Must-Have Christmas Piano Music!

I hope you all had a fabulous Thanksgiving, and that you are all getting out your Christmas piano music to celebrate the season! (I got mine out long ago.....)

I thought I'd share some of my favorite Christmas piano music! These are wonderful for intermediate to more advanced students, or to enjoy yourself! Here is my list of Must-Have Christmas Piano Music! Enjoy!

Christmas Fantasy - a medley of traditional Christmas carols by John W. Schaum

This is a great little early advanced Christmas medley that I learned as a teenager. Included in the medley are "Come All Ye Shepherds" (briefly in the beginning and the end), "Silent Night," and "Joy to the World." Wonderful if you're looking for a challenging Christmas piece with a more classical feel.

Cantique de Noel, O Holy Night! , Freely transcribed for piano. (27414-5)O Holy Night - transcribed for piano solo by Rob Roy Peery

This is a great piano arrangement of this beautiful Christmas carol! If you're looking for a more advanced, traditional Christmas piece to assign to a student, this is a great choice. The melody begins in the middle (shared by both hands), moves to the left hand and then to the right. It includes lots of virtuosic passages and big chords. Very fun!

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a for One Piano, Four Hands, arranged by Eduard Langer

Ok, this is one of my absolute FAVORITES to play during the Christmas season. If you have never played these you need to buy this book right now. And find a buddy to learn them with. Now these babies are pretty advanced, so they require some practice :) but are well worth it. Janina and I performed a big portion of this set as a duet recital in college and it was SO much fun. Get this book. Now! :)

Sleigh Ride, Duet for One PianoSleigh Ride - Duet for One Piano by Leroy Anderson, arranged by Michael Edwards

This is another must-have! This early-advanced duet is a definite favorite of mine....so much fun to play, so much fun to listen to. GREAT for Christmas recitals :)

Duet Fantasy on Jingle Bells - Piano - Late IntermediateDuet Fantasy on Jingle Bells by Robert Vandall

My sister and I love to play this as fast as humanly possible. This is a great Christmas duet that is tons of fun. Also check out Robert Vandall's other fun Christmas duets!

The Songs of ChristmasThe Songs of Christmas - Liz Story

This is one of my absolute very favorite collections of Christmas arrangements for solo piano. These arrangements are a bit new-agey, a bit jazzy, very original and so beautiful. I love love LOVE these! Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print or something, because to buy a copy on Amazon.com you have to pay an arm and a leg. (Seriously though, if you ever come across this book, get it! You will love it all.) However, you can buy most of the individual pieces at musicnotes.com! My favorites include: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, (jazzy and soulful, love it!) Angels We Have Heard On High, (very original arrangement, very introspective and gorgeous) O Come Little Children/We'll Dress the House, and Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella/When Blossoms Flowered 'Mid the Snows (both beautiful medleys! so much fun!).

Mannheim Steamroller - Christmas (2 pianos/4 hands)Mannheim Steamroller Christmas - 2 pianos/4 hands

This is SUCH a fun book! We grew up listening to Mannheim Steamroller Christmas music in our house, and my sisters and I LOVE playing these 2-piano duets! I'd say they are upper intermediate level. If you have two pianos (and two pianists!) this book is a must-have for the Christmas season. These would be awesome for fun Christmas recitals.

What is YOUR favorite Christmas piano music?


We have a winner!

Thanks to all who participated in our giveaway this past week! Our winner is....

Heidi, from Heidi's Piano Studio!

Congratulations! Heidi, please contact us and give us your mailing address so we can send you your free copy of "Red!"

Mr.Perl has been kind enough to offer our readers an exclusive offer on his books! As a token of his appreciation for your kindness and enthusiasm, he is offering 50% off on any combination of 2 or 3 books. This offer is good for one week only, and will end on Monday, November 29th.

To take advantage of this special offer, visit www.sheerpiano.com, click on the "Sign In' button on the bottom left corner, and enter in the password: 50off

Thank you, Mr. Perl, for the wonderful offer!


black hole of piano: survey results!

So, can I just say that I loved all of your input on our survey this week?? We had 42 people take our survey, which is awesome, and the results are very interesting!

A few things I find interesting:

  • Over half of the survey-takers were not taught any of these functional keyboard skills regularly as a piano student. 
  • About one third of all survey-takers feel fluent in NONE of these skills. 
  • Although only one third of survey-takers were not taught harmonization/chord-playing as a piano student, about 85% of them are teaching these skills to their own students - way to go!
And here are the results!

And I loved all your comments. You bring up some great points, and it's great to talk about this important issue in our teaching. Here are the comments that were shared during the survey...and I may just add in a few comments of my own in red!

All of my students are early beginners (between 1-2 years of playing), so I can't teach that yet. {oh but I think we can! Even very young students can improvise on the piano, transpose a SUPER simple melody from C position to G position, or make up their own song.} But I'm working on scales and triads with them, so I can eventually get to the point of doing chords and such! {that is wonderful! way to give them a solid theory background :)}

I can totally empathize with and was a victim of the "black hole". {uh-huh, so was I!} As a result, even after being a music major in college, I'm working on some of these aspects still today. This is why I'm insisting my piano students learn how to do these things to be a fully rounded musician.

Ah! This is a huge weakness for me, both doing it myself and teaching it. I'd love some suggestions. Books that have helped learn/teach these skill anyone? {good question...any thoughts, readers?}

Great food for thought! I need to get better at teaching these skills. {so do I!}

The skills I use most as a church musician and jazz band member are improv and lead sheets. I want my students as professional musican or hobby players to enjoy music after they leave me so I felt it invaluable to teach how to read a chord chart and how to play well with others in a band . My husband is a guitar teacher and we put our students together and create small rock bands {how fun is that?!} . This has been a great sucess . Not only do they have fun working on THEIR music , they are constantly using all the scales and chords we were trying to teach them in technique.

I appreciate Celebrate Piano course for these reasons!!! They teach most of these skills from week one and two!!! {I LOVE that series, and that is so true!}

I taught myself how to play chording and lead-sheet music when I had to out of necessity with my church's praise and worship team. Since then, I have taught many students to play chording so they could play "worship" music also. However, I have recently been wanting to learn composing and teach my students. But I am at a loss at how to learn and teach on this subject. {I don't have much experience in this either - but I do think that kids can be so creative, you may be surprised at what they come up with in a simple composition assignment!} Also, in all my years accompanying, I still find it difficult to play from multiple clefs. I agree that improvising, chording, composition, transposition, and part-playing are all invaluable tools to the modern-day pianist and as a teacher, I want to include these skills in my teaching. Thank you for your thoughts on this!

Thank you for bringing up this topic. I have been teaching for 2 years now, so I have all beginner students. This topic has brought to light a lot of areas that I need to include in my studio teaching. Thank you. {you're welcome!}

It's hard to fit everything into a 30-minute lesson but I do manage to get most of it in about once a month. {that is great - and yes it is SO hard to fit in all that they need} I don't do the multiple lines playing because I think that is a more advance reading than my elementary students can handle.

I am Teaching the Music for Young Children program because It is a comprehensive program that teaches children some of everything they need to know to be a well rounded musician. We teach these skills as a part of their normal lessons. The children graduate with a grade one certificate, but their knowledge goes much deeper than that of most private taught grade one students. I know that my students have been given a great foundation for whatever musical path they choose to follow later in life. {how wonderful! sounds like a great program}

I wish there were a way to expand the 30 or 45 or 60 minute lesson to include these functional skills. Unfortunately, there are so many demands on that precious time when you have recitals, contests, and festivals at regular intervals through the year. {so true!} Our teachers association has a regular yearly event (Music Evaluation Day) that tests students in a number of areas, including repertoire, technique (scales, cadences, chords, arpeggios, and harmonization), theory, and sight reading. I encourage all my students to participate in this or in Piano Guild auditions. If they opt for Piano Guild, I insist that they work through Musicianship Phases, whether they actually do them at Guild auditions or not.

I had to develop my skills later in life after becoming the piano player for my church. There is still so much I could learn! Because I know what I'm missing, I am trying to encourage these things in my students as early as possible. {I feel the same way - because now I know what I missed out on in some aspects of my early piano lessons, I want to make sure my students get a good, well-rounded foundation}

I need to do much better at this! :) {and....this was totally my comment! I am in the same boat with so many of you - so let's all try and do better together!}

And people - only TWO more days left to enter our giveaway! Come on over!


Playing what's NOT on the page

While thinking about this "black hole" of piano study phenomenon this week, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of teaching our students to create their own music, to play what's not on the page, to be able to harmonize or transpose a melody, to truly be keyboard and music literate (which I believe includes these important skills!). I love this comment we received from Mike, and think that he put it so well:

I've always been baffled by this scenario. I believe that creating music is and should be an intrinsic part of playing any instrument. It was not always this way. Bach, Chopin etc all improvised. I think composing, and writing out what you create, should be a central part of musicking with students of all ages at all levels.

I think that there is no better time to start than now! Start now teaching your young beginning students to play what's not on the page. If you have older students who have never learned these skills before, start now! It may take a little encouragement and time to help them feel comfortable using these skills. They may have to step outside their comfort zone a bit (I know that I needed to!). But these skills will truly help them be a well-rounded musician.

There are so many simple, basic things you can do to help teach your students these functional keyboard skills. Here are some ideas:

Start young. If children are encouraged to experiment on the piano, make up their own pieces, and improvise at a young age, they will be more comfortable and fluent at it as older musicians. I have encouraged my two-year-old son to experiment at the piano, and he loves making up his own songs!

Encourage creativity. Help students feel comfortable making up songs and composing. Praise their efforts, help build their confidence. When students are not encouraged to be creative at the piano, they may continue on in their music study not knowing how to be creative at the piano or being afraid to try.

Improvisation games. Encourage expression at the piano by playing improvisation games. Play what a bird sounds like, or a rainstorm or the ocean.I think that if I had done more of this as a youngster I would be more comfortable improvising today.

Simple transposing. Young students can learn to transpose very simple pieces from one 5-finger position to another, such as from C to G. Once they are comfortable doing this and can do it with ease and minimal effort, move onto more challenging pieces or new keys.

Question-answer phrases. Have students complete a musical phrase by composing an "answer." This is a simple exercise to get them writing down notes, listening to how music resolves, and possibly to start composing a bit!

Simple harmonization. Young students can learn to improvise an accompaniment to a simple melody when simple chords and chord symbols are learned. Start very basic. Then teach them how to turn block chords into broken chords or an Alberti bass pattern.

Encourage composition. I love how Amy Hansen assigned her students to write a spooky piece for Halloween. Children have great imaginations, why not harness this creativity and help them create their own music?

In what ways do you teach functional piano skills to your students? Please share!

**Don't forget that you can still enter our giveaway until Monday night!**


Interview with Amy Hansen: On Composing

I am so excited to share an interview with our guest contributor, Amy Baugh Hansen! Amy has recently released her first album, Piano Noel Classics, which is available here.

Tell us a little about your musical background.

I started taking lessons when I was five with my mother, Susan, an excellent pianist and teacher herself! I took from various teachers starting around age 6. I participated in competitions and festivals throughout my school years. I also won a few competitions in composition at a young age. I even studied the cello in junior high for a few years as well. Classical piano became my main focus in high school. When I auditioned for scholarships my senior year in piano, I received two offers-one from USU and one from BYU. I attended USU for a while, but then transfered to BYU where I studied with Dr. Irene Peery-Fox. I went on to receive my bachelor in piano performance from BYU.

What or who inspired you to start composing and arranging?

I hadn't composed anything for a LONG time until recently earlier this year. In fact, I believe I was about 12 when I stopped doing compositions on my own for fun. But, during the Christmas season last year, I was playing as a pianist for our ward (church) choir, and I was thinking that I would like to try arranging/composing some music on my own. I started playing around with the idea in January more and from that point, I started working and experimenting on a few songs. It was almost like riding a bike--I just remembered how to do it, and it was a lot of fun!

Do you feel that composing has helped you to be a better musician? If so, how?

Yes I think it does....probably because I can express myself through the outlet of my own music--so it helps me personally with my artistry in a way.

Tell us a little about your composition process

Here is my composition process in a nutshell.....I just start playing! I experiment with different melodies/harmonizations/modulations etc. as I go along. Sometimes I will hear a tune/song in my head as I am driving, or at night before I fall asleep--sounds kinda weird, huh--and then I'll write it down when I get a chance! I have to write everything down by hand first--that's just the way I do it. When I write a song that I really like, it almost tends to 'write itself,' and everything fits together easily! But that's not always the case. Sometimes its a little more work to make everything come together, but the process is still enjoyable.

Do you encourage your own students to compose? If so, what are some ways you implement this in your studio?

Yes, I certainly do! For our recent Halloween Group Lesson, I had all my students perform their Halloween pieces that they had composed. By giving them an assignment of writing a 'spooky'-sounding piece, it made the assignment more specific and direct, instead of just saying "write a piece." Sometimes students who are not comfortable with composing yet have a hard time when given the assignment to write a piece, so this usually helps to give a little more direction and help when they start. On the other hand, I have a handful of students who love to compose and will play their songs for me at their lessons. I encourage these students to continue their pursuits in composition as well. I have found that if you give assignments for composition, students can often rise to the challenge.

What are your thoughts on encouraging students to work on creative keyboard skills (such as composition, improvisation, transposition) along with studying classical repertoire? Do you feel it is important for classical pianists to have these skills?

Here's what I think about incorporating composition, improvisation, transposition etc. along with classical training....I think it is wonderful to develop these skills, and that it helps serve as a compliment and an enhancement to the classical pianist in their musical education. If we look to the great composers of the past, they all posessed and incorporated these skills. However, I do not think we are all necessarily equal in our creative abilities. But, if we never tried to exercise our creativity, we might not know what we are capable of! What if we never encouraged our students to write? Then who would be creating the 'new classics' of the future?

Tell us about your new album! 

My new album is called 'Piano Noel Classics.' The album consists of several piano arrangements of Christmas hymns. I have new thematic material for each song, so it doesn't sound like the traditional hymns we sing in church, although you can still recognize the melodies. I tried to put a twist on each song--I wanted to portray different moods and feelings depending on the piece. For example, 'Joy to the World' is very grandious and vibrant. In contrast, 'It Came Upon the Midnight Clear' is more subdued and tranquil for most of the song. I should also mention that I wrote them all in 7 weeks! It was a little difficult to write in a time-crunch, but it was fun at the same time and my family got to hear Christmas music early this year!

Thank you so much, Amy, for your wonderful insights! I know that I am inspired to be better at encouraging my students to compose, and maybe even do a little composing myself!

Visit Amy's website: http://www.amybhansen.com/


Guest Contributor: Amy Baugh Hansen

We are so excited to have a wonderful guest contributor this week who will share some great insights into composition with us! Amy Baugh Hansen is a pianist, composer and piano teacher in Utah. We are excited for the great things she will be sharing with us about composition, and wanted you to get to know her a little bit!

Amy Baugh Hansen

Pleasant Grove, Utah

she is:
a mother, wife, piano teacher, ward choir pianist, composer :)

she attended: 
Pleasant Grove High School, Utah State University, and Brigham Young University

a newly signed artist with Covenant Communications (owned by Deseret book) and will debut a cd of hymn arrangements next year. Also is currently writing music for the KSL series 'History of the Saints', and is in the process of publishing more music with Jackman Music.

her studio: 
consists of 20+ students. We are getting ready for our Christmas recital next month! Yay!

she loves: 
spending time with the fam, working out, decorating, shopping--in any form!

she recently:
released her Christmas album 'Piano Noel Classics,' which can be purchased here

her website:
visit her page on facebook


Red & Blue Review, and a GIVEAWAY!!

As we are discussing functional keyboard skills this week, I am excited to share my review of some new books featuring jazz, blues, funk and contemporary pieces for piano students!

Blue and Red are part of the new Color series by New York City pianist Dror Perl. Blue contains "contemporary music with a harmonic twist" and Red contains jazz, blues and funk. Mr. Perl's intent in writing these books was to help teach his students chords and harmony, improve their sight reading skills and refine their technique, as well as to help keep them excited about playing the piano. There is also another volume in the series, Purple, which contains jazz and blues compositions.

As a classical pianist and teacher, I do not believe that any books such as these will ever replace the classics of piano literature. However, in light of our current topic and the great need for keyboard literacy among our students, I think that Mr. Perl has truly created some excellent resources to use as supplementary material in our lessons, and that these books have great merit and purpose. (They also make me look back fondly on the good old days of junior high and high school jazz band...)

What I Like About This Series
  • I love the fact that each piece includes chord symbols. I think this is a great way to help our students know and understand what they are playing, and will give opportunity for lots of great discussions about chords, including about augmented and diminished chords, seventh chords, and chord inversions.
  • I appreciate the sophisticated harmonies used in these books. This is a great way to expose our students to some new sounds and musical ideas.
  • The music in these books are written simply enough to be played by students of most ages. Blue is written for "all level pianists" and is simple enough for some of the youngest students to play (but is great for higher-level pianists as well!)
  • I think that these books are also excellent for working on technique and sound, and are an awesome sight reading resource.
  • You can also purchase duet parts for many of these pieces for a variety of instruments - how fun to create your own little jazz combo! Visit www.sheerpiano.com for more details!
The Books

I really enjoyed playing through Red. Here are some highlights:

My favorite piece in Red is Lullaby for the Sun. Mr. Perl calls this piece a "wistful ballad," and I just love its contemporary harmonies and bluesy feel. It is the perfect piece for working on sound production and learning to bring out the right hand melody.

I would not normally think of teaching my students funk. But I loved Medium Rare Funk and think that it is an awesome exercise in playing syncopated rhythms. If your students can play this piece with an accurate, tight rhythm, then they are in pretty good shape. Here, take a look:

(And yes, all of the pieces in this book are printed in red!) Another great piece for working on rhythm, this time focusing on triplets and swung eighth notes, is Wrong answer!!

I enjoyed Out of ketchup blues and think that this could be a really great piece for doing a little improvisation in the right hand. The student could play through this bluesy piece as written, and then play it again, adding their own flair to the melody.

Sunburn is fun and fast and is perfect for introducing a walking bass line.

Blue is chock-full of great contemporary pieces with a bluesy feel.

One of my favorites in this book is Bluebird. I love that it sounds like a jazz ballad, and that the left hand rhythm almost lulls you to sleep (in a good way!). This piece is perfect for working on sound production. Waves has a similar lulling quality.

Burn with a low blue flame is a piece that I really enjoyed. I love that the left hand is comprised of single whole notes for the entire piece. I think this piece would be an excellent one for improvising a bit with the left hand and practicing filling out chords to improve a student's harmonization skills.

I enjoyed what Mr. Perl described as a "mildly twisted Waltz" - Once in a blue moon is, like most of these pieces, perfect for improving technique and sound production and for practicing making the melody louder than the accompaniment.

My other favorite in this book (besides Bluebird) is The blue city. One thing that somewhat bothers me about some of these pieces is that they have a very small range, and tend to stay in the lower register a lot (8va markings are very common in this series, which can be somewhat confusing for a more advanced pianist but may make the pieces more accessible for all ages). But in The blue city, there is a great range of notes! The piece begins on a high treble B, then changes mid-song to the middle register of the piano. It then goes down to the lower register, and ends back in the middle. I think students would love this piece, which Mr. Perl describes as "slow" and "meditative." I think this piece is perfect for sight reading, as it contains a lot of accidentals.

This series is well-written and, I believe, has a wonderful purpose and place in our piano lessons. Whether you use it for fun recital pieces, for instruction on chords and harmony, or simply for occasional sight reading, it will be a great asset to the musical training of our students.

Now, for the GIVEAWAY!! One lucky reader will win a copy of Red, which features jazz, blues and funk. I really enjoyed the fun variety of pieces in this book, and I think you will too!


Visit Mr. Perl's website, www.sheerpiano.com, look around a bit, and then come back and leave a comment telling us what book you would like to try out if you had your pick!

Additional entries:
  • One extra entry: become a follower or email subscriber of our blog, and leave a comment letting us know you did!
  • One extra entry: Like us on Facebook, then leave a comment letting us know you did!
Giveaway goes until next Monday, November 22, at 11:59 pm central time. Winner will be announced on Tuesday the 23rd!

U.S. and Canadian residents only, please :)


The Black Hole of Piano Study

There is often a big gaping hole in the piano education of classical pianists. Many of us can play very advanced pieces with great artistry, have great technique and are very accomplished pianists - but what happens when someone sticks a fakebook or lead sheet in front of us? Or when we are asked to play something in a different key? Or when we are expected to improvise or play a song by ear? Even many of the most advanced pianists get weak in the knees in such situations and are not able to do these things.

In Martha Baker-Jordan's Practical Piano Pedagogy, she refers to this phenomenon as the "black hole of piano teaching." She says,
There seems to be a huge void in the universe of our classical piano training and concertizing that I call the "Black Hole of Piano Teaching and Performance." The gravitational pull of this hole is so strong that the functional keyboard skills of harmonizing, transposing and improvising (all of which can include reading chord symbols) are sucked out of our world into oblivion. Concert pianists, studio teachers, even piano and pedagogy professors, all are affected, and many go through life without ever acquiring these skills. I include composing here as well, even though it isn't normally thought of as a functional skill. I believe that composition is also a vital part of piano study and that the ability to teach it is just as important as it is for harmonization, transposition, and improvisation. (Baker-Jordan, p. 243)
Image Source
I personally did not really learn these basic keyboard skills in all of my years of pre-college piano study, except for the occasional transposition exercise and basic instruction and exercises involving seventh chords. And even though I was the pianist in my junior high and high school jazz band for a few years, I somehow (amazingly) was able to skip over that whole improvising thing, because I never had a teacher who helped me with it and I felt too completely lost and self-conscious to attempt it in front of the whole class.

So, what is wrong with this picture? Why is it that so many pianists get to such advanced levels of study and ability without these basic skills? I remember in one of my college keyboard classes, we had the assignment to be able to sit down and play "Happy Birthday to You" by ear. I suddenly realized that I had never even thought of trying that before. And I remember thinking about the panic I would feel if I were at a party, and somebody (knowing I was a piano performance major) asked me to play that on the piano to accompany the singing.

So, I would like to focus on this important topic here on The Teaching Studio this week! How are we, as teachers, doing in teaching our students basic, functional keyboard skills? Can our students play chords and harmonize from a lead sheet? Do they feel comfortable improvising? Can they transpose a simple piece up a half or whole step? Or to an entirely different key altogether? Do they have opportunities to compose their own pieces? Can they play multiple lines of music at once (such as an SATB choir song?), or play from different clefs? I can't wait to hear lots of comments this week!

Please take a minute and take our "Black Hole of Piano Study" Survey!


Introducing the Keyboard

I'd like to share a fun little game that helps introduce the keyboard to young students. I wanted to help my little students learn the layout of the keyboard - that there are groups of two black keys and groups of three black keys, and that these alternate. I also wanted to make it fun, rather than sit them down on the bench, explain how the keyboard is laid out, and then show them the keys (we don't want to bore these kids!!).

So, I made a Giant Keyboard puzzle. Each piece contains either a group of two black keys or a group of three black keys. Students can sit on the floor and try to put the puzzle together the right way. I like to just sit on the floor with them and talk about the keyboard there as we do the puzzle. Later you can go to the piano and play the black keys. Once you put the puzzle together, there are so many ways you can use your new giant keyboard to teach new concepts (some of which I will share with you in upcoming posts)!

I love this because it is super simple to make and to use, and it gets young ones having fun while learning about the piano. You can also keep a copy for your studio and send home individual giant keyboards with each young student. I have included two different versions you can choose from - one with the black keys filled in, and one with them not filled in (for others like me who frequently run out of black ink and feel like doing some coloring! haha). I printed three copies for my giant keyboard (so I can make three octaves), but you can print however many you want. I cut out each piece, and then I mounted mine on colorful cardstock to make them a little more sturdy and fun. Laminating them would also be an excellent idea, so they will last longer! Enjoy!

(...and stay tuned for a fun giveaway coming up!)

Giant Keyboard Black Filled In

Giant Keyboard

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