Learn From Your Musical Heroes – A Guest Post by Andy Trowers

The best musicians are truly inspiring. They evoke strong feelings through their playing. One of my favourite things is to listen to artists I admire and try to emulate the way they play or compose. You can learn so much from the way they express themselves in note placement, note selection, rhythmic patterns, and technique.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but many musicians neglect the listening side of music. Analysing a composition, whatever genre, is a key part of improving as a musician. It inspires ideas and enhances your ear, which is essential for improvisation. It’s even a great idea to listen to musical forms you don’t particularly like. You can often listen to them more objectively and gain unusual ideas that can be incorporated into the style you play in an innovative way.

Here are five of my favourite musicians and composers and what I learned from them.

Keith Richards

KeithRichards‘Keef’ Richards was the first musician I truly idolised. His guitar playing is understated and has one sole purpose – to deliver a great song. He is perhaps not the most technical of guitarists when it comes to solos but he is the undisputed master of catchy riffs. He taught me the importance of ‘weaving’ or blending in with other musicians as you play. Playing in the space other musicians leave is essential in a band situation and he epitomises this approach. His passion for blues also turned me on to some great old blues masters who have greatly influenced the way I play.

Stevie Wonder

StevieWonderStevie Wonder was born into music. A child prodigy, he signed to Tamla Motown at the age of 11 years old. He became blind at birth but didn’t let that stop him from becoming one of the most influential musicians of all time. His 1973 album Inner Visions is an acknowledged classic and he played most of the instruments you hear on the album. Whenever I listen to it, I am struck by its outrageous funkiness. His rhythmic playing is second to none, yet he also manages to incorporate beautiful melodies. This fusion of funk and catchy song writing is something that has inspired my own efforts at composition over the years.

Bob Dylan

BobDylanWith his gravelly voice and unkempt appearance, Bob Dylan is an unlikely pop star. He is a prolific songwriter, though, having written many famous hits performed by many different people. He recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature for song-writing.  His poetic lyrics have been a great influence on many songwriters over the years. His early work is based primarily on the acoustic guitar and I learned fingerpicking technique from it, essential for folk and blues playing.

Nina Simone

NinaSimoneThis classically trained pianist-turned-jazz-singer fought against prejudice to become an internationally acclaimed artist and songwriter. Her haunting voice and assured compositions defy description, yet are recognizable the world over. The way she fused classical music with jazz and soul to create a unique sound should be an inspiration to those looking for innovative directions in music.

 

Mozart

WolfgangMozartAnother child prodigy, Mozart was composing and performing in front of royalty by the age of five. He was a master of the classical art-form composing concertos, symphonies, operas, sonatas and string concertos. He created more than 600 works and influenced countless musicians throughout the generations. For me, his final unfinished requiem is a masterpiece. Though there is controversy over how much of the final piece is his, it is a striking example of dynamics in music. The ebb and flow of the music show how powerful near-silence and changes in volume and tempo can be in a piece.


Andy Trowers is a freelance writer and regular contributor to www.cheap.forsale and is the latest advertiser here at Music Matters Blog. We are grateful for his support of the online music education community! If you are interested in finding out more about how you can promote your company, event, or product, just send us an e-mail and we will let you know about our advertising packages.

The Best Way to Motivate Students

My husband shared this quote with me the other day and I thought it was very relevant to teaching students and learning to play an instrument:

“Action never follows motivation…It’s the other way around. When you act, motivation inevitably follows.”

I’ve seen over and over again that when students (or I!) make practicing a discipline and a priority in their lives, they become more motivated. So, in a nutshell, the best way to motivate students is to require them to practice. Because the more they practice, the more skilled they become, and the more motivated they will be!

[Read the whole article here.]

The Perfect Assignment Sheet for Piano Students

Somehow I just came across this fabulous compilation of free downloadable assignment sheets that Amy Chaplin, of the Piano Pantry blog, has either created or adapted! Even though I always create custom assignment books that correlate with our practice incentive theme for the year, I absolutely love the variety of ideas that Amy incorporates into these sheets. Whether you’re looking for an assignment sheet that includes helpful theory concepts, or one that outlines technique warm-ups, or even one that is based on specific practice tips, you’re sure to find one that is just the right fit for your students and studio!

Review and Giveaway of the Flexi Symphony Clip

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a far cry from a fashionista. My hairstyle and accessory choices are driven by whatever takes me the least time in the morning (because there are so many things I would rather do than spend time fixing my hair!). So when Jackie Adams, a Lilla Rose consultant, asked me to review her symphony hair clip, I confess that I was somewhat reluctant. But I decided to give it a try, and a few days later a complimentary beautiful flexi hair clip arrived in the mail.


I am a bit of a sucker for attractive packaging, so it probably helped that it arrived in a very cute little envelope with a full color brochure included. 🙂 However, I must say I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I like it! (After viewing the handy sizing chart video, I determined that the small would be the best fit for me.)


It is SO easy to just pull back the sides of my hair, stick in the flexi clip and go! What’s really impressive is that it doesn’t slide out like so many other barrettes and clips that I’ve tried.


So…if you’re curious to give this a try (or have a student who might enjoy it!) just leave a comment below to be entered in a drawing for your own symphony flexi clip! If you win, Jackie will contact you to get your size preference. In the meantime, feel free to check out the website for other products and visit her Facebook page for more info. The winner will be chosen using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, February 3!


Jackie Adams is the latest advertiser here at Music Matters Blog. We are grateful for her support of the online music education community! If you are interested in finding out more about how you can promote your company, event, or product, just send us an e-mail and we will let you know about our advertising packages.

The Speedy Scale Game for Piano Students!

As I mentioned last week, I love to incorporate a variety of games to reinforce and evaluate music theory concepts with my students. This week we tried a Speedy Scale game to help students develop visual-spatial skills (they weren’t allowed to look at the piano keyboard, but had to visualize it in their mind) and put their music scale theory knowledge into practice (they’ve all been memorizing scale patterns this year to earn Mental Miles as part of our Vanishing Voices practice incentive theme)!

Daniel caught on really quickly, so I talked him into doing a step-by-step video of how to play this game during a lesson:

Here’s a snapshot of the supplies needed:

  • Two complete octaves of scale blocks (see here for a post on how to make your own scale blocks!)
  • A set of plain blocks with each one containing only one note name
  • A block with Major and Minor written on alternating sides
  • A block with a sharp, flat, and natural sign drawn on alternating sides


This is a quick, fun activity that is easily adaptable to students of all ages and levels. Since Alyssa just started lessons last fall she is just finishing up learning all of her Major pentascales. So in her case, I just had her select a block with a note name and then roll the sharp, flat, natural sign block, then arrange the scale blocks according to the pattern for the Major pentascale.


  1. After students had drawn a note name block from my hand and rolled the other two blocks, I walked them through this process for figuring out the arrangement of the scale blocks:
  2. Find the two scale blocks with the given key name (Stephanie’s was e-flat minor, so she found the two e-flats and placed them at the beginning and end).
  3. Fill in the remaining note names in alphabetical order with no regard for which ones are sharps or flats.
  4. Review the pattern for the given type of scale (we just used the Major and natural minor scales today) and write it out on the board if necessary.
  5. Begin with the “tonic” and work your way through the whole and half steps, rotating the blocks as necessary to represent the scale (a couple of times when students were tempted to switch out a block for something else – especially those pesky white key flats and sharps – it was essential that they remember they could only use the block that was next alphabetically!).

Each of the students thoroughly enjoyed this activity, and it was neat to see how much they improved just in the short 5-10 minutes we used at the beginning of the lesson!

The Importance of Being Creative – A Guest Post by Andy Trowers

Creativity is one of the most important life skills a child can develop. Beyond musical or artistic benefits, creativity brings many advantages later in life. It improves problem-solving at work, allows greater expression, reduces stress, and helps makes connections with like-minded people. This post explores the benefits of creativity and how it can be nurtured, especially in children.

Creative1

There is a reason that coming up with answers is often referred to as “creative problem-solving.” It’s because creativity plays such an important part in coming up with solutions to the obstacles of everyday life. Whether at work or in general life, we are presented with issues that require a combination of creativity and knowledge to find the best path. Being creative helps people adapt to new situations more easily and can greatly improve career prospects.

Creativity is also a form of expression. Art, music and other creative forms let us explore feelings in a way that we feel comfortable with. Young people can gain a greater knowledge of themselves and the person they want to be by exploring emotions safely through art and music.

Creative2

It is well known that creative expression reduces stress and anxiety. It is often used as a form of therapy for sufferers of depression, as the very act of playing music or creating art can put you in a meditative state. In this state, studies have shown that positive emotions are increased while negative ones tend to withdraw. This is why art and creation go a long way to increase the happiness of a child.

Though some art-forms can be solo affairs, many also help connect people in a very real way. From joint art classes to playing in a band, or simply going to appreciate art, music, or photography, creative endeavours have a way of bringing people together. They are talking points and help human beings relate to each other and realise that we have shared experiences, no matter what colour or creed we are.

Creative3

Creativity also helps children learn. Throughout any kind of creative process, questions crop up time and time again. It makes the child think in ways and about things they wouldn’t normally do. It is brilliant for expanding a child’s knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

So how do you improve creativity? Here are my three top tips for helping children (and big kids) get their creative juices flowing.

1: Use it over and over again

Creativity is like a muscle – the more you use it, the better it works. With children, try many different creative mediums – painting, music, sculpture, drawing, or whatever art-forms are available. Each one has its own unique set of challenges and discipline that will help a child grow and develop.

2: Encourage a sense of freedom.

Let them explore new things with no sense that they might be doing it wrong. We learn at least as much from our mistakes as the things that end up going perfectly, especially at a young age.

3: Don’t force it

Ensure that each creative session is fun and not enforced. Nothing kills creativity quicker than the sense that you have to do something you don’t want to do. Children should look forward to it each time, not be told they have to do it.


Andy Trowers is a freelance writer and regular contributor to www.australia.for-sale.com and is the latest advertiser here at Music Matters Blog. We are grateful for his support of the online music education community! If you are interested in finding out more about how you can promote your company, event, or product, just send us an e-mail and we will let you know about our advertising packages.

Fun Music Note Identification Review Game

In addition to providing a source of fun during lessons, incorporating hands-on games or activities are a great way to evaluate the student’s understanding of a particular musical concept. The 5 for Fun: games and activities for the private piano lesson booklet has a bunch of tried-and-true ideas that I’ve used with my students. But I’m also always trying to come up with new ideas to help reinforce or evaluate where my students are at. 

At our first lesson back after the first of the year I decided to do a quick evaluation of how my students were doing with quick note identification and placement. Ever since my embarrassing confession two years ago and the implementation of our NoteStars challenge, I try to be proactive in making sure that my students remain quick with their visual note recognition skills.

For this simple activity I placed little markers on random piano keys and then had the student place magnets on a music staff (I just printed staff lines on a sheet of transparency paper) to correlate with the markers on the keys. If necessary, they were to draw ledger lines to ensure accurate note placement. This proved to be a quick, fun, and effective way to launch each piano lesson!

Teaching Music Cambodian Style – A Guest Post by Andy Trowers

Cambodia1

Music has always been my passion, whether listening, playing or teaching. I’ve been inspired by a great many musicians and always want to help others explore their musical side too; especially those with limited access to music. So when I got the chance to teach music at a Cambodian school, I leapt at it.

Cambodia2

I had visited the beautiful riverside town of Kampot, Cambodia some years previously and quickly fell in love with its relaxed atmosphere and creative spirit. It’s a small place with a lot of character. The famously friendly Cambodian people are at their warmest in this town and there is a sizable expat community, which makes for an incredible cultural melting pot of music, art and food.

So when I finished a work contract back home and felt my itchy traveller feet start to tingle, thoughts turned to Kampot. I contacted a friend from my previous visit and secured a volunteer post at a local school. I was to teach guitar and basic music theory to classes of under-privileged Cambodian kids.

Cambodia3

I arrived at the school excited for my first day. The classrooms were basic and a little shabby around the edges, floors covered with the pervasive red dust of Cambodian dry season. A gaggle of kids gathered outside playing.

We entered the sweltering classroom and the children set about sweeping up and opening window shutters to let the breeze through. Then they lined up. Standing in front of me in rows, they intoned in heavily accented English

“Hello teacher, how are you today?”

“I’m doing very well thanks. How are you?” I replied.

“I’m fine thanks you. And you?” they chorused.

Realising that I could easily get caught in a ‘thank you’ loop if I replied again, I nodded sagely and they all sat down.

As we started, I soon realised that I would have to re-evaluate my lofty lesson plans. There were around fifty children in the class and when asked through a translator if any played a musical instrument, none put their hands up. I had brought a guitar with me but with only one instrument in the whole school, it was going to be tricky.

I changed tack and played a song and asked them to clap along in time. It soon became apparent that clapping in time was problematic. As is often the way with kids, they would get excited and speed up, or slow down when they got bored.

I had a metronome app on my phone so I got them to clap in time and learned how to say ‘keep in time’, ‘faster’, and ‘slower’ to try and keep their beat steady. This gets dry quickly, so I varied it by playing games like ‘match the rhythm.’ One child would make up a four beat rhythm and the others would go around the circle matching it. When one person changed the rhythm, the circle would reverse and go back the other way with the new beat.

The classes I had varied in age from 6 year olds to 16 but the things I taught didn’t vary too much between classes. As there is no formalized music tuition, the older kids still needed to learn the basics like staying in time. Out of around 200 children that passed through my classes, only one played an instrument and he was self-taught.

Over time, I got them to make their own shakers and drums out of tin cans and corn kernels, which was great. Well, great for us. Not so much for the neighbouring classrooms. I also taught some basic songs to give the idea of melody. Singing songs in a foreign language is challenging, though, so I tried to learn some Khmer songs to make it more familiar. We touched on harmonies, too, but with hindsight, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is not the best song to teach Cambodian kids. The ‘r’ sound is practically unheard of out here so the lyrics were very difficult for them to grasp.

Despite their unfamiliarity with playing music, the children were amazing. They would do whatever I asked of them and they seemed excited to be at school learning. Education is seen as a privilege in Cambodia, and they would show their appreciation at the end of every lesson, lining up to say “Thank you, teacher.” If lessons went particularly well, they would high-five me on the way out.

By the end of my time at the school, they had improved rhythmically and knew something about melody, but it was all still very basic. These were children of rural folk and their parents wanted them to work on the farms in their spare time, not learn music. The biggest change was probably in me. I ended up staying in Cambodia and setting up a charity that buys instruments and teaching materials which get donated to local schools. I want to help improve access to music in this country which is full of music lovers but short on opportunities.


Andy Trowers is a freelance writer and regular contributor to www.for-sale.ie and is the latest advertiser here at Music Matters Blog. We are grateful for his support of the online music education community! If you are interested in finding out more about how you can promote your company, event, or product, just send us an e-mail and we will let you know about our advertising packages.

New Free Music Theory Worksheet Find!

If you haven’t been over to MusicTheoryLessons.net lately, check out this incredible collection of free worksheets that you can download and use with your students! Since I rarely use theory books with my students, I am always on the lookout for specific worksheets that I can use to reinforce various concepts. These are also a great tool for ascertaining a student’s actual understanding of a particular music theory concept.

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Dan Vrancic, the teacher behind the website, also has a blog with some helpful blog posts for teachers and students alike. I’m excited to have this resource available, and I know I’ll be back often looking for just the right free music theory worksheet to download!