How to Solve Common Intermediate Student Problems

Intermediate piano students… what a special group!

They have stuck with piano lessons through the basics and their love of music continues to grow! Many teachers feel less prepared to teach this level because they have so much more experience with beginners. But those teachers who do teach intermediate students should count themselves lucky.

We should really value the commitment that these students make to continue on in their lessons.

We should also value this unique position in their music education that we get to be a part of. This is a big transitional time. Students who can make it through this intermediate level will become advanced students (the dream!! All the heart eyes!!)

These students are more likely to play music for the rest of their lives.

This is the time to really see musicianship bloom. And think of all the exciting repertoire!!

For our purposes, let’s consider intermediate level students to be those who have completed a basic piano method, or much of it. (I would consider Faber’s Piano Adventures book 5 to be decidedly reaching into the early intermediate level).

Students at this level have covered the basics, have a good grasp of basic technique and are starting to play longer, more involved pieces in a variety of keys.

During this exciting time, we can expect to encounter several common problems.

Probably the most common problem with intermediate students is simply keeping them in lessons!

Their school homework load is growing. Their extracurricular commitments are growing. And the pressure to be with friends or in other group activities is growing. It is probably pretty hard to sell them on the idea of 45 minutes of solitary practice a day! There will, of course, be those that just love piano and will continue to do so.

But for those on the outskirts- the ones that like piano (but probably not as much as lacrosse or volleyball)-those are the students that may quit if we don’t adjust our perspective and expectations.

So how do we win them over and convince them that piano is the best thing ever?!

First, we need to listen well to what they desire to learn in piano lessons. It is probably not the time to assign only Bach Inventions if you know what I mean.

We need to let the students discover and choose for themselves the styles, composers, and pieces they wish to play.

It may mean setting aside our ideas of “pieces you absolutely must learn as a piano student.” Some students will happily follow that plan in your mind, but others will not. And if we can keep them playing music -any music- shouldn’t that really be the goal?

So if we want to give them greater autonomy over what they play, we need to open their ears to the variety that is out there! We need to listen to music with them and assign listening for home practice. The greater the variety of music we expose them to, the more likely they are to find their niche. Watch some young piano YouTube stars with your students. They may have no idea that even exists and that actual kids their age are enjoying making music!

Here are some other ideas to motivate your intermediate students to stick with it:

1.) Let them choose a monthly theme or a recital theme. Giving them this kind of ownership will naturally increase their feelings of investment.

2.) Host occasional group classes for these students. Bonus points for duet or ensemble playing! Most students at this level love anything social!

3.) Pair your beginner students with an intermediate student mentor. They will enjoy imparting their hard-earned wisdom to the younger ones. This also helps grow the sense of community in your studio. When students feel a part of something, they are definitely more likely to stick with it!

4.) Make sure to include composition and improvisation in lessons for students that are interested.

5.) Have a composition contest.

6.) Help your student record a CD when they have a certain amount of repertoire learned.

7.) Have your student invite a friend to a lesson. They can give them a mini-recital, teach their friend one thing about piano, and they can play a duet!  Even if the friend has no musical experience, you could teach them an easy piece by rote, and your student could play a fun accompaniment alongside them!

So now that you’ve got your intermediate students sticking around,  another problem that often arises is repertoire burnout.

These students have been checking off their beginner pieces left and right, speeding through their books without too much of a problem. And now they are learning longer, more difficult pieces. Some students tend to shut down when they encounter this stage. They want to check off a piece in a week or two. They don’t want to polish every last detail, because it just seems to go on and on and on!!

The solution here is simply to choose repertoire carefully, building up your students’ tolerance to this kind of work over time. We may want to choose “growing pieces” for our students. But it’s a delicate balance, finding one that is going to stretch them just enough, not break them. Also, we should balance these growing pieces with easier pieces, pieces they can get a bit of instant gratification from. And that is a good thing for motivation, and also for sight reading!

Interconnected with the problem of repertoire burnout is another problem that often becomes highly evident during the intermediate stage: Students not knowing how to effectively practice.

And that’s maybe our most important job, isn’t it? We have to teach students how to practice. That begins with learning how to set goals. We should help our students set short term and long term goals for their pieces. I say help them set goals because again, they need autonomy; they don’t need us to set goals for them.

We can and should guide their goal setting, though. A short-term goal for a piece might be to play a certain measure 25 times a day for the week, or to be able to play a certain phrase 3 times in a row perfectly by the next lesson.

Long-term goals might include having a piece memorized in a month or learning a certain number of pieces during a semester. We should help them set attainable goals, the more specific, the better!

In order to be effective practicers, students need to be keen problem spotters.

Once they are good at spotting the problems, they must learn many, many different ways to solve the problems they encounter. Effective practice strategies would be a whole blog post in itself, so I’ll save that for another day, but a couple of fun books to explore that topic are Philip Johnston’s Practiceopedia and The Piano Practice Physician’s Handbook by Nicola Cantan.

Another part of effective practice is time management, and this is a crucial skill to develop at this level.

As aforementioned, intermediate students are often at an age where piano has to compete for time with several other activities and homework. Often a student will say “I had no time to practice this week.” And while some weeks that might actually be true, I am confident that we can teach them how to find some time in their schedule most days of most weeks.

The trick is once again, readjusting your (and their) expectations. They may not have 45 minutes, but if they have even 5 minutes, and they approach that 5 minutes with a specific and attainable goal in mind, then they will accomplish something. Too often, they are all or nothing.

If they can’t practice everything, they won’t practice at all. We can teach them how to prioritize and choose tiny, bite-sized goals for those days when time is limited. And they will see by the end of the week just how valuable even 5-10 minutes a day can be when used effectively and purposefully.

Of course, we hope to get more minutes than that, more often than not! But we’ve got to work with the time they have, and accomplishing something is always better than accomplishing nothing. A book that has changed my perspective on practice and setting expectations for practice is The Practice Revolution by Philip Johnston.

Finding new ways to motivate students, giving them more control over their repertoire, and helping them to set effective goals are all ways to help your intermediate students thrive during this exciting time in their musical life!


Looking for a great recital piece to inspire your intermediate students this season? Look no further! Enjoy this fun, well-crafted, and FREE piece entitled The Colorful Kite. Click the pic below and tell us where to send your free copy!

6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them – Part Two

common beginner student problems

This is part two in a two-part post on the on the topic 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them, by Ivy Belk Pirl.

In part one she highlighted the first 3 common problems and how to solve them. (Click here to read part one.)

She continues with problems number 4, 5, and 6 in part two –


4. Rushing And/Or A Generally Unsteady Tempo

Some kids come to lessons with a natural steady beat, but some definitely don’t!

My thoughts on why this is (and why music literacy is in decline, and music is sometimes reserved for only the “talented”)…well, that’s a topic for a different post. There are, however, ways that we can develop a steady beat and fluid playing in our students.

First would be to have students listen, listen, listen!! Have them listen to you playing their piece or listen to recordings of their pieces.

Play duets with them all the time! Assign them other pieces to listen to. Just have them listen to lots of music! While they listen, they should move their bodies. Maybe sway, maybe stomp around the room; small motions, big motions- anything to help students internalize and feel what they are hearing.

Another suggestion would be to have them sing the songs, though some students are reluctant to sing (another worry of mine, see above). For those students chanting rhythms may be helpful.

And finally, use more rote pieces in the beginning.

Some students are just struggling so hard to read the music that that is all they can manage.

Teach them fun songs by rote and you take the worry of reading out of the equation. Most students will automatically play more steadily and fluidly this way.

5. Associating Finger Numbers with Specific Notes

Does your student think that her right-hand finger 3 is “E”?

If you ask her to play a “D” with her right hand, does she automatically place her hand in C position and press finger 2?

This issue can be solved by carefully selecting the method you want to use to teach reading (or make your own).

Methods that rely too much on 5 finger positions (and stay in these same positions week after week) really contribute to this problem. Some kids are flexible and can make the switch when moving out of familiar positions. And some kids will be stuck in C position for a frustratingly long amount of time.

Reading pieces should begin in many different positions so that one finger never has a chance to become associated with one particular note.

Also, if you do flash cards or a note naming app, have the student play the note answers all with pinky one day. Students usually get a kick out of this, and you will get a more accurate feel for their note naming and finding abilities.

6. The Honeymoon Phase Is Over…Now They Are Bored!

Well, can you blame them?

Their beginner pieces may not be the most exciting pieces to hear and play. They might be beginners, but they still have discerning ears that want to hear interesting and exciting music.

This is another reason to teach some rote pieces in the beginning. Students are able to play more advanced and more interesting songs than they are able to read.

So teach them some awesome songs by rote that they will be proud to go home and practice and play for people!

There are many wonderful collections of pieces out there for beginners that are meant to be taught by rote. They often come with links to online videos that students can watch to have help at home.

Having music to be excited about is key to keeping kids hooked on piano!


So that’s my 6: the 6 most common problems I see in beginner piano students. None of them have easy, quick fixes. They all require time, patience and persistence, but the benefits are worth it!

Do you remember how awesome it feels to begin something new? It’s so enlivening. You almost feel like a new person! How lucky we are to teach beginners!


Interested in some free sheet music?? Click the pic below for some free (fun!) scale exercises proven to inspire MORE student practice 🙂

6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them – Part One

common beginner student problems

This post, 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them, is a two-part post by Ivy Belk Pirl. 

In part one, Ivy discusses three of the six common beginner student problems.


Teaching beginners is so wonderful, isn’t it?

Their excitement can brighten up our days and remind us why we started teaching in the first place!

Seeing music through their eyes can freshen up our view and give us a renewed appreciation for being able to make music.

But, teaching beginners comes with some heavy responsibilities, too…right??

We want to keep their spark ignited, and we also have A MILLION AND ONE things we feel we must teach them!

Over my years of teaching beginners, amidst the novelty and excitement, I have also come to recognize some common problems that pop up at this level of study.

Here are 6 of the most common beginner student problems I see and how I go about solving them!

1. Poor Hand Position

We teach our students at the first lesson what a good piano hand shape looks like. We tell them how important it is.

And still they keep coming in week after week with collapsed hands, flat fingers, drooping wrists…

And we remind and remind and remind! So how do we fix this super common problem for good?

I believe that, 90% of the time, poor hand position can be fixed by correct bench positioning.

The other 10% can be fixed with some kid friendly reminders (gentle nagging??).

Most of the time I find that students are sitting too low. This makes it very hard to keep a proper hand shape.

They need to sit high enough so that their hands can approach the keys from above. Their hands should be level with the wrist and forearm and parallel to the keyboard.

This is especially important for small beginner hands that need the support of the arm behind each finger to depress the keys with ease.

Obviously you can only control this set up at the student’s lesson, and if they are sitting incorrectly the rest of the week, they will have some bad habits to correct.

I like to have my students text me a picture of them sitting at their piano at home. This way I can really see what’s happening and offer suggestions for improvement if need be.

For young beginners, having the parent involved in this process is imperative!

So once their set up is correct and they are physically able to play with a proper hand shape, what do you do when problems still persist?

That’s where some fun, kid friendly reminders can help.

I use small, animal puzzle erasers for this. If you’ve never used them in your studio, you should! They have so many uses! You can buy them in bulk on Amazon.

  • So your student chooses an animal eraser friend, let’s say, a unicorn.
  • Once she is sitting properly with a good hand shape, you can place the unicorn under her hand and show her that she has just built a house for the unicorn.
  • The unicorn is so happy and cozy in her perfect house. (But, if your student’s wrists droop or her fingers become flat, the unicorn house will collapse. Poor, poor unicorn!)
  • You can also have the unicorn walk the magical path from forearm to wrist to hand.
  • It should be smooth and flat with no hills or valleys. (If the unicorn falls into the Valley of the Drooping Wrist, she may, sadly, perish! Oh the horror!)

After doing this activity a few times you will probably only have to call out “don’t smash the unicorn!” and your student will make a quick adjustment.

2. Collapsing Finger Joints

I’m sure you’ve had a piano student with this problem! It is so common and can unfortunately be very persistent.

Students need to learn to keep that lowest finger joint strong, because a collapsing joint does not allow them the full or efficient control over how the key is played.

Consequently they will not have as much control over the sound that they make, and an inefficient technique is a stunted technique.

With my beginners, we will make ‘O’s” (or glasses or owl eyes, if you prefer). They can practice this with each finger.

  • First make an “O” with thumbs and second fingers.
  • Tap the fingertips strongly together several times, feeling that firmness and not collapsing.

I always make sure to show my students how to do it the wrong way, with a super collapsed finger.

  • This is the “wimpy” finger (cue the sad trombone: womp, womp, womp).
  • And then I show them what a strong finger looks like. Wimpy, strong, wimpy, strong… they love pointing out my wimpy fingers!

Another fun way to help students with this problem is to use some playdough or silly putty.

Have them balance a firm fingertip on the playdough and then use their arm to press the finger into the dough several times without collapsing.

The playdough provides a bit of resistance and something to focus on.

This is also fun if you use firm fingers to press some chocolate chips into the playdough. Of course eating some extra chocolate chips after is the most fun part!

3. Non Playing Fingers That Are Raised, Sticking Out, Or Generally Wonky Looking

This common problem is really a symptom of a larger issue.

The “T” word. TENSION!

The source of that tension could be anywhere in the body, so teaching students what a relaxed body feels like is so important.

But, as you know, we cannot simply say to them “Relax!!” because that is the last thing they will do!

For pianists, a relaxed body has a tall spine, is grounded, supportive, breathing freely, and it has heavy loose arms that hang from relaxed shoulders.

I love the way the Piano Safari Method teaches students about arm weight and relaxation. It is called the Lion’s Paw, and you imagine that you have heavy, sleepy, lion arms.

  • We practice this away from the keys first, having the student imagine that she is a sleeping lion and I come to lift up one of her sleepy, heavy arms.
  • When I let go of her sleepy, heavy lion arm it should drop right down.
  • I also have the student check if my arm is asleep by trying to wiggle it around and then lift it up and drop it.
  • We practice this at the keyboard lifting our heavy, sleeping arms from our lap over the keys and dropping into no particular finger or key, and then being able to drop into specific fingers one at a time.

Another way to help this problem is to make students aware of their tension. (You can use those animal erasers for this as well.)

  • Place the unicorn on the student’s shoulder.
  • Have her raise her shoulders. (The unicorn cries, because she’s afraid of heights!)
  • Then have the student drop her shoulders, and the unicorn breathes a sigh of relief.
  • The unicorn can travel down to the arm, wrist, hand, and fingers checking for tension.
  • Sticking up fingers can be told to fall asleep.
  • Or we take our hands, lift them in the air with floppy wrists, dip them down into an imaginary bucket of water, and then bring them back up to shake off the drips!

A couple more ideas about fly-away fingers, tension, and hand shape…

There is so much to think about in the beginning of piano study.

Often when a student is learning to read music, she struggles to keep a good hand position, she has tension, and she can’t even notice because she’s staring at the page for dear life.

I find it helpful to focus on rote pieces in the beginning while you are establishing this very important technical foundation. That way the student can really give attention to how her hand shape looks and how her body feels.

Also, students should not be made to play legato at the beginning of their study.

Playing legato too soon, before a good hand shape and arm/finger coordination is established, will almost always invite tension in.


Click here to check out part two of Ivy’s fantastic post, 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them.

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Making the First Piano Lesson of the Season Extra Special

Piano Lesson

It’s back to school time!

And though it’s been a very long time since I’ve been back to school, I can still vividly recall the anticipation, the excitement, that first bit of chill in the morning air, and the smell of new school supplies!

I love this time of year!

Fall is (hopefully) just around the corner. The light outside just looks different. The sky is bluer.

As I write this I can hear a high school marching band in the distance learning their new show, and soon I’ll be able to hear them playing on Friday nights at the football games.

This will inevitably bring to mind my college days when a Saturday during football season turned the town into one big, friendly tailgate party with smells of hot dogs and hamburgers wafting through the air wherever you went.

Seriously, Fall is just delicious!

But my most favorite part of this time of year (as if it can get better than colorful leaves, sweatshirts, apple picking, and apple pies) is the new beginning that it brings.

A new start. Full of so many possibilities and so much potential!

As piano teachers, we should take full advantage of this fresh start and the natural momentum that it brings.

So whether you have students who will be returning to piano lessons after a summer break or students who are just continuing, now is the perfect time to bring this new energy into your studio and get your students excited about lessons!

I’m sure it goes without saying, but the first piano lesson of the new school year needs to be super fun!

Most students are probably not thrilled that Summer break is over and school is back in session. So let’s make the piano lesson a place they will be thrilled to go every week!

Not only do we want to make this first piano lesson extra fun, we need to make it different!

So maybe you won’t even open up their tried and true lesson book at all. You want to give them a taste of all the fun possibilities that you’ve got up your sleeve for this coming year.

First, why not begin with a little question and answer game to find out a bit about their summer.

See how much you can figure out by asking only questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Except instead of answering you with a word, they will use a musical answer.

For example, use a major chord for yes and minor chord for no. Or a high note for yes and low note for no. Or have a couple of rhythms written out, one for yes and one for no.

Obviously, you can easily tailor this to fit the level of each student, and you’ll hear about their summer adventures while easing them back into the piano lesson!

Next…NEW MUSIC!!!

Isn’t that the most exciting part?!

I still remember the excitement of walking into the studio as a child and seeing a stack of brand new music on the piano. That meant my teacher had been to the music store during the previous week, and some lucky kid was about to get some new music.

(We offer free sheet music and other resources from time to time! Download and enjoy ‘The Colorful Kite’ when you click on this link!)

Oh, I could barely wait to find out if one of those new pieces was for me!

So in the Fall, rather than diving straight back into their usual books where we had left off, I like to mix it up a bit.

I like to bring in an assortment of exciting sheet music with tons of variety and choices, and then…best part… the students get to choose! There are so many wonderful options out there for pieces written with students in mind.

Fun pieces, that are pleasing to their ears with fun titles and illustrations that will capture their imaginations and make them excited to learn.

I find it so valuable to consistently research new (or new to me) repertoire, because much of the time, waning interest can be solved by finding just the right piece!

Next, do something silly with an old piece of music, or save this to do with their new piece at the next piano lesson once they’ve practiced it a bit.

For example, have them hop on one foot the rhythm of the entire right hand. Or, have them play the piece with hands crossed over each other, left hand up high and right hand down low.

Or, have them play the piece as if they were a robot.

You get the idea.

You need about 5 to 10, silly to outrageous instructions. Write each one on a tiny piece of paper folded up and thrown into a hat for the students to pick from.

Maybe also let them pick one for you if you’re up for a challenge!

Finally, during this first piano lesson back you’ve got to play some games!

As a way to introduce new theoretical concepts or just to review things learned in the past, what better way is there than playing a game?

And a quick internet search will yield more results than you could ever possibly need for any concept you could ever possibly hope to find. In the past, I rarely made time for games thinking we just had too much to do.

But I’ve seen the excitement and interest in a game carry over into the rest of the piano lesson, and now I’m sold!

It switches things up and keeps the piano lesson fresh and exciting…exactly what we’re hoping to do as we start this new school year!

The start of a new school year is also a time to think about goals.

To get my beginner and intermediate students thinking about longer-term goals, I like to do a studio challenge.

This year I am going to do a 10 piece memory challenge. Students are encouraged to polish and memorize 10 of their pieces during the school year. They choose which ones and perform them for me when they’re ready.

Each student has a laminated punch card they can use to keep track. We also list the pieces in their notebooks, but it’s surprisingly fun to hole punch your card each time you accomplish part of your goal!

I should make a punch card for myself to use for mundane household chores!

The idea behind this challenge is to encourage students to not only polish more but also for them to have a larger repertoire in their fingers that they can play anytime, anywhere.

I also have a chart displayed in the studio showing each student’s progress in the challenge. This is just a little bit of inspiration (competition) for those students who need it!

For another studio challenge idea, you may consider something like the “30 piece challenge” that is floating around the internet in piano teacher land. The goal of this challenge is to learn 30 pieces.

Obviously, you’d need to make some pieces easier than others, but the idea is to develop more fluent readers and enhance all areas of musicianship simply through quantity of pieces learned.

The thought is that when it comes to quality vs. quantity, though we all definitely desire quality, there is something to be said for quantity as well when it comes to time spent at the piano.

10,000 hours (of deliberate and quality practice) makes an expert, right?

Maybe you’ve done this kind of challenge before? I would love to hear about the results you observed!

(For other fun lesson ideas, check out the article, ‘How To Spark Imagination and Creativity in the Lesson Room.’)

And finally, one last idea to bring some fun into your piano lessons this year (and probably the idea I am most excited about, maybe even more than my students):

Bring a mascot into your studio!

And by this, I mean a stuffed animal with a name and an interesting backstory that gets to go home with one lucky student a week along with a practice journal.

In the journal (which you can personalize in so many ways) the student will tell how they practiced with their furry friend.

What was furry friend’s favorite piece? Which part was hardest for them? How many times did they practice measures 3-6? How many total minutes did they spend at the piano together? Did they do any other non-piano things together?

Including pictures is encouraged!

Previous entries will be enjoyed by each student who gets a turn with the mascot.

They will get a glimpse of what other students are working on and how they practice. Students may even be impressed to see how many minutes other students are spending at the piano in a week!

Think of the possibilities! Fortissimo Fox, Beethoven Bear, Susie Sloth, Adagio Alligator… so much fun!

So breathe in that crisp Fall air and welcome some newness into your studio!

Your own renewed energy and fresh ideas will be contagious, and your students will be more excited than ever!


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How To Teach Proper Scale Technique – Part Three

scale technique

In Part One of this series, I showed how to teach students the proper scale technique for playing smooth one-octave C major scales, hands separately.

After mastering one-octave scales, hands together, (as discussed in Part Two), it’s time to teach the two-octave scale hands separately.

This includes the 4th-finger-over technique, but first, we focus on getting to the next octave by swiveling the thumb under the 4th finger.

There are six steps to teaching this scale technique:

1. Have the student place the right hand in F Position (all white notes) and play the 4th finger on B. Then show how to swivel the thumb under and play C, immediately creating a new C Position of all white notes, although still only playing C.

2. Have the student practice this motion from B to C, going from F Position to C Position smoothly and without moving the arm or elbow.

3. Now have the student play in F Position, starting with F, and immediately after letting go of the thumb to play 2nd finger on G, show how to swivel under the arched hand position to get ready to play the C underneath, even while playing G-A-B.

This prepares students from the beginning to eventually play faster scales without jarring motions. Then after B, drop the thumb on C and immediately fall into the C Position (still just playing F-G-A-B-C).

4. The student should practice F-G-A-B-C like this repeatedly while you observe the hand and arm position.

5. Now the student can finish this portion of the scale by doing step 4, then when in C Position, playing 1-2-3 up to E.

6. Practice this with the student until it is smooth and even, with no jarring movements or louder notes.

Once this scale technique is mastered, you can have them start at the bottom of the C scale and work through the entire two octaves focusing on the position shifts learned: C Position, F Position, C Position, F Position.

This whole process should be translated to the left hand in mirror image, starting from the thumb on G and descending from C Position to F Position, playing thumb under to C after the 4th finger plays D. Then the entire descending two-octave scale can be played in the left hand.

Next is the slightly easier technique of crossing the 4th finger over for the descending right-hand scale.

Here are the six steps for teaching this scale technique:

1. Have the student place the right hand in C Position (all white notes) and play the thumb on C. Then show how to play B by crossing the 4th finger over the thumb as a pivot. Then immediately place the hand in F Position of all white notes, although still only playing B.

2. Have the student practice this motion from C to B, going from C Position to F Position smoothly and without moving the arm or elbow.

3. Now have the student play in C Position, descending from G to C. Then cross the C over to B and immediately fall into F Position (still just playing G-F-E-D-C-B).

4. The student should practice G-F-E-D-C-B like this repeatedly while you observe the hand and arm position.

5. Now the student can finish this portion of the scale by doing step 4, then when in F Position, playing 4-3-2-1 down to F.

6. Practice this with the student until it is smooth and even, with no jarring movements or louder notes.

Once this scale technique is mastered, the student can play the entire descending two-octave scale in the right hand, focusing on moving through the position shifts learned: F Position, C Position, F Position, C Position.

This whole process should be translated to the left hand in mirror image, starting from the thumb on C and crossing the 4th finger over to D, going from F Position to C Position. Then the entire ascending two-octave scale can be played in the left hand.

Once these steps are completed, then the student can begin practicing the two-octave, hands-together C major scale.

You can teach this last step with the same methods discussed in Part Two.

It is very important to have the student say the finger numbers out loud (5-1, 4-2, 3-3 etc.) while playing slowly up and down the scale, using the spots where 3rd fingers play together (on E and A) and thumbs play together (on C in the middle) as guideposts to stay on track.

After this, then two-octave, hands-together scales can be taught in all 12 major keys!

I have found that this is the best method to ensure that students learn to play with the appropriate scale technique from the beginning.

And once they’ve learned C major, the other scales become so much easier to play cleanly and smoothly – and eventually fast!


Inspire your students with this FUN and EXCITING (free) scale exercise! Click the picture below and tell us where to send your free sheet music.

How To Teach Proper Scale Technique – Part Two

scale

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how to show students the proper technique for playing a smooth one-octave C major scale, hands separately.

The essential thumb-under and 3rd finger-over techniques can take a while for students to learn, but once they have been mastered, the scale can be played hands together.

Here are some tips for teaching this important next step:

Have the student focus on the position changes (not just the individual fingers or notes), going from C Position to F Position when ascending and from F Position to C Position when descending.

The challenge is to successfully pivot the thumb under or 3rd finger over at different points between the two hands, with the right hand changing from E-F and the left hand changing from G-A.

‘When one hand shifts, make sure the other hand stays in position until it needs to move.

Watch the student’s arms and wrists to make sure they don’t move them during the scale, even when shifting thumb-under.

All of the movement should come from the fingers, with just a small amount of necessary gliding up or down the keys with the arms.

The wrists should not move up and down for the thumb-under technique, as this causes notes to be played louder and less evenly.

Have your student play the scale very slowly and say the finger numbers out loud as they ascend.

I like to say the left then right finger number (i.e. 5-1, 4-2, 3-3, 2-1, 1-2, 3-3, 2-4, 1-5). Emphasize the fact that the third fingers always play together and encourage the student to think of them as “guideposts” that help ensure the right track.

Have the student say the numbers out loud while playing the descending scale, and pay particular attention to the left-hand thumb, as I find that many students have more problems with the shift timing and thumb-under technique of the left hand.

Saying the finger numbers out loud this way was the critical step in my own development in playing scales accurately and smoothly as a student, and I have found that teaching this approach solidifies the patterns in the student’s mind and fingers in a very clear and effective way.

Once this process is mastered, then the student should learn the other 4 major scales which use this fingering: G, D, A, and E major.

Eventually, all 12 major scales can be learned this way and then the student can advance to learning the two-octave scale technique.

I look forward to showing my approach to the two-octave scale in Part 3!


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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.