Monday Mailbag – Students Leaping into the Unknown

I had a beginning student come to lessons and pull out her lesson book we’ve been working on, except she had jumped ahead 10 or so pages and wanted to play that piece for me.  She is still an off-the-staff-black-keys-only player, and this piece was on white keys complete with note names in the note heads, and she has no idea what any of that means!  She struggled through the first few measures for me, quite confused, so I stopped her, praised her, and told her, “We will eventually get to the rest of the song, but let’s go back and look at what I assigned you for this week!” How should I handle such situations with highly motivated students who attempt to rush things beyond their capabilities?  Praise them for jumping ahead?  Discourage them from jumping so far ahead? I’ve been debating this ever since, telling myself I should have let her finish playing the song for me, etc.

Ah, how familiar this sounds! Whether a beginning student trying to tackle white key songs or an elementary student insisting that they want to learn Fur Elise. At this very moment I have an intermediate student who is determined to learn the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, so we are plodding through it measure by measure, one hand at a time. And she is doing amazingly well.

Sometimes it’s shocking what a highly motivated student can accomplish! Conversely, sometimes it’s pathetic what a very unmotivated student can’t (or won’t) accomplish. And perhaps that’s why I always go out of my way to help the motivated ones be successful. Here are some approaches that I have found helpful in dealing with these situations:

1. Find out why the student wants to learn the piece. If they genuinely love the music and just want to be able to play it, but it’s beyond their reading abilities, sometimes I offer to teach it to them by rote. Students can often play pieces more technically and rhythmically challenging than their current reading level. Case in point is one of my guys who still hasn’t finished the level one lesson books, but is doing a fabulous job learning “Moment Musical” by Schubert. Be aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths to help them learn pieces that are exciting to play.

2. Establish specific criteria that the student must meet in order to learn the piece. For a beginning student, perhaps it would be the memorization of a set of flashcards; for the elementary student who wants to learn Fur Elise, teaching them to play arpeggios fluidly in the left hand would be a great goal before tackling the piece; for a more advanced student try setting a specific tempo at which they have to play a particular scale or scales flawlessly.

3. Insist that continued work on their “dessert” piece is contingent upon them following through with their other assignments. We all know horror stories of students who can play advanced repertoire amazingly well, but can’t count a simple rhythmic pattern or identify notes on the staff. I’m all for students trying hard things, but not at the expense of other fundamental skills that they must know in order to be well-rounded musicians.

4. Let the student work on the piece on their own and just play it for you occasionally without devoting an inordinate amount of lesson time to learn it. This is often a good approach for pop music that is better learned by ear than by strict attention to notation anyway. I encourage the student to keep listening to recordings and doing their best to learn it on their own. I’ll answer questions or help them with minimal difficulties they experience along the way, but mostly they are on their own.

5. Find additional inspiring music appropriate to the student’s level. If a student is moving ahead and trying to learn songs on their own, it may be an indication that they are bored with the current amount of assigned material. Perhaps a supplemental book at their level or even the addition of a few more pages in their lesson book would give them enough to focus on. Another possibility would be to assign them to pick out a familiar tune by ear – or determine another way to channel their enthusiasm and motivation into practical musical assignments.

6. Above all, be sensitive to the needs of each student. In the above case, if the student just on a whim that morning flipped ahead and pretended to play a song beyond her ability, it’s probably no big deal to direct her back to the lesson at hand. But if the student had been eying the song for several weeks and then devoted hours to trying to make sense of it and learn it, she would probably be devastated not to have the chance to demonstrate what she had accomplished. A balance of affirmation and wisdom is essential to discern the best response!

Anyone else have some input to share? How do you handle students who leap into the unknown when it comes to learning pieces on their own?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Hanon Makes His Internet Debut

Nowadays you can find just about everything on-line. But really, who would have thought that Charles-Louis Hanon would get his very own website dedicated to his “The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises”? Thus far, the site contains Part I – the first 20 exercises. You can transpose the exercise to any major key, download the printed music, and listen to or play along with a recording. It’s a fabulous project and maybe, just maybe, it will give me the incentive I need to actually give Hanon a try with some of my students!

A Simple and Fun Note Identification Game

Several of my students seem to need constant reinforcement with understanding the staff and identifying notes on it. And some of them are still in the phase where the “light bulb” hasn’t quite gone on yet. 🙂 So I’m always looking for different approaches to use during lessons. Here’s a simple game that I’ve been playing with various students for the past couple of weeks:

With his eyes closed, Andrew draws a scale block from the container. Whichever side he looks at first is the note that he must draw on the staff (for the younger students who haven’t learned sharps and flats yet, we just go with the natural note on the block that they select).

The student may draw the note anywhere they want in the treble of bass clef…but they can only use each line or space once! So, if they draw multiples of the same note, they have to find another place to draw it on the staff. We haven’t done this yet, but you could even have the student play the “pattern” of notes on the piano after they’ve used up the length of the staff!

Review and Giveaway of Blue and Purple by Dror Perl

To be honest, I wasn’t that thrilled about reviewing these two books because I thought they might be kind of, well…weird. They are written by a contemporary composer and are simply called, “Blue” and “Purple.” The subtitles were even more scary, “Contemporary Music with a Harmonic Twist” and “Jazz and Blues,” respectively.

I’m not much of a fan of the dissonant, atonal music that often characterizes 21st Century compositions. And I’m quite picky about what Jazz or Blues music I like. But when self-published composer Dror Perl asked if I would review them for him, I acquiesced. And I’m so glad I did! What a pleasant surprise as I sat down to run through the pieces last night and found myself actually enjoying them. 🙂 They are best suited to an intermediate student, but even a more advanced student, I think, would benefit from exploring some of the compositions.

When discussing why he wrote the books, Dror Perl says, “I wrote the music in this series for my students out of the need for music that would help teach chords and harmony, improve sight reading, and refine technique, yet still be fun and interesting for them and me. My aim was to create music that would keep my students excited about piano and that would help our lessons become richer.”

The Blue book was my favorite of the two, and I particularly liked the haunting melody of the closing piece, “The blue city.” All of the compositions provide a great opportunity for harmonic awareness and beautiful melodic voicing. It would also be a nice introduction to 20th-21st Century music for an advancing student.

The Purple book is full of mostly-fast, mostly-swing-rhythm pieces that are sure to grab the interest of those students inclined toward Jazz music (and that seems to be a large number of my students!). The compositions fall well under the fingers and make for fairly quick learning. They are the kind of pieces that are helpful to hear ahead of time, so I recommend letting students listen to samples on the website or learning them yourself so that you can demonstrate them to your students.

Now, for the great news: Dror Perl has offered to giveaway one copy of the Purple book to a Music Matters Blog reader! Just leave a comment below and I’ll use a random number generator to draw a winner next Thursday, March 3, at noon (CST). I think you and your students will have fun with these!

Monday Mailbag – Keeping a Steady Pulse

I am a piano teacher to eight students, and also a student myself. Keeping a steady pulse is one thing that I struggle with when I play, so I don’t often put enough emphasis on it when I teach. Could you share some ways that you work on it with your students so I could get some ideas?

This is a challenging issue! Some students naturally have a great sense of pulse, and some…not so much. Assuming that the issue really is a lack of pulse awareness and not a symptom of another problem (poor fingering, note-reading difficulties, etc.), there are a variety of things that you can do to help your students (and yourself!) improve in this area.

1. Learn conducting patterns and try conducting along with music as you listen to it.

2. Learn about Eurhythmics and incorporate elements of it in your teaching. Things like dancing a waltz or minuet, marching to a beat, swaying in rhythm, etc. are effective approaches for internalizing the pulse.

3. Play lots of duets and ensembles! A lot of method books also have accompaniment recordings available so that you can play pieces along with them. I have had a student using the Scales, Patterns, and Improvs book this year and we have seen huge progress in her sense of pulse!

4. Here are a few other specific activities I’ve used that have been helpful:

Honestly, this is something I should emphasize much more in my teaching, I think. Thanks for the inspiration! I’d love to hear any other ideas to help students out in this area.

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Free Music Theory Worksheets for Music Teachers

Does your spine just tingle when you find a site loaded with free music theory worksheets?! Mine sure does! Here’s an up-and-coming site that looks very promising in that spine-tingling category. 🙂

Simply titled,, the site offers “free music theory worksheets for music teachers.” I especially like how the Bass Clef Notes worksheet is designed (including key signatures and accidentals) and hope that there are more of these forthcoming!

Another Winning Group Music Game!

This game was even more popular than the Musical Terms and Symbols game I mentioned yesterday! This one is called, Who’s the Leader? Here a couple video clips and the instructions for how to play it:

Who’s the Leader?

Players stand in a circle. One player goes out of the room. A leader is appointed. The whole group starts clapping and continues until the player sent out returns and takes the center of the ring. It is his business to discover who is leading the crowd in its actions. The leader changes from clapping, for instance, to patting his head, twirling his thumbs, jumping up and down, etc. All the players do the same thing immediately. They should try to be discrete as they watch the leader so that it’s not obvious to the one guessing. It’s amazing how quickly the action goes around the circle, and how difficult it sometimes is to discover the leader. When finally discovered, the leader goes out and a new leader is selected. Play the game to music and encourage the students to listen and stay on beat with the music.

You can select any music, but here are the pieces I chose for the game. We didn’t get to all of them this time…so I guess we’ll have to play it again! 🙂

J.S. Bach: Sleeper’s Awake (

John Philip Sousa: Military Marches (–SVyKdx8u0)

Franz J. Haydn: Quartet in C Major (

Bedrich Smetana: Má Vlast Moldau (

Aaron Copland: Hoedown from Rodeo (

Klaus Badelt: The Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean (

John Williams: Summon the Heroes (

Fun Group Music Game for Knowing Your Terms and Symbols!

Last Thursday was our fourth Investment Club Meeting (a.k.a. group class) of the year. One of the new games we tried is one I dubbed, “Call-it!” The inspiration came from a really old Fun Encyclopedia that I picked up years ago at an antique shop.

Here are the instructions:

Dump a set of scrabble tiles on the floor in the middle of all the students. Turn all the tiles upside down. Go around in a circle and have each student turn over one letter. As soon as they turn over a tile, the first person to call out a musical term or symbol that begins with that letter gets to take the letter. But in order to keep the letter they have to correctly draw and/or define it. Play continues with the next person. Play for an allotted time or until all the tiles have been taken. The player with the most tiles at the end wins!

James displays the eighth note he drew after calling it for the “E” tile. There was a wide variety of musical terms and symbols and other things used – from types of notes to names of composers to instruments. Very fun! I think we’ll definitely be using this one again!

And You Thought You Were Already Following All the Great Music Bloggers…

…at least I did! 🙂 But apparently I have only scratched the surface. eCollege Finder recently selected 75 blogs to receive the Music and Arts Enthusiast Award, and I am astonished at all the wonderful-looking blogs on this list that I’ve never even heard of! Each blog listed includes a description and a short paragraph of advice from the blogger. I am excited that Music Matters Blog made the cut, but I’m really looking forward to going through the list of other blogs to catch up on what I’ve been missing. Guess I should get around on the internet a little more, huh? 🙂