It All Begins with a Song (Madison’s Story)

Girl with a song

Today’s post is about one of my students.

I’ve taught Madison for several years in different settings.

She is a bright ball of glowing energy and so intuitive and discerning for her age.

The following story is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve encountered with a student.

I sure hope it blesses your soul today!


“It all begins with a song” is a pretty famous saying. It’s an album title, a song lyric, and it’s The Nashville Songwriter’s Association’s famous slogan. To what does it refer? What, exactly, begins with a song?

I know a little girl. Well, she’s not that little anymore. She’s as tall as me, if not taller! Her name is Madison.

Madison is a special girl. She’s radiant. Her smile is genuine, and her heart is pure. Her personality, bright and beautiful! The light of her life shines brilliantly, and it’s infectious.

And so is her gift.

You ought to hear this girl sing and play the piano.

She’s not a flashy musician. But the sincerity of her heart and simple truth of her message captivates you!

She has something important to say. A message for the world. You hear it in every note she plays and sings.

I first met Madison several years ago. She was one of the choristers in my children’s choir at Kennesaw United Methodist Church.

It was evident from the start that this girl loved (and I mean loved) to sing! Her eyes widened at just the introduction of a new song. Music filled her with ecstatic joy, and it was evident.

Long story short, she began studying the piano with me and quickly became interested in composing songs. It was delightful teaching her how to structure her songs and helping her find sources of inspiration to serve as the subject matter for her music.

I’ll never forget it.

One day, Madison came into my studio wide-eyed, grinning ear-to-ear. She excitedly proclaimed,

“Mr. Chris, I’ve composed a song.”

“Sit down,” I said, eagerly. “Show me.”

She sat, she played, and began to cry.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

She paused for a second, took a deep breath, and said, “There are so many hurting people in my school, at my church, and in other places. They need to know that God loves them and that they are perfect in his eyes.”

It all begins with a song.”

Madison got it then, and she gets it now.

She knows that her gift is powerful enough to affect the world in a deep and meaningful way, and she’s using her gift to change the world.

She’s touched many hearts with that particular song – singing it for friends, family members, and strangers.

Her simple, yet profound words moved me deeply that day.

This fourteen-year-old girl spoke truth into the atmosphere with such simplicity and sincerity, rivaling the weighty statements made by the most influential men and women of our time.


I hope Madison’s simple, yet profound story touched you today.

Next week I’m releasing some BIG news! This big news has everything to do with YOU and the inspiring stories from YOUR studio.

So stay tuned, friends. And keep up the important work you’re doing. Because it really does matter.

Balancing Music and All the Other Things

Children are incredibly active. Honestly, too much.

When competing with sports, academics, church, clubs, play dates, and all the other things, how does music fit into a well-balanced life for today’s youth?

Here are eight ways to help you keep music on the schedule.

1. Don’t Compete.

We need to understand that we cannot compete with all of the other things. We must accept them, work with them, and above all, embrace them.

These activities are what makes our students who they are going to be. They may not choose or even like all of the activities they are placed in, but it is part of their life, and it will shape them.

Likewise, our lessons play an important in developing the person that youngster will become. Use that time wisely and positively to help shape that love of music.

2. Use their activities to enhance your teaching.

Your student dances or plays basketball? Talk about the importance of moving their fingers correctly for muscle memory.

Your student is a mathlete? Subdivision, fractions, tempo: built-in math/music-learning!

Science Olympiad? Talk about the process of dissecting the music. Those kids love processes!

Reading bowl? So much of our music has a built-in plot line. You can talk about how a crescendo is similar to foreshadowing in a story.

Whether or not your students love metaphors and similes, most will appreciate the connection between the two seemingly unrelated activities.

3.) Don’t make them choose.

You will lose. There is room in their lives for both.

Your student can be both an athlete and a musician. At least at the beginning levels. Regardless, they can love both.

Sometimes, their coaches really do mean that they cannot play in the championship game if they miss practice.

Their instructors may really mean that they cannot dance in the annual performance of The Nutcracker if they miss the first rehearsal.

Making them feel guilty for missing a recital or other performance is only going to tarnish their love for music.

Tell them you understand that life is full of tough choices and you are just sad they miss the opportunity, but there will be others.

4. Help them manage their time.

I’ve noticed in my years of teaching that the students in all advanced classes with sports or ballet every day after school managed their time better than other students.

Necessity is the key to learning to manage time.

Younger students will need your guidance. Try not to over-program their practice time.

Give them quality exercises that address their immediate needs rather than multiple assignments that barely scratch the surface.

Keep the exercises short: just a few measures for younger students and thirty seconds or less for older students.

5. Suggest a time to practice.

This is not a new concept at all, but it is worth re-stating.

After they brush their teeth, before they eat their snack, immediately following math homework, all are very specific and memorable times to practice.

Remind them that it takes forty days to create a new habit.

Providing some sort of visual chart or sticker can help with the process, but keep it simple.

6. Develop relationships with both students and parents.

By really knowing your parents, you can understand more fully where music lies in the list of priorities.

One parent may have it at the top of the list, while the other could not care less about music.

As you talk to each, you can subtly draw connections between their top priority and your top priority.

7. Support the other endeavors.

Make the time to go to the game. Show up to the dance recital.

You have no idea how these small actions impact your students. You may also be surprised at how seeing your student in different light impacts you.

You’ll be able to see shadows of musical ability in your students’ performances.

8. Remember why you teach.

We teach because we believe it makes us a well-rounded person. It smoothes the rough edges and enhances creativity.

Someone taught you to love music. Someone helped you choose music over all else. Be that for your student.

Then, all the other things are just the other things.

Happy teaching!


About the Author: April O’Keefe is co-founder and current Associate Director of SoliMusica Academy.  She graduated from Georgia State University in 2002 with a Bachelor in Music Performance with a focus on cello performance.  She taught at East Cobb Middle School from 2004 until 2014.

While teaching at East Cobb Middle School, the orchestra program grew from 120 students to over 275 students.  Under her direction, the orchestras consistently received superior ratings at local and regional Large Group Performance Evaluations.  Many of her students participated in select ensembles such as the Cobb County Middle School Honor Orchestra, Georgia All-State Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra.  Mrs. O’Keefe has been actively involved in the Georgia Music Educators Association serving as District Twelve Honor Orchestra Chair and District Twelve All-State Audition Chair.  She also actively serves and clinician and adjudicator throughout the metro-Atlanta area.

Since 2008, April O’Keefe has served as music education assistant for Kennesaw United Methodist Church.  While in this position, she has worked with and organized children’s choir, children’s handbells, and various summer camps.  She also created a barbershop ensemble, taught an adult violin class, and served as interim Music Minister directing adult choirs and adult handbell groups.

Mrs. O’Keefe lives in Kennesaw with her husband, Paul, five-year-old Carson, and two-year-old twins, Logan and Molly.  Paul is a violinist, Carson is just beginning his musical journey on violin, and the twins are enjoying watching – for now.

Six Ways to Stay Motivated When Your Students are Not Practicing

We, as music teachers, believe that what we do is important to the development of young people.

We look for those moments when the music suddenly grabs the student and they show glimmers of that passion we see in ourselves.

Instead, we repeatedly see students whose music seems to get progressively lower on their priority list.

We know they are playing video games, spending time on Snapchat, building massive things on Minecraft, but, “you didn’t have time to practice this week?!?!?”

Maybe we should just cut them loose.

But—This is our chosen profession. Or, it chose us.

So how do you keep the joy in teaching when it seems your students have joy in everything else but learning?

1. Focus on the big picture.

Not every child we teach will choose music as a career. How many of your childhood friends did?

It’s not really about grooming the next concert pianist or headlining soloist. It is really just about teaching them to love music.

Music is awesome. It will still be awesome if they only look at their music in the car on their way to you.

So instead of stressing about their upcoming recital, stress over making it an enjoyable experience.

2. Small victories are important.

Celebrate the little accomplishments they get with you.

Watch them carefully as they tackle a difficult passage in your presence.

Look for the sparkle in their eyes when they accomplish something. Look for those moments when they are searching for your approval.

When you see those eyes: the sparkling or searching eyes, you can leave the lesson knowing you reached that student.

3. Teach your students to practice.

They aren’t putting in the work at home, use their lesson time to teach them to practice.

Teach them your method that you use to get through difficult passages.

Go over a few measures the way you would practice and say, “Do you know what that was called? Practicing. This is what you do at home. Let’s go through these step again. I know how much I struggled in the beginning learning how to practice.”

Then, go through the same steps again to remind them how to do it.

We focus so much on the results of the practice time, we forget to teach our students how to practice.

They don’t have the tools in their belt that we do to overcome difficulties.

Too often, we have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner. They do not realize that playing from the beginning to the end is not practicing.

They do not know how to isolate measures. They do not know how to identify the parts that need work. Instead, they look at the parts they already know.

Most importantly, they do not know how to overcome frustration.

Teach them how. One note at a time.

4. Remind your students (and yourself) why it’s important to practice.

Do they even know why they are supposed to practice?

What’s your answer when someone asks why they are supposed to practice?

We practice to develop muscle memory so when nerves kick in, the hands know what to do.

We practice reinforcing what we learned in our lesson.

We practice so our teacher can instead focus on making real music-dynamics, phrasing, articulation, making the music speak so that we and our audience become breathless.

5. Give grace to your students.

Sometimes your students need your forgiveness without them actually earning it.

Sometimes music just has to take a backseat in your student’s life. They may not tell you everything that’s happening at home.

Their one respite from the world’s judgment and difficulties may be sitting in your studio.

Make that time count.

Show them that in your studio, there is no judgment. There is simply expression without words.

Give them that.

6. Realize that it is not about you.

Students are not skipping practice because of some issue they have with your teaching.

They are not setting out to offend and insult you.

While you spend much of your time thinking about music, they simply do not. They have not gotten there yet.

It is not about you or me.

Teaching music is about teaching students that some things are worth working for.

There are no shortcuts in music.

If they aren’t going to put in the time to be the best they can be, you just have to let that go and teach what walks into your studio.

One final thought…when was the last time you really practiced?


About the Author: April O’Keefe is co-founder and current Associate Director of SoliMusica Academy.  She graduated from Georgia State University in 2002 with a Bachelor in Music Performance with a focus on cello performance.  She taught at East Cobb Middle School from 2004 until 2014.

While teaching at East Cobb Middle School, the orchestra program grew from 120 students to over 275 students.  Under her direction, the orchestras consistently received superior ratings at local and regional Large Group Performance Evaluations.  Many of her students participated in select ensembles such as the Cobb County Middle School Honor Orchestra, Georgia All-State Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra.  Mrs. O’Keefe has been actively involved in the Georgia Music Educators Association serving as District Twelve Honor Orchestra Chair and District Twelve All-State Audition Chair.  She also actively serves and clinician and adjudicator throughout the metro-Atlanta area.

Since 2008, April O’Keefe has served as music education assistant for Kennesaw United Methodist Church.  While in this position, she has worked with and organized children’s choir, children’s handbells, and various summer camps.  She also created a barbershop ensemble, taught an adult violin class, and served as interim Music Minister directing adult choirs and adult handbell groups.

Mrs. O’Keefe lives in Kennesaw with her husband, Paul, five-year-old Carson, and two-year-old twins, Logan and Molly.  Paul is a violinist, Carson is just beginning his musical journey on violin, and the twins are enjoying watching – for now.

Recharge Your Batteries. It’s Okay, You Know?

This week I’m spending some much needed time away from the work that I love with my family in beautiful Seacrest Beach, FL.

It’s important to take the time to recharge. It’s important to capture moments with friends and family whenever the opportunities present themselves.

I hope you frequently take time to recharge your mental, physical, and emotional batteries. You need it, and you deserve it.

But do you ever feel a little guilty about taking time for yourself?

I sure do!

I immediately begin to think about my students having to miss their weekly piano lesson.

Oh, the horror!

How will they ever survive??

Well, hopefully, you’re taking the time to prepare them in advance for what’s coming so that they (their parents, really) have a good practice plan in place and know how to approach the week without a lesson.

Sidenote: This is an excellent opportunity to teach parents how to actively become engaged in their child’s music education (the number one way to set your students up for success).

But even though we know rest is important, we still get this guilty feeling.

And it’s not healthy!

You need time to recharge so that you can be the BEST version of yourself for your students.

Your students need you to take time for yourself.

I want to encourage you to take that time. You have permission, friend!

You don’t have to feel guilty for taking a break – whether it’s a week or two at the beach with your friends or family, or one day to enjoy waking up late and a nice breakfast with your significant other.

Whatever it is that helps you relax and rejuvenate; you need to do it.

Do it for yourself, first and foremost, and that, in turn, will allow you to be the best you can be for your students.


So, this is a super short post, but I feel like you need to be encouraged in this.

I sure do from time to time.

This idea of self-care is not one that we like to talk about too often. But it’s so important!

Be the best you can to yourself so that you can be the best version of yourself for your family, friends, and your students.

Recharge and continue in the important work you do.

Be encouraged today.

And take some time for yourself. You deserve it!

Why do you teach piano?

teach

A familiar scenario –

Teacher: “I’m excited to teach today!”

“I just love my students!”

“I love my job!”

“I love the piano!”

“I love music!”

“I want to instill value in the next generation!”

“I am so excited to teach today!”

Student shows up and sits down at the piano.

Opens the book.

No practice at all.

Teacher is frustrated.

There’s hope, though.

Maybe the student will crack open his book next week and practice the notes on the page.

Teacher delivers an inspiring message to the student, challenges him, then sends him on his way.

It’s lesson day again.

Teacher: “I am so excited to teach today.”

Student comes in.

The teacher is thrilled.

Student sits at the piano, opens his book, places his hands on the keys.

No practice yet again.

Teacher is frustrated, but musters enough energy and enough encouragement, from within, to say, “All is well. We’ll try again next week.”

Teacher is hopeful, and as the week presses on begins to get excited again.

It’s lesson day.

Teacher: “I am so excited to teach today!”

Student comes in and sits down at the piano.

No practice.


So, why do we do it?

Why do we put ourselves in this situation?

We’re trained musicians.

We’ve studied our instrument and become experts in our craft.

Why do we do it??

Why pour into students who, week after week, show up unprepared?

What’s the reason?

Why teach if it’s yielding the same results over, and over again?

Well, I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you why I do it.

Because I know I have something important to say.

One phrase that I speak to a student who is having a bad day (or an awesome day),  or experiencing something traumatic, might inspire and encourage her.

At some point, I’m going to say something that rings in that kid’s head from now through the rest of her life.

She’s going to know that Mr. Chris loves piano, Mr. Chris loves music, and Mr. Chris loves her!

Yes, it’s frustrating when students don’t practice.

It’s frustrating when they come to lesson after lesson unprepared, wasting our time and their parents’ hard-earned money.

And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say we should look for ways to encourage our students to practice.

And, not only them… But to encourage their parents to be more actively involved in their child’s music education, so that they’re not wasting their money, and so that their child is actually learning.

But, at the same time, even though your students are not always prepared, keep pouring into them.

They love you.

They respect you.

You may not witness it every single time you see the student, but keep up the outstanding work you’re doing.

Encourage them.

Teach them that music is important.

That music is a way to express themself.

Music is a gift that keeps giving.

One day, your student might just end up… Not in a concert hall or in front of thousands of people, not on the Naxos recording label…

But, at the local retirement facility, playing for the elderly.

Or, at a local community event raising funds for folks affected by a recent natural disaster.

Or, playing for a church worship service.

Or, just playing for their family at home, or for their own enjoyment.

What you’re doing is not going unnoticed.

You’re doing important work.

Keep it up!

Keep pouring into your students’ lives and know that you’re making a difference.

I hope this encourages you today.


I’d love to hear from you!

Why do you teach?

How do you stay inspired when your students don’t practice?

Please leave a comment below.

How To Spark Imagination and Creativity in the Lesson Room

Music

One of the biggest challenges of teaching music is finding ways to keep each student inspired and motivated to learn.

But it can also be one of the most satisfying parts about teaching since there are so many possibilities to explore!

Each student is different, and it takes time to get to know individual personalities and interests.

But if we put in the effort and find ways to spark imagination and creativity for students in their lessons they are much more likely to enjoy the process of learning, and this will translate to their practicing at home.

Here are some creative tips to incorporate into your lessons:

MIX IT UP SOMETIMES

Consistency is important, but deviating from the pattern from time to time keeps piano lessons fresh and exciting.

We’re always anxious to get to the next song in the book or get ready for the next recital, but now and then, throw in a musical game or take time to focus on a particular technique in a fun way.

This will help you avoid getting into a rut of always having the same routine, and it opens up other possibilities to explore and be creative.

BE INTERACTIVE

One of the best ways to keep students inspired is to hear you (yes, their teacher) play in the lessons.

It is beneficial and fun for them to hear you play the songs they are working on, and once they are ready, you can play duets with them!

You can also show them videos of music that relate to what they are learning, and you can ask them to find piano videos that they want to show you.

Another great way to be interactive is to teach them basic skills of how to improvise and then improvise with them, making new music together!

GET TO KNOW THEIR INTERESTS

Many students are happy to go along with whatever the teacher assigns for them to practice, but it is very common for students to want to be able to play a song that they have heard that is not in their method book or curriculum.

They might not always tell you what they want to play, so it’s important to ask.

If you can get to know what their interests are, you can supplement their regular lesson music with arrangements of popular songs.

This gives students a different sense of satisfaction in their practicing and performing, so when there is extra time in lessons you can focus a bit more on their interests.

Using this as a sort of reward translates to more overall interest in piano lessons in the long run.

ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS – REALLY MAKE THEM THINK

While teaching a new concept, make sure not just to tell them the answers.

Keep them involved in the learning process by helping them to figure out problems on their own.

Have students come up with ideas and solutions to particular technical difficulties, and then show them why their ideas would work or not.

This encourages students to think outside of the box and be more connected to the process of learning while being creative in coming up with solutions.

LET THEM INTO YOUR PRACTICE

As musicians, we’re always working on new music ourselves, and a great way to connect with students about being creative is to show them what you are doing in your practice.

Be honest about what is giving you trouble at the moment.

Show them ideas you’ve come up with about how to remedy your problems.

Students really like this; it helps them relate and see how their efforts could one day translate to more virtuosic playing.

It shows them how being imaginative when practicing helps us all to play better and have more fun!


About the Author: This guest post about staying in shape during the Summer months is by Carter McMullen from the Baltimore School of Music. You can read more about Carter and his work below.

Carter McMullen is a piano teacher at the Baltimore School of Music. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgia State University and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, both in Piano Performance. He continued his music studies at conservatories in Paris, France and London, England.

Carter maintains an active performing schedule including solo and chamber music, instrumental and vocal accompanying, and jazz. He toured South America three times with the Chase Educational Foundation, giving concerts and masterclasses in Argentina and Chile, and has performed in concerts in France, Italy, the UK, and the US. He regularly collaborates with performance students at the Peabody Institute.

In 2017, Carter founded the Union Square Chamber Music Society, and as Artistic Director, he organizes monthly salon concerts in which he regularly takes part as a performer.


An Inside Look Into the PracticeHabits Membership Community

One of my greatest passions is pouring into others.

I especially love pouring into piano teachers like you!

You do such important work – teaching, encouraging, and inspiring your students to learn the great joy of playing the piano and connecting with others through music.

I started PracticeHabits.co back in September of 2016.

And since then, PracticeHabits.co has helped piano teachers all across the world!

It is a great privilege and honor to know that these piano pieces and resources are helping and resonating with teachers and their students.

The best place for me to serve piano teachers is within the PracticeHabits Membership Community.

The following article and video examples provide an inside glimpse into the Membership Community and highlight the many resources available to piano teachers like you!

The PracticeHabits Membership Community:

The Membership Community includes fantastic piano teachers who love having access to high-quality resources to share with their students.

By far, the main member perk is unlimited access to original sheet music:

Another exciting feature is unlimited access to technical exercises.

I’m regularly adding fun scale, chord, and arpeggio exercises to the online catalog:

I believe that improvisation is one of the most important techniques we can teach to our piano students.

Improvisation forces students to recall chord structure, chord progressions, and harmonization quickly.

Lead sheets are great tools for exploring improvisation. And there’s a sizeable lead sheet library within the Membership Community:

One of the most valuable gifts you can give to yourself and your students is to get their parents engaged in their child’s music education.

Why? You ask.

Parent engagement equals success in music lessons!

I’m regularly adding practice guides to the member’s area.

These practice guides teach parents the importance of practice and offer simple steps to help their children (your students) get the most out of their piano lessons. (This feature is only available to Gold and Platinum plan members.):

Continuing education is important for us piano teachers.

One of the most exciting member perks is access to brilliant articles by guest music professionals. (This feature is only available to Gold and Platinum plan members.):

And, as if the value wasn’t already amazing enough…

What’s a Membership Community without a place to talk?!?

Gold and Platinum plan members enjoy a private Facebook group where they can learn from and inspire one another in the important work they’re doing.


So, there you have it: an inside look into the PracticeHabits Membership Community.

Members from all over the globe are enjoying high-quality resources and learning and growing together.

And you can too!

 

Click the image below for more information.

A Resource for Teachers with an Aspiring Composer

composer

What does a composer do?

Why does he do it?

The composer and his art form are elusive, to say the least.

Stories of Beethoven busily composing in the wilderness and Mozart meticulously composing entire compositions in his mind before notating them are among the grand stories youngsters first learn in music history class.

These stories are inspiring. But they paint a somewhat obscured picture, making folks like you and me think that music composition is an art form reserved only for a select group of people with supernatural ability.

This is not the case.

Composition is an accessible art form!

Of course, like with anything, a person must possess some degree of skill to participate in the tradition.


My Journey

I was thirteen-years-old when I first became interested in songwriting and composition.

I vividly remember sitting at the piano with my grandmother (a professional pianist).

She taught me how to play-by-ear and pick harmony that complimented the melody.

Composing music thrilled me to no end and filled my soul with ecstatic joy!

Putting my new found knowledge into practice, I began composing songs and instrumental pieces for my church praise team.

One thing led to another, and I enrolled in the music composition program at LaGrange College.

Thus, my swim in the deep knowledge pool began!

It was evident early in my studies that I quickly needed to learn music theory to keep up with other students in the program.

It wasn’t easy, but I learned a lot and received many opportunities to compose music for instrumental ensembles and choirs.

I went on to receive a Master of Music degree from Georgia State University.

Regardless of what I would call a successful journey thus far, I feel that I could’ve been more prepared to study composition in college.

I wish my piano teacher would have encouraged me to compose when I began to show an interest.


I’m thrilled that you’re reading this blog post!

I’m thrilled because it means the art of composition is still very much alive and relevant in our world!

I hope my words are resonating with you.

You see, the composer is most important to music!

Without her, there is no music. Without her, beautiful music that reaches deep into hearts and changes lives ceases to exist!

The world needs composers.


Do you have an aspiring composer in your studio?

Does she show an interest in crafting little songs and melodies?

Is he thinking about pursuing composition beyond middle school and high school?

Great!

There are things you can do to set your student up for success.

Encourage your student to create!

My parents wholeheartedly supported my decision to compose. I’m so grateful for the time they granted me to pursue my calling.

Encouraging your student to create provides him with a support base from which he’ll steadily draw energy and enthusiasm for his craft.

Lori Garcia, a contributor to babble.com, has this to say about student encouragement –

Recognize your […student’s] efforts and progress. Compliment them, showcase their work, and express pride in their determination and personal commitment.

Provide opportunities for your student to learn.

I can’t stress this enough!

Look for any and every occasion for your student to learn new things.

Whether it be in her lessons with you, online courses, training initiatives such as festivals and camps, attending concerts, or participating in concerts.

The National Education Association shows that students whose teachers and parents are actively involved in their education –

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education

Encourage and inspire the young, budding composers in your studio!

They will benefit greatly from being immersed in the multifaceted music world and from your involvement in their education.

They need the love and support that we mentors can provide.

Continue in the important work you’re doing, friend!