Category - Understanding the Art of Learning

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

What We Can Learn from the Parents of Condoleezza Rice, Pianist and Politician

Last week I had the privilege of hearing Condoleezza Rice give the keynote address at the MTAC (Music Teachers of California) conference where the theme was “Breaking Barriers.” It was an honor I soon won’t forget; first, of course, because of the spectacular story of inspiration Ms Rice wove and secondly, because I took notes! Not copious notes but, enough to build an outline to share.

After a week of musing over Ms Rice’s speech, I made some insights about her story and parenting styles. I hope you’ll read to the end as I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Here’s a link to a free download of the article if you’d like to share a hard copy with your families.)

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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

Use Fresh Produce to Produce Strong Rhythm Readers

You must admit, reading from the grand staff is difficult and as you may know it’s not easy to teach either!

The process of reading the “map for music” involves many steps including these four:

  • Identification of the pitch name.
  • Determining the location of that pitch on the keyboard.
  • Recognizing the duration or how long the pitch will be played.
  • Where that pitch is located within a measure.

Watch the video below to see how I specifically focus on the last two of the four steps. I’m using PRODUCE to PRODUCE strong rhythm readers. Here’s a link to the video.

Get your Rhythm Produce Here

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How to Move Your Studio Off the Bench (Part 2)

Have you been thinking about adding group instruction, summer camps, Off Bench time–anything different from what you have offered in the past in your studio?

If so, you MUST read this second post in a series of two written by Daniel Patterson. (Check out his website, He has a way with persuasion and it will equip you with words to encourage your parents to be on board with your studio game plan and help you gain their trust as a teacher and expert in the field.

Once you master the script Daniel provides below, you may need some help determining your course for a new ON Bench OFF Bench (OBOB) format and ideas on how to fill that time with productive assignments.  Or, you may be adding group lessons and summer camps into the mix and need activities. Why not work with me and I’ll help you find solutions for your specific needs. You’ll find more details about a personal consultation and a discount code at the end of this post.

Take it away, Daniel… Read More

Consider the Wisdom of Winston Churchill

Spoiler Alert for those who have not seen the movie, The Imitation Game!

The Imitation Game tells the true story of Alan Turing who was hired by the British government to 11180871_detcrack the codes of Germany’s WWII Enigma machine used to communicate their warfare strategies. Turing’s awkward social skills made fellow scholars suspicious and fearful of his strange determination to build a code-cracking machine to solve what humans could not.

Despite many obstacles, Turing’s digital computer or as he called it, “an electrical brain” broke the German’s Enigma thanks to his tenacious brilliance. By the way, the word “enigma” is defined as a puzzle that appears to be unsolvable.

Winston Churchill deserves some credit in all this.  It was under his visionary authority that Turing was granted permission and funds to build his machine overriding Turing’s immediate authorities. Churchill realized that building a machine that processes far faster than the human brain would be the only way to win the war. He recognized that a “social misfit” like Turing had an imagination that could not, would not, be capped and banked on it. It was estimated that Turing’s computer saved 14 million lives.

So how does this historical movie connect with today’s piano teachers, students and their parents? Read on.

Feel the Beat Off the Seat

When the Colorado Music Teachers Association emailed a notification of their most recent newsletter, I dutifully opened the document to see the IMG_1057happenings of the state music teacher scene presuming it would be the typical fair. Little did I know the newsletter had recently been revamped with a new hip look and included many savvy articles. One in particular caught my eye as it dealt with the fundamentals of ALL rhythmic understanding: finding and feeling a pulse. Although Barbara Grout, the author, and I have not met personally, we are virtual colleagues and I asked if she would be willing to share her article with Sprinkled through the article, are pics and videos of my students trying out some of Barbara’s suggestions. 


Rhythm is kinesthetic…it cannot be learned through counting…it can only be learned through movement.” –Edwin Gordon, PhD

For many years after I started teaching piano, I assumed that my students would learn correct rhythms as a natural part of the teaching process. If I could just get them to show up for lessons, learn their pieces, practice at home, learn notation, count the beats, and perform at recitals, then they would automatically grasp everything they needed to know about rhythm. Right?


“Rhythm and tone are interdependent. They get ‘braided’ together to form melody. [But] in our brains, rhythm and tone are independent [of each other]. They are not braided [together] at all. The mind has no melody processor, only separate tone and rhythm processors working in parallel.”    –Edwin Gordon

In other words, students will never truly understand or feel rhythm by sitting at the piano bench. They need to get up and move, because movement is what activates the rhythm processor in the brain.

Just yesterday my students Halle and Logan played one section of Allegretto II by Czerny with only three beats per measure where the notation calls for four; later in the day my student Stella played a four-beat measure for every dotted half note in the minuet she was learning; and after that Quinn’s last measure of Christmas Day Secrets was rushed. Why were they struggling to play the correct meter? Because they hadn’t internalized it. What was the solution? Not more explanation. Not counting. Not even repetition. The solution was to get them moving, off the piano bench.

“A lack of understanding of meter is evident when a student fails to maintain 3/4 time by extending the third beat sothat she is inadvertently playing in 4/4.” –Joy Morin, Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students

Rhythm: Patterns in Time

There are three elements to rhythm: 1) macrobeats (also called tempo or the “big beat”); 2)  microbeats (meter or the “little beat”); and 3) melodic rhythm patterns (rhythm of the melody). All three elements are needed to establish rhythmic context. When one element is missing, rhythm becomes rigid, erratic or inconsistent.

Movement and rhythmic chanting go together. Through movement and chanting students can be exposed to many different rhythm patterns. This allows them to develop a rhythm vocabulary in the same way that babies learn a language vocabulary. And just as babies soon become fluent speakers of languages, music students can become fluent players of rhythms.

For very young or beginning students, I start with the neutral syllable “bah” for chanting, because it’s easy to remember and doesn’t distract the child from focusing on the rhythm. Once they are familiar with basic rhythm patterns, I have them begin using the rhythm-specific syllables suggested by Edwin Gordon—“du” for the macro beat, “du de” for duple meter micro beats and “du da di” for triple meter micro beats. These syllables are not random. Gordon chose them because they enhance the kinesthetic experience. When students chant and move to these syllables, they really feel the beat.

So enough theory already! Let’s get off the seat and into the beat!

Rhythm Activities

  1. Tennis Ball Bounce. First establish the tempo. Students bounce the ball on the big beat while chanting the rhythm pattern—or singing—a piece they’re learning.
  2. Meter Game: This activity helps students build a sense of meter. Play short sections of a piece the student is learning and ask the student to sway back and forth from foot to foot to the big beat while their fingertips tap out the meter on the sides of their thighs. To promote understanding, ask them whether their fingers are tapping in two or three (two microbeats per macrobeat or three microbeats per macrobeat—that is, duple or triple meter). Ask them how many taps are they tapping for each foot. Exposing your students to this activity needs to be done every week, because it takes months for most students to learn to feel the difference between duple and triple meter. (The CD, You are My Sunshine, published by, is excellent for this activity as it has over 100 tunes in different meters.)
  3. Pass the Ball. This is a group activity similar to Tennis Ball Bounce. First establish the tempo and the meter beats. Students stand or sit in a circle and pass the ball on the macrobeat. Start with one ball being passed, then add more as they get proficient. (Suggested by Amy Greer, New Mexico.)
  4. Circle Chanting: Have students stand in a circle. First establish the macrobeat and the microbeat. Students begin to sway to the macrobeat. Divide the group. Ask some to chant the macrobeat (du…du…du…du). Ask other students chant microbeats (du-de or du-da-di). Have one student chant rhythm of the melody. Switch parts.  This allows students to physically experience each element of rhythm. (Suggested by Marilyn Lowe,
  5. Piano Rhythms: For group lessons. First, establish macrobeat and microbeat. Students line up at the piano and all chant a rhythm in unison. Then, one at a time, they play it on the piano, using any keys. Chant the same rhythm while next student goes to piano and plays it. Variation: one student plays a bass ostinato while others take turns chanting and playing. Use black keys.
  6. Jump: For group classes. While chanting rhythm patterns, students jump up and land on the “du” or macrobeat. Variation: Students throw a yarn ball on the “du” and catch it on the “du.” (Suggested by Joan Johnson, New Jersey.)
  7. Rhythm Train: Form a rumba line. The leader chants patterns in different meters (3/4, 2/4, 5/4, 5/8, 7/8, etc.) while everyone else steps together to the macrobeat (which stays the same throughout).
  8. Duet Chanting and Movement. Two or more students chant two different patterns simultaneously while moving to the same big beat.
  9. Rope Activity:  Cut a piece of rope into two pieces of equal length. Two students face each other holding opposite ends of the ropes, singing a song they are learning while moving their arms back and forth in a swaying motion to the macrobeat. Students can also use a scarf instead of rope—or hold hands.

Flow: Continuous, Fluid Movement

Rhythm: from Latin rhythmus, Greek rhuthmos: to flow

There is more to rhythm than just keeping the beat. Students also need to play musically and expressively, using proper phrasing. The key is continuous, flowing movement, which helps students feel the space between beats. When they feel that space, they are less likely to rush or drag the tempo.

Continuous fluid movement using weight and flow is especially important for developing musicianship.” –Marilyn Lowe,

“Beat means nothing to a person who cannot move with a relaxed, artistic sense of flow.” –Eric Bluestine, The Ways Children Learn Music 

Try this: Put on a recording of your favorite music and move your arm in a sideways Figure 8 or infinity sign. Keep the Figure 8 going, moving your arm smoothly and continuously. Then try it with your students. I’ve seen dramatic results from this activity. Students who struggled to find the rhythm or who played mechanically returned to the piano with a feel for phrasing. They started making music.

To know what a free-flowing movement feels like, students must also experience the opposite: Bound. As you move your arm, imagine being tied up, pushing arms stiffly through thick air or swimming through thick mud. Then “release” the binding and experience free-flowing movements again.

Flow Activities

  1. Scarf/Balloon Activity: Holding a scarf or balloon in each hand, the student takes these props on “a ride” through space—in front, above,IMG_1023 to the side and behind them, while singing, chanting a rhythm pattern or moving to recorded music. Remember that the movement needs to be continuous and flowing. To feel what the opposite of flow feels like, have them also try it imagining they are pushing the props through thick air or under water.
  2. Microbeat Flicks: Begin moving the arms in continuous, serpentine motions, using all the space around the body while singing or chanting a rhythm pattern. Keeping this continuous arm movement going, begin flicking the fingers in time to the microbeats. With practice this activity can have a profound effect on the student’s ability to feel the space between the beats.
  3. Body Parts: Sing a song or chant a rhythm pattern while the students move one part of the body at a time—for example, thumbs, then elbows, shoulders, hands, knees and hips—in curvy pathways and continuous motion.

By now some of you might be thinking, “This is brilliant!” while others are thinking, “This is bizarre!” I’ve had both thoughts as well. But after experimenting with these activities for several years, it’s become increasingly clear that they really work. Students who are challenged by rhythm begin to feel it on a deeper level—and their playing becomes more accurate. Students who do not have the same challenges with rhythm play more expressively. And all my students enjoy the games, especially in groups. That’s why I usually do them between lessons, when one family is about to leave and another is arriving.

“Find the groove before you start playing.” –Victor Wooten, renowned jazz bass player and author of The Music Lesson


Editor’s Note: For those who want to experience these rhythm activities hands-on, Barb Grout will be presenting a rhythm workshop at the monthly Pikes Peak Music Teachers meeting on February 11, 2014 at 10:00 am.


Thanks for sharing, Barbara!

Barbara Grout has taught Suzuki Piano since 1984. She has a Bachelor of Music Degree, cum laude, from the University of Miami (Florida) School of Music where she studied saxophone, piano, flute and clarinet, played in the University of Miami jazz bands and double-majored in Music Education and Music Therapy.

She is currently the Independent Music Teachers Forum Chair for the state of Colorado Music Teachers Association.  She has written articles on motivating oneself and one’s students and leading students to independence.  Her next “Feel the Beat Off the Seat” workshop will be at the Pikes Peak Music Teachers Association meeting on February 11, 2014.  Website:



Bluestine, Eric:  The Ways Children Learn Music

Eskelin, Gerald:  Lies My Music Teacher Told Me; Second Edition

Gordon, Edwin E.:  Clarity by Comparison and Relationship;  Improvisation in the Music Classroom;  Learning Sequences in Music.

Lange, Diane: Together in Harmony

Lowe, Marilyn: Music Moves for Piano, Teachers Lesson Plans Book One; Rhythm and Tonal Patterns Joy Morin’s article: Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students.  (Her blog about piano teaching is:

Clavier Companion; Independence Day: Music Reading, Craig Sale, Ed. May/June 2013. p. 36 for videos

Wooten, Victor:  The Music Lesson


How do YOU use movement to secure rhythmic understanding–rather–help your students get their groove on?

The Best Route to Motivation

Question: The word “best” sounds a little boastful, are you sure you know which route is THE BEST when attempting to motivate students?motivation

Answer: I agree. I always question anyone who claims to have the “best” solution to anything; but, as I was preparing this post about my fall studio practice incentive (part two of the”Why Not KISS IT and Make it Better” post) I was reminded about something that I make clear to potential parents and students during an initial interview. I firmly believe that it is NOT my duty to make anyone practice–in other words–to motivate them.

Q: Mmm…that seems counterproductive. So, what do you view the duty of  a piano teacher to be?

A: Experience has taught me that getting angry, showing frustration, threatening, bribing, implementing fancy motivational programs, standing on my head or any such fanatical antic does not improve home practice. Instead I hold fast to this job description to motivate:

find the music students enjoy and equip them with the skills to play that music and to create their own. 

 If I’m successful at these tasks, practice and most importantly progress occurs. Hooking students into a cycle of strong practice habits to ensure progress on favorite composed or original pieces develops happy, intrinsically motivated students, which in turn creates satisfied parents which generates student retention, enthusiastic referrals, and new customers, in other words–a full studio.

Q: If that’s “all”  it takes, why would you post an article describing your latest studio incentive? 

SONY DSCA: Let me explain…I’m puzzled why I didn’t think of this when I first began implementing progress scores in my lesson notes. This score reflects my assessment of how much progress was demonstrated over the past week. Here’s the scale:

  • 5 = WOW:  exceeded my highest expectations, all goals were met and then some
  • 4 = EXCELLENT: all goals were met and progress made by consistent practice
  • 3 = NICE: most goals were met but some were not, due to lack of time, goals stated were unclear,  goals set were too difficult to meet…
  • 2 = OK: some goals were met, but practice between lessons was not sufficient for much progress and parental supervision is advised
  • 1 = HO HUM: looks like last weeks goals will be repeated as little or no practice occurred and little progress made and parental supervision is required.

With one number parents can see the measure of their pianist’s efforts at home; however, I’ve noticed students, too, take great pride in the number received. In fact, in some cases this number serves as parent leverage for home privileges and more. Here’s what I’ve implemented this year to bring even more significance to that crucial number:

  • After the students receive a progress rating they are asked to keep track of the scores on a sheet provided by me in their binder.
  • At the end of this session (in about 13 weeks) all numbers will be tallied.
  • The pianists with the highest progress score total in the studio will receive special recognition.

Here’s the chart for what students can expect to receive:

  • 55-65 points =a $5 gift card, music book of choice (up to $5), or free code for an app (or something cool)IMG_0296
  • 42-52= $1000 in Music Money (click here to learn more about TCW Music Money)
  • 35-41 points = $500 in Music Money
  • 14-34 points = time to re-evaluate practice schedule
  • 0-13 points = time to find something better to do besides piano lessons 🙁

Q: Can we get back to the initial question, why include this post about a studio incentive if you don’t believe motivating students to practice is your responsibility?

A: Although this may seem that I’m using fabulous prizes to enlist practice, I see it differently. With this incentive program, students are not recognized for the most practice hours but for the MOST PROGRESS made. At lessons I remind them that extreme progress is evident when using smart practice strategies, carefully following assignments, going above and beyond what is assigned and as a result creating a musical performance of a favorite piece in less than expected time.

Q: How do you use TCW’s Music Money and claim NOT to use blatant bribery?

A:  I’ll admit, I do award Music Money for numerous successes and tasks completed; but, one of my favorite ways to use Music Money is at lessons. Once a passage is reviewed hands alone, working hands together can be tricky. This is when I make an offer:

“Twenty bucks if you can play the first measure hands together with zero errors.”


Thanks to my good friend Charlene and her two “cranky pals”, I always keep a stash of cash in the studio!

Eyes light up, focus is heightened and more often than not, the bank pays out $20. Placing bets on students’ success carries over to their practice between lessons as I encourage them to imagine that same pressure of “zero errors” at the home bench. In fact, I challenge practicers that if they can play a passage perfectly the first time, they don’t have to practice it again that day.

In my recent post about using the KISSING IT strategy, I mentioned how I use Post-it arrows to identify tricky spots. If those tricky spots are “healed” by the next lesson, the pianist receives $5. I could go on and on with examples of how I pay off students for even the smallest achievements. Students work hard for cold cash and take delight in meeting any reasonable challenge.

Q: So, what IS the best way to motivate students?

A: It boils down to two tasks for the teacher:

  • find the music students enjoy
  • equip them with top-notch practice strategies to build strong skills

So pianists can

  • play music they like and
  • create their own.

This latest studio incentive is a celebration of progress earned by hard practice. Practicing is much more tolerable when strategies are devised and the music is appealing so ultimately, it’s all about the music–the reason for signing up for piano lessons in the first place! Check out the “Looking for Intermediate Repertoire” Page. It’s not well-organized yet, but as I find them, I add links to relevant music resources for those hard-to-shop-for students who outgrow or resist method books.

One more thing, I created documents to be placed in the front of my students’ binders for easy reference about  studio information, practice tips, special dates, AND a place to record practice scores.  A HUGE thank you to Susan Paradis for providing such a lovely template for these important papers!

Here’s a PDF of the documents: Binder Documents 2013


iPad Revolution-Book-Comp-4 2Do you agree with this view on motivating students? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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Interested in learning how I use the iPad to motivate?

Order my book The iPad Piano Studio: Keys to Unlocking the Power of Apps here.

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September’s Quote of the Month

Singer Island, Florida, 2013

Singer Island, Florida, 2013

“Perhaps not everything has to be measured. I’d argue that this is especially true when it comes to

matters of art, matters of beauty, matters of the soul.

It is nice to know where we stand, but let us not become so obsessed with where we stand

that we lose all sight of what we really stand for.”

-Pete Jutras, Editor, Clavier Companion, September/October, 2013

Am I Human?

Disclaimer: It is my intent with the following paragraphs to validate my fascination with technology and NOT to dis anyone if they IMG_2639prefer to stay away from the bells and whistles of the 21st century.

Beginning was sparked by a personal whim that turned into a hobby that turned into an obsession that turned into a business opportunity that turned into a book to be released soon. (There it is: my blatant buy-my-book marketing ploy. Stay tuned for more). In my opinion, confrontation is something to be avoided and it was the last thing I imagined encountering (I know, I’m naive) when I recently posted my blog review about the SightReadPlus app on a number of social media groups (names to remain anonymous to protect the innocent). I simply thought some might enjoy knowing more about the app.

When sharing the blog, I accompanied it with a simple question: “How do you boost sight reading skills?” Although some commenters shared wonderful ideas, I was simply stunned by the insinuations of particular commenters.  OK, I’ll be honest, I may be slightly sensitive and could use lessons in building thicker skin but, I felt accused by some that I was missing the point of how to teach sight reading and being out of touch with making music. To put it bluntly, it seemed that a few believed I was NOT being human! Why? Because I suggested using technology, specifically, an app to enhance students’ experience to build sight reading skills.  Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions?… Here are a few excerpts of the thread…

“It is interesting that Bach learnt to compose by examining other respected composers’ compositions. He didn’t need an app to do that either. There are some things we really do not have to buy into.”

“Oh, sorry! Didn’t realize this was another commercial. Yeah, and an app makes it all better. It’s so easy! You just need an iPad.”

“It’s interesting that for centuries musicians have never needed an app to learn to sight-read. All the best teachers just say read and play as much music for pleasure.”

“The app looks like a glorified teacher…Can’t a paid teacher do the same?”

“I work on sight-reading with my students by establishing a non-judgmental climate… This IS NOT an “app!” This is human to human interaction ! ! ! ! !”

“This sounds like an app to PRACTICE sight reading (there is a difference between sight reading and reading, but many beginners use them as synonyms; either way, my comments apply), but it doesn’t TEACH it, which is what most people need.”

“Once you have read one of these, the app might come in handy, but my opinion is that if you want to practice, why not practice on a piece of music you want to learn?”

“There are deeply concerning problems with technological approaches…What this does that no technology can ever do is develop the ear for the quality of sound needed at every moment! …Music IS a human connection! Furthermore, let us not forget how many jobs technology has stolen from living, breathing musicians in numerous realms.”

IMG_2643Mmmm…There was never a notion in my mind that this app was the ONLY way to teach sight reading, just one of many suggestions as it seems to me it is one of the hardest skills to master. I know, from personal experience that my sight reading skyrocketed once I was hired to read new music every choir rehearsal. My skill was developed out of force and not necessarily out love for reading new music (confession: I wasn’t the perfect student). I find most students tend to dislike developing this skill because for most it is just hard. I was thrilled to find a tool that would ease students into this important lifetime habit.

With the research I’ve completed about the learning styles of today’s generations, I believe I am connecting with most students on common ground. Turns out some teachers view this technologically enriched method less than human. So in my typical fashion, here’s a list. A list of 5 facts that demonstrate in my opinion that I’m still a functioning, living, breathing, music-loving human being even though I embrace and yes, am infatuated with technology.

5. There is nothing like spending one-on-one time with a student. Building a trusting teacher-student relationship is paramount to success at the keys. Technology may help but it will never replace human interaction.

4. Yes, I have three boys and they’ve hardened my shell, but I’m still a big softy on the inside, just ask my husband.

3. Who really enjoys sight reading at first? Why not capitalize on the human inclination to have fun and learn at the same time?

2. My last post indicates the place where I find the most contentment: at the keys being creative (oh, I’m pretty good at sight reading, too).

1. My studio waiting list continues to grow as the present students just don’t seem to drop out for the fact that they continue to increase their skills making beautiful music.

Perhaps I’ve stepped out on a limb touting my loyalty to technology and stating my reaction to the comments of others? Will I fall? Hope not.IMG_2977 Will you agree? Hope so. Will you disagree? Hope not, but if so, I’ll grow some thicker skin (since humans have skin) and perhaps learn something new from you if you care to share your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying (along with my students as evidenced in the photo to the right) my iPad and apps AND making music until further notice.

Here it comes, a plug for a my new book to be released later this year. Please visit the book site to see a video of the author (me) providing the inside scoop on what you will find in The iPad Piano Studio: Keys to Unlocking the Power of Apps. You can pre-order yours today!