Laugh a Little

His fingers were collapsing as he played, so I picked up my phone and took a close-up video of his hands as he finished the piece.

“Now watch the video,” I told him, “and drop one of these smiley erasers on the piano keys each time you see a finger collapse.”

He watched a few phrases and dropped a few erasers, but about the time he got to the third phrase in the video, he just picked up the entire container of smiley erasers and dumped them on the piano.

We both burst out laughing.

“I need a picture of that,” I said, and picked up my phone again.

We’ve worked hard on maintaining a proper hand position, so I knew he could do it. After this silly exercise, he played the piece again and maintained firm, rounded fingers for the entire piece.

Sometimes, a little levity in lessons can go a long way.

Engaging with Students over Holiday Break

Tonara AssignementWe take a three-week break for the holidays in my piano studio. That’s a pretty long time not to engage with my students, but the long break allows me to fit in holiday concerts that I enjoy playing for. There were five this year.

The day after Christmas, I was thinking about what I might do to connect with students before they return to lessons on January 3. Since I use the Tonara app to give assignments, I decided to add a new assignment to every student’s task list, inviting them to record one of their Christmas pieces and send me the recording.

So far, four students have uploaded recordings. (Hopefully, more will come.) I noticed that each student played significantly better on the recording than they had at their last lesson. They’ve obviously continued to practice over the break! Is there anything that makes a teacher happier?

Eighth-grader Logan played so musically, I thought I would share her recording. You can hear lots of background noise while she’s playing: the dog saunters by, and there’s meal prep and lots of chatter happening. But that’s the reality of how we all have to fit in our piano practice, isn’t it? We do it amidst the life happening around us. (I faded out the recording near the end where the background noise got really loud.)

This is a lovely new arrangement of The First Noel by Wendy Stevens.


I’m grateful to be using Tonara, which easily facilitates between-lessons communications such as this.

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?




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. 

The Scheduling Puzzle

Setting up your teaching schedule can feel like trying to solve a complicated puzzle.

Are you stressing over setting up your fall teaching schedule? It’s that dreaded time of year, and I’ve witnessed many teachers expressing frustration with this process lately.

We’re grateful for all our students, of course; and having enough of them to make scheduling a challenge is not a bad problem to have. Still, the process can be exasperating.

I’m happy to say I’ve eliminated most of the scheduling stress in my studio. Here’s how I do it.

At the final lesson of the spring semester, we have a parent conference. At least one parent comes to the lesson so we can discuss progress, future goals, and fall term scheduling.

I always tell families they get first dibs on their current lesson time. That’s a big win for folks. They’ve grown accustomed to that time. They’ve managed to schedule everything else around it, making it work for the past nine months (or longer). Everyone appreciates having the option to keep their current time; and most families take advantage of it.

I should add that in order to secure their chosen fall lesson time, students must take a minimum of four summer lessons or pay the equivalent fee. Not taking any summer lessons means they get no choice for their fall lesson time and simply have to take whatever opening is left. I can’t remember any students ever having made that choice.

Of course, there are always a few students who, for one reason or another, really must ask for a new school-year lesson time. During the parent conference, I show those folks the times I already know will be available, and promise to email them with any other openings at the end of the week, when all parent conferences have been completed.

Often, families will select a new lesson time from the options I have available right during the parent conference. I ask the others to work out a new time from the pool of available slots before June 1.

If there are folks who just can’t find a suitable time from the available openings, I jump in to help.

This summer, I had to help only two families. When they told me that none of the available openings would work, I emailed a group of already-scheduled students whose lesson times were in the range of possibility for these families. I explained that the students I was trying to help would be getting out of school at a later time this year, so they required a later lesson time. Would anyone be willing to take an earlier time to help these two families? Thankfully, two students quickly volunteered, and we had a working fall lesson schedule within a few hours of my initial email.

One of the benefits of this system is that it prods folks to make their piano lesson time a priority. When families know there will be only a very small pool of lesson times to choose from, they often simply hang on to the time slot they already have. And committing to a fall lesson time at the end of May, or soon thereafter, necessitates that they schedule other after-school activities around that piano lesson time. I’m quite sure student families actually appreciate getting their fall lesson time nailed down early in the summer. I suspect it helps them as much as it helps the teacher.

Has setting up your school-year teaching schedule been driving you nuts? If so, I encourage you to give this system, or something like it, a try.

However you choose to create your schedule, I urge you not to do it in a way that makes people think you’ll be happy to jump through hoops at the last minute to accommodate all their other after-school activities. That’s too stressful.

There are kind ways to encourage students to commit to a piano lesson time before scheduling everything else they’d like to do.

How do you work out your school-year teaching schedule? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.