Freeway Music — Columbia, SC’s Premier Music School

A Tool Box of Active Learning

by David Pacific


Over the years, teaching has provided its moments of utter inspiration and absolute devastation. I’m consistently inspired by what my students can achieve and equally as devastated when I haven’t illustrated a concept in the right way to get through or found a way to instill a concept. These moments of struggle in teaching have given me some of my greatest resources: a collection of activities that I share with my students and their parents that have become my tried and true ‘tool box of active learning’ and, no matter your instrument or genre, they can be reimagined for your own study or for your child’s practice at home. As I always try to do, they are “no cost” activities that serve to enhance the education when time at the instrument just isn’t doing it.


Steps on Steps

Music moves through patterns and the smallest of these is the “step,” where notes are adjacent to each other. Some musicians can hear the rule, “notes that move from line to space or space to line,” over and over and it just doesn’t get through. Others have trouble understanding that, “after G comes A and the alphabet repeats,” or really understanding what that means and then struggle finding the pattern in the score or on the instrument. All you need are your feet, some stairs, and some post it notes and you’ve got a tried and true activity.

Activity 1: Label each post-it note with a letter, A through G, followed by one more A and then hand them to a student. Have them lay them out on the stairs in ascending order. Do the same activity, starting on G descending the stairs to do steps backwards, then place the remaining A at the top of the stairs.

Activity 2: Place a starting pitch, such as C, from the stack of notes on the stairs and have them rebuild the notes ascending. You’d get C-D-E-F-G-A. Then have them place the remaining B and A beneath the starting C.

Activity 3: Lay out the post-it note steps on the stairs and have some letters in the wrong place and have the student find and fix them.

Activity 4: Work on Skips: first, place the notes on the stairs and have the student remove every other post-it note so they can find their pattern of skips. Then, repeat the activity with a given set of notes (EX: A, C, E, G) and have them stack in ascending skips. Lastly, hand them B and help them figure out that B is a skip above G.


Walking Intervals in Music

Intervals can be difficult to grasp. We reduce, repeat the rules, drill, do them topographically, but it can take a while to sink in.

Activity 1: A great activity is to “walk” the intervals of a piece where a student walks the distance (taking five steps for a fifth or three for a third…) between the notes. This is also super effective on the stairs because you can actually physically go up and down just like the pitches.

Activity 2: Using masking tape, put five lines down on the floor like a staff. Have them far apart enough for walking. Call out an interval from a starting point and have a student find where it would be. This is particularly good for recognizing descending intervals.


“Yes” or “No”

There comes a moment when you’re teaching or working with someone and you can see, “Uh oh. They’re totally mentally fried,” or, “they’re trying to think about too much at once.” Yes-or-no questions are the best for working through these moments and are particularly good when working with adult students who don’t understand why music can be difficult sometimes and they just don’t get it. Usually, they do get it, but they’re thinking about too much.

Example scenarios and questions: student has just learned to read music notation for the first time and the teacher is reviewing. Usually, we may ask the question, “how are these notes moving,” or, “what’s the rhythm like in this measure?” Student is thinking something like, “cantaloupe watermelon pickle,” and just sort of stares at you blankly. Instead, try asking, “are these notes moving by step, yes or no,” “can you see the quarter notes in this measure, yes or no,” and, actively, “can you point to the quarter notes that are moving by step?” You’ve reduced the information and physically reinforced the concept.

This works particularly well for advanced students. A student is playing a piece well, but it’s missing that final polish and, rather than talking in the all too familiar musical gobbledy gook (yes, a technical term) of, “you need to listen more,” or, “it’s just not a part of you yet and you have to work harder to internalize it,” use real questions with yes-or-no answers. “Can you identify the harmonic phrase propelling the work, yes or no,” “do you know if you are digitally/vocally aware of what you are doing all the time,” “does the work have a climax or does it decline,” followed by, “show me where that is.” Then, ask the student to play once again now that he/she is aware of these issues (or others) and usually it will become immediately apparent for the student what needs to be addressed.


Blocking Out

Looking at a new piece of music can be like looking at a map of Asgard for the first time: you know it figuratively exists and something magical is supposed to come of it (#Thor), but it’s a lot to take in at first sight. Again, the wonder of post-it notes… This is something I do consistently in my own score study to force myself to understand coordination and music making.

Activity: Take two post-it notes so only beats three and four to the down beat of the following measure are exposed between the two and stick them to the page. Play only what is between the two post it notes, then move the one on the left to expose beat two of the previous measure and play again. Move again so you are now playing from down beat to down beat. Then, move the post-its to beats one and two of the following measure (beat one of where you had been stopping). Play beats one and two and then move the post it on the left back to beat three and four so you are playing some of the last measure and some of the new measure. You keep working out this way until you’ve successfully achieved the entire passage, first by beats, then by measures, then by phrases, always moving forward and backwards to reinforce. Is it annoying? Yes, but it takes far less time to practice this way and is a way more effective use of your time.


Quarters, Candies, or Twenties

OK, maybe not twenties, but four quarters, five one-dollar bills, or pieces of candy are needed for this one. Place them on one side of the music stand or piano desk. Select a passage to play one hundred percent successfully (dynamics, rhythm, inflection, notes). Each time you play it correctly, move one of the items to the other side of the stand or piano. When you mess up even one aspect, you have to move one back to the other side. If none are on that side yet, you keep going until you get one on the “good” side. You are done practicing the passage when all four items have made it to the other side. I use candy or quarters with kids and five-dollar bills with myself (though, it’s been about three years since I actually finished the activity, since I’m usually critiquing an entire work…I’m still using the same fives from 2012). This is one I do a lot for my students before recitals to really get that polish on a work. It’s definitely not great for introducing something like the “blocking out” activity, but great for refining.


Music is an active learning pursuit. You’re asking to produce something intangible from the very tangible score and the rewards are equally as immediate as the frustrations. No matter the ability level, mixing up practicing with active learning tools can usually reinforce and, in fact, establish musical principles better than any memorization of a mantra or digesting of a drill activity. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun and I still count it as practicing.

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