Teaching Basic Technique to Beginners

basic technique

Many thanks to those who were able to join me on the recent Facebook live training on the topic of teaching basic technique to beginners.

It was a joy to share the spotlight with my almost five-year-old daughter, Emma-Kate.

She was oh so good and did a fantastic job demonstrating loose and relaxed wrists, arms, and shoulders.

No worries if you missed the live video. You can check it out below.

But don’t forget to grab the free parent engagement infographic.  I promise your students will get fantastic results when their parents implement these simple strategies.

Click here for your free infographic!

And enjoy the video 🙂

Would you like the latest and greatest resources from PracticeHabits.co delivered directly to your inbox (like creative scale exercises and more)? Just click below to sign up!

Teaching Precise Rhythm to Piano Students

teaching rhythm

Teaching precise rhythm isn’t the most exhilarating thing to teach, but it’s essential. Especially, if we want our students to become well-rounded musicians.

The following video is from a free online training that I gave on the topic.

These are simple and straightforward strategies designed to help you teach your students how to play with precise rhythm.

Practicing Scales in a Musical Context

scales in musical context

Scales are important, but why do we learn scales? To play music, of course!

They help improve finger dexterity, hand and finger strength, speed, and coordination.

But scale exercises don’t have to be boring. So don’t put your students (or yourself) through the same dull routine.

The following content is taken from an online training I recently presented on the topic via Facebook Live.

I hope you enjoy it!

Here’s a link to the free scale exercises 🙂

A Day in the Life of a Piano Teacher

piano teacher

The work of a piano teacher is so important. Don’t you agree?

Think about the fantastic privilege we have – it is a joy to share the gift of music with young people.

But it’s not always cotton-candy and rainbows. There are days when our best efforts feel mediocre at best. Or when our genuine love an admiration for our students are met with hostility from the seemingly militant parent.

But it’s on these days that we dust ourselves off and continue doing our important work.

I want to bring you three inspiring stories today. These stories were gathered from willing participants inside the Piano Teacher Central Facebook group, a fantastic community of piano teachers who genuinely love and support one another daily.

I do hope these piano teacher stories inspire you, friends.

Aimee Black is a young piano teacher who’s had a lot of “ups” in her piano teaching journey thus far, but she recently experienced one of her first big “downs.”

Have you ever had a day like Aimee’s?

Aimee writes,

“So today my student’s parents tell me they want to stop lessons with me and continue with a different teacher. I have been teaching her for four years, she is now 12, and was my first piano student.

She has a severe brain injury from a horrible accident 6 years ago, which causes her to wear out quickly, amongst other things. I have been part of her rehabilitation process, her doctors have contacted me saying the music is helping her brain to heal. Music therapists have also given me exercises to help her. However her disability barely affects her now, she is very talented and is playing around grade 2/3.

I also attend her band rehearsals every week for 2 hours because it is something she struggles with and needs help with. I take her to competitions (eisteddfods) because she loves performing. This family is close friends of my family, so I only charge $10 per lesson.

Her parents are very into horses, and that is their top priority. They just don’t think music is very important. They encourage her but do not understand music and how important it is.

The text I received said that they want “in school” lessons for her, as she is too tired after school. I don’t teach in schools, as I am a student myself.

I have done so much for this child, I can’t bear the thought of her having a different teacher. That may sound selfish, but this is the first time something like this has happened and I am a bit upset, to be honest! I’m not exactly sure what to say to the mother either.

Doesn’t your heart go out to Aimee? Mine sure does.

Within a matter of minutes, Aimee had dozens of encouraging comments from other piano teachers in the Facebook group. 

I love that Aimee approaches her students with such genuine love and admiration. She’s in it for the right reasons, folks.

It doesn’t make it easy, but sometimes we just have to let go.

Keep doing the important work you’re doing, Aimee! You’re making a difference in the lives of your students and families.

Now, onto a story with a bit of a  brighter hue.

Joy Smith of Sweet Sounds Piano Studio posted this inspiring story a few months ago.

Joy says,

“Some lessons you will never forget.

I haven’t seen a little girl in a month. The family took a long trip to the Bahamas (must be nice to have an ob as a mom and surgeon as a dad). The little girl loves to play but struggles with confidence in all areas of life and didn’t like to perform publicly.

Well, she came in tonight and said, “I have a story for you!” Plops on the bench and proceeds to tell me that at the resort someone was playing the piano. That person left and didn’t lock it up so she thought “why not.” She sat down and from memory played THREE songs!

People stopped to listen, complimented her, told her how nice it sounded and that she had a real gift. She was beaming ear to ear and I was fighting tears.

She said after that she felt like she could do anything. And THAT, my friends, is why we do what we do – why we sacrifice our schedules, higher paying jobs, and put up with crazy parents. Because what we do makes a real and lasting impression in the lives of others.

This young lady will NEVER forget that moment. My joy for her is indescribable.

I love this story! And I can just hear the passion in Joy’s voice. She’s sincerely happy and joyful for her student.

Way to go! Keep doing what you’re doing, Joy. You really are making a difference.

And now onto a story that’s remarkable, funny, crazy, and wonderful all at the same time!

Lael Portwood, a collaborative pianist and piano teacher from the Houston area recently posted this story in the Piano Teacher Central Facebook group.

Lael says,

“I was teaching a lesson at a student’s house yesterday when I started to hear dripping water.

(I’d like to interject something here. Dripping water at a student’s house? Never good. Okay, let’s continue…)

The student went to the source of the sound and shouted, “Oh, my God!”. I walked into the kitchen and looked up. Water was pouring out of one of the pot lights on the ceiling.

I slid the trash can under the leak, grabbed towels from the laundry room to mop up the water, all while two very large but adorable dogs were thinking I was playing with them. They were splashing through the water, jumping on me, barking cheerfully!

The mom was on the phone with her mother (who has the beginnings of dementia) because her mom had made a mistake with her bank account and apparently a big one…

The boy told his mom about the leak but she was already frazzled. She came in to the kitchen where I was trying to contain the leak, the puddles, and the dogs. I told her to run upstairs and see if something was leaking.

One of the boys had clogged the toilet. She ran downstairs to tell me.

I asked if she shut the water off to the toilet. She says she didn’t know how. I ran upstairs to shut it off.

All in a day’s work, my friends. All in a day’s work.

Can you believe this? Wow, what a story! Fortunately, this has never happened to me. Lael, you have superpowers beyond that of a piano teacher. How fortunate for the family that you were there teaching at that time. Kudos to you!

You see, friends, we’re going to have “ups” and “downs,” but at the end of the day, we press on because the work we do is so important.

I hope this post and these stories have inspired you to press on today. Keep being the super-wonderful piano teacher you are!

You know, superheroes (like piano teachers) need resources to help them do their superhero work!

I’d like to gift three piano performance pieces to you. I’ve received some cool emails from piano teachers using these pieces in festivals and auditions. I sure hope they can serve you and your students.

Click below to get your sheet music:

Seven Tips For Teaching Precise Rhythm


Teaching precise rhythm is a necessary evil in teaching music. We do not really want to teach rhythm! We want them just to be able to do it!

Let’s instead get to the fun stuff: dynamics and music making!!!

Okay, but hold on.

They must understand where to place all of these glorious musical thoughts. It is one of the most important fundamentals of learning music.

Unlike so much of music that can be left up to interpretation (dynamics, articulation, and tempo), the rhythm of the music cannot.

It is either right or wrong.

Part of our avoidance with teaching rhythm is that we were also not taught thoroughly.

I was lucky enough to take a class called Developing Rhythmic Sensitivity and taught by a former principal Atlanta Symphony percussionist and was devoted wholly to learning rhythm precisely.

That class was life-changing, especially for a string player whose rhythm was questionable at best.

Coupled with what I learned in that class, here are my top seven ways to ensure correct rhythm in students.

1. Have a method.

Spend time thinking about your method. Does it make sense in a majority of the rhythms your students will encounter?

You should know what your students should say, write and think for each type of rhythm they may see later down the line.

“Pep-per-on-i Piz-za”, and “Ap-ple Pie” are cute and memorable ut should be paired with the grown-up versions of “1 E & A 2 – & -“ and “1 & 2 -“ right away, so they are used to hearing it.

2. Subdivide from the beginning.

Most of us learn to start with quarter notes. We are taught, “one-two-ready-play.”

Instead, count, “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.” It becomes what they hear when they start to play.

3. Emphasize Understanding of Relationships.

As you begin adding different types of notes to a student’s repertoire and understanding, make sure you explain how the notes relate to one another.

You can do this very simply.

A quarter note can be divided into two eighth notes, a half note has two quarter notes which means that it also has four eighth notes.

This becomes important as you tackle the dreaded dotted notes.

I simplify it for my kids by taking a non-musical symbol and adding a dot to it.

For example, if a STAR is equal to 100 beats, then a DOTTED STAR is equal to 150 beats (a STAR and a half).

When a dotted half note appears for the very first time, teach the entire concept from dotted half to dotted eighth to dotted star.

Avoid merely telling the students that the dot adds one beat to a half note.

4. Turn long notes into their subdivision.

For example, if they have a dotted half note F followed by a quarter note G, they would play six eighth note Fs followed by two eighth note Gs.

This coupled with using a metronome creates some pretty intense precision.

As a bonus effect, they automatically subdivide in their head after having to repeat this exercise many times.

5. Slow down.

I mean painfully slow.

It is far more difficult to play very slowly with precision than to play quickly. There is so much more space between the notes to want to rush.

However, if they cannot play it slowly, they do not really understand it, and they are certainly not subdividing.

Again, this exercise should be done with a metronome.

6. Unorthodox metronome placement.

Typically, we place the metronome beat on the strong beat or the eighth note subdivision.

Try shifting it.

Leave the metronome on quarter notes, but put it on the “&” or even the fourth sixteenth note or second triplet of the beat.

Talk about really making your students think subdivision!

7. Internalize the rhythm. I love this game.

The idea is to have your student subdivide as precisely as possible in their head.

Start with a metronome that you can mute but still see the beat.

Count off for your student and then have them clap on a certain number of beats later.

Start with an easy number such as two or four, then gradually increase it.

They have to start back at the lower numbers if they are even a little early or late.

In our musical performances, we will pull and push the tempo and stretch out the rhythm for effect, but precise rhythm should be at the foundation.

We have the liberty to make these adjustments only after knowing exactly what we are modifying!

Speaking of teaching precise rhythm, here’s a sheet music gift for you to help you along in your teaching journey:

Teaching Proper Damper Pedal Technique


Breaking bad habits is hard to do, and this is especially true with damper-pedal technique. Students don’t always get direct advice and instruction on how to properly use the damper pedal, and this can become a real problem when they advance to more difficult repertoire.

But, if taught properly, damper-pedal technique can be very clearly executed and with the following method, teachers can correctly instruct their beginning students or even remedy bad habits acquired by more experienced students.


One question that many teachers have is when to introduce the pedal to a beginning student.

It seems each method book has a slightly different approach, but overall it is best to wait until after the student has gotten comfortable with posture and position, is consistently playing correctly with arm weight and sufficient individual finger strength, and is comfortable playing with both hands together.

After these first techniques are successfully incorporated, then the pedal can slowly be added into their playing.


The best way to introduce this new technique is to go over how the damper-pedal works. Take the time to look inside the piano and explain the mechanics of the pedal, as this can help students visualize what happens every time they depress and lift their right foot.

Next, you can demonstrate what a difference the timing makes when trying to “catch” a sound with the damper-pedal while trying not to have any of the previous sound blended in. Make sure to work with no-pedal to pedal technique first, not overlapping pedal, which will come later.

After this, have the student play a note or chord while you demonstrate the proper timing of the pedal with your own foot. Also, show examples of incorrect timing and make sure they understand the difference.

Remember to indicate how the pedal goes down directly after the note or chord, and that the foot “reacts” to the hands. The pedal must always be after the hands; otherwise, it blurs with the previous sound.

Next, you can switch around and play a note or chord and have them attempt the correct pedal timing. Make sure they keep the right heel on the ground, play with the ball of their foot and lift all the way up and down.

Listen and discuss the outcomes. This is usually the “Aha!” moment for students with the pedal.

Once they understand the timing, have them try the note or chord and pedal together until they get the timing right. At this point, you can assign them easy songs that use the pedal, but still not overlapping pedal yet.


Once they master individual pedaling, you can show them overlapping pedal technique.

First, you can demonstrate with a longer passage of music that has overlapping pedal.

Explain that at the start, you pedal as already learned, then you hold the foot through the first harmony change. You play the next note or chord and then change the damper-pedal quickly after the new sound, but hold the new note or chord long enough to “catch” the sound before moving to another note or chord.

Reiterate the concept of the foot always “reacting” to the sound the hands make. The pedal is the “glue” that holds the two different sounds together without fully combining them.

When demonstrating, note the different moments that happen in the sequence:

  1. Just before the new chord the pedal is down and the hands are free to move where they need to go.
  2. During the dropping of the new chord the pedal is still held and there is a brief mixing of the two harmonies.
  3. Immediately after this the pedal lifts and drops while holding the new chord, which “fixes” the blurry, mixed sound.
  4. Then the pedal holds while the hands move to another chord (i.e. another inversion of the harmony).

Each of these actions should be distinct and demonstrated in “slow motion” to have the full effect.

You can use the same method as before, first having them play as you do the pedal (both correctly and incorrectly to show the difference), and then you play as they try the overlapping pedal timing until they get it right.

Have them practice in “slow motion” then gradually get faster with the sequence of motions. Once they are able to do one pedal change properly, then have them try two in a row, and then a series of changes.

After having mastered this, you can assign them a technically easy song that has continuous overlapping pedal. Monitor their pedal in the following lessons to make sure the timing doesn’t get “lazy,” especially if the student is relearning how to properly use the damper-pedal.


This method takes some concentrated effort, but it will give your students the skills to naturally execute the pedal in more advanced pieces as well.

About the Author: This article about developing excellent technique 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.

Developing Excellent Technique


When we think of what students get the most excited about, probably the last thing that comes to mind is technique.

Students don’t usually jump for joy when given the task to practice scales or arpeggios, and this lack of enthusiasm can make an already difficult job even harder to accomplish.

But, technique is essential to the craft of making music on any instrument, and students must learn how to play their instrument correctly and with the most efficiency to express the music as clearly and effectively as possible.

What can we do as teachers to make sure our students are developing proper technique?

In every stage of learning, teachers can help their students focus on the skills that will help them get to the next technical level while staying engaged and inspired.

Beginning technique

It is essential that proper technique is taught from the very beginning – not only so that the student learns to play correctly from the start, but also so that they get used to the element of technique in their daily practice and lessons.

When beginning to teach a student to play the piano, we must make sure they always play properly with their fingers, wrists and arms, always have correct posture, and that they try to watch the score without looking at the hands as much as possible.

One fun way to begin addressing proper technique is to demonstrate what playing looks and sounds like when done with bad technique and then contrasting it with good technique.

You can have the student try as well, and the silliness of it can help them remember!

Very early on, have the student master the pedal timing so that it is not an issue later with more complicated pieces.

Basic pedaling is frequently overlooked or just casually taught when it comes about in the method book, but if not taught correctly, it can completely throw off rhythms, articulations, and dynamics in more challenging passages.

Be as demonstrative as you can with how to execute the timing of the pedal and make sure the student knows how it works mechanically, so there isn’t any gap in the sound.

One of the most important late-beginner techniques involves putting the thumb under for scales and arpeggios.

If students can learn to use the muscles in their thumb without moving their wrists or arms when playing scales (even just one octave at first), then their technique will have a solid foundation upon which to build.

With these basic skills mastered, the intermediate-level techniques of multi-octave scales and arpeggios will be much more smoothly executed.

Intermediate Technique

Intermediate-level technique is an extension of the beginning technique and should develop naturally out of it.

There are many new things for the student to learn, so it’s best not to focus on too much at once.

Perhaps start with multi-octave scales first, and then move on to arpeggios so as to not overload the student.

When possible, try to engage the student by asking him or her to determine what technique would work best in a situation by using logic.

A good example is scale and arpeggio fingerings: Why don’t we use thumbs on black notes in scales?

Why is it better to use thumbs and fifth-fingers on white notes and the longer fingers on black notes?

Have them figure out scale fingerings on their own and check their work.

This approach will help them feel more connected to the way they play, and not just that they are doing as they are told.

(Click below for an excellent piece especially crafted for the intermediate student.)

The intermediate level is a good time to start implementing metronome practice.

Work on using the metronome with the student in the lesson to make sure they know how to use it properly.

Try using different beats and subdivisions and have them count and subdivide out loud.

It’s worth taking time in lessons to teach this correctly, as it becomes essential in practicing more difficult pieces and rhythms.

The earlier students get used to doing this, the better!

Begin to incorporate etudes into your students’ repertoire.

In addition to the standard etudes, make sure to choose some fun etudes in different styles that develop specific techniques.

One of the best ways to keep all of this interesting is to turn technique practice into games, puzzles or challenges.

Have the student come up with their patterns to practice in addition to the exercises you assign to keep them engaged.

Leading to Advanced Technique

Once students have a firm grasp of the intermediate techniques of multi-octave scales and arpeggios, you can begin teaching them advanced scales (3rds, 6ths, 10ths) and arpeggios of inversions and seventh chords.

Different trill fingerings could also be developed at this point as well.

In a studio with multiple early-advanced students, have technique competitions for prizes.

With scales and arpeggios, you can set metronome markings goals to aim for, and the fastest and most accurate player wins!

Overall, start to make technique a focused part of every lesson, even if you don’t call it that explicitly.

You can practice scales and finger strengthening exercises without calling it technique, and if you can find ways to make it fun, then students will be more enthusiastic about doing what it takes to bring their technique to the next level.

About the Author: This article about developing excellent technique 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.

Five Tips for Successful Performance Preparation

performance preparation

One of the most exciting aspects of becoming a musician is to share what we have been working on.

This is the moment when we take what a composer has written, translate it into how it speaks to us and then share our interpretation with an audience.

We, as musicians, connect unrelated people through what we do on stage.

What a powerful moment!

How do you prepare your students for such a monumental event?

Here are some guidelines for your students to prepare for an upcoming performance.

1. Programming appropriately.

As tempting as it is to assign or allow students pieces they want to play or we want to hear for a recital, sometimes they are simply not ready.

Just because a child could play it doesn’t mean they should.

It is far better to assign a piece of music that is easier for them so that they have a positive musical experience.

When students are allowed to over-program, they are robbed of the opportunity to have a genuine musical experience.

If a student feels a technically appropriate piece is too easy for them, they are not working hard enough.

There are always things to improve.

Focus on dynamics and articulation.

Can they play it at a different tempo and with a metronome?

A general rule of thumb two to three months prior to a performance is that if a student cannot make it through the piece the first time they sit to play it, the piece is simply too hard to be done well in a short time frame.

Does that mean they shouldn’t work on it?

Of course not!

We learn from what we don’t know rather than what we do know, so it is still a valuable teaching tool- just maybe not the right choice for an upcoming performance given the constraints of time.

2. Practice slowly.

If they can’t play it slowly, they don’t truly understand it.

We don’t want students only to be able to play everything quickly.

How is their precision of the subdivision when there is a lot more space in between beats for errors?

Quick is fun and exciting, but it is a lot more gratifying when it is precise!

3. Start from the end.

Students love that upper left-hand corner of the page.

That is why the beginning of so many of their pieces are so solid!

I love to start from the end.

“End on a good note.”

Audiences remember the first thing they hear as well as the last thing they hear.

They will forgive the middle- although they may not forget it!

Start from the end and work your way towards the beginning.

This helps with transitions as well.

Speaking of transitions…

4. Practice transitions.

We as musicians tend to “chunk” our music.

We play one section, then another.

The bridge between the two often gets neglected and even more frequently, sounds neglected.

This is necessary not only within the confines of one piece but also from one piece to the next.

It is important to hear the change in style and tonality between pieces of music.

Don’t save the run-through for the performance.

Have them end one piece and then play the beginning of the next so that their ears and fingers are accustomed to that transition.

5. Memorize their music.

Simply stated, if it isn’t memorized, it hasn’t been practiced enough.

When we are glued to the black dots on the page, we miss out on the joy of actually creating music.

They have to be able to allow the music to lead them.

Each note should not just last the prescribed number of beats; it should rise and fall with the emotions they are experiencing on stage.

This can only happen if they aren’t reliant on reading the notes on the page.

They know their music well enough to look away.

Use these tips to help prepare your students for their upcoming performance.

Of course, modify according to ability and temper.

The best performances occur when your student is prepared and can connect with the audience.

Above all, enjoy helping your student make connections!

Note from Chris:

You’re doing important work and I want to honor you for it! Click the picture below to grab a sheet music gift! I’m giving away three piano performance pieces. Enjoy!

About April: 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.