“Little Fingers”

Helping Beginning Piano Students Name Hands and Number Fingers

For developing little brains, naming hands and fingers is a difficult task. Piano teachers who work with young students should be really careful to not discourage students when they mix them up while trying to follow directions in a lesson. A student’s first piano book will use “RH” and “LH” to identify which hand is playing, as well as numbers to communicate which note is to be played. A drawing of some kind tells the student before the piece where the hands should be placed…so essentially the student is reading rhythms and finger numbers instead of note names. For a student to be successful in these early stages of note reading, he or she will need to have a handle on which hand is his left and which hand is right as well as identify each finger by their assigned number. In piano the thumbs are 1, index finger 2, and so on (this differs from string, wind, and brass instruments which do not regard the thumb as a finger so it can be confusing for parents with previous music experience). It is really difficult for students up to even 8 years old to identify their left hand from their right hand. If they straighten out the difference early there will be less confusion when following directions in a formal piano lesson.

Early Childhood Activity/Early Piano Beginners- Naming Fingers with Felt

To teach my youngest students finger numbers I bought a sheet of white felt on top of which I lay a cut out of a right and left hand. The felt is a stiffer kind so it holds its shape and lays flat easily. When I am done with the activity I can fold the sheet in half (you can see my crease in the photo below) and sandwich all of the pieces inside. I made the right and left hands out of softer felt (more flimsy) and chose two colors randomly, one for the left hand and one for the right. I wanted the colors to contrast so that the students could see a bigger difference between each hand.

I bought little sticky velcro circles and stuck them to each finger and numbers 1 through 5. I found the felt numbers in the same section of the department store (the downside to these numbers is that the backs are sticky also so I kept the paper backing on them). Young children are taught the names of the fingers and can proudly recite numbers 1 through 10. Use this to your advantage! I found with my three year old student that he is VERY excited to show that he knows his numbers. My student’s mom (who sits with us during the lesson and participates) had really interesting names for the fingers. Instead of thumb, index/pointer, middle, etc. she called them baby, daddy, momma, brother, and sister (I think?). I also use this activity for students that are early beginners (4 years of age to 6 years of age).

The prep for this activity probably took about 15 minutes – tracing, cutting, sticking – and cost about $5-10. (Sorry I don’t remember specific prices because I prepped this in 2015 and have been using it since. I remember getting all of my materials in the craft section of Meijer because I lived in the dorm and that’s where the bus could take me.) Check on the internet though because you could get these materials even cheaper than I did.

Lower Elementary – Usual Beginner Age (7-9)

When I teach at music stores I like to do a similar activity with my usual beginner age students (seven years of age to nine years of age). These students need less direction and have a better handle on right and left, but still need to practice assigning each number a finger. Beginning piano methods use finger numbers over note heads in “pre-staff” notation or notation apart from the five-line staff. I will bring blank sheets of paper to the lesson and ask the student to trace their right and left hands. I then give them a sheet of number stickers and ask the student to stick the correct stickers to the numbers. I ask the student to keep this sheet by their piano as a reminder. There is not usually enough time to be super decorative, but you can bring choices of different color markers and stickers to get the student excited about the activity. The activity 1) gives them something to put on their piano that they made, not just a page in their lesson book that they won’t look at again and 2) the “doing” part of this where they have to match up the correct numbers is a way for me to informally assess that they understand which numbers are which fingers before sending them home to decode a new piece, as well as reinforce the “teaching” part of the lesson. I do this activity after I have introduced the numbers and drilled them.

Having the student trace their hands in their lesson and then using the number stickers (or have them draw the numbers) takes no prep! A pack of crayons or magic markers is less than $5, but if you don’t have either you can just trace and label with pencils. I bought some packs of stickers for teachers costing about $10 for 1,000+ stickers.

Ways to Drill Finger Numbers

  • I drill finger numbers by asking students to touch their 1s together, then their 2s, etc. first in order, then I mix them up. I usually will speed up the drill too and the faster I go the quicker the students have to think (and I get a giggle from the student when I go from 1 to 5 super fast and we both mess up). I do this type of drill with the student while modeling so that it they are a visual learner they can see me put my hands together correctly and not just rely on the oral commands I am giving them. If the student is an English Learner (meaning their first language is not English) modeling is very important.
  • Giving a command like “Show me your 1s!” as a method for drilling works alright for some of the fingers. To be honest I did this a few times without thinking about how the students would show me their middle fingers. The students are too young to think that sticking up their middle fingers is a problem (they do not know that it is an American social taboo yet) but it is also difficult for kids developmentally to raise their middle and ring fingers by themselves. Try to raise your ring finger by itself and you will see the difficulty! This works great, however, with 1 and 5 – thumbs up! for “show me your 1s” and pinkies up (imagine the snobby voice you have to say that in) for “show me your 5s.

Ways to Encourage Using the Correct Hands/Fingers

I have a six year old student who is starting piano this year who frequently mixes up her right and left hands. If she plays a passage with her left hand instead of her right hand, for example, I first will simply repeat the directions. Often she notices her error and corrects it. If she doesn’t, I will point to the music and ask her if it says “LH or RH” and sometimes she corrects it then. If she is still confused I will ask her what hand she is using and often when she sees what hand she put on the keyboard she will correct it herself. The key is patience…If she is confused and not able to correct herself, I ask her, “Can you show me your right hand?” and we wave our right hands at each other, then I ask, “Can you show me your left hand?” and then we wave our left hands. It is just developmentally hard at that stage so I never want my students to feel that they are doing something wrong if they mess up which hand. As a piano teacher I have to be especially gentle with my quiet, timid students. I never want them to play timidly and I never want them to be afraid of making mistakes. To me the most important part of the lesson is how the student learns to identify and correct their mistakes themselves.

These are my strategies when a student repeatedly uses the wrong hand after a direction:

  • Repeat the directions.
  • Ask, “What does LH or RH mean when you see it in the music?” or “What does it mean when the stems point up? (or point down?)”
  • Ask, “What hand are you using?”
  • Ask, “Can you show me your right hand?” and “Can you show me your left hand?” Be careful that both of you are facing the keyboard so you do not confuse the student by facing them.
  • Say, “I saw you play this” and play the passage with the same hand the student used. Then ask, “Is that the same or different than this?” and play it with the correct hand. This helps guide the student to seeing the mistake.

Guide, laugh, smile, and lead them to understanding of which finger/hand is which!

First Experiences in Music Play

I have received quite a few inquiries from parents interested in starting their children in music lessons as young as possible. When I’m asked the question, “How young can my child start?” I usually respond is the same way other piano teachers would – 4.5 to 5 years of age, as long as the student is able to sit up and focus at the piano. I tell the parent that the younger the student is, the more parent involvement is needed in practicing so the student can be successful. Surprisingly, two parents contacted me wanting music lessons but their children were 3 years of age or younger. They are thinking: my child is showing interest in music, why not start now?

Having a background in Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (MLT) in Elementary and Early Childhood General Music from two classes I took for my undergrad, I decided to give weekly 30 minute lessons with one of these adorable three-year-olds a try. My plan is to begin immersing the student in music through music play and prepare him through music readiness activities, then slowly introduce concepts that can be applied to the piano as he is able.

For a student as young as this one, he is on his way towards “exiting babble.” My learning goals for him in the next few months are the following:

  • Feel macrobeats in different parts of his body
  • Express flow in different parts of his body
  • Express singing versus speaking voice
  • Vocal exploration – the range of his voice at different volumes
  • Hear and perform resting tone

Here are a few of the activities I have planned for my student for the month of September:

Bicycle Riding – Activity for Vocal Exploration

In this activity, we follow the contour of the “hill” or line with our voices like a slide whistle allowing the student to explore the range of his or her voice and begin understanding the contour of musical lines. This type of vocal exploration activity can be done in a number of ways: a teacher could bend a pipe cleaner or draw lines on the white board. I am limited in what materials I have, however, so I drew lines with marker on large note cards. I then cut out a hand drawn bicycle that we will move along the line as we make the sounds with our voices.

Here are all of the lines I drew to use in the activity:


“Here is the Beehive” – Activity for Feeling Macro Beats (in triple) and Vocal Exploration

For this activity I use the traditional chant “Here is the Beehive.” I will begin the chant sitting cross legged across from the student and model with my “spider” fingers (hand position where the hand is cupped with the fingers separated) tapping on my knees to the macro beats. Right now I think this particular student is too little for feeling micro beats (I will introduce that soon though!) but ideally you would switch between macro and micro beats.

I wish I had a bee puppet for this activity. Since I do not, I took construction paper to create a beehive. I made bees out of construction paper by cutting a tear drop shape from yellow construction paper and heart shapes from white construction paper (I made four different sizes). I then drew stripes and smiley faces on each one. I set this on the floor with the different size bees hiding underneath. Each time I repeat the chant, I pull out a new size bee and reflect the change in my voice – baby bees will have high voices, large bees low voices… maybe one is a sleepy bee so he sounds drowsy. Kids respond really well to choices, so I try to ask the student: does this bee buzz really loud or really soft? Which one the student chooses does not really matter because if I mix up the options each time we will get through a range of different voices.

“The Seals on the Bus” – Activity for Vocal Exploration

I have very few children’s books in my collection right now so I stopped by the Canton Public Library this week. While perusing the shelves I found this adorable book – “The Seals on the Bus.” The book’s concept is super simple –  it just takes the song we all know (The wheels on the bus go round, round, round…) and changes it for each animal that gets on the bus.

This is PERFECT for vocal exploration! We make different animal sounds on each page, like the monkeys go:

“Rhythm of the Popcorn” – Macro and Micro Beats, Vocal Exploration

During my first lesson with this little guy I was having trouble getting him to sit down with me and participate in the music (he liked to walk over to the piano and was very distracted). I tricked him though by asking if I could play with one of the Spiderman toys he brought with him. He handed me one of them. Then I asked, “Does Spiderman feel the rhythm in his hands or feet?” I went on with my chant and moved the toys legs to the macrobeats….he was hooked. I gave him choices between the body parts and he joined in and copied what I was doing with the Spiderman I was holding with the one he was holding. I then started doing the movements with just my body parts and he started moving to the macrobeats in his body too. He loved the choices (the one time I asked him to come up with the body part without a choice there were crickets!) and chose shoulders, legs, feet, hands, etc., etc.

I have lots more activities so I will keep sharing them as well as their effectiveness in this private lessons setting as I go along.

Guide to Becoming a Self-Employed Musician

One of the perks of being a musician is getting paid in cash, right? Well, let’s be honest that’s not the legal way to do it. Although you could get by with a cash only system, sooner or later (especially if you make enough money) the IRS will “knock on your door.” Many people talk like reporting your earnings as a musician to the government is as silly as reporting baby sitting cash. It isn’t silly though: if you are a professional musician who relies on freelance opportunities for your livelihood, conducting your business “over the table” is a way of protecting yourself. I’m not pro or anti-taxes…part of being a citizen in the US is paying taxes and receiving the benefits from them in return.

I currently have about 30 students and will reach my goal of teaching 60 students within a year. Now, reporting my income would have been silly when I had just 8 students in 2015. I actually did that year and owed the government a stupid amount of money for only making about $1,000 from the lessons. I have way more students than that now. The income I will be making the next tax year is not much by any means, but if I were to be audited it would be a huge issue.

Here’s an overview of how my accounts are set up to track my income and applicable tax deductions come tax time:

1. To DBA or not DBA.

Becoming a business under the government requires a few documents. A “Doing Business As” or DBA is a fictitious name under which you conduct your business. You can also apply to be an LLC and/or corporation. For my purposes I decided to not apply for a DBA – instead, I do all of my business under my own name. I decided that registering under a DBA could limit the business I conduct. I did not want my DBA to be “Alicia Piano Lessons” for example because I would be limited to only teaching piano. This becomes important when you claim business expenses and miles: I want to be able to claim anything related to any business I do under my name, even if it is pet sitting, accompanying, crocheting, teaching piano, teaching trombone, etc., etc… If I was selling a lot of items I would need to register under the state of Michigan for a sales tax license as well.

2. File for an EIN with the IRS.

The biggest expense (about $250) for me in setting up my business was filing for a Employment Identification Number or EIN. Usually individuals file taxes under their social security number. After receiving my EIN I can now pay my taxes and get paid from businesses as an independent contractor under that number.

3. Keep personal finances separate from your business finances.

With my EIN I opened up a business checking account. The biggest advice I found on the internet for free lancers and self-employed contractors is to keep all your personal finances separate. My bank was a little confused that I was opening the account under my own name and not a DBA but everything worked out fine (just because it is not common does not mean it is not possible). All the deposits for my piano lessons, accompanying, etc. go through this one account. The cheapest business account in my area is through FlagStar which has no fees and a low opening deposit (only $100). There is also no minimum balance, which is key since I am not making millions over here.

4. Set a date/time to transfer 25-30% of your income for taxes.

I set up a  savings account at FlagStar as well where I transfer a percentage over for taxes. As a business I will be required to pay taxes quarterly. The worse situation you could be in is spending the money you owe the government so you are hurting for money come tax time. I have only done this for two months, but luckily I get paid about the same time each month. The private students that I teach from my home pay for lessons for the whole month at their first lesson of the month. The two music stores I work at pay me for the previous month at the beginning of the next month. I have direct deposit set up to my business checking for one of the stores. After I deposit all my checks at the ATM I let them clear and go online the next day to transfer the percentage. I then pay myself the remaining money in the checking account (leaving a little bit in the account for business expenses) with a check and deposit to my personal account with my phone.

5. Use PayPal or another system to track income with invoices.

I use PayPal Business to keep track of all my income, even the income from the two music stores that pay me as an independent contractor. I create invoices for each of the customers (the music stores I regard as a customer) and total up the lessons with the applicable rates. This helps me make sure I am actually getting paid for all the lessons I give because my time is valuable. Once I am paid I go in the PayPal app on my phone and mark the invoice as paid with the check number in the notes. I also attach the receipts from my ATM deposits to a printed version of these invoices in a file. My hope is that estimating my income will be super easy by running a report through PayPal come tax time. My home studio students have the option to pay through PayPal/Debit/Credit this way, but I don’t like that option because there is a processing fee that comes from the money I receive. I am able to send my students receipt of their payment through email, which makes the families feel better – hopefully that they are getting their money’s worth out of the lessons. I want them to know that I am committed to giving all the lessons they pay for and that the expense is well worth it. I remember my mom feeling uncomfortable paying my high school piano teacher because she was not sure if I was given all the lessons she paid for…also she thought it was shady when my piano teacher and hair dresser seemed to be avoiding taxes.

7. Be prepared to claim as much as possible.

As a self-employed person you are able to claim a lot of expenses that you could not otherwise. I use an app called Everlance that tracks all of my trips using the GPS on my phone. Every few days I open up the app and categorize the trip as business related or personal/medical. The app keeps track of the rates for medical and business trips and keeps a running total of the amount I can claim. Any trip where I conduct business qualifies. Since my home is my main place of business, round trips to the two music stores I work at qualify, as well as trips to schools or plays where I accompany. You can technically claim any trip where you even discuss business with a client. I am cautious though to not claim trips where I do personal stuff as well. I don’t claim my commute to school, for instance, or to campus just to practice piano. I also would not claim a round trip if I go to my boyfriend’s apartment, for example, before returning home. I use my business account to purchase items like file folders, pencils, prizes for my lesson incentives, my hosting/domain fee for the website, lesson books I will sell to my students later, etc. Those items can later be claimed – you could even buy a work computer and claim it – but only if they are through your business account and not personal account.

6. Get a marketing strategy.

I hate having to market myself but it is a necessary aspect of being self-employed. The key is to not spend a lot of time or money on it. I have this blog/website both for my personal enjoyment because I like to write, but also as a place to send interested clients. You do not even need to have a lot of information on your website: just a resume and contact info is great. Facebook marketing is usually really involved but is good for getting the word out. I use WordPress for my hosting, which is only a few bucks a month. I got my business cards through VistaPrint for only like 10 bucks. I was able to create my logo with a free trial of Adobe PhotoShop and my brochure through PowerPoint. I created simple flyers with my logo and a few bullet points about my background and gave them to my family members that work in the area. My dad and sister posted these flyers in their break rooms on the boards. Tons of people have been taking the little slips: my dad has a stack at work and replaces them every few weeks (and is excited to update me about their popularity). I probably have had about five people call me from seeing these flyers -which is really good considering they were only up at his work for a few weeks – and all of those five have begun lessons with me or joined one of my group classes.

Setting up business finances takes a little work but is well worth it!


Hats, hats, and more hats…

Fall decided to show up this weekend and brought slightly cooler weather with it! Although it has been hot this August I crocheted up a storm through it all. I had foot surgery early this month so being cooped up and catching up on my anime watching meant lots of time to crochet winter gifts before school.

The photo on the left is a picture of my first big beanie. I began with a pattern but quickly found that it wasn’t working for me so I finished it off in my own way. The hat is double crochet in the round, front loops only, finished with a single crochet band after decreasing significantly so it is tight around the forehead. I’m not sure if it was because my stitches are loose or if I chose a different weight of yarn, but my gauge was waaaaay off from the pattern. I can’t complain though because it turned out to be super cute!

The next two pictures are of a grey hat from the same basic worsted yarn. I decided to stick with my favorite basic stitch, single crochet. I achieve the cool “ribbing” look that knit often has by only inserting my hook into the front loops. Although I am particularly fond of crochet in the round, I kept it simple by creating a simple rectangle. I can vary the size by making a thinner rectangle (controlling the depth of the hat) – this hat is definitely a largish adult size with the width of the rectangle at about 35 stitches.

After I finish the rectangle body of the hat I flip it inside out (although there really is not a right side with this stitch) and I do two things: 1) I back sew like you would with embroidery the last row of my rectangle to the first. I like to back sew (not even sure if that is the correct name for it) just so that it is a really tight and sturdy stitch; 2) I loosely sew with a tapestry needle back and forth, then pull and tie to gather the top of the hat to a close. I then flip the hat back right-side out. I make the band by inserting single crochet stitches along the bottom of the hat. To create a different texture than the hat’s body I single crochet going through both loops. The one exception to this is that in the second row I like to single crochet through the back loop because it creates a little line that makes the band fold nice and flush to the forehead. I then eyeball the width of the band depending on the size of the hat so it reaches about a 1/4 of the way up.

Lastly I make the pom-pom: the pom-pom for this size hat needs to be very large! The first one I made looked hilarious because it was so dinky. The thicker the pom the better. Also, the shorter you are willing to cut and more that you shape it (although it is messy and takes time) the more professional the pom will look. I am usually covered in fuzz and yarn bits by the end. Sharp scissors are key.

I will keep sharing my creations from this month as I am able to take more pictures! This pattern is so easy it only takes me a few hours to make…a great option for quick Christmas gifts this season. I’m thinking about creating an Etsy and selling these maybe next year – why not?

Who am I?

I am currently taking a class about the use of media and technology in education. I was asked to take the photo above and edit it in a way that represents who I am. The photo above represents me in several ways. I am a pianist and conductor so I have included both the keyboard and my baton. The piano in the picture is also significant because it is my parents’ piano that I learned to read music on when I was five years old. The piano itself triggers a lot of memories for me because I played on it during my whole childhood up till college. I overlaid a photo of Pease Auditorium here on EMU’s campus where I gave my senior piano recital last April. You can see the isle way leading up to the stage where the grand piano sits.

The juxtaposition of these two photos is really significant. The isle way aligns with the keys of my childhood piano and represents the journey of music learning I have worked towards that ends in this final performance at Pease. The stage is significant to me because I was told to quit piano at different parts of my educational career but I stuck with it anyways: I transferred colleges twice because I had a bad relationship with my piano teacher till I finally found the great program here at EMU. I also have had to push through a lot of difficult circumstances from not having the same basis of music education that many wealthy families can provide to their students that pursue piano; I had a lot of health issues that delayed my high school and college progress; as well as being a survivor of domestic violence in college. Through all these difficulties piano and music in general have been my constant and the activity that I use for solace. This photo represents my beginning and my ending goal having been reached through perseverance and hard work. I also like that the patterns of the organ pipes and concert hall wall behind the stage lay over my face. I fell a year ago and ripped my lip up to my nose so I now have a large scar that was not a part of me during my childhood and first few years of adulthood. The patterns fading in my face represent how I have come to terms with my scar and the emotional scars of all that has happened to me and how they have become a part of me that I can celebrate.

This assignment helped me remember the depth of my piano students’ lives that I just can’t see in the 30 minute lessons we interact once a week. But even with such little time together I could make a lasting impact on their lives like the teachers in my life (for better or for worse). I have had piano teachers that ruined my self-image and destroyed my self-confidence for years to come. I have also had piano teachers that have built me up, discovered who I am through music, and pushed me to be a better version of myself. I hope to be the latter kind: I want to push my students to discover more about themselves through creative expression and hard work. I hope that I can be a good example to my students and colleagues of a teacher that truly cares about my students’ development inside and out. Who would have known that piano and piano teaching could change someones life like it has mine?