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!

Using Key Signature Flashcards to Make a Circle of Fifths

This may be a no-brainer, but for some reason it just occurred to me this week that key signature flashcards (I love this set of Student Flashcards from TCW Resources!) would provide a great hands-on opportunity to create and understand the Circle of 5ths!

Mercy has been working hard on memorizing all of her key signatures, so at her lesson this week, we laid out all of the cards in order and then I arranged them in a circular pattern and asked if she could figure out why this arrangement of them was called “The Circle of 5ths.” After thinking about it for a minute, she realized that each subsequent key was a 5th above the previous key. The proverbial lightbulb flashed and she couldn’t stop thanking me for explaining this to her because now it all made so much sense!

We discussed the enharmonic keys and then moved into the flat keys until we arrived back at C Major/a minor. Doing this activity together helped her see in a very tangible way how the Circle of 5ths works and it finally clicked for her why you could count up in 5ths to determine the sharp keys and down in 5ths to figure out the flat keys. It’s so fun to help students grow in their understanding of music theory – hopefully in a way that they will never forget!

The Perfect Assignment Sheet for Piano Students

Somehow I just came across this fabulous compilation of free downloadable assignment sheets that Amy Chaplin, of the Piano Pantry blog, has either created or adapted! Even though I always create custom assignment books that correlate with our practice incentive theme for the year, I absolutely love the variety of ideas that Amy incorporates into these sheets. Whether you’re looking for an assignment sheet that includes helpful theory concepts, or one that outlines technique warm-ups, or even one that is based on specific practice tips, you’re sure to find one that is just the right fit for your students and studio!

The Speedy Scale Game for Piano Students!

As I mentioned last week, I love to incorporate a variety of games to reinforce and evaluate music theory concepts with my students. This week we tried a Speedy Scale game to help students develop visual-spatial skills (they weren’t allowed to look at the piano keyboard, but had to visualize it in their mind) and put their music scale theory knowledge into practice (they’ve all been memorizing scale patterns this year to earn Mental Miles as part of our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme)!

Daniel caught on really quickly, so I talked him into doing a step-by-step video of how to play this game during a lesson:

Here’s a snapshot of the supplies needed:

  • Two complete octaves of scale blocks (see here for a post on how to make your own scale blocks!)
  • A set of plain blocks with each one containing only one note name
  • A block with Major and Minor written on alternating sides
  • A block with a sharp, flat, and natural sign drawn on alternating sides


This is a quick, fun activity that is easily adaptable to students of all ages and levels. Since Alyssa just started lessons last fall she is just finishing up learning all of her Major pentascales. So in her case, I just had her select a block with a note name and then roll the sharp, flat, natural sign block, then arrange the scale blocks according to the pattern for the Major pentascale.


  1. After students had drawn a note name block from my hand and rolled the other two blocks, I walked them through this process for figuring out the arrangement of the scale blocks:
  2. Find the two scale blocks with the given key name (Stephanie’s was e-flat minor, so she found the two e-flats and placed them at the beginning and end).
  3. Fill in the remaining note names in alphabetical order with no regard for which ones are sharps or flats.
  4. Review the pattern for the given type of scale (we just used the Major and natural minor scales today) and write it out on the board if necessary.
  5. Begin with the “tonic” and work your way through the whole and half steps, rotating the blocks as necessary to represent the scale (a couple of times when students were tempted to switch out a block for something else – especially those pesky white key flats and sharps – it was essential that they remember they could only use the block that was next alphabetically!).

Each of the students thoroughly enjoyed this activity, and it was neat to see how much they improved just in the short 5-10 minutes we used at the beginning of the lesson!

Fun Music Note Identification Review Game

In addition to providing a source of fun during lessons, incorporating hands-on games or activities are a great way to evaluate the student’s understanding of a particular musical concept. The 5 for Fun: games and activities for the private piano lesson booklet has a bunch of tried-and-true ideas that I’ve used with my students. But I’m also always trying to come up with new ideas to help reinforce or evaluate where my students are at. 

At our first lesson back after the first of the year I decided to do a quick evaluation of how my students were doing with quick note identification and placement. Ever since my embarrassing confession two years ago and the implementation of our NoteStars challenge, I try to be proactive in making sure that my students remain quick with their visual note recognition skills.

For this simple activity I placed little markers on random piano keys and then had the student place magnets on a music staff (I just printed staff lines on a sheet of transparency paper) to correlate with the markers on the keys. If necessary, they were to draw ledger lines to ensure accurate note placement. This proved to be a quick, fun, and effective way to launch each piano lesson!

New Free Music Theory Worksheet Find!

If you haven’t been over to MusicTheoryLessons.net lately, check out this incredible collection of free worksheets that you can download and use with your students! Since I rarely use theory books with my students, I am always on the lookout for specific worksheets that I can use to reinforce various concepts. These are also a great tool for ascertaining a student’s actual understanding of a particular music theory concept.

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Dan Vrancic, the teacher behind the website, also has a blog with some helpful blog posts for teachers and students alike. I’m excited to have this resource available, and I know I’ll be back often looking for just the right free music theory worksheet to download!

 

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! 🙂

Super Awesome Sight Readers!

If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to check out this excellent series of posts by Dr. Julie Knerr (one of the creators of the fabulous Piano Safari method!) on how to train students to be “Super Awesome Sight Readers.” This inspires me to remain dedicated to the process of guiding my students to become confident, excellent sight-readers!

Here’s a quick link to the posts along with my favorite quote from each one:

Part 1: It Takes A Long Time!

“It takes an average of three years of diligent work for children to become confident music readers. This means that as we work with students on their reading skill week after week, month after month, we should not become disheartened if a child who has been playing for a year or two still needs help to analyze and decode a piece or a sight reading card.”

Part 2: False Assumptions

“It is so important to lay the foundation correctly when developing a student’s relationship to the notated score!”

Part 3: The Four Ingredients for Confident Music Reading

“Reading music is a complex skill that requires not only knowledge of note names, but an incredible amount of spatial awareness on the page and in the hands, combined with rhythm in real time. “

Part 4: Ingredient #1 – Patterns and Theory

“Valuable insight into the student’s thought process can be gained by occasionally asking the student to be the teacher and explain to you how to play a piece.”

Part 5: Ingredient #2 – Contours and Intervals

“Repetition builds confidence and fluency.”

(Also, I love the idea of contour stories!)

Part 6: Ingredient #3 – Rhythm

“Not only can good readers intuitively read any rhythmic pattern immediately, but they have a great sense of the macro rhythm. When reading, they do not feel all the subdivisions. Instead, they are able to feel the large beat and fit all the subdivisions between the large beats almost automatically.”

Part 7: Ingredient #4 – Note Names

“The goal is for students to see a note and know it immediately, just as they see the letter “A” and know it is an “A” immediately.”

(Dr. Knerr uses an approach similar to the NoteStars Challenge that I use with my students.)

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!