Conferences, Group Classes, Music Camps, Reading Notation, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (4): Functional Skills are Important by Martha Hilley

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Martha Hilley at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.


“Functional skills” include skills such as harmonization, improvisation, transposition, rhythm, and theory.  There are many fun ways to incorporate functional skills into group/private settings.  Today we are going to try out some examples:

Rhythm Activities

Activity #1. Make up a series of patterns such as:

Tap   Clap    Tap    Clap
Tap   Clap  |___|  Clap
Tap  |___|   Tap   Clap
Tap  |___| |___| Clap

Put them on a transparency or write them on a whiteboard.  (The box is the quarter rest.)  Most students don’t have time for rests!  They want to keep going.  So give them something to do during the rests (e.g., saying “rest” aloud; or making some kind of movement during the rest).  This is a great activity for class piano or monthly group lessons. Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (4): Functional Skills are Important by Martha Hilley”


2010 MMTA Conference (3): Classical Improvisation by Brian Chung

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Brian Chung at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.



Is improvisation really for jazz only?  Why can’t we classical pianists learn improvisation from our own tradition (as did Liszt, Clara Schumann, and others)?

Two goals for today: (1) You can be a capable improviser; (2) You can pass it on to your students. Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (3): Classical Improvisation by Brian Chung”

Early Childhood Music, Games, Group Classes, Music Camps, Printables

DIY: Silent Mini Keyboards

I recently decided that I wanted to own a set of silent keyboards for doing introductory piano activities with young children, and for using during group theory activities.  Unfortunately, buying a set of silent plastic keyboards (view them at can be a rather large studio expense.  Of course, a cheap alternative would be to simply print a picture of a keyboard on paper.  But there is something nice about the 3D features of a silent keyboard…so I decided to make my own.  I got the idea from Anne Cosby Gaudet’s Piano Discoveries website, where she made similar keyboards with wood and foam.

My DIY (Do It Yourself) mini keyboards do not have true-to-life sized keys as the store-bought plastic silent keyboards have.  However, I spent less on the supplies for making a set of six keyboards than it would have cost me to buy just one plastic silent keyboard!  Here’s how I made my set of six keyboards:

Continue reading “DIY: Silent Mini Keyboards”

Conferences, Group Classes, Music Camps, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (2): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 2

A continuation of the previous post……see Part 1 here.


Activities Continued…..

5. Progression Based Improvisation

1) Show the student a progression such as:

A  |  D  |  A  | Bmin |  E  |  A  |  E  |  A  ||

2) Be sure the students thinks about the relationship between the chords.  Spell each chord together before playing.  Check how many chord tones are in common between each chord, and play the best inversion of the triads accordingly for good voice leading.

Side note: this activity is great to do with groups of students, away from the piano.  Try “playing” this progression moving to the closet inversions on your invisible lap piano.  =) Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (2): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 2”

Conferences, Games, Group Classes, Music Camps, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (1): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 1

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Martha Hilley at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.  She shared with us a number of activities that can be incorporated in a variety of settings, whether it be the private lesson, class piano, or monthly group lessons (my summary is posted here with permission).



Do you have your students improvise?  Do you improvise?  The biggest reason teachers don’t improvise during the lesson with their students is the giant time factor: we often don’t want to take the time out of the lesson.  However, improvisation can be very effective even with beginners.


1. Black Key Improvisation

Use improvisation even with young beginner students.  They often can play rhythms that they can’t yet read, so use improvisation as a way to teach rhythm and technique.  It frees them from the score.  Black key improvisation is especially great because there are no wrong notes!

1) Ask student to put 5 fingers on 5 black keys (any 5).

2) Teacher sets up an ostinato.  Student is instructed first to listen to the ostinato, and then play (immediately after, joining the teacher). Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (1): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 1”

improving as a teacher, Practice, Rhythm

Teaching Tip: Count Like a Musician!

At the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Assocation conference this weekend, our conference clinician Martha Hilley had some wise words for us that I thought I’d share here:

Always be a musician, even when you are counting aloud!

As she led us through some various exercises during one of the sessions, Martha Hilley encouraged us to use vocal inflection to show musical direction — even when it’s just simple rhythms or melodic lines.  And, of course, this tip applies to our students: encourage them to be musical counters too!

Here’s to trying to use more vocal inflection when I count aloud with my students this week, and hoping that my musical counting will rub off on their playing!  =)

Stay tuned – more summaries of the conference are on the way!

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography | CC 2.0

improving as a teacher, Motivation, Studio Business

9 Ideas for Motivating Piano Students

I’m sure we have all had students who are low on motivation at one point or another.  It’s not always easy to keep students practicing week after week.  To make matters complicated, every student is different: something that motivates one student might not work for the next.

Here are some ideas for increasing motivation among your piano students:

  1. Take lessons yourself. Put yourself in their shoes – literally.  Remember what it’s like to have a busy week and have a hard time finding time for practice?  Remember what it’s like to when your pieces don’t play as well in the lesson as they did at home?  You can be more genuinely understanding and make better suggestions for solutions if you are taking lessons yourself and going through the same situations that they are.  Think you don’t have time for lessons?  Try to find someone who’s willing to take you on every other week or even once a month.  Continuing your own piano lessons will probably benefit you in more ways that you think!
  2. Be sure to give them a good variety of repertoire. Make sure there is plenty of variety in the music they are working on.  Find out what types of music they like.  Supplement their method book(s) with new age piano (think Jim Brickman), hymn arrangements, jazz/blues, pop music, soundtrack/music theater music (think Disney, High School Musical, or Twilight – whatever is currently popular!).  No matter the student, however, I always make sure they are working on something classical too.  There are so many different types of great music within classical music – I truly believe there is something for everyone! Continue reading “9 Ideas for Motivating Piano Students”
repertoire / methods, Reviews

Book Review: “Returning to the Piano” by Wendy Stevens


  • Title: Returning to the Piano: A Refresher Book for Adults (click to view on Amazon)
  • Composer/Arranger: Wendy Stevens
  • Publisher: Hal Leonard
  • Number of Pages: 96
  • Level: Elementary – Early Intermediate (pieces are in order of difficulty).
  • Other Information: Includes a CD.


As the title suggests, this book is intended for adult piano students who are returning to the piano.  Even in the first few pieces, the students’ hands are not confined to “positions” as in many methods; therefore, this book may be a good solution for students who already are accustomed to moving around the keys, or for the student who would benefit from becoming more comfortable doing so.  (I would not recommend using this book with beginners because it is clearly not intended for that use.) Continue reading “Book Review: “Returning to the Piano” by Wendy Stevens”

Practice, Technique

Teaching Phrase: “Pretend It’s Easy”

Lately, I’ve trying out this phrase with my students, in situations when a student is struggling with the technique of playing a particular passage:

“Pretend this is really easy for you to play.”

This phrase works best in a situation where the teacher observes that the student is holding far too much tension in his/her arms, wrists, and/or fingers to be able to properly execute a passage.  Rather then hearing a command to release some of the excess tension, however, sometimes hearing a phrase such as “Pretend it’s really easy for you,” has a better effect on the student.

What’s supposed to happen when you pretend it’s easy?

  1. A mental release occurs. Suddenly, the student gives him/her-self the permission to play the passage correctly. When we know (or think) it is a difficult passage, sometimes we don’t allow ourselves even the chance to play it correctly because we don’t think we can.
  2. A physical release occurs.  As the student imagines what it would feel like to play the daunting passage if it were easy for him/her, unnecessary tension in the student’s arms, wrists, and fingers melts away.  This release of tension often makes the passage suddenly much easier to play.

Try it, and let me know what you think!

Photo Credit: alexanderward12 | CC 2.0