The King and the Dragon!

The King’s trusted advisor came bursting through the door! “My Lord, we are being attacked!”

“Fear not,” said the wise old King. “We shall use my secret weapon, The Great Red Dragon!”

To cut the first of eleven fairy stories short, that appear in composer Nikolas Sideris’ brand new piano duet book, the King saves the day through clever trickery and wins the respect of his people!

After I finished reading this two paged story, one of eleven written especially by Nefeli Tsipouridi, I couldn’t wait to turn over the page and start playing the first composition in the book. I was inspired!

But oh no! I was alone at the piano and this is a duet book!

Fortunately, thanks to modern technology, each primo part has a QR code on the side of the title, so all I needed to do was hold my tablet up and the next moment a well-recorded performance of the composer playing the secondo part began to my delight. (There is a link in the introductory pages of the book that you can visit to download the mp3 files if you prefer)

And wow, what an adventure! With the words of the story I had just read still ringing in my ears, I was transported to the centre of the scene with composer, Nikolas Sideris’, evocative music. We battled evil forces with every twist and turn Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music News, Product Reviews, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Music is a form of expression. Expression is the process of making known one’s thoughts or feelings. Some students find it natural and easy to express themselves at the piano, others have difficulty. Expression does not have to be outwardly obvious. It is not a series of preconfigured gestures. The same body movement can look very convincing on one person, and very contrived on another. Expression is meaningless unless it comes from genuine thoughts, feelings or understandings.

I believe in teaching students to play expressively from day 1. The key is in developing imagination. That’s why Music for Little Mozarts works for the very young beginners – Mozart Mouse and Beethoven Bear are iresistible story tellers.

When teaching expression, one recipe does not fit all. Older students may not respond to stuffed animals. As teachers, we must have many tools to help unlock the student’s imagination and help them to communicate themselves. I do this through using a variety of high quality, contemporary educational music written specifically for students. You may find the following useful when teaching your students to play expressively:

1. Connecting sound and color

It helps some students to feel the character of a piece when we associate it with a certain color. My favorite series in this category is still Dennis Alexander’s A Splash of Color. No matter how many times I have taught it, titles such as Green Tangerine and Zinc Pink still make me smile. Here is my previous review of this series. Zinc Pink has been selected as the Royal Conservatory Share The Celebration Video Countdown Level 3 piece. It was great to see so many students across North America participate in this competition. Here is the winning video.

2. Describing landscapes and geography

Some students may find it helpful to think about certain landscape features such as flowing river, snowy mountains, or giant waterfalls. There is a series by Alfred that focuses on this aspect of imagination. You can read my previous review here.

3. Reflecting on memorable experiences

Asking students to think about things they have experienced may help them relate to the music. It could be a childhood toy, favorite food, unforgettable trip, or memories of someone. Music from the Romantic period is full of these character pieces that create a mental picture of a particular scene, event, or feeling. Think Schumann and Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, which are staples in a developing student’s repertoire.

I am particularly excited to find a new series that I consider the Album for the Young for students that may not be quite ready to play Schumann or Tchaikovsky. It is called Musical Scenes by Joyce Grill. What a delightful set of pieces to help students use their imagination! There are three volumes in the set, from Late Elementary to Late Intermediate levels. The pieces are short, with descriptive titles conveying a specific mood or moment, and encourage students to inject their own musical ideas. There are lots of pattern based figurations with changing harmonies, as well as contemporary rhythms that will readily appeal to many students.

4. Looking at a specific painting or artwork 

Some students are visual learners. Asking them to merely think of a color or landscape or a specific memory still may not work for them in terms of helping them to play expressively. They need to physically see something.

I have discovered a brand new series that is revolutionary is this regard. It is called Museum Masterpieces by Catherine Rollin. Catherine Rollin’s Pathways to Artistry series is a staple in my teaching library, especially for transfer students who have limited knowledge of technique, style, form, or how to produce certain articulations and touches.

Museum Masterpieces are piano solos inspired by famous paintings and artworks. What is unique is that instead of searching for the famous paintings and images on the Internet, the pictures are included in the books! The paintings that inspired the pieces are beautifully displayed on a four-page full-color insert at the center of the book, along with historical notes about each painting. This is such an innovative idea! Students not only learn to play expressively through Catherine’s beautiful style of composition, but they also learn about great works of art and artists from different countries and time periods. I can not think of a better way to spend $8.99 on a student – the humble price tag for each of the four volumes that range from Ealy Intermediate to Late Intermediate levels. Every piece is a gem, like the artworks they represent. I can see myself referring to the paintings over and over in my teaching, even for pieces that belong to standard repertoire, especially those from the Romantic and Impressionist periods.

These are some of the ways I help my students to be thoughtful and expressive in their playing. I appreciate having such a vast variety of educational supplementary music available for today’s students. You can view sample pages of all these exciting new books on the Alfred website.

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Posted in Product Reviews, Teaching Tips


After you received your undergrad music degree, performed a stellar recital of the classics, turned in that
lofty thesis, passed a professional accreditation exam or somehow earned shiny, new initials behind your name, you probably felt a great sense of achievement. Perhaps you felt like I did? After I received my Master of Arts in Piano Performance and Pedagogy, I felt my career was professionally wrapped up and ready to launch. Although my intent is not to discount the importance of the academic achievements listed above, I’m wondering if you–like me–had your bubble burst, your box tipped upside down and your bow unraveled when you entered the real world of piano teaching? Yes, I could play and teach Beethoven and Ravel, I could design a sequential curriculum for early learners but when asked to read from a lead sheet, my skills fell embarrassingly short. Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music Theory, Product Reviews, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

The UK composer Elena Cobb has been busy recently!

Hot off the press is her latest book for complete beginner pianists entitled “My Piano Trip to London.”

London Calling!

Printed in full colour landscape, the first thing you notice is a sticker page that children will love using when they complete each song.

Each of the 17 songs represents a different London landmark or icon, giving a nice opportunity to engage the pupil in conversation outside music and then to relate it back to the lesson at hand. It’s quite an adventure to embark on with the pupil as you work your way through the book, from the Royal Albert Hall, to the London Eye, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben to mention but a few.


Over the years I’ve seen piano methods that contain lots of detailed instructions and exhaustive advice that quite frankly nobody bothers to read. Elena Cobb has really struck the balance I think in keeping each page clean and simple so that the teacher can do their job but also providing concise facts and tips that will be useful and enjoyable. I laughed to myself when reading Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Practicing, Product Reviews, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Piano Marvel drastically improves practice quality by using gaming technology to keep students focused on goal oriented practicing. It allows teachers to track daily practice and more easily involve parents with learning through weekly automated emails of students practice and progress reports. Your students will have fun perfecting a piece while accelerating their rhythm accuracy and sight reading skills.
Music Teacher’s Helper and Piano Marvel are friends, so right now you can receive a 30-day free trial and 20% discount by using the following code when signing up: 3EEED31A 
Interested in learning more or signing up? Start by taking a tour on their website.

Piano Marvel has been around since 2009 and their newest version has just been released with many improvements. Here are some notable updates: 
  • A better way for your students to try it out – free access for the initial Level 1. When your students reach Level 2 they can choose to upgrade to premium to access those songs. All the premium features will be open access for the first 30 days of their account.
And if you do choose to signup for a free trial, don’t forget to enter the 20% discount code in the promotional code box when signing up. Here’s that code again:3EEED31A

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Product Reviews

Yiyi Ku

Chamber Music for Students

October 22nd, 2014 by

Dear teachers,

Photo by Ahjile Miller

I hope this post finds you well and enjoying the change of season as we go into Fall!

Like many of you, I teach a variety of students of different ages and levels. I also provide many different performance opportunities for my students. In August, my studio participated in a charity concert called Keys for life which helped to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Last week we took part in the Halloween/Fall Recital organized by my local music teachers association. Our next recital will be the Studio Holiday Recital in December, and next year on January 27 we will be playing in a concert, sponsored by the city, to celebrate Mozart’s 259th Birthday.

In all these different recitals, I try to provide chamber music experience for my students. For the beginners, this comes in the form of teacher accompaniments, which I always love to do. As my students become more experienced and advanced, I am especially interested in finding new ensemble music for them.

Here are my latest finds in chamber music for students:

Contest Winners for Three – Piano Trios from the Alfred, Belwin, and Myklas Libraries

There are currently 5 graded collections in this series, from Elementary to Intermediate levels. Don’t let the title Contest Winners intimidate you into thinking this is for your competition-minded students. In fact, quite the contrary!

This series is actually perfect for what I call “Fun Track” and “Recital Track” students. Look at these titles: Camptown Races, Chopsticks for Three, This Old Man, Yankee Doodle, Greensleeves, America the Beautiful…just to name a few. Most of these are of course arrangements, instead of original compositions. The good news is that you will find many familiar names such as Robert D. Vandall, Martha Mier and Dennis Alexander, who are well known for writing effectively and imaginatively for students.

Playing in an ensemble requires a different set of skills. The challenges for students include the ability to listen to others while focusing on their own part, absolute rhythmic security, ability to continue even if they make mistakes, and of course ensemble blending and balance. For this reason, it is necessary to give them “easier” music than what they can play as a soloist. I am very pleased to find that this has been taken into consideration by the publisher. At first glance, the pieces in each designated level seem quite naive and technically simple, but this is actually a good thing, because students can feel confident and get an immediate sense of accomplishment right away. Another thing I really like is that the dynamic markings already reflect the overall ensemble balance, so not all three players are playing the same dynamics at the same time, and it is always clear who has the melody.

For the Mozart Birthday Celebration Concert, I will have students play solos, duets, one student will be playing a movement from a concerto, and a family with three kids will play a piece from Book 2 of this series called “Romp a la Mozart” – theme by Leopold Mozart, arranged by Janis M. Yarbrough – can’t wait! Read more…

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Posted in Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

Frankly, sophisticated apps like Practice+ can intimidate me. I prefer those that only have a few features that also seem extremely 

intuitive. Although this enhanced metronome app was quite easy to explore, the multiple features had me wondering if this would be worth my consideration for most of my students.

However…after I experimented with the recording option, it dawned on me that this could be the PERFECT app for an adult student of mine who continues to struggle with finding and sticking with a steady beat.

As I played through a piece using the “Clave” metronome set to 8th note subdivisions–there are SO many options from which to choose–I recorded my practice with the metronome and saved it with an appropriate title and then listened to the recording, all within the same app. I was close to being right on with a tendency to be slightly in front of the pulse–typical of yours truly.

Since my student struggles to know if she is on the beat, this practice metronome with a recording feature could be a dynamite tool to help her finally secure a steady, strict pulse. By listening to herself practice with the metronome she could possibly (hopefully!) self correct her wobbly adherence to the beat.

There’s an option to email recordings which could offer my student a chance to send me a sample of her practice for feedback and encouragement from me between lessons. more

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Posted in Music & Technology, Practicing, Product Reviews

It is that time of the year again – back to school craziness!

This is a great time to order new music for your music studio, as most publishers have back-to-school promotions. Aside from my favorite methods and teaching staples, I also like to check out what is new and expand my studio library.

In one of my previous posts, I talked about how I will be offering four learning tracks in my piano studio this year: Fun Track, Recital Track, Festival Track and Competition Track. In this post, I would like to share some of the music I will be using for my Festival Track students.

In all my years of teaching, I have always believed in the value of music festivals. While not every student is suited to the stress and extreme demands of music competitions, I think music festivals offer a nice alternative for most students. There are many kinds of music festivals. The ones I am talking about are those where students are given an opportunity to perform one or more memorized pieces before adjudicators in a non-competitive setting, with or without an audience. The key word here is non-competitive. Instead of selecting only one first-prize winner, everyone has a chance to earn a Superior rating, or Gold Medal, or whatever the award is to recognize a job well done. In music festivals, age and level do not matter, older beginners can play elementary pieces and still receive the highest recognition, provided the job is well done. Some music festivals have repertoire requirements, for example a Sonatina Festival where everyone has to play one movement from a Sonatina. But my favorite music festival is one that allows students and their teachers the freedom to choose and play “anything.” My local music teachers association offers one such festival!

When choosing music for my Festival Track students for music festival adjudication and performance, I have the following criteria:

1. The music must inspire practice – it is readily appealing.
2. The music must challenge the student in some way – rhythm, hand crossing, specific pianistic figurations such as extended arpeggios, etc.
3. The music must not be overly difficult from beginning to end – there can be sections that challenge the student’s current technical abilities, but there must also be sections where the student can feel enthusiastic about their progress.

The following fits the bill nicely.

Piano Extravaganza by Robert D. Vandall

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Posted in Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

Yiyi Ku

New Piano Music

June 22nd, 2014 by

Dear Teachers,

I hope this post finds you well and you are either enjoying a well deserved summer break, or will be having one soon!

Most private music teachers have a lighter teaching schedule during the summer months. This is a perfect time to research new teaching materials for the next semester.

In my last blog, I talked about offering different “tracks” of programs in my studio for the next school year. Here are the descriptions of the four tracks:

1. Fun Track – for students that want to keep piano in their lives but can not commit to regular practice.
2. Recital Track – for students that want steady progress and opportunities to perform in recitals and non-adjudicated events.
3. Festival Track – for students that want to participate in adjudicated music festivals and exams.
4. Competition Track – for students that are interested in competitions and higher level music examinations.

I believe in selecting appropriate supplementary music for the different tracks. For example, students in the Fun Track are more likely to practice if they are given familiar tunes to play, while students in the Festival or Competition Track need to focus on the classics and good quality original music.

Here are some new resources I will be using:


1. Famous & Fun Deluxe Collections – by Carol Matz


I gave a detailed review of this series in my previous post “National Piano Guild Auditions Part 2.”

I am very pleased to find that two new levels are now available – Book 4 (Early Intermediate) and Book 5 (Intermediate). These are exactly what the title says – Famous and Fun, and are just perfect for my Fun Track students. The list of songs included in each book is enticing, there is something for both girls and boys, a variety of styles are included (Pop, Classics, Favorites, Rock, and Duets), and what has impressed me the most is the quality of the arrangements.

These do not sound juvenile. These are sophisticated-sounding arrangements, yet are technically very accessible for the designated levels. Students in the Fun Track want to play tunes they know – Star Wars, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, Beauty and the Beast, Over the Rainbow. They want to play tunes everyone knows – America the Beautiful, Greensleeves, The Star-Spangled Banner. They may not have the techniques required to play the classics in their original form, but they will learn simplified versions – Pachelbel’s Canon, Debussy’s Claire de lune. They want to impress their Friends – Hey There Delilah, Don’t Stop Believing. Lastly, they want to have fun making music with others – duet versions of The Pink Panther and James Bond.

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Posted in Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

A is for App

My most recent favorite app is called Decide Now–only 99 cents!  Although it’s not a music-related app it is so easy to customize that you won’t be able to stop using it. A game of Piano Charades is just one example of how I implement this versatile app to reinforce music terminology by students acting out Italian terms at the keys. Here are the steps:

1) Call out words such as: piano, forte, fermata, ritardando, presto, largo, etc. and nudge students to act them out physically. This means YOU need to do it, too. For example: piano could be walking on tip toes while ritardando could be jogging in place and gradually slowing down the pace–like a train approaching a station.

2) After all terms are physically re-enacted, have the students jot down each term to review the spelling and the definition. If they are youngsters, have them draw a picture instead of writing out the definition. Ex: ritardando could be represented with a train engine.

3) Ask a volunteer to play one phrase of a well-prepared piece as the composer intended.

4) The performer must spin the wheel featuring all the terms just reviewed without letting the others see where the Wheel-of-Fortune-like spinner stops. Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music Theory, Product Reviews, Teaching Tips