Using Animals to Teach Piano Technique

Sometimes I feel a bit like the odd one out as a piano teacher who isn’t equal parts animal lover. But it’s true. I’d probably rather practice scales than pet your cute little kitten, no matter how soft it is, or how adorable it sounds when it purrs. That said, there’s something different about a wild animal. Maybe it’s that it’s okay to observe and appreciate it from a distance without getting fur or drool all over my clothing or having to clean out a litter box. Whatever the reason, the use of animals in Piano Safari has resonated with me, and I really enjoy the animals they have selected to represent various technique concepts.

When I was recently exploring their new website, I was excited to come across this video clip that gives a brief overview of each of the concepts and how to apply them:

I even watched it with a student who has just completed Level 2 as a way of quickly reviewing all of the techniques and then discussing which ones would apply in her new repertoire piece. Even if you’re not using the Piano Safari method, this is a great resource for helping students visualize and practice essential techniques at the piano!

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!

A Great Tool for Helping Piano Students Improve Sight Reading and Rhythm Skills

One of my favorite resources to help students develop their rhythm and sight reading skills is the Rhythm and Sight Reading cards from Piano Safari. These are great to use as a supplement even if you don’t use the method books. Levi agreed to demonstrate how we utilize these cards:

After tapping the rhythm pattern, they move to the piano keyboard and select one key for each hand, then for the final run-through they improvise using the rhythm pattern for each hand.

Levi has struggled for quite a while with his sight reading skills, so we tried something a few weeks ago that has worked wonders for him! Before playing through the line of music on the piano, he audiates (hums or vocalizes) the pattern while “ghost” playing the fingers on his lap that he will use to play the line on the piano.

He demonstrates the same approach for the bass clef pattern. It has been amazing to watch his skill (and even his enjoyment!) of sight reading develop just from this simple exercise!

Music is in [and on!] the Air!

We’ve had another fun week in the studio polishing up some cool piano pieces…

[“Cool Walkin'” by Melody Bober from Grand Solos for Piano, Book 3]

…recording important information (in our Mini Music Manuals, of course!)…

[It’s exciting to see the new level of ownership students are taking to really know all of their musical terms and symbols!]

…trying out our new Nessie Recording Mic

[I love utilizing technology to enhance the students’ musical experience and inspire them to greater heights in their piano playing!]

… and creating cool percussion tracks to accompany favorite repertoire.


[“Sneaky Ape” by Wendy Lynn Stevens from Piano Safari, Level 2]

Linstead Market – a Fun Piano Ensemble for 5 People!

At the beginning of September I mentioned a cool piano book I had come across called 4 Afro-Caribbean Songs for 5 Right Hands at 1 Piano. After much sweat and many hours of counting I am happy to report that we were able to pull together the lively Linstead Market arrangement. I think everyone is beginning to grasp the necessity of learning how to count rhythms precisely while also listening to how all the parts work together to create the whole. Mission accomplished!

Hopefully there will be many more ensembles to come in the days ahead!

Just Make it Up

Sometimes when students are preparing for a performance I encourage them to “improvise” when they get stuck or have a memory lapse. Some students understand this, but for others who are younger or more concrete thinkers, I found a very simple phrase this week to help them keep going in a performance. Around 1:27 in the following video you’ll hear Claire say, “I forgot that part.” All I had to say was “Just make it up” for her to turn right back around and keep playing. For Claire, who is highly literal, this phrase made perfect sense and she was able to improvise some chords until she got back on track. It’s simple, but I have heard it said that it’s better to teach the same thing seven different ways than seven things one way. Now I have one more easy way to teach students to keep going through any performance!

[This is a lovely arrangement of The First Noel by Melody Bober in the book, In Recital! with Christmas Favorites, compiled by Helen Marlais]

Sacred Christmas Volume 2 – Giveaway #3

Do you have those composers that you love to play? You wait expectantly for their next release? You know that when you sit down to play through their work that it will be a treat for your ears? Even though I am not a fan of hearing Christmas music ad nauseam this time of year, ever since I first played James Koerts’ Wondrous Christmas selections a few years ago, I approach playing his arrangements with more delight than dread, certain that it will be an enjoyable experience. And I was not disappointed when I sat down for an hour with his latest book, Sacred Christmas, Volume 2!

Also, having just participated in George Litterst’s live webinar on Making Sense Out of Digital Scores, I resisted the urge to print out the 50 pages and instead gave them a run-through on my iPad mini. True to past experience, I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of very accessible intermediate arrangements. I particularly liked the cool factor of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” If you’ll forgive my less-than-stellar rendition of it, you can watch my recording of the arrangement (even though it’s not polished hopefully it will give you a good idea of the style):

Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for…James has kindly offered to giveaway one copy of Sacred Christmas, Volume 2, to a Music Matters Blog reader! Just leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winners will be drawn on Friday, December 11, at noon (CST) using a random number generator. This will provide some great playing time for you or an intermediate level piano student in your studio!

Highlights from Day 5 of Carnival of the Animals Music Camp


Day 5 of our Carnival of the Animals music camp has arrived! We played the ever-popular Guess-It! game as a way of reviewing all that we’ve learned so far this week.

The Science of Sound today explores two remarkable instruments – the piano and the glass armonica.


Students use their music vocabulary knowledge to attempt to translate the meaning of Cristofori’s original name for his musical instrument invention: the gravicembalo col piano e forte.

Next everyone gets to take a turn trying to produce a tone similar to one on a glass armonica by rubbing their finger around the rim of a wine glass containing water.

Wrapping up a fun week for a crazy bunch!

Reviewing proper performance procedures before the parents arrive. These admittedly cheesy performance signs still seem to do the trick of helping students visualize and remember each aspect of their performance!

Let’s practice bowing!

The parents are here and we are ready to entertain them with our own original Carnival of the Animals! Each student has written a brief narration to introduce their composition (ala Ogden Nash) – love the clever creativity!


Levi plays The Shark


Elise plays Dancing Turtles


Daniel plays Spy Cheetah


Stephanie plays An Elephant’s Life


Claire plays Swan Lake

Creativity on Heart and Soul

Have you ever had a student come into their lesson thrilled to show you the new song that their friend just taught them? Only to discover that it’s at the top of every piano teacher’s list of Most Disliked Songs? You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you? Yup. Heart and Soul. But, as much as you might want to plug your ears and scream the next time you hear it, the reality is that students love playing it! Plus, it can serve as the perfect tool for learning to improvise freely using the chord progression in it. In this video Claire demonstrates the Heart and Soul remix she came up with just for fun: