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.

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.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

3. Apply it
What is the one thing you could do that would best give kids the internal drive to master music theory? Teach them the application.

When kids realize that music theory empowers them to create their own fun songs they’ll want to learn everything they can from you.

Far too often kids study the piano for years and years, but then can’t play a thing if they don’t have a piece of sheet music in front of them. What happens if they get asked to “play something” when they don’t have a piece worked up? They’re embarrassed and find themselves feeling that their lessons have failed them to some degree.

If a student really understands his instrument, he should be able to make music—even if he doesn’t have a sheet in front of him.

Music theory teaches us how music works, and if you can help your students realize that applying their theory will open a whole new world of enjoyment at the piano, they will thank you forever.

Kids can start applying their theory even as young beginners. When you introduce a new concept, ask kids to go home and create a song that uses this new principle. You’ll find that kids learn the concept faster, are thrilled to play their song for you and their confidence at the piano skyrockets.

For some fun exercises that get kids creating impressive songs using their theory knowledge, you can check out these piano improv activities. You definitely want to teach the “Snowflake Technique” to your students—it’s super easy and sounds awesome:

When your students know their theory well they’ll make faster progress in their lessons, learn new songs with less frustration and spend hours at the piano having fun creating their own music. Remember these three tips for getting kids excited about learning theory: make it fun, make it social and teach the application. Before you know it, your students will become music theory rockstars!

A huge thanks to Kristen Jensen for sharing her wonderful tips and resources with us in this series, 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

2. Make it social

Studying piano can be kind of lonely. Kids practice by themselves. Then they sit in a small room with an “old” teacher who for 30 minutes tells them everything they’re doing wrong. Then they go home and repeat.

One reason why so many kids end up choosing sports over piano is that their friends are there with them. And when friends are together, there’s laughter, camaraderie and the desire to succeed together.

There is a way to make piano a more social experience, and that is to offer group theory lessons. You could do a group theory class once a month, or maybe offer a special theory master class anytime there is a 5th Monday in a month. Maybe you could get even more creative with your scheduling. I provide a group theory class almost every week–my students love coming, have developed strong friendships and are learning a ton.

Plus some friendly competition goes a long way in motivating kids to nail down new concepts! When kids are playing a game with their friends they have much more incentive to master the principles because they want to be included in the fun and they want to do well in the game.

Here’s a favorite group activity that is as old as the hills and has a million variations, but is really effective. Knowing note names is a foundational skill that kids will build upon for virtually everything else we do in music theory, so it’s always my goal to help students learn the names of the notes on the staff as quickly as possible. We do this activity a lot! To play, place a printout of the grand staff in a page protector and give a copy to each student. Then give each student a mini marshmallow and call out a note name. All students who place their marshmallow on the correct line or space get to eat it. You’ll be able to play many rounds of this “note name drill” because your students will want more treats!

Ear training is also great in a group. Ear training is something can easily be neglected, but it makes a world of difference in students’ musicianship. When your students are just getting started, use simple ear training games like playing two notes and asking students to call out if the notes are the same pitch or two different pitches. Gradually work your way into more advanced exercises (using fun activities, of course), and before long, your students will have a well-trained ear that helps them quickly learn their favorite songs.

Come back tomorrow for Part Four in the series 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars by Kristin Jensen. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

Now that you know the three steps, let’s dive a little deeper into each one and learn some specific action steps you can take to implement these practices in your studio.

  1. Make it fun

When I was a student, learning theory meant doing written assignments out of a workbook at home. I always completed my assignments, but I usually put it off and had to race to quickly fill in my answers right before my lesson started. Theory was boring and I didn’t put a lot of thought into it.

I’ve learned that theory doesn’t have to be boring. And when we make it fun, kids eat it up!

My students who are working on key signatures have a blast with this Paper Airplane Review Game that is super simple to pull off in a group lesson. We first do a worksheet to review the key signatures, and then I give each student a blank grand staff and a plain white sheet of paper. Students write the name of a key signature on their plain paper and then fold it into a paper airplane. On the count of three everyone throws their airplane into the air and then races to catch another plane. Students then go to their grand staff and draw the sharps or flats needed to complete their key signature.

Here’s a game that my little students enjoy when they are first being introduced to the names of the piano keys. I call it Twist and Play. The student stands with her back to the piano. I call out the name of a piano key and she quickly turns around and plays the key. We’ll repeat the fun, silly twisting until we’ve reviewed all the keys, and it’s so fun to see these little ones giggling during a “drill.”

I love to issue challenges and tie those challenges in to our unit’s theme. For example, if we’re doing a cowboy theme and I have a bunch of students working on interval recognition, I might issue the “Bucking Bronco” challenge: everyone who can identify 5 intervals from our flashcards in 30 seconds *without counting lines and spaces* at next week’s lesson gets a prize.

I also like to use fun worksheets with my students. The key word there is “fun.” Kids decide whether or not they’re going to like something within milliseconds after first seeing it. So if a worksheet looks boring, kids immediately decide they won’t like the exercise.

But if a worksheet looks fun, kids will be excited to complete it. I’ve created tons and tons of fun, colorful, kid-friendly music theory worksheets and you are more than welcome to use them with your students.

Don’t forget to capitalize on kids’ excitement for the holidays! Reviewing the same old concept again can suddenly become interesting if it’s tied into a holiday theme. I have lots of printables and game ideas for Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day that you are welcome to incorporate into your lessons.

As you can see, it really isn’t all that hard to make learning music theory fun. Five minutes away from the bench during a lesson for a game or a kid-friendly worksheet can work wonders, making your students much more excited for their lessons and setting them on their way to becoming music theory rockstars.

Come back tomorrow for Part Three in the series 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars by Kristin Jensen. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.

3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars – Guest Series by Kristin Jensen

It was a special day when my first two 4 year old students aced the first grade level theory exam. Kids have proven to me time and again that they are capable of doing so much more than we realize.

Those two four year-olds really stretched my creativity as a teacher as I realized that they could go far, but needed to be taught with an approach that capitalized on their fun-loving nature. Now all my students are benefiting from this new approach and learning at an accelerated rate. I’d like to share three tips I’ve learned along the way that help kids become music theory rockstars.

  1. Make it fun

Theory really can be fun, and kids learn so much more when they’re enjoying the experience. Continue reading for ideas and games you can easily fit into your lessons.

  1. Make it social

Consider teaching theory in a group setting. Kids love learning alongside friends and a group of peers can motivate each other to excel.

  1. Apply it

Help kids understand why theory is important. The best and most fun way to accomplish this is to teach them how to create their own songs.

Now that you know the three steps, let’s dive a little deeper into each one and learn some specific action steps you can take to implement these practices in your studio…

Come back tomorrow for Part Two in the series 3 Tips to Turn Students into Music Theory Rockstars by Kristin Jensen. Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching children to create their own music. Kristin is supported by a wonderful husband and two darling boys (ages 3 and 1) who keep her on her toes, but make life lots of fun. Check out her website at EarTrainingAndImprov.com for lots of free resources and downloadable worksheets.