AMT Inspiration – Ask My Piano Students Better Questions

One of the perks of being an MTNA member is a subscription to their bi-monthly publication, American Music Teacher. I enjoy reading each issue and always take away some sort of inspiration for my teaching. Instead of keeping it to myself, I thought it would be fun to start a specific section here on Music Matters Blog to share some of the great thoughts and ideas with you!

In the April/May issue, Courtney Crappell, NCTM, in his regular column writes about the importance of “Fine Tuning Our Questions to Engage Modern Students.” He draws on the ability of a good story, especially a mystery, to capture our attention and engage our senses, and then encourages teachers to trade in our blase (“Did you practice this week?”) or generic (“What kind of piece is this?”) questions for ones that elicit more excitement and thoughtfulness (“How does this piece make you feel?”).

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve asked such unproductive questions in my lessons, so this is especially challenging for me! He makes his case effectively, though, when he asserts that:

“Music lessons designed to promote discovery through effective questioning also serve as models for our students’ practice sessions. Their most productive practice sessions will include periods of thoughtful exploration rather than simple repetition of physical motions. The questions we ask in lessons will ideally become the questions they ask themselves in practice.”

And I love this perspective on  lessons as a whole and practice in particular:

“We need our music lessons and their practice sessions to feel as engaging as reading a good story. They must feel the need to solve the mystery and discover solutions for themselves, and if they do, we can feel confident that they will be hooked into lifelong learning.”

The wheels are spinning, and I’m excited to consider how I can become more of a storyteller who  effectively engages students in the thrill of discovery in their lessons and subsequent practicing!

New Piano Practice Incentive Theme – C2: Igniting the Power Within! – Save $5

We finished up a wonderful year of piano lessons and this year’s theme – C2: Igniting the Power Within! – was  ton of fun! C2 is designed to emphasize the equal importance of developing character and competence to be a successful musician. It incorporates a rating system for each assignment and the overall lesson attitude that is similar to those used in corporate settings to evaluate employees. The idea is for students to consistently look for ways to go above and beyond, taking ownership for their own development as musicians.

C2 is a practice incentive theme to integrate with any teaching method and approach. Because it emphasizes character and competence, students of all ages and levels can work at their own pace and experience great success! If you’re looking for something new and exciting to launch in your studio this fall, you can save $5 on your copy of the C2 practice incentive theme from now until the end of June. Just enter the coupon code SUMMER when you checkout to receive your discount.

I’m looking forward to an exciting summer and hope to be posting semi-regularly again. We’ll see how that goes! :-)

Year End Awards Ceremony and Piano Recital

For the conclusion of our C2 practice incentive theme this year, we had a special awards ceremony in conjunction with a studio recital this Monday evening. We began the evening with a couple rounds of Musical Wheel of Fortune, then moved into student performances.


Levi performs “Little Robot”


Daniel performs his own arrangement of Viva La Vida”


Heidi performs the theme from Beauty and the Beast

After each of the students performed, I recognized them for their growth in character and competence throughout the year, identifying a particular power card from our theme that I thought best represented each student. After sharing a little about their growth they got to select their choice of an award: a selection of mugs filled with various goodies.

Mercy is the top point scorer for the year and receives “The Battery Award” for the way she energizes others with her enthusiasm and hard work!

After they selected their awards I asked them what made them choose the award they did. Interestingly (thankfully!) each of them chose based on the content in the mug. I asked them how that content got there. They quickly replied that I put it there.


Levi is given “The Engine Award” for his demonstration of steady, dependable character throughout the year.

So I made the point that just like they chose the mug they wanted based on the content they wanted from it and that content was placed there intentionally, they will only be able to get out of life what is placed into it. In other words, if they want to be a responsible, dependable, trustworthy person, they have to put those qualities into their lives. And if they want to be an excellent, artistic pianist, they have to put those skills into their lives. And then I reminded them of our theme verse for this year:

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.” Ephesians 3:20-21

There is a power greater than any power in the world that will enable them to accomplish even more than what their minds can imagine right now! I can’t wait to see how that plays out in each of their lives as they seek God and let Him grow them in character and competence in music and every other area of life!

And of course we ended the evening with a time of snacks and fellowship!

I’m so grateful for an awesome group of students and families!

Want Students to Advance More Quickly and Have a More Solid Foundation?

Growing up my Dad always told me that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That truism has served me well, but there are always a few exceptions. And this is one of them. It’s been a while since I first wrote about my foray into Piano Safari (ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote about much of anything!), but I love this method even more now than when I began using it!

Piano Safari Repertoire

I believe it is accomplishing exactly what its creators (Julie Knerr and Katie Fisher) intended – a solid foundation in the fundamentals of reading music notation while simultaneously developing fluency at the piano, thus enabling students to experience more musically interesting pieces sooner and advance to more challenging repertoire more quickly. All of my students who began with Level 1 have now moved into Level 2, and are doing a fabulous job!

Piano Safari Repertoire


Here’s a snapshot of Stephanie playing Flamingo Dancers. The crazy thing is that even though it is intended to be a rote learning piece, she was so anxious to learn it that she read the notes and figured it out on her own!

 Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards

The note reading skills are a combination of the NoteStars Challenge that I began with all my students in January and the fabulous Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards that are a part of the Piano Safari method.

Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards

The cards are very well sequenced and can be used in so many different ways to help students achieve mastery at reading music! (I’ve begun a Rhythm Masters Challenge that utilizes all three levels of the Piano Safari Sight Reading and Rhythm Cards that I’m hoping to write about soon!)

Piano Safari Technique Book

The accompanying Technique book is likewise a treasure trove of effective teaching exercises that are simple enough for the students to read and learn, enabling them to gain the technical skills necessary to play them well. Each one includes checkboxes to encourage transposition, and most of my students have no trouble easily switching from key to key (more than I can say for myself at their age!).

Piano Safari is not a magic pill that will make all of your students amazing pianists, but if you take the time to fully understand, appreciate, and implement this method (I definitely recommend watching the videos on the website, going through the Teacher Guides, and reading the Mini Essays!), I think you’ll be amazed at what your students are capable of at a young age. Not to mention how much they (and you!) will enjoy the process because of the musically rich pieces and experiences you will have along the way!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of Piano Safari Level 2 for review purposes, but received no other compensation. The views expressed above are my own.

Playground Sessions

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Created by world-class musicians and instructors, Playground Sessions offers a 21st century approach to learning to play the piano and has received notoriety from celebrities, music cooperations, and people around the globe.

The drive behind Playground Sessions is to learn to play the piano by playing. So, the interactive software was designed with three specific components in mind to make learning to play as fun and enjoyable as possible. In David Sides’ (Playground’s co-creator & video teacher) own words during a TV interview, he said, “the idea behind it [Playground Sessions] is to combine gaming elements, social features, and popular songs…to teach them how to play…” With these three things, as well as the interactive aspect and the ability to learn right from the comfort of your own living room, I believe this product hit right on the money with all the 21st century pianist wannabes out there.

I haven’t tried Playground Sessions myself, but I think it’s a fantastic resource especially for those who don’t have access to a good piano teacher, or are interested in a more self-taught method, or are needing motivation in a music class! :) However, after personally having such a great experience with a “real” piano teacher, I believe the value of having a good teacher beside you during a lesson can’t be replaced by software. Overall, I just don’t think a software program will ever be able to outdo a good teacher’s ability to help you not only learn to play an instrument but also become a well-rounded musician, which I think can be vitally important in learning an instrument. But even with all of that said, I still think Playground Sessions is a wonderful invention and it’s certainly time period appropriate!

Get a better idea of how Playground Sessions works by watching this:

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“Music is an incredible thing. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it, and you can’t taste it, but you sure can feel it. Melody is the voice of God.”

– Quincy Jones
The all-time most nominated Grammy artist & co-creator of Playground Sessions

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:

New Sample Pages Added to the Store!

Many of you have requested the ability to see sample pages of the piano Practice Incentive Theme Packages and the Piano Camp Lesson Plans, so I’m excited to report that you can now view samples of every product available in the Music Matters Blog Store! I know many of you are busy getting ready for summer piano camps, and a few overachieving teachers are even planning ahead for next year’s practice incentive theme (I am not one of those!), so as a special thank you for your patience I am offering a special $5 off coupon for any item in the store in honor of the completion of this project! Just enter the following code when you checkout to have the discount applied to your cart: Sample

Also, be sure to check out what other teachers have to say about using these games, piano camps, and practice incentives on the Testimonials page.

I am just beginning to consider piano camp plans for this summer, so if you have any favorite ideas or resources, feel free to share them! For those thinking about offering a piano camp for the first time this year, here are several blog posts to help you get started:

Piano Camp Logistics – http://musicmattersblog.com/2010/06/28/monday-mailbag-piano-camp-logistics/

Planning Piano Camps – http://musicmattersblog.com/2011/04/11/monday-mailbag-planning-piano-camps/

More About Planning Piano Camps – http://musicmattersblog.com/2009/05/18/monday-mailbag-more-about-planning-piano-camps/

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Piano Technique – A Guest Post by Doug Hanvey

A Word from Natalie: Perhaps the most impactful thing I have learned in my years of playing and teaching piano is the importance of understanding and properly using the body to achieve artistic playing with the greatest ease. The three greatest catalysts of this in my own education were: my teacher and mentor, Sylvia Coats, attending a one-week Suzuki teacher training led by Doris Koppelman, and the fabulous workshops of Beth Grace on Beyond Scales and Hanon. I have experienced first-hand the immeasurable value of using proper technique when playing piano, and I have seen students (both my own, transfer students, and students I have taught in masterclass settings) suddenly accomplish musically or technically what they didn’t think was possible when I help them understand the basic principles of Gravity, Strength, and Conduction. So I am excited to host Doug Hanvey as a guest today because he touches on some of these issues that have been “game-changing” for me. I hope his points pique your interest and propel you to either begin or continue your journey to understanding the amazing design of the human body and how it can be maximally employed by you and your students to become excellent pianists!


1. Anatomy Is the Foundation of Technique

Seems like anatomy should be part of piano pedagogy, but did your musical mentors teach you much about it? Maybe you think of your body like a car – as long as it’s running, and a mechanic is only a phone call away, there’s no pressing need to understand how it works. While we “use” the body to play piano like we use a car to drive over to Aunt Edna’s, the body is not the same as a car. You are in command of your body’s movements to an infinitely greater degree than the mostly automated, mechanical motions of a car. And these movements are infinitely more complex than a car’s will ever be. A correct and thorough understanding of how your body works to play piano can only be to your advantage.

2. Your Body Does Not Control How You Play

Every piano player has a “body map,” an internal representation of the body that is used to determine how you move to play. Strictly speaking, it is your body map, not your body, that determines your movements. Unfortunately, a body map may be inaccurate or even outdated. But just as the explorers who followed Columbus made ever more accurate maps of the New World, we can make a more accurate body map based on our understanding of anatomy suffused with an inclusive awareness of the body.

3. Concentration Can Impede Healthy Technique

The concentration demanded of pianists can contribute to unhealthy technique. Concentration is one-pointed attention. When we are concentrated – for example, on the music in front of us – we may be less than fully aware (or not aware at all) of our body, breathing, and movements. This doesn’t mean you should stop concentrating, but consider the value of bringing more awareness of the body and its movements into each moment of playing.

4. You Should “Map” the Whole Body

You should understand, feel, and “map” your whole body, not just the arms and hands. For example, the arms and hands aren’t separate from the spine, which bears so much of the body’s weight and is directly relevant to technique. (Interestingly, it is the front part of the spine, closest to the center of the body, that is the weight-bearing part, not the bony structure running down the back that we usually think of as the spine.) By becoming aware of the support provided by the spine we can enhance the efficient movement of the arms and hands.

5. Balance Is More Important Than Posture

If you feel like it takes a lot of effort to sit up straight, you may not be in balance. When you are balanced your skeleton supports your posture with minimal effort required. If you are out of balance, you are probably using muscular effort to maintain your posture, which can lead to chronic tension and contaminate efficient movement in other parts of the body.

6. Resolving Neck Tension Is Vital

Most people these days carry unnecessary neck tension. (As I type this I’m well aware that I’m one of them.) Neck tension can be particularly detrimental for pianists. It can hinder arm movement and even inhibit healthy nerve impulses to the arms. A relaxed neck helps us play with a freer motion and supports optimal balance (see above). If you carry habitual neck tension, do what you can to resolve it so it doesn’t affect your playing in the long term.

7. Bench Height Is More Important Than You Thought

An optimal bench height keeps your elbows on about the same level as the tops of the white keys, giving you the best mechanical advantage for playing. Many, if not most, benches are too low for most people.

8. Your Fingers are Not Attached to Your Hands

If I asked you where your fingers begin, you would probably point to your knuckles. But the fingers are actually attached to the wrist! Try moving your fingers right now and see if you can feel this for yourself. (This is an example of what is involved in developing an accurate body map.)

To learn more about anatomy and body mapping, check out Thomas Mark’s What Every Pianist Needs To Know About the Body. Mark’s book contains valuable information for piano teachers, pianists who want to develop the best possible technique, pianists who have been injured, and pianists who want to avoid injury – meaning just about everyone that plays the piano.


Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, OR. He writes educational articles for piano students and piano teachers on his studio website’s blog, which can be found at the above link.

Giveaway Winners

Congrats to Kathy, Loraine, and Josette, who won a copy of James Michael Stevens’ Relaxing & Romantic Piano Vol. II!

I was made aware a few days ago that Mr. Stevens’ home recently caught fire by accident while someone was cooking. Although there was substantial damage done, his home can be repaired. However, because he does his music work out of his home, he currently can’t access his equipment and is unable to compose right now-and he’s in the middle of working on something.

Praise God Mr Stevens’ home was not completely destroyed and that no one was hurt! Please keep him in your prayers!

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
~James 1:2-4~