How to get students to stop adding and subtracting on their fingers

How to get students to stop adding and subtracting on their fingers

If you want someone to stop doing something, it's helpful to train an incompatible behavior (this I learned from Karen Pryor). However, sometimes it's hard to know what that incompatible behavior should be.

Of course, you also have to see the existing behavior as a problem in the first place in order to want to change it. 

I've noticed that many students who struggle in math are finger-counters. In other words, they use their fingers to add and subtract numbers. This does not seem to me to be a coincidence. In order to figure out a solution, I had to delve into why the finger-counting was happening and why it was a problem.

Happily, as usually happens, the root of the problem was also the source of the solution. The incompatible behavior had the added benefit of being hands-on.

This post will explain my reasoning and help you take the first step to help someone overcome the habit of finger-counting when performing addition and subtraction tasks.

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Teaching fear

For so many of us, education boils down to fear.

First we have fear on behalf of our children, and then, at the appropriate time, we transfer the fear to them while still retaining a measure for ourselves.

We fear "not getting it." Not being good enough. We fear failing grades. We're afraid that we won't get into college, that we'll flunk out of college, that we'll choose the wrong major, that we won't get a job. 

We compete with other individuals, amassing AP classes and extracurricular activities in an academic arms race. And as a nation, we're worried that we'll be left behind as other countries train up generation after generation of highly skilled workers. 

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I believe in shortcuts.

I don't mean shortcuts that undermine what you're trying to do, like risking your life by rushing through a red light, or compromising your health by taking diet pills to lose weight, or never changing your strings so that your guitar sounds like broken windshield wipers. 

I like shortcuts that result from drilling down to the core essence of what you're trying to accomplish, allowing you to get maximum results from minimum effort and time.

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Common sense over Common Core

Béla Bartók, the celebrated twentieth century Hungarian composer, wrote playful and interesting piano music for children in addition to his larger works for advanced musicians. Some of these pieces were based on Eastern European folk melodies, and some were wholly original. There were several that I absolutely loved as a child, and I love teaching them to my piano students.

Mikrokosmos is a collection of études that progress from very simple to highly complex, which Bartók wrote to systematically address certain musical and technical challenges. While I love the concept, most of these (especially the ones for beginners) leave me cold musically. It strikes me as an attempt to reverse-engineer the process of becoming a musician - an idealized repertoire for an idealized student who will think like a professional musician from the first downbeat.

As I review the Georgia Performance Standards and the Common Core standards, I find myself thinking of Mikrokosmos. The standards are similarly comprehensive, cerebral, and virtually impenetrable unless you possess specialized skills. There is no recognizable equivalent to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" - the common-sense learning you remember from childhood.

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Learning is not linear

So, I'm now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I've found that it's best to not ask why I feel called to do something - I've just got to do it. Not that I'm impulsive, necessarily - I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curriculum. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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How to get great results with anybody (including yourself)

I'll never forget the first Collegiate Chorale rehearsal I attended. Rob (or Berg, as he is affectionately known to his high school students) conducted the entire rehearsal in silence. He used gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions, the piano, and the chalkboard to get his point across.

Since Rob, with his expressive features and tireless enthusiasm, gives the impression of a cartoon character come to life this was amusing, unsettling, and highly effective. And clearly memorable, since it's been well over a decade since that day and I can recall it in such detail.

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Guitar Technique Tips for Young Beginners (with video!)

If you're a parent or teacher working with a guitar student under the age of ten, this video is for you!

Here, I'll demonstrate some things to look out for in order to make sure that young guitarists are building the strongest possible technical foundation for their playing.

Older students can sometimes fudge technique, but getting anywhere on the guitar is pretty much impossible for little kids who don't have solid skills.

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How to be successful: self-talk lessons from a two-year-old

I am fortunate to be involved in the lives of many small people. Though I've never had a baby, I have friends, clients, and family members at every stage of the child-rearing game and am intimately familiar with its details.

In particular, I am lucky to know many excellent mamas who treat their very young children with respect and dignity, allowing them to make age-appropriate decisions as often as possible.

A mama of a little girl who has recently turned two shared a story that we can all learn from as we strive to accomplish great things in life. Great things such as weaning and potty-training.

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How to listen like a musician

When I was a kid, in those long moments when my mom would not! get off! the phone! to shower me with attention and answer whatever trivial and random question I had, I would lounge around and do the strange things kids do when they are bored. I developed a game in which I would lean my head upside down off the sofa or staircase and imagine an upside-down world where the ceiling was the floor and the floor was the ceiling. I visualized myself walking upon the sloping "floor" and passing by the chandeliers, floating upon their chains like strange metal trees.

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In defense of Taylor Swift

Photo by Jean-Baptiste Bellet.Yesterday I sat on a wooden stair on a seawall as the tide came in all around me. I thought about how easy it would be to accidentally drop my iPhone into the surf below - hundreds of dollars worth of magical technology and irreplaceable data gone in an instant.

It fascinates me that something that takes so much insight and sophistication to design and build can be destroyed in a flash. It takes far less effort to tear something down than to build it up.

Criticism is easy. Much easier than creating whatever it is that's being offered up to the critic.

It is with this in mind that I undertake a thoughtful criticism of Lizzie Widdicombe's profile of Taylor Swift in The New Yorker this week. My main issue? Ms. Widdicombe herself was too critical of her subject and missed the larger story of Taylor Swift's significance and influence.

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How to instantly make your piano playing sound more professional

The great thing about playing pop and rock songs by ear is that the sound and feel of your playing is up to you. I guess that's also the bad thing about it - there's no written score to guide you and infuse your playing with appealing licks and time-tested voicings. Here, I'd like to share a simple left-hand technique that will make you sound a lot better right away.

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The secret to coordinating your hands

Many would-be pianists have told me that they stalled out on the piano because they just couldn't get their two hands going at the same time. "First I learn one hand," the story goes, "and then I learn the other, but I can't stick them together!"

The thing is, that's not how pianists think. Flute, saxophone, trumpet - these are instruments that can only create monophonic (i.e., one note at a time) textures. The very nature of piano is polyphonic (many voices), and most of the music written for the instrument takes advantage of this.

But polyphonic does not equal "monophonic plus monophonic" - you can't just learn the parts separately and mash them together. You'll need a different strategy.

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Start at the end

Here we go! Another one of Casey's ridiculously counter-intuitive posts. Start at the end. It doesn't get more contrarian than that, does it?

This is the way I was taught to practice, and I continue to do it because it works. Time and time again I share this practice technique with my students, and I can always tell when they follow my directions because their playing sounds smoother and more confident. Learn how and why starting at the end works so well. Don't worry, we won't be going backwards.

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Turns out that thing only you can do is also the hardest thing you can do

"Find something you love and let it kill you." - Derek Sivers

Thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt had better not get near my most important work. (Library of Congress photo)I've been hooked on House since 2007 when I crawled into bed exhausted in the middle of the afternoon after Eclectic Music's first-ever November recital. I decided to reward myself (for pulling off the recital, not for crawling into bed) with a TV episode downloaded from iTunes. I remembered seeing promos for the premiere of House during the legendary 2004 ALCS and it looked interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try. Seven seasons later, I am still along for every DDx and going-into-a-commercial panicked use of the crash cart.

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Amanda Knox, appreciating freedom, and defeating the "shoulds"

"Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more." - Baha'u'llah

Vero Beach, Florida, July 2007.I'm thinking about Amanda Knox quite a bit - I guess I identify with her. After all, I was once a young and naive American woman. Assuming she is innocent of murder (and, considering that another person is already in prison having confessed to the crime she was accused of, that's not a big stretch), it could have been anyone. It could have been me.

And so I imagine what that must be like - to lose four years of your life to prison, having had to accept that you might have to spend your entire life there. And then - to be exonerated. To be released. To appreciate fresh air, green grass, your family. Freedom.

Of course, my very next thought is, I have that freedom. It is a gift I receive anew every morning, when I get to choose how I want to spend that day. So what am I going to do today to live it to the fullest?

It's amazing how easy it is to forget that freedom is there. That my choices created my circumstances, and that my choices can change them. And that even when I encounter obligations, I still get to choose my attitude.

One of my guitar students, who is a busy grad student in the sciences, came into his lesson this week positively glowing. He said, "I learned that when I feel like I'm doing better, I do better." He was thrilled with his progress because he had finally figured out how to let go of the idea that being hard on himself was going to make him learn faster.

Once we get out of our own way and lose the "shoulds" and "should haves," we are free. One aspect of the "prison of self" is ego. "I should have learned this by now!" "I'll be the slowest one in the race!" "I have what I always wanted, why am I so unhappy?"

Yuck. I've made some major life changes recently, and I have more discretionary time than I used to. Instead of enjoying it to the fullest, I've had moments of questioning my decisions, questioning my motives, and hours of spending a beautiful day inside because I couldn't figure out what I was "supposed" to be doing. How stupid. I might as well be working fourteen hours a day again if all I can do is whine.

Amanda Knox will certainly have a time of transition, and will probably encounter a lot of existential pain as she confronts anew the "what should I do with my life?" question that any twenty-four-year-old has to deal with. But she will never forget the overwhelming feeling of finally being released from prison, and she will never take it for granted.

I always think things like, "I should play my twelve-string more often," or "I should learn Portuguese," or "I should call so-and-so" or "I should make time to play piano today." I'd like to shift from "I should" to "I will." It's my life! I can do anything I want with it.

Selling students on classical music

Grieg's hairdo is a little passe but that 'stache could work today.Yesterday I read Chris Foley's post on "The Real Problem with Classical Music" in which he describes a student's reluctance to learn music by composers with "weird" names. In the comments, Chris says, "My issue in the article is how to get younger listeners to relate. They're having trouble identifying with the music and the composers. What can we do to help them?"

Before I share my thoughts on that excellent question, I want to address the idea of weird names. There is no such thing as a "normal" name, and I hope that Chris' use of that word was, as he suggested later, satire. Anglo names are not any more "normal" than Ugandan, Persian, Bosnian, Japanese, Indian, or Afghani names. Some names may be less familiar to you based on your background, but it would be decidedly ethnocentric to suggest that one name is more normal or less weird than another.

Okay, now that I have that out of the way: How can we help kids identify with classical music and classical composers?

Educate students on the current classical music scene. That's what Chris did by posting a Jennifer Higdon video. Giving students concrete proof that the word "composer" does not mean "dead European dude" is a great way to bridge the relevance gap.

You could also get into relatable performers who are breathing new life into the old stuff. There are hot shots like The 5 Browns, role models like the "From the Top" kids, and perhaps even some young and vibrant musicians in your local scene who can help you make the point that art music is still alive and relevant.

Exposing your students to the world of modern classical music is as easy as messaging YouTube links back and forth. YouTube can also be a great resource for study - you'll find different versions of a piece, filmed in concert halls and living rooms around the world for your perusal, appreciation, and analysis.

Find out what your students do like, and make the connection. Lots of kids actually have no idea what they like ("I just listen to whatever's on the radio") but sometimes you get lucky and they'll mention a favorite song that you can do a quick harmonic analysis on, which you can then link to something that the student is working on. It could be something as simple as "This piece in the key of Ab and so is 'Pumped Up Kicks' - notice how the Fm chord appears in both," or it might be a little more involved, such as comparing a "rock opera" like The Who's Tommy or Green Day's American Idiot to a song cycle of Schumann or a Verdi opera. If you expect your students to be open-minded when it comes to classical music, it behooves you to approach pop music with the same attitude.

Educate yourself on the current popular music scene. To take a step further, dig a little deeper into popular music. I don't necessarily mean the Top 40 charts - there's no way to know what will stand the test of time. However, if you dig a little deeper you will find career-oriented musicians who have something to say, who are making actual art. Paste Magazine is a great resource if you're starting from scratch, as well as the college radio charts and actual college students. Radiohead, Wilco, The Flaming Lips, Aimee Mann, and Ron Sexsmith are just a few of the artists who are considered to be "pop music" while enjoying critical success and multi-decade, influential careers. Keep moving toward the cutting edge and you'll find that the best young bands around continue the centuries-old process of learning from the masters of the past as they blaze new trails.

Nice mutton chops, Franz!Turn those dead European dudes back into real people. My favorite thing about playing eighteenth- and ninteenth-century music is how it brings to life people I could never have connected with otherwise - they died before I was born, spoke another language, and and aren't even on Twitter. But for a student who is intimidated by the appearance, name, or old-fashioned-ness of a composer, you'll have to do a little more work to humanize him. "Hey, 'Johann' is just a German version of John or Juan. And did you know that Johann got in trouble when he was a young church organist because he kept changing the music around and adding notes here and there? And for hanging out with a girl in the organ loft?" Sounds like a typical teenager to me.

Allow for personal taste. I'm in heaven playing Grieg, Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Scott Joplin. Telemann, Haydn, and Handel leave me cold. Like Chris Foley's young student, I'd have trouble picking out a sonatina because there are so many crappy, phoning-it-in sonatinas and a handful of delicious ones. Life is too short to play Czerny, that's my motto. Perform music for them from a variety of eras and let your students find composers they love.

In summary: Show your students that the classical music of the past is still relevant, and the current art music scene is happening. And if it's not happening in your neck of the woods, maybe you and your students can do something about it.