Review of New Piano Music by Lynette Sawatsky

One of my favorite things to do as a pianist is to play through new music. It’s so fun to pick up an unknown book and anticipate the gems that might be hidden within its pages! These delightful books, Waddle & Quack and Shimmer & Strut by Canadian composer Lynette Sawatsky contain many such gems.

They could easily double as coloring books besides with the beautiful sketches that accompany each piece! Many of the pieces are prime rote material, my favorites being “New Lamb” and “Alpha Betta” from the first collection because of their colorful and patterned use of 7th chords. Even though the preface states that they are intended for early elementary readers or for rote teaching, most of my early elementary students would probably have difficulty deciphering the notation for themselves. Many of the pieces employ clef changes, movement to different hand positions or places on the keyboard, playing on all black keys, and more advanced rhythms (triplets, dotted eights and sixteenths, and slight syncopation). That said, for a little more advanced reader or those students who are eager to learn harder-sounding pieces by rote, Waddle & Quack offers musical imagery that captures life in the Animal Kingdom.

The second book, Shimmer & Strut, was written to provide more challenging pieces and it delivers on that intent. Despite the notation choices sometimes being a little difficult to decipher, each animal-themed selection paints a picture in sound of the defining characteristics we would expect that creature to exhibit. It could be a fun group class activity to play some of these and see if the students can guess which one it is from a list of animals! Three of the pieces include a teacher duet accompaniment, but the remaining eight are solos that any late elementary student could feel proud playing. The variety of styles, from the playful staccato 2nds of “Tiny Frog Waltz” to the serene parallel 4ths of “Gentle Panda” to the catchy inviting rhythms of “Shark Tango,” will provide any student with just the piece to fit their personality.

Thanks to Lynette for sending me a couple of sample copies so I could review them. Check out her website if you’re interested in finding out more about her other compositions or listening to recordings of the pieces. Enjoy!

Review of Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing

17th century Scottish writer Andrew Fletcher purportedly wrote the following in a letter,

“I said I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christopher’s sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.”

American song-writer and singer, Pete Seeger (1919-2014) would undoubtedly agree with him. I’m going to chock up not knowing of this famous musician to my age, since he was in his prime well before I was born (and because it makes me feel better about my ignorance 😉 ).

This new children’s book, Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, written by Leda Schubert and beautifully illustrated by Raúl Colón, tells the story of the man who wrote or popularized such familiar American classics as, “This Land is Your Land,” “Shenandoah,” “Skip to My Lou,” and dozens of others.

More than an entertainer, Pete Seeger saw his role as a singer as one who could also effect social change. Throughout his career he used his music to advance numerous causes, even joining the Communist Party USA for several years, eventually being subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He took his first amendment rights seriously, though, and continued sharing his musical message at schools, colleges, and summer camps. He had a way of connecting with common people and getting them singing right along with him. This is a great reminder of the power of music to touch and influence people. What a great privilege and responsibility we have as music teachers who are training the next generation of musicians!

Activate the Brain!

I love to attend workshops or participate in courses that really make me think. You know, ones where the presenter shares fascinating research or information, and then you have to process it yourself and figure out what to do with that information, or how to apply it to your situation. Sometimes it’s also nice to have people who have thought through the information for you and are willing to share how they’ve implemented it effectively in a variety of scenarios. Well, in her “Activate the Brain!” online course, Jennifer Foxx does both!

The course includes 11 modules and several sets of bonus resources, including a fillable pdf so you can take notes as you watch each video. Here are some highlights from the first few modules:

Module 1: Introduction
This has a hilarious video clip that will resonate with every teacher and parent!

Module 2: Activate the Brain!
Drawing on the research of several neurological specialists and educators, Jennifer gives an overview of the different parts and functions of the brain. She reveals how the reticular activating system may be the culprit when you attempt to review something with a student only to have them respond, “you never taught me that.” [Sound familiar to anyone else?? :-)]

She goes on to share how stress impacts a student’s ability to learn and then gives many practical tips that teachers can use in piano lessons. I appreciated the reminder of the importance of review for making neurological connections in the brain. Jennifer ends Module 2 with a “Recipe for an Engaged Brain” that provides lots of great food for thought!

Module 3: Bloom’s Taxonomy and the National Core Music Standards
Developed in 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy laid the foundation for future educational philosophies and standards. Jennifer gave an overview of the triangle, explaining each part in more detail:

  • Remembering – Can the student recall the information?
  • Understanding – Can the student explain concepts?
  • Applying – Can the student use the information in a useful way?
  • Analyzing – Can the student distinguish between different parts?
  • Evaluating – Can the student justify a decision?
  • Creating – Can the student make something new?

Jennifer emphasized that while these are arranged as a triangle, there is no hierarchy in the relationships of each aspect of learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a theory, and as music teachers we should experiment and consider our own findings. After this, Jennifer went through the National Common Core Music Standards, sharing ideas and examples for each one.

As you can see, this Activate the Brain course is a wonderful combination of both learning philosophy and practical ideas to implement in your teaching. Just to whet your appetite, here are the remaining module topics:

  • Module 4: What is Engaged Learning?
  • Module 5: Teacher and Student Roles
  • Module 6: Learning Styles
  • Module 7: Teaching Styles, Strategies, and Techniques
  • Module 8: Create An Invitation to Learn
  • Module 9: Characteristics of Age Groups
  • Module 10: Over 30 Ways to Check for Understanding and Engagement
  • Module 11: Recap and Conclusion

If you’re looking for a way to continue your own education (from the comfort of your home!) and get the “wheels” spinning to come up with new ideas and approaches to try with your students, Activate the Brain would be a great course to take over the summer! And to make it an even sweeter deal, Jennifer is offering a special coupon code for all Music Matters Blog readers. Use the code ENGAGEDLEARNING to receive 15% off the course between now and June 30, 2017.

Mini Music Manual Review by Piano Teacher Resources

Chris Owenby, of PracticeHabits.co, has not only written a wonderful review of our Mini Music Manual, but has also made a special offer that anyone who purchases one by the end of today, April 22, will receive a free piece of sheet music from his shop! Wow, what a kind and generous offer!

The Mini Music Manual has been a great way for my students to take ownership of their learning, memorize new musical terms, keep track of scale fingerings, and take notes on anything else of interest to them.

Review and Giveaway of New Music by Composer Chris Owenby

When I’m selecting new music for my students the first criteria that it must pass is that I like the piece. I know, that’s probably a bit self-serving of me as a teacher, but I figure if I’m not excited about the music, then I’ll have a hard time encouraging the student to be excited and to work hard to learn it. So it’s really for their own benefit. Right? 🙂 I also know that I really like a piece if I get to the end of playing it and find myself wanting to play it again. Just for fun. That’s the kind of music I want my students to learn.

New composer, Chris Owenby, scores on both of those points. After playing through “That Fall Feeling,” I had to play it again. And again. When I played it for a couple of my students and asked them what they thought, they remarked, “It’s pretty!”

Chris has several other nice selections in his online shop at PracticeHabits.co. Candle in the Night is an open, airy composition that would be great as a rote teaching piece!

Now, for the best part…Chris has offered to giveaway two of his compositions to two Music Matters Blog readers! Just leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing. Two winners will be drawn using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, April 7, 2017.

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.

Review and Giveaway of Fireworks in the Night

As if writing a book isn’t hard enough, author Sherry Miller has gone above and beyond by producing a full-blown audio track and lesson plan to accompany Fireworks in the Night, her first book in a series called Randy the Raccoon & His Musical Friends.

The book is full color and beautifully illustrated – sure to capture the attention of a young animal-loving audience! As a long-time music educator in both private and classroom settings, this book is an innovative addition to the other materials she has created to inspire a love of music in budding musicians.

The story is a creative weaving of Randy Raccoon’s nighttime escapades with a glimpse into the life of one of history’s greatest composers: George Frideric Handel. I was surprised that more of Handel’s story wasn’t included, but there is a list of “Fun Facts About George Frideric Handel” at the back of the book and the accompanying lesson plans (available as a free download upon providing your name and email address) cover some additional interesting information. Also, it’s helpful to note that the book assumes that the reader is listening to the correlating audio file (included in the free download) and references the music that they are hearing. If you have a device handy for little ones to play and follow along, I can envision them experiencing hours of enjoyment listening to the lively audio drama. This is a fun introduction to the world of Classical music, and hopefully will whet young appetites to explore and learn more!

Sherry has kindly offered to give away one free copy of Fireworks in the Night to a Music Matters Blog reader! Just leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing to win. A winner will be drawn using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, June 10, 2016.

Review and Giveaway of Piano Safari Level 3

Even though I believe that a good teacher can effectively utilize any method or curriculum to help a student achieve success, there is something invigorating about having well-designed resources that capture a teacher’s philosophy and vision for their teaching. That’s how I’ve felt about Piano Safari ever since it’s debut a couple of years ago. It has been the perfect complement to my desire to help students develop creative freedom, technical ability, and musical artistry at the piano while also building a solid foundation of reading and rhythm skills.

I don’t know who has been awaiting the release of Level 3 with more anticipation – me or my students – but it’s finally here! The pack includes a Technique Book, a Repertoire Book, and a set of Sight Reading Cards. I’ve had a blast looking through the materials and preparing to teach it. It’s also exciting to see some of the same Classical Education principles that I’m discovering are essential for true learning applied in this method. Namely, repetition, both of content and of processes, is necessary in order for students to attain mastery. I love how this is emphasized in the Technique Book through the use of cool images that the students are instructed to color one small section at a time for every accurate playing of a scale.

For this reason, I see the Technique Book being used not so much sequentially, but more in a spiral learning approach where a student continues to revisit the previously learned scales and exercises to develop increased speed, fluency, and familiarity. The Technique Book also references the animal techniques to instruct the students how to play each scale. The visuals are attractive and helpful while maintaining a clean, uncluttered page layout. I also appreciate the various practice strategies emphasized throughout the book. Another great feature is the way that each introduction of a new scale/key includes the same process as previously learned, while also incorporating a new accompaniment style, demonstrating to the student how the chords and chord progressions can be used in a musical way. All of this is then woven together into the Technique Extravaganza at the end of the book that gives the student an opportunity to showcase all that they have learned in a fun, energetic duet!

The Level 3 Repertoire Book is a fabulous compilation of original compositions, duets, and Classical pieces in their original form. The pieces are in major and minor keys (C,G,F, and a,e,d), and there are helpful bits of information and questions for the student to consider, along with brief biographical sketches about the various composers. This thoughtfully designed book will leave students well-prepared to continue their exploration of every musical style!

Last, but not least, perhaps the most versatile element of the Piano Safari method – the Sight Reading Cards. Whether or not you use the method in its entirety, these cards are a must-have for any piano teacher! We use them in a variety of ways in our studio, and they have done wonders to help my students improve their rhythm and sight reading skills in a sequential and manageable way. Each card includes a 4-measure musical excerpt for the student to play hands together that incorporates dynamics, articulations, and the rhythms they have learned. There is also a single line of rhythm only that can be tapped, played on single notes, or used for a musical improvisation.

Now, for the best part! If you’d like a chance to check out Piano Safari Level 3 for yourself, Julie and Katie have graciously offered to give away a free Level 3 pack to one Music Matters Blog reader (a $45.50 value!). Just leave a comment below to be entered. One winner will be chosen using a random number generator at noon (CST) on Friday, June 3, 2016. This could be just the thing to re-energize your teaching this summer or in preparation for next fall!

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!