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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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.

Seven Tips For Teaching Precise Rhythm

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

damper-pedal

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.

WHEN SHOULD THE DAMPER-PEDAL BE INTRODUCED?

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.

BEGINNING PEDAL TECHNIQUE

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.

MOVING ON TO OVERLAPPING PEDAL

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

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.

I’m Thankful For You!

I'm thankful

Thanksgiving is a time to sit back and purposefully reflect on the good things in your life.

It’s a time to enjoy friends and family, catch up with those you don’t get to see regularly, and reflect on good memories.

Thanksgiving is a time to honor those who support you and encourage you. 

I hope that you take time to reflect on the good things in your life and honor your friends, family, and piano families this Thanksgiving season.

And yes, these are important matters ALL of the time, but Thanksgiving allows us a moment to reflect even more on them. So take advantage of it.

Friends, I am thankful for you! 

Your support this past year has meant the world to me as I’ve worked to build a platform that honors you piano teachers and the important work you’re doing.

Thank you, thank you! I am grateful.

Please accept this beginner sheet music AND effective memorization practice guide as a small token of my appreciation. 

And keep up the important work you’re doing, because it really does matter.

Your friend,
Chris

Balancing Music and All the Other Things

Children are incredibly active. Honestly, too much.

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

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

1. Don’t Compete.

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

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

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

2. Use their activities to enhance your teaching.

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

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

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

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

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

3.) Don’t make them choose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Help them manage their time.

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

Necessity is the key to learning to manage time.

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

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

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

5. Suggest a time to practice.

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

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

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

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

6. Develop relationships with both students and parents.

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

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

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

7. Support the other endeavors.

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

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

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

8. Remember why you teach.

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

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

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

Happy teaching!


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

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

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

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