September Surprise Group Piano Class – by Candlelight!

The September Surprise! has become a much-anticipated tradition in our studio, but I think I can safely say that this year’s will go down in history as one of the most memorable. The students and their families arrived in the midst of an intense thunderstorm, and near the end of one of the performances a transformer blew and we concluded the evening by candlelight!

My objectives for the evening were: have fun, get to know one another better, play music for each other, and introduce this year’s practice incentive theme.

The evening began with a simple ice-breaker game. I gave each person a slip of paper and had them write one interesting (and not obvious!) thing about themselves. Then I collected all the slips and re-distributed them, and everyone was tasked with finding the person who belonged to the slip of paper they had received. Once everyone found their person, we went around the room and each person introduced the one who went with their paper and then shared the interesting thing about them.


With everyone feeling significantly more relaxed, it was time to start the surprise performances! I put each student who indicated that they had something prepared back into a basket and then let my new beginning student draw the names out to determine the order of performances. I was thoroughly impressed with the music the students prepared and played! Instead of preparing an advanced piece to play for them, I opted to play a fun assortment of Wendy’s compositions that incorporate elements of audience participation. They were quite the hit, and my boys loved accompanying me on the cajon and leading the rest of the audience in the rhythm patterns! (Btw, I’m not exaggerating when I say that they are fighting over who gets to learn Drastic Measures first. :-))


We took a short intermission to play Composer Trading – a card game I patterned after the boisterous crowd-pleasing game of Pit. The students loved it, and were begging to play another round, so I’m sure we’ll be pulling this out a lot during the year! (I had fun designing some composer MiniCards from Moo.com to correlate with the theme!)


After all the performances, it was time for the big reveal! Vanishing Voices: a musical race against time, this year’s practice incentive theme, will have students collecting miles and flying around the world as we traverse history learning about composers from every era. They are already beginning to strategize to make sure that they can collect enough composers to be part of our big end-of-the-year excursion, and I’m excited to watch them progress as musicians throughout the course of this experience.


Right in the middle of our performance of Mob Bop, the house was suddenly engulfed in darkness! Thankfully, everyone kept right on tapping and clapping their part and I improv-ed on the theme until someone grabbed their phone and provided enough light for me to finish the piece as written. While I explained the theme, my husband quickly set to work collecting oil lamps and all the candles in the house to prepare for the reception of goodies upstairs. The ambience was perfect for a time of mingling and made for a fun evening that we won’t soon forget!

AMT Inspiration – Create A Feeling

Several times this past year in both my teaching and my performing I have recalled a comment by Time for Three from their interview in the December/January issue of the American Music Teacher magazine. When discussing the variety of genre the group performs, Ranaan Meyer includes this in his response:

“Ultimately the reason an audience wants to hear music is that they want to feel. To connect with the music they want an artist who is real and who is human. It shouldn’t sound like the most complicated thing in the world. You can ask audiences about this: ‘Do you care if this is complicated?’ Most of them will say, ‘No, I don’t care about that at all, I just want to be moved.”

This is the perfect perspective to have when going into a performance, and it’s especially helpful for students to consider when they feel like they are playing a piece that is “too easy.” Instead of focusing on the difficulty level of a piece, students should ask, “How do I want the listener to feel when they hear this piece?” Then the performance is about creating an atmosphere and eliciting a feeling, not about playing something difficult or hitting every note right. This also helps get the focus off of myself, as the performer, and onto the audience, where it should be!

A Neighborhood Christmas Concert

We always love to try new ideas in our studio, and this year we thought it would be cool to expand our annual Christmas recital into a Neighborhood Christmas Concert as a way to get to know our neighbors better and share our musical selections with them. So we printed up invitations about a month ago and hand-delivered them to our neighbors.

Our theme for the evening was “A Time for Joy.” We greeted our guests at the door with some warm candlelight and a program adorned with the winning cover art for this year (each year the students are invited to draw and submit artwork that corresponds with the theme and then all the students vote for their favorite at our rehearsal).

We ended up with a nice turnout for the evening even though it was bitter cold and icy. One of the perks of having the guests coming from next door and across the street!

Unfortunately, one of our students who comes from out of town was unable to make it in for the occasion due to the road conditions. Here’s a group shot of everyone who participated in the program:

Following the musical performances and narration we enjoyed some hot drinks, delicious refreshments, and lots of time for visiting!

At the last minute we decided to live stream the concert for some of the neighbors that had hoped to come, but couldn’t make it, and some out of town family. (In the years since I first experimented with livestreaming recitals, it has become so incredibly easy that all you need now is literally a smart phone and an app – Ustream is what I started with and it works great!) Unbeknownst to us the iPhone that was doing the recording got bumped part way through, so the view moves to the ceiling, but for anyone who wants to get a glimpse into our event, here’s the recording:


Live streaming video by Ustream

I hope you all are having a wonderful Christmas season and eagerly looking forward to a New Year!

Just Make it Up

Sometimes when students are preparing for a performance I encourage them to “improvise” when they get stuck or have a memory lapse. Some students understand this, but for others who are younger or more concrete thinkers, I found a very simple phrase this week to help them keep going in a performance. Around 1:27 in the following video you’ll hear Claire say, “I forgot that part.” All I had to say was “Just make it up” for her to turn right back around and keep playing. For Claire, who is highly literal, this phrase made perfect sense and she was able to improvise some chords until she got back on track. It’s simple, but I have heard it said that it’s better to teach the same thing seven different ways than seven things one way. Now I have one more easy way to teach students to keep going through any performance!

[This is a lovely arrangement of The First Noel by Melody Bober in the book, In Recital! with Christmas Favorites, compiled by Helen Marlais]

A Fun Memorization Game for Piano Students

Have you ever had students completely blow the performance of a piece that they’ve played numerous times without a glitch? Or have you ever been that performer? I raise my hand. Learning how to memorize cognitively has made all the difference for me, and I’ve used it over and over again to help students (even those who thought they didn’t need it!) prepare for an effective memorized performance. One way we approach this is by determining the form of the piece and creating little cards with labels for each section.

Here, Robert is in the final stages of preparation for a performance of “Lights in the Water” by Robert Vandall (this has become his all-time favorite piece!). We quickly created cards with labels for each section and began by placing them in order on the music rack. I had him play through it once by memory, taking mental note of each section as he got to it in his performance.

After one run-through, we scrambled the cards and placed them on the music rack for a second performance. He got lucky starting again with A-B! After that, though, the order was mixed up, so he had to see if he could recall how each section started and ended in order to play them in the arranged order.

This is a very helpful tool for creating a mental road map that can guide the student during a performance. Plus, even if they do get stuck in one section, they can easily move on to the next section without panicking! Anything that engages the brain to aid in a memorized performance is a step in the right direction toward cognitive memory and not solely muscle memory.

Year End Awards Ceremony and Piano Recital

For the conclusion of our C2 practice incentive theme this year, we had a special awards ceremony in conjunction with a studio recital this Monday evening. We began the evening with a couple rounds of Musical Wheel of Fortune, then moved into student performances.


Levi performs “Little Robot”


Daniel performs his own arrangement of Viva La Vida”


Heidi performs the theme from Beauty and the Beast

After each of the students performed, I recognized them for their growth in character and competence throughout the year, identifying a particular power card from our theme that I thought best represented each student. After sharing a little about their growth they got to select their choice of an award: a selection of mugs filled with various goodies.

Mercy is the top point scorer for the year and receives “The Battery Award” for the way she energizes others with her enthusiasm and hard work!

After they selected their awards I asked them what made them choose the award they did. Interestingly (thankfully!) each of them chose based on the content in the mug. I asked them how that content got there. They quickly replied that I put it there.


Levi is given “The Engine Award” for his demonstration of steady, dependable character throughout the year.

So I made the point that just like they chose the mug they wanted based on the content they wanted from it and that content was placed there intentionally, they will only be able to get out of life what is placed into it. In other words, if they want to be a responsible, dependable, trustworthy person, they have to put those qualities into their lives. And if they want to be an excellent, artistic pianist, they have to put those skills into their lives. And then I reminded them of our theme verse for this year:

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.” Ephesians 3:20-21

There is a power greater than any power in the world that will enable them to accomplish even more than what their minds can imagine right now! I can’t wait to see how that plays out in each of their lives as they seek God and let Him grow them in character and competence in music and every other area of life!

And of course we ended the evening with a time of snacks and fellowship!

I’m so grateful for an awesome group of students and families!

2014 Christmas Piano Recital and Dinner

Last night was an evening of tradition and new beginnings. It was our 17th annual studio Christmas recital, but it was also our 1st annual Christmas dinner! Thanks to the vision of my creative husband, we decided to combine our studio recital with a special Christmas gift to our studio families – an evening of dinner, fellowship, and inspiration. Here are a few snapshots from the occasion:

Our theme was based on Matthew 1:23, ““Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

We used the Fireside room in our church building – a warm, cozy escape from the blistering winds and snow flurries that started falling in the afternoon!

Once all the families arrived, they were directed to their tables and offered hot drinks. My four kids were each assigned to serve a table, and did a fabulous job keeping drinks filled, serving each course, and making everyone feel welcome! You can see my husband attired in his kitchen apron also checking in on guests – he and my mom manned the kitchen and dished up plates of food to be served to the guests.

The courses were interspersed with musical selections – a variety of solos, duets, and ensembles – and a time of sharing testimonies of how we have experienced “God with us” throughout this year. I was so encouraged and blessed by all that was shared!

All of the students collaborated on a “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” ensemble (from A Christmas Gathering by Lynn Freeman Olson). Fun!

A group shot of all the students, plus a few guest artists (a.k.a former students) who contributed to the musical program.

I wasn’t sure how everything would work out, but thanks to the help and participation of each person, it proved to be a wonderful success! We look forward to many more years of Christmas recitals and dinners!

Musings for the New Year

After a long hiatus, I’m excited to be back to posting on Music Matters Blog (though I anticipate it will be much more sporadic than before!). The New Year is in full swing, and I’m thrilled to be entering it with an incredible husband, four wonderful children, a studio full of amazing families, and an awesome support network of family, friends, and colleagues! I have lots of ideas and thoughts to post in the coming days, but for now, I thought I’d share a few videos with you:

Christmas Recital 2013 – There is a Redeemer

Julian’s and My Wedding Video

Julian and Natalie-Wedding Ceremony from IanGVideo on Vimeo.

A Shorter Version with the Highlights from Our Wedding

Julian and Natalie’s Wedding (Short Version) from IanGVideo on Vimeo.

Our Story (the video that we showed at the beginning of our wedding)

Julian and Natalie from Positive Motion Studios on Vimeo.

Happy New Year to all of you! I’d love to hear about your plans for the year and any special new things you are doing in your studios!