Increasing Inspiration in Your Studio, Part 2 – A Guest Post by Improv Pianist Anna Ferraro

Note from Natalie: Be sure to enter the drawing for your own copy of Anna’s newest album, “Where Glory Dwells.”

And…we’re back! With part two in this mini-series. As I mentioned before, the motivation behind everything I do in my studio is to inspire my students to excellence. However, I find that it is not crucial if my students are inspired with me.

The students that thrive are the ones that are inspired with themselves, and with the teacher who mines the depths of their individual creativity to create beauty.

Here is a continuation of ideas to help guide you through the process of inspiring your students with their own creativity.

5) Provide a simple framework for transcription of their ideas.

Once students are comfortable talking about their own ideas and even playing some of them on the piano, it’s time for them to transcribe them, so they can be practiced and preserved. Now, many students are daunted by just reading our complex musical notation system. So forget writing it, right? Wrong! Music is a language of its own, and if we are to train our students to be proficient in using this language, that has to include writing, not just reading (what would we think of an English student who could not write a sentence or a paragraph? I rest my case).

Agree with your students that actually writing full notation on the grand staff is a bit like writing in Chinese or German. However, it can be simplified, and provided that students are given bite-sized assignments, they can learn to do this! How? Begin with what they know and do in school – words and pictures. In sentence or bullet format (older students), or through simple pictures (younger students), have them list the ideas they have for their songs. Then, choose one idea to develop (ex. “Sledding”). Take that idea and find sub-ideas (ex. Climbing the hill, wind in my face, speed on the slope). In those ideas, discuss the emotions and physical feelings they would experience in each idea (breathless, cold, excited, etc). After identifying feelings, find a simple musical sound that can go with each idea – these sounds are the backbone of the piece. Have students then begin with “invented notation” – where symbols and shapes demonstrate sound (see picture). For this, I highly recommend the book, “Can I Play You My Song,” by Rena Upitis – this provided me with fantastic ideas for bringing notation down to my students’ level.

6) Learn and use the “tools of the trade”

Every student needs a toolbox of technique, and we teachers recognize that as we train little fingers – scales, chords, arpeggios, ornaments, octaves, and more. However, these technical tools are our creative tools as well! Do your students know that the famous and sparkling opening passage of Mozart’s Sonata in C major is simply… scales? They need to know this! And they need to know that they can create beauty out of those simple building-blocks as well! To continue with our “Sledding Song” example, show your student how a chromatic scale has the feeling of climbing mini steps, how tightly formed diminished chords sound icy, and how cheery descending major scales sound much like a sled ride! There you have it…a mini masterpiece in the making! Then, in each section mentioned above, form a motif – a 3-7 note musical pattern that they will repeat with variations to form a well-structured sound.

7) Remember that “great artists steal”

Mozart stole ideas from Bach. Chopin stole ideas from Mozart. Everybody and their students’ since wants to use sounds from Chopin. Have your student begin with the concept of a motif borrowed from a famous classical piece, or from your students’ own lesson book. Motifs can also be found in church or pop music – the sky’s the limit! Just find them! From there, they’re ready to learn about motivic development. While it sounds fancy, your students need to know that it’s simple. Show them the ways you can vary a three-note pattern – playing it fast or slow, loud or soft, major or minor, with embellishments, transposing it onto different keys, etc. This is big stuff – and it can be practiced for months. The practice is worth it, because motivic development, in essence, is the biggest part of composition.

8) Keep assignments specific

Nothing is more frightening to a student than the feeling that they don’t understand something. Clarity and specificity save the day in composition class! Use clear commands to guide your student through creating a song of their own. One assignment that has helped my students overcome their fear of creating their own music is to give them small and specific mini-improv assignments in their daily warm-ups – “Play as many sounds from the D major scale as possible in one minute.” Or, “Using these three chords (G, D7, and C), repeat them in all octaves of the piano for one minute straight in quarter and eighth notes. The only rule is, you can’t stop.”

9) Just do it

Yes, there is always fear in stepping into the unknown. However, start small. Begin by discussing what it means to be creative. Show them how you have navigated this process and the immense enjoyment it has brought to you. And then progress slowly through the other ideas outlined above, checking out some of the recommended resources and fueling the process through your own research and creativity. Over time, the application of these concepts into your studio can be a launchpad into inspiring your students – not with yourself, but with themselves.

Do you have questions or comments? Send me a message:

Read Increasing Inspiration in Your Studio, Part 1 here.

Please note: Some links above are affiliate links that enable us to receive a small commission from purchases made through them. We are so grateful for the support of teachers and musicians who use our affiliate links to help offset the costs of running Music Matters Blog and providing free resources for music teachers!

Increasing Inspiration in Your Studio, Part 1 – A Guest Post by Improv Pianist Anna Ferraro

Note from Natalie: Be sure to enter the drawing for your own copy of Anna’s newest album, “Where Glory Dwells.”

The motivation behind everything we do in our studios as piano teachers is to inspire our students to excellence. However, I find that it is not crucial if my students are inspired with me.

The students that thrive are the ones that are inspired with themselves, and with the teacher who mines the depths of their individual creativity to create beauty.

We do this in our repertoire, of course – as we work to interpret our music expressively. But the turning point for many of my students being inspired with their music occurs when they improvise and compose – and are able to express themselves. Sometimes it’s because they see me do it in the albums I have released. But more often than not, it’s more because they simply want to express themselves, and they want to do that on their own level, and in their own way.

As I’ve worked to cultivate more inspiration in my students through encouraging their own creativity, I’ve sifted through countless books, blogs, podcasts, lectures, and classes in regards to improvisation. Along the way, I formed a sequence of principles that guide me as I build a creative skill set into each one of my students. Obviously, the lesson plans behind these concepts are much more complex, and if you’d like to see them in more detail, send me a message through my website ( Here, I’ve outlined the most important of these principles into this two-part blog series for your enjoyment and benefit.

1) Improvise and compose yourself

As with all parts of teaching piano, never ask your students to do something that you yourself cannot do. Before you think about bringing improvisation and composition into your lessons, you need to be proficient at it yourself. Check out Greg Howlett’s piano improvisation courses, or Forrest Kinney’s “Pattern Play” series – work through the materials and see what works for you. Browse the internet and Youtube for ideas and demonstrations from folks who are doing this on their pianos every day. Choose from there what you would like your students to do.  

2) Begin with duets

Many of the methods in use today incorporate regular duets between teacher and student. As you do these, ask your students to create their own endings, or bridges from one piece into the next, using the patterns they have just played. You can also create from scratch – beginning with a simple texture of your own in the bass (ex. quarter notes on a C major chord). Have the student listen for a moment, then invite them to join in when they are ready. Be sure to give them a specific instruction – “please play half notes that match my beat on ONLY the white keys.” Next, “please use quarter notes and eighth notes together, on just the white keys.” As the student finds enjoyment and confidence in each mini step, invite them to join you on the next step, as you gradually increase complexity.

3) Start by creating in group classes

Think about it. Students take private lessons. They practice on their own or with a parent/guardian. They perform solo pieces. And at the end of the week, piano is a rather “private thing.” No wonder some students feel more fueled at basketball practice – they’re on a team, and together, the team does great things! Regular group classes help students realize that they are not alone, and can be the springboard to launching your studio to a new level of enthusiasm and creativity. They are also encouraging for parents, as the parents observe the progress of other students, and see that they are not alone either. When it comes to creating songs and brainstorming ideas for compositions, students can glean from fellow students. Invite these brainstorming sessions into your group classes. It’s inspiring to be a part of a creative team, and more fun!

4) Invite curiosity about songs

Converse with each student in their private lesson and the group setting about the content of their songs. Together, analyze the building blocks of the piece they just played. Here are a few examples to get started: Which scale was used? Which chords were played? Why were these dynamic marks chosen? How does the pedaling pattern tie the piece together? How did they feel as they played it? What pictures come into their minds as they look at the title? For very young students, look at the finger patterns and numbers, the simple 5-note scales that are used, etc. Ask your students, “since you have those same tools, can you play me a two-measure pattern similar to this one?”

While these elementary suggestions seem small, they are a feasible and encouraging way for you to develop creativity and inspiration in your students. Remember, it’s not crucial if your students are inspired with you. You want them to be inspired with themselves! We’ll discuss some of the tools you can use in the next part of this blog series…

Please note: Some links above are affiliate links that enable us to receive a small commission from purchases made through them. We are so grateful for the support of teachers and musicians who use our affiliate links to help offset the costs of running Music Matters Blog and providing free resources for music teachers!

Giveaway of New Album by Amazing Improv Pianist Anna Ferraro

As a young teenager I remember watching gifted pianists open up a piece of simple sheet music and proceed to flood the air with musical beauty that seemed to come out of nowhere. I was baffled (and more than a little jealous!). It was beyond my stick-to-the-music-trained brain’s ability to comprehend how someone could know what keys to play if it wasn’t on the page in front of them. Through painstaking investigation and instruction, I gradually learned to diverge from printed music and experience a taste of the wonderful world of improvisation. In all of my experiences, however, I must say that I don’t think I’ve ever come across a pianist as gifted at improvisation as Anna Ferraro.

I’m thrilled that Anna has agreed to offer a giveaway of her new album, “Where Glory Dwells,” to one special Music Matters Blog reader! She’ll also be joining us this week with a couple of guest posts about how to teach improvisation to your students. Just leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing to win your own copy of this inspirational music. A winner will be selected using a random number generator next Friday, March 30, at 12:00 noon CST.

Split End Arpeggios at the Piano

One of the approaches that I encourage my students to use to help them become fluent in piano arpeggios is a hands together pattern that one of my teachers showed me years ago. I could never remember the name of them, so I finally tasked one of my creative students with determining a name and then demonstrating it via a short video presentation that I could share with other students in the future. Stephanie came up with the perfect name: Split End Arpeggios. Here’s her one-minute video explaining how to play them. Thanks, Stephanie!

Free Downloadable Sheet Music from Sovereign Grace Music

I’m not sure if I’ve been living under a rock or what, but I just discovered that on the Sovereign Grace Music website, you can search through all of their available songs and access lyrics (in multiple languages!) downloadable guitar charts, lead sheets, and piano scores – all for free! Each song’s page also contains an embedded video with a recording of the song. This is a tremendous resource for students who are learning to read and play lead sheets and looking to gain experience so that they can play with church worship teams. I am so excited to use this with my students!

Three Fun Rhythm-Related Stations for Piano Group Class

In keeping with our Beat the Pirates! practice incentive theme this year, we are incorporating rhythm activities into each of our monthly group piano classes. This week’s group class turned out to be quite the hit! I set up three stations and placed the students in pairs, then they rotated through each station. Here’s a snapshot of each station:

The first station included a laptop and the educational game, Compose Yourself. The students could input and then listen to a playback of each card with various rhythmic and melodic patterns. Here’s a link to the “Speghetti Song” that Stephanie and Violet created. When we all gathered back in the studio, each pair played back their composition on the laptop for the rest of our listening pleasure.

The second station was a “Familiar Tunes” challenge. An envelope was filled with slips of paper containing the names of familiar tunes. Together, the students were to see how many tunes they could pick out by ear in the allotted time. When we gathered in between the rounds, they selected and shared one that they had learned with the other groups.

The third station included a basket of rhythm instruments and the game, “Tapping Telephones.” Using the Directory cards, the students started at Level A and worked through the cards to see how many levels they could get through playing the instruments together. They shared their rhythmic accomplishment with the rest of us when we reconvened in the studio!

Please note: Some links above are affiliate links that enable us to receive a small commission from purchases made through them. We are so grateful for the support of teachers and musicians who use our affiliate links to help offset the costs of running Music Matters Blog and providing free resources for music teachers!

Tutorful’s Ultimate List for Learning to Play the Piano

The acclaimed UK website for connecting students with tutors in various subjects, Tutorful, has compiled a huge list of resources for those interested in learning to play the piano. From apps to YouTube videos to websites to books and ebooks (including our Daily Practice Guide!), you could spend hours perusing these suggested resources. Thankfully, post author, Rachael S, gives a brief synopsis of each recommendation to help lead interested pianists and students down the most relevant path. It’s nice to have a collection of resources like this in one place as a starting point for discovering new or helpful ideas to use with my students!

I see the pattern!

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is leading students to a discovery of knowledge. Renowned pedagogue Frances Clark reminded us, “Teaching is not telling.” As easy, and seemingly efficient, as it is to fall into the rut of telling students what I want them to know, the reality is that they will almost assuredly remember what they discover and experience for themselves far longer than they will retain the words that I speak. That is one of the primary reasons that I incorporate games into our piano lessons. Games are an opportunity to both evaluate a student’s knowledge and understanding of a particular concept and to lead them to new and exciting discoveries.

At Claire’s lesson, when she struggled to correctly identify the key signature flashcards while playing her favorite “Whack-It!” game (a selection from the book “5 for Fun! Games and Activities for the Private Piano Lesson“), I knew we needed to do something to help her better understand key signatures. I pulled out a set of key signature flashcards and our jar of scale blocks and had her start by lining up the notes of a C-Major scale under the key signature flashcard for C-Major. Next, we set down the flashcard with 1 sharp (G-Major) and I slightly moved the last four blocks of the C-Major scale down under that flashcard, then asked her to finish lining up scale blocks for the notes of the G-Major scale. I did the same thing with the flashcard and scale blocks for the D-Major scale and then her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “I see the pattern!” She was able to effortlessly complete the [not so circular!] Circle of 5ths and see how every key related to the next and moved progressively. Like everything, this will require repetition, but it’s sure fun to see the proverbial light bulb going off in students’ minds, isn’t it?

A Lovely Night

Due to a number of unexpected circumstances last year, I made the difficult decision not to host any kind of Christmas recital for my students (after 20 years of that annual tradition!). Instead, my husband suggested that we do something for Valentine’s Day. I decided to give his idea a try, and we had an awesome concert last Friday night that several of my students and their families commented they preferred over the traditional Christmas recital.

We distributed invitations to all of the neighbors in our court and received a great response! It is so valuable for students to have the opportunity to share their music with others in a welcoming environment. Here are a few shots from the evening:

I’m so grateful to have a Clavinova in my studio that I can easily move upstairs for these concerts. Once we rearrange all of our furniture and bring in folding chairs, we can accommodate an audience of around 25 people.

My ever-willing-to-help husband agreed to be our reader for the evening, and shared several selections that included a poem, a Shakespeare sonnet, and some Bible passages about the love of God.

In addition to our piano solo and duet selections, we also had a guitar and vocal performance from one of my sons, and my brother graciously joined me for a cello-piano duo arrangement of the theme from the classic love story, Beauty and the Beast. It’s always a hit to have a variety of instruments and/or guest artists in our studio events! For those who are curious, here’s a copy of our program from the concert:

We concluded the evening with some simple refreshments, hot drinks, and a great time of fellowship among our studio families and neighbors. It was a delightful experience, and we’re all looking forward to the next Concerts in the Court event. 🙂

An Interview with Murray Perahia

Some of my favorite CDs growing up were those of pianist Murray Perahia, so a recent interview with him in Listen magazine published by Steinway & Sons grabbed my attention.

It was so refreshing to read Perahia’s comments relating to contemporary music and his preference for tonality, in particular the ingenious work of J.S. Bach. His explorations into the harpsichord and subsequent decisions about the use of pedaling in Bach’s music are also fascinating! His interview prompted a search for his Goldberg Variations recording and it truly is exquisite:

In an approachable and humble manner, Perahia shares about his editing work, his views on symphonic music, teachers who have influenced him, and more. I especially appreciated his closing remarks on how having a decided “point of view…inform[s] a lot of my musical decisions.” Whether in music or life, it’s good to be reminded that there is value in having a “tonal center” to ground us even when popular opinion presumes that all that is new must be embraced with equal fervor. I’m grateful for artists like Murray Perahia who continue to value and preserve and share the timeless beauty of yesteryear.