Resources from the Music Matters Blog and PracticeHabits.co

piano resource

Resources are beautiful things, right?

Let me tell you about a great resource I’ve just discovered from Natalie Weber over at the Music Matters Blog.

Now, I’m not an affiliate, just a teacher excited about this fantastic resource!

If you’re like me, then you’re constantly looking for something to help you organize your life and your student’s lives, or at least their practice time!

Natalie’s Mini Music Manual (don’t you just love the alliteration!) is an excellent tool to inspire you and your students to be more creative and intentional about goal setting and ongoing musical pursuits.

It offers a section to record definitions (musical symbols, terms, etc.), a section complete with a keyboard diagram to record fingerings, chords, and scales, as well as a discoveries section where students can jot down facts about composers and make other observations along the way.

The Mini Music Manual also includes staff paper for the aspiring composers in your studio.

A helpful resource indeed!

This downloadable product is available on Natalie’s site for the super-affordable price of $15. And you can make as MANY copies as you need for your students!

Happy resource hunting, and as always, thanks for supporting the PracticeHabits.co community.

5 Brilliant Practice Habits For Piano Students

boy practice

Effective practice habits are central to learning the piano and just about every other musical instrument.

If appropriately and consistently taught, the wise teacher’s labor of love will help guide students to excellent musicianship.

Here are 5 practice habits to aid you on your teaching journey!


1.) Slow and steady wins the race.

“Practice makes perfect.”

We’ve heard it time and time again and probably said it to our students on more than one occasion.

Practice is important. But it doesn’t make perfect.

I like this phrase better – “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

And even then, things will never be perfect.

So maybe a better saying is “slow and precise practice yields excellent results.”

I admit the statement doesn’t flow as nicely as the first, but it’s more accurate!

Encourage your students to practice in slow motion. Remind them who wins in Aesop’s classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member Noa Kageyama has this to say about slow practice,

I had forgotten all about this [slow practice in music] until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).

He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.

2.) Quality over quantity.

It’s not how long a student spends practicing that counts, it’s the quality of her practice.

Let me tell you a story.

Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category.

I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students.

I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week.

I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day.

He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!

I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan.

You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way, squashing Cameron’s zeal for the piano.

I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there.

I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!

5-minutes of focused practice is much better than 30-minutes of unfocused practice.

Quality over quantity any and every day of the week.

3.) Back to front reinforcement.

Repetition is super important in the practice room.

Have students isolate small passages, such as the last four measures of a piece and slowly practice them several times before increasing speed.

Then have the student back up a few more measures and repeat the process, playing and reinforcing the previously learned passage.

This back to front approach ensures that students are working toward something and reinforcing what they already know.

This technique is so effective! And it really shines in memorization.

4.) Quickly move from one piece to the next.

I didn’t believe this one at first. But I gave it a try, and low and behold it works!

This approach works best once a student has lived with her music for a season.

Elle Kaplan, founder, and CEO of LexionCapital, teaches how this approach can help people learn and master any skill twice as fast.

Whether you’re trying to improve your motor skills or cognitive learning abilities, the key to transforming how your brain processes new information is to break out of the habit of learning one facet of a skill at a time. The advantage of this method is that your brain doesn’t get comfortable or store information in your short-term memory. Instead, interleaving causes your brain to intensely focus and problem solve every step of the way, resulting in information getting stored in your long-term memory instead.

For example, one study, gave a collegiate baseball team extra batting practice and broke them up into three groups: a control group, a blocked group, and a random group. The blocked group faced a variety of pitches in a set order, and the other group encountered pitches randomly. After six weeks, researchers found that the random group improved 56.7%, while the blocked group only improved 24.8%. That’s a massive difference! And similar results have been replicated in other sports and classroom learning studies.

Piano playing is far different from baseball. But Kaplan’s approach is worth trying with the student who has a good handle on his music.

Consider having students slowly play 8 measures of a challenging, fast-paced piece and then quickly move to a section of a much slower piece.

Repeat this process with several other pieces in a different order.

5.) Listen before you work.

Don’t discount the inner ear.

Some teachers oppose any listening prior to learning a new piece, concerned that it inhibits a student’s interpretation.

But I’m a huge advocate of listening before learning. Particularly in the formative years.

I love this quote taken from an article 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.

Consider bringing several different recordings of a piece for your student to listen to during his lesson or borrow to listen at home.

The inner ear is an essential part of learning to play music.


I hope that you’ve found this article helpful and informative.

Maybe you’d like to add a practice habit to this list. By all means, be my guest! Please leave a comment below and share this article with your colleagues.

And as always, keep up the important work your doing.

Happy teaching!

Paving a Path to Excellent Musicianship

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

improvisation

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

Approach Emma

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 needed a different approach.


How about you? Do you need a different approach?

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

Have a question? Need guidance?

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

So, Where Did Christmas Music Come From, Anyway?

play Christmas music on the piano

My wife, Erin, and I recently discussed our favorite Christmas music.

Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole are among the top singers we listen to each Christmas.

After listening to Sinatra sing several amazing Christmas arrangements, my wife asked a serious question to which she knew I could answer.

(I AM the music professional, of course.)

“How did Christmas music originate?”

“Ummm… Let me get back to you on that one,” I said.

I didn’t know the answer.


What about you? Have you ever wondered how Christmas music originated?

I’m not talking about Joy to the World or Angels We Have Heard on High.

These are great hymns, of course. But their history lies more in the Western Classical tradition.

I’m talking about secular Christmas songs like Jingle Bells, Up On the Housetop, and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.

These were the songs that inspired Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks to pen songs like White Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Erin’s question inspired me to do a bit of research and blog about the history of classic secular Christmas songs.

So, here’s what I’ve found.

Jingle Bells

Did you know that Jingle Bells was a favorite drinking song at parties? That’s right! People would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sang.

Without a doubt, it is one of the most popular Christmas songs. Especially among children. I mean, have you ever had a child not request this song around the holidays?

Composed by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title One Horse Open Sleigh in the Autumn of 1857, Jingle Bells wasn’t originally intended as a Christmas song.

Some suggest that the tune may have been composed for a Sunday school choir. But this is often disputed due to the racy lyrics.

Jingle Bells, racy?

Perhaps… I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Up On the Housetop

Another Christmas classic, heralded as the second oldest secular Christmas song only second to Jingle Bells, is Up On the Housetop.

It’s author, Benjamin Russell Hanby, was a pastor. But he had a difficult time in the church due to his views on music in church services, the teaching of children, and opposition to slavery (www.hymnofchristmas.com).

It’s interesting to note that historians are not entirely sure if the opening lyric sings “reindeer paws” or “reindeer pause.”

But as with most old hymns and songs, Up On the Housetop boasts several stanzas. All of which one can mix and match to fit the occasion.

The song was first performed by Hanby’s children’s chorus in 1864, just three years before he yielded to tuberculosis.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

Many attribute Jolly Old Saint Nicholas to Hamby, the composer of the preceding tune, Up On the Housetop. But it’s an uncertain attribution.

The song may have originated from a poem by Emily Huntington Miller. It’s often performed to a melody composed by James Lord Pierpont, the composer of Jingle Bells.

Isn’t it fascinating how the composers and lyricists of this era worked together and used one another’s material?

Composers always have and will continue to collaborate in this way.

This is interesting.

Did you know that Saint Nicholas was a real historical figure?

Yep, sure was!

He lived almost 1,700 years ago and serving as a bishop in the early church in Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey.

CBN News recounts one story of Saint Nicholas –

[…] a man with three daughters fell on hard times. He didn’t have enough money for a dowry for any of his daughters, so they couldn’t marry. Legend has it that Nicholas secretly visited the family at night, dropping a bag of gold through the window.

There are many other stories of the generosity of Saint Nicholas – particularly to children.

However, Nicholas always insisted that no credit be given to him – but to God only.

So there you have it – just a brief bit of history behind some of the most beloved Christmas music ever composed!

Maybe you have something to add. Maybe you need to set me straight on something! Or maybe you’d like to share a story.

By all means, please leave a comment below.

And, Merry Christmas!!

Christmas Recital Time, Again?

Tree at Christmas recital

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

Christmas recitals are just around the corner.

Are you prepared?

Better question – Are your students prepared?

Many Christmas recital to-do-lists look like this –

  1. Purchase food and drinks
  2. Tune piano(s)
  3. Create and print programs
  4. Collect recital fees
  5. Remind parents of due dates and recital times
  6. Extra piano lessons (maybe make-up lessons) before recital

The list goes on and on!

It’s difficult to accomplish these things when there are so many other items on the list!

The most important item being one-on-one time with your students.

Many of you have expressed to me that the biggest problems you face in the lesson room include lack of practice and lack of enthusiasm.

Well, I’ve told you that PracticeHabits.co is a resource for you. A resource you can rely on for helpful tips and tricks when things get tough.

Things can get real tough around recital time.

Let me provide you with one super fantastic tip that’s helped me time and time again with my students around recital time.

Introducing – THE STUDENT OF THE MONTH.

It’s something so simple, yet so inspiring to your students!

They have an opportunity to work hard practicing and preparing for weekly lessons and important events such as recitals and in return their efforts they receive the prestigious STUDENT OF THE MONTH award!

Now, maybe you already have a similar program within your studio.

Awesome!

Consider reimagining it this Christmas recital season just to light a little fire in your student’s bellies ; )

What if you gave this prestigious award away to several students during the month of December and rewarded them at the end of the Christmas recital?

What an honor! What a message you’d be sending to all of your students and their families –

Practice is important. Engagement is important. Your student has worked really hard in these areas and deserves to be rewarded!

It helps light a fire in the bellies of your other students as well.

Now, I used to award a certificate as well as a special piece of music to my students of the month.

It was a win-win, really.

They received a gift for their hard work. That gift was a piece of music. The students loved practicing these pieces!

Love and practice in the same sentence? Wow, what a beautiful thing!

I want to give you something. An award that you can pass out to your students of the month.

Please accept this fun and inventive arrangement of Jingle Bells for the late-beginner to the early-intermediate piano student as a token of my gratitude for your support of the PracticeHabits.co community.

Now, maybe you’re in need of an excellent piece for the mid-late intermediate piano student. Well, check out my original composition That Fall Feeling. I know you and your students will enjoy it!


The next three weeks are going to be busy. Remember to take care of yourself and your family.

And as always, allow PracticeHabits.co to fill you up with inspiration in the form of great articles and music!

Merry Christmas!

3 Creative Ways to Increase Classroom Engagement

student in piano classroom

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!