By Dr. Julie Knerr

Although it is fun to try different methods with different students, there is something very satisfying about mastering a single method. I find that when I teach the same pieces to dozens and dozens of students, I am better able to hone the art of teaching than if I am constantly teaching different pieces (although I enjoy that too).

Before my 5-year-old student came today, I gave some thought to what I wanted to accomplish. It’s amazing how even three minutes of actual deep thought can make a lesson so much better! I decided that I was going to try a new way of breaking down “Ode to Joy” into manageable chunks, because after teaching a piece to dozens and dozens of students, a teacher can begin to know the pitfalls of certain pieces and the best ways to overcome them.

The pitfalls in Ode to Joy:

The third line:

The fourth line being the same as the second line, not the first line.

So when we got to the “Ode to Joy” part in her lesson, here is what happened.

She had already learned the first page last week, and it was going very well, because I made a big deal about Beethoven, who he was, where he was from, and that his favorite dinner was macaroni and cheese. (Last week when she left, she said, “Thank you for teaching me Beethoven!”).

How to tackle the 3rd line? We ended up color coding it as follows:

First, I circled the “3 4 3” Kangaroo rhythm with brown, and drew a kangaroo. I’m not so good at drawing kangaroos. Next time, I’ll have her draw instead.

Then I had her play the Kangaroo section a few times, non legato, of course.

Then I played the other notes and she played the “3 4 3.”

Then we underlined the “1 2” that precedes the Kangaroo with green. I played “1 2 Kangaroo.” She copied.

Then she noticed that there is another “1 2” near the end of the line. We underlined that green.

Then I showed her that the only LH note is the D. We colored it blue.

Then she played the whole line a few times with me helping her to track and singing, “2 2 3 1 2 Kangaroo, 1 2 Kangaroo, 2 1 2 LH”

It took about 3 minutes longer than my usual presentation, but yielded immeasurably better results in her confidence and understanding.

Next pitfall:

Line 4 is not the same as Line 1. I can predict that kids will play Line 4 and end with fingers 3 2 2 instead of 2 1 1.

Solution? Color code the lines.

Here are the two pages in her book:

Notice that the ends of Lines 2 and 4 are yellow, as they match (2 1 1). Line 1 is blue (3 2 2).

I am going to remind myself often that I can improve my teaching on each piece. I have taught these pieces so many times. I now know the pitfalls? How can I avoid them? How can my presentation be even better when I am introducing a piece or a concept? How can I aim for perfection in technique, musicality, listening, rhythm, and reading when I present a piece for the first time?

Honing our presentation of a piece is one of the most exciting things about teaching piano. I know that I am an expert at teaching “Hungry Herbie Hippo.” And I’ve got a pretty good system down for “I Love Coffee.” I can strive to become an expert at every piece and concept I teach. I felt my “teaching muscles” flexing and getting stronger through this lesson.

What are some ways you like to teach “Ode to Joy?” Do you have useful tricks for teaching this piece or others?