Category - Practice Strategies

Do Simple Better

As teachers, it’s our job to make things clear. This often requires introducing new concepts by breaking them up into bite-sized nuggets that can be quickly understood. We must make the seemingly difficult appear simple.

I recently stumbled upon this quote by Joe Maddon, the manager who led the Cubs to their first World Series title in over 100 years:

“Do simple better.”

It got me asking: what would Maddon’s challenge look like on the piano bench?

I came up with four examples of doing SIMPLE better and labelled them:

  • Expand then extract
  • Play then say
  • Explore then explain
  • Lead then let go

The video below (click here if you can’t see it) expands on these four items. Read the article found here and then watch the video.

Make sure to READ MORE so you can learn about a fantastic idea for your next piano party or studio event…

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What does GRIT look like in the music studio?

Believe it or not, talent has little to do with success. The extensive research by professor Angela Duckworth has found that those with grit will have more success.

Watch the video (found on the Facebook page of ) to hear more.

After watching Duckworth’s video, it got me wondering what grit would look like in the music studio and made me want to dig deeper into the topic.

“Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance.”

According to Duckworth, “grit has a more significant correlation to high school graduation rates than things like family income and social status do.” Read More

The ONE thing that holds the power to motivate

Stickers, charts, money, candy, points, and prizes are frequently used to motivate students but, do they really work?  Is it our job as teachers to motivate our students? From what I’ve experienced, incentives and even teachers do NOT hold the power to motivate.

I believe progress holds the power to motivate.

Let me explain with a personal experience.


Joe, my cool cycle instructor, is on the far left. Tap on the picture to learn more about my cycle class that motivates.

In a Friday morning cycle class, we were challenged to pedal one mile in three minutes. Joe, the instructor, set the large timer in front of the room for the three-minute countdown, cranked up the music and even the disco lights to charge us up for the “road” ahead.

The small computer on my cycle showed me the time, how fast I was pedaling and gradually added one tenth of a mile as my feet went round and round. I thought I was not that competitive, but, it turns out that I was extremely driven to reach the mile mark by the end of three minutes. Joe strategically included the one-mile challenge not just once but, three times within the hour to build up endurance. Even though the last mile 3-minute mile was the hardest, I did not let myself slip. I was determined to beat the clock and improve my stamina.

I discovered that this challenge wasn’t about beating anybody else, it was all about successfully reaching the goal set before me. Clocking the time, adjusting my speed and pushing myself kept me moving forward to earn the “prize.” The fact that I met the goal in the first three-minute round empowered me to carry on and push forward and do it again and then again. I was motivated!

Progress has a magnetic pull. Once we experience progress and see the success that it brings, we want more. It entices us because it makes us feel good. The more progress we make, the better we feel so we try for it again and again.

Progress = The advancement or development towards a better state.

Joe’s calorie-burner choreography uses objective-based skills and measurements to help cyclers reach their anaerobic threshold. In other words, the class promises to burn calories, strengthen muscles and build endurance. The result: cyclers make progress towards maintaining or achieving fitness for a lifetime. I went home from class high on endorphins, ready for a shower and also feeling successful because I beat the clock. (Learn more about this format in this video which features Joe on a local TV station.) 

This fitness class scenario is not that much different from those who are learning an instrument. If students are given a challenge and succeed, it’s addicting. The rush that success brings triggers the desire for more challenges to conquer. That’s called motivation or specifically intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes naturally from within and does not come from outside rewards like stickers or bribery, which are extrinsic motivators.

Motivation =  The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Is it the teacher’s job to motivate? From my cycle-class experience, I’d say we teachers need to modify that description. Our job is to set challenges for our students and to equip them to succeed and progress. Joe didn’t have to bribe me with coffee and a scone to succeed, he just provided the objective and set the clock. In the same way, the promise and thrill of progress is what will drive budding musicians to their instrument on a daily basis. Stickers, candy and bribes don’t hold the promise of progress and won’t cut it in the long run.

Teachers = equip students with skills to succeed.

Progress = holds the power to motivate.

The essential “equipment” students need to see progress are practice strategies guaranteed to conquer challenges between lessons. Science has shown that the six strategies listed below will do just that. These are a critical part of any curriculum and should be put into action at every lesson.

Six Scientifically Proven Practice Strategies that Promise Progress

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A Look Back at Trendsetting Piano Teaching Resources in 2016

Grab a cup of coffee–here’s 40 resources worth your time!

My friend and colleague Marie Lee and I compiled a list of winning resources that worked for us in 2016, and we can’t wait to share them with you. They are organized according to topic.

What did we forget? We didn’t include everything we intended–we had to stop some where.

What would you add to the list?

Professional and Creative Development


Piano Teacher Planning Center is a brand new component of I’m so excited to piano teacherplanning centerhave a store–no, a center–where teachers will find a growing collection of free and for-purchase teaching aids, some created by me but others created by fellow teachers who have great ideas.

In celebration of the new year, there’s a store-wide sale until January 15, 2017. By the way, if you have a cool game or product that you want to sell, contact me at and let’s plan to make it part of the PTPC in 2017. -Leila


I attended my first 88 Creative Keys Workshop in Denver this past summer. I waited almost an entire year and 88 CK was well worth it! It was one of the best things I could do for my continuing education as a teacher.  You can read reviews from 2016 attendees here and learn more about 2017’s workshop here. -Marie
Here’s a video of Leila leading a body beat activity with teachers.


Tim Topham’s podcasts keep me happily occupied on my Sunday afternoon walks. I look forward to them each week. Tim finds the best guests who discuss–you guessed it–trendsetting topics! Here are seven of my favorite podcasts because they deal with creativity at the keys. -Leila


I look forward to Amy Chaplin’s Piano Pantry Friday Finds. Amy is one of my new, favorite bloggers. -Marie


Even though I didn’t practice like I should have, I learned so much from Bradley’s online lesson session that I can use with my students. Bradley Sowash is encouraging and informative. It has opened up a whole new world of piano playing for me. -Marie


ForScore, Turbo Scan, the Air Turn Pedal and the iPad Pro is a combo I’ve used every Sunday since writing my December 2015 blog post. I’m not sure how I survived without this set up. In the post you’ll learn how I move hard copy sheet music to ForScore so I can enjoy hands-free page turns. This is the wave of the future for reading scores. -Leila Read More

The ONE Thing that Guarantees a Top Performance

As much as we’d love to promise ourselves, our students and our audience a perfect performance, it really is impossible thanks to all the great unknowns:

The unknown of nerves: they pop up in odd ways like sweaty palms, a shaking leg, heart palpitations.

The unknown of the audience: they cough, cry, chat or make sudden movements that distract.

The unknown of being human: we cannot control our environment when performing in real-time.

The one and only thing we can control which will guarantee a top performance is how to respond to these unknowns.

Just this past Sunday, my bluetooth page-turning pedal turned two pages on my iPad Pro (learn more this set up here) instead of one. Wouldn’t you know this occurred in a tricky spot where I was already focused on specific, pre-planned mental cues and was not counting on a faulty page turn. It interrupted my focus but…I recovered.

Here’s what I’d recommend (after years of trial and plenty of errors!) for you and your students:to-live-a-creative-life-we-must-lose-our-fear-of-being-wrong

Prepare your performance with diligence.

Prepare yourself for the unknowns.

Prepare your ego for the recovery process.

and, perhaps, the most difficult and yet most important…

Prepare to forgive yourself when things don’t go as planned.

Below is a list of ten tips for a top performance–the first step in the preparations listed above. Notice, I didn’t use the word “perfect” but I did use the word “top” as that is what we can aspire to with proper preparation.  I’ve designed a printable of this list and the Five P’s of Performing in a free printable. You’ll see where to sign up, below. Read More

Turn Practice into Progress with Power Tools

NEW: Get your free Practice Printable HERE!

Practice habits can dwindle in the summer and right now is the perfect time to give them a boost. In reality, we as teachers have little control over what happens between lessons. Because of this, it’s essential that we make time to teach purposeful practice strategies and use powerful tools that work at lessons and empower students’ practice between lessons.

Four years ago I wrote a post about practice pouches that my students assembled at their lessons. It is one of my most popular posts and now many students around the world(!) carry a practice pouch in their piano book bags.

Practice Pouches of the Past


It is hard to keep a firm knuckle while squeezing a clothespin but it shows how knuckle buckle can happen so easily.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about them, here’s a summary of how practice pouches were first designed. (Follow this link for ALL the details.)

During lab time, which I now call Off Bench time (tap here to learn more) at the first lesson of the fall session students chose a bag and decorated it with fabric pens. The bags were cosmetic bags found at the Dollar Store. Students passed through an assembly line of tools choosing one of each of the following:

  • Clothespin to cure “knuckle buckle” syndrome.


    Dumping an eraser off the wrist demonstrates the required motion for the ends of slurs.

  • Notebook to record new musical terms, repertoire, metronome markings and tallies for 20x perfect.
  • Mechanical Pencil so students “practice with a pencil” and write in counting or fingering where necessary, circle that one note that always comes out sour, etc.
  • Eraser: Wrist rolls and a lift at the ends of slurs allow for a natural tapering of sound/volume and immediately provides a more musical technique. The eraser balanced on top of the pianist’s hand is dumped off as the wrist rolls upward toward the fall board which helps students feel the correct motion required.
  • Stickers A small row of stickers are provided for students to place on a page they are

    Reserve ONE color for dynamics so they always stand out.

    particularly proud of.

  • Yellow Highlighter to highlight all dynamics to add and listen for each one in their practicing.
  • Rubber Snake to keep wrists parallel to the floor, a small snake is placed on the keyboard ledge and students are advised to avoid droopy wrists and stay out of the snake pit!
  • Dice so the student can divide a piece up into 6 sections. The die is rolled, if the number is 4, the student finds section 4. The student rolls again and that new number is how many times section 4 will be played. The LAST time the section is played, ZERO errors is the goal.


    Heather’s assembly line of practice tools.

Heather’s Practice Pouches of 2016

As I revisit the list, there are some things I’ll bag (pun intended) and others to add. Help with this updated list comes from Heather Nanney who recently adopted the practice pouch idea in her studio.

Take time to teach purposeful strategies and tactile tools that work at lessons and empower your students’ practice between lessons.

Heather included the following in her pencil pouches turned practice pouch.  You can find pencil pouches at Amazon and other stores. (I believe they are more sturdy than the bags I purchased at the Dollar Store.)

  • Mechanical pencil

    Plot out scales with erasers first so fingers know where to go.

    Plot out scales with erasers first so fingers know where to go.

  • Eraser
  • Clothespin
  • Ziplock bag to hold “Fast Fingers” for warm-ups and composing, etc.
  • Sticky notepad (instead of notebook.)
  • Tootsie Roll for when they practice every day of the week and they are “On a Roll.”
  • Eight pencil topper erasers to help mark scale degrees. This is inspired by a past post. Follow this link.
  • Music bookmarks (because they were hanging around the studio waiting to be used.)
  • Colored pen (because they were hanging around the studio anyway.)

Leila’s Practice Pouches with Traveling Power Tools

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PRACTICIA: An app that guarantees progress between lessons

Fellow teacher Lou Ann Pope graciously offered to share her experience with an app called PRACTICIA.

The highly respected and successful teacher weaves her story as a  fairy tale because of her passion for Irina Gorin’s method Tales of a Musical Journey.

Take it away, Lou Ann…

Let me tell you A Tale of Transformation…
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How to Prepare Performers for Adjudicator Comments and Decisions

A number of my students enjoy the challenge of entering adjudicated events. Many are quite competitive–much more than me! It takes strategic planning to prep them and that’s why I’ve posted past blogs about the process. You can find them here.

In recent a newsletter, I featured a popular download with all kinds of details and suggestions for students, parents and teachers in preparation for performance readiness.

Over the years, I’ve discovered strategies to help students play their best. Some have earned high praise and even prizes. Of course, this makes me beam with pride and more importantly, extremely happy for the student.

But, there’s usually a downside to this experience.

Please, don’t misunderstand me.

I’m not saying that I believe all my students deserve to earn top scores or receive Top Performer when they participate in festivals and competitions. It would be great if they did, but I don’t expect it.

What I find the most disheartening about adjudicated events after MONTHS of preparation is reading through the judge’s evaluation sheets with my students, and at times questioning their final decisions after the events. Read More

Use iReal Pro to Circle the Keys in Fives

As a pianist, there’s no way around technical exercises if you want to train fingers in the way they should go. Building patterns in the hands will build a strong player, reader and improviser. There’s no better way to work around these technical challenges than by circling the circle of keys. The theory-packed ring breathes life into and logically connects to just about every aspect of music theory.

Start with Five-Finger Patterns

This post is specifically dedicated to how I boost student knowledge and playing of five-finger patterns traveling around the circle of keys. It makes sense to begin with five-finger patterns as they easily fit under the hand. From beginners to advanced, I believe it is essential for all levels of students to know these pentascales as they are the building blocks for understanding chords, scales, modes, and more. I use the phrase “five-finger pattern” because it relates to students’ five fingers faster than the term “penta scale.”Also it is SO similar to another term I use a great deal—pentatonic—and I don’t want students to get confused.

Circle of Keys Drills (1) copy

Find a Groove with iReal Pro

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Simplify Your Studio Incentives

This is my second post about studio organization. The first post highlighted the KonMari method which encourages organizers to keep things that spark joy and get rid of items that don’t. Follow this link if you missed the popular post. This post is about how simplifying my studio incentive sparked joy for me and could do so for you, too! I’m an aspiring minimalist. Isn’t that a great phrase? I stole it from a fellow teacher.

How do you motivate your students?

  • to master scales
  • to build reading skills
  • to pass theory tests
  • to practice between lessons
  • to…

Perhaps you use games, apps, drilling, even nagging and probably some kind of incentive program? They do help to drive the student who needs an extra push and provide a healthy competitive spirit throughout your studio

I regularly resort to bribery

Good old-fashioned cash works wonders. Cash as in Music Money made by TCW (Three Cranky Women) Resources. Students in my studio can earn the Mu$ic Money for anything I deem worthy. Examples include:


  • $100 for receiving a 5 progress score in their lesson notes. Follow this link toIMG_3085 (1) learn more about my system for measuring progress between lessons.
  • $5 for being smart: I ask a question and they answer it correctly.
  • $1 for lifting wrists at the ends of all slurs in a piece.
  • $10 for perfect hand position.
  • $1 for adding every dynamic marking in a piece.
  • $30 playing a challenging measure correctly three times in a row.
  • $500 for playing in a recital, at school, at church…
  • $20 for moving to the beat.
  • $50 for each piece that earns three gold stars in Piano Maestro.
  • and whatever I can dream up during a lesson to maximize learning and mastery at or between lessons.
  • $1000 for being the Piano Maestro Star Student of the Week.

Steps to money handling

  • Music Money is kept and paid out throughout the IMG_2054 (1)lessons as mentioned above.
  • Students store their hard-earned cash in plastic envelopes, (I recently found them on clearance at Office Depot but paper envelopes work fine.)
  • Once my cash supply is getting low, students add up their bills, trade them in and record the amount on their credit cards. (I order the cards from Vista Print. They are the size of business cards.)
  • About three times a year, I set up a card table in the studio and display tantalizing items for students to browse and buy with their Music Money.

This year, I recognized that the “store” had become something I dreaded:

  • It’s an ordeal to build up an inventory and set up shop with pricing and displaying the goods. Most of the stock came from the Target $1 bins)
  • It’s hard to anticipate what items might appeal to the students and if I purchased enough of them.
  • It’s clear to me that setting up the store did NOT spark joy so it was time to make a change and simplify!

A NEW streamlined approach to money handling

I’ve decided to scrap the store–no more inventory to worry about.

1) Instead, students get to choose to save their money for gift cards.

  • $5 Amazon
  • $10 App Store
  • $10 iTunes
  • $10 Sheet Music
  • $5 Target

2) Students write their name on a gift card punch card to represent what they are saving for and the cards remain in the studio tucked in a special sleeve I purchased at Target.

3) Once students accumulate $1000 in cash, they earn a punch on their chosen gift card punch card. When they earn 5 or 10 hole punches on their “gift card” they receive the REAL one.

NOTE: I still use the credit card system along with the fake gift cards in my studio so that I can keep plenty of cash on hand BUT, this step could be eliminated to keep things EVEN simpler.

How has this simplified things the most? NO MORE going to the store and shopping. All these gift cards can be purchased and given online!

  • Target Gift cardLearn how to send iTunes or App Store gift cards here.
  • Learn how to redeem gift cards here.
  • Order Target gift cards here.
  • Order Amazon gift cards here.

How can you use this in your studio?

Mostly likely you already have creative and kid-friendly incentive plans throughout the year showing progress on posters on the wall and charts tracking progress. With multiple incentive plans, consider streamlining the award system. For example, instead of awarding a trinket or medal for transposing in all 12 keys, award one punch on the gift card punch card.

How do you make these gift card punch cards?

I’ve made it easy for you.

1) Download the PDF below and print out the amount of cards you need.

2) If you are an MTNA member, take advantage of your discounted printing prices at Office Depot.

3) Laminate the cards to protect them and make them look “official.” I use this laminator and love it.

4) Find a place to store them in your studio: either in a small recipe box in alphabetical order or in order of when the students arrive for lessons during the week. My cards are housed in this “thing” with pockets that I found at the Target $1 bin.

How can you afford this in your studio?

I realize that money does not grow on trees. Here are some practical tips to help you run with this idea without going broke.

1) Ultimately, you may spend less money on rewards as you’ll reduce your stock of trinkets and gadgets. Ordering the cards online saves precious time and gas. I still have a stock pile of items for prizes–evidence of wasted time, money and mileage on the car.

2) Charge an annual supply fee in addition to your tuition that covers apps, reference books and studio incentives. Building this fee into your tuition structure will help you recoup your costs of the gift cards.

3) Talk with your parents about this more practical incentive plan and get them on board. Most likely they’d be up for something like this to encourage their child over sugary snacks and silly prizes. Suggest that they match you dollar for dollar. You promise $5 toward the gift card and the parents supply the balance for the $10 gift card.

Are incentives really necessary?

It seems ridiculous. All this for motivating piano students? I really want and intend for their personal desire to play the piano and make music to be motivation enough. This type of motivation, called intrinsic motivation, is why teenaged students stick around for piano lessons. By this age, they realize that playing piano has become a passion and not just something to please their parents.

For younger students still uncertain about the hard work involved with playing the piano, earning money IMG_1953towards a gift card to a favorite store may be the perfect way to keep them on task and on the bench. I notice that whenever a bribery replaces my “nagging” at a lesson, the learning or challenge becomes fun. A cheer with arms raised of ” I did it!” rings through my studio quite often. The money ignites the challenge but once the challenge is met, the student realizes that the feeling of accomplishment is worth its weight in gold.

I love to see a student’s eyes light up when I say “twenty bucks if you can play that phrase perfectly!” If it doesn’t happen the first time, they will play the phrase until it is perfect.

It’s important to remember that bribing students works IF they know:

  • what the challenge is
  • how to accomplish the challenge
  • when they’ve met the challenge.

I continue my quest to organize and simplify and minimize. How are you simplifying things in your studio? Do you have an easy-to-implement incentive program that works? Are you becoming an aspiring minimalist? If so, how’s it going?