Want Students to Advance More Quickly and Have a More Solid Foundation?

Growing up my Dad always told me that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That truism has served me well, but there are always a few exceptions. And this is one of them. It’s been a while since I first wrote about my foray into Piano Safari (ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote about much of anything!), but I love this method even more now than when I began using it!

Piano Safari Repertoire

I believe it is accomplishing exactly what its creators (Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher) intended – a solid foundation in the fundamentals of reading music notation while simultaneously developing fluency at the piano, thus enabling students to experience more musically interesting pieces sooner and advance to more challenging repertoire more quickly. All of my students who began with Level 1 have now moved into Level 2, and are doing a fabulous job!

Piano Safari Repertoire


Here’s a snapshot of Stephanie playing Flamingo Dancers. The crazy thing is that even though it is intended to be a rote learning piece, she was so anxious to learn it that she read the notes and figured it out on her own!

 Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards

The note reading skills are a combination of the NoteStars Challenge that I began with all my students in January and the fabulous Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards that are a part of the Piano Safari method.

Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards

The cards are very well sequenced and can be used in so many different ways to help students achieve mastery at reading music! (I’ve begun a Rhythm Masters Challenge that utilizes all three levels of the Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards that I’m hoping to write about soon!)

Piano Safari Technique Book

The accompanying Technique book is likewise a treasure trove of effective teaching exercises that are simple enough for the students to read and learn, enabling them to gain the technical skills necessary to play them well. Each one includes checkboxes to encourage transposition, and most of my students have no trouble easily switching from key to key (more than I can say for myself at their age!).

Piano Safari is not a magic pill that will make all of your students amazing pianists, but if you take the time to fully understand, appreciate, and implement this method (I definitely recommend watching the videos on the website, going through the Teacher Guides, and reading the Mini Essays!), I think you’ll be amazed at what your students are capable of at a young age. Not to mention how much they (and you!) will enjoy the process because of the musically rich pieces and experiences you will have along the way!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of Piano Safari Level 2 for review purposes, but received no other compensation. The views expressed above are my own.

Playground Sessions

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Created by world-class musicians and instructors, Playground Sessions offers a 21st century approach to learning to play the piano and has received notoriety from celebrities, music cooperations, and people around the globe.

The drive behind Playground Sessions is to learn to play the piano by playing. So, the interactive software was designed with three specific components in mind to make learning to play as fun and enjoyable as possible. In David Sides’ (Playground’s co-creator & video teacher) own words during a TV interview, he said, “the idea behind it [Playground Sessions] is to combine gaming elements, social features, and popular songs…to teach them how to play…” With these three things, as well as the interactive aspect and the ability to learn right from the comfort of your own living room, I believe this product hit right on the money with all the 21st century pianist wannabes out there.

I haven’t tried Playground Sessions myself, but I think it’s a fantastic resource especially for those who don’t have access to a good piano teacher, or are interested in a more self-taught method, or are needing motivation in a music class! :) However, after personally having such a great experience with a “real” piano teacher, I believe the value of having a good teacher beside you during a lesson can’t be replaced by software. Overall, I just don’t think a software program will ever be able to outdo a good teacher’s ability to help you not only learn to play an instrument but also become a well-rounded musician, which I think can be vitally important in learning an instrument. But even with all of that said, I still think Playground Sessions is a wonderful invention and it’s certainly time period appropriate!

Get a better idea of how Playground Sessions works by watching this:

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“Music is an incredible thing. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it, and you can’t taste it, but you sure can feel it. Melody is the voice of God.”

– Quincy Jones
The all-time most nominated Grammy artist & co-creator of Playground Sessions

Creativity on Heart and Soul

Have you ever had a student come into their lesson thrilled to show you the new song that their friend just taught them? Only to discover that it’s at the top of every piano teacher’s list of Most Disliked Songs? You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you? Yup. Heart and Soul. But, as much as you might want to plug your ears and scream the next time you hear it, the reality is that students love playing it! Plus, it can serve as the perfect tool for learning to improvise freely using the chord progression in it. In this video Claire demonstrates the Heart and Soul remix she came up with just for fun:

New Sample Pages Added to the Store!

Many of you have requested the ability to see sample pages of the piano Practice Incentive Theme Packages and the Piano Camp Lesson Plans, so I’m excited to report that you can now view samples of every product available in the Music Matters Blog Store! I know many of you are busy getting ready for summer piano camps, and a few overachieving teachers are even planning ahead for next year’s practice incentive theme (I am not one of those!), so as a special thank you for your patience I am offering a special $5 off coupon for any item in the store in honor of the completion of this project! Just enter the following code when you checkout to have the discount applied to your cart: Sample

Also, be sure to check out what other teachers have to say about using these games, piano camps, and practice incentives on the Testimonials page.

I am just beginning to consider piano camp plans for this summer, so if you have any favorite ideas or resources, feel free to share them! For those thinking about offering a piano camp for the first time this year, here are several blog posts to help you get started:

Piano Camp Logistics – http://musicmattersblog.com/2010/06/28/monday-mailbag-piano-camp-logistics/

Planning Piano Camps – http://musicmattersblog.com/2011/04/11/monday-mailbag-planning-piano-camps/

More About Planning Piano Camps – http://musicmattersblog.com/2009/05/18/monday-mailbag-more-about-planning-piano-camps/

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Piano Technique – A Guest Post by Doug Hanvey

A Word from Natalie: Perhaps the most impactful thing I have learned in my years of playing and teaching piano is the importance of understanding and properly using the body to achieve artistic playing with the greatest ease. The three greatest catalysts of this in my own education were: my teacher and mentor, Sylvia Coats, attending a one-week Suzuki teacher training led by Doris Koppelman, and the fabulous workshops of Beth Grace on Beyond Scales and Hanon. I have experienced first-hand the immeasurable value of using proper technique when playing piano, and I have seen students (both my own, transfer students, and students I have taught in masterclass settings) suddenly accomplish musically or technically what they didn’t think was possible when I help them understand the basic principles of Gravity, Strength, and Conduction. So I am excited to host Doug Hanvey as a guest today because he touches on some of these issues that have been “game-changing” for me. I hope his points pique your interest and propel you to either begin or continue your journey to understanding the amazing design of the human body and how it can be maximally employed by you and your students to become excellent pianists!


1. Anatomy Is the Foundation of Technique

Seems like anatomy should be part of piano pedagogy, but did your musical mentors teach you much about it? Maybe you think of your body like a car – as long as it’s running, and a mechanic is only a phone call away, there’s no pressing need to understand how it works. While we “use” the body to play piano like we use a car to drive over to Aunt Edna’s, the body is not the same as a car. You are in command of your body’s movements to an infinitely greater degree than the mostly automated, mechanical motions of a car. And these movements are infinitely more complex than a car’s will ever be. A correct and thorough understanding of how your body works to play piano can only be to your advantage.

2. Your Body Does Not Control How You Play

Every piano player has a “body map,” an internal representation of the body that is used to determine how you move to play. Strictly speaking, it is your body map, not your body, that determines your movements. Unfortunately, a body map may be inaccurate or even outdated. But just as the explorers who followed Columbus made ever more accurate maps of the New World, we can make a more accurate body map based on our understanding of anatomy suffused with an inclusive awareness of the body.

3. Concentration Can Impede Healthy Technique

The concentration demanded of pianists can contribute to unhealthy technique. Concentration is one-pointed attention. When we are concentrated – for example, on the music in front of us – we may be less than fully aware (or not aware at all) of our body, breathing, and movements. This doesn’t mean you should stop concentrating, but consider the value of bringing more awareness of the body and its movements into each moment of playing.

4. You Should “Map” the Whole Body

You should understand, feel, and “map” your whole body, not just the arms and hands. For example, the arms and hands aren’t separate from the spine, which bears so much of the body’s weight and is directly relevant to technique. (Interestingly, it is the front part of the spine, closest to the center of the body, that is the weight-bearing part, not the bony structure running down the back that we usually think of as the spine.) By becoming aware of the support provided by the spine we can enhance the efficient movement of the arms and hands.

5. Balance Is More Important Than Posture

If you feel like it takes a lot of effort to sit up straight, you may not be in balance. When you are balanced your skeleton supports your posture with minimal effort required. If you are out of balance, you are probably using muscular effort to maintain your posture, which can lead to chronic tension and contaminate efficient movement in other parts of the body.

6. Resolving Neck Tension Is Vital

Most people these days carry unnecessary neck tension. (As I type this I’m well aware that I’m one of them.) Neck tension can be particularly detrimental for pianists. It can hinder arm movement and even inhibit healthy nerve impulses to the arms. A relaxed neck helps us play with a freer motion and supports optimal balance (see above). If you carry habitual neck tension, do what you can to resolve it so it doesn’t affect your playing in the long term.

7. Bench Height Is More Important Than You Thought

An optimal bench height keeps your elbows on about the same level as the tops of the white keys, giving you the best mechanical advantage for playing. Many, if not most, benches are too low for most people.

8. Your Fingers are Not Attached to Your Hands

If I asked you where your fingers begin, you would probably point to your knuckles. But the fingers are actually attached to the wrist! Try moving your fingers right now and see if you can feel this for yourself. (This is an example of what is involved in developing an accurate body map.)

To learn more about anatomy and body mapping, check out Thomas Mark’s What Every Pianist Needs To Know About the Body. Mark’s book contains valuable information for piano teachers, pianists who want to develop the best possible technique, pianists who have been injured, and pianists who want to avoid injury – meaning just about everyone that plays the piano.


Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, OR. He writes educational articles for piano students and piano teachers on his studio website’s blog, which can be found at the above link.

Giveaway Winners

Congrats to Kathy, Loraine, and Josette, who won a copy of James Michael Stevens’ Relaxing & Romantic Piano Vol. II!

I was made aware a few days ago that Mr. Stevens’ home recently caught fire by accident while someone was cooking. Although there was substantial damage done, his home can be repaired. However, because he does his music work out of his home, he currently can’t access his equipment and is unable to compose right now-and he’s in the middle of working on something.

Praise God Mr Stevens’ home was not completely destroyed and that no one was hurt! Please keep him in your prayers!

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
~James 1:2-4~

Review and Giveaway of Relaxing & Romantic Piano Vol. II

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I really enjoy when I get to review piano music because it means I have to sit down and play the piano, which I love to do! Yes, my piano is in the room directly across from where I do a lot of my work, but for some reason, I rarely make it to the bench, so it’s always nice having something I “have” to play.

So thanks to Mr. James Stevens, I was able to dust off some neglected piano keys and try out his Relaxing & Romantic Piano Vol. II music. :) His first volume has been one of Sheet Music Plus’ best sellers.

Relaxing & Romantic Piano, Vol. II contains 27 original songs that are all a nice length of 3-4 pages. For some reason (I have no idea why!), I was anticipating to play some fun, melodically exciting numbers, but about halfway through I noticed all the songs sounded like what I would hear in a little boutique or at a wedding. And then I looked at the title again and said to myself, “Oh…they’re relaxing & romantic for a reason.” Can you tell I just catch on to things so fast?!

If you’re looking for some relaxing & romantic background music, Mr. Stevens’ collection seems like it would help fill that need very nicely, but don’t expect riveting and thrilling music-not that anyone in their right mind would ever do that! 😉 I think it’s worth mentioning, though, that within each song, it seemed a bit repetitive. I believe it’s more this style, but as I played through the music, the songs seemed to lack strong melodic structure and were more built on chord patterns. This isn’t always bad, but it’s just not a type of music I typically gravitate toward playing-even for background music-because I feel like I end up performing the same song multiple times. I just really like variety in my music! But that’s just my preference.

If you want to get a feel for what the songs from this collection sound like just keep moving down the screen! :) Mr. Stevens also has a website you can check out that has links to his other music (sheet music, pandora station, free improvisation resources, etc): jamesmstevens.com

Don’t forget there’s a giveaway! 3 lucky winners will receive a digital copy of Relaxing & Romantic Piano Vol. II. Just let me know you want to be entered in the comments.

Note Categories – A Music Note Identification Game

After getting a good start on our NoteStars challenge, I also assigned every student the Note Categories game.


This game is very simple, but definitely challenging for students. I use one of each letter name scale block and time the student as they go through the set of student music note flashcards, placing each one below the corresponding scale block.


Like the NoteStars challenge, I started by timing the students according to each level, but they all quickly moved into using the whole deck of cards. Unlike NoteStars, students only have to identify the name of the note, so that adds a nice variety while still building an essential understanding of the music staff.