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:

Best Composer Research Resources for Piano Students

Our Vanishing Voices studio practice incentive theme has been a huge hit so far this year! The students are enjoying collecting composers for their portfolios, and I’m enjoying learning tidbits of new information from the research that they do for each composer. In fact, I can see how my whole understanding of the timeline of history has been heavily influenced by my own study of music history over the years, so I’m excited to provide an opportunity for the students to increase their knowledge of history as well!

In light of that, I’ve been compiling some of my favorite composer research resources:


Informusic, the regularly updated and wonderfully handy app that has a world of information at your fingertips! Click here to read the full review.

By far, my all-time favorite book on music history, Bigwigs of Classical Music, was written and illustrated by cartoonist Ben Lansing. In fact, he even generously granted me permission to use his composer portraits as part of our theme! Witty and engaging, Ben’s writing style brings these musical masters to life in a way that even students find entertaining and enjoyable.

Classics for KidsClassics for Kids houses a large compendium of biographies, activity sheets, podcasts, and musical excerpts to introduce students to notable composers. I love that you can search alphabetically by composers last name, by country, by time period, or by utilizing the interactive timeline!

Do you have any other favorite composer resources? I’d love to know about them!

Celebrating Thanksgiving by Giving Back (and with a $5 off Coupon Code!)

Perhaps one of the sweetest students I’ve ever taught, Luke is the one who would remark in awe at how much time I must have spent planning various activities or thank me enthusiastically for helping him with something. In his early years of piano lessons, as a 7-year old boy, I remember him looking up at me and innocently asking one day what I thought I would do when I grew up. I told him I thought I would like to be a piano teacher. He nodded in affirmation, seemingly unaware that I was already carrying out my “grown up” plans.

Luke is also the one who would sit at the piano with me for an hour improvising on pattern after pattern, but then the minute I pulled out a book with music to read, he would start glancing at the clock and commenting on the time. 🙂 Suffice it to say that his learning struggles made reading music a chore, but when given the tools and opportunity, his true musicality shined brilliantly! Here’s one of our improvs:

It’s been a few years since our days in the studio together, but I’ve kept in touch with Luke and his family, especially as Luke faces a degenerative disease that has relegated him to a wheelchair for the time being. In spite of all this, Luke maintains a spirit of gratitude, expressing that even though he doesn’t like what he’s going through he knows that God has a purpose for him in it. In honor of him, I’ve decided to run a special Thanksgiving sale in the Music Matters Blog store. From now through Thanksgiving use the code GIVETHANKS to get $5 off any purchase, and 50% of every purchase made will be given to Luke and his family to help cover some of his medical costs.

You might even want to think ahead to possible Christmas gifts for your students, like a beautiful Music Manuscript Book, The Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys, or a Mini Music Manual:

Piano Student Gifts

These have been some of my students’ best-loved and most-used personal music resources over the years! Just purchase and download once and then you can print as many copies as you need for your students (and yourself!).

Or perhaps you want to jump start your New Year with a motivating studio practice incentive theme! Or maybe you even want to take some time off this holiday season to curl up with an inspirational [non-music-or-teaching-related-oh-my!] book to refresh your soul. If so, Born to Deliver might be just the thing:

Whatever the case may be, I am thankful for each of you and for the incredible opportunity to be an independent music teacher and a part of the thriving and supportive music education community. This list of 30 Thanksgiving Blessings that I wrote for the Clavier Companion blog several years ago is every bit as true today as it was then!

A Creative Composition Project

In case anyone here didn’t already know how in love I am with the Piano Safari method, I thought I would share a highlight from the lesson this week with my new beginning student Alyssa. We learned the piece, Outer Space from the Level 1 book over the last couple of weeks. Outer Space is a perfect combination of rote learning, composition, and creativity.

The main theme is taught by rote, but then the student is asked to draw a picture representing a couple of objects from space and compose an ending to match each one. Alyssa chose Saturn and Jupiter for hers and we discussed what things the planets have in common and what different characteristics they have. We also listened to some excerpts from Holst’s suite The Planets for inspiration!

I told her that if she could draw full page images for each of the endings – Saturn, Jupiter, and the given shooting star for the final ending – that we could create a simple music video to go with them. We used my Nessie mic, the free Audacity recording software, and iMovie to put together this simple, but memorable creation.

How fun for students to begin experiencing the joys of music composition, creativity, and technology within the first several months of lessons. There is a whole world just waiting to be explored and discovered!

These are a few of my favorite [teaching] things…

We are officially two weeks into piano lessons for this fall, and everyone is off to a great start with our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme! It’s fun to watch the students study the gallery of composers on the studio wall and learn how to pronounce their names.

I attended a training seminar this weekend for homeschool parents and especially appreciated a quote by Andrew Pudewa, a Suzuki violin teacher-turned Language Arts educator. He said, “Saturate the environment with what you want the student to learn and remember.” I can certainly see the value of this advice, as students absorb so much just by seeing the same posters. We’ve already had some great conversations about various parts of the world and how they relate to the composers we’re collecting.

Now, on to the real topic of this post! I thought I would share some of my indispensable teaching tools – things I turn to over and over again to help students understand and retain various musical concepts. After working through primarily Major scales last year, I decided to launch this year with a focus on minor scales. At her lesson, Stephanie and I discussed what makes a Major scale Major and what makes a minor scale minor. Then we learned the pattern for natural minor scales, which she wrote out in her Mini Music Manual for future reference. Then we used some little place markers to construct the scale on the keyboard. And finally, she arranged a set of scale blocks to depict the correct name of each key. (Side Note: You may notice on the fallboard a set of Level 3 Sight Reading Cards from Piano Safari. These are a must-have even if you don’t use the full method because they are such a systematic and effective way of helping students build sight reading and rhythm skills!)

In addition to the scale blocks, Daniel uses a magnetic dry erase board to jot down and compare the Major and minor scale patterns. I use these handy boards all the time for quick teaching illustrations and examples.

Finally, I can’t imagine how I ever taught without a video recording device (a.k.a. smart phone) at my fingertips! It’s only her second piano lesson, but Alyssa is already learning to express creativity through composition, and enjoying the opportunity to share it with others. Thanks to inspiration from this Piano Safari video (below), Alyssa and I played the Animal Improvisation game at her first lesson and then I assigned her to make up her very own animal piece during the week. She went from reluctantly playing a single note representing an animal to creating this entire composition, which she informed me was not just about one, but two animals: a dolphin being attacked by a shark!

What fun to watch students acquire deeper musical understanding, explore creative possibilities, and develop excellent skills through their study of piano. I am reminded anew of what an awesome privilege we piano teachers have to be a part of this learning and growing process!

Coming This Fall…


Vanishing Voices: a musical race against time!

The practice incentive theme for this next year is in development and I’m so excited about how we’re planning to integrate music history with world geography and a dose of strategy as the students work diligently to reach new goals and practice consistently throughout the year! It’s always fun to start a new year with th excitement and adventure of a new theme. I would love to hear what other teachers are up to this fall. Are you thing anything new in your studios?

Guiding Students to Become Independent Learners and Musicians

The more I learn about Classical education, the more I am inspired to help my students become effective learners in every area of their studies. After reading this insightful post by Katherine Fisher, one of the authors of my absolute favorite piano method (Piano Safari, in case you didn’t know :-)), I am contemplating ways of incorporating more rote teaching even with my older students as a way of helping them make better connections with what they are playing and the underlying structure of the music. The deeper their understanding of music and how it is structured, the better equipped they will be to learn on their own.

Katherine says this,

I do believe the beginning of the process [of becoming independent learners and musicians] for students is to develop the discipline to concentrate and store information in a logical way. In the realm of piano pedagogy, I believe this translates to teachers encouraging students to learn and memorize a large amount of music. This should not be done in a “blind” sort of way in which there is no understanding of how the music is constructed. On the contrary, students should understand from the beginning that music is composed of patterns and a logical form. For musicians, this is an essential element of the art of learning.

Using Pennies to Teach 16th Note Rhythms

Years ago I first tried the idea of using pennies as a tactile way to teach the subdivision of 16th note rhythms. It’s been a while since I used it in my teaching, but now that all of my students are reaching a higher level of playing, it was time to break out the penny jar again!

At our final group class of the year I let each student select a rhythm instrument and pick 16 pennies from my penny jar. We started by stacking them in four groups of four and beating a steady quarter note beat. Then I had them separate them into eight stacks of two and beating the eighth note rhythms. Finally, we placed all of the pennies individually and played them as sixteenth notes with a slight emphasis on the first one of each beat to help maintain a sense of pulse.

We used these fabulous sixteenth note rhythm flashcards from D’Net Layton and I showed them what the rhythm patterns looked like, then we arranged the pennies to match the pattern, then practiced playing it on our instruments. The students really enjoyed this approach, and it seemed to help them understand both the mathematical subdivision of the beats and also how to play them fluidly within a beat structure.

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!

The Interval Dice Game

Last week Claire made it to the Game Hut for her final stop in Jungle Expedition (our practice incentive theme this year). She had such a fun time that on her Year-End Evaluation today she suggested that we include a game at the end of each lesson to review a concept learned. This prompted me to pull out the interval dice game that has been a favorite in my studio for years (but for some reason I neglected all year long!). It’s such a simple game, but everyone loves it, and it’s a great way to reinforce any kind of intervallic movement on the piano keys (half steps, whole steps, interval distances, interval qualities, etc.).

We each selected a marker and placed it on the same starting key on the piano, then used a game spinner to signify the finish line two octaves up on the keyboard. Each turn consisted of rolling two dice (one with either “up” or “down” on each side, the other with interval distances from 2nd-7th). We moved our marker accordingly and the first one to the finish line was the winner. Claire was thrilled that she won! It’s so rewarding to watch students have a good time at the piano (and often not even realize the learning that is taking place in the process!).

One of the things I’m planning to do this summer is get back into incorporating more of the games from the 5 For Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson in each lesson again as a way of introducing or reinforcing concepts and providing some light-hearted fun in the process!