Review of New Piano Music by Lynette Sawatsky

One of my favorite things to do as a pianist is to play through new music. It’s so fun to pick up an unknown book and anticipate the gems that might be hidden within its pages! These delightful books, Waddle & Quack and Shimmer & Strut by Canadian composer Lynette Sawatsky contain many such gems.

They could easily double as coloring books besides with the beautiful sketches that accompany each piece! Many of the pieces are prime rote material, my favorites being “New Lamb” and “Alpha Betta” from the first collection because of their colorful and patterned use of 7th chords. Even though the preface states that they are intended for early elementary readers or for rote teaching, most of my early elementary students would probably have difficulty deciphering the notation for themselves. Many of the pieces employ clef changes, movement to different hand positions or places on the keyboard, playing on all black keys, and more advanced rhythms (triplets, dotted eights and sixteenths, and slight syncopation). That said, for a little more advanced reader or those students who are eager to learn harder-sounding pieces by rote, Waddle & Quack offers musical imagery that captures life in the Animal Kingdom.

The second book, Shimmer & Strut, was written to provide more challenging pieces and it delivers on that intent. Despite the notation choices sometimes being a little difficult to decipher, each animal-themed selection paints a picture in sound of the defining characteristics we would expect that creature to exhibit. It could be a fun group class activity to play some of these and see if the students can guess which one it is from a list of animals! Three of the pieces include a teacher duet accompaniment, but the remaining eight are solos that any late elementary student could feel proud playing. The variety of styles, from the playful staccato 2nds of “Tiny Frog Waltz” to the serene parallel 4ths of “Gentle Panda” to the catchy inviting rhythms of “Shark Tango,” will provide any student with just the piece to fit their personality.

Thanks to Lynette for sending me a couple of sample copies so I could review them. Check out her website if you’re interested in finding out more about her other compositions or listening to recordings of the pieces. Enjoy!

Practice Habits Launches Member Community

Chris Owenby, founder of PracticeHabits.co, has been cranking out oodles of resources for piano teachers – from sheet music to technical exercises to helpful practice guides. He has put together a membership site that contains all of these and more. He’s offering a 30% discount for anyone who joins between now and midnight on July 21, so if you’re interested in checking out some of his creative works now is the time to do it!

Finally a Way to Track Repertoire!

One of my favorite things to do is brainstorm creative and effective ways to streamline processes and organizational ideas for both myself and my students. That’s one of the reasons that I develop a practice incentive theme for my studio each year. It provides a ways for students to set goals, manage their progress, and achieve success. Plus, it helps me remain organized from lesson-to-lesson and stay on track with each student’s goals. I also love using Music Teacher’s Helper to manage my studio bookkeeping in an organized and professional manner. However, one area I have consistently struggled with is keeping track of my students’ repertoire in a systematic and organized way. I’ve tried a variety of different approaches, both pen-and-paper style and digitally, but nothing has ever clicked for me in a way that I was able to maintain consistently. Until last month.

Amy Chaplin’s inspirational series on using Evernote for studio organization prompted me to re-download the free software and give it another try. I first tried it several years ago, but wasn’t able to stick with it. Even after downloading it this time, it sat on the “back burner” because I couldn’t figure out quite how to use it in a way that worked for me. But it all started to come together when I was adding a book to my Goodreads reading list and writing a brief review of it last month. As I did so, I wished that there was a repertoire database like Goodreads that would allow me to search for a particular book, add it to my list, create and tag certain categories to place it in, and write my comments about it. I don’t know of any such repertoire database in existence (if you know of one, please let me know!), but as I lay in bed that night I began to wonder if I could use Evernote in a similar manner to at least organize repertoire for my studio and students…

By the time the next morning came around, I was ready to open Evernote and get to work! Amy’s series helped me understand how to use the tagging system effectively, so I started creating a folder-type system using tags. I am SO excited about this system and think it will finally be something I can maintain consistently! Here’s a screen shot of how I ended up structuring it:


Here’s the step-by-step run-down, just in case anyone else wants to give this approach a try!

  1. Create a tag named, “Repertoire.”
  2. Create what will become the next layer of tags: By Era, By Key, By Level, By Meter. Then I also added a few other tags that were included in this second tier: Duet, Rote Pieces, Sacred Arrangements, and Student Favorites.
  3. Create the next layer of tags that will be nested inside the previous ones. In the By Era one I created tags for: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, 20th Century, and Contemporary. In By Key, I created one for each major and minor key, plus a tag titled, “Modal.” In By Level, tags included: Beginner, Elementary, Early Intermediate, Intermediate, Late Intermediate, and Advanced. By Meter has: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8 so far. (It’s tempting to try to think of every possible tag that I might want to use for a piece, but I decided to stick to these four main criteria so that it wouldn’t get overwhelming trying to keep up with every detail for every piece!)
  4. Within each era, I started creating a tag for each composer, titled by last name, then first name so that they appear in alphabetical order by last name.

Next, I created a tag and labeled it, “Events.” In this one, I didn’t nest any secondary tags, but instead I will create a note for each event in which I have students participating. The event is labeled by year, month, and then event title. For example: 2017.04 Music Progressions. This way they are arranged chronologically. In the note, I list each student and the pieces they are performing for the event, plus any other relevant information.

Finally, I used Joy Morin’s suggestion of creating tags for “Students-Active” and “Students-Inactive.” Then within the active students, I have a tag for each current student. Nested in that, I have three tags so far. Each one begins with the student’s name and then has either “Performances,” “Rep Ideas,” or “Rep Learned.”

This is where the tagging system is ingenious! Here’s the process for adding repertoire and assigning it to categories:

  1. Create a new note with the title of a piece of repertoire.
  2. Tag it with: which era it is, who the composer is, what level it is, what key it’s in, what meter it’s in, and then if I want to assign it to any particular student as a piece of repertoire that they’ve learned or as a repertoire idea for a piece I want them to learn. Now it is handily placed in all of those categories and is visible when I click that category. And to add notes, links, or any additional info, all I have to do is change the note once and it’s reflected across the board. So cool! Throughout the years I can keep adding tags to assign it to other students as well.

 

The other thing I do is click back on the event I created and tag it with the “performances” tag for every student who participated in that event. This way I can make any changes I need to to one event note, but then have it automatically updated for every student who participated in the event.

Now that I have a workable system in place that I love and that makes sense to me, I am so thrilled to be able to use it consistently for lesson planning, archiving events, tracking student participation, filing repertoire ideas and notes, and keeping a record of repertoire that every student has learned. I’m sure I’ll keep tweaking this in the days ahead, but for now I am excited to have one landing place for all things event and repertoire-related!

Page of Free Piano Resources

Piano teachers are notorious for keeping busy, and Jerald Simon is perhaps at the top of the list! As a Utah piano teacher and prolific composer, he keeps busy creating and providing all sorts of music and resources for the piano teaching community. I was thrilled to see that he has compiled many of these onto a page of FREE Piano Resources on his website. This is a page I’ll be back to often as I search for just the right resource for each of my students!

Review and Giveaway of New Music by Composer Chris Owenby

When I’m selecting new music for my students the first criteria that it must pass is that I like the piece. I know, that’s probably a bit self-serving of me as a teacher, but I figure if I’m not excited about the music, then I’ll have a hard time encouraging the student to be excited and to work hard to learn it. So it’s really for their own benefit. Right? 🙂 I also know that I really like a piece if I get to the end of playing it and find myself wanting to play it again. Just for fun. That’s the kind of music I want my students to learn.

New composer, Chris Owenby, scores on both of those points. After playing through “That Fall Feeling,” I had to play it again. And again. When I played it for a couple of my students and asked them what they thought, they remarked, “It’s pretty!”

Chris has several other nice selections in his online shop at PracticeHabits.co. Candle in the Night is an open, airy composition that would be great as a rote teaching piece!

Now, for the best part…Chris has offered to giveaway two of his compositions to two Music Matters Blog readers! Just leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing. Two winners will be drawn using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, April 7, 2017.

Teaching Composition to Students

Or this post could be titled, “Reason #47 Why I Love Piano Safari!” 🙂

When Alyssa first began piano lessons last fall we tried some simple improvisation activities, but she was reluctant to play anything without knowing that it was the “right” notes. As we’ve worked through my all-time favorite piano method – Piano Safari – she’s gradually gained confidence and creative freedom. After a couple weeks of hashing out some ideas and discussing possibilities at her lesson, she came back with this fabulous original composition, Thunderstorm Over the Prairie.

The way this is presented in the method was perfect for her! She got to draw a picture to represent each part of the thunderstorm, then come up with musical ideas to reflect each element. She told me after she played this at her lesson that having the pictures was so helpful for enabling her to memorize her composition and keep track of where she was. As you can hear, she also enjoyed incorporating a familiar folk tune into her piece. I just love watching my students flourish as musicians who are comfortable all over the keyboard, whether playing written music, pieces by rote, or original compositions!

A Teaching Recharge for the New Year

Do you ever feel like you just need a minute to catch your breath, let something beautiful sink into your soul, and recharge for another year (or even just another week!) of teaching?
Our local music teachers association meeting this morning provided just the recharge I needed! I was so thrilled that my friend and colleague, Wendy Stevens (of the renowned ComposeCreate.com website!), agreed to come and share some of her music with us. It’s a treat to have her in our area, and it was fun to hear a little more behind-the-scenes info about her wonderful compositions!


If you have a local music teachers association in your area, I highly recommend participating. It’s such a wonderful way to connect with other teachers, share teaching tips, and glean new ideas. And if you ever have the chance to have Wendy come and do a presentation, you will undoubtedly find yourself inspired and your teaching recharged!


Not to mention she gave us all these great little sticky note packs! 🙂

The Creative Juices are Flowing!

After seeing Alyssa’s creative composition a few weeks ago, Stephanie and Claire were inspired to create their own musical sketch for a fun duet they were working on. They polished up their performance of Jalapeno Hop by Melody Bober and Stephanie drew the artwork for the accompanying story about a couple of jalapeno museum robbers. Here’s what they came up with:

Review and Giveaway of Piano Safari Level 3

Even though I believe that a good teacher can effectively utilize any method or curriculum to help a student achieve success, there is something invigorating about having well-designed resources that capture a teacher’s philosophy and vision for their teaching. That’s how I’ve felt about Piano Safari ever since it’s debut a couple of years ago. It has been the perfect complement to my desire to help students develop creative freedom, technical ability, and musical artistry at the piano while also building a solid foundation of reading and rhythm skills.

I don’t know who has been awaiting the release of Level 3 with more anticipation – me or my students – but it’s finally here! The pack includes a Technique Book, a Repertoire Book, and a set of Sight Reading Cards. I’ve had a blast looking through the materials and preparing to teach it. It’s also exciting to see some of the same Classical Education principles that I’m discovering are essential for true learning applied in this method. Namely, repetition, both of content and of processes, is necessary in order for students to attain mastery. I love how this is emphasized in the Technique Book through the use of cool images that the students are instructed to color one small section at a time for every accurate playing of a scale.

For this reason, I see the Technique Book being used not so much sequentially, but more in a spiral learning approach where a student continues to revisit the previously learned scales and exercises to develop increased speed, fluency, and familiarity. The Technique Book also references the animal techniques to instruct the students how to play each scale. The visuals are attractive and helpful while maintaining a clean, uncluttered page layout. I also appreciate the various practice strategies emphasized throughout the book. Another great feature is the way that each introduction of a new scale/key includes the same process as previously learned, while also incorporating a new accompaniment style, demonstrating to the student how the chords and chord progressions can be used in a musical way. All of this is then woven together into the Technique Extravaganza at the end of the book that gives the student an opportunity to showcase all that they have learned in a fun, energetic duet!

The Level 3 Repertoire Book is a fabulous compilation of original compositions, duets, and Classical pieces in their original form. The pieces are in major and minor keys (C,G,F, and a,e,d), and there are helpful bits of information and questions for the student to consider, along with brief biographical sketches about the various composers. This thoughtfully designed book will leave students well-prepared to continue their exploration of every musical style!

Last, but not least, perhaps the most versatile element of the Piano Safari method – the Sight Reading Cards. Whether or not you use the method in its entirety, these cards are a must-have for any piano teacher! We use them in a variety of ways in our studio, and they have done wonders to help my students improve their rhythm and sight reading skills in a sequential and manageable way. Each card includes a 4-measure musical excerpt for the student to play hands together that incorporates dynamics, articulations, and the rhythms they have learned. There is also a single line of rhythm only that can be tapped, played on single notes, or used for a musical improvisation.

Now, for the best part! If you’d like a chance to check out Piano Safari Level 3 for yourself, Julie and Katie have graciously offered to give away a free Level 3 pack to one Music Matters Blog reader (a $45.50 value!). Just leave a comment below to be entered. One winner will be chosen using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, June 3, 2016. This could be just the thing to re-energize your teaching this summer or in preparation for next fall!

Review and Giveaway of Little Gems for Piano

UPDATE: I was just alerted (Thanks, Amy!) that the comments were turned off on this post. Oops! Apparently a setting got changed so that in all new posts comments were not enabled. You should be able to leave comments now!

If you’ve been around Music Matters Blog for a while you know that I am a huge fan of rote teaching as a vehicle for teaching students technique and artistry. Piano Safari is my absolute favorite resource in this respect! But I was thrilled when I was recently contacted by Paula Dreyer, author and composer of a new collection of rote teaching pieces called, “Little Gems for Piano.” There are two volumes, the first one is for beginners and the second one is labeled Early Intermediate. Some of the early beginner ones didn’t appeal to me very much, but the further I got in the book the more I enjoyed the sound of the pieces.

Here’s a clip of one of my favorites in Volume 1: Carnival Celebration:

In addition to utilizing rote pieces for teaching artistry and technique in general, I’ve also found that rote pieces can be a great motivator for students who struggle with vision problems or the ability to read music fluently. Rote pieces can also be an effective tool to use with students who have trouble memorizing. Because they are so patterned, it helps the students learn to recognize melodic and rhythmic motives and commit them to memory very quickly. Don’t we all like to have cool sounding pieces that we can learn quickly and easily perform by memory at a moment’s notice?!

Now, for the exciting part…Paula has generously offered to giveaway a copy of each of her “Little Gems for Piano” books to Music Matters Blog readers! We’ll be giving away one copy of each volume, so just leave a comment below for your chance to win. Two winners will be chosen using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, May 13!