Creating a Seamless Musical Experience

Has the Carpenter’s Christmas Portrait album ever held a spot on your holiday music rotation? I love the way that album progresses seamlessly from one piece to the next with no break.

I’ve always enjoyed concert experiences that work like that, too. In the church where I’ve been playing since 1989, the two brilliant and talented music directors (Daniel Stokes and Daniel Blosser) have always made it a point to create seamless concert experiences, especially with the Christmas concerts we do each year. Each piece flows beautifully into the next with no significant pause and no applause until the end of the concert.

To make that work, adjacent pieces must be in related keys, or one has to create an introduction or interlude that transitions smoothly from one key to the next. I enjoy getting to create some of that transitional material, and I thought it might be fun to share some of it.

Here’s an organ introduction that tied together a choral anthem ending in E-flat major with the congregation singing Hark, the Herald Angels Sing in G major.


In another year, we used Hark, the Herald Angels Sing as a congregational carol again, but moved from an anthem ending in B-flat major to the carol in G major.


In this example, my job was to create a bridge between the G major ending of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing to the C minor beginning of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen played by the bell choir. Oboist, Ben Williams, played this one with me.


Here’s a bridge between the E major ending of Michael W. Smith’s All Is Well, sung by a children’s choir, to the G minor beginning of Brightest and Best, by Shawn Kirchner.


This next one is a transition between the E major ending of The First Noel, arranged by Mack Wilberg, to the C-sharp minor opening of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Arumque.


Here’s one that didn’t require a key change; we just needed “travel music” to transition from a choir anthem to a bell piece. I arranged a one-stanza setting of Still, Still, Still to play with violist, Carl Larson.


Finally, here’s a single stanza interlude of Rock-a-Bye, My Dear Little Boy that moved us from F major to A-flat major.


If this seamless concert experience is not something you’ve done, I encourage you to give it a try.

To all my musician friends who work so hard at this time of year, cheers to you! You are making the world a better place. Thank you! I hope you get some holiday time to rest and rejuvenate.

Quick-Win Pieces

Piano lessons during this year of COVID have been challenging. I miss the warmth of in-person lessons. I miss being able to correct a hand position with just a touch. I miss being able to encourage a crescendo with just a gesture. I miss the spontaneous levity that happens more easily when we meet in person.

Given the challenges of online lessons, I have–this year more than ever–worked hard to find lots of pieces that will be quick wins for my students. For a piece to be a quick win, I look for these characteristics:

  • The student has to like the piece.
  • It must not have any huge challenges, but it can’t be so easy it’s effortless.
  • It needs to be fairly short.
  • It must be pedagogically sound.
  • It’s a big plus if it sounds harder than it is.

Recently, I’ve composed two new pieces that have been quick wins for many of my students over the past few months. I hope you’ll give them a try.

What are some of the pieces you’ve found to be quick wins with your students?

Halloween At Its Best!

There is a wealth of fun, well-written Halloween music for piano students, but some of my favorite Halloween pieces come from the series titled Halloween at Its Best, published by FJH. I use pieces from this series every year, and my students always love them. 

Here’s my student, Logan, playing Pumpkin Dance by Timothy Brown from Book 2.

If you’re a teacher who enjoys using background accompaniments with your students, you might appreciate the three accompaniment files created by Lori Frazer for pieces from Books 1 and 2. She makes them freely available at the Keys to Imagination website. You can listen to the accompaniments below, but you’ll need to visit Keys to Imagination to download them.

Halloween Boo!

by Melody Bober (Clavinova accompaniment by Lori Frazer.)

Look at the Witches

by Elizabeth W. Greenleaf (Clavinova accompaniment by Lori Frazer.)

Things that Go Bump in the Night

by Melody Bober (Clavinova accompaniment by Lori Frazer.)

Collaborative Playing

In my studio, summer is a great time to let students work on collaborative projects. Schedules tend to be lighter, and we don’t have the pressure of recitals or adjudications lurking just around the corner.
When I know one of my piano students also plays another instrument or takes voice lessons, I like to ask them to do a piece with another piano student. When that’s not an option, I might ask if they have a friend who could collaborate with them.
Parker and Drew know each other from church where they both sing in a choir that I accompany. I proposed the idea of having them play the Finzi Carol together a few months ago. They liked the idea, so they both got the music and started practicing. Today, they got together for the first time to rehearse. Their excellent preparation made the piece go together easily. Proud of them!
Parker, at the piano, has just completed 6th grade. Drew, on clarinet, just finished 7th grade. Drew is a student of Walter Yee. The piece is Carol, from Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 by Gerald Finzi.
I’m curious to know how other teachers set up collaborative playing experiences for their students. Have any stories or tips to share?

On Fostering Creativity

“I want to work on song writing in my piano lessons this summer,” Dylan said.

“Okay, get some lyrics written for your first summer lesson and we’ll get started,” I responded.

I love the opening lyric of the piece she worked on this week: “I play piano for a crowd, and everyone goes wild, and that’s who I am.”

Sounds to me like music might be kind of important in Dylan’s life.

She began by writing the lyrics. Then she figured out the chord structure she wanted to use. I showed her a long list of pop songs based primarily on the I vi IV V chord structure, so she liked the idea of starting with that, but she made quite a few variations, as well. Next, she recorded herself playing the piano part. Then she added a percussion track; and finally, she recorded her vocal part. She did all of this with the GarageBand app on her phone. That way she could go home and continue working on the piece after the time spent with me in her lessons.

Fun, creative project!

I could have insisted that Dylan continue working on repertoire and technique in her summer lessons, rather than taking on this project; but I’m guessing this affirmation of her innate creativity will have a bigger impact than learning another sonatina might have had.

Say Yes to Silly

​”If I had a third arm, I could play this duet all by myself,” Annie commented after learning both parts of a duet in her Piano Safari book.

“But it’s so hard to find clothes when you have a third arm,” I​ replied.

“I know!” she responded. “I used to have one, but it was too inconvenient, so we had it removed.”

Pretty quick wit for a third grader, I thought to myself.

My piano students often enjoy a bit of silliness, and I’m always happy to oblige. It can help make their lessons fun and memorable.

Yesterday, Elliot came to his lesson with his practice chart filled out, and a solid amount of daily practice recorded–enough to warrant a dive into the prize box. He chose this sticky, stretchy green hand as his prize, and you can see what he immediately thought to do with it. It was 60 seconds of silliness that made us both laugh. Not a bad way to start a lesson.

Later in the day, Sarah, who’s healing from a broken finger on her right hand, was working on a piece for left hand from Melody Bober’s delightful Grand One-Hand Solos for Piano, Book 3. Sarah’s a good sight reader and a strong pianist in general, but she had tripped over a rhythm on her first reading of the piece the week before, so I immediately gave her a silly lyric to help establish the rhythm. By today’s lesson I’d already forgotten the lyric; but she, obviously, had not. As she played the piece, she sang the silly lyric, and her rhythm was perfect.

“My name is Sarah. What is yours?”
“My name is Mister Light. Don’t forget it!”

A bit of silliness can go a long way with children to help them enjoy their lessons, or, as in Sarah’s case, to correctly establish a musical concept. We teachers are always mindful about spending our minimal lesson time well, but a bit of silliness and a few hearty laughs needn’t be time wasted.

Embrace a bit of silliness, I say. Your students will love you for it.

Sometimes, a listen is worth a thousand words.

Chase, age 12, was playing The Christmas Song. You know the one: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . . ” 

The notes and rhythms were correct, but it was too fast, and it sounded mechanical and boring. There was no voicing of the melody, no breathing with the phrases, no rubato. It was dreadful.

“Listen to this,” I said, and pulled up Ella Fitzgerald’s recording on YouTube.

“Now make it sound like that,” I requested when we finished listening. 

That was all he needed. He got it. 

On Being Flexible

“I hate that piece!” Patrick responded after hearing Simple Gifts, the next piece in his method book. “It’s all sweet and cheerful. Yuck!”
He had just finished learning two pieces from Diane Hidy’s set titled Mean Little Monsters, and he loved those. I wasn’t surprised that Simple Gifts didn’t appeal to him.
“What if we make it minor?” I asked, demonstrating the first line of the piece in the parallel minor key.
“Yeah!” he exclaimed. “We’ll call it Needful Things. It’ll be dark and depressing!”
Problem solved. Happy 7th grader. 

Halloween Lessons

Do you teach on Halloween, or do you take the day off, knowing your younger students will want to spend the evening trick-or-treating? I’ve always kept Halloween as a normal teaching day, but I encourage students to wear their costumes to piano lessons.

“What’s your costume gonna be?” a student asked me this year. I have to confess, I just wore my piano teacher costume. 

If a young student’s piano lesson falls during prime trick-or-treating hours, I encourage them to trade times with an older student who comes on another day. Most of the older students don’t participate in trick-or-treating anyway, so that often works to avoid lesson cancellations on Halloween.

This year only one student cancelled her Halloween lesson. Many years, we manage to work out lesson trading so that no one has to cancel. And the fun of having students come to their lesson in costume is a treat I always look forward to. 

A Large Part of Life . . .

A large part of life is paying attention.

It’s a gentle reminder that might pop up when a piano student didn’t read his assignment and forgot to practice something, or when she arrived for a lesson without her piano books, or when he ignored the F-sharp for the entire piece. You get the picture.

Sunday, karma came home to roost when I showed up for a choral rehearsal and no one else was there. Clearly, when the entire group, except the pianist, knows there’s no rehearsal, the breakdown in communication was not on the sending end; it was on the receiving end. The message had doubtlessly been delivered verbally during previous rehearsals, via multiple emails, and also on the web. But this guy, the pianist, didn’t absorb it.

A large part of life is paying attention.

But the best part–and the reason I’m making fun of myself publicly–is that when I went to my car to drive to the rehearsal, I had a flat tire with a big chunk of glass sticking out of it. No time to deal with that, I called a Lyft. So, yes, I paid two drivers to get to and from a non-existent rehearsal.

I felt so stupid, I stayed and practiced piano for an hour anyway.

A large part of life is paying attention.