NCKP 2015 (1): Wednesday PreConference Seminars

Today, I traveled with my good friend Susan West to Lombard, Illinois to attend the 2015 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy! When we arrived, we met up with our other roommate, Amy Chaplin. 


We attended the Independent Music Teachers track of the Pre Conference Seminars. 

1:30: Marvin Blickenstaff – Keynote Address: The Many Faces of Music 


In his wonderful and inspiring keynote for the day, Marvin discussed the many faces of music. 

1. Music as Entertainment. We think of Haydn and Mozart as examples as those who composed music for entertainment purposes. But do we teach to entertain? Do we ask students that we choose repertoire for entertainment? Or musical growth and non musical values? 

2. Music as Service. Music touches our soul and allows us to experience beauty. “The human soul needs music more than bread.”as teachers, are dedicated to the improvement of the lives of those around us through music. Our students can also use music as service: playing for nursing homes, etc. everyone has a need for music. 

3. Music as Self-Expression. Why do we study? To explore the rich sounds of the great masters. As Richard Chronister once said (paraphrased): “Students take lessons for one reason: to learn to make exciting sounds at the piano. Every lesson that does not help this goal is cultivating a potential dropout.” We must remember to ask: “how does this piece make you feel? What is Kuhlau trying to say through this passage?” This should be the central goal of our lesson: to unlock expression in every piece.   

4. Music as Education. Music training has great impact on brain development as well as emotional health and development. Music brings together the physical, emotional, and intellectual. Music education is an important part of holistic education. 

5. Music as Art. There is artistry in every child. The goal of teaching is to produce artists. Those who feel and express beyond the page. We do not teach to entertain, we teach to give students the experience of expression and artistry. We live for those moments when listeners say that the music touches or speak to them. Even a beginner can achieve this, we can agree. Even our youngest students can play with great focus, sincerely, and artistry. When you hear it, you know it. For a moment, you are changed because the music has taken over your sensibilities. 

What constitutes artistic students? Accuracy is not artistry. An artist looks behind the notes. All music expresses some aspect of the human emotion. Do you feel the sounds? What do you wish your listeners to feel? Dynamics, balance, and breath are the main three sounds that Marvin suggests make up artistry. 

Music has many faces. We with our students engage in this faces together. But we do our students a disservice if we do not limit our instruction to entertainment, but to treat every student as an artist. 

2:15 Pete Jutras – What Are We Really Teaching?


In his talk, Pete Jutras discussed a holistic approach to piano teaching, where elements such as ear training, rhythm, sigh-reading, and theory are approached and taught through the very repertoire the student is learning instead of necessarily through separate books or activities. Our natural responses to music centers on whole structures, so this approach to teaching makes sense. He encouraged us not to lose not use sight of the wholeness of music. 

W 3:00 Arlene Steffan – Puzzle Pieces: Efficient and Effective Lesson Planning

Arlene’s presentation was based around the question: What can lesson planning do for my students? It was help us keep the big picture in mind for where you are going. It can help us keep track or goals and priorities. 

As an example, Arlene describes how she planned yearly goals for one of her students, and then broke down those goals into semesterly goals. For example: finish Music Tree book 3, improve facility (speed and coordination), increase chord recognition, increase confidence. The semester goals would be to master sixteenth notes and triads and inversions (C G and D and their inversions). 

Arlene then talked about possible ways to introduce a new pieces and having a plan for the mood, sound, and feeling the piece. Part of the lesson plan is considering what kinds of things we can talk about when introducing a new piece.  

4:00 Richard VanDyke: Five Guiding Principles for the Technical Development of the Advancing Pianist

Richard’s talk focused on five principles that he feels are crucial technical development. He uses these five elements in his lesson, curriculum, and repoirtoirr planning. The five principles are: touch, sound, rhythm, facility, and balance.

When we teach, we should start with touc and sound. For example, even a beginner student can explore producing big sounds (thunderstorm) and soft sounds. Then: How do we sit at the keyboard? Rhythm work begins immediately. Facility and balance come somewhat later. All five stages must be worked on constantly with students. 

Richard tales about the five elements in more specifics and describes how this mindset can be used when planning teaching and evaluating students’ playing and progress from year to year. 

5:00 Elissa Milne: Repertoire Recipes


In her presentation, Australian teacher and composer Elissa Milne led us through considering the “ingredients” of various examples pieces of teaching pieces in order to teach our students to truly be able to create and express (or, “cook”!) with music. When we tweak and change ingredients, we learn to truly understand those components as well as be able to trulachieve greater range of expression through music.

Elissa’s handout provided excerpts of repertoire accompanied by lists of the ingredients that make up the piece. For example, in consideration of the well-known teaching piece “Bagpipe” (composer anonymous), she asked the audience: What could we do with the ingredient of the 5th in the LH? Broken, grace note, move the fifth down a whole step (mixolydian mode), inverting, etc. What if we changed it to ternary form instead of binary form? There are many possibilities. Instead of focusing on achieving accuracy, we want our students to think like chefs: what are the sound possibilities here? Elissa’s presentation was engaging and full of insight and practical examples for teaching with this kind of approach in mind. 

7:30 Jason Sifford – Manipulation Stations


After a quick dinner, we returned for one more presentation, which was well worth our time! Jason Sifford demonstrated examples of creative and crafty manipulative a he has used to teach certain concepts and skills to his students. In groups, audience members worked together to try out his ideas for learning concepts such as melodic dictation, arm weight, legato finger transfer, and listening for harmonic change using popsicle sticks, matchbox cars, paper cutouts of dinosaurs, and more. It was fabulous!

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

lombardi quote

“The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

— Vince Lombardi

Feel free to download and share this quote or image.

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Freebie: Technical Requirements Charts for RCM’s 2015 Piano Syllabus

I recently finished creating a new set of technique charts for the RCM’s new 2015 Piano Syllabus.

RCM 2015 Technical Requirements image web

RCM_08_logoHere is the backstory.

Over the past few years, I have entered a handful of piano students to take assessments through the Royal Conservatory of Music, an excellent program originating in Canada and becoming more popular in the United States. I appreciate the thoroughness of the assessments, which require students to perform a set of pieces ranging in musical styles and to demonstrate musicianship skills (sight-reading, ear training, rhythm exercises, etc.). The levels outlined in the syllabus (find the free PDF here) are soundly structured and have been refined over time by dedicated pedagogues in our field. RCM is also known for the quality and consistency of the adjudicating across the continent. RCM is not a competition; it is a standard that allows students and parents to better understand and track progress during music study.

Every seven years, the RCM piano syllabus is revised to incorporate new repertoire, eliminate repertoire that is no longer readily available, and refine the musicianship and technical requirements. 2015 marks a revision year, which means RCM teachers are seeking to learn about the updates and changes compared to the previous 2008 syllabus.

RCM technical requirements level 8RCM’s non-profit publishing company, Frederick Harris, publishes a variety of wonderful books to aid students in preparing for assessments (most notably, the piano literature books known as the Celebration Series).

Books are also available containing the notated technical requirements for each level; however, I personally prefer to teach scales/arpeggios/chords by rote rather than through having students read the notation. But it can be cumbersome to write out the RCM technical requirements on students’ assignment sheets each week–especially if you expect students to review all previous material.

So, a few years ago I released a free printable containing charts of the technical requirements for each level according to the 2008 piano syllabus. These charts have proved to be incredibly helpful to ensure that my students are learning and reviewing all of the required technical work. I’m happy to announce today that new charts are available below for the new 2015 piano syllabus. Even if you have no intention of sending students to RCM assessments, you might find these charts useful.

I keep this PDF uploaded on my iPad (use iBooks, GoodNotes, or any similar app of your choice) so I can print the appropriate charts wirelessly during lessons. Students take their chart to and from their lessons. As each item is mastered, we fill in each box with a checkmark or a sticker. The chart makes it easy to visually track progress.

RCM 2015 Level 5 preview - with checkmarks web

Special thanks goes to fellow piano teachers Donna Gross Javel and Nancy DeHaven Hall for helping to proofread the charts against the 2015 syllabus.


  2015 RCM Technical Requirements Charts for Piano (557.9 KiB, 1,221 hits)


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Piano Wastebasket at Meijer

Do you have a Meijer store near you? They are currently selling these cute wastebaskets…including the piano keyboard one! I have one for my studio and my students love it. :) 


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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

einstein quote 2

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

— Albert Einstein

Feel free to download and share this quote or image.

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New Composer Lapbooks: Vivaldi & Prokofiev

As mentioned yesterday, two new lapbooks have been added to my digital shop: Antonio Vivaldi and Sergei Prokofiev.

If you aren’t already familiar with my lapbook curriculum, you might be interested in checking it out if you offer monthly group classes or summer music camps. Every year, I offer a music history camp using these lapbooks for my piano students and we study a composer from each historical time period. I’ve also used this curriculum in the past to offer weekly music appreciation classes for homeschoolers. To date, I have twenty different composer lapbooks available to choose from.

Purchasing the PDF for a composer includes the license to print and copy from the PDF for your entire teaching career for personal and educational use with your students. As the teacher reads the biography booklet and discusses terms/music related to the composer, students are responsible for cutting out and assembling the items for their own lapbook to take home.

Here is some info about the two new lapbooks.

In the lesson about Vivaldi, students will enjoy learning about “The Red Priest” and his passion for composing and teaching music to the orphans and students at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice. Special focus is given to Vivaldi’s most well-known work, The Four Seasons.

Vivaldi collage

Sergei Prokofiev was a great Russian composer of the Modern Era. Students will learn about how the political upheaval in Russia impacted Prokofiev both personally and as a composer. Special attention will be given to perhaps his most well-known work, Peter and the Wolf.

Prokofiev collage

Visit the digital shop by clicking here.

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2015 Music History Camp

Summertime means…time for music camp!

Last week, I held my first music camp of the year: our annual Music History Blast From The Past camp using my composer lapbook curriculum. This year, I was able to re-use a few of the composers that we studied at camp three years ago, but I did create a new lapbook for Vivaldi.

Each day, we studied a period of music history and a composer from that time period.

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What kid doesn’t enjoy arts and crafts + music?! :)

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The four composers we studied this year were Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amy Beach, and John Cage.

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Here is a photo of this year’s camp T-shirt design. :) I ordered my shirts from

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It was a fun week!

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Interested in holding your own music history camp using these composer lapbooks? Here is a blog post describing how to do just that!

Stay tuned — tomorrow I will share more about the new lapbooks now available in my digital shop: Vivaldi and Prokofiev.

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2015 Piano Pedagogy Seminar at Ohio University

Last weekend, I attended the 2015 Piano Pedagogy Seminar at Ohio University. It was a wonderful event that definitely helped recharge my teaching batteries! If you happen to live anywhere near Ohio University, I would encourage you to “like” their facebook page so you can receive information about this annual event.

This year, the featured artists and clinicians were Alan Chow and Dr. Robert Duke. Alan Chow gave a masterclass, an artist recital, and a lecture entitled, “It’s In The Score!” I really like Alan Chow’s playing — I must say his recital was among the best I’ve attended. His lecture the following day was enlightening as it gave us a glimpse into his mind as an artist interpreting the score, and also into his mind and method as a teacher.

20150626 OU Piano Pedagogy Seminar - Alan Chow

Robert Duke gave a two-part lecture entitled, “If We Learn Like That, Why Do We Teach Like This?” He is the author of the incredible book, Intelligent Music Teaching, which I reviewed in a previous post. His lecture was challenging, inspiring, and entertaining. If you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, be sure to take advantage!

20150626 OU Piano Pedagogy Seminar - Robert Duke

cover170x170After his lecture, Robert Duke encouraged us to check out the U of Texas-Austin’s Center for Music Learning website. There are a variety of videos and other free resources available there. He also let us know that he is involved in an NPR podcast called Two Guys on Your Head. I’ve been greatly enjoying these podcasts, and I also discovered that there are a few lectures by Robert Duke available for viewing on YouTube if you search for his name.

Other sessions included a lecture entitled, “The Secret Ingredient to Piano Teaching Success: The Powerful Role of Parents” by husband and wife team Dr. Christopher Fisher (OU professor) and Katherine Fisher (co-author of the Piano Safari method). In their talk, they described the “Parent Practice Workshops” they like to organize to help inform and equip parents to support their students’ piano study. They also shared a huge variety of creative resources and ideas for making home practice interesting and effective. If this sounds interesting to you, you might enjoy listening to this podcast Chris Fisher gave for the folks.

We also enjoyed a session about the Royal Conservatory of Music exams, given by Dr. Andrew Hisey. He gave an overview of the program and also provided a great deal of helpful information about the changes that were made with the release of the new 2015 syllabus (revisions are made every seven years). P.S.: If you have ever used my free technique charts for RCM, please know that I do plan to release charts for the new 2015 syllabus–hopefully soon!

20150626 OU Piano Pedagogy Seminar - Andrew Hisey

For the OU seminar, I traveled and roomed with a seasoned piano teacher from my local MTNA chapter. We had such a great time together.

I’ve been saving up to attend a couple of other events at the end of this summer: the 2015 NCKP near Chicago and a workshop by Irina Gorin occurring in the Indianapolis area. What upcoming events are you planning to attend? I encourage every piano teacher to be committed to attending every professional development opportunity that you can!

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

unknown quote

“It takes a big heart to help shape little minds.”

— Author Unknown

Feel free to download and share this quote or image.

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Highlighter Tape Alternative for Marking Music

Just a quick, fun post today…

I’m sure many of you are familiar with and love using highlighter tape to add visual reminders to students’ sheet music. The “tape” is transparent yet colorful, and removes easily if you want to keep the student’s music clean. I’ve seen highlighter tape available at music stores, conferences, or online.


Highlighter tape is a bit expensive (but worth it!), in my opinion. However, I recently discovered that these highlighter “tabs (pictured below) are just as good if not better!Hot-Sale-Paper-Sticky-Adhesive-Post-Highlighter-Index-Tab-Flags-It-Neon-Page-Marker-School-Memo.jpg_350x350


They are essentially pre-cut as opposed to the tape rolls. Only half of the strip is sticky, but that actually makes removal easier. Win-win.

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You can buy packages of highlighter tabs here on Amazon; however, you will find it to be much more affordable in the office supply aisle at your local store. You might even find them at your local dollar store.

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

duke quote

“Teaching well is like ‘practicing your students.'”

— Robert A. Duke

from his book: “Intelligent Music Teaching

Feel free to download and share this quote or image.

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Book Review: Intelligent Music Teaching by Robert A. Duke

I am excited to post this book review because this is one of the best books I have read in a while. If you are looking for a practical yet research-based book about piano/music pedagogy, get your hands on this book. This is my best book recommendation for any music teacher looking to improve their teaching.

Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction, by Robert A. Duke


The author, Robert Duke, is currently Professor of Music and Human Learning at the University of Texas at Austin. According to his bio, his research on human learning and behavior includes studying motor skill learning, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. He is also a former studio musician and public school music teacher.

Robert Duke’s book is organized into eight chapters or essays, with titles such as “Precision in Language and Thought,” “Sequencing Instruction,” “Feedback, and “Effecting Change.”

In the first chapter, the author makes a point about the ability to speak/write with precision of language being an important asset for any teacher. Based on the wonderfully clear writing is this book, I imagine that the author is an excellent teacher.

The book discusses how to think of the every day components of our teaching — instruction, assessment, evaluation, sequencing, etc. — with an awareness of how the human mind works and learns. Every page of this book contains a nugget of wisdom or practical tip for how to teach intelligently and meaningfully so that our students learn how to change and improve themselves.

Allow me to give you one quick example of a meaningful take-away from the book. During a section where the author makes a comparison to learning how to solve quadratic equations in math, he states: “The goal of instruction — the real goal, the long-term, far-reaching goal — is not to solve the equations, but to use what you know about solving equations to solve other problems that you may or may not have encountered before” (p. 29). Music teachers should have a similar instructional goal, as the author expounds throughout the book. The goal is for the student to gain intellectual, physical, or social skill rather than merely knowledge.

The writing is pleasant to read, being both intelligent and conversational. I think it is rare to find a book with such well-grounded information that is understandable by the layperson. The teaching/learning strategies and principles discussed in this book are backed by research. Yet, reading this book felt like having a thought-provoking conversation with the author over coffee. I could hardly put the book down until I finished reading it.

I highly recommend this book to any music teacher. It is a must-read for newbie and experienced teachers alike. My opinion is that it should be required reading in every piano pedagogy class. It will influence and change the way you teach. View it on Amazon here.

Edit: Ohio University sponsors a piano pedagogy seminar each summer in June and this year (2015), they have invited Robert Duke to be a speaker. I read Dr. Duke’s book in anticipation of attending this event. For more information about the event, visit

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