Music Teacher's Helper Blog

MTNA 2014 Ahead Of or Behind the Times?


Yes, Yiyi, is just as nice in person as she looks in a pic!

I’m still catching up on sleep after my return from the Music Teachers National Association Conference in Chicago. Attending dynamic sessions, and intense meetings, hanging with favorite peeps from around the nation, meeting Facebook friends in person and of course enjoying scrumptious meals took their toll on my sleep patterns. At the same time, what I absorbed will provide that much needed energy to reinvigorate my teaching.

Before I share more about my unique experience and the reason behind the title of this blog, here’s a couple of things I wish to mention.

Music Teachers Helper at MTNA

First, Music Teachers Helper should be proud and pleased with Yiyi Ku’s presentation on the terrific features of This important tool has become irreplaceable to me. I’m sure those who attended Yiyi’s session learned what they were missing and signed up thanks to her comprehensive coverage of this online, savvy assistant.

The Full Scoop at MTNA

Me with good friends Wendy Stevens and Bradley Sowash

Me with good friends Wendy Stevens and Bradley Sowash

Next, as much as I love to blog, my note taking at conferences has gone down the tubes since I’ve become more involved with planning, presenting and exhibiting at conferences. Below are links to bloggers who took copious notes or at least some notes for the benefit of us all!

1) Q88Keys


3) at hashtag #mtna2014


Please chime in if you are willing to share yours!


Improvisation Saturday at MTNA

I was privileged to be part of an extremely exciting pre-conference event called Improvisation Saturday. My notes are sparse about the day but I did manage to capture a few pics AND some priceless videos. Let me fill you in. With a dream team headed by George Litterst and MTNA Jazz/Pop Track Chair Bradley Sowash, Saturday was a day of HUGE, HISTORICAL firsts for conference goers and MTNA.

Three simultaneous streams of sessions within the improvisation track led by world-class improvisation experts made it mighty tricky for attendees to choose. As I obviously could not attend all of them, let’s hope others who attended will share what they learned.

The FIRST Historical Event at MTNA 2014 Conference

I do not claim to be an expert improviser as are the other presenters slated for the day but yes, I do improvise and compose and teach those skills as well. As part of the leadership team for this unique track, George L and Bradley S invited me to speak as a teacher who creatively teaches creativity. I was honored to share my thoughts and ideas for group improvisation on and off the bench. The highlight was seeing a room full of teachers dancing, yes, grooving to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.

Piano Teachers Movin’ and Groovin’? Yes. My Strategy in a Nutshell

kevin-james-hitchAs an introduction, I defined improvisation as creativity and stressed that creativity is essential to education and self-expression. These arguments were coupled with a hilarious scene from the movie Hitch featuring Will Smith as a cranky love coach suppressing Kevin James’ “expert” dance moves.  With this combination, it was pretty easy to talk everyone into standing up and moving large motor muscles with a “one-note” body improv before moving to the fine motor tasks at the keyboard.

To best understand my logic and persuasive tactics it may have been better for you to be at the session in person but I have proof my efforts worked:

Fact #1 even the illustrious Wendy Stevens of who claims she does NOT dance was up and grooving.

Fact #2 the video below featuring participating attendees.

(The handout for this session can be found by clicking here.)

The SECOND Historical Event at MTNA 2014 Conference

Attendees Improvising with the Presenters? Yes. Here’s the Innovative Plan

The intent of the Improvisation Saturday was to provide attendees with hands-on experiences through IMG_1642interactive sessions. Thanks to both Yamaha and Kawai, two rooms were well-equipped with top-of-the line digital keyboards.  To top off the day, it was decided to host a jam session where participants could not only see expert improvisers in action but, in addition, try his/her hand at improvising right along with them.

To my knowledge of past MTNA conferences (which is limited) there has not been an event quite like what you will witness in the videos below. Dr. Sam Holland had this to say about the day:

“As a veteran of MTNA conferences all the way back to 1983, I can verify that Improvisation Saturday–and everything that happened during it–was a milestone, an extraordinary day. Great music. Great teaching. Great fun!” – Dr. Samuel Holland , Interim Dean of Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University

What you will find in the videos:

1) Attendees simultaneously creating music with session leaders beyond the page–Brian Chung, Christopher Norton, Richard Grayson, Forrest Kinney and more.

2) A fusion of Yamaha and Kawai reps throwing down riffs with utter abandon.

Make sure to watch both–you do NOT want to miss a minute of either!

“O When the Saints” led by Bradley Sowash

“Let it Be” led by Philip Keveren


Is MTNA Ahead Of or Behind the Times?

Getting back to the title of this post, I’m curious, did MTNA 2014 lead the way of future conferences by devoting a track to improvisation? Or, is MTNA painfully behind the times in updating their traditional-based, read-only, competitive-natured slate of programs? In other words, is this a milestone for the world of music education and creativity or just a milestone for MTNA? As I’ve never attended a conference outside the US, I’m unaware of conference trends in other parts of the world. Please leave your comments below.

Regardless, the good news: the Queen Mary of traditional music education in the US is shifting (ever so slowly) to a more well-balanced, eye/ear approach. It was delightful to be a participant and witness this turn at MTNA 2014.


About the Author


  1. Heather Korn

    Hi Leila – I enjoy reading your adventures and tips. I have been an MTNA member for many years. I have never attended an MTNA conference in the past due to the fact that MTNA is full of dinosaur approaches to music education.

    Society is changing, kids are changing and our approach to teaching music must change. Gone are the days of sitting down at the piano with a paper book in front of you and a notebook of things to practice each week as we muddle through the music of the dead composers of “yesteryears” and ask our students to spend 30 minutes a day at the piano. We can’t continue to survive as music teachers in this modern age with this antique approach to teaching. I’m not saying it’s not valuable; just not applicable to most of us today in our private studios.

    If you can’t compete with the constant stimulation of today’s world and the world that most kids live in (constantly connected to technology), you will have a hard time making a living as a private music teacher.

    We need to continue to push for change and innovation in our teaching through our professional organizations. Hopefully MTNA continues on this path now that they are done dealing with Federal Government and the oversight of all of us private music teachers.

  2. Yiyi Ku

    Dear Leila, thank you so much for the compliments! You are so kind! It was great to see you! I have much to learn as a presenter, and picked up lots of tips from your session for JoyTunes 🙂 So THANK YOU! See you at the next conference!

  3. Leila Viss

    Heather–couldn’t agree more. Carry on the torch of change and innovation! Thanks for your comments.

  4. Leila Viss

    Yiyi, good to see you and hopefully some time again soon at the next conference!

  5. Kathryn Whitney

    Thanks for the interesting post Leila – great insight for those of us who can’t or don’t attend these events!

    I’d like to chime in on the thread about whether or not teaching needs to change. I think it’s important for us to be leaders as well as followers – kids and adults are changing, and it can seem like we are swimming against the tide of cultural change and that traditional forms of teaching are no longer important or valid. I would certainly agree that innovating is key – there is no sense insisting on paper and LPs (although bizarrely these are coming back) when our students dwell exclusively on iPads, YouTube and instant downloads. But part of our job I think is to understand how things have changed and to draw bridges to the future based on what we understand to be good about both the old and the new. We have to be careful that we don’t turn our students into carbon copies of their idols in the pop music world (or even classical music world) – this doesn’t lead them to make their own music, only to make music in someone else’s image. If we are to keep music – and our own profession – alive, we need to keep our eyes on the future, whether 20, 50, or 100 years from now. What skills do we want our students *not* to lose? To my mind it would be the skill to make musical and cultural history by consolidating and innovating, which requires us to create new spaces for musical growth, to foster an interest and belief in the importance of musical expression and commentary, but at the same time throwing out neither baby nor bathwater.

  6. Leila Viss

    Hi, Kathryn–what terrific prose. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. So insightful and timely. 🙂

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