Paving a Path to Excellent Musicianship

We piano teachers share the responsibility of moving our students toward excellent musicianship.

Of course, students and parents also share in this responsibility. But that’s a post for another day!

Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced

What a tremendous privilege it is to see a child through all three stages! But how do we responsibly guide our students through each stage?

I’m convinced that we do this in the following ways –

1.) Instill students with passion and love for music and the piano.

Many students begin lessons enjoying the piano. Many do not. But it’s our duty to help them fall in love with the instrument!

Instilling passion and love for music should be at the top of every teacher’s list.

Imagine pursuing something without excitement. Without joy.

How dull.

Chances are you’ve been there. I sure have!

But our joy for music and the piano should be infectious – spreading from one student to the next.

Teach them to love the piano like they love their video games, TV shows, or playing outside (do kids play outside these days??!!).

Make it fun and exciting!

Make it a goal for your students to arrive at each lesson prepared and excited to learn.

May they never lose their sense of wonder and awe!

The next two principles come much more easily if they’re guided by the first.

2.) Promote excellent technique.

Students can not achieve excellent musicianship without proper technique.

Five-finger drills, scales, arpeggios, chord inversions, and Hanon exercises all help promote excellent technique.

Albert Franz of Key-Notes brilliantly reinforces the importance of teaching proper technique –

Piano technique could be thought of as the “interface” between a musical idea and the music that comes out of the piano. Piano technique is our control over our instrument.

After all, the most sophisticated airplane in the world is useless if you don’t know how to fly it. So it is with the piano.

Are your students learning how to control their instrument?

(Scales are the first exercises that come to my mind when I think about technique. Here are some fun scale exercises I created just for you! I’ve had great success with these!!)

3.) Encourage students to share the gift of music.

Above all, we should be preparing our students to share the gift of music with others.

We do this through providing opportunities for them to play in front of others in recitals, festivals, competitions, worship services, and community events.

Do you encourage your students to share their gift with their friends and family outside of regular lessons and recitals?

When was the last time you asked your students to play for the local retirement facility?

The elderly have become a neglected part of our population. It’s unfortunate but true. This is a prime opportunity to serve and share.

Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution has this to say about sharing music –

Musical talent and inspiration wasn’t given just for you to have and to keep. It was given so that you might give it out; that you might share it with others.

So if music is given TO you, and it’s best enjoyed when it flows OUT of you into the lives of others – then doesn’t that make you some kind of musical conduit or channel?

I like that a lot!

Music should flow out of our students. We pour in, and they pour out – blessing others one note at a time.


You’re helping your students along on this very fun and difficult journey. A journey that yields bountiful fruit if properly tended to.

Keep up the excellent work you’re doing. Continue paving the path to excellent musicianship!

Your students will appreciate it. And so will those who hear their fantastic music.

Improvisation in the Lesson Room

My three-year-old (Oh! excuse me) my three-and-a-half-year-old, Emma, is now interested in the piano.

Let me define interested here –

It’s early in the morning, and we (my wife and me) hear the pitter patter of little, sticky, bare feet across our rustic 1950’s wood floor.

We listen to a big CLUNK as Emma pushes the black fallboard of our mid-1990s Kawai Upright out of the way.

Tiny partially painted fingers begin caressing the white and black keys from low to high.

Next, dissonant clusters resound as groups of black notes are pressed with preschool force.

It’s not the most pleasant sound, but that’s okay.

She’s improvising.

That’s right; our three-and-a-half-year-plus-a-day-and-a-second-old is improvising!

I’m a huge proponent of dedicating a small part of the weekly lesson to improvisation.

Why, you ask?

Children learn to speak before reading, right?

Well, why should it be any different with music??

A child must first learn to speak the musical language before learning to read music from a page.

Consider this quote from an article featured on the Suzuki Association of the Americas website

The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin. Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others.

My daughter is learning to speak music.

And I’m encouraging it!

Now, I’ve never been one to lord practice over my children. (I have a six-year-old as well – Abby.)

Instead, I’ve adopted a different approach –

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Abby.”

“Can you give me a pliano lesson??” (No mis-spelling. That’s how she says it. My daughter plays the pliano.)

Believe me – she doesn’t have to ask twice!

You can’t force small children to play. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t.

Abby has declined my offer to give her a lesson plenty of times. And that’s okay.

I want HER to make the decision to play. And so far this approach is working beautifully.

Now, back to improvisation.

Webster’s dictionary defines to word “improvise” as follows –

Improvise – to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously.

I feel like I need to define the long “e” word!

Extemporaneously – done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu.

Emma (my youngest) did not prepare her ebony and ivory improvisation well in advance or its execution. She just saw the keys and went to playing.

And this is a beautiful thing! Children need this opportunity!

Freedom to explore possibilities is essential to the learning process, especially as it pertains to music.

Are there ways you can begin incorporating improvisation in your studio?

Maybe you already do.

Are there things you can do to enhance the time devoted to improvisation?

Consider this –

1.) The Ostinato (a recurring rhythmic idea as found in Ravel’s Bolero) is a beautiful canvas on which the young student paints with his or her improvisatory colors.

(Example – Play a quarter note ostinato on a low “C” and then have your student improvise with a “C” in his left hand and a “G” in his right hand. You’ll be surprised at just how clever youngins are!)

2.) Next, change your ostinato pattern up slightly. A minute change may trigger your student to come up with something different as well.


Thank you for spending a few moments with me! I hope that you’re walking away with some nuggets to help you in the important work you’re doing.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or question below.

See you next time!

Sometimes You Just Need a Different Approach

I once had a student who couldn’t sit still.

Come to think of it, most of the students I’ve taught fit into this category.

Nevertheless, Ava was a ball of energy!

Granted, she was four-years-old when she began piano lessons.

And this beautiful ball of energy was one of the brightest students I had ever encountered.

But…

I vividly remember arriving each lesson frustrated and baffled on how to approach little Ava.

Did I mention she was only four-years-old??

I’ll be vulnerable here – teaching little bitties was a new endeavor and I was out of my league.

I knew how to teach the piano. But I did not know how to teach Ava.

It was a struggle.

An epic battle between mentor and protégé that looked something like this.


“Now Ava, this note is middle-C.”

Squirm, squirm, squirm.

“Oh! This is middle-C, Mr. Chris. I’m going to teach you today!”

Run, run, run around the piano bench.

“No, Ava. Please be seated.”

“Okay!”

Squirm, squirm, squirm, twirl, sit.

“Okay, Ava. Let’s try this again. Here’s middle-C.”

“Oh!! Mr. Chris. I made up a song. Want to hear it??”


My brain was melting by this point. And this was the weekly scenario.

I needed a different approach.

I gathered the courage to speak with her mother about the issue.

Together, we decided to shorten Ava’s lessons to 15-minutes instead of the usual 30-minutes.

And her mother began sitting in our lessons.

Now I’m not a huge fan of parents sitting in the lesson room. But this was a unique situation. And it worked beautifully!

She was able to gently guide Ava’s wandering mind back to focus speaking the ancient language known as “mom.”

Both of these changes significantly improved Ava’s lesson experience.

She grew with me. We grew together.

I eventually increased Ava’s lesson time to 30-minutes and her mother began sitting in the waiting area.

Ava was not a bad student. She was four-years-old!

And I just need a different approach.


How about you? Do you need a different approach?

Well, there’s no better time to implement change.

Make the necessary pivots now. And may 2017 be your best teaching year to date!

Happy New Year!!


Have a question? Need guidance?

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

3 Creative Ways to Increase Classroom Engagement

There she goes again (eye-roll).

Taking her eyes off of the music and allowing them to wander all around the room!

Sigh…

She’s such a good student when she focusses.

It’s a common scenario. Little minds wander. It’s hard to sit still. It’s difficult to focus.

But there are ways to increase engagement.

Here are three suggestions on how you can increase engagement in your classroom.

I’ve used these in larger settings, such as youth chorus, and group music classes. But they’re easily adapted to the private lesson room.

1.) Movement and Play

This one’s important. Young kids need to move! Some more than others. Believe it or not, this is a scientific fact.

In her brilliant article, Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement, Lara N. Dotson-Renta says,

Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences, but such opportunities are increasingly rare in school.

She goes on to say that kids learn through movement and play. Imagination is key!

Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement.

But how do we teachers encourage movement and play? Especially with our limited teaching time??

It’s a simple as reinforcing things via short games and activities.

For example, my class loves Rhythm Popcorn.

I simply line two rows of chairs facing one another, clap a simple rhythm, and then point to a student to repeat the rhythm. The student then points to one another student and he or she claps the rhythm. So on and so forth.

It’s a simple game, but it certainly increases classroom engagement. The students have fun and learn all about steady and precise rhythm.

2.) Transition

It’s easy to overlook this one.

Imagine you’re six-years-old again and asked to sit quietly on the piano bench for 20-30-minutes.

What would you feel? What would you think?

In their article What is a Normal Attention Span, Day2DayParenting says,

Young children do have relatively short attention spans and generally do best when alternating activities which require sitting still and focusing with those that allow for physical movement.

The younger the student, all the more necessary to transition, and transition often.

The article goes on to outline young children’s attention spans –

Children ages 5-6 years old typically can attend to one activity that is of interest to them for around 10-15 minutes at a time and should generally be able to filter out small distractions occurring simultaneously in the environment. They may only be able to attend to an assigned classroom activity for only 5-10 minutes particularly if they find it uninteresting or difficult for them and do not have adult guidance to stay on task.

Keep things moving along. Don’t rest too long on a particular song or activity. I’ve found 3-5 minutes to be the ideal time for each activity. Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

3.) Visuals

Inspiration.com cites the following as benefits for visuals in the learning environment –

Visual learning helps students clarify their thoughts – Students see how ideas are connected and realize how information can be grouped and organized. With visual learning, new concepts are more thoroughly and easily understood when they are linked to prior knowledge.

Visual learning helps students integrate new knowledge – According to research, students better remember information when it is represented and learned both visually and verbally.

Visual learning helps students think critically – Linked verbal and visual information helps students make connections, understand relationships and recall related details.

Who wants to stare at the same thing for 30 minutes? Especially boring white and black notes on a page?!

Consider changing it up.

Why not print music on green or red paper around Christmas? Or orange paper leading up to Halloween?

This is a fun (and super easy) way to increase classroom engagement.

I’ve found small, handheld whiteboards to be wonderful teaching tools. Drawing examples of notes, rests, etc., on these boards and asking students to name them adds an extra layer of engagement and anticipation in the lesson room.


We need to remember those childhood feelings and embrace them. This is how we keep the sense of wonder and imagination in the classroom.

We want our students to long for the next piano lesson, asking questions such as, what’s Mr. Chris going to do this week? And, I wonder what game we’re going to play this time?!

Let’s encourage creativity in the classroom. After all, encouraging creativity, play, and imagination encourages learning.

Now teach, and teach well, you amazing teacher, you!

Beginner – Three Quick Teaching Tips

You and I probably agree that one of the most rewarding experiences any piano teacher has is the bright-eyed, bushy-tale beginner’s first piano lesson.

There’s nothing quite like helping the young beginner place her little hands on the piano.

“Hold them up,” we say. “Oops, not too much, though,” we continue.

I remember the first time I helped my daughter place her hands on the piano. Her little thumb and pinky barely reached C-G in the five-finger position!

We quickly dove into her primer lesson book. And by the end of our first brief 15-minute lesson together, she had learned to play a song!

I’ll never forget the exuberant look on her sweet little face. Oh, what joy filled my heart to see her glow so bright!

Music has a way of doing this, right?

It touches hearts, young and old.

How many times have you witnessed this radiant look on the beginner’s face? So many times, I’d imagine.

I’ve taught a lot of beginners over the years, and I can tell you one thing from my experience – the beginner’s glow never gets old!

What a great privilege and opportunity it is to share the gift of music!

It’s not something we take lightly. We embrace the challenge and pour a whole lot of love and quality music instruction in the beginner’s bowl.

On that note, here are 3 quick tips to help you prepare for the very first piano lesson with a new student.

1.) Rhythm first and foremost!

Rhythm is the most essential and important musical element. Steady and precise rhythm lays the foundation for excellent musicianship.

It’s so important that beginning students walk away from the first lesson with a good understanding of basic rhythm (quarter notes, half notes, whole notes).

Nothing fancy. Just basic rhythm.

Nicole Murphy of Music Teacher’s Helper offers some great tips on teaching rhythm.

2.) Teach a complete song on the first day.

You want your beginning piano student to walk away from the first lesson having accomplished something. I always recommend teaching a complete song during the very first lesson.

It’s important to note that this is a simple song. Hopefully, a song that reinforces the basic rhythmic foundation you’ve laid in the first lesson.

Not to mention, parents are really impressed when their child walks away having learned a song on the very first day! Keeps them coming back if you know what I mean ; )

3.) Share your expectations with the student and parent (especially the parent)

You have to set expectations. Without them, students wander from lesson to lesson without aim! Parents do as well.

Make sure to set high, but reasonable expectations from the start. It will save you, the student, and parent heartache and headache!

Consider Alex Spiegel’s thought provoking article Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform.


What are some of your tips? What’s one of your stories? Has a student touched your heart and soul in a profound way? What keeps you coming back to the lesson room again and again?

I invite you to share your tips and stories with the PracticeHabits.co community below.

Thanks for reading!