Category - Playing by Ear

Can you carve out a career by ear?

Jake Mirow is one of those students you don’t forget. Don’t get me wrong, I treasure all my current and former students but Jake was different. In fact, that’s how Jake came to my studio, because his mom and dad knew he was different and that he needed something different.

What does different mean? Jake has an uncanny ability to play by ear with style and flair. The best way to explain it? He’s hard-wired differently than most.

Example? After seeing the movie Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey in 2009, Jake returned to his lesson and played a jaw-dropping medley of the soundtrack. It’s like his ears have a photographic memory?!?

Mmm….what does a classically trained pianist trying to get over her own fear of improvising do with a student like Jake? Read More

Register NOW for the 88 Creative Keys 2017 Workshop

Take a moment to check out the video below –you’ll learn what we’re cooking up this summer at 88 Creative Keys and get a chuckle, too.

Here we go!

The 88 Creative Keys 2017 Workshop Registration is open. If you’ve been thinking about attending, this is the year to commit. 

The first ten registrants get an extra discount–they are going fast (I mean SUPER fast) so press that blue button below.


Need more info before you commit? Here are some answers to the questions you may have. Read More

Essentials for the Worship Team Pianist

Equipping a student with reading and memorizing skills may develop a capable pianist but, nowadays those limited skills aren’t going to cut it. Most pianists are or will be called upon to play beyond the score and read chord charts and play with bands or worship teams. Preparing for this position requires good ears, knowledge of chords and a willingness to collaborate.


Drew Collins

In our next 88 Creative Keys Webinar, we (Bradley Sowash and me, Leila Viss) are excited to have Drew Collins join us. He’s spent over twenty years leading worship and training worship leaders and musicians. This past summer, I invited Drew to a worship team workshop for my students and found Drew’s ideas so worthwhile that we decided to feature him in our next webinar: “Essentials for the Worship Team Pianist.”


Drew sharing words of wisdom at my summer studio workshop.

Drew Collins has spent twenty years leading worship and training worship leaders and musicians. He earned his B.A. in Music from the University of Northern Colorado and his M.A. in Ministry Leadership from Crown College. A singer, songwriter, and liturgist, he lives with his wife and daughter in Denver, CO. I have the pleasure of being on staff  with Drew at South Suburban Christian Church, in Littleton, Colorado.

In the first portion of the webinar, Drew and I will discuss:

  • The three roles of a worship team pianist.
  • The latest tech tools used by most worship teams.
  • Tips on how to build required skills.
  • What worship leaders expect of a pianist.
  • Common mistakes pianists make when playing with a band.
  • Characteristics of a strong worship team pianist.
  • Some tricks of the trade.

Bradley Sowash

In the next portion, Bradley will cover:

  • What to play when unrehearsed background music is needed.
  • Heighten your awareness of thinking and playing in musical layers.
  • Tips for pianists about feeling the groove in a band.
  • Improvising and/or arranging a traditional hymn for contemporary worship.

Don’t miss this workshop! Even if your students don’t play in a worship band, with this webinar you’ll be able to coach those who may wish to play in a “garage band.” You’ll find all the ideas we feature in the webinar will crossover to any band experience. Your students will thank you. Bonus: it may give you the skills you need to play in a band yourself!




Rhythm Produce Winner, A Sale and Teaching Tips

Thank you for entering to win Rhythm Produce.

AUDREY, you won!

As I only have a first name and if your name is Audrey, you won’t know it’s you until I email you with your free copy of Rhythm Produce.

Good news: If your name is not Audrey (or it is and you didn’t win) it’s on sale for $6! Using a systematic approach to teaching rhythm with fruits and veggies is working in my studio and I believe it will in yours as well.

Click on the BEET to buy it now as the deal won’t stay fresh for long.


In case you missed, it don’t forget to download Black Cat Strut. I’m so pleased to see how popular this improvisation jumpstart is.

If you play it alone or with your students, I’d love to hear about your experience. It’s not easy to move players off page–it takes determination!

Black Cat Teaching Tips

If you have apprehensive students who shy away from creating at the keys here are some tips:

Play a pattern on white keys (CDE GA) and ask students to learn and copy it by ear.

Allow students to use that pattern in the right hand while you play the left hand part.

Next, invite students to add a Black Key Slide of their choice to the pattern.

Suddenly, they’ve created something new!

Or, if students are rambling, encourage them to choose one pattern they created and stick with it. Ask them to play it over and over and then add a new Black Key Slide or change one note. This will help to bring a more cohesive sound to improvisation that seems to wander.

Model for your students ALL the time which means you need to practice, too!

Click on the BLACK CAT to learn more about this CATchy improvisation jumpstart that’s purrfect for October or really any time.


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Black Cat Strut: A Cool Improvisation for All Ages

Improvising can be a little scary.

It’s even scarier when both hands are required!

Here’s an accessible improvisation that offers tasks for both hands. While the left hand stays pretty simple it still sounds black-cat cool. With the suggested tips, the right hand will get the opportunity to strut its stuff.

By the way, inspiration for this pattern occurred when Bradley Sowash casually mentioned the opening two chords during an online group improv lesson. Check out his line up of courses here.

Improvising doesn’t always sound so good.silhouette-1314467_1280

Black Cat Strut is guaranteed to sound pleasing to anyone at any level because both hands play something appealing and it’s in minor!

You (try it yourself!) and your students will have even more opportunity to sound like a pro as I’ve created a chart in iReal Pro that provides an instant backup band. It’s included in the free download. (To download the chart you need to tap on the link on the device that has iReal Pro installed. Let me know if you have any trouble.)

This looks too hard for beginners.

Black Cat Strut is suited for anyone at any level because both hands play separately–at least at the first level. In fact, there’s no need to play hands together at all and that’s the beauty of this jumpstart.

When introducing the pattern, divide and conquer each part by playing one hand yourself, while your student plays the other.

Better yet, divide and conquer in a group lesson. Ask one or more to play the left hand part and assign others to create right hand patterns. You’ll have all kinds of cool cats improvising together!

Check out this video that shows snippets of improvisers of all levels and ages strutting their chops.

How do you teach this?

All of my students learned the pattern by ear. I provided no visuals for them and repeatedly modeled snippets for them to echo.

I gave them step by step instructions, adding more ideas as they became more confident with the catpatterns.

If you notice in the video, fingering is a personal choice for the sake of building a safety net for young improvisers. If given too many things to think about, students might give up.

The beauty of this simple yet sophisticated jumpstart is that you can continue to build on it for those who are comfortable with improvising.

The instruction steps are included in the free download. I highly recommend teaching the patterns by ear and/or by rote as much as possible. That way this will become a memorized, back-pocket pattern that players can enjoy for a lifetime.

What does the free PDF download include?

  • A colorful, black kitty-cat visual of the keys required for the right hand.
  • The pattern broken down into three skill levels with sequential steps on how to teach them.
  • Grand staff notation of all parts.

At any level, this exercise is guaranteed to sound purrfect! -Leila


Enter you first name and email address for your free download

Jumpstart improvisation in your studio!

Did you sign up to win free Rhythm Produce cards? It really does produce strong rhythm readers. I use fruit and veggies every day. The winner will be announced October 21, 2016 so sign up by clicking the apple below.


88 Creative Keys is hosting its next webinar on November 14, 2016. It targets an essential for anyone who wants to be creative at the keys: CHORDS! Click on the boot below to sign up.


Wynn-Anne Rossi’s Timeless Tips on Composition

Wynn-Anne Rossi and I first met at an MTAC (Music Teachers Association of California) conference years ago. I attended one of her Alfred showcases and was so impressed with her poised yet lively presentation of her latest pieces. She even danced the tango for us!

Wynn-Anne and I connected during the conference and enjoyed comparing notes about technology and creativity and the importance they both hold in our studios.

It was wonderful to see Wynn-Anne and her success as an Alfred composer featured in a recent blog at JW Pepper.  My students have been head-over-heels about her Musica Latina series of books. I’m so thankful Wynn-Anne pointed me to this post as JW Pepper also includes videos of Wynn-Anne and her experience as a composer and teacher of composition.

In the blog post (read the full article here) it states:

Wynn-Anne Rossi is particularly passionate about teaching composition to young musicians. She feels that one of her greatest talents is the ability to simplify complex ideas to a single “grain,” thus allowing any level learner to understand them. This was the inspiration behind the “Counterpoints” in her Creative Composition Toolbox series. Rossi believes that anyone can learn to write music if given the freedom to find their own voice.

Read More

Make your own dashing arrangement of Jingle Bells

About 4 years ago, Wendy Stevens of asked her piano students to learn the chorus of “Jingle Bells” and create a variation. Each arranger was filmed debuting his/her arrangement and then made into a lovely video.

Wendy’s Jingle Bells project got me so pumped that I not only assigned all my students this unique task but I blogged about it at–where I began my blogging years ago. Here’s the post (and the video) from December 2011, with a few minor updates.

The Plot

When preparing for the upcoming holiday recital, lesson time can be zapped by ironing out the wrinkles in performance pieces or drilling the performance etiquette routine. Little time is left for covering new concepts or new pieces. This calls for an assignment that captures the students’ attention, challenges their creativity and that can be accomplished in a short amount of time.

 The Production

The following steps were taken to prepare students:

1) A lead sheet featuring the melody and chord symbols was reviewed.

2)  For inspiration, students were asked to listen to Mozart’s Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” and follow along with the score. Next they watched the youtube video of Wendy’s students. (As I offer 30-minute lessons with a 30-minute off bench time, this was assigned during the lab time and did not take away from lesson time.)

3) A checklist of composition devices, provided by Wendy, was given to charge up the creative juices. About 5 minutes of lesson time was taken to prod students’ idea bank. We looked over a list of various moods and styles that sparked the imagination engines. Most were inspired to borrow ideas from their current pieces which boosted their confidence as they were not starting with a blank slate.

Additional ideas included varying the melody with neighbor tones, repeated notes, rhythmic changes and using standard LH patterns they encounter on a regular basis in lesson books and repertoire. Students were encouraged to keep it simple. However, they know I am a huge fan of intros and outros (codas), so most added them to please the teacher.

4) Pianists (arrangers) were asked to return to the next lesson with a completed variation.


The following week was like Christmas as each student “unwrapped” his/her variation for me. Some were perfected and camera-ready, some even had more than one variation, while others needed last-minute tweaking to work out rhythm or harmony issues.

Recording each student usually took more than one “take” but they did seem relieved to know that only their hands would be filmed. They were all reminded to use their best hand position but some were quite surprised with what they saw while watching their own video. (Note to self: pull out this camera more often–a picture can say so much more than words!)


After accumulating the clips, they all headed to the editing table (iMovie). Every student who participated was included in the final cut, however there were so many that a ‘sequel’ was needed.

The Editor’s cut  (the video at the top of the post) features the “best” twelve variations (yes, it was hard to choose!).

The project offered an opportunity to cover theory topics like the theme and variation form, primary chords, secondary chords, modality, composition techniques…the list goes on. The students enjoyed the creativity and seeing their names and hands on the “big screen.”

Your Turn

With the few lessons left in the year, why not encourage your students AND yourself to make your own dashing arrangement?

Want More Ideas?

Still puzzled about the steps to encourage young arrangers and composers? Using a simple tune like “Jingle Bells” works. I’m also convinced that pop music really can help, too. Want to know why I believe that to be true? Then you’ll want to attend the 88 Creative Keys winter webinar featuring Bradley Sowash, yours truly and the king of teaching pop, Tim Topham. Follow this link to register for the webinar.

IMPORTANT! If you have attended an 88 Creative Keys Summer workshop in the past, you are invited to attend this winter webinar “webshop” for FREE!

top pop tips

How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise

Perhaps you are one of those classical pianists who was lucky enough to have a teacher that encouraged creativity beyond the grand staff? Lucky you. The rest of us have one thing in common that keeps us from pushing beyond our creative boundaries. We are burdened with baggage called “excuses.” These excuses may include:

  • I’m a visual learner.
  • I was never taught to play away from the page.
  • I’m scared I’ll sound awful.
  • I’m embarrassed to let everyone know what I can’t do.

With this heavy baggage we are moving towards one of three routes: Read More

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – And Why My Students Are Oozing Music

263460_1934126004312_2113099_nDisclaimer: the guest author of this post, Kristi Negri, was not paid to write this gripping testimonial for the cause of creativity!

Last summer, I made my second trek from Oregon to Dallas for the SMU Institute for Piano Teachers. My first time there had so positively impacted my teaching and the way I run my studio that I was wishing I could go back, but when I saw what the program in 2014 would focus on off-the-page teaching, my wanting to return changed to my having to return.

For years, I have felt that there was something missing from traditional piano training. It has to do with creativity and freedom at the keyboard. I am eternally grateful to my piano teacher from junior high and high school years for showing me the rudiments of playing by chord symbols. Other than that, using my ear had been purposely and rigorously trained out of me from my earliest years. I don’t improvise well, I can’t play requests by ear, and (shhh don’t tell on me) my ability to transpose is, well, hardly worthy of the word. Determined that my own students would fare better, I’ve always encouraged good ears and found little ways to foster creativity and the basics of composition in my studio. I try to interest students in learning to read by chords, but somehow I wasn’t consistently transmitting what they needed to be confident about it. Read More

Keep Your 2015 Studio Relevant with Pianoflix

After you received your undergrad music degree, performed a stellar recital of the classics, turned in that lofty thesis, passedIMG_2492 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.

IMG_2496Although 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