Monday Mailbag – Favorite Christmas Arrangements

I have so appreciated your ideas and was wondering, if you find any great Christmas arrangements that you just love, will you let us know?

With our Christmas Recital coming up later this week, Christmas music is definitely on my mind! Here are some of the favorites on our program this year:

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear by Melody Bober – a gorgeous intermediate level arrangement!

Christmas Traditions by Phillip Keveren – this whole book is a gem! This is a great collection of musical arrangements at an elementary level, and many of them are perfect rote teaching pieces. One of my favorites for this is the Go, Tell it On the Mountain arrangement.

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Andy Fling – a fun, simple arrangement of this favorite Christmas classic.

In Christ Alone by Natalie Wickham – 🙂 A couple of my students requested a duet for the recital, and after considerable searching I thought it would be fun to see if they could pull together this duet that I arranged several years ago for another student.

Several of my students have written their own arrangements this year, and they are absolutely amazing! I’m so excited to share them with you all sometime after Thursday. 🙂 I won’t be able to live stream the Christmas recital this year, but I’m hoping to get it posted to YouTube like we did with last year’s.

If you have any favorite Christmas selections in your studio, please share! It’s always fun to find out about other great arrangements to add to the list of possibilities.

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!

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

It’s that time of year again when I empty my Christmas music file drawer and spend hours trying to find just the right piece of repertoire for every student. I really enjoy the challenge of considering what each student will enjoy the most and trying to create an interesting program for all those attending.

The only downside is that my studio looks like a disaster area for a couple of weeks…


Five Ways to Introduce Concert Music to Children By Robert Greenberg

Robert Greenberg, author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart, has written a humorous and helpful article for those looking for ways to introduce children to concert music. I’m looking forward to reading his book and gleaning new ideas for myself and my students! Enjoy the following guest post: Five Ways to Introduce Concert Music to Children by Robert Greenberg:

“Concert Music” is music written by primarily dead Euro-males between roughly 1650 and 1900, music typically heard in the rather formal environs of a concert hall. Yes, this music is often referred to as “classical music”, which is as useless and misleading a phrase as “real imitation margarine!” When we call something “classic”, we are identifying it with the ideals and restraint of ancient Greek art, which immediately rules out the great bulk of concert music, which as often as not is filled with       schmerz und schmutz, sturm und drang, angst and exaltation. Even if we use the word “classic” in its loosest permutation — to indicate something exemplary — who’s to say there isn’t such a thing as “Classic Jazz”, “Classic Rock” — and even, painful though it may be to contemplate, “Classic Death Metal/Grindcore”. So: a pox on the phrase “classical music”. Concert music it is.

And why, pray tell, should we want to introduce our children to concert music? Because it constitutes some of the greatest art our species has ever cooked up, musical art that informs, educates, entertains, inspires, and ultimately packs a toy shop’s worth of joy that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

1. It is a truism that children will read if they are read to and if they see their parents read. It is incumbent upon parents to set an example by listening to concert music at home and in the car (the latter might require some negotiation, but it CAN BE DONE). Don’t be afraid of playing the same piece over and over again; familiarity breeds affection.

(Having said all this, don’t play one type of music to the exclusion of all others. The distinctions we have created between “concert music” and “rock ‘n’ roll”, and “jazz” and so forth are generally meaningless to children. They tend to just like music — all music — which is how it should be.)

2. Invest in some decent percussion toys and encourage your kids to “play along” with recordings and videos. Yes, I’m aware that this can drive an adult up a wall, which is why we should do it with them. This makes us active, not passive participants in the musical process, and it’s more fun than you might think. As for “insulting” Bach or Mozart or Beethoven by doing this; my friends, they’re dead and beyond insult. Besides, do you really think playing along with a recording is more insulting than the disco arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that was featured in the movie Saturday Night Fever? I rest my case.

3. Rent/buy/download and play cool movies like “Beethoven Lives Upstairs”, “Mr. Bach Comes to Call”, Disney’s “Peter and the Wolf” and “Fantasia 2000”. Each episode of Disney Junior’s “Little Einsteins” series focuses on a different piece of concert music and teaches all sorts of musical terminology as well. My three year-old son and five year-old daughter love them.

4. Go to local orchestral concerts TOGETHER, in particular children’s/family concerts. Outdoor festival concerts are even better, because the kids can run around and move to the music. Try to listen to the pieces on the program before hand. Music literacy is akin to written literacy, and a little (even a tiny!) bit of preparation pays off big time in terms of intensifying the experience.

5. Get a piano. It doesn’t have to be a 8’11¾” Steinway “D” (list price around 130k); a little spinet will do. Put it in a place where the kids can bang on it without making the rest of the family crazy. When it’s time for piano lessons (at age 6 or 7; no need to rush) the piano will thus be an old friend and not a new torture device. (A “piano” is made out of wood, medal, leather and felt. It breathes. It is real. Its mechanism follows the will of the player’s body. An electric keyboard is made out of plastic and circuitry. It is not real. It does not breath. It has no place in your house or apartment. “But it makes so many different sounds!” So does a cat in a microwave: does sonic variety justify putting little Boots in the micro? “But we don’t have room for a piano.” Yes you do. “But my child can practice a keyboard wearing earphones, so we don’t have to listen”. Oh, that’s a GREAT message to send your child: go practice, but don’t make us listen to you.)

Recording starter kit. Here are some great works wonderfully performed to start out with.

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concertos; Trevor Pinnock conducting, on Archiv
  • Wolfgang Mozart, Symphonies Nos. 39, 40, & 41; Neville Marriner conducting, on EMI
  • Ludwig (“my friends call me Louis) van Beethoven, Nine Symphonies; John Eliot Gardiner conducting, on Archiv
  • Camille Saint-Saens, Carnival of the Animals; Charles Dutoit conducting, on London
  • Sergei Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf; Carlo Rossi conducting, narrated by Boris Karloff, Vanguard

© 2012 Robert Greenberg, author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart

Author Bio
Robert Greenberg, 
author of How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart, is a speaker, pianist, and music historian. He has served on the faculties of UC Berkeley, California State University East Bay, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was chairman of the Department of Music History and Literature and director of the Adult Extension Division. He is currently music historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances and also serves as the resident composer and music historian to NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. Since 1993, he has recorded over 550 lectures for The Great Courses.

Founded in 1990, The Great Courses produces DVD and audio recordings of courses by top university professors in the country, which are sold through direct marketing. It is a nine-figure-a-year business and they distribute forty-eight million catalogs annually. They offer more than four hundred courses on topics including business and economics; fine arts and music; ancient, medieval, and modern history; literature and English language; philosophy and intellectual history; religion; social sciences; and science and mathematics.

For more information please visit and and follow the author on Facebook.

Monday Mailbag – Recital Programs Designed by Students

I think you posted the idea once to have your students design the end of the year recital program covers.  If so, did you judge as a studio which one would be chosen?  I’m concerned about the ramifications of best friends choosing each other or if I choose there might be hurt feelings. Any suggestions?

Yes, you are remembering correctly! You can see examples of the student-designed programs on A Peek Into My Christmas Recital and Inspiration From a Home Magazine. I just collect all the artwork submissions ahead of time, then the night of the rehearsal, I display them all on a pew with a small Dixie cup in front of each one. Each student is given a penny and looks over the submissions, then places their penny in the one they want to vote for. I’m sure some students vote for their own or a friends (I tell them they’re allowed to if their conscience will allow it! :-)), but this process has always worked really well and we end up with a great-looking cover!

Does anyone else do artwork contests with students for their recital programs? Any tips on how to handle the process?

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!

Monday Mailbag – Year End Achievement Awards

“I am curious about student achievement awards.  I am wondering what you and other teachers do.  Do you give out awards based on years in lessons (i.e. 3 year award) or perhaps awards based on level of achievement (i.e. completed Faber level 2A etc.)?  Maybe some teachers simply give out a participation certificate. This will be the first time I am doing a recital and I want to give the students some kind of year end award.  I don’t do an incentive program (yet) and I want to make sure if I start something, it is something that the students will feel a sense of pride and achievement for receiving.”

This is actually a pretty thought-provoking question for me! I’ve never given achievement awards based on years of study or completion of levels, but I can see how something like that might be a good motivator for a student. Some of my students participate in a yearly Music Progressions evaluation program that is comprised of 10 levels. Those who participate receive a certificate each year, but I can’t remember a student ever caring about the certificate (I often find these crumpled in the bag months later). I think it would be kind of cool to have an award of some sort that was progressive from year to year. Extra incentive to stick with piano study through the hard times!

My year-end rewards are almost always tied to our practice incentive theme. And they are usually completely different from year to year. For example, this year the students who earned the specified number of Complication Coins can use them to purchase a custom-designed studio t-shirt. 🙂 You can see a list of other year-end rewards I’ve used on this post about Practice Incentives and Rewards.

My mental wheels are really spinning now, though, and I’m curious to know if other teachers give some sort of progressive award based on years of study or level completion. What do you do in your studio? I’d love to get some new ideas!

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!

Review and Giveaway of Compositions by Lisa Donovan Lukas

Close your eyes, sit back in a comfy chair, and imagine a beautiful interlacing of impressionistic and contemporary harmonies drifting from piano music that might provide the soundtrack for your favorite tear-inducing drama. Now you can skip the imagination part and let this video fill in the music for you:

Goodnight, Sweet Dreams is one of six compositions by Lisa Donovan Lukas.

To Raise The Wind Horse is an imaginative duet that was premiered at the Daniel Pearl World Music Days concert in California. You can read a little about the inspiration and history of the composition on the Daniel Pearl Music Days website. I can think of several horse-loving students that would love to learn this duet!

Each piece presents fairly advanced rhythmic challenges, but the end results are well worth it! The most accessible of Lisa’s six works is A Song From the Garden. It has a lovely singing melody, and could be handled by a motivated intermediate student.

I think Summer Dance would be an engaging selection for a student looking for a fresh contemporary piece to use for a festival or contest. Waiting is a rich, gorgeous piece that I’m adding to my collection of wedding and prelude music. And A Passing Cloud is a great mood piece if you or a student are looking for something to sink your hands into and let your expressiveness take you away. 🙂

I love that you can download samples and listen to full recordings of each piece on the Alberti Publishing website! But I love even more that Lisa has offered to giveaway a copy of each of her compositions to Music Matters Blog readers! Six winners will be given one of her pieces and you can enjoy it yourself and/or use it with a student in your studio. Just leave a comment below and six winners will be chosen using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Thursday, February 9, 2012.


Recital Repertoire Pop Quiz – Free Worksheet

Thanks to the inspiration of Sarah Lantz, of the Piano Discoveries Studio, I decided to surprise my students with a pop quiz at our Christmas Recital rehearsal.

I just put together this simple Recital Repertoire Pop Quiz worksheet that I handed out to each student as they arrived – in exchange for the book with their printed music! They had to fill in as many blanks as they could. Then as each student performed their piece during the rehearsal, I tallied up their answers and awarded prizes to the top finishers. Three of my students tied for first place. And the others will hopefully make it a priority to know as much as possible about their recital repertoire selections in the future! 🙂

Watch Our 2011 Christmas Recital

Even though we weren’t able to live stream our Christmas Recital (like we did in 2010), a friend of mine video recorded the event and we’ve uploaded it to YouTube for your viewing pleasure!

I didn’t realize until after it was posted that the credits at the end rolled through at the speed of light! So, here is a list of pieces included in this year’s program for those who are interested (all of which should be available through Sheet Music Plus):

O Come, Little Children
Arr. Phillip Keveren

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Arr. Catherine Rollin

‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
Arr. Joseph Martin

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Arr. Lyn Freeman Olson

Mary, Did You Know?
Mark Lowry
Arr. The Band

We Three Kings
Arr. Nancy Faber

We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Arr. Catherine Rollin

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow with Go Tell It on the Mountain
Arr. Melody Bober

There is a Redeemer
Arr. Ellen Banks Elwell

Joy to the World
Arr. Lloyd Larson

The Little Drummer Boy
Arr. Nancy Faber

Away in a Manger
Arr. Nancy Faber

A Cradle Prayer
by Rebecca St. James

Silent Night
Arr. Melody Bober

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
Arr. Nancy Faber

What Child is This?
Arr. Melody Bober

The First Noel
Arr. Melody Bober

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Arr. Mona Rejino

Sing Hallelujah
Arr. Mark Hayes

Sing We Now of Christmas
Arr. Martha Mier

Panis Angelicus
Cesar Franck

Amazing Grace
Arr. Wendy Stevens

And Can it Be?
Arr. Marilynn Ham

Arr. Carol Klose

O Come, All Ye Faithful
Arr. Melody Bober

Angel Medley
Arr. Melody Bober

Carol of the Bells
Arr. Kevin Olson

What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Arr. Lenny Seidel

My Savior, My God
Aaron Shust
Arr. The Band

2 Recital Prep Questions to Ask Students

With just a little over a week until our rehearsal for the Christmas recital, it’s going to be a close call for some of my students! It’s right about now that I start second-guessing myself and wondering if it was really such a good idea to give them a challenging piece to learn (even though it does sound really cool and they assured me they could learn it :-)). I know that our future as a pianist doesn’t hinge on one recital, but I sure do want each of my students to have a positive experience and to enjoy sharing their selections with those who attend the big event of the year.

At lessons this week I’ve found myself asking most students these two questions:

  1. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being completely performance-ready, what number would you say this piece is right now? (It’s kind of funny how many of them insert a .5 into their numeric evaluation – I’ve had a 6.5, an 8.5, etc…)
  2. What does the remaining [3.5; 1.5; etc.] represent? In other words, what still needs to improve on the piece to bring it to a level 10?

This has proved much more effective than just asking the student what they need to do to get their piece ready by the designated date. Because invariably I get the not-so-helpful answer, “practice.” I resist the urge to say, “Wow, how perceptive. I wish I had thought of that.” But I digress. Sarcasm aside, I realize more and more how important it is to have meaningful, musical discussions with students to gauge how well they understand their music and whether or not they have a clear idea of where they are headed with each piece and how to get there. This kind of interaction with students spurs me on like nothing else to become the best teacher I can be for each of them!