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!

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.