Student Activity Binders

Every good pedagogy student and music teacher knows that it’s important to teach more than repertoire.   There’s lots of extra “stuff” that goes into a well-balanced piano curriculum.   Stuff like theory… and sightreading… and rhythm, technique, ear training, music history, improv, composing… and the list goes on!  During the month of July, I often find that my desk is buried under piles of that “stuff” that I’m tweaking and organizing for the new school year. With those piles of curriculum comes the question… “How does ALL of this fit into 30 minutes a week???”

I hear that question often from prospective parents and students, and also from other teachers who visit this site (“How DO you find time to play all of those games?”), so thought I’d share the system I’ve found useful in my studio for maximizing lesson time.     Several years ago, I organized all of the supplemental materials I use into 3-ring binders for each student:

I’ve found that having everything together in one place saves us a LOT of time in lessons.  I don’t have to fish through my bookshelves or a student’s bag for the level of sightreading I want that day, or an ear training worksheet, etc. – it’s all in one place.  It also means that those activities go home with the student each week, and they’re able to easily find and complete assignments at home.

We keep all of their incentive program materials at the front of the binder – that’s a great motivation to make sure it gets to lessons each week.  No points tracker or money bag… no points or money for the week!

The rest of the binder is organized into 5 tabs.  The first one holds blank Lesson sheets:

The lines at the bottom match the tabs of the binder, so I can easily assign tasks to be completed at home.   I also make notes to myself in the blank space to the left of the words at the bottom – if we work on Ear Training at a lesson, I’ll mark a quick “x” or note.  That way, I can tell at a glance at the next lesson what we did the last time and rotate to different activities that week.     ( can be downloaded from my studio site).

The rest of the tabs hold activity pages.  Here are resources I use for these tabs, and where to find them:

Sightreading Challenge Packets:  I use 8 levels of packets, each with 12 exercises.  These start at the pre-reading stage, and advance to melodies with chord accompaniments.
The Friends of Free Piano Music site has some terrific short arrangements I often use for sightreading as well.

Ear Training:
Several years ago, I created 3 levels of Ear Training books with corresponding recordings that my students could use at lessons, and also at home.    Each activity is relatively short (designed to be completed in 5 minutes or less).  We use them for mid-lesson breaks from the piano.    Some students really get into the challenge of completing an entire book, and love that they can work on listening at home as well.

For beginners, I use a multi-sensory curriculum we’ve dubbed Hands-On Rhythms.  We work on rhythm patterns using a variety of movement and sensory activities at lessons, then they have a workbook page where they draw or write the patterns at home.

After students have completed that, we move on to Rhythm Challenge Packets.  Each week, we tackle a line of rhythms at lessons, or assign one for them to work on at home.   We might choose to walk the rhythm, sway and clap, or even pick a line to use in an improve.  Once we’ve worked through a whole packet, their challenge is to be able to correctly clap and count any line I choose.

I also use the rhythm worksheets from the ComposeCreate site in binders when students need more practice on a particular rhythm pattern.

Throughout the year, my students use blank Technique Sheets to write their own scale book.  The writing process is a wonderful way for them to reinforce fingerings, accidentals, etc. and also practice written theory.

You may notice that there’s no theory tab in the binders.   Rather than use a workbook, I’ve had lots of success in teaching theory almost completely through the use of manipulatives and hands-on activities.    That’s where all the games come in!   From time to time I do use worksheets to reinforce specific concepts, and can just tuck those into the front pocket of the binder.   We also use that pocket to store improv ideas, compositions-in-progress and any other special project students work on.

During a typical lesson, we usually fit in one or two activities from the binder.  We start lessons with either technique or sightreading (we rotate those on an every-other week basis), then take a break in the middle of a lesson to work on some listening, rhythm or theory (and also rotate through those through the month).  If we find as we are working through a repertoire piece that a little extra specific rhythm or theory practice would be helpful, we’ve got materials right at our fingertips!

I’m sure many of you have other great ideas for organizing curriculum and materials.  Please feel free to share with a comment below!!

Triplet Rhythm Challenge
Triplet Rhythm Challenge
Triplets & Eighths.pdf
271.3 KiB
Sixteenth Note Rhythm Challenge
Sixteenth Note Rhythm Challenge
Sixteenth Notes.pdf
295.3 KiB
Eighth Note Rhythm Challenge #2
Eighth Note Rhythm Challenge #2
Eighth Notes 2.pdf
83.5 KiB
Eighth Note Rhythm Challenge #1
Eighth Note Rhythm Challenge #1
Eighth Notes 1.pdf
65.0 KiB
Compound Meters Rhythm Challenge
Compound Meters Rhythm Challenge
Compound Meters.pdf
250.7 KiB
Sightreading, Level 1
Sightreading, Level 1
SR Level 1.pdf
279.0 KiB
Sightreading, Level 8
Sightreading, Level 8
SR Level 8.pdf
377.4 KiB
Sightreading, Level 7
Sightreading, Level 7
SR Level 7.pdf
373.2 KiB
Sightreading, Level 6
Sightreading, Level 6
SR Level 6.pdf
272.9 KiB
Sightreading, Level 5
Sightreading, Level 5
SR Level 5.pdf
273.8 KiB
Sightreading, Level 4
Sightreading, Level 4
SR Level 4.pdf
275.5 KiB
Sightreading, Level 3
Sightreading, Level 3
SR Level 3.pdf
280.1 KiB
Sightreading, Level 2
Sightreading, Level 2
SR Level 2.pdf
265.3 KiB


Student Activity Binders — 22 Comments

  1. Jen – the work you have put into this is FABULOUS! I purchased some of it last night and LOVE what you have done. I’ve been wanting to do something like this but haven’t had the time to put my new purchases of a midi and Finale to work! I was overwhelmed a bit with trying to do camps and get ready for the fall. Thank you SO much for putting together some things that I can use to improve my teaching! I so appreciate all of the hard work you put into this! Thank you for making it available to the rest of us!

  2. Jen ~

    WOW! I just now saw this post. I require my students to have a binder, but must admit that I am not very organized when it comes to giving them good reasons to open it every day. 😉

    Like that you have the binder divided into sections for the whole curriculum. I used to use a customized weekly assignment sheet which I printed each week, but it seemed every other week our printer ran out of ink or I didn’t have time to get to the copy center…. how do you manage this piece of administration? I recently switched to the little assignment books but they are not ideal (actually, they really are not good for aside aside from writing page numbers and that is not enough).

    How long did it take you to organize these (let’s say you have about 15 students in the beginner-early intermediate range)? My beginners especially go home with several little games and activities in a folder, but it doesn’t seem to work all that well (and they do tend to lose the items, if not the whole folder, LOL).

    Thanks for sharing all your wonderful ideas! ~Adrienne

    • Adrienne,

      At the beginning of the year, I estimate how many packets of each level I need (i.e. Level 1 Sightreading, Level 2 Ear Training, etc.), and send them out to the copy center to get done all at once – that way I get bulk discounts, PLUS my educator discount! I also have them run off a whole stack of lesson sheets. Everything goes into two giant 3″ binders, organized with dividers for each subject that I keep handy in the studio. I do usually have to run off some extra lesson sheets during the year. A couple of years ago, I replaced my inkjet with a remanufactured laser printer, and it gets WAY more pages to the cartridge. Before that, I was using the copy center a lot more often.

      My students keep their individual binders from year to year (I only replace them when they start to come apart; usually kids can get 2-3 years out of the same binder). At their first lesson in August, we go through and pull out any old levels that are completed and add new, plus add any materials for our incentive contest. That usually takes just a couple of minutes of that first lesson (definitely less than 5). For new students, I do prep their binder before their first lesson – again it probably takes 2-3 minutes for me to snap everything together per binder. Once the year gets rolling, I just replace anything as needed (i.e. if they finish a level of sightreading mid-year).

      I used to do a lot more with mini-games and flashcards that I sent home in binders, but ran into the same issue – there were always missing pieces by the next week! Now, we do all of that in lessons, and I assign technique, ear training, rhythm, etc. that they can do out of the printed pages of their binder at home. That’s been a lot more successful. :)

      Hope that helps!!

  3. Hi Jen,
    What you have done here is AMAZING! i downloaded it a little while ago and i am planing to add it to my lessons next year, there is a few things that i would like to add though but it wont allow me to change anything, i was just wondering if you could give me permission or something along those line to allow me to add to it.

    thankyou for all of your work and allowing me and others to download it, im very excited about next year and introducing it to my studio ~ Anthea

  4. Hi Jen. I love the Technique Tone-Ups that I downloaded a few weeks ago. I thought of a great improvisation idea to use in conjunction with the workbook. Starting in level 3 when the students are introduced to the I IV V chords, I give my students a copy of the the 12-bar blues pattern. I show my kids how to play through the pattern hands-together using just whole notes. Then they have to repeat it in 4/4 time, but change the rhythm. For example, the L.H. could pulse quarter-note chords while the R.H. plays a whole-note chord. As students become more advanced and creative there are endless possibilities. For example they could incorporate broken-chords, hand-cross arpeggios, waltz patterns, fancy 2-measure rhythm patterns, etc. I also figured, there are so many variations on the the 12-bar blues, that when they get tired of one, I can teach them a new variation. I was really impressed at how quickly students learned their chords in just a few minutes through this method. I also have a 12-bar blues accompaniment track that I plan on incorporating.

  5. You have such wonderful ideas, Jen. A couple Qs:
    -do young (age 5) kids start w/ the binder?
    -do most kids typically pass a level or so in a yr?
    -what size binder is it?
    -how did you arrive at the cost to your students?
    Thank you so much, Jen!

    • Hi Helena,

      Sorry to take a couple of days to get back to you! To answer your questions:

      1. I do use the binders with my young students, but don’t necessarily include all of the different sections right away. Every student has an assignment log, plus I usually include a Hands-On-Rhythm workbook and an Ear Training workbook with beginners. As they’re ready, we gradually add sections for sightreading, technique and any written theory we work on. I like getting families used to that assignment log from the beginning, though!!

      2. The length of time we spend on the binder segments really depends on the student, and how much work we get through in the binder each week. I’d say on average, most of my students complete a major and minor technique challenge each year, and generally each ear training level takes around a year. I usually take 18-months to 2 years to get through the entire Hands-On-Rhythm curriculum, but the shorter rhythm challenges can last anywhere from 6 months to a year. Sightreading packets usually take a little less time. How’s that for a long, vague answer? :)

      3. I use 1″ binders.

      4. When I implemented the binder system, I decided to go from charging a one-time enrollment fee (only when the student first started lessons), to a yearly fee. I use my yearly fee to cover the cost of the binder materials, the cost of venue rental and studio recital expenses, and also to cover a portion of the materials I purchase for group class (games, manipulatives, etc.). I just looked at how much those things typically cost me over the course of a year, and divided it out to a per student fee. I print most of my binder materials in bulk over the summer to stock up for the year so that I can get a volume discount on printing.

      Hope that’s helpful!!
      Jen Fink