if some levels only have ten cards and they have an entire minute to do it. This mindset, I think, came about when I had students who had just started lessons in January, and I wanted to make sure they could participate when we did it only a few months later. It takes a while for kiddos to name and play notes quickly, so I didn’t see it as a problem if most level 1 students finish in 30 seconds. I also think that speed in naming comes with time, so it’s OK to have easier levels have fewer notes and higher levels with more notes. My current design – which is outlined in a blog post on the Piano Pantry website. I’ll link for you in the show notes – includes five levels. That progress is from 10, 16, 24, 16, 36. That is, level one has 10 notes from Bass F to Treble G, level 2 is 16 notes from Bass C to Treble C, level 3 is 24 notes from Low F to High G (that is, all the notes on the staff without ledger lines), level 4 is 16 notes including landmarks high and low c, and the inner ledger landmarks g below middle c in the treble clef and f above c in the bass clef then all the ledger notes between and finally, level 5 is all the notes from low c to high c including the inner ledger lines.

One thing I did struggle with personally at first was whether or not to include the outside ledgers that go up to 3 lines. Ultimately I decided to stick within the confines of the ledger lines, plus some of the printable note sets I was using off the internet only went to low and high C. If you want physical flashcards that go out to 3 ledger lines above and below the staff, I recommend publishing the TCW Resources set by Kjos. They’re great quality flashcards.

Let’s talk about the benefits of various times of the year. Doing it at the beginning of the year could work well as it’s a great kick-off to focus on a skill like this that can benefit students for the entire year. Doing it at the end of the year, however, could be good because students have the whole year to learn and work on adding more notes, then at the end of the year, it’s like a final quiz. I’ve always held mine in April. We do it for a month and then are done in May. I’ve always done this as it’s close to recital time, and when I announce the winners – yes, you heard that right – winners – which we’ll discuss in a second. Let’s finish this conversation about the time of year.

Recently on an Instagram story, a teacher from Washington State (on Instagram, she’s at “music con brio”) anyway, she was sharing how she was running “March Minute Madness” in her studio. The play on words using the college basketball “March Madness” phrase made me do a double-take, so I sent her a message saying how I loved that idea. I’ve honestly never LOVED the title “One Minute Club” – I mean, it’s not like they’re getting into an actual club. LOL. I never had a better idea, though, so I just stuck with it. Anyway… funnily enough, this teacher said SHE had actually heard about the note challenge from MY blog post a few years ago, which I thought was funny – small world!

I’m about to run my studio’s challenge after Spring Break, so I can’t do it this year, but I am 90% sure I will change over to doing it before Spring Break so I can call it “March Minute Madness.” The only tricky thing would be that I take two weeks off at Spring Break, but March is a long month, so we could potentially have up to 3 weeks to run the challenge, even if you had to start at the end of February. I DO like the idea of not doing any note work in the final month and a half of the school year so we’ll see where I go with that!

As we roll into the end of our little chat here today, let’s cover the final element: AWARDS. What does it mean for them to get into the “club?” There are two ways you can structure your reward system. This used to be the biggest struggle for me and part of the reason why I’ve struggled with using a title that has the word “club in it.”

One way to run it is that anyone who completes their assigned level within a minute or less gets the pride of getting into the club along with whatever reward you may designate, whether that be a candy bar or you throw a big pizza party or something like that – make it special however you want.

The other way of doing this is that you simply congratulate them that they achieved that level, but once they hit under a minute, they’re officially in the competition to be the fastest in that level. THAT’S what I do. So, they’re competing for the fastest time in that level, not necessarily just to be able to name it in a minute or less.

Part of the reason I’ve done this is that most students can get their level of notes in a minute pretty easily – I feel like the competition gets them a little more excited and thus also contributes to the community feeling within the studio. If students don’t complete the level in the time allotment given, that is something I simply share with the parents – it’s good awareness of what the student may need to work on. Then, I have a winner in each level who gets a $5 gift card to Walmart. The winner of the highest level gets the most special honors with a $15 gift card, their photo in a picture collage that hangs in the studio of all past winners, and they officially “graduate” from ever having to do it again. Which, admittedly, by that point they love.

Phew. I thought this would be a short episode, but there are a lot of little elements to talk about here. Again, the good news is, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, just get started and then tweak it each year as you need.

One of the most popular note-learning apps I know of on the market today is Note Rush which listens to the student playing a note on the piano and tells them if they’re playing the correct note. (BTW, no, this is not a paid ad by Note Rush.) I just wanted to let you know that I created a progressive assignment series for students based on the five landmark levels I told you about today. Since you can create and link directly to custom quiz sets in Note Rush, I have created a series of hyperlinks you can assign students to practice notes progressively. Each level has been broken down into multiple levels. For example, when they’re working on level 5 for the one-minute club with all the notes, including ledger lines, one of the micro-levels, which I might call 5.3 is that they practice just the 18 notes from low c to landmark ledger line f above middle c in the Bass clef. Then, level 5.4 might be all the treble clef notes from inner landmark ledger g below middle to high c and so forth. This saves you tons of time and helps break down the note learning for students into small micro bits to build on.

As a bonus, this month, the Piano Pantry blog is celebrating 7 years, so you can get 20% off this or any other product in the piano pantry shop using the code 7YEARS at checkout – good through March 24.

Thanks for sticking around to hear today’s tiny tip, which concerns social media. If you’ve spent any amount of time in any of the piano teacher Facebook groups, you’ll know tons and tons of things get posted every day – every hour, even. So, when you have a question you want to pose in a teacher group on Facebook, please first use the search bar. Try searching your topic using various words or phrases Remember, many of these groups have been around for YEARS, and the odds are, the question you’re about to ask has already been asked three different ways. You might be able to glean an answer without even having to ask your question. If it’s not been addressed, then, by all means, go for it – it’s a great place to get a wide range of opinions and advice – but I think we can all do a service to each other by helping minimize the number of times certain topics are addressed by looking first. For example, I was ready to buy a new piano bench earlier this year. Without asking for examples, I found several posts discussing the topic and giving me enough information to go forward.