Listening: Better Listeners Make Better Musicians

Piano listening

Between repertoire, technique, sight reading, and theory, there is so much to squeeze into each and every piano lesson.

It’s so hard to find the right balance and feel like you are covering everything your students need.

One area that I neglected for far too long is listening: focused, purposeful listening, listening to pieces together and talking about what we hear, listening with specific objectives in mind that will enhance a concept we’ve just learned.

We sometimes get so focused in lessons about the multitude of details that go into polishing each piece: dissecting, analyzing, and drilling.

It’s easy to become disconnected from our main goal, which is to make music, right?

And music needs to be listened to. So why don’t we listen more?

There are many reasons to make listening to music a priority in lessons just as you would prioritize proper hand position and scale fingerings.

The most basic benefit of listening is that students actually learn how to listen to music. They learn what to listen for.

And becoming better listeners teaches them to become better practicers. And, of course, better players!

Have you ever had a student that was thoroughly convinced she was playing a crescendo when she actually wasn’t?

I find myself telling students to listen carefully to the sound that is coming from the piano, not the sound they hear in their mind. A good listener will have a more discerning ear.

Another benefit of listening is exposure to and appreciation of great music.

I had a scary thought one day after sending a new beginner home with his assignment –

Those simple three-note pieces from his lesson book, and that slightly more interesting piece I taught him by rote? That was probably going to be the only piano music he heard all week!!

Did he even know the amazing possibilities that were beyond the pages of his primer book?

Did he think that the rousing version of Pop Goes the Weasel that his friend played in the school talent show was the pinnacle of piano success?

Did he possibly not know the beauty that exists in a Chopin Nocturne?

In Mozart’s melodies?

Ack! The horror!

We want our students to love music for their whole life, even if they don’t play the piano forever. We hope that they will be appreciative concertgoers, that they will be able to find beauty in music, and solace and joy.

But first, they have to hear the music!

One enormous benefit to more music listening is the easy reinforcement of lesson concepts.

Music is an aural experience that I think we sometimes try to learn non-aurally.

We teach the concept and not the sound. We teach things out of context of the music and sometimes fail to put it back in context. But how many things would come easier to students if they simply listened more?

For example, I want my students to be great at rhythm (as I’m sure you also do), so I teach them to count rhythms and learn to confidently figure them out on their own.

And sometimes I’m afraid that when I demonstrate too much it turns into a crutch for them.

But time and time again, I find that the more I play and demonstrate, the better they become at reading rhythms independently.

Besides rhythm, imagine all of the other things we teach that could be enhanced through listening: meter, articulation, phrasing, tone quality, and so much more!

The more a student hears something, the more it will become part of her aural vocabulary.

And then, what she sees on the page and what we speak about technically, will truly have meaning. Then she will really be able to make music!

One final benefit of listening is inspiration.

This one is sort of the same as exposure and appreciation, but I mention it separately because I think it’s so important.

It’s such an exciting moment when a student listens to a piece and really connects with it!

It’s so cool when a student hears a piece for the first time and cannot get over how beautiful and amazing it is.

Do you remember the first pieces you felt that way about?

Having pieces to look forward to is such an incredible motivator!

The benefits of listening are clear and many. I am excited about the possibilities as I plan out a listening curriculum for my studio to begin this Fall.

Do you already do this with your students? Please share your ideas!

In order to make beautiful music, a student must first hear beautiful music!

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Piano Students: The Reason We Teach

piano students

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I teach piano. Why is it important? Is it important?

What makes it feel worthwhile to me when I’m heading out the door to teach lessons, and my own young children are begging me to stay home?

What keeps me going when I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over and over again some days?

You know what I mean!

What makes me feel inspired and gets me out of a teaching slump?

My answer has definitely changed over the years.

Many studies show that music study can improve academic performance, teach goal setting and time management, increase persistence and responsibility, provide a creative and emotional outlet, and it can bring together communities and cultures.

Wow! Clearly what we do is important, and yet none of those things are why I teach piano.

I teach piano because I love getting to know my students.

We get 30 to 60 minutes each week of one-on-one time with our piano students. Where else do they get that!?

Not at school, not at soccer practice, scouts, dance class, and in some cases not even at home. What an amazing opportunity we have then to be a positive, supportive voice in their ear and an eager and caring listener.

Don’t get me wrong, I know we actually have to teach them piano, too! But I do feel that as piano teachers we are in a unique position to really support and positively influence young people.

And as a bonus, if we have a good relationship with our student, they will be more open and willing to learn from us and be more likely to continue on in piano lessons year after year.

So, how do we do this? How do we build strong relationships with our piano students?

We do this naturally as teachers, but I think it is also possible to find some purposeful ways to further strengthen our student/teacher bond.

First, we show interest in learning about our students. 

I always take time during their very first lesson to do a little getting to know you interview. It might include their favorite color, favorite candy, favorite song,  favorite sports team, extracurriculars, and what they do for fun, among other things.

This information can be used in so many fun ways!  A piece about airplanes might be just the thing to motivate your airplane-obsessed student. Asking a student how her favorite sports team fared during the week is a quick and easy way to connect.

Demonstrating even a basic level of Pokemon knowledge is sure to garner a little respect from a reluctant student!

Remembering to ask how a big test or dance recital went… there are so many ways to show interest and concern for what is happening in our students’ lives.

I also spend the first few minutes of each lesson catching up on what is new with them.

How was their week? How was their day?

To get them talking beyond yes and no answers, ask open-ended questions such as “what is something good that happened today?” or “what made you laugh today?”  

This information may very well change the tone or structure of our lesson that day. If a student missed out on recess at school, we may start the lesson with a jumping jacks challenge to get out some extra energy.

If a student had standardized testing all week, we may just need to have a game day.

If they are upset about something, or happy, or proud, I’m going to do my best to listen and empathize, and then of course, gently steer things back to the music!

Another way we strengthen our student/teacher bond is by showing respect for the students’ ideas and opinions.

Obviously, we have so much we want to teach. It can feel impossible to fit it all in sometimes.  But even in keeping our own agenda, we can find little ways to let the piano students take ownership of their own learning.

Let them choose a piece to study.  Let them choose the order of the lesson activities. Let them tell you why that section needs to be forte instead of piano, and then let them play it forte!

Have a listening exchange, where you have them listen to a piece of your choosing, and then they choose a piece for you to listen to. 

Have them come up with a secret handshake that you will use when something magnificent happens in the lesson.

Again, the possibilities are really endless here. It’s all about letting the student know that you welcome their ideas, and you value them. Respect is a two-way street, right?

And again… an added bonus:  from this trust and mutual respect comes more confident and independent learners.

As teachers, we should never underestimate the positive impact we can have on our piano students.

Imagine, if we can be a bright spot in the week for one student, maybe they will take that light back out into the world!

And that is why I teach.

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About the Author: Ivy Pirl graduated from Florida State University with a Bachelor of Arts in music. While attending FSU, Ivy had the privilege of accompanying both the Women’s Glee Club and the University Singers. Since then she has been an active accompanist in her community and maintains a private piano studio. Ivy is a certified Kindermusik instructor and also the pianist for Acworth United Methodist Church. Ivy lives in Powder Springs, Ga with her husband and 2 children.

Transitioning a Student from “I Don’t Like Piano.” to “I Love Piano!”

Smiling Student Playing Piano

Parents who value music in their student’s lives are a tremendous boon to our profession.

From an educational standpoint, you can’t beat music. Math and reading comprehension and they get to make pretty music?

Sign my kid up!

Parents who understand the value of learning music are our allies, our job security.

They know what will best help their little ones grow into responsible adults and will do everything in their power to make sure their precious ones are given every chance to be successful.

They feed their kids vegetables, not because the kids like them, but because it’s good for them, good for their growth.

If music lessons are carrots for kids, how do we turn them into carrot cake?

Start each lesson with a smile.

You know they probably don’t want to be there, so make them feel like you are their favorite.

This is sometimes easier said than done: particularly with the surly teenager set, but sometimes it’s a “fake it until you make it” situation.

I find that with classes/students that are a particular struggle, as I end their time with me with a positive statement, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not only do I begin to see them that way, they begin to act that way.

Take a moment to get to know your student and make them feel like they are valuable to you.

Help the student make connections.

Take an interest in their other activities. And find music that complements it. When the student starts making connections, they begin to appreciate what they’re learning.

I once suggested a student use a mirror to practice. She was confused, so I asked her why she dances in front of a mirror at ballet practice.

She was much better able to understand the importance of muscle memory and doing the movements correctly and with a discerning eye and ear.

Turn the music into a story and have them tell the story. The student begins to seek stories themselves and really get excited learning a particular song.

Pieces and even etudes are a lot more exciting to practice when you have a story in your head instead of just looking at the black dots and lines!

Give sincere praise.

Showcase to your student and what they are doing well in their lessons. If they pick up a difficult passage quickly that most take much longer to accomplish, brag on them.

A student may not realize that she actually has an innate music gift. Leave participation ribbons out of it. Reward deserving improvements.

When they accomplish something major, bring the parent in to show them something they played well. Or if you teach in a location with many studios, call in another teacher to hear it to reinforce your praise.

Be sparing and cautious, though. It’s very tempting to tell a growing musician that they sound wonderful, but if they don’t, they likely know it, and your praise is no longer valid.

You can tell a student that you loved their energy without making it seem like everything they do is perfect.

Have them choose a song to learn by rote.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the technique, we lose the fun.

I like to ask my students (particularly those that don’t practice) what they would like to learn to play. Then, I allow them to watch me figure out the easiest way to teach it to them using the most basic notes, and then I teach it to them piecemeal.

There’s something about being able to sing the Disney song Let It Go while you’re playing it that really helps a kid enjoy lessons a little more.

Don’t even get me started on Star Wars!

Have a studio social.

If you allow students to socialize, they will play for you.

The reality is that most students do not stick with learning to play an instrument because of the music, the teacher or even because their parents make them.

They continue to play because they experience a camaraderie with other learners.

They like to be part of something, to be a part of a group. Let them see that they are not alone.

Now, this becomes a bit more challenging with private music students, but you can help foster this sense of camaraderie by hosting group lessons on occasion, or other group music events.

It will take a little extra effort to schedule these types of events, but I promise it’s well worth it!

When parents and students mingle, you’ve forged a bond and facilitated a love for learning.

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Working With the Over-Scheduled and Stressed Music Student

music student stressed

There are a vast number of opportunities that compete for time with music students today.

Sports used to be limited to one season and only a couple of practices a week. Now, there’s travel ball, extra practices, three-a-days, private lessons and extra camps.

Students are pushed to the max in school as well.

The couple of AP or honors classes that were offered in the past are now replaced by multiple AP class availability in all subjects as well extra tutoring sessions, future this-that-and-the-other clubs that seem to be so important, not to mention all the requirements of the typical student-athlete leave our kids today with little free time and even less music time!

So how do we deal with the hyper-scheduled and overly-stressed music student?

Employ the parents.

Many times, it is parental ego that over-schedules the kid.

They have high hopes of college scholarships and maybe even professional goals for their kids that are a bit unrealistic in other areas, especially sports.

Know your parents. If this is where their thinking is, you can use this to your advantage. Remind them that while all schools have a football team, not all football players can move around an instrument at a high level.

Playing an instrument for a number of years sets them apart from other student-athletes with similar prowess on the field and make them more well-rounded.

Help them understand that music is a quality of life thing, and their child should not miss out on the opportunity to really understand it.

It is very rare to hear someone say they wish they had never taken music lessons. Instead, they wish their parents had not allowed them to give up on it.

They understand the value of music or they wouldn’t have brought their child to you.

Give them opportunities to see professionals in concert as a family. Encourage them to unplug and connect with our past.

What were those people living through when that masterpiece was created?

Be realistic.

Instead of focusing on creating a concert pianist or symphony musician, focus on creating a lifelong lover of music: one who will support the arts with enthusiasm and understanding.

These kids are the future audiences. Help them want to be!

Music may not be the top priority in your student’s life now, but it will always be something they can remember.

There are bound to be a couple of things outside of music or even one major one that hits the top for them. If it is not music (what?!?!?!), figure out what is and help show them how music adds to it rather than taking their time away from their primary desire.

Liken music to their other passions, and they will make room for it.

Be their light.

In the world of hyper-extended and overly stressed students, you have the
opportunity provide their respite. You may not realize how broken and defeated they are when they arrive for their instruction.

Show them how music is the break in their life: something to turn to when everything else is overwhelming. It becomes an outlet for their frustration, sadness, and even hyperactivity. It can be that one thing that helps them find their center.

With that in mind…

Program accordingly.

You have the opportunity to tap into those emotions they are already feeling and become increasingly expressive. Boom! Two birds, one stone.

Choosing appropriate repertoire is one of the most of the important aspects of our teaching. We need to select music that is attainable and exciting, that challenges but motivates.

Choose music that explores nuances that the student has not yet encountered that they can recognize in other concert pieces, pop songs, and movie soundtracks.

Know your student’s schedule. What are they actually physically capable of scheduling in terms of practice time?

At best, they’re getting ample practice time in at home. At worst (normal scenario for many), they’re only able to accomplish a little during lesson time.

When a student is able to achieve a high level on a piece of music, it only motivates them to reach higher! 

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 🙂

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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.

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: