Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Are Your Students Musically Fit?

Some Observations…

1) As an organist and pianist with a master’s degree in piano performance and pedagogy, I met the challenges of memorizing Bach, executing the articulation of Mozart, the voicing of Brahms’ inner melodies, and the shimmering tones of Debussy and, succeeded, according to my professors. However, after the diploma was hung, it was quite clear to me that my sight reading skills needed attention AND chord charts for my church’s praise band seemed to be written in a secret code. I kept thinking, what kind of pianist was I? I felt lopsided–I was strong as a classical pianist but very weak as a functional musician.

2) Recently, a student of mine participated in a very unique Creative Pianist Contest and earned a $100 for the best performance of a Contemporary piece and another $100 prize for the most Versatile Pianist. Of course I was so proud of him and can take some credit for helping him to master Copland’s “Cat and Mouse”. However, I wish I could also take full credit for his versatility as well! In general, my “job” as his teacher has been to keep him staying ON the printed page because he has such exceptional skills living OFF the printed page. I can take credit for challenging those skills but the wiring between his hands and ears is an extraordinary gift and very atypical of what most of my present piano students possess.


If all students can learn to read and play music from the grand staff, should they not be able to learn how to play by ear, read chord charts and improvise as well? Can all students (not just those with a natural gift to play by ear) learn to be versatile, musically fit musicians?


Yes! My teaching philosophy stems directly from reactions to my past and present experiences as a student and as a teacher. Although I use the typical piano methods, I interject various activities to develop functional keyboard skills for all students. During the summer months is a great time to focus on specific skills such as composition, improvising, creating with Garage Band, chord charts which all encourage the ability to play by ear.


One online tool that is geared specifically to train the ear is Theta Music Trainer. I am happy to see that after my first review in a past blog, this website continues to evolve and improve its ear training course for ALL levels of musicians. The well organized format, the accessibility and affordability will make an excellent trainer for my “music skill builders”.

Highlights of Theta Music Trainer

A Well-Designed Course

This program was developed from the author’s own desire to play by ear. The site is designed around the four core areas of musicianship–melody, harmony, rhythm and sound. The system designs 30 daily workout sessions that last from 10-15 minutes.

Games that Motivate

According to the site, ” Basic musicianship skills are often best developed by working away from your instrument initially, in short bursts of concentrated practice.” The games found on the site aim to provide a total workout for the ear. The variety and design of the games are fun and in turn, boost motivation.

Highlights of Recent Upgrades

New Games

Knowing that new games have been added and some provide learning for those without prior knowledge of music theory, shows that investment in this site will prove valuable to any level of musician.  More games are coming, again, soon.

Personal Trainer

Feedback of progress is unique to this sight. Instead of bar graphs, percentages or grades, Theta Music Trainer provides each user with a personal trainer that analyzes performance of games played and recommends additional games to strengthen weaker skills. This automated “coach” adapts to individual needs and interests.

Assignment/Gradebook for  Teachers

This feature provides teachers with guidance in using Theta Music Trainer in conjunction with music lessons. Assignments  can be created, tracked, completed and graded online.  Plus, big educational discounts are now offered for teachers and their students.

Other Features

The site continues to be tweaked and improved, which means Theta Music Trainer listens to its customers just as well as it teaches listening.

The trainer is multilingual, currently offering games in English, Japanese, Spanish with more on the way.

Click on Resources for Play-by-Ear tips for insightful instructions on how to strengthen listening skills.


As I teach out of reaction to my above observations, I will continue to accumulate tools like Theta Music Trainer to equip my students to become strong in EVERY music skill a musician needs to stay fit.

Looking forward to using the site and would love to see apps for the mobile phones and the iPad for students on the go!

About the Author


  1. Bob Woody

    Leila – I love your focus here. I could not agree more that we want our students to have a breadth of skills that will allow them to be functional musicians (to use your term). To often musicians are categorized into only one of two kinds…ear players or notation readers. Of course, there are many many musicians who can do it all. There’s no reason to limit our students’ musicianship. And playing by ear is SO important. Research suggests that it is a foundation ability that contributes to other performance skills, including reading notation!

    I will definitely be checking out the Theta Music Trainer. It seems to be a promising tool for students who are into video games.

  2. Leila Viss

    Thanks Bob, I enjoyed looking at your website as well. Thanks for your insight on the important skill of improvisation.

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