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:

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!

Group Piano Class Highlights

Here’s a 1-minute video (created on my iPhone using the Videolicious app) of our first Vanishing Voices group piano class of the year!

We had a great time playing a round of Composer Trading, performing for each other, learning about Josquin Desprez, listening to a couple of his compositions, and attempting to decipher the Latin text (or at least a few key words!).

Note: Sorry for the choppiness of the sound with the music cutting in and out. I need to do a little more experimenting either with this app (if I buy the premium version) or with some other video app (any suggestions?) to see if there is a way to keep the music from the video clips going even when still shots are incorporated.

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!

The Seventh Annual Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition Winners

If you’re looking for some viewing and listening pleasure this summer, you might enjoy checking out these videos of the finalists and winners from the Seventh Annual Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.

The first prize winner, audience award winner, and press award winner was 38-year old Thomas Yu, a periodontist from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It’s not hard to see why! Here’s his final round performance of the third movement of the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, op .103 (“Egyptian”):

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!