Loving Piano Lessons

After one week back to teaching in the studio, I am reminded of the value of trying new ideas and approaches to connect with each student and engage them in the learning process in a meaningful and enjoyable way. The end result is that I love teaching more and they love their piano lessons more. A win-win! Here are a couple of new ideas we’re trying in the studio this year:

In keeping with our rhythm theme for this year’s practice incentive theme, I downloaded The Most Addicting Sheep Game app and it has been a huge hit! What a fun way to practice finding and keeping the pulse in music. We spent about 5 minutes making rhythm the coolest part of the lesson and then moved on to other assignments (perhaps with a bit better beat in our music!).

Have you ever wondered what to do with those high school students who love music, but struggle to make the time to devote consistent practice to their instrument? Well, this year two such students happen to be my boys. So, after a bit of brainstorming I decided to try something new to keep them engaged in learning and playing, but without the pressure of daily practice and progress. I printed each of them a For the Love of Music workbook and we spend about an hour each week going through it together. They are enjoying watching the video clips featuring a couple of my former students and deepening their own understanding of music. The only stipulation in addition to attending our weekly session is that they have to have something prepared to play for the monthly group class. It can be something learned by ear or from printed music, as long as it’s on the piano and ready to perform. Less pressure on them and less expectation from me and we’re all loving piano lessons more than before!

Treble Maker – a Fun 5-Minute Piano Lesson Game!

Matt, of Music For Little Learners, recently shared a link to their Treble Maker game with me and it looks fabulous! They have several sets of colorful cards you can download and print, depending on what you want to review with your student – note names, key signatures, symbols, tempi. The directions are simple to understand, and the play is quick and perfect for a few minutes of fun review at the beginning or end of a piano lesson – or any instrument! I can’t wait to try this out with my students and see how it goes!

Piano Explorer – A Rediscovered Gem!

Years ago, I subscribed to the Piano Explorer magazine for my studio, letting students take home a copy if they were interested and archiving the rest in a notebook for future reference. Eventually, I let my subscription expire and its existence faded from my memory. Something recently reminded me of the Piano Explorer and I decided to re-subscribe and give each of my students a copy this year to see if they enjoy it. (If you purchase a group subscription of 5 or more copies, it is only $6/subscription!) I’m also planning to incorporate some of the activities into our practice incentive theme for the year, so that might provide some extra motivation to check them out!

As I’ve been perusing the latest issues that arrived in the mail this month, I am reminded of what a great little gem this magazine is! Written especially for piano students, each 15 page issue has interesting articles, fun facts, engaging activities, and more. And now, there is even a companion Piano Explorer website that students can visit to watch pre-selected video clips of music from the composer of the month or listen to clips of the featured instrument. There’s also an online Teacher’s Guide with additional notes, a schedule of composers to be highlighted for the year, and answers to the kids’ activities.

Sneak Peek at Our New Studio Practice Incentive Theme

There are always a number of factors and considerations that go into developing a new practice incentive theme for our studio. This year, there were two primary inspirations. The first was a fervent request from one of my students (who also happens to be my daughter!) that we do a pirate theme of some sort. The second was a response by composer Wnne-Anne Rossi in the February/March 2017 issue of American Music Teacher. The question posed was, “How can you best assist a student who struggles with timing?” This paragraph from her response grabbed my attention:

“And yes, feeling rhythm is more important than thinking rhythm! The piano is a percussion instrument, and young pianists must act like drummers. Keep a drum on hand, and switch places at the piano. Assign sounds or words, like ‘boom-ditty-boom-yeah.’ Walk the beats. Enjoy rhythm as the ‘cool,’ playful part of the lesson.”

That last sentence, in particular, sparked an epiphany for me. “Enjoy rhythm as the ‘cool,’ playful part of the lesson.” This got my imagination spinning as I pondered the prospect of approaching rhythm in such a way as to make it the most fun part of the lesson. Rhythm has the potential to be so engaging and fun, and yet is so often relegated to the status of “necessary evil” in our effort to get our students to play a piece of music accurately. So…some of the details are still in development, but I’m super excited about how these inspirations are making their way into this year’s theme…

I’m planning to look into Wynn-Anne Rossi’s series, Latina Musica, and will be looking for lots of other resources and ideas to transform our studio into one where rhythm truly becomes the coolest part of every lesson!

AMT Inspiration – The Magic of William Gillock

After taking a break for a few years, this spring I had the privilege to adjudicate at several student events and thoroughly enjoyed the experience! I love having the opportunity to listen to students, encourage them in their musical studies, and give them positive feedback to help them improve as pianists. The article “The Magic of William Gillock, Part Two: Preparing Students for Adjudication” by Richard Rejino in the April/May 2017 issue of the American Music Teacher was particularly inspiring and helpful! The insights Mr. Rejino shares are helpful both for adjudicating and regular studio teaching. Here are a few excerpts I found particularly inspiring:

“When he [William Gillock] judged me [Toni Ausin-Allen] there was a consistency, a friendliness about him, and I felt he understood my playing. He showed this by the way he spoke to me. He didn’t speak to me like a judge, but rather as musician-to-musician. The words he chose were always very eloquent, and he wasn’t standoffish like many judges. He wanted to engage with students as peers, not as student/teacher.”

What a great reminder to approach and work with students as a fellow learner!

“As an adjudicator, Gillock began assessing the student from the moment she walked into the room. He urged teachers to always treat the student as if she were a guest in their home. He watched to see if she exhibited thoughtful preparation before playing. Was the student concerned about bench placement, posture? Was she poised, alert, the body relaxed? Was there unnecessary tension in the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders? He noted that both rhythm and tone are dependent on a relaxed upper body.”

How important it is that we remain conscientious of the physiological side of playing the piano and help students achieve technical freedom in their playing so that they can also attain musical excellence.

“Because of him, I listen first for musicality: dynamics, phrasing, tone quality, and attention to detail. I think kids these days are too busy and teachers struggle to show students how to find time to work on these things. But every average student has the right to play musically; every busy student has the right to play musically. So, if you have to, you give them less to work on.”

This is so true! I am amazed at the way students, even average students, respond when they hear themselves making beautiful music at the piano. We do our students a great disservice when we focus on the notes and rhythms to the exclusion of the dynamics and artistry of the music. Far better to give them less to work on in order to enable them to truly experience the beauty of the music!

Posture at the piano

One of the things that has been impressed on me over the years as I’ve grown in my understanding of proper piano technique is the importance of correct bench placement and height. This is often overlooked by pianists, but is essential for producing good tone quality, establishing correct hand position, and avoiding injuries. Here is a helpful page with explanations and pictures demonstrating proper bench height and posture at the piano: Proper Seating at the Piano

Also, here’s a post I wrote several years ago on Gravity, Strength, and Conduction – three areas I emphasize from the very first lesson to help students establish good technique habits.

Whack-It!

You should see students’ faces light up when I pull out our mini whackers and tell them that we are going to play Whack-It! at their lesson! This is by far one of the studio favorites! There are a lot of variations (several of which are included in 5 for Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson), but Alyssa and I came up with a new version that we’ve been having a blast playing the last couple of weeks.

Instead of me calling out the note name and her whacking the correct flashcard, I let her look over the cards and call out a note name, then I try to whack it before she does. We’ve done this several times now and she gets faster and faster at figuring out the note names. And of course she loves beating me to the flashcard!


Even though I don’t do a lot of summer lessons, this is such a great time to have fun focusing on mastering note names and any other theory concepts without the same pressure we often have during the year of learning and preparing repertoire for performances.

Piano – The Book

This beautiful, interactive ebook has accomplished what no other iPad game or resource has yet been able to accomplish – it has gotten me excited about using the iPad with my students in their lessons! As much as I love technology, I confess that although I’ve wanted to figure out ways to incorporate it effectively in my teaching, there just hasn’t been anything compelling enough to motivate me to make it happen yet.

Piano – Evolution Design & Performance by David Crombie has changed all that! From the minute I downloaded and opened the ebook on my iPad, I was drawn in by the gorgeous images, accompanied by related audio files. Students always seems astonished when I first inform them that the piano didn’t always exist. 🙂 I love introducing them to the piano’s predecessors, showing them pictures of ornate harpsichords, explaining the contrasting action, and letting them listen to a demo of a harpsichord sound on the studio Clavinova. Now, I’m super excited to be able to open up this ebook on my iPad, show them the full color images and listen to quality audio recordings as we discuss the history of the piano.

You can also explore the evolution of electric pianos, peruse myriad styles of pianos (ever heard of the rocking piano?!), learn how the action works in upright and grand pianos, find out about the history of dozens of piano houses, and even discover some of the science behind how sound is generated. So fun!

Can you tell I love this ebook? I don’t receive a penny for any sales from it, but highly recommend it to every piano teacher, student, and enthusiast as a go-to resource for information about this magnificent instrument. You can view additional screenshots and download it from the iTunes website.

You may also want to check out David Crombie’s World Piano News website for all-things piano:

What incredible resources we piano teachers have at our fingertips!