KMTA Conference – Beyond Scales and Hanon by Elizabeth M. Grace

Having previously suffered from an injury, Beth now presents workshops and works with many students to develop proper technique skills. I have previously been to several of her workshops and had students take a masterclass with her, so I know how incredibly helpful the principles are that she shares. They have greatly impacted my own teaching!

Be more vigilant than not. It’s easier to correct the hand shape of an unconscious 6-year old than a 16-year old who wants to play a Tchaikovsky concerto.

Beth began with a discussion of the importance of alignment. The third finger should be aligned with the forearm. She uses a piece of twine to place on the third finger and give a visual illustration of how the proper alignment should look. Our fingers are all differing lengths, so we have to be attentive to the alignment of the whole arm behind the fingers. Beth referenced this book: Basic Alignment and Rotation by Mary Moran – available at

Gravity is your best friend. Beth had us practice by holding up our arms and saying, “oh, I’m so tired,” while dropping our arm onto a solid surface. This is how we should play the piano! Arm drops into single notes help students work on this concept.

Next was a discussion of blocked intervals and proper alignment and technique. What to Observe When Students Play Blocked Intervals:

  • Is the weight falling down into the keys, rather than shooting up?
  • Is the bridge tilted?
  • Are the hand joints and wrist holding? Is the pinky collapsed?
  • Is the thumb low?
  • Are the middle fingers grabbing and pulling back?
  • Is the wrist twisted?
  • Is the balance of weight falling toward the body (fingers will look flatter) rather than falling toward the piano?

Beth encouraged all of the teachers to just try these different techniques and see if it feels better. Often when she is working with young students, after helping them correct a poor technique the student will comment, “That feels good!” To segue into the topic of extended hand position, Beth showed how she will take a students hand and open it for them to illustrate the concept that the hand naturally opens when necessary. When moving from smaller to larger intervals, students have a tendency to twist in order to reach the keys. Instead, they should move into the keys to keep a proper alignment.

Train students from a young age to be aware of how their body feels when they play. Help them aim toward a good, natural feeling in their playing.

Be suspicious of fingering. Fingering is very individualized.

Beth states, “I don’t believe in entering a key with tension and releasing it later. I believe in entering without any tension, so you don’t have to take that extra step.”

Facilitating Movement Between Intervals/Chords:

  • Rotation
  • Move to the next nearest note – shortens the distance
  • Practice moving 1 hand before the other: Increases accuracy and decreases anxiety!
  • Hand redistribution: Aids in voicing, avoids stretching, gives greater comfort and accuracy
  • Group chords
  • Shape chords
  • Chord Playing Checklist

When playing chord inversions, Beth has her students say, “5 rotates to 2; 5 rotates to 3, etc.” In pieces, help students identify the nearest note following the one they are currently playing so that they see the specific distance of the note changes. Group chord changes into position changes so that you can rotate accordingly.

These techniques can be applied to any piece of repertoire and incorporated into any method series. One of the key things that I’ve learned from Beth is that I need to be aware of these technique principles and constantly watching for them as my students play so that I can help them achieve excellent and beautiful playing. If I know what I’m looking for, then I can effortlessly incorporate it into each lesson as we work on technical skills and repertoire.

As you can see from this picture, the room was packed! I think it’s safe to say that we will all go back to our teaching better equipped to help our students develop into fine pianists. 🙂

KMTA Conference – Stages of Talent Development by Randall Faber

This morning is off to a great start with Randall Faber presenting a session on “Stages of Talent Development.” The presentation is accompanied by an 18-page handout that I’m excited to read through after the conference.

Dr. Faber began by positing that we can’t assume that a student is engaged in the lesson or what we’re teaching just because we are engaged in it. He also reminded us that piano will shift in importance in the students’ lives. It is competing with other activities. We can’t be so egocentric as to think that it will be the most important thing in every student’s life just because it is such a big part of our life.

Although every student has different needs and motivations and must be taught as an individual, there are specific aspects of a child’s development that are instructive for us, as teachers.

Research reveals the following elements of a young person’s development:

Ages 4-6 – Elementary=fun. If they have a good time, they want to come back. (See yesterday’s session, “Fostering a Love of Music,” for additional insights.)

Ages 7-13 – Reinforcement | Self-Esteem | Competence – More in touch with the real world and higher level of self-awareness. When a student feels confident in his skill, he will receive more positive reinforcement, which will motivate him to practice more, resulting in greater progress. At this age, the student is looking to have this need filled. He is looking for an area in which he can “shine.”

Ages 13-20 – Competence | Identity | Passion – A perception of personal competence is still a key factor. An identity begins to form around a young person’s areas of skill. This drives the attention away from other pursuits and focuses on a particular area. This leads to passion and a greater investment of time. Those who don’t have a clear sense of identity are pulled by peer influence to grasp for identity within peer groups and activities. When an identity is built around a skill, the student understands and is willing to invest the hard work that it takes to achieve a higher level of skill.

Dr. Faber shared several case studies/stories to corroborate his points and illustrate the practical application of these developmental stages. Lots of interesting food for thought!

KMTA Conference – Preparing Student Winners by Jack Winerock

This was a very interesting session, with lots of interaction and thoughts shared by various teachers. Here are a few random nuggets of wisdom that I picked up:

Outline very clear expectations for students so that if they elect to enter a competition, they know what they are getting into. The student should be willing to take ownership of preparing and competing.

Enter competitions that the student actually has a chance of winning. Prepare them accordingly.

Capitalize on the students’ strengths. What do they do best? We have a responsibility to teach everything, but should know our students. The teacher should ultimately assume the responsibility of selecting the repertoire. The judge has to be impressed while the student is playing. Keep in mind that they are also looking for reasons to eliminate students. As one teacher in the room stated, “Anything played well is a show-stopper.”

Have a grasp of the big picture in order to determine and organize an appropriate practice regimen.

It’s not all about winning or losing, but about preparing to the highest level.

When doing practice performances, be sure to keep the most important performance as the ultimate focus. If they are doing 10 practice performances before the competition, make sure you don’t treat the sixth one as the biggest event.

When practicing, ask, “What are the three measures about which I feel most insecure?”

On the day of competition, practice as little as possible. Above all, you don’t want the student to feel tired or spent when they compete.

If any of you have other little nuggets of wisdom you’d like to add that relate to preparing students for competitions, I’d love to hear them! I’ve never been that much into competitions, but I have a few students who are interested in pursing that avenue, so I’m eager to prepare them well. One thing that I’m learning is to take competing more seriously. It is a valid endeavor for some students, so if they are going to pursue it, I need to do my part – as their teacher – to prepare them for a positive experience.

KMTA Conference – Piano Innovations in the Computer Age by Nathanael May

A collection of quotes, historical tidbits, musical excerpts, and personal insights comprised this workshop by Nathanel May that explored the evolution of the piano in light of advancing technology, especially from 1980-2000.

Nathanael said that notes and recordings will be available on his website, so check it out if you want a glimpse into this session! Also, here’s a direct link to the page with references and resources from the workshop.

KMTA Conference – Fostering a Love of Music by Nancy and Randall Faber

Our first session of the KMTA Conference is coming to a close, and I thought I would share my notes with you. It was a truly inspiring start to what promises to be a great weekend!

Love of MUSIC
Love of PIANO

3 Aspects of Fostering a Love of Music, especially for young children (3-4 year olds):

Tone of the Lesson

Spirit of interaction between teacher and student. Expressed in voice inflections, facial expressions, gestures, etc. Should be spontaneous, interactive, playful.

Spirit of Play – Most effective way to establish the tone of the lesson is through a spirit of play. Randy’s earliest memories of piano lessons were anything but play. It felt like going to an old castle and taking lessons from a lady who seemed at least 100 years old. 🙂

Recognize the motive of the child. If their world is one of play, then we should integrate that motivation and atmosphere into the lessons.

Curiosity – Tap into your own childhood curiosity.

Involvement – Two-way interaction is essential. Lessons should not be all instructive/directive. When emotions are engaged, the experience becomes memorable. Sitting in a chair at the end of the piano as a passive observer doesn’t effectively reach a young student.

Purposeful – Infused with meaning and purpose.

Choice of Repertoire

If the student loves the music they are playing, they are loving their piano lessons. Disinterest in the music translates into disinterest in piano as a whole. Be alert to the styles that students latch onto. We all have to deal with myriad activities in which our students are involved. Gradation of material is essential! We don’t want them to be overwhelmed and frustrated. Additionally, we must be skillfully prepared to teach the material.

Developing Competence

Build skills in rhythm, listening, singing and pitch, visual discernment, kinesthetic awareness of fingers and arms. An overall love of music is developed as students acquire essential skills to succeed at the piano. Use this acronym to know what components to include in lessons with young children:



V=Visual Skill

P=Physical Skill

Rhythm is purposefully first, because rhythmic emphasis encourages singing. We watched a video clip of an activity called, “Bounce the Kitty.” A group of three students sat in a group with Nancy and bounced stuffed kitty cats in rhythm. There were bursts of a steady beat followed by moments of relaxation. Next was a video clip of students sitting around a large drum and beating while singing a fun tune. Dynamics were also incorporated into the singing and volume of the beating.

The next video clip was of a very young student who watched and listened while Nancy tapped a picture and said words in rhythm. The student then imitated. Creative repetition is an effective way of reinforcing concepts with a spirit of play. This also assists in the ability to transfer concepts from one application to another. After the student was familiar with the rhythmic phrases, he was allowed to lead the activity. These activities serve to heighten the musical awareness of the student.

Singing usually comes in combination with rhythm. Children at young ages learn through song. Look for ways to personalize the experience. This brings deeper meaning for the student. A creative repetition of a singing game involved passing a ball in rhythm around a circle of students. Even though the student didn’t get the correct rhythm immediately, correction was unnecessary because he just needed experience. For young children, the learning is in the doing, not the talking. Next was a video clip of a young student using a stuffed kitty cat and moving it up in steps while singing the “Hello From Many Lands” – great preparation for understanding tonic and dominant. This was further reinforced on the staff and keyboard, also while singing.

Visual Skills can be developed at a young age to help avoid “the reading complication.” Instead, we want to aim for “reading simplicity.” The student must become intimately familiar with the staff. They must first understand the staff as a framework of lines and spaces. An activity portrayed was having the students drive toy cars on the lines and/or spaces according to the directive they were given. The next step is to place objects on the lines and spaces, then they should learn to count lines and spaces. This was accomplished by asking students to place sea creatures on a specified numbered line or space. They can also proceed to count stepwise, including both lines and spaces. This builds an early awareness of intervals. Students were then asked to identify whose creature was higher. This same activity is then transferred to a smaller staff on a page (previous staff activities were performed on a large floor staff). The next activity involved Nancy placing two moveable discs on specific lines or spaces and then taking them away and asking the student to put them back on the same spots.

Physical Skills are often defined as scales, chords, etc. Perhaps a better way of defining it is physical motions and gestures required to play a beautiful sound. Preparation for this begins at the earliest lesson. Piano hands don’t grow automatically. They are formed with specific activities. A song called, “The I’m Great Pose” is used to help students understand the proper way to sit at the piano. A little elephant is placed on top of the head while counting aloud to 20 to encourage sitting up straight. The next activity involved placing pumpkins on the 3-black key groups (growing a pumpkin patch on the piano). Nancy then demonstrated 2 black birds going “cheep-cheep” on the groups of two black keys and then flying with a beautiful arc over the pumpkin to the next 2-black key group. Again, a playful tone during the lesson invites creative repetition.

The Fabers then showed video clips of the students whom we formerly saw as preschoolers, now as older students playing more advanced pieces. A video of four students playing in a chamber music festival reinforces that a love of music transcends piano lessons into broader musical experiences.