I just saw this video and had to share. What an amazing and inspirational story. A great reminder to look for the potential in each of our students!


My favorite first lesson, and a sweet flannel board staff tutorial

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My four-year-old son has recently been very interested in my piano lessons. He will quietly wander into the room while I am teaching and say that he just wants to watch. He has actually had quite a bit of music instruction over the past year and a half, as he has attended all of my preschool piano classes and has been sort of my "guinea pig" while coming up with fun music games. But my husband and I have never pushed him to learn, we want him to want to on his own!

In the past when I have mentioned to him that if he wants to learn I can teach him, he has said, "but I already know how to play the piano!"

So last week I mentioned to him that whenever he wants to learn to play the piano I would be happy to teach him, and to just let me know when he wants to have lessons. He thought for a second, and then said, "how about tomorrow?"

Music to my ears!

We had his first lesson last week and it was a success. We are keeping it very low-key and not requiring a lot, as far as practicing goes - at his age I do not want to force him to practice. I want this to be a fun, positive experience to give him a great introduction to music - and we'll see where it leads!

We traced his hands and wrote in the finger numbers (which he already knew from our piano class) and played some finger number games. We used drips and rainbows to make a song with short and long notes (thanks to Anne Crosby Gaudet and her excellent blog post and Music Discoveries workbook) and then clapped the rhythm and played it on the piano. We then learned a short song in his Celebrate Piano!book and then he got a turn playing the MiDisaurusgame on my studio computer.

Here is my buddy boy at his first lesson!

Now I'd like to share with you my FAVORITE teaching aid from the past few months - my flannel board staff! I had the idea for this baby after getting a new sewing machine. Ok, so that's not entirely true - I was wanting to make some kind of music staff for teaching, and had a few ideas, but then my HUSBAND actually had the idea to sew the lines on! What a guy.

This has proven to be such a helpful teaching aid. I have used it in many preschool piano classes, as well as in numerous private lessons. It's been a wonderful way to get students off the bench and thinking about music theory in a fun and hands-on way.

So you want to make one? Simple.

Take a big piece of cardboard. I cut mine from a big cardboard box. Mine is about 24" by 32".

Get a piece of white flannel large enough to cover the cardboard and wrap around to the back (so you'll want it a bit bigger than your cardboard).

Measure off and mark where you want your lines to be. Mine are 1 1/2 inches apart, with about 4 1/2 inches between the two staves. I used a washable marker to mark a few dots where the lines should be, and then was able to wash it out after sewing the lines.

Load some black thread onto your sewing machine and then sew a wide and short zigzag stitch (hope that makes sense...I'm not up on my sewing terminology!) for each staff line.

Once all of the lines are done, carefully line the fabric up with the cardboard so the lines are straight. Fold it over the cardboard (sort of like wrapping a present) and slap some duct tape on the back to hold it in place.

Voila! You've got yourself a flannel board staff. 

You can then use felt or flannel to make all sorts of notes and clefs and things to put on your staff to use in teaching. Maybe sometime I'll share more of the ways I have used mine.

Have fun!


Making Music Musical: Playing Beautiful Phrases

Thanks for the wonderful comments about Finding the Balance! Let's discuss another technique for making music musical...

One of the most important elements of beautiful, musical piano playing is something that is usually introduced very early on, but is a concept that I feel many piano students never fully understand or are taught well. Enter the SLUR...

Slurs, of course, are those fun curvy lines we often see in our music connecting two or more notes together and forming a phrase, or in other words a musical sentence.These slurs are often ignored while the focus is placed on more "important" matters, such as correct notes, rhythm, fingering, etc. (Which, don't get me wrong, are super important as well!) It is relatively easy to achieve correct notes and rhythm, but isn't our goal to actually make some beautiful music?

When slurs are learned, often the student learns to play them legato, or smooth and connected, and then they stop there...when really there is so much more to a slur or a phrase that can add so much musicality to a piece. Before we begin, let me just add that mastering the technique of phrasing is hugely important in making beautiful music, and while it takes some time and a lot of practice to master, it is something that can be introduced to the young beginner.

So let's talk slurs. We'll use a simple Bach Minuet for our example...(thanks 8notes.com for this image!)

Great, so we've got a lot of slurs here. What do we need to do first? That's right...play the slurred notes smooth and connected. We do lots of walking around the room in my studio to discover that you can't lift one foot up until your other one is touching the floor (unless of course you hop, but that would be staccato now, wouldn't it?) So first we...

1.) Play smooth & connected

But is that all there is to playing slurs? No-sir. We've got to somehow differentiate between each slur, or else it is going to sound like one big musical run-on sentence. (If you have a student who loves to read, they will definitely get this analogy.) There needs to be some kind of period or exclamation mark or question mark in between each "sentence" for it to make sense, right? So in music, we've got to have some kind of a break between each slur. I use lots of arrows in my students' pieces to remind them to gracefully lift their wrist up and bring their hand off of the keys to create a nice little break or "breath" between each phrase.

2) Lift your wrist up and take your hand off the keys to create a break between slurs

What, there's more? Yes! How about what to do within each slur to make each phrase as beautiful and musical as possible? Remember that a general rule in music is that when the melody line goes UP, the notes should get LOUDER. When it goes DOWN, they should get SOFTER. Help students find the peak or the high point of each phrase, and learn to crescendo up to it and diminuendo down from it. It's subtle but it's effective!

3) Use graded dynamics to follow the melodic line within each phrase

Another concept that is related to number three but is important enough to restate, is that a lot of the time phrases should taper off and get a little bit softer on the last note. The main reason for this is that you usually do not want the last note of a phrase accented, that would just sound and feel not musical. (Of course there are definitely situations where you should crescendo until the end of the phrase - like for example maybe the first phrase of this song!)

I had a piano teacher who taught me this principle by explaining that you wouldn't say my name "Jen-NY" with the second syllable accented. Try it - it just sounds weird, and not natural. Phrases in music should sound natural as well! When you taper off and say the second syllable softer, it sounds much nicer, and even more "musical" if you will - "JEN-ny."  (Be careful before using this analogy, your student's name may have an accented last syllable and it'll kill your analogy! That happened with me and my student Nichole. Oops!)

4) Taper off (get softer) on the last note of a phrase (unless otherwise indicated)

And finally, you need to decide how each phrase should function (dynamically and otherwise) in relation to the phrases around it. We'll go more into this concept later, but it is important to notice if a phrase should be generally louder or softer than the previous phrase and the following phrase. In the Minuet, for example, the dynamic level is marked as piano, but you can tell that the second phrase should be a little louder (the notes go higher, and a crescendo is marked), and then the three phrases on the second line sort of gradually get softer, to create an overall crescendo/diminuendo effect that peaks at the end of the first line.

5) Decide how each phrase should function, dynamically and otherwise, within the context of other phrases

Well, that's all I've got for now...what are some ways you have come up with to teach your own students beautiful phrasing? Do you make sure they learn correct techniques for playing slurs right from the beginning, or is it something you find you need to focus on with your intermediate or advanced students?

Have a nice weekend!


Making Music Musical: Techniques of Musicality

Good morning readers! I hope you have all had a wonderful weekend. 

Something that I love about my piano studio right now is the variety of students I am able to teach. I have a great mix of ages and levels in my studio, from preschoolers to adults and beginners to more advanced students. It keeps me on my toes and helps keep things interesting. 

This week I'd like to focus on some techniques for the intermediate to more advanced students (although these techniques could be applied on a simpler, smaller scale to students of any level, and a teacher would be wise to begin teaching these techniques right from the beginning!). I'd like to talk about ways to make music musical, and how to teach our students to play with artistry and beauty.

It is relatively easy to teach our students how to play the correct notes, rhythms, fingerings, and even basic dynamics. But what about making real music out of that combination of notes and rhythms? Let's talk about some specific techniques that can be applied to really make some music! Ready, go - 

1) Finding the Balance

One of the most important techniques that a pianist can learn and master is the ability to achieve a good balance between hands, fingers, and musical lines. For example, let's take Romance, Op. 24 No. 9 by Sibelius - a great piano piece for working on musicality.

image source

Notice the repeated staccato D-flat major chords in the right hand (marked at piano) and the legato melody in the left hand (marked at mezzo-piano). In order to bring out the melody, the right hand chords must be played as quietly as possible to allow the listener to hear the left hand notes. 

This technique of independence of hands (playing different dynamics or articulations with each hand at the same time) is easier said than done.  I often have my students play small sections like this very slowly, with a lot of exaggeration to emphasize the difference between the two hands (playing the right hand super, super soft and as close to the keys as possible, while playing the left hand very loud and even staccato to really hone in on those contrasting dynamics. (Of course, in this example, you will eventually want to make the left hand smooth and legato and put a little bounce into the right hand - but at least that technique will help master the dynamics!) A good way to improve this technique is to take a scale or other simple exercise (Hanon works great) and practice playing one hand soft and the other hand loud, or one hand staccato and the other hand legato. It is good to switch off so each hand gets a chance to practice each technique.

Sometimes independence of fingers within the same hand is needed in order to bring out the top note of a chord, or the top line of the music (when the melody is played in the top notes of the right hand, for example). In the Sibelius example above, perhaps you'd like the top note of each chord in measure 6 to be a bit louder than the other notes. I find it helpful to visualize the top part of my hand (finger number five) as being heavier, or to lean into that side of the hand and use more weight on those top notes.

What are some ways that you teach independence of hands to your students? I'd love to hear your ideas! Stay tuned for more tips on making music musical!


Finger Numbers Treat

Just a little something for fun.....

A few months ago I picked up a hand print cookie cutter at Hobby Lobby, and it came in handy during my preschool music class when we talked about piano finger numbers!

Happy weekend!


Thanks for the "rest!"

After quite the long hiatus, I have decided that I need to return to the Teaching Studio! I am not sure how often I will be posting, but I have so many piano-related things on my mind that I probably need to write them down anyway. Plus, I miss it! I have been lurking around the music blog-o-sphere for awhile and thought it was time to show my face again! Thanks for the rest, readers o' mine!

I have been quite busy for the past few months - of course, having a baby will do that to you!

Aside from taking care of my little family and adjusting to life with two little ones, I have been teaching a lot! My students had a great recital in December - I even ambitiously decided (a week before the recital) to play Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu after not playing it for quite some time, and it went pretty well! My studio is just about as full as I want it, and I am just loving it.

I have also been SUPER busy planning, preparing for and teaching an amazingly fun preschool music class with a good friend and colleague of mine. We spent hours coming up with ideas, cutting lots of little things out (which our husbands teased us relentlessly about), making little crafts, writing lyrics to classical songs by Vivaldi, Smetana and others - and the class was a huge success. I loved it. My son loved it. We're probably going to be planning a level two course pretty soon. And I probably will be sharing some fun ideas - so stay tuned!

In the meantime, here is a fun little tidbit....we needed something for the kids to sit on to help keep things orderly and manageable in the class. We came up with these fun musical rest mats...(iron-on transfers are my new favorite thing!!)

Happy (belated) New Year...and welcome back to The Teaching Studio!

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