Category - Teaching Tips

Creative Ways to Build Better Pitch Reading

An app for pitch recognition came to my attention thanks to Grace Lee, the developer. How can this app be different from the other apps devoted to drilling pitch names? For one, Lee’s app includes drills for reading intervals or two notes at a time–not just one!

Grace has written a wonderful post about building better pitch reading skills. Along with her suggestions, she gives tips on how to use the unique features of her app called NoteQuest. Thank you, Grace, for your terrific insight on this topic! Make sure to read to the end and learn about the special promo Grace is offering.

[Note Quest is a flashcard app designed to train note reading with an emphasis on intervals and can be used with an acoustic piano. Note Quest is for the iPad and iPhone, and may be downloaded from the App Store or found at]


We as music teachers know this:

The ability to read music is a skill that opens many doors to exploring fun and beautiful music.

In reality, many students who have note reading issues suffer embarrassment, lack of motviation to practice, and even want to quit prematurely. When you break it down, it’s not the mere practicing they dislike; it’s the loneliness of struggling through notes. Whether it’s a transfer student who can’t read well, a student who plays by ear, or a child who has trouble decoding what she sees, we all likely deal with this scenario regularly. We can easily teach this basic skill of note reading thoughtfully and perhaps with more creativity.

In my studio, when I have beginning students who continuously struggle with reading pitches, we try different approaches, but here are the foundations I usually lay down at the very beginning. Read More

It is Healthy to Talk about Stage Fright!

Stage fright. It’s a topic that often gets pushed aside at weekly lessons. As teachers, we tend to focus on how to play, how to memorize, how to read, how to create, and even how to perform but, we can overlook how to prevent or deal with performance anxiety.

I believe preparing students properly and in advance of a performance can curb anxiety (see The Five P’s of Performing) but, what if students have anxiety about performing regardless of their adequate preparation? When self-doubt and the fear of what others think creeps into our students’ psyche, what are we to do? How can we coach pianists to find the right balance of adrenalin, mental and emotional health to develop successful performance skills?

Answers to all of these questions are addressed in Julie Jaffee Nagel’s new book called Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers. The well-organized, easy-to-read book is packed with sensible advice, insightful tips, and well-researched strategies. It’s a must-have for any music teacher’s library. That’s what sets this book apart–it’s not only for performers, it’s also for teachers of performers!

Each of the 13 chapters opens with a list of “Questions for Thought.” Sprinkled throughout each chapter are summary boxes called “Implications for Teachers.” These two features, along with Julie’s expertise and conversational writing style make it easy to glean the information and help you are looking for.

I just ordered my Kindle edition of Managing Stage Fright. As I read through it, Julie’s careful research has validated a good portion of what I do in my studio (whew!) and has offered significant information on how we as teachers can best approach the unique students AND parents who walk in the studio door. One chapter title that immediately intrigued me: Performance Anxiety Begins in the Nursery!

Check out Julie’s blog post below to get a sense of her writing style.

Personally, I’ve had to overcome significant performance anxiety over the years on my own. I’m so grateful that now there’s research, expertise and open discussion on the topic so teachers can help students who struggle with it. Thank you, Julie for the blog post and the timely book on such an important and often overlooked topic!


Once upon a time, many years ago, when I was a piano teacher, I was working with a young student, Maria, who had come to my studio from another teacher in town.  Her mother explained to me that it was felt that  a different approach would be helpful for her daughter.  It was clear that her daughter loved music, and was quite accomplished at the piano, but her interest was waning.  When this was discussed with her music teacher, my name was given to her as a reference.

At one lesson, not long after we began to work together, Maria was having a very difficult time  playing a passage.  As she tried harder and harder, I could sense her frustration.  So I did what I thought was the best thing at that moment, and I asked Maria to stop playing so that we could  talk.  Maria started to cry, but also seemed relieved.  As we spoke about some things that had upset her at school earlier in the day,  Maria calmed down.  We didn’t really solve anything about school, but Maria felt  heard, respected, and understood.

Later that week, I ran into her previous teacher when I was downtown.  She inquired about her former student.  When I replied that when Maria had gotten upset,  had put a great deal of pressure upon herself to get everything “right”,  and that we had spoken about what she was feeling, the former teacher asked incredulously, “why did you let her talk?”

I was taken aback!  How could you not talk with someone in distress? Read More

Have a Blast with these MUST-HAVE Apps

JUST in time for your holiday lessons and group activities! Here’s a list of must-have apps.

Apps have become seamlessly integrated into every lesson plan. So much so, that I hardly set them apart from other teaching tools. It’s been a while since I shared my go-to apps for group or private lessons. Here are a few (only a few!) that are rising to the top of the list as of November 2017. Next week, this list could change. 🙂

Introduce patterns


Music is all about patterns and as youngsters explore the world of music, they must be ready to detect patterns. Before I introduce Loopimal to students, I ask them to look for patterns on their clothing. Once it’s established that they can recognize patterns, I share Loopimal with them. We sit in a circle on the floor and I let each student create their own pattern on the app. Everyone is mesmerized by the dancing animals and catchy loops. Reserve more time than you think when using this app and be ready for students to ask to play with this again and again!

Make your own flashcards


Usually, I use Quizlet during Off Bench time during private/partner lessons but, it could work well in a group setting as well.

When designing a studio theme around the Baroque period, my students read various resources to learn more about 17th century music, art and culture.  Every student generated three flash cards based on facts they gathered from the resources in Quizlet using my iPad. Next, students reviewed the content of everyone’s cards in Quizlet’s Cards and Match study modes. The app offers the option for the cards to be read aloud so even those who struggle with reading could participate in this activity.

The app offers various study modes:

  • Cards features a standard flash card design with the term on one side and the definition on the other.
  • Learn requires players to read a definition and type in the correct term.
  • Match displays six term cards and six definition cards. Players must tap to find matching cards while being timed.
  • Test offers three testing options: written, multiple choice or true and false. Scores and a list of missed questions are provided.

When the student taps on the screen, the card flips over to reveal the answer

The ability to customize cards is convenient when preparing students for theory examines. With the option to create Quizlet classes, you can share study material with your students and they can access the cards on their own devices and you can still track their progress.

If you’re in a hurry and need pre-made cards, the app allows you to search for and download sets based on your topic that have already been generated by other students and teachers.

Here are the cards I created to help students prepare for their National Federation of Music Clubs theory tests: Level 1-7 cards

Read More

Off-the-bench interview with Thomas Hoops: Music Learning Theory Specialist

Last summer I signed up to hear Thomas Hoops speak at Rockley’s Music in Lakewood, Colorado. He was so fascinating that I took notes (which is unusual for me!) and I immediately introduced myself after his presentation because I wanted to learn more from him.

Thomas was happy to set up a Google Hangout so I could easily share with you what he so eagerly likes to share BUT, technology issues got in the way. That didn’t stop us as he does not live far from me so we met up in my studio and recorded the video below. 

In the post, you’ll find minute marks of where Thomas discusses specific elements of the highly esteemed Music Learning Theory. Like all good conversations, we had an agenda but, we got off on tangents occasionally so I pinpointed highlights.

I recommend that you take the time to watch the interview as his ideas and purpose for off-bench activities are GOLDEN!


0:00 Thomas’ opening remarks include some great quotes.

When we are born, we are a fresh hard drive.

We are pliable up to age nine.

Focus on aptitude first rather than achievement.

Music Learning Theory is a sequence, not a method.

2:30 Steps of acquiring a language like music should be similar to learning a language.

  1. Listening
  2. Imitating
  3. Speaking
  4. Reading
  5. Writing

3:53 Music Learning Theory (MLT) of Edwin Gordon is based on sequence and audiation–thinking musically.

4:50 First step in the sequence of MLT: Oral/Aural = We say something and we repeat it to build a familiar vocabulary.

5:21 Talking parents into music learning theory can take time but they eventually get it.

6:00 Begin with using neutral syllables.

6:40 Second step: Verbal association.

Put it in your body and never forget. – Piaget

MLT uses a moveable Do.

7:30 What if I don’t use solfege?

[I started using solfege in my teaching in a way that feels natural to me and I look forward to sharing how I’m doing it with you soon!]

8:30 Another step of MLT: Partial Synthesis

9:00 Discrimination learning is crucial! It’s knowing what something is and what something isn’t.

9:50 Start every lesson from scratch. A must-read is Robert Duke’s book entitled Intelligent Music Making.

[Full disclosure: All links to the manipulatives listed below are provided with an affiliate code.]

11:00 Concepts like steady beat and balance are action nouns.

11:50 Next step: Symbolic Association: assigning signs and symbols

12:40 Get kids to sing by using puppets and the magic of play.

Everything I do is purposeful.

We learn through play.

14:30 What is a concept vs skill?

A concept is a steady beat, playing rhythms is a skill.

16:30 Here’s an excellent activity to move rhythm onto the keys combined with a singing exercise.

18:00 How can an exercise ball be useful in piano lessons?

19:45 Sing this song while bouncing on the ball: “Fish Alive.”

22:40 Many don’t want to sing but, once you do, it will force you to listen.

23: 50 Introduce tunes only on white keys which leads to the language of tonality.

25:00 The MLT approach is key to improvisation.

26:00 Can this approach still be used even if we are not MLT specialists?

26:40 Learn clever ways to use bean bags to develop body awareness and balance.

29:00 Sing an ostinato while moving arm with a bean bag.

30:00 Check out this cool ear training idea as it provides a chance to audiate without having to perform.

31:00 Here’s another neat trick to get kiddos to repeat activities.

32:00 Bungee cords-these are cool! Ideal for experiencing bound vs flow.

35:00 Scarves – Ideal for experiencing continuous fluid movement and free flow. Good for doing something and engaging the brain at the same time.

39:20 Use a Mystery Bottle to heighten listening skills.

40:45  Learn how play dough can test finger skills.

41:00 Get a Zippety Do Dolly to teach finger skills.

42:00 Wrapping up

Learn more about Edwin Gordon and the Music Learning Theory here.

Learn about how I incorporated MLT with the help of some BEETS here.




Thomas Hoops has over 25 years’ experience in the piano studio and has refined a method to keep the drive alive and the work fun. Hoops holds a B.A. in Music and M.M. in Music Education. He has won many awards and scholarships and is certified by the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary Music level I. Thomas is a member of Music Teacher’s National Association (MTNA) along with state (CSMTA) and local (AMTA) affiliations. Thomas is in demand as a presenter and speaker on his unique approach to music learning. He also has experience with solo performance, rock/blues band, studio recording and sound engineering, and composition. An accomplished pianist, Thomas plays and teaches in all musical styles.

Technique Fundamentals According to the Taubman Approach

Do you find your students suffering from an ongoing case of “knuckle buckle?” Do their wrists sag and creep into the “snake pit?” My students suffer from the same issues, too.

Playing the piano with a healthy technique is a prerequisite to becoming a capable (and of course, creative and tech-savvy!) pianist but, it’s not always an easy topic to explain to youngsters. I’m always looking for ways to communicate technical tips that will connect with and motivate students to play with ease and efficiency.

Today’s guest blogger, Doug Hanvey, has been immersed in Dorothy Taubman’s approach–a highly respected legend in the field of technique. In fact, The Golandsky Institute continues to share Taubman’s insight and brilliance with musicians from all over the world looking to improve their technique or heal from injuries resulting from poor technique.

Doug’s article explains what technique really is and the fundamentals for you to share with your students. Ms Taubman’s approach is golden so make sure to build the foundation of your technical approach around it.

Look for a followup article from me on how to model and explain these principles with concrete tips and tools very soon! You’ll gain ideas for implementing the fundamentals below and gather remedies for knuckle buckle, sagging wrists and ways to encourage the use of weight vs force.

Thank you, Doug, for your clear and thorough explanation of the fundamentals!


What is Piano Technique?

Many piano students, and some piano teachers, think of technique as a tedious, even grim, subject. We all want to focus on music-making. Yet to the extent that the mechanics of how we make music go unexplored and undiscussed, we risk allowing our students (and ourselves) to develop poor and potentially injurious habits.

Many teachers think that Hanon and similar exercises are “technique.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Hanon exercises are just that – exercises.

Technique is how we position ourselves and move to play, and it should be taught prior to exercises. (Of course there are other important aspects of technique such as breathing and listening.) Playing piano without understanding good technique is no different than playing golf without knowing how to grip and swing the club. Good luck!

Fortunately, unlike Hanon (sorry, Hanon), technique needn’t be tedious or grim. I’ve found that technique can be an absorbing subject, especially when you experience how it helps you to play better and with greater ease.

While as teachers we often have the opportunity to teach good technique from the beginning, sometimes we must also “fix” students’ technique. Whether we are starting or “fixing,” good technique begins with knowing how to optimally position your body at your instrument.

The rest of this article will explore this topic from the viewpoint of the famous pedagogue Dorothy Taubman. Read More

Is it cheating to teach a piece by rote?

Some may say that teaching a piece by rote cheats a student out of developing reading skills. I say teaching by rote is anything but cheating!

Keep reading and watch a recent Facebook live video to learn why and how I do it. 

Can you teach a Baroque piece by rote?

Since many readers are Going Baroque this fall, I recently made a Facebook live video of how I like to teach “Musette” by rote. In the video you’ll learn why I believe teaching pattern pieces like “Musette” by rote is so important to developing student skills. I’ve added a few more reasons below.

What are the benefits of teaching a piece by rote?

The process…

Builds students’ confidence which leads to success which leads to progress which leads to pianists who stick to the bench.

Boosts confidence in playing skills because the “middle man” or the page is removed and students aren’t trapped in the middle of the piano reading from a limited amount of notes in the grand staff. They can explore the entire range of the piano which provides an exciting and more satisfying sound–especially when the pedal is added!

Elevates playing skills as a rote piece is usually more difficult and sounds more complex than what students can read.

Connects the theory students learn and puts it into action which reinforces and solidifies concepts.

Aids in memorization skills as students are required to remember the feel and the sound of patterns instead of relying on visual cues.

Develops ear skills. If you want to balance eye ear skills, teaching by rote is the perfect opportunity to do so.

Acknowledges the learning styles of students who may find reading a music score much more difficult than learning by ear. This may be the key to unlocking success for those usually stumped by the grand staff.

Enhances reading skills. YES! I firmly believe this is true if you teach by rote and IF you also refer to the score as students learn the piece. They’ll see the shapes and patterns on the grand staff. In addition, this is a great time to master locations of favorite notes like Deep Blue C, Cow C, Middle C, Face C and Cloud C. Watch the video to see what I mean.

Highlights from the video

An easy way to incorporate rote teaching is by assigning everyone in the studio to learn a pattern piece every year–one that is easy to learn because of repetition and patterns based on chords.

Relate patterns in the rote piece to patterns the students already know–like five-finger patterns and chords.

Use words to master rhythms. For the first line of Musette:

Mom, what’s for dinner?

Mom, what’s for dinner?

can be answered with :

Chicken soup and a grilled cheese sandwich

BBQ chicken with some coleslaw

Meatball, spaghetti with some red sauce

Tacos with cheese and guacamole.

For line three, use these words to match the rhythm:

Hurry up , hurry up, it’s so late

I just want some dinner and some ice cream!

Record yourself or students playing the piece correctly so they can listen to it at home.

There will be rhythmic gaps between sections. To eliminate gaps:

Learn the notes without leaps, then add the leap.

Use sticky notes to isolate large hand shifts and repeat over and over

Learn the pattern in the RH and then teach the LH the same pattern.

Lock in a steady beat and eliminate all gaps between measures with a rockin’ beat from a device or Clavinova.

To catch all the other tricks I use to teach Musette, check out the video!

Books I like to use for Baroque and Classical literature:

Keith Snell’s Essential Keyboard Repertoire

Faber’s The Developing Artist Series

If you do like hanging out on Facebook and enjoy talking all things pedagogy, join my group Piano Pedagogy On and Off the Bench. It’s where I house all my Facebook live videos and offer an environment of discussion and encouragement (no venting, whining or feuding here!)


PS If you cannot see the video below, please email me at and I’ll send you the file.

What are your favorite pieces to teach by rote?


PS! Check out Andrea West’s spectacular graphic designs for Fall events in your studio! I cannot pick a favorite.

Check out all the designs and GET yours HERE.


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…

Read More

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

Group Piano: What it IS and What it ISN’T

On the fence about whether group instruction is right for you? Not sure what format you should use? Good friend and colleague, Marie Lee has some strong opinions on this topic as she should. I consider her an expert in group piano instruction–check out the programs at her Musicality Schools. You can learn more about her experience here or just keep reading and hear what is and what isn’t group piano class.


As piano teachers realize that YES, they can make a good living teaching piano, the subject of group classes comes up as a way of increasing studio size and income. But what exactly IS a group class? And what is it NOT? Read More

Feeling the BEET with Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory

Edwin Gordon’s highly recognized and esteemed research leading to the Music Learning Theory (MLT) is defined as

“An explanation and description of appropriate ways students learn one or more styles of music.” p5 of Quick and Easy Introductions by Edwin Gordon

It is not a teaching method that you purchase and follow exclusively. YOU can apply and integrate MLT into your current teaching method, NOW. This is great news! You don’t need to reinvent your approach to enhance it with the MLT philosophy. Keep reading and I’ll explain how. Read More