Learning, Playing and Teaching Music by Intention

What truly distinguishes music that feels warm and human from music that seems cold and computer-like?  Intention.  We can teach expression in music nearly from day one, by thinking of the intention of the music we play.

When a computer plays music from a MIDI file, it plays the correct pitch and note value of each note at the correct time.  A musician may play that same music with relatively correct pitch, note value, and timing, because there is an intention to lean in one direction or another.  In some music software, computer programmers have added a “humanize” feature, which simply randomizes the starting time of a note very slightly.  The programmers imagine that the difference between computers and humans is perfection vs imperfection.  They don’t realize, or maybe just can’t possibly program, the real difference:  intention.

A musician (except on an instrument such as the piano where there is no pitch control) will play a pitch that sounds best within the context.  For example, Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Leila Viss

Wolfie App: A New Reality

November 3rd, 2015 by

Ever wonder what the future of piano lessons will look like? The Wolfie app is it: a new reality. In short, it’s a virtual piano book bag for your students packed with power tools.  No more forgotten books or torn pages as the Wolfie Piano iPad App, developed by Tonara, efficiently stores lesson repertoire on the iPad AND much more.

I first experienced Wolfie at their exhibit booth at NCKP 2015, I played a Clementi sonatina on an acoustic piano (MIDI and cables were NOT required) and read the score from the iPad. Wolfie listened to my playing, turned my pages as I progressed through the piece and after I finished, gave me feedback on my timing and pitch reading accuracy. Isn’t this intelligent listening what we as teachers do at a lesson and wish our students had to assist them during their home practice? Loaded with repertoire of all styles,
Wolfie is designed to be YOUR ears and teaching assistant so that your students stay on track and progress between lessons. Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Product Reviews

Reuben Vincent

Ninja Scales!

October 6th, 2015 by

Ninja ScalesI didn’t understand my teacher!

Each piano lesson was the same. Half an hour of scales followed by half an hour of Bach! I hated it!!!

Needless to say, I didn’t want to practise scales between lessons. What was the point? He certainly never told me if there was one. It just seemed like a pointless half hour of boredom each week.

Fast forward on. Now I am the teacher trying to encourage my students to practise scales!!! How ironic!

Sell the Benefits

As humans, we are much more motivated to do something if we think it will benefit us.

So what are the benefits of scales? Have we discussed them with our students? What do they think the benefits are? Here’s a few to get started: Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Bella Payne

Piano Practice Incentives

September 21st, 2015 by


Piano LessonsSome time ago, I realized my students were getting a little bored of the same old routine. I thought they needed some stimulation, so I decided to re-think my rewards system. For a long time, I mostly focused on educational music games at the end of the lessons as being a good enough reward. But it didn’t help with energy levels throughout the lesson. I needed some help.  Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Many teachers settle into a routine set of materials or a method such as Suzuki, or a method of their own making, and find it awkward to break out of the routine if a student asks about more advanced musical ideas.
Is it really something to worry about?  Do students need to be guided along a groomed path, or can a change of scenery, or a glimpse of the road ahead, do them good?

There are, in fact, some great benefits to exposing beginners or intermediate students to advanced ideas.  There are also some drawbacks, which is why teachers are often reluctant to depart from an orderly presentation of material.

One of the benefits to presenting advanced ideas is to open a student’s mind to the richness of music.  Teaching, like parenting, is most effective when done by example.  If you as the teacher share some of the interests, passions, and thought processes that go into your own practicing and performing, the student will have a concrete sense of what it’s like to delve deeply into learning and playing music.

Advanced ideas can also inspire and motivate.  Discussing or demonstrating how a student’s musical selection might Read more…

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Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

Day 283 / 365 - SkillsI remember it as though it were yesterday. The song was called “Moonlight and Roses.” I hated that piece. I still do!

With tears streaming down my face, try as I might, I was getting nowhere. My mum patiently sat with me, trying to coax me to work through my frustration but to no avail.

Things just went from bad to worse. As my progress on the song deteriorated, frustration turned to anger. “I HATE this song!” “I HATE my music teacher!” “I want to QUIT my music lessons!” “I GIVE UP!” I screamed, red in the face, anger exploding from every fibre of my 8-year-old body.

What happened next was my mum’s worst and finest hour of parenting! In hindsight, she should have Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Sandy Lundberg

Motivation Podcasts

July 26th, 2015 by



Student motivation is an ongoing discussion and concern for every music teacher. We debate internal versus external motivation, parent involvement, the role of talent, and the million ways to structure home practice. Students Luke Jones and Matt McKeever at the University of Missouri at St. Louis are taking a summer graduate music education class with Jennifer Mishra and they have created a series of podcast interviews with musicians around the country addressing the issue of student motivation. You can check out their project here: http://sutbpodcats.podomatic.com/

My interview encouraged me to once again write down a few of my thoughts about motivation.

The student has to own the lessons, not feel forced into them. If he or she does not arrive excited to start piano lessons do your best to sell the idea that studying music is an awesome, amazing experience. It helps if you can find ways to connect music to areas in which the student already has an interest. Our goal as teachers is to nurture and develop the student’s own personal value of the music study so they are not as dependent upon our external motivation.

Parents need to be educated about the value of lessons and how critical their role is in the child’s success. Compare the support they give the child on a sports team to the level of enthusiasm they need to show for music lessons. Give parents specific things they can do to be supportive and involved. Even non-musical parents can ask questions about the music, sit down for a living room concert, negotiate a motivation system, and show their child how much they value a musical education.

Taking music lessons will rarely go well if a student feels a loss of peer respect from the activity. Help students to develop friendships with other musicians, let them invite friends to a fun musical event, introduce role models, include fun popular pieces in their repertoire, and make sure students always have an impressive short piece to perform on the spur of the moment. Find ways to make their music relevant and useful in their life.

The student and teacher relationship is critical. Students need to know that you care about them as a person and are willing to listen to them. Share appropriately about your life as a musician. Be respectful, honest and trustworthy. Work hard, but be an source of encouragement, not a drain on their self-esteem. Personalize their program to reflect their unique gifts, interests, and learning style.

Learning has to include some fun, especially for the young. Include games and laughter in your teaching. Plan some group activities. Tell stories that make the music come alive. Every once in a while do something unexpected. Plan a surprise! Andrea and Trevor Dow are full of great ideas at http://www.teachpianotoday.com/.

Students need to know they are making progress.  Remind students how far they have come. Play old recordings and look over old play lists. Remind them of the goals they have already accomplished. Judging the correct speed with which to move a student forward is always a critical decision on the part of the teacher. Too fast and the fundamentals are not established deeply. Too slow and the student loses heart.

Create a vision for the future with the student and talk and dream about it. Point out harder pieces that they will be able to play one day. Take students to hear more advanced musicians and attend live music events.

Keep their vision alive with goal setting. Short term goals can take just a week or so— “See if you can memorize this to play for your grandmother when she comes to visit in two weeks.” An annual theme can keep motivation going throughout the year. Michelle Sisler has created a wonderful series of games at www.keystoimagination.com. The Music Teachers National Association offers a music achievement award program to help students set personal goals for each year. Don’t forget to set long term goals too, such as being ready to join the jazz band in high school.

When a student quits, all forward progress stops. Those that continue, even at a seemingly slow pace, will keep learning and growing. The longer a student sticks with their instrument, and the more independent and self-motivated they become in learning, the more likely they will have music in their life for as long as they live.

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Posted in Practicing, Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Hannah Cameron at piano

Now, go home and practice!

Much of the learning of an instrument takes place at home, between lessons. The more productive the home practice is, the better the progress. Below is a handout I once gave to my students to put in their binders as a reference for when they were not sure what to work on next. The instructions were to chose a category, then work on 3-5 items from the list. The lists are a little random, and many more points could be included, but it is a starting point. I have also used practice card decks, and even made Andrea Dow’s “popsicle sticks in a cup” as a group lesson activity, in which students write practice ideas on popsicle sticks, then place the sticks in plastic drinking cup and set it on their piano. They draw out sticks when practice inspiration is needed. This coming year I would like to make an entire “home practice kit” for each student. I’ll write a blog about it once it comes together!

Practice Helps

1. tempo, beat, rhythm

  • check the time signature, look for any variations
  • establish a steady beat at a manageable tempo
  • tap out or clap the rhythm hands separately counting out loud
  • use the metronome
  • try tapping the right hand melody rhythmically while tapping the beat with your left hand, and visa versa
  • find the underlying “felt” beat in the music
  • try counting using the smallest note value as your beat
  • in complicated sections draw a vertical line connecting the right- and left-hand notes that belong on the same beat

2. fingering, chord patterns and intervals

  • slowly play each hand separately while checking for exact fingering
  • if any changes are needed in fingering, carefully re-mark the score
  • highlight or note any places where the hand changes position for a new fingering pattern
  • practice, in isolation, any hard fingering passages, then connect them to the surrounding phrases
  • figure out what key the music is in and play the primary chords for that key
  • look for chords in your music, in blocked or broken patterns
  • look for intervals in the melody and harmony to help you find new notes and assist in fingering
  • if a passage has very difficult fingering, try memorizing it
  • try playing a passage slowly with your eyes closed, just by touch, without looking at the music or the keys
  • make a difficult passage into a fun exercise by playing it over and over moving up a whole step each time

3. posture, relaxation, body alignment

  • check to make sure you are sitting on your “sitting bones” and your back is tall, neither slouched nor over-curved inward, practice shifting your balance from one hip to the other
  • make sure your shoulders are relaxed and your arms are hanging freely
  • with your arm hanging loosely, find your natural, relaxed hand position for each hand and carefully bring your hand up to the piano
  • be sure your bench is positioned properly, top knuckles just touch the fall board while leaning ever-so-slightly forward, forearm is parallel with the floor
  • make sure your feet are properly supported and are properly supporting your body
  • be sure your head feels well balanced and weightless on top of your shoulders
  • quickly check your relaxation and posture every so often as you play
  • keep your wrists level and relaxed and your arms aligned with your hands
  • lean back slightly when playing directly in front of your body

4. articulation, phrasing, clarity

  • find all the phrases in your music and mark them according to how they should be shaped
  • make sure each finger is playing all the way to the bottom of the key and the weight of your arm follows the fingers and stays behind each note as it is played
  • practice a legato passage staccato, and a staccato passage legato for a change
  • practice the two and three note slurs to get a proper pattern of dropping and lifting
  • practice lifting at the end of each phrase and dropping into the new phrase
  • try playing the piece at half the normal tempo and keep all the dynamics and phrasing correct
  • find the loudest note in each phrase and then add the other notes at the right loudness to properly shape the phrase
  • use Mary Gae George’s “Thermometer of Dynamics to mark detailed shaping to the phrases

5. expression, emotion, feeling

  • try to determine the mood of your piece:
  • look at the title and the words (if any)
  • look at the dynamic markings
  • look at the rhythm patterns
  • is it fast or slow, accented, legato or staccato, etc?
  • determine if it is in a major or a minor key
  • play through the piece and ask yourself how it makes you feel; look through your list of descriptive words
  • get a picture or a story in your mind that matches how the music makes you feel
  • sing the song with emotion and feeling and match that expression in your playing
  • dance to the song
  • record yourself playing and listen critically
  • listen to a high quality You-tube version of your piece, if available
  • over-emphasize the emotion, without worrying about accuracy for the time being

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Posted in Practicing, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

tractor and trailer

Now I must explain from the outset that I have absolutely no farming experience whatsoever! Completely zilch!

But I do know that a trailer will go nowhere without a tractor to guide it!

So how can we help young Jenny conquer that awkward phrase in her song?

How can we help old Mary Williams to master the art of rubato?

How can little Jonny play that scale with flair?

Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm

The answer is simple – us! It all starts with Read more…

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Posted in Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Robin Steinweg

Music for Life

May 28th, 2015 by

A Master Class Series by Robin Steinweg

Music for Life

Music for Life

My second Music for Life Master Class—a success.

I started this series with plans to invite senior musicians. I’ll expand it to include musicians of all ages. Music for Life could end up defining my studio.

A master class series like this can enhance and promote your studio as well as inspire and bless your students. (Be sure to schedule it on your MTH calendar, and have reminders sent automatically!)

As students arrived, I directed them to the dining room for cheese, crackers, lemonade and sweet tea. Things go better with an after-school snack, don’t you think?  Snacks 5-20-15

Char Monette came as our featured local musician and piano teacher. I invited students and parents/grandparents to attend. We had good attendance in spite of busy May schedules.

Char shared musical moments and wisdom for about twenty minutes.

At age 8 her family moved to Japan when her dad was called up to fight in the Korean War. They couldn’t have a piano because he was only a lieutenant. But her classmate’s dad had a higher rank, and owned a piano. She walked home from school with Edward every day and practiced half an hour. Her teacher spoke no English, and she no Japanese. Music was their common language. She practiced very hard to earn a pat on the shoulder, and avoid mistakes which elicited a “No-no-no-no!” or worse, a rap on the knuckles with a pencil.

She began to teach in 1977 when another musician in town told her she must. This is good for us to remember! We can encourage musical gifts in others.

Ava, Amy Jorgenson, Sam, Char Monette, Bethie              Char Monette speaks to my students

Char said:

“Music is a gift from God. To think that your fingers can move on the keys, and music comes out… that is a gift from God.”

“I don’t often sit and listen to music. I would rather make music.”

I asked, “Char, what has music meant to you throughout your life?”

She responded, “You know, I don’t really think about it. I breathe, but I don’t think about that either. Breathing is pretty important. Music is just like that.”

She played “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” from her John Thompson Third Grade Level book.

Char's book, 1938 copyright

My students played for her. Some played their own compositions or their own arrangements of pieces. Some played my arrangements. They all gave a gift of music back to Char to thank her for coming to show them Music for Life!

You might like to read about my first guest in this series: professional drummer, vocalist and pianist Martha Nelson: Music Is for Life    …and here are a few of my students…

Sarah Wruck plays her own Key to My Heart     Sam plays Purple People Eater

Leanna plays Phantom of the Opera Dane plays In the Hall of the Mtn King

Chris plays Theme from Titanic   Ava plays Big Brass Band

Malea Niesen


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Posted in Music History & Facts, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio