For several years, I have wanted a piano lab in my general music classroom for my seventh and eighth grade students. Many of them want to play piano, and with just one acoustic instrument, I just don’t have the resources to teach many of them, and certainly not during a class with only one instrument. While the solution I’ve found doesn’t do everything a piano lab would, it has provided a way for me to teach basic piano keyboard to a whole class of students without a lot of expensive equipment; in fact, I can teach my class keyboard for no expense whatsoever.
I sometimes wonder if technology really has made my life easier, or if it has just given me more things to spend my time on. While the jury is still out on that, technology has made it possible for me to reach most of my students with keyboard instruction. Most of my students own smartphones, and regularly bring them to school. In fact, keeping them off of their phones during class can at times be challenging. Now, when I’m teaching them keyboard, I want them to have their phones out and ready to use. I had each student download a free piano keyboard app for his or her phone, and I also downloaded one on my own iPhone. I use Real Piano, which is a free app available for both iOS and Android. There is also a paid version with more features, but these are not necessary for what I am about to describe. I also have a Bluetooth speaker in my classroom, so whatever I play on my phone app, the class can easily hear, and other students can share their work over the Bluetooth speaker as well. Because phones can be listened to with ear buds, I distribute music for the students to work on, then with their ear buds plugged in, give them time to practice. I can help individual students by visiting their seats and listening in on their practice using one ear bud held close to my ear, while the other bud remains in the student’s ear. When the designated time for practice has elapsed, students unplug their ear buds, and play their work for the class and me to hear using the Bluetooth speaker.
If there are issues with a student’s performance, a classmate who excelled at his or her performance gets paired up with the student who needs further practice. Other students who successfully performed the assignment are rewarded with time to play with their keyboards, ear buds in. My students enjoy exploring and improvising with their keyboard apps, and allowing them time to do so is worthwhile, because it gets them thinking in music, and practicing performing through improvising. Using piano keyboard apps also has the advantage of enabling students to take their instruments home to practice assignments, and because the phones already belong to the students, there is never a liability to the school for damaged or missing inventory.
Another advantage to using phone apps is that the instruments are highly portable. This makes it possible for students to move around while playing, something they can never do with most keyboards, and certainly never with an acoustic piano. To teach intervals, I have students create short musical phrases on their apps, and then “step” their melodies. Ascending intervals are a step forward, descending intervals are a step backwards, and all steps are proportional in size to the size of the interval. For example, if a student plays C, G, F, E, D, C then he or she would take one large step forward, and four normal sized steps backward. Stepping both direction and interval size makes the distances between notes more understandable than just seeing them in reduced sizes, and from left to right. Partners can also give and take dictation. One student steps a motif, and the partner plays it on his or app. If the stepping student audiates what they think they are stepping while they are stepping it, then they can evaluate the notes their partner plays, and valuable ear training is taking place.
Although I don’t do this, one could also have a giant staff on the floor and have students step to where the notes they are playing are on the staff, which would accomplish experiencing direction and interval size, and also serve as a music notation activity. Partners could even notate on conventional music paper where their partner was standing for each note, and end up with a notated transcript of where the student stepped on the staff. These kinds of activities are great for seventh and eighth graders, especially boys, who find it so difficult to sit still, and enjoy the opportunity to move around as part of the lesson.