Marking Rhythms (Miss It? Mark It! part 4)

Marking Rhythms (Miss It? Mark It! part 4)

This is the fourth article in a series about “marking music,” providing visual solutions to problems musicians encounter during practice. Our brains cannot remember everything. By carefully and consistently making marks in the music, musicians will learn music faster and with less frustration. This blog post will focus on how using pencil marks can aid in the learning of difficult rhythms.

Rhythms are the analytical, mathematical side of music making.

There is little grey area in interpreting rhythms. They are either right or wrong and learning them correctly from the beginning is critical.

My favorite way to mark rhythms involves drawing lines to represent the beats in a measure. I draw a short vertical line directly over the note that is to be played on the beat. The lines occur in the same place that my foot comes in contact with the floor when tapping the tempo.

rhythms visually organized - vertical lines show beats

Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy

In the above example, a have drawn vertical lines to represent where the beat falls in each measure. Notice that in the syncopations, the vertical line is drawn between the notes. When playing syncopated rhythms, it is important to feel the beat (or the foot hitting the floor) in the space between the notes. In this example, notes are played on beats 1 and 3 but not on beat 2.

Marking the beats can help with complicated rhythms. Consider this passage with a 9/8 time signature:

rhythms made easier by marking the music

from Danse de la Chèvre

This measure is made much more readable by adding in vertical marks over the large beats (dotted quarters). Visually, the organizes the measure into three distinct parts. By tapping my toe, I have kinesthetic feedback to tell me if my notes are starting on the right beat.

This is a simpler example from a student’s etude in 6/8 time:


etude in 6/8

In this example, I wrote in the numbers 1-6 for each of the eighth notes within the measure. This makes it easy to see how the notes relate. We could re-write this measure in 6/4 time with quarter notes and eighth notes to achieve the same rhythm and the same counting.

For the final example, I offer this example from the opening passage of Doppler’s “Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy.” I have added vertical lines to represent where each of the six eighth note beats occur in the measure. You will notice that there are longer lines over the two larger beats – the dotted quarter notes.

wild rhythms, organized

Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy

I am a visual and kinesthetic learner so marking my music with vertical lines to represent beats is essential. It graphically organizes the music into discreet packages that I can see and feel easily. Of course, this is not a new idea, nor is it one I created. In fact, I see these kinds of marks all the time in orchestra music used by professionals. I have developed a system that works for me. Now, go find one that works for you and use it consistently!

More ideas for marking music:


New Ideas for Marking Music (part 5 of Miss It? Mark It!)

Miss It? Mark It! part 5

A new student arrived at her lesson this week with music beautifully colored. Last week I had encouraged Madeline* to write in her music. I suggested that if she missed something twice, she should mark it. (Miss It? Mark It! part 1) We have just started talking about how to practice, and marking the music seems like a good place to start.

Because she owns this book, I told her that it was OK to use color, not just pencil. (The book, my current favorite flute method, is Flute 101: Mastering the Basics by Phyllis Avidan Louke and Patricia George.)marking music

I was delighted to see that Madeline had created her own colorful system to help her with this week’s assignment. In blue, she had highlighted the pieces in the key of F major. The pink circles indicated exercises that were easier and the orange circles indicated more difficult exercises. She told me that it was an easy way to see which exercises needed extra practice (orange.)

Madline’s lesson was well prepared and her practice was focused. I told her that I would take a picture of her colorful music and share it here, on my blog. Perhaps it will inspire others to experiment with novel ways to mark music. There are many creative solutions for marking music, some of which I have talked about elsewhere on this blog. I invite you to find systems that make your practice productive.

Marking Music… again

Update… Madeline came to her lesson this week with an even more sophisticated system of marking the music with color:


Now there are three levels of difficulty: pink, blue, and orange. Key signatures are highlighted in blue and time signatures are in orange. It goes without saying that Madeline was very well prepared for her lesson this week also. Bravo!

For more ideas about marking music, please check out my series “Miss It? Mark It!”

  • part 1 Practical Advice for Music Practice
  • part 2 How To Mark Music
  • part 3 Pencil Marks
  • part 4 Marking Rhythms

How do you like to mark your music? Do you use color? Do you have a system for showing which lines need extra work?

*names of students are changed


Game for scales- major, minor, and chromatic

Scales can be mindlessly boring… or scales can be tolerable.

(If I said playing scales was the most exciting thing in the world, you would know I was lying and you wouldn’t read another word.)

Practicing scales is a bit like taking medicine- it doesn’t taste good, but the results are worth it.

In this blog post, I’m going to give you a game that you can play with scales. In no time you will have mastered all your major and minor scales plus the chromatic scale. Maybe you will find that playing scales this way is more pleasant than drinking cherry cough syrup.

We’re going to trick your brain into thinking that scales are fun. There’s a random element in the game that takes the pressure off of you to make decisions.

What you will need: 50 blank note cards, a marker, a large rubber band or binder clip.

Step 1: Make 12 cards, one for each of the major scales. Write in bold letters in the center of a note card C Major. Repeat with the other 11 major scales, the names of which you will find on the outside (red letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below. Make sure you write the name of the scale and word “Major” with a capital letter at the beginning. It’s a music theory thing.

Step 2: Make the minor scale cards. This is the tricky part because each minor scale has three versions: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Your first three cards will be “a minor, natural,” “a minor, harmonic,” and “a minor, melodic.” Refer to the inside (green letters) of the Circle of Fifths wheel below for the other 11 names of the minor scales. Make sure you have three for each letter. Writing minor scales in all lowercase letters is also a music theory thing. When you are finished, you should have a total of 36 minor cards.

circle of fifths

Scales on the circle of fifths

Step 3: Take the remaining 2 scale cards and write CHROMATIC on them. You don’t have to write it in all caps. Be crazy and write it in all lowercase if it suits you. It’s not a music theory thing.

Now you have a stack of 50 note cards with the name of scales written on one side. You’ll want to keep them together using a large rubber band or binder clip. These pictures show the scale cards I made in 1993 with my teacher Tom Kennedy. I used these cards to learn scales for my college auditions, and I still use them today!

scales cards

50 scale cards

scale cards

scales on cards

Now that you have made your scale cards, you are ready to play the game!

You are going to create two piles of cards. One will be the “BRAVO” pile for all the scales you can play correctly the first time and the other pile will be the “deck.” Shuffle the cards and close your eyes while you pick three cards from the deck. Play the first scale. Did you play all the notes correctly with a beautiful tone and the correct fingering? If yes, place that scale card in the “BRAVO” pile. If it wasn’t perfect, place the scale card back in the deck with the others. Do the same thing with the two other scales. Your goal is to get all the cards into the “BRAVO” pile.

Tomorrow, pick three more cards from the deck, remembering that you might draw the ones you missed today. When all of the cards are in the “BRAVO” pile, re-shuffle the whole deck and work through them again. Perhaps this time you can get through the entire deck faster.

If you haven’t learned all of your major and minor scales yet, you can play this game with the ones you know. Totally confused about how to play scales? There are many good books to use for a reference. For flute, I recommend The Flute Scale Book and The Flutist’s Vade Mecum. Find a book for your instrument, or search online.

It’s best if you can play the scales from memory, but if you need to use the music for awhile, that’s OK. As you learn more scales, add them to the pile until you are using all 50.

When you’re ready for the next level of difficulty, try playing the scales with different articulation patterns (Articulation Game) and rhythms.

Scales are an important part of every musician’s technique. They are required in competitions and auditions. Learn them now; use them forever!

Happy practicing!

Woodshedding: The Articulation Game

“Woodshedding” is musician-speak for practicing, especially when working on difficult passages.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a hard section of the music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. It is NOT playing a piece at a fast tempo from the beginning to the end at the finished tempo, nor is it mindless repetition. In my years as a teacher, I have found that woodshedding in a detailed, methodical, concentrated way is a struggle for many students.

Scientists are confirming what we already know – the brain craves novelty (Pure Novelty Spurs the Brain), and isolating tricky passages and practicing them correctly is the best path to mastery (Effective Practice Skills). When we practice wrong notes, we strengthen those neural pathways and make the mistake more likely to happen again.

The first step in fixing a problem is identifying it.

As you play through a piece of music, make a pencil mark on difficult sections. The way you mark you music is up to you, but make it obvious, (For more ideas about marking music, please refer to blog articles The Pencil Problem, and Miss It? Mark It. parts 1, 2, and 3.

Once you know which parts need “woodshedding,” you’re ready to go to work. Consider these two flummoxing measures from one of the Bach Sonatas for Flute:

music passage for woodshedding

woodshedding passage

I might be tempted to play these measures over and over again in the same way at the same tempo, but there will probably still be some wrong notes and a lot of frustration. This is the worst way to woodshed.

Is woodshedding always a grueling, unpleasant task? No! You can play games to give your brain the novelty and variety it craves. You will save time and reduce frustration too!

There are many ways to woodshed. Today’s blog post will focus on one way – changing the articulations. Note: this works best for wind instruments because we use our tongues to articulate. Pianists may not find much use for this game. String players, I’d be interested to hear if this is adaptable for your instruments.

You will need two dice and the following chart:

articulation rubric

roll two dice, play the articulation given

If you roll snake eyes (2), play the passage all tongued. If you roll 3, play slurring by two. If you roll 9, play the first note articulated and slur by 2 thereafter. And so forth. I’m not the first teacher to come up with the idea of changing the articulation to strengthen facility (many thanks to my teachers Tom Kennedy and Katherine Borst-Jones for showing me how to do this.) However, I hope you will find that it’s useful to see all of the articulations presented in the table above with the game suggestion. This presentation is my own creation.

Of course, you should do this exercise at a manageable tempo. The tempo should be quick enough to provide challenge, but there should be very few (if any) wrong notes.

This game is magical for learning scales too. (Also, see my blog post on The Game for Scales for another idea.)

Teachers, my students enjoy playing this game in their lessons. I have my students roll the dice when quizzing them on scales, but it is also useful when checking lesson assignments. Many exercises (thirds, chromatic scales, short etudes) are easily adaptable. Playing the Articulation Game will help students learn different slur patterns and will deepen their mastery of the assignments. Another helpful activity is the Rhythm Spinner Game that uses different rhythm patterns for woodshedding.

Keep this tool in your woodshedding arsenal. Changing the articulations is one effective way to improve technique on difficult passages, but there are other ways too. Future blog posts on woodshedding will share ideas about how to use the metronome for woodshedding.

Happy practicing!

Rhythm Silliness

Every lesson I teach is an adventure.

I never know exactly what to expect when a student walks through the door. Flexibility and creativity are my best friends on lesson days.

This week, I had an especially entertaining lesson with Nicolette* (not her real name, of course.) We both enjoyed being silly and stretching our creative muscles. Moreover, Nicolette learned how to play some difficult rhythms. I think she will remember this lesson for years.

As I’ve discussed in other blog posts about practice hacks, the brain loves novelty. According to the article “Learning by Surprise” in Scientific American (,

“Psychologists have known for some time that if we experience a novel situation within a familiar context, we will more easily store this event in memory.”

My band director taught me to count sixteenth notes as 1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, etc. Do you remember this from school? Growing up, I struggled to remember the order of the meaningless syllables, but that’s the only way we were taught to count. Much later, in music school at Ohio State, someone suggested using words for rhythm. It was a euphoric moment for me.

YES! Something memorable and playful! Silly rhythm words!

Sixteenth notes on the page became words like “Peanut butter” or “Mississippi.”

Entire silly sentences can be made up for hard rhythms. Take this one, for example:

hard rhythm

grasshopper, melted chocolate salamander

The example above is from music that my adult recorder ensemble is rehearsing. Some of the players were having trouble counting it, but the problem was fixed as soon as I sang “Grasshopper, melted chocolate salamander.” It’s much harder to forget goofy things.

Back to the flute lesson this week with 9 year old Nicolette. Her assignment this week includes playing a variety of sixteenth-note rhythms. She is a Star Wars fan, and we brainstormed new rhythm words. Four sixteenth notes became our favorite little driod R2D2:

16th notes

R 2 D 2

The rhythm one eighth note and two sixteenths (counted 1 and-a in band) is now Darth Vader or Skywalker:

eighth two sixteenths

Darth Vader

The tricky pattern of two sixteenths followed by an eighth note (counted 1-e-and in band) is now Anakin:

star wars rhythms


We can’t forget the easier rhythms like two eighth notes. They have two names- Yoda or Ewok- because Nicolette and I couldn’t decide which one was better:

two eighth notes

Yoda or Ewok

A single quarter note, we decided, would be “Luke.”

And for a grand finale, two sets of triplets would be the worst bad guy of all “Emperor Palpatine.”


Emperor Palpatine

Can you imagine R2D2, Yoda, Darth Vader and Anakin marching across your music in time to the beat?

Use these if they make you smile. Or make up your own. Remember, the sillier the better!

Update: 6 weeks later, Nicolette and I are still using Star Wars words for rhythms. I’ve started using them with other students too.

Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective

Far more time is spent in the practice room than the performance hall.

I have been teaching private music lessons since 1995. One of my primary goals as a teacher is to motivate my students to practice.

In a previous blog post (Parenting and Practicing), I explored practice motivation from the perspective of a parent of young musicians. Another post explores motivation from my personal perspective as a student (Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.) In this post, I approach the same subject and share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned in 20 years as a teacher.

Flute Recital 2012 participants, motivation

flute studio 2012, motivation

Students of all ages like to hear praise.

Giving a student ample performance opportunities is a good way to create opportunities for praise (see my blog post Parenting and Practicing), but there are other ways too. In these days of cell phones, it’s easy to make a video of a home performance and leverage social media for feedback. Upload the video to FaceBook or YouTube. If you make the video private on youtube, sharing it with only friends and family, you can limit the negativity that can come from sharing with the entire world. The very act of making the video can be motivational because of the expected praise. Further, making a video creates a goal (see below) and heightens the practice by encouraging the musician to listen differently. I recently recorded my son performing with his friend at church and uploaded it as a private video on YouTube. The response from friends, family, and their teachers has been overwhelmingly positive.

Think about it: are you more likely to work hard for a boss that is consistently negative about your performance or one that gives you credit for your strengths while sometimes offering helpful suggestions?

I believe it was Kathy Jones at Ohio State University who taught me the value of PCP feedback. (Positive, Constructive, Positive!) In studio class, we were encouraged to give each other feedback by offering two positive observations tucked around a constructive suggestion. Parents, you can do this when you listen to your child practice at home. Overly critical students can benefit from remembering PCP when evaluating themselves.

Caitlin*, mother of five young musicians, shared with me that she asks the children to practice for her, one at a time. Although Caitlin isn’t a musician herself and perhaps can’t hear every error, the kids enjoy their special time with Mom. When my kids practice for me, I like to applaud when they finish a long piece. Hearing my enthusiastic clapping helps them know that I’m listening and that I appreciate their efforts.

Setting goals can be motivational.

Jim* is an adult student in my flute studio. He has recently been keeping a practice journal. In it he lists long term and short term goals. It only takes a minute at the beginning of each practice session to answer the question “What do I need to accomplish with my practicing today?” At the end of each practice session, it’s helpful to review your goals and set new ones for the next practice session. I like to add my goals to the “to do” list I keep on my phone. Checking them off gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Goals can be simple and have a short time frame, such as wanting to work on a new scale or practice for 30 minutes without distraction. Or goals can be long-term, like presenting a full recital. It’s helpful to have some goals that can be easily accomplished and some that will take a year or more to complete.

Anything new or fun can break the tedium of practicing.

Buy some new music. It doesn’t have to be classical etudes. Maybe playing the music from “Frozen” is the kick in the pants you or your child needs. For my daughter’s birthday I bought her a book of pop tunes and Star Wars, both with play-along CDs. It’s not Bach, but I guarantee she will practice more this week.

I’m a flute teacher so I like for new music to play everyday. In the comments, please share resources for other instruments.

Read through my blog for some creative ideas for practicing to get unstuck on a difficult passage. Ones you may enjoy include Upside DownMiss It? Mark It! and Rhythm Game

Private lessons can be motivating.

Knowing that a teacher is going to listen to the assignments every week will keep kids and adults on track, as long that teacher is a good match for the student. If you or your child do not look forward to lessons with the teacher most of the time, find a new teacher. Lessons serve as weekly goals and a good teacher will give the right amount of work at the right level so practicing continues to move the player forward. If lessons don’t fit your budget or schedule, seek out other ways to enrich the music practice, such as online forums and music websites. If you are unable to find a teacher within a reasonable distance, investigate lessons via Skype.

Keep it in perspective.

Remember that progress on a musical instrument can be slow and non-linear. Parents, private teachers, and family members (spouses of adult students) can help by providing prospective. Saying things like “Your tone is really improving” or “Last week, that part was hard for you but now it sounds easy.” are encouraging. Ask the musician to play something they practiced six months or a year ago. It can be a shot of confidence to an otherwise bruised ego.

Happy practicing!

Practicing Upside Down

Our brains crave novelty. Literally turning things upside down can give us the new perspective we need.

Feel stuck in your practice? Are your kids complaining the music is “too easy” or are the making silly mistakes?

Turn the music upside down like this:

upside down music

upside down

Then try to play it as usual with the right notes and rhythms. The brain now has to work to flip the staves and the eyes will be reading right to left, down to up.

Another variation is to turn the music on its side like this:

Mozart on its side

music on its side

This idea might sound crazy and though it requires a bit more attention, it’s not as difficult as it seems. I figured out this little trick on my own when I was in middle school band. I was bored by the easy music but found that turning the book upside down created more of a challenge.

In the book A Soprano on Her Head, Eliose Ristad talks about singing while hanging upside down. My yoga teacher says that the inverted poses give us a new way to look at the world.

We can’t keep doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result. (Einstein supposedly gave this as the definition of insanity.) It’s true in life and in practicing.

Try this crazy experiment: give your music a flip and let me know if it turned your practicing upside down.

Practice Hacks: The Pencil Problem

The pencil monster struck again.

I was listening to my 8 year-old daughter while she was practicing. She was playing the flute in her room and I stepped in to help her by circling some notes in the method book. “Where is your pencil?” I asked. She wasn’t sure but maybe she used it to complete her reading log and maybe it was on the floor… or under the bed… or maybe her brother took it… or maybe the cat was playing with it…. Five minutes later, we still couldn’t find the pencil, so I went looking in the office (only pens here), then traipsing downstairs to grab one from the music studio. By the time I retuned, pencil in hand, she had wandered off to play with Legos and I couldn’t remember which note I wanted to circle anyway.

Sound familiar?

It’s important to keep everything you need for practicing within an arm’s reach.

I have a shelf that clips to the music stand:


music stand shelf

My next purchase is going to be a caddy that attaches to the stand like this:

music stand caddy


Or you might have a Gummi Bears (TM) plastic cup filled with mechanical pencils and other writing utensils on the table next to your music stand.


pencil cup


Practicing is hard work. Sometimes something as simple as a missing pencil can seem overwhelming. Conveniences like having what you need where and when you need it can be the difference between wasted time and progress.

My daughter now has a shelf on her stand and five mechanical pencils. It won’t solve all of her practicing problems, but maybe she will circle the next A-sharp she misses.